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Vietnam: An American Ordeal provides a comprehensive narrative history of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, from 1942 to 1975. Unlike most general histories of U.S. involvement in Vietnam—which are either conventional, diplomatic or military histories—this text synthesizes the perspectives to explore both dimensions of the struggle in greater depth, elucidating more of the complexities of the U.S.-Vietnam entanglement. It explains why Americans tried so hard for so long to stop the spread of Communism in Indochina, and why they ultimately failed.
(NOTE: Each chapter concludes with Notes.)
1. A Place and a People.
The Forge of History.
Emergent Vietnamese Nationalism.
The Japanese Occupation.
Roots of American Involvement.
2. The Elephant and the Tiger.
Return of the French.
The Franco-Vietminh War.
The Road to Dien Bien Phu.
The Brink of War.
The Geneva Solution.
3. An Experiment in Nation Building.
Ngo Dinh Diem Takes Charge.
Social Revolution in the North.
Building a Nation in the South.
Roots of Revolution.
Land of a Million Elephants.
A Failed Experiment.
4. Raising the Stakes.
Cold War Crises.
A Limited Partnership.
Social Revolution in the South.
The Decline and Fall of Ngo Dinh Diem.
A Failed Partnership.
5. America Goes to War.
The Same Only More.
In Dubious Battle.
The Election of 1964.
Dahlias and Gladioli.
Americanizing the War.
6. A Chain of Thunders.
The Concept of Limited War.
War of Attrition.
Search and Destroy.
La Drang: The Battle that Transformed a War.
A Wider War.
Thunder from the Air.
Aerial Attrition Warfar.
The Other War.
War at Home.
7. Year of the Monkey.
Siege at Khe Sanh.
The Televised War.
Talking and Fighting .
Massacre at my Lai.
The Failure of Reform
The Election of 1968
8. A War to End a War.
Nixon and Kissinger.
Mobilizing Against War.
The Failure of Vietnamization.
The Failure of Pacification.
An Army in Decline.
Widening the War: Cambodia.
Widening the War: Laos.
The Nguyen Hue Offensive.
Neither Peace Nor Hono.r
9. End of the Tunnel.
The Postwar War.
The Decay of South Vietnam.
Xuan Loc: The Last Battle of a Long War.
America abandons Cambodia.
America abandons South Vietnam.
The disappearance of South Vietnam.
Why we lost and they won.
The Wounds Within.
The Spectre of Vietnam.
Vietnam and Iraq: Analogies at War.
A Pronunciation Guide for Vietnamese Words.
Chronology of US Involvement in Vietnam, 1942-1975.
Archival and Unpublished Sources.
Literature: Poetry, Novels, Novelistic Memoirs, Novelistic Journals.
Television Documentaries and Television Programs.
As the new millennium dawns, memories of the war in Vietnam continue to divide and trouble millions of Americans. Any public discussion of a significant foreign policy decision inevitably conjures the ghosts of Vietnam past. In May 2001, members of Congress, concerned about U.S. Army personnel stationed in Colombia to train Colombian soldiers in modern drug eradication technologies and tactics, wanted to know if the Colombians were also being trained in counterinsurgency tactics to be used against guerrillas who often were involved in drug trafficking. If they were, the Congresspeople wanted the counterinsurgency training ended immediately lest the United States find itself in another Vietnam-like quagmire.
At the time Congresspeople were voicing their concerns about possible U.S. military involvement in Colombia, a more painful reminder of the Vietnam War surfaced. Former Senator Bob Kerrey, who had fought in Vietnam as the leader of a Navy SEAL team and who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valiant service, was accused of committing war crimes against unarmed civilians. The charges were made by Gerhard Klann, a former member of Kerrey's SEAL team. According to Klann, at least thirteen civilians were murdered at close range with small arms fire, and it was Kerrey who had given the order to kill them. As Kerrey recalled the events that occurred 32 years ago, he denied that he had ordered the murder of any civilians, but he conceded that he could not dismiss Mann's memories as false. He could only say that they differed from his own. There is no conclusive evidence favoring either Kerrey's or Klann's version of what happened that night and probablynone will ever be found. But the controversy stained the reputation of a good man, called into question the conduct of a hated, but not forgotten, war and revived once again for millions of Americans the moral horror that characterized the Vietnam War.
In our time, Vietnam remains a metaphor haunting the American imagination. It serves as a cautionary tale of the catastrophe that awaits a nation, however rich and powerful, that ever again allows its crusading idealism to override its realistic sense of limits. Indeed, the lingering animosities, regrets, bitterness, rage, and sadness, may, as historian Robert Schulzinger has suggested, not disappear until the last public official involved with setting Vietnam policy, the last Vietnam combat veteran, and the last antiwar protester have died.
This book can be read by anyone curious to know about the long American involvement in Southeast Asia, 1942-1975, that we call the Vietnam War, but it is meant particularly for two large constituencies, one middle-aged and one coming of age. A new generation has grown up since the end of the American intervention in Southeast Asia. They join another, older generation, now in middle age, who were compelled to either fight the war or to oppose it. The book may help the older generation come to terms with their experiences. It may also help the new generation discover the ordeal that anguished their parents' generation.
I have been quite pleased with the reception of the third edition of Vietnam: An American Ordeal, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to offer this fourth version. The opening of new records, particularly of the archives in Moscow and Beijing, and the continuing flood of scholarship on the American war in Vietnam in recent years have significantly enhanced our knowledge of all facets of the U.S. experience in Southeast Asia. Where possible I have incorporated much of this new information into the corpus of the book. Each chapter has been carefully reworked, and in many instances extensively revised. The last chapter has been expanded and updated to include recent changes in U.S.-Vietnamese relations and the continuing influence of Vietnam memories on American political life and foreign policy.
A new section incorporated within the final chapter describes current U.S.-Vietnam relations, highlighted by the dramatic visit of President Clinton to Vietnam November 16-19, 2000. President Clinton, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the unification of that country under the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1976, received a tumultuous welcome from the people of Vietnam. The turnout to greet the president was especially large and enthusiastic in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, which had formerly served as the headquarters of the American war in Vietnam, which had ravaged that country for the better part of a decade.
While this revised edition includes much new material and my thinking has changed on some of the major issues, I want to emphasize that the basic structure of the book and my basic understanding of the American Indochinese intervention have not changed. The book remains a comprehensive narrative history of the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia; which spanned almost four decades—from 1942 to 1975. My thesis remains that American involvement in Southeast Asia is best understood as a concerted effort, which goes through many phases over a long period of time, to thwart the Vietnamese national revolution, which was also a social revolution, backed by the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and the East European Bloc.
Within a larger historical context, America's lengthy Vietnam entanglement can best be comprehended as a major episode occurring during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union that raged from the end of World War II until the collapse and disappearance of the Soviet empire during the years 1989-1991. U.S. leaders, in thrall to Cold War-spawned ideologies, consistently invested the regional conflicts of Indochina with a larger significance—preventing the global spread of Communism, which was equated with Soviet and Chinese imperialism. Vietnam, for America, was always about much more than Vietnam.
Whether supporting the French during the First Indochina War, backing one faction of Vietnamese nationalists during a civil war, fighting a limited war against the NLF and NVA forces, or pursuing a complex and contradictory strategy called Vietnamization, Washington sought to build a viable non-Communist nation-state in southern Vietnam that could block the proliferation of Communist states in Southeast Asia. Following the triumph of the Vietnamese revolution, the United States refused to normalize relations with Vietnam for twenty years. For most of those two decades, America imposed a trade embargo against Vietnam and tried to isolate that country from international life.
Because of their Cold War beliefs and commitments, a succession of American presidents and their senior advisers perceived the Vietnamese national revolution as a potential threat to the security and stability of Southeast Asian nations and ultimately as a threat to American security. These successive administrations tried hard for a long time to defeat or at least contain the Vietnamese revolution. Ultimately they failed. And that is the story I have to tell—why Americans tried so hard for so long to stop the spread of Communism into Indochina, and why they failed.
It was not until July 11, 1995 that President Clinton, who as a graduate student had opposed the Vietnam War and avoided military service, with Arizona Senator John McCain, a much-decorated former naval aviator and POW, standing by his side, officially extended diplomatic recognition to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. On May 9, 1997, Pete Peterson, a former U.S. Air Force pilot shot down over North Vietnam in 1966, who spent six and a half years as a prisoner-of-war in Hanoi, arrived at that city's Noi Bai Airport en route to assuming his duties as the new U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. Peterson was the first American envoy ever posted to that Communist country. Ambassador Peterson was greeted by a friendly crowd waving both U.S. and Vietnamese flags. A new era of peace, friendship, and trade had begun between the two nations that had fought America's longest war and the only war that the United States ever lost.
I believe the principal strength of this book is that I have blended Vietnamese and American political, diplomatic, and military history to show the interplay of two national cultures caught in a violent entanglement that lasted the better part of three decades. Most general histories of American involvement in Vietnam are either conventional diplomatic or military histories. I have crafted an original synthesis, a hybrid diplomatic-military history that gives equal attention to both dimensions of the struggle. During the seven-and-a-half year period extending from the summer of 1965 to January 1973, when the United States waged its war in Vietnam, a war which also extended into Laos and Cambodia, my focus is, rightly, on military history. I believe the use of this original format enables me to elucidate more of the complexities of the United States' involvement in Vietnam.
Although I focus on the U.S. side of the conflict, I also devote considerable attention to Vietnamese history and culture. In addition, I write extensively about North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese political and military activity. The book also includes extensive coverage of U.S. domestic politics and the various antiwar movements, for they, too, are an integral part of the Vietnam War story.