The Columbia Guide to the Vietnam War. By David Anderson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-231-11492-3. Maps. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xiv, 308. $45.00.
Twenty-seven years after the fall of Saigon to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the American war in Vietnam remains a controversial and complicated event for the population of the United States to comprehend. In The Columbia Guide to the Vietnam War, David Anderson attempts to simplify the approach to understanding the war by presenting a source that is a "versatile, objective, and reliable" guide for readers who seek "to understand the intense and significant debate over the war" (p. xii) and is intended to make the history of the conflict "accessible to contemporary readers and applicable to their concerns" (p. xi). The book follows in the historiographical tradition of the various earlier compendia on the conflict such as John Bowman's The Vietnam War: An Almanac (1985), James Olson's Dictionary of the Vietnam War (1988), Stanley Kutler's Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War (1996), and Spencer Tucker's Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War (1998).
The well-organized book is divided into five parts: a historical narrative of the war (86 pages); a mini-encyclopedia of key events (87 pages); individuals, [End Page 300] military operations, etc., and a chronology of events (14 pages); an impressive and very useful annotated bibliography on the war (51 pages); and a two-part appendix containing relevant historical documents and statistical data relating to the war (41 pages). The historical narrative is presented chronologically and provides an overview of the wars in Vietnam. It begins with a brief section on "studying the Vietnam War" and goes on to cover Vietnamese and American historical backgrounds, French colonialism and the French war in Vietnam, the American war in Vietnam, and the legacy of the war in the United States. Anderson focuses heavily on the American involvement in Vietnam and places the war in the larger context of a battleground of the global Cold War. What makes the narrative useful and unique is that within the chronicle, Anderson poses questions that deal with key issues and controversies about the war. For example, in the discussion of Vietnamese history, he asks "What are the nature of and the relationship between nationalism and communism in Vietnam" (p. 13)? In the part dealing with the Kennedy years, he asks "Would Kennedy have withdrawn rather than escalated the U.S. military presence in Vietnam" (p. 41)? With a few exceptions, the relatively balanced answers to these and other such poignant and relevant questions are woven nicely into the narrative and allow the reader to get to the heart of the key issues surrounding the war.
The only drawbacks to this work are the lack of footnotes in
the narrative, the alarming absence of much mention of the Lao and
Cambodian theaters of the conflict, some confusing claims on Vietnam's
main religion (Confucianism vs. Buddhism), and the author's inability to
really answer some of the questions he poses in the narrative. Anderson's
prose is direct, clear, and free of interfering jargon. Overall, this
work provides a very useful introduction and guide to a complex and
controversial subject. It should be used as a jumping off point for
students and scholars for deeper study into the American war in Vietnam.
Richard B. Verrone
The Vietnam Center, Texas Tech University