- Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives
This edited volume is among a very large number of such books attempting to bring together various strands of scholarship and cutting-edge research under one umbrella. In this case, that umbrella is "local, national, and transnational perspectives." Living up to its billing, the book offers a view of the Vietnam Wars from a very wide variety of perspectives with essays covering the more-or-less typical high politics, a variety of Vietnamese views, some microhistory of the revolution, and even offerings on international history and myth making.
There are some real gems here; Seth Jacobs's essay on Laos is brimming with insights and eye-popping quotations—Eisenhower referring to Laotians as "a bunch of homosexuals," for instance. Jacobs, who is a more able writer than is typical, has an eye for this sort of thing, and the essay is very useful for answering that persistent question, "why Vietnam," or "why not Laos?" Gareth Porter's essay is also instructive and would be useful as a teaching tool to deal with the "contending paradigms" of the Vietnam War. These two are placed alongside more familiar pieces from Mark A. Lawrence and Fredrik Logevall on the early U.S. moves and LBJ's decision for escalation, respectively. These selections are bound in section 1, "American Intervention and the Cold War Consensus."
The subsequent set of essays, under the subheading "The Coming of War in Vietnam," offers more consistently novel interpretations. Perhaps for this reason, this section does not hold together as a coherent piece as successfully as the others. The opening essay, "Through a Glass Darkly: Reading the History of the Vietnamese Communist Party, 1945–1975," is not altogether about the Vietnam War and is often esoteric and highly speculative.
The following essay, "Vision, Power, and Agency" by Ed Miller, is part of the latest revisionist effort to recast, in this case, the American client Ngo Dinh Diem in more nuanced and, if unwittingly, flattering terms, while making the case that the Vietnamese had agency in the relationship between the United States and the Saigon regime. Putting aside the shortcomings of this argument, the essay is very directly related to the war and makes more sense in the context of this collection.
David Hunt's "Taking Notice of the Everyday," is a brief microhistory using material captured by the RAND Corporation during the war [End Page 561] to offer insights into the "peasant journey between village and town" and how that journey impacted the countryside. Hunt makes very good use of these documents to paint a fascinating and complex picture of the motivations of Vietnamese migration back and forth between the town and country and also of participation in and/or rejection of the opposing sides of the war. Reviewing the testimonials of Vietnamese who joined the National Liberation Front (NLF) with their wrenching and tortured personal histories, Hunt concludes, intriguingly, "one almost has the impression that the NLF adopted rather than recruited these village youth." While an obviously useful essay for the specialist, Hunt's study is highly detailed and may not fit obviously into the larger context of the Vietnam War for the nonspecialist. The same can be said of the next selection, "Co So Cach Mang and the Social Network of War."
The final section of the book, "War's End and Endless Wars," contains an essay on the international history of the Vietnam War after the Tet Offensive, with a brief but useful explication of the U.S. historiography, one on the politics of POWs that moves beyond the years of Nixonian cynicism, and David Elliot's final essay, "Official History, Revisionist History, and Wild History," which ably and helpfully inserts a stick into the spokes of many assumptions regarding historical revisionism to conclude that, among other inconvenient historical facts related to the American War in Vietnam, "the United States could not have won the war under any circumstances."