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  • The Vietnam War: A Concise International History
  • David Biggs
The Vietnam War: A Concise International History. By Mark Atwood Lawrence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 224 pp. $18.95 (cloth); $14.95 (paper).

This slim volume fulfills the author's main intent in presenting a compact, synthesized history of the Vietnam War that can be used as a textbook in a modern world history survey. In an era when Wikipedia and other websites provide similar narratives for free with hyperlinked footnotes, I wonder whether such textbooks will have the same traction with students and professors that they did even ten years ago. Lawrence's main advantage at the present is price. At $18.95 for hardback, the book offers undergraduates and casual readers one compact, electricity-free means to quickly scan major events and historical questions concerning American involvement in the war. For those of us who regularly teach courses on the Vietnam War, The Vietnam War offers a more current bibliography over such classics as William Duiker's Sacred War: Nationalism and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam (1994), George Herring's America's Longest War: United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (1979), or Marilyn Young's The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990 (1991). Each chapter provides the same narrative scaffolding as earlier works, tracing the effects of major political events such as Ngo Dinh Diem's government (1954-1963), from which instructors can easily add on additional readings. Lawrence has done his homework and consulted many prominent American diplomatic scholars doing contemporary research on the war. The result is an eloquently written, comprehensive story of American diplomacy.

This is not a volume for specialists, especially those concentrating on Vietnamese experiences and perceptions of the war, nor is it that useful for diplomatic historians interested in more multilateral analyses of military strategies who want to consider the roles that Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, and other actors played in shaping the outcomes of the war. The Vietnam War is also problematic in that it does not challenge the old (American) notion that Vietnam's dilemma was essentially an American or a Cold War problem. For the tens of millions of Vietnamese who lived through it, the war was an intensely personal, deep intellectual crisis articulated by competing struggles to define the nation's future form. In this day and age when the American military is again extended globally and becoming mired down in a new longterm engagement in Afghanistan, might there be new lessons to draw from the engagement in Vietnam? Furthermore, what does the Vietnam War mean to people in Vietnam today or to the political economy of East Asia, where American military bases continue to operate amid [End Page 213] an expanding Chinese military presence? The lessons of history are not static; they depend upon the constantly shifting interests of the present. I don't think that historians studying what may soon become America's second-longest war have yet to catch up with these changing demands and student interests in the present. The Vietnam War fulfills a short-term need for an updated textbook on the war, but we have yet to see new textbooks that approach such conflicts with more contemporary questions in mind. [End Page 214]

David Biggs
University of California, Riverside