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Reviewed by:
  • The Columbia History of the Vietnam War
  • Shelton Woods
The Columbia History of the Vietnam War. Edited by David L. Anderson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. 488 pp. $65.00 (cloth).

For any student or scholar of the Vietnam War, the recently published The Columbia History of the Vietnam War edited by David L. Anderson is essential reading. Masterfully written by the most prominent authorities on the Vietnam War, this volume is divided into three sections: "Chronological Perspectives," "Topical Perspectives," and "Postwar Perspectives." The stated aim of this volume is to "provide a reliable historical perspective on the Vietnam War to advance accurate scholarship and sound policymaking" (p. x). The authors accomplish this, and so much more in The Columbia History of the Vietnam War.

David Anderson's introduction, which comprises almost one-quarter of the book, provides a comprehensive overview of the war. Divided into brief sections of just a few paragraphs each on the major issues and events of the war, Anderson's overture uses broad strokes to lay the foundation of the picture that is detailed in the following fourteen chapters. The introduction itself is an effective essay for either the novice or the well-read scholar of the war. For those not familiar with the subject, Anderson's narrative is so clear that both the trees and the forests are captured in the reader's imagination. For those who have a solid background of the war, the introduction assists to remind us of the major themes, events, and players that contributed to one of the more sorrowful events in a century marked by history's most tragic wars. Like the other authors in this volume, Anderson does not shy away from providing educated opinions on past and present implications of the war. He notes in the first paragraph, "It [the Vietnam War] is, or it should be, a continuing and real part of policymaking and public discourse on the role of American power and ideals throughout the world" (p. 1). Anderson, and other contributors to this volume, are taken aback that U.S. policymakers on the Iraq War overtly dismiss lessons that should have been learned from the Vietnam War. The editor closes the remarkable introduction with these words: "Local influences on the conflict will shape its course and outcome in ways that extend beyond what U.S. force and ideas, no matter how great or noble, can determine" (p. 83).

Following the introduction, six chapters make up the "Chronological Perspectives" section. Mark Philip Bradley sets the stage in the first chapter with a twenty-five-page essay on the history of Vietnam up to 1954 and the end of the first Vietnam War. Chapter 2 is an insightful examination of the responsibility Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy [End Page 482] had for creating America's Southeast Asia quagmire. In this essay, Richard H. Immerman makes a strong case for a reassessment of these presidents' policies in Vietnam: "But just as Kennedy should not be commended for planning to end the U.S. military commitment to South Vietnam, Eisenhower should not be congratulated for avoiding one" (p. 139). In the end, Immerman believes both Eisenhower and Kennedy would have responded differently and more effectively than President Johnson did to the mid 1960s Vietnam crisis: "Yet, neither can escape responsibility for their role in forcing those challenges on their successor" (p. 140).

The remaining four chapters of part 1 gradually draw back the curtain of the tragic play we call the Vietnam War. The themes of these chapters include the U.S. attempts to support the ineffective political regimes in Saigon, President Johnson's decision to bomb North Vietnam, an extremely effective essay by Robert J. McMahon titled "Turning Point: The Vietnam War's Pivotal Year, November 1967-November 1968," and finally a chapter on Richard Nixon's policies on the Vietnam War. Every one of these essays is brilliantly written. Not only are these authors experts in this history, they are also engaging writers. An example of their prose is Lloyd Gradner's assessment of President Johnson's dilemma: "As the war deepened into a morass that all but engulfed his presidency, moreover, Johnson...


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pp. 482-484
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