What to think about the Vietnam War? A righteous struggle against global Communist tyranny? An episode in American imperialism? A civil war into which the United States blindly stumbled? And what of the Vietnamese perspective? How did they–both North and South–understand the war?
Mark Bradley and Marilyn Young have assembled a crack team of historians to consider (or rather reconsider) these questions in Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Transnational and International Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). The book is part of the National History Center‘s Reinterpreting History series. The pieces in it are wide-ranging: some see the war from the heights of international diplomacy, others from the hamlets of the Mekong Delta. They introduce new themes, for example, the role of American racial stereotypes in the conflict. More than anything else, however, they are nuanced. Their authors provide no simple answers because there are none. You will not find easy explanations, good guys and bad guys, or ideological drum-beating in these pages. What you will find is a sensitive effort to understand an event of mind-boggling, irreducible complexity. There’s a lesson here: we may think we know what we are doing on far-away shores, but we are fooling ourselves. Reminds one a bit of Tolstoy’s thoughts on the philosophy of history at the end of War and Peace. Still worth a read, as is this book.
Please become a fan of “New Books in History” on Facebook if you haven’t already.