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About this book

The Vietnam War is one of the defining conflicts of the twentieth century: not only did it divide American society at every level; the conflict also represented a key shift in Asian anti-colonialism and shaped the course of the Cold War. Despite its political and social importance, popular memory of the war is dominated by myths and stereotypes.

In this incisive new text, John Dumbrell debunks popular assumptions about the war and reassesses the key political, military and historical controversies associated with one of the most contentious and divisive wars of recent times. Drawing upon an extensive range of newly accessible sources, Rethinking the Vietnam War assesses all aspects of the conflict – ranging across domestic electoral politics in the USA to the divided communist leadership in Hanoi and grassroots antiwar movements around the world.

The book charts the full course of the war – from the origins of American involvement, the growing internationalization of the conflict and the swing year of 1968 to bitter twists in Sino-Soviet rivalry and the eventual withdrawal of American forces. Situating the conflict within an international context, John Dumbrell also considers competing interpretations of the war and points the way to the resolution of debates which have divided international opinion for decades.

Table of Contents

1. Rethinking the Vietnam War

Abstract
Western popular memory of the Vietnam War is dominated by persistent myths and stereotypes. Some of the more familiar stereotypes include the morale-shattered ‘grunt’ or American infantryman, turning eventually into the traumatized veteran; the female Viet Cong fighter with a pistol at her hip; and the far-sighted and relentlessly determined North Vietnamese Politburo. Among the more prominent myths of the conflict are that of an American public which turned against war when. ‘body bags’ began to arrive home from the battlefield; a South Vietnamese population which was united in its yearning for the reunification of their country under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh; and a war that was, from the American point of view, ‘unwinnable’.
John Dumbrell

2. The Developing War

Abstract
We now consider the developing conflict in Vietnam, which was increasingly influenced by Washington’s understanding of the place of Indochina within its scheme of global anti-communist containment. The first section of this chapter briefly discusses the development of Cold War understandings of the conflict during the presidency of Harry Truman, touching on some of many Vietnam War ‘what-ifs’. We then concentrate on the period between partition and the 1963 assassinations of presidents Diem and Kennedy, raising some key questions of war interpretation. The chapter proceeds with an account of the career of Edward Lansdale. This, the first of our sketches of individuals at war, develops the chronologically-based analysis, while illustrating the impact of bureaucratic rivalries in Washington on developing politics in South Vietnam. Lansdale’s career also provokes questions, discussed further in subsequent chapters, about the possible impact of counter-insurgency strategies in Vietnam.
John Dumbrell

3. Lyndon Johnson’s War

Abstract
On a relatively quiet Sunday evening in March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson found time to have dinner with his wife. The couple discussed Vietnam. Lady Bird Johnson recorded her husband as saying: ‘I can’t get out, and I can’t finish it with what I have got. And I don’t know what the hell to do!’ (Beschloss 2001: 316). The current chapter is preoccupied with Lyndon Johnson’s agonies, his decisions and his mistakes. It focuses on the key Washington decisions of the mid-1960s: the train of events leading from the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin crisis to escalation of American involvement in 1965. We will give particular attention to the figure who, besides President Johnson, is most commonly identified with the hardening of American policy in Vietnam: national security adviser Walt Rostow. The chapter will consider key questions about the Americanization of the war. Why did LBJ decide to escalate? Did he consciously reject the ways of peace and choose war? What were the chances of achieving a negotiated solution in the mid-1960s? Before going along this track, however, we will — as in the first sections of Chapters 4 and 5 — consider political developments in South Vietnam, changing strategic choices in Hanoi, and the shifting role of the major communist powers.
John Dumbrell

4. The Tet Offensive

Abstract
The year 1968 was when everything changed. In late 1967, optimism in the US was offset by gloomy private predictions from General Westmoreland about what might happen if American troop levels failed to keep pace with military need. President Johnson was in his customary state of self-doubt, bordering on existential despair. Yet, in 1967, it was still just about possible to give a plausibly persuasive public account of anti-communist progress in the war. South Vietnam had, in 1967, at least some of the appearance of a functioning state. By the end of 1968, and despite a major military victory over the communist forces, Washington was looking for a way out of Vietnam. The main purpose of this chapter is to explore the paradoxes and multi-levelled complexities of 1968.
John Dumbrell

5. Richard Nixon’s War

Abstract
The opening of peace negotiations in 1968 led to a qualitative shift in the internationalization of the Vietnam War. Even more than Lyndon Johnson, President Nixon was convinced that the solution to his Indochinese dilemma lay in the realm of international balances of power. The Nixon administration’s ‘grand design’ for international order was at the driving centre of post-1968 internationalization of the war. We begin this chapter with an assessment of the transformed international context of the war after 1968, moving on to an assessment of US foreign policy in this period. Again, we find global factors constantly bumping up against intrastate developments, especially in the context of American electoral and legislative politics. The chapter offers a brief account of the significant influence of Senator Frank Church, organizer of legislative constraints on Nixon’s war leadership. The chapter ends with an analysis of Hanoi’s 1972 Easter Offensive and of the eventual Paris Agreement of January 1973. It raises a range of questions relating to the internationalization of the war, and to its handling by Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.
John Dumbrell

6. The Antiwar Movement

Abstract
Before moving directly to discussion of the fall of Saigon in 1975, Chapters 6, 7, and 8 offer thematic perspectives on the war up until the Paris Agreement of 1973. The current chapter focuses on the nature and significance of the antiwar movement. Here, we consider the movement, as such — direct protest against American policy in Vietnam, rather than the mainstream electoral and congressional initiatives discussed at points in Chapters 4 and 5. Following a brief invocative picture of the movement, we will discuss the role of Tom Hayden, central figure in the student-led American New Left and in the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic Party national convention in Chicago. We proceed then to consideration of the chronological development and structure of the antiwar movement, emphasizing its internal divisions and conflicting positions over strategy and purpose. Our main concern is with the American movement, which led global antiwar protest and which plausibly had a major, substantive impact on the course of the war. Both orthodox and revisionist writing tends to give considerable prominence to US antiwar protest, seeing it as having influence over policy-makers, as shutting off war options, and even as affecting the conduct of the war on the ground.
John Dumbrell

7. The Military Dimension

Abstract
A running theme in General William Westmoreland’s memoir, A Soldier Reports, was the simple incomprehension, shown by many opponents of the Vietnam conflict, towards rational debate concerning the application of force in conditions of war. Describing the domestic reaction to the 1970 invasion of Cambodia, Westmoreland (1980: 240) commented: ‘Denying what your adversary is doing to you and turning the other cheek may make sense in social intercourse, but it can hardly be justified as a principle of war.’ Many orthodox histories of the war have, indeed, been written by authors who seem unwilling or unable to take seriously the views and perspectives of military actors. Like most other studies, Rethinking the Vietnam War has concentrated on high-level political decision-making, rather than the experiences and decisions of direct combatants. Political leaders made the key decisions. The current chapter, however, offers an assessment of various military arguments and counter-arguments concerning the reasons for American failure. It discusses the role of ground forces: communist, American, and American-allied combatants in South Vietnam. We then consider the problems of America’s air war.
John Dumbrell

8. Understanding the Vietnamese Revolution

Abstract
Vietnam’s revolution was proclaimed in 1945 and consolidated in 1975. Focusing on ‘the American War’, Rethinking the Vietnam War is primarily concerned with the later stages of this part-nationalist, part-communist revolution. As with so many other dimensions of the war, western discussion of the role played by the Vietnamese people in their own revolution has been plagued by rather unhelpful stereotypes: notably those relating to the communist sureness of purpose and to the virtual non-existence of South Vietnam as a viable political entity. The purpose of this chapter is to question these stereotypes — not necessarily entirely rejecting them, but subjecting them to scholarly interrogation and questioning the absolute inevitability of the communist victory. The chapter offers an account of the later stages of the Vietnamese revolution, focusing on the interpenetration of communism and nationalism. It opens with discussion of Ho Chi Minh himself — personification of the marriage of Vietnamese communism and Vietnamese nationalism.
John Dumbrell

9. Endings and Reverberations

Abstract
This final chapter will tie up loose ends. It will also consider the wider reverberations, in both space and time, of the Vietnam War. The following account of the period from America’s exit to the fall of Saigon will again address the question of inevitability. Could the regime in Saigon have survived? Was substantial and sufficient support by Washington for the anti-communist cause in Vietnam after January 1973 ever a serious possibility? We go on to discuss what the war revealed about the wider structures of the Cold War, including the war’s spatial repercussions on America’s allies. Subsequent sections discuss the temporal reverberations. Here, we deal with the political development of Southeast Asia after 1975; the post-Vietnam War trajectory of US foreign policy; and the later history and end of the Cold War. The final section provides answers to the many riddles and puzzles of the Vietnam War.
John Dumbrell
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