In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indochina Wars, 1946-1975

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works, Historiography, and Data Sources
  • Biographies and Autobiographies
  • Journals

Military History Indochina Wars, 1946-1975
Andrew Wiest
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0041


The history of the Vietnam War is one of the most vibrant and hotly debated topics in modern academe. The field is vibrant in part because it is so broad and inclusive, attracting interest across a wide variety of disciplines, national groups, and historical schools of thought. The wide-ranging questions surrounding the conflict—Was it a Cold War moment or a postcolonial moment? How did the war interact with the powerful cultural movements of the decade? Was the conflict an “American war”? Was South Vietnam doomed from the outset?—attract an enormous array of scholars who utilize a broad range of methodologies to answer their varied questions. The field is hotly debated in part because so many basic questions concerning the war are still open to scrutiny, questions as basic as what the war actually was about and who really won. The struggle for the soul of the Vietnam War is ongoing, and, to many, the questions are not merely academic. The Vietnam generation, its soldiers and its protestors—its hawks and doves—are still alive and well, struggling over ownership of the past. Many of the documents vital to the study of the Vietnam War are newly opened, old historical wounds have yet to close, and young scholars redirect the nature of the developing debate almost daily. The historiography of the Vietnam War is an ever-changing thing: a historical minefield for the unwary.

General Overviews

Much of the history of the Vietnam War is broken down into two camps that are sometimes violently opposed: the “orthodox” camp, which includes the inheritors of the wartime doves who in an all-too-brief nutshell contend that the American war in Vietnam was misguided and doomed to failure, and the “revisionist” camp, which includes the inheritors of the wartime hawks who briefly contend that the war was necessary, winnable, and indeed almost won. Many of the more narrow works outlined in this bibliography fit into, or are labeled by others as members of, one of the two competing historiographical camps. However, the debate over the nature of the war comes to full flower in overviews, in which authors are able to give full range to their thinking. Fitzgerald 1972 and Karnow 1983, both readable and extremely popular, in many ways set the tone for the debate, depicting an America that seemed doomed to failure against such a stalwart foe. Kolko 1985 took the debate further, with America stumbling in an attempt to impose its order on the world. Lawrence 2008 and Bradley 2009 are much more international in nature and bring the debate into the historiographical present. Moyar 2006 made the clearest statement on the revisionist side, consciously attempting to turn the orthodox arguments on their historical heads. In a vast new overview, Prados 2009 makes the clearest rebuttals of Moyar’s claims, and the historical battle goes on. As a final note, The Pentagon Papers (US Department of Defense 1971) provide an indispensable documentary overview of American involvement in the conflict as well as an important piece of history in its own right.

  • Bradley, Mark Phillip. Vietnam at War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    A history of the wars in Vietnam that takes in the most recent scholarship from the vantage point of the Vietnamese themselves. Sets the wider global context of the wars fully into their place as part of an internal, and ongoing, Vietnamese struggle.

  • Fitzgerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1972.

    Pulitzer Prize–winning bedrock work to understanding both the Vietnam War and its historiography. Though highly readable, this text is perhaps of most value today as a period piece depicting a clash of values between the Americans and the Vietnamese that led to America’s inevitable failure in the conflict.

  • Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking, 1983.

    Extremely readable and perhaps the best-known general history of the Vietnam War. This massive work attempts to be comprehensive but is only spotty in its coverage. Some events and people receive masterful coverage, while others (especially in the war after 1968) are scarcely mentioned.

  • Kolko, Gabriel. Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

    An exhaustive study that pays special attention to the internal politics and policies of Vietnam during the war. Perhaps the leading work on the war from the viewpoint of the political left, which sees the war as part of an effort by the United States to impose a new order on the world.

  • Lawrence, Mark Atwood. The Vietnam War: A Concise International History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    A brief overview of the conflict in Vietnam that delves far back into time and is international in scope. Breaks little new ground but is most valuable as a synthesis that introduces readers to the fundamental issues of the war.

  • Moyar, Mark. Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Although the work covers only the period until 1965, Triumph is the most thorough statement of the “revisionist” viewpoint on the war, contending that Vietnam was winnable for the United States and that South Vietnam and its leaders were in fact winning the war.

  • Prados, John. Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975. Modern War Studies. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009.

    A massive synthesis by one of the leading scholars in the field. The latest and arguably best summation, based both on a thorough understanding of the secondary source material and exhaustive new primary research, of the “orthodox” view of the war.

  • US Department of Defense. The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam. 5 vols. Boston: Beacon, 1971.

    Available in several formats other than this original printing, including an abridged edition edited by George Herring (McGraw-Hill, 1993). Much of the text is also available at various online outlets. An extremely detailed Defense Department report on the conflict with many of the documents that the authors used as their source material.

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