In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Vietnam War

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works, Historiography, and Data Sources
  • Document Collections
  • Biographies, Autobiographies, and Memoirs
  • First Indochina War
  • Early US Involvement / Diem Years
  • John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War
  • Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War
  • Military Operations, 1965–1967
  • Navy and Marines
  • The Air War
  • The Tet Offensive, 1968
  • Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War
  • Military Operations, 1969–1973
  • Pacification and Counterinsurgency
  • Special Operations
  • Antiwar Movement
  • Television and the Press
  • The Soldiers
  • South Vietnam
  • North Vietnam and the Vietcong
  • Oral Histories
  • Race
  • Gender
  • The Fall of South Vietnam
  • Lessons and Postmortems

Military History Vietnam War
James H. Willbanks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0125


The Vietnam War was one of the most divisive conflicts in the history of the United States—one that almost tore the country apart. The causes of the war, its conduct, and its aftermath remain hotly contested issues to this day. Scholars, journalists, and participants continue to debate how the war came about, why it was fought the way it was, why it turned out the way it did, and “lessons” that may be drawn from the experience. They continue to wrestle with the basic questions of not only who actually won the war but whether the war was ever winnable in the first place. The pursuit of answers to these very contentious questions has led to a broad array of perspectives and interpretations as the debate continues. The sheer volume of books on the war grows daily and addresses a broad spectrum that ranges from narrative overviews to more narrowly drawn works that focus on particular topics to first-person accounts of those who fought the war. The purpose of this article is to provide a guide to some of the more meaningful and useful works that address the many topical categories and debates within the historiography of the war.

General Overviews

Generally speaking, histories of the Vietnam War fall into one of two camps. The “orthodox” camp asserts that the war was misguided and doomed to failure from the very beginning. The “revisionist” camp holds that the war was necessary, winnable, and, in fact, almost won. These two interpretations dominate the narrative of the war, and most books can be solidly placed in one camp or the other. The most fulsome delineation of these perspectives, particularly the “orthodox” view, manifests themselves in the general overviews of the war. The earliest of these overviews, Fitzgerald 1972 and Karnow 1983, set the tone for the debate, maintaining that the war was a mistake and America’s effort in Vietnam was doomed to failure from the beginning. Prados 2009 provides the most recent addition to this interpretation. Lawrence 2008 and Bradley 2009 provide good overviews, but both place the conflict in a more international setting. Herring 2002 and Tucker 1999 are both readable and concise, making them very useful as college texts. The Pentagon Papers ( US Department of Defense 1971) provide a documentary overview of the decisions that led to an ever-increasing US commitment in Southeast Asia. Goscha 2016 provides a comprehensive history of Vietnam that puts the war into the larger context.

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

    Draws heavily on then recently opened Vietnamese archives and other sources to place the Vietnamese at the center of the history of the war, unlike other books that render them almost invisible.

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

    Pulitzer Prize–winning book that depicts the clash of values that led to what the author sees as the inevitable failure of the United States in Southeast Asia, brought about by an attempt to resist the wave of Vietnamese nationalism.

  • Goscha, Christopher. Vietnam: A New History. New York: Basic Books, 2016.

    A history that examines the many ways Vietnam has historically been divided, from the separate states ruled by Trinh and Nguyen military lords in the 17th century, to the three territorial subunits created by French colonizers in the 19th century, to the warring nations of Democratic Republic of Vietnam and Republic of Vietnam in the Cold War era, placing the war in the larger context of the history of the country.

  • Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

    A very balanced general history of the war, recognized as a major contribution to the study of American involvement in Vietnam; analyzes the ultimate failure in the war and its impact on US foreign policy, placing the war in the historical context of the Cold War and US containment policy.

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

    A comprehensive study of the war that looks at the conflict from both sides. Very well documented, it contains material from extensive interviews with those on both sides of the conflict.

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

    Using the latest archival research in China, Russia, and Vietnam, this book places the Vietnam War in a broader international context by providing the various perspectives of the war as seen by the major international actors.

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

    A wide-ranging synthesis, which asserts that decision making clouded by Cold War politics and fundamentally flawed perceptions about the nature of the war made the war unwinnable.

  • Tucker, Spencer C. Vietnam. London: UCL Press, 1999.

    A concise, well-documented analytical survey of Vietnamese military history that concentrates on the French and American 20th-century wars and includes a brief account of the earliest recorded days of the Vietnamese people.

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

    A history of US political-military involvement and decision making in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967; the report was originally classified but was released by the New York Times in 1971.

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