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In the quest for an interpretive stance, the historiography of the Vietnam is so vast and abundant that it analytically presented much more greater difficulties than World War II documents not only to students but also to history researches. Perhaps the reasons attributable to this vastness in literature lies in the differences in the logics between the two conflicts. The entrance of USA and the wielding of its massive military power in World War II which was a clearly manifested responsive action of the United States against Japan and Germany. The roots of these actions are clearly traceable in detail. On the other hand, the Vietnam War has been subjected to different angles of historical discourse amid controversies surrounding America’s military engagement.
Interpretations of the War have significantly departed from typical patterns of analysis both during and after almost all of America’s wars. Instead of employing the patterns of reflection, defense and bolstering of official documents as in World War I and World War II, most of the early historical assessments employed the pattern of critiquing the U.S foreign policy. Some of the earliest journalists on the subject of the United States and the War such as Robert Sharplen, David Halberstam, Bernard Fall, and historical authors like Authur M. Schlesinger, John W. Lewis and George McT. Kahin, harshly indicted government policy. Being the earliest historical accounts of the War, they successfully diverted the historiographical analysis of the war in terms of its origins, its purpose and its efficacy that was more research based and informed than the ones released by the Washington officialdom.1
These analysis formed the depth and breath of the Vietnam historiographical accounts until the 1970s when after the North Vietnam’s military triumph historians delved into soul searching and a new class of thought emerged: a revisionist school of thought. Ironically, these revisionists launched a belated defense of the U.S efforts in the war. The defense basically encompassed the venting of anger directed towards the liberal orthodoxy that prevailed at the time. By taking this stance, the revisionists only managed to posit almost insistingly to the notion that the Indochina war was unwinnable. This notion was wrong. Worse than that albeit more egregious, they mounted another perspective; that the war was immoral.2
Before the onset of revisionism, early writers broadly agreed that the Vietnam war was a colossal mistake on the part of the United States. This was a time when the United States policy was persistently plagued with blunders, errors, miscalculations and misperceptions. Despite this basic agreement there was still significant interpretative differences in the literature. In the book titled the Irony of Vietnam: the System Worked(1979), the authors adeptly laid out at least nine distinct explanations that had been advanced during the 1960s to the 70s to explain the failure of America’s intervention in Vietnam. These distinct explanations ranged from bureaucratic to domestic politics, economic to idealistic imperialism, and misperceptions to ethnocentrism. At first there was widespread disagreement with these classifications and analysis of these factors as causative agents for America’s failed military intervention. There were also disagreements as pertains to the relative weight of these factors as precipitates to the conflict itself and as well as the continues commitment to the conflict.
In the wake of these differences, two salient views emerged. These are the views reminiscent of the historiographical debates on the Vietnam War even today. The first view characterized the U.S involvement as an avoidable tragedy. This view was bed rocked upon an exaggerated notion of Vietnam’s importance to America’s foreign policy. According to the liberal realist perspective, Vietnam was crucial to the advancement of the security and economic interests. Moreover these policy makers drew onto the popular reverberations of revolutionary nationalism. Suppose these exaggerations were non existent, then policy makers would have understood the genuine importance of Vietnam, appreciated the limits in American power and most likely averted the ensuing tragedy bu this was not the case.
This view remains the most dominant one in the the sphere of historical discourse. A review of the works of several authors such as the early writers and others like William S. Turley, Gary R. Hess and Neal Sheehan basically points out that the U.S-Vietnam conflict nothing less than a tragic misadventure that would have been avoidable had the leaders acted wisely, prudently and knowledgeably while avoiding the reproduction of policies that had worked in earlier conflicts.
An alternative approach offered a more radical critique of the intentions and behavior in America before the onset and after the onset of the Vietnam war3. This approach depicted the U.S as a global hegemony that was primarily concerned with global economic expansion on one hand and on the other, reflexively opposing any advance of communism. When the war is analyzed from this perspective, authors typically posit the perspective that characterizes the military intervention as a necessity and a more logical transcendence by a rapacious drive by a super power to global dominance. In a seminal by Gabriel Kolko titled the Anatomy of War, he represents one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated formulation of this radical perspective. In his seminal he reiterates that America’s intervention in Vietnam was a predictable consequence with respect to the ruling class’s desire and determination to fully exert global control through advancing capitalism. Moreover, the U.S economy needed raw materials, new investment outlets. The desire and determination to integrate the capitalist core states with the peripheral develop nations created a precedent to the clash with revolutionary nationalist ideologies in the Third World.3
At the time of the invasion the North Vietnamese were the authentic representatives of Vietnamese nationalism. Because of this deep rooted belief nationalism, their leaders rose to aggressively respond to the aggressive moves of the United States of America. Some historians tend to propagate the notion that the U.S-Vietnam war was renewed by the deliberate choosing of Hanoi in 1959 and that the escalation was a product of encouragement from Beijing. This can only be termed as mere Cold War rhetoric. South Vietnam existed only because it was the creation of the administration of Eisenhower. Following the 1954 Geneva Partition, it existed only as a pawn that could only operate under the instructions of Washington. Its veritably funny that some historiographical works fail to understand the two sided nature of the Vietnam conflict with wide ranging international consequences; America included, even more serious they failed to look into America’s perspective often willing to take it for granted. On the other hand, it is very difficult to digress into the Vietnam issue without drawing on the Cold war experiences because the conflict began after the beginning of a set of ideologies that guided and justified the United States foreign policy on security and economic interests. These ideologies meant that Americans had the responsibility of defending democracy and freedom from communism onslaught.4
This radical perspective ushered in a conservative revisionist thought by 1980s. This entrance of conservative revisionism, shifted the debate that had for along time pitted radical neo-Marxists against liberal realists. This new school of thought led by former Army officers; Bruce Palmer Jr, Harry G. Summers, Jr. and Philip B. Davidson all separately and vehemently launched a scathing critique of the U.S policy. On the basis of their books, the Vietnam tragedy was a manifestation of a failure by both the civilian and military leaders to realistically develop plans that were congruent with the country’s politico-military objectives. This argument also succinctly pointed out that they also failed to accurately assess the intentions and the capabilities of their adversaries. In the long run the failure in the coordination of battlefield tactics based on an overall victory strategy granted the North Vietnamese military victory. The initial pursuit of a pacification strategy in Vietnam could have succeeded had the policy makers disregarded a move towards the invasion of Vietnam.5
Cohen theorizes that in the historiography of the U.S-Vietnam war, focus should be levied on a single central question; with respect to the two sided nature of the war, was it an act of aggression on the South by the North or the war mainly a revolutionary uprising. It is upon this question that the realism or the legitimacy of the United States intervention, and the appropriateness of military strategy can be realistically answered. If such a question was answered truthfully then it would be possible to know why the communist North Vietnam won. Many revisionists have posited that the U.S-Vietnam war was an act of aggression where the North sought to militarily suppress the South. But Cohen disagrees and instead points out that the idea of two nations: the North and the South, is a fallacy in itself. This should be taken with the understanding that despite the Geneva partition, the South was merely a pawn of the government in Washington, ready to act according to Washington’s whim. The North with a firm belief in revolutionary nationalism could not allow a blot of capitalism in a presumably communist frontier.6
New historiographers will have to move the debates from simplistic concepts in early historical literatures that perceived the Americans as the wicked witches in the East and in turn deliberate on the issues on the context of national tragedies. Since revisionism and consensus perspectives have steered the debates away from the partisanship passions of the early scholarship, even the Vietnamese might open their documentary and trigger a new wave of the refinery of contentions that have for decades divided the revisionist and the neo-orthodox views to produce a much more mature synthesis.7,8
As Ronald Spector(1986) wrote, “our knowledge of Vietnam conflict is still complete and profoundly confused”9. More and more views will continue to be published despite a myriad of conflicting reports. However one thing is clear, weak military and civilian leadership cost the nation a victory well deserved. Whether, Americans will lose the uniqueness of the Vietnam war over all the other wars the have fought is only a matter of conjecture, what is certain is that the outcome of the Vietnam war will continue to illumine how Americans justify their involvement in wars.