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The Vietnam War Books

The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decision-making on Vietnam ()

This five-volume collection is a key primary source for any historian of the Vietnam War. Each tome is chock-full of top-secret studies based on classified government documents about American involvement in Vietnam. If you're not prepared to dive into all 5 volumes, historian George C. Herring has been nice enough to produce an abridged (read: a lot more manageable!) version of the documents in The Pentagon Papers (1993).

Michael Herr, Dispatches (1977)

Michael Herr's front-line reporting of the Vietnam War is collected in Dispatches, one of the first books to capture the unique feel of life on the Vietnam battlefront. His stream-of-conscious descriptions are chaotic, choppy, dark, and intense, giving the reader an honest sense of war from the perspective of a soldier. A must read.

Henry Maurer, Strange Ground: An Oral History of Americans in Vietnam, 1945-1975 (1989)

Maurer introduces this collection of interviews with a confession: he successfully dodged the draft. The guilt, regret, and relief that came from that decision inspired him to reach out to the many different Americans who witnessed the war from the front. He spoke with draftees and volunteers, lieutenants and "grunts," those with grand memories of the roles they played, veterans with irreparable damage, a gay G.I., a woman reporter, and so many more. Strange Ground is a page-turner, and one that will stay with you long after you've finished.

Robert McNamara and Brian Van Demark, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1996)

Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1967, offers an honest and balanced account of American involvement in the war in Vietnam. In this personal memoir, the man who advised Presidents Kennedy and Johnson reveals where American foreign policy went so wrong, and explains the role he played in contributing to that failure.

Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried (1990)

The Things They Carried is a string of short stories about American soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Though cited by the author as works of fiction, each tale portrays the warfront with sensitivity to the physical and emotional realities of battle. In an interview given in 1991, Tim O'Brien stated that, "90% or more of the material [in The Things They Carried] is invented." Still, one can't help but sense that O'Brien, who served as a foot soldier in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, wrote this series of short stories in order to come to grips with some of his own personal memories of war.

Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War (1991)

Bao Ninh is a writer from Hanoi who fought for North Vietnam, and his novel Sorrow of War, though fiction, offers a strikingly intimate portrait of war on the Vietnam battlefront. Bao Ninh uses his own memories to offer a vivid account of the hope, confusion, brutality, longing, and weariness experienced by an NLF soldier. We highly recommend reading Sorrow of War alongside Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

George C. Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (1979)

Though this historian's account of the war in Vietnam was first published nearly thirty years ago, America's Longest War remains one of the best historical overviews available. A terrific, straight-forward text for anyone looking for a thorough introduction to this complicated period in American history.

Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (1991)

Historian Marilyn Young tells a gripping and often gut-wrenching story about the American war in Vietnam. Young worries that, with each decade, the memory of the Vietnam War fades from the American psyche, and the U.S. increases its risk of repeating the same mistakes. So, with her incredibly researched and richly detailed account of this complicated war, she aims to remind readers of the mistakes made, the lives lost, and, most importantly, the lessons learned.

Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (2006)

Historian Mark Moyar argues in Triumph Forsaken that the war in Vietnam was not a tragic mistake but an "improperly executed enterprise." In other words, Moyar finds that the U.S. could have—and should have—won the war against the NLF, but that leaders such as President Johnson squandered America's opportunities for success. Moyar's work, though self-contradictory in parts, is one of the most lauded texts among those who view the Vietnam War as the twentieth century's "Lost Cause."

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