Study Guide

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War Introduction

Make love, not war. Sounds like a pretty good slogan, right? By 1980 we were desperate for a slogan, or better yet, a solution, to end the tumult of the previous decade and a half.

The Vietnam War—commonly referred to as "America's longest war"—grew out of the American commitment to the containment of communism during the Cold War. For approximately 15 years, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) fought against an American-supported Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).

The 1960s and 1970s weren't the boring, lackluster decades of the late 19th century. No, the '60s and '70s have earned their reputation as an era all their own, with the power to shape the largest generation in American history. From the nation's costliest and most unpopular war to the biggest political scandal in our history, there never was a dull moment during the '60s and '70s. Notably, the Civil Rights Movement and enthusiasm laid the groundwork for a very involved citizenry, one interested in promoting and protecting American rights and making sure America's leadership reflected the desires of the common man.

But the most pervasive issue of the period was undoubtedly the Vietnam War. We slowly, but surely, allowed our Cold War preoccupation with banishing communism from the face of the earth to land us in a losing battle in Southeast Asia. The war dragged on for ten deadly years and cost America not only more than 58,000 American lives, but a sense of pride and belief in our leaders and our role in the world.

The war for the U.S. ended in 1973 with the withdrawal of American combat troops, and two years later, South Vietnamese forces surrendered to the North. With the unification of Vietnam under the communist government of the North, the U.S. had officially failed to achieve its objectives. A nation accustomed to grand victories suffered its first major defeat. The "longest war" was a military, political, and social disaster, one that would haunt Americans for decades.

Anti-war protesters were joined by protesters continuing the fight for racial equality and gender equality. And new to the scene were activists eager to fight for Mother Earth. All this public awareness of social issues was fueled by an increase in accessibility to modern media. The media made everything more visible and catalyzed public opinion on issues from the war to political scandal. 

And there were scandals aplenty. This was the era of Nixon's oh-so-false claims of innocence in a political espionage and cover-up act that left the nation outraged.

The shiny, conservative, white-bread world of the 1950s was no more. America had issues. So, pull up a couch and let's delve into them, shall we?

What is The Vietnam War About and Why Should I Care?

What do you imagine when you think of the 1960s?

Music festivals, "free love," and various recreational drugs, perhaps? Maybe sit-in demonstrations, marches, and picket signs with bold messages? 

Oh, definitely tie-dye. We tend to remember this notorious decade in terms of cultural changes at home: innovative music, new perspectives on life and love, glorious causes, and, of course, colorful—very colorful—fashion.

This period in American history is certainly characterized by all of these things, and more often than not, it's with these images that Americans today prefer to remember it. And why not? Nostalgia for the '60s gave us Lollapalooza, poetry slams, retro Volkswagen Beetles, the Across the Universe homage to the Beatles, hoop earrings, great Halloween costumes, and Austin Powers. 

But more than any other event, the one that dominated this decade is the same event that many would prefer to forget: the Vietnam War.

"Nam." In the United States, this one-syllable word has come to mean many things for many different people with various class, racial, political, and national backgrounds. This tiny word carries tremendous weight. It can incite a slew of feelings, including sorrow, regret, anger, revulsion, embarrassment, betrayal, and confusion. Many would rather forget it altogether, particularly those who think of this war as one of—if not the—most disastrous periods in American history.

And Vietnam was in fact, a monumental catastrophe. But not simply because it was the first major loss for the U.S., and not simply because the U.S. failed to defeat communism, its most despised enemy during the Cold War. The Vietnam War, a conflict that lasted approximately 15 years—far longer than any previous war fought by the U.S.—was a political, economic, and military nightmare all along the way. 

And the mistakes made, lies told, and lives lost continue to haunt Americans today, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. But why? What makes this war so uniquely awful for the United States?

Was it the loss of life? Certainly it was for those personally affected by a warfront death, but in terms of total casualties, the Vietnam War was relatively benign. Seven times more Americans perished in World War II. In the Civil War, America's bloodiest war, more than 600,000 Americans died—over ten times the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. Vietnam lost far more of its people in the war; reports estimate that close to 3 million North and South Vietnamese men and women died. That's basically a zillion times more than the number of U.S. casualties (about 59,000).

Was it the fact that five American presidents failed to end the fighting abroad? Yes, in part. Disastrous errors in foreign policy-making in Southeast Asia marred each presidential administration from Truman to Nixon, and all along the way, political leaders strained to hide these mistakes, or at least to dismiss them. As a result, the vast majority of Americans lost a great deal of confidence in their government—a deeply significant transformation that would spark the kind of political cynicism familiar to us today.

Was it that the United States, a nation that had emerged from World War II as the greatest military power on the globe, lost to a small, relatively poor revolutionary militia? Definitely not from the perspective of the Vietnamese, who sought to gain independence, expel the foreign occupation, and reunify their country. For them, the Americans—or any imperial force, no matter how big or strong—stood no chance against their passionate crusade for a free Vietnam.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy for the U.S. wasn't that it made mistakes or that it lost, but that it failed to accept the possibility that it might actually lose. For this reason, five presidents were doomed to grapple with the conflict, and Americans from all walks of life were destined to deal with a new uncertainty about the future.

There's no doubt that the Vietnam War was an extremely confusing conflict, one in which nothing much was clear. In the United States, political and military leaders, G.I.s, anti-war protesters, and pro-war patriots all struggled to wrap their heads around all that was at stake. 

Some 40 years later, historians have helped us gain some perspective on it all, but it still remains a complex topic. And while it's quite a tall order, we here at Shmoop hope we can help you sort some of this out.

The Vietnam War Resources

Books

The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decision-Making on Vietnam (1971)
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 five 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.

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 decades 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.

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 GI, 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.

Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (2006)
Historian Mark Moyar argues in Triumph Forsaken that the war in Vietnam wasn't 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 20th century's "Lost Cause."

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.

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.

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.

Music

Black Sabbath, Paranoid (1971)
One of Black Sabbath's best selling, most notorious albums, Paranoid has been cited as one of the first "heavy metal" records in rock and roll history. Paranoid is thunderous, demonic, and bass-heavy with chilly tracks such as "Iron Man," "Paranoid," and "War Pigs," an anti-Vietnam song with references to bloody battlefields and corrupt politicians.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, Willy and the Poor Boys (1969)
This group is a San Francisco Bay Area rock legend from the Vietnam era. The band's sound is distinctly rock and roll, but flavored with a soulful country tone. Willy and the Poor Boys is perhaps CCR's most moving record, featuring a number of memorable working-class anthems.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced (1967)
Some music spoke to the soldiers on the warfront who, whenever they could, listened to transistor radios on the base or in their bunkers. Many radio stations played Jimi Hendrix hits, like "Purple Haze," "Foxy Lady," and "The Wind Cries Mary."

Country Joe and the Fish, I Feel Like I'm Fixin to Die (1967)
I Feel Like is an early album from one of the most outspoken anti-war rock bands of the '60s. The title track, "I Feel Like I'm Fixin to Die Rag" (also called "The Fish Cheer") was a popular anthem of the anti-war movement. It's an ironic, up-beat singalong that comments on the lunacy of the Vietnam War and the ultimate price paid by those who must fight it.

Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
Though it was released during the early years of the Vietnam War, before mass anti-war protests had taken shape, this record contains some of the songs that have come to be most associated with that movement, including "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War," "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," and "Talkin' World War III Blues."

Images

Soldiers Transport Another
Soldiers carry a wounded comrade through the swamps of Vietnam, 1969.

Prayer on the War Front
A soldier stands guard in an observation tower as a chaplain holds mass, July 1967.

Counting the Days
An American GI keeps track of the time he has left on his "short time" helmet, 1968.

A Navy Nurse with a Patient
A Navy nurse checks the medical chart of a Marine aboard a hospital ship off the coast of South Vietnam, April 1966.

Protesting An Imperial War
Vietnam War protesters in Wichita, Kansas, 1967.

The Buried Dead
The bodies of U.S. Marines lie half buried after a long and bloody battle at Khe Sanh, 1968.

Homecoming
A U.S. lieutenant, a prisoner of war until 1973, is met by his family at a military base in California upon his return from Vietnam.

The Terror of War After the War
A Vietnamese woman carries her wounded child away from the fighting; warfare continued for two years following the departure of U.S. troops in 1973.

"The Victor"
With the fall of Saigon and the end to the war in Vietnam, Time magazine deems the late Ho Chi Minh "The Victor," May 1975.

Movies & TV

No Country for Old Men (2007)
Based on Cormac McCarthy's novel, this Coen Brothers film is set in southwest Texas in 1980, and focuses on the world of a murderous sociopath, and on the life of an aging sheriff. It's a violent, disturbing, and ominous tale about post-Vietnam America—a hardened, soulless, and strange place.

Platoon (1986)
Platoon is a fictional yet poignant account of the war in Vietnam from the perspective of a young soldier. In directing the film, Oliver Stone drew upon his own experiences as a young serviceman in Vietnam in order to portray the often psychologically disturbing and demoralizing aspects of warfare.

First Blood (1982)
Sylvester Stallone stars in this notorious action film as John Rambo, a disoriented Vietnam veteran who uses his skills in guerilla warfare to escape police deputies in a small town in Washington state. First Blood is the first of a series of films, each controversial for its glorification of violence.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
This Academy Award-winning film from director Francis Ford Coppola was inspired both by field reporter Michael Herr's accounts of the war in Vietnam and by Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, a story about colonialism and a man's struggle between good and evil. Set near Vietnam in 1969, at the height of the war, Apocalypse Now is a fictional tale of a twisted search-and-destroy mission in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

The Deer Hunter (1978)
The Deer Hunter is a gripping story about the impact of the Vietnam War on three working-class brothers from a small industrial town in Pennsylvania. The film follows the young men to the warfront, where they become imprisoned both physically and psychologically by the enemy and by their own inner struggles.

Hearts and Minds (1974)
Hearts and Minds may be one of the most gripping documentaries ever made, and certainly the best documentary about the war in Vietnam. Director Peter Davis weaves new film footage with interviews, archival images, and news reports to explore the controversial war and the issues that drove the U.S. to fight in it.

Green Berets (1968)
Released in 1968, at the height American involvement in the war in Vietnam, Green Berets is a grand and optimistic story of American heroism winning victory over North Vietnamese tyranny. The movie, directed by and starring John Wayne, was the only feature-length film about the Vietnam War to come out of Hollywood before the fall of Saigon. Critics have since derided it as a conservative piece of pro-war propaganda.

Websites

Documenting the My Lai Massacre
This site features a number of useful documents on the 1968 My Lai massacre, the cover-up, and the trial.

Military History of the Vietnam War
PBS presents a site dedicated to the military history of the Vietnam War. It includes detailed descriptions of weaponry and strategies used on the battlefield.

On the Fall of Saigon
The New York Times offers a number of archived articles about the fall of Saigon printed in the paper in the days leading up to and following the final moments of the war.

Video & Audio

Sounds from the Warfront
The 4th Battalion Vietnam veterans present a collection of sound clips, most of which were recorded while on the warfront.

Secret White House Conversations
Secretly recorded phone conversations between President Lyndon B. Johnson and several government officials during the early years of the Vietnam War.

"Ohio"
Neil Young's song "Ohio" performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, which Young wrote after seeing photos of the Kent State tragedy.

Historical Documents

President Eisenhower's Promise
President Eisenhower's letter to South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem promising aid against the North, October 1954.

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
Text of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution approved by the U.S. Congress, August 7th, 1964. Plus, we've got an entire learning guide devoted to this document.

Ridenhour's Confession
A letter from Ron Ridenhour, a former GI, describing the My Lai massacre and its cover-up, March 1969.

Vietnamization
President Nixon explains his "Vietnamization" plan to the American public, November 3rd, 1969.

From the Other Side
Memories of the Vietnam War, "from the other side."