Catton_Refighting Vietnam History Books_OAH_Oct 2004(2)

Catton_Refighting Vietnam History Books_OAH_Oct 2004(2) -...

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Phillip E. Catton Refighting Vietnam in the History Books: The Historiography of the War G iven the burgeoning literature devoted to it, the Vietnam War is surely a contender with the Civil War for the title of America's most studied conflict. It has attracted an enormous amount of academic attention and continues to absorb the energies of many scholars. At the most re- cent meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, Vietnam featured in al- most a fifth of the conference pan- els. Lavish attention, however, has not led to scholarly consensus. Indeed, the war continues to gen- erate vigorous disagreement among historians, as well as the wider public. This ongoing debate testifies not only to the kind of differences in interpretation that are part and parcel of the study of history but also to the extraordi- nary passions that the conflict still arouses nearly thirty years after the fall of Saigon. Disagreements about the war have revolved around several key issues. The first concerns the ori- gins of America's intervention in Southeast Asia—why did the U.S. become involved in Vietnam.^ Walt Rostow, an adviser to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, once chided the maker of a documen- tary for asking what he called this "sophomoric" and "goddamn silly question" (i). Historians, however, have not found it so easy to dismiss. Why was Washington prepared to expend so much blood and President Dwjght D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (from left) greet South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem at Washington National Airport, May 8, 1957. (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, NAIL NWDNS-342 AF-18302USAF.) treasure to defend a relatively small piece of territory, thousands of miles from America's shores? Was the U.S. commitment necessary, or a terrible mistake? The second issue concerns the outcome of the conflict. Why, in spite of the enor- mous power at its disposal, was the U.S. unable to preserve an independent South Vietnam? Would different military tactics have altered the outcome, or was the war simply unwinnable? Fi- nally, scholars have sought to di- vine the larger meaning of the conflict and draw lessons from it. For example, did Vietnam illus- trate the folly of U.S. intervention overseas, especially in the cause of nation building, or merely dem- onstrate the need for better strat- egy and leadership next time around? This kind of exercise has inevitably become caught up in contemporary political debates. From Central America in the ig8os to the present-day Middle East, the "lessons" of Vietnam have served as a point of reference for arguments about the merits of U.S. involvement overseas. While scholars have adopted many variations in approach and interpretation, we might usefully divide them into two main camps. In the first camp are those who are critical of America's intervention and view Vietnam as a bad war. Civen the circumstances of the conflict, they also doubt whether the U.S. could ever have achieved its aim of OAH Magazine of History October 2004 7
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establishing a strong, anti-Communist South Vietnam. In the second
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This note was uploaded on 09/12/2011 for the course HISTORY 3296 taught by Professor Clemis during the Fall '11 term at Temple.

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