With the anniversary of the war approaching, lists of books, movies and songs are showing up. Most of the following are from the council on foreign relations website: http://www.cfr.org/ I collected them and put them into a single email for storage for my own reference. Just thought I would share. ~ Dennis Berg
Sunday [March 8, 2015] marks fifty years since the first U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam. To mark the anniversary of the war that changed America, I am doing a series of posts on the best histories, memoirs, movies, and novels about Vietnam. Today’s topic is protest songs. Much as poetry provides a window into the Allied mood during World War I, anti-war songs provide a window into the mood of the 1960s. It was one of anger, alienation, and defiance. Vietnam has continued to inspire songwriters long after the last U.S. helicopters were pushed into the East Vietnam Sea, but my interest here is in songs recorded during the war. So as much as I love Bruce Springsteen (“Born in the USA”) and Billy Joel (“Goodnight Saigon”), their songs don’t make this list. With that caveat out of the way, here are my twenty picks for best protest songs in order of the year they were released.
Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963). Dylan debuted a partially written “Blowin’ in the Wind” in Greenwich Village in 1962 by telling the audience, “This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ‘cause I don’t write no protest songs.” “Blowin’ in the Wind” went on to become possibly the most famous protest song ever, an iconic part of the Vietnam era.Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Blowin’ in the Wind” number fourteen on its list of the top 500 songs of all-time.
Phil Ochs, “What Are You Fighting For” (1963). Ochs wrote numerous protest songs during the 1960s and 1970s. In “What Are You Fighting For,” he warns listeners about “the war machine right beside your home.” Ochs, who battled alcoholism and bipolar disorder, committed suicide in 1976.
Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction” (1965). McGuire recorded “Eve of Destruction” in one take in spring 1965. By September it was the number one song in the country, even though many radio stations refused to play it. McGuire’s impassioned rendition of the song’s incendiary lyrics—“You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’”—helps explain its popularity. It still feels fresh fifty years later.
Phil Ochs, I Ain’t Marching Anymore (1965). Ochs’s song of a soldier who has grown sick of fighting was one of the first to highlight the generational divide that came to grip the country: “It’s always the old to lead us to the war/It’s always the young to fall.”
Tom Paxton, “Lyndon Told the Nation” (1965). Paxton criticizes President Lyndon Johnson for promising peace on the campaign trail and then sending troops to Vietnam. “Well here I sit in this rice paddy/Wondering about Big Daddy/And I know that Lyndon loves me so./Yet how sadly I remember/Way back yonder in November/When he said I’d never have to go.” In 2007, Paxton rewrote the song as “George W. Told the Nation.”
Pete Seeger, “Bring ‘em Home” (1966). Seeger, who died last year at the age of ninety-four, was one of the all-time greats in folk music. He opposed American involvement in the Vietnam War from the start, making his sentiment abundantly clear: “bring ‘em home, bring ‘em home.”
Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” (1967). Who says that a protest song can’t be funny? Guthrie’s call to resist the draft and end the war in Vietnam is unusual in two respects: it’s great length (18 minutes) and the fact that it is mostly a spoken monologue. For some radio stations it is a Thanksgiving tradition to play “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.”
Nina Simone, “Backlash Blues” (1967). Simone transformed a civil rights poem byLangston Hughes into a Vietnam War protest song. “Raise my taxes/Freeze my wages/Send my son to Vietnam.”
Joan Baez, “Saigon Bride” (1967). Baez set a poem by Nina Duscheck to music. An unnamed narrator says goodbye to his Saigon bride—which could be meant literally or figuratively—to fight an enemy for reasons that “will not matter when we’re dead.”
Country Joe & the Fish, “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die” (1967). Sometimes called the “Vietnam Song,” Country Joe & the Fish’s rendition of “Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die” was one of the signature moments at Woodstock. The chorus is infectious: “and it’s 1, 2, 3 what are we fighting for?/Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.”
Pete Seeger, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” (1967). “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” has a nameless narrator recalling an army patrol that almost drowns crossing a river in Louisiana in 1942 because of their reckless commanding officer, who is not so fortunate. Everyone understood the allusion to Vietnam, and CBS cut the song from a September 1967 episode of the Smothers Brother Comedy Show. Public protests eventually forced CBS to reverse course, and Seeger sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a February 1968 episode of the show.
Richie Havens, “Handsome Johnny” (1967). Oscar-winner Lou Gossett, Jr. co-wrote the song about “Handsome Johnny with an M15 marching to the Vietnam War.” Havens’s rendition of the song at Woodstock is an iconic moment from the 1960s.
The Bob Seger System, “2+2=?” (1968). Still an obscure Detroit rocker at the time, Seger warned of a war that leaves young men “buried in the mud, off in a foreign jungle land.” The song reflected a change of heart on his part. Two years earlier he recorded “The Ballad of the Yellow Beret,” which begins “This is a protest against protesters.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son” (1969). John Fogerty, CCR’s lead singer, says he was prompted to write “Fortunate Son” after seeing news coverage of the wedding of David Eisenhower and Julie Nixon. He wanted to protest the fact that not everyone would bear the burden of the war: “Some folks are born, silver spoon in hand.” In 2014, the Library of Congress added “Fortunate Son” to the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
John Lennon, “Give Peace a Chance” (1969). Lennon’s first solo single after leaving The Beatles hit number 14 on the Billboard charts despite being recorded in one take in June 1969 while he and wife Yoko Ono were holding a “bed-in” in Montreal. Five months later,half a million people sang “Give Peace a Chance” at a protest rally against President Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.
Jimmy Cliff, “Vietnam” (1970). Bob Dylan hailed “Vietnam” as “the greatest protest song ever written.” The lyrics are simple; the story is powerfully sad.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, “Ohio” (1970). Neil Young wrote “Ohio” in reaction to the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970 that left four students dead. The chorus “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We’re finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio” kept the song off many AM radio station playlists. The song still managed to peak at number 14 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
Edwin Starr, “War” (1970). “War” got straight to the point: “War, huh yeah/What is it good for?/Absolutely nothing, oh hoh, oh.” The song was originally written for The Temptations to release as a single but that idea got nixed out of fear of alienating the group’s fans. Too bad for The Temptations. “War” reached number one on the Billboard charts and ranked number five overall for 1970.
Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” (1971). Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records and Gaye’s then brother-in-law, called “What’s Going On” the “worst thing I ever heard in my life.” Fortunately, a Motown sales executive disregarded his judgment and got the song into record stores. It became a hit. Rolling Stone magazine ranked “What’s Going On”number four on its list of the top 500 songs of all-time.
John Lennon, “Imagine” (1971). Lennon’s call to “Imagine all the people/Living life in peace” remains a radio staple more than four decades after it was recorded. Although itpeaked at number three on the Billboard top 100 charts, BMI ranked it the 96th most played song on radio in the twentieth century, the only song on this list to make the top one hundred. Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Imagine” number three on its list of the top 500 songs of all-time.
Yes, I know. I left a lot of great songs off this list. So my apologies to fans of George Harrison (“Give Me Love”), Steppenwolf ( “Monster”), The Doors (“The Unknown Soldier), or Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (“Billy Don’t Be a Hero”), among others.
All week I have been blogging on the best histories, memoirs,films, and songs to mark Sunday’s fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of the first U.S. combat troops in Vietnam. Today I want to look at the best novels, because fiction can provide fresh insights into great historical events. My challenge, though, is that I have only read three novels about Vietnam: The Quiet American (1955) by Graham Greene, The Ugly American(1958) by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer, and The Short-Timers (1979) by Gustav Hasford. The first two made my list of the best Cold War novels, and The Short-Timers was the grist for Stanley Kubrick’s film Full-Metal Jacket. So the list below, which is based on reviews and recommendations, are the ten Vietnam War novels that I most want to read if I can find the time to read anything other than email.
Josiah Bunting, The Lionheads (1972). Bunting joined the U.S. Army in 1966 after completing his Rhodes Scholarship. During his service in Vietnam, he saw things he disliked. The result was The Lionheads, a biting assessment of the challenge that soldiers face when they disagree with their orders. Time called it one of the ten best novels of 1972.
Larry Heinemann, Paco’s Story (1986). After miraculously surviving a brutal attack in Vietnam that kills everyone else in his company, Paco Sullivan returns to the United States. He discovers that resuming a normal life is difficult, if not impossible. Paco’s Story won the1987 National Book Award for Fiction.
Duong Thu Huong, A Novel Without a Name (1995). (Translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson.) Huong fought against both the United States and China. In A Novel Without a Name, she tells the story of a young platoon commander whose initial unquestioning patriotism has after ten years of war given way to doubt and regret. Huong was booted from the Vietnamese Communist Party for her writings, and A Novel Without a Name is banned in Vietnam.
Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (2009). In 1968, Marlantes put his Rhodes Scholarship on hold to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corp, so he writes from experience. A group of Marines fight their way through the jungles of Vietnam, looking to take and then retake an outpost at the top of a steep mountain. They discover that the North Vietnamese are not their only enemy. Don’t expect to get through Matterhorn quickly. It runs 600 pages.
Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam (1993). (Translated by Phan Thanh Hao.) Ninh, a North Vietnamese veteran, telegraphs the theme of his novel in the title. The war has ended and the protagonist, Kien, is part of a detail that recovers the bodies of dead soldiers. The task triggers a flood of bad memories as the tale skips between past and present. The Vietnamese Communist Party banned the book because of its unflattering recitation of the war’s brutality. Western critics have likened it to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. High praise indeed.
Tim O’Brien, Going After Cacciato (1978). A soldier in Vietnam abandons his post to walk to Paris to attend the peace talks. His commander goes after him in what becomes a surreal journey. The New York Times’s reviewer wrote: “To call Going After Cacciato a novel about war is like calling Moby-Dick a novel about whales.” The novel won the 1979 National Book Award for Fiction.
Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (1990). O’Brien draws on his own war experiences in this collection of inter-linked short stories that the New York Times Book Review said belonged on “the short list of essential fiction about Vietnam.” The Things They Carried won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Tatjana Solis, The Lotus Eaters (2010). Helen Adams has made her career in Vietnam in the male-dominated world of photojournalism. She has come to love the country, the war, and two very different men. Janet Maslin of the New York Times called The Lotus Eaters “a dazzling debut novel . . . . mesmerizing.”
Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers (1974). A journalist in Vietnam hopes to profit from a drug deal, but things don’t go according to plan. Dog Soldiers won the 1975 National Book Award for Fiction, the first Vietnam War novel to do so. But it wasn’t the last.
James Webb, Fields of Fire (1978). Three soldiers from very different backgrounds find that the trials of war bring them together in ways they thought impossible. Webb, as you probably know, went on to write a few other books and still find the time to become aU.S. senator. If the rumors prove true and he runs for president in 2016, Fields of Fire may become required reading for the press corps
Sunday marks fifty years since the first U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam. To mark the anniversary, I am doing a series of posts listing my picks for the best histories, memoirs, novels, movies, photos, and songs about the war. Today my focus is on movies. There certainly have been a lot of them. To simplify things, I only considered English-language films produced for theatrical release. Nothing against foreign-language films or made-for-TV movies. I just can’t say that I have seen enough of either to pick the best. With that caveat out of the way, here are my top ten picks:
Apocalypse Now (1979). Apocalypse Now is Academy Award–winning director Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s chilling novel Heart of Darkness, so it’s not so much about the Vietnam War as it is set against its backdrop. But it belongs on this list because so many scenes in the movie are unforgettable and the cast reads like an acting hall of fame: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, Scott Glenn, Dennis Hopper, and Harrison Ford, among others.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989).Tom Cruise plays the role of Ron Kovic, a real-life Marine who was paralyzed by a combat injury in Vietnam. He returned home to an indifferent country, eventually putting his bitterness aside to become a leading anti-war activist. The scenes of Kovic coming to grips with his paralysis are hard to forget.
Coming Home (1978). Coming Home is an unusual love triangle: a woman whose husband is serving in the Marine Corps in Vietnam falls in love with a high-school classmate who has been left paralyzed by his combat injuries. It won three Academy Awards, including for Best Actor (John Voight) and Best Actress (Jane Fonda). It might have won Best Picture as well if not for the next film on the list.
The Deer Hunter (1978). The Deer Hunter won five academy awards, including for Best Picture and Best Director (Michael Cimino). It tells the story of Pennsylvania steel workers and their friends and families who lives are forever changed by the war. Contrary to what The Deer Hunter would have you believe, Russian roulette was not a feature of life in Vietnam. But when you have a hall-of-fame cast with the likes of Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep, it’s easy to overlook implausible plot points.
Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003). Erroll Morris won the Academy Award for Best Documentary with Fog of War, which is built around an interview with Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who was still grappling with his role in the Vietnam War.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) Full Metal Jacket operates more like two separate films. The first is a harrowing exploration of the rigors of boot camp on Parris Island. The second is a tale of a marine who gets his wish at the Battle of Hue to see combat. The great Stanley Kubrick directed.
Hamburger Hill (1987). Hamburger Hill tells the story of one of the most brutal battles of the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army’s ten-day effort in May 1969 to take Hill 937 in the A Shau Valley, one mile east of the border with Laos. The U.S. losses were steep given the hill’s minor significance—nearly one hundred Americans dead and four times as many wounded. Eight days after taking the hill, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces abandoned it.
Hearts and Minds (1974). Take your pick: Hearts and Minds is either an “epic documentary” or thinly disguised anti-American propaganda. Based on interviews with a range of U.S. government officials and interspersed with clips from the war, it makes no bones about its anti-war bent. Hearts and Minds won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, but four decades on the debate continues over whether it shows the genre at its best or its worst.
Platoon (1986). Platoon won four Academy Awards, including for Best Picture and Best Director (Oliver Stone). It tells the story of a young Army private fresh to the war who joins a battle-hardened platoon that’s split in its loyalties between two sergeants. You don’t need to have taken a film class to recognize that one sergeant represents good and the other evil. What Platoon lacks in subtlety it more than makes up in its ability to convey the stress of combat.
The Hanoi Hilton (1987). The settings for most war movies are the battlefield or the home front. The Hanoi Hilton instead explores the brutality that U.S. prisoners of war suffered at the infamous Hoa Lo Prison. The villains are one-dimensional, but overall, The Hanoi Hilton provides a powerful reminder of the human ability to prevail over adversity.
As I mentioned above, a lot of films have been made about the Vietnam War. So if you don’t see one of your favorites listed here, please mention it in the comments below.
Next Sunday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of the first American combat troops in Vietnam. It wasn’t a decision that President Lyndon Johnson had planned on making. True, the previous August had seen the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which prompted a near unanimous Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution supporting Johnson’s determination ”to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression. But three months later Johnson was still insisting: “We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
What changed Johnson’s mind was Viet Cong attacks on U.S. military advisors in South Vietnam in February 1965. He decided to retaliate by launching Operation Rolling Thunder, an air war on North Vietnam that would last until 1968. With large numbers of U.S. aircraft and personnel on the ground in South Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command in the country, wanted the protection of U.S. combat troops. On March 8, 1965, two Marine battalions landed on the beach near the U.S. air base at Da Nang. They were welcomed by Vietnamese girls handing out leis.
Johnson was confident the United States would prevail. In April 1965 he told the nation: “We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement.” He was wrong. Although he didn’t know it at the time, he had set in motion a war that would destroy his presidency, divide the country, and reshape American foreign policy for a generation.
All this week, I will be marking the fiftieth anniversary of those Marines going ashore at Da Nang by posting my favorite Vietnam War books, memoirs, novels, movies, photos, and songs. To start off, here are a baker’s dozen of the best histories of the Vietnam War:
Rick Atkinson, The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966 (1989). Atkinson, at the time a Washington Post reporter, recounts the experiences of the West Point class of 1966 over a quarter century. By telling the story of their training as cadets, their years in Vietnam, and what they experienced when they returned (for those who did) from the battlefield, Atkinson paints a vivid portrait of the consequences that Vietnam had not just on individual soldiers but also on the U.S. Army.
Bernard Fall, Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (1966). President Johnson wasn’t the first Western leader confident his country could suppress insurgents in Vietnam. The French took on the same task fifteen years earlier and met an ignominious end at the battle for Dien Bien Phu. Fall, an acclaimed war correspondent, tells the story of the French forces who fell to the Viet Minh. Fall, who also wrote Street Without Joy about the French experience in Indochina, was killed in 1967 by a mine planted on the very street he used as a book title.
Frances FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam(1972). FitzGerald won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award by highlighting American misconceptions about Vietnam and arguing that the U.S. intervention was doomed from the start. The National Review described Fire in the Lake as “gospel for the anti-war movement.”
David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972). Halberstam, a New York Timescorrespondent who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Vietnam, gave the English language a new catchphrase with his portrayal of how America’s “best and brightest” got it wrong in Vietnam. The book paints a picture of hubris and self-deception as policymakers refused to learn from the past and produced an epic disaster that split a nation.
George Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam 1950-1975(2001). Herring, a professor of history at the University of Kentucky, provides a concise yet thorough history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He traces the military, diplomatic, and political factors behind the Vietnam War and America’s failure to win it.
Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History(1983). Karnow draws on his experience covering the war for Time, the Washington Post, and NBC News to provide what may be the most comprehensive history thus far written of the war. PBS produced an Emmy-winning television series, Vietnam: A Television History, to accompany the book’s release.
Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., The Army and Vietnam (1988). Krepinevich argues that the U.S. Army was grossly unprepared to fight the enemy it encountered in Vietnam. Intent on using the warfighting methods they had honed in Europe in World War II, U.S. generals stubbornly failed to change their tactics to defeat a different kind of enemy.
Fredrik Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (2012). Logevall won the Pulitzer Prize for history with his magisterial telling of the backstory to America’s war in Vietnam. He begins in 1919 with the Paris Peace Conference’s rejection of Ho Chi Minh’s petition for Vietnam’s independence and ends in 1959 with a Viet Cong raid that killed Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand of Copperas Cove, Texas and Major Dale Buis of Imperial Beach, California. Theirs are the first two names listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam (1997). McMaster’s argument is straightforward: “The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, DC.” While McMaster faults President Johnson and his advisors, he has equally sharp things to say about the willingness of senior military leaders to go along with a deeply flawed policy.
Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once….And Young: Ia Drang—the Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam (1992). Moore, then a colonel in the army, and Galloway, a reporter on the ground in Vietnam, vividly reconstruct the bloody fighting they both witnessed at Battle of Ia Drang Valley, the first major battle of the war. The heavy casualties that U.S. forces suffered there led Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to write a secret memo to President Johnson predicting that the U.S. casualty rate in Vietnam was about to increase sharply and that the dispatch of more troops “will not guarantee success.”
Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam(1988). Sheehan, who covered the Vietnam War for the New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for chronicling the unusual story of John Paul Vann. Vann retired from the army in 1963 after failing to persuade his superiors to change U.S. strategy in South Vietnam, only to return to the country two years later as a civilian U.S. official. He eventually accumulated enough power and respect that he effectively became a “civilian general.” Vann died in 1972 in a helicopter crash shortly after helping lead South Vietnamese forces to victory at the Battle of Kontum
Harry G. Summers, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1982). Summers, a U.S. army colonel who fought in Vietnam, applies the insights of Germany strategist Claus von Clausewitz to analyze why the United States failed in Vietnam. He contends that the United States erred in targeting the Viet Cong rather than the real enemy, the North Vietnamese Army.
Robert Timberg, The Nightingale’s Song (1998). Timberg, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who was badly wounded in Vietnam and eventually became a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, tells the story of five of his fellow Naval Academy graduates: John McCain, Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Oliver North, John Poindexter, and Jim Webb. The result is a fascinating look at the consequences the Vietnam War had not just on the men who fought it, but also on American society and politics.
These thirteen books are by no means the only Vietnam histories worth reading. Many, many books and articles have been written on the topic. If you don’t see one of your favorites listed here, please mention it in the comments below.
Yesterday, I posted my picks for the best histories of the Vietnam War. While those books all provide excellent analyses of the war, another way to understand U.S. involvement in Vietnam is through the personal stories of those who lived it, whether on the battlefields or in the halls of power back in Washington. Here are my picks for the ten best memoirs of the Vietnam War:
Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War (1977). Caputo was a young U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant who landed on the beach near Da Nang on March 8, 1965 as part of the first U.S. combat unit to serve in South Vietnam. He spent two years in the country, and in A Rumor of War he explains “the things men do in war and the things war does to men.”
Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers(2002). Ellsberg explains why he leaked the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam commissioned at the request of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The publication of the papers led the U.S. Supreme Court to hand down an historic ruling on the First Amendment and provided ample evidence that the Johnson administration had misled the American public on the course of the Vietnam War.
Michael Herr, Dispatches (1977). Herr draws on his experiences covering Vietnam for Esquire to paint a picture of a futile war that left men looking for ways to combat their fear and hopelessness. Time magazine named Dispatches one of the one hundred best non-fiction books of all-time. Herr co-wrote the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket, one of the great movies about the Vietnam War.
Henry Kissinger, The White House Years (1979), Years of Upheaval (1982), and Years of Renewal (1999). Kissinger’s three-volume memoir covers far more than events in Vietnam. But his recounting of his time first as national security advisor and then as secretary of state is essential for understanding the strategy the Nixon administration pursued in trying to achieve “peace with honor.”
Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like to Go to War (2011). In 1968, Marlantes gave up his Rhodes Scholarship to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. He wrote What It Is Like to Go to War “primarily to come to terms with my own experience of combat.” The New Yorker named it one of its favorite books for 2011.
Robert S. McNamara (with Brian VanDeMark), In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995). As secretary of defense, McNamara had a greater impact on America’s entry into the Vietnam War than any U.S. official other than President Lyndon Johnson. In Retrospect is his attempt to explain what we can learn from the mistakes of the Vietnam War. His confession of his own errors hardly satisfied his critics, of which there are many.
Wallace Terry, Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History(1984). Terry covered the Vietnam War for Time magazine. But Bloods isn’t his story. It is instead an oral history of twenty black men who served in the Vietnam, shining light on the particular challenges black soldiers and marines faced during the war.
William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports(1976). Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, argues that the war was lost, not because of his failures, but because Washington failed to give him the resources he needed. The New York Times wrote that A Soldier Reports “does not explore the moral aspects of the war and displays virtually no understanding of the struggle as seen from the United States. But therein lies much of the book’s value; this is the view from inside the whale.”
Tobias Wolff, In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War(1994). Wolff joined the U.S. Army at the age of 19 and was sent to Vietnam. Unlike most war memoirs, his does not recount harrowing experiences on the battlefield. His time in South Vietnam was surprisingly uneventful.
Elmo Zumwalt Jr. and Elmo Zumwalt III, My Father, My Son(1986). As Chief of Naval Operations in the early 1970s, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. ordered the use of Agent Orange, a defoliant, to clear river banks in the Mekong Delta. A decade later, his son, Elmo Zumwalt III, who patrolled the delta’s rivers as a young lieutenant, contracted cancer, in all likelihood because of his exposure to Agent Orange. The admiral and his son, who died in 1988 at the age of forty-two, tell their story in My Father, My Son.
These ten books are by no means the only Vietnam memoirs worth reading. I could easily suggest another ten great memoirs. Plus, there are memoirs like those of President Johnson (Vantage Point, 1971) and President Richard Nixon (The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, 1978) that aren’t devoted to Vietnam but have a lot to say about the war. So if you don’t see one of your favorites listed here, please mention it in the comments below.
Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.