Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Vietnam War: Common Obstacles to Historical Understanding I

There are several obstacles to achieving an understanding of a particular historic event or era. The first obstacle I will discuss is the lack of you own knowledge about the specific event or time period.

Because that obstacle is relatively easy to overcome but often time-consuming one is tempted to take short-cuts. We have a tendency to read something and think that is “enough”. Too often we know only “enough” for an opinion but not “enough” for historical understanding or interpretation.

The best place to begin our journey toward understanding the Vietnam War is by reading one or more general surveys of the war. Here we are in luck. Recently there has been a boom in Vietnam War histories. Below are the most recent and frequently recommended general surveys of the Vietnam War.

The study of history reminds me of long distance running. I have been a runner most of my life but the first mile of every run is the most uncomfortable and far from enjoyable. However, once my body warms up the more relaxed I become, my breath becomes rhythmic, stride evens out, and running becomes enjoyable.

One of the reasons we strive for historical understanding is because understanding something is enjoyable. The more we know the more we understand and, again like running, the further we can go and have fun.

I recommend any one or two of the following books. They are all available in the local library or you can purchase a copy through distributors such as Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com. Ohio State University Professor Guilmartin’s book is available online.

Next time I will explore the difficulties of time and context.


Guilmartin, John Francis. America in Vietnam: The Fifteen Year War. http:/onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/lookupid?key=olbp 18445.

Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. 4th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Lawrence, Mark Atwood. The Vietnam War: A Concise International History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

McMahon, Robert J. The Limits of Power: The United States and Southeast Asia Since World War II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Schulzinger, Robert D. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam: 1941-1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Vietnam War

Forty years ago America withdrew all of its soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen (except for the contingent of United States Marines at the American embassy) from South Vietnam. For the United States Armed Forces the war was over. Two years later the war was also over for South Vietnam. They were invaded and conquered by North Vietnam. Within a year the new, unified Vietnam was renamed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

For forty years, Americans have struggled to come to some sort of individual if not collective understanding of what the Vietnam War meant. Discussions about the meaning of the Vietnam War have in various fora including public media; literature; art; works of history; political parties and focus groups; classrooms; churches; veterans associations; the family dinner; and over the back fence. Most discussions have generated as much contention as consensus.

Mark Lawrence in his recent survey, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (Oxford University Press, 2008) identified four questions scholars and the public have most frequently asked about the Vietnam War.

First, what were the motives of the Vietnamese who fought against South Vietnam and the United States sacrificing their lives beyond anything we could imagine?

Second, why did Vietnam, an area that seemed geographically and political insignificant, become so important to the world’s strongest nations? Why did powerful nations invest so much?

Third, why did the Vietnam War turn out the way it did? Why did we lose?

Fourth, what does it all mean? How has it influenced American history, society, and culture?

Those questions lead to more fundamental questions. What is the purpose of American foreign policy? What is the nature of American society? What is the meaning of the American historical experience? Who are we? How did we, of all people, get into this war and then lose it? In other words, we are asking the most important questions a nation can ask about itself. And we are not getting a clear answer.

In the next several posts for Clio Muses I will explore how important writers have answered these questions. I will discuss a large number of books, articles, movies, TV shows, and internet sources. I will show how those works are sorted into thematic groups and what those themes mean. I will also discuss some of the ways we can expand and enrich our own understanding of the Vietnam War.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Gettysburg, 1863

The Battle of Gettysburg, 1-3 July 1863. One hundred and fifty years ago the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia clashed at a farm village that was also an important road junction in southern Pennsylvania, a few miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line. While Gettysburg, the most famous Civil War battle, was a tactical success for the Union, it achieved no Union strategic aim. However, the day after Gettysburg, 4 July 1863, the Union achieved its greatest strategic success of the war when General Grant forced the Confederate Army to surrender the important city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Once the Confederacy lost Vicksburg it no longer could win the war. Had Lee been able to defeat the Army of the Potomac enough to keep that huge Union army north of the Potomac River, it is possible the South could have hung on until the election of 1864; an election Lincoln may have lost. The loss of Vicksburg, however, cut off wheat, corn, and horses from Texas destined for the Confederate armies; it opened the Mississippi River to Union traffic through New Orleans; and it opened a corridor through Tennessee which Grant used to take Chattanooga that opened the door for the fall of Atlanta. It was Sherman’s victory in 1864 that sealed the November election for Lincoln. Meanwhile, Lee could not contain the Army of the Potomac and General Johnson could not keep Sherman from moving north up the eastern coast. When the Confederate flag was lowered and the National Colors were raised over Vicksburg on Independence Day, 1863, the South had effectively lost the war.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Ohio Ewings in the 19th Century

I recommend an excellent book by Dr. Kenneth J. Heineman, Civil War Dynasty: The Ewing Family of Ohio (New York: New York University Press: New York) 2013. For anyone with an interest in Ohio history or politics, or Ohio’s important contribution to the Civil War, this well written and meticulously researched work will be a delight.

The book chronicles the politically important and powerful Ewing family from Lancaster, Ohio. Thomas Ewing, the family patriarch, practiced law in Lancaster, Ohio, served as a U. S. Senator, the Secretary of Treasury, and the first Secretary of the Interior. Thomas Ewing’s three sons, Thomas Jr., Charles, and Hugh (all born in Lancaster, Ohio), served in the Union Army finishing the war as generals with highly distinguished careers.

In 1829 Charles Sherman, a successful lawyer who sat on the Ohio Supreme Court and close friend of Thomas Ewing, died leaving his widow with 11 children and no inheritance. Thomas Ewing took in the 9-year old boy, William Tecumseh Sherman, raised him the Ewing household and helped get him an appointment at West Point. In 1850 William Tecumseh Sherman married Thomas Ewing’s daughter, Eleanor (“Ellen”).

Heineman describes in rich depth this important family who was influential in America’s most divisive and violent periods. All of my Buckeye friends will find this book fruitful and entertaining.

The author, Kenneth Heineman, grew up in and attended high school in Lancaster. He recalls his involvement with the Fairfield Heritage Association (FHA) and the Sherman House Museum in Lancaster where important influences that guided him into a career as a professional historian. While in high school he played the role of General Hugh Ewing in an FHA presentation at the Ohio State Fair. One cannot under estimate the importance of local history organizations.