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.