Even after two decades, the memory of the Vietnam War seems to haunt our culture. From Forrest Gump to Miss Saigon, from Tim O'Brien's Pulitzer Prize-winning Going After Cacciato to Robert McNamara's controversial memoir In Retrospect, Americans are drawn again and again to ponder our long, tragic involvement in Southeast Asia. Now eminent historian Robert D. Schulzinger has combed the newly available documentary evidence, both in public and private archives, to produce an ambitious, masterful account of three decades of war in Vietnam--the first major full-length history of the conflict to be based on primary sources.
In A Time for War, Schulzinger paints a vast yet intricate canvas of more than three decades of conflict in Vietnam, from the first rumblings of rebellion against the French colonialists to the American intervention and eventual withdrawal. His comprehensive narrative incorporates every aspect of the war--from the military (as seen in his brisk account of the French failure at Dienbienphu) to the economic (such as the wage increase sparked by the draft in the United States) to the political. Drawing on massive research, he offers a vivid and insightful portrait of the changes in Vietnamese politics and society, from the rise of Ho Chi Minh, to the division of the country, to the struggles between South Vietnamese president Diem and heavily armed religious sects, to the infighting and corruption that plagued Saigon. Schulzinger reveals precisely how outside powers--first the French, then the Americans--committed themselves to war in Indochina, even against their own better judgment. Roosevelt, for example, derided the French efforts to reassert their colonial control after World War II, yet Truman, Eisenhower, and their advisers gradually came to believe that Vietnam was central to American interests. The author's account of Johnson is particularly telling and tragic, describing how president would voice clear headed, even prescient warnings about the dangers of intervention--then change his mind, committing America's prestige and military might to supporting a corrupt, unpopular regime. Schulzinger offers sharp criticism of the American military effort, and offers a fascinating look inside the Nixon White House, showing how the Republican president dragged out the war long past the point when he realized that the United States could not win. Finally, Schulzinger paints a brilliant political and social portrait of the times, illuminating the impact of the war on the lives of ordinary Americans and Vietnamese. Schulzinger shows what it was like to participate in the war--as a common soldier, an American nurse, a navy flyer, a conscript in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, a Vietcong fighter, or an antiwar protester.
In a field crowded with fiction, memoirs, and popular tracts, A Time for War will stand as the landmark history of America's longest war. Based on extensive archival research, it will be the first place readers will turn in an effort to understand this tragic, divisive conflict.
Schulzinger, a history professor at the University of Colorado, is trying to cover well-trod ground in a new way. He is competing against hundreds of books about the military, political, economic and social aspects of the Vietnam War, some of which are narrowly focused on just one aspect or on one policymaker; most of which view the war from the U.S. perspective only. Schulzinger, in about 400 pages, attempts to examine all the aspects, the psychologies of numerous policy-makers, and the perspectives of several nations. For readers who desire a relatively brief overview of all that and have not previously cracked a history of the Vietnam War, Schulzinger's book will be a wise choice. But his attempt at comprehensiveness in one manageable volume may make the book unattractive to readers already familiar with some aspects of how the war was conducted. That is because each chapter suffers from the kind of superficiality that often accompanies popularization. Schulzinger says he has incorporated the most recently available unpublished material from repositories in European nations, Canada and the United States. That may be true, but it is difficult to tell from his text or from his endnotes what is indeed new. Most of the sourcing, while solid, is not fresh, and in any case, the preponderance of the interpretations and conclusions are based on secondary sources. Schulzinger is working on a second volume, starting with the mid-1970s, intended to explain the war's contemporary legacies in Vietnam and the United States.