Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter
Marilyn B. Young. The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990
New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Reviewed by Dan Scripture, Viet Nam Generation Book Review Editor
This history will undoubtedly find a place in college courses concerning the Vietnam War. It is a good book, an accessible book, in its politics a fundamentally progressive history. The title is accurate but mildly misleading: to most historians these days, there are three wars, referred to as the first, second, and third Indochina Wars, or the French, American, and Chinese Wars, respectively. Young's history is concerned mostly with the first two of these wars, and their relationship to American foreign policy. She deals much more briefly, although capably, with the short but important war with China in 1979, and with the post-American War period in general.
The text is thus largely a carefully documented and organized narrative of American policy toward Viet Nam since near the end of WWII. Young locates the War in the context of the continuing global project of the United States, what she calls in her preface "the enterprise of reorganizing the post-World War II world according to the principles of liberal capitalism." It is to Young's great credit that she does not lose sight of this larger framework, since, as she points out in the same preface, that although she discusses the various possible responses to the original question, "Why are we in Vietnam?" she has "interpreted the 'why' as 'how,'" and "come to believe that in the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly progress of the war lay many of its most decisive reasons and irrationalities." This interpretation is, of course, a normal step for an historian, but as it leads into the careful examination of the everydayness of politics, diplomacy, and war, it is also the step where the less knowledgeable and less experienced often find themselves lost. For this reason especially the book will make a good text for undergraduates, although there are other strengths: it is well-written, well-edited, and well-produced. It is documented carefully and clearly, and has an excellent index. Unfortunately the bibliography, though extensive, lists only those works consulted but not referred to in the notes, and is hence titled "Additional Bibliography." The practice is becoming normal, but is unhandy, especially for students. The book has a collection of illustrations and photographs from unusually diverse sources: combat photography from the NLF perspective, for instance. Major actors and their writings, other historians and their writings, are introduced directly into the text in ways that help students to follow up certain lines of investigation and thought, at the same time helping them get a sense of the principal actors and many of the principal scholars. The text is a true narrative history nonetheless, never descending into tendentious scholarly argument of the kind that is opaque to students, however much it may exhilarate professionals.
The major weakness of this book is the brevity of the treatment of the 1975-1990 period, mentioned above. The main outline is there, to be sure, but more on the internal and external politics and struggles, still ongoing, of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam would have been helpful. There is not much in this chapter (covering 15 years, versus eleven chapters for the previous 19 years) that would help one to understand the reason behind the continuing flow of refugees from Viet Nam, its enormous military establishment (one of the sixth or seventh largest in the world, until very recently), the reason for its abject poverty and economic difficulties, or the long -maintained "re-education camps." Nor is there much that helps one understand why Viet Nam dominates its neighbors, Cambodia and Laos, especially Laos, or why, as the newspapers reported recently, Viet Nam and China are negotiating privately about a settlement in Cambodia, one that, if made, would pre-empt a UN settlement, if China uses its veto in the Security Council.
Also, there are two other problems; however, neither of them are attributable to Young alone. First, a seemingly minor one, but one which I believe is a good symbol of Western ethnocentrism: Vietnamese words and names are spelled without diacritics. This is the equivalent of leaving a vowel or two from every English word printed in the book; this practice is irritating and distracting to readers of Vietnamese, like me. It is clearly ethnocentric, and perhaps racist, since the diacritics are supplied for the French. Back in the days of the linotype machine, there was perhaps an excuse, but with computerized typesetting, this practice is inexcusable and unacceptable, especially from a major textbook publisher. Lady Borton's Sensing the Enemy: An American Woman Among the Boat People of Vietnam was published with diacritics by Dial/Doubleday in 1984. After all, there are probably now more native speakers of Vietnamese than of French in the United States, and there are certainly more speakers of Vietnamese in Viet Nam than there are speakers of French in France, just as there always have been. Vietnamese is not a minor, obscure language.
The major weakness of the The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990 is one it shares with nearly all other books in English in the field, although it is less vulnerable than others to the following criticism: it is a history of Western involvement in Viet Nam. Its scope and perspective is Western, and primarily American. Young is clearly aware of and knowledgeable about the Vietnamese perspectives: there are many well-chosen Vietnamese sources and voices in her text, and in her Acknowledgements she reveals that she co-teaches a course on the history of Viet Nam in which the American war is only a chapter. There seems nothing to complain of in the scope and perspective of the book, until we reflect that American scholars write histories of many countries and many wars, setting the framework, historical scope, and perspective in ways appropriate to the country (or countries) concerned, rather than by the framework of American involvement. It is all rather like beginning a history of Great Britain with the American Revolution. So in effect I am complaining because Young did not write a different book, one I suspect she could, or even might be writing. This complaint is of course unfair, but somewhere there has to be a place to say that it is time again for some American scholar to write a political history of Viet Nam the country, not Vietnam the war. I have used Young's excellent book to point to a need, and I hope she will forgive me. The last substantial American history of Viet Nam was by Joseph Buttinger in 1968, and it remains useful and reliable, even though it is marred in a number of places by globalist Cold War politics in its later chapters. The problem is the general unwillingness and inability of Americans to imagine themselves into the historical perspective of others, especially Asians and this problem, it seems to me, is at the root of our involvement in Viet Nam. From the Vietnamese perspective, the American War can be seen as an anomalous ten-year distraction in a 2000-year on-and-off conflict with China, the permanent problem. For this reason, the Vietnamese still regard Americans as at least potential friends, and the American War as an expression of our interest in them, however ignorantly conceived and barbarously executed.
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