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What is the translation of "essay" in Vietnamese?

"essay" in vietnamese, essay {noun}, translations, context sentences, english vietnamese contextual examples of "essay" in vietnamese.

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Translation of essay – English-Vietnamese dictionary

(Translation of essay from the PASSWORD English-Vietnamese Dictionary © 2015 K Dictionaries Ltd)

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bits and bobs

small things or jobs of different types

Shoots, blooms and blossom: talking about plants

Shoots, blooms and blossom: talking about plants

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Translation of "essay" into Vietnamese

bài luận, bài tiểu luận, luận are the top translations of "essay" into Vietnamese. Sample translated sentence: Your essay has some mistakes, but as a whole it is very good. ↔ Bài luận của bạn có vài lỗi, nhưng tổng thể thì làm rất tốt.

A written composition of moderate length exploring a particular issue or subject. [..]

English-Vietnamese dictionary

Your essay has some mistakes, but as a whole it is very good.

Bài luận của bạn có vài lỗi, nhưng tổng thể thì làm rất tốt.

bài tiểu luận

Her teacher was impressed and gave Anna the award for the most persuasive essay .

Giáo viên của em rất ấn tượng và đã trao tặng Anna phần thưởng cho bài tiểu luận thuyết phục nhất.

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  • sự làm cố gắng

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The vietnam war and american military strategy, 1965–1973.

  • Gregory A. Daddis Gregory A. Daddis Department of History, United States Military Academy West Point
  • Published online: 02 March 2015

For nearly a decade, American combat soldiers fought in South Vietnam to help sustain an independent, noncommunist nation in Southeast Asia. After U.S. troops departed in 1973, the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975 prompted a lasting search to explain the United States’ first lost war. Historians of the conflict and participants alike have since critiqued the ways in which civilian policymakers and uniformed leaders applied—some argued misapplied—military power that led to such an undesirable political outcome. While some claimed U.S. politicians failed to commit their nation’s full military might to a limited war, others contended that most officers fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the war they were fighting. Still others argued “winning” was essentially impossible given the true nature of a struggle over Vietnamese national identity in the postcolonial era. On their own, none of these arguments fully satisfy. Contemporary policymakers clearly understood the difficulties of waging a war in Southeast Asia against an enemy committed to national liberation. Yet the faith of these Americans in their power to resolve deep-seated local and regional sociopolitical problems eclipsed the possibility there might be limits to that power. By asking military strategists to simultaneously fight a war and build a nation, senior U.S. policymakers had asked too much of those crafting military strategy to deliver on overly ambitious political objectives. In the end, the Vietnam War exposed the limits of what American military power could achieve in the Cold War era.

  • counterinsurgency
  • limited war
  • Vietnam War
  • Westmoreland


By mid-June 1951, the Korean War had settled into an uneasy, yet conspicuous stalemate. Having blunted North Korean and Chinese offensives that killed thousands of soldiers and civilians, the United Nations forces, now under command of General Matthew B. Ridgway, dug in as both sides agreed to open negotiations. Though the enemy had suffered heavily under the weight of allied ground and air power, Washington and its partners had little stomach to press northward. As the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff declared, the objective was to effect “an end to the fighting . . . and a return to the status quo.” 1 Thus, President Harry Truman’s decision in April to relieve General Douglas MacArthur—who in Ridgway’s words “envisaged no less than the global defeat of communism”—suggested that political limitations were now an intrinsic part of developing and implementing strategy in a time of war. Yet what was the purpose of war and strategy if not the complete destruction of enemy forces? In a time when men had “control of machines capable of laying a world to waste,” Ridgway believed escalation without restraint would lead to disaster. Civilian and military authorities had to set attainable goals and work closely in selecting the means to achieve them. 2

Ridgway’s admonitions forecast inherent problems in a Cold War period increasingly dubbed an era of “limited war.” In short, the very definition of wartime victory seemed in flux. An uncertain end to the fighting in Korea implied there were, in fact, substitutes to winning outright on the field of battle. Even if Korea demonstrated the successful application of communist containment, at least one student of strategy lamented that limited war connoted “a deliberate hobbling of tremendous power.” 3 A Manichean view of the Cold War, however, presented knotty problems for those seeking to confront seemingly expansion-minded communists without unintentionally escalating beyond some nuclear threshold. How could one fight a national war for survival against communism yet agree to negotiate an end to a stalemated war? Political scientist Robert Osgood, writing in 1957, judged there were few alternatives to contesting communists who themselves were limiting military force to “minimize the risk of precipitating total war.” For Osgood, the challenge was to think about contemporary war as more than simply a physical contest between opposing armies. “The problem of limited war is not just a problem of military strategy but is, more broadly, the problem of combining military power with diplomacy and with the economic and psychological instruments of power within a coherent national strategy that is capable of supporting the United States’ political objectives abroad.” 4

If Osgood was correct in suggesting that war required more than just an application of military power, then strategy—as a problem to be solved—entailed more than just battlefield expertise. Thus, the post–World War II generation of U.S. Army officers was forced to think about war more broadly. And they did. Far from being slaves to conventional operations, officers ascending the ranks in the 1950s to command in Vietnam understood the rising importance of local insurgency movements. As Andrew Birtle has persuasively argued, by 1965 the army had “succeeded in integrating counterinsurgency and counterguerrilla warfare in substantive ways into its doctrinal, educational, and training systems.” 5 An examination of contemporary professional journals such as Military Review reveals a military establishment wrestling with the problems of local economic and social development, the importance of community politics, and the role played by indigenous security forces. In truth, officers of the day, echoing the recommendations of Harvard professor Henry Kissinger, did not define limited wars in purely military terms. Rather, they perceived strategic problems as those involving changes in technologies, societies, and, perhaps most importantly, political ideas. 6

These same officers labored to devise a coherent strategy for a limited contest in Southeast Asia within the larger construct of the Cold War. In an important sense, the development of strategy for all combatants necessitated attention to multiple layers, all interlaced. As Lyndon Johnson recalled of Vietnam in his 1971 memoir, “It was a political war, an economic war, and a fighting war—all at the same time.” 7 Moreover, American political and military leaders found that Cold War calculations mattered just as much as the fighting inside South Vietnam. Fears of appearing weak against communism compelled the Johnson White House to escalate in 1965 when it looked like Hanoi was making its final bid for Indochinese domination. As Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara told a journalist in April, if the United States withdrew from Vietnam “there would be a complete shift of world power. Asia goes Red, our prestige and integrity damaged, allies everywhere shaken.” Thus, paraphrasing military theorist Basil Liddell Hart, policy imperatives at the level of grand strategy would set the foundations for—and later circumscribe—the application of military strategy on a lower plane. 8

Liddell Hart’s council that strategy involved more than “fighting power” would lead American officers in Vietnam into a near insolvable dilemma. Clearly, the civil war inside Vietnam was more than just a military problem. Yet in the quest to broaden their conception of war, to consider political and social issues as much as military ones, senior leaders developed a strategy that was so wide-ranging as to be unmanageable. Rather than a narrow focus on enemy attrition, sheer comprehensiveness proved to be a crucial factor undermining American strategy in Vietnam. In attempting to both destroy an adversary and build a nation, uniformed leaders overestimated their capacity to manage a conflict that had long preceded American involvement. A near unquestioning faith in the capacity to do everything overshadowed any unease with entanglement in a civil war rooted in competing notions of national liberation and identity. 9 In the end, senior U.S. policymakers had asked too much of those crafting military strategy to deliver on overly ambitious political objectives.

Devising Strategy for a New Kind of War

By June 1965, General William C. Westmoreland had been serving in the Republic of Vietnam for eighteen months. As the newly appointed commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), the former West Point superintendent was heir to a legacy of varied strategic initiatives aimed at sustaining an independent, noncommunist foothold in Southeast Asia. Since the division of Vietnam along the seventeenth parallel in 1954, an American military assistance and advisory group (MAAG) had been training local forces for a threat both externally military and internally political. 10 The image of North Korean forces streaming across an international boundary in 1950 surely weighed heavily on U.S. officers. Yet these same men understood the importance of a steady economy and secure social structure in combating the growing insurgent threat inside South Vietnam. Consequently, the U.S. advisory group focused on more than just advising the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) for conventional operations against the North Vietnam Army (NVA). 11

As advisers, however, the Americans could not dictate strategy to their Vietnamese allies. President Ngo Dinh Diem, struggling to gain popular support for his own social revolution, equally sought ways to secure the population—through programs like agrovilles and strategic hamlets—from a rising communist insurgency. Yet achieving consensus with (and between) Americans proved difficult. Staff officers debated how best to balance economic and political development with population security and the training of South Vietnamese forces. 12 Was the threat more military or political, more external or internal? Were local paramilitary forces or the conventional army better suited to dealing with these threats? All the while, a shadow government competed for influence within the countryside. When MACV was established in February 1962, its chief, Paul D. Harkins, received the mission to “assist and support the Government of South Vietnam in its efforts to provide for its internal security, defeat Communist insurgency, and resist overt aggression.” 13 Here was a tall order. Moreover, as military operations required a solid political footing for ultimate success, an unstable Saigon government further complicated American strategic planning. Following Diem’s overthrow and death in November 1963, the foundations on which the U.S. presence in South Vietnam rested appeared shaky at best. Hanoi’s own escalation in 1964 did little to assuage concern. 14

Though cognizant of the difficulties ahead, American leaders felt they had little choice but to persevere in South Vietnam. By early 1965, with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing him to “take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force” to assist South Vietnam, President Johnson believed he had little alternative but to escalate. He was in a difficult position. Hoping to preserve his domestic agenda but stand strong against communist aggression, Johnson initially hesitated on committing ground troops. Instead, he turned to airpower. Operation Rolling Thunder, launched in early March 1965, aimed at eliminating Hanoi’s support of the southern insurgency. Concurrently, Johnson hoped, in Michael Hunt’s words, to “bring a better life to the people of Vietnam—on American terms.” 15 The president would be disappointed on both counts. The punitive bombing of North Vietnam did little to interfere with Hanoi’s support of the insurgents and nothing to resolve the internal political problems of South Vietnam. Moreover, military leaders complained that the president’s gradual response, of limiting the tempo and ferocity of the air campaign, unduly limited American military might. (Few worried as restlessly as Johnson about full-blown Chinese or Soviet intervention.) By the spring, it became clear the president’s policies in South Vietnam were failing. In June, Westmoreland officially requested additional troops “as a stop-gap measure to save the ARVN from defeat.” 16

The decision to escalate in Vietnam persists as one of the most controversial in twentieth-century American foreign policy. Competing interpretations revolve around the question of purpose. Was escalation chosen as a matter of policy, of containing communism abroad? Was it used as a way to test American capacity in nation-building, of expanding democracy overseas? Or did escalation flow from concerns about prestige and credibility, both national and political? Clearly Johnson considered all these matters in the critical months of early 1965, and it is plausible to argue that the president believed he had few alternatives given reports of South Vietnam being on the verge of collapse. Yet ultimately intervention was a matter of choice. 17 Johnson feared the political ramifications and personal consequences of “losing” Vietnam just as Truman had “lost” China. Thus, when Westmoreland sent a cable to the Pentagon in early June requesting 40,000 combat troops immediately and more than 50,000 later, hasty deliberations in the White House led to support for MACV’s appeal. As McNamara later recalled, “South Vietnam seemed to be crumbling, with the only apparent antidote a massive injection of US troops.” 18

The task now fell to Westmoreland to devise an offensive strategy to use these troops. Realizing Hanoi had committed regular army regiments and battalions to South Vietnam, the MACV commander believed he had no choice but to contest this conventional threat. But he also had to provide security “from the guerrilla, the assassin, the terrorist and the informer.” 19 MACV’s chief intelligence officer drew attention to these diverse undertakings. As Phillip B. Davidson recalled, Westmoreland “had not one battle, but three to fight: first, to contain a growing enemy conventional threat; second, to develop the Republic of Vietnam’s Armed Forces (RVNAF); and third, to pacify and protect the peasants in the South Vietnamese countryside. Each was a monumental task.” 20 Far from being wedded to a battle-centric strategy aimed at racking up high body counts, Westmoreland developed a comprehensive campaign plan for employing his forces that factored in more than just killing the enemy.

Stabilization and security of South Vietnam formed the bedrock of Westmoreland’s “three-phase sustained campaign.” Phase I visualized the commitment of U.S. and allied forces “necessary to halt the losing trend by 1965.” Tasks included securing allied military bases, defending major political and population centers, and strengthening the RVNAF. In Phase II, Westmoreland sought to resume the offensive to “destroy enemy forces” and reinstitute “rural construction activities.” In this phase, aimed to begin in 1966, American forces would “participate in clearing, securing, reserve reaction and offensive operations as required to support and sustain the resumption of pacification.” Finally, in Phase III, MACV would oversee the “defeat and destruction of the remaining enemy forces and base areas.” It is important to note that Westmoreland’s plan included the term “sustained campaign.” 21 The general was under no illusions that U.S. forces were engaged in a war of annihilation aimed at the rapid destruction of the enemy. Attrition suggested that a stable South Vietnam, capable of resisting the military and political pressures of both internal and external aggressors, would not arise in a matter of months or even a few years.

Hanoi’s political and military leaders equally debated the strategic concerns of time, resources, and capabilities. Johnson’s decision to commit U.S. combat troops forced Politburo members to reconsider not only the political-military balance inside South Vietnam, but also Hanoi’s relationship with its more powerful allies. To be sure, national communists like Vo Nguyen Giap had discussed the role of a “long-term revolutionary war” strategy and the importance of political education in military training. 22 By 1965, however, the massive American buildup complicated strategic deliberations. In December, Hanoi’s leadership, increasingly under the sway of First Secretary Le Duan, promulgated Lao Dong Party Resolution 12, which outlined a basic strategy to defeat the Americans “under any circumstances.” The resolution placed greater emphasis on the military struggle as domestic priorities in the North receded into the background. As a result, Le Duan battled with senior military officials like Giap over the pace of military operations and the building of forces for a general offensive against the southern “puppets.” Escalation proved challenging for both sides. 23

The strategic decision making leading to American intervention in Vietnam illustrates the difficulties of developing and implementing strategy for a postcolonial conflict in the nuclear era. Even from Hanoi’s perspective, strategy was not a straightforward process. A sense of contingency, of choices, and of action and reaction permeate the critical years leading to 1965. Why Johnson chose war, and the restrictions he imposed on the conduct of that war, remain contentious questions. So too do inquiries into the nature of the threat that both Americans and their South Vietnamese allies faced. Finally, the relationship between political objectives and the strategy devised to accomplish those objectives offers valuable instruction to those researching the faith in, and limitations of, American power abroad during the Cold War. 24

From Escalation to Stalemate

In March 1965, the first contingent of U.S. Marines landed at Da Nang in Quang Nam province. Their mission, to defend American airbases supporting the bombing campaign against North Vietnam, called for setting up three defensive “enclaves” at Phu Bai, Da Nang, and Chu Lai. As the summer progressed and additional army units arrived in country, Westmoreland sought authorization to expand beyond his airfield security mission. If South Vietnam was to survive, the general needed to have “a substantial and hard-hitting offensive capability . . . with troops that could be maneuvered freely.” 25 With the growing recognition that Rolling Thunder was not achieving desired results, the Pentagon gave Westmoreland the green light. The MACV commander’s desires stemmed largely from his perception of the enemy. To the general, the greatest threat to South Vietnam came not from the National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency but rather from main force units, both NLF and NVA. Westmoreland appreciated the long-term threat insurgents posed to Saigon, but he worried that since the enemy had committed larger combat units to battle, he ignored them at his peril. 26

The Americans thus undertook offensive operations to provide a shield for the population, one behind which ARVN could promote pacification in the countryside. By early October, the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division had expanded its operations into the Central Highlands, hoping to defeat the enemy and reestablish governmental control in the NLF-dominated countryside. Hanoi, however, had continued its own buildup and three North Vietnam Army regiments had joined local forces in Pleiku province near the Cambodian border. In mid-November, the cavalry’s lead battalion, using new techniques of helicopter insertion onto the battlefield, collided with the NVA. For two days the battle raged. Only the employment of B-52 strategic bombers, called in for close air support, staved off defeat. The battle of Ia Drang clearly demonstrated the necessity of conventional operations—Westmoreland could not risk NVA regiments controlling the critical Highway 19 and thus cutting South Vietnam in two. But the clash raised important questions as well. Was Ia Drang an American victory? Would such battles truly impact Hanoi’s will? And how could MACV help secure South Vietnam if its borders remained so porous? 27

Despite the attention Ia Drang drew—Westmoreland publicly called it an “unprecedented victory”—revolutionary development and nonmilitary programs never strayed far from MACV’s sights. Westmoreland continued to stress psychological operations and civic action, even in the aftermath of Ia Drang. In December, he wrote the 1st Infantry Division’s commander detailing how the buildup of forces should allow for an increased emphasis on pacification: “I am inviting this matter to your personal attention since I feel that an effective rural construction program is essential to the success of our mission.” 28 Unfortunately, these early pacification efforts seemed to be making little progress as Hanoi continued infiltrating troops into South Vietnam and desertions from the South Vietnamese armed forces rose sharply. 29 Accordingly, Westmoreland requested an additional 41,500 troops. Further deployments might be necessary. The request staggered the secretary of defense, who now realized there would be no rapid conclusion to the war. “The U.S. presence rested on a bowl of jelly,” McNamara recalled. His doubts, however, were not forceful enough to derail the president’s commitment to a secure, stable, and noncommunist South Vietnam. 30

When American and South Vietnamese leaders met at Honolulu in early February 1966, Johnson publicly reaffirmed that commitment. While Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky and Chief of State Nguyen Van Thieu pledged a “social revolution” in Vietnam, Johnson urged an expansion of the “other war,” a term increasingly used to describe allied pacification efforts. 31 Concurrently, McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk defined Westmoreland’s goals for the coming year. MACV would increase the South Vietnamese population living in secure areas by 10 percent, multiply critical roads and railroads by 20 percent, and increase the destruction of NLF and NVA base areas by 30 percent. To make sure the president’s directives were not ignored, Westmoreland was to augment the pacified population by 235,000 and ensure the defense of political and population centers under government control. The final goal directed MACV to “attrite, by year’s end, VC/PAVN forces at a rate as high as their capability to put men in the field.” 32

The Honolulu conference is a critical episode for understanding American military strategy in Vietnam. The comprehensive list of strategic objectives presented by Rusk and McNamara forced American commanders to consider the war as an effort in both construction and destruction. The conference also reinforced the necessity of thinking about strategy in broader terms than simply battle. Attrition of enemy forces was only part of a much larger whole. In one sense, pacification of the countryside was a process of trying to create political space so the government of South Vietnam (GVN) could stabilize. (The New York Times reported in April that a “crisis in Saigon” was snagging U.S. efforts.) Yet MACV’s own definition of pacification—“the military, political, economic, and social process of establishing or re-establishing local government responsive to and involving the participation of the people”—seemed problematic. 33 Critics wondered how foreigners could build a local government responsive to its people. Furthermore, the expansive nature of pacification meant U.S. troops would be asked to fight an elusive enemy while implementing a whole host of nonmilitary programs. Thus, while Westmoreland and senior commanders emphasized the importance of winning both control over and support of the Vietnamese people, American soldiers wrestled with building a political community in a land long ravaged by war. That they themselves too often brought devastation to the countryside hardly furthered the goals of pacification. 34

In important ways, waging battle—a necessity given Le Duan’s commitment to a general offensive in South Vietnam—undermined U.S. nation-building efforts in 1966 and underscored the difficulties of coordinating so many strategic actors. This management problem long had been a concern of counterinsurgency theorists. British adviser Sir Robert Thompson, a veteran of the Malayan campaign, articulated the need to find a “proper balance between the military and the civil effort, with complete coordination in all fields. Otherwise a situation will arise in which military operations produce no lasting results because they are unsupported by civil follow-up action.” 35 The reality of South Vietnam bore out Thompson’s claims. Worried about Saigon’s political collapse, American war managers too often focused on short-term, military results. The decentralized nature of strategic implementation equally made it difficult to weave provincial franchises into a larger national effort. 36

This lack of coordination led to pressures for a “single-manager” to coordinate the increasingly vast American enterprise in South Vietnam. (By the end of 1966, more than 385,000 U.S. military personnel alone were serving in country.) In May, Westmoreland incorporated a new directorate into his headquarters—Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support. While ostensibly a South Vietnamese program, CORDS redefined the allied pacification mission. 37 The directorate’s head, Ambassador Robert W. Komer, threw himself into the management problem and assigned each senior U.S. military adviser a civilian deputy for revolutionary development. MACV now provided oversight for all of the allied pacification-related programs: “territorial security forces, the whole RD effort, care and resettlement of refugees, the Chieu Hoi (“Open Arms,” or amnesty) program to bring VC [Vietcong] to the GVN side, the police program, the attempts to stimulate rural economic revival, hamlet schools, and so on.” 38 In short, CORDS assumed full responsibility for pacification.

If CORDS could be viewed as a microcosm of Westmoreland’s comprehensive strategy, it also underscored the difficulties of implementing so many programs at once. Physically controlling the population did not guarantee allied forces were making inroads against the insurgency’s political infrastructure. Improved security conditions did not necessarily win civilian “hearts and minds.” Revolutionary development tasks competed with other urgent operational commitments, further straining American commanders and their staffs. More importantly, pacification required a deeper appreciation of Vietnamese culture than most Americans possessed. 39 Senior officers labored to balance the competing requirements of attacking enemy units and performing civic action in the hamlets and villages. On the ground, many American soldiers made few distinctions between friend and foe when operating in the countryside. The army’s personnel rotation policy, under which individual soldiers served for twelve months before returning home, only exacerbated these problems. With some units experiencing a 90 percent personnel turnover within a three-month period, the pacification process was erratic at best. 40

As 1967 wore on, American journalists increasingly used words like “stalemate” and “quagmire” to describe the war in Vietnam. Early-year operations like Cedar Falls and Junction City, though inflicting heavy damage on the enemy, failed to break Hanoi’s will. At most, pacification was yielding modest results. Political instability in Saigon continued to worry U.S. embassy officials. Both the White House and MACV thus found it ever more difficult to convince Americans at home that their sacrifices were generating results. 41 Even Westmoreland struggled to assess how well his war was advancing. Body counts told only a fraction of the story. A lack of fighting in a certain district could either mean the area was pacified or the enemy was in such control that battle was unnecessary. Two years into the war, American soldiers remained unsure of their progress. (MACV and the CIA even debated the number of soldiers within the enemy’s ranks.) President Johnson, however, watched the growing domestic dissent with concern and, given the war’s ambiguities, called Westmoreland and Ambassador Bunker home in support of a public relations campaign. In three appearances in 1967 MACV’s commander reported to national audiences his views on the ongoing war. Though guarded in his commentary, Westmoreland’s tone nonetheless was optimistic given the president’s desires to disprove claims of a stalemated war. 42

Hanoi’s political and military leaders similarly deliberated their own progress in 1967. Because of the American imperialists’ “aggressive nature,” the Politburo acknowledged the southern insurgency campaign had stalemated in the countryside. Still, to Le Duan in particular, an opportunity existed. A strategic offensive might break the impasse by instigating a popular uprising in the South, thus weakening the South Vietnamese–American alliance and forcing the enemy to the negotiating table. A southern uprising might well convince the international community that the United States was unjustly fighting against an internally led popular revolution. More importantly, a military defeat of the Americans, real or perceived, might change the political context of the entire conflict. 43

During the plan’s first phase, to be executed in late 1967, NVA units would conduct conventional operations along South Vietnam’s borders to draw American forces away from urban areas and to facilitate NLF infiltration into the cities. Le Duan planned the second phase for early 1968, a coordinated offensive by insurgent and regular forces to attack allied troops and support popular uprisings in the cities and surrounding areas. Additional NVA units would reinforce the uprising in the plan’s final phase by assaulting American forces and wearing down U.S. military strength in South Vietnam. 44

Though Le Duan’s desired popular uprising failed to materialize, the general offensive launched in late January 1968 shocked most Americans, especially those watching the war at home. Commencing during the Tet holiday, communist forces attacked more than 200 cities, towns, and villages across South Vietnam. Though not completely surprised, Westmoreland had not anticipated the ability of Hanoi to coordinate an offensive of such size and scope. The allies, however, reacted quickly and the communists suffered mightily under the weight of American and South Vietnamese firepower. Yet the damage to the U.S. position in Vietnam, some argued irreparable, had been done. Even in the offensive’s first hours, senior CIA analyst George Carver predicted that “the degree of success already achieved in Saigon and around the country will adversely affect the image of the GVN (and its powerful American allies as well) in the eyes of the people.” 45 Indeed, Tet had taken a heavy psychological toll on the population. After years of U.S. assistance, the Saigon government appeared incapable of securing the country against a large-scale enemy attack. Any claims of progress seemed artificial at best, intentionally deceitful at worst.

News reports about Westmoreland’s late-February request for an additional 206,000 men, followed soon after by the president’s decision not to run for reelection, only reinforced perceptions of stalemate. Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, who replaced McNamara in early March, wondered aloud how MACV was winning the war yet needed more troops. Public opinion mirrored growing doubts within Johnson’s inner circle. A 10 March Gallup poll found only 33 percent of Americans believed the United States was making progress in the war. Thus, Johnson approved only 10,500 additional troops for Westmoreland and in late March suspended all air attacks over North Vietnam in hopes of opening talks with Hanoi. If the 1968 Tet offensive was not an outright turning point of the war—many historians still consider it to be—Hanoi’s assault and Washington’s response brought about a shift in American policy and strategic goals. Westmoreland, hoping for a change in strategy that would expand operations into the Cambodian and Laotian sanctuaries and thus shorten the war, instead received word in late spring that he would be leaving Vietnam to become the Chief of Staff of the Army. The best the general had been able to achieve was a long and bloody stalemate. 46

Historians have seized upon the Tet offensive and mid-1968 impasse as proof of a misguided military strategy crafted by a narrow-minded general who cared only for piling up high body counts. Such arguments should be considered with care. Far from being focused only on military operations against enemy main force units, Westmoreland instead crafted a strategy that took into account the issues of pacification, civic action, land reform, and the training of South Vietnamese units. If Tet illustrated anything, it was that battlefield successes—both military and nonmilitary—did not translate automatically into larger political outcomes. Despite the wealth of manpower and resources Americans brought to South Vietnam, they could not solve Saigon’s underlying political, economic, and social problems. Moreover, Westmoreland’s military strategy could not answer the basic questions over which the war was fought. In a contest over Vietnamese national identity in the postcolonial era, the U.S. mission in South Vietnam could only keep Saigon from falling to the communists. It could not convince the people a better future lay with an ally, rather than an enemy, of the United States.

From Stalemate to Withdrawal

In June 1968, Creighton W. Abrams, a West Point classmate of Westmoreland, assumed command of MACV. Only a month before, the enemy launched a series of new attacks in South Vietnam. Dubbed “mini-Tet,” the offensive sputtered out quickly but produced 125,000 new refugees inside a society already heavily dislocated by years of fighting. Reporters were quick to highlight the differences between the outgoing and incoming commanders. But Abrams, in Andrew Birtle’s words, differed from Westmoreland “more in emphasis than in substance.” Stressing a “one war” concept that viewed the enemy as a political-military whole, the new commander confronted familiar problems. As one officer recalled, “By the time Abrams arrived on the scene, there were few options left for changing the character of the war.” 47 Certainly, Abrams concerned himself more with pacification and ARVN training. These programs rose in importance, though, not because of some new strategic concept, but rather because the American phase of the war had largely run its course. From this point forward, the war’s outcome would increasingly rest on the actions of the Vietnamese, both North and South. While U.S. officials remained committed to an independent, noncommunist Vietnam, peace had replaced military victory as Americans’ principal national objective. 48

The inauguration of Richard M. Nixon in January 1969 underscored the diminishing role of South Vietnam in American foreign policy. The new president hoped to concentrate on his larger aim of improving relations with China and the Soviet Union. Such foreign policy designs hinged on reversing the “Americanization” of the war in Southeast Asia while fortifying South Vietnam to withstand future communist aggression. As Nixon’s national security advisor Henry Kissinger recalled, the challenge was to withdraw American forces “as an expression of policy and not as a collapse.” 49 Of course, Nixon, still the Cold War warrior, remained committed to opposing the expansion of communism. Withdrawal from Vietnam thus required maintaining an image of strength during peace negotiations if the United States was to retain credibility as a world power and a deterrent to communist expansion. Nixon’s goal of “peace with honor” thus would hold crucial implications for military strategists inside Vietnam. 50

In truth, Nixon’s larger policy goals complicated the process of de-Americanizing the war, soon dubbed “Vietnamization” by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird. In shifting more of the war’s burden to the South Vietnamese, the president was quietly redefining success. Realizing, in Nixon’s words, that “total military victory was no longer possible,” the new administration sought a “fair negotiated settlement that would preserve the independence of South Vietnam.” 51 (Both Nixon and Laird believed flagging domestic support was limiting their options, long a concern of senior policymakers.) Abrams would preside over an American war effort increasingly concerned with reducing casualties while arranging for U.S. troop withdrawals. Moreover, the impending American departure did little to settle unresolved questions over the most pressing threat to South Vietnam. In preparing to hand over the war, should Americans be training the ARVN to defeat conventional North Vietnamese forces or a battered yet resilient insurgency? 52

After a detailed examination of the war led by Kissinger, Nixon formulated a five-point strategy “to end the war and win the peace.” The new policy depended first on pacification, redefined as “meaningful continuing security for the Vietnamese people.” Nixon also sought diplomatic isolation of North Vietnam and placed increasing weight on negotiations in Paris. Gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces was the fourth aspect of Nixon’s strategy. As the president recalled, “Americans needed tangible evidence that we were winding down the war, and the South Vietnamese needed to be given more responsibility for their defense.” (Some ARVN officers balked at the insinuation that they hadn’t been responsible for their nation’s security.) The final element, Vietnamization, aimed at training and equipping South Vietnam’s armed forces so they could defend the country on their own. Of note, political reform in Saigon, largely a task for Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, accompanied the military side of Vietnamization. “Our whole strategy,” Nixon declared, “depended on whether this program succeeded.” 53

For Abrams, the problem now became one of synchronizing all facets of his “one war” approach. Back in August 1968, MACV had to fend off another enemy offensive, the third of the year. Without retreating from the conventional threat, Abrams turned increasing attention to pacification. Under the influence of the new CORDS chief William Colby, the GVN initiated an Accelerated Pacification Campaign at year’s end. The campaign endeavored to upgrade 1,000 contested hamlets to relatively secure ratings by the end of January 1969. To provide political space for the Saigon government, U.S. military operations increased dramatically to keep the enemy off balance, further depopulating the countryside and creating more refugees. 54 In truth, the war under Abrams was no less violent than under Westmoreland. Still, the new MACV chief hoped to cut into the NLF infrastructure by boosting the number of those who would rally to Saigon’s side under the Chieu Hoi amnesty program, reinvigorating local defense forces, and neutralizing the insurgency’s political cadre. 55 This last goal fell largely to “Phoenix,” an intelligence coordination program that targeted the NLF political organization for destruction by police and local militia forces. MACV believed the defeat of the enemy infrastructure “essential to preclude re-establishment of an operational or support base to which the VC can return.” 56

While media attention often focused on battles like the costly engagement at “Hamburger Hill” in May 1969, conventional combat operations overshadowed MACV’s larger efforts to improve and modernize South Vietnam’s armed forces. For Abrams, any successful American withdrawal was predicated on improvements in this key area of Vietnamization. In the field, U.S. advisers trained their counterparts on small-unit patrolling and coordinating artillery support with infantry and armor operations. In garrison, the Americans concentrated on improving the ARVN promotion system and building an effective maintenance program. Moreover, ARVN leadership and morale needed attention to help reduce desertion rates. So too did intelligence, logistic, and operational planning programs. Abrams also had to propose an optimal force structure and help develop an operational approach best suited to ARVN capabilities. 57

Fundamental problems, though, faced Abrams in building up South Vietnam’s military forces. After Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam’s president since the September 1967 election, announced a national mobilization in mid-1968, the size of the regular army and popular and regional forces increased substantially. In two years, the total armed forces grew by 40 percent. Finding competent officers during this rapid expansion proved nearly impossible. Additionally, capable ARVN leaders, of which there were many, too often found themselves and their units still relegated to secondary roles during allied maneuvers. 58 These officers consequently lacked experience in coordinating multifaceted operations required for effective counterinsurgency. Problems within the enlisted ranks rivaled those among ARVN’s leadership. Newsweek offered a harsh appraisal of the typical South Vietnamese trooper who was “often dragooned into an army where he is poorly trained, badly paid, insufficiently indoctrinated about why he is fighting—and, for the most part, led by incompetent officers.” 59 Simply increasing the number of soldiers and supplying them with better weapons would not achieve the larger goals of Vietnamization.

Moreover, the ultimate success of Vietnamization depended on resolving perennial problems. Hanoi continued to send men and material into South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. North Vietnamese units still found refuge in sanctuaries along the Cambodian and Laotian borders. Thus, expanding the war into Cambodia offered an opportunity to give the GVN the breathing space it needed. From his first day in office, Nixon sought to “quarantine” Cambodia. (Hanoi had taken advantage of the nominally neutral country by building base areas from which NVA units could infiltrate into South Vietnam.) To Nixon and Kissinger, improvements in ARVN readiness and pacification mattered only if South Vietnam’s borders were secure. On April 30, 1970, the president announced that U.S. troops were fighting in Cambodia. By expanding the war, Nixon was hoping to shorten it. While officials in Saigon and Washington heralded the operation’s accomplishments—Nixon stated that the “performance of the ARVN had demonstrated that Vietnamization was working”—the incursion into Cambodia left a mixed record. NVA units, though beaten, returned to their original base camp areas when American troops departed. By early June, the allies had searched only 5 percent of the 7,000 square miles of borderland despite having aimed to disrupt the enemy’s logistical bases. Additionally, the ARVN’s reliance on American firepower did not augur well for a future without U.S. air and artillery backing. 60

Worse, the Cambodian incursion set off a firestorm of political protest at home. After Ohio National Guardsmen fired into a demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, leaving four students dead, a wave of antiwar rallies swept the nation, closing nearly 450 colleges and universities. Less than four months earlier, the New York Times reported on the My Lai massacre. In March 1968, with the Tet offensive still raging, American soldiers on a search and destroy mission had summarily executed more than 300 unarmed civilians. Claims of civilian casualties prompted an informal inquiry, but army investigators covered up the story for nearly eighteen months. 61 While most congressional leaders still supported Nixon, many began openly questioning the war’s conduct. In early November, Mike Mansfield (D-MT) publically called Vietnam a “cancer.” “It’s a tragedy,” argued the Montana senator. “It’s eating out the heart of America. It’s doing us no good.” Senator George McGovern (D-SD) joined the chorus of dissenters, imploring Nixon to “stop our participation in the horrible destruction of this tiny country and its people.” The loss of support incensed the president. Nixon insisted that the pace of Vietnamization, not the level of dissent, determine U.S. troop withdrawals. Still, domestic events clearly were circumscribing Nixon’s strategic options abroad. 62

The discord at home seemed matched by discontent within the ranks of U.S. troops remaining in South Vietnam. Though contemporary views of a disintegrating army now appear overblown, clearly the strategic withdrawal was taking its toll on American soldiers. By early 1970, with the first units already departed Vietnam and more scheduled to leave, officers worried how the withdrawal was affecting their soldiers’ capacity to fight. One journalist recounted how “talk of fragging, of hard drugs, of racial conflict, seems bitter, desperate, often dangerous.” 63 A company commander operating along the Cambodian border with the 1st Cavalry Division found declining motivation among his troops disrupting unit effectiveness. “The colonel wants to make contact with the enemy and so do I,” reported the young captain, “but the men flat don’t.” 64 Few draftees wanted to be fighting in Vietnam in the first place and even fewer wanted to risk being killed in a war clearly that was winding down. In addition, Abrams increasingly had to concern himself with racial polarization inside his army. Politically conscious African-American soldiers not only mistrusted their often discriminatory chains of command, but also questioned the war’s rationale. Many blacks denounced the ideal of bringing democracy to South Vietnam when they were denied many freedoms at home. In short, the U.S. Army in Vietnam seemed to be unraveling. 65

By the end of 1970, U.S. strength dropped to some 254,800 soldiers remaining in country. Kissinger warned that unilateral withdrawals were weakening the bargaining position of the United States in Paris, but Nixon continued with the redeployments to prove Vietnamization was on track. 66 With the new year, however, came the realization that NVA logistical bases remained intact. While the Cambodian operation had denied Hanoi the use of the Sihanoukville port, the Ho Chi Minh Trail continued to serve as a major infiltration route into South Vietnam. “An invasion of the Laos Panhandle,” one ARVN officer recalled, thus “became an attractive idea.” Such an operation would “retain the initiative for the RVNAF, disrupt the flow of enemy personnel and supplies to South Vietnam, and greatly reduce the enemy’s capability to launch an offensive in 1971.” 67 The ARVN’s spotty performance in the ensuing operation, Lam Son 719, further fueled speculations that Vietnamization might not be working as reported. Though Nixon declared the campaign had “assured” the next round of U.S. troop withdrawals, Kissinger worried that Lam Son had exposed “lingering deficiencies” that raised questions over South Vietnam’s ability to bear the full burden of the ongoing war. 68

If Kissinger agonized over the need to balance negotiations with troop withdrawals and offensive operations to keep the enemy off balance, he was not alone. Inside Hanoi’s Politburo, Le Duan equally pondered strategic alternatives in the aftermath of Lam Son 719. Though only sixteen U.S. maneuver battalions remained in South Vietnam by early 1972, on all fronts the war appeared deadlocked. Le Duan hoped a new invasion would “defeat the American ‘Vietnamization’ policy, gain a decisive victory in 1972, and force the U.S. imperialists to negotiate an end to the war from a position of defeat.” 69 Abrams remained unclear regarding enemy intentions. Was a large-scale invasion an act of desperation, as Nixon believed, or a way to gain leverage in negotiations by controlling South Vietnamese territory? North Vietnamese strategists certainly were taking risks but not out of desperation. The 1972 Nguyen-Hue campaign aimed for a collapse of South Vietnam’s armed forces, Thieu’s ouster, and the formation of a coalition government. Failing these ambitious goals, Le Duan envisioned the struggle continuing against a weakened ARVN. In either case, the Politburo believed its “actions would totally change the character of the war in South Vietnam.” 70

The subsequent “Easter Offensive,” begun on March 30, 1972, unleashed three separate NVA thrusts into South Vietnam. In some areas, the ARVN fought bravely; in others, soldiers broke and ran. Abrams responded by throwing B-52 bombers into the battle as Nixon ordered resumption of bombing in the North and the mining of Haiphong harbor. Gradually, yet perceptibly, the offensive’s momentum began to slow. Although North Vietnam’s spring offensive had ended with no dramatic battlefield victory, it had met its goal of changing the character of the war. 71 U.S. officials proclaimed Vietnamization a final success given that the ARVN had successfully blunted the enemy’s assault. Overwhelming U.S. air support, however, quite literally saved many units from being overrun and, more intangibly, helped sustain morale during hard months of fighting. Equally important, North Vietnamese leaders made several errors during the campaign. The separate offensives into South Vietnam dissipated combat strength while placing overwhelming strain on logistical support capabilities. Moreover, tactical commanders lacked experience in employing tanks and squandered infantry units in suicidal assaults. 72

By the end of June, only 49,000 U.S. troops remained in South Vietnam. Like his predecessor, Abrams was pulled to become the army’s chief of staff before the guns had fallen silent. Throughout the summer and fall, stalemated discussions in Paris mirrored the military standoff inside South Vietnam. In October, Kissinger reported to Nixon a breakthrough with the North Vietnamese delegation and announced an impending cease-fire. President Thieu fumed that Kissinger had conceded too much, allowing NVA units to remain in South Vietnam and refused to sign any agreement. The resulting diplomatic impasse, fueled by Thieu’s defiance and Hanoi’s intransigence, infuriated Nixon. By December, the president had reached his limits and ordered a massive air campaign against North Vietnam to break the deadlock. Nixon intended the bombing assault, codenamed Linebacker II, to induce both Hanoi and Saigon to return to the negotiating table. On December 26, the Politburo agreed to resume talks while Nixon pressed Thieu to support the armistice. The final settlement changed little from the principles outlined in October. One month later, on January 27, 1973, the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Provisional Revolutionary Government signed the Paris Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam. 73


In large sense, Nixon’s use of B-52 bombers during Linebacker II illustrated the limits of American military power in Vietnam. The press reacted strongly, referring to the bombing of urban targets in North Vietnam as “war by tantrum” and an act of “senseless terror.” 74 But by late 1972, B-52s were the only tools left in Nixon’s arsenal. Despite years of effort and sacrifice, the best the Americans could achieve was a stalemate only temporarily broken by strategic bombing. Many senior military officers, perhaps unsurprisingly, would point to Linebacker II as proof of a mismanaged war. They argued that if only civilian policymakers had been less restrictive in setting unnecessary boundaries, those in uniform could have won much earlier and at much less cost. Such arguments, however, tended to discount the larger political concerns of presidents and their advisers hoping to limit a war that had become the centerpiece of American foreign policy and one that had divided the nation. 75

Others advanced a different “if only” argument regarding U.S. military strategy for Vietnam. They posited that upon taking command of MACV, Abrams, deviating almost immediately from Westmoreland’s conventional methods, had changed the American approach to, and thus nature of, the war. This “better war” thesis found acceptance among many officers in whom a conviction endured that a better application of strategy could have yielded better political results. Yet senior American commanders, even before Westmoreland’s tenure at MACV, tended to see the war as a comprehensive whole and devised their strategy accordingly. Despite frequent heavy-handedness in applying military power inside South Vietnam, almost all officers recognized that the war ultimately was a contest for political power.

Comprehending the complexities of strategy and effectively implementing it, however, were not one and the same. Officers serving in Vietnam quickly found that strategy included much more than simply drafting a plan of political-military action. The complexity of the threat, both political and military, confounded U.S. analysts and staff officers. Westmoreland understood the important role played by southern insurgent forces but argued he could not stamp out these irregular “termites” without substantially eliminating the enemy’s main force units. Even ascertaining enemy motives proved difficult. Not long after Abrams took command, MACV still faced a “real problem, following the Tet offensive, trying to figure out” the enemy’s overall military strategy. 76

Perhaps most importantly, senior U.S. policymakers were asking too much of their military strategists. In the end, the war was a struggle between and among Vietnamese. For the United States, the foundation on which American forces waged a struggle—one that involved both construction of an effective host government and destruction of a committed communist-nationalist enemy—proved too fragile. Officers like Westmoreland and Abrams found that nation-building in a time of war was one of the most difficult tasks to ask of a military force. Yet American faith in the power to reconstruct, if not create, a South Vietnamese political community led to policies that did not address a fundamental issue—the internal contest to define and come to a consensus on Vietnamese nationalism and identity in the modern age.

More than any other conflict during the Cold War era, Vietnam exposed the limits of American military power overseas. It was a reality that many U.S. citizens found, and continue to find, discomforting. Yet if a perspective is to be gained from the long American experience in Southeast Asia, it lies here. Not all problems can be solved by military force, even when that force is combined with political, economic, and social efforts. The capacity of Americans to reshape new political and social communities may not, in fact, be limitless. Writing of his own experiences in the Korean War, Matthew Ridgway offered an important conclusion while the war in Vietnam was still raging. In setting foreign policy objectives, the general advised that policymakers look “to define them with care and to make sure they lie within the range of our vital national interests and that their accomplishment is within our capabilities.” 77 For those seeking to understand the disappointments of American military strategy during the Vietnam War, Ridgway’s counsel seems a useful starting point.

Discussion of the Literature

The historiography on the American experience in Vietnam remains a contentious topic. For a starting point, the best surveys are George Herring’s America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950– 1975, 4th edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002) , which is more a diplomatic and political history, and Mark Atwood Lawrence’s The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) , which places the war in an international perspective. A solid textbook is George Moss , Vietnam: An American Ordeal , 6th edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009). An excellent collection of essays can be found in both David Anderson’s The Columbia History of the Vietnam War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011 ) and Jayne Werner and Luu Doan Huhnh , The Vietnam War: Vietnamese and American Perspectives (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997).

The escalation of the war under Johnson is well covered. Among the most important works are Fredrik Logevall , Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999 ), and Lloyd C. Gardner , Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995) . Larry Berman has two very good works on LBJ: Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982 ), and Larry Berman , Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989). Brian VanDeMark’s Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) is also useful. Robert Dallek , Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961–1973 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) , provides a balanced overview of the president’s struggles with the war.

The topic of U.S. military strategy is hotly debated. Gregory A. Daddis , Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) , offers a reinterpretation of those works in suggesting Americans were blind to the realities of the war. Samples of these latter works include: Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. , The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986) ; Harry G. Summers Jr. , On Strategy: A Critical Appraisal of the Vietnam War (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1982) ; and Jeffrey Record , The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998). More persuasive is Andrew J. Birtle , U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine, 1942–1976 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2006). Though Abrams left behind no written work on the war, Lewis Sorley , a staunch admirer of the general, provides insights in Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968–1972 (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004) . Mark Clodfelter takes on the air war in The Limits of Airpower: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1989). Thomas L. Ahern Jr. looks at the CIA in Vietnam Declassified: The CIA and Counterinsurgency (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010). Finally, an often overlooked yet important work on senior military leaders is Robert Buzzanco , Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

On the war’s final years, see Jeffrey Kimball , Nixon’s Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998) ; Ronald H. Spector , After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1993) ; and James H. Willbanks , Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004) . Lewis Sorley’s A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999) takes an overly sympathetic view of the Abrams’s years.

For memoirs from senior leaders, students should consult William Colby with James McCargar , Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America’s Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989) ; Lyndon Baines Johnson , The Vantage Point: Perspectives on the Presidency, 1963–1969 (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971) ; Henry Kissinger , Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America’s Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003) ; Robert W Komer , Bureaucracy at War: U.S. Performance in the Vietnam Conflict (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1986) ; Robert S. McNamara , In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995) ; Richard Nixon , RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978) ; Bruce, Palmer Jr. , The 25-Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984) ; and William C. Westmoreland , A Soldier Reports (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976). Among the best memoirs from junior officers and soldiers are: Philip Caputo , A Rumor of War (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1977) ; David Donovan , Once a Warrior King (New York: Ballantine, 1986) ; Stuart A. Herrington , Stalking the Vietcong: Inside Operation Phoenix: A Personal Account (Navato, CA: Presidio, 2004) ; and Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway . We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young (New York: HarperCollins, 1993). Less a memoir than an excellent collective biography of the enlisted soldier serving in Vietnam is Christian G. Appy , Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993)

Journalists’ accounts were important in covering the American experience and in setting a foundation for how the war has been outlined in popular memory. Among the most indispensable of this genre are David Halberstam , The Best and the Brightest (New York: Random House, 1969) ; David Halberstam , The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964, 1988) ; Michael Herr , Dispatches (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968) ; Don Oberdorfer , Tet! (New York: Doubleday, 1971) ; and Neil Sheehan , A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988). Also useful is Peter Braestrup , Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1977).

The South Vietnamese perspective often gets lost in American-centric works on the war but should not be disregarded. Mark P. Bradley’s Vietnam at War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) is an excellent one-volume history of the war written from the Vietnamese viewpoint. Both Andrew Wiest , Vietnam’s Forgotten Army Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN (New York: New York University Press, 2008 ) and Robert K. Brigham , ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006) , make an important contribution for understanding the U.S. Army’s most important allies. Three provincial studies also delve into the war inside South Vietnam’s villages: Eric M. Bergerud , The Dynamics of Defeat: The Vietnam War in Hau Nghia Province (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991) ; Jeffrey Race , War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972) ; and James Walker Trullinger Jr. , Village at War: An Account of Revolution in Vietnam (New York: Longman, 1980). For an argument on the cultural divide between allies, see Frances FitzGerald , Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972).

If the South Vietnamese perspective often is overlooked, the North Vietnamese also tends to get short shrift in American works. Relying on new research, the best among this group are Pierre Asselin , Hanoi’s’ Road to the Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) ; Lien-Hang T. Nguyen , Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012) ; Ang Cheng Guan , The Vietnam War from the Other Side: The Vietnamese Communists’ Perspective (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002 ) and Ending the Vietnam War: The Vietnamese Communists’ Perspective (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004); Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954–1975 , translated by Merle L. Pribbenow (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002) ; William J. Duiker , The Communist Road to Power , 2d ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996) ; and Warren Wilkins , Grab Their Belts to Fight Them: The Viet Cong’s Big Unit War against the U.S., 1965–1966 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011).

Finally, students should not overlook the value of novels in understanding the war from the soldiers’ viewpoint. Among the best are Bao Ninh , The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam (New York: Riverhead, 1996) ; Josiah Bunting , The Lionheads (New York: George Braziller, 1972) ; Karl Marlantes , Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2010) ; Tim O’Brien , The Things They Carried (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990) ; and Robert Roth , Sand in the Wind (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973).

Primary Sources

Among the best documentary collections are Michael H. Hunt , A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010 ), and Mark Atwood Lawrence , The Vietnam War: An International History in Documents (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). Also useful is Robert McMahon and Thomas Paterson , Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War: Documents and Essays (Boston: Wadsworth, 2007). For encyclopedias on the war, see Spencer C. Tucker , ed., The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social & Military History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001 ), and Stanley I. Kutler , Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War , 2d ed. (New York: Scribner, 2005).

Researchers should also consult two still useful collections of documents: The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decision making on Vietnam, ed. Mike Gravel , 5 vols. (Boston: Beacon, 1971–1972), and William Conrad Gibbons , The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships , 4 vols. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986–1995). The U.S. Department of State has collected a wonderful array of documents in the Foreign Relations of the United States ( FRUS ) series. These resources can be found online at .

For researchers delving into primary sources, the best place to begin is the Virtual Vietnam Archive run by Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. This online archive houses more than four million pages of materials and is located at . The physical archive has much more additional material for researchers. For higher level strategic insights, the presidential libraries in Boston, Massachusetts (Kennedy), Austin, Texas (Johnson), and Yorba Linda, California (Nixon) have important archival holdings. Those seeking insights into the U.S. Army will find excellent resources at the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair, Washington, DC. The National Archives in College Park, Maryland, offers a vast amount of resources as well. Finally, for those wishing to focus on cultural issues within the region, researchers may wish to consult the John M. Echols Collection on Southeast Asia at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Researcher information can be found at .

Further Reading

  • Anderson, David L. , ed. The Columbia History of the Vietnam War . New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
  • Cosmas, Graham A. MACV: The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation, 1962–1967. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2006.
  • Cosmas, Graham A. MACV: The Joint Command in the Years of Withdrawal, 1968–1973 . Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2007.
  • Daddis, Gregory A. Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in the Vietnam War . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Elliott, David W. P. The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930–1975. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2002.
  • Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 . 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
  • Hess, Gary R. Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War . Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.
  • Hunt, Richard A . Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds . Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995.
  • Kimball, Jeffrey . Nixon’s Vietnam War . Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
  • Lawrence, Mark Atwood. The Vietnam War: A Concise International History . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Nguyen, Lien-Hang T. Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam . Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

1. JCS quoted in Max Hastings , The Korean War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 229. Hastings argued that the “Korean War occupies a unique place in history, as the first superpower essay of the nuclear age in the employment of limited force to achieve limited objectives,” p. 338. On the relationship of Korea to Europe, see Stanley Sandler , The Korean War: No Victors, No Vanquished (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999), 144.

2. Matthew B. Ridgway , The Korean War (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967 ; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1986), 145, 232.

3. Bernard Brodie , Strategy in the Missile Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959), 311 . For a broader context of this period, see Jonathan M. House , A Military History of the Cold War, 1944–1962 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012) .

4. Robert E. Osgood , Limited War: The Challenge to American Security (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 5, 7 .

5. Andrew J. Birtle , U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine, 1942–1976 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2006), 278. See also Douglas Porch , Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2103), 217 . For a counterargument on how U.S. Army officers shunned learning and thus lost the war in Vietnam, see John Nagl , Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

6. Henry A. Kissinger , Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 139 . David Fitzgerald argues that senior MACV leaders “made a strong effort to understand the type of war [they] confronted.” Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq (Stanford, CA: Stanford Security Studies, 2013), 38 . On multiple dimensions of strategy, see Colin S. Gray , “Why strategy is difficult,” in Strategic Studies: A Reader , 2d ed., ed. Thomas G. Mahnken and Joseph A. Maiolo (New York: Routledge, 2014), 43.

7. Lyndon Baines Johnson , The Vantage Point: Perspectives on the Presidency, 1963–1969 (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971), 241 . On larger Cold War issues, see John Lewis Gaddis , Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 240 .

8. McNamara quoted in Gerard J. DeGroot , A Noble Cause? America and the Vietnam War (Harlow, UK: Longman, 2000), 135 . On enemy escalation and its impact, see David Kaiser , American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000), 346 . B. H. Liddell Hart , Strategy , 2d rev. ed. (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1954), 335–336.

9. Neil L. Jamieson argues that “Vietnamese clung to and fought over their own competing and incompatible visions of what Vietnam was and what it might and should become.” In Neil L. Jamieson , Understanding Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), x .

10. Ronald H. Spector , Advice and Support: The Early Years, 1941–1960 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1983), 336 . While early MAAG commanders realized the importance of economic development as part of an overall approach to strategy, Lieutenant General Lionel McGarr, who took over MAAG in August 1960, elevated the importance of counterinsurgency training within the ARVN ranks. Spector, Advice and Support , 365. See also Alexander S. Cochran Jr. , “American Planning for Ground Combat in Vietnam: 1952–1965,” Parameters 14.2 (Summer 1984): 65 .

11. Robert Buzzanco , Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 65, 72–73 . While sympathetic to Ngo Dinh Diem , Mark Moyar covers the American participation during the advisory years in Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) .

12. Agrovilles were supposedly secure communities to which rural civilians were relocated in hopes of separating them from NLF insurgents. On Diem, development, and engineering a social revolution, see Edward Miller , Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013) . For a competing interpretation, see James M. Carter , Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building, 1954–1968 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). On training of South Vietnam forces, James Lawton Collins Jr. , The Development and Training of the South Vietnamese Army, 1950–1972 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975) .

13. Graham A. Cosmas , MACV: The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation, 1962–1967 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2006), 35 .

14. For the North Vietnamese perspective, especially in the years preceding full American intervention, see Pierre Asselin , Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) , and William J. Duiker , The Communist Road to Power , 2d ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview , 1996) . For a perspective of Diem somewhat at odds with Miller, and especially Moyar, see Seth Jacobs , Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950–1963 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006) .

15. Michael H. Hunt , Lyndon Johnson’s War: America’s Cold War Crusade in Vietnam, 1945–1968 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1996), 94 . On the air campaign, see Mark Clodfelter , The Limits of Airpower: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1989) , and Lloyd C. Gardner , “Lyndon Johnson and the Bombing of Vietnam: Politics and Military Choices,” in The Columbia History of the Vietnam War , ed. David L. Anderson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

16. Westmoreland quoted in Larry Berman , Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), 71 . For an example of senior officers blaming civilians for limiting military means to achieve political ends, see U.S. Grant Sharp , Strategy for Defeat: Vietnam in Retrospect (San Rafael, CA: Presidio, 1978) .

17. On the contentious topic of escalation, see Fredrik Logevall , Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) , and Lloyd C. Gardner , Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995). David L. Di Leo offers a treatment of a key dissenter inside the Johnson White House in George Ball, Vietnam, and the Rethinking of Containment (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

18. Robert S. McNamara , In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995), 188.

19. Westmoreland’s assessment in The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking in Vietnam, vol. 4, ed. Mike Gravel . (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971–1972), 606. See also chapter 7, “Evolution of Strategy,” in William C. Westmoreland , A Soldier Reports (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976) .

20. Phillip B. Davidson , Vietnam at War: The History: 1946–1975 (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1988), 354 . On MACV guidance in implementing this broad strategy, see John M. Carland , “Winning the Vietnam War: Westmoreland’s Approach in Two Documents,” Journal of Military History 68.2 (April 2004): 553–574 .

21. U. S. Grant Sharp and William C. Westmoreland , Report on the War in Vietnam (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969), 100 . The Pentagon Papers , Vol. 4, 296.

22. Vo Nguyen Giap , People’s War, People’s Army: The Viet Công Insurrection Manual for Underdeveloped Countries (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962), 46, 61 . On the evolution of Hanoi’s strategic thinking, see David W. P. Elliott , “Hanoi’s Strategy in the Second Indochina War,” in The Vietnam War: Vietnamese and American Perspectives , ed. Jayne S. Werner and Luu Doan Huynh (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1993) .

23. The strategic debate is best outlined in Lien-Hang T. Nguyen , Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 71 . See also Nguyen Vu Tung , “Coping with the United States: Hanoi’s Search for an Effective Strategy,” in The Vietnam War , ed. Peter Lowe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 46–48 ; and Hanoi Assessment of Guerrilla War in South, November 1966, Folder 17, Box 06, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 01-Assessment and Strategy, The Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas (hereafter cited as TTUVA). Resolution 12 in Communist Strategy as Reflected in Lao Dong Party and COSVN Resolutions, Folder 26, Box 07, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 06-Democratic Republic of Vietnam, TTUVA, p. 3.

24. For a useful historiographical sketch on the debates over intervention and American strategy, see Gary R. Hess , Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2009) , chapters 3 and 4.

25. Westmoreland quoted in Davidson, Vietnam at War , 313. On early U.S. Army actions in Vietnam, see John M. Carland , Stemming the Tide: May 1965 to October 1966 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2000) , and Shelby L. Stanton , The Rise and Fall of an American Army: U.S. Ground Forces in Vietnam, 1965–1973 (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1985) .

26. Westmoreland explained his rationale for focusing on main force units in A Soldier Reports , 180. For a counterargument against this approach, see Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. , The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986) .

27. The best monograph on the Ia Drang battles remains Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway , We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young (New York: HarperCollins, 1993) . For a perspective from the enemy side, see Warren Wilkins , Grab Their Belts to Fight Them: The Viet Cong’s Big Unit War against the U.S., 1965–1966 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011) , especially chapter 6.

28. COMUSMACV memorandum, “Increased Emphasis on Rural Construction,” 8 December 1965, Correspondence, 1965–1966, Box 35, Jonathan O. Seaman Papers, U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania (hereafter cited as MHI).

29. Westmoreland highlighted Hanoi’s continuing infiltration of forces into South Vietnam at the end of 1965. An evaluation of U.S. operations in early December underscored his concerns that “our attrition of their forces in South Vietnam is insufficient to offset this buildup.” In Carland, “Winning the Vietnam War,” 570. On the media’s take on these early battles, see “G.I.’s Found Rising to Vietnam Test,” New York Times , December 26, 1965.

30. Memorandum to President Lyndon B. Johnson from Robert S. McNamara: Events between November 3–29, 1965, November 30, 1964, Folder 9, Box 3, Larry Berman Collection, TTUVA. On McNamara being “shaken” by the meeting, see Neil Sheehan , A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988), 579–580 . McNamara, In Retrospect , 221–222.

31. “Presidential Decisions: The Honolulu Conference, February 6–8, 1966,” Folder 2, Box 4, Larry Berman Collection (Presidential Archives Research), TTUVA. John T. Wheeler , “Only a Fourth of South Viet Nam Is Under Control of Saigon Regime,” Washington Star , January 25, 1966.

32. “1966 Program to Increase the Effectiveness of Military Operations and Anticipated Results Thereof,” February 8, 1966, in The War in Vietnam: The Papers of William C. Westmoreland , ed. Robert E. Lester (Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America, 1993) , Incl. 6, Folder 4, Reel 6. See also U.S. Department of State , Foreign Relations of the United States , vol. 5, Vietnam, 1967 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2002), 216–219 (hereafter cited as FRUS ). Westmoreland took to heart the importance of rural construction. See MACV Commander’s Conference, February 20, 1966, Counter VCI Folder, Historian’s Files, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort McNair, Washington, DC (hereafter cited as CMH).

33. Pacification defined in “Handbook for Military Support of Pacification,” February 1968, Folder 14, Box 5, United States Armed Forces Manual Collection, TTUVA. Seymour Topping , “Crisis in Saigon Snags U.S. Effort,” New York Times , April 5, 1966 . Martin G. Clemis , “Competing and Incompatible Visions: Revolution, Pacification, and the Political Organization of Space during the Second Indochina War,” paper presented at the 81st Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History, April 2014, Kansas City, MO.

34. On Westmoreland’s approach to pacification, see Gregory A. Daddis , Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) , chapter 5. For a counterargument that dismisses allied pacification efforts, see Nick Turse , Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013).

35. Sir Robert Thompson , Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), 55 . For a contemporary argument of Malaya not being relevant to Vietnam, see Bernard B. Fall , Viet-Nam Witness: 1953–66 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), 272 .

36. Thomas L. Ahern Jr. , Vietnam Declassified: The CIA and Counterinsurgency (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010), 171–175 .

37. The best monograph on pacification remains Richard A. Hunt , Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995) . For a balanced treatment of Komer, see Frank L. Jones , Blowtorch: Robert Komer, Vietnam, and American Cold War Strategy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013) . See also Robert W. Komer , Bureaucracy at War: U.S. Performance in the Vietnam Conflict (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1986) . A partial impetus for an increased emphasis on pacification stemmed from a March 1966 report known as PROVN, shorthand for “A Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of South Vietnam.” PROVN stressed nonmilitary means and argued that “victory” could be achieved only by “bringing the individual Vietnamese, typically a rural peasant, to support willingly the Government of South Vietnam (GVN).” Deputy Chief of Staff for Military Operations, “A Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of South Vietnam (Department of the Army, March 1966), 1, 3. The best review of this still hotly debated document is Andrew J. Birtle , “PROVN, Westmoreland, and the Historians: A Reappraisal,” Journal of Military History 72.4 (October 2008): 1213–1247 .

38. Robert W. Komer , “Clear, Hold and Rebuild,” Army 20.5 5 (May 1970): 19 . On CORDS establishment, see National Security Action Memorandum No. 362, FRUS , 1964–1968, vol. 5, 398–399. Though revolutionary development remained, at least nominally, a South Vietnamese program, many observers believed the inability of the ARVN to take over pacification in the countryside helped spur the establishment of CORDS. Robert Shaplen , The Road from War: Vietnam, 1965–1970 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 122 . As of March 31, 1967, 53 ARVN infantry battalions were performing missions in direct support of pacification. MACV Monthly Evaluation Report, March 1967, MHI, 13.

39. For a contemporary discussion on the cultural divide between Americans and Vietnamese and how this impacted both military operations and the pacification program, see Frances FitzGerald , Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972). Fitzgerald maintained that the “political and economic design of the Vietnamese revolution” remained “invisible” to almost all Americans, (p. 143).

40. For competing tasks within CORDS, see Chester L. Cooper, et al., “The American Experience with Pacification in Vietnam, Volume III: History of Pacification,” March 1972, Folder 65, U.S. Marine Corps History Division, Vietnam War Documents Collection, TTUVA, 271. Journalist Ward Just reported that the real yardsticks of pacification’s progress were “the Vietnamese view of events, the Vietnamese mood, the Vietnamese will and the Vietnamese capability.” See “Another Measure of Vietnam’s War,” Washington Post , October 15, 1967. On personnel turbulence, see Mark DePu , “Vietnam War: The Individual Rotation Policy,” .

41. As a sampling of contemporary journalist critiques of the war in 1967, see: Joseph Kraft , “The True Failure in Saigon—South Vietnam’s Fighting Force,” Los Angeles Times , May 3, 1967 ; Ward Just , “This War May Be Unwinnable,” Washington Post, June 4, 1967 ; and R. W. Apple , “Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate,” New York Times , August 7, 1967. On the war in 1967 being perceived as a stalemate, see Sir Robert Thompson , No Exit from Vietnam (New York: David McKay, 1969), 67 ; and Anthony James Joes , The War for South Viet Nam, 1954–1975, rev. ed. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001), 96 . On military operations early in 1967, see Bernard W. Rogers , Cedar Falls–Junction City: A Turning Point (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1974, 2004) .

42. On Johnson’s salesmanship campaign, see Larry Berman , Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989) , especially chapters 5–7. On the MACV-CIA debate, see James J. Wirtz , “Intelligence to Please? The Order of Battle Controversy during the Vietnam War,” Political Science Quarterly 106.2 (Summer 1991): 239–263 .

43. On Hanoi’s views and its policy for a decisive victory, see Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954–1975 , trans. Merle L. Pribbenow (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 206–207 . On overriding political goals of Tet, see: Ang Cheng Guan , The Vietnam War from the Other Side: The Vietnamese Communists’ Perspective (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002),116–126 ; James J. Wirtz , The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 10, 20–21 ; Ronnie E. Ford , Tet 1968: Understanding the Surprise (London: Frank Cass, 1995), 70–71 ; and Gabriel Kolko , Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 303 .

44. If successful, Hanoi’s leaders also would be in a more advantageous position if forced into a “fighting while negotiating” phase of the war. Ford, Tet 1968 , 93. See also Merle L. Pribbenow II , “General Võ Nguyên Giáp and the Mysterious Evolution of the Plan for the 1968 Tết Offensive,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 3 (Summer 2008): 1–33 .

45. Carver quoted in Robert J. McMahon, “Turning Point: The Vietnam War’s Pivotal Year, November 1967–November 1968,” in Anderson, The Columbia History of the Vietnam War , 198. For a journalist’s account, see Don Oberdorfer , Tet! (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971) . For an accessible reference book, see William T. Allison , The Tet Offensive: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Routledge, 2008) .

46. Gallup poll results in the aftermath of Tet in Berman, Lyndon Johnson’s War , 185. Background on LBJ’s March 31 speech in Robert Mann , A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 600–602 ; A. J. Langguth , Our Vietnam: The War, 1954–1975 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 492–493 ; and Kolko, Anatomy of a War , 320–321. Decision on troop levels in Mann, A Grand Delusion , 576.

47. Zeb B. Bradford , “With Creighton Abrams during Tet,” Vietnam (February 1998): 45 . Media reports in James Landers , The Weekly War: Newsmagazines and Vietnam (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004), 145–146 . As examples arguing for a change in strategy, see A. J. Langguth , “General Abrams Listens to a Different Drum,” New York Times , May 5, 1968 , and “A ‘Different’ War Now, With Abrams in Command,” U.S. News & World Report , August 26, 1968, 12. On Abrams’s “one-war” concept, see Lewis Sorley , A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999), 18 . The Westmoreland-Abrams strategy debate remains contentious. In his admiration of Abrams, Lewis Sorley is most vocal in supporting a change in strategic concept. See as an example, Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968–1972 (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004), xix . Others are less certain. Phillip Davidson served under both commanders, as did Robert W. Komer—neither subscribed to a change in strategy under Abrams. Davidson, Vietnam at War , 512, and Komer in The Lessons of Vietnam, ed. W. Scott Thompson and Donaldson D. Frizzell (New York: Crane, Russak, 1977), 79 . Andrew Birtle’s argument on the change being “more in emphasis than in substance” seems most compelling. “As MACV admitted in 1970, ‘the basic concept and objectives of pacification, to defeat the VC/NVA and to provide the people with economic and social benefits, have changed little since the first comprehensive GVN plan was published in 1964.’” In U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine , 367.

48. Andrew J. Goodpaster, Senior Officers Debriefing Program, May 1976, MHI, p. 40. On peace replacing military victory, see Daniel C. Hallin , The “Uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 178 .

49. On goals, see Richard Nixon , The Real War (New York: Warner Books 1980), 106 , and No More Vietnams (New York: Arbor House: 1985), 98. Henry Kissinger , The White House Years (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), 298 . See also Larry Berman , No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 2001), 50 . Jeffrey Kimball argues that de-Americanization “was a course made politically necessary by the American public’s desire to wind down the war and doubts among key segments of the foreign-policy establishment about the possibility of winning the war.” The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 12.

50. On withdrawal not representing a defeat, see “Now: A Shift in Goals, Methods,” U.S. News & World Report , January 6, 1969, 16. On global perspective, see Jeffrey Kimball , Nixon’s Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 62 . Michael Lind argues that Nixon had to withdraw “in a manner that preserved domestic support for the Cold War in other theaters.” Vietnam: The Necessary War (New York: Free Press, 1999), 106 .

51. Richard Nixon , RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978), 349 . On realizing limits to U.S. power, see Lawrence W. Serewicz , America at the Brink of Empire: Rusk, Kissinger, and the Vietnam War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007), 10 . On containing communism, see U.S. Embassy Statement , “Objectives and Courses of Action of the United States in South Viet-Nam,” FRUS , 1964–1968, vol. 7, 719 . See also Lloyd Gardner , “The Last Casualty? Richard Nixon and the End of the Vietnam War, 1969–75,” in A Companion to the Vietnam War , ed. Marilyn B. Young and Robert Buzzanco (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 230 .

52. On problems of different types of threats, see Viet-Nam Info Series 20: “The Armed Forces of the Republic of Viet Nam,” from Vietnam Bulletin, 1969, Folder 09, Box 13, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 02-Military Operations, TTUVA, ps. 8, 25. See also Richard Shultz Jr. , “The Vietnamization-Pacification Strategy of 1969–1972: A Quantitative and Qualitative Reassessment,” in Lessons from an Unconventional War: Reassessing U.S. Strategies for Future Conflicts, ed. Richard A. Hunt and Richard H. Shultz Jr. (New York: Pergamon, 1982), 55–56 . Loren Baritz argues that the “Nixon administration abandoned counterinsurgency” since it realized the NLF no longer was a significant threat. Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 279 .

53. Nixon, No More Vietnams , 104–107. Definition of pacification on p. 132.

54. Pacification Priority Area Summary, September 3, 1968, prepared by CORDS, Folder 65, US Marine Corps History Division, Vietnam War Documents Collection, TTUVA. Countryside depopulation in Charles Mohr , “Saigon Tries to Recover from the Blows,” New York Times , May 10, 1968 ; and David W. P. Elliott , The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930–1975, concise ed. (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2007), 331, 336 . On problems of measuring pacification security, see Gregory A. Daddis , No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 118–122 .

55. The Chieu Hoi (“Open Arms”) program, begun in 1963, aimed to “rally” Vietcong defectors to the GVN side as part of a larger national reconciliation effort. The plan sought to give former insurgents “opportunities for defection, an alternative to the hardships and deprivations of guerrilla life, political pardon, and in some measure, though vocational training, a means of earning a livelihood.” Jeanette A. Koch , The Chieu Hoi Program in South Vietnam, 1963–1971 (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 1973), v .

56. Vietnam Lessons Learned No. 73, “Defeat of VC Infrastructure,” November 20, 1968, MACV Lessons Learned, Box 1, RG 472, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland. See also Dale Andradé , Ashes to Ashes: The Phoenix Program and the Vietnam War (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1990) ; and Mark Moyar , Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism in Vietnam (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997, 2007) .

57. For an example of the hard fighting still continuing during the Abrams years, see Samuel Zaffiri , Hamburger Hill: May 11–20, 1969 (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1988). On what U.S. advisers were doing as part of Vietnamization, see Jeffrey J. Clarke , Advice and Support: The Final Years, 1965–1973 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1988), 342–343 .

58. On ARVN increases, see in Larry A. Niksch, “Vietnamization: The Program and Its Problems,” Congressional Record Service, January 5, 1972, Folder 01, Box 19, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 02-Military Operations, TTUVA, p. CRS-21. The best work on the South Vietnamese Army is Robert K. Brigham , ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006) .

59. “The Laird Plan,” Newsweek , June 2, 1969, 44. On ARVN lacking experience, see James H. Willbanks , Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 51 ; and Samuel Zaffiri , Westmoreland: A Biography of General William C. Westmoreland (New York: William Morrow, 1994), 211 .

60. Vietnamization working in Nixon, RN , 467. On enemy infiltration, see John Prados , The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999) . On the incursion, see John M. Shaw , The Cambodian Campaign: The 1970 Offensive and America’s Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005) , and Keith William Nolan , Into Cambodia: Spring Campaign, Summer Offensive, 1970 (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1990) .

61. On My Lai, see Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim , Four Hours in My Lai (New York: Viking, 1992) , and William Thomas Allison , My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) .

62. Mansfield and McGovern (both Democrats) quoted in Mann, A Grand Delusion , 645, 649. See also Berman, No Peace, No Honor , 76. For an introduction to the antiwar movement and its impact on Nixon, see Melvin Small , Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America’s Hearts and Minds (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2002).

63. Donald Kirk , “Who Wants to Be the Last American Killed in Vietnam?” New York Times , September 19, 1971 . See also “As Fighting Slows in Vietnam: Breakdown in GI Discipline” U.S. News & World Report , June 7, 1971, and George Lepre , Fragging: Why U.S. Soldiers Assaulted Their Officers in Vietnam (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2011) . “Fragging,” derived from fragmentation grenade, was the act of fratricide, usually against an officer in a soldier’s chain of command. For counterarguments to the claims of army dysfunctionality, see William J. Shkurti , Soldiering on in a Dying War: The True Story of the Firebase Pace Incidents and the Vietnam Drawdown (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011 ), and Jeremy Kuzmarov , The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009) .

64. Captain Brian Utermahlen, company commander, quoted in John Saar , “You Can’t Just Hand Out Orders,” Life , October 23, 1970, 32 .

65. “The Troubled U.S. Army in Vietnam,” Newsweek , January 11, 1971, 30, 34. On avoiding risks in a withdrawing army, see Saar, 31. James E. Westheider , The African American Experience in Vietnam: Brothers in Arms (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) .

66. Troop strengths in Shelby L. Stanton , Vietnam Order of Battle: A Complete Illustrated Reference to U.S. Army Combat and Support Forces in Vietnam, 1961–1973 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2003), 334 . Kissinger’s concerns in The White House Years , 971.

67. Nguyen Duy Hinh , Lam Son 719 (Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1979), 8 . On Lam Son 719 being linked to continuing withdrawals, see Andrew Wiest , Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 199 .

68. Two new works cover the Lam Son 719 operation: James H. Willbanks , A Raid Too Far: Operation Lam Son 719 and Vietnamization in Laos (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2014) , and Robert D. Sander , Invasion of Laos, 1971: Lam Son 719 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014) .

69. Politburo quoted in Victory in Vietnam , 283. On Hanoi’s strategic motives, see Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War , 324; Stephen P. Randolph , Powerful and Brutal Weapons: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Easter Offensive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 28–29 ; and Ngo Quang Truong , The Easter Offensive of 1972 (Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1980), 157–158 .

70. Politburo quoted in Victory in Vietnam , 283. On uncertainty over Hanoi’s intentions, see Berman, No Peace, No Honor , 124; Allan E. Goodman , The Lost Peace: America’s Search for a Negotiated Settlement of the Vietnam War (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1978), 117–118 ; and Anthony T. Bouscaren , ed., All Quiet on the Eastern Front: The Death of South Vietnam (Old Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair, 1977), 44 . Nixon viewed the invasion “as a sign of desperation.” In RN , 587.

71. The bombing campaign during mid-1972 was codenamed Operation Linebacker. On debates between the White House and MACV over the best use of B-52s, see Randolph, Powerful and Brutal Weapons , 119–120; Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War , 314–315; and H. R. Haldeman , The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House (New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1994), 435 . On the campaign ending with “no culminating battles and mass retreats, just the gradual erosion of NVA strength and the release of pressure against defending ARVN troops,” see Randolph, Powerful and Brutal Weapons , 270.

72. James H. Willbanks argues that “the fact U.S. tactical leadership and firepower were the key ingredients . . . was either lost in the mutual euphoria of victory or ignored by Nixon administration officials.” In The Battle of An Loc (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 166.

73. Thieu’s defiance and Hanoi’s intransigence in Robert Dalleck , Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 443 . Paris agreement in Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War , 366–368. See also Kimball, The Vietnam War Files , 276–277.

74. Linebacker II goals in Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War , 364–365. Press quoted in ibid. , 366 .

75. Ronald B. Frankum Jr. , “‘Swatting Flies with a Sledgehammer’: The Air War,” in Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land: The Vietnam War Revisited , ed. Andrew Wiest (New York: Osprey, 2006), 221–222.

76. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports , 180–181. MACV staff in Sorley, Vietnam Chronicles , 9.

77. Ridgway, The Korean War , 247.

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Course: US history   >   Unit 8

  • John F. Kennedy as president
  • Bay of Pigs Invasion
  • Cuban Missile Crisis
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis
  • Lyndon Johnson as president
  • Vietnam War

The Vietnam War

  • The student movement and the antiwar movement
  • Second-wave feminism
  • The election of 1968
  • 1960s America
  • The Vietnam War was a prolonged military conflict that started as an anticolonial war against the French and evolved into a Cold War confrontation between international communism and free-market democracy.
  • The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the north was supported by the Soviet Union, China, and other communist countries, while the United States and its anticommunist allies backed the Republic of Vietnam (ROV) in the south.
  • President Lyndon Johnson dramatically escalated US involvement in the conflict, authorizing a series of intense bombing campaigns and committing hundreds of thousands of US ground troops to the fight.
  • After the United States withdrew from the conflict, North Vietnam invaded the South and united the country under a communist government.

Origins of the war in Vietnam

Lyndon johnson and the war in vietnam, richard nixon and vietnam, what do you think.

  • For more on the origins of US involvement, see Mark Atwood Lawrence, Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) and Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • See William S. Turley, The Second Indochina War: A Concise Political and Military History (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009); Lawrence, The Vietnam War , 71-73.
  • The exact circumstances of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the extent to which US officials may have misrepresented the incident, remain in dispute. Tonkin Gulf Resolution; Public Law 88-408, 88th Congress, August 7, 1964; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives.
  • For more on Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, see Michael H. Hunt, Lyndon Johnson’s War: America’s Cold War Crusade in Vietnam, 1945-1968 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997).
  • Paul S. Boyer, Promises to Keep: The United States since World War II (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 283-284.
  • Lawrence, The Vietnam War , 143.

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Vietnam War: Background, Summary Of Events, and Conclusion

The Vietnam War was a long, costly and divisive conflict that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. The conflict was intensified by the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. More than 3 million people (including over 58,000 Americans) were killed in the Vietnam War, and more than half of the dead were Vietnamese civilians.

For more articles about the Vietnam War, go to the category archive .

The Vietnam War: Table of Contents

  • Summary of The Vietnam War

When was the Vietnam War?

The m-16 and the vietnam war, #70: a vietnam pow’s story of 6 years in the hanoi hilton — amy shively hawk.

  • Aircraft: Evolution in Flight

End of the Vietnam War

The vietnam war: background and overview.

(See Main Article: The Vietnam War: Background and Overview )

During the late fifties, Vietnam was divided into a communist North and anti-communist South. Because of the Cold War  anxiety of the time, the general feeling was that, should the North Vietnamese communists win, the remainder of Southeast Asia would also fall to communism. When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he swore that he would not let that happen.

The more conventionally trained army of South Vietnam was clearly no match for the guerrilla tactics of the North, so in February 1965 America decided to get involved with Operation Rolling Thunder. North Vietnam was supported by China, the Soviet Union, and other communist countries, and the Viet Cong, a South Vietnamese communist group.

The struggle for control of Vietnam, which had been a French colony since 1887, lasted for three decades. The first part of the war was between the French and the Vietminh, the Vietnamese nationalists led by the communist Ho Chi Minh, and continued from 1946 until 1954. The second part was between the United States and South Vietnam on one hand and North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front on the other, ending with the victory of the latter in 1975. The communist side, strongly backed by the Soviet Union and mainland China, sought to increase the number of those who lived behind the Bamboo Curtain.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union regarded the conflict not as a civil war between North and South Vietnam but as a consequential engagement of the Cold War in a strategic region. American leaders endorsed the domino theory, first enunciated by President Eisenhower, that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, other nations in the region such as Laos and Cambodia would also fall.

Vietnam War Summary—Overview of the Conflict

(See Main Article: Vietnam War Summary—Overview of the Conflict )

Five American presidents sought to prevent a communist Vietnam and possibly a communist Southeast Asia. Truman and Eisenhower provided mostly funds and equipment. When Kennedy became president there were fewer than one thousand U.S. advisers in Vietnam. By the time of his death in November 1963, there were sixteen thousand American troops in Vietnam. The Americanization of the war had begun.

Kennedy chose not to listen to the French president, Charles de Gaulle, who in May 1961 urged him to disengage from Vietnam, warning, “I predict you will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire.”

A debate continues as to what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam if he had served two terms—widen America’s role or begin a slow but steady withdrawal. We do know that throughout his presidency, Kennedy talked passionately about the need to defend “frontiers of freedom” everywhere. In September 1963, he said “what happens in Europe or Latin America or Africa directly affects the security of the people who live in this city.” Speaking in Fort Worth, Texas, on the morning of November 22, the day he was assassinated, Kennedy said bluntly that “without the United States, South Viet-Nam would collapse overnight. . . . We are still the keystone in the arch of freedom.”

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was an ambitious, experienced politician who had served in both the House and the Senate as a Democrat from Texas, and his persona was as large as his home state. He idolized FDR for winning World War II and initiating the New Deal and sought to emulate him as president. Like the three presidents who had preceded him, he saw action in time of war, serving as a naval aide in the Pacific during World War II, and like them he was a Christian, joining the Disciples of Christ Church in part for its focus on good works. Drawing on his political experience, Johnson thought that Ho Chi Minh was just another politician with whom he could bargain—offering a carrot or wielding a stick—just as he had done as the Senate majority leader. Ho Chi Minh, however, was not a backroom pol from Chicago or Austin but a communist revolutionary prepared to fight a protracted conflict and to accept enormous losses until he achieved victory.

(See Main Article: When was the Vietnam War? )

Although the history of Vietnam has been dominated by war for 30 years of the 20th century, the conflict escalated during the sixties. When we talk about the “ Vietnam War ” (which the Vietnamese refer to as the “American War”), we talk about the military intervention by the U.S. that happened between 1965 and 1973.

For the first time, Americans saw a war playing out on their TV screens and witnessed a lot of the horrors that it brought and the citizens started to turn against the war. Throughout America, people started to hold large anti-war protests against the U.S. involvement in the war of Vietnam.

In January, 1973, peace talks finally seemed to have been successful and the Paris Peace Accords finally ended direct military involvement of the U.S. in Vietnam. Unfortunately the treaty did not stop the fighting, as both sides of Vietnam kept fighting to gain as much territory as possible. The communists managed to seize Saigon in 1975 and gained control over the whole country.

According to U.S. estimates, between 200 and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed during this period and 58,200 U.S. soldiers were dead or missing in action.

(See Main Article: The M-16 And The Vietnam War )

In 1959, America chose the M-14 to be our main battle rifle.  It would prove to be the shortest-lived rifle to ever serve in that role.  Heavy and uncontrollable when fired on full auto, compared to the Soviet’s AK-47, the M-14 was obsolete at birth.  America needed a rifle to match her Space Age dreams.  Not surprisingly it was a subsidiary of an aerospace company that delivered that dream.  Armalite’s business was developing small arms that could then be sold to manufacturers.  Armalite employee,  Eugene Stoner  was given the canvas to create a masterpiece, and from his fertile mind came the rifle of the future.

The advantages of the M-16 over every other rifle on paper were stunning.  The magnitude of the change encompassed by Stoner’s design was the perfect complement to “Space Age” technology.  This gun was light, accurate, and had virtually no recoil.  Any soldier with a little training could put every round into a suitcase at 100 yards in under 2 seconds.   The ammo was lighter, cheaper, and deadly.   Early reports of wounds on enemy soldiers were so gruesome that they remained classified until the 80s.  Bullets would enter the body and pinball around inside doing horrific damage.  So impressed by the M-16s issued to the ARVN troops, Green Berets demanded to be issued the weapons in 1962.  The jump from the M-14 to the M-16 was equivalent to switching from prop planes to jets.  The design was sold to Colt and adopted by the US Military in 1964.  Optimism surrounding the gun was very high.  That should have been the first warning sign.

(See Main Article: #70: A Vietnam POW’s Story of 6 Years in the Hanoi Hilton — Amy Shively Hawk )

When consider major historical events that involved millions of people— World War 2, the Great Depression, the Cold War—it’s easy to forget that real people with their own stories were part of those events.

Today we’re zeroing in on one story. And that’s the story of James Shively, an Air Force Pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and spent six years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton POW camp. To talk with us is Amy Shively Hawk, Jim’s stepdaughter and author of the new book Six Years in the Hanoi Hilton: An Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in Vietnam.

After being shot down, Shively endured brutal treatment at the hands of the enemy in Hanoi prison camps. But despite unimaginable horrors in prison, the contemplation of suicide, and his beloved girlfriend moving on back home, he somehow found hope escaping prison and eventually reuniting with his long-lost love – proving, in his words, that “Life is only what you make of it.”

In this interview we discuss:

  • How Capt. Shively was shot down, what happened when he was captured, and his fate at the hands of Vietnamese villagers
  • What kept Captain Shively hopeful during his six years as a prisoner of war
  • What happened to the whole prison when two fellow inmates escaped but were captured the next day
  • How prisoners built a full prison communications system using Morse code, toilet paper, and hidden messages even though cell blocks were forbidden from speaking to each other under threat of torture

 Aircraft: Evolution in Flight

(See Main Article: Vietnam War Aircraft: Evolution in Flight )

“The Many Ways To Die While Building an Aircraft Carrier”

For the full  “History Unplugged” podcast, click  here !

At the start of 1962, the U.S. had 16,000 military advisors training the South Vietnamese army in its fight against the Viet Cong and the Communist government based in Hanoi. In early February, the Pentagon set up a permanent U.S. military presence in Saigon—the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV). The U.S. military presence in a country that most Americans knew very little about would only grow from that point on.

In April, Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay went to Vietnam for an inspection tour and met with the head of MACV, General Paul Harkins, as well as the President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. While MACV was concentrating its efforts in the South, LeMay saw that the real problem was clearly coming from the North. LeMay made the same recommendation he made twelve years earlier, for Korea—if the U.S. intended to stop this infiltration, a massive bombing campaign of the North would do the trick. LeMay zeroed in on the port facility in Haiphong, where the weapons and supplies were coming in from the Soviet Union, and proposed bombing it. He believed this would put a halt to the guerrilla war in the South, but the plan was much too bold for the tentative steps that the Kennedy Administration was making in Vietnam in 1962.

 Aircraft: A Focus on Bombers

Ten years and 59,000 American lives later, the U.S. did exactly what LeMay had suggested. From December 19 to 29, 1972, the Air Force and Navy conducted Linebacker II, the largest concentrated bombing since World War II. The bombing of the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, and the port of Haiphong was conducted by such Vietnam War aircraft as tactical fighters, along with 741 B-52 sorties. Ten B-52s were shot down, five crash-landed in Laos and Thailand, thirty-three B-52 crewmen were killed, thirty-three were captured, and twenty-six were rescued. After years of stops and starts, the massive bombing of Vietnam War aircraft finally pushed the North Vietnamese to hammer out a negotiated settlement that gave the U.S. a way to extricate itself from its tortured involvement.

Decades later, the political debate over this conflict remains unresolved. Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen strongly disagreed with the suggestion that the conflict may have ended sooner had LeMay’s plan been followed ten years earlier, “I don’t know how you can say this so many years after the fact, especially when you consider that the Vietnamese had been fighting for their independence since forever and the idea that some bombs in Hanoi or Haiphong would have brought them to the table is ludicrous.”

But former Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, countered Sorensen’s view. “That’s ridiculous, the myth that it was a civil war. What destroyed Vietnam was that 18 divisions came down from the North in 1975. There was nationalism in Hanoi but not in the South and it was the North imposing its view on the South.”   Schlesinger also points out that had the strikes taken place earlier when LeMay suggested them, the Soviet surface-to-air missiles would not have been in place, saving the U.S. planes and crews that were shot down a decade later.

Vietnam highlighted the greatest difference between LeMay’s philosophy of war and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s. The Defense Secretary pushed for what he called flexible response from the very start of the U.S. involvement in the conflict: namely, offering the enemy a way out; however, if they show aggression, match the aggression, but only proportionately. Consequently, the full weight of the growing American military was never brought to bear on the North. Ground would be fought over in the South and then abandoned only to be fought over again and again, always with more casualties. The North would be bombed and then the bombing would be halted. It was a completely different strategy than the one the U.S. used in World War II.

LeMay thought flexible response was counterintuitive; it ran completely against his doctrine of war. If a war is not worth winning, LeMay’s answer was simple: do not get involved in the first place. Consequently, as LeMay watched the troop levels expand along with U.S. casualties, he grew more and more angry. The focal point of that anger was McNamara. As the conflict dragged on, he also grew furious with Lyndon Johnson because he believed McNamara and LBJ lied to the American people about the war. While the Vietnam War deeply divided the country, it would create major fissures within the government as well.

(See Main Article: End of the Vietnam War )

Beset at home and abroad, in 1968 Lyndon Johnson decided against running for re-election. In March he banned bombing north of the twentieth parallel, leaving most of North Vietnam a sanctuary. He was succeeded by Republican Richard M. Nixon, who largely limited offensive air operations over the North for nearly four years. One example will suffice: from 1965 through 1968 Navy aircrews downed thirty-three enemy aircraft, but over the next three years, tailhookers splashed only one. Meanwhile, “peace talks” trickled out in Paris. The end of the Vietnam War was in sight.

“After Watergate, Richard Nixon Created the Career Path for All Ex-Presidents”

Then, on March 30, 1972, Hanoi launched a full-scale conventional attack against South Vietnam, shattering the dead-end Paris “peace talks.” American airpower responded massively.

Leading  Constellation ’s   Air Wing Nine was Commander Lowell “Gus” Eggert, a cheerful aviator who enjoyed partying with his aircrews. Eggert’s keen intuition told him the 1971–72 cruise might be different from the previous three years. He began training his squadrons for large “Alpha” strikes in addition to the usual close air support in South Vietnam and Laos.

“Connie” completed her six-month deployment, and on April 1 she was in Japan preparing to return to California when the North Vietnamese spring offensive rolled south. Sailors and aircrews hastily offloaded their new purchases—notably motorcycles—and began loading ordnance. The ship was back in the Tonkin Gulf five days later, joining Hancock ,  Coral Sea , and  Kitty Hawk . By then the communists had beefed up their air defenses, and on one mission over South Vietnam, an Intruder pilot had to abort his attack because a cloud of tracers obscured the reticle of his bombsight.

After further delay, Nixon finally loosed the airmen in order to quicken the end of the Vietnam War. A Phantom pilot recalled, “We had reports of 168 SAMs on the first night after Nixon got serious in May. But that was coordinated with massive B-52 raids supported by three carrier air wings.”

On May 9 a handful of aircraft demonstrated the carrier’s potential for strategic effects with extreme economy of force. While  Kitty Hawk  provided a diversionary strike,  Coral Sea launched nine jets that turned the Vietnam war around in two minutes: six Navy A-7Es and three Marine A-6As laid three dozen mines in Haiphong Harbor. The weapons were time-delayed to allow ships to leave North Vietnam’s major port. During the next three days, thousands more mines were sown in Hanoi’s coastal waters, effectively blockading the communists from seaborne replenishment. Commander Roger Sheets’s Air Wing Fifteen, on its seventh Vietnam deployment, shut down Haiphong for almost a year—well beyond the impending “peace” treaty.

The mines were frequently replenished, eventually totaling more than eleven thousand weapons. Sometimes the “reseeding” involved unconventional tactics, as when  Saratoga ’s   Air Wing Three employed Phantoms flying formation on Intruders and Corsairs in what one F-4 pilot called “a one-potato, two-potato” drop sequence, based on when the attack jets released.

Finally, Phantom crews could ply their trade again. From January 1972 through January 1973, carrier-based F-4s claimed twenty-five aerial kills—nearly as many as the Navy total in the first six years of the Vietnam war. The tailhookers’ best day was May 10. That morning a two-plane VF-92 section off Constellation  trolled Kep Airfield and caught two MiG-21s taking off. The high-speed, low-level chase ended with one MiG destroyed which, with the Air Force bombing the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi, sparked an exceptional response.

That afternoon “Connie” launched thirty-two planes against Hai Duong logistics, producing one of the biggest combats of the war with Phantoms, Corsairs, and MiGs embroiled in a “furball” of maneuvering jets. When it was over, two F-4s fell to flak and SAMs while VF-96 claimed six kills, producing the Navy’s only ace crew of the Vietnam war. In all, the Navy and Air Force downed a dozen MiGs, which remains an unsurpassed one-day total more than forty years later.

During Operation Linebacker—the final air campaign over North Vietnam, signally the end of the Vietnam War—American aircrews claimed seventy-two aerial kills versus twenty-eight known losses to MiGs, an overall exchange ratio of 2.5–1. However, the Navy’s intensive fighter training program from 1969 onward produced exceptional results. “Topgun” graduates and doctrine yielded twenty-four MiGs against four carrier planes lost, including a lone Vigilante escorted by fighters. In contrast to the Navy’s 6–1 kill ratio, the Air Force figure was closer to 2–1, approaching parity in some months.

The disparity between the two services was dramatically illustrated in August 1972, when four F-8E Crusaders from  Hancock  deployed to Udorn, Thailand, to update Air Force Phantom crews on air combat maneuvering. The senior Navy pilot was already a MiG killer, Commander John Nichols, who noted, “My biggest challenge was keeping my guys from lording it over the blue suiters.”

Throughout the war and up to the end of the Vietnam War, naval aviators shot down sixty enemy aircraft—all by carrier pilots. It was a stark contrast to Korea when barely a dozen communist planes were credited to tailhookers among fifty-four total by Navy and Marine pilots.

In fact, the reason for carrier-based fighters was to establish air superiority so the attack planes could perform their vital mission. Skyraiders, Skyhawks, Intruders, and Corsairs seldom worried about enemy aircraft while placing ordnance on target the length and breadth of Indochina. Few aircrews and probably few admirals realized how far carrier aviation had come since the start of World War II. Long gone was the era when airpower theorists insisted that sea-based aircraft could not compete with land-based planes. If nothing else, Vietnam confirmed that naval aviation was a world-class organization.

On two days in October 1972, Commander Donald Sumner led USS  America  (CVA-66) A-7 Corsairs against Thanh Hoa Bridge, a vital communist transportation target. One of his pilots, Lieutenant Commander Leighton Smith, had first bombed the bridge as a  Coral Sea  A-4 pilot in 1966. The Air Force had badly damaged “The Dragon’s Jaw,” but spans remained intact. With a combination of two thousand-pound TV-guided weapons and conventional one-ton bombs, the naval aviators finally slew the long-lived dragon, more than seven years after the first U.S. efforts.

During the eleven-day “Christmas War” of 1972, carrier aircraft again supported B-52s in bombing an intransigent Hanoi back to the bargaining table. By then Hanoi was nearly out of SA-2 missiles.

The Paris accords among Washington, Saigon, and Hanoi took effect on January 27, 1973. They were the diplomatic efforts that signaled the end of the Vietnam War. On that day Commander Harley Hall, a former Blue Angel leader and the commander of an Enterprise  F-4 squadron, became the last naval aviator shot down in the long war. His Phantom fell north of the Demilitarized Zone, and though his back-seater survived captivity, Hall did not. Long thereafter his widow learned that he had probably lived two or more years in captivity, abandoned by his government with unknown numbers of other men.

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Cindy A. Nguyen

Cindy A. Nguyen

Q. When does the ‘modern’ begin in Vietnamese history? A Historiography Essay (Alexander Woodside, George Dutton, Benedict Anderson, David Marr, Charles Keith)

Below is a historiographical paper that I wrote for Professor Peter Zinoman’s seminar on Southeast Asian Historiography in Fall 2015.

Modernity and the Modern Era in Histories of Vietnam: A Historiography Essay


When does the ‘modern era’ begin in Vietnamese history? How does it compare to other eras in Vietnamese history? What are the characteristics of Vietnamese modernity? The question of ‘the modern’ consumes debates in colonial and post-colonial studies, and is often entrenched within debates regarding the nation state and Western imperialism. While the question of modernity and the modern era has been intensely debated in East Asia and South Asia, critical studies of modernity still remain limited in Southeast Asia and Vietnam. [1] In this essay, I will explore the question of the modern era in Vietnamese history and situate this within Dipesh Charkabarty’s post-colonial critiques of studies on modernity. I demonstrate that Vietnam scholars approach the topic of the modern era and modernity in three different ways: first, the modern era is characterized by political integration, centralization, and bureaucratic systems of rule; second, the modern era is characterized by ‘modern’ forms of bureaucratic governance, technologies, and consumerism often ushered in by Western colonial influences; or third, the modern era is tied to the modern nation-state. To frame this another way, Vietnam scholars have located the beginning of the modern era within institutions of centralization and bureaucracy from the fifteenth century to nineteenth century, in colonial capitalism and Western ideologies of the 1886 to 1945 French colonial period, or in the debates regarding the Vietnamese modern nation-state and nationalism in the twentieth century.

In the groundbreaking book Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Dipesh Chakrabarty demonstrates how ‘Europe’ and constructs of Western modernity have been universalized to understand non-Western histories. [2] Chakrabarty explains, “The phenomenon of ‘political modernity’–namely, the rule by modern institutions of the state, bureaucracy, and capitalist enterprise–is impossible to think of anywhere in the world without invoking certain categories and concepts, the genealogies of which go deep into the intellectual and even theological traditions of Europe.” [3] Chakrabarty argues that the European construct of modernity and development emanating from Europe enabled and justified Western colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth century. This interpretation of the non-West as a civilization “not-yet” modern continues to influence contemporary histories of Asia. In response, Chakrabarty provincializes European political modernity and the modern state institutions by investigating how the Bengali middle class experience modernity.

Chakrabarty continues to explore the study of modernity in the non-West in his later works. In the American historical Review Roundtable, “The Muddle of Modernity” Dipesh Chakrabarty examines scholarly use of the labels ‘modernity’, ‘modernization’, and ‘modernism’ in recent years in studies of the East. [4] Examining the work of scholars such as Sheldon Pollock, C.A. Bayly, and Jadunath Sarkark, Chakrabarty claims that the recent attempt to democratize the word modernity to the non-West muddles the political and historical understanding of modernity entrenched in Euro-centric institutions and concepts. Chakrabarty explains the distinctions between modernity and modernization:

Modernity in the West thus alludes to two separate projects that are symbiotically connected. One refers to processes of building the institutions (from parliamentary and legal institution to roads, capitalist businesses, and factories) that are invoked when we speak of modernization. The other refers to the development of a degree of reflective, judgmental thinking about these processes. The latter is what is often invoked by the term “modernity. The distinction is, of course, only analytical, for the development of ideas and the development of institutions are in reality intertwined processes. [5]

Chakrabarty pushes against the use of the concept of modernity to describe what is actually ‘modernization,’ the institutional and infrastructural change over time. Chakrabarty concludes that historians must be more cognizant of the “normative freight that the word “modernity,” with all its diverse and somewhat slippery meanings” implies in different historical and political contexts. [6]

From his book and article, Chakrabarty’s critiques on studies of modernity in the non-West can be generalized into three arguments: (1) interpretations of modernity rely on European constructs of modern institutions and ideologies and reaffirm ‘Europe’ as the standard of modernity, a “silent referent in historical knowledge” [7] ; (2) in many cases modernity is understood to have been introduced to the East through encounters with the West and colonialism; and (3) scholarship does not distinguish between modernity, modernization, and modernism. Chakrabarty’s critiques of scholarship on modernity emphasize (1) the problem of Euro-centric definitions of modernity as well as (@) ambiguous terminology to describe the complex socio-political phenomena of modernity in different historical contexts. I will evaluate how these problematic slippages of a Euro-centric understanding of modernity persist throughout studies of Vietnamese history. At the same time, my historiography demonstrates how scholars propose alternative schemas of modernity specific to the case of Vietnam. The three different approaches I will examine include bureaucratic traditions and alternative modernitites in pre-colonial Vietnam, colonial modernity and practices in French colonial Vietnam, and the modern nation-state of twentieth century Vietnam.

Argument One: Alternative Modernities, Autonomous Histories, and Asian Political and Bureaucratic Traditions in Pre-Colonial Vietnam

In the 2006 book Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History, Alexander Woodside examines the development of the mandarinate political system in Vietnam, China, and Korea. [8] Woodside argues that the political and administrative theory and practices of these three mandarinates demonstrate an alternative political rationality to the “Western modernity” shaped by the industrial revolution and capitalism. In this way, Woodside strives towards a pluralized definition of ‘modernities’ that “allows us to begin to uncover the traditions of discursive rationality that the cruder singular notion of the modern has obscured; or at least to end uses of the singular term for the modern that merely camouflage one civilization’s historical self-centeredness.” [9] Although Woodside does not cite Dipesh Charkrabarty explicitly, his study is a methodological intervention to provincialize and decenter modern political systems away from Europe. Woodside thus grounds his understanding of modernity in the mandarinate political system—a nonhereditary merit-based power system that produced a structure of bureaucratic accountability, a culture of responsibility to the larger political system, and the communication of standards for officials.

Lost Modernities is an ambitious study that challenges standard concepts of modern nation states and political systems. Pushing against the area studies division of East Asia and Southeast Asia, Woodside situates the three mandarinates within a shared political and religious world of Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, the experience of Chinese Han-Tang empire (Korea and northern Vietnam) and Chinese influence upon writing systems, law codes, veritable records of history, and specialized ministries. [10] However, rather than attaching the system of mandarinates entirely to China and Confucianism, he emphasizes the plural definitions and localized experimentations of the much smaller mandarinates in both Vietnam and Korea. Woodside defines mandarinates as political systems administered by Confucian scholar-officials who hold limited terms of office and are evaluated by a complex set of civil service examinations, personnel evaluations, moral code, and hierarchy of rewards and responsibilities.

Woodside engages with prevailing theorists on modernity and bureaucratic state formation such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Harold Perkin, Anthony Giddens, and Max Weber to understand how China, Vietnam, and Korea developed diverse post-feudal ideals of a merit-based bureaucracy. Additionally, he draws from early modern histories of the Holy Roman Empire, European feudal aristocracies and civil service systems to offer alternative ways of thinking of modern nation-based political systems. Woodside also situates his study within the postcolonial theoretical intervention of western hegemonic concepts of nation and historical time.

Woodside continues to explain how the how Asian mandarinates and modernities ‘lost’ to Western scientific management theory. Influenced by the American thinker Frederick Winslow Taylor in the beginning of the twentieth century, Western scientific management theory claimed that scientific methods could be applied to human workers’ productivity. Applied to factories and steel mills, the link between classification of human labor and material output transferred to organization of civil service work. Woodside explains the spread of “Taylorism” to British and American government by the 1920s and China by the 1930s. [11] The influence of Western scientific management theory thus overtook the mandarinate political system and bureaucratic theory. Woodside adds that the histories of these modernities were ‘lost’ within colonial and post-colonial histories. French colonizers of Vietnam (1880s to 1945) preserved the character of the Vietnamese mandarinate in Tonkin and Annam, but stripped the institution of its moral values and political influence as a “symbol of Vietnamese inferiority to their European rulers.” [12] Additionally, the Communist revolutions in China and Vietnam further  encouraged a view of the mandarinates as an archaic, despotic, and static while privileging processes of scientific governance and efficiency.

In this way, Lost Modernities combines political science concepts of governmental systems, scientific management theory, and systems theory with postcolonial arguments for alternative narratives of modern political systems. At times though these theoretical and polemical interventions become unruly and uproot Woodside’s argument from historical specificity. Furthermore, the recuperative attempt to center East Asian ‘achievements’ of mandarinate modernity consumes the argument of the text, shrouding other Woodside’s other observations such as, the Vietnamese challenge to develop a critical mass of talent to staff the mandarinate system. Nevertheless, this book is one of the few that approach the question of modernity directly and situate modernity prior to direct Western political and economic influence in the region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In his earlier work Vietnam and the Chinese Model published in 1971 , Alexander Woodside analyzes how Confucian institutions were adopted and adapted by the nineteenth century Vietnamese Nguyen dynasty. [13] The five chapters examine themes of acculturation, civil administration, court bureaucrats and provincial administration, and education and exams. Among the tremendous details of bureaucratic, administrative, and educational comparisons between Vietnam and China, Woodside elaborates on the local variants of Confucian systems in Vietnam. He concludes that these differences were due to the overabundance of administrative units for the relatively smaller Vietnam, the cultural diversity and distance between bureaucrats and peasants, and the simplification and translation of Confucian bureaucracy as a coherent system.

In the preface to this ambitious work, Woodside engages briefly with the question of modernity. He mentions that the Tây-sơn Rebellion had not received enough attention and arguably marks the beginning of modern Vietnamese history. In this short aside, Woodside lists five important factors of the Tây Sơn Rebellion that led to more centralized, ‘modern’ forms of political and nationalistic thinking: the extensive involvement of Westerners in Vietnamese politics, the role of the Vietnamese peasantry as a socio-political battleground, the political unification of Vietnam, the struggle against China and Chinese merchant class in Vietnam, and the participation of other mainland Southeast Asian actors such as Cambodia, Siam, and Burma. These elements and consequences of the Tây Sơn Rebellion relate to the carving of the geographic and political boundaries of the modern nation space. [14]

Aside from this explicit reference to the beginning of ‘modern Vietnamese history,’ Woodside uses the word modern in the rest of the book as synonymous with ‘contemporary.’ Throughout Vietnam and the Chinese Model, the word ‘modern’ chronologically distinguishes the nineteenth century as politically and culturally distinct than later years. [15] Some examples of this use include “modern Hanoi,” “modern Vietnamese scholars,” and the “modern historian.” The use of ‘modern’ as a synonym for ‘contemporary’ is common in Vietnamese historiography written during and before the 1980’s and also in histories of pre-colonial Vietnam. This is due in part to the postcolonial and literary turn in the 1980’s and 1990’s, where scholars increasingly theorized and deconstructed the concept of the modern, colonial modernity, and the modern nation-state.

Thirty-five years later, Vietnam historian George Dutton finally took up Woodside’s comment about the Tây Sơn as the beginning of modern Vietnamese history in his important monograph The Tây Sơn Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth Century Vietnam. [16] Dutton challenges the two main historiographic interpretations of the Tây Sơn uprising: the nineteenth century Nguyen Dynasty court histories present the Tây Sơn as an uprising of bandits with no political legitimacy or popular support; in comparison, the mid twentieth century Vietnamese Communist historians framed the Tây Sơn uprising as a glorified collective peasant movement. [17] Dutton debunks the myth of Tây Sơn heroic political leadership and demonstrates how peasants continued to struggle under military service, heavy taxation, conflict, and forced labor under the thirty years of Tây Sơn administration.

As the first English language study of the Tây Sơn, this book examines the uprising and Tây Sơn period from the point of view of the different social groups involved. The chapters are divided into the historical, political, and geographic landscape and factors leading to the uprising, the leadership of the movement and claims to power, the experience of Vietnamese peasants under Tây Sơn rule, and the fate of the Chams, ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese Christians, and pirates or those living on the ‘social margins’ under Tây Sơn rule. Based on extensive historical sources of administrative records, the Nguyen Dynasty court histories, the Quốc sử quán (Historical academy), the Archives des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP), Dutton showcases the regional politics and diversity of Đàng Trong society during the Tây Sơn period.

Although Dutton does not theorize the modern era and modernity explicitly, Dutton’s approach to studying the political and social complexities of the Tây Sơn period offers a localized lens of understanding Vietnamese history without the burden of Western definitions of ‘modern’ political institutions and nation-states. Dutton provides a close analysis of Vietnamese concepts and strategies of kingship and how political-military leaders like the Tây Sơn brothers struggled in an economically and politically divided regime. Focused on the Tây Sơn brothers Nguyễn Nhạc, Nguyễn Huệ, and Nguyễn Lữ, Dutton examines the different ways in which the brothers claimed political legitimacy. While the Nguyen claimed authority through non-Confucian, military, and Buddhism and the Trinh claimed Confucian political authority and lineage, the Tây Sơn also relied upon popular beliefs concerning the supernatural, sanction of heaven, and claimed to assuage popular economic grievances. [18] Furthermore, Dutton resists from the simplistic conclusion that a unified Vietnam implied a modern Vietnamese nation-state. While Dutton concedes that the Tây Sơn uprising and Nguyen triumph under Nguyễn Ánh (Emperor Gia Long) in 1802 resulted in the unification of the country under a single leadership, he argues that the wars also exacerbated peasant grievances and political unrest.

Like Woodside, Dutton often uses the word ‘modern’ as synonymous with the adjective contemporary. Furthermore, Dutton places the Tây Sơn period within the broad periodization of the ‘early modern’ (between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries) characteristic of European chronologies and comparative Southeast Asianists such as Victor Lieberman and Anthony Reid. At the same time, Dutton approaches the Tây Sơn period with a lens of continuity rather than rupture from previous forms of political leadership, governance, and geopolitical relations.

In his important 1961 essay, “On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia,” John Smail drew attention to the post-colonial shift away from ‘Europe-centric’ histories to ‘Asia-centric’ understandings of Southeast Asia. [19] Rather than a moral-based claim to include indigenous voices, Smail encouraged a scholarly shift in both ‘perspective’ and topics considered of ‘relative importance.’ Smail called for a larger understanding of ‘autonomy’ to include the nuances of local social actors, the persistence of coherent social structures, and the important role of disruption and acculturation in Southeast Asian history. In this way, Alexander Woodside’s and George Dutton’s monographs offer ‘autonomous’ and alternative ways of understanding political modernity beyond European standards of bureaucratic institutions, political systems, and nation-states. Pluralizing understandings of modernity, Woodside attributes modernity in China, Vietnam, and Korea to the highly developed bureaucratic political system of mandarinates. Furthermore, both authors locate ‘modern’ political systems prior to the French colonial encounter of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In this way, the authors avoid the methodological pitfall of Euro-centric measures of modernity that Chakrabarty critiques. Woodside and Dutton demonstrate a Vietnam-centric, localized, and ‘autonomous’ history of Vietnam that emphasizes continuity of political culture and governance rather than a disruptive shift towards political modernity.

Argument II: Capitalism, Colonialism, and the Cultural Practices of Modernity

The next group of scholars locates the modern era in the early twentieth century social developments and influence of Western colonialism, capitalism, and urbanism. These scholars examine how modernity was discussed within the rapidly developing Vietnamese print media of the 1920’s and 1930’s—a cultural and political print sphere that facilitated new forms of political, cultural, and social consciousness. Certain goods and practices such as travel, dress, education abroad, leisurely activities like sports, dancing, and hunting proliferated throughout Vietnamese literature and newsprint. Within these pages, many of these social and cultural practices were conflated with ‘modernity’—a state of being associated with the West and defined antithetically against tradition, the past, or the status quo. In other words, these authors characterize the ‘modern era’ within the advent of Western imperialism and ‘modernity’ as the “reflective, judgmental thinking about these processes” of modernization and social change. [20]

In the edited volume The Reinvention of Distinction: Modernity and the Middle Class in Vietnam, the authors directly engage with the everyday practices of modernity in Vietnam. The editors Van Nguyen-Marshall, Lisa B. Welch Drummond, and Danièle Bélanger open the volume with the question “Who are the urban middle class in Vietnam?” and divide the volume’s chapters into a historical section and a contemporary section. In the introduction the authors locate modernity within the cities of Hanoi and Saigon throughout the twentieth century. The authors emphasize the importance of studying class and the rise of a distinct middle class in 1920s and 1930s Vietnam. They focus on the development of ‘class’ during the following historical moments: the rise of the colonial middle class and bourgeoisie class consciousness of the 1920’s, the discourse of socialist classlessness in North Vietnam and class disparity in South Vietnam during the Second Indochina War, and the contemporary program of market socialism in post-war đổi mới cities. Recognizing the potential problems of importing western concepts of the ‘middle class,’ to vietnam, the contributors to the volume nevertheless assert the usefulness of the concept to understand Vietnamese urban life, social relations, and “symbolic capital.” The authors draw from Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic capital and habitus, the “emobdiment of certain practices and ways of being and living that are unconsciously performed because they are learned through early life experience and socialization.” [21] In this way, the authors frame modernity as a set of practices embodied, performed, and reinvented, in social settings and in changing historical contexts. They argue that the Vietnamese urban middle class defined itself through creating a ‘distinction’ from the urban working poor and the emulation of wealthy and at times ‘Western’ behavior.

In one of the chapters “Advertising, Modernity, and Consumer Culture in Colonial Vietnam,” George Dutton examines advertisements to understand the relationship between consumer culture, the urban Vietnamese middle class, and perceptions of modernity in 1920’s and 1930’s Vietnam. Dutton argues that the pursuit of material objects and social advancement was an attempt to define and ‘partake’ of modernity in its “talismanic form.” Advertisements branded cosmetics, medicines, clothing, and foods as “new”, “scientific,” “improved”, “modern” and overall antithetical to tradition and the past. Dutton explains, “modernity, whatever its abstractions in rationality and scientific advances, was made manifest for the Vietnamese urbanite in the panoply of products and services advertised in newspapers of the day.” [22] In this way, newspaper advertisements evoked a sense of obtaining and performing ‘modernity’ through the conspicuous consumption of ‘modern’ products.

Dutton also analyzes how new forms of social identity emerged within the culture of consumerism and urban modernity. Dutton argues that the concept of a ‘rational consumer’ developed on the pages of advertisement; the consumer was increasingly individualistic but also part of a larger consumer community. [23] Dutton describes how the urban shift towards individualism was symbolized in changing gender norms, new definitions of love and relationships, and increasing attention to individual beauty, appearance, and public representation. Dutton explains that the development of consumer, middle class identity was centralized within the few cities that had a critical mass of Vietnamese residents, commercial industries, and a colonial administration such as Saigon-Chợ Lớn (with 300,000 inhabitants), Hải Phóng (200,000), and Hanoi (150,000). [24] Dutton expresses how within these primarily urban settings, Vietnamese dealt with questions of the ‘modern’ publicly through consumption and displays of modernity.

Dutton illustrates the newsprint debates on urbanism and modernity in his earlier article, “Lý Toét in the City: Coming to Terms with the Modern in 1930s Vietnam” published in 2007. [25] George Dutton examines the various manifestations of the cartoon character Lý Toét, a caricature of the country bumpkin learning to live in the city. Dutton argues that the character Lý Toét served two purposes: firstly, the bewilderment of Lý Toét reaffirmed the sense of sophistication amongst Vietnamese urbanite readers and secondly, his struggles with the physical dangers of everyday life in the city critiqued notions of progress and urbanization. Specifically, Dutton makes the case that this latter interpretation complicates the understanding of the Phong Hoá editorial team—the Self-Strength Literary Group—a group of literary writers known for advancing scientific knowledge, popular literature, and certain Western practices. Dutton argues that while Phong Hoá constantly discussed and advocated the progression towards ‘modernity,’ the group also saw progress as a tremendous threat. Dutton also claims that the Lý Toét character could reflect a popular mentalité of “the feelings, fears, and hopes of a wider cross-section of the literate Vietnamese public.” Through the character Lý Toét, modernity was experienced, performed, and contested. Print and literature functioned as the stage for individuals to make sense of the ambiguities of urbanization, and to understand modernity as both a benefit and a threat. [26]

Dutton’s study also sheds light on the development of Vietnamese print culture in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He argues that these new journals demonstrate the historical moment when “the past and “tradition” stood in dramatic contrast to the present and “modernity.” [27] In both the book chapter and this article, Dutton calls attention to how newspapers and advertisements relationally defined a concept of progress and modernity against the construct of the past and tradition. However, Dutton does not problematize modernity further. Dutton could have drawn from the period literature on modernization to reemphasize his important point about the inherent contradictions and uneven experience of modernization.

Although limited on one front, Dutton’s analysis of Lý Toét demonstrates how newspapers presented ‘modernity’ as a skill and knowledge to be acquired. Lý Toét’s humorous blunders in the urban landscape reminded Vietnamese readers the necessity to learn to ‘be modern.’ By interpreting Lý Toét through the multiple lenses of rural and urban contrasts and the learning of ‘modernity’, Dutton sheds light on how Vietnamese readers conceptualized the changing urban landscape of the 1930s. Although he does not engage heavily from a theoretical standpoint on debates about modernity, Dutton sheds light on the hesitancies and sense of dislocated ‘in-betweenedness’ that people felt regarding the experience of modernity and urbanism.

Dutton, Nguyen-Marshall, Drummond, and Bélanger are only a small subset of a large group of French colonial Vietnam scholars who locate the start of the modern era during the French colonial period. [28] These scholars especially focus on the interwar 1920’s and 1930’s as the epitome of modernity. The scholars discuss the social, economic, and ideological processes of modernity—or what Chakrabarty explains as the intertwined process of modernization and modernity. For these scholars, modernization takes the physical form of urbanization, colonial education, and Western science and consumer products. At the same time, these scholars call attention to the discursive debates on ‘modernity’ in the rapidly developing Vietnamese quốc ngữ (Romanized Vietnamese) and French language print sphere.

However, locating Vietnamese modernity in direct correlation to Western imperialism results in certain epistemological challenges. As Chakrabarty aptly stated, the reliance on European introduction of ‘modernity’ reinforces a binary of the East and pre-colonial history as a ‘not-yet modern’. In other words, this approach of a Western-initiated modernity overemphasizes the historical rupture of French colonialism to transform Vietnam from pre-modernity to modernity. Furthermore, the dramatization of colonial modernity can overgeneralize the very uneven experiences of Western cultural and political influences in Vietnam. [29] As Peter Zinoman points out in his book chapter “Provincial Cosmopolitanism,” many Vietnamese intellectuals engaged with global modernity in a random, uneven way, with dated French newspapers and translated works. [30] Zinoman emphasizes the particular, creative, and varied experience of ‘modernity’ in Vietnam, and reminds scholars of the possibility of a “coexistence of putatively opposite impulses” in Vietnamese cultural politics. Similar to Zinoman’s biographical study of Vũ Trọng Phụng, Christopher Goscha examines the nuanced experience and role of Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh and his understanding of modernity. In “The Modern Barbarian: Nguyen Van Vinh and the Complexity of Colonial Modernity in Vietnam,” Goscha demonstrates how Vĩnh served as a “cultural broker” between France and Vietnam, modernization and Westernization, tradition and modernity, and in turn created his own vision of modern Vietnam. [31] Both Zinoman’s and Goscha’s close study of Vũ Trọng Phụng and Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh offer a model for a deeper, more localized understanding experience of colonial modernity beyond generalizations of Western imperialism and colonial capitalism.

Argument III: Modernity, Anti-colonialism, Nation, and Nationalism

In the seminal work Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson argues that the nation is a new, modern phenomenon. [32] The seventeenth and eighteenth century witnessed the demise of previous forms of political systems that were shaped by a sacred language, dynastic power, and a sense of uneven cosmological temporality. By the eighteenth century, the emergence and spread of print-capitalism—the technological, mass production of newspapers and the novel and the spread of vernacular print languages—influenced individuals to think of themselves and relate to others in different ways. Anderson describes ‘homogoenous empty time’ as the process where individuals could envision parallel and plural realities and connect to other individuals in an ‘imagined community.’ The imagined community is one in which members will not know most of their fellow members, is finite with limited boundaries, sovereign power, and a community of fraternal, horizontal comradeship. For Benedict Anderson, the nation is a new, modern concept of community and political identity. The following group of Vietnam scholars also presents modernity within the context of the modern nation state and modern nationalism. Central to their thesis is the recognition that new, ‘modern’ forms of political identities emerged in twentieth century Vietnam.

In Catholic Vietnam: A Church from Empire to Nation, Charles Keith sheds light upon the role of the Vietnamese Catholic Church in the rise of Vietnamese nationalism and a ‘modern’ identity. [33] As the first comprehensive, English language study of the twentieth century Catholic Church in Vietnam, Keith rejects the current historiography of Vietnamese Catholics as simply supporters of French colonialism and in opposition to Vietnamese nationalism. Instead, Keith instills a sense of political and cultural agency for Vietnamese Catholics and indigenous religious organizations to critique the French colonial state. Keith demonstrates how a ‘national’ Catholic Church emerged in Vietnam after World War I through print culture and connection with global Catholicism. Keith reveals how the Vietnamese Catholic Church strategically identified with global Catholic movements and Vatican political stances on national self-identity and human dignity. Through this relationship with Rome and missionary political structures, Vietnamese Catholics were able to reposition themselves as a modern political and religious institution.

While the focus of the book is on the development of the Vietnamese Catholic Church and concepts of nation, Keith also demonstrates how Vietnamese Catholics contributed to a new, ‘modern’ political consciousness and nationalism. In chapter six, Keith examines the culture and politics of Vietnamese Catholic nationalism, and characterizes both Social Catholicism and Vietnamese Catholic anticommunism as a “modern, transnational phenomenon.” [34] In other parts of Catholic Vietnam, Keith describes Catholic political consciousness as tied to the rise of a modern national culture. As shown in Argument II on ‘modern’ colonial practices, the descriptor ‘modern’ increased in popularity to describe cultural and political ways of thinking in the first decades of the twentieth century. Keith shows how newspapers used terms such as ‘modern’ to describe certain social and political changes of the twentieth century. Writers contrasted the often ambiguous and all encompassing adjective ‘modern’ with ‘traditional,’ as a way to make social and cultural critiques. For example, one Catholic newspaper explained that “atheism and materialism of modern life made it less likely that Vietnamese youth might convert to Catholicism.” Keith also notes that Catholic writings on the question of women “worried that social change threatened women’s “traditional” roles as keepers of hearth and home; in the words of one priest, women’s rights nữ quyền should be ‘to preserve their dignity and righteousness’ and ‘respect their status.’” [35] In this way, Keith demonstrates how the formation of the national Vietnamese Catholic Church coincided with debates on modernity and political identities, or within a phenomenon Keith terms as ‘religious modernity.’

In Vietnamese Anticolonialism 1885-1925, historian David Marr addresses Vietnamese turn of the twentieth century responses to French colonialism and debates regarding the Vietnamese monarchy and civilization. [36] Marr highlights the motivations and limitations of movements such as the Cần Vương, the Đông Du and the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục. Characterized as scholar-gentry that came of age in 1900, this generation of anticolonialists dealt with the political and cultural experience of ‘mất nước’ (losing one’s country) and struggled to create a sense of national identity and survival. Marr characterizes the responses of Vietnamese intellectuals to French colonialism as a search for explanations for the current state of colonial subservience and a future within or outside of colonialism. In his concluding chapter called “Changing the Guard,” Marr describes a new generation of anticolonialists in the period after 1924. Described as “impatient at Mencius, Montesquieu, and Spencer” this new generation of youth would be participants in Lenin and Sun Yat-Sen inspired political organizations such as Thanh Niên Association, Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng, the Indochinese Communist Party, and the Fourth Comintern. For David Marr, the 1920s and 1930s marked the transition from a traditional scholar gentry generation of anticolonialists such as Phan Bội Châu and Phan Chu Trinh to a generation of ‘modern’ mass politics and intelligentsia.

Marr elaborates on this thesis in his second book, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945. [37] Marr examines the fundamental changes in political and social consciousness in the period 1920-1945. Drawing from the vibrant social and political debates of quốc ngữ newspapers, Marr organizes his book thematically on the themes of the colonial setting, morality, ethics and politics, language and literacy, the question of women, perceptions of the past, harmony and struggle, knowledge power, and learning from experience. Marr’s argument relies on a schema of three politically distinct generations of intellectuals: the scholar gentry at the turn of the twentieth century, the new intelligentsia of the 1920s and 1930s, and the Marxist-Leninist educated cadre (who later absorb the new intelligentsia). In contrast to the previous generation of scholar-gentry, the modern intelligentsia came of age within the socio-political changes of French colonialism—they were educated in French and Franco-Vietnamese schools and employed as clerks, teachers, and journalists. Marr explains that this generation “…stood unsteadily between two worlds and tried hard to envisage a third.” [38] With a Marxist lens on history, Marr again focuses on the intellectuals who were committed to “thinking, talking, reading, and writing about change.” [39] He focuses on the giới trí thức mới (new intelligentsia) of the 1920s and 1930s and the revolutionary cadre intellectual who rise in influence in the 1930s and 1940s. Marr argues that this generation drew from diverse sources of political and social ideologies such as voluntarism, Buddhism, science, Marxism-Leninism and “put on trial” these ideas as solutions to the injustices of colonialism.

Marr argues that the two new generations of intellectuals took on and constructed the concept of the modern to critique and contrast themselves with previous generations of Confucian, traditionalist intellectuals. He argues that by the 1920s, remnants of the past scholar gentry such as the Vietnamese emperor, mandarins, and education system had become evident as political and ideological failures to the new generation of intellectuals, whose iconoclasm pushed them towards new ideas to transform their current conditions. In other words, the new intelligentsia reflected, questioned, and reinvented the meaning of Vietnamese ‘tradition’ and its failures to enact social change.

Like Dutton and Keith, Marr also illustrates the trope of ‘tradition versus modernity’ in Vietnamese literature and socio-political debates. Duong Ba Trac’s essays explored the tension between “traditional values and enticements of modern education, material convenience, and sensual pleasures.” [40] In this way, Marr extends the concept of ‘modern’ further to encapsulate a generation who were concerned with social and political change of the status quo and ‘tradition.’

In this historiographical analysis, I examined the three general argumentative claims to the beginning of Vietnamese modernity. The first argument located the modern in bureaucratic and ‘Asian’ traditions of governance in pre-colonial Vietnam. The second argument placed modernity in the Western influences of colonial capitalism, education, and print technologies of the French colonial period. The third argument connected the question of the modern era to the modern nation state and modern political consciousness. As Dipesh Chakrabarty and other post-colonial scholars have argued, the question of modernity has been dominated by Euro-centric interpretations of history and the nation-state. In many ways, all three of these arguments analyzed directly respond to this critique of Euro-centric determinism in studies of modern Vietnam and modernity. By situating the modern era in pre-colonial Vietnam, Woodside and Dutton rejects the chronology of colonial modernity and emphasize the continuity of pre-twentieth century governmental institutions and political culture. French colonial scholars of Vietnam attempt to move away from the hegemonic influence of colonialism by focusing on Vietnamese discursive reflections on modernity. For Charles Keith and David Marr, positioning the modern era alongside the development of the nation reveals how modernity could also be a tool for political consciousness and empowerment. While most of these scholars do not directly problematize the use of the term ‘modern’ or ‘modernity,’ they also do not rely entirely on the ambiguous term of ‘modernity’ to explain historical processes of cultural and political identity.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. Imagined Communities Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism . Rev. ed. London; New York: Verso, 2006.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe:  Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference . New Haven, CT: Princeton University Press, 2000.

———. “The Muddle of Modernity.” The American Historical Review 116, no. 3 (June 1, 2011): 663–75.

Dutton, George. “Advertising, Modernity, and Consumer Culture in Colonial Vietnam.” In The Reinvention of Distinction: Modernity and the Middle Class in Urban Vietnam , edited by Van Nguyen-Marshall, Lisa Barbara Welch Drummond, Dani è le B é langer, and Barbara Welch, 21–42. Singapore: Springer, 2012.

———. “Lý Toét in the City: Coming to Terms with the Modern in 1930s Vietnam.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 2, no. 1 (February 1, 2007): 80–108.

Dutton, George Edson. The Tây Son Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam . Southeast Asia–Politics, Meaning, and Memory; Variation: Southeast Asia–Politics, Meaning, Memory. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006.

Goscha, Christopher. “The Modern Barbarian: Nguyen Van Vinh and the Complexity of Colonial Modernity in Vietnam.” European Journal of East Asian Studies 1, no. 3 (2004): 99–134.

Keith, Charles. Catholic Vietnam: A Church from Empire to Nation . University of California Press, 2012.

Marr, David G. Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925 . Berkeley: University of California [Press], 1971.

———. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945 . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Nguyen-Marshall, Van, Lisa Drummond, Dani è le B é langer, and Barbara Welch. The Reinvention of Distinction: Modernity and the Middle Class in Urban Vietnam . Singapore: Springer, 2012.

Shih, Shu-Mei. “Gender, Race, and Semicolonialism: Liu Na’ou’s Urban Shanghai Landscape.” The Journal of Asian Studies 55, no. 4 (November 1, 1996): 934–56.

———. The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917-1937 . Berkeley Series in Interdisciplinary Studies of China, Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Smail, John R. W. “On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia.” Journal of Southeast Asian History 2, no. 2 (July 1, 1961): 72–102.

Thongchai Winichakul. Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Woodside, Alexander. Lost Modernities China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

———. Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative Study of Vietnamese and Chinese Government in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Zinoman, Peter. “Provincial Cosmopolitanism: Vũ Trọng Phụng’s Foreign Literary Engagements.” In Traveling Nation-Makers: Transnational Flows and Movements in the Making of Modern Southeast Asia , edited by Caroline S. Hau and Kasian Tejapira, 126–52. Singapore: NUS Press, 2011.

[1] For a literature review of the extensive work on Chinese modernity and the May Fourth Movement, see Hung-Yok Ip, Tze-Ki Hon, and Chiu-Chun Lee, “The Plurality of Chinese Modernity,” Modern China 29, no. 4 (2003): 490-509.  The works examined included David Der-wei Wang’s (1997) Fin-de-Siecle Splendor, Lydiu Liu’s (1995) Translingual Practice, Leo Lee’s (1999) Shanghai Modern, and Yeh Wen-hsin’s (2000) Becoming Chinese. For a study on the complexities of modernity in India, see

[2] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe:  Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (New Haven, CT: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[3] Ibid. P. 4.

[4] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[5] Ibid. P. 669.

[6] Ibid. P. 674.

[7] Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe:  Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference . P. 28.

[8] Alexander Woodside, Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History , (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[9] Ibid. P. 9.

[10] For example, Woodside explains that the three mandarinates organized the central administration around six specialized ministries:  personnel and appointments; finance and taxes; rites and education; war; justice and punishment; and public works

[11] Woodside cites Chinese journals and organizations dedicated to increasing efficiency and rationality in administrative work during the Nationalist period and at the Chinese municipal level.

[12] Woodside, Lost Modernities China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History . P. 13.

[13] Alexander Woodside, Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative Study of Vietnamese and Chinese Government in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).

[14] As Thongchai Winichakul later elaborates in Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation , the demarcation of a physical territory of the geobody involves the process of ‘negative identification’ and understanding of other political, cultural spaces. Based on Woodside’s analysis, the extensive involvement of both Western and Southeast Asian actors within a local Vietnamese rebellion thus shaped the development of the modern Vietnamese geobody. Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994).

[15] The one time that Woodside uses the adjective ‘modern’ to mean something beyond a temporal designation is when he refers to the Sino-Vietnamese resistance to Christianity as an expression of the elite religion rather than “modern Western concept of the separation of church and state.” P. 284.

[16] George Edson Dutton, The Tây Son Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam , (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006).

[17] This conflation of the Tây Sơn uprising as an expression of popular peasant grievances and the valorization of the national hero Nguyen Hue remains the prevailing interpretation in contemporary Vietnam.

[18] Dutton, The Tây Son Uprising . P. 62-63.

[19] John R. W. Smail, “On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia,” Journal of Southeast Asian History 2, no. 2 (July 1, 1961): 72–102.

[20] Chakrabarty, “The Muddle of Modernity.” P. 669.

[21] Van Nguyen-Marshall et al., The Reinvention of Distinction: Modernity and the Middle Class in Urban Vietnam , Asia Research Institute Springer Asia Series (Singapore: Springer, 2012). 10.

[22] George Dutton, “Advertising, Modernity, and Consumer Culture in Colonial Vietnam,” in The Reinvention of Distinction: Modernity and the Middle Class in Urban Vietnam , ed. Van Nguyen-Marshall et al., Asia Research Institute Springer Asia Series (Singapore: Springer, 2012), 21–42.

[23] Ibid. P. 22.

[24] P. Galstady, La Cochinchine (Saigon: Société des Études Indochinoises, 1931) pp. 32, 34 and Eugène Teston and Maurice Percheron, L’indochine Moderne: Encyclopédie Administrive, Touristique, Artistique, et Économique (Paris: Librarie de France, 1931). pp. 454, 537, 543 as cited in Ibid., 23.

[25] George Dutton, “Lý Toét in the City: Coming to Terms with the Modern in 1930s Vietnam,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 2, no. 1 (February 1, 2007): 80–108.

[27] Ibid. P. 80.

[28] Other important Vietnam scholars who discuss modernity and modernization during the French colonial period include Christopher Goscha, Shawn McHale, Gwendolyn Wright, and Peter Zinoman.

[29] The writings of Shu-Mei Shih on ‘semicolonial’ China analyze Chinese intellectuals’ uneven and translated interpretations of Western modernity. Shu-Mei Shih, “Gender, Race, and Semicolonialism: Liu Na’ou’s Urban Shanghai Landscape,” The Journal of Asian Studies 55, no. 4 (November 1, 1996): 934–56,; Shu-Mei Shih, The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917-1937 , Berkeley Series in Interdisciplinary Studies of China, Vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[30] Peter Zinoman, “Provincial Cosmopolitanism: Vũ Trọng Phụng’s Foreign Literary Engagements,” in Traveling Nation-Makers: Transnational Flows and Movements in the Making of Modern Southeast Asia , ed. Caroline S. Hau and Kasian Tejapira (Singapore: NUS Press, 2011), 126–52.

[31] Christopher Goscha, “The Modern Barbarian: Nguyen Van Vinh and the Complexity of Colonial Modernity in Vietnam,” European Journal of East Asian Studies 1, no. 3 (2004): 99–134.

[32] Benedict R. O’G Anderson, Imagined Communities Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism , Rev. ed (London; New York: Verso, 2006).

[33] Charles Keith, Catholic Vietnam: A Church from Empire to Nation (University of California Press, 2012).

[34] Ibid. P. 200.

[35] Ibid. P. 130-131.

[36] David G Marr, Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).

[37] David G Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

[38] Ibid. P. 9.

[39] Ibid. P. 31.

[40] Ibid. P. 124.

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Vietnamese Culture 101: 15 Key Traditions and Customs


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1. observing confucian values is a key tradition in vietnamese culture.


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2. Celebrating the Lunar New Year is a key Vietnamese tradition

3. the conical hat is an emblem of vietnamese cultural identity.


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4. Sticky rice is a culinary staple with endless variations

5. the vietnamese traditional garments showcase grace and elegance.


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6. The art of traditional embroidery is a generational custom

7. the mid-autumn festival celebrates family and festivities.


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8. Vietnamese culture promotes a family-centered society

9. ancestor worship in vietnamese culture is held in high regard.

Vietnam traditions

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10. Respect for elders is an ageless Vietnamese custom

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11. Communal dining and sharing meals is the way of life

12. water puppetry remains a unique tradition to behold.

Vietnamese traditions

Steven C. Price , CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

13. Loyalty to the community is an important Vietnamese cultural custom

14. folklore and myths are central to vietnamese culture.


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15. Traditional medicine and wellness practices are crucial in Vietnamese culture

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Áo Dài: History and Significance in Vietnamese Culture

May 3, 2010 by Isabella Nga Lai 2 Comments

This article was jointly written by Neil Nguyen and Isabella Nga Lai .

Looking at my mom’s old school pictures, (I) Isabella was inspired to write this article about one of the key essence of Vietnamese culture: the Ao Dai.  Coincidentally, Neil also did a write-up about the ao dai so we decided to combine our two pieces into this story today. The beauty and gracefulness of this dress leave a deep impression in foreigners  who visit Vietnam, and it has a strong effect in our hearts as well.

There are many things that deeply impress people about Vietnam, among them is the Áo Dài. Those who know about Vietnamese culture or have visited Vietnam are often fond of the Áo Dài. Áo Dài is Vietnam’s national outfit; it is usually worn during special occasions such as Tet, holidays, or weddings. Beside special occasions, Vietnamese high school girls also wear Áo Dài to class everyday.

Let’s have a close look at the Áo Dài:

(courtesy of Tran The Vinh)

History of Áo Dài:

The origins of Áo Dài trace back to 18th century where ‘Lord  Nguyen Phúc Khoát of  Hue decreed that both men and women at his court needed to adorn trousers and a gown with buttons down the front. Writer  Lê Quý Dôn described the newfangled outfit as the áo dài (long shirt)’.

(courtesy of Kauffner)

In the 19th century, Áo Dài evolved to áo ng? thân: ‘The  áo ng? thân has two flaps sewn together in the back, two flaps sewn together in the front, and a “baby flap” hidden underneath the main front flap. The gown appears to have two-flaps with slits down both sides, a feature preserved in the present day Áo Dài.’

In 1930, Cát T??ng, a designer of Hanoi, created Áo Dài Le Mur with the inspiration from áo ng? thân and Paris fashion.

In 1950, the designers in Saigon tightened the fit to create the modern Áo Dài.

While its origins date back to ancient Vietnamese clothing, the modern version of the dress has transformed with foreign influences.  Nevertheless, the signature style is not lost: the ao dai is described as a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over pantaloons.

And there we have it as it is today! (with some fashionable variations).

(courtesy of xcanbiet)

Ao Dai’s colors and significance

Ao Dai comes in many different styles.  The color  indicates the wearer’s age and status.  Young girls wear the white Ao Dai, a typical school uniform which is often considered as the world’s most elegant and graceful school attire.  This white garment symbolizes youthful innocence and the wearer’s coming of age.  One of the most marvelous scene in Vietnam is when hundreds of school girls doned in white Ao Dai leave the gate of their school.  This sea of innocence and purity can melt the most hardened of hearts.

Ao Dai with soft pastel shades are commonly worn by older, unmarried girls in her mid-to-late 20’s.  Younger girls can also wear these colors, but typically only to special occasions.  Married women wear ao dai in strong, vibrant colors, usually over white or black pants.

Ao Dai Contests

Occasionally, there would be ao dai contests.  Usually held at Tet festival pageants (Read more on Tet Festivals around the US in OneVietnam’s blog article Spring Festival of Love ), ao dai holds a large significance in Vietnamese traditions.

The Ao Dai Significance

OneVietnam Network loves the ao dai.  As a girl (Isabella), I believe that this dress is a national symbol of femininity.  As a boy (Neil), I enjoy the elegance and grace exuded when I see women wearing it.  How do you view the Ao Dai?

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  • Countries and Their Cultures
  • Culture of Vietnam

Culture Name


Identification. The name Vietnam originated in 1803 when envoys from the newly founded Nguyen dynasty traveled to Beijing to establish diplomatic relations with the Chinese court. The new emperor had chosen the name Nam Viet for his kingdom. The word Viet he derived from the traditional name for the Vietnamese imperial domain and its people in what is now northern and central Vietnam. Nam (south) had been added to acknowledge the expansion of the dynasty's domain into lands to the south. The Chinese objected to this new name because it was the same as an ancient state that had rebelled against Chinese rule. They therefore changed it to Viet Nam. Vietnamese officials resented the change and it did not attain public acceptance until the late 1800s.

The story of the origin of Vietnam's name captures several prominent themes that have run throughout the nation's history. As the usage of Viet indicates, the Vietnamese have for centuries had a sense of the distinctiveness of their society and culture. However, as the inclusion of Nam shows, the land they inhabit has expanded over time, and also has its own internal divisions into northern, central, and southern regions. Additionally, as evidenced by the name change, their history has been profoundly influenced by their contact with other, often more powerful, groups.

Vietnam today stands at a crossroads. It has been at peace for over a decade, but since the 1986 introduction of the "Renovation" or Doi Moi policy that began dismantling the country's socialist economy in favor of a market economy, the country has experienced tremendous social changes. Some have been positive, such as a general rise in the standard of living, but others have not, such as increased corruption, social inequality, regional tensions, and an HIV-AIDS epidemic. The Communist Party still exercises exclusive control over political life, but the question of whether Vietnam will continue its socio-economic development in a climate of peace and stability remains uncertain at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Location and Geography. Vietnam occupies approximately 127,243 square miles (329,560 square kilometers), an area roughly equivalent to New Mexico, and is situated between 8 and 24 degrees latitude and 102 and 110 degrees longitude. It borders China in the north, Laos in the northeast and center, and Cambodia in the southwest. Its 2,135 miles (3,444 kilometers) of coastline run from its border with Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand along the South China Sea to its border with China. The delineation of Vietnam's borders has been a focus of dispute in the post–1975 period, notably the ownership disputes with China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia over the Spratly Islands; and with China and Taiwan over the Paracel Islands. Recent progress has been made settling land border disputes with China and Cambodia. The Vietnamese culturally divide their country into three main regions, the north ( Bac Bo ), center ( Trung Bo ), and south ( Nam Bo ), with Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) serving as the main cities of each region. Hanoi, the site of the former capital of one of the country's earliest dynasties, has been the capital of the unified Vietnam since 1976.


Demography. The current population is approximately seventy-seven million composed almost exclusively of indigenous peoples. The largest group is the ethnic Vietnamese ( Kinh ), who comprise over 85 percent of the population. Other significant ethnic groups include the Cham, Chinese, Hmong, Khmer, Muong, and Tai, though none of these groups has a population over one million. Expatriates of many nationalities reside in urban areas. The country's two largest population centers are Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but over 75 percent of the population lives in rural areas. The country's birth rate, estimated to increase at 1.37 percent per year, has led to rapid population growth since the 1980s with approximately 34 percent of the population under 14 years of age.

Linguistic Affiliation. Vietnamese is the dominant language, spoken by an estimated 86.7 percent of the population. It is a tonal Mon-Khmer language with strong Chinese lexical influences. The six-toned dialect of the central Red River delta region, particularly around Hanoi, is regarded as the language's standard form, but significant dialectical variations exist between regions in terms of the number of tones, accents, and vocabulary. Dialectical differences often serve as important symbols of regional identity in social life. As the official language, Vietnamese is taught in schools throughout the country. Since the 1940s, Vietnamese governments have made great progress in raising literacy rates and approximately 90 percent of the adult population is literate. During the twentieth century the country's elite have mastered a variety of second languages, such as French, Russian, and English, with the latter being the most commonly learned second language today. Linguists estimate that approximately eighty-five other languages from the Austro-Asiatic, Austronesian, Daic, Miao-Yiao, and Sino-Tibetan language families are indigenous to the country. These range from languages spoken by large numbers of people, such as Muong (767,000), Khmer (700,000), Nung (700,000), Tai Dam (over 500,000), and Chinese (500,000), to those spoken by only a few hundred people, such as O'Du, spoken by an estimated two hundred people. Many minority group members are bilingual, though not necessarily with Vietnamese as their second language.

Symbolism. The Vietnamese government extensively employs a number of symbols to represent the nation. These include the flag, with its red background and centered, five-pointed gold star; a variety of red and gold stars; the image of Ho Chi Minh; and representations of workers and soldiers. Images and statues of the latter, wearing green pith helmets and carrying weapons, are common in public places. Images of Ho are ubiquitous, adorning everything from currency to posters on buildings to the portraits of him commonly found hanging in northern Vietnamese homes. Ho was a strong advocate of national unity and referred to all Vietnamese as "children of one house." Other commonly visible symbols are the patterns of seabirds and other figures featured on Dong Son drums. These drums, manufactured by early residents of northern Vietnam in the first and second millennia B.C. , represent the nation's antiquity. Since Vietnam began developing its tourist industry in the late 1980s, a number of other images have become commonplace, such as farmers in conical hats, young boys playing flutes while riding on the back of buffalo, and women in ao dai , the long-flowing tunic that is regarded as the national dress.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Many Vietnamese archeologists and historians assert that the origins of the Vietnamese people can be reliably traced back to at least the fifth or sixth millennium B.C. when tribal groups inhabited the western regions of the Red River delta. A seminal event in the solidification of Vietnamese identity occurred in 42 B.C.E. when China designated the territory as its southern-most province and began direct rule over it. China would rule the region for almost one thousand years, thereby laying the foundation for the caution and ambivalence that Vietnamese have felt for centuries toward their giant northern neighbor. The Vietnamese reestablished their independence in 938. The next thousand years saw a succession of Vietnamese dynasties rule the country, such as the Ly, Tran, Le, and Vietnam's last dynasty, the Nguyen (1802–1945). These dynasties, though heavily influenced by China in terms of political philosophy and organizational structure, participated in the articulation of the uniqueness of Vietnamese society, culture, and history. This period also saw the commencement of the "Movement South" ( Nam Tien )in which the Vietnamese moved south from their Red River delta homeland and gradually conquered southern and central Vietnam. In the process, they displaced two previously dominant groups, the Cham and Khmer.

The modern Vietnamese nation was created from French colonialism. France used the pretext of the harassment of missionaries to begin assuming control over Vietnam in the 1850s. By 1862 it had set up the colony of Cochinchina in southern Vietnam. In 1882 it invaded northern Vietnam and forced the Vietnamese Emperor to accept the establishment of a French protectorate over central and northern Vietnam in 1883. This effectively brought all of Vietnam under French control. The French colonial regime was distinguished by its brutality and relentless exploitation of the Vietnamese people. Resistance to colonial rule was intense in the early years, but weakened after the late 1890s. The situation began to change dramatically in the late 1920s as a number of nationalist movements, such as the Indochinese Communist Party (formed in 1930) and the Vietnam Nationalist Party (formed in 1927), became more sophisticated in terms of organization and ability. Such groups grew in strength during the turmoil of World War II. On 19 August 1945 an uprising occurred in which Vietnamese nationalists overthrew the Japanese administration then controlling Vietnam. On 2 September 1945 Ho Chi Minh officially established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The French attempted to reassert control over Vietnam by invading the country in December 1946. This launched an eight-year war in which the Vietnamese nationalist forces, led primarily by the Vietnamese Communists, ultimately forced the French from the country in late 1954. Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam for the next twenty-one years. During this period the North experienced a socialist revolution. In 1959 North Vietnam began implementing its policy to forcibly reunify the country, which led to outbreak of the American War in Vietnam in the early 1960s. This concluded on 30 April 1975 when North Vietnamese soldiers captured the city of Saigon and forced the surrender of the South Vietnamese government. On 1 January 1976 the Vietnamese National Assembly declared the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, thereby completing the reunification of the Vietnamese nation.

National Identity. National identity is a complex and contentious issue. One of the most basic components is the Vietnamese language. Many Vietnamese are tremendously proud of their language and its complexities. People particularly enjoy the rich opportunities for plays on words that come from its tonal nature and value the ability to appropriately use the countless number of adages and proverbs enshrined in the language. Vietnamese also have an attachment to their natural world. The expression "Vietnamese land" (dat Viet) , with its defining metaphors of mountains and rivers, encapsulates the notion that Vietnamese society and culture have an organic relationship to their environment. Another important component of national identity is the set of distinctive customs such as weddings, funerals, and ancestor worship that Vietnamese perform. These are subject to a great deal of regional and historical variation, but there is a perceived core that many regard as uniquely Vietnamese, especially the worship of patrilineal ancestors by families. Vietnamese food, with its ingredients and styles of preparation distinct from both China and other Southeast Asian nations, also defines the country and its people.

Contemporary national identity's contentiousness derives from the forced unification of the country in 1975. Prior to this, the northern sense of national identity was defined through its commitment to socialism and the creation of a new, revolutionary society. This identity had its own official history that celebrated such heroes as Ho Chi Minh and others who fought against colonialism, but rejected many historical figures associated with the colonial regime, the Nguyen dynasty, and what it regarded as the prerevolutionary feudal order. South Vietnamese national identity rejected Communism and celebrated a different set of historical figures, particularly those that had played a role in the Nguyen dynasty's founding and preservation. After unification, the government suppressed this history and its heroes. The northern definition of national identity dominates, but there remains alternate understandings among many residents in the southern and central regions.

Ethnic Relations. Vietnam is home to fifty-four official ethnic groups, the majority of which live in highland areas, although some large groups such the Cham or Chinese live in lowland or urban areas. Since the mid-1980s, relations between ethnic groups have generally been good, but conflict has been present. The most frequent problem is competition for resources, either between different highland groups or between highland groups and lowland groups that have settled in the midlands and highlands. Some minority group members also feel discriminated against and resent governmental intrusion in their lives. The government, which at one level supports and celebrates ethnic diversity, has had complicated relations with groups it fears might become involved in anti-government activities. This has been the case with several highland groups in northern and central Vietnam, the ethnic Chinese, many of whom fled Vietnam at the time of the Vietnam War and China's brief border war in 1979, and expatriate Vietnamese who have returned to Vietnam.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Vietnam's cities carry the architectural traces of the many phases of its history. The city of Hue, capital of the Nguyen dynasty, features the Citadel and other imperial structures, such as the mausolea of former emperors. In 1993 UNESCO designated the Citadel and other imperial sites as a part of their World Heritage List and have subsequently begun renovations to repair the extensive damage they received in the 1968 Tet Offensive. The French left behind an impressive legacy of colonial architecture, particularly in Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon. Colonial authorities meticulously planned these cities, creating wide, tree-covered avenues that were lined with impressive public buildings and private homes. Many of these structures still serve as government offices and private residences. Following the division of the country in 1954, South Vietnam saw an increase in functional American-style buildings, while North Vietnam's Eastern Bloc allies contributed to the construction of massive concrete dormitory housing. The 1990s brought an array of new architectural styles in the cities as people tore down houses that had for years been neglected and constructed new ones, normally of brick and mortar. New construction has removed some of the colonial flavor of the major cities.

City residents often congregate to sit and relax at all hours of the day in parks, cafes, or on the street side. The busiest locations during the day are the markets where people buy fresh meat, produce, and other essentials. Religious structures such as Christian churches, Buddhist temples, and spirit shrines are often crowded to capacity on worship days. Almost all lowland communities have structures dedicated to the war and revolution. These range in size from a large monument for war dead in Hanoi to the numerous cemeteries and cenotaphs for the war dead in towns and villages across the nation. These sites only commemorate those who fought for the victorious north, leaving those who served the south officially uncommemorated.

Traditional thatched-roof homes on piles in a village outside Sapa. These homes are more common among poorer, rural families.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Rice is the dietary staple which most people eat three meals a day. Rice is usually consumed jointly by family members. The common practice is to prepare several dishes that are placed on a tray or table that people sit around. Individuals have small bowls filled with rice, and then take food from the trays as well as rice from their bowls with chopsticks. Vietnamese often accompany these main dishes with leafy vegetables and small bowls of salty sauces in which they dip their food. Popular dishes include sauteed vegetables, tofu, a seafood-based broth with vegetables called canh, and a variety of pork, fish, or meat dishes. A common ingredient for cooked dishes and the dipping sauces is salty fish sauce ( nuoc mam ). Another important family practice is the serving of tea from a small tea pot with small cups to guests. Northern cuisine is known for its subtle flavors, central cuisine for its spiciness, and southern cuisine for its use of sugar and bean sprouts. Diet varies with wealth; the poor often have limited amounts of protein in their diets and some only have the means to eat rice with a few leafy vegetables at every meal.

The major cities feature restaurants offering Vietnamese and international cuisines, but for most Vietnamese, food consumed outside of the home is taken at street-side stalls or small shops that specialize in one dish. The most popular item is a noodle soup with a clear meat-based broth called pho . Many Vietnamese regard this as a national dish. Other foods commonly consumed at these sites include other types of rice or wheat noodle soups, steamed glutinous rice, rice porridge, sweet desserts, and "common people's food" ( com binh dan ), a selection of normal household dishes. There are no universal food taboos among Vietnamese, although some women avoid certain foods considered "hot," such as duck, during pregnancy and in the first few months after giving birth. The consumption of certain foods has a gendered dimension. Dishes such as dog or snake are regarded as male foods and many women avoid them. Some minority groups have taboos on the consumption of certain food items considered either sacred or impure.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Food consumption is a vital part of ritual celebrations. Historically, villagers held feasts after the conduct of rites dedicated to village guardian spirits, but revolutionary restrictions on resource consumption in these contexts has largely eliminated such feasts. Feasts held after weddings and funerals remain large and have increased in size in recent years. The most popular feast items are pork, chicken, and vegetable dishes served with rice. Liberal amounts of alcohol are also served. In the countryside this usually takes the form of locally-produced contraband rice spirits, while feasts in the cities often feature beer or imported spirits. Feasts are socially important because they provide a context through which people maintain good social relations, either through the reciprocation of previous feast invitations or the joint consumption of food. Other important occasions for feasting are the death anniversaries of family ancestors and the turning of the Lunar New Year or Tet . Many of the foods served on these occasions are similar, although the latter has some special dishes, such as a square of glutinous rice, pork and mung bean cake called banh trung. These feasts are comparatively smaller and, unlike the weddings and funerals, generally are confined to family members or close friends.

Basic Economy. Despite efforts at industrialization after 1954, agriculture remains the foundation of the economy. The 1998 Vietnam Living Standards Survey showed that over 70 percent of the total population engaged in farming or farm-related work. Vietnam imports few basic agricultural commodities, and the majority of the items people consume are grown or produced in Vietnam.

Land Tenure and Property. The Vietnamese government, in line with socialist ideology, does not legally recognize private land ownership. Since the early 1990s, the government has made moves to recognize de facto land ownership by granting individuals long-term leaseholds. This trend received more formal recognition with the passage of the 1998 Land Law. Control over land is extremely contentious. With the recent growth of a market economy, land has become an extremely valuable commodity, and many cases of corrupt officials illegally selling land-use rights or seizing it for personal uses have been reported. Ambiguities in the law and the lack of transparent legal processes exacerbate tensions and make land disputes difficult to resolve.

Commercial Activities. Agricultural and manufactured products are sold both retail and wholesale. Cities, towns, and villages all feature markets, most of which are dominated by petty traders, normally women. The most commonly sold commodities are foodstuffs and household items such as salt, sugar, fish sauce, soaps, clothing, fabric, tableware, and cooking implements. Major purchases such as household appliances, bicycles, or furniture are often made in specialty stalls in larger markets or in stores in towns and cities. Currency is used for most transactions, but the purchase of real estate or capital goods requires gold. The number of open market wage-laborers has increased in recent years.

Major Industries. Industrial output is evenly split between the state-owned, private, and foreign sectors. Since the late 1980s, Vietnam has actively promoted foreign investment, resulting in a very rapid growth in output by that sector. International corporations have been most active in mining, electronics assembly, and the production of textiles, garments, and footwear, usually for export. Corruption and an unclear legal system have severely limited Vietnam ability to attract additional foreign investment since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Vietnamese state-owned factories produce a number of commodities for local consumption, such as cigarettes, textiles, alcohol, fertilizer, cement, food, paper, glass, rubber, and some consumer appliances. Private firms are still relatively small in size and number, and are usually concentrated in agricultural processing and light industry. Many complain that state interference, an undeveloped commercial infrastructure, and a confusing and ineffective legal system inhibit their growth and success.

Overview of Hanoi's Old Quarter. The French colonial influence is apparent in the architecture of many of the buildings that line the street.

Trade. Vietnam's international trade relations have grown considerably since the early 1990's. Major exports include oil, marine products, rubber, tea, garments, and footwear. The country is one of the world's largest exporters of coffee and rice. It sells most of its rice to African nations. Its largest trading partners for other commodities include Japan, China, Singapore, Australia, and Taiwan.

Division of Labor. Vietnamese of all ages work. As soon as they are able, young children begin helping out around the house or in the fields. Men tend to perform heavier tasks, such as plowing, construction, or heavy industrial work while women work in the garment and footwear sectors. Individuals with post-secondary school educations hold professional positions in medicine, science, and engineering. The lack of a post-secondary education is generally not a barrier to occupying high-ranking business or political positions, though this had begun to change by the late 1990s. National occupational surveys show that only slightly more than 16 percent of the population is engaged in professional or commercial occupations, while just under 84 percent of the population is engaged in either skilled or unskilled manual labor.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. The vast majority of the contemporary Vietnamese population is poor. The average annual earnings in the 1990s for a family is estimated at $370. There has been an increase in social stratification based upon wealth, particularly in urban areas where some individuals, often with links to business or the government, have become very wealthy. Another important axis of stratification is the distinction between mental and manual labor. Given the recent origin of this wealth-based stratification and the widespread poverty, these groups have yet to congeal into clearly-defined classes.

Symbols of Social Stratification. The most prominent contemporary symbols of social stratification are consumer goods. Two of the most common symbols are the possession of a motorcycle, particularly one of Japanese manufacture, and a mobile phone. Other items include refrigerators, televisions, video players, gold jewelry, and imported luxury goods, such as clothing or liquor. Some individuals also assert their status through large wedding feasts. For the very wealthy, automobiles, foreign travel, and expensive homes are important status symbols. Many of the poor ride bicycles, wear old and sometimes tattered clothing, and live in thatched homes.

Political Life

Government. Vietnam is a socialist republic with a government that includes an elected legislature, the national assembly, a president as head of state, and a prime minister as head of government. However, real political power lies with the Vietnamese Communist Party. Party members hold virtually all executive and administrative positions in the government. The party's Fatherland Front determines which candidates can run in elections and its politburo sets the guidelines for all major governmental policy initiatives. The most powerful position in the country is the Communist Party general secretary. Other important positions are the prime minister, the president, the minister of public security, and the chief of the armed forces. Women and members of Vietnam's ethnic groups are nominally represented in the government. One of the most sensitive issues the government faces is balancing regional interests.

Leadership and Political Officials. The Communist Party pressures its members to serve as examples of political virtue. The image they employ as their ideal leader is Ho Chi Minh. Ho was a devoted revolutionary who lived a life of simplicity, avoided corruption, behaved in a fair and egalitarian manner, and put the nation and revolution above his own personal interests. Party members and others often invoke the numerous moral adages coined by Ho during his life as a benchmark for social and political morality. Ho's popularity is greatest in the north. Residents of other regions sometimes have more ambivalent feelings about him.

Local political officials often are caught between two conflicting sets of expectations regarding their behavior. As party members, they are exhorted to follow the official line and disregard their own interests, but relatives and members of their communities often expect them to use their positions to their advantage; thus nepotism and localism are, at one level, culturally sanctioned. Officials must balance these two sets of demands, as moving too far in one direction can lead to criticism from the other.

The Vietnamese revolution eliminated the extremely inegalitarian forms of interaction such as kowtowing or hierarchical terms of address that had existed between commoners and officials. Most Vietnamese address officials with respectful kinship terms, such as "older brother" ( anh ) or "grandfather" ( ong ), or in rare cases as "comrade" ( dong chi ). Events in the late 1990s, notably several uprisings in rural areas in 1997, have demonstrated that the people's respect for the party and its officials has declined, largely as a result of the highhandedness and corruption of many officials. However, significant alternative political movements have not emerged.

Social Problems and Control. Vietnam has enjoyed a large measure of stability since the late 1970s, but its government today faces a number of significant social problems. Its greatest concern has been unrest in rural areas brought on by official malfeasance and land disputes. The government is also concerned about relations with religious groups in the south, particularly Catholics, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao, who have demonstrated against the government since the 1990s. Another source of concern is smuggling and the production of counterfeit commodities. Three problems that have increased dramatically in urban areas during the 1990s have been theft, prostitution, and drug abuse. Many who engage in the latter two activities are often from the poorest segments of the population. Official corruption associated with the drug trade and sex industry are another significant problem.

Vietnam has a legal system supported by a police force, a judicial and a security system. Yet, many Vietnamese feel that the system does not work, particularly with regard to its failure either to punish high-ranking offenders or to prevent the wealthy from bribing their way out of being punished for illegal activities. The former is often made possible by the extremely low salaries received by public officials. People also feel that the state deals more severely with political dissidents than many civil and criminal offenders. While there is a limited police and security presence in rural communities, the tightly-packed living spaces and ubiquitous kinship relations hinder the conduct of many crimes. If possible, local officials often prefer to settle disputes internally, rather than involve higher authorities. Public skepticism regarding the police and judicial system is a source of concern for the government.

Houses clustered along the shore of Halong Bay. It is common for houses in Vietnam to be built close to one another within a village.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

The Vietnamese government has a strong commitment to social welfare and social change, particularly health improvements, poverty alleviation, and economic development. It is also concerned with providing assistance to war invalids and the families of war dead. Numerous offices at all levels of government are dedicated to these goals, but their efforts are severely constrained by a lack of funding. As a result, the implementation of many such policies is carried out with the assistance of international donors and organizations. Several governments including those of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Japan, have provided significant assistance.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

The international nongovernmental organization presence is significant, ranging from various organizations of the United Nations that conduct a wide variety of projects across the country, to small groups that work in only one community. The programs they finance and implement include poverty alleviation, infectious disease control, contraception, educational assistance, and water purification, among others.

The development of civil society in Vietnam is still in its nascent stages, thus there are as of yet few indigenous nongovernmental associations that play a significant role in social life. Two types that appear to be gaining importance are patrilineages and religious or ritual organizations, such as local Buddhist Associations or Spirit Medium Associations. Some official organizations such as the Communist Party's Elderly Association that has a presence in villages throughout the country play an important role in organizing funerals and assisting the elderly.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Two women sit down to breakfast in Vietnam. While women have a strong role within families, their status in business and government is less significant than men's.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Vietnamese revolutionary policies endorse the principle of gender equality, but its realization in social life has been incomplete. Men dominate official positions, the Communist Party, business, and all other prestigious realms of social life. Women play a strong role within their families, a point made in the reference to the wife as the "general of the interior" ( noi tuong ). The position and status of women has improved significantly since 1950, but lower literacy rates, less education, and a smaller presence in public life indicate that their inferior status remains.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Marriage is an expected rite of passage for the attainment of adulthood. Almost all people marry, usually in their late teens or early twenties. According to Vietnamese law, arranged marriage and polygamy are illegal. Young people can court freely, but many women are careful not to court too openly for fear of developing a negative reputation. Many Vietnamese regard the development of romantic love as an important component in deciding to marry, but many will also balance family considerations when making their decision. Vietnamese prefer to marry someone of equal status, though it is better for the husband to be of slightly higher status. Such considerations have become more significant in recent years as wealth differentials have grown. Vietnamese law allows both men and women to ask for a divorce. Divorce rates have increased, particularly in urban areas, but many women are reluctant to divorce because remarriage is difficult for them.

Domestic Unit. The common pattern for the domestic unit is to have two or three generations living together in one home. In some urban settings, particularly if the family resides in government allocated housing, the household might only include two generations, while some homes in the countryside have up to five generations. Residence in most homes is organized around the male line. Authority within the household is exercised by the eldest male, although his wife will often have an important say in family matters. Sons stay in the parent's home, and after marriage their brides move in with them. The eldest son will usually remain in the home, while younger sons might leave to set up their own household a few years after marriage. Women of all generations tend to such matters as cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, though these responsibilities tend to fall on the younger wives.

Inheritance. The general custom is for the eldest son to inherit the parental home and the largest portion of the family property, particularly land. Younger sons will often inherit some land or other items, such as gold. In rare cases daughters receive small items. Many parents like all of their children to receive something in order to prevent discord. If a person dies without a pre-stipulated arrangement, Vietnamese law requires an equal distribution of property among the next of kin.

Kin Groups. Patrilineages are the most important kin groups. At birth, children become members of their father's patrilineage and are forbidden from marrying anyone of that patrilineage within five degrees of relation. Most rural villages have several patrilineages whose members live amongst each other. Patrilineages generally do not exercise a dominant role in social life, although lineage members often meet to conduct commemorative rites for their ancestors. Many highland groups have matrilineages and different rules regarding marriage.


Infant Care. Vietnamese infants are in constant contact with others. People hold children and pass them around throughout the day. During the night infants sleep with their parents in the parents' bed. Infant care is largely the responsibility of female family members. Mothers play the primary role, although in cases when they must be away, older relatives help care for the children. Older siblings often help out too. People talk and play with infants, calm them when they cry, and always try to make them smile and laugh.

Child Rearing and Education. Adults take a generally indulgent attitude toward children until they reach the age of five or six. At that point, they become more strict and begin more serious moral instruction. The general moral message is for children to learn to "respect order" ( ton ti trat tu ), a reference to knowing their inferior position in society and showing deference to their superiors. Parents also emphasize the importance of filial piety and obedience to the parents. A good child will always know its inferior place and yield to its seniors. As they get older, the moral socialization of girls is more intense than that of boys. Girls are expected to display a number of feminine virtues, particularly modesty and chastity. Schools continue the instruction of these moral themes, but given that the majority of Vietnamese do not study beyond primary school, they are not a significant site for moral socialization.

Higher Education. Higher education is very prestigious, a tradition that dates back to the competitive examination system to become an official in the precolonial period. Many families want their children to attend university, but such an option is beyond reach for the majority of the population, particularly those in rural or highland areas.

Polite behavior is highly valued. One of the most important dimensions of politeness is for the young to show respect to their elders. In everyday life, younger people show this respect by using hierarchical terms of address when interacting with their seniors and parents regularly instruct their children on their proper usage. Younger people should also be the first to issue the common salutation chao when meeting someone older, should always invite their seniors to begin eating before they do, ask for permission to leave the house, announce their arrival when they return, and not dominate conversations or speak in a confrontational manner with their seniors. Prerevolutionary practices demanded that juniors bow or kowtow to their seniors, but the revolution has largely eliminated such practices. Many elders today feel that the revolution produced a general decline in politeness.

People of the same gender often maintain close proximity in social contexts. Both males and females will hold hands or sit very close together. People of different genders, however, especially if they are not married or related, should not have physical contact. In general woman are expected to maintain greater decorum than men by avoiding alcohol and tobacco, speaking quietly, and dressing modestly. In many public spaces, however, people often avoid standing in queues, resulting in a chaotic environment where people touch or press up against one another as they go about their business.

Rice is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine, eaten three meals a day, but rice is also exported as well—mostly to African countries.

Religious Beliefs. The Vietnamese government recognizes six official religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, and two indigenous religious traditions that emerged during the colonial period, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao. The Mahayana tradition of Buddhism is dominant in Vietnam, and over 70 percent of Vietnamese consider themselves at least nominally Buddhist. The constitution technically allows for the freedom of religion, but this right is often constrained, particularly with regard to any religious activities that could become a forum for dissent. All religious organizations are technically overseen by the Communist Party's Fatherland Front, but opposition, notably from the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and some Buddhist sects, has been present.

Denominational variations aside, the core of religious practice for almost all Vietnamese is the worship of spirits. The most important spirits are the souls of the ancestors. Almost all families have altars in their homes where they perform rites for family ancestors, especially on the deceased's death anniversaries and the Lunar New Year. Many Vietnamese also perform or participate in rites for their village guardian spirits, spirits associated with specific locations, spirits of deceased heroes, or the Buddha or different Boddhisatvas, particularly Avalokitesvara. Some Vietnamese believe that spirits have the ability to bring good fortune and misfortune to human life. Revolutionaries strenuously objected to such thinking because they felt that it prevented the Vietnamese from becoming masters of their own destinies. Today, acceptance of ideas of supernatural causality is more common among women, while some men, particularly those with party or military backgrounds, reject such ideas.

Agriculture is one of the few areas in which men and women share tasks in Vietnamese culture.

Rituals and Holy Places. The most important ritual event in Vietnamese society is the celebration of the Lunar New Year ( Tet Nguyen Dan ) when families gather to welcome the coming of the new year and pay their respects to family ancestors. The first and fifteenth of every month in the twelve month lunar year are also important occasions for rites to ancestors, spirits, and Buddhist deities. Other common days for rites are the death anniversaries of family ancestors, historical figures, or Buddhist deities; the fifteenth of the third lunar month when family members clean ancestral graves; and the fifteenth of the seventh lunar month, which is Vietnamese All Soul's Day. Vietnamese conduct rites in a variety of sacred spaces. These include family ancestral altars, lineage halls, a variety of shrines dedicated to spirits, communal houses that hold the altars of village guardian spirits, temples of Buddhist or other affiliations, Christian churches, and mosques. The country also has many shrines and temples that hold annual festivals that pilgrims and interested visitors attend, often from great distances. Among the more famous are the Perfume Pagoda in the north, the Catholic shrine at La Vang in the center, and the Cao Dai Temple in the south.

Death and the Afterlife. The vast majority of Vietnamese hold that a person's soul lives on after death. One of the most important moral obligations for the living, especially the deceased's children, is to conduct a proper funeral that will facilitate the soul's movement from the world of the living to what Vietnamese refer to as "the other world" ( gioi khac ). This transfer is vital because a soul that does not move to the other world is condemned to becoming a malevolent wandering ghost, while the soul that does move can become a benevolent family ancestor. There is a great deal of variation regarding the conduct of funeral rites, but they share this common goal.

The other world is regarded as identical to that of the living. To live happily there, the dead depend on the living to provide them with essential items. At a minimum this includes food, though some also send money, clothing, and other items. Family members deliver these items through mortuary rituals, especially those performed annually on the deceased's death anniversary. All rituals associated with death have a tremendous moral significance in Vietnamese society.

Medicine and Health Care

The Vietnamese, like residents of other poor, tropical countries, suffer from a wide range of maladies, including parasitic, intestinal, nutritional, sexually transmitted, and respiratory diseases. In 1999, the average life expectancy at birth was 65.71 years for men and 70.64 years for women. The major endemic diseases include malaria, hepatitis A, and hepatitis B. Other diseases present are HIV-AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhea, measles, typhoid, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, cholera, leprosy, and tuberculosis. Since the early 1990s, the Vietnamese government, with assistance from international organizations, has achieved tremendous successes in reducing malaria fatalities and also in eliminating polio. However, some infectious diseases have begun reemerging in recent years, particularly tuberculosis, and the number of HIV-AIDS cases has also grown significantly. Many infectious diseases are associated with poverty and the poor often suffer the most severe consequences.

The Vietnamese revolution created improvements in the quality and availability of health care. The government constructed hospitals in urban areas and health clinics in rural communities where patients were required to pay only minimal fees. Many of the larger facilities were constructed with international assistance. These programs helped reduce infant mortality and the frequency of many infectious diseases, but many of these advances were unevenly spread throughout the country as many poor highland areas continued to receive inadequate care. Budgetary restrictions held back overall health improvements. Many facilities today do not have adequate resources to function and have begun charging patients higher fees. Many specialists have also left rural areas for better opportunities in cities. These changes have put adequate health care out of reach of many Vietnamese.

One of the greatest strains on the contemporary medical system is HIV-AIDS, the first Vietnamese case of which was reported in 1990. Experts estimate that the disease has affected over 165,000 Vietnamese. The government has launched effective education and awareness programs to combat the spread of the disease so Vietnam has not experienced an epidemic as severe as other Asian countries. The two groups most heavily affected by the disease have been prostitutes and intravenous drug users. HIV-AIDS is a largely stigmatized disease due to its association with perceived immoral behavior. Many sufferers seek to conceal their infection, producing a significant difference between the 20,000 officially reported cases and the expert estimates of over 165,000 cases. There are several hospitals devoted to the care of HIV-AIDS patients, but a lack of adequate funding prevents the majority of patients from receiving the most advanced and effective treatments.

The treatment of illnesses illustrates the diverse medical systems that coexist in Vietnam. The most commonly consulted, particularly in urban areas, is western biomedicine with its reliance on surgery and pharmaceuticals. For most Vietnamese, biomedicine is the first resort in cases of acute illness or bacterial or viral infections. With chronic illness, many will first try biomedical treatments, but if these fail, they will turn to herbal treatments. Vietnam has two main herbal traditions: Chinese herbal medicine ( thouc bac or "northern drugs") and Vietnamese herbal medicine ( thuoc nam or "southern drugs"). Both traditions have substantial similarities, particularly in their theories that illness results from humoral imbalances in the body, yet the treatments prescribed in the latter rely more on herbal remedies available in Vietnam. In some cases people use biomedical and alternative treatments in a complementary manner. Many Vietnamese comment that herbal medicines are more effective in the long run because they deal with the true cause of illness whereas biomedicine only treats the symptoms. Members of different highland communities also employ biomedical and herbal remedies to treat illness, but the poverty of many communities makes access to the former difficult.

The Vietnamese have a range of indigenous healers, such as spirit mediums or other spirit specialists, who are consulted in cases of prolonged physical or mental illness. These healers believe that disease and misfortune are caused by spirits or other malevolent entities. The techniques they employ involve contacting the spirit world, finding and identifying the offending spirit, and determining what is needed to end the spirit's torments. The government strongly opposes and criticizes these specialists, but they remain active throughout the country.

Secular Celebrations

Celebrants crowd Hanoi streets during the Tet lunar New Year celebration in Vietnam.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. Vietnam's socialist government places a strong emphasis on the arts, particularly because it regards them as a prime vehicle for the propagation of socialist values. All of the main artistic forms such as theater, literature, cinema, and painting have state-controlled organizations that artists are encouraged if not forced to join. The government at times severely constrains the direction of artistic development through censorship, control over printing, and the presence of party members in artistic organizations. This has not prevented a minor artistic renaissance, particularly in literature, since the late 1980s. Some artists find ways to insert critical messages into their work. Many artists struggle financially because of the recent dramatic reductions in government subsidies for the arts, the absence of adequate protection for copyrights, and the fickle tastes of a public that sometimes prefers imported films, music, and literature. Artists, especially painters, who can produce for expatriates or the tourist market, have the greatest freedom to pursue their craft.

Literature. Vietnam has a vibrant literary tradition dating back many centuries. Elite mandarins and scholars in the premodern period composed sophisticated poetry. Many poems from earlier eras such as Nguyen Du's The Tale of Kieu or Nguyen Dinh Chieu Luc Van Tien are regarded as literary masterpieces. Along with these traditions, the Vietnamese also maintained a rich oral legacy of songs, poems, and morality tales people still recite today. Prose fiction became popular under colonial rule in the first half of the twentieth century. Writers of this period such as those of the "Self-Reliance Literature Group" ( Tu Luc Van Doan ) developed the role of author as social critic. The socialist authorities kept literature under tight control for several decades to ensure that it was in accord with the officially prescribed "socialist realist" canon that described the virtues of the working class and the revolution. Since the late 1980s, Vietnam has experienced a literary revitalization with the publication of numerous works that present war, and revolution, and their consequences in a critical light. The work of several such authors, including Bao Ninh, Duong Thu Huong, and Nguyen Huy Thiep has attracted an international audience.

Graphic Arts. A number of indigenous graphic art traditions remain popular. These include lacquerware, ink block prints, and ceramics, all of which employ distinctive themes developed by Vietnamese artists. Historically, specialist families or villages have produced these items for local sale, though some objects such as ceramics were sold throughout the country and abroad. Painting has become more popular in urban areas since the colonial period. All of these forms are displayed in museums and, with the exception of paintings, are sold in local markets as well as galleries or shops in major cities.

Performance Arts. The most popular performance arts in Vietnam have historically been a variety of musical theater traditions, all of which continue to be performed by government-organized troupes. The main forms included the courtly tradition of classical opera ( hat tuong ); reform theater ( hat cai luong ); an innovative tradition that emerged in the Mekong Delta in the early twentieth century; and hat cheo, a rural folk tradition. The former tradition has been in decline for several decades. Reform theater is popular in the south, and hat cheo in the north. Most performances take place in theaters usually in urban areas. Troupes struggle financially and perform less frequently than before the revolution. The French introduced Western drama to Vietnam, but its popularity has never matched musical theater. Musical performances, either of traditional musical forms or contemporary popular music, are also popular. Radio and television have become a common way to listen to or watch the whole range of performance arts.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

The Vietnamese government has a strong commitment to the development of the physical and social sciences. Officially sponsored universities and research institutes have specialists in most major disciplines such as biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and economics. Many specialists have received training abroad, either in the former Eastern Bloc nations or in advanced capitalist nations. Despite this commitment, the overall state of the physical and social sciences is poor due to a lack of funding that hinders the construction of adequate research facilities such as laboratories or libraries, constrains the training of adequate numbers of specialists, and keeps scientists' pay extremely low.


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Making sense of vietnamese cuisine.

“Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you who you are.” (Brillat-Savarine, a French gastronome)

We live in an exciting culinary era. Food is not only extremely abundant in the West, but also more varied than ever before. Any Western metropolis features a huge array of ethnic restaurants from all corners of the earth, while the presence of Italian, Greek, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, or Thai restaurants in most American towns is almost taken for granted. Chinese food is so common in America that members of other ethnic groups, New York Jews for example, conceive of it as part of their own culinary heritage. (note 1)

Yet how familiar are we with foods from other ethnic groups? Are we genuinely flexible, open minded, and experienced when it comes to the food we eat? Sociologists Alan Warde and Lydia Martens, who studied “eating out” in the UK, found that “only 20 percent of the people had experience of three or more different cuisines, while 48 percent had never eaten in an ethnic restaurant in the last twelve months.” (note 2) And when Britons do opt for ethnic restaurants, almost half of them (47 percent) order only dishes with which they are already familiar. (note 3) While Americans are more accustomed to ethnic fare, it seems that beyond a narrow echelon of highly educated cosmopolitans, many are only vaguely acquainted with ethnic foods.

The most demeaning way to refer to the food of others is to argue that “they eat everything,” implying a lack of moral, cultural, and esthetic standards and, that they, therefore, are not fully human.

In my own research on tourism in East and Southeast Asia, I found that most visiting Westerners were reluctant to eat at local restaurants and would only eat in tourist-oriented establishments where the setting was familiar, the menu comprehensible, hygiene was up to their standards, and the food itself resembled the ethnic foods with which they were familiar from ethnic restaurants back home.4 Thus, despite the extreme popularity of Asian restaurants in the West, Westerners often find themselves at odds when facing the food actually eaten in Asia.

However, during almost two decades of leading tourists and training tour guides in East and Southeast Asia, I have learned that eating the local food is one of the most effective and powerful ways to overcome the gap between tourists and the culture they visit. Gobbling dumplings at a Beijing street stand with the Chinese hordes or having a fish in a clay pot in a Saigon sidewalk restaurant surrounded by feasting Vietnamese families are moments that allow for the sense of “really being there” so much cherished by tourists.

I learned that the most effective way to achieve this moment of glory is by responding to the most common question asked by tourists and students when facing unfamiliar food: “What is this?”

In this article, I share categories I developed precisely to deal with this question and familiarize students in my classes with the Vietnamese cuisine and its meanings. The categories are “Basic Ingredients,” “Cooking Techniques,” “Meal Structures,” “Strange Foods,” and “Foreign Influences,” which together allow for a comprehensive analysis. While I refer mainly to Vietnamese food, the categories are intended as analytical tools to help make sense of most Asian cuisines. Once the culinary rationale of a cuisine is clear, fear and suspicion fade away, and a sense of confidence and control emerges. Yet before turning to Vietnamese food, let us examine the dual nature of food as a physiological necessity and as a cultural artifact.

Food as Nature and Culture

Food, like the air we breathe, is essential for our survival as biological beings. It is also the most perfect cultural artifact, the outcome of a detailed differentiation process whereby wheat grains are transformed into French baguettes, Chinese dumplings, or Italian pasta that encompasses personal, social, and cultural identities.5 Brillat-Savarine’s famous aphorism, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you who you are,” suggests that when we eat, we become perfect consumers of our culture, physically internalizing its principles and values, swallowing and digesting them into our bodies. Thus, when American cowboys bite into their bleeding steaks, they reaffirm the masculine and violent vitality that distinguishes their way of living, while devout Southeast Asian Buddhists express their commitment to non-violence and the sanctity of life by opting for a vegetarian diet.

Human beings are the most flexible omnivores in nature. No other species consumes such a wide range of edibles. From abundant tropical forests to scarce deserts, from the warmest regions to the coldest parts of earth, we always manage to find “something nice to eat,” whether forest insects, desert lizards, or the fresh blood of arctic marine mammals. It is even argued that our culinary versatility and our willingness to eat virtually anything explains human domination over all other creatures. We are not the fastest, strongest, or fiercest, but we manage to inhabit all corners of the earth because we can always find food.

Humans are the only living beings that cook, and virtually all human cultures process their food to some extent. Cooking sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom and defines us. To cook is to be human. Cooking, however, is what also sets people and cultures apart from each other. As we roam the earth, consume a huge variety of foodstuffs, and cook them in so many different ways, food has become one of the strongest markers of cultural difference and a common source for mostly negative stereotypes: the French are “froggies,” the Germans are “krauts” (after sauerkraut), while the Koreans (and many other East Asians) are “dog eaters.” Most food stereotypes are based on scant and inflated evidence that is removed from its original context.

Yet the most demeaning way to refer to the food of others is to argue that “they eat everything,” implying a lack of moral, cultural, and esthetic standards and, that they, therefore, are not fully human. Research shows, however, that no human group eats everything. In fact, members of most cultures consume roughly 20 percent of the edibles available in their environment, while other edible foodstuffs are shunned due to moral, religious, or esthetic considerations. This is an important point. Members of certain cultures may eat things that others find strange and repulsive, but the fact that they eat differently doesn’t mean that they eat everything. Indeed, they probably find our food as strange as we find theirs.

The Basic ingredients of the Vietnamese Cuisine

Anthropologists suggest that when studying cultural systems, a distinction should be made between culture and practical reason.6 In order to understand the cuisine of a given culture, we must distinguish between the practical aspects—nutritional demands, ecology, and locally available ingredients—and cultural traits—cooking modes, eating arrangements, and the dishes themselves—shaped by social and historical processes. I therefore begin with a discussion of the main ingredients of the Vietnamese diet and then turn to their cultural transformation into dishes.

The Vietnamese cuisine evolved within a tropical ecology of warm weather, plenty of rainfall, and profuse rivers that allowed for intensive agriculture. The other dominant natural element was the sea, which provided fish and seafood. The third influence was hardworking people who settled in densely populated river deltas, valleys, and lowlands.

Under these conditions, growing rice as the staple was an ecologically sound practical choice.7 Irrigated, transplanted, labor-intensive paddy rice grown in the major river valleys and deltas was the most effective crop under the conditions of limited soil, plenty of water, high temperatures, perennial humidity, and a large number of available working hands.

Yet, while rice provides most of Việt Nam’s carbohydrates and energy, polished white rice is nutritionally unwholesome and lacks fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Nutritionally speaking, the Vietnamese cuisine is all about balancing these shortcomings with local edibles. Fish and seafood provide protein; aromatics and leafy greens (and some other fruits and vegetables) supply vitamins, minerals, and fiber; and ground nuts and coconuts supply fats. Raw greens and aromatics in great variety (basils, mints, corianders, lettuces) are essential components of any Vietnamese meal. Mixed with other foods, they are the elements that provide exceptional variation in taste and texture.

While fresh and dried fish and seafood are essential meal components, the most common way to consume them is in the form of nuoc mam (fish sauce), which is produced by fermenting fish in brine. This is actually a preservation technique, and the outcome is nutritionally rich. While many of my students found the smell of raw fish sauce hard to cope with, once cooked or diluted with lime juice and spices, the sharp smell is transformed into a rich and appealing aroma that is the main marker of Vietnamese food.

The most common spices—chili, lime, ginger, garlic, shallot, and pep- per—are all important sources of vitamins and minerals. There is a preference for sour tastes (for instance, the pulp of unripe tamarind), which are considered cooling and appropriate for the warm weather. Vietnamese food is not as hot as Thai food, and diners determine the level of spiciness by adding shredded fresh chili into their dishes or biting into one while eating.

Altogether, the Vietnamese cuisine is shaped by specific ecological conditions and is clearly devised to supply human nutritional demands. Presenting Vietnamese cuisine as ecologically and biologically sound may demystify it when studying its cultural characteristics.

Cooking Techniques

Despite the sophisticated dishes they produce, Vietnamese kitchens are surprisingly simple when compared to Western kitchens. The most important kitchen utensil is a large oval iron pan ( chao , Chinese wok), which distributes heat evenly for fast cooking (stir-frying), saves expensive fuel, and maintains crispiness as well as nutritional value. Another crucial utensil is a heavy cleaver, which—along with a wood block—facilitates slicing ingredients for stir-frying. Pestle and mortar come third, mainly to process the spices. These utensils do most of the work, with ladles, large chopsticks, and strainers doing much of the rest. Gas stoves are gradually replacing the traditional wood-fed hearth, and rice is cooked in electric rice cookers, but other modern cooking utensils such as ovens or microwaves are rarely used.

The kitchen is usually located at the back of the house or in a separate structure behind the house and is often low-lying, dark, sooty, and wet. Most of the processing is done squatting on the floor, while the hearth itself is low- lying and requires squatting too. Elevated cooking surfaces are modern and relatively rare additions.

Women do most of the cooking, and the kitchen is considered an exclusively feminine sphere. Hence, it may be argued that the kitchen setting reflects the low status of women in Vietnamese society, embodied by their squatting position. However, the status of Vietnamese women is relatively higher than that of women in neighboring Confucian societies. Vietnamese society is more bilateral than patriarchal, with women holding a complex social status, being charged with transforming nature into culture, ingredients into food, and babies into members of society.

Meal Structure

Vietnamese-style eating is all about food sharing, and mealtime is when the communal character of this society is most evident. Tables and trays are round, defining a sense of equality between the diners, and there is no “head of the table.” Food is served in common dishes, and morsels are picked with chop- sticks into personal bowls. The diners are attentive to each other, avoiding glut- tony and doing their best to ensure that the food is shared equally.

In the countryside, meals are usually taken on the floor or on a mat with the food served on a large tray. In more urban settings, people use tables and chairs. While most other Southeast Asians use forks, spoons, or the right hand to eat, the Vietnamese use chopsticks and eat out of bowls.

This combination of rice and four side dishes adheres to the important Chinese-derived cosmological principles of am and duong (yin and yang) and ngu hanh (the five elements).

Although the Vietnamese cuisine features hundreds and even thousands of dishes, daily meals eaten at home are surprisingly uniform. Lunch and dinner are similar—dinner often consists of leftovers—and composed of a large quantity of steamed rice with a set of side dishes that flavor and color it. These usu- ally include a mild soup, a bowl of mixed raw greens, a dish of cooked protein (small quantities of fish, meat, or tofu) with vegetables, and a bowl of fish sauce. This combination of rice and four side dishes adheres to the important

Chinese-derived cosmological principles of am and duong (yin and yang) and ngu hanh (the five elements). Yin-yang is an all-encompassing Daoist principle that champions a dynamic balance between the obscure, dark, wet, cold, feminine energy of yin and the hot, powerful, shining, violent male energy of yang.8 White, bland, neutral rice is compatible with am, while the colorful, savory, varied side dishes are considered duong. Within the culinary realm, the am and duong principle is translated into the cold-hot paradigm, within which some ingredients (such as ginger, beef), cooking modes (frying), and dishes (fried beef with ginger) are heating, while other tastes (sour, bitter), cooking modes (steaming), and dishes (fish in tamarind sauce) are cooling. The dishes themselves are not necessarily hot or cold, but their physical effect is of heating or cooling. Thus, sour fish soup is eaten hot but has a cooling influence.

The five elements theory suggests that the world and everything in it are composed of water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. The elements are interrelated in cycles of production, destruction (e.g., water produces wood and extinguishes fire), and their relations and transformations generate the movement that is life. The culinary realm is also structured by this paradigm, with rice standing for earth (and center), soup for water, greens for wood, fish sauce for fire, and the dry dish for metal. This scheme also informs the five basic cooking modes: raw, steamed, boiled, fried/grilled, and fermented; the five tastes: spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet; and the five textures: crispy, crunchy, chewy, soft, and silky.

Insect-eating was an important source of protein for humans before the development of farming, and it is still common among hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers in many parts of the world.

Street foods are extremely popular, and cooked food is sold from millions of stands that dot urban and rural streets. Some vendor stands offer a variety of dishes served over rice, while others feature elaborate cooking. A new urban and increasingly popular kind of stand offers “take away,” a variety of cooked dishes purchased to be consumed at home. However, most stands specialize in a single “whole-meal dish” that includes all the ingredients necessary for proper nutrition. There are several kinds of whole-meal dishes (pancakes, porridge, stuffed baguettes, and different kinds of fried rice and noodles), but the most prominent and popular is a bowl of noodles. There are dozens of kinds of noodles and thousands of variations regarding ingredients and seasoning. Most Vietnamese would argue that their own town or village has at least one unique noodle dish. Yet the basic nutritional logic is common—fresh or dry noodles made of rice, wheat, and other starches provide carbohydrates; bones, meat, and seafood broth provide water; a small amount of meat or other animal protein such as fish-balls or wontons provide protein and fat; leafy greens, aromatic herbs, and fish sauce contribute more protein, minerals, and vitamins; and chili and lime supply vita- mins and flavor. As such, a bowl of noodles is a complete meal, nutritionally and psychologically, and it includes all the ingredients of a proper meal.

Strange Food

Part of Việt Nam’s mystery and exoticism has to do with specific ingredients and dishes that are perceived by non-Vietnamese as exotic, strange, and even repulsive. These food items can be grouped into three categories: insects, jungle beasts, and dogs.

Insect-eating was an important source of protein for humans before the development of farming, and it is still common among hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers in many parts of the world. However, it is a powerful taboo in Western cultures. Insect-eating is still practiced in Việt Nam among the poorer subsistence farmers and among some of the ethnic minorities.

Two points are important. First, insects are cheap and abundant, require minimal resources, exert little ecological pressure, and thus make for accessible “green” protein. Second, insect-eating is always selective. Only certain kinds of insects or larva are consumed—particularly those that are farmed. For ex- ample, silk producers often consume silkworms. Other popular insects include grasshoppers, crickets, water beetles, scorpions, and spiders. Despite common myth, cockroaches are inedible and are not eaten anywhere.

The meat of jungle beasts is a rare, expensive, and sought-after delicacy. Dishes made of monkey, bear, tiger, elephant, snake, and lizard are sold in restaurants that specialize in “forest meat.” It is a cross-cultural convention that, when eating the flesh of specific animals, the eater absorbs their power.9 In Western culture, red meat, and especially beef, is considered highly nutritious and power enhancing. Thus, the British Royal Guards are called “beefeaters.” In Việt Nam, the flesh of wild animals known for their prowess is considered both physically and sexually invigorating. Forest food is therefore a man’s affair and is often associated with heavy alcohol consumption and prostitution.

If there is one kind of flesh that scares most visitors to Việt Nam, it is dog meat. Being “man’s best friend,” the dog is perceived in Western culture as almost human, and eating it is considered repulsive. In Việt Nam, dogs live next to men but are not considered pets—with the exception of the educated urban elite—or quasi-humans but, rather, working animals like the buffalo. Most Vietnamese avoid dog meat, mainly due to religious and moral reasons, while Buddhists consider dogs polluting, possibly because dogs eat their own excrements and are highly incestuous. Vietnamese farmers avoid both dog and buffalo meat, as they work shoulder to shoulder with these animals. Most Vietnamese find dog meat as repulsive as do Westerners, though for different reasons.

Dog meat, however, is popular among northern Vietnamese men as an aphrodisiac. While this is probably the outcome of Chinese influence, southern Vietnamese argue that as Buddhists, they avoid dog meat, but the northerners, who “converted” to Communism, eat it avidly. While Communism may not be the best explanation for dog meat popularity in the north, Chinese influence and its political impact are an important factor. In southern Việt Nam, Catholic immigrants from the north are the main consumers of dog meat. Paradoxically, then, Christianity, imported from the West, is related to the consumption of dog meat. However, it is mainly popular because of its nourishing, warming, and libido-enhancing qualities.

It is important to note that jungle meat and dog meat are relatively rare and usually quite expensive. Insects, though cheap and abundant, are rarely eaten in Việt Nam. Therefore, they are never offered to uninterested or oblivious guests but rather are only served to those who actively ask for them and are ready to pay their high price.

Foreign influence

Like all cuisines, Vietnamese cuisine was deeply shaped by contact with external cultures. Most prominent were China and France—and to a lesser extent India, and recently, contemporary global cuisine appeared. Yet foreign influence was always adjusted to the local ecological conditions, nutritional demands, cultural norms, and local tastes. Some foreign culinary aspects are evident in Vietnamese food, while others are deeply transformed and hard to observe.

China ruled Việt Nam for over a millennium and has always exerted political and cultural influence. Its culinary legacy in Việt Nam is therefore substantial. The Chinese cosmological theories of yin and yang and the five elements directly affect Vietnamese cooking and eating. Noodles, a Chinese invention, are probably the most popular food in the country, with many other dishes and cooking techniques adopted into the culinary framework. Rice was domesticated in Southeast Asia and later introduced to China, but the culinary influence was never unilateral.

A more recent and direct Chinese culinary effect is the outcome of repeated waves of Chinese immigrants who, in the last few centuries, settled in each and every urban trade center in the country, introducing their respective southeast Chinese cuisines or fusing them with the local foodways into unique local cuisines.

It should be noted, however, that Vietnamese cuisine had an impact on Chinese foodways as well. Rice was probably domesticated in Việt Nam and incorporated into the Chinese cuisine only after their conquest of north Việt Nam during the first century BCE. Seafood sauces from the southern part of Việt Nam are another culinary contribution to southern Chinese cuisines, especially Cantonese and Fujienese.

Indian culinary influence arrived in Việt Nam infused with Malay, Khmer, and Thai cooking, which had absorbed Indian spices such as cumin, coriander, ginger, and turmeric; in ingredients such as coconut milk; in cooking methods such as spice-pastes; and in dishes such as cary , the Vietnamese version of Indian curry.

a photo of the inside of a restaurant

Western merchants, notably the Portuguese, Dutch, and French, introduced staples such as maize and sweet potatoes, as well as European vegetables and herbs such as carrots, cauliflower, onions, potatoes, string beans, and dill. The French left a powerful culinary legacy. Baguettes with pork pate, yogurt, ice cream, and coffee are essential elements of contemporary Vietnamese cuisine. Formal dining, including wedding and death anniversary banquets, fol- low French structure and etiquette and include some French dishes, such as lagu or ragu , the Vietnamese version of beef-onion-carrot-potato ragout, served with a sliced baguette. This, however, is a great example of the deep culinary modification of foreign dishes. It is cooked in a wok and seasoned with fish sauce, coconut milk, turmeric, and coriander, which creates a distinct taste and aroma very different from the French original, itself a modification of the original Irish stew. Here again, Vietnamese culinary elements were incorporated into French cuisine and especially into the “nouvelle cuisine,” which emphasizes aromatic herbs, freshly cooked ingredients, and light cooking processes.

Finally, “world cuisine” or, more accurately, Western dishes and foodways, have made headway into the country with pasta, pizza, salads, and steaks featured in expensive restaurants catering mostly to tourists and local elites. Global chains such as KFC and local McDonalized food venues such as Pho 24 , a noodle franchise, attract the newly emerging Vietnamese middle class. Here again, local cultural norms, cooking techniques, and culinary preferences shape these imported dishes and foodways to such an extent that they hardly resemble the foreign originals.

Vietnamese cuisine is based on fresh ingredients, minimal cooking, lots of leafy greens and fish, very limited amounts of animal protein and fat, and moderate use of sugar.

Conclusion: Vietnamese Food as a healthy, “green” option

While my categories are intended to make sense of Vietnamese food by exposing its nutritional and cultural logic, they also emphasize its positive qualities as healthy and green. In a world that is increasingly alarmed by the hazards of modern nutrition and the negative effects of industrialized, meat-oriented agriculture, Vietnamese food is an appealing option that can successfully compete with the currently popular “Mediterranean diet.”

Vietnamese cuisine is based on fresh ingredients, minimal cooking, lots of leafy greens and fish, very limited amounts of animal protein and fat, and moderate use of sugar. Moreover, consuming less meat means that farming systems oriented toward the Vietnamese culinary system would put less pressure on dwindling ecological resources and result in less pollution. It costs the same to produce one meat calorie as it does to produce seven to ten vegetal calories. Presenting Vietnamese cuisine in particular, and Asian cuisines in general, to our students as a viable tool in our arsenal of “green cuisines,” may increase their appeal.

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  • Gary Tuchman and Harry Gene Levine, “New York Jews and Chinese Food: The Social Construction of an Ethnic Pattern,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 22 3 (1993): 382–407.
  • Alan Warde and Lydia Martens, Eating Out: Social Differentiation, Consumption and Pleasure (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Erik Cohen and Nir Avieli, “Food in Tourism: Attraction and Impediment,” Annals of Tourism Research 31 4 (2004): 755–778.
  • Claude Fischler, “Food, Self and Identity,” Social Science Information 27 2 (1988): 275.
  • Marshal Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).
  • Pierre Huard and Maurice Durand, Vu Thien Kim, Viet-Nam: Civilization and Culture (Hanoi: Ecole Francaise d’Etreme-Orient, 1998); Samuel Popkin, The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).
  • Kristofer Schipper, The Taoist Body , Karen C. Duval (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
  • Nick Fiddes, Meat: a Natural Symbol (London: Routledge, 1991 ).

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Guest Essay

Joe Lieberman and David Mixner, Exemplary Outsiders

A photo illustration of David Mixner and Joseph Lieberman, with an outline of the U.S. Capitol in red between them.

By James Kirchick

Mr. Kirchick is the author of “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington” and a contributing writer at Tablet.

The gay activist David Mixner and Senator Joe Lieberman died last month at the ages of 77 and 82, respectively, and were it not for the coincident timing of their passing, I would have no reason to reflect collectively upon their legacies. Biographically, ideologically and temperamentally, they were very different men, and to my knowledge, never interacted. But I was fortunate to know them both, and after attending their funerals last week, I’ve come to appreciate some important qualities they shared.

In the summer of 1993, Mr. Mixner was at the height of his political influence. An old friend, Bill Clinton, was occupying the White House. In April, Mr. Mixner spoke to an estimated one million people assembled on the National Mall for the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi-Equal Rights and Liberation. And the next month, he featured prominently in a Vanity Fair spread celebrating America’s “new gay power elite.”

As would become evident once Mr. Clinton reneged on a promise to repeal the ban on gay people serving in the armed forces, however, the trappings of power were not what attracted Mr. Mixner to politics. Even before Mr. Clinton entered the White House, military leaders had expressed strong support for the ban, and the administration eventually agreed to a compromise allowing gays to serve provided they kept their sexual orientation secret, a policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Mr. Mixner did not limit his displeasure with Mr. Clinton to words, leading a protest at the White House in which he was arrested along with 28 other people. “I just have to do what is right,” Mr. Mixner said .

Though he would later reconcile with Mr. Clinton, Mr. Mixner paid a heavy cost for his fidelity to principle. “In 24 hours, every one of my clients canceled,” he told me in 2019 of the business consultancy he operated alongside his political activities. To pay his rent, Mr. Mixner pawned old watches.

In 2006, Senator Lieberman faced a similar conundrum. Only six years earlier, he had made history as the first Jew to appear on a major party presidential ticket when Vice President Al Gore chose him as his running mate. But Mr. Lieberman’s refusal to join other Democrats in condemning the Iraq war, which most of his Senate colleagues had initially supported, infuriated the party’s left-wing base, fueling a primary challenge to his re-election bid by the antiwar scion of a prominent family, Ned Lamont.

Had Mr. Lieberman joined the rest of his colleagues in washing his hands of Iraq, he might have staved off Mr. Lamont’s campaign and handily won re-election. But to do so would have been out of character for Mr. Lieberman, who believed strongly in the justice of the war and securing a democratic future for the Iraqi people. Though Mr. Lieberman lost the nomination to Mr. Lamont, he refused to let the Democratic primary electorate have the final say. He mounted an independent candidacy in the general election and became the first and only senator in American history to lose a party primary and regain his seat in the same cycle.

Though Mr. Mixner was a pacifist who got his political start in the movement against the Vietnam War, and Mr. Lieberman personified the liberal hawk, both men were inspired by the two forces that most captured the imaginations of young people in the 1960s: John F. Kennedy and the civil rights movement. The 35th president’s appeal that Americans “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s insistence that that country live up to its founding principles, motivated Mr. Mixner and Mr. Lieberman to pursue lives devoted to public service. Theirs would be careers guided by idealism.

Mr. Mixner and Mr. Lieberman were also members of minority groups that, in different ways and to varying degrees, had been excluded from the promise of equal American citizenship. This experience of being outsiders deeply affected their political worldviews and caused them to embrace the struggles of other excluded Americans as their own. Mr. Lieberman was a longtime supporter of gay rights, sponsoring the legislation that ultimately rescinded “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Allowing gay people to serve openly in the military, Mr. Lieberman told me at the time, was “an extension, the next step of the civil rights movement.” Meanwhile, in one of his last video blogs , posted in late October, Mr. Mixner spoke emotionally about the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, declaring, “We will never allow the kind of pogroms that haunted the people of Jewish faith in Russia and Eastern Europe again.”

Mr. Mixner and Mr. Lieberman lived their lives openly and proudly — one as a gay man, the other as an observant Jew — serving as role models for their communities, and indeed for all Americans.

Though their independence of mind could sometimes lead to charges of stubbornness, Mr. Mixner and Mr. Lieberman were adept at working across political divides. In 1978, Mr. Mixner persuaded Ronald Reagan to publicly oppose a California ballot initiative that would have banned gay people from teaching in public schools, an intervention that proved decisive in defeating the measure at the ballot box. When Mr. Clinton later came out against the Defense of Marriage Act, the law he had signed as president in 1996 that forbade the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, many gay activists responded with self-righteous anger, given that he had signed the law as president. Mr. Mixner counseled forgiveness. “The purpose of a movement is to change minds, not in some Stalinistic way to punish those who are not ideologically pure,” he said. And in a final act of grace, before he died, Mr. Lieberman asked Mr. Lamont, who since their bruising Senate campaign became governor of Connecticut, to deliver the first eulogy at his funeral.

In his own eulogy to Mr. Lieberman, Mr. Gore used the Yiddish word mensch to describe his former running mate, explaining: “Those who seek its definition will not find it in dictionaries so much as they find it in the way Joe Lieberman lived his life. Friendship over anger. Reconciliation as a form of grace. We can learn from Joe Lieberman’s life some critical lessons about how we might heal the rancor in our nation today.”

And we can learn the same from the life of David Mixner, who though raised in an Irish Catholic family also qualified as a mensch.

Sitting in the pews at each of their services, I had the distinct feeling that not just two menschen, but an entire style of politics, was being laid to rest.

James Kirchick ( @jkirchick ) is the author of “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington” and a contributing writer at Tablet magazine.

Source photographs by CQ Archive and Brooks Kraft, via Getty Images.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

Follow the New York Times Opinion section on Facebook , Instagram , TikTok , WhatsApp , X and Threads .

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    The Vietnam War was a long, costly and divisive conflict that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. The conflict was intensified by the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. More than 3 million people (including over 58,000 Americans) were ...

  12. Q. When does the 'modern' begin in Vietnamese history? A Historiography

    Modernity and the Modern Era in Histories of Vietnam: A Historiography Essay . Introduction. ... Dutton argues that the pursuit of material objects and social advancement was an attempt to define and 'partake' of modernity in its "talismanic form." Advertisements branded cosmetics, medicines, clothing, and foods as "new ...

  13. Vietnamese Culture 101: 15 Key Traditions and Customs

    In the heart of Vietnam, where the rice fields meet bustling urban landscapes, Vietnamese culture unfolds a vibrant narrative that cuts across generations.It is a mosaic of traditions and customs that define the importance of Vietnamese culture. This article explores some of the key traditions and customs of Vietnamese culture. From the elegant Ao Dai worn on special occasions to the rhythmic ...

  14. Áo Dài: History and Significance in Vietnamese Culture

    History of Áo Dài: The origins of Áo Dài trace back to 18th century where 'Lord Nguyen Phúc Khoát of Hue decreed that both men and women at his court needed to adorn trousers and a gown with buttons down the front. Writer Lê Quý Dôn described the newfangled outfit as the áo dài (long shirt)'. (courtesy of Kauffner)

  15. Culture of Vietnam

    History and Ethnic Relations Emergence of the Nation. Many Vietnamese archeologists and historians assert that the origins of the Vietnamese people can be reliably traced back to at least the fifth or sixth millennium B.C. when tribal groups inhabited the western regions of the Red River delta. A seminal event in the solidification of Vietnamese identity occurred in 42 B.C.E. when China ...

  16. Vietnam War Essay • Examples of Hooks, Thesis, Topics

    The United States' Role in The Vietnam War. Essay grade: Good. 5 pages / 2648 words. The Vietnam War started in 1954 as a war between the government of South Vietnam and the communist government of North Vietnam. The latter was aided by communist forces in South Vietnam, known as the Viet Cong.

  17. Making Sense of Vietnamese Cuisine

    The Vietnamese cuisine evolved within a tropical ecology of warm weather, plenty of rainfall, and profuse rivers that allowed for intensive agriculture. The other dominant natural element was the sea, which provided fish and seafood. The third influence was hardworking people who settled in densely populated river deltas, valleys, and lowlands.

  18. Vietnamese Traditions, Culture & Values

    The Vietnamese society has a strong system of values and ethics that define the actions of most individuals. It's based on four pillars, which are the good name, respect, learning, and family.

  19. Vietnamese Variety Of English Language Essay

    So, "Serving time" is another example of Vietnamese style of English. In addition, in a tourist resort in Central Vietnam one can see on the walls of the lift many colourful pictures advertising the hotel's many facilities. Below these impressive pictures, there is a line saying: "So good to enjoy, so hard to forget".

  20. Essays on Vietnam

    The Impacts of The Vietnam War. 1 page / 581 words. Catastrophic consequences Lasting for 20 years (1955-1975), the Vietnam War, as bloody as any other wars, took away more than 2 million lives, in which many of them were civilians. 3 million were wounded, and hundreds of thousands of children were left orphans.

  21. Essays on Vietnamese

    Essay topics. 10 essay samples found. 1. Cultural Contrasts: Vietnam Vs. America. 2 pages / 708 words. It is evident that every country will display a different culture that best fits the citizens and working system. Without the diversity of cultures, the values, beliefs and perceptions of different countries citizens wouldn't be prominent ...

  22. America's Irrational Macreconomic Freak Out

    Official statistics show that the stuff that a typical American buys now costs 20 percent more over the same period. Some prices rose a little more, some a little less, but they all roughly rose ...

  23. Opinion

    Guest Essay. Joe Lieberman and David Mixner, Exemplary Outsiders ... Though Mr. Mixner was a pacifist who got his political start in the movement against the Vietnam War, and Mr. Lieberman ...

  24. The Role of Food in Defining Vietnamese Culture

    The Role of Food in Defining Vietnamese Culture. Everyone in this world all has their own cultural identity, the culture where they belong to. As a Vietnamese teenager, I have been wondering in my whole life asking myself tons of questions about my cultural identiy and where I actually belong to.