The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990 - Book Review

The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990 by Marilyn R. Young

This article was originally published on and is republished here with their permission.

By the end of the 20th century, America has engaged the Pacific theater multiple times. One of the most notable engagements occurs in Vietnam where public criticism erupted in every part of the United States. Marilyn Young’s The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990 examines the fine details of American involvement in Vietnam. Young introduces her examination by raising a critical question of “why are we in Vietnam?” However, in this book, Young interprets the question of “why” as “how did we get to Vietnam?”

There is no clear explanation on why she reinterprets the question. The reinterpretation allows Young to expand her question into “how do we keep expanding the war, and how do we get out?” This enables Young to explore the narrative of Vietnam before the war, during the war, and after the war. Young writes and researches throughout the years after the war and ends in 1990 with the ending of the Cold War. Her perspectives invite readers and historians alike to take into account the process her writing narrative history when much of it was still considered current events.

The book is divided chronologically into 15 chapters that narrate the events of Vietnam using a combination of data, speeches, maps, pictures, and documentation released by the government. Ho Chi Minh’s biography is strapped to each chapter beginning with his nationalistic approach to overthrow French imperialism and establish an independent Indochina in the 1930s. However, despite the years allotted in the title and preface, Young goes back even further to 1885 and describes resistance against the French in the name of emperor Ham Nghi who called “for those with intelligence to contribute ideas” and “those with strength to lend their force.” (7)

The book provides excellent comparison and analysis between Ho Chi Minh’s strategy and emperor Ham Nghi when he called upon the “rich people, soldiers, workers, peasants, intellectuals, employees, traders, youth, and women” to rise up as the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh were eventually given the imperial seal and sword by Emperor Bao Dai and abdicated his throne as the last emperor of Vietnam. In response, Ho, as Young refers to him throughout the book, proclaimed Vietnam’s independence through allusions from the American declaration of sovereignty. Young constructs visions of a divided Vietnam before the rise of Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam then reconstructs the thrill of nationalistic movement by quoting Ho Chi Minh’s speeches.

Throughout the narrative of Vietnam, Young does not make it a priority to return to her purpose of writing this book. The question of “why” or “how” hollers out for answers as the reader gets lost in the development of the communist party of Vietnam and the defeat of the French at Dienbienphu by Ho Chi Minh’s unification of the people and their successful effort to flank the French fortification. During rare moments that Young does refer back to her initial questions, her voice as a historian is replaced that by the voice of America or Americans asking the question. The transition in the voice of the book is smooth but noticeable.

Therefore, much of her book comes from an American and western perspective. Her questions also bring to attention that the reinterpretation of “why is we in Vietnam” into “how” identifies her methodology as viewing the Vietnam War as a process rather than an event or series of events. The most textbook answer that attempted to answer “why” and “how” Americans were involved originates with the United States’ containment policy which is reproduced in the text as part of the narrative. Young’s methodology of approaching the history of Vietnam and the war proves to be refreshing by not engaging in the causation of events and people but rather the development as a whole.

The book attempts to give voices to the French and the Vietnamese by providing primary sources, quotes, letters, speeches and perspectives of people from both sides of the battlefield. However, writing in the late 1990s from America does not allow Young to give voices to those overseas. The Vietnamese words and names do not contain the linguistic markings that provide the correct pronunciations to Vietnamese readers.

Although some readers familiar with common terms will have no difficulties, younger historians born after the period are unfamiliar with the names and locations will have a much harder time without the correct linguistic marks. Reading the book without the correct markings raise questions of “did I pronounce this correctly?”

Therefore, this linguistic flaw gives weight that this book is written from an American perspective. The French perspective and descriptions of their responses lacked substance when compared with the American and Vietnamese narratives. Although all three narratives intertwine, the French were not given a voice that promotes their perspective. Young instead combines the French voice with American responses, thus blurring their viewpoint.

Young’s style of writing gives rise to the progressive narrative of Vietnam and referring back to the title; she chooses to use the plural form of “war.” This signifies that there are multiple wars of Vietnam which she unfolds through intricate details and facts drawn from documents and sources. The multiple wars reflect the different perspectives provided. The reader is flooded with a wealth of information streaming page after page in a mad rush into the mind.

At times there was a need to retrace several pages to manage the detail of certain commando operations or vulture strikes from the air. The blood and gore of warfare are left untouched as Young includes descriptions of headshots, wounds, and death accompanied by a set of photos collected over the years of the wars. Stories from the Vietnamese, French and American soldiers recount times where civilian death was accidental, or simply it was a part of the war. These narrations provide a micro-history where the reader can focus on one soldier or politician at a time and understand the psychological process they make decisions through. However, it is necessary to keep in mind that even though Young writes the micro-history of individuals, the perspective continues to resound from an American bias by approaching the micro-narratives through reactions and responses of Americans rather than a presentation of the whole.

Approaching the book from a literary standpoint gives rise to a unique observation, the fast-paced events and stream of information resemble the pace of the war. Mimicking the rush of troops and orders of commanders, Young wrote a quickly paced, almost breathless, book. The hurricane of information emulates the multitude of factors that partake in war, and the inclusion of personal histories reminds the reader that war is not fought from behind a screen or oceans apart, but rather by individuals and communities. The narrative unfolds to the reader as an observer of countries acting or responding to events that draw away their voices. Identifying perspectives or voices while reading becomes a challenge but also reminds the reader that the narrative is set in a dense jungle with troops engaged in guerilla warfare.

Marilyn Young’s The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990 extensively narrates the multifaceted perspectives of Southeast Asia. Writing at a time where America was still in a state of recovery after the war, Young attempts to give voices to the Vietnamese for the first time. By the time of her writing, a multitude of refugees from Vietnam have scattered throughout the world, and many were in the United States. The inclusion of Vietnamese documents and speeches was her method to reduce bias and ethnocentricity. The details that stem out of U.S., French and Vietnamese documents are excellent for dedicating this book as a guide to how the war unfolded. Young’s goal of writing is to determine how the United States became involved and through this method, she is to determine “why.”

However, her voice becomes lost while accounting for the perspectives engaged in the actions of Vietnam leaving the reader to wonder when her voice will return to make conclusions. There is an included chronology of events that outlines the narrative as well as notes at the end to further dissect the writing. The book will be perfect for undergraduate classes that focus on the war in detail and draw out the discourses involved; however, it might be a heavy reader for the non-academic who is not used to the stream of information found on every page turn.

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