Vietnamese Perspectives on the War in Vietnam

III. Historical Accounts, Memoirs

This section contains historical accounts and impersonal memoirs by Vietnamese of different political persuasions--communist and anti-communist (Memoirs that include more personal information on the author's life are listed in Section V, "Autobiography"). Works by Americans that present Vietnamese perspectives are also listed. This section focuses on "straight" history: accounts that are written in a less literary style. The introduction suggests ways Vietnamese texts can be used to supplement a standard U.S. history of the war.

Discussion: Supplementing a U. S. History Textbook

Even in courses focused on fiction and personal memoirs, teachers find it necessary to assign historical accounts of the war. In addition to American accounts one could assign Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n's The Long Resistance, which describes Vietnamese history from the loss of independence to the French in the late 1850's to the reunification of the country in 1975. This book gives a Hanoi point of view-- Americans are neo-colonialists, ARVN officers are "adventurers and outcasts thirsty for dollars"--but it is a coherent, readable survey. Having students first read Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n's treatment of a key period or event and then compare it to a discussion of the same period or event in their American textbook is one way to reveal different viewpoints.

Another approach is to analyze American accounts with our students. David Hunt, who is researching American survey texts on the Vietnam War, illustrates how this analysis can be made. Hunt has looked at how the National Liberation Front and the southern guerilla soldiers are represented in the most commonly used textbooks on the war, considering questions such as the following: How much space is devoted to the NLF? How much narrative coherence is given to accounts of this movement? For example, do the guerrillas serve as framing devices and appear at the beginning and end of chapters? In other words, do they merit a sustained account or do they get a more episodic treatment? What do these textbooks encourage us to assume about the attitude of ordinary Vietnamese in the South toward these revolutionaries? Are we led to assume that Vietnamese regarded them as alien invaders or as indigenous leaders of a popular uprising? Or is the predominant image one of citizens caught in a crossfire, owing allegiance neither to the NLF or the GVN? Does the textbook contain statements that suggest that NLF successes are the result of American mistakes--statements like this one by Stanley Karnow: "[General Westmoreland] refused to recognize that the communists might represent a tempting alternative to a rural population eager for political, economic, and social change."1

Hunt focuses on the NLF but one could also question how the ARVN troops are portrayed both in textbooks and popular accounts such as Sheehan's Bright Shining Lie. In Nguye^~n Ma.nh Hu`ng's view the ARVN is treated shabbily in Sheehan's best seller. American soldiers and advisors are invariably "well- intentioned and courageous" and the Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops are always "heroic, well-trained, and well-led" (19). ARVN soldiers in Sheehan, on the other hand, are all cowards and their leaders corrupt and incompetent. We hear nothing from Sheehan about the fragging and drug use among American troops nor of dissension within the communist forces, though these things existed. Nor does Sheehan mention ARVN achievements such as the successful defense of An Lo^.c in 1972.

Criticizing American accounts is probably not as effective as having students read historical accounts by Vietnamese. Quite a few are available. The U.S. Army Center of Military History has published a series of monographs by Cambodian, Laotian, and South Vietnamese military leaders. These are instructive to read. These men are now living in the U.S. and they are unfailingly polite to their American readers; their accounts are powerful often because they are so persistently understated. In his contribution to the volume on The U.S. Adviser, for example, Colonel Chu Xua^n Vie^n observes that if US advisers could have stayed with their ARVN units longer than six months, perhaps they would have been more successful at building "the kind of working relationship conducive to steady progress and improvement" (190).

Accounts by Vietnamese communist military leaders are, not surprisingly, more self- congratulatory. After all, they won. The two accounts of the final victory are fairly well-known, one by General Va(n Tie^'n Du~ng and one by General Tra^`n Va(n Tra`. An account by General Tra` of the Tet Offensive has also been translated. There is Vo~ Nguye^n Gia'p's How We Won the War. Assigning these works will present other views for discussion. For example, many American accounts suggest the war was lost in Washington and not on the battlefield. General Tra^`n Va(n Tra` has this to say about the popular American view that the Tet Offensive for the communists was a political victory but a military defeat: "In fact there is never an easy 'political' victory won by the grace of Heaven or through an enemy's mercy without first having to shed blood and scatter bones on the battlefield. . . .One never suffers a military defeat yet wins a political victory" ("Tet," pp. 58, 59).



1. Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983) 464.

Yale University Council on Southeast Asia Studies
Dan Duffy, Editor Viet Nam Publications
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