Seventy-five years ago we were in the middle of a war that changed the world for good, bringing democracy and freedom to most of the Pacific and Europe. For the United States the Second World War lasted just over 3 1/2 years. Today, thinking people know WWII was necessary (just as America's Civil War was regrettable but necessary to end slavery).
Then, 25 years later and 50 years ago, the United States fought in a war that, at the time, we weren't supposed to call "war." The "Vietnam Conflict" lasted for more than a decade. Now that half a century has passed since the height of the conflict, is it possible to evaluate the war and confront the reality of its aftermath? In "The Vietnam Reader" (Routledge, 1991) editor Walter Capps recounts:
"More than 58,000 Americans died as a result of the military hostilities. Hundreds of thousands more were wounded. Approximately twenty percent of those who serve have experienced deep and persistent emotional distress and psychological trauma. More than twice the number of those who lost lives there have taken their own lives since returning home. Huge percentages of America's homeless are veterans of the war. And when the Vietnamese people are included in these demographics, the statistics are even more alarming. Approximately 2 million Indochinese lost their lives from 1961 to 1975, and millions more were victims from the carnage that followed, principally, in Cambodia. The more we learn of the war, the heavier the burden becomes."Was the Vietnam War necessary? How did it start? Why didn't it end sooner? What were the effects on the world, nation and the young Americans who served? The following list of 50 books for 50 years – remembering the Vietnam War – is not meant to be all-inclusive or in any perfect order, but many of these titles are listed in the top books to read on the subject.
If readers have recommended additions to this list, please feel free to send suggestions via "comments." There are reportedly already more than 30,000 books published, and new books will continue to be published about the Vietnam War. That's especially true in the next several years as we continue to commemorate the sacrifice, remember the tragedy, and understand how and why it all happened 50 years ago.
"A Bright and Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam" by Neil Sheehan. Random House, 1988. Opens with a funeral for one of the architects of the war, John Vann, and the book follows his involvement in perpetuating the war until his death in a helicopter crash. "Good intentions gone awry."
"In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam" by Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMarr. Times Books, Random House, 1995. "Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."
"Vietnam: A History" by Stanley Karnow. The Viking Press, 1983, 1991. "The names of the dead engraved on the granite record more than lives lost in battle: they represent a sacrifice to a failed crusade, however noble or illusory its motives."
"A Rumor of War" by Philip Caputo. Henry Holt and Company, 1977, 1996. "This book does not pretend to be history. It has nothing to do with politics, power, strategy, influence, national interests, or foreign policy; nor is an indictment of the great men who led us into Indochina and whose mistakes were paid for with the blood of some quite ordinary men."
"The Best and the Brightest" by David Halberstam. Ballantine Books, 1972. "They had turned to the bombing out of their own desperation, because what they were doing no longer worked and because bombing was the easiest thing. It was the kind of power which America wielded most easily, the greatest technological superpower poised against this preposterously small and weak country."
"America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975" by George C. Herring. Temple University Press, 1979. "The tonnage of bombs dropped on Indochina during the Nixon era exceeded that of the Johnson years, wreaking untold devastation, causing permanent ecological damage to the countryside, and leaving millions of civilians homeless... The war polarized the American people as had no issue since slavery a century before."
"About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior" by Col. David H. Hackworth and Julie Sherman. Touchstone, Simon & Shuster, 1989. "The United States ... is a great country with a great heritage; it has set a good example in the past and it can do so in the future, if only it begins to choose its battles carefully and makes sure its causes are right."
"The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War" by E.W. Kenworthy, Fox Butterfield, Hedrick Smith and Neil Sheehan. New York Times, Quadrangle Books, 1971. "The Pentagon papers, despite shortcomings and gaps, form a great archive of government decision-making on Indochina over three decades. The papers tell what decisions were made, how and why they were made and who made them."
"The World Almanac of the Vietnam War" edited by John S. Bowman, introduction by Fox Butterfield. "It was the first war the United States lost, though because of superior U.S. firepower and mobility it won virtually every battle... For the soldiers who fought it, it was a war maddeningly without front lines, against an enemy who often wore civilian clothes, and had no clear objective other than 'body count.'"
New, Fresh Insights
"Vietnam: A New History" by Christopher Goscha. Basic Books, 2016. Sweeping in scope. "The United States was hardly the first 'great power' to send their warships into the waters off Vietnam's coastline. Indeed, if Vietnam is recognizable to so many today, it is largely because this small country is located in one of those coveted parts of the world where the 'treat powers' repeatedly collide."
"Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War" by James Wright. Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, 2017. "Absent tangible military goals, it was hard to produce tangible military results."
"Vietnam: A History of the War" by Russell Freedman. Holiday House, 2016. A young adult book that synthesizes in words and pictures a wide swath of history, with chapters including "Ho Chi Minh: The Making of a Revolutionary," "The French War in Vietnam: The Elephant and the Tiger," "Tumbling Dominoes," "From the Tonkin Gulf to Rolling Thunder," "The TET Offensive," "The Fall of Saigon," and "Reconciliation."
"Walking Point: From the Ashes of the Vietnam War," a memoir by Perry A. Ulander. North Atlantic Books, 2016. "I would like to dedicate this book to all the people who, having put their faith and trust in social, political, or religious institutions, discovered that their faith had been misplaced and their trust betrayed."
"Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War" by Viet Than Nguyen. Harvard University Press, 2016. "Perhaps some things will never be remembered, and yet also never forgotten. Perhaps some things will remain unspoken and yet always heard... This is the paradox of the past, of trauma, of loss, of war, a true war story where there is no ending but the unknown, no conversation except that which cannot be finished."
"By Honor Bound: Two Navy Seals, The Medal of Honor, and a Story of Extraordinary Courage" by Tom Norris and Mike Thornton with Dick Couch and a foreword by Bob Kerrey, Medal of Honor recipient. St. Martin's Press, 2016. "This is the incredible story of two Navy SEALs who went back. One for a buddy, the other for a brother warrior he had never met. The actions of both represent the pinnacle of courage and selfless service."
"Hunters and Shooters: An Oral History of the U.S. Navy SEALs in Vietnam" edited by Bill Fawcett. William and Company, 1995. "Though numbering less than 150 men in-country at any one time, the SEALs had an effect on the enemy far out of proportion to their numbers. Using the most conservative numbers, the SEALs accounted for 50 enemy dead for each SEAL lost."
"We Were Soldiers Once... and Young: Ia Drang – the Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam" by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway. Random House, 1992. "So this is the story about ... the first American combat troops, who boarded World War II-era troopships, sailed to that little-known place, and fought the first major battle of a conflict that would drag on for ten long years and come as near to destroying America as it did to destroying Vietnam."
"Brown Water, Black Berets" by Thomas J. Cutler. Naval Institute Press, 1988. "In proportion to the other services, the in-country participation of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard was very small: a peak strength of 38,000 Navy men compared with more than half a million total American servicemen in Vietnam at the height of the war. But those 38,000 grow to 1,842,000 when stretched over the years of the war, and those Navy and Coast Guard men [and women] who served do not deserve to be forgotten."
"Vietnam: The Naval History" by Frank Uhlig Jr. Naval Institute Press, 1986. "Before we engage in any similar war we must be sure, among other things that we can use our sea power properly. If for any reason we find that we will be unable to do that, or even are in doubt about it, we owe it to ourselves to find a solution to our problem other than war."
"The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990" by Marilyn Young. HarperCollins, 1991. "Veterans felt spat upon, stigmatized, contaminated. In television dramas, veterans were not heroes welcomed back into the bosom of loving families, admiring neighborhoods, and the arms of girls who loved uniforms; they were psychotic killers, crazies with automatic weapons. It was as if the country assumed that anyone coming back from Vietnam would, even should, feel a murderous rage against the society that had sent him there. The actual veteran – tired, confused, jet-propelled from combat to domestic airport – disappeared."
"They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967" by David Maraniss. Simon & Schuster, 1999. "Soldiers in Southeast Asia, student protesters in the United States, President Johnson and his advisers at the White House – they lived in markedly different worlds that were nonetheless dominated by the same overriding issue, and they all, in their own ways, seemed to be marching toward ambushes in those bright autumn days of 1967."
"The Nightingale's Song" by Robert Timberg. Simon & Schuster, 1995. Profiles the "ascent" of five U.S. Naval Academy graduates: "madcap midshipman who rises to the U.S. Senate" John McCain, "Marine who becomes the kickass troubadour for a generation of Vietnam veterans" James Webb, "brave, resourceful but flawed Marine" Oliver North, "introverted foreign-policy intellectual": Marine Bud McFarlane and "model midshipman" John Poindexter. "Crucial to their ascent is Ronald Reagan, who called Vietnam 'a noble cause.'"
"Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945-1990" by James S. Olson and Randy Roberts. St. Martin's Press, 1991. "Even when American policymakers began to see Vietnam for the quagmire it was, disengagement was excruciatingly difficult... The war was a colossal blunder born of an odd mixture of paranoia and arrogance."
"Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam." HarperCollins,1997. (Please see recent Navy Reads review for excerpts.)
"The Ten Thousand Day War: Vietnam: 1945-1975" by Michael Maclear. St. Martin's Press, 1981. "The Vietnamese, South and North, had against all odds endured and fought the century's longest war, and before that a century of foreign rule – and history must judge them foremost in terms of human fortitude and courage..."
"Everything We had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It" compiled by Al Santoli. Random House, 1981. "This is a book by thirty-three veterans of the Vietnam War. We have tried to put into honest words the raw experience of what happened to us... Until the broader public fully comprehends the nameless soldier, once an image on your television screen, the nation's resolution of the experience called Vietnam will be less than adequate."
"Dispatches" by Michael Herr. Everyman's Library, Alfred A. Knopf, 1968, 2009. "There were times when the whole war itself seemed tapped of its vitality: epic enervation, the machine running half-assed and depressed, fueled on the watery residue of last year's war-making energy. Entire divisions would function in a bad dream state, acting out a weird set of moves without any connection to their source. Once I talked for maybe five minutes with a sergeant who had just brought his squad in from a long patrol before I realized that the dopey-dummy film over his eyes and the fly abstraction of his words were coming from deep sleep."
"Beyond Survival: Building on the Hard Times – A POW's Inspiring Story" by Gerald Coffee. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1990. (For excerpt, please read the Navy Reads review.)
"Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War" by Wallace Terry. Random House, 1984. "For me the thought of being killed in the Black Panther Party by the police and the thought of being killed by Vietnamese was just a qualitative difference. I had left one war and came back and go into another one. Most of the Panthers then were veterans... We had already fought for the white man in Vietnam. It was clearly his war. If it wasn't, you wouldn't have seen as many Confederate flags as you saw. And the Confederate flags was an insult to any person that's of color on this planet."
"Legend" by Eric Blehm. Crown Publishers, 2015. The story of Green Beret Staff Sergeant Roy Benavidez's rescue of a special forces team behind enemy lines. "His body – a torn-up canvas of bullet holes, shrapnel wounds, bayonet lacerations, punctures, burns, and bruises – painted a bloody portrait of his valor that day."
"Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War" edited by Thomas E. Barden. "I had always thought of East Asia as old, old in the sense of being tired and worn out, and second of being unbearably overpopulated. Neither preconception is true. The people are young and fresh and inventive, the lands are huge ... Conquest is no longer possible or desirable but cooperation is not only necessary but inevitable."
"In Love & War: The story of a family's ordeal and sacrifice during the Vietnam Years" by Jim and Sybil Stockdale. Harper & Row, 1984. "Washington's second thoughts, the guilt, the remorse the tentativeness, the changes of heart, the backout. And a generation of young Americans would get left holding the bag."
"The Soldiers' Story: Vietnam in Their Own Words" by Ron Steinman. TV Books, 1999. "One marine says he and his buddies lived only for 'Semper Fi,' always faithful to the basic precept of one for all, all for one. Every man in the book echoes that thought. Soldiers helped each other because they knew they could get help in return."
"...And a Hard Rain Fell: A GI's true story of the war in Vietnam" by John Ketwig. Source Books, 2002. "I love to go to the Vietnam Memorial on the mall in Washington, D.C., and I believe I can 'read the writing on the wall.' I find it difficult to assimilate the realities of Vietnam with the American 'truths we hold to be self-evident.'"
"American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity" by Christian G. Appy. Viking, 2015. "It was still unimaginable to most Americans that their own nation would wage aggressive war and justify it with unfounded claims, that it would support antidemocratic governments reviled by their own people, and that American troops would be sent to fight in countries where they were widely regarded not as liberators, but as imperialist invaders."
"Last Men Out: The True Story of America's Heroic Final Hours in Vietnam" by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. Free Press, Simon & Schuster, 2011. "The long Vietnam War was over. There was a sadness to the moment, a sense of loss. Yet at the time, each Saigon MSG (Marine Corps Security Guard) felt buoyed by the knowledge that he had helped to secure one small triumph in the war's final crucible. Their country may have lost something that it might never recover. But they had persevered with dignity and courage. It was all the Marine Corps could have asked of them. It was all that they could have asked of themselves."
"Chickenhawk Back in the World: Life After Vietnam" by Robert Mason. Viking Penguin, 1993. "Finally, I have come to realize that the most significant thing I lost in that war was peace. When Polynesian sailors sail their canoes for weeks at a time on boundless seas without charts or compasses, they believe that they are sitting still, on a vacant earth, and that by moving their paddles correctly, by setting their sails properly, an island, their destination will arrive on the horizon and come to them." Mason is author of the classic work of "fiction," "Chickenhawk," his personal narrative.
"The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam" by Tom Bissell. Pantheon Books, 2007. "War is a force of influence above all else – the most purely distilled form of partisanship ever devised. Yet war's energies and dark matter are too complicated to allow anyone the certain physics of right and wrong."
"Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History" by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley. Verity Press, 1998. "Still, the popular perception of Vietnam veterans as victims tortured by memories – drug abusers, criminals, homeless bums, or psychotic losers – did not fit me or anybody I knew who had served in Vietnam."
"The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam" by James William Gibson. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986. "A new war will not redeem U.S. defeat in Vietnam. There is no such thing as 'new, improved' technowar that will produce more value for the investment... Instead, another major war against a popular insurgency only offers the prospect of more death and destruction. The insurgents will suffer the most, but American soldiers will die, too... To finally understand the American defeat in Vietnam is to understand how the United States both created and became entrapped by a mythology and a war-production system."
"Fire In the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam" by Frances FitzGerald. Atlantic Monthly Press; Little, Brown and Company, 1972. "For the Americans in Vietnam it would be difficult to make this leap of perspective, difficult to understand that while they saw themselves as building world order, many Vietnamese saw them merely as the producers of garbage from which they could build houses."
"The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph and the Vietnam War" by Denise Chong. Viking, 20000. "In the voiceless cry of the girl in the picture is the silence of guilt, of public and private flaws. War, any war, not just the Vietnam war, has dimensions of moral ambiguity."
"Ho Chi Minh: A Life" by William J. Duiker. Hyperion, 2000. "For Americans, the debate over Ho Chi Minh arouses passions over a war that is now past. For Vietnamese, it conjures up questions of more fundamental importance, since it defines one of the central issues in the Vietnamese revolution – the relationship between human freedom and economic equality in the emerging postwar Vietnam."
"PAVN: People's Army of Vietnam" by Douglas Pike. Presidio Press, 1986. "The Vietnam War represented something new on the world scene, a different concept of war, one involving a radically new grand strategy... That perhaps is the moral to be drawn: we must disenthrall ourselves about Vietnam. We must look anew and come to see clearly what happened to us there and what that means for our future."
"Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides" by Christian G. Appy. Viking, 2003. "What might happen to our conception of the Vietnam War if we simply began to hear the accounts of American veterans alongside the memories of the Vietnamese who fought with and against them? What if we witnessed those distant jungle firefights through the eyes of the people who regarded the battlefield as home and called this epic struggle 'The American War'?"
"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. Broadway Books,1990; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Unabridged audiobook read by Bryan Cranston; Audible, 2013. The weight of Vietnam. "They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing." O'Brien is also the author of the acclaimed novel "Going After Cacciato."
"Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War" by Karl Marlantes. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010. "The light died. Voices were silenced. Darkness and fear replaced light and reason. The whisper of a leaf scraping on bark would make heads turn involuntarily and hearts gallop. The surrounding blackness and the unseen wall of dripping growth left no place to run. In that black wet nothingness the perimeter became just a memory. Only imagination gave it form." Marlantes is also author of "What It Is Like to Go to War."
"Fields of Fire" by James Webb. Prentice-Hall, 1978. "Hodges sat against a wet, grassy paddy dike and lazily stirred a can of Beef and Potatoes with a dirty plastic spoon. Raindrops popped and sizzled as they pelted the tiny stove in front of him, which he had made by punching holes in another C-ration tin. His eyes were sunken, his face gaunt and bearded. He dragged mechanically on a muddy cigarette, mindless of the stream of water that was pouring off his helmet down the back of his neck. There was no way to avoid the rain. His body was crinkly from it and he didn't care anymore."
"Close Quarters" by Larry Heinemann. Penguin, 1977. "The war works on you until you become part of it, and then you start working on it instead of it working on you, and you get deep-down mean. Not just kidding mean; not movie-style John Wayne mean, you get mean for real."
"The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam" by Bao Ninh. Riverhead Books, 1991, 1993. "My life seems little different from that of a sampan pushed upstream towards the past. There is no new life,no new era, nor is it hope for a beautiful future that now drives me on, but rather the opposite. The hope is contained in the beautiful prewar past."
Missing in this list are the books about the French experience in Vietnam in the 1950s, which is connected to the war in the 1960s and early 70s. Historians and writers like Fredrick Logevall, author of "Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam," show a thread from WWI through WWII through the Korean War through The Cold War that leads to the war in the 60s and early 70s. Another book from that era is frequently cited as a top read: Graham Greene's "Quiet American."
As a Navy read, "From Pearl Harbor to Vietnam: The Memoirs of Admiral Arthur W. Radford,"edited by Stephen Jurika, Jr, is indispensable. Radford's memoirs were published by Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, in 1980 (with excerpts printed as early as 1949 by various publishers). Radford's memoirs gives a first-person account and insight on how Indochina continued to be a glowing ember after WWII and through the early 70s.
Another candidate for the "50 for 50" is J. Craig Venter's biography, "A Life Decoded - My Genome: My Life," reviewed previously on Navy Reads. And for a far-out future perspective based on his Vietnam experience, read Joe Haldeman's highly recommended "The Forever War."