EDITED BY MICHAEL H. HUNT
CHAPEL HILL: UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS, 2010
223 PAGES, ISBN: 978-0807859919, PAPERBACK
Reviewed by Shelton Woods
Divided into seven chapters, the compact A Vietnam War Reader is a brilliant guide to one of history’s most analyzed conflicts. This volume’s excellence is rooted in the editor’s choice of documents and his narrative introductions to each chapter; every chapter introduction concludes with questions for discussion. Professor Michael H. Hunt brings a lifetime of knowledge and scholarship to this edited book. Very few, if any, scholars have the gift for succinct, engaging narrative combined with an encyclopedic knowledge of this subject. And while the author may have strongly-held opinions on his topic, he asserts at the outset that, “Throughout I have tried to keep my own views on a leash so that readers will feel free to grapple on their own with the important questions still surrounding the Việt Nam War” (xiv).
What makes Hunt’s volume stand out from similar studies is his scalpel—he knows how to discriminately choose the heart of a long document and make it compelling to various types of readers.
Chapter one, “Setting: Colonialism and the Cold War (to 1954)” opens with Nguyen Dinh Chieu’s 1861 funeral oration honoring peasants who fought the French and closes with President Eisenhower’s correspondence with Winston Churchill regarding the ongoing Battle of Dienbienphu. In between these two documents, Hunt puts in other sources that help explain Việt Nam’s French colonial history. One such document is Hồ Chí Minh’s September 2, 1945, declaration of the founding of the Democratic Republic of Việt Nam. Hunt’s inclusion of this speech is not surprising, and it often appears in other such books on the war. What makes Hunt’s volume stand out from similar studies is his scalpel—he knows how to discriminately choose the heart of a long document and make it compelling to various types of readers. All the while, one never feels short-changed by reading the edited documents, because their main topics are always highlighted. In fact, the rather pithy presentation engages the reader.
Professor Hunt states that in this reader he gives the Vietnamese and Americans equal time. He also provides a balanced perspective to the differing opinions in each camp. For example, in one document Under Secretary of State George Ball notes in 1965 that America’s involvement in Việt Nam is akin to “giving cobalt treatment to a terminal cancer case” (81). In another record from 1967, Hồ Chí Minh is overtly skeptical of what eventually became the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Two things to note about the balance of documents: first, chapter six “The War Comes Home, 1965–1971” is exclusively devoted to the American side of the war; second, the book is focused on the American/Việt Nam aspect of the war. While there are occasional references to other players in the war, Cambodia and Laos, for example, they are given no real hearing in these documents.
Sprinkled throughout Hunt’s narrative and the documents are notable statistics and statements that are often overlooked by those who study the war. Hunt asserts, for example, that there were seven American support personnel in Việt Nam for every American combatant. Another important fact Hunt provides for those who say no one knew why America was in Việt Nam is President Johnson’s April 7, 1965, speech at Johns Hopkins University where he clearly answers his rhetorical question, “Why are we in South Việt Nam?” (70).
One final sample of Hunt’s captivating narrative is found in the last chapter, “Outcomes and Verdicts.” The author clearly captures the post-war mood: “In both countries, anxious nationalists went to work either to preserve the memory of a glorious victory or to redeem the shame of defeat” (185). This kind of analytical, objective insight makes A Vietnam War Reader perfect for a high school class or a lower division collegiate course.