Cover Page

Contesting the Past

The volumes in this series select some of the most controversial episodes in history and consider their divergent, even starkly incompatible representations. The aim is not merely to demonstrate that history is ‘argument without end’, but to show that study even of contradictory conceptions can be fruitful: that the jettisoning of one thesis or presentation leaves behind something of value.


Contesting the Crusades
Norman Housley

Contesting the German Empire 1871–1918
Matthew Jefferies

Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War, Second Edition
Gary R. Hess

Contesting the French Revolution
Paul Hanson

The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories
Neil Caplan

Contesting the Renaissance
William Caferro

Contesting the Reformation
C. Scott Dixon


Explaining America’s Lost War

Second Edition


Gary R. Hess






For Madeline and Grayson


The year 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Americanization of the war in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement in July 1965 of an open-ended military commitment ended uncertainty about whether measures taken earlier that year – the bombing of North Vietnam, the introduction of the first American ground forces and their expanding military mission – would be sufficient to save South Vietnam from coming under communist control. By the time of Johnson’s decision for war, the escalating American role in Vietnam was already dividing the country. In late March 1965, the first Vietnam “teach-in” took place at the University of Michigan. At other campuses around the country, students and faculty soon followed by holding similar forums that debated the issues confronting the United States in Vietnam. Most participants questioned, if they were not outright opposed to, the escalating US involvement. Bowling Green State University, where I was in my first year of teaching, was the scene of a modest teach-in in May 1965. Although I knew little about Vietnam, I agreed to participate and tried to present a balanced appraisal of how America had become involved there.

Few of us at that time conceived of the momentous events that were to follow: that within three years more than 500,000 American troops would be stationed in Vietnam fighting an indecisive war that would divide Americans more deeply than any event of the twentieth century. That early uneasiness, however, foreshadowed the turbulent times that lay ahead. For two decades Americans had uncritically supported the nation’s Cold War policy of “containment” of the Soviet Union. From the beginning, Vietnam was a different kind of problem: a war against ruthless insurgents in the jungles of Asia to salvage a politically and militarily unstable ally. The challenge of securing a non-communist South Vietnam was far more foreboding than earlier Cold War crises. The ensuing war, which cost 58,000 American and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives and which ended in humiliating defeat, underlined the appropriateness of pausing in 1965 to think through where the nation was heading.

This book is an effort to come to terms with a substantial portion of the literature on the Vietnam War. The differences between “hawks” and “doves” of the war years have continued in the contentious debate among scholars, journalists, and participants over the war’s retrospective “meaning” and its “lessons.” At the heart of the 50 years’ debate has been the issue of explaining failure. Wartime hawks feared that limitations on military operations and domestic opposition were undermining a war that had to be waged in the name of anti-communism: if America failed, they were convinced, it would be a self-inflicted defeat. On the other side, the doves believed that failure was inherent in a misguided intervention on behalf of a weak government against a communist movement that enjoyed nationalist legitimacy: US power could not change the political situation in Vietnam, a country, moreover, of marginal significance in terms of American security. Those contemporary debates have essentially continued in the retrospective writing, with revisionists carrying forward the hawkish “winnable” war argument and orthodox writers following in the dovish “unwinnable” war tradition.

To help make sense of this debate, I have divided it into seven topics:

  1. The basic question – was Vietnam a “necessary” or “mistaken” war?
  2. The decisions for war from 1961 to 1965 – could war have been avoided (did Kennedy plan to withdraw from Vietnam and did Johnson miss opportunities for a peaceful settlement?) or did policymakers subvert a “lost victory?”
  3. Military strategy – was the United States engaged in a conventional war, not a guerrilla war, and victory achievable by all-out use of US power?
  4. As an alternative to reliance on military power – would pacification and an emphasis on winning “hearts-and-minds” have brought victory?
  5. The media – was coverage of the war irresponsible or balanced?
  6. The Tet Offensive – was the outcome of the battles of 1968 a decisive American victory or devastating loss?
  7. The Nixon–Kissinger policy – did Vietnamization bring a “lost victory” or “neither peace nor honor?”

My objective is to provide a guide to a debate of scholarly as well as contemporary importance, for the “lessons” of Vietnam continue to inform public discourse on foreign policy questions. The identification of the principal issues reflects, in my judgment, the points where the debate is now focused. I have sought to present both sides of the debates on these issues in a comprehensive and even-handed manner. In assessing the merits of the points of contention, I have endeavored to draw principally on scholarly works, although some memoirs and partisan histories contribute significantly to the debate. Since the issues follow both chronological and topical lines and since I endeavor to make each chapter stand on its own, there is some overlap; in particular, the history of Vietnamese nationalism and political developments in South Vietnam have to be discussed in the context of the necessity of war, the decisions for war, and the hearts-and-minds alternative. Also, I have had to make some arbitrary decisions on where to deal with some topics and where to “fit” certain books. For instance, the chapter on the media and the war does not include the controversy about coverage of the Tet Offensive; instead that issue is incorporated into the chapter on Tet itself, since the media’s role is fundamental to assessing the debate on which side “won” that battle. Likewise, the chapter on the hearts-and-minds alternative strategy covers the full course of the war, since the issues involved in pacification were persistent, regardless of the extent to which it was prioritized. The danger in this approach is that it might detract from a full evaluation of the Nixon administration’s emphasis on pacification as part of Vietnamization.

My views were shaped during the early months of the war when I became convinced that the US had become involved in a hopeless enterprise. From what I read at the time especially on the history of Vietnamese nationalism, it seemed to me that America was defying the forces of Vietnamese history; having lived in India and having traveled through other parts of Asia (not including Indochina) shortly before the war was Americanized, I had been impressed by the strength of nationalism everywhere and the determination of Asians to free themselves from anything resembling Western domination. Later research on US policy in Southeast Asia confirmed my early reactions to the war, although I came to appreciate the complexities of Vietnamese politics and the interests of the major powers in Indochina.

This identity with the dovish-orthodox tradition does not, I hope, preclude me from giving a fair assessment of the debate. I have learned a great deal from the revisionists, and have come to respect much of their work, especially as it has become more scholarly. I have also come to appreciate the determination of participants in the war to see a purpose in their effort and sacrifice and to suggest ways that the war might have been more successful. While I am not a convert to revisionism, I have made every effort to give its arguments a complete and fair hearing.

Since the publication of the first edition of this book in 2008, much scholarship has incorporated Vietnamese sources and has drawn greater attention to international aspects of the war, cultural influences, and the politics within both North Vietnam and South Vietnam. My definition of the issues remains American-centered, which continues to represent the preponderance of the writing on the war, as is appropriate for it was US intervention that initiated the Vietnam War, or, as it often labeled, the Second Indochina War. Recent scholarship on the political struggles in southern Vietnam during the French period, the complex interplay of nationalism and colonialism in Indochina during the 1940s and 1950s, the response of allies to US intervention, and North Vietnamese decision-making and strategy has greatly enhanced our understanding of the complexities and dynamics of the war.

I continue to benefit from those who have guided my thinking since I began working on the first edition of the book. Three reviewers of the preliminary proposal stressed the need for a broader focus than I had initially envisioned. Later, four reviewers’ instructive criticism strengthened my draft manuscript.

Recently, in preparing for the revised edition, I was helped immensely by the comments of 19 instructors of Vietnam War courses who commented on the first edition. While their suggestions influenced the rewriting of several chapters, they are most fully represented in the entirely rewritten conclusion, which now focuses on the “lessons” of the war.

For this extensive guidance from colleagues on both the 2008 and 2015 editions, I am indebted to Peter Coveney, Wiley Blackwell’s Senior Commissioning Editor. Peter is a superb editor in every respect. It has been a privilege to work with him. I owe gratitude as well to his first-rate staff – including Purushothaman Saravanan, Project Manager; Georgina Coleby, former Project Editor; Ashley McPhee, former Editorial Assistant in US and Latin American History; as well as to Lynette Woodward, Freelance Copyeditor.

My wife, Rose, as always, has been a sympathetic and sturdy supporter of my writing. Previous books have been dedicated to my parents John and Dorothy Hess, to Rose, and to our son Ryan. This book is dedicated to the next generation: our grandchildren Madeline and Grayson Hess.

Gary R. Hess