The United States involvement in Vietnam dates to the late 1940s, but it was not until the 1960s that America began pouring thousands of troops into Southeast Asia. Imbued with Cold War assumptions, convinced that the Containment Doctrine was being tested, firmly believing in the Domino Theory, President Lyndon Johnson in the summer of 1965 made the agonizing decision to escalate the war. Surely, the President believed, communist peasants could not prevail against the might of the United States; surely, too, the United States must honor its Cold War obligations. Thus, by the end of 1965, nearly two hundred thousand American combat troops were in Vietnam; by 1969, the peak year, 543,400 were fighting in the jungles of that war-torn country.
Ultimately, some 58,000 Americans and 1.5 million Vietnamese died in the conflict. For Americans, the war ultimately became one of the most controversial and divisive in history. Soldiers fought bravely, but to what end? How could one fight an enemy that one could not see? Battling both North Vietnamese regular troops and the guerrilla forces of the National Liberation Front was extraordinarily difficult, no matter how many bombs the U.S. dropped, no matter how great the firepower of the American military. Many Americans began to question the war, then protest against it. The war abroad became a war at home, and the conflict over the Vietnam War literally tore the nation to pieces.
What you will find in these interviews of Vietnam veterans is the experience of everyday soldiers, not generals. This is “history from the ground up,” a history of common Americans in uncommon circumstances. You will be able to hear and/or read their experience fighting in this faraway land—what it was like to get drafted, what it was like to land “in country,” what it was like to encounter an alien culture, and what it was like to fight and to see fellow soldiers die. –Prof. Robert Griswold
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Primary Sources: Original Documents from the Time
McMahon, Robert J., ed. “Philip Caputo’s Perspective.” In Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War: Documents and Essays, 4th ed., 240–42. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. (Companion Canvas page.)
McMahon, Robert J., ed. “Two Testimonies about My Lai.” In Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War: Documents and Essays, 4th ed., 242–46. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. (Companion Canvas page.)
McMahon, Robert J., ed. “Westermoreland on the War.” In Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War: Documents and Essays, 4th ed., 209–12. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. (Companion Canvas page.)
Secondary Sources: What Historians Have Written
Buzzanco, Robert, and Marilyn B. Young, eds. “The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam During the Johnson Years.” In A Companion to the Vietnam War, 174–97. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2002. (Companion Canvas page.)
McMahon, Robert J., ed. “The Failure of Counter Insurgency Warfare.” In Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War: Documents and Essays, 4th ed.., 220–34. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. (Companion Canvas page.)
Westheider, James E. “Racial Violence in the Military and the Military Response.” In The African American Experience in Vietnam: Brothers in Arms. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008. (Companion Canvas page.)