Rebels red, berets green, agent orange

Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War
August 9, 1996

The editor of this encyclopedia, Stanley Kutler, a distinguished historian whose works include The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon, brings his own interpretation to the Vietnam war. He hints at it in his own short entry on Watergate: he believes that President Richard Nixon and secretary of state Henry Kissinger used the politically crippling effects of that scandalous affair as an "improbable scapegoat" for their "inability to defend South Vietnam".

Kutler's preferences are further evident in his choice of eminent contributors and in the critical interpretations offered in some of the volume's major essays. George C. Herring, the contributor of the essay on diplomacy and one of the pioneers of serious academic study of the Vietnam war, bluntly dismisses the efforts of Nixon and Kissinger: "Peace finally came to Vietnam as a result of military force rather than diplomacy." Robert D. Schulzinger, whose highly respected publications include a biography of Kissinger, states that the secretary of state's "policy toward Vietnam must be judged a failure". In his 5,000-word contribution on Vietnamese perspectives, Ngo Vinh Long comments on the "Hearts and Minds" pacification programme launched by the United States in 1967: "Refugee-generation, in fact, became a central goal of the US war efforts in Vietnam." Because of Vietnamese veneration of the graves and homes of their ancestors, the programme was an unmitigated disaster.

Ngo Vinh Long's contribution illustrates one of the encyclopedia's strengths. It is more than an indispensable reference work for institutional libraries, in that it avoids the anodyne style so characteristic of the genre. Though hand-picked by an editor who knows his own mind, authors have been given their head and allowed to develop their arguments. In Long's case, the result is a refreshingly non-American approach. With feeling, he shows how the people of South Vietnam paid the price for the war. He is even-handedly critical of Washington, Saigon and Hanoi. In a trenchant exposition of the Tet campaign, the 1968 insurgent and North Vietnamese attack on US and allied positions, he argues that South Vietnam's indigenous rebels did much better than anyone has acknowledged: they have been written out of the history books both by the Americans (who claimed to have won the counteroffensive) and by Hanoi (who claimed to have saved the day against the US counteroffensive and thereby to have deserved pride of place at the conference table at the expense of local insurgents).

Ever mindful of the best interest of the people of Vietnam as he conceives it, Long concludes by rejoicing in the recent economic achievements of the now-united country, and in the Coca-Cola hoardings that sprouted in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City following President Bill Clinton's lifting of the trade embargo in February 1994. How unfortunate for Long that this information is immediately followed by the cross-reference "See also Pacification; Prostitution I" and that, with the print newly drying on his article, Vietnam had a change of heart and ripped the hoardings down.

The encyclopedia's value rests in large measure on its superior organisation. The coverage is broad and satisfying: it embraces the period before and after the US's military involvement, Vietnamese topics as well as American matters, social problems on the home fronts on both sides of the Pacific in addition to military and political matters.

There are 564 entries, photographs, maps, an index, a useful synoptic outline, and the texts of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964), its repeal (1971) and the Paris Peace Accords (1973). There is a relatively short bibliographic guide at the end and suggestions for further reading at the end of each entry. Here, the encyclopedia cannot outdo the bibliographies The Vietnam Conflict (1973), The Wars in Vietnam (1984) or America and the Indochina Wars (1992). However, Kutler's bibliographies helpfully span the inconvenient chronological divide separating the latter work from its predecessors and they are more up to date.

This dry recital of attributes cannot do justice to the liveliness and clarity of the encyclopedia's entries. Its details are endlessly fascinating. Here are answers to those questions which bother 1960s veterans and detail-obsessed scholars alike. When was that dreadful song Ballad of the Green Berets released? (1965) Did Bill Clinton protest against the draft, or just evade it? (He did protest, and in his case the word is avoidance, not evasion.) Who received amnesty and when? (Nobody and never: President Jimmy Carter issued a pardon in 1977.) What happened to the infamous "Hanoi Hilton", the prison where so many captured American servicemen suffered between 1964 and 1973? (It was demolished in 1994 to make way for a luxury hotel.) The encyclopedia contains some minor errors, such as computer-jumbled prose, but has very few organisational imperfections. The long Order of Battle entry (pages 376-415) is an exception, in that it does not mention the Order of Battle controversy (how many Communist soldiers were there, exactly?); the controversy is discussed under the Central Intelligence Agency entry, but is neither indexed nor cross-referenced.

Turning to sources, there are, despite the book's strengths, a number of problems. There is an over-reliance on some authorities, such as Stanley Karnow and George Herring. Karnow, for example, is cited as a leading authority on William J. Donovan, the director of the Office of Strategic Services, but he is not. Second, it seems inconsistent that Jean Delmas cites French-language sources in his essay on colonialism, whereas Long makes no use of North Vietnamese sources in his contribution on Vietnamese Perspectives. Third, Bao Ninh's great North Vietnamese novel, The Sorrow of War (1991, translated 1993) is not properly discussed, and American literature and culture are disproportionately ascendant. Finally, Kutler sometimes falls victim to his own boldness. He ignores arguments uncongenial to his own in major works like Guenter Lewy's America in Vietnam (1978) and Joan Hoff's Nixon Reconsidered (1994). In that respect, his work is incomplete.

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones is reader in history, University of Edinburgh.

Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War

Editor - Stanley Kutler
ISBN - 0 13 6932 8
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Price - £90.00
Pages - 711

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