The farther we move way from the Vietnam War, the more clearly it seems to come into focus.
By Major Dominic J. Caraccilo
The Vietnam War is one of the most intensely studied conflicts in American history. After more than 25 years, it continues to offer significant insights into the social, political and military aspects of waging modern war. Since the war’s conclusion, countless histories of the American and French struggle in Southeast Asia have been written. While most studies focus mainly on the accounts of the war itself, a few include an equal amount of analysis devoted to the events leading to and following the conflict. Chronologies, pictorial histories and memoirs have flooded the market in an attempt to make their mark as the single authoritative source on the multiple facets of the war. Few until now have made that mark.
Editor Spencer C. Tucker, John Biggs Professor of Military History at the Virginia Military Institute, offers an all-inclusive and ambitious summary of the Vietnam War in three volumes with Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (ABC-CLIO, Inc., Santa Barbara, Calif., $275 hardcover). He expertly composed this set by first assembling the right contributors for the effort and then meticulously editing the entries to ensure that all aspects of the conflict receive the right level of attention. Within this book’s pages the reader will find biographical sketches of key personalities; detailed descriptions of weapons; analyses of strategies, operations and tactics; and a detailed focus on Vietnamese leaders–all within the war’s historical context.
This impressive reference work contains the efforts of more than 138 experts, veterans and academicians. Their wide range of expertise gives a rich texture to the 980 alphabetically arranged entries. The volumes are illustrated with 149 black-and-white photographs and 22 line maps for easy reference.
While the Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War strives to achieve scholastic accuracy in each of its entries, its three volumes offer much more than an alphabetical arrangement of topics. Volume I begins with a foreword by Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., whose distinguished contribution to the war in Vietnam and the U.S. Navy thereafter remains unparalleled. Next, the editor provides an introduction that establishes the scope of the work. As Tucker notes, “One cannot understand the Vietnam War without first studying the Indo-China conflict.” As a result, Tucker made sure that the encyclopedia includes many entries covering the period prior to American involvement. Of equal note is the attention given to the Vietnamese side.
Volume II completes the ordered listing of entries and includes a selected bibliography of nonfiction works. Contributor Sandra M. Wittman adds an equally expansive list of literature and films on American and French involvement in Vietnam. Of great value to researchers is Volume II’s “Chronology of Events Touching Vietnam through April 1975.” The chronology offers an overview of the key events, starting in 2879 bc, with the establishment of the Kingdom of Van Lang, and concluding on that fateful day in 1975 when Communist forces captured Saigon and effectively brought the Vietnam War to a close. Volume II concludes with a glossary of acronyms and slang terms.
The final volume contains more than 200 key documents pertaining to the war. The period for this set of excerpts, speeches, official statements and government papers begins with Ho Chi Minh’s 1920 speech at the Tours Congress and concludes with President Bill Clinton’s July 1995 announcement of a “normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam.” The main purpose of this collection of documents, says Tucker, is to “show the thinking of officials both in Vietnam and in Washington, D.C., and reflect changes in U.S. policy.” Additionally, many of the reproduced documents trace the evolution of French policy as well as the thinking behind the actions of the Communist leaders in Hanoi.
The final section of Volume III contains an appendix that presents important statistics on the United States’ involvement. These easy-to-read tables include “U.S. Casualties by Military Service”; “Casualties by Year,” dating from 1966 through 1973; “U.S. Aircraft Losses by Year,” dating from 1962 through 1973; “U.S. Air Sorties in South Vietnam, 1966-1973”; and “U.S. Deaths by Age.” At a quick look, a researcher can determine the relevant elements of information. Examples include the fact that 11 U.S. servicemen died in the war at the young age of 17, and that the peak year for U.S. casualties was 1968. At the height of the war, the majority of U.S. fixed-wing aircraft downed by enemy fire was not the result of surface-to-air-missiles, but small-arms fire. Finally, the Encyclopedia’s last volume concludes with a detailed 100-page index, providing a ready reference key to the entire work. (Note that an abridged version of the Encyclopedia was also published by Oxford University Press this year.)
The heart of the Encyclopedia, of course, remains the well-crafted entries that range from a paragraph to several pages in length. Each contains cross-references and bibliographic citations. Each entry also has a contributor byline, identifying many university professors, active and retired servicemen ranging in rank from four-star admiral to VMI cadet, and independent authors. This widely diverse group lends further credibility to this massive undertaking. Of particular note is Tucker’s commitment to provide equal coverage to those who opposed the war and those who supported it. This is, perhaps, the key indicator that the Encyclopedia is thoughtful, balanced and all-inclusive.
Tucker has provided Vietnam researchers with a ready tool to acquire just about any information pertaining to the war in Southeast Asia. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War will be essential for high schools, public and academic libraries and personal collections. It provides a balanced view of the war from every angle–of friend and foe alike.