A quarter-century in the writing, the official armed forces histories of the war are finally nearing completion.

By Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., U.S. Army (ret.)

Given their focus on hardware and technology–warships, fighters, bombers, fixed-wing gunships, cargo transports, statistics on bomb tonnages and the like–the official histories of the Navy and the Air Force were relatively easy to write. The Air Force’s one-volume United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1961-1973, edited by Carl Berger, was first published in 1977 by the Office of Air Force History. The Navy’s By Sea, Air and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia, by Edward J. Marolda, was published by the Naval Historical Center in paperback in 1984 and then in hardback by the U.S. Government Printing Office (at $43 a copy) in 1994.

Now come the more difficult “people” histories, including the last of the Marine Corps History and Museums Division’s nine volumes on the operational history of the war (two functional volumes on chaplains and lawyers have already been published), and the first of the Army Center of Military History’s four volumes on combat operations in Vietnam, as well as a comprehensive, albeit unofficial, history of the Coast Guard in Vietnam.

Published out of chronological sequence (the volumes for 1969, 1970-1971, 1971-1973 and 1973-1975 have already been published), the volume U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Defining Year 1968, by Jack Shulimson et. al. (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1997, $70 hardbound, 805 pages, including photos, maps, appendices and an index), lives up to the reputation of those earlier works, for it, too, is an outstanding history. Meticulously researched and reviewed by those who actually took part in the battle actions depicted, it does full justice to the Marines who served during what Brig. Gen. E.H. Simmons, director emeritus of Marine Corps History and himself a Vietnam veteran, calls “the defining year of the war.” The eventful year included not only the Tet Offensive, including Khe Sanh and Hue City, but also the “Mini-Tet” offensive in May 1968, probably the bloodiest month of the war. While most of the work concentrates on III Marine Amphibious Force operations and the ground war in I Corps, it also treats the activities of the Special Landing Force and Marine advisers to South Vietnamese forces. Separate chapters cover Marine aviation, artillery, logistics, manpower and pacification.

A long time coming, the first volume of the Army’s series on combat operations in Vietnam, United States Army in Vietnam–Combat Operations: Taking the Offensive October 1996 to October 1967, by George L. MacGarrigle (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1998, $44 hardbound, 485 pages, including photos, maps, bibliography and an index), is also an outstanding work. Well researched not only from the official records but also through interviews with those who actually did the fighting, it provides a graphic and realistic view of the war. Also published out of chronological sequence (the first volume, covering 1965 through October 1966, is due out next year), this work gets to the essence of the Vietnam War. As Brig. Gen. John W. Montcastle, then the Army’s chief of military history, says, it “tells the story of how one of the best armies the United States has ever fielded took on both the enemy’s guerrilla units and his main forces and time and again drove them from the battlefield. It also shows, however, that the enemy retained the initiative, fighting only when it suited his purposes and retreating with impunity” into inviolable cross-border sanctuaries.

Previously, the only official histories of Coast Guard operations in Vietnam were sketchy monographs by the Coast Guard Public Affairs Division. Now comes retired Coast Guard Captain Alex Larzelere with The Coast Guard at War: Vietnam 1965-1975 (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 1997, $32.95, 384 pages, with photos, maps, bibliography and an index), an unofficial but thoroughly researched account of Coast Guard combat operations. Drawing from his own experiences as commander of the 82-foot-long patrol boats Point Comfort and Point Banks during the Coast Guard’s first deployment to Vietnam in 1965, as well as the official records and extensive interviews with those who manned the boats, Captain Larzelere has provided an authoritative account of one of the least-known aspects of the conflict.

The battle accounts in these three works may seem familiar, for many have been published previously in the pages of Vietnam Magazine. But these official historical accounts are invaluable, for they place those individual actions in a much larger context. Unfortunately they are expensive, and historians themselves complain they are being priced out of the market. The saving grace is that, unlike magazines, these hard-bound volumes will be available in our community libraries to tell the truth about the Vietnam War long after the veterans are no longer around to keep the record straight.