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Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory

by Scott Laderman, Duke University Press, 2009

Author Scott Laderman lost me with his “Prefatory Note,” a four-page introduction to his Introduction, in which he explains why in a book about the Vietnam War he eschews using the terms “Vietnam War,” “Viet Cong,” “North Vietnamese Army,” “South Vietnam,” “North Vietnam,” and the “First (and Second) Indochina War.” Why? Because these commonly used appellations are “biased,” and in the latter two cases “obscure the temporal continuity of the Vietnamese anti-colonial struggle and the American commitment, beginning in the 1940s, to combating it.”

The biases involved in using these and other terms (including “The American War” and “The North-South War”), according to Laderman, are overwhelmingly pro-American and anti-Communist. And, as the University of Minnesota (Duluth) history professor makes clear in his Introduction and the chapters that follow, he believes that American “imperialism,” which he also terms “imperial aggression,” was at the heart of whatever you want to call the shooting war that the United States was involved with in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia) in the 1960s and 1970s.

Laderman’s book, his first, grew out of his Ph.D. dissertation. In this academic tome his main thesis is that the short histories of the Indochinese Wars (1945-75) in guidebooks, pamphlets and brochures—produced before, during and especially after the American war—are filled to overflowing with these biased phrases, along with biased, proAmerican interpretations of the wars in Vietnam. Or, as he puts it, the guidebooks by and large tell the story of the war “in ways favorable to American global ambitions.”

What’s valuable here is Laderman’s detailed deconstructions of American and South Vietnamese (Republic of Vietnam) prewar and wartime guidebooks and other materials. These publications were designed primarily to entice American tourists, in the former case, and to offer advice on Vietnamese culture, society and history to American military personnel. Many of them, primarily the pocket guides put out by the Pentagon’s Office of Armed Forces Information and Education (OAFIE) in the 1950s and 60s, are laughably transparent pieces of propaganda.

What’s not valuable at all is Laderman’s chapter on the 1968 Hue Massacre. Laderman tries to make a case that the common wisdom—that the Viet Cong (the National Liberation Front) systematically sought out and executed some 2,800 civilians and buried them in mass graves— has “been vigorously contested” and that “exactly what happened in 1968 remains uncertain.” For evidence, he cites the work of D. Gareth Porter, a far-left historian who is well known for denying, at the time, the Cambodian holocaust from 1975-78.

Laderman says “Porter and other scholars” agree that the VC (NLF) “killed noncombatants” in Hue during Tet ’68, but that “the most reliable enumerations of those killed range from 300 to 400 to a more precise 710.” That flies in the face of what the overwhelming majority of scholars, journalists and researchers who’ve looked into what took place during the 25 days of fighting in the city of Hue during Tet have concluded.

Don Oberdorfer, in his definitive 1971 book, Tet!, for example, names names, dates and places chronicling the NLF’s murderous actions. He concluded that “the overwhelming weight of evidence” showed that “this was for the most part a deliberate slaughter, ordered from on high for plain and specific purposes.” Among the “roughly 2,800” people executed, Oberdorfer said, were “political party officials; city officials, civil servants; village, hamlet and block leaders; Army and militia officers and enlisted men; policemen; priests and other religious people; and teachers—all Vietnamese—in addition to Americans, Ger mans, Filipinos, Koreans and other foreigners.”

Laderman’s conclusion: “Many of the executions in Hue were apparently acts of vengeance by individual insurgents, and not official policy….”


Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.