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20 Must-Read Books on the Vietnam War


‘The Best and the Brightest,’ by David Halberstam

In “The Best and the Brightest,” Halberstam sets out to discover how the United States got involved in Vietnam. It is a “valuable contribution to the literature not only on Vietnam but on the way Washington and our foreign policy establishment work,” showing us how “bureaucratic considerations triumphed over ideological or even common-sense ones.” According to The Times 1972 review, the “book’s main and most remarkable contribution is to introduce us in depth to the architects of America’s involvement in Vietnam.”

‘Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans,’ by Wallace Terry


For black soldiers, fighting in Vietnam was especially bad. “Not only were they dying at a disproportionate rate — they made up 23 percent of the fatalities during the early years of the war — but they also faced discrimination within the military in terms of decorations, promotions and duty assignments.” This oral history gives the “reader a visceral sense of what it was like, as a black man, to serve in Vietnam and what it was like to come back to ‘the real world’.”

‘Born on the Fourth of July,’ by Ron Kovic

The Times described “Born on the Fourth of July” as a memoir about “killing and being killed on the battlefields of Southeast Asia.” Kovic came back “to a town built by veterans of a prouder war who didn’t understand the veterans of Vietnam. It is an account of one man and one community, but it could be the account of a whole generation and a whole country.”

‘A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam,’ by Neil Sheehan

The power of this book “lies in its anger” as it showcases the “confused or venal men in Washington and Saigon.” According to the 1988 Times review, “if there is one book that captures the Vietnam War in the sheer Homeric scale of its passion and folly, this book is it.”

‘Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam,’ by H. R. McMaster


McMaster’s book looks at the “human failures” of President Lyndon Johnson and his advisers. “What gives ‘Dereliction of Duty’ its special value,” according to the Times review, “is McMaster’s comprehensive, balanced and relentless exploration of the specific role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

‘Dispatches,’ by Michael Herr

Here’s what the 1977 Times review had to say about this book: “If you think you don’t want to read any more about Vietnam, you are wrong. ‘Dispatches’ is beyond politics, beyond rhetoric, beyond ‘pacification’ and body counts and the ‘psychotic vaudeville’ of Saigon press briefings. Its materials are fear and death, hallucination and the burning of souls. It is as if Dante had gone to hell with a cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix and a pocketful of pills: our first rock-and-roll war, stoned murder.”

‘Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam,’ by Fredrik Logevall

Fredrik Logevall’s book focuses on the French conflict in Vietnam at the end of World War II and the beginning of the American one in 1959. The Times review called the book “excellent” and “comprehensive,” and a “powerful portrait of the terrible and futile French war from which Americans learned little as they moved toward their own engagement in Vietnam.”

‘Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America’s Involvement in and Extrication From the Vietnam War,’ by Henry Kissinger

In “Ending the Vietnam War,” Kissinger offers “no great revelations” and “no personal mea culpas.” Still, “he is a deft portrayer of his allies and adversaries,” as he tries to get the United States out of Vietnam, and “he knows how to make the driest diplomacy surprisingly suspenseful.”

‘Father, Soldier, Son: Memoir of a Platoon Leader in Vietnam,’ by Nathaniel Tripp

“Father, Soldier, Son” is a “searing memoir of Vietnam by a veteran who fought honorably but without patriotism or illusions.” The Times review called it a “moving story” about the author’s “efforts to find solace through love and family.”

‘Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam,’ by Frances Fitzgerald


According to the 1972 Times review, “Fire in the Lake” is a “compassionate and penetrating account of the collision of two societies that remain untranslatable to one another, an analysis of all those features of South Vietnamese culture that doomed the American effort from the start, and an incisive explanation of the reasons why that effort could only disrupt and break down South Vietnam’s society — and pave the way for the revolution that the author sees as the only salvation.”

‘Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam,’ by Mark Bowden

Bowden “applies his signature blend of deep reportage and character-driven storytelling to bring readers a fresh look at the 1968 battle in the Vietnamese city of Hue.” The Times review praised it for bringing “an old war to life for young Americans” that may “prompt a wider reflection on how to apply the lessons of Vietnam to our wars of today.”

‘In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,’ by Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark

The Times review of “In Retrospect” opens like this: “In his 79th year, Robert S. McNamara at long last offers the public a glimpse of his aching conscience.” McNamara tries to “prove that the mistakes were ‘mostly honest,’ even if traceable to a ghastly ignorance of the Vietnamese people, culture and terrain, and the historical forces of that time.” The review found “McNamara’s unwillingness to explore the human tragedies and political legacies” of the Vietnam War disappointing.

‘Reporting Vietnam,’ by the Library of America


The Times 1999 review of this two-volume collection of writing and reporting on the Vietnam War chronicles the “war of soldiers in the field, not the one at home, or the one described in Saigon by American military spokesmen at a daily briefing reporters called ‘the 5 o’clock follies’ — a war of units, numbers, objectives, initiatives, programs, targets, enemy body counts given in exact numbers and American casualties described as ‘light’ or ‘moderate.’”

‘A Rumor of War,’ by Philip Caputo

In “A Rumor of War,” Philip Caputo forces the reader to “see and feel and understand what it was like to fight in Vietnam,” The Times Book Review wrote. ” He does this by “placing himself as a Marine lieutenant directly before the reader and giving the American involvement a sincere, manly, increasingly harrowed American face.”

‘Vietnam: A History,’ by Stanley Karnow

The Times Book Review described Stanley Karnow’s “Vietnam” as a “less dogmatic, more objective” historical account “that leaves no reasonable questions unanswered.” Because Mr. Karnow “has a sharp eye for the illustrative moment and a keen ear for the telling quote, his book is first-rate as a popular contribution to understanding the war.”

‘We Were Soldiers Once … And Young: Ia Drang — The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam,’ by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway

“We Were Soldiers Once … And Young” centers on “four days and nights in November 1965, when American soldiers in the central highlands of Vietnam endured what proved to be the bloodiest campaign of the war.” The 1992 Times review said it “goes as far as any book yet written toward answering the hoary question of what combat is really like.”


‘When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey From War to Peace,’ by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts

Hayslip’s account offers a rare view of “growing up in the shadow of war.” The book, an “intensely intimate portrait,” is a “human account of Vietnam’s destruction and self-destruction.” She “begins with the war’s corruption of family and community life in her village” and “then moves to the hard, impure compromises of survival as she becomes a teenage refugee in Saigon” among South Vietnamese and American soldiers.

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