Gregory A. Daddis
Review of Mark Atwood
Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History.
New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008. Pp. viii, 214. ISBN
Colonel Gregory A. Daddis (Ph.D. North Carolina) is an Academy Professor of History
at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. He is currently serving in Baghdad as the Multi-National
Corps-Iraq Command Historian. --Ed.
* * *
This succinct introductory survey of the Vietnam War is a useful
reminder that, while the United States played a central role in
Indochina throughout much of the late twentieth century, global
competitors in both Europe and Asia helped shape the course
and outcome of fighting in Vietnam. In less than two hundred pages
of clear, crisp prose, Mark Atwood Lawrence, a University of Texas
professor of history,
succeeds in "examining the American role within a broadly
international context" (4).
In a chronological treatment of events from the era of French
colonization through the end of the "Second Indochina War," Lawrence
addresses four key thematic questions that have incited historical
debate over the past few decades. First, he assesses the motives of
Vietnamese revolutionaries as a fascinating backdrop to, secondly,
evaluating why international powers devoted so much time and
resources to Vietnam after the Second World War. His third line of
inquiry--explaining U.S. defeat--sheds light more broadly on how
foreign actors affected American political and military strategies.
Finally, The Vietnam War briefly examines the question of the
conflict's legacies not only in the United States and in Vietnam but
in Cambodia and Laos as well.
Lawrence establishes his international approach with a pithy review
of early Vietnamese independence struggles against Chinese
domination before turning to nineteenth-century French imperialism,
in both cases, supporting his central argument that "Vietnam's
political development owed much to … shift[s] in the larger
geopolitical environment" (9). French colonization, understood in
the context of the industrial revolution, particularly transformed
life inside Vietnam. Not only did the French presence restructure
Vietnam's social order, the growing manipulation of the Vietnamese
economy helped create a forceful nationalist movement that
influenced national politics well into the next century.
For Lawrence, this budding nationalist movement flowered under Ho
Chi Minh. Although this is not new material, he offers a vivid and
compelling picture of Ho as a consummate political actor who "showed
a remarkable ideological flexibility to succeed where earlier
nationalists has failed" (17) and attracted people from elites
peasants by merging international communist ideas on social
revolution with local designs for Vietnamese independence. The
Second World War provided Ho with further opportunities on the
international stage. With French power and prestige weakened in the
aftermath of Germany's 1940 invasion, the League for the
Independence of Vietnam, or Viet Minh, expanded its political
influence throughout the countryside and, as Lawrence skillfully
demonstrates, made the exploitation of openings created by foreign
powers a centerpiece of Vietnamese politics and military strategy in
the post-war era.
Tensions generated by the Cold War, while providing opportunities to
astute Vietnamese leaders like Ho Chi Minh, also pushed Indochina
toward full-scale war. Lawrence describes the anxieties of the
Chinese, Soviets, and Americans as Vietnam became "a vital front in
the global confrontation between democratic capitalism and
international communism" (28). Within these lines of inquiry, The
Vietnam War is most compelling. Lawrence portrays anxious U.S.
leaders seeking dependable anti-communist allies as the Chinese
civil war unfolded in the late 1940s. Concerned about alienating
France and undercutting their containment policies in Europe,
Washington was hesitant to challenge French designs to reconquer
Indochina. Thus, while the French army waged a war with the Viet
Minh that drained its nation's financial and military resources, the
United States spent roughly $3 billion to prop up its European ally.
Lawrence demonstrates, however, that the Democratic Republic of
Vietnam (DRV) was equally successful in obtaining foreign assistance
between 1947 and 1950, noting that "at this critical point, the war
in Vietnam assumed a dual character that would persist for years to
come: it was simultaneously a colonial struggle and a Cold War
Lawrence's depiction of the French-Indochina War builds upon his
internationally focused narrative. Though the United States bore the
lion's share of the war's costs, the French could not break the
deadlock against the Viet Minh revolutionaries. Further, Chinese
military assistance allowed Hanoi to build a modern army from its
guerrilla forces as the Soviet Union paid greater attention to
Southeast Asia. The Geneva Settlement of 1954, following the French
defeat at Dien Bien Phu, further illustrated the power of other
nations to manipulate events with Vietnam. Both China and the Soviet
Union agreed to partition Vietnam temporarily into communist and
non-communist halves--Beijing because it was interested in domestic
affairs after participating in an exhausting Korean War, Moscow
because of internal troubles in the aftermath of Stalin's death. The
interplay over Vietnam among the great powers in the early 1950s is
absorbing; the only disappointment here is that reasons of space
prohibited Lawrence from delving deeper into the motivations for
foreign policy decisions made in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow.
Lawrence gives a concise overview of how Hanoi and Saigon
consolidated power in the aftermath of the Geneva Settlement. By
early 1961, the newly founded National Liberation Front (NLF) had
"laid the political and military groundwork for a new war" (65). The
ensuing sensible description of the war will raise the hackles of
some revisionist Vietnam historians.
As Lawrence convincingly argues, by 1961 the conflict had "acquired
one of the most distinct features it would have over the years to
come: it was simultaneously a civil war among Southerners and a
cross-border effort by Hanoi to reunify the country on its own
terms, a complexity that would often elude American policymakers
prone to see the conflict simply as a result of Northern aggression
against the South" (65).
The American decision in the early 1960s to expend greater resources
and ultimately blood in Vietnam necessarily brings the United States
closer to the center of the narrative. Though Lawrence keeps his
focus primarily on strategic and operational matters during the
American war (appropriately, given the book's brevity), he never
loses sight of the international context. He demonstrates that
Presidents Kennedy and Johnson expanded U.S. commitment to South
Vietnam not out of confidence but out of fear that governments
across the globe would question American commitments if South
Vietnam were allowed to fall to the communists without a fight. This
"political pressure to make a stand in Vietnam" (71) sprang from
both domestic and international sources. Additionally, as Hanoi
readied for a prolonged international confrontation, it petitioned
both China and the Soviet Union for increased aid. In an intriguing
passage, Lawrence shows that Leonid Brezhnev stepped up support for
Hanoi, fearing that "failure to do so would cede Southeast Asia to
Chinese domination and weaken Soviet claims to leadership throughout
the Third World" (95). The United States, interestingly, met with
limited success in persuading its main allies to help in Southeast
Lawrence's synopsis of the American phase of the Vietnam War
(1965-72) is fairly conventional and scholars will find little that
challenges standard interpretations. The author argues that from the
start "the Joint Chiefs pursued a strategy of attrition" (102),
though new research disputes this version of the United States'
approach to unconventional warfare in Southeast Asia.
What Lawrence does substantiate, however, is that American uniformed
and civilian officials failed to identify and implement effective
methods for challenging the NLF's claims to legitimacy in what many
Vietnamese deemed to be a national war for independence. The chapter
on Tet, for example, reinforces Lawrence's contention that U.S.
leaders were unable to break the war's stalemate because the Saigon
government failed to compete for a broad base of loyalty among South
Vietnam's increasingly war weary population.
The ending of the American war brought few strategic changes,
despite the election of a new American president and the opening of
peace negotiations. Lawrence argues cogently that the "new
administration ran up against old problems. Though badly damaged,
communist forces refused to buckle. Though apparently stable, the South Vietnamese government failed to gain support among its people.
Though relieved by declining U.S. casualties, the American public
and Congress continue to sour on the war" (137). Like his
predecessors, Richard Nixon fretted that a hasty American withdrawal
from the war would damage the stature of the United States around
the globe. The new president's reading of the international
framework ensured that other foreign powers would continue to
influence the course and conduct of the war in Southeast Asia.
Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, aimed to
"isolate North Vietnam diplomatically" (139), first by courting the
Soviet Union and then by improving Sino-American relations. Lawrence
weaves together this foreign diplomatic wrangling with the fighting
in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Any new American approach,
however, seemed to address only the symptoms, not the causes, of
Vietnamese political discord. Nixon's policy of Vietnamization,
aimed at increasing the quality of the South Vietnamese forces while
U.S. troops withdrew from Southeast Asia, foundered on pervasive
government corruption and a lack of inspired leadership.
Pacification programs, intended to secure and support the
population, tended only to alienate peasants from the Saigon
government. Land reform measures proved largely ineffective. If
Lawrence equivocates somewhat on the reasons for U.S. failure in
Vietnam, his narrative still makes clear that American policymakers
and military officers failed to understand the root causes behind
both the internal civil war and external cross-border aggression.
The final chapter of The Vietnam War considers the legacies
of a war that hardly ended after the signing of the Paris Peace
Accords (January 1973). Lawrence contends that a "sense of
inconclusiveness" prevailed among the South Vietnamese and
Americans, noting the frustrations of one young captain who
lamented, "We didn't win a war. There's nothing clear-cut. Nobody
surrendered" (161). While the speed of Saigon's fall in 1975
surprised even the North Vietnamese and fighting in Cambodia and
Laos defined wartime brutality, Lawrence observes that the "United
States suffered remarkably few geopolitical setbacks" (170).
Indochina did not succumb to Chinese dominance, and American
alliances around the globe survived largely intact. Inside Vietnam,
the war's legacies included economic depression and an isolation
that forced Hanoi to find other international partners after the
collapse of the Soviet Union. The fears of American policymakers did
not come to pass.
The information Lawrence packs into such a short volume is most
impressive: his "introductory study" is both comprehensive and
economical. But because he relies so heavily on secondary works,
serious scholars will not find much to alter their views of the war.
For an undergraduate course on the Vietnam War, however, this
excellent work usefully offers a number of perspectives on warfare
in the modern age. Moreover, Lawrence achieves his principal
objective of reminding us that the geopolitical environment
decisively shaped the Vietnam experience in the late nineteenth and
 And author of Assuming the Burden: Europe
and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam (Berkeley: U
Calif Pr, 2005).
 On revisionist interpretations of the war see
Gary R. Hess, Vietnam: Explaining America's Lost War
(Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2009) 14-16.
 See, e.g., Andrew J. Birtle, "PROVN,
Westmoreland, and the Historians: A Reappraisal," Journal of
Military History 72 (2008) 1213-47.