Orthodox v. Revisionist v. Vietnam-centrism in Vietnam War Histories

Photo by Eric Kim, Tuyên Quang 2016, Historically named by the Party as the glorious “Center of the National Revolution”

**A Note: This summary of key debates between Orthodox, Revisionist, and Vietnam-Centrism understandings of the Vietnam War will without a doubt, be interpreted as contentious. My aim here is not to cast value judgment on the ethics of war, but to push further the responsibility towards understanding HISTORY and its actors. 

A Rough, Flexible Schema of Debates in Vietnam War History

I made the chart below to prepare for my comprehensive exams. I choose to share it because I believe that it can help those new to studying the Vietnam War to understand 1) the key debates and 2) the different ways in which different disciplines and scholarly generations can frame histories of the Vietnam War.

The categories that divide ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Revisionist’ historians operate more as overlapping spectrums rather than concrete divisions. Scholars fall along various interpretation of history depending on the historical issue, their source material, but also the author’s scholarly generation and discipline. For example, did the scholar write during the war period, post-war, post-đổi mới? What disciplinary training did they receive–do they approach scholarship from diplomatic studies, political science, Vietnamese area studies?

Let us not pretend that history is ‘objective.’ Rather, history and historians are small ‘attempts’ by flawed, opinionated, subjective humans to understand the past.

This chart will also reveal my inherent ‘biases’–primarily the strong belief in the importance of centering Vietnam, Vietnamese actors, and a social and cultural history of war–in other words those who have been excluded from dominant narratives of the war.

Contest and challenge this chart and use it as a learning tool to continue a productive discourse of understanding the past.

Orthodox Revisionist Vietnam-centric
Sociology of Knowledge: Who?


·  Left liberal scholars and believed war to be immoral and unjust


·  Right wing for VN war diplomatic historians OR younger generation (Vietnam-centric) ·  Scholars with experience in Vietnam, in Hanoi, language proficiency

·  Larger community of revisionist- Vietnam-centric scholars

·  Convergence of Vietnam and US diplomatic historians

·  Việt Kiều scholar & connection with South VN

Sociology of Knowledge: Historical context?


·  Late 1960s ->Today

·  Witnessed anti-war movement and end of war

·  1970s, 1980s –>Today

·  Witnessed anti-war movement and end of war

·  Đổi mới and post-Đổi mới

·  Witnessed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam post-war failures, reforms, and draconian policies

Sociology of Knowledge: Trends?


·  Dominance in academy, gatekeepers (beyond Vietnam field, especially in US diplomatic history)

·  Anti-war part of scholarly identity

·  Reactive to dominant Orthodox debates

·  Nuance to official sources, recognize role of media/public

·  Close relationship with Vietnam-centrism

·  1990’s internationalization the study of the war (China & Soviet Union); disaggregate Vietnamese groups and individuals

·  Close relationship w/ Revisionism

·  Definition for CN: ‘Vietnamese voice’: agency and authorship

·  Purpose: intellectually productive and morally virtuous

·  Smail autonomous history: centrism (relative importance) and viewpoint? Both and also reorient from a foreign, abstract nation driven history, geographically, culturally specific communities

Key example texts ·  Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (1991)

·  Mark Bradley, Vietnam at War (2009)

·  Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves (2013)

·  Gareth Porter, “The Myth of the Bloodbath” (1972) and “The Hue Massacre” (1974)

·  Geunter Lewy, America in Vietnam (1978)

·  Tuong Vu

·  Gary Kulik, War Stories (2009)

·  Mark Moyar Triumph Forsaken (2006) (extreme)

·  Christopher Goscha

·  Peter Zinoman

·  Alec Holcombe

·  Lien-Hang Nguyen

·  Edward Miller

Debates ·  DRV and HCM as nationalist first, then communists

·  Criticism of RVN and US backing- driving villagers into the arms of the party; autocratic family rule

·  Southern insurgency separate from DRV

·  NLF and DRV as popular group, organic mass support, meeting local needs

·  Inevitable loss of the war, quagmire

·  Critical of purpose: domino theory

·  Porter’s criticism of US/RVN propaganda and abuse of information for military justifications for US involvement

·  US war crimes

·  63 Buddhist revolt violently repressed

·  HCM pursued negotiations/peace

·  US involvement: macho warhawk, saving face (Young)

·  DRV and HCM striving for communist orthodoxy

·  Violence, terror of DRV, NLF

·  Importance of historical discussion of RVN & some success

·  Southern insurgency supported by DRV (1959 DRV authorize armed struggle in south)

·  US fought militarily and morally “just war, but political/strategic failure and media betrayal (Lewy)

·  Domino theory a real threat esp. in Asia (Moyar)

·  VN rules of engagement/tactics not different from other wars

·  Buddhist Communists (extreme)

·  US involvement: prestige and global influence, US real politik

·  Vietnamese sources

·  Vietnamese agency

·  Vietnamese subject (war fought in Vietnam) from Ngo Dinh Diem and US nation building to understanding Vietnamese role (South VN, NLF, DRV) in the war)

·  Recognition of alternative interpretations: art, film, memory as part and parcel of history of the war


Texts that fall between the categories ·  Mark Bradley, Vietnam at War (2009) – claims of Vietnam-centrism but inherently orthodox (influence by Marilyn Young)

·  Christina Schwenkel, The American War in Contemporary Vietnam (2013)- claims of Vietnam-centrism but somewhat orthodox and conservative in the position/exclusion South Vietnam

Limitations ·       Lack of attention to RVN govt structure and diverse southern society

·       Orientalizing, cultural essentialist, valorization of VN patriotism, ‘resistance against foreign aggressors’

·       Can also be Orientalizing, cultural essentialist, valorize South VN patriotism and nationalism (Moyar)

Orthodox v. Revisionist Schools: Marilyn Young’s The Vietnam Wars (1991) and Guenter Lewy’s America in Vietnam (1978)

The orthodox school of Vietnam War history replaces the complexity of revolutionary, international, and ideological war, to a chronology of America’s inevitable defeat in Vietnam. Marilyn Young’s The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (1991) is structured in a similarly methodical fashion; the book appears ‘objective’, straightforward, and compelling because its arguments run parallel to historical stages in the war rather than attempt to understand the logic and uneven influence of actors involved. Although the title suggests a broader perspective into the war, Marilyn Young quickly passes over these periods, positioning them secondary as a backdrop or residual effects of the 1954-1975 war. Aside from the deterministic representation of the end of the war, what in particular makes this text ‘orthodox’ in view? Is it the American-centrism that focuses on American domestic morale and foreign policy, reducing the southern Vietnamese government to corrupt puppets? Similarly, does this view also continue to simplify international socialist movements into a Communist monolith, romanticizing a popular unified enemy, reflecting a Cold War perception of the enemy?

Using new (at the time) source material such as classified records of military reports, war crime investigations, and interviews with refugees, Lewy provides a critical re-examination of United States military buildup and overall political strategy in America in Vietnam (1978). Lewy challenges not only existing explanations for America’s loss but also prevalent criticisms of America’s war strategies as excessively atrocious, abusive, and in violation of norms of human decency during war. Lewy accuses the media to be a “veritable industry publicizing alleged war crimes” (P. 224), influencing the commitment and morale surrounding US involvement.

In the first six chapters, Lewy presents what appears to be a basic chronology of the war, but in fact involved the careful laying out and weighing of countless political, social, military, and economic factors. While Lewy often presents US involvement and decision-making process as cautious and purposeful, he does not dare to assume that military action was always necessary or determined based on reliable intelligence. In this way, Lewy’s revisionist approach to analyzing the Vietnam War also centers around the theme of information and misinformation. From faulty intelligence on inflated body counts to a lack of understanding of Vietnamese society and revolutionary war, Lewy demonstrates how decisions and reoccurring debates for war, buildup, nuclear weapons, civilian security, and local government were built on a shaky understanding of reality. Lewy’s important historiographical revision is his approach to understanding the war as it was fought; America in Vietnam illuminates the ‘on the ground, in the moment’ decision process and value judgments made during the progress of war, rather than a retrospective diagnosis of mistakes, accusations, and regrets.

Further Readings on these Debates

For a very detailed and clear summary of the Orthodox, Vietnam-Centrism, and Revisionist schools of debate, see:

Additional Reading:

One thought on “Orthodox v. Revisionist v. Vietnam-centrism in Vietnam War Histories”

  1. This is a really nice approach to the complex and highly disputed history of the war. The comparisons/contrasts of the different approaches are very useful, although I think it would be worth mentioning that the “orthodox” view began with mostly the writings and reportings of profoundly antiwar people, who came to dominate the field and academia, and who still have very aggressive new generation sources, like Nick Turse. Revisionists fight an uphill battle for recognition, even when extremely well qualified like Mark Moyar. From my own point of view, there is significant overlap between many revisionists and centrists, since they tend to share a lot of interest in Viet Nam today. (Which is my own position, both as a veteran, amateur historian, fan of VN culture, and chairman of a charity that helps disabled old VN veterans still living in Viet Nam.) It is possible to be very interested and involved in that history without succumbing to emotion, but too often the passions of the antiwar side or the pro-RVN side cloud the discussion. Even today reporting on the history ends up somewhat slanted even when presented as objective, like the Burns/Novick TV series. Sometimes I think it’ll take another 50 years for any real clarification to emerge.

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