Historians are now faced with the task of resolving the diametrically opposite views on the course and results of the war in Vietnam. The evidence tends to support the military’s claim that it did not suffer a battlefield defeat in the Vietnam war, that its army remained on the offensive, that the fighting men continued to follow orders, that the military could have at any time carried the war to the North. If the armed forces did have a problem in the Vietnam war, it was the lack of a battlefield, a clearly defined front line. For the first time in an American war, the military found itself continually fighting for the same territory against an enemy that did not attempt to win land, but rather to simply extend the war until the United States tired of the endeavor.
In fact, neither the military leadership nor politicians ever understood this reality and so never adjusted their tactics and strategy to the situation. As a result, despite its claims to the contrary, the military ultimately lost a war of attrition. Vietnam war was, of course, not only a military struggle. It was a total war in which political success counted as much as military success. Rightly or wrongly, the American people did perceive TET as a loss and given that perception, the end of the war became only a matter of time with the judgment that the United States had failed to achieve its mission— whatever that mission had been. In studying Vietnam, therefore, scholars must concern themselves not only with battles, strategies, and tactics but with all aspects of the nation’s involvement in the war. In approaching the nation’s war in Vietnam experience, scholars benefit from the on-going debate as to the usefulness, scope, and nature of American military history.
American Military Historians
American military historians, more than the historians of other areas of American history, have seemed to feel a special need to justify their very existence. In addition, this area of specialization has suffered from the liberal, often pacifistic, attitudes of historians toward war in Vietnam, from the lack of graduate programs, the paucity of research support, and the dominance in the field of political scientists, publicists, journalists, and primarily armed forces historical programs. The Army’s 80 plus volume series on the history of the service’s World War II operations represents the highest achievement of the armed forces history offices. Although bearing the personal stamp of Samuel E. Morison’s supervision, the Navy’s multi-volume History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War 11 stands close to the work of the Army’s Center for Military History. The Air Force and the Marines have also produced multi-volume works of their actions in World War II and all have looked at Korea and Vietnam in the same manner.