Mark Philip Bradley, Vietnam at War.

Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xiii, 233; illustrations, plates, map, notes, suggestions for further reading, index.

Reviewed by Peter Zinoman; review is presented in cooperation with H-Diplo.

Vietnam-Centrism, the “Orthodox” School and Mark Bradley’s Vietnam at War

New history textbooks deserve critical scrutiny, especially those written by leading research scholars in their areas of expertise. Unlike specialized monographs, textbooks attract large audiences and shape public opinion outside the walls of academia. For areas of historical enquiry split between conflicting schools of interpretation or undergoing rapid change, textbooks can help to disseminate to a general readership new developments in the scholarly literature and the most up-to-date thinking about controversial issues. They may also provide a service to scholars in the field who are narrowly focused upon specific problems by calling attention to how new research may be confirming or challenging larger interpretive frameworks within which their own work may be embedded.

Mark Bradley’s Vietnam at War, a new general history of the conflicts that engulfed Indochina between 1946 and 1975, fulfills all of these criteria. As the author of a number of widely-read studies including the prize-winning monograph Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1950, Bradley is an important figure in Vietnam War Studies and the Americanist wing of the field of “international history”. Moreover, the study of Vietnam’s wars provides a textbook example of a polarized field. Since the late 1960s, it has pitted an “orthodox” school of left-liberal scholars – opposed to the American intervention, more critical of the authoritarian Republic of Vietnam (RVN) than the communist Democratic of Vietnam (DRV), and convinced of the local origins and relative autonomy of the southern insurgency – against a “revisionist” school of right-leaning scholars who hold opposing views. Finally, owing to a series of developments starting in the late 1980s – the Communist Party of Vietnam’s pursuit of “renovation,” the end of the Cold War, the rise of a post-war generation of scholars and the partial opening of archives throughout Vietnam and the ex-communist world – the field has recently undergone dramatic change. Eschewing an older preoccupation with the causes and consequences of the American intervention, many scholars of the war – or wars – are now pursuing three newer lines of enquiry. They are paying more attention to the global context in which the conflict was waged. They are exploring the complexities of its local Vietnamese dynamics. And they are challenging approaches to the conflict that embrace the entire package of positions typically associated with either the “orthodox” or the “revisionist” school. [The remainder of this review is available here.]