Vignettes of the Vietnam War | Collection Development

These 29 titles in fiction, nonfiction, and memoir immerse readers in the events that changed two nations.

On April 23, 1975, President Gerald Ford announced that the Vietnam War was over: "Today, America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned." Saigon fell the following week. Despite President Ford’s optimism for moving toward a brighter future, the public had questions. Why was the U.S. involved in the first place, and did the U.S. government mislead its citizens? Since the end of the war and the United States’ withdrawal more than 40 years ago, our motivations are still being examined and discussed.

The Vietnam War (1955–75) was arguably the most divisive event in the United States during the second half of the 19th century, spanning five different U.S. presidential administrations. Death toll estimates include upward of two million civilians, more than one million Vietnamese fighters (North and South), and 58,000 U.S. troops. Many students-turned-soldiers fresh out of high school witnessed and engaged in hand-to-hand combat and chemical warfare in the jungles of Vietnam in an attempt to halt the spread of communism. At home, veterans, citizens, and loved ones began to question the war’s goals and the candor of U.S. leadership. They took to the streets in protest, as the 500,000-strong Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam rally in 1969 demonstrated.

The Vietnam War and its aftermath forever changed the lives and countries of all involved. President Ford’s impassioned speech encouraged a nation to begin healing, though this has not been an easy task. The installation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, as well as the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017 that recognizes March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day, serve to honor and remember the lives and experiences of those who served.

For decades, authors, historians, and filmmakers have dissected the Vietnam War in search of answers and understanding, producing a wide array of resources. Film is an entry point to this period of history, particularly for students born after 1975. Blockbuster movies Platoon, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now tackle their subject unflinchingly, with dramatic and realistic war scenes. The ten-part PBS documentary by Ken Burns offers diverse firsthand persepctives on the conflict and includes archival footage, photographs, and historic television broadcasts. The vast number of books and resources available on the subject span history, memoir, sociociology, and politics. Modern classics include Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2007; Norman Mailer’s Why Are We In Vietnam? (1967); Karl Marlantes’s deeply personal What It Is Like To Go to War (2011); and Doug Stanton’s exemplary work of military history, The Odyssey of Echo Company (2017).

The following list of print and multimedia resources target casual historians and budding researchers. Starred redstar titles are essential for most collections.

David Miller is the Library Director at the Farmville Public Library in Farmville, NC. He has worked in both public and academic libraries and has reviewed history titles for LJ since 2017


Biography & Memoir

Albracht, William & Marvin J. Wolf. Abandoned in Hell: The Fight for Vietnam’s Firebase Kate. Dutton Caliber. 2015. 384p. index. pap. ISBN 9780451468093. $18.
This powerful memoir by the youngest Green Beret captain in Vietnam in 1969 offers a gripping account of the battle at hilltop outpost Firebase Kate. On guard with only 27 U.S. soldiers and 156 Montagnard militiamen, Albracht and his men held their ground against 4,000 North Vietnamese soldiers for days before making their escape through the jungle.

Barnes, H. Lee. When We Walked Above the Clouds: A Memoir of Vietnam. Univ. of Nebraska. 2011. 320p. ISBN 9780803234482. $29.95; pap. ISBN 9780803264809. $19.95.
An adrift yet relatable young army soldier who finds himself in Tra Bong, a forested outpost in Vietnam, narrates a raw account of the war. Despite being faced with treacherous conditions, violence, and death, he concludes that he is drawn to recalling this specific time in his life.

Caputo, Philip. A Rumor of War. 40th Anniversary ed. Picador. 2017. 354p. pap. ISBN 9781250117120. $20.
A classic memoir by a marine–turned–Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who provides readers with an honest and unapologetic account of the emotions in the hearts and minds of those fighting, and how war affects them.

Ellsberg, Daniel. Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. Viking. 2002. 528p. index. pap. ISBN 9780142003428. $20.
Ellsburg, former advisor to U.S. State and Defense departments and leaker of the Pentagon Papers, recounts how he became disenchanted by the war, how U.S. leadership knew that it was going poorly, and the great lengths he went to end it.

redstar McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Vintage. 1996. 356p. photos. bibliog. index. pap. ISBN 9780679767497. $20.
This memoir by the U.S. Secretary of Defense for Kennedy and Johnson (1961–67) details his attempts to withdraw troops from Vietnam while balancing loyalty to U.S. leadership.

Tang, Truong Nhu. A Viet Cong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and its Aftermath. Vintage. 1986. 368p. photos. index. pap. ISBN 9780394743097. $16.95.
A unique account of the war emerges through the lens of an individual raised in French colonial Saigon who became the Justice Minister for the National Liberation Front.



Butler, Robert Olen. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Grove. 2001. 288p. pap. ISBN 9780802137982. $16.
This Pulitzer Prize–winning collection of first-person short stories gives an often-overlooked voice to Vietnamese refugees who fled to the U.S. to escape the war. The stories delve into how they view, and adapt to, American culture. Two additional stories are included in the latest edition.

Heinemann, Larry. Close Quarters. Vintage. 2005. 368p. pap. ISBN 9781400076840. $17.
Vietnam veteran Heinemann crafts an intense story of a young, naïve soldier who is assigned to drive armored personnel vehicles. Confronted with the cruel reality of war, the soldier learns he must adapt or risk an unfortunate fate.

Marlantes, Karl. Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War. Atlantic Monthly. 2010. 592p. ISBN 9780802119285. $24.95; pap. ISBN 9780802145314. $17.
Commanded to vacate their jungle stronghold for obscure reasons, a group of Marines find themselves tested with a lack of supplies, nature’s fury, and personal differences while being confronted with combat and potential death. Raw and realistic.

redstar Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer. Grove. 2015. 384p. ISBN 9780802123459. $26; pap. ISBN 9780802124944. $16.
This postwar confessional by a South Vietnamese army captain delves into war, loyalty, and identity. What makes this even more compelling is that the protagonist is a double agent and a communist sympathizer. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. 20th Anniversary ed. Houghton Harcourt. 2010. 273p. ISBN 9780547391175. $24; pap. ISBN 9780618706419. $15.99.
A Vietnam veteran explores the trials and tribulations of an American platoon in Vietnam through a collection of interrelated, semi-autobiographical short stories.



Blehm, Eric. Legend: The Incredible Story of Green Beret Sergeant Roy Benavidez’s Heroic Mission to Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines. Crown. 2015. 304p. illus. maps. index. pap. ISBN 9780804139533. $16.
A U.S. Special Forces team was sent on a covert mission to identify neutral territory being used by North Vietnamese fighters, only to find themselves in the middle of their enemy’s secret base. Using interviews from eye-witnesses, this gripping story details how Special Forces Staff Sergeant Roy Benavidez risked his life to organize and lead a rescue mission.

Boot, Max. The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam. Liveright: Norton. 2018. 784p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780871409416. $35; pap. ISBN 9781631495625. $19.99.
A reexamination of a U.S. Air Force officer, CIA operative, and controversial Vietnam War figure suggests that his war-time relationship-building approach may have proved successful, and changed the war’s outcome, had he not been recalled from Vietnam in 1957.

Bowden, Mark. Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. Atlantic Monthly. 2017. 608p. photos. maps. notes. ISBN 9780802127006. $30; pap. ISBN 9780802127907. $20.
Bowden argues that misguided U.S. leadership led to the prolonged battle in Hue, part of the infamous Tet Offensive and one of the war’s deadliest exchanges. Research includes interviews from both U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.

Coonts, Stephen & Barrett Tillman. Dragon’s Jaw: An Epic Story of Courage and Tenacity in Vietnam. Da Capo. 2019. 320p. photos. index. ISBN 9780306903472. $28.
Vietnam veteran and prolific aviation fiction writer Coonts and air warfare historian Tillman write a page-turning exploration of flight and air warfare, focusing on the U.S.-led attacks on the Thanh Hoa bridge, a vital thoroughfare for the North Vietnamese.

Hastings, Max. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975. HarperCollins. 2018. 896p. maps. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780062405661. $37.50.
Drawing on years of interviews, documents, and previous personal reporting, the famed military historian offers a thorough, vivid, and unapologetic examination of the war with evidence that places blame on all parties involved.

redstarKarnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 2d ed. Penguin. 1997. 768p. photos. index. pap. ISBN 9780140265477. $24.
This Pulizer Prize–winning work is widely considered to be the definitive history of the Vietnam War, developed through interviews with individuals from all sides and an analysis of classified documents.

redstarLee, Heath Hardage. The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the U.S. Government To Bring Their Husbands Home. St. Martin’s. 2019. 336p. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9781250161109. $28.99.
Discouraged by the U.S. government’s lack of action for their husbands who were being tortured and denied medical care as POWs, a group of wives banded together to bring their husbands home.

Snepp, Frank. Decent Interval: An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam. 25th Anniversary ed. Univ. of Kansas. 2003. 616p. photos. index. pap. ISBN 9780700612130. $29.95.
A 25th anniversary edition offers a firsthand account of the CIA’s role in the Vietnam War by one of their operatives who was stationed at the U.S. embassy in Saigon.

Talty, Stephan. Saving Bravo: The Greatest Rescue Mission in Navy SEAL History. Houghton Harcourt. 2018. 336p. photos. notes. index. ISBN 9781328866721. $28; pap. ISBN 9780358118206. $15.99.
Using recently discovered primary sources and new interviews, Talty offers a modern retelling of Air Force navigator Gene Hambleton’s experience of being shot down behind enemy lines and the rescue operation that ensued.

VanDeMark, Brian. Road to Disaster: A New History of America’s Descent into Vietnam. Custom House. 2018. 656p. photos. maps. notes. index. ISBN 9780062449740. $32.99; pap. ISBN 9780062449757.
Drawing from decades of archival research and access to previously unheard recordings and interviews, VanDeMark examines the Vietnam War through the unique lens of cognitive science, psychology, and organizational theory to explain the human failings of the U.S.’s most gifted leaders.

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History. DK. 2017. 360p. illus. index. ISBN 9781465457691. $40.
This resource is a good starting point for understanding the war, and it includes timelines of important events, maps showing major battles and bombings, key biographies, and warfare and artillery; more than 500 photographs add context and drama.

Ward, Geoffrey C. & Ken Burns. The Vietnam War: An Intimate History. Knopf. 2017. 640p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780307700254. $60; pap. ISBN 9781529103069.
The companion volume to the popular PBS series, this accessible history exhausts archived materials, interviews, transcripts, and photographs to provide a full account of the war, from lead-up to the aftermath.


DVD Documentaries

Last Days in Vietnam. 120 min. Rory Kennedy, PBS. 2015. DVD UPC 841887024044. $24.99; Blu-ray UPC 841887024051. $29.99.
A gripping two-part series documents the unauthorized operation by a small group of Americans still in Vietnam who must decide which civilians get evacuated and which get left behind during the fall of Saigon. Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary Feature.

Sir! No Sir! The Suppressed Story of the GI Movement To End the War in Vietnam. 84 min. David Zeiger, Docurama Films. 2006. DVD ISBN 9780767091930. $19.95.
Images of pacifists and hippies may come to mind when thinking of Americans who publicly opposed the war. Through interviews and archival footage, this documentary reveals that veterans also played a major role in the anti-war movement.

redstar The Vietnam War. 1,080 min. English & Vietnamese w/English subtitles. Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, dist. by PBS, 2017. DVD UPC 841887033398. $99.99; Blu-ray UPC 841887033404. $129.99.
A well-crafted, comprehensive, and accessible ten-part series researched by a notable documentarian. A must for library collections.



Library of Congress Veterans History Project
This digital collection documents veterans’ wartime experiences, including Vietnam, through candid audio and video recordings, correspondence, and photographs.

National Archives
A valuable collection of audiovisual recordings, photographs, educational resources, and more that document the U.S. experience in Vietnam.

The Vietnam Collection
WGBH-Boston’s media library and archives offers free access to interviews, archival footage, photographs, and other materials that were used to create its 13-hour documentary, Vietnam: A Television History, which was based on Karnow’s Vietnam: A History.

Vietnam Veteran Memorial Fund
Authorized by the U.S. Congress to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the VVMF offers a variety of useful information, most notably its interactive "Wall of Faces," which attempts to connect a face/photograph and a story to every name on the Wall. 

This article was originally published in Library Journal's November 2019 issue

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