America's Slip into the Quagmire
A Review of The Vietnam
by Marilyn Young
Marilyn Young was born in Vermont around
the 1930s. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard for
history in 1963. Young researches US-East Asian relations
and received the Ford Foundation Summer Grant in 1993 and
the Berkshire Women’s History Prize for The Vietnam
Wars a year later. Young is a history professor at New
York University as well as the director of NYU’s
International Center for Advanced Studies on the Cold War.
The Vietnam Wars isn’t the usual boring book stacked
among the mountains of Vietnam War novels. It’s a story of a
struggle between the United States and Vietnam, the North
and South Vietnam. American entanglements in Vietnam started
off slow—a sluggish disease that spread unbeknownst to the
wisest politicians. Marilyn Young not only covers the full
details of the Vietnam Wars, but also delves deeper into the
U.S. involvement that branded the Vietnam War as a “war
[that] never ends.”1 The struggle evolved from a
temporary enthusiastic welcome of U.S. troops to a deepening
frustration of losing the chance of peace continuously. Why
didn’t America back out when there were so many
opportunities to do so? How did the strongest nation “lose”
Vietnam to communism? This is what Young sets out to prove:
the ignorant monolithic view of communism that clouded
The first four chapters cover the Vietnam struggle prior to
direct American involvement after 1945. The hope of French
removal resurfaced after 1940 when the French surrendered to
Germany, only to die down again when Japan took over.
Vietnam “had at no time lacked enemies” because if it wasn’t
a clash with foreigners, it’d be a clash with its own
people.2 The Vietnamese were already divided
socially. However, due to the French presence in Vietnam,
the people decided the “immediate goal was national unity
for the sake of national independence.”3 The most
effective of Vietnamese nationalists was the Viet Minh,
which later embraced communism. Led by Ho Chi Minh, the Viet
Minh focused on self-determination for its people. A formula
was derived to justify American anti-colonial ideology later
in the war. Communists can “never be genuine nationalists,”
therefore, because Ho placed genuine nationalism as the top
priority, America was only supporting genuine
nationalism.4 The NSC-68 (National Security
Council) called for the containment of communism—no further
expansion of USSR power. Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed that
Vietnam was a “crucial domino” and that “Japan must have
Vietnam as a trading partner” or else it would have to turn
to other communist areas to survive.5 French
failure at Dien Bien Phu ended the war for independence and
opened up negotiations for the independence date. Ngo Dinh
Diem, hand-picked by Americans, was chosen to lead the
Vietnamese people away from communism. Diem’s goal was to
win the countryside and sway the free elections over to the
About halfway into the book, Young goes on to describe how
the American outlook on Vietnam switched. First, the press
made it possible to believe that there was “no danger of
America entering the war,” and second, the “South Vietnamese
were winning anyhow” against the Viet Cong.6
Based on these assumptions, there wasn’t much reason to
protest the Vietnam War. Politicians also made it clear that
the U.S. mustn’t appear as a “new colonial power to the
population of the South” while persuading them to support
the government chosen for them.7 Over in North
Vietnam, situations were worsening when America finally
realized that the Viet Cong controlled all “facets of
peasant life in Southern provinces.”8 President
Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to wage a direct war with North
Vietnam, and in 1964, in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,
Johnson’s wish came true. The resolution allowed a supposed
retaliatory attack against the North Vietnamese by bombing
them—just another way to justify direct American
participation in the war. George Ball, undersecretary of
state, suggested the withdrawal of American troops—meaning
further humiliation to the United States in the eyes of the
world. The whole point of persistent bombing of the North
was to “show the world American resolve.”9 The
U.S. steadily increased its military presence in South
Vietnam. Yet, no matter what sort of tactics the Americans
employed, they “couldn’t make the South Vietnamese love the
government the United States had brought to power in
Saigon.”10 It was futile to force a government on
a nation that desired self-determination.
The next four chapters cover 1966-1968. Direct military
intervention was inevitable. Johnson adamantly refused to
cease bombing in the North until Hanoi scaled down its
efforts in South Vietnam. Johnson made some peace attempts,
but to no avail. What originally was a Vietnamese war became
an American war. Back home, the American public had been
lied to about the real results of the war. Martin Luther
King Jr. began to oppose the war politically. King outlined
a plan for “extrication and redemption: end bombing of North
and South Vietnam and set a date for withdrawal of American
troops.111 Nineteen sixty-eight marked the
“cross-over point” because it was when American idealism
slammed against the wall of reality.12 The most
important objective in this battle was to force America to
de-escalate war against North Vietnam and progress into
negotiating. Because the Tet Offensive was reported as an
American defeat, many politicians lost heart, therefore,
efforts in Vietnam decreased also. However, Tet was not a
Northern victory and U.S. military effort did not slacken;
instead, all forms of warfare in South Vietnam intensified.
Near the end of the book, as well as the end of the Vietnam
Wars, Young covers the 1970s-1990s. Richard Nixon’s
presidency, starting in the late 1960s, approached Vietnam
with “secrecy, duplicity, and a ruthless attention to
immediate political advantage regardless of larger moral
issues.”13 Nixon came into office promising an
end to the long, drawn-out Vietnam War. His ideology was to
expand the war in order to end it, and he proved this theory
by bombing North Vietnamese base camps along the Cambodian
border. To counter the protests, Nixon’s vice president,
Spiro Agnew, harshly rebuked the “students, the press, and
the eunuch” politicians.14 High desertion rates
in the army wrecked the military. There was no longer
anything to fight for—fighting for nobody’s freedom meant it
was not worth fighting anymore. Poverty-stricken, the North
and South were cratered with tons of unexploded bombs.
America didn’t help alleviate such sufferings either.
Refusal to end the embargo and open diplomatic relations
only worsened the problems in Vietnam.
Marilyn Young questions why and how America ever got
involved in Vietnam. According to Young, war continues to be
a “primary instrument of American foreign policy and the
call to arms a first response to international
disputes.”15 Young has a negative view on U.S.
interference in the Vietnam War. As an anti-war critic, her
perspective portrays America as an invader, not as a world
police that offered her hand to weaker countries. She
assumes the reader already knows about the infamous American
monolithic view on communism. As a history professor, Young
wrote this book for students; thus, to understand her
knowledge will require a basic knowledge of American
ideologies regarding the Cold War. Young concludes that in
the “daily, weekly, monthly, yearly progress of the war lay
many of its most decisive reasons,” therefore,
undergraduates will better understand this book than people
with less knowledge about everyday politics and
diplomacy.16 Young states that in the Vietnam
War, the United States had basically been a hypocrite by
negating American values at every decision it made regarding
the war. America devalued herself when she “secretly and
deceptively [fought] a war of immense violence in order to
impose her will on another sovereign nation.”17
What America had usually stood for, the land of power and
honor, backfired in the Vietnam War.
Published in 1991, Young’s book was still incomplete during
the late 1980s. As Young said before, the Cold War had just
ended while she was completing this book. The political
perspective back then was ultra-conservative. President
Ronald Reagan was committed to ideologies of a return to
laissez-faire and anti-communism. Living in the presence of
Reagan’s presidency, Young’s perspective was partially
motivated by the anti-communism feeling that infected every
American mind. It was also during this time that America
interfered in the Middle East. Young didn’t want to compare
the Southeast Asia problem with the Middle East or Vietnam
with Iraq. Instead, Young focuses more on “how [America]
approached this intervention.”18 Such a similar
occurrence to the Vietnam War, the Iraq crisis coaxed a more
critical outlook from Young. Her criticism of war wouldn’t
have been as decisive as it would have if she was writing
the book a couple years earlier. Communism did not end yet.
War wasn’t the answer. As America continued to contain
communism in her oppressive ways, Young wanted an end to
such a play. Her book became an outcry to end American
interference into other nations’ decisions. Her portrayal of
how wrong the Vietnam War was became a device to warn the
United States about its present status in the Iraq crisis.
Her present experience gave her a fresh taste of her own
The reviews on Young’s book vary on different aspects. David
Marr focused his point on how Young “romanticized the
National Liberation Front, portraying them as if they always
treated each other with care and respect, never acted
brutally.”19 Marr believed that not enough of the
NLF’s true horrors were shown in Young’s writing. According
to Marr, she literally glorified the NLF while, at the same
time, stating that at the end of a war story, if the reader
“felt uplifted…then [he] had been made the victim of a very
terrible lie!”20 Young acted as a slight
hypocrite when describing the Viet Cong. Other than that,
Marr praised Young on her discussion of the “war at home,”
including foreign debates as well as domestic
ones.21 Dan Scripture focused more on the layout
of Young’s writing. He recommended that the book was better
for undergraduates because Young’s analysis wasn’t “opaque
to students.”22 Both reviewers agreed on the
brevity of the 1975-1990 time periods and the misleading
title. What Scripture noticed that Marr didn’t was the
Vietnamese dialogue. He called it “irritating and
distracting to Vietnamese readers” because Vietnamese words
weren’t spelled correctly.23 While Marr called
Young’s description of American involvement in Vietnam a
great strength, Scripture negated it as her major weakness.
Overall, both agreed that Young’s writing style was superior.
Despite what the reviewers proclaim above, Young still
tipped the scale with more strengths than weaknesses. Her
layout and outline of the novel was highly organized. She
explained the complex diplomatic situations, along with the
cause and effect of every decision. Others criticized her
elaboration on U.S. involvement; however, that’s an aspect
to be applauded. Unfortunately, the title is somewhat
misleading because Young didn’t fully address all of the
Vietnam Wars. She focused more on the internal and external
struggles of American involvement instead. By doing so,
Young omitted other major players (France, U.S.S.R., and
China,). However, Young concentrated specifically on
1962-1972—the peak of U.S. involvement, or the “cross-over
point” that became the watershed in American
According to Young, the 1960s was not only a watershed in
American political and cultural history but also a cold slap
that shook America from its ideologies. The Tet Offensive in
1968 was a rude awakening. The United States lost to a
communist region, lost to meager Viet Cong guerrillas in
underground tunnels. How will the world see the grand
America now? Although humiliated, America—contrary to the
common belief that U.S. backed away from Vietnam in
shame—“did not slacken in its aftermath.”25 This
era changed American perspectives. Before U.S. intervention
began, Americans were indifferent. After the war got out of
hand, public view became critical. The Viet Cong had won a
psychological victory—American opinion turned against the
war. For the first time, mass demonstrations and protests
flooded the streets. What had been kept bottled up erupted
like an overflowing dam as negative opinions branded
American involvement as a mistake. On the other hand,
American resolution on containing communism still remained
strong. This era clearly portrayed the U.S. as a persevering
country—stubborn in its grip on demolishing communism and
resistance. It marked a period where Americans became
unwilling to tolerate differences in opinion.
Nineteen sixty-eight failed to turn itself into a learning
device for future references. Bombings stopped, but warfare
continued. While public views at home fluctuated
dramatically in the form of protests, foreign policy
remained adamant. America kept her monolithic view on
communism. Only in the far future will Americans realize
that forcing what they believe is necessary upon other
nations will not always work. Every nation has its own
desire for self-determination, and it’s wrong for another
country, dominant in size and power, to “look out for,” a
nation that desired U.S. involvement.26
The Vietnam Wars covers the range of U.S. involvement in the
Vietnam War. What was done cannot be undone. Not only were
lives sacrificed but also the “inflexible certainty” of
foreign diplomacy—all were “dead in the rice paddies, dead
on the nameless hills.”27 American involvements
in a war that often seems pointless have been engraved
permanently in history. America walked right into a
quicksand, a quagmire, which she couldn’t get herself out
of. As America sank deeper into the Vietnam conflicts, she
left a wake of consequences that future Americans will see
as a lesson not to be ignored.
review by Rosaleen Ly
- Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars. New York
City: Harper Perennial, 1991, 323.
- Young, Marilyn 2.
- Young, Marilyn 8.
- Young, Marilyn 24.
- Young, Marilyn 31.
- Young, Marilyn 92.
- Young, Marilyn 92.
- Young, Marilyn 109.
- Young, Marilyn 131.
- Young, Marilyn 171.
- Young, Marilyn 200.
- Young, Marilyn 210.
- Young, Marilyn 233.
- Young, Marilyn 241.
- Young, Marilyn x.
- Young, Marilyn x.
- Young, Marilyn x.
- Young, Marilyn x.
- Marr, David G. “The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 by Marilyn
B. Young” (Book Review). Pacific Historical Review, 62:3 Aug
- Young, Marilyn 329.
- Marr, David.
- Scripture, Dan. “Viet Nam Generation.” Book Review Editor.
- Scripture, Dan.
- Young, Marilyn 210.
- Young, Marilyn 222.
- Young, Marilyn 128.
- Young, Marilyn 328.