Recommended non-fiction to better understand the U.S. war in Vietnam

Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost Globalization & Imperialism U.S. History & Politics

By Joe Allen, Forward by John Pilger (2008)

In this timely study, Joe Allen examines the lessons of the Vietnam era with the eye of both a dedicated historian and an engaged participant in today’s antiwar movement.

In addition to debunking the popular mythology surrounding the U.S.’s longest war to date, Allen addresses three elements that played a central role in routing the U.S. in Vietnam: the resistance of the Vietnamese, the antiwar movement in the United States, and the courageous rebellion of soldiers against U.S. military command.

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

By Daniel Ellsberg (2003)

In 1971 former Cold War hard-liner Daniel Ellsberg made history by releasing the Pentagon Papers-a 7,000-page top-secret study of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam-to the New York Times and Washington Post. The document set in motion a chain of events that ended not only the Nixon presidency but the Vietnam War. In this remarkable memoir, Ellsberg describes in dramatic detail the two years he spent in Vietnam as a U.S. State Department observer, and how he came to risk his career and freedom to expose the deceptions and delusions that shaped three decades of American foreign policy. The story of one man’s exploration of conscience,Secrets is also a portrait of America at a perilous crossroad.

Papers on the War

By Daniel Ellsberg (1972, reprinted 2009)

Daniel Ellsberg, a Harvard graduate, ex-Marine, and Rand Corporation analyst, was recruited to serve in the Pentagon during the Johnson administration. Now a prominent speaker, writer, and activist, Ellsberg lives in California and Washington, D.C.

Alarmed and disillusioned by what he had read, Ellsberg secretly photocopied the 7,000-plus pages of the report. In 1969 he shared it with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but no public disclosure of the contents of the report was made. In 1971, Ellsberg, by then a lecturer in MIT’s Center for International Studies program, shared copies of the report with The New York Times and several other newspapers. The decision by The New York Times to publish it created a firestorm: many were outraged by the contents of the report, while others questioned whether the press should be publishing state secrets. Whatever else it accomplished, the release of the “Pentagon Papers” galvanized the anti-war movement.

Information about the book is available here via

Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation

By Peggy Faw Gish (2013)

Book review by Staughton Lynd:  Through Iraqis’ eyes—through their stories—this book “tells the truth” about what war and the U.S. government’s antiterrorism policies have really meant for them. Iraqis recount the abuses they experienced in the U.S. and new Iraqi detention systems, the excessive violence, and collective punishment of the U.S.-led occupying forces, as well as tensions between Kurds and Arab Iraqis—tensions rooted in Saddam Hussein’s genocide against the Kurds. Stories coming out of Iraq between 2004 and 2011 also describe the efforts of courageous and creative Iraqis speaking out against injustices and building movements of nonviolence and reconciliation. We also get a glimpse of how the author, a peace-worker, immersed in the violence and chaos of war, dealt with the pain and suffering of those around her, as well as her own personal losses and kidnapping ordeal. Her experiences strengthen her belief that the power of nonviolent suffering love (the way of Jesus) is stronger than the power of violence and force, and can break down barriers and be transformative in threatening situations. She counters the myths of the superiority of violent force to root out evil in places such as Iraq and challenges us to do all we can to prevent the tragedy of any future war.

All the Difference

By Daniel C. Lavery (2013)

All the Difference is a riveting memoir about a conservative naval officer about to navigate marines to Vietnam who had an epiphany of conscience at Berkeley. A judge ordered Dan when five to leave his mother and live with his Dad, a naval officer who molds him for the military. A number of luminous childhood moments reveal that his Mom and Grandmother “Ruthie” planted seeds in Dan that were bound to sprout later. He began an intense reading campaign determined to find gratifying work that would motivate him for the rest of his life. The book is filled with creative images the writer developed from his love of nature, and powerful experiences, both deadly and humorous. The author places himself in real scenes in all his vulnerability as he faces conflicts, romance, and adventures that challenge his wits, strength, and determination. He finally rejected his father’s plan for his life and found the “road less traveled.” Inspired to battle for civil rights, Dan becomes an ACLU attorney for Cesar Chavez’s farm workers against some of America’s most powerful forces. He shares illuminating experiences involving successes and failures while going from a military pawn to a champion for the poor and powerless, finally able to make a difference in many lives including his own.

The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam

By Jerry Lembcke (1998)

One of the most resilient images of the Vietnam era is that of the anti-war protester — often a woman — spitting on the uniformed veteran just off the plane. The lingering potency of this icon was evident during the Gulf War, when war supporters invoked it to discredit their opposition.

In this startling book, Jerry Lembcke demonstrates that not a single incident of this sort has been convincingly documented. Rather, the anti-war Left saw in veterans a natural ally, and the relationship between anti-war forces and most veterans was defined by mutual support. Indeed one soldier wrote angrily to Vice President Spiro Agnew that the only Americans who seemed concerned about the soldier’s welfare were the anti-war activists.

While the veterans were sometimes made to feel uncomfortable about their service, this sense of unease was, Lembcke argues, more often rooted in the political practices of the Right. Tracing a range of conflicts in the twentieth century, the book illustrates how regimes engaged in unpopular conflicts often vilify their domestic opponents for “stabbing the boys in the back.”

The Things They Carried

By Tim O’Brien (1990)

A gripping series of Vietnam stories gathered in a format of O’Brien’s devising. It is not a collection of short stories, but it is not one story with a beginning and an ending. It is perhaps closest to listening to a soldier storyteller over a long period of time. While you listen to his stories, you hear a bit of his personal life; he uses repetition of events and certain phrases to reinforce familiarity with the tales.

Closing the book you believe you know the narrator very well. The author is a Vietnam veteran. Attempting to further confuse fiction with non-fiction, Tim O’Brien gave his storyteller the name “Tim O’Brien.”

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

By Rick Perlstein (2004)

From the bestselling author of Nixonland: a dazzling portrait of America on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the tumultuous political and economic times of the 1970s.

In January of 1973 Richard Nixon announced the end of the Vietnam War and prepared for a triumphant second term—until televised Watergate hearings revealed his White House as little better than a mafia den. The next president declared upon Nixon’s resignation “our long national nightmare is over”—but then congressional investigators exposed the CIA for assassinating foreign leaders.

The Military Industrial Complex at 50

Collection edited by David Swanson (2011)

This collection shows that the “total influence” of the MIC has increased, the disastrous rise of misplaced power is no longer merely a potential event, our liberties and democratic processes are in a state of collapse, and that Ike himself disastrously misinformed the citizenry when he claimed that the very monster he warned of had been “compelled” by the need for “defense.”

“This book is the most comprehensive collection available explaining what the military industrial complex (MIC) is, where it comes from, what damage it does, what further destruction it threatens, and what can be done and is being done to chart a different course.”

At Hell’s Gate A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace

By Claude Anshin Thomas (2004)

In this raw and moving memoir, Claude Thomas describes his service in Vietnam, his subsequent emotional collapse, and his remarkable journey toward healing. At Hell’s Gate is not only a gripping coming-of-age story but a spiritual travelogue from the horrors of combat to the discovery of inner peace—a journey that inspired Thomas to become a Zen monk and peace activist who travels to war-scarred regions around the world. “Everyone has their Vietnam,” Thomas writes. “Everyone has their own experience of violence, calamity, or trauma.” With simplicity and power, this book offers timeless teachings on how we can all find healing, and it presents practical guidance on how mindfulness and compassion can transform our lives.

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

By Nick Turse (2013)

Based on classified documents and first-person interviews, a startling history of the American war on Vietnamese civilians.

Americans have long been taught that events such as the notorious My Lai massacre were isolated incidents in the Vietnam War, carried out by “a few bad apples.” But as award-winning journalist and historian Nick Turse demonstrates in this groundbreaking investigation, violence against Vietnamese noncombatants was not at all exceptional during the conflict. Rather, it was pervasive and systematic, the predictable consequence of orders to “kill anything that moves.”

Drawing on more than a decade of research in secret Pentagon files and extensive interviews with American veterans and Vietnamese survivors, Turse reveals for the first time how official policies resulted in millions of innocent civilians killed and wounded. In shocking detail, he lays out the workings of a military machine that made crimes in almost every major American combat unit all but inevitable. Kill Anything That Moves takes us from archives filled with Washington’s long-suppressed war crime investigations to the rural Vietnamese hamlets that bore the brunt of the war; from boot camps where young American soldiers learned to hate all Vietnamese to bloodthirsty campaigns like Operation Speedy Express, in which a general obsessed with body counts led soldiers to commit what one participant called “a My Lai a month.”

Thousands of Vietnam books later, Kill Anything That Moves, devastating and definitive, finally brings us face-to-face with the truth of a war that haunts Americans to this day.

GI Guinea Pigs: How the Pentagon Exposed Our Troops to Dangers More Deadly Than War

By Michael Uhl & Tod Ensign (1980)

How the Pentagon exposed our troops to dangers more deadly than war: agent orange and atomic radiation. GI Guinea Pigs paints a shocking picture of how the US military wantonly exposed thousands of its own men to toxic levels of radiation and herbicides. With a broad brush it outlines the social and political landscape, and highlights this with the fine detail of tragic personal stories from many GIs. Uhl and Ensign understand not only the struggles and suffering of the veterans of atomic bomb testing and Agent Orange, but also the historical background which enables us to place these stories in perspective.

Vietnam Awakening : My Journey from Combat to the Citizens’ Commission of Inquiry on U. S. War Crimes in Vietnam

By Michael Uhl (2007)

From the back cover: “In this vividly honest memoir, author Michael Uhl details his experiences in Vietnam as first lieutenant of a counterintelligence team attached to the 11th Infantry. Referencing his personal journal and wartime correspondence with friends and family, the author relives the most shocking events that he witnessed during his military service, including the abuse and torture of several Vietnamese civilians. In Part Two, the author outlines his years as an activist with the anti – Vietnam War veterans’ movement.”


The Phoenix Program

By Douglas Valentine (2014)

A shocking exposé of the covert CIA program of widespread torture, rape, and murder of civilians during America’s war in Vietnam, with a new introduction by the author

In the darkest days of the Vietnam War, America’s Central Intelligence Agency secretly initiated a sweeping program of kidnap, torture, and assassination devised to destabilize the infrastructure of the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam, commonly known as the “Viet Cong.” The victims of the Phoenix Program were Vietnamese civilians, male and female, suspected of harboring information about the enemy—though many on the blacklist were targeted by corrupt South Vietnamese security personnel looking to extort money or remove a rival. Between 1965 and 1972, more than eighty thousand noncombatants were “neutralized,” as men and women alike were subjected to extended imprisonment without trial, horrific torture, brutal rape, and in many cases execution, all under the watchful eyes of US government agencies.

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51Qty1vR5hL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Called to Serve: Stories of Men and Women Confronted by the Vietnam War Draft

By Tom Weiner (2011)

The Vietnam War isn’t over. A generation and more remain haunted by the choices it forced them to make.  Tom Weiner’s book is about ghosts—decisions and their shadows that often changed the lives of young men and women forever. Himself drafted in 1971, Weiner has sought since that time to document the wide range of Vietnam War draftees’ experiences. After sixty-one intensely emotional interviews, he selected thirty testimonies to make up the book. They cover all the possible responses to the draft and deal with experiences from across the country.

Many books deal with the Vietnam War itself, but here, collected in one volume for the first time, are the rich stories of those who fought and those who, for whatever reason, chose not to, played out against the backdrop of the 60s and early 70s–the music, the drugs, the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, and the generation gap. For those affected by the war or those who wish to better understand those who were, the book is an invaluable record.

Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson

By S. Brian Willson (2011)

“We are not worth more, they are not worth less.” This is the mantra of S. Brian Willson and the theme that runs throughout his compelling psycho-historical memoir. Willson’s story begins in small-town, rural America, where he grew up as a “Commie-hating, baseball-loving Baptist,” moves through life-changing experiences in Viet Nam, Nicaragua and elsewhere, and culminates with his commitment to a localized, sustainable lifestyle.

S. Brian Willson is a Viet Nam veteran and trained lawyer whose wartime experiences transformed him into a revolutionary nonviolent pacifist. He gained renown as a participant in a prominent 1986 veterans fast on the steps of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. The fast was in response to funding of Reagan’s Contra wars in Central America. One year later, on September 1, 1987, he was again thrust into the public eye when he was run over and nearly killed by a US Navy Munitions train while engaging in a nonviolent blockade in protest of weapons shipments to El Salvador. Since the 1980s he has continued efforts to educate the public about the diabolical nature of US imperialism while striving to “walk his talk” (on two prosthetic legs and a three-wheeled handcycle) by creating a model of right livelihood.

Fighting on Two Fronts: African Americans and the Vietnam War

By James E. Westheider (1997)

Excerpted from the book review by Gerald Costa published on HistoryNet, 8/12/2001:

“The author believes that the rising consciousness of the African-American soldiers–solidarity, individuality and separateness–sometimes baffled their commanding officers, whose main objective was to encourage cohesiveness and teamwork. The “Bloods,” as African-American soldiers called each other, grouped together and became a unit within a unit, which was not encouraged by the commands. Often, the disturbing result was race riots within units, with a disproportionate number of African-American men put into the stockade or given Article 15s, which caused further dissension among the ranks. Black militancy and underground newspapers condemning the war flourished during the hellish battles that were taking place in Dak To, Khe Sanh and the A Shau Valley.

“Meanwhile, many African-American soldiers fought with bravery, distinguished themselves in units and rose through the ranks to help themselves as well as the cause of their fellow soldiers. The author does not fail to mention the positive results of black and white soldiers fighting alongside one another–they formed bonds where prejudice had no place.”