Gulf of Tonkin at Fifty: Reconsidering the Long Struggle for Indochina
2014 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident—and the accompanying congressional resolution—that marked an important crossover point to large-scale war in Vietnam. It will also mark the sixtieth anniversary of another key development: the siege of Dien Bien Phu, which ended in a decisive defeat for French Union forces and can be said to have marked the symbolic end of the French colonial enterprise in Indochina. But it’s not merely on account of important anniversaries that this is an opportune moment to reconsider the thirty-year struggle for Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). Recent years have witnessed a flood of important new scholarship on both the French and American wars (as the Vietnamese call them), and spirited debate has accompanied many of these publications. Despite the mammoth size of the literature—especially as pertaining to the period of heavy US involvement—only in the past dozen or so years have scholars begun to place the struggle in its broader international context or to give full voice to the Vietnamese actors in the story. This is a hugely important development, for until then what historian Gaddis Smith once said about scholarship on the Cold War could also have been said about that on the Vietnam War: it’s the history of one hand clapping.
This roundtable panel would bring together five scholars with deep knowledge of the subject matter and wide-ranging analytical interests to discuss the key interpretive questions on the struggle and how the new literature changes (and, as the case may be, doesn’t change) our answers to those questions. Chapman and Nguyen are authors of new cutting-edge books that depend heavily on Vietnamese sources but that focus on different periods. Turse is the author of the controversial best-seller Kill Anything That Moves, while McMahon, a leading historian of US foreign relations and a former president of SHAFR, brings the perspective he has gained as editor of Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War. Logevall, chair and commentator, is the author or editor of four books on the Indochina Wars, including most recently Embers of War.