The USA and the Vietnam War

Module code: HS3634

Module co-ordinator: Dr Andrew Johnstone 

Module Outline

The American War in Vietnam remains one of the most controversial and popular topics in recent US history. This module takes a broad view of US involvement in Vietnam, examining the period from World War II through to the Ford Administration, and even beyond in assessing the legacy of the war for American foreign policy and its wider political culture. While it focuses on the politics and diplomacy of the Vietnam era, it also considers military aspects, the international diplomatic context, and the domestic social repercussions. The course examines key historical debates surrounding US involvement, and major questions to consider include the following: What were the origins of US involvement in Vietnam? Why did the US commit ground troops in 1965? To what extent was the US fighting the “wrong war,” militarily speaking? To what extent was the war lost at home? And did the United States achieve “peace with honour”?

Topics Covered

The module begins in the final months of World War II by examining the tension between America’s anti-imperialist rhetoric and its desire to contain the spread of communism across the globe. Through a consideration of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the origins of American interest in the region can be seen, as the United States supported France in its attempts to regain its former colony. Following the French failure in 1954, the module then examines the process of nation building as the United States threw its support behind a new independent, non-communist South Vietnam. This according to President Eisenhower’s domino theory, was necessary to stop further communist expansion. The limits of that nation building were confronted by President John F. Kennedy, who escalated American involvement in Vietnam prior to his assassination, with little success in stabilizing the nation. It was left to his successor Lyndon Johnson to ultimately commit American ground troops to Vietnam in 1965, in the aftermath of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Despite a steady escalation of American troops, to the point where over half a million US troops were in Vietnam by 1969, their impact in bringing peace and stability to South Vietnam was limited. This module will consider the debates over military strategy about whether the war was fought in the appropriate manner, as well as examining growing concerns about the war back home. It will also consider the impact of the Tet offensive in January 1968, which had dramatic military and political implications for both Vietnam and the United States. Following rising protest at home, the module will then look at President Richard Nixon’s length and limited attempts to secure “peace with honour” in Vietnam. The module will also consider the end of the war in Vietnam, before concluding with an assessment of the legacy of the Vietnam War for the United States, and what it still means for American politics today.


This course is taught in three contact hours each week. These hours are a mixture of lectures, small group seminars, screenings, and workshops to prepare for assessment. The seminar discussion will focus on the examination of vital historical documents and key historiographical debates.


Assessment is a combination of coursework and exams weighted 50:50. The coursework includes a book review, and a broader assessment of the war as a whole.


George C .Herring, America's Longest War: the US and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (McGraw Hill, 2001).

Gary R. Hess, Vietnam & the United States (Twayne, 1998).

Michael H. Hunt, Lyndon Johnson's War: America's Cold War Crusade in Vietnam, 1945-68 (Hill & Wang, 1996).

David E. Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Harvard University Press, 2001).

Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War (University Press of Kansas, 2002).

Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: the Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 1999).

Fredrik Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (Random House, 2012).

Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: the Tragedy & Lessons of Vietnam (Vintage Books, 1996)Robert D. Schulzinger, A Time For War (Oxford University Press, 1999).

Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars (Harper, 1991).