The newly revised and expanded third edition of For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States from 1607 to 2012 has just been published (Free Press, 714 pp., $28, paper). Originally published in 1984 and revised in 1994, this book presents a general history of U.S. military policy from the very beginnings of European settlement on these shores. The authors are Allan R. Millett, a professor of history and the director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, and Peter Maslowski, a history professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. William B. Feis, a history professor at Buena Vista University in Iowa, edited the new edition.
The book’s two concise Vietnam War chapters—“In Dubious Battle: Vietnam, 1961-1967” and “The Lost War: Vietnam 1968-1975”—were among those rewritten for the new edition. Both chapters go over the main threads of the war in some detail and offer excellent summaries of the military, political, and geopolitical aspects of the nation’s second longest and most controversial overseas war.
“Riddled with ambiguities, uncertainties, and paradoxes, the Vietnam War defied easy generalizations,” the authors note. “Pitting North Vietnam and a very substantial number of South Vietnamese against other Southerners, it was both a civil war and an international conflict involving the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union. Moreover, the international situation changed dramatically between 1964 and 1972, as the Chinese-Soviet estrangement became increasingly obvious and U.S. policy moved toward detente with both Communist superpowers.”
The authors perceptively note that generalizations about the war are difficult because—as nearly every Vietnam veteran knows—the war lasted so long and conditions often were markedly different at different times and in different places. As they put it: “What was true in one place was often irrelevant in another because the conflict varied depending on where soldiers were stationed, when they served, and the nature of their assignment.”
As for politics, the Vietnam War, the authors say, “was always about more than the fate of that Southeast Asian country. Three presidents based their decisions as much on domestic political considerations as they did on the war’s exigencies.”
As for the war’s legacy, the authors have this to say: “Not the least of the war’s legacies was an array of haunting questions that could have no definitive answers. How and why did the U.S. lose the war? Could it have been won at an acceptable cost? If so, how? Was Southeast Asia worth the prolonged ordeal? After all, although South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos ended up in the Communist camp and endured decades of postwar misery and privation, no other dominoes toppled—not Thailand, not Malaysia, not the Philippines, not Indonesia.”