Department of history

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Trent University, Oshawa


HIST 3700/4700 – The Vietnam War

Fall-Winter 2011-2012

Instructor: Dr. Sean J. McLaughlin


Classes: Room 106, Lectures Mondays 18:30-20:30, Seminars Mondays 16:30-17:30 and 17:30-18:30

Office Hours: before and after class or by appointment.


This course explores the “Ten Thousand Day War” in what was once French Indochina, beginning with Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1945 and concluding with the chaotic withdrawal of remaining American and South Vietnamese personnel from Saigon in April 1975. The war will be approached from military, diplomatic, cultural, and domestic perspectives, but particular emphasis will be placed on the transition from what the Vietnamese call “the French war” to “the American war.”


Robert J. McMahon and Thomas G. Paterson, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War: Documents and Essays, 4th Edition. Cengage, 2008.


Participation (30%): each class will be divided roughly 60-40 between lecture and general discussion/seminar, so there will be ample opportunity for students to ask questions and hash out major course themes. You are expected to have read at least one of the chapters and/or articles listed in the lecture schedule before the seminar portion of class begins.

Essay (40%): students will produce a major research paper of 5000-6000 (third year students) or 7000-9000 (fourth year students) words based on solid understanding of key secondary literature and relevant primary source documents. Students are free to choose an original topic of their liking related to any facet of the conflict.

  • 17 OCTOBER: essay proposal and reading list (5%)—roughly 300-400 words explaining what major question the student hopes to answer, an expected thesis, and the greater historical significance of the topic. Also include a preliminary list of secondary source material.

  • 14 NOVEMBER: primary source document summary (5%)—a roughly 500 word review of the primary source material that will be incorporated into the essay. This assignment will provide critical context, identifying the speaker or writer, the historical backdrop, and analyze what has been said with an eye on how this material can be incorporated into the student’s major essay.

  • 13 FEBRUARY: 2 page skeleton outline (5%).

  • 5 MARCH: final submission (25%).

Mock Conference Presentation (10%): students will be divided into small panels of presenters working in similar areas. Each presenter will have 10-12 minutes to discuss findings from their research papers followed by a Q&A session with the rest of the class.

Final Exam (20%): a take-home exam to be issued at the conclusion of our final class on 2 April. To be submitted by email before midnight on 9 April


History 3700/4700 provides students with the opportunity to explore a specialized topic, the Vietnam War, in depth, both through class discussion of scholarship in the field and through advanced independent research. Students should be able to use their advanced knowledge of the field and skills in critical thinking, historical writing, historical approaches and methodologies, to research a topic in depth using primary and secondary sources, produce an original analytical argument based on the evidence, and situate it in the appropriate historiographical and theoretical contexts. Students should be able to communicate their arguments to the instructor and their peers with clarity, accuracy, and logic through major research papers and a class presentation. Students on completing the course successfully should understand the conventions of historical writing, the rules of academic integrity and professionalism, the importance of personal initiative and accountability, and the evolving nature of historical knowledge, and should be able to evaluate historical writing effectively through examinations of sources, arguments, and methodologies.


Access to Instruction

It is Trent University’s intent to create an inclusive learning environment. If a student has a disability and/or health consideration and feels that he/she may need accommodations to succeed in this course, the student should contact the Disability Services Office (Room 111, Tel: 905.435.5100, as soon as possible. Complete text can be found under Access to Instruction in the Academic Calendar.

Academic Dishonesty

Academic dishonesty, which includes plagiarism and cheating, is an extremely serious academic offence and carries penalties varying from a 0 grade on an assignment to expulsion from the University.  Definitions, penalties, and procedures for dealing with plagiarism and cheating are set out in Trent University’s Academic Integrity Policy. You have a responsibility to educate yourself – unfamiliarity with the policy is not an excuse. You are strongly encouraged to visit Trent’s Academic Integrity website to learn more –

If you are in any way uncertain about these guidelines, please contact me for clarification before your assignment is due.

Deadlines and Penalties

Start your work early and please feel free to consult with me at any time as you progress. Part of my responsibility is helping you do the best work you’re capable of and I greatly prefer discussing draft versions of your work to explaining why you didn’t get the mark you were looking for after the fact.

Late work will be penalized 5% a day, with weekends (Saturday and Sunday) counting as one day only. Late assignments will not be accepted 10 days after the due date, except under exceptional circumstances.

If you miss a deadline due to illness, a doctor’s note will be required to avoid incurring a late penalty without exception.


This is an important component of your mark and sitting back silently during class discussions is equivalent to leaving a blank answer on an exam. Keep on top of your readings and be prepared to demonstrate an understanding of key lecture themes. There is a major qualitative element to participation, however, so please avoid the temptation to filibuster.


***Note that supplementary readings will periodically be added to WebCT***


12 – Introduction

19 – French colonial Indochina, WWII, and the rise of Vietnamese nationalism

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 2; H-Net Roundtable Review of Stein Tønnesson’s Vietnam 1946: How the War Began. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

Key questions: why were Vietnamese nationalists willing to fight for their independence in the late 1940s? Why didn’t France negotiate a peaceful decolonization agreement?

26 – The French counterinsurgency campaign to Dien Bien Phu, 1954; ***SEMINARS BEGIN***

READINGS: Ivan Arreguin-Toft, “How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict”, International Security, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2001), pp. 93-128.
Key questions: why did the French counterinsurgency campaign fail? What lessons did France take from this experience?

3 – The Geneva Accords and partition

READINGS: Daniel P.O. Greene, “John Foster Dulles and the End of the Franco-American Entente in Indochina”, Diplomatic History, Vol. 16 (1992), pp. 551–572; Richard H. Immerman, “The United States and the Geneva Conference of 1954: A New Look”, Diplomatic History, Vol. 14 (1990), pp. 43–66.

Key questions: why did the United States and France differ in principle over negotiating peace with communists? Why was the national unity election scheduled for 1956 never held? Was South Vietnam a viable state?

17 – American geostrategic interests in Cold War Vietnam

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 3

Key questions: what drew Washington’s attentions to Southeast Asia in the early Cold War? What was the “Domino Theory” and why did so many Americans believe in it?

31 – “Replacing France”: Washington embraces the Diem regime during the Eisenhower years

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 4; H-Net Roundtable Review of Kathryn C. Statler’s Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2007.
Key questions: what role did the United States play in South Vietnam during the mid-late 1950s and why? Does the deepening of American involvement during this period lend credence to charges that Vietnam was Pres. Eisenhower’s war?

7 – Enter John F. Kennedy

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 5

Key questions: what was Kennedy’s approach to the Cold War? What was Rostowian “modernization theory”? What was Kennedy’s Southeast Asia policy?

14 - The Diem coup, the Kennedy assassination, and the entry of Lyndon Johnson

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 6

Key questions: why did the Kennedy administration green light the coup against Pres. Diem? What effect did Kennedy’s assassination have on American Vietnam policy?

21 – Washington’s strategic rivals: China and the Soviet Union

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 14 (documents 6, 9 and essay by Qiang Zhai)

Key questions: what were Beijing and Moscow’s strategic interests in Vietnam? Was there room for a diplomatic arrangement on Vietnam between the Washington, Moscow and Beijing?

28 – Washington’s sceptical allies: France and Britain

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 14 (documents 1-5, 7, 8 and essay by Frank Costigliola); Arthur Combs, “The Path Not Taken: The British Alternative to U.S. Policy in Vietnam, 1954–1956”, Diplomatic History, Vol. 19 (1995), pp. 33–57; Sean J. McLaughlin, “De Gaulle’s Peace Program for Vietnam: the Kennedy Years,” Peace and Change, Vol. 36, No. 2 (April 2011), pp. 218-261.

Key questions: why was France the sole voice in NATO to consistently oppose American Vietnam policy? How did Washington respond to French lobbying for a diplomatic solution?


5 – NVN and NLF Strategy

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 9

Key questions: what was the communist strategy for fighting the United States and the Saigon government? To what extent was this domestic revolt?


9 – Escalation, stalemate, quagmire: the military situation from 1965-‘67

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 7

Key questions: why did Johnson choose to escalate the conflict? Why was the United States unable to secure a clear military advantage even with a half million troops in South Vietnam by the end of 1967?

16 – The domestic peace movement

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 8 and 12

Key questions: why did American students and peace activists turn against the war? Who were the draft dodgers and how did the war shape their lives?

23 – The Tet Offensive

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 10

Key questions: if the Tet Offensive was a major military defeat as most historians concede, how did it become such a huge propaganda triumph? How did it shape American public opinion about the war?

30 – Enter Richard Nixon

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 11; Jeffrey Kimball, “The Nixon Doctrine: A Saga of Misunderstanding”, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1 (2006), pp. 59-74.

Key questions: what was Nixon’s strategy to secure “peace with honor”? Was there any realistic prospect for success?


6 – The Cambodian Campaign, 1970

READINGS: R.B. Smith, “The International Setting of the Cambodia Crisis, 1969-1970”, The International History Review, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1996), pp. 303-335.

Key questions: why did Nixon order the secret invasion of Cambodia in 1970? What were the consequences for the country?

13 – Screening and general discussion of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009).

27 – The Paris Peace Accords

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 13 (documents 1-3 and essay by Pierre Asselin)

Key questions: why did all parties agree to negotiate a ceasefire in early 1973? What concessions were made? Was there reason to believe this deal would hold?


5 – The Fall of Saigon, 1975

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 13 (documents 4-9 and essay by Larry Berman)

Key questions: why did South Vietnam collapse in early 1975? Why did Congress refuse Pres. Ford’s request for emergency funding to prop up Nguyen Cao Ky’s government?

12 – The Vietnamese Diaspora after 1975; CONFERENCE PANEL 1

Key questions: How did the international community respond to the humanitarian crisis that developed in Southeast Asia? How did refugees transition to life in America?




2 – Legacy and lessons elsewhere

READINGS: McMahon and Paterson, Ch. 15

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