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Robert McNamara and the Vietnam War: A Reading List

For many Americans, the news of Robert McNamara’s death at age 93 on July 6th brought back the whole cascade of difficult memories about what the war in Vietnam meant to this country.

Here is McNamara’s New York Times obituary:

But for many others, especially younger Americans, the Vietnam War has fallen into the “black hole” of American History and is as remote as the Peloponnesian War. For them and anyone else who needs a refresher course on America in Vietnam, here is a short reading list from among the thousands of books written about the war:

Known as the “architect” of America’s Vietnam policy, McNamara embodied the phrase The Best and the Brightest, the title of David Halberstam’s classic account of the group of advisors who surrounded John F. Kennedy and took America into the war. Halberstam did not use, nor intend, the phrase as a compliment.

Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow, a companion book to the PBS series mentioned below in the Video section, is an excellent single-volume history of the war.

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan, an account of a military adviser in Vietnam who became disillusioned with the war, written by one of the journalists who broke the “Pentagon Papers” story.

The Pentagon Papers is the widely used name for a top secret history of US involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, commissioned by Robert McNamara. The papers were leaked to the New York Times and published on the paper’s front page in 1971, precipitating a major First Amendment case when the government tried to suppress publication of the documents. There are several editions of the Pentagon Papers available in book form. They can also be accessed online at

We Were Soldiers Once and Young: Ia Drang–the Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway, a compelling wartime memoir of a battlefield commander (and made into a film starring Mel Gibson).

Four Hours in My Lai by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, is an investigation of the most notorious atrocity of the Vietnam era, in which American troops methodically killed hundreds of Vietnamese villagers.

I would also recommend several books that capture some of the “atmospherics” of the era:

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, a memoir of a Marine lieutenant.

Dispatches by Micheal Herr, correspondent for Esquire magazine.

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip and Jay Wurts, for a perspective on the world of war through the eyes of a Vietnamese woman (also made into a film which I have not seen).

Video Resources:

Robert McNamara was also the central figure in Errol Morris’s Academy Award-winning documentary The Fog of War

PBS “The American Experience” also produced a classic documentary on the war, Vietnam: A Television History.

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