The Best Books On The Vietnam War Era

The Books I Picked & Why

Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam

By Frances FitzGerald

Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam

Why this book?

I loved this book because Fitzgerald is a journalist, not a historian, so her writing is vivid, fluent, and readable. This is so much more than a history of the war. She plunges into the complex story of Vietnam’s history and culture, setting the stage for America’s unfortunate involvement and the subsequent tragic events.

Fitzgerald first went to Vietnam in 1966, and, when this book came out in 1972, it was the first history of Vietnam written by an American. The New York Times called it “A compassionate and penetrating account of the collision of two societies that remain untranslatable to one another.” Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the National Book Award, it was a bestseller.


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In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War

By Tobias Wolff

In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War

Why this book?

Tobias Wolff is a short-story writer I admire very much, and I enjoyed his first memoir This Boy's Life, so I was very excited to read what he had to say about his experience in the Army and his tour of duty in Vietnam in the late 1960s. This book captures much of the confusing stew of boyish patriotism, confusion, disillusionment, and disgust that I heard expressed by many others in those days.

Library Journal said: “This extended essay is not so much a combat narrative as the story of a young man's struggle to reach maturity and come to terms with his family, his loves, his America, and himself.”


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Born on the Fourth of July

By Ron Kovic

Born on the Fourth of July

Why this book?

Ron Kovic’s story powerfully mirrors the history of the 1960s. He was inspired by JFK’s passionate 1961 inaugural speech (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. . . “); devastated by his assassination in 1963; joined the Marines right out of high school to do his part and landed in Vietnam in 1965; suffered paralyzing wounds there in 1968; and became a lifelong anti-war activist by 1975. This bestselling book was published in 1976.

It’s on my list because of the way it traces the dramatic arc of those times. The flag-waving kids of the late 50s came of age with bitter feelings of betrayal by the government, which forced them to participate in what many considered an unjust and immoral war.


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In Country

By Bobbie Ann Mason

In Country

Why this book?

This classic 1985 novel, re-released by Harper Perennial in 2020, is a favorite because it broadens the focus to the impact of the war on the families. Set in 1984, the protagonist Samantha Hughes never knew her father, who was killed in Vietnam before she was born. Her uncle, who survived the war, is living with PTSD from his experiences there, and teenage Sam is trying to make sense of it all. The expression “in country” refers to time served at the site of a military operation (in this case, metaphorically, in Vietnam). The Los Angeles Times called this novel "A moral tale that entwines public history with private anguish."


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When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace

By Le Ly Hayslip, Jay Wurts

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace

Why this book?

A memoir from the perspective of the other side, this book tells the story of a young girl in Central Vietnam who was recruited into the war and, by her teens, had suffered near-starvation, torture, imprisonment, and more, in addition to losing much of her family. Later she married an American and moved to this country, but since 1986, she has helped rebuild her homeland through the charitable organizations she established. “No one who reads [this book] will ever be able to think about the Vietnam War in quite the same way again.” – Washington Post


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