Libraries are full of big and important books that purport to tell us why the United States decided that it should become involved in the affairs of a small and obscure country far, far away, why it should supplant a failed colonial power and boost a corrupt regime to the point of sending young men to fight and die there, and continue to do so for years. Big books also tell us why and how that same United States divided itself over the course of what became a very long war, why that war engendered disturbing doubts that shook the very foundations of the country, and transfixed and transformed politics.

Then again, you can just read the speeches. For while political doctrines and geopolitical calculations and any assortment of grand theories may overlay epic historical events, political rhetoric in the moment ultimately drives them.

In Landmark Speeches of the Vietnam War, Gregory Allen Olson, a professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, has woven together 14 speeches from 1945 to 1971 that offer readers key ideas that explain a lot of “whys?”

Ho Chi Minh, September 2, 1945: “All men are created equal. The Creator has given us certain inviolable Rights; the right to Life, the right to be Free, and the right to achieve Happiness….The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their spiritual and material forces, to sacrifice their lives and property, in order to safeguard their right to liberty and independence.”

Senator John F. Kennedy, June 1, 1956: “Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the free world in Southeast Asia, the keystone in the arch, the finger in the dike….Vietnam represents a test of the American responsibility and determination in Asia….”

President Lyndon B. Johnson, April 7, 1965: “We fight because we must fight if we are to live in a world where every country can shape its own destiny….We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw….”

General William Westmoreland, April 28, 1967: “We’re fighting a war with no front lines, since the enemy hides among the people….One cannot measure progress by lines on a map. We therefore have to use other means to chart progress. Several indices clearly point to steady and encouraging success.”

And on it goes, with speeches from leaders such as Sen. Mike Mansfield, raising red flags as early as 1962, to Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech against the war and President Richard Nixon’s 1969 “Silent Majority” and 1970 Cambodia incursion addresses. In this compilation of key speeches, with short contextual introductions, the author has ably attempted to present the broad spectrum of positions and the evolution of policy and protest related to Vietnam through 1971. Understanding the rhetoric that so influenced opinion and decisions of the moment is vital to understanding the history that unfolded.

Texas A&M University Press, 2010