The story of U.S. involvement in a war in Vietnam is a long, complex, and painful one, filled with controversy and contradiction. Even in 1993, some thirty-odd years after the U.S. started down the road to war with North Vietnam, people have strong emotions and convictions about the war. Any discussion of the war is fraught with implications about our world today. Politicians continue to use Vietnam to move the American public, either lamenting the supposed betrayal of U.S. troops by peace protestors (Reagan) or harping on service or deferment records (the Clinton issue). Every time since the Vietnam war that the U.S. has used force, at least one social critic has asked, "Is Grenada (or Panama, or Iraq, or Beirut, or Somalia) the next Vietnam?"
Still, despite the heated atmosphere, as historians we are required to understand the differences between what did happen and what should have, could have, or would have happened. George Herring's book-length study, America's Longest War (1986), is a model for the way good historians deal with hot topics like Vietnam; it is balanced, fair, and honest about its biases. This article is a condensation of Herring's larger argument, and provides an overview of the vital issues of the war.