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Potomac State College

HIST 200: Practicing History (Vietnam War)

A guide for Cassandra Pritts's Fall 2019 HIST 200 class, helping students find sources on the Vietnam War.

Finding primary sources

Harvard Library defines primary sources as:

"Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented.

Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later.

Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of the format available. (Handwritten notes could be published; the published book might be digitized or put on microfilm, but those notes are still primary sources in any format).

Some types of primary sources:

  • Original documents (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, contemporary newspaper articles, autobiographies, official records, pamphlets, meeting notes, photographs, contemporary sketches
  • Creative works: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art 
  • Relics or artifacts: Furniture, clothing, buildings"

Wait, why can't I just Google for primary sources?

You absolutely could, but one of the advantages of searching through a curated collection of primary sources if you know right away that everything there is a primary source, that the information is reliable enough, and often the content may not be indexed by Google (making it irretrievable in a Google search). 

Primary source collections for the Vietnam War

U.S. Declassified Documents Online

The collection is the most comprehensive compilation of declassified documents from the executive branch. The types of materials include intelligence studies, policy papers, diplomatic correspondence, cabinet meeting minutes, briefing materials, and domestic surveillance and military reports. The collection editors have actively monitored the release of formerly classified documents from presidential libraries. They have also added numerous major releases of declassified documents from the Department of State, Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other executive agencies.


Digital National Security Archive

From the award-winning, nongovernmental National Security Archive, this resource consists of expertly curated, and meticulously indexed, declassified government documents covering U.S. policy toward critical world events – including their military, intelligence, diplomatic and human rights dimensions – from 1945 to the present. Each collection is assembled by foreign policy experts and features chronologies, glossaries, bibliographies, and scholarly overviews to provide unparalleled access to the defining international issues of our time.

GWU's National Security Archive

Founded in 1985 to check rising government secrecy, the National Security Archive is an investigative journalism center, open government advocate, international affairs research institute, and is the largest repository of declassified U.S. documents outside the federal government. (This is a direct link to the same content which ProQuest has indexed as Digital National Security Archive)


Wilson Center Digital Archive International History Declassified

The Digital Archive contains once-secret documents from governments all across the globe, uncovering new sources and providing fresh insights into the history of international relations and diplomacy. The Digital Archive is overseen by the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program and focuses on the interrelated histories of the Cold War, Korea, and Nuclear Proliferation.

Vietnam War specific collections include:

  • Vietnam War, The Two Koreas and the Vietnam War, the Geneva Conference of 1954, Indochinese War, the Overseas Chinese andt he Cold War, North-Vietnamese Decision-Making 1973-1975, South Korean Diplomacy in Asia 1955-1957

The CIA's Vietnam Histories from the National Security Archive

‚ÄčSampling of primary documents showing CIA's involvement in every aspect of the Indochina War. (George Washington Univ.)

NARA's Access to Archival Databases (AAD)

The AAD's Vietnam War portal is a curated collection of NARA records specific to the Vietnam War. Information on honors awarded to soldiers, casualties, military units, combat incidents and more are available.

The Vietnam Center and Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive (Texas Tech University) collects and preserves the documentary record of the Vietnam War, and supports and encourages research and education regarding all aspects of the American Vietnam Experience.

This collection includes:

  • The Vietnam Virtual Archive - Over 7 million pages of scanned materials including historical documents, photographs, and more. These records are typically "personal in nature", not official records or reports. For searching the Virtual Archive, look at the VNCA's Subject Guide pages to get ideas around search terms you can use to locate materials.
  • Oral History Project - Extensive recordings of interviews with American veterans, soldiers on either side, anti-war protestors, government employees, family members, etc.
  • The Vietnamese American Heritage Project - Historical documents of Vietnamese Americans who immigrated to the US to escape the conflict in their homeland.
  • And much more...


The Foreign Relations of the United States

Though the Office of the Historian recommends students primarily look at the Nixon and Ford Administrations, you have access to a much broader range of sources. Depending on your topic and the affected time period, you may want to look over the other administrations whose terms were contemporaneous with the Vietnam War.


The Pentagon Papers, officially titled "Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force", was commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967. In June of 1971, small portions of the report were leaked to the press and widely distributed. However, the publications of the report that resulted from these leaks were incomplete and suffered from many quality issues.

On the 40th anniversary of the leak to the press, the National Archives, along with the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon Presidential Libraries, has released the complete report. There are 48 boxes and approximately 7,000 declassified pages. Approximately 34% of the report is available for the first time. The National Archives & Records Administration has made this available without redaction and included supporting materials. Tet Offensive Declassified Documents

This resource, from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is not easy to use, but contains declassified documents from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency. The documents are not searchable, but can be browsed and read in full either on the site or downloaded.

Famous Trials - My Lai Courts Martial

Famous Trials, a site by Dr. Douglas O. Linder (University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law), contains links to many primary documents, but the page itself is a secondary source. If your research project is on My Lai or the courts-martial, you may want to go here to get background information before searching for other primary sources.


NSA/CSS Gulf of Tonkin Declassified Documents

Declassified documents related to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. (National Security Agency, NSA)