IN ONLY A FEW YEARS the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has squandered its once high international standing by occupying Cambodia, overseeing the exodus of the "boat people" and fumbling most attempts to offer its citizens a better standard of living. Instead, there have been perennial food shortages and unending government reforms designed to replace the previous year's failed reforms.

Such is the state of affairs in Vietnam today that a new generation of Americans may wonder what sent yesterday's students to the streets in protest against the American involvement in Vietnam; or wonder how the Vietnamese revolution won the respect, however grudging, of so many Americans that the question in the end was not whether the Americans should win but how they might bow out of the war gracefully after "a decent interval."

Most Americans have come to accept that we were mistaken to intervene in Vietnam; all new debate begins from this premise. Revisionists will contend that fault lay in the way we fought the war, but that we were right to do battle against communism in Vietnam. Such arguments are bound to flounder, as these books show, for the Vietnam war was not a contest between communism and democracy but a revolution for independence. Moreover, the revolution was won in 1945 but stymied midway, first by French, then American, attempts to rewrite history.

However one may deplore or question the actions of the Vietnamese leaders today, rationalizing the American involvement by pointing to current Vietnamese failures does not work. There are two separate issues: where the Americans went wrong; where the Vietnamese went wrong.

Two of the three books discuss the 30-year war itself; Michael Maclear's The Ten Thousand Day War from the Western side, James Pinckney Harrison's Endless War from the Vietnamese Communist perspective. They are valuable compendiums of available material. Maclear discusses why the Americans lost; Harrison, why the Vietnamese won. There are distinct drawbacks to both books but they share one disappointing feature: Neither offers new ideas or new ways of looking at the subject.

David Marr's Vietnamese Tradition on Trial accomplishes that feat in spades. Marr deserves high praise for his original scholarship and for the vision that guides his research. He explores the intellectual milieu that bred revolution in Vietnam, sifting through the evidence these intellectuals left behind of their painful search for independence and a new world view. After translating thousands of pages of everything from political pamphlets and newspapers to boy scout manuals and cookbooks, he has written an intellectual history that details as never before why the Vietnamese chose Marxist-Leninism as their path to independence from French colonialism.

Marr eschews the old clich,es. In his telling of the evolution of Vietnamese thought, and of the action born from those ideas, there was nothing preordained, as ideologues would have it. Nor was there an almost mystical attraction for those Vietnamese of the Confucian tradition to Marxist doctrine, as other historians have suggested. (In fact, Marr makes a plea to historians to go beyond "simply comparing Confucianism and Marxism, a subject which has received an inordinate amount of scholarly attention with only mixed results.")

Instead of one theory, Marr gives us the exciting intellectual climate of Vietnam between the world wars. He opens with the first public trial of a revolutionary, Phan Boi Chau, in 1925. "The weather was mild, the trees verdant after the recent monsoons. . . . At 7:30 a.m., escorted by two gendarmes, a wispy-bearded, bald, thin- faced gentleman made the passage from his cell to the seat in court for the accused. . . . At 8:25 a.m. the court bell rang thrice, everyone stood, and in marched four French magistrates plus entourage to institute proceedings. For the rest of the day and into the evening the audience remained spellbound. . . . There, in that single scholar, poet, essayist, political activist and organizer-- facing the full weight of French 'justice'--they (the Vietnamese) saw themselves, or what they might have been."

This first vignette is representative of the moving narrative style Marr sustains through much of this difficult but rewarding book. It also introduces one of the historical figures Marr uses as guides through the welter of abstract ideas the Vietnamese elite debated as they responded to the challenge of overthrowing French colonial rule and developing a revived national culture. He divides his book by concepts, into chapters such as "Morality Instruction," "Ethics and Politics," "The Question of Women," to name a few. People such as Phan Boi Chau move through each, reacting to the clash of traditional and Western ideas, to French suppression of Vietnamese nationalism, and finally taking stands.

In each field the Vietnamese first feast on all the modern ideas that are exploding in the West: emancipation, social Darwinism, evolution, and dialectical materialism. But with the French S.uret,e, the secret police, hounding down nationalist leaders, the colonial government banning books in hopes of destroying ideas, choice narrows. The middle path disappears. If the works of Herbert Spencer are not available in French, the inventive Vietnamese find them in Chinese and Japanese translations. But ideas per force must lead to action. Marxism becomes the ethical choice of the Vietnamese over social Darwinism because of its appeal to a higher morality. Women, barred from continuing their seditious publications, find the Communist Party a nationalist force promising them equality. For a nation passionate for words, language, and literature, the Communists offer a program transforming experience and knowledge into practice, a program supportive of the disparate groups in city and countryside challenging the French.

Phan Boi Chau reappears in a number of these arguments. He takes the ethical positon that "Fatherland" and "Citizen" should replace the concepts of "kingdom" and personal loyalty to the king. When the question of women arises he contributes towards their liberation by writing, among other things, a drama casting the Trung sisters--Vietnam's Joan of Arc figures--as patriots expelling the foreign invader rather than women avenging the death of one sister's husband, as in traditional interpretations. In the chapter "Perceptions of the Past" he is revealed to be Vietnam's first modern historian, the first to discard the old cyclical framework of dynasties and golden ages for the Western concept of history as linear progression. As Phan Boi Chau responds to the subsequent problems raised we are shown an increasingly sophisticated picture of his character and consequently of the astonishingly high level of intellectual inquiry among the Vietnamese elite.

Finally, Marr places the young Ho Chi Minh at the feet of Phan Boi Chau: "(Ho Chi Minh's) mandarin father, his great-uncle, several of his early teachers and numerous family friends each had to choose between resistance and collaboration, withdrawal and participation. As a boy he sat with fascination at Phan Boi Chau's feet. As an adolescent he was enrolled in a program of French studies leading to an official position, but later dropped that to wander south and eventually to Europe. Consciously or not, Ho Chi Minh's life had taken on the character of a twentieth-century Guatama in search of enlightenment."

This search is the leitmotif of Marr's extensive study; always and finally the struggles relate to Ho Chi Minh. Ideas sweep past in every possible contortion until they rest in the Vietnamese solution of Ho Chi Minh. This is done so brilliantly that it would teach any student of revolution--Asian, African, European, South American --what is general, what specific about 20th-century political upheavals.

Marr's various themes are not entirely new; his own Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925 and Alexander B. Woodside's Community and Revolution in Modern Vietnam, to name just two books, raise some of these questions. It is the detail he provides to show Vietnam's search for a new world view that is startling. Marr took advantage of the Vietnamese material recently made available at the BibliothMeque Nationale by the French government and the seldom-used archives of the History Institute in Hanoi and translated and catalogued thousands of pages of material not used before.

By 1945, when Marr ends this volume, the shape of Vietnam's revolution for independence has been decided. The 30 years of warfare that follow in the pages of the Harrison and Maclear books are all the more discouraging after reading Marr, for he has convinced us that the French and Americans were trying to deny the Vietnamese Communists the mantle of nationalism they had earned. But, like other diverse Asian nationalist groups, the Vietnamese prove that, once acquired, it is practically impossible for the first generations to lose their nationalist credentials.

The Ten Thousand Day War is an example of a new kind of publication, a book written from a television documentary. In a surprising way, it works. Maclear does what might be expected: he relies more on the subjects interviewed for his program than those not; the "revelations" he has wrung out of people stand out more strikingly than they might deserve. But these personal peculiarities add to this rerun of the war excitement and pace lacking in more pedantic attempts to tell the next generation what happened in Vietnam.

Moreover, documentaries benefit from a team of researchers and Maclear's effort, although hardly the last word, is blessed with sufficient references to primary sources to help anyone wishing to pursue more particular questions about the American war effort.

Because it reads like a television script, marshalling action, witnesses and fact in a fast survey, this is the sort of book I might recommend to someone too young to remember the Vietnam war. In his chapter "Westy's War" Maclear lets veterans explain in their own words some of the mystery about "body counts." Corporal Matt Martin:

"The more regular you were, regular Marine, regular army, the higher the body-count was. We had a colonel call in and he was all excited, and he said, 'What's the body-count, what's the body-count?' because we had called in a lot of heavy artillery, we were really putting the job on this one village. So he wanted a real heavy body-count. Well this second Louie we had with us-- he'd come up through the ranks--and he yelled, 'Over 300.' So then the radio man said, 'You can't give them an even number. They're not going to go for an even number.' So he said, 'Well, okay, 311.' Three hundred eleven flat out deaths, sure kills. Well this officer loved it. He started yelling 'Great, great, you did a great job."

The actual body count was one old man who died in a jeep accident.

This is a living history and, however flawed, by the end of the book one not only knows but feels why the Americans lost. They did not have the popular support of the southern Vietnamese; the Saigon leadership was a divided, corrupt lot hardly representing either democracy or the nationalist aspirations of the people. Moreover American strategy was pinned as often to domestic U.S. concerns as to the battlefield.

Unfortunately, The Endless War does not give us the same vivid picture of the Vietnamese communist victory. Harrison, an historian and former Air Force pilot, put together much of the available French and English languways and finage material stressing the Vietnamese side of the war. As such, it is a useful source book. His section on Communist strengths and establishment weaknesses is particularly good at pulling together disparate American and Vietnamese studies.

But the parts do not add up to a compelling sum. Decent Interval, by Frank Snepp, is a better example of how to weave U.S. history with complementary Vietnamese accounts. Too often Harrison quotes at length from various works to prove points lost in an undigested rendition of history. Whereas Maclear's witnesses gave voice to fact, Harrison's extensive quotations stall the reader and would have been better used as footnotes. And Harrison often lapses into a polemical style that adds to the confusion.

Marr's study of Vietnamese intellectual history is so profound that it gives us more clues to where the Vietnamese revolution went astray than Harrison's work, which includes a chapter on postwar Vietnam and its problems. After demonstrating how the Vietnamese adapted modern language, literature, history, ethics and morality to a revival of national culture, Marr suggests how this creativity withered in the service to the established state, how the product of the Vietnamese renaissance--the Communist nation of Vietnam--helped to spell its end. The revolution of ideas was over, once the war began. Marr closes his book by asking if Vietnam might return to the days "when any idea was worth studying and debating in the interest of a truly free and independent Vietnam."