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Winning Was Never An Option in Vietnam
By Joe Miller (reviewer)
Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975
(University Press of Kansas, 2009)
Nearly ten years ago, in a review of another book on Vietnam, Barry Romo asked, "After all these years since the American War in Southeast Asia and the forests of trees that have been cut down to document that war, do we really need another book?" My response, after reading John Prados' latest - rather hefty - volume on the war, is "Hell, yes!" We certainly need this one.
John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive at George Washington University and a longtime friend of VVAW. His numerous books include The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War and The Hidden History of the Vietnam War.
Prados utilizes a wide range of newly-available sources, including recently-declassified National Security Agency (NSA) documents, presidential tapes, as well as interviews conducted at VVAW's fortieth anniversary reunion in Chicago in 2007, to tell a story of missed or ignored opportunities for very different results surrounding US policy in Vietnam and in Asia more generally. A significant aspect of this book for VVAW is the fact that he incorporates our story into the wider context. In his Preface he makes this case:
"I chose to focus on one particular group: Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). This group played a central role at several crucial moments, yet except for accounts that center on the organization itself, it has only a bit part in standard Movement histories. My narrative introduces new evidence of the extent to which the US government initiated an explicit campaign to 'get' VVAW, illustrating how the government played simultaneously on the war and anti-war boards. As a veterans' organization, VVAW also furnishes a natural link to another aspect of the narrative - how controversies over the war affected US military forces themselves, ultimately leading back to the nation's ability to carry on a war in Southeast Asia." (p. xiv)
Prados is critical of previous accounts of the war for reflecting "atomized" views, that is, accounts that focus on one or the other singular aspect of the war. In this work, he is attempting to provide as complete an account as possible, using unified field theory, by which he means an effort to "weave an account of both action and context that includes all necessary elements." (p. iii)
As the reader is drawn through the events of 1945 to 1955, the period that for Prados sets the entire framework for the rest of our adventure in Vietnam, we are carried along on a roller-coaster ride of international crises and potential choices. We are introduced to the major characters in this tragedy, from the US leaders and policymakers who seem to show up in a variety of administrations in later years to those individuals who became our "clients" in the unofficial empire in Vietnam and elsewhere.
Once the commitments were made, most solidly by an Eisenhower administration that felt responsible for the French defeat in 1954, the die is pretty much cast. While Prados describes the wide range of policy options available to the US in the immediate post-World War II environment, at each stage choices were made that severely narrowed the possibilities.
Kennedy came into office inheriting the commitments and Cold War perspective from the Eisenhower days. His counter-insurgency focus reflected a different view of the situation in South Vietnam, more as what we now think of as a "low-intensity" conflict. Even so, events on the ground and choices made by the "best and the brightest" to show US determination in the Cold War resulted in a deeper commitment, financial and military. Prados provides us with all the details necessary to explain the choices made, if not to fully understand them. By the time Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency, it would prove nearly impossible for him to avoid greater entanglement. The rest of the story is familiar to most of us, though we must certainly thank this author for giving us the historical detail and context with which to ultimately understand our various experiences as veterans of this war.
The Vietnamese story is also prominent in this 600-page work. After all, it was their determined struggle for national unification and independence that our policymakers ignored or misunderstood over thirty years. These details and the Vietnamese genius in politics and military tactics are clearly illustrated in Prados' use of newly-available sources.
He draws us into the politics of the anti-war movement, with the focus on VVAW, its actions and the official response to those actions. He shows with great detail the efforts of the Nixon administration to destroy VVAW, especially following the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation and Dewey Canyon III. Many of our members will recognize themselves in the unfolding of these events. As veterans or active duty GIs, our part in the movement to end this war is revealed in the overall story.
As part of Prados' unified general theory approach, he must place the reader into the total context, as much as is possible. This he does very well indeed. Also, with sixty pages of footnotes and a bibliographic essay, we are not left wanting for source material. If you only had to have one book on the Vietnam War, this is the one.
Joe Miller is a national coordinator of VVAW.