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Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975

Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975 by John Prados. University Press of Kansas, 2009, 704 pp.

John Prados, a senior fellow of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, has produced the most comprehensive, authoritative, and readable single-volume narrative history of the American war in Vietnam yet seen. Benefiting from many recently declassified documents and presidential tapes in the United States, as well as significant foreign-source documentation, Prados brilliantly draws together what he calls a “unified field theory . . . [that] attempts to weave an account of both action and context that includes all necessary elements” (italics in original, p. xiii). The result is a narrative history of remarkable scope and considerable depth that weaves together military threads with political, social, economic, and foreign policy threads, forming a policy envelope that “narrowed over time due to developments in all those fields” (p. xi). This ever-more limited range of potential policy choices for the United States in Vietnam essentially made the war unwinnable. In a very real sense, Prados demonstrates the inconvenient yet fundamental truth of the Clausewitzian dictum about the relationship of war and politics.

He makes very clear in a three-page “Note to the Reader” (p. xxi) that he writes from a strong antiwar point of view and takes pains to discuss how, as an Army officer’s son who wanted to attend West Point, he came to that perspective. Such candor is very refreshing and highly unusual even though all historians write from a definite point of view (whether they admit it or not). As a college student in the 1970s, he became deeply involved in the antiwar movement and helped the Vietnam Veterans against the War (even though he was not a veteran) as they organized demonstrations during the Nixon administration. In the narrative discussing the antiwar demonstrations of the 1970s, he notes his roles in several, sometimes lengthy, insertions set off from the main body of his discussion by italic type (pp. 426, 476–80, 496–503, and 514–16). Some readers may think that Prados gives too much credit to the antiwar movement for forcing the Nixon administration to bring an end to American participation in the war. But this reviewer—a Vietnam vet from the mid-1960s who witnessed the near chaos in the United States in the early 1970s—thinks that, if anything, Prados undersells the influence of the movement.

Given his theme of an “unwinnable war,” it is only natural that the author not shy away from confronting revisionist historians (e.g., Mark Moyar) who claim that the United States had virtually won the war at various points but that we either didn’t recognize or take advantage of those situations. The reader should be sure to check the endnotes, for it is there (rather than in the basic text) that Prados directly takes on the revisionists.

As one would expect of a historian and senior fellow at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, Prados has heavily documented his work with 60 pages of often very illuminating endnotes followed by an 18-page bibliographic essay. Any reader who fails to read the text without referring to the endnotes will miss many clarifying parts of the story. (As a personal aside, the importance of the endnotes to this narrative history argues in favor of publishers using footnotes rather than endnotes. Readers would vastly prefer having explanatory footnotes readily available on the same page to searching for endnotes at the back of the volume.)

Prados has produced a wonderful one-volume history that makes a significant contribution to the literature of the Vietnam War. Clearly, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975 is the most comprehensive single-volume history of the war yet published. The author’s acknowledged point of view may irk some readers, but he is candid about his views and argues them well, using excellent evidence. Frankly, if I could have only one volume about the Vietnam War, Prados’s book would be it.

Col Dennis M. Drew, USAF, Retired

Professor Emeritus

School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Air University

Montgomery, Alabama

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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