Reviewed by Earl Tilford
By James H. Willbanks
University of Kansas Press, Manhattan, Kan., 2004
Arguably the Vietnam War was lost at the Tet Offensive in February and March 1968. James H. Willbanks, a professor in the Combat Studies Institute at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, has written an engaging and thoughtful analysis of Vietnamization, the process for turning the war back to the South Vietnamese between mid-1969 and the end of direct American involvement that came with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973.
As Willbanks demonstrates, no expenditure of firepower, blood or personal heroics can redeem flawed strategies and policies. Vietnamization was doomed at conception. Willbanks suggests that it should have started in 1965, not 1969. Americanizing the war took the primary responsibility away from the South Vietnamese and placed it with the United States. Absent clearly defined war aims, the American people failed to bear the burden. Meanwhile, U.S. forces, with their high-firepower mobile warfare doctrines suited more to the plains of Germany than the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia, shunted aside the ARVN—and the Republic of Vietnam lacked the resources and infrastructure to sustain such forces. By 1973 the U.S. Congress no longer was willing to fund the South Vietnamese army and air force to operate effectively. The Vietnamese Communists’ attritional strategy inflicted more casualties than the American public was willing to accept given the lack of strategic clarity in U.S. policies. The Tet Offensive completed the process by depleting public support. Broken will equals lost war—that’s Clausewitz 101.
There were many reasons for defeat in Vietnam. Willbanks effectively demonstrates that a flawed U.S. exit policy led to the raising of a Viet Cong flag over Saigon on April 29, 1975.