With the Ho Chi Minh Trail as his stage, historianJohn Prados plays out the tragedy that was Vietnam.

By John I. Witmer

Millions of words have been written about the Vietnam War, and still, nearly 25 years after the fall of Saigon, the repercussions of that war continue to have an impact on the American psyche. John Prados’ new book, The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War (John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1999, $35), concentrates on the struggle for control of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Prados presents history as though it were on a stage, allowing the reader to see the whole picture and still be able to focus in on specific “actors” and events. Through access to newly declassified documents, Prados has added to the stockpile of information about the war. Some of the insights he provides are not new, but were either discounted or disbelieved during the war. For example, many Americans did not fully realize that despite the way the war was internationalized, it was at bottom a civil war, with all that that implies in terms of family loyalties and social connections. Vietnam’s history included imperialism and then fighting against a series of foes: Japanese, French and, finally, Americans.

Prados’ approach is both informative and engaging. All of the facts are there–the various operations, the units involved, the dates, the background events–yet he also provides useful diversions, fleshing out the skeleton of facts with observations by the participants themselves. He quotes the American grunts as they go on long-range patrols or defend their firebases, and also quotes the bo dois (members of the NVA) as they move along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and defend it against the technological might of the United States. The reader learns firsthand what the war was like on the ground for both sides. This, combined with accounts of events in Hanoi, Saigon, Washington, D.C., Peking and Moscow, leads the reader to a new appreciation of the inevitability of the tragedy that was the Vietnam War.

Another insight provided by Prados is into the character of NVA soldiers. They are compared to ants in a conflict with elephants, a line of constantly moving soldiers, porters, way-station tenders, nurses, truck drivers and road builders. There is a meticulous recounting of the names of operations mounted against the trail; the number of sorties flown by U.S. gunships, fighter-bombers and Boeing B-52s; and the exact number of tons of bombs dropped in what turned out to be vain efforts to cut the trail. Even the successes of the so-called “pinball wizards,” a program begun in 1968 that promised real-time continuous electronic monitoring of activity on the trail, apparently brought tactical victories but did not actually disrupt the flow of men and weapons to the south. Against all this technology the bo dois prevailed, even though most of them, like their Southern cousins, came from the coastal plains and were as unused to the rigors of the Annamite Mountains, through which most of the trail ran, as were their American opponents. It is still difficult to understand how they were able to sustain the will to persevere against these odds, but the idea that they drew their strength from Communist ideology is not convincing. This was especially true after 1964, when the NVA halted discharges and declared all service to be for the duration of the war, as it was for U.S. soldiers during World War II.

As in many enterprises, there were silent partners–in this case the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Prados outlines materiel aid given to North Vietnam–all types of military equipment, weapons and ammunition, surface-to-air missiles and even Chinese anti-aircraft troops. The Chinese offered military intervention if the integrity of North Vietnam was threatened on the ground. The experience of the Korean War was still chillingly fresh in the minds of U.S. military planners and policy-makers, and these misgivings were reinforced by intelligence estimates that the Chinese had the means and the will to give a repeat performance if the DMZ were crossed.

General Le Trong Tan, a senior commander in the NVA during the war, was asked in later years what he would have done to win the war if he had been an American general. He replied: “If they [the Americans] had been wise they should at a certain point in time have cut a specific section of the Trail and taken over that area. Then we would have been stuck. We would never have been able to fight and win as we did.” This was the solution the United States seemed to be ever stumbling toward but never able to achieve, believing mistakenly that air power alone could stop the flow of men and materiel down the trail. The problem was that there was not just one trail but many trails, and it proved impossible to shut them all down all at once. Colonel Vo Bam, the NVA trailmaster responsible for building and maintaining much of the trail, is reported to have said in 1966 that the longest period the trail had to be closed due to enemy action was two days.

The Blood Road documents the heroism of both sides during the war–something that time cannot diminish.