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

by John Prados, University Press of Kansas, 2009

This is the book we’ve been waiting for. It has flaws, but this is the new standard.

It really is as simple as that. For decades now veterans, historians and those with an abiding interest in the Vietnam War have been waiting for a book that they could feel comfortable in recommending as a single-source volume on the conflict. Stanley Karnow’s 1983 book Vietnam: A History carried the mild opprobrium that its author was a journalist who covered the war, and it was written too soon after the conflict. George Herring’s concise book The Longest War, while solid, was simply too small to cover the ground needed for those with a deep interest. Now the remedy appears. John Prados brings us Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975, which, in about 630 pages, slakes the thirst, settles some issues and definitively establishes itself as the new standard.

To be sure, no book of a “mere” 630 densely-packed pages can fully address 30 years of violent conflict. Though I would argue that the price of the volume is fully covered by the immense historiographic essay at the end of the book alone, this war is just too much to address everything between two covers. Frankly, even if given 10,000 pages there is no way to completely cover any such massive topic. But this, of course, is the challenge of history. It is a task to which Prados rises to quite well.

Historians of all stripes only agree on a few simple things. Most fundamental among them is the concept that “real history” is not possible until at least 25 years after an event. This is a mildly generic assertion, but Prados proves the value of the passage of time with some authority. Time permits passions to fade, documents to surface (or be declassified) and controversies to resolve themselves.

Take, for example, the Tonkin Gulf controversy. Even during the war itself, the events that occurred there were under dispute and some degree of confusion. Was there one attack or two? Were there South Vietnamese raiders in the area? What were the effects of the weather and light conditions and the role of signals intercepts? All of these things led different people to believe different things over time, but even as the picture became somewhat clearer, there was always room for disagreement and confusion. Indeed, as Prados demonstrates, the whole story really could not be unwound until the National Security Agency finally released the full transcripts (and translations) of all their intercepts in 2005-06.

Prados also fills the role of historian in another way as he rolls up the nature and substance of the historical disputes to date and presents judgments thereon. So, for example, my friend H.R. McMasters (Dereliction of Duty) is very lightly slapped down when Prados correctly notes: “As for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the charge that they were derelict is rather thin. This implies that the Chiefs had some deeper wisdom…they had no better idea of what they were doing than the President himself.” Similarly, while David Halberstam’s early wartime reporting stands up well, the thesis of his later book, The Best and Brightest, is “too simple by half.” Harsh, yes, but also probably correct.

The major flaw in Unwinnable War is that Prados seemingly cannot restrict himself to commenting upon history and historical elements relating to the Vietnam War. Over and over again he brings George W. Bush’s administration and its 2003 war against Iraq into the picture, drawing parallels and tying one to another. That is fine for an Op-Ed, or a magazine article, or even a book review. It is not fine for a published work seeking to be the definitive word on a war long past. Such lines, if they must exist, should be lightly sketched for the reader to draw his own conclusions. In this Prados lets us down immensely.


Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here