24 July 2011

All out in Vietnam?

Jeffrey Record, The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998, 217 pages.

The Wrong War is not a book about the Vietnam War, but rather a book about everything that has been said about the Vietnam War since it ended. Author Jeffrey Record reviews each of the arguments that have emerged for why America failed in Vietnam, and then challenges each of them on their merits. The book is light on history of the war itself; it assumes some entry level of knowledge about the particulars of the war. Instead, it concentrates on surveying multitude of conclusions writers have drawn since the end of the war, from those who blame the anti-war movement and the press to those that feel the US never truly tried to win.

While he mentions the book only once, Jeffrey Record dwells quite extensively on the arguments in Harry Summers’ On Strategy, along with a number of other authors that, like Summers, argued that the United States did not go “all out” in Vietnam. The Wrong War also lingers on the argument, championed by H.R. McMaster and others, that Johnson’s failure to call up reserves or rally the American people behind the war doomed it to failure. It is in refuting these two, complementary arguments that The Wrong War truly shines. Record dismantles both of these arguments by placing the reader in the context of the times in which the Vietnam War was fought. In the context of the Cold War, Record concludes, limited war was the logical means to reach the limited ends sought in Vietnam.

After examining these and many other arguments, Record writes that America failed in Vietnam because it misunderstood the nature of the war on which it had embarked, the relative will of the North Vietnamese and American people, and the fundamental lack of legitimacy of the South Vietnamese regime. Record rejects the contention that the war was unwinnable, yet concludes that winning would have required massive, unrestricted bombing of the North Vietnamese populace or an invasion of North Vietnam, neither of which was politically feasible, domestically or internationally.

The Wrong War covers so much ground and so many different schools of thought that it would have been helpful to have an additional chapter just to catalogue all of the arguments and the people that have made them. Likewise, the reader could benefit from a longer, more thorough explanation of the arguments these authors make. Record does his best to describe and attribute the arguments as he goes, but the sheer number of opinions with which he deals quickly becomes overwhelming. The Wrong War, in its current form, assumes the reader comes having already read many of the cited work. However, these are minor problems with an excellent book. Jeffrey Record’s conclusion on the reasons for America’s failure in Vietnam are as sound as any yet written.

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