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

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The Vietnam war continues to be the focus of intense controversy. While most people—liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, historians, pundits, and citizens alike—agree that the United States did not win the war, a vocal minority argue the opposite or debate why victory never came, attributing the quagmire to everything from domestic politics to the press. The military never lost a battle, how then did it not win the war?

Stepping back from this overheated fray, bestselling author John Prados takes a fresh look at both the war and the debates about it to produce a much-needed and long-overdue reassessment of one of our nation's most tragic episodes. Drawing upon several decades of research-including recently declassified documents, newly available presidential tapes, and a wide range of Vietnamese and other international sources—Prados's magisterial account weaves together multiple perspectives across an epic-sized canvas where domestic politics, ideologies, nations, and militaries all collide.

Prados patiently pieces back together the events and moments, from the end of World War II until our dispiriting departure from Vietnam in 1975, that reveal a war that now appears to have been truly unwinnable—due to opportunities lost, missed, ignored, or refused. He shows how—from the Truman through the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations—American leaders consistently ignored or misunderstood the realities in Southeast Asia and passed up every opportunity to avoid war in the first place or avoid becoming ever more mired in it after it began. Highlighting especially Ike's seminal and long-lasting influence on our Vietnam policy, Prados demonstrates how and why our range of choices narrowed with each passing year, while our decision-making continued to be distorted by Cold War politics and fundamental misperceptions about the culture, psychology, goals, and abilities of both our enemies and our allies in Vietnam.

By turns engaging narrative history, compelling analytic treatise, and moving personal account, Prados's magnum opus challenges previous authors and should rightfully take its place as the most comprehensive, up-to-date, and accurate one-volume account of a war that—judging by the frequent analogies to the current war in Iraq—has not yet really ended for any of us.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Prados (senior fellow, National Security Archive, George Washington Univ.), who has written prolifically on the Vietnam War, here provides a copiously detailed general history of that conflict. He focuses on the period from 1954 to 1975, devoting almost half of the book to the Nixon years (unlike most histories, which tend to center on the period from 1961 to 1969). As the title indicates, Prados argues that the United States had no reasonable chance of attaining its primary goal—the continued existence of a non-Communist South Vietnam. He is to be congratulated for making known his personal position, acknowledging his reputation as "an engaged leftist intellectual" who strongly opposed the war. VERDICT Prados has done prodigious research in a mass of primary and secondary sources and makes a plausible case for his position, although he probably overestimates the role of the antiwar movement in shortening the war. This important and provocative work should be read by anyone studying the war, whether in academia or from personal interest—A.O. Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, IN

—A.O. Edmonds
From the Publisher

"This is the book [on the Vietnam War] we've been waiting for. . . . It definitely establishes itself as the new standard."


"A grand and important work of synthesis by a diligent, engaged scholar with telling insights gained from years of reflection on a vast and complex subject."

Journal of American History

"Prados directly engages, and in many cases, demolishes, a host of shibboleths about the war. But this is no mere polemic. Rather, Prados's powerfully presented and meticulously argued account, buttressed by a staggering amount of documentary evidence, meets the most exacting standards of scholarship. His sweeping history forms the capstone of more than three decades of careful research and measured reflection on the Vietnam War. . . . It may be the single most important book yet written on the Vietnam conflict."

American Historical Review

"This important and provocative work should be read by anyone studying the war, whether in academia or from personal interest."

Library Journal

"A remarkable achievement [and] one of the most significant books published on Vietnam in the last decade."

Journal of Military History

"If you only had to have one book on the Vietnam War, this is the one."

The Veteran

"An awe-inspiring achievement in epic form."--Lloyd Gardner, author of Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam

Winner of the Henry Adams Prize awarded by the Society for History in the Federal Government

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700616343
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 3/24/2009
  • Series: Modern War Studies Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 696
  • Sales rank: 1,515,895
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 2.20 (d)

Meet the Author

John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. His numerous books include William Colby and the CIA: The Secret Wars of a Controversial Spymaster, The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War, and The Hidden History of the Vietnam War.
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Table of Contents



Note to the Reader


April 1971: Veterans at War

1. A Splendid Little War

March-July 1954: Dien Bien Phu, Geneva, and the Harnessing of American Power

2. Many Roads to Quagmire (1954-1960)

3. Loose the Fateful Lightning (1961-1964)

August 1965: The Last Mystery of the Tonkin Gulf

4. Burnished Rows of Steel (1964-1965)

5. A Hundred Circling Camps (1965-1967)

6. Trampling Out the Vintage (1967)

January-May 1968: Tet Mau Than

7. Terrible Swift Sword (1968-1969)

8. Crush the Serpent under Heel (1969)

9. Dim and Flaring Lamps (1969-1971)

10. Die to Make Men Free (1970)


11. Sound Forth the Trumpet (1971)

12. Evening Dews and Damps (1971-1972)

13. Sifting Out the Hearts of Men (1972)

14. The Truth Comes Marching Home


Selected Bibliography


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Customer Reviews

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( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 7, 2009

    Prados unconvincing history of the Vietnam war

    In recent years with an influx of de-classified information from the U.S, the Communists and memoirs from former S. Vietnamese soldiers and officials, we get a much better and clearer of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. This give rise to the "revisionist" historians who shows the Vietnam War in a much different light, dispelling many of the myths from the left. John Prados' "Vietnam: The History of an Unwindable War, 1945-1975? seems like an attempt to hold back the more accurate view of the Vietnam War and resuscitate the old leftist view of the Vietnam War.

    Prados argues that America failure in Vietnam was due to the lack of understanding of the Vietnamese revolution. Prados portrayed Ho as a "nationalist", the George Washington of Vietnam. Yet Ho Chi Minh in his twelve volumes "Ho Chi Minh Toan Tap"[Ho Chi Minh Complete Works] documents Ho extensive works for the Third International and even how much Ho was paid each month by Moscow for his works. These documents made it clear that Ho was a devout Communist since the early 1920's and not a "nationalist" forced to allied himself with the Communist.

    Prados claimed that the Tet offensive was a defeat for the U.S. The bombing of Kampuchea was branded as secret and illegal and the U.S and ARVN incursion into Kampuchea in 1970 to break up North Vietnamese sanctuaries was presented as a move that widened the war. Prados ignore the fact that the Sihanouk was openly helping the North Vietnamese, the Khmer army helps transport weapons and materials for the North Vietnamese. Sihanouk were pay for his "cooperation" of up to 10% of the values of the materials shipped to the Vietnamese Communist forces in Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge first started arm insurgency in the 1950's under the name Khmer Issarak. The Khmer Communists harass South Vietnamese forces along the Vietnam-Kampuchea border long before the U.S-ARVN Cambodia incursion. If anyone is to blame for the Kampuchea debacle it's Sihanouk, who thought he could "play" his enemies not knowing it was he who was being play.

    Prados was quick to insinuate that the ARVN was drafting younger recruits although there is absolutely no evidence that the ARVN was using children as a tool of war. However, the North Vietnamese have no qualm in using children as part of their war effort with the creation of the Doi Thieu Nien Nhi Dong Cuu Quoc in 1941 which later become the Doi Thanh Nien Tien Phong. Children were used by the Communists to retrieved bombs and anti-personnel mines with their bared hands,Communist documents boasted about their system of using children soldiers Communist books are full of glorious story about children as young as 8 or 10 killing and dying for Uncle Ho such as "child hero" Ho Van Nhanh near Dong Tam who uses his bare hand to retrieves several thousands mines which he gave to the local guerrillas and they in turn uses it to kill 300 Yankees. Overall, this is book is a poor attempt to push an old, outdated view of the Vietnam War.

    For an extended look at my book review check out my blog at:

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted October 28, 2009

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    Posted December 4, 2009

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