Vietnam scholarship, despite all its original controversy, remains dominated by the critical vision of its first generation of writers: David Halberstam, Stanley Karnow, Neil Sheehan, and Frances Scott Fitzgerald. The war, these journalists argued, was unwinnable because Vietnamese culture was too unfathomable for the United States to impose its political will. The South Vietnamese government, according to many journalists, was hopelessly corrupt, and the people of South Vietnam were austere and indifferent. Others claimed that the Vietnamese had been "fighting for centuries" and were "fanatical nationalists" who would never be tamed by Western political sensibilities. In either scenario, defeat was inevitable. The roots of culture, tenacious in preserving distinctive national features, would inevitably defeat efforts to impose a political settlement from outside.
An alternative scholarly tradition, focusing on military activity, emerged in the wake of the Tet Offensive and eventually, in the early 1980s, became the most popular genre of works analyzing the war. (However, Stewart O'Nan's 724-page anthology, The Vietnam Reader: The Definitive Reader of Fiction and Nonfiction on the War, published in 1998 by Anchor Books, contains no military accounts of the war and devotes only around thirty pages to individual "combat narratives.") Often this was the history of the war as written by those who fought it. The new brand of scholarship avoided the teleology of political defeat by focusing on individual battles that generally resulted in American victories. The best of these books—for example, Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977) and the first part of Keith Nolan's Operation Buffalo: USMC Fight for the DMZ (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1991)—have an aesthetic quality that goes beyond politics. The heroic struggle to stay alive made the petty disputes of Congress or the president appear insignificant.
Recent scholarship in the military genre has been innovative. Lewis Sorley and Ronald Spector have argued that the period after the Tet Offensive was actually one of military effectiveness. The media and the political left, they contend, got it wrong. The situation "on the ground," in their view, was not hopeless and has been misunderstood. Sorley went so far as to claim that from a military standpoint the "war" had been won by early 1971. Andrew Krepinevich has taken this argument even further in asserting that the fight on the ground remained inconclusive only because U.S. military strategy was enmeshed in the political world of the Cold War. American military tactics, according to Krepinevich, became more effective at the very moment that U.S. troops began to depart. With the dismantling of the unified command for U.S. troops—known formally as the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam—a clear vision of what was really happening "on the ground" confronted General Creighton Abrams, the U.S. commander in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, who responded effectively. Thus, according to these analysts, it was not until U.S. troops were leaving the country that they were finally permitted to fight effectively. What is striking about [End Page 115] these arguments is that they coincide in some respects with the political narrative of inevitable defeat.
This historiographic trend provides the backdrop for James Willbanks's Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War. Willbanks, a former U.S. military adviser who survived the 1972 battle of An Loc, has written what will be the best overview of the military and political situation in Vietnam in the post Tet period. He has mastered the scholarship on the subject and recounts, in great detail, the Nixon administration's flailing attempts to achieve "peace with honor."
Nonetheless, Abandoning Vietnam suffers from the lack of a convincing thesis. Willbanks wants to argue that the policy of "Vietnamization" never had a chance to succeed and was more of a cover for its original appellation, "de-Americanization," an excuse for abandoning Vietnam. It was, according to Willbanks, a "public relations coup" and a "way of mollifying the anti-war crowd." Even though Defense Secretary Melvyn Laird, "always...