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The Journal of Military History 70.1 (2006) 183-186

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Abandoning Vietnam

Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War. By James H. Willbanks. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004. ISBN 0-7006-1331-5. Maps. Illustrations. Tables. Charts. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. x, 377. $39.95.

It is axiomatic that the period covered and the subject studied in a historical work determines the questions it can answer. This is as true for the Vietnam War as it is for any period and subject. For example, William Le Gro's Vietnam: From Cease Fire to Capitulation obviously will answer questions about the fall of South Vietnam and do so within a time frame that begins with the Paris Peace Accords on 27 January 1973 and ends with Saigon's surrender to the Communists on 30 April 1975. And, from the perspective of the senior South Vietnamese military officer on the Joint General Staff, General Cao Van Vien, The Final Collapse will answer queries about the factors leading to the conquest, or collapse, of South Vietnam in the same years.

From the other side of the temporal divide, George Herring's America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 concentrates, as the title suggests, on the role of the United States in the Southeast Asian war. Thus the questions it answers are those relevant to America's role. When that role ends in early 1973, Herring neatly wraps up South Vietnam's demise in a few pages and then moves on to discuss the war's legacy for the United States. In the same vein, titles chosen [End Page 183] almost randomly from the scholar's bookshelf—General Phillip B. Davidson's Vietnam at War, William Duiker's Sacred War: Vietnam and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam, and Lewis Sorley's A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam—are also captives of the period and subject their authors have chosen to write about. These words are, I hasten to add, descriptive, not pejorative, of the condition in which all historians find themselves once they settle down to their story.

For the reader who desires to better understand how and why South Vietnam fell and fell so quickly in April 1975, the disadvantage of such books is obvious: None tell the whole story. Despite making brief bows to the past, those in the first group tend to begin as the Americans depart, while those in the second, making equivalent bows to the future, end as the Americans depart in early 1973. The first group lacks a useable past, the second a useable future. Given this complex but understandable historiographic reality, we are fortunate indeed that Dr. James H. Willbanks, who teaches at the Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, has settled down and written Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War. He has given us a superb narrative of the years 1968 to 1975, one structured around the performance and accomplishments of South Vietnam's military in operations against North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, yet placed firmly within the framework of advice and support provided by the United States. Additionally, key events in the United States and, as well, the diplomacy in Paris are all part of the tapestry Willbanks weaves. His narrative, a skillfully shaped critical path of events, begins with the election of Richard Nixon, where the story of the fall of South Vietnam really starts, and ends, when the story is really over, with the fall of Saigon.

In his account—an Introduction, ten chapters, and a Conclusion—Professor Willbanks covers territory familiar and unfamiliar. In each chapter, he vigorously tells his story, fully analyzing the factors relevant to the topic at hand and how, at any given moment, these and other factors related to and influenced one another. Such an approach in less able hands might have produced an unwholesome mélange. Willbanks, however, has successfully brought it all together. He has also...