Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Willbanks’ ‘Abandoning Vietnam’: A study of how South Vietnam died

Basically, South Vietnam committed suicide, but we handed Thieu the loaded gun, James Willbanks more or less concludes in this fascinating book.  I think it is the best book I’ve read on the last part of the Vietnam War. Essentially, he argues that “Vietnamization” was a misnomer. Rather, it was the “Americanization” of the Vietnamese ...

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629384_120404_rick1.jpg

Basically, South Vietnam committed suicide, but we handed Thieu the loaded gun, James Willbanks more or less concludes in this fascinating book

I think it is the best book I've read on the last part of the Vietnam War. Essentially, he argues that "Vietnamization" was a misnomer. Rather, it was the "Americanization" of the Vietnamese military. "Nixon's Vietnamization policy had worked very well to the extent that it taught the South Vietnamese to fight ‘American-style,' using air mobility, tactical air support, and lavish expenditure of ammunition and other materiel."  But in 1974, the Americans cut off all that support.

It makes me wonder whether the war would have been different if from the outset, the Americans had tried to help Vietnamese fight in their own way. Would that even have been possible? I think so. (There is a good but PhD dissertation to be done comparing the U.S. efforts to build security forces in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Basically, South Vietnam committed suicide, but we handed Thieu the loaded gun, James Willbanks more or less concludes in this fascinating book

I think it is the best book I’ve read on the last part of the Vietnam War. Essentially, he argues that “Vietnamization” was a misnomer. Rather, it was the “Americanization” of the Vietnamese military. “Nixon’s Vietnamization policy had worked very well to the extent that it taught the South Vietnamese to fight ‘American-style,’ using air mobility, tactical air support, and lavish expenditure of ammunition and other materiel.”  But in 1974, the Americans cut off all that support.

It makes me wonder whether the war would have been different if from the outset, the Americans had tried to help Vietnamese fight in their own way. Would that even have been possible? I think so. (There is a good but PhD dissertation to be done comparing the U.S. efforts to build security forces in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.)

One of the things that struck me in the book is how different the American experience of the war was from Vietnam. For us, the worst year was 1968, with nearly 15,000 KIAs. For the South Vietnamese military, the worst year was 1971, with nearly 40,000 dead. Their second worst year was 1974, when they lost 31,000 soldiers. In that year, American combat deaths in Vietnam numbered 207.

Look for yourself:

The Final Years, Jeffrey Clarke

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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