Yesterday afternoon I finished reading the book noted in the title, all 718 pages, not counting 118 pages of notes and bibliography. It is a masterful work, well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it won.
The epilogue of the book examines in detail how the U.S. became entangled in the conflict between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Our intelligence professionals, myself included, kept warning policy makers that the war was unwinnable if the population of South Vietnam did not take to heart the goal of repulsing the northern invaders. Our elected officials pushed on with the war anyway.
Until sometime around 1968, the American public supported U.S. involvement in the war. Then popular opinion began to shift. At the same time, the arrival of General Creighton Abrams to head the war effort in-country changed to focus away from kill-ratio tactics to concentration on fighting at the village and hamlet level, protecting the populace, and working to persuade the South Vietnamese to support their government against the communists.
By the 1970s, U.S. popular opinion had turned sharply against the war. The U.S. responded by signing the 1973 peace accords which withdrew U.S. forces but left North Vietnamese troops in the south. The stage was set for the north Vietnamese victory of 1975.
That victory was hastened by the withdrawal of U.S. support, starting in 1974—the period when Last of the Annamese begins. We had already stopped air support, but now we withdrew financial support. In a very real sense, those decisions were the death knell to an independent South Vietnam.
Could we have won the war? Militarily, yes. The Abrams strategy was working. But I question whether the people of South Vietnam would ever have thrown their support behind the string of leaders who headed South Vietnamese governments during the sixties and seventies. All were autocratic and dictatorial; they alienated the people.
The end, on 30 April 1975, was shameful. We pulled out leaving behind thousands of loyal South Vietnamese who had worked with us to defeat the communists. All of them were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese.
What did we learn? Not much. We’ve repeated that scenario in Iraq and Afghanistan, deserting those who supported us to face their enemies without defense.