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The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975

John Prados

New in Paperback: September 2013
xxx, 666 pages, 48 photographs, 6-1⁄8 x 9-1⁄4
Modern War Studies
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1940-5, $24.95 (t)

Also available in cloth
ISBN 978-0-7006-1634-3, $34.95 (t)


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.

“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

“A remarkable achievement [and] one of the most significant books published on Vietnam in the last decade.”—Journal of Military History

“This is the book [on the Vietnam War] we’ve been waiting for. . . . It definitely establishes itself as the new standard.”—Vietnam

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

“This important and provocative work should be read by anyone studying the war, whether in academia or from personal interest.”—Library Journal

“If you only had to have one book on the Vietnam War, this is the one.”—The Veteran

“One of the country’s most distinguished historians has written a veritable international history of America’s long war in Vietnam. Utilizing a trove of declassified documents from archives in the U.S. as well as Vietnam, John Prados contributes to the historiography of the war by providing context for why the war was unwinnable. This book is a terrific read, full of revelations, astute interpretations, and historical documentation—the recipe for a classic because it advances our understanding of history.”—Larry Berman, author of Perfect Spy: The Extraordinary Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent and No Peace No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam

“Prados has given us a great gift—a fresh, original, and fascinating synthesis of a long and complicated war by one of the nation’s foremost experts.”—Christian G. Appy, author of Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides

“A monumental work of passionately engaged scholarship, written in an easy, conversational style. There is no other history of the war quite like it.”—Marilyn B. Young, author of The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990

“Should be read by the lawmakers and opinion leaders who habitually babble on about the ‘lessons of the Vietnam War.’”—Ronald Spector, author of After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam

JOHN PRADOS is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. His numerous books include The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War, The Hidden History of the Vietnam War, and most recently Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA.


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