An Idea, and Bullets by William Haponski

William Haponski graduated from West Point in 1956. He earned a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature in 1967 while teaching English at his alma mater. The next year Haponski volunteered to go to Vietnam.

He first served as the senior staff officer in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment under the command of Col. George S. Patton (the son of the famed general). Then, from January to July of 1969, Haponski commanded the 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry in the First Infantry Division.

His sterling academic credentials and battlefield credibility are on display in An Idea, and Bullets: A Rice Roots Exploration of Why No French, American, or South Vietnamese General Could Ever Have Brought Victory in Vietnam (CreateSpace, 582 pp., $19.99, paper; $5.49, Kindle). This is a well-written, well-researched examination of the French and American wars in Vietnam based on a primary and secondary sources and on Haponski’s  on the ground in Vietnam during the war. The book also has a thesis: its long subtitle’s contention that the American and French wars in Vietnam were unwinnable.

After more than 450 pages of history and analysis, Haponski sums up the book’s message in its last two sentences.

The American war in Vietnam, he concludes, “was lost before the French Expeditionary Force fired its first round, before the South fielded its first soldier in the National Army of Vietnam, before the first U.S. advisor set foot in the country. An idea—independence and unity—would triumph over bullets.”

Bill Haponski in country

Haponski’s main point, that is, is that most Vietnamese saw American intervention as another attempt by a foreign power (after China, Japan, and France) to prevent all Vietnamese from uniting into one nation. And—more importantly—that the North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and their civilian supporters possessed the will to see that ideal realized.

As Gen. Dave Palmer says in the book’s forward, the enemy in Vietnam had “the will to persevere unto victory no matter how long it took or how powerful the cost.

“In the end, willpower trumped firepower.”

—Marc Leepson

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