Because January 27, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, it is appropriate that an updated version of Arnold Isaacs’ groundbreaking 1983 book, Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia: (McFarland, 446 pp. $49.95, paperback), has just been published in an updated edition.
This well-written and exhaustively researched book chronicles in great detail the last three years of the Vietnam War, particularly the political machinations leading to the 1975 collapse of South Vietnam. It was lived and written by Isaacs, an American journalist who was there almost the entire three years. The book, therefore, has the feel of being written by someone who experienced it, as opposed to someone who just merely read about it. There are lengthy chapters on the wars in Laos and Cambodia that provide comprehensive information on those events that few remember.
Isaacs severely criticizes a great number of the political decisions leading to the end of the war, calling them “callous, cynical and wrong,” but admits that by 1972 there were no good choices for the United States to make—only a choice of evils. He is particularly scornful of Graham Martin, the last U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam.
Martin, who didn’t speak Vietnamese or venture out of Saigon, was indecisive and unrealistic, and made decisions that may have cost lives. However, Isaacs, who covered the war for the Baltimore Sun, praises the final evacuation as well-executed despite the Ambassador’s delays and lack of preparation.
Isaacs notes that America’s allies, including the South Vietnamese, were cut out of the negotiations of the Paris Peace Accords. This is also what the United States later did to its Afghanistan allies and is one reason he decided to republish the book.
The haunting echoes of end of the Vietnam War were heard and repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least, Isaacs writes, the evacuation in Vietnam was successful, compared to the evacuation of American personnel from Afghanistan.
The book’s title, Without Honor, may stick in the craw of those who served in the Vietnam War, their friends, families, and survivors, but Isaacs is referring here only to America’s promise to millions of Vietnamese who depended on U.S. protection against a ruthless and determined enemy. Abandoning our Vietnam War effort was an act of betrayal for which the overwhelming majority of Americans who did not serve—including our leaders and their critics—share the responsibility.
Isaacs has little criticism of individual American troops, virtually all of whom did serve with honor. The American military did not lose the war. He writes about an encounter just before Saigon surrendered to the Communists in 1975 to illustrate that point.
U.S. Army Col. Harry Summers, who was serving on the American negoiating team as the war drew to an end, said to a North Vietnamese liaison officer, “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.”
The Communist officer considered for a moment. “That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”
Without Honor should be required reading for any American politician contemplating the issues of war, particularly American involvement in a war in Asia.
Isaacs’ website is www.arnoldisaacs.net