In This Review

The Key To Failure: Laos And The Vietnam War
The Key To Failure: Laos And The Vietnam War
By Norman B. Hannah
Madison Books, 1987, 361 pp.

A remarkable book, joining earlier works by Bruce Palmer and Harry Summers as truly reflective and personally disinterested criticisms of American strategy in the Vietnam War. Its focus is heavily on the neglected role of Laos and specifically on the agreements of 1962 and how these were consistently treated as a given, precluding any major U.S. action in Laos while leaving Hanoi free to build up the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Hannah shows how ideas in the direction of changing this ground rule were put forward periodically: by him (with support from one senior army general) from his post as political adviser to the Pacific commander in 1965-66 (and later directly to President Nixon in 1969), and by Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker directly to President Johnson in 1967. Yet there was never institutional advocacy leading to a systematic look at the possibility he stresses, a cordon sanitaire below the 17th parallel and across to the Mekong. This concept remains by far the most plausible strategic "might-have-been" of the war, and it is here argued in a thorough and balanced manner, with many wise comments on decision-making that are always fair and never make things seem easier than they were.

The result is a superb and original contribution, a history for the lay or expert reader. Above all, in addition to reminding us of the power of inertia and fixed assumption, it frames a gut strategic issue-sealing off a battlefield versus fighting locally-that was relevant in the Cuban missile crisis and could be germane to many conflicts in other areas, even perhaps Central America today.