Why do the most thoughtful national security strategists and policymakers perpetually grapple with the lessons of history? Because there are few truly original problems in world politics that have not been confronted before, as scholar Fredrik Logevall’s superb new work reminds us. Over the centuries, strategic overextension by great powers acting on the periphery of their national interests has hobbled ancient empires and modern states alike, in past decades consuming both France and the United States in a dual narrative of disaster in Southeast Asia. This is the subject of Logevall’s voluminous, penetrating and cautionary new study, “Embers of War.”
Logevall, the John S. Knight professor of international studies at Cornell University, is a specialist in U.S. foreign relations and the author of, among other works, “Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam,” a seminal exercise in historical scholarship that persuasively refutes the thesis that the massive intervention engineered by President Lyndon Johnson and his advisers beginning in 1965 was a preordained inevitability of the Cold War and domestic politics. In “Embers of War,” Logevall has conceived a prequel to his past work, examining two powerful, interdependent historical dramas. One is the French struggle to hold its colonial empire in Asia; the other is the progressive American entanglement in the war, first as a patron of the French and then as their successor in the effort to suppress the communist and nationalist Viet Minh insurgency.
Like his previous work, “Embers of War” is a product of formidable international research. It is lucidly and comprehensively composed. And it leverages a consistently potent analytical perspective. Historical outcomes, Logevall demonstrates, are driven not only by global political and strategic forces but also by the passion, frailty and determination of individual leaders. As the author explains, his narrative is “full of alternative political choices, major and minor, considered and taken, reconsidered and altered, in Paris and Saigon, in Washington and Beijing, and in the Viet Minh’s headquarters in the jungles of Tonkin. It’s a reminder to us that to decision makers of the past, the future was merely a set of possibilities.”
In “Embers of War,” students of America’s Vietnam debacle will observe a truly striking foreshadowing of what followed in the Johnson years — the replication of French roles, the repetition of flawed assumptions and a predisposition by some to eschew dispassionate analysis in favor of emotional conviction. “Somehow, American leaders for a long time convinced themselves that the remarkable similarities between the French experience and their own were not really there,” Logevall writes. “It was, for the most part, self-delusion.”
France colonized Vietnam in 1884 and soon added Cambodia and Laos to a territory that became known as Indochina. Its colonial holdings, Logevall notes, were to be the beneficiary of France’s “mission civilisatrice,” or “civilizing mission.” The upheaval of World War I, however, helped foment different aspirations among some subjects of French dominion in Southeast Asia. In June 1919, a young, spindly Vietnamese using one of the 70 aliases he was to have in his life rented a morning coat and sought an audience in Paris with the American president, there to shape the postwar peace. The young man hoped to present to Woodrow Wilson a petition titled “The Demands of the Vietnamese People.” He was rebuffed. In time the petitioner became known as Ho Chi Minh, one of the most consequential revolutionary leaders of the 20th century and the father of Vietnamese nationalism, a man of phenomenal will who left his country at age 21 and did not return for 30 years.
According to Logevall, while French leader Charles de Gaulle “spoke of the cohesion, the unbreakable bond, between metropolitan France and her overseas territories,” President Franklin Roosevelt hoped after World War II “to promote Indochina’s development toward independence under a degree of international supervision.” With Japan displacing France during the war as the dominant external power in the region and then suffering ultimate defeat in the Pacific, there was a window of opportunity when Vietnam could finally shake off the yoke of foreign powers. On a September day in 1945, before hundreds of thousands of ecstatic countrymen in Hanoi, Ho proclaimed independence for Vietnam. To the Americans in the audience, Logevall writes, his words were stunning: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ho was reciting, of course, from the Declaration of Independence.
History followed a different path. Roosevelt died, succeeded by Harry Truman. U.S. tensions with the Soviet Union mounted, altering the geopolitical equation. And France, an indispensible American ally in Europe, demanded the restoration of its position in Indochina. The United States acquiesced, and Ho’s window of opportunity slammed shut.
In the years that followed, France found itself embroiled in a treacherous war of counterinsurgency against Ho and his followers. The Viet Minh were commanded by Gen.Vo Nguyen Giap, whose record of performance “as a logistician, strategist, and organizer,” Logevall correctly states, “ranks him with the finest military leaders of modern history.” Giap was an adherent of the Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong, whose essays articulated a conceptual model of the elements of guerrilla war, which the Vietnamese general applied brilliantly.
Over months and years of fighting, the French were methodically diminished, their superior strength compromised. “For the Expeditionary Corps, as for the Americans two decades later, it was all intensely frustrating — the enemy’s elusiveness, his capacity for surprise and for striking at any moment,” Logevall explains. “Time and again French units would move into a target area in force, only to find no one there; the adversary had vanished, as if vaporized.”
The climax of the war came in 1954 at a strategic northern valley garrison known as Dien Bien Phu. Both the French and the Viet Minh suffered horrendous losses during the protracted siege and weeks of brutal combat. Paris sought urgent American intervention in the form of a vast aerial bombardment, including the potential use of nuclear weapons. President Dwight Eisenhower rejected the French plea and the strident advocacy for attack by senior advisers such as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Vice President Richard Nixon.
Logevall depicts a conflicted commander in chief eager to find a way to engage: “Eisenhower actively contemplated taking the United States directly into the war and sought a blank check from Congress to free his hands.” Other historians disagree with this interpretation, among them Jean Edward Smith, author of the recent “Eisenhower in War and Peace.” “Privately Eisenhower was setting the conditions for American involvement in such a way as to ensure it did not happen,” Smith argues. “It was typical of Ike at his best. Feint in one direction publicly, move privately in another.”
On May 7, Viet Minh soldiers raided the last French outpost, raising the red flag of the insurgency on the roof above. The battle of Dien Bien Phu was over, marking the beginning of the end of French rule in Vietnam. Later in 1954, Vietnam was partitioned, with communists controlling the north and a pro-Western government ruling in the south. In the spring of 1956, the last French soldier departed from Vietnam. The United States increased its military and economic aid and deployed intelligence operatives to advise the fragile regime in South Vietnam on how to counter a growing Viet Minh insurgency. Logevall’s outstanding account concludes with Vietnam’s fate inextricably linked to the projection of American power in the periphery of Southeast Asia.
EMBERS OF WAR
The Fall of an Empire and the
Making of America’s Vietnam
By Fredrik Logevall
Random House. 839 pp. $40