Book Review:
A deep dive into the roots of 
U.S. involvement in Vietnam

Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam (2012) by Fredrik Logevall

 

This is a lengthy, enthralling and revealing history of the French- Indochina war, 1945-1954, and its immediate aftermath in the decade that led to the Vietnam war.  Logevall provides fascinating stories and descriptions of French, British,  American, Chinese and Vietnamese military and political leaders, including DeGalle, Decoux, Leclerc, D'Argenlieu, Valluy, Navarre, de Lattre, Cogny, De Castries,  Ho Chi Minh, Giap, Bao Dai,  Diem, Eisenhower, Dulles, Mike Mansfield,  Edward Lansdale ( falsely reputed to have been the model for American innocence and ruthlessness in Graham Greene's, The Quiet American),  Anthony Eden, Churchill and many others.  Very few of these leaders come off well in Logevall's description and comments, with a few notable exceptions. Ho Chi Minh was highly regarded by many French, British and even American diplomats over a period of decades for his extraordinary personal qualities, whereas views of Ngo Dinh Diem, the leader of South Vietnam after the country's partition in the mid-1950's,  were highly polarized, both in Vietnam, the U.S. and France. What stands out in Logevall's stories of behind the scenes strategy and negotiations is the vanity and personal enmities of French leaders in whom the France invested its hopes in Indochina, and the mutual dislike and disdain between Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary in the early 1950s and John Foster Dulles, the U.S. Secretary of State under Eisenhower. Eden viewed Dulles as a "pompous blowhard,"  while Winston Churchill found Dulles to be "a dull, unimaginative, uncomprehending man; so clumsy, I hope he will disappear." Of course, Dulles did not disappear; he lived on to help create the American debacle in Vietnam, a debacle (Logevall makes clear) was the result of continuities in U.S. policies and perspectives beginning in the Truman Administration after W.W. II and persisting through the next 30 years. 

 

Logevall excels in his nuanced well informed discussions of the thinking, programs and policies of France, the Viet Minh (Ho Chi Minh's party of national liberation) the South Vietnamese, the U.S., England, China and Russia. As interesting as Logevall's descriptions are of the policymakers and leaders who determined the fate of Indochina after W.W. II,  it was policy considerations on all sides, not personalities, that controlled events. In this instance, history was controlled by ideas, aspirations and delusions that led inexorably to war, and that persisted despite the French defeat in 1954 after a brutal 9 year war. Leaders were controlled by national fixations, i.e., the desire of France to retain its empire in Indochina, the Vietnamese determination to be free of colonial powers, zealous and unbending American anti-Communism and by the British unwillingness to be drawn into a land war in Southeast Asia on the heels of Korea.

 

It was already apparent by 1950 that colonial empires around the world were crumbling and were "on the wrong side of history" to use an overused phrase. England left India in 1947, and France might have done the same in Indochina absent American support for France's colonial regime in Southeast Asia, support that contravened Franklin Roosevelt's opposition to colonialism.  De Galle was determined to reinvigorate French control of Indochina to reinstate France's place in the world following France's humiliating defeat by Germany in 1940;  and was able to gain the support of the Truman Administration which began to view French control of Indochina as an essential bulwark against Communist expansion in Asia.  

 

Logevall provides one telling piece of information regarding the limits of French commitment to maintaining control of Indochina: French political leaders refused to impose conscription ( i.e., the draft) to sustain its army in Indochina. French political leaders understood that to impose conscription to fight a bloody, lengthy war in Asia would inevitably lead to powerful domestic opposition to the war, as eventually occurred in the U.S.  France used its Foreign Legion, military units from North Africa and local pro-French or anti-communist Vietnamese to fight the Indo-China war. This one piece of information says volumes about the limits of France's commitment to a war its political leaders slowly came to realize was unwinnable against a disciplined Viet Minh army willing to take huge losses on the battlefield and fight the war for as long as required to rid Vietnam of the French.       

 

Logevall is not as caustic as he could be in his description of U.S. policymakers' and military leaders' zealous and bellicose anti-Communism. The large majority of influential leaders in both U.S. political parties and influential voices in national security circles from 1946-1965 believed the following: 

 

  • If the Viet Minh ejected the French and became a unified Communist country, the rest of Southeast Asia, and possibly India and Malaysia, would fall like dominoes. After becoming President, Eisenhower warned that "if Indochina goes, several things happen right away.  The Malayan peninsula ... would become indefensible, and India would be outflanked. Indonesia, with all its riches, would likely be lost too . So you see... somewhere along the line, this must be blocked. This is what the French are doing." 

  • Communist countries would act monolithically (as a bloc) to oppose American interests, sometimes referred to as the Free World. When forced to choose, Communism as an ideology would trump national identity and national interests rather than vice versa. 

  • Even though French colonial control of Vietnam could not be maintained, a nationalist anti-communist leader and party could be found who would unify Vietnamese peasants against both the French and the Communist Viet Minh. 

  • France would be able to defeat the Viet Minh, or at least fight  the war to a stalemate, due to superior armaments and military power, especially airpower. 

  • After France's exit from Indochina, most Vietnamese would see the difference between U.S. support for democracy (and freedom) and French colonial rule. 

  • The American military was far more powerful and competent than the French military, with its defeatist attitude and unwillingness to use conscription to replace losses of soldiers in Indochina.  

Every one of these beliefs turned out to be false, and some were delusional in the sense that American policymakers doubled down on these ideas as they were repeatedly disproven, both in Asia and around the world. It would be difficult to exaggerate the zealous, bellicose tendencies of this version of anti-Communism in the U.S.  The Eisenhower Administration exerted extreme pressure to keep France from exiting Indochina, actively discussed possible use of nuclear weapons in Indochina, allegedly offered the French two tactical nuclear weapons to save its forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954,  strongly pressed European allies to join an international military coalition in Indochina in 1954 that included ground forces, steadily increased financial and military support to the French from 1950-54 and then the South Vietnamese after 1954, subverted provisions in the Geneva accords that required the two Vietnams to become unified through elections in 1956, supported Diem through thick and thin after his repressive policies became apparent, and engaged in bombing (while denying it) of Viet Minh forces long before sending ground troops to Vietnam. According to Logevall, the only thing that prevented a US led war in Indochina in 1954 was British opposition. The British (to their credit) were greatly alarmed by U.S. talk of use of nuclear weapons in Indochina.  It is also worth remembering that US political leaders discussed possible use of nuclear weapons in Korea, and during the long forgotten conflict with China over two islands, Quemoy and Matsu in the late 1950s, and then later during the Kennedy Administration over Laos, not to mention the Cuban missile crisis during which some powerful military leaders advocated for an all out first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union!    

 

One interesting feature of U.S anti-communism during the 1950's and early 1960 was the refusal of its adherents to recognize and take advantage of conflicts among Communist countries.  Logevall suggests that neither China or the Soviet Union appeared to want a strong and unified Vietnam during the Geneva peace talks that ended the Indochina war. Stalin never trusted Ho Chi Minh,  while China's interest in Vietnam was to make sure the U.S. did not establish permanent military bases in Indochina. There was never the slightest possibility that North Vietnamese leaders would tolerate Chinese direction of their internal affairs.  The Vietnamese were wary of China for good historical reasons. Somehow, American policymakers were unable to accurately discern the motives of US enemies; and supported the French and then directly intervened in Vietnam to counter security threats to the U.S. that arguably never existed, not ever, not even a little bit. Nationalism was always the main driving force of events in Indochina for the French, the Viet Minh and China and ultimately for the U.S., which ended up extending a war most of its leaders came to understand could not be won to preserve U.S. prestige, and avoid being blamed in domestic politics for "losing Vietnam, " as Truman had been blamed for "losing China," another powerful delusion that did incalculable harm in American foreign policy circles.   

 

Logevall does not give credit to Eisenhower - as some historians do -- for keeping the U.S. out of another land war in Asia in 1954. Rather, Eisenhower, like Dulles, strongly advocated for war, but would not agree to commitment of American forces without an international coalition due to lack of Congressional support for going it alone in Indochina.  The British prevented war in Indochina following France's defeat in 1954, not Eisenhower, by refusing to participate in such a coalition.  Logevall comments that JFK was one of the few political leaders in the early 1950s who understood the difficulty of defeating forces that sought national liberation from a colonial power, and who questioned the point of doing so. However, by 1956, JFK in his typical "all things to all people" way had signed on to US support for South Vietnam and for Diem's leadership in the conflict with the North Vietnamese.  JFK was not a voice against American involvement in Vietnam from 1954 until a few months before his assassination, and then only behind the scenes.  Logevall has recently published a biography of JFK which (by all accounts) is as clear sighted as his great history of the Indochina war.

-- Dee Wilson