by Fredrik Logevall
New York: Random House, 2012. Pp. xxii, 840.
Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index . $40.00. ISBN: 0375504427
Vietnam literature continues to grow at rate that will soon rival the that on the great issues in world history. In America the war’s trauma runs deep and the public keeps asking why that war had to be fought at all. Professor Logevall (Cornell) has produced a masterful and thorough volume that could easily have been entitled Origins of America’s Vietnam, as he explores the French Indochina War and the American role from its inception. In his worthy attempt to reconstruct the mechanism that led the U.S. into the jungles and rice paddies with over half a million conscripts, Logevall examines a number of lost opportunities which could have changed the course of events and the war itself.
France and the U.S. could have recognized the government of Ho Chi Minh in 1945. Truman could have withheld aid to the French in 1949. America could have dropped Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955, as it almost did. We could also add that in 1963 John F. Kennedy could have continued to support Diem thereby avoiding a coup, at the risk of seeing the U.S. get thrown out of Vietnam by his very own ally. And so on . . . .
The problem is that none of these happened. The decisions that were made at the time were part of a much larger and complex context which Logevall explains and analyzes with consummate skill and extraordinarily detailed knowledge. But clearly, the part played by ‘what if…?’ is the weakest and most questionable in the book, yet in no way does it weaken this important and indispensable work that will remain as a reference for Cold War and Vietnam War historians.
A few points in the vast landscape of this narrative deserve to be pointed out: the key role of General de Gaulle in launching France on the reconquest of her colony in 1944-45. The enterprise was not simply the fulfillment of an imperial dream but a demand by the bulk of the French people, Communist Party included. Maurice Thorez, Communist Party secretary and a vice president of the provisional government, is quoted as expressing wholehearted support for a French return to Indochina in 1945. Ho Chi Minh insisted on traveling to Paris in 1946 because of his connection to the French communists, who had close to 28 percent of the votes at that time. But he was still unable to reach an agreement, even though he was a former employee of the Comintern and in 1920 had been a founding member of the French Communist Party. But with war underway, the French Communists switched sides as the Cold War began in earnest in 1947 and followed the Moscow line of independence for the colonies and violent opposition to the Indochina War.
One omission could have been added that is found in Charles de Gaulle’s the War Memoirs, namely the general’s plan to place former Emperor Duy Tan, known as Prince Vinh San, on the throne of Annam. The general devotes two pages to what he calls a “secret plan” that would have led to a formal declaration of independence for Vietnam. By contrast it is surprising that novelist Graham Greene author of The Quiet American should receive an entire chapter and that historian and journalist Bernard Fall should also be given such attention; Well deserved perhaps, but not essential to the narrative in this reviewer’s opinion. On the other hand, the work of Ellen Hammer remains key to understanding Vietnam and it is too bad that Logevall stops his book in 1959 without getting into the Kennedy years, which were when America became bogged down in the quagmire. Of course he had already covered that territory in his excellent previous book Choosing War.
In conclusion Embers of War is a must-read book for anyone interested in the Vietnam War from a broad perspective.
Robert L. Miller is the publisher of Engima Books and the Executive Director of The New York Military Affairs Symposium.