Question: who started the Vietnam War? Answer: the French.
Americans can be forgiven for remembering the war as a contest between the US and the Vietnamese, but in his new book, Embers of War, Fredrik Logevall vividly shows how incomplete such a recollection would be.
Logevall is an historian at Cornell University whose resume boasts several books on the Vietnam War. Here he shows how the French colonization of Southeast Asia that began in the late 19th century deeply influenced the Americans’ failures in that region.
"Embers of War" begins its story with future Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh attending the post-World War I peace negotiations. Ho, as he was universally known, believed American president Woodrow Wilson was sincere in his declaration that all nations had the right to self-determination. It would be the first of Ho’s many disappointments as American leaders failed to live up to their words.
Indeed, one of the many ironies Logevall highlights is that Ho was often more faithful to American ideals and pronouncements about national freedom than were US presidents, from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon. Having spent time in the United States in his 20s, Ho was a lifelong admirer of American principles and actions, from the country's 1770s revolt against the British to the distance that it kept from European imperialism in Asia.
But Ho was mystified by the way that those values were simply disregarded in Vietnam. Though President Franklin Roosevelt opposed European imperialism, the Cold War soon led US leaders to support French control over Vietnam. Initially, America reluctantly acceded to France’s desires in the region, hesitant to disrupt to France’s precarious postwar stability by encouraging the country to dissolve its overseas empire. By the mid-1950s, the positions had switched: France wanted to depart its costly occupation of Vietnam, while the US was terrified that a victory for Ho would lead to communist control of all of Asia.
This argument was called the "domino theory," and every Cold War president believed in it. They were all wrong.
As Logevall explains, the domino theory “posited that the countries of East and Southeast Asia had no individuality, no history of their own, no unique circumstances in social, political, and economic life that differentiated them from their neighbors.” More recently, a 2007 study of over 130 countries in the 20th century found that states are only rarely influenced by changes in their neighbors’ internal structures.
"Embers of War" details the tragic history of America’s assumption of the French burden in Vietnam. Not only did the US gradually become enmeshed in Southeast Asia, it did so with willful disregard for what the French experience could have taught them. Said General William Westmoreland, who led the military from 1964 to 1972: “Why should I study the lessons of the French? They haven’t won a war since Napoleon.”
Had American leaders studied the French failures in the region, they might have realized that they were repeating the mistakes of their ally, including the biggest mistake of all: failure to understand that the Vietnamese were willing to do anything to achieve independence from foreign rule. The country lost approximately 3 million soldiers and civilians fighting the Americans, who lost 58,000 men. Any people willing to endure such horrible, lopsided losses could simply outlast its adversary. The Vietnamese succeeded.
"Embers of War" is simply an essential work for those seeking to understand the worst foreign-policy adventure in American history. Logevall has tapped new resources, including extensive archives in France and what is available in Vietnam. He has a complete grasp of the vast literature on what the Vietnamese call The American War, and even though readers known how the story ends – as with "The Iliad" – they will be as riveted by the tale as if they were hearing it for the first time.
The only misstep in this fantastic book is Logevall’s description of the writer Graham Greene’s time in Southeast Asia. Greene’s "The Quiet American" is the best English-language novel on the Vietnam War (Vietnamese writer Bao Ninh’s "Sorrow of War" wins the prize for best novel in any language), but it deserves only a line or two in the history of France and America in Vietnam. An entire chapter in "Embers of War" is devoted to Greene, unnecessarily disrupting the book’s focus on international diplomatic history.
Such a mistake aside, Logevall makes good on his attempt to write the “full-fledged international account of how the whole saga began, a book that takes us from the end of World War, when the future of European colonial empires still seemed secure, through World War II and then the Franco-Viet Minh War and its dramatic climax, to the fateful American decision to build up and Defend South Vietnam.”
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.