Fredrik Logevall

Embers of War

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Embers of War Summary

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Swedish-American author and historian Fredrik Logevall’s non-fiction book Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (2012) details the historical roots of the American conflict with Vietnam, tracing them back to the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference up until 1959, the year America suffered its first military casualties in Vietnam. For Embers of War, Logevall was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for History.

The true roots of the Vietnam War, Logevall writes, stretch back even further than 1919. In 1884, France colonized Vietnam along with neighboring countries Laos and Cambodia in subsequent years. This territory came to be known in the West as Indochina. The colonialist framework, however, began to show signs of fracture in the wake of World War I. In 1919, future Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, under an alias, traveled to Paris during the Versailles Peace Conference in hopes of meeting U.S. President Woodrow Wilson so he could present to him “The Demands of the Vietnamese People.” Having been refused an audience with Wilson, Ho began to develop and refine his philosophy of “Vietnamese nationalism” which would shape the country’s identity, igniting the eventual military conflicts with the French and, later, the Americans.

Despite increasing demands from the Vietnamese populace and its leaders, the relationship between Vietnam and its French colonial overlords remained a relatively stable one until World War II. During that conflict, however, Japan replaced France as the scariest and most powerful foreign influence in Vietnam. Then, when Japan’s Empire was all but dismantled by Allied Forces at the end of the war, Ho viewed this turn of events as an opportunity to finally assert his country’s independence from foreign influence, whether in the West or the Pacific. In a move that would become highly ironic given later events, Ho recited lines from the American Declaration of Independence in his speech delivered in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi in September of 1945.

Then-U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was supportive of Vietnam’s pursuit of independence, at least in theory, stating that he would like to “promote Indochina’s development toward independence under a degree of supervision.” This stance put the U.S. at odds with French President Charles de Gaulle, who characterized his country’s relationship with its colonial holdings in Indochina as “an unbreakable bond between Metropolitan France and her overseas territories.” However, by the time President Harry S. Truman succeeded Roosevelt, tensions with the Soviet Union were so intense that America sought to shore up its alliances with as many Western liberal democracies as possible, including France. Thus, France’s interests in Indochina became the United States’ as well, according to Logevall.

Now that a peaceful, diplomatic route toward independence was no longer possible, Ho turned to a strategy of military insurgency in order to secure freedom for his people from the French colonists. Thus began the First Indochina War, referred to in Vietnam as the Anti-French Resistance War, which would last from December 19, 1946 until July 20, 1954. Under the command of General Vo Nguyen Giap, the so-called Viet Minh army employed guerrilla war tactics modeled after strategies outlined in the essays of Chinese Revolutionary Mao Zedong. This model of warfare was unlike anything the French had seen during its previous foreign entanglements. The Viet Minh army was exceptionally effective at striking French forces when they least expected. Meanwhile, whenever a French military group entered a field of engagement ready to fight, the soldiers would find that their opponents had “vanished, if not vaporized.” Of General Giap, Logevall calls him one of the “finest military leaders of modern history.”

After eight years of brutal guerrilla warfare, French and Vietnamese forces were locked in a bloody stalemate in the Dien Bien Phu valley. Vietnam held the strategic advantage, having surrounded the French on all sides, but the French held the firepower-advantage, its military technology far surpassing that of Vietnam. This resulted in huge casualties on both sides. Now, the United States was not only France’s ally in spirit, but its chief financial backer, underwriting upwards of eighty percent of France’s expenses in Indochina. However, despite France’s pleas with the United States to intervene militarily through the use of airstrikes or even nuclear weaponry, President Dwight D. Eisenhower maintained that America’s military involvement would be limited and covert. In the end, France lost the weeks-long Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Facing heavy military casualties, and with the French people back home increasingly hostile to the war effort, France reached an agreement with Vietnam that ended the war in 1954. Going forward, Vietnam would be divided into two partitions, with Ho Chi Minh’s Communist party in control of the North and a pro-West government in control of the South. However, widespread dissatisfaction with the Western-backed leadership in the South led to powerful insurgency movements forming over the next five years. Though the United States was initially determined to let South Vietnam defeat the pro-Communist insurgents on its own, the glaring ineffectiveness of the South’s army resulted in a steady escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. Unlike France with its purely colonial motivations, America’s involvement in Vietnam was largely predicated on its desire to eliminate Communist footholds as part of a larger Cold War dispute with the Soviet Union. According to Logevall, the seeds of large-scale military intervention were planted in 1959 when pro-Communist guerrilla fighters attacked a Military Assistance Advisory Group compound twenty miles outside Saigon, killing two American soldiers.

Although Logevall’s narrative focuses on France’s experiences in Southeast Asia, it serves as a valuable example of how history’s mistakes are often repeated, even in less than a generation’s time. “Somehow,” he writes, “American leaders for a long time convinced themselves that the remarkable similarities between the French experience and their own were not really there. It was, for the most part, self-delusion.”