#Reviewing Embers of War

Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s VietnamFredrik Logevall. New York: Random House, 2012.

“How did it come to this?” “How did we get here?” The American public and its leaders ask these questions time and again, often when they find themselves mired in a war with no end in sight. Now faced with escalating the U.S. wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, they are asking these questions again in 2017. In situations like these, America’s war in Vietnam almost always comes to mind, and one book successfully catalogues an overlooked period of U.S. involvement.

To the casual student of history and foreign affairs, France’s war in Vietnam is typically a brief aside in a 50-minute lecture about America’s Vietnam War that goes something like, “You can’t truly understand America’s war in Vietnam without understanding the Franco-Indochina war,” stressing its importance, but not going much further. Indeed, this lack of coverage is reinforced by the countless books describing the American war in the 1960s. Fredrik Logevall, the John S. Knight Professor of International Studies, director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, and professor of history at Cornell University, himself wrote such a volume, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, detailing the process of U.S. escalation in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His newest book however, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, is something of a prequel, which analyzes the roots of America’s involvement, beginning with the French war.[1] At well over 800 pages, Logevall’s work, surprisingly, is as accessible as it is lengthy.

Two major forces are at play in Logevall’s work: the history of decolonization and the history of the Cold War.

February 28, 1946 telegram from Ho Chi Minh to U.S. President Harry S. Truman requesting support for independence. (Wikimedia Commons)

Logevall takes us from the end of the First World War, when the future of the French empire is accepted as a matter of fact, through the interwar period to the Second World War, when it is at its weakest. He then covers the French war in Indochina that followed, ending with the period between French and U.S. involvement, by which time the Viet Minh see the U.S. as their chief adversary. There is often an air of inevitability about the flow of historical events, but Logevall fights this notion, describing how a series of choices made by individuals from many countries and at all levels shapes the decisions of future leaders. Indeed, a young American senator named John F. Kennedy visits Saigon in 1951 and doubts Western motivations in Vietnam, only to begin the gradual uptick in American commitment a decade later when he assumes the presidency.  Logevall argues that Kennedy’s (and later Johnson’s) choices were, 

already constrained by the choices of their predecessors –– by Truman’s tacit acknowledgement in 1945-46 that France had a right to return to Indochina; by his administration’s decision in 1950 to actively aid the French war effort; and by the Eisenhower team’s move in 1954 to intervene directly in southern Vietnam…[2]

Two major forces are at play in Logevall’s work: the history of decolonization and the history of the Cold War. The reader will find himself questioning which one he should be emphasizing more. In the case of France, fighting communism is not the principle reason for their war; instead they fought to maintain their empire and their pride. In the case of the Viet Minh, fighting for national liberation –– encouraged in part by the principles outlined in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and later in Franklin Roosevelt’s Atlantic Charter –– is the principle reason for their war, not communism.[3] The difference in motivations between the U.S. and the France in this period explains why the French eventually just wanted out. The French knew what and who they were up against, but could not make the mental leap necessary to avoid what would ultimately result in a drawn out tragedy. In their minds, many French believed they could go back to the days before the Second World War, whereby a few thousand French officials could control and exploit a populace of 25 million people in a faraway land. 

Was he a nationalist, or was he a communist? Logevall argues that to Ho, this was a false dichotomy, that nationalism always came first, but the issue certainly complicated things in American minds.

Võ Nguyên Giáp and Ho Chi Minh in August 1945 (Wikimedia Commons)

Logevall also epitomizes this dichotomy between decolonization and Cold War politics in his profile of Ho Chi Minh, perhaps the central figure in this work. Ho truly believed, at least until around 1949, that the U.S. would ultimately side with him. After all, he and the Viet Minh had worked with the Office of Strategic Services to resist Japanese occupation, so much so that the OSS made him an honorary member, “Agent 19.”[4] OSS officers repeatedly reported that Ho was somebody that the U.S. can work with, and he believed the same. Logevall walks a fine line in describing Ho, just short perhaps of an “Uncle Ho” admiration. Was he a nationalist, or was he a communist? Logevall argues that to Ho, this was a false dichotomy, that nationalism always came first, but the issue certainly complicated things in American minds. Could he have been a Tito-like figure, a dedicated communist but too independent and free-thinking for Stalin’s liking?[5]

Viet Minh troops plant their flag over the captured French headquarters at Dien Bien Phu. (Wikimedia Commons)

Logevall’s knowledge of the military dimension of this period is demonstrated time and again, particularly on his profile of Vietnam People’s Army General Vo Nguyen Giap and his ability to learn from previous mistakes, such as his disastrous Day River campaign in 1951 against French forces, to the climax of the work, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, in 1954.[6] Logevall details the extraordinary extent to which Giap used every means he had to carry on the fight. A photo of Viet Minh using convoys of bicycles to transport what looks like hundreds of kilograms of supplies each conveys the indescribable determination on their part.[7] However, details of battles notwithstanding, Logevall’s larger focus is on the political dimensions of the period. His work, therefore, can best be appreciated as a companion to Bernard Fall’s classic, Street Without Joy, one of the most definitive accounts of French combat operations in Indochina from 1946-54, which Logevall uses extensively.[8]

Logevall presents an interesting counterfactual, speculating that had Franklin Delano Roosevelt lived, this decades-long bloodbath could have been avoided.[9]  While not an unpopular speculation, the reader should be reminded of Roosevelt’s own description of his decision-making, “You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does…I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win this war.”[10] With Cold War politics emerging well before the actual end of the Second World War, it is also possible to speculate that had FDR lived he would have put off important decisions and made temporary concessions on European colonialism, and we very well may have ended up with a similar Franco-Indochina War, followed by our own.

French troops preparing to leave Hanoi in the aftermath of their defeat at the hands of the Viet Minh. (Getty Images/Australia and the Vietnam War)

The last French soldier left Vietnam in the spring of 1956. There was a sense that the U.S. could do Vietnam better if it had to. Leaders wanted to believe this, even though it was privately discussed that the obstacles to American success were as enormous as the ones facing the French previously. But as Logevall writes, “it was always safer, easier –– in domestic political as well as geopolitical terms –– to soldier on, to muddle through.”[11] As with Vietnam, the incremental decisions made across recent administrations to do more in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria –– from Bush to Obama and now to Trump –– have brought the U.S. to a similar point, where each step risks feeding a logic for more involvement, risks further divorcing it from overall policy, and risks leaders losing control. And so, the U.S. increased its aid and sent advisers to bolster the fragile South Vietnamese regime. It would be for the Americans, as it was for the fabled French Expeditionary Corps, frustrating; as in the years before it would be “a war without fronts, where the enemy was everywhere and nowhere at the same time.”[12] Embers of War illustrates the events, forces, and choices which tragically connect FDR’s rejection of French colonialism and the 58,318 names engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Pete Kouretsos is a Research Assistant with the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, and a recent M.A. graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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Header Image: OSS Deer Team members pose with Viet Minh leaders Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap during training at Tan Trao in August 1945. Deer Team members standing, l to r, are Rene Defourneaux, (Ho), Allison Thomas, (Giap), Henry Prunier and Paul Hoagland, far right. Kneeling, left, are Lawrence Vogt and Aaron Squires. (Rene Defourneaux). From "Ho Chi Minh and the OSS," by Claude Berube.


[1] Fredrik Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (New York: Random House, 2012).

[2] Logevall, Embers, 709.

[3] Logevall, Embers, 3, 12-14, 83, 712.

[4] Ibid. 85.

[5] Ibid. 219.

[6] Ibid. 393.

[7] Ibid. 416.

[8] Bernard Fall, Street Without Joy: Indochina at War 1946-1954 (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1961).

[9] Logevall, Embers, 66.

[10] Warren F. Kimball, The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 7.

[11] Logevall, Embers, 697.

[12] Ibid. 177-178.