EMBERS OF WAR – Review by Mark Barnes

In June 1919 when the victorious powers met at Versailles to flay the defeated Central Powers other stuff was going on that would have ramifications for decades to come. Many nationalists seeking light in the gloom of the imperial haze smothering their countries yearned that Woodrow Wilson, that champion of self-determination would put the colonial masters in their place and give thepeoples of imperial possessions hope. One of them was a young man named Nguyen Ai Quoc. The world would come to know him better as Ho Chi Minh. He turned up in a rented suit hoping to impress upon Wilson that something needed to change in his homeland then firmly in the grip of the French, but he never got anywhere near the US president. Nationalists like the young Nguyen took nothing from Versailles where the primacy of the countries who had just won the Great War for Civilisation was underscored by their ability to ignore the wishes of anyone pursuing a new era ushering in the end of colonialism. It would take decades of more wars before the tables were finally turned.

Ask anyone about France and Indochina and the best most will come up with is a degree of knowledge of Dien Bien Phu, that epic battle for the future of Vietnam that the French precipitated and lost in 1954. It seems a little odd in some ways that a country forged out of revolution with the clarion call of liberty, equality and fraternity would have an empire at all. But it did and like all empires, we have learned, when times were good everything was hunkydori; but as soon as things turned sour it could get very messy.

As someone who was born and raised amid the decline of imperial might in my own country, I am not disposed to act in any way smug towards the French. When I was born Britain still had an empire but it shrank rapidly through my childhood as the reality of a new world set in. Even now it is tempting to look back on the imperial age with a kind of fuzzy glow to a time when Britannia ruled the waves. For me it comes down to understanding how a small island could come to rule so much of the world but I have to temper any admiration for the men who achieved it against much of the long-term results. It is essential to set the era at odds with the uncomfortable truth that the imperialists directing the war effort in this country during the darkest moments of World War II fought tooth and nail against the Nazis to protect the freedom they cherished while sensing no irony in their will to deny it to others where there was a blob of pink on the map.

The slow motion disaster falling on France picked up a pace during World War II when crushing defeat at home allowed events to take a sharper turn far away in Asia. The opportunistic Japanese coerced the Vichy regime in Saigon to allow them access to strategic positions for their upcoming assault on the possessions of the other European empires – British and Dutch, but also on the Philippines; the hegemony of the United States. The disaster that befell the European empires in Asia is well known. The complete loss of face, if nothing else, cut short their tenures and allowed nationalism to foment.

In Vietnam the nationalists hoped that the Americans, who were openly anti-colonialist in 1945 would not allow the French to return, but they didn’t have a hope against the regional reality that the British who came to disarm the defeated Japanese could hardly allow self determination for a neighbour while denying it in their imperial backyard. The French returned to cement their power and within a year the long war for independence had begun.

There were other issues. Ho Chi Minh and his comrades were Communists. They sought to make their country a socialist state but had little interest in exporting their ideals elsewhere. What they wanted first and foremost was the end of French rule. They would compromise on some issues but not on others. They were clever negotiators and willing soldiers. They would fight and die for the cause.

In the post war United States Communism was a dirty word exciting an excess of fear and loathing stoked up by politicians and media proprietors. It was this domestic itching powder that chafed first at Truman and then Eisenhower. They had to stand up to perceived Communist expansion to appease and impress their voting public while attempting to face up to the hard nosed regimes looking out from Moscow and Beijing.  In every sense damned if it did and damned if it didn’t the situation in Vietnam left the US in a position where it was compelled to support the colonial war because France succeeded in dressing it as an anti-Communist crusade and this suited the hawks in America and Paris perfectly. This double-edged sword would eventually draw America into it’s own Vietnam War and all the hindsight in the world cannot see a simple way to have stopped it. Events had too many masters for them to be kept happy and the end result was universal gloom.

Quite apart from being a fantastic read, this exceptional book by Fredrik Logevall opens up the labyrinthine world of imperial decline and geopolitics from 1945 in a way that allows us to understand the multitude of struggles going on for hearts and minds in all the major capitals controlling events in this saga. It helps us understand a great deal of how our world is structured with the experience of Vietnam and the other post colonial struggles having good and bad influences on the people leading responses to international crises today. It is a tale of lessons absorbed or unlearned with multifarious consequences for nations and peoples.

After seven hundred pages it would be easy to come away thoroughly depressed, but this is such a well-balanced book the feeling I had is one of greater appreciation for a slice of history energised by World War II but not wholly dominated by it. The fallout from the world war is best illustrated as the of end of French rule in Indochina allowing the precipitous rise of regional power play by the United States who effectively replaced the old colonialists despite their solid credentials as an anti-imperial nation. There are too many ironies.  Imagine how the story might have played out if Ho and his friends had not been Communists but nationalists of a sort that era of American politicians could talk to.

I take some heart from Churchill and Anthony Eden’s flat refusal to allow British participation in a conflict to smash the Viet Minh sought by the Eisenhower administration. They had good reasons at a time when the UK’s own imperial conflicts were pointing to the inevitable. Ultimately it wasa stand that helped doom continued French rule in a partitioned Vietnam and it went a long way to drive American decision making down a unilateralist road to war without the need of unreliable allies. The stalemate of Korea caused far too many men in Washington to desire a winnable war to show the Commies what was what. Be careful what you wish for. American money and weapons would first bolster the faltering French and then entirely prop up the hideous regimes of South Vietnam.  Cash and guns are one thing, but America had a bigger price to pay. I once met two veterans of the war and they explained how it had defined their lives, as wars seem to do but they seemed more attuned to what they had lost from the experience as opposed to what they had gained.

The Vietnam War was generally just something on the telly for me growing up. I witnessed violent student led demonstrations against it in Berlin as a young lad and can picture the aftermath of broken glass and uprooted cobblestones while shopkeepers and café owners cleared up as mounted police and other heavies kept a watchful eye. My late dad, who loathed America, never offered me his opinion on the war (or much else for that matter!). But the truth was that a number of people of his generation resented the loss of British primacy in the world and all the indignities heaped on the United States, the usurper-in-chief as my father most definitely saw them; were everything they deserved.I don’t think he would accept the irony that in many respects he owed the freedom to think in such a way to the very country he hated. Vietnam gave the kaleidoscope of opponents of the US plenty to feed off at home and abroad.

It was a very confusing world to grow up in. Mr Logevall confirms this but has done so much to unravelevents for me that I feel thoroughly enlightened and this is precisely what the best history books do. It is hardly surprising his work has earned a Pullitzer Prize.

Happily, the author inspires further reading and I will be seeking out Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and the works of Bernard Fall. Being a movies man I enjoyed the 2002 film but have never read any Graham Greene and his involvement in the story of Vietnam is one of those footnotes to an epic we often find can enrich our wider knowledge of things. Greene and Fall are just two of the amazing characters who litter Mr Logevall’s history. You will not like or admire all of them, but there were some good men about and I will leave you to pick your own.By coincidence while I was in Turkey on a battlefield tour recently, the talk somehow got on to Michael Herr’s Dispatches and it seems appropriate that such an influential book on the American War experience should come to the fore just as I learned about the rocky road leading to the conflict.

You can see Vietnam today on the tourist trail where family members of mine have visited museums of American weaponry, fired AK47s and crawled through carefully maintained tunnels. If you like, you can watch those three cocks gadding about down the length of the country on the BBC’s Top Gear – it’s bound to be on TV somewhere as I write. In France you will find the legacy of Vietnam on war memorials and I am sure that, notwithstanding Algeria, for the older generation the thing still hurts.  I’d like to visit Vietnam myself one of these days but I have an even stronger hankering to get to Washington where I will pay my respects to the 58,000 Americans who died in a war that was fought for reasons I now enjoy a much deeper understanding of.

Just as the Great War we commemorate a century on was the result of myriad grievances and ideals crashing together at the same time to foment devastating conflict, there was no single or simple reason for the American war in Vietnam. Mr Logevallconfirms how seemingly endless wars are inextricably linked. How the great minds of our age will find a way of breaking the chain is way beyond me but I never give up hope.

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online

The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam
By Fredrik Logevall
Random House
ISBN: 978-0-375-75647-4

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.