Embers of War // by Fredrik Logevall

//published 2012//

Here’s the thing you have to understand.  Growing up, I was really into about 300-400 years of history.  My interest began somewhere in the mid-1600’s and ended right around 1900.  So while I went through the motions of studying more modern history, and knew the basics of the World Wars, my whole grasp on the other “little” wars of the 1900’s was vague.

Several years ago, I had this sudden realization that I was finished with school and that basically no one was ever going to “make” me learn anything ever again, so if I didn’t want my brain to turn into a pile of disorganized mush, I ought to challenge myself.  I started book blogging around that time in an effort to help me work through processing the fiction that I was reading (sometimes I read too quickly and don’t really absorb it), and I also decided that I would work my way through 20th century history.

I read a couple of books about the turn of the century, but found myself getting bogged down with the “whys” as I entered World War I.  I came across an amazing book, George, Nicolas, and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I by Miranda Carter.  And ever since then, I’ve had a thing for books about before-the-wars, which actually interests me a great deal more than actual wars, with all their battles and dying and stuff.

All of this brings us, by degrees, to Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam.*  I can’t remember what inspired me to add this book to the TBR – I feel as though I must have read a review of it somewhere at some point – but I am very glad I did, as this book was genuinely fascinating.  As I began to read it, I realized that I don’t remember anything about the Vietnam War – like I couldn’t even remember who WON that war – so reading this book was almost like reading fiction.  I had only the vaguest of ideas as to what was going to happen with anyone.

The goal of Logevall’s book is to study Vietnam from the beginning of World War II until the beginning of the Vietnam War.  This 25-30 year period is one of incredible turbulence in Vietnam, much of it in open warfare between the Veit Minh and the French… which gradually turns into one of those wars where each team gets the backing of more powerful countries who don’t want to engage in open warfare with each other, but keep feeding supplies and assistance to the side they are backing.

There were a lot of things to take away from this book – the actual text of the book is over 700 pages – but I think maybe the thing that will stay with me the most is the incredible arrogance of America.  While I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself an isolationist – I think trade and immigration and all of that good stuff is very important – I’m not a huge fan of this concept of America being the police force of the world, especially when that country hasn’t really asked for our help at all.  Under the guise of “protecting democracy,” America helped drag out decades of warfare in a country that basically just wanted to be left alone.

To my mind, Logevall does a pretty decent job of not taking sides.  He points out inconsistencies from all different perspectives, and doesn’t really come at his topic with a good guy/bad guy message.  It’s one of the few books I’ve ever read where my sympathy throughout almost the entire narrative was actually with the Communists.  Especially in the beginning, Ho Chi Minh’s message was much more about simply being free of the colonial rule of France than it was about instating a Communist government (emphasized by the constant critique of his “Communist credentials” by Moscow and later Beijing).  But because Ho had adopted his Communist beliefs, the Western powers – especially the US – were incredibly leery of him and the government he formed.

The whole situation in Vietnam was really rather fascinating because the entire theater was just a bad size for the Vietnamese.  It was too large of a territory for everyone to just let whatever happen, but too small to really be all that large of a priority.  Consequently, throughout the 1940’s and 50’s and into the 60’s, Vietnam was really more of a pawn than anything else.

In historical terms, it was a monumental decision by Truman [to side with France rather than the Viet Menh], and like so many that U.S. presidents would make in the decades to come, it had little to do with Vietnam herself – it was all about American priorities on the world stage.  France had made her intentions clear, and the administration did not dare defy a European ally that it deemed crucial to world order…

Another great tragedy of the whole situation was that various countries and governments rather backed themselves into corners by making sweeping anti-Communist statements, and then having to back them up, no matter what.  It meant that there could be no compromise, no settlement, with the Viet Menh government.  It also meant that, despite his incredible reluctance to do so, Ho was eventually forced to turn to the Chinese for assistance.  This, in turn, convinced the Western powers that “losing” Vietnam really did mean that the Communists would continue their march throughout Asia, meaning that they were even LESS likely to compromise or work with the Viet Mihn than they were before.

In the beginning, it seemed obvious that the French would easily best the Vietnamese.  After all, they had superior numbers and training.  However, as so often throughout history, if a governing force doesn’t have the submission and support of the people, it is quite difficult to control a territory.  While many Vietnamese were not particularly interested in becoming Communists, almost all of them were very interested in being rid of France.  As guerrilla warfare spread throughout Indochina, France’s position looked more and more difficult.

The pervasive anti-French animus enabled Viet Minh forces to assemble undetected, to withdraw when the enemy appeared in force, to hide their weapons, to expand their ranks, and to gather excellent intelligence concerning the strength, the maneuvers, and often even the plans of the French.  And when the enemy, unable to determine who was a fighter and who was not, reacted to the guerrilla attacks by killing civilians, the main effect was to deepen the hatred for the French and to bring new guerrillas into the fold.

And so France and Vietnam became locked in a terrible spiral.  Every time the French thought about withdrawing, the other Western powers – especially the US – would pressure them to stay because if Vietnam fell, so would all of Asia!  Meanwhile, the majority of Vietnamese really just wanted to be left alone.

The absolute terror inspired by Communist governments at the time is honestly hard for me to grasp.  I’m not completely sure why Communists are supposed to be worse dictators than any other dictators.  But most Western powers were convinced at the time that all Communists were seeded by Moscow and that all were part of the Russian plan to overthrow…  well, the world, I guess.

The question … of whether Ho Chi Minh was as much a “nationalist as a Communist is irrelevant.  All Stalinists in colonial areas are nationalist,” [said Dean Acheson, Secretary of State].

To acknowledge the possibility of national Communism was to acknowledge that the world was a complex place, and this Acheson and Truman and other American leaders were loath to do.  If, for example, Yugoslav leader Josip Borz Tito (whose break with Moscow had become public the previous year) really was a nationalist as well as a Communist, and if Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh were the same, then the world was altogether more complicated than most Americans – including educated, erudite ones like Acheson – preferred to believe.  It was far easier to see these leaders as mere pawns of a hyperpowerful superstate emanating from the Kremlin – regardless of what the evidence showed.

And so, as so often happens with propaganda from any country, the situation in Vietnam was reduced to a simple formula of Good Guys and Bad Guys.  The Bad Guys were obviously the Communists, because they were Communists.  For a while, the real problem was identifying the Good Guys, as America is anti-colonizing almost as much as it is anti-Communists.  Finally, France and the US hit on a compromise – they found another Vietnamese guy and set him up as an alternative nationalist government… controlled, basically, by the French.

There is a desperate tragedy to the story in Embers of War.  It is a story of stubborn, powerful governments, locked into positions that allow no compromise.  It’s a story of a starving, poverty-stricken populace simply trying to stay alive.  It’s the story of a committed nationalist who was enough of an idealist of sign onto the Communist bandwagon and doom himself to fighting against the government powers he most admired.   And it’s the story of a long, drawn out war that was basically pointless.

Logevall’s focus is mostly on the American perspective, and tracing the path of American involvement in the conflict, which I can’t complain about since it’s his stated purpose.  However, I would greatly have enjoyed hearing more about the “regular” people in Vietnam and what their everyday life looked like during this time.  There were also points where pages and pages were spent in diplomatic meets that were going no where, when I was actually more interested in what was happening on the battlefield.  Still, on the whole this book was really excellent reading.  Despite having virtually no concept of what was happening in southeast Asia following World War II, I never felt lost or confused.

Next, I really need a book about the Vietnam War!  So if anyone has one to suggest, do let me know.  And if you’re interested in the background of that war, which is just as tragic as the war itself, do pick up Embers of War.

*I rather wish that fictional books adopted this method of including a subtitle for all their books.  I think it would really help when I’m trying to decide whether or not to read something.  I mean Little Women: A Tale of Four Sisters & Their Journey Into Adulthood is way more descriptive than just Little Women.