Fredrik Logevall’s The Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the making of America’s Vietnam takes Vietnam’s struggle for independence to its very beginning and carries it through the beginning of America’s “real” involvement in the war. It is clearly written and written in great detail. Logevall backs up his book with eighty-three pages of bibliography, roughly one page for every ten written.
At the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, a young Vietnamese man in a rented morning coat comes to meet Woodrow Wilson and give him a letter. The letter is due almost entirely with Wilson, his Fourteen Points and his criticism of colonial empires. Ho Chi Minh was that man and hoped Wilson would help his country gain independence. Ho Chi Minh would leave disappointed never meeting Wilson or receiving a reply to his letter.
Jump to the end of World War II, China is the occupying country supervising the removal of the Japanese and keeping the peace. With the Japanese gone, Ho Chi Minh believes Vietnam is liberated and works to form a government. He gives speeches and quotes the Declaration of Independence. FDR as president did not support empires. He remained quiet about it to Churchill, but openly voiced how France could not support an empire. In other words France as a power was finished. However, it was Truman who was president after the war and Ho Chi Minh’s independent Vietnam was ignored by France and England. Marshall Plan dollars allowed France to start sending troops back to Vietnam. Truman even allowed French troops to be transferred on American ships.
Ho Chi Minh called for free elections and land reform; he won the elections, but it matters little. The Chinese broker a peace that requires France to recognize the Republic of Vietnam and Vietnam to allow 25,000 French troops for a five year period. The French troops were replacing the Chinese troops. Ho Chi Minh travels to France looking for support. He is seen as a simple and genuine man although he admits to being a communist he says Vietnam is not ready for communism, just independence. He gains little support in France even from the socialists.
America is not too concerned about Vietnam. It is still seen as a defeated France trying to desperately to cling to its past. Truman is more concerned with Korea and the political fallout from the war. When Eisenhower is elected France asks for support and Eisenhower demands that there be a plan before any aid is given. This is also where things begin to change. Vietnam is not about France wanting to keep its empire, its about communism. The early development of the Domino Theory begins. If Vietnam falls, Thailand then India falls to communism. Suddenly America’s opinion change. Communism changes the entire viewpoint.
Although the book primarily is about France’s handling of Vietnam, it does show the very gradual but growing U.S. involvement in the war. From denying France its empire, to aid, to Americans directly assisting the French, to support for Diem, to fighting the war. The book also shows the frustration of Ho Chi Minh. For fifty-five years from believing in Wilson, to the Declaration of Independence speeches, to having independence taken away, to wanting fair and free elections, to having his communism doubted by the USSR and China (but not the US), Ho Chi Minh never lived to see his county free. France left defeated in Vietnam only to fight another war with its colonial holding Algeria.
Embers of War is an excellent history of the Vietnam conflict before the American commitment. It is a conflict that never should have happened and had so many opportunities to be resolved without violence. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in foreign affairs or history.