Fredrick Logevall won the 2013 Pulitzer for Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. Today America continues to hold a quiet, deep divide when looking inward to find the truth regarding our long nightmare in Vietnam.
Logevall traces America’s involvement to Paris at the end of World War I. A young Nguyen Ai Quoc sought support at the June 1919 Paris Peace Conference from US President Wilson. Quoc carried a declaration addressing a free Vietnam. He never met with Wilson. At the conclusion of the conference Nguyen Ai Quoc, translated to mean “He Who Loves his Country” changed his name to Ho Chi Minh.
Astounding that in 1919 a young revolutionary could patiently wait 50 years for his opportunity to bring independence to Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh would become (much to our regret) one of the most famous revolutionaries in history.
He led his country to defeat two western powers in a devastating war that lasted over 30 years. His cause was a war of independence against the French and then the Americans.
Interesting to learn how well Ho Chi Minh understood America. He lived in Boston and New York City. He worked as a cook, a baker and later a production line manager for General Motors before returning to Europe.
Embers of War beautifully illustrates how the US State Department shifted policy from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Harry S. Truman. It was only strengthened under Eisenhower. It is still difficult to imagine the level of initial support in men, money and weapons we gave to support Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh against French colonial rule after World War II. It is a stark wake up to read how CIA advisors met with Ho Chi Minh and our US Army units training his troops.
So exactly how does an agrarian society defeat the western armies of France and America? Remember US Air Force General Curtis LeMay‘s famous quote “We’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.”? Today we understand most of Vietnam was still in the stone age — so the bombing never had its intended goal to force surrender. Logevell’s approach: Southeast Asia’s battlefields (during the monsoon season) were similar to Passchendale in 1917. Viet Minh General Võ Nguyên Giáp suffered heavy losses confronting French or American troops on large battlefields. Successful guerrilla warfare tactics over a 25 year period would indeed frustrate and defeat their western enemies.
Embers of War documents how President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to see a free and independent Vietnam by forcing France off the world stage. And therein lies the rub:
“Truman had none of FDR’s personal interest in French Indochina’s future, and his administration from the start focused its energies on the pressing tasks of securing the victory over the reeling Germans and delivering a knockout blow to Japan. Precisely for those reasons, however, astute observers quickly saw a change in Washington’s position on what ought to happen in postwar Indochina. Truman probably knew little or nothing of Roosevelt’s trusteeship scheme, and neither he nor his top foreign policy aide, James F. Byrnes, the former Supreme Court justice and director of war mobilization, gave much thought to the broader issue of colonial nationalism. Sensing an opening, pro-French voices in the State Department immediately pushed for a reevaluation of policy toward Indochina. On the day following Roosevelt’s death, the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee, the interagency forerunner to the National Security Council, took up the matter with the aim of making a recommendation to the new president.”
After Roosevelt’s death Secretary of State Dean Acheson and many imperial leaning hawks in both the Department of State and the White House flipped US policy away from Ho Chi Minh’s war for independence and simply turned him into a communist. We needed French support in Europe with a divided Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Acheson made sure Britain, France and America would back Boa Dai and Ngo Dinh Diem. John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under Eisenhower continued driving America’s support for France against the Viet Minh.
Clearly today we now know it was Acheson who forever shifted our role in Vietnam. It was his loyalty to white European empires that sealed our fate in Vietnam. Embers of War shows a complex series of negotiations and fractured relationships between the US, France and Britain contributed significantly to French losses especially at Dien Bien Phu. The result of failed statesmanship also handicapping America’s entry supporting Ngo Dinh Diem.
One of the key issues that surfaces is the tension surrounding post World War II relationships between western governments as their eyes were focused on the division of Germany and thus letting colonial empries re-emerge after defeating the Axis powers in the pacific. This war theatre was all about colonial empires. This failure is key to the French surrender at Dien Bien Phu.
As the French realized their strategy at Dien Bien Phu backfired and faced the loss of thousands of men in the opening days of the siege Paris asked Washington for atomic weapons to eliminate North Vietnamese battalions surrounding the garrison. Remarkable how delays and fractured relationships resulted in such great losses for France.
Yet again Embers of War reminds us that for all Parisians concerned about the welfare of the garrison a majority of soldiers were not French. An aging colonial empire would not permit their own sons to serve in Indo-China. The colonial French Union permitted France under their empire to place soldiers from Laos, Cambodia, Tunisia, French Guinea and Morocco at Dien Bien Phu. As the battle preparations were inching closer a stunning 3,000 to 4,000 Moroccan troops deserted their posts and escaped into the jungle. So much for loyalty to the Empire.
Yet Embers of War is able to reveal how both China and the Soviet Union did not fully supporting Ho Chi Minh’s efforts. After 40 years Logevall documents how Mao, Stalin and Khrushchev openly questioned Ho Chi Minh’s true communist intentions in the 1950s. Logevall shows how distrustful both China and the Soviet Union were: advising Ho Chi Minh against escalating a war against America. It’s rather surprising to see how Acheson radically altered America’s position in Asia against this backdrop.
Embers of War also brings the stories of two writers that made a significant impact with their works. Graham Green wrote his famous book The Quiet American. Bernard Fall was a respected journalist and professor writing highly respected books how America found itself in Vietnam. Bernard Fall was killed while serving with 1st Battalion 9th Marines on Operation Chinook II.
One fact that I was unaware of was the use of napalm first dropped on Berlin in March 1944 during the late stages of World War II. I did not realize how heavily the French relied upon napalm bombing in the 1950s in Vietnam. The first use by France resulted in horrific losses for the Viet Minh. Today we know how truly frightened Viet Minh soldiers were when confronting the psychological impact of napalm bombing. It was American television that made the horror known to the world.