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Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, by Fredrik Logevall, Random House, New York, 2012, $40

For many years Bernard B. Fall’s books Street Without Joy (1961) and Hell in a Very Small Place (1966) were considered the definitive histories of France’s 1946–54 war in Vietnam. In recent years several authors have re-examined this critical period that set the stage for America’s own long involvement in Vietnam. Do we really need such books? Can anyone actually tell us more than Fall has already told us? The answer is yes.

Fall essentially wrote the military history of France’s war in Vietnam—exactly what he intended to do. He remains unsurpassed in analyzing the tactical, operational and battlefield leadership aspects of the various actions and operations. More recent studies have sought to paint a broader and more comprehensive picture of that complex war, fitting it into the chaotic and confused world of the early Cold War and the conflicting and often divergent objectives of the major powers of the time (some, like China, were newly emerging; others, like France, were rapidly declining). This is what Fredrik Logevall accomplishes admirably with Embers of War.

The author seeks to transport the reader to the Indochina of the first decade following World War II through the distorted lens of the then-present, through which the major players and decision makers of the time viewed their respective worlds. The author does not ignore the military aspects and the battlefield realities. To his credit, he considers these essential elements of the story. But within the broader context of the Cold War he argues clearly that France, Britain and the United States were operating at cross-purposes from the end of World War II through 1954.

France and Britain perceived America as a loose cannon on the world stage, hell-bent on stripping its primary World War II allies of their colonial empires. The French especially could not understand the position of the Eisenhower administration that it was acceptable to negotiate directly with the communists in Korea but not with the Viet Minh in Vietnam. U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles believed France and Britain only wanted to retain their empires but were soft on stopping the spread of “monolithic” communism. And nobody, especially not Russia or China, understood the narrow path between nationalism and communism Ho Chi Minh was negotiating.

The French phase of the Vietnam conflict had wider implications than even the later American phase. The entire period left lingering tensions and animosities among the Western Allies that later erupted in other spheres. Logevall’s account makes it easier to understand how America pulled the rug out from under Britain and France during the Suez Crisis in 1956, and why de Gaulle kicked NATO out of France in 1965.

Vietnam, like all wars, will not come into proper focus until long after the participants at all levels are gone. In the meantime, books like Embers of War are vital contributions to the ongoing analysis.

—David T. Zabecki