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A Q&A with Harvard history professor Fredrik Logevall on what might have been between Vietnam and the U.S. 

Fredrik Logevall, Laurence D. Belfer professor of international affairs at the Kennedy School and professor of history in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, has edited or written multiple books. Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for History. He is writing a biography of John F. Kennedy.

Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh attended the 1919 peace talks at Versailles. He hoped to meet President Woodrow Wilson, whose policy of political self-determination encouraged Ho and allies to try to get the French out of Indochina. What happened? Ho, 28, perhaps was naïve to think Wilson, who stood center stage at the conference, would see him, but believed he had a chance; he even rented a morning coat for the occasion. His hopes were in vain; he met no world leaders at all. Little did anyone know that Ho would become one of the century’s great revolutionaries, more recognizable to more people than the leaders who snubbed him at Versailles.

Harvard history professor Fredrik Logevall

During WWII, President Franklin Roosevelt argued that colonialism’s day was done, and that France should quit Indochina. What did he see that others didn’t? Roosevelt saw that the era of imperialism was ending. He wanted the United States to be on the right side of history. He blamed European colonialism as a factor in both world wars, and thought it stood to keep sparking global conflagrations. He was prepared to give colonial powers time to yield control, but, unlike some historians, I believe FDR went to his grave convinced the imperialist system was bankrupt and decolonization inevitable. Had Roosevelt lived into 1946 or beyond, he might have worked to keep France from reclaiming Indochina and might have succeeded. It’s an enduring “What If?”

President Ho Chi Minh, in white, signs a decree promulgating the Socialist Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Ho worked with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services during WWII to oust the Japanese from Indochina. It’s one of the ironies of this story that Ho Chi Minh, who before WWI lived in Boston and New York, had deep admiration for the United States and its institutions. At least until the late 1940s—well into the Vietnamese insurrection against France—he hoped that America would back his cause. OSS officers he met in 1945 liked him and supported him, which naturally encouraged his belief that he could gain American backing for Vietnamese independence.

But President Harry Truman tacitly endorsed returning Indochina to France. At war’s end, the United States was preeminent in the world, particularly East Asia. A different tilt by Truman could have altered the path leading to the Franco-Viet Minh War. But hindsight can distort. In late 1945, Truman had bigger fish to fry, especially in Europe. He could not have known that Indochina would become the scene of a major world struggle. It’s not entirely surprising that he would ignore Ho’s pleas.

Ho, a communist, stressed that he was a nationalist first. Did American officials ever consider embracing him and trying to nudge him to our side? Not really. From early on, mid-level American officials argued for precisely such a stance. This fact matters historically; it allows us to speak of genuine missed opportunities, of unrealized alternatives understood as such at the time. But these analysts never won support where it mattered—in the White House.

Did the Domino Theory hold water? The image of rows of dominos collapsing had undeniable drama—and little practical validity. President Dwight Eisenhower articulated the theory at an April 1954 press conference, but as early as the late 1940s American and British officials were musing that if Country A fell, increased communist pressure could topple Countries B, C, and D. Had anyone asked Eisenhower for an example of one nation’s fall to communism triggering a sequence of collapses, he would have come up empty; there was none. When China, the world’s most populous country, went communist in 1949, no nearby nation did likewise. In time, American planners recognized this. By the early 1960s the Domino Theory no longer was driving policy, even if officials found it advantageous to pretend otherwise for public consumption.

Britain did not share America’s fear of communist aggression. What about France? The French very skillfully framed their Indochina struggle as a vital Cold War battle rather than a colonial conflict. Given communist domination of Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary government and its backing after early 1950 by Mao’s China, France’s claim was plausible enough. Eisenhower and Dulles maintained this outlook, supporting the French effort and after France’s 1954 defeat fatefully deciding to build up and sustain South Vietnam’s newly created noncommunist regime.

Was that the moment of no return? I wouldn’t go that far. I argue in my book, Choosing War, that as late as winter 1965 President Lyndon Johnson had an opportunity—understood as such at the time, including by people high in government—to shift to a diplomatic plane and get the United States out of the conflict. Still, there’s no doubt that Eisenhower’s 1954 decision had fundamental importance. In effect he committed the United States to trying to thwart Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary forces, against whom the French had failed.

Decisions on Vietnam by Truman and Eisenhower boxed in Kennedy and Johnson. Yes—to a degree. Years of their predecessors’ talking up the dangers of the Vietnamese revolution, of describing dominoes falling, and of insisting that events in Indochina mattered greatly to American security hobbled both Kennedy and  Johnson—including in domestic political terms. But each had flexibility. The context was more fluid than many historical accounts suggest; those presidents could have taken other paths.

In his novel The Quiet American, Graham Greene portrays an American operative in 1950s Indochina as full of good intentions—“innocent” but “ignorant”—whose zeal has a sinister side. That portrait rankled Americans—but is it fair? That characterization is perhaps overdrawn, but does have tremendous power, which is why the novel bears reading and re-reading. I assign it to undergraduates all the time. Long before Vietnam became a large-scale American war, Greene keenly sensed the flow of events, as at the novel’s evocative opening, when the narrator sees “lamps burning where they had disembarked the new American planes.”

This article was published in the April 2019 issue of American History