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The First Vietnam War: Colonial Conflict and Cold War Crisis

Edited by Mark Atwood Lawrence and Fredrik Logevall. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2007, hardcover $45, softcover $22.95.

At the end of World War II, most European powers freed their colonial possessions in the Far East and elsewhere to become independent nations. The French, however, for a number of reasons, attempted to renew the prewar colonial status of Indochina. The Viet Minh, a Vietnamese nationalist political party that formed the Vietnamese National Liberation Front—including its leader, Ho Chi Minh, an alleged Communist—resisted, leading to the First Indochina War between the French and the Viet Minh. From 1950 forward, with the loss of China to communism and the Communist invasion of South Korea, the United States demonstrated renewed interest, and this war became simultaneously a colonial conflict and a Cold War confrontation. This First Indo – china War lasted until the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the signing of the Geneva Convention in 1954.

Mark Atwood Lawrence and Fredrik Logevall’s book The First Vietnam War is a synthesis of events in various countries that led up to and followed the First Vietnam War. It is a compilation of 14 essays whose authors attempt to describe various aspects of the war in various countries. As such, the book does not give a comprehensive or detailed analysis of that war, and therefore seems to be misnamed. It is more a description of various nations’ attitudes toward that war.

The first two essays examine scholarship about the war from historians, both Vietnamese and others, and do not examine the war itself. The next four explore how different nations responded as the French made clear after World War II their intention to restore colonial rule to Indochina. The Communist victory in China, along with the need for a cooperative France at the heart of the anti-Soviet bloc of Western nations, caused U.S. policymakers to set aside their doubts about French colonialism and to throw American support behind the French war effort in 1950. Other nations, glad to have the U.S. involved, looked to other interests.

Chapters seven and nine show that as reconfigured party politics occurred in the early years of the Fourth Republic and the productive capacity of Indochina became less important to the French economy, the French nation had begun to lose interest in Vietnam. From 1950 on, not only did Indochina not rank among French interests, but the war in Indochina and French rearmament in Europe worked at cross-purposes. Essay eight examines the evolution of Vietnamese Communist revolutionary strategy from its origins to the end of the war against the French. Essay 10 shows how French colonialism be – came intertwined with Cold War tensions after 1949 by the comparison of American actions in Korea with French actions in Indochina. Additional essays examine the final phases of the First Indochina War, draw an analysis of the Geneva Agreements and show national actions beyond 1954.

This book, then, does not concentrate largely on a historical narrative of the First Vietnam War. It shows how various nations saw their relations with the participants devolve during that First Vietnam War. It is difficult to evaluate the entire book, as it consists of essays of varying quality.

The editors must have assumed that the reader has some knowledge of the First Vietnam War, as the essays depict various stages of that war and how other nations responded to its participants. It does not in any sense give an historical evolution of the war and how it began and progressed. But it is difficult to criticize a collection of essays for not doing what you expected them to do, what the title suggests, and give a recount of the First Vietnam War.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.