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Replacing France: The Origins of the American Intervention in Vietnam

by Kathryn C. Statler. The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2007, hardcover $45.

If you’re curious about how we got into the mess that was Vietnam, Kathryn C. Statler has answers in Replacing France: The Origins of the American Intervention in Vietnam. In this book, we find France struggling to play a strong military role in the emerging European Defence Community (EDC) even as its resources were being drained in the attempt to hold on to its colonies in Indochina. The United States had its own dilemma: It needed France to anchor the EDC and hoped that the French could defeat the Viet Minh to pave the way for Vietnamese independence. Yet the Ameri cans could not offer much military support without appearing to support colonialism.

The Korean War gave American policymakers a new frame of reference for the war in Indochina—suddenly it was less a colonial war than a struggle against yet another Communist “proxy.” Thus, military aid began to flow to the French, along with a highly subversive flow of nonmilitary aid and advisers to the nascent South Vietnamese regime, undercutting French efforts to control what was left of Indochina after the disaster of Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva peace accords.

What doesn’t emerge from the impressive array of source documents Statler marshals in her book is any sense that American officials had carefully analyzed Ho Chi Minh’s goals and the Viet Minh’s formidable political/military capabilities. Instead there was blithe assurance that the United States could replace France as patron of the new independent state in South Vietnam and build democratic institutions along with a military establishment that would hold its own against North Vietnam.

Statler delivers a fairly clear and concise narrative, but annoyingly tosses in references to obscure governmental entities alleged to have played major policy roles, such as the Psychological Strategy Board and the Operations Coordinating Board, without putting them into their bureaucratic context. Fortunately, the copious endnotes gallop to the rescue, earning this volume a place on any Vietnam bookshelf.


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