Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam, by Fredrik Logevall

Michael Finch

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    This work presents a narrative of transition which, in the words of the author, aims to tell 'the story of one power's demise in Indochina and the arrival of another'. Since the late 1990s Fredrik Logevall has developed an expertise in the conflicts of post-Second World War Vietnam, and while his previous works have tended to focus on US involvement in the origins of America's war, he has always been concerned to situate such involvement in its proper international context. The same care exhibited here ensures that this book offers much more than an account of increasing American involvement. Indeed, the real strength of the work is to be found in the history of the First Indochina War which lies at its core. Focusing most heavily on diplomatic, political and military aspects, Logevall presents a quarter of a century of conflict through an international lens, incorporating not only the Vietnamese, French and American perspectives, but the Soviet, Chinese and British as well. The prologue puts the Vietnamese at the heart of the story, recounting the physical and mental journey by which Nguyen Ai Quoc became Ho Chi Minh, developing complex attitudes towards France, the USA and the Soviet Union along the way. The subsequent twenty-seven chapters are spread over six sections, which divide the conflict into logical phases. Part One locates the immediate roots of the conflict in the fall of France in 1940 and its consequences for French rule in Indochina. The eventual Japanese take-over presented an opportunity for the Viet Minh to assert their legitimacy; they declared national independence in 1945—only for the French then to reassert their weakened authority. The slide into colonial conflict in the second half of the 1940s, the focus of Part Two, was by no means straightforward, with Franco-Viet Minh talks extending into 1945-6. By late 1946, however, events on the ground were exposing the hollow nature of such talks, and the Viet Minh's guerrilla war began in earnest. Part Three focuses on escalation from 1949 onwards, as the imperial conflict became enmeshed within the wider Cold War. This was the period during which the war became truly internationalised, as the French-engineered 'hands-off' policy previously observed by the major powers disintegrated in the face of new geo-strategic realities in Asia. Communist victory in China had profound repercussions. For the Viet Minh it meant a new political ally, albeit one to be wary of, and a secured supply-line. The Western powers, meanwhile, had to wrestle with the implications of a neighbour who quickly displayed in Korea a willingness to undertake armed intervention. The result was military escalation with great power support on both sides. The French effort to engineer a decisive conclusion to the war, brought about under no small amount of pressure from the Eisenhower administration, is the concern of Part Four. Here Logevall weaves between action on the ground at Dien Bien Phu and events in Berlin, Paris and Geneva, emphasising how the military situation conditioned diplomatic manœuvres and visions of settlements, while at the same time illustrating the Eisenhower administration's thoughts about direct military intervention. That did not come to pass, although, as the penultimate part shows, it was an idea that Georges Bidault and John Foster Dulles clung to under the guise of an internationalised war until the Australians and New Zealanders (the preferred partners in lieu of the unco-operative British) decisively ruled themselves out. Nevertheless, the partition peace that followed, carried through on the political reputation of Pierre Mendès France, could hardly be described as an outright defeat for the West: the Viet Minh were themselves subject to a Sino-Soviet squeeze, and guided towards a settlement that fell short of their ambitions. The final part runs through the consequences of that settlement: rapid French withdrawal, unobserved elections, increasing American involv
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)247-249
    JournalThe English Historical Review
    Issue number536
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


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