APPRECIATION: 'Embers of War,' a Great Vietnam War Book that Should be a Classic

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Embers of War by Frederik Logevall, the sad but sobering book that won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in history, is an intricate study of how the Vietnam War came to be.  To a remarkable degree it is a book starring its sources.  They are many and the men involved are familiar and not entirely admirable mid-twentieth notables.  Logevall, with a storyteller’s voice, takes us step by fatal step from the end of World War II through the ravages of the Vietnam War.

That war has a long history.  In 1919 Paris,  a slight young man rented a morning coat to be properly dressed to make a diplomatic call.  That man was Ho Chi Minh, and he intended to make a plea to Woodrow Wilson, the American president. Wilson was, after all, in town redrawing the global map after World War I, claiming to be in favor of self-rule for citizens who had been colonists of former empires.   Encouraged, Ho carried a petition, “Demands of the Vietnamese People” calling for just such self-rule.  Wilson did not receive him.

Embers of War is the story of just such diplomatic missteps leading to war.  At the close of World War II, two great countries, France and the United States were thwarting the birth of a third, Vietnam.  Led by General de Gaulle, France sought to resume its empire and reclaim its treasure Vietnam.  The people of Vietnam were already fighting for their freedom.  Would America support their liberation or assist a wartime ally France.? Our Parisian caller, Ho Chi Minh, who was leading the insurgency, hoped not.  He expected better luck with the present American president, Franklin Roosevelt, who, with Winston Churchill, had signed the Atlantic Charter proclaiming, “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they might live.” Surely, he thought, America would be sympathetic.

Unfortunately for Ho, Roosevelt died before the war ended.  His successor, Harry Truman, alarmed by the thought of communism spreading to southeast Asia, favored a western coalition to back France.  The communist Vietnamese in the north of the country saw their army, Viet Minh, to be an army of liberation.

The French had already sent troops to subdue the Vietnamese soldiers in the north led by Vo Nguyen Giap.  Logevall, a surprisingly adroit military historian, ranks Giap “with the finest military leaders of modern history – with Wellington, Grant, Lee and Rommel.”  This first Vietnam war lasted from 1946-1954 ending only when the Vietnamese won the crucial battle of Dien Bien Phu halfway up the long narrow string of the peninsula that was Vietnam. The French thought they had lured the Minh into the trap of fortified hills.  The reverse took place.   

This determinative battle lost, a new French premier, Pierre Mendes France, met fellow western leaders, the United Kingdom’s Anthony Eden and our Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to find a way to stop Gial from taking the whole of Vietnam.  We were deeply, inexorably enmeshed in Vietnam and supported Ngo Dinh Diem, the anti-communist leader in Saigon in the south hoping his troops would best Giap’s in the north.  They did not.   Dwight Eisenhower, now the president, and John Foster Dulles his Secretary of State, were forced to act in what became increasingly desperate moves.  With a curious use of the word, Dulles told Congregational leaders that by taking “responsibility” for the war he was “salvaging something.”  He vowed to “fight subversion within all the strength we have.” 

This Logevall concludes was “a monumental decision,” as important as any made by any administration on Indochina, from Franklin Roosevelt to Gerald Ford.  Getting to this point, the whole sorry story has no single villain — but, rather, many.  When confronting Eisenhower loyalists, who have tried to exonerate him from responsibility for the problems in Vietnam, Logevall is not afraid to go where his research and judgment takes him: “Taken as a whole Eisenhower’s statements and action [in the spring of 1954] suggest a man fully prepared to intervene with force.” The reader now knows where we are going.

Perhaps it is not needed, but there is little in Embers of War on the increasing opposition to the war on the American home front.  My own opposition was cemented by a lecture at Yale in 1966 by Professor Bernard Fall, the international French historian at Howard University, who had written widely and well opposing the war.  He returned to Vietnam and was accompanying a U.S Marine battalion when he was killed in 1967.

Logevall ends his study with the huge deployment of American troops in what is called the Second Indochina War, our Vietnam War.  He does not close his book with a dramatic summation, but with a simple story.  Two American advisors are at dinner a bit north of Saigon.  One soldier, Chester Ovnand, had just finished and mailed a letter to his wife. The other, Dale Buis, was showing pictures of his three young sons. Outside a Vietnamese assailant creeps up on the two and shoots them.   Ovnand and Buis were the first of more than 58,000 Americans etched into that stark and moving granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

William S. McFeely won the Pulitzer Prize for Grant, his biography of Ulysses S. Grant. He retired as the Abraham Baldwin Professor of the Humanities at the University of Georgia.