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Back To The Beginning - The Supposed Necessity of It All
By John Crandell (reviewer)
Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam
by Fredrick Logevall
Random House ( 2012)
It has been nearly a full decade since Fredrick Logevall's book Embers of War was published to instant acclaim and deservedly honored with his receiving the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2013. Presently, amidst news of the homeless, viruses, fake everything from Asteroid Trump, Buffalo, torched Sequoias, floods, and Uvalde, what can one say about such a magnificent book amidst the death of hope that is flung in our faces every day? Why care about or focus attention upon a major work that regards the gestation of a now-distant event, that which gave birth to the predominant era in our memories—the time which ought to have been the best part of our lives.
Save for the time of Germany's Third Reich, no other nation on Earth has ever possessed an anti-intellectual strain in its culture anywhere equal to that of the good 'ol US of A. And the subject of how the American nation found itself mired to its waist in the quagmire of southeast Asia is tied to that strain just as a destroyer with its anchor caught solid in a corpse such as Westmoreland's far down at the bottom of the Mindanao Deep. When the water runs shallow, certainty evaporates into exasperated wonderment as the ship of state plows into the headlands of fate. Steel gives way to granite and we're all still dealing with rust caused by so much political necessity. The preternatural necessity spawned by anti-communist (and anti-bad guy) ideology.
Logevall's work is both long and supernal. The Fall of An Empire and The Making of America's Vietnam is the subtitle. It is supported by a vast array of foreign and domestic sources. His end-notes largely serve to support the text rather than extend the discussion. Thus, no need for a bibliography. To course through his notes is an incisive ride with the Valkyries—against rather than for the insanity of war and its delusions. Again and again, while reading his work, one could feel as though they were standing in a red-lit darkroom, staring down into the pan of photo developer and the clarity of causative factors arises.
The cost of his nightly shelter in Paris must have been inordinate given the ten years sequence of events he traces which extends from the end of World War II to France's withdrawal from Cochin China following the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. A professor of history and international relations at Harvard, Logevall is now at work on a second volume of the life of John F. Kennedy and as well, contemplates producing a reflective work on the entirety of the Vietnam experience. Embers of War extends to the inauguration of Kennedy as president. Kennedy's amazingly contradictory positions regarding the war span the decade of the Fifties. What began in skepticism turned to pro-Diem propaganda thanks to necessity and a desire for higher office in a climate dominated by Joe McCarthy. The author's first volume on JFK is a stunning work of biography. The following volume could result in shock waves. Only three weeks separated assassinations—in Saigon and Dallas.
The author gives us ironic insights and visits to Cochin China by a major British novelist and three Kennedy siblings. Separately, they all would socialize with contacts on the rooftop terrace of Saigon's Majestic Hotel. Gunfire on the perimeter of Tan Son Nhut rang out as JFK, RFK, and the future spouse of Peter Lawford deplaned north of Saigon. That was in October of 1951, a year before JFK's first campaign for the Senate. He was provided with dismal analyses of France's situation by officials at the American legation as well as AP bureau chief Seymour Topping. The latter described a more dire situation and advised that Ho Chi Minh had captured the heart of the Vietnamese nationalist movement. Then Congressman Kennedy returned to Washington and kept his mouth shut, until after the election of Eisenhower to the presidency and his election to the upper house on Capitol Hill. In Saigon, he had also met with France's high commissioner, General Jean De Tassigny who was responsible for both military and government affairs in the French colony. Both Tassigny and the chief American official became aggravated by Kennedy's incisive questioning. After a side trip to Hanoi, he wrote in his diary: "We are more and more becoming colonialists in the minds of the people," that poverty, disease, injustice, and inequality factored in the insurgency. But he would not stand in the well of the Senate and raise questions until after the presidential election of 1952. In a speech before Boston's Chamber of Commerce, he reported that Ho Chi Minh would win in a free election (which eventually became a mandate within the '54 Geneva Accords, the capstone to France's involvement in southeast Asia). One month following Kennedy's departure, General Tassigny sent a large contingent of his troops into a disastrous three-month battle in Hoa Binh province north of Hanoi. Meanwhile, he departed to return to Paris due to prostate cancer. Before expiring at Clinique Maillot and ever blind to his own dictatorial ways, he confided to a fellow general: "There is only one thing that upsets me—that I have never completely understood Indochina."
In the era of "who lost China?" with Joseph McCarthy bellowing lies on the floor of the Senate and Douglas MacArthur getting himself fired after having tripped Red Chinese forces into action on the Korean peninsula, Harry Truman retired from politics and the nation's voters elected Dwight Eisenhower. John Foster Dulles took office as secretary of state. And it would be his patrician arch-catholicism and the eternally ordinated mandate of necessity in American politics that would combine and set the United States on a path towards tragedy in the exotic land so admired by writer Graham Greene.
And it was Greene who initially took up residence on the city's waterfront in The Majestic, moved on to the nearby Continental Hotel, and then to an apartment on Rue Catinat expressing pro-French and anti-American sentiments at every step. And it was not American advisor Edward Lansdale he would use in picturing a naive CIA satrap in his 1955 novel The Quiet American. The book had already been published by the time of Lansdale's arrival. In reality, however, Lansdale was destined to reach the height of naivete in suggesting that Taiwanese foresters be imported and given arms to chase Viet Minh out of a strategic forested area of Tay Ninh province. As well, he proved to remain indifferent to the corrupt and repressive governance of the Diem brothers. He could never say enough in favor of dictator Ngo Dinh Diem attempting to prevent a coup in the wake of Buddhist bonzes immolating themselves as late as the summer of 1963. By then he'd become ensnared in Robert Kennedy and James Jesus Angleton's tracking of Lee Harvey Oswald and had been mainly involved in the infamous Operation Mongoose, the CIA's effort at terminating Fidel Castro. RFK had also kept a diary of the '51 visit to Vietnam. In it, he scribed "As it stands now we are becoming more and more involved in the war to a point where we can't back out. It doesn't seem to be a picture with a very bright future." That was written 32 months before Ho's army crushed the French at Dien Bien Phu.
Yet a formidable part of the work, an intricate presentation of negotiations in Geneva forms an exception. Logevall's specialization in international relations predominates here. Despite his clarity and wealth of insights, this portion of the text is a comparative burden to the reader's imagination. It is not equal to the dramatic turns of events of Ho Chi Minh and his chief military assistant. Political calculations in Paris, London, and Washington predominated as America took the reins of power in the wake of Vo Nguyen Giap's epic defeat of the French far west of Hanoi in June 1954. An intricate narrative of international jousting could never sustain one's attention as compared to the story of the indescribable vision, persistence, and courage of the Vietnamese protagonists. The fifth chapter titled The Warrior Monk is key to becoming enlightened as to Ho's sway over the peasantry, north, and south.
FDR's position regarding colonialism in general and France's resumption of same following the war in the Pacific is highly scrutinized. There is an anomalous January 1945 response by the White House (previously cited in these pages), that was uncovered by Neil Sheehan rejecting Ho Chi Minh's appeal to Roosevelt for American support in his effort against French intents. Other than this anomaly, Logevall cites repeated Roosevelt statements against both French and British colonialism near the end of his life. Logevall dug far more deep than did Sheehan in the latter's A Bright Shining Lie yet he sidestepped the contradiction seemingly in honor of the famous, now departed journalist. Upon publication of Logevall's work in 2012, Sheehan blurbed: "Logevall has gleaned from American, French, and Vietnamese sources a splendid account of France's nine-year war in Indochina and the story of how the American statesmen of the period allowed this country to be drawn into the quagmire." Embers of War remains in print and is available in paperback via Amazon.
John Crandell once clerked and carried mail in the Central Highlands for the 4th Infantry.