Friday, October 12, 2012

What We're Reading: New History

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

This is an original and monumental work of history that no doubt will be in contention when awards are considered for the best history book of the year. Embers of War differs from other books on the Vietnam War in that it concerns itself with the history of the conflict in Indochina before the United States made a commitment to send ground troops and greatly expanded its role in the conflict following Lyndon Johnson’s election in 1964.

Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam were French colonies before World War II and had been since late in the 19th Century. During the war the Japanese took control of the colonies, but after the war the Truman administration and victorious Allies were willing to let France reclaim its colonies in Indochina. Franklin Roosevelt, a staunch anti-colonialist, may very well have pursued a different policy had he lived. The decision to allow France to reclaim a part of its pre-war empire was the first step in what would be a long thirty- year conflict for Vietnam. Vietnamese nationalist groups, particularly the Viet Minh under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, saw the end of Japanese occupation as an opportunity to seek independence for Vietnam, and at the end of 1945 the conflict to free Vietnam from French rule began as the French attempted to reestablish their control in the country. France saw the reestablishment of its colonial empire as a matter of national pride and as a national necessity if it were to maintain its role in the world as a great power, a position that had been much damaged by what the international community saw as its ignominiously swift collapse against the Nazis. Before the war, France had been able to control most of Indochina with as few as 12,000 regular troops. In the face of virulent Vietnamese nationalist sentiment however, this was not going to be possible, and the war quickly developed into a situation where the French brought into the conflict ever larger numbers of troops and sought military assistance in the form of munitions, military vehicles, and aircraft from the United States.

France’s war in Vietnam lasted from 1945-1954. The French had some successes against the Viet Minh and other nationalist groups, particularly in situations where they could bring to bear their superior fire power in conventional military engagements, but the Viet Minh soon became careful to avoid these kinds of battles until it could build its army to the point that it had some chance of winning them. They concentrated their military efforts on consolidating their control in the Vietnamese countryside, and were able to establish a strong presence in particular enclaves throughout Vietnam. They organized peasants, built a formidable army with Chinese help, and engaged in guerilla attacks against the French on the fringes of the major urban areas. French control became increasingly limited to Hanoi, its harbor of Haiphong, and Saigon in the south.

The French had little, and increasingly less, support in the countryside, where the majority of Vietnamese lived. Their reluctance to promise full independence to Vietnam caused them to lose what those writing later on the American phase of the war would describe as the “hearts and minds” of the people. The Viet Minh became the leading nationalist alternative to French colonial rule, and were very popular throughout Vietnam. In 1954, French commanders sought to engage and defeat the Viet Minh army in a conventional military encounter in northwest Vietnam near Laos at Dien Bien Phu. The idea was to assert French military command in the area through the establishment of an unassailable garrison at Dien Bien Phu, one that could be strong enough to withstand any Viet Minh assault and could be supplied and maintained thanks to French air superiority. The Viet Minh were able to assemble a huge armed force in the area, but more importantly, were able to transport to Dien Bien Phu conventional artillery that the French never expected they could bring to the battle in this remote area. The French commanders had seriously underestimated the Viet Minh, whose preparation was indeed implausible and astonishing. Their diplomatic attempts to get U.S. support to help save the isolated French garrison at Dien Bien Phu failed. The French defeat occurred during an international conference in Geneva of the major powers, and it strengthened the hand of the Viet Minh and their mentors, the Chinese, as the conference turned to the issue of trying to resolve the ongoing conflict in Indochina. The terms of the settlement largely put in motion the French exit from Indochina, and opened the door to an increasing U.S. involvement in the area. Few familiar with the American conflict in Vietnam and its terrible cost in lives realize that France lost over 110,000 soldiers in its war in Vietnam.

Of course, the most interesting part of this narrative for Americans is the purpose and nature of the American role as these events unfolded, and how the United States came to take on a growing role in Vietnam after the French left. Logevall traces how what began as an essentially nationalist war against an occupying colonial power developed into an international front in the Cold War as Vietnam came to be seen by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and the Eisenhower administration as a strategically important confrontation against international Communism, a domino that could not be left to fall without entailing the loss of all Indochina. The Eisenhower administration had supplied arms to the French, but remained critical of French conduct of the war. Still, it encouraged France to carry on the battle, and it appears from the record that Eisenhower was ready to intercede during the Dien Bien Phu crisis if he could have got the Congressional support he wanted and the participation of American allies.

After the Korean conflict Congressional leaders were reluctant to support American intervention in Vietnam, but it seemed that they would go along if Dulles could get international support, especially that of Great Britain and members of the British Commonwealth, Australia and New Zealand. The British did not, however, share the American view of the importance of the Vietnam conflict in international affairs, and a major diplomatic rift opened up between the two countries. At the Geneva conference the British worked with the Soviets, French, and Chinese to facilitate an end to the conflict in Vietnam. The United States stood aside, hoped the negotiations would fail, and opposed the likely settlement it saw looming.

The settlement called for temporary zones of military separation of forces in Vietnam. These were not intended to be a political division of the country. It called for nationwide elections within two years to settle the leadership and government of Vietnam. The United States never supported this plan, had no intention of working for its implementation, and began to try to recruit and support a non-Communist national government in what became South Vietnam. It believed it could do this where the French had failed because it came to the Vietnam conflict without the unpopular legacy of having been a colonial power there. It threw its support behind Ngo Dinh Diem, who in effect overthrew the French-sponsored Vietnamese government, and began sending large shipments of arms and advisors to Vietnam, training and building a Vietnamese army, and providing substantial economic aid. John Kennedy continued to escalate U.S. involvement. It is unknown if he would have made the commitment of a much expanded U.S. role, including ground forces, that Johnson made after his assassination.

This book is not so much a military history as a political and diplomatic history of the events that preceded U.S. management of the Vietnam War, and certainly the most impressive achievement of this book is the reconstruction of the international diplomatic history that accompanied the conflict. It is a remarkable achievement, and gives readers a unique insight into the diplomacy of the era. The portrait Logevall gives us is one of a harsh world where individual countries pursue their own self-interest and foreign policy objectives without much regard for the smaller players. The Viet Minh certainly were caught in the international crossfire and as an adversary had to compromise, time and again, much more than their victory on the field might have otherwise warranted. No one came to their aid when it came to upholding the Geneva accords. Certainly the United States failed to learn some lessons from the French experience in Vietnam, particularly as they relate to military history, either overlooking them or thinking that it had the ability to address certain problems more effectively than had the French.

But this is not a story of French errors redux. Logevall’s demonstration of what might be called the inertia of foreign policy commitments is the pedagogical theme of Embers of War, a case study in just how difficult it seems to be to reevaluate the rationale for a particular policy, accept military realities, or change a course of action. This theme is explored in reference to both French and American domestic politics and international politics. He points out situations where opportunities for a reassessment of policy were presented and major players didn’t see them or were unable to respond. In this sense, the long story of Vietnam, which unfolded during the Cold War years, serves as a synecdoche of that international conflict. The United States policy towards Vietnam was not primarily informed by an objective view of the efficacy of military action or an optimistic view of the ability to gain popular support among the Vietnamese (about which both the military and CIA were pessimistic) but more by international politics and domestic political concerns. In the wake of the successful Chinese revolution and the stand-off in Korea, Republicans and Democrats competed with each other to be identified as the most virulent anti-Communist party. Victory in Vietnam became a domestic and international political necessity rather than a strategic one. Thus President Eisenhower, who as a soldier saw Vietnam as a place that, as he commented would “absorb our troops by divisions,” began a commitment to halting in Vietnam what was seen as the march of a monolithic international Communism. His successors found it hard to reevaluate the policy or disturb the national consensus without significant political cost. There followed a prolonged disjunction between goals and the ability to achieve those ends.

It has become axiomatic to refer to the American conflict in Vietnam as a tragedy. There is a tendency as well these days to look at the persistent and long road of the Viet Minh which finally resulted in victory and the liberation of Vietnam as heroic. But that victory came at a terrible cost to the Vietnamese people. Militarily it was largely a contest where a weaker adversary made up for the deficit in armaments and technology by expending a larger number of lives. In addition many civilians were killed during the 30 years of conflict with the French and Americans. Several million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians lost their lives. It is hard to view the willingness to accept those costs, whatever the political objectives, as effective leadership. But losses are always used by each side in a conflict and become part of the argument for sustaining a war. And suffering, who can be painted as causing it and who can be identified as relieving it, is part of the deliberate polarization, the choosing of sides that is inevitable in war.

Logevall writes that one Viet Minh officer confided to a French counterpart, that “he had no enemy more dangerous than a doctor who treated the villagers without regard to their political allegiance.” That says much about not only the war in Vietnam, but the nature of war itself. Embers of War tells an illuminating and ultimately sad story. It ought to make us wiser. The text is accompanied by a wonderful selection of period photographs.

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