The Vietnam War’s Tragic Prologue
WHEN FREDRIK Logevall published Choosing War in 1999, he joined the ranks of historians and journalists who have contributed essential books about America’s war in Indochina. Although many writers had covered the years from 1963-1965, Logevall’s approach was distinguished by his wide lens, revealing the war’s repercussions in foreign capitals beyond Washington and Hanoi—in London, Tokyo and Ottawa.
Now, with his huge and engrossing new study, Logevall surveys the less familiar ground of France’s attempt to assert control over its colonies in Indochina after World War II. Again, he writes with an ambitious sweep and an instinct for pertinent detail, and his facility in French allows him to include material seldom available from previous histories in English. If Logevall’s earlier work stood up well in a crowded field, Embers of War stands alone.
The John S. Knight Professor of International Relations at Cornell University, Logevall was born in Stockholm in 1963. He received his bachelor’s degree from Canada’s Simon Fraser University in 1986—eleven years after the collapse of the U.S. effort in South Vietnam—and a PhD from Yale in 1993. As a result, he brings to the subject a detachment that shields him from the surly revisionism of a few younger American-born academics.
These days, any history of Vietnam, no matter how scholarly and objective, will be read for what it teaches us now, a point seen in the title of Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons In Disaster. If the American Century began in Los Alamos on July 16, 1945, why did it come to its end thirty years later on the roof of the Saigon embassy?
Drawing lessons from history is a different exercise from posing counterfactuals—alternatives to what actually happened and the consequences of those imagined changes. Counterfactuals are sometimes dismissed as science fiction for historians. In contrast, lessons proceed from the legitimate “why” rather than a fanciful “what if.” Logevall has acknowledged that counterfactuals can be “tantalizing” and has occasionally indulged in them in his earlier writing on Vietnam. His latest volume, however, remains solidly anchored in the facts themselves.