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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mostly good, with some reservations, 11 Jan. 2014
This review is from: Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam (Hardcover)
(Disclaimer: the author of this review has no professional expertise on Vietnam. This review should not be construed as a statement about Vietnamese history. It is only a review of a book.)

It's pretty common for books about history to begin weakly, and improve as one reads them. One reason is that, initially, the author has to win the confidence of readers: allay their misgivings, distance the present work from past failures, and address popular fallacies. This is why books on controversial topics have to accommodate popular bromides at first, and later disabuse readers of them. This is a book about a war by a Western colonial power against a Communist movement/government, so sincere historians will always be dogged by Cold War flapdoodle. Logevall does do a tolerable job dispelling some of this flapdoodle, and perhaps that's the most one can ask for.

The first reservation is that everything is against Logevall, in so far as he wants to write an honest history. The Cold War is still very much with us. Writers are still vulnerable to allegations of Communist sympathies, no matter how faithful they are to the official US government narrative of history. This is not Logevall's fault, and no reasonable person can criticize him for trimming hard on behalf of the West in _Embers of War_. However, readers do need to read between the lines, ignoring the editorializing. A more important issue is the extreme focus on the West. This is a war that took place in Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos, yet the book has a focus on European actors and attitudes that borders on the obsessive. In this respect, Logevall is almost exactly the same as the great majority of writers.

Initially, the book reads like Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: a History (1983). There is slightly more attention paid to non-Communist groups of Vietnamese, such as the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, the VNQDD, and the Dai Viet (the last two are political groupings). But almost nothing is actually said about any of them. At most, they are mentioned on confusing lists of groups of Vietnamese political actors, as are the Binh Xuyen (1). In fact, there is only two appearances of the word "Buddhist" in the entire book, of one which is a mention of the future problems Pres. Diem faced from self-immolating Buddhist monks, and the other part of a four-word description of the Hoa Hao (p.110). For Logevall, the Vietnamese barely exist, except for a few great men like Ho Chi Minh. Even Le Duan or Hoang Van Hoan is barely mentioned, and with little indication of their future importance (2). The Asian role (i.e., Chinese plus Vietnamese) is considerably more detailed than in Stanley Karnow, but that's setting the bar awfully low--especially in 2012, when China deserves more attention. Mostly readers will be impressed, perhaps even exhausted, by the intrigue between Georges Bidault, Anthony Eden, and John Foster Dulles (all of which was rendered null and void by the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, then by the investiture of Pierre Mendes France as Premier of France); but they would be better served, editorially, if some more attention had been paid to the Vietnamese leadership.

Logevall's handling of the diplomatic and military history is deft and even moving. For example, he avoids some of the pitfalls of Karnow (see p.220), whose account of the Geneva Accords is simply unserious as scholarship. On the other hand, the Nationalist Chinese phase of the Conflict (when Chiang Kai-shek's army occupied Viet Nam north of the 16th parallel to enforce the Potsdam Agreement) is not very good at all, and initially tried my patience (3). Later, reflecting a lack of abiding interest in the Vietnamese part of his narrative, he has a facile comparison of "lovable" Ho Chi Minh (who was mainly a referee for Viet Minh debates on policy after 1945) versus "cold and calculating" Vo Nguyen Giap (a successful military commander). Understandably, he seeks to flesh out the decision makers, but here fails: correlating the choices made by Dulles or Eden to their respective personalities, as opposed to bureaucratic systems and demands, results in endless balancing acts. Eden probably was far more urbane and intelligent than Dulles, but Eden later invaded Egypt.

This would merely be a disagreement between Logevall and me over historical causality, except that Logevall really chews through a giant amount of the reader's time dithering between a portrait of so-and-so as thus-and-such (the facile portrait we've all heard many times!) and a more surprising soupçon of something-or-other. Since his personality-theories never hold any water at all, they predict nothing even as he adds layers of complexity to explain why they actually do. I've mentioned Dulles, although Logevall's nickel psychoanalysis of Ngo Dinh Diem is really even worse--no different from Karnow's.

I have some other quarrels with Logevall's use of evidence. For example, he apparently has a big quota of abuse he's required dish out to the Viet Minh, lest he be accused of being a comsymp for all the nice quotes he found about Ho Chi Minh (again, who ceased to actually lead the Viet Minh after 1946). Apparently there were a lot of people who liked Ho personally, including his French interlocutors--this must not be interpreted as approval of Communism generally. He describes a Viet Minh attack on the VNQDD (p.151) which is almost a word-for-word repetition of Martin Windrow's account (The Last Valley, 2004, p.89); Window is cited in an endnote, but what is funny is that the VM defeat of the VNQDD is a decidedly peripheral detail in Windrow's book -Windrow's account is unsourced. The other funny thing is that the sentence-long account of this crucial event (in Logevall) is incoherent (4). Logevall, to his credit, cites another source: Bui Diem, In the Jaws of History (1999), pp.46-49. But whereas Windrow and Logevall make it look as though the VM (under Giap) was engaged in rank treachery against a dissident political party, Diem's book reveals that the VNQDD, et al., were actually rival military factions with arms and political advisors from Nationalist China. Ironically enough, Diem himself was a member of the Dai Viet Quoc Dan Dang!

Also, the Viet Minh is blamed for political reprisals common to all postwar countries. For example, in the DRVN after 1954, about 15,000 people may have been killed as collaborators; during the land reform, moreover, the reallocation of lands sometimes was accompanied by deadly force. A lot of the killings attributed to the Viet Minh were actually perpetrated by their one-time ally, the Ba Duong faction of the Binh Xuyen: in the guerrilla war, the VM was not always able to control or sanction the actions of allies. In the DRVN, the summary executions were apparently a result of sudden victory (5).

While the strongest part of the book is between pp.260 and 600, it is still weak there because there is so little explanation of attitudes. As mentioned above, the reason for Anglo-American, Franco-American, and other conflicts are mentioned in passing, but the reasons are unconvincing and inconsistent with supporting details. A reader will notice that French political and military leaders were vociferously bitter about the US role afterward, but probably will wonder why (6).
____________________________________________
Notes

(1) The Cao Dai is a syncretical religion peculiar to southern Viet Nam; it combines elements of a national government with those of a Taoist religion, and was for a time a potent military force in the south (in 1975, there were 18 Cao Dai factions with separate popes). Hoa Hao is a variant of Buddhism, with a rather amorphous structure; it also has had politically active militia. For a condensed description of the religious landscape of Viet Nam, see A. Terry Rambo, Searching for Vietnam: Selected Writings on Vietnamese Culture and Society, Trans Pacific Press (2005), Chapter 2, "Religion and society in Vietnam" (written in 1977).

The Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (Viet Nam Nationalist Party--VNQDD) was practically a Vietnamese section of the Chinese Nationalist Party (GMD in Pinyin, KMT in Wade-Giles). The Dai Viet was a generic term for a type of nationalist cell that sprung up after 1940 in Viet Nam; some Dai Viet cells later affiliated directly with the VNQDD.

Binh Xuyen was a group of criminal gangs in Cholon (now a district of Ho Chi Minh City). As with other criminal gangs in war zones, the Binh Xuyen allied with different political factions at different times (and probably was to blame for the most notorious activities of the Viet Minh). See, for example, Justin Corfield, Historical Dictionary of Ho Chi Minh City, Anthem Press (2013), p.25. Eventually, the Binh Xuyen fell victim to their own opportunism as Pres. Ngo Dinh Diem bribed them to fight each other. For a brief account of this, see Duong Van Mai Elliott, The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family, Oxford University Press (2000), p.252.

(2) Le Duan was the real leader of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (DRVN) from 1957 to 1986. Arguably, Le Duan (and his assistant, Le Duc Tho) successfully built up a major military-industrial machine in Viet Nam that defied the USA and China; his ascent triggered a factional struggle against Vietnam Workers' Party (VWP) Leader Truong Chinh and Vo Nguyen Giap (the 1st generation of Viet Minh leaders). While Le Duan's rise to control over the VWP was pretty much accomplished in 1960 (making him, not Ho Chi Minh or even Vo Nguyen Giap, the main US adversary), he was definitely a major force in the Viet Minh after 1951. As for Hoang Van Hoan (whose name Logevall cannot seem to decide how to spell!), he was the VWP's man in Beijing from the beginning, and a later opponent of Le Duan within the VWP. Because of the extreme importance of China in the 1st Indochina War, and the fact that Hoang Van Hoan was concurrently a member of the Central Committee, neglecting him is a common but severe oversight. All of this information can be found in Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, Hanoi's War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam, Univ of North Carolina Press (2012).

(3) Specifically, during the Chinese occupation of northern VN, the Viet Minh was able to rapidly acquire an invincible grip on the country. It even was able to displace its GMD-affiliated rivals for power, the VNQDD. Conversely, the French _colon_ militia were engaged in massive terror campaigns against Vietnamese in the British-controlled sector. Yet when the matter arises, Ho Chi Minh is eager to arrange for the French to replace the Chinese in northern Vietnam, and allegedly makes his "Plutôt flairer un peu la crotte" remark; per Le Minh Khai, "Ho Chi Minh said what???" _SEAsian History_ blog (1 Sep 2012), Ho Chi Minh almost certainly made no such remark. Logevall's explanations of Vietnamese and Chinese actions are badly garbled.

(4) Windrow, p.89: "Giap exploited sporadic guerrilla outbreaks as the excuse to eliminate the last rival nationalist groups with French approval." Logevall, p.151: "Giap, seizing the opportunity, used scattered guerrilla outbreaks as an excuse to mercilessly crush these groups, often with French blessing." The groups are the Dai Viet and VNQDD.

(5) After Liberation by the Allies, the Free French and resistance forces carried out 8,100 summary executions See Henry Rousso, "The Purge in France: an Incomplete Story," Jon Elster (editor), Retribution and Reparation in the Transition to Democracy (2006), p.95. The study covered most of France and was by Marcel Baudot. In both France (1944) and the DRVN (1954), the killings took place in the absence of a formal state presence, or where the state was weak against wildcat militia.

(6) Kathryn C. Statler, Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam, The University Press of Kentucky (2000), explains this at length but essentially recites the most truculent French nationalist positions available. In my view, it's not much help either.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 23 Sep 2014, 07:29:19 BST
Khusro says:
I am quite enjoying the book, but I have to say that I have found this review most helpful in better understanding a text that flows rather nicely.

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Sep 2014, 08:39:00 BST
Thanks for reading. You might also like my reviews of books on Iranian history!
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