“Ho Chi Minh had a secret alliance with the United States.” For those of you with even a passing familiarity with Vietnam, this statement will surprise you. But it’s true, back in 1943 that is, when Japan occupied French Indochina and the U.S. needed Vietnamese help.
This is just one of a number of interesting subplots in a story artfully told in Frederik Logevall’s excellent Pulitzer prize winning history of Vietnam titled Embers of War. As the above statement emphasizes, the U.S. has a long and complicated history in Vietnam roping in multiple Presidents, Congresses, and defense secretaries as they tried to manage their way out of Indochina. While the narrative ends in 1959, before the U.S. is center stage in the conflict, this history helped my understanding of the root problems and the underlying forces in the country and gave me much clarity as to the difficulties there.
To me, America’s Vietnam was always a confusing mismash of separate hill fights serving no real purpose and resulting in no notable progress, at least on our side that is. Logevall’s history explains this dilemma, how it affected the French before us, and now foreshadows the U.S. problems in the next decade. To this point, he details the extraordinary sacrifices the Vietnamese people were willing to endure to achieve independence, and not just the military, either. Lay country men and women were active in the conflict.
While not quite a biography, much of the book centers around the pre-war activities of Ho Chi Minh and his life mission of an independent Vietnam. As Logevall points out, he was much more of a Nationalist than Communist and had, for many years, a very favorable regard for the United States. He was initially moved by Roosevelt’s encouraging remarks against European Colonialism at the closing of WWII and felt opinions like this could lead the way to independence.
Why this did not happen and why the U.S. ultimately became Vietnam’s enemy is one of the key questions answered in the book. Why was the U.S. continually being dragged along by the French in the 1940’s and 1950’s? It was a French problem, after all. The reasons are as compelling as they are insightful and remind me of some of today’s struggles across the globe. Indeed, reoccurring themes of loyalty to allies, fear of Red China, and taking the easiest path, will resonate with today’s students of world events.
It’s a book for those trying to understand Vietnam, its leaders, its struggle for independence and above all, the U.S.’s striking lack of success there. Highly recommended.