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4.0 out of 5 stars A very, very deep perspective on our most controversial war, August 21, 2012
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This review is from: Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam (Hardcover)
Americans tend to approach the Vietnam War with simplistic sound bites. Those who opposed the war use words like "futility, quagmire, credibility gap." Those believe the war should have been fought decisively are prone to saying, "The politicians didn't let us win." Of course our involvement in Vietnam was infinitely more complex than either set of sound bites.

Henry Kissinger, in his book ENDING THE VIETNAM WAR, pointed out that every American president from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon made an effort to keep Vietnam from falling to the Communists, but that the effort always fell just short of being decisive. Whereas Kissinger's book gives just a hint of the myriads of complex issues that brought the United States to war in Vietnam, this book unwinds the complexity in all its details.

The primary question author Fredrik Logevall seeks to answer is whether a broader vision during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations could have settled the fate of Vietnam without U.S. intervention. The book pivots around that glorious time in late 1945 when the U.S. defeated the Japanese and became the only power that mattered in Southeast Asia. It celebrates the alliance between U.S. intelligence officers and Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh who collaborated to defeat the Japanese occupiers. It argues that Ho saw the United States as the great anti-colonial power that would guarantee Vietnam from re-conquest by its former French colonial masters.

It argues that if FDR and Harry Truman had focused as much on Southeast Asia as they did on Europe and the Middle East, that with U.S. support Vietnam would have emerged as a sort of Asian Yugoslavia, nominally Communist, but actually more friendly toward the United States and the West than to the great Communist powers of China and the Soviet Union. Instead the United States took the opposite tack of allying itself with France's futile war to reestablish itself as the colonial occupier. The seeds of the later American war in Vietnam were sown from that disastrous assistance to France's bull-headed war.

Although I was absorbed in every detail of this fantastically interesting book, I began to have objections during the early reading. The first is its portrayal of Ho Chi Minh as a saintly freedom fighter, inspired by American ideals. The countervailing view, held by President Nixon among others, is that Ho was an opportunistic Communist thug, like Joseph Stalin, who purged rivals and mass-murdered hundreds of thousands of "bourgeoisie" landowners and shopkeepers. Their view is that millions of Vietnamese had good reason to hate and fear his Communist reign of terror. Later on the book does mention Ho's use of terror, but downplays it more as a show of force than mass murder. The book also opens by portraying Congressman John F. Kennedy as being vehemently opposed to American involvement in Vietnam as early as 1951, whereas the reality is that as President in 1963 Kennedy led the charge of the Green Beret followed by thousands of armed "advisors" into Vietnam. In the Epilogue Logevall finally does adequately explain President Kennedy's decision to commit the U.S. to defend South Vietnam.

Even though Ho Chi Minh's role as a Communist terrorist may be white-washed, I was fascinated by his biography. He lived and worked in New York and Boston in his early 20's when he visited the U.S. in 1912 and 1913. The FIRST American President who influenced Ho was Woodrow Wilson, whose Fourteen Points Declaration after World War I fired Ho Chi Minh with hope of throwing off the French Colonialists. Ho spoke fluent English as well as French, Russian, and Chinese. He travelled in Europe, Asia, the U.S., and South America, then became a Communist while staying in the Soviet Union during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Logevall also describes Vietnam as being more sophisticated than Americans generally believe. Although eighty percent of its people lived in primitive peasant villages, the French colonialists had created a high degree of commerce, education, and culture in the cities. Logevall explains that in some ways Vietnamese cities like Saigon and Hanoi were even more elegant than Paris. Most Vietnamese admired French culture even while detesting the French government for suppressing the people's yearning for independence. Being part of France's global colonial empire, the Vietnamese were widely travelled. The French drafted as many as one million Vietnamese to fight and die by their side in the trenches of World War I.

The book explains how Vietnam itself has been a crossroads where rival empires have struggled for dominance against the wishes of the Vietnamese people to be independent. At the beginning of World War II the Japanese conquered Indochina but established a cozy relationship with the French colonialists, the joint objective of both occupiers being to keep the Vietnamese down. When Japanese authority collapsed at the end of World War II, the Japanese occupiers factionalized and went to war with each other --- some fighting with the Vietnamese Communists for independence and some fighting for the Vietnamese who were loyal to the French Empire.

Logevall has made this massive book interesting on every page. I think the only limitation in his viewpoint may be his arguably favorable bias toward Ho Chi Minh. It downplays what others have described as Ho's relentless war of terror against opponents, including the murder of hundreds of thousands in North Vietnam and the driving out of the country of perhaps a million who resettled in the south. It makes the point that the French Colonialists were the primary villain and the United States became their accomplices due to an intransigent hostility to Communism. But was Ho also not somewhat to blame for the bloody war? Instead of taking the tack of India's Gandhi or South Africa's Nelson Mandela, perhaps he over relied on a Communist reign of terror. Perhaps it was Ho as much as Presidents Truman and Eisenhower who let the opportunity for peaceful relations between the United States and Vietnam go by.

This book is worthy reading for all who are interested in the events leading up to our military involvement. However, due to its sympathetic portrayal of Ho Chi Minh it may not be the complete story. I would recommend balancing the views of this book by reading Richard Nixon's NO MORE VIETNAMS, Henry Kissinger's ENDING THE VIETNAM WAR, and Guenter Lewy's AMERICA IN VIETNAM.
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Tracked by 8 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 61 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 21, 2012 8:10:49 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 21, 2012 8:14:24 PM PDT
Tyrus07 says:
Based on the white washing of Ho, Le Duan, and Le Duc Tho, which this reviewer mentions, I would have graded it lower. I had pre ordered the book before I read Rufus Philip's review in the NYTimes on 8/19. After reading his review, I regretted the purchase, as this experienced soldier and diplomat courteously pointed out many errors that this author makes. Unfortunately, he will probably win some kind of award from Academia's echo chamber of political correctness. I am in the process of reading the kindle version. It is indeed well written, but it's a Camelot point of view. I find it so regrettable that history from Academia in the Age of Obama is untrustworthy, by and large, even when they are writing about something as remote in time as the Crusades, a thousand years ago. Don't buy this book. Buy Ted Morgan's "Valley of Death" instead. "Embers" is a well written fiction, and if you're reading it as fiction, then by all means it's a well written tale. When I am done reading it, I am going to write a review and give it one star for either intellectual dishonesty or sloppy research, whichever seems to be the best fit. Watch this space!

Posted on Aug 21, 2012 9:40:46 PM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Aug 26, 2012 8:23:39 PM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 5, 2012 12:30:06 PM PDT
What does the "Age of Obama" have to do with the book. You might have been more persuasive if you had refrained from gratuitous insults.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 5, 2012 3:58:18 PM PDT
T. Berner says:
Well, Mr. Obama IS the President, and in this age where calling the other side a Nazi is acceptable and media "fact checkers" distort the record, you don't have to dislike the President to recognize that there is something seriously wrong with what passes for intellectual discourse in this day and age.

Posted on Oct 27, 2012 6:14:26 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 27, 2012 6:22:14 PM PDT
Strategos says:
It sounds so odd to cite Nixon's world view and his judgment, although he was a thug himself and crony of the Mob, with Bebe Rebozo, and Chotiner as buddies and insiders. Well, this great statesman was certainly happy to receive campaign funds and millions in exchange for pardons from Hoffa and his agents, as well as Carlos Marcello in New Orleans, and to work with Bernard Barker, the intimate of Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante. On the one side a Communist ideologue responsible for lots of deaths and on the other a corrupt president of the world's greatest power, in league with criminals, torturers, and murderers who had a secretary of state with a congenital incapacity to tell the truth.

And while Vietnam's Communist tyrants massacred many and forced millions of others to flee a shattered land, Nixon and Kissinger helped destroy Cambodia and paved the way for Pol Pot's genocide with their crazed expansion of a war they could never win. Half of all the Americans who died in Vietnam perished after Nixon took over, although he promised to end the war as part of his campaign in 1968 (pointing to the non-existent plan in his coat pocket). So critics should at least try to be complete in their overview.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 28, 2012 1:39:58 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 28, 2012 1:41:54 PM PDT
Strategos, you're being a little hard on Nixon. Remember, that when he entered office in January 1969 there were over 500,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. When he resigned in 1973 there were 24,000. American casualties had declined from 300 killed PER WEEK to about 2 per month. He kept his promise to turn the fighting over to the South Vietnamese.

Also remember that Presidents Kennedy and especially LBJ put all those U.S. combat troops in South Vietnam because they saw the Soviet Union and China as a united front to spread Communism. South Vietnam was one of the places they chose to take a stand.

By the time Nixon took office the Soviet Union and China had had a falling-out. They had each moved millions of troops to their borders and instigated border skirmishes that killed many on each side. According to President Nixon and some Soviet sources, the Soviet Union's leader Leonid Brezhnev asked Nixon to join the Soviets in a pre-emptive nuclear strike against China to wipe out its budding nuclear capability before the Chinese could use them against the Soviets.

Nixon very wisely declined and in fact vastly improved relations with both nations. By the end of the Vietnam War it seems that China was more or less neutral in Vietnam. It was continuing to supply the North Vietnamese but also urging them to negotiate with Nixon in good faith toward insuring some form of autonomy in a non-Communist South Vietnam. Had Nixon not been forced to resign, South Vietnam may have stabilized as a non-Communist country like South Korea.

Thus, it would seem that Nixon acted wisely not only in resolving the Vietnam War, but in steering a peaceful path through the three-way animosities of the USA, the USSR, and China. Of course Nixon's undoing was his paranoid hatred of his domestic enemies, especially the "Liberal" press. Nixon was so paranoid that he let the Watergate Scandal balloon up to destroy his Presidency when he could easily have "come clean" at an early date and put it to rest.

Nixon was the ultimate tragic hero --- a giant of a man who understood the world, but didn't know how to deal with the critics in his own back yard. He was brought down by his own paranoia against domestic "enemies" who had not the power to harm him or his agendas if he had simply chosen to ignore them.

Posted on Nov 4, 2012 1:02:08 PM PST
Much of the argument for Ho as an Asian Tito, in Logevall's book and elsewhere, comes from context: Moscow expected total obedience from national Communist parties and offered little aid, while China was a historic foe stuck in first a civil war and then its aftermath. Nixon was an opportunist and a fairly orthodox Cold Warrior and both color his 1950s commentaries. His self-pitying attempts at revisionism are frankly not even useful as "balance". The moves he made toward detente were overdue and done in a manner to attract moderate votes while needlessly prolongning the Vietnam war until after the 1972 elections. Nixons's strength was as an electoral startegist which unfortunately was also his undoing as a governing executive. Much the same could be said about LBJ, although Johnson had somewhat different motives and approached grand gestures in a different way. The book is more interesting in chronicalling the various twists and turns taken by Eisenhower who usually gets excused from significant responsibility for the morass in Vietnam and the often skeptical though cautious quotes about Veitnam from JFK, along with the intimation that JFK was an ally of Diem.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 5, 2012 7:28:32 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 5, 2012 7:29:36 AM PST
I'm no fan of Nixon but I think you are being a bit unfair. You say detente was overdue but no one else was really advocating it until Nixon came into office. And, Nixon had written articles while out of office suggesting the need to deal with Red China. It may be more fair to say that Nixon was being more cynical playing the anticommunist card early in his career than he was during detente. Nixon really didn't need detente to attract moderate voters; ending Viet Nam would have done that. I think Nixon, whatever his obvious character flaws, wanted to accomplish something that would make him a historic president. He didn't have to go to China; no one else was clamoring for that, certainly no on the Republican right. Yes, much of what Nixon did in foreign policy was based on electoral calculations-what president does not consider them. This is not to defend Nixon as a president or person-he was a slimy, mendacious person. But, frankly, this is probably one reason why he was successful in foreign policy. The leaders in the USSR and China were able to understand a Nixon that practiced real politique more than they could Carter and others that used human rights rhetoric. Again, I'm not defending Nixon's handling of Viet Nam, which was certainly unnecessary and immoral but I think he does deserve credit for detente. And I agree with your comments about Eisenhower, who essentially left JFK with the messes in Cuba and Viet Nam.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 5, 2012 9:01:29 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 5, 2012 12:04:21 PM PST
Marc, a perceptive description of Nixon. In the 1980's I used to hear foreigners say, "Nixon was your best President." Nixon was respected by prickly foreign leaders like Charles Degaulle who wasn't overly fond of Americans in general.

As you say, the dark side of his paranoid personality brought him down. It's interesting that Nixon expressed affection for LBJ, another paranoid personality. As a courtesy Nixon sent LBJ daily briefings until the day LBJ passed away.

Perhaps Nixon's finest hour was the 1973 Yom Kippur war when Israel was unexpectedly attacked by Egypt and Syria. Israel was on "the very knife-edge of defeat." The Egyptians and Syrians had broken through its defenses, most of its airforce had been shot down, and its armies were out of ammunition. Israel was about to be overrun and its people massacred.

Nixon asked his advisors, "What should we do?" They said, "Stay out of it. The world is against Israel. It would hurt our standing in foreign affairs to favor them. We have nothing to gain at home politically. American Jews aren't our voters. We have nothing to gain by helping Israel."

Instead Nixon said, "The United States does not turn its back on free countries that are bravely defending themselves." He ordered the U.S. Army and Airforce to implement a 24x7 airlift of our military equipment to Israel. For the next week hundreds of American planes loaded with equipment landed in Israel every few minutes. Our Air Force repainted some of its planes with Israeli markings and flew them over there. The airlift encouraged the Israelis to contain the Syrians and Egyptians eventually push them back.

Nixon risked EVERYTHING in sending aid to Israel. It could have touched off a war with the Soviets, who backed the Arabs. He could have been impeached for ordering the military to turn over its equipment to Israel without the consent of Congress. His action wasn't particularly popular with Americans and could have become very unpopular if it hadn't proved sufficient to help the Israelies to survive, or if it had touched off a larger war. But he was determined to do what was right in a circumstance where he had nothing to gain from it.

From what I've read of Nixon's books he felt that same way about South Vietnam too --- that however imperfect its government may have been, it nevertheless was a superior alternative for the South Vietnamese people than conquest by the Communist North. Public opinion at home and abroad urged Nixon to abandon South Vietnam to the Communists, as they urged him to abandon Israel. Nixon would not do it, not because he was stubborn or stupid, but because he did not believe that it was the right thing to do.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 5, 2012 5:39:35 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 5, 2012 5:44:02 PM PST
Thanks Alan, I appreciate the kind words. I should say, though, that I did not intend to compliment all of Nixon's foreign policy. He (and Kissinger) were overly focused on great power relations and ignored the aspirations of rising powers that were demanding a place at the table. This was ultimately self-defeating and created real problems when trying to deal with things like the oil embargo. I think Nixon was, however, a significant geopolitical thinker, primarily because he recognized that countries act according to their interests rather than abstract concepts such as human rights. This made him much more flexible than other American presidents. At the same time, Nixon seems to have been completely amoral and failed to recognize that kind of policy had its own drawbacks as well. For example, his willingness to help overthrow an elected government in Chile created hatred for the for the U.S. that we still feel. At the time, Nixon believed that Latin American didn't count for much but we have seen that this was a pretty shortsighted view. Plus, I have to disagree with you about Nixon's motives in supplying Israel. He did it, I believe, based strictly on geopolitical motives, i.e., letting an ally go down would have made America look weak and increased Soviet influence in the Middle East. And I disagree that supplying Israel was an unpopular policy, at least at home because it was not only Jews that supported Israel. Same with South Viet Nam; I think his motive was mainly not to look weak because he had essentially already abandoned South Viet Nam to its fate after "a decent interval." Nixon probably did think that communism was bad, but this did not stop him from talking to Mao in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. But I do think Nixon deserves credit for being willing to recognize the changes in the world balance of power and understanding (although exaggerating) how to play the USSR and China against each other. In this respect, he was a significant, although flawed, geopolitician and I don't think his obvious shortcomings should invalidate this.
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