Synopses & Reviews
ONE OF THE MOST ACCLAIMED WORKS OF HISTORY IN RECENT YEARS
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize • Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians • Shortlisted for the American Library in Paris Book Award • Shortlisted for the Cundill Prize in Historical Literature • Shortlisted for the Arthur Ross Book Award • Longlisted for the Lionel Gelber Prize
The struggle for Vietnam occupies a central place in the history of the twentieth century. Fought over a period of three decades, the conflict drew in all the world’s powers and saw two of them — first France, then the United States — attempt to subdue the revolutionary Vietnamese forces. For France, the defeat marked the effective end of her colonial empire, while for America the war left a gaping wound in the body politic that remains open to this day.
How did it happen? Tapping into newly accessible diplomatic archives in several nations and making full use of the published literature, distinguished scholar Fredrik Logevall traces the path that led two Western nations to lose their way in Vietnam. Embers of War opens in 1919 at the Versailles Peace Conference, where a young Ho Chi Minh tries to deliver a petition for Vietnamese independence to President Woodrow Wilson. It concludes in 1959, with a Viet Cong ambush on an outpost outside Saigon and the deaths of two American officers whose names would be the first to be carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In between come years of political, military, and diplomatic maneuvering and miscalculation, as leaders on all sides embark on a series of stumbles that makes an eminently avoidable struggle a bloody and interminable reality.
Logevall takes us inside the councils of war — and gives us a seat at the conference tables where peace talks founder. He brings to life the bloodiest battles of France’s final years in Indochina — and shows how from an early point, a succession of American leaders made disastrous policy choices that put America on its own collision course with history: Harry Truman’s fateful decision to reverse Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policy and acknowledge France’s right to return to Indochina after World War II; Dwight Eisenhower’s strenuous efforts to keep Paris in the fight and his escalation of U.S. involvement in the aftermath of the humiliating French defeat at Dien Bien Phu; and the curious turnaround in Senator John F. Kennedy’s thinking that would lead him as president to expand that commitment, despite his publicly stated misgivings about Western intervention in Southeast Asia.
An epic story of wasted opportunities and tragic miscalculations, featuring an extraordinary cast of larger-than-life characters, Embers of War delves deep into the historical record to provide hard answers to the unanswered questions surrounding the demise of one Western power in Vietnam and the arrival of another. This book will become the definitive chronicle of the struggle’s origins for years to come.
“A monumental history...a widely researched and eloquently written account of how the U.S. came to be involved in Vietnam...certainly the most comprehensive review of this period to date.” The Wall Street Journal
“Superb...a product of formidable international research.” The Washington Post
“Lucid and vivid...[a] definitive history.” San Francisco Chronicle
“An essential work for those seeking to understand the worst foreign-policy adventure in American history....Even though readers know how the story ends — as with The Iliad — they will be as riveted by the tale as if they were hearing it for the first time.” The Christian Science Monitor
“A remarkable new history...Logevall skillfully explains everything that led up to Vietnam’s fatal partition in 1954 [and] peppers the grand sweep of his book with vignettes of remarkable characters, wise and foolish.” The Economist
“[A] brilliant history of how the French colonial war to hang on to its colonies in Indochina became what the Vietnamese now call ‘the American war.’” Esquire
“Fredrik Logevall’s excellent book Choosing War (1999) chronicled the American escalation of the Vietnam War in the early 1960s. With Embers of War, he has written an even more impressive book about the French conflict in Vietnam and the beginning of the American one....It is the most comprehensive history of that time. Logevall, a professor of history at Cornell University, has drawn from many years of previous scholarship as well as his own. And he has produced a powerful portrait of the terrible and futile French war from which Americans learned little as they moved toward their own engagement in Vietnam.” Alan Brinkley, The New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice
WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE
Written with the style of a great novelist and the intrigue of a Cold War thriller, Embers of War is a landmark work that will forever change your understanding of how and why America went to war in Vietnam. Tapping newly accessible diplomatic archives in several nations, Fredrik Logevall traces the path that led two Western nations to tragically lose their way in the jungles of Southeast Asia. He brings to life the bloodiest battles of France’s final years in Indochina — and shows how, from an early point, a succession of American leaders made disastrous policy choices that put America on its own collision course with history. An epic story of wasted opportunities and deadly miscalculations, Embers of War delves deep into the historical record to provide hard answers to the unanswered questions surrounding the demise of one Western power in Vietnam and the arrival of another. Eye-opening and compulsively readable, Embers of War is a gripping, heralded work that illuminates the hidden history of the French and American experiences in Vietnam.
About the Author
Fredrik Logevall is John S. Knight Professor of International Studies and professor of history at Cornell University, where he serves as director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.
Reading Group Guide
1. Scholar A.J. Langguth writes, “These days, any history of Vietnam, no matter how scholarly and objective, will be read for what it teaches us now.” Do you agree that the history of Vietnam primarily teaches us about war today? How does that approach expand your reading of Embers of War
2. Logevall engages seriously with counterfactual history: “The story of the French Indochina War and its aftermath is a contingent one, full of alternative political choices, major and minor, considered and taken, reconsidered and altered.” What are some of the major forks in the road that Logevall points to? How does the concept of choice versus inevitability change your understanding of the major players?
3. Two sides of Ho Chi Minh – nationalist and communist – struggle for prominence in his historical legacy. Which interpretation does Logevall lean towards? What about you? How does his identity shape your understanding and opinions of the War’s outcomes?
4. On the other side of the same coin, the U.S. grappled with anti-colonial and anti-communist instincts. For the U.S., how was the conflict in Indochina a part of the cold war and how was it not?
5. Domino theory played a role in U.S. decision-making in Vietnam. However, a 2007 study of over 130 countries in the 20th century found that states are rarely influenced by changes in their neighbors’ internal governmental structures. What does Logevall find flawed about the domino theory? What was so seductive about the concept in the 1950s?
6. In what ways does Logevall show individual leaders – determined, passionate, flawed – driving historical outcomes? Is it possible to separate the role of a single person from larger global forces?
7. The battle of Dien Bien Phu was the first time in the history of colonial warfare that Asian troops defeated a European army in fixed battle. In the early days of the First Indochina War, the French and the Viet Minh seemed mismatched militarily, the French having a large advantage. What changed between 1945 and 1954, and why might the initial assessment of the French advantage have been wrong?
General Westmoreland, who commanded US military operations in Vietnam from 1964 to 1972 said, “Why should I study the lessons of the French? They haven’t won a war since Napoleon.” How did the Americans see themselves as different from the French? In terms of goals? National identity? Military prowess? From today’s perspective, how do you think the Americans were different from the French, if they were at all?
9. We all know the ending of Logevall’s story. How does Logevall create suspense while avoiding sensationalism in a familiar historical narrative?
10. Logevall writes a good deal about Graham Greene and The Quiet American. What does the novel say about America’s eventual fate in Vietnam? What kind of observer does Logevall show Greene to be? Why do you think a novelist was able to read the circumstances in Vietnam more clearly than others, including journalists and military and political leaders?
11. Look over Logevall’s endnotes. Where did most of his research come from? How do you think these sources shaped his conclusions? Do you notice any trends in both his primary and secondary source? Does anything surprise you?