The Vietnam War's Tragic Prologue

August 22, 2012 Topics: History Regions: FranceVietnam

The Vietnam War's Tragic Prologue

Mini Teaser: Before America’s Vietnam experience, there was the French ordeal there from the end of World War II to the utter humiliation at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Fredrik Logevall chronicles this powerful history in his Embers of War.

That ambiguity would persist throughout Ho’s lifetime. Moscow and Beijing treated him with suspicion even as they provided him with material support. And twenty-five years later, some U.S. antiwar demonstrators could not believe that so appealing a personality as “Uncle Ho” would also be ready to sacrifice his countrymen by the tens of thousands to achieve his goal.

ROOSEVELT’S DEATH on April 12, 1945, changed everything. At first, the Viet Minh seemed poised for success. The collapse of the Japanese four months later allowed General Vo Nguyen Giap to lead Ho’s “Viet-American Army” into Hanoi in early September. To avoid further killing, Ho dismayed many of his supporters by agreeing to allow the French to return to Vietnam south of the sixteenth parallel.

In the confrontation that soon developed between the West and the Soviet Union, Logevall does not suggest that Ho would have allied himself with the United States. But, he writes, “A decision by the Truman administration to support Vietnamese independence in the late summer and fall of 1945 would have gone a long way toward averting the mass bloodshed and destruction that was to follow.”

Nor does he accept that war between Giap and the French was inevitable or that both sides shared equally in the blame. He largely faults the provocations of Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu, a former Carmelite monk who had risen in the Free French resistance and arrived in Vietnam as de Gaulle’s high commissioner for Indochina.

Logevall notes that d’Argenlieu had “thwarted the prospects for a negotiated solution at several junctures in 1946; he seemed determined to provoke” Ho’s forces “into full-scale hostilities.” In Paris, left-wing newspapers called him “the Bloody Monk.”

As d’Argenlieu treated the wire service Agence France-Presse as his personal propaganda machine, the French public was deprived of information from the scene. With de Gaulle’s backing, d’Argenlieu’s policies in the first months of 1947 left whole neighborhoods of Hanoi leveled and the city’s public buildings in ruins.

Over his next four hundred pages, Logevall presents in meticulous detail the military and diplomatic skirmishing of the seven years that culminated in the siege at Dien Bien Phu. By that time, he concludes, “even Charles de Gaulle, whose intransigence in 1945–46 had done so much to start the bloodshed, had given up on military victory in Indochina.”

Logevall cuts skillfully between troops within the demoralized French redoubt and the exhausted Viet Minh, who were, Giap wrote, “fatigued, worn and subject to great nervous tension.” Even though readers know the outcome, his method creates genuine suspense. Some great military victories—Andrew Jackson’s in New Orleans is another—continue to carry us along to their startling conclusions.

Logevall’s re-creation draws on many familiar sources—Lloyd Gardner, Lucien Bodard, Ted Morgan and Bernard Fall with his evocative title Hell in a Very Small Place. But he also includes material from Pierre Rocolle’s 1968 Pourquoi Dien Bien Phu?, Pierre Pellissier’s Dien Bien Phu: 20 Novembre 1953—7 Mai 1954 and Robert Guillain’s Dien Bien Phu: La Fin Des Illusions, both from 2004.

Logevall’s understatement serves him well in presenting the last radio contact between Dien Bien Phu and Major General Rene Cogny in Hanoi. Cogny was forbidding the fort’s commander, Colonel Christian de Castries, from trying to protect the wounded by raising a flag of surrender. “Mon vieux,” Cogny began, “of course you have to finish the whole thing now. But what you have done until now surely is magnificent. Don’t spoil it by hoisting the white flag. You are going to be submerged [by the enemy], but no surrender, no white flag.” The colonel makes another futile appeal. “There was a silence. Then de Castries bade his farewell: ‘Bien, mon général.’”

Logevall writes:

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was over. The Viet Minh had won. Vo Nguyen Giap had overturned history, had accomplished the unprecedented, had beaten the West at its own game. For the first time in the annals of colonial warfare, Asian troops had defeated a European army in fixed battle.

The book’s epilogue, titled “Different Dreams, Same Footsteps,” returns the reader to John Kennedy, now president and confronting the collapse of South Vietnam under Ngo Dinh Diem. Logevall is sympathetic to the dilemma of both Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, whose

freedom of maneuver was already constrained by the choices of their predecessors—by Truman’s tacit acknowledgment in 1945–46 that France had a right to return to Indochina; by his administration’s decision in 1950 to actively aid the French war effort; and by the Eisenhower team’s move in 1954 to intervene directly in Vietnam, displacing France as the major external power.

All the same, Logevall previously has suggested in Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived that if Kennedy had survived Dallas, he would have regarded the commitment of U.S. ground troops as the worst in a range of bad options.

But before that, of course, there would be a presidential election to win, an objective that was never far from the thoughts of Kennedy, Johnson or Richard Nixon, as well as their advisers. Logevall establishes that for Nixon’s two predecessors in the White House, a central consideration in waging war in Vietnam had been ensuring another four years. But fate—and Dallas, Tet and Watergate—intervened to guarantee that none of them would serve two full terms.

READERS MAY find a final counterfactual occurring to them throughout Embers of War: What if Logevall’s book had been mandatory reading for Kennedy and his policy makers while they were escalating the U.S. presence in South Vietnam from a few hundred advisers to more than sixteen thousand? Would any lessons from France’s doomed adventure have deterred those same policy makers later when they found themselves working for Lyndon Johnson?

On the evidence, probably not. What makes Gordon Goldstein’s account of the Kennedy years particularly infuriating is the blithe ignorance of a man like McGeorge Bundy. A dazzling young academic, Bundy seemed to put his brilliance in a blind trust when he entered government service.

In February 1965, he urged a bombing campaign against North Vietnam by making the strange point that the odds were between 25 percent and 75 percent that such a strategy would fail. And yet, “even if it fails, the policy will be worth it.” At home and around the world, according to Bundy, people would have more confidence in a United States that had failed than if Washington had assessed the long odds and held back.

When Bundy’s old friend Walter Lippmann returned from Paris to pass along de Gaulle’s latest peace proposal to the White House, the columnist bridled at the disdain with which Bundy received him. The Kennedy men might not have inherited FDR’s vision, but they shared his dislike for Charles de Gaulle. They knew the French had nothing to teach us.

In the decades after the Vietnam War, former secretary of defense Robert McNamara set off on a quest for public absolution and in the process displayed persistent blind spots of his own. During the mid-1990s, for example, McNamara welcomed the prospect of conferring in Hanoi with North Vietnamese military commanders and politburo leaders. Then the early planning hit a snag.

McNamara, who wanted to begin their discussion with the year that he joined the Kennedy administration, was puzzled and resistant when Vo Nguyen Giap insisted on exploring the period before 1961. McNamara seemed surprised that anything could much matter that had happened before he entered the scene.

Not for the first time, General Giap prevailed, and the conference got under way in June 1997, with Vietnam’s former foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach as its chairman. McNamara’s hosts treated him throughout the several days with exemplary courtesy. Only once did they become visibly angry—when McNamara repeated the canard, popular with General William Westmoreland, that the United States had been at a disadvantage on the battlefield because Americans put a higher value on human life than the Vietnamese did. A seething North Vietnamese delegate responded, “Let me assure you, Mr. McNamara, that our mothers grieve for their sons every bit as much as American mothers do.”

McNamara was challenged again, though less emotionally, whenever he lectured North Vietnamese officials for failing to appreciate the difference between America’s goals and those of the French. We did not come as colonists, he would say. We never intended to stay.

The North Vietnamese looked grimly amused at that defense of his country’s clean hands. Patiently, they explained that while the distinction might be clear to McNamara, their countrymen were being killed by the same bullets, by the same bombs.

To conclude, a personal note:

After three years away from South Vietnam, I returned as a journalist because of the 1968 Tet Offensive. I was hitching a ride with a young Marine driving a truck out of Danang, and as we passed the roadside villages, children ran out to smile, wave and hold out their palms in hopes of candy.

“Look at that!” said the driver, no more than nineteen. “They love us here.”

Pullquote: In the interim between world wars, Ho and his band of Vietnamese nationalists already had decided that the communism of Vladimir Lenin was their most dependable ally in fighting for liberation.Image: Essay Types: Book Review