Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Flophouse Review: Embers of War

Last time I darkened the door of the American Library in Paris, I picked up a book with an intriguing title:  Embers of War:  The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall.

The war in Indochina (or as the Americans call it, "Vietnam") is of personal interest to me.  Not from the American point of view as no one I know in my American family ever served there but from the French perspective.  My father-in-law, a French army officer whose career follows the fortunes of France as a European and colonial power in the 20th century, volunteered for la Compagne d'Indochine.  As a result, some time in the early 1950's he found himself in southern Laos where he was the chef d'Etat-Major du Génie du Laos which I think means chief of staff of the Engineering Corps of Laos.

Embers of War covers the period from the end of World War I to 1959 with an emphasis on the period from the Libération of France to the independence and partition of Indochina. And it includes the very beginning of the United States' direct military involvement in the region in the late 1950's.

Logevall spins a fine tale - the book is not only well-researched but well-written, too.  He successfully achieves the goal of historians who write for a general audience:  finding the right balance between historical facts and telling a good story.  There is an excellent bibliography as well which lists popular works like Bernard Fall's Street Without Joy but others as well that may be  less known but still well worth the read.   Logevall's talents were recognized this year in April when he won the Pulitzer prize for this work.

Embers of War filled in many of the gaps in my knowledge about France and her colony in Indochina.  My U.S. education did include the history of the region but it was as if the history really only began in the late 1950's when the Americans arrived and there was very little mention of what went on before other than brief remarks about the area being a former French colony.   Today with the Americans long gone, and national memory of the war fading fast, the region is hardly ever mentioned anymore in the U.S. and I note that it is not exactly a topic of general conversation in France either.

In my personal library I have a copy of Hachette's 1889 book, Nos colonies which has a chapter devoted to Indo-Chine.  The reactions to the book sitting on my shelf or my attempts to ask questions about it are pretty consistently met with embarrassment and sometimes mild hostility.  The former I could understand since the U.S. has many periods that we Americans are ambivalent about, but I was confused about the latter.  Legovall's book gave me one possible explanation for why that is.

The United States' involvement in the region goes back much father than I knew - something I'm sure those of you who are better read on this topic already understood quite well.  The U.S. was not in it up to her national eyeballs (and drowning) until the 1960's but was already influencing events  since at least World War II.  In defense of the U.S. there was probably no way they could have stayed entirely out of it since it was the only power left standing after the war. It is fascinating to read just how many actions and reactions of the actors on all sides of the conflict were based at least in part on what the U.S. might do.  When the U.S. did respond with policies and statements that vacillated depending on the administration, it seemed that someone was always left bitterly unsatisfied.

However, the U.S. action that is often cited by older people I've talked to here was Dien Bien Phu.  This was a French base in the north that was surrounded and besieged for 57 days in 1954.  As the situation worsened the French quietly asked the United States for support in March.  Then in early April, Prime Minister Laniel and his Foreign Minister made an official request directly to the U.S. ambassador in Paris.:
On behalf of the French government, he hereby requested that the United States intervene immediately with heavy bombers capable of delivering two-ton-or-heavier bombs, in order to save the entrenched camp at Dien Bien Phu.  No other option existed.
The answer from Washington was "no" and the French were indeed out of options.  On May 7th the remaining French troops were overrun and the Viet Minh took over 11,000 prisoners.  Many of them did not survive the forced marches and prison camps.

Not a high point in French/U.S. relations and easy to see why some residual bitterness might remain.  And imagine, if you will, an American like me bringing up the subject with friends and asking naive questions without having any understanding of the context.  Did they think of this as a variation of Alden Pyle's sinister innocence?

One has to wonder if the French had these past events somewhere in the back of their minds when they in turn said "No" to the U.S. in 2003.  Perhaps that is a stretch but clearly the relationship between the two countries has included moments like these. It is absurd for Americans to say, "Well, the French are always so critical and say 'no" to everything" - on the contrary the record shows a great deal of agreement and mutual assistance between the two countries.  However, and this just my .02 here, neither should ever ever take the other for granted.

Going back to the Campagne d'Indochine, the irony of it all, of course, is that the French left Indochina and then the U.S. a few years later ended up intervening later to a far greater extent than the air support the French requested in 1954.

Toward the end of his life, my father-in-law made a remark to me that I will always remember.  Back in the 1960's as he watched the American move in and sally forth, he worried because he saw hubris.  "They really thought they would do better than we did," he said softly.  Because Americans believed their motives to be pure, noble and free from the taint of colonialism, and because of the great power, wealth and technological advantage of the U.S.,  they walked in assuming that victory was theirs.

It is, I reluctantly admit, a national character defect, one which probably stems from one of our more positive traits:  The sense that all things are possible if one simply tries hard enough and believes.

Embers of War will be available to patrons of the American Library in Paris just as soon as I can get into town (probably next week) to return it.

In the meantime, here is a video from Youtube (about 10 minutes) that talks about Dien Bien Phu, the French request to the Americans for assistance, and what happened after the base fell.


Anonymous said...

Hi Victoria. Thank you. This is very interesting.

There seems to be some diverging opinions. Wikipedia does mention that Eisenhower and the US Congress chose to not become officially involved in France's Vietnam but the article also states:

"The United States did covertly participate in the battle. Following a request for help from Henri Navarre, Radford provided two squadrons of B-26 Invader bomber aircraft to support the French. Subsequently, 37 American transport pilots flew 682 sorties over the course of the battle.[80] Earlier, in order to succeed the pre-Dien Bien Phu Operation Castor of November 1953, General Chester McCarty made available 12 additional C-119 Flying Boxcars flown by French crews.[80]

Two of the American pilots, James McGovern, Jr. and Wallace Buford, were killed in action during the siege of Dien Bien Phu.[81] On 25 February 2005, the seven still living American pilots were awarded the French Legion of Honor by Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador to the United States.[80] The role that the American pilots played in this battle had remained little known until 2004. The "American historian Erik Kirsinger researched the case for more than a year to establish the facts."

Anonymous said...

Paris 1919 is a good book about the Paris peace conference to end WWI The US helped the redraw the borders of the post war period including Europe, Africa the Middle East and the Pacific

if you can not get the book, the following TV Ontario production is a good documentary

lymphomajourney said...

Nice review. Liked the comment from your father-in-law. Reminds me of the book and film, The Quiet American.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Anonymous, That's why I used the word "vacillated." Perhaps "coy" would be appropriate as well. The Americans were not officially "in" but they sure weren't neutral and they did provide air support to the French. So when the official request came for help at Dien Bien Phu, the French were hopeful that it would be given. What prevented it? Logevall says that Eisenhower was for it but that Congress was against it unless other allies agreed to go in with the US. I found a very good video about it which I will add to the post.

@Anonymous, That sounds like a good one. I'll look for the book at the American Library today.

@Andrew, Logevall has part of a chapter devoted to The Quiet American and Greene's two characters. Interesting analysis of how the book was received and interpreted by people around the world.

Anonymous said...

Hi my name is Corey I'm a student doing a project on the French's perspectives in Vietnam and was wondering if you wouldn't mind doing an interview my email is 60chevman

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Hi Corey, Alas I have been absolutely swamped with the move and have not had time to answer. My apologies. A very happy new year to you and good luck with your project.