Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam
By Fredrik Logevall
Random House, 2012, 864 pp.
Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961
By William J. Rust
The University Press of Kentucky, 2012, 352 pp.
These two books describe how the United States' role in former French Indochina developed during the 1950s; they are, in essence, pre-histories of the Vietnam War. Logevall's book is magisterial. It focuses on the American response to the steady deterioration in France's position leading up to its calamitous defeat at the hands of the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the awkward compromises produced by the Geneva Conference later that year. Logevall ponders the dilemmas faced by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who was reluctant to be seen as giving an inch to the Communists yet anxious to avoid committing ground troops to yet another East Asian conflict so soon after achieving a cease-fire in Korea. If there was to be any direct U.S. intervention on behalf of France, Eisenhower insisted that it have British support. But the United Kingdom, in the twilight of its own tenure as an Asian power, intended to steer clear of any Vietnamese (or Laotian) entanglements. The poor relationship between U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his British counterpart, Anthony Eden, aggravated a basic disagreement between their two countries over how hard a line they ought to take, with the British more ready to make deals with the Communists. Logevall draws on a vast range of sources, cleverly analyzing the writer Graham Greene's journalism and his novel The Quiet American, and the controversies they generated, to illuminate the tension between British cynicism and American idealism.
Although the conflicts in Vietnam and Laos were tightly linked, the story of American involvement in the latter is far less well known. Even at the time, it did not attract the attention of the journalists and commentators who made their way to Vietnam. For that reason, Rust's first-rate account focuses mainly on policymakers. Like Logevall, Rust details the divisions between the Americans and the British and within the U.S. government itself, as the Americans tried to cope with a country whose politics they did not fully understand, at one point simultaneously supporting the Laotian government and a general plotting a coup against it.