in Book Review

Embers of War

The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam

Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, by Fredrik Logevall, is the origin story of America’s Vietnam War – how and why the US found itself fighting a war in Southeast Asia. The French ruled Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) for decades. Then their grip was loosened by the disaster they endured during WW2.

The Vietnamese, forming a resistance movement called the Viet Minh, fought for independence from the Japanese during the Second World War. When the war ended, the triumphant Vietnamese, lead by Ho Chi Minh, proclaimed their independence. However, the French soon returned to the country, which they still consider as their colony, and wrestled for control of the government.

Within the next few years, the Viet Minh and the French waged war in Vietnam, culminating in the Geneva conference of 1954, and the French forces’ ultimate loss at Dien Bien Phu. Vietnam was thereafter divided into two states – the communist North, and the US-backed South – along the 17th parallel.

With the threat of communism looming large over Asia, the US, determined not to let the region fall into Soviet Union’s orbit, had moved to buffer up – initially, in secret – the French forces waging war against Ho’s Viet Minh. After the French defeat in 1954, the US gave its full backing to South Vietnam, ruled by Ngo Dinh Diem.

Despite widespread atrocities and corruption committed by the South Vietnamese despot, the US continued to support the regime, fearing that its fall would usher in the full spread of communism across Asia, a belief known as the “domino theory”. And in the process, the US started – secretly – committing troops to the ground, ostensibly for an “advisory” role.

The book’s narrative ends in 1959, in the incident at Bien Hoa, where Viet Cong forces raided the US base, killing two American personnel. These two – Major Dale Buis, and Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand – are considered the very first US casualties of what will be known as the Vietnam War.

Embers of War won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for History. In my experience, Pulitzer winners are some of the best history books to recommend for the casual readers – excellent narrative, comprehensive, but not too complicated for people with minimal background knowledge.

Embers of War is something I’d highly recommend for readers who want to understand how US got into fighting a war in Vietnam, how the successive leaders formed policies and decisions that would cost enormous lives and resources. A very enlightening read indeed.