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The Decline and Fall of Colonial Vietnam

2013 Arthur Ross Book Award

Speaker: Fredrik Logevall, Stephen and Madeline Anbinder Professor of History, Cornell University; Author, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam
Presider: Gideon Rose, Peter G. Peterson Chair and Editor, Foreign Affairs
December 18, 2013

Event Description

Fredrik Logevall, winner of the 2013 Arthur Ross Book Award, discusses his prize-winning book, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam. Logevall traces the long decline of French colonial power in Indochina and links it to the increasing involvement of the United States in the region. Logevall's research sheds light on the behavior of French and U.S. policymakers, who continued to pursue their war aims long after they had privately conceded that success was unlikely.

Event Highlights

Logevall on U.S. support for the French effort to re-assert control in Vietnam:

"And, of course, they say, yes, you may reclaim Indochina, and they do it in part because of a skillful diplomacy on the part of the French and the British. A theme in the book is that the French military performance is to some extent mixed, but they're really good at diplomacy. And so they make this sale to the Americans. For their own reasons, the Americans under Truman also believe that they need a strong France in the center of Europe. There's already an emerging set of tensions with the Soviets. The grand alliance, as you know, collapses pretty quickly. And I think, for reasons that have really nothing to do with Indochina, per se, Truman and his aides say, all right, we don't like colonialism, we really do think its day has passed, but we need to allow the French—and we will allow the French—to come back."

Logevall on whether foreign intervention and nation-building can ever be successful:

"And one reason I think it's difficult in whatever context is that it's hard, it seems to me, for—let's call them an indigenal peoples, an indigenal people. It's hard for them to see a foreign occupying army as their friend. And I just think it's extremely difficult, in any setting, to come in—let's say that you're the United States in this case and believe, even if it's through benign institutions, even if it's through building schoolhouses and roads and hospitals, and focusing on the hearts and minds, as the phrase goes, that you're going to have lasting support on the part of the people there. I just think that's a really difficult challenge."

Logevall on why many French and U.S. officials continued to support their respective war efforts in Vietnam despite their own personal misgivings:

"I think what you find in the French case and in the American case is that—and maybe this is partly human nature—I'd be interested to know if you agree—that it's difficult for policymakers to acknowledge a mistake, to convince themselves and each other, you know, we went down the wrong road, we're going to pull back."


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