Comprehensive history of the early years of what in Vietnam is called “the American War”—the time in which one Western power took the place of another, only for both to be defeated.
Logevall (International Studies and History/Cornell Univ.; Terrorism and 9/11: A Reader, 2002, etc.) opens his long, deeply complex narrative with a little-known event: namely, a fact-finding mission to Vietnam on the part of then-Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1951, reporting on his return home that France was foolishly trying to cling to an empire even as the people of Vietnam rejected the French-installed Vietnamese puppet government. But much as President Obama inherited George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, by the time Kennedy became president, he was saddled with Truman’s and then Eisenhower’s Vietnam. Logevall is careful to point to roads-not-taken without belaboring the point, to which readers will respond all the same by wishing, for one thing, that Franklin Roosevelt had lived beyond 1945—for it was he who was urging a postwar world without overseas empires, who “had reached the conclusion that, for good or ill, complete independence was foreordained for all or almost all the European colonies.” In the real development of early events, there was nothing foreordained, however; much of what shaped up in Vietnam was the result of historical accidents, such as the fact that, as Logevall notes, the Potsdam Agreement favored Ho Chi Minh by placing northern Vietnam under Chinese control, which allowed his Viet Minh to build up its armaments and political power. The opposition mounted by Ngo Dinh Diem, though, was ineffectual; he had enough on his hands trying to deal with the organized crime gangs that really ran South Vietnam. By the end of 1963, things really were locked into inevitability, especially after Ho decided to escalate the war precisely in order to make the Americans go home.
It didn’t work that way, of course. Logevall’s exhaustive study shows chapter and verse why not—and why the ensuing American war was doomed to fail.