The 1954 defeat of the French at Dienbienphu did not mark the genesis of America's involvement ill Vietnam. Indeed, as Rutgers historian Gardner makes clear in his absorbing (if occasionally pedantic) overview, the fall of the highlands fortress was but the midpoint in a protracted diplomatic and military struggle dating back to WW II. Drawing on previously unavailable material from UK and US archives, Gardner provides genuinely fresh perspectives on events in and beyond Southeast Asia during the pivotal 1945-54 period. Even as Allied forces battled the Axis on many fronts, to illustrate, FDR maneuvered to keep the French from returning to Indochina. In relatively short order, however, his goal of self-determination for Vietnam and other colonial outposts became a casualty of the West's fear of communist aggression. Nor, the author points out, were Cold Warriors unaware of Indochina's potential as a market for a renascent Japan. In the meantime, the US waged a three-year police action under the UN banner in Korea. Once this conflict reached a negotiated end, the Great Powers convened a conference in Geneva, whose agenda included Indochina as well as Korea. Among other things, the agreements reached there in July of 1954 called for the partition of Vietnam, pending a political settlement to be achieved via national elections. Washington, which declined to endorse the final declaration, began funneling aid directly to Saigon less than six months later. In recounting the cautionary tale of how the West tried and failed to mediate between imperialism and liberation, Gardner lets many of those who played leading roles in the Vietnam drama speak for themselves. The cast of characters features most of the era's leading statesmen--Acheson, Churchill, Ngo Dinh Diem, Dulles, Eden, Eisenhower, MendÃ‰s-France, Ho Chi Minh, Roosevelt, Truman, et al. On his own, the author offers at best serviceable prose. This cavil apart, an illuminating probe of a murky period in geopolitical history.