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Book Review


Logevall, Fredrik. The Origins of the Vietnam War (Essex, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2001). 156 pp, $20.00.

     Fredrik Logevall's volume is one of those in the Seminar Studies in History series. It has been crafted with a very carefully defined focus and purpose. His focus is on the origins preceding the introduction of American ground troops into Vietnam. This time period stretches from the French solidification of control over the "protectorates" of Annam and Tonkin and the colony of Cochin China in 1884 up through March 8, 1965, when two battalions of United States Marines, the first American ground combat troops actually inserted, were landed in Danang by order of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Although he must of necessity refer to various later events, there is no attempt to describe in any great detail the course of battle or tactics.

     His purpose is to look at documents which have been declassified in the United States, France, Great Britain, Vietnam, China, Russia and other national archives over the past forty years, as well as published personal memoirs, books, and articles written in the intervening period. He examines decisions made by many specific individuals around the world, looking at them with a simultaneity and global context which has hitherto been impossible.

     Logevall writes with great felicity. As you might imagine, the book must force into a small space an incredible number of names, dates, organizations and events. In spite of this, this reviewer remained completely engaged and captivated by the chronicle, flipping back and forth to check the supplemental data and then racing back to the narrative. If the reader lived through the critical period from 1941 and Ho Chi Minh's creation of the Vietminh and his declaration of independence from France, through 1975 and the final surrender of South Vietnamese President Duong Van Minh to the combined armies of the NLF and the AVN, he will be startled at what he has forgotten, misremembered, invented, ignored, or embroidered over the years since. If only for that reason, this brief book epitomizes history's role as a corrective.

     The book is divided into an Introduction; Part One: The Background; Part Two: The Origins of the Vietnam War; Part Three: Assessment; and Part Four: Documents. The truly invaluable supplements include a list of institutional abbreviations, three maps, and a chronology in the front of the book, and a cast of characters arranged by country, a bibliography, and an index in the back.

     One of the superb characteristics of the book is the author's concentration on individual decisions made by specific people, and upon the conceptions and misconceptions in their minds at the time which led them to make them. So many history books treat nations as epic deities which decide to invade, or decide to occupy, or decide to negotiate. Throughout the book, Fredrik Logevall makes it clear that it is rather individual human beings who make these decisions. The actual process by which history happens is made refreshingly clear, and this is a rare, refreshing, and instructive insight.

     The background and contemporaneous events which were occurring around the world throughout this period included, among others, the Korean conflict; the fall of Nationalist China (which enabled Mao to send weapons and supplies to Ho); the war between the forces of Ho and those of colonial Indochina; the Geneva Accords of 1951; Castro's strategic and tactical and political decisions which defeated the forces of Batista; the reign of Diem until John Kennedy arranged for him to be overthrown by the military; the Cuban Missile Crisis; Kennedy's assassination; and the real and spurious Gulf of Tonkin patrol boat incidents. The decisions being made were not simply about what to do with Vietnam, but about events exploding around the world - unpredictable events, and crucial ones.

     It is this complex net of events with which Logevall deals with extreme competence. When Ho declared independence in 1945, the dictator simply assumed that, the Japanese having been our enemy and the French having been collaborators, Truman would respond with recognition and support. In fact, Truman was far less anti-colonial than Roosevelt. While Eisenhower's domino theory envisioned Mao and Ho and Malenkov working with each other in a power play for Laos, Ho and Mao actually distrusted each other, and Malenkov distrusted them both. Right up until the moment when Johnson decided to insert the marines, Pham Van Dong, Ho's foreign minister, and Mao were convinced that Johnson did not want war. As a matter of fact, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was pressing Johnson to engage in negotiations right up until the last minute, and when Johnson decided to send in the troops, he did so glumly and with the feeling that it would all come to naught, but by now was necessary to try to maintain face. The cost was 58,000 American dead and between three and four million Vietnamese dead, and a settlement no better than that which we could have had in 1964. (2)

     In Chapter Six, An Avoidable War?, (85) Logevall concludes bluntly and persuasively that Johnson must take responsibility for a "war" which could have been avoided. At the same time, he feels that neither Dean Rusk at State, the Members of Congress, the British Prime Ministers, the French Presidents, the Soviet Premiers, the Chinese Presidents, nor Ho himself did what would have been necessary to promote negotiations. There was a tendency on their part to feel that war would never really come about because of its inevitable human and financial costs, and this caused a certain listless and pro forma support of negotiations at precisely a time calling for bold and inspired leadership.

     This reviewer feels that Logevall more than fulfilled his purpose, and that the book offers a fine correction to the tendency of previous works to neglect the world at large. The question remains regarding what a teacher is to do with it. Its brevity, detail, and fluency argue strongly for use on both a high school and a college level, if not as a required book, as a book suggested for reviews or other requirements. It is packed with information which today's young people do not have and, I would argue, desperately need. It is a book which would engage students. It is not only easy to read and brief but, thanks to the supplements, easy to use. It will certainly provoke discussion.

     Logevall takes a position in his assessment and does not affect concluding his investigations with an "objective" display of sides. At the same time, he is more than fair and careful throughout to present the issues, and there are many, which are still controversial, and he points those out. The twenty-two most important documents are there for the student to use should she desire to challenge Logevall's interpretation.

     A project which I might consider once a class had finished this book would be to ask each student, going to the textbook, to find a case of anthropomorphization; eg., "England invaded Grenada," or, "China crossed the Yalu River," or "India confronted imperial Great Britain,", to do some research, and then sum up in a page or two, as nearly as available resources and documents will allow, how these decisions were made, by what specific people, and the probable motives of each person who made them. These papers could be used by their authors as background to contribute to a discussion of a topic such as, "What is the historical process which creates the illusion of a 'state'?" Such an exercise extends into global history the insights of a book which might otherwise be considered too restricted in time.

     Admitting that the period is brief for a course in world history, I feel that it is sufficiently vital and current, and its vision of history so universally applicable, to strongly recommend its use in the classroom.


Jack Betterly
Emma Willard School, emeritus


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