I am taking a history class on the Vietnam wars and we just recently finished two books on the history of France in Indochina. While both are excellent, the first Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954 is less accessible. The second, Embers Of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, is a readable account of the end of the French period and sets the stage for the next war to come.
Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954 by Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery is remarkable for its scope. It covers the entire range of the colonial experience from the political, economic, and cultural effects and from the beginnings of colonization to the end after France’s defeat at the battle of Dien Bein Phu.
The French authors aim to create a storyline that doesn’t take sides but shows the interaction of colonizers and colonized, and for most of the book they do this. At the same time, most of their sources are French and they end the book on a strangely sympathetic note. They write
“French colonial imperialism, in the midst of acquiring a new historical shape and a neocolonial project, finally found the political will to take on the issues concerning the development of colonized peoples. It was just then that imperial France was overtaken by Indochina by the unforeseeable: a national, communist revolution that was radically decolonizing and pregnant with another historical project (379).”
This closing commentary seems to indicate that France was going to modernize (doubtful) and that the Viet Minh emerged out of nowhere (?!?). Overall it is a wonderful piece of scholarship and worth a read if you have a strong interest in France’s relationship with Vietnam.
Embers Of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam by Frederick Logevall picks up at the beginning of the World War II and the start of France’s downfall and takes us through 1959 when two Americans are killed at an outpost near Saigon. Along the way he discusses not only France’s actions and mistakes, but also the place of Vietnam in the emerging Cold War and American anti-communist hysteria.
Logevall is a historian at Cornell University and is an excellent writer. He approaches the story from the level of the individuals involved and the choices they make along the way. In this sense it reads almost like a work of fiction because you have a strong sense of the main characters and how they interact with others. While it is a long book, it is so well-written and engaging that it is difficult to put down. I was actually late getting to work one day because I wanted to finish a chapter. If you are interested in the Vietnam War from the American perspective, you absolutely must read this book. It demonstrates nicely the beginnings of our involvement and why it later became America’s Vietnam.
Both books are worth reading, but I would recommend Logevall for casual history buffs. It is definitely a fave of 2013.