Fredrik Logevall’s Pulitzer prize-winning Embers of War is written with the style of a great novelist and the intrigue of a Cold War thriller. This landmark work that will forever change your understanding of how and why America went to war in Vietnam.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Scholar A.J. Langguth writes, “These days, any history of Vietnam, no matter how scholarly and objective, will be read for what it teaches us now.” Do you agree that the history of Vietnam primarily teaches us about war today? How does that approach expand your reading of Embers of War?
2. Logevall engages seriously with counterfactual history: “The story of the French Indochina War and its aftermath is a contingent one, full of alternative political choices, major and minor, considered and taken, reconsidered and altered.” What are some of the major forks in the road that Logevall points to? How does the concept of choice versus inevitability change your understanding of the major players?
3. Two sides of Ho Chi Minh – nationalist and communist – struggle for prominence in his historical legacy. Which interpretation does Logevall lean towards? What about you? How does his identity shape your understanding and opinions of the War’s outcomes?
4. On the other side of the same coin, the U.S. grappled with anti-colonial and anti-communist instincts. For the U.S., how was the conflict in Indochina a part of the cold war and how was it not?
5. Domino theory played a role in U.S. decision-making in Vietnam. However, a 2007 study of over 130 countries in the 20th century found that states are rarely influenced by changes in their neighbors’ internal governmental structures. What does Logevall find flawed about the domino theory? What was so seductive about the concept in the 1950s?
6. In what ways does Logevall show individual leaders – determined, passionate, flawed – driving historical outcomes? Is it possible to separate the role of a single person from larger global forces?
7. The battle of Dien Bien Phu was the first time in the history of colonial warfare that Asian troops defeated a European army in fixed battle. In the early days of the First Indochina War, the French and the Viet Minh seemed mismatched militarily, the French having a large advantage. What changed between 1945 and 1954, and why might the initial assessment of the French advantage have been wrong?
8. General Westmoreland, who commanded US military operations in Vietnam from 1964 to 1972 said, “Why should I study the lessons of the French? They haven’t won a war since Napoleon.” How did the Americans see themselves as different from the French? In terms of goals? National identity? Military prowess? From today’s perspective, how do you think the Americans were different from the French, if they were at all?
9. We all know the ending of Logevall’s story. How does Logevall create suspense while avoiding sensationalism in a familiar historical narrative?
10. Logevall writes a good deal about Graham Greene and The Quiet American. What does the novel say about America’s eventual fate in Vietnam? What kind of observer does Logevall show Greene to be? Why do you think a novelist was able to read the circumstances in Vietnam more clearly than others, including journalists and military and political leaders?
11. Look over Logevall’s endnotes. Where did most of his research come from? How do you think these sources shaped his conclusions? Do you notice any trends in both his primary and secondary source? Does anything surprise you?