Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Embers of War: Lots of Foreign Policy Lessons

Going to high school in the Sixties, the Vietnam War was a nightly feature on the B+W television news.  Before our engagement in South East Asia ended, endless "histories" had already been written, but they all seemed unabashedly partisan and poorly researched, since there wasn't much original source material available.  It was a war that none of the kids in our neighborhood understood, even though we had endless pictures, speeches and newspaper articles filling our heads. 

Fredrik Logevall's "Embers of War" begins with the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, and builds to the climactic French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the bloody outcome of which was referred to only obliquely by French representative Bidault at the Geneva Conference in May 1954.  This beautifully written book of history is thoroughly researched, well written and tells a gripping tale. The author uses his extensive sources to construct a seamless narrative.  The relatively few black and white photographs speak volumes by themselves. 

When world leaders were gathered in Paris to rebuild a peace after the Great War, we begin the story with a young Ho Chi Minh (née Nguyen Ai Quoc) who is captivated by what he reads in Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, especially number 5,
"A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined."
Unfortunately, his expansive reading of President Wilson's "anti-colonial" intent was misplaced. Ho is an ardent Vietnamese nationalist who sees the tide of post-war history spelling doom for the commercially driven interests of the French colonizers. He goes home convinced that hard cultural, economic and political work must be done to prepare for the inevitable day of Vietnamese independence.  Logevall is not blind to some of the tactics that Ho had to use in consolidating his hold over a unified Vietnam, namely terror and routine killing of dissident village leaders.  Ardent nationalists don't attain their objectives by wearing "flowers in their hair."

French intransigence, World War II and shifting global objectives among Britain, France, Russia, and the United States all conspire against the dream of independence.  Ho and the nationalists had to navigate the presence of both the French and the invading Japanese during World War II.

Personal relationships, and in particular personal mistrust, play a critical role in foreign policy at the highest levels. Nowhere is this better seen than in the relationship between de Gaulle and President Franklin Roosevelt.  Logevall writes,
"Roosevelt has not yet met de Gaulle, but he knew enough to dislike him. ...That de Gaulle fully shared Vichy's desire to preserve the French Empire only enhanced Roosevelt's disdain.  By the time of Pearl Harbor, he (Roosevelt) had become a committed anticolonialist."
Ho was personally attracted to the openness of American society and to its commitment to independence, expressed by Roosevelt, for the innumerable colonies and trust territories throughout the world.  Decades after his visits, Ho talked about his visits to Harlem and his impressions of New York, with its many nationalities living side by side.  He firmly believed that America would unfailingly align itself with a Vietnamese independence movement because of what he read and hear first-hand in the speeches of President Roosevelt.

Because of the sclerotic hierarchy in diplomatic structures, Ho remained a relatively unknown quantity to our State department and to foreign policy advisers.  There were always suspicions that he was a Communist.  He never disabused our policy makers of that notion, because he knew that Indochina would be eventually a battle ground for the eventual players in a Cold War.  His potential allies might include Russia or Communist China.

After the Allied victory in World War II, Archimedes Patti, a U.S. intelligence operative was sent to Indochina to negotiate the release of Allied POWs held in Japanese camps. Patti meets both Ho and the even lesser known Vo Nguyen Giap.  Giap, referred to as General Giap in my school days, is now regarded as one of the greatest military leaders in the history of modern warfare. 

Patti, perhaps because he grew up the son of immigrant Italian parents in New York, connected with Ho and Giap.  He understood exactly what they were after, namely independence and close economic ties to the United States.  He wrote these ideas up in his communiqués.  They were roundly ignored, since Patti was from intelligence and not from the foreign policy cadre.  Tone deafness and a lack of acuity have always been a limiting factor in our ability to conduct foreign policy, as they still are today.

The author writes about Roosevelt in 1944,
" 'The ideas of independence have become more familiar to the populations so far submitted to the authority of European countries,' the president said.  'I believe that if we do not wish to be thrown out by these people, we must find a general formula to resolve the relationship between the White and Yellow races' "
It seemed as if Ho's reading of American policy evolution would prove correct. Ho's dreams were crushed when Roosevelt collapsed of a cerebral hemorrhage and died in April.  The Truman administration began with its own foreign policy interests. These, along with the ambitions of his White House staffers conspired to take Roosevelt's themes off the table.  Roosevelt's ideas had been overtaken by events, even before his untimely death.

The Truman White House, pressured by European allies, moved to the side of supporting a French "recolonization" of Indochina, for economic reasons and to add an important ally in Southeast Asia as a counterbalance to Japan and an unstable situation in China.

The story careens forward from here.  Ho is soon forced to reach out to the Communist Chinese government, which eventually supports his war effort with materiel in the amount of 500 tons per month.  The French, at the peak of the seven year war, are using 8,000 tons per month.  The French army is undermanned, as French conscription for a foreign war is insupportable.  Some of their leaders are brave and courageous, while others are arrogant and foolhardy. 

On the other side, as the war ground on for the Vietnamese, Ho and Giap were increasingly faced with resentment over food shortages, incessant civilian commitment to night time guerilla raids, and to growing middle class disenchantment with the costs of independence. 

Ho's Chinese allies were themselves getting economically overextended and facing questions at home. It was now a true war of attrition, after seven years.

In several key battles, Algerian and North African troops did the hardest and bloodiest fighting and won their objectives.  Of course, later on the Algerians would get the back of the French hand in their own bloody war for independence. 

After the battle of Dien Bien Phu, nine thousand French soldiers, POWs, civilian personnel and deserters were put on a march to camps 300-450 miles away. The marchers were to cover twelve miles a day for more than forty days, during the rainy season, with daily rations of 800 grams of rice. The author rightly focuses on the barbarous behavior the Viet Minh, especially towards the North African soldiers who were harshly treated because of their coming to fight  on the side of colonizers, while they were colonized themselves.  It is a harrowing tale that Logevall tells deftly.
"The soldier is not a man of violence. He carries arms and risks his life for mistakes not of his making. He has the merit of being unflinchingly true to his word to the end, while knowing that he will be forgotten."
               Antoine de SAINT EXUPĖRY
The French could not have fought as long as they did without American aid, especially in armaments and planes.  After the defeat, the allies grumbled at each other for their mutual lack of commitment.  The Eisenhower administration's go slow policy on more direct U.S. engagement was derided by the French.

Ultimately, we substitute ourselves for the French and we write our own history.  Many of the mistakes they made, we replicate, except on a bigger, bloodier and more 'technocratic' scale.  I hadn't realized that we gave the French napalm bombs to use in their war.  I was under the impression that napalm was introduced in our B-52 sorties.

A book on history hasn't left me emotionally spent for decades.  This one did: it is must reading, especially for students of history, culture, foreign policy and military strategy.

© Eapen Chacko

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