Jeff Glor talks to Fredrik Logevall about "Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam."
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?
Fredrik Logevall: As I was completing my first book, Choosing War, which dealt with JFK and LBJ and the "Americanization" of the war in 1961-65, I became more and more fascinated by the French War that came before, and wanted to learn about it. Simultaneously--and unknown to me--Jason Epstein of Random House wanted to sign someone to write a book on the long-term origins of America's war, one that would go back to WW2 and place the Indochina struggle in the broader context of decolonization and the emerging Cold War. My name came to his attention, and in short order his fellow editor Scott Moyers approached me about doing this new work. I jumped at the chance. That was in 2000, and here we are, a dozen years later.
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
FL: The degree to which the United States was a central player in the Indochina struggle from the very beginning, in 1940. (I begin the first main chapter with the Fall of France that year, which had major implications for the Empire in general and Indochina in particular.) For Ho Chi Minh, for the French, for the British, the Chinese, the Soviets, the non-Communist Vietnamese, a pressing question was always: What will the Americans do? Ho believed for a long time that America would be his ally in his quest for independence; the French feared he was right. Moreover, these were well-founded beliefs. FDR was anti-colonial and opposed to allowing France to reclaim Indochina after WW2, and it's not fanciful to argue that had he lived beyond 1945 he would have worked to prevent a French return and might well have succeeded, thereby changing the course of history. But Roosevelt died, and soon thereafter patterns of thought were laid down in Washington regarding Vietnam that would not really change for the next 20 years. As the book shows, the US was crucial to the French war effort in the First Indochina war, but failed to heed the lessons of France's disastrous defeat. Instead, American leaders moved to build up and defend South Vietnam, and thereby put the US on its collision course with history.
JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
FL: A professional tennis player! Actually, by now I'd be washed up and coaching the tennis team at some college somewhere. I competed at a high level as a junior, and for a time thought I'd try to make it as a pro. But I came to the realization that I had neither the talent nor the undying commitment to reach the top rung. So maybe it would have been something else. Perhaps owning and running the fabulous bakery in Sandhamn, in the archipelago outside my native Stockholm and accessible only by boat.
JG: What else are you reading right now?
FL: Juggling several books at once, as usual: Adam Sisman's biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper; James Mann's;" Pico Iyer's "The Man Within My Head" (about Graham Greene, who figures quite prominently in my book and who was often within my head too!). I have Stephen King's "11/22/63" on my nightstand, but haven't cracked it open yet.
JG: What's next for you?
FL: A short interpretive volume on the entire American experience in Vietnam, up to the fall of Saigon in 1975, for the Modern Library Chronicles series. In terms of the next big research project, I'm not sure. Any ideas?
For more on "Embers of War," visit the Random House website.