- The First Vietnam War: Colonial Conflict and Cold War Series
While French historians have produced several extensive histories of the Indochina War, "Anglo-Saxon" historiography tends to view the struggle fought between the French and the Viet Minh between 1946 and 1954 as a mere prologue to the American intervention in Vietnam. American scholars Mark Atwood Lawrence and Fredrik Logevall set out to rectify this, with a quality edited volume based on a conference held at the LBJ Library in November 2002. Chapters from William Duiker on Viet Minh strategy, Lien-Hang T. Nguyen on Vietnamese historiography of the conflict, and David Marr on the early years of the Viet Minh offer tantalizing glimpses of the fighting from the Viet Minh perspective. Duiker convincingly chronicles Viet Minh adaptation of Mao's three-stage guerrilla conflict into an amalgamation of Ho Chi Minh's pragmatism, a modified Maoist strategy, and "a dash of Lenin." The Viet Minh learned the value of a sanctuary beyond the frontier, the benefits of diplomacy to keep Paris on the defensive and acquire legitimacy, psychological warfare, the requirement for a broad support base in the face of a powerful foreign enemy, and the need for strategic patience when fighting a prolonged war. These were principles applied with equal success by the FLN in Algeria. But otherwise, the military dimensions of the conflict are largely neglected.
Instead, the volume's focus is on the international context of the war, in particular the evolution of French, U.S., British, and Chinese policy toward the conflict. Once the French concluded by 1952 at least that they could not defeat the Viet Minh and that they needed to focus assets on Europe and North Africa, they successfully handed off most of the financing, direction, and ultimately the legacy of that war to Washington, whose notions of Free World grandeur proved to be as toxic as French imperial hubris. John Prados's brilliant chapter on the consequences of Dien Bien Phu for U.S. policy alone is worth the price of the book. He shows that the commitment to a non-Communist South Vietnam, the "domino theory," the "Munich analogy," and Congressional resolutions concocted to circumvent the requirement for a declaration of war, as well as the cast of characters waiting in the wings to apply it led by JFK, LBJ, Dean Rusk, and Richard Nixon, were cemented into place during the 1954 death throes of French Indochina. London's refusal of Eisenhower's invitation to organize a joint rescue of the French at Dien Bien Phu served to postpone U.S. ground intervention for a decade.
The real winners of the Indochina War, however, were the Chinese, who coached and equipped Viet Minh forces until they were competitive with the French, acted as impresarios for the collapse of the French on the R.C. 4 in 1950 [End Page 613] and Dien Bien Phu less than four years later, and then leveraged their position to gain independence for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam at Geneva in June 1954, at a stroke burnishing their reputation as responsible international actors and removing a potential U.S. threat from their southern borders. This volume is hardly the definitive work on this important war. But it offers a well written, important step toward a refocus on the international context of an important Cold War conflict.