- The First Vietnam War: Colonial Conflict and Cold War Crisis
When most Americans speak of the "Vietnam War," they are referring to the U.S. military's entanglement in Vietnam from 1965 to 1975, typically placing it in the fully developed context of Cold War politics. However, for the modern Vietnamese nation, that war was part of a 30-year struggle for national liberation that began in 1945 with the Viet Minh-led resistance against the return of French colonial rule following World War II. Most of the chapters in The First Vietnam War: Colonial Conflict and Cold War Crisis cover the 1945–1954 war, emphasizing the shifting political landscape shaped by key players in the Indochina crisis during those years. Some of the chapters actually do deal with the post–1954 period, and the grouping of the chapters into strict chronological order after a section containing two historiographical studies would have benefited from more astute editing to draw together the common insights offered by the chapters. Nevertheless, the volume presents some valuable material that, rather than treating the Franco–Viet MinhWar as the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, suggests the underdetermined nature of the postwar order. Eschewing the binary logic of Cold War politics in favor of elaborating on the complexity and contingencies of international politics in the early postwar period, many of the volume's contributors draw on recently released archival material to present the various scenarios of the postwar order envisioned by the critical actors concerned with Indochina—scenarios that reflected the actors' disparate values and anxieties, as well as complex interests and calculations.
Several chapters highlight the significance of the waning of empire and the emboldened anti-colonial resistance elsewhere in the world for Indochina, as it shifted from being the site of colonial conflict to that of Cold War ideological struggle. Chapters by Mark Lawrence, Martin Thomas, and Laurent Cesari demonstrate how Franklin Roosevelt's goal of decolonization clashed immediately after World War II with French and British anxieties about the postwar recovery of their economies, which were deeply tied to their colonies in Asia. By 1949, however, the persistence of the Viet Minh insurgency was diverting increasing amounts of resources that the Europeans believed were better served elsewhere. Cesari further illustrates how, despite initial [End Page 158] U.S. opposition to the return of French rule to Vietnam, France was able to exploit the complex array of international concerns in the postwar period—including developments in East Asia and the consolidation of West European defense against the USSR—to bargain for U.S. support of its war in Indochina, even as popular support for the war in France itself had faded by 1950.
In other chapters, differences not only among individual states but also within them lend to the book's theme of the highly contingent nature of the postwar international order. Aiming to illustrate the multifarious currents in the divided politics of the 1945–1954 period, Mark Philip Bradley surveys a puzzling variety of texts from six different countries about or from the period, including literary studies, paintings, a range of histories about state actors and social movements, and official publications. Bradley overextends in attempting to capture in one chapter the full range of discourses through which different subjects mediated their experiences during those years. Stein Tønneson and Marilyn Young take the more conventional narrative approach of describing the individuals and events that contributed to the demise of Roosevelt's policy toward Indochina. Tønneson's and Young's chapters illuminate various dimensions of the context in which U.S. policy shifted toward recognition of French sovereignty over Indochina and support for its war against the Viet Minh. The chapters reveal the construction of Cold War logic, as the Vietnamese resistance, which the United States initially regarded as an anti-colonial movement, was recast as Communist expansionism by the U.S. State Department, the U.S. minister in Saigon, French General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny and the U...