The literature on the Vietnam War has become so voluminous that it is becoming repetitive. Works that offer new insights or reveal new information have become rare. Mark Lawrence’s Assuming the Burden, however, is one of those rare exceptions. His book offers a unique perspective, one that reverberates with implications for many other parts of this American tragedy. It is an important book.
Setting out to examine the origins of the French Indochina War, Lawrence provides a detailed scholarly analysis of the period from 1947 to 1950 in which the French successfully pulled the United States into supporting them. As Lawrence points out, it was a hard sell, and it required enlisting the support of the British, who had their own reservations about playing such a role. In contemporary parlance, it was [End Page 162] a “long, hard slog.” Lawrence adds to the complexity of the French campaign by tracing the political divisions that emerged over the issue in all three countries.
The difficulty in getting the United States to intervene stemmed from a conflict of images. At least initially, a strong core of opinion on the American side saw the emerging decolonizing world as a struggle for modern nationalism and democracy in which the formal colonial powers could help most by simply leaving. The French, in their determination to return to their colonies, sought to deflect Americans from this image toward one that showed a French return as part of the emerging titanic global struggle against Communism. Lawrence shows that both the British and the Americans resisted this French image for a long time. The British did not accept it because of misgivings that stemmed from their own intervention in Vietnam in 1945–1946 to “supervise” the surrender of the Japanese. They became involved in the negotiations between the French and the Vietnamese nationalists/Communists, and they were not sanguine about the chances for a French return that could assuage the rising nationalist aspirations they had witnessed.
Nonetheless, the march of global events began to favor the French image. The British, in their own withdrawal from India, faced rising Communist insurgencies first in Burma and then in full force in Malaya, and the Communist affiliations of Ho Chi Minh made the French image more potent than championing rising nationalist aspirations in former colonies. For the Americans, the ascendancy of Mao Zedong in the civil war in China also made stopping Communism an ascendant priority over promoting nationalism.
To win over the British first as a means to enlist American support, the French loudly promoted the cause of Bao Dai as a nationalist alternative to Ho Chi Minh. Despite strong American and British urgings, the French never turned over real sovereignty to Bao Dai, and thus neither the British nor the Americans proved cooperative in playing along with this charade. Stanley Karnow even reported Bao Dai as telling a Western journalist that he (Bao Dai)—not the prostitute draped around his shoulders—was the real whore in Indochina.
France’s “success,” as Lawrence meticulously recounts, came in May 1950, when the Americans, alarmed by the march of events that suggested a Communist juggernaut in Asia, professed their support for Bao Dai as a genuine nationalist alternative to Ho Chi Minh and opened the floodgates to military assistance to France. This assistance eventually came to assume 80 percent of the French war costs. In spire of this “success,” the French went down to ultimate defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
This brief summary cannot do full justice to Lawrence’s tightly argued scholarly account based on extensive primary research. He does not overreach himself in his interpretations or analysis and is even-handed in handling the evidence.
The book’s implications extend considerably beyond the 1947–1950 period. In revealing the tortuous path of America’s first “indirect” intervention in Indochina, readers also see how at least the beginnings of the Cold War were multipolar in their interactions. That is, the origins of the Indochina conflict really arose out of...