The Embers of War, by Fredrik Logevall is about the Franco-Vietnamese conflict from 1945 to 1954 and the subsequent American takeover of the anti-communist crusade in Southeast Asia. My takeaways from the book: 1. the United States repeated all or many of the same mistakes that the French had made that led to their failure. The U.S., I guess, assumed that they could simply do things better than the French. 2.) Much of the U.S. decision making was driven by McCarthyism and the fear of being labeled as “soft on communism” and perhaps of “losing Vietnam” in the same way that the Democrats were accused of losing China. 3.) The U.S. consistently failed to recognize or acknowledge the nationalistic aspect of the struggle of Ho Chi Minh’s forces that were, at least at first, stronger than the communistic aspects. U.S. leaders saw only monolithic communism with Moscow calling all the shots. Even with the example of Yugoslavia, they couldn’t accept the possibility of a nationalistic, communist movement. Ho Chi Minh had repeatedly over decades sought assistance from the western democracies. He only turned to the Soviet Union and China after being rebuffed by the West. After that, both the Soviet Union and China had better things to worry about than a small country in Southeast Asia. The U.S.’s monolithic Communist bogeyman did not exist.
What would have happened if the U.S. had extended a helping hand to Ho Chi Minh?
The Greatest Battle is different from most military histories. I’m not sure if it makes sense to classify it as strictly military history. It is about the largest land battle of World War II, but it devotes more pages to the context in which the battle was fought than the fighting itself. The are chapters on the terror practices by both Stalin and Hitler; their utter lack of concern for their soldiers and citizens; their paranoia and lack of trust in their highest military officers; their shortcomings as military leaders. Both dictators thought they could make better strategic, operational, and even tactical decisions that could their generals and field marshals. Both made serious and glaring mistakes that led to German defeat and the near defeat of the Soviet Union and the useless sacrifice of Soviet soldiers.
Extremism or totalitarianism – whether on the far left or far right – brings tragedy on a massive scale. The author points out the striking similarities between the two dictators; maybe that’s why they hated each other so much. Neither dictator ever accepted responsibilities for their own bad decisions. They blamed someone else or something else: the weather, the Jews, their stupid generals, spies, agitators. Nothing introspective about those two. Seemingly every decision made by Hitler was a poor one. In contract, Stalin took decisions that helped the Soviet Union to victory.
One of Stalin’s decision was based on the work of a spy and was very important in turning the tide of the battle of Moscow. Richard Sorge, a Russian spy working at the German embassy in Tokyo, was able to inform the Soviets that Japan would not intervene by attacking in Siberia. Once Stalin accepted this information he decided to move hundreds of thousands of trained, well equipped troops from eastern Siberia and insert them into the fight against Germany. Most of these troops were fed immediately into the fight around Moscow, enabling Marshal Zhukov to counterattack. Thus the Germans got within 40 miles of Moscow but no further.
Stalin also made two decisions that according to the author were instrumental in boosting the morale of the Russian people. First he decided to stay in Moscow even though the rest of the Soviet government had evacuated to Kuibyshev. Then he insisted – in spite of the opposition of all his political and military advisors – to hold the military parade that was held each December in Red Square. The troops participating in the parade left the front lines, marched in the parade, and then went directly from the parade back to the front lines.
This is an excellent book that would interest anyone interested in the eastern front during World Was II. Highly recommended.