Four Burning Questions for Fredrik Logevall, finalist for the Cundill Prize in Historical Literature

Fredrik Logevall is a Swedish-American historian and professor of International Studies at Cornell University. Logevall received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, which has also been selected as a finalist for the Cundill Prize for Historical Literature. Logevall recently spoke to the McGill Reporter about his book, his writing regime and the importance of literary prizes.
Fredrik Logevall is one of the three finalists for the $75,000 Cundill Prize for Historical Literature. / Photo: Lindsay France

Fredrik Logevall is a Swedish-American historian and professor of International Studies at Cornell University. Logevall received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, which has also been selected as a finalist for the Cundill Prize for Historical Literature. The Cundill Prize, now in its sixth year, features a $75,000 U.S. grand prize, the most lucrative international award for a nonfiction book. The winning title will be announced on Nov. 20. 

What first sparked your interest in Vietnam and this particular period in history? 

Well, when you live in Vancouver and you have a passion for world affairs, you automatically become fixated on the giant neighbour to the south. So as an undergraduate student at Simon Fraser University I began devouring works pertaining to US foreign policy and contemporary international history. One book made a particularly deep impression on me, namely David Halberstam’s sprawling, captivating classic, The Best and the Brightest, which tells the story of how successive US administrations got themselves ensnared in Vietnam. I was hooked, and decided I must undertake my own research on the war. I knew my timing was right: huge amounts of archival documentation was destined to be released in the coming years. So that’s what I did, beginning in a serious way during my graduate studies in the United States. My early work focused on the so-called Americanization of the struggle in the early and mid 1960s, and it resulted in my first book, Choosing War. I thought then that this would be my one and only study of the Vietnam struggle, but here I am, two decades and four books later, still at it.

In the course of doing the research on the US military buildup in the 1960s, questions nagged at me concerning how the whole thing began in the first place. I determined I needed to go back in time, to the French war that preceded the American intervention. Only by doing that, I felt, would I be able to answer what stands as one of the most important questions, for Americans, of the entire post-World War II era: Why did the United States end up in this place, 10,000 miles from Washington DC, in a place many Americans at the time didn’t even know existed? Why did the United States, borne out of an anti-colonial reaction against Great Britain, opt to back France in a colonial war against Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary nationalist forces, and then, once France was defeated, choose to try to succeed where the French had failed? And why did both Western powers fail in their efforts, despite possessing massive military superiority? These are questions I attempt to answer in Embers of War.

Please describe what level of dedication it takes to produce such a comprehensive piece of historical literature? What type of regime do you employ?

The first thing to say is it took a long time! From the signing of the contract to the submission of the final version to my editor was about a decade. I didn’t work on it the entire time, to be sure–other writing projects took precedence from time to time, and at the midpoint my family and I moved from California to central New York. But still, never did I imagine that it would take so long.

I determined early that the book would be in significant part a synthesis, bringing together what previous authors — scholars, journalists, memoirists— had done. (Narrative synthesis, I want to suggest, is a powerful form of creating, not simply summarizing, knowledge.) I knew I would also do archival research, certainly, but I understood from my previous work that though we lacked a full-fledged narrative international history of the early years in the Indochina struggle, the size of the literature telling parts of the story was already very large — not least in French-language sources little used by American scholars.

So that’s where I began: by reading. I’m fortunate enough to be at an institution with a superb collection of books and other materials relating to Southeast Asia in general and Vietnam in particular. One could just hibernate in the Cornell stacks for weeks at a time. This extensive reading then put me in a position to undertake the archival research that followed. It was a regime that worked well for me, because it allowed me to be efficient in the archives — I knew what I was looking for when I arrived, even if I also learned much I didn’t know. In addition, I decided early that I would begin drafting chapters more or less from the start, rather than waiting until the research was largely done. This too proved beneficial, because I could send draft chapters to my editor and get his feedback at regular intervals, which was extremely valuable. If memory serves, I sent him a couple of rough early chapters already in 2003!

What do you hope readers of your Embers of War will come away with when they read it?

I hope they come away with an enhanced understanding of how and why the long and bloody struggle for Indochina happened, and how it was that not one but two Western great powers lost their way in Southeast Asia. I hope they come away with a sense of the striking parallels — and notable differences — between the French and American experiences. I hope they gain a deeper grasp of what drove the Vietnamese revolutionaries to persist in the conflict, year after year, and also what motivated non-Communist Vietnamese to oppose Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh. And I hope, finally, that readers will put the book down with an appreciation of the fundamentally contingent nature of this extraordinary story. It’s a story full of alternative political choices, major and minor, considered and taken, reconsidered and altered, by decision-makers working under intense pressure in Paris and Saigon, in Washington and Moscow and Beijing, and in the Viet Minh’s headquarters in the jungles of northern Vietnam. It reminds us, I think, that to the policymakers of the past, the future was only a set of possibilities. If the decolonization of Indochina was bound to happen, the process could have played out in any number of different ways, as the experience of European colonies in other parts of South and Southeast Asia shows.

How important is the Cundill Prize and literary awards in general? What kind of effect would winning one have on your work?

No question they matter a lot to most authors — whether or not they like to admit it. During the long writing process, when you question what you’re doing and wonder if the thing will ever cohere, will ever see the light of day, it’s hard not to wonder if readers will be interested in the book, will pick it up, will keep turning the pages. And you wonder if a prize committee or two might take notice as well. At the same time, you don’t allow yourself to dwell on major prizes like the Cundill or to think you might actually be in a position to win one. You file away the thought and get back to the keyboard. And now here I am. To be a finalist for the Cundill Prize is a tremendous feeling. Just to have reached this stage is an affirmation of what I set out to do in this project all those years ago, and will broaden the readership of the volume. I feel certain as well that it will help launch me on my way as I stare at the blank opening page of what will become the next book—I hope before 2023.