David Hockney @ Tate Britain

This is a comprehensive and awe-inspiring 13-room overview of David Hockney’s 60-year-long career, starting with works created while he was still an art student at the Royal College of Art in 1960 and concluding with depictions of his California home which he was still working on as the exhibition was being finalised.

Hockney – arguably England’s greatest living artist, certainly its most popular, and recognised by the Establishment as a member of the Order of Merit, a Companion of Honour, a Royal Academician – will be 80 this July (he was born 9 July 1937), and he still hasn’t finished – both creating and commenting insightfully and humorously on his own work.

Sometimes curators can arrange an artist’s work by theme, but in Hockney’s case it makes more sense to arrange it in bog standard chronological order, because the different experiments and ways of making occur very much at certain times and are best understood a) when taken together, so you can savour his experiments with a new look b) when viewed in sequence since you can see the underlying continuities and the ways ongoing interests and ideas recur in new ways, new investigations.

There are hundreds of books and essays about the man, including the many he’s written himself, several biographies, numerous documentaries and countless charming interviews; there is no shortage of comment and analysis on Hockney’s career, so I’ll try to keep my summary of his oeuvre as displayed by this exhibition, brief.

Periods and styles

  • Art school scrappy – very early 1960s – deliberately scratchy, dark and cranky like the English weather. Right from the start his works are BIG but I find the early stuff unappealing and very art school studenty.
    • Play within a play (1963) The commentary goes on about playing with perspective so the tassles at the bottom of the screen, along with the chair and the floorboards are meant to indicate perspective and vanishing point i.e. artifice, while the handprint is of a real hand pressed against the glass Hockney wanted to cover the whole painting with. Fair enough, but it’s not nice to look at.
    • Flight into Italy (1962) Note the combination of Pop-style use of a geological diagram for the silhouette Alps, with the blurred semi-skull heads in the manner of Francis Bacon. Bacon’s horror smears are a big and unpleasant presence in the first few rooms.
  • 1962 Hockney’s work appeared in the Young Contemporaries exhibition – and you can see in it all the influences of the time – Abstract Expressionism with hints of Pop Art, suggestions of Francis Bacon. It was followed by a 1963 show, named with deliberate fake naivety, Paintings with people in:
    • Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (1961) In Hockney’s own words, this is the closest he got to Pop, an object-shaped canvas portrayal of a commercial product (a box of Typhoo tea) – but note the insertion of the blurred humanoid into it, like a Francis Bacon figure trapped in a cage, as if he feels the product itself wouldn’t be enough, that it needs some kind of extra layer of meaning – unlike Warhol’s sublime confidence.
    • The First Marriage, (A Marriage of Styles I) (1962) This is a mysterious image which the commentary deflates by explaining that Hockney was in a museum looking at the Egyptian objects when his friend came and stood by an ancient statue wearing a modern suit. the main features are the big sandy hessian canvas, and the deliberately scrappy badly drawn figures. Image the possibilities for sensuous play here, imagine the look of actual Egyptian statues, their smoothness and infinite depth. Here everything is scratchy and cack-handed, the amateurishness is the ethos.
  • 1964 Hockney moves to Santa Monica, Los Angeles, inaugurating the era of the classic swimming pool paintings and depictions of lots of fit young naked men. The commentary, rather banally, says that to young David, Hollywood represented ‘the land of dreams’ and, well, it turned out to be ‘the land of dreams’. More importantly, the move signifies a transition in his work to a more conventional use of perspective and more traditional compositions of actual scenes.
    • Medical Building (1966) This reproduction doesn’t do justice to the size of the image, and its cartoon simplicity. He liked the clean lines of the buildings against the clear Californian sky, as thousands had before him.
    • Man in Shower in Beverly Hills (1964) The scrappiness of the human figure – a consistent approach or vision, is contrasted with the almost mathematical precision of the tiles and the brightness of the curtain, the pink carpet, the shiny chairs in the background. Note the shower curtain. The commentary makes much of the frequent inclusion of curtains in many of these early paintings to indicate ‘the artifice of theatre’.
    • A Bigger Splash (1967) Bright colours, geometrically straight lines, subverted or complimented by a spurt of curves or sudden scratchiness. Hockney’s many images of Los Angeles swimming pools are maybe his signature image.
    • Sunbather (1966) Pop colours, simple human figure, wiggly lines capturing the play of water.
    • Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool (1966)
  • From the mid-60s Hockney began using photography to help composition. In the later 1960s Hockney used his new figurative style to create some massive double portraits and the guide shows many of the still photos he took first to help him create these enormous compositions.
  • The exhibition then shows a room of Hockney’s generally very persuasive drawings from the late 60s and 70s. I liked these ones:
  • The commentary very usefully explains that by the end of the 1970s Hockney felt a little trapped by the restrictions of conventional perspective and figuration. It came as a great liberation when he stumbled on the idea of creating works composed of multiple Polaroid photos of the same scene, but often capturing the same detail numerous times and even in different states, assembled in what could loosely be called a cubist style. He first arranged many of these in mathematical grids, but then went one step further to arrange the Polaroids in shapes which themselves captured the action, the subject. He called this second series the ‘Joiners’. Both capture in a static flat image what are both multiple points of view, and multiple moments of time. Quite a huge amount of discourse can be woven out of this experiment by skilled curators and art critics and the images themselves are very effective, imaginative and well made but somehow, I didn’t find compelling.
    • Kasmin (1982) Example of a grid.
    • Pearlblossom Highway (1986) A more overlapping affect.
    • The Scrabble Game (1983) Maybe the best example of capturing multiple perspective and events in one static image. I found it clever, well-made, interesting, thought provoking, but… but… lacking the oomph, the shattering radicalness the commentary claims for it.
  • In the 1980s Hockney moved to a house up the windy road of Mulholland Drive overlooking Los Angeles, and was commissioned to design sets for a series of opera productions. He found the size and boldness required by theatre design to be another liberation. The scale and high colour of the sets fed back into his paintings, which now display a newly bold, thick and saturated palette, completely different from the deliberate airiness of his 1970s paintings.
    • Large interior, Los Angeles (1988) How different from the flat geometry of the pool paintings, this picture explodes in multiple perspectives, as well as a new much richer palette, and the transformation of so many previously realistically depicted objects into semi-abstract decorative elements. Compare the mad cartoon chairs with what now look like the very restrained chairs in the backdrop of Man in a shower.
    • Small Santa Monica – The Bay From The Mountains (1990) It is as if he’s been introduced to a whole new set of colours.
    • Nichols Canyon (1990) The airless geometry and very tight flat finish of the 1970s has been completely abandoned in favour of a super-bright, deliberately slapdash, and curved, organic shapes of these works.
  • From 1992 onwards Hockney took the new colours and the curves and lines he’d been playing with to a new level in a set of works which are entirely abstract, or in which only the ghost of a possible landscape remains underpinning images of a surreal, neo-Romantic, almost science fiction world. With characteristic understatement he titled these the Very New Paintings:
  • A room is devoted to works from the late 1990s, mixing depictions of Yorkshire and with big paintings of the Grand Canyon. These works are often made from an assemblage of separate canvases, in the words of the commentary to ’emphasise the articifiality of art’ (in case you were at risk of thinking you had stepped through a space-time portal from rainy Pimlico onto the brink of the actual Grand Canyon). What comes over is the super intense brightness of the colours and the almost deliberately childish simplicity of the detail. Looked at one way, some aspects of them could be illustrations from children’s books. Elsewhere in Tate Britain, the big retrospective of Paul Nash is still on, and for me there seem to be obvious similarities in the way a love of landscape has met the will to abstraction.
  • In 2006 Hockney returned from the States to live in Yorkshire full time, in order to be near a close friend who was dying in York. Now he bedded down to apply the super-bright and naive style he’d been developing over the previous decade, to an extended series of works depicting his native Yorkshire landscape. Many of these paintings are enormous and up close, have a very unfinished, childlike quality to them. Some people love them because they capture the often bleak English countryside in an immensely happy brightly coloured way; some critics think they’re appallingly simple-minded. Whatever your opinion, there are masses of them.
  • In 2010 Hockney fixed nine video cameras all facing forward to his Land Rover and drove slowly along a road at Woldgate near Bridlington. The resulting videos were projected onto nine screens arranged in a grid (reminiscent of the more gridlike Polaroids or the grids of canvases to make, for example, the larger Grand Canyon paintings). He made one film for each of the four seasons. The exhibition screens them onto the four walls of one darkened room, producing ‘an immersive environment’, ‘an exploration of the way a subject is seen over time’ and ‘a celebration of the miracle of the seasons’.

  • In the penultimate room is a sequence of 25 lovely charcoal drawings celebrating the arrival of spring at five locations along a single-track road running between Bridlington and Kilham, the kind of thing you might find in a provincial art shop, accurate but simple, lacking depth or resonance.
  • In 2010 Hockney began drawing in colour on the new iPad device. The beauty, the uniqueness of this medium is that the iPad records the process, and so we can watch what are in effect films following each work line by line as it proceeds from outline to sketch, watching every detail being added in, all the way through to completion. The exhibition includes a dozen or so screens showing quite a few of the colour drawings he made this way (as he tells us, often from the comfort of his bed in the family home in Yorkshire). According to the commentary, Hockney ‘collapses time and space by emailing images to friends and family, removing distance between the pictures, its means of creation and its distribution.’
    • Sample iPad paintings Bright and skilful, the main thing about these is their sheer number. They seem to take five minutes or so to make and so there are hundreds, possibly thousands of them.

Thoughts

There’s no doubting Hockney is a major artist: to maintain such a turnover of inventiveness, and be so prolific of so many striking images, over such a long period, is an amazing achievement. Each of the periods and styles (London Pop, LA swimming, portraits, Polaroids, opera sets, new paintings, Yorkshire landscapes, videos, iPad art) could well be analysed in terms of its own distinct origins and performance. It is immensely useful and interesting to be able to review such an extraordinary oeuvre and come to understand the continuities but also the enormous breaks in style and approach.

Several themes emerged for me from the show as a whole:

Size Most of the works here are big, very big, many are enormous, whether it’s the early Typhoo work which is 6 or 7 feet tall, to the vast double portraits like Isherwood and Bachardy, from the imposing swimming pools of the 60s to the huge video screens of The Four Seasons.

Emptiness A lot of this space is empty. This is most obvious in the room of double portraits – static figures with big, often heavily pregnant spaces between them. But it’s also there in the room of smaller-scale, curiously vacant portrait drawings – none of them have any expression or are doing anything. And in the paintings of the Grand Canyon or the Yorkshire Wolds. Space. Emptiness. Blank.

a) As I noticed it, it crossed my mind that this absence of passion or even feeling, maybe explains the calming, restful quality of much of Hockney’s work and why it translates so well into posters. (In the exhibition shop you can buy one of the Los Angeles swimming pool images turned into a print, a poster, a mug, a towel, a t-shirt, a tray, a fridge magnet, and every other format devised by marketeers.) There’s a curiously static, undynamic quality to many of his images. All the portraits, the big landscapes, the empty Grand Canyon and – really brought to the fore in the slow-motion Four Seasons videos – are very calm, still, empty.

b) Into this space curators and art critics are tempted to insert hefty doses of critical discourse. All the way through we are told that Hockney likes to play with ideas of reality and illusion, that the motif of the curtain found in so many works indicates the theatricality of a composition, that he ‘interrogates’ how a two dimensional object can convey a three dimensional scene, that his principal obsession is ‘with the challenge of representation’, that the works are ‘playing with representation and artifice’ or highlight how:

‘all art depends on artificial devices, illusionary tools and conventions that the viewer and artist conspire to accept as descriptive of something real’.

‘Conspire’ is a typical piece of art critical bombast. When you look at a photo in a newspaper, are you aware that you and the newspaper editors are ‘conspiring’ to accept the convention that something not there is being read as if it was there? Or ‘conspiring’ to see a 3-D image on what is in fact a 2-D surface? When you watch TV or a movie, did you realise you are part of an exciting ‘conspiracy’ to accept a 2-D surface as portraying 3-D events? No. Acceptance of flat images is universal, it’s hardly something Hockney has invented or is the first to play with.

Banality What struck me about many of these critical comments is how simple-minded they are. The ‘artificiality of art’ has been the subject of conversations about art ever since we’ve had art: Plato was upset by figurative art and so is the Koran; the Renaissance is an explosion of self-conscious tricks and experiments with the 2-D/3-D game.

But there is also something unnervingly banal about the art itself. This is brought out by the disarmingly homely nature of many of Hockney’s own comments in the (excellent) audio-commentary.

  • For the portrait of his parents, he tells us that his mum sat very dignified but his dad got fidgety very quickly, which is why he ended up depicting him bending over a book. On the bookshelf between them, Hockney thought he needed something to add a bit of detail and there was something he liked about the word ‘Chardin’ so he painted that on the spine of one of the books. Fair enough but it’s so… prosaic.
  • Commenting on the early Typhoo painting he explains that he’s always drunk a lot of tea and there were lots of old Typhoo packs lying around the studio in among all the paint. So he decided to paint one. OK. But it’s crushingly banal and inconsequential.
  • You might expect the early painting The Hypnotist to have some kind of recondite or hidden meaning but no: it is based on a scene from a Vincent Price movie, The Raven, which Hockney liked. That’s it.
  • As explanation for the explosion of super-colourful paintings of Mulholland Drive in the 1980s Hockney explains that his house was at the top of the Drive while his studio was down in the valley and so every day he had drove the windy road between the two, sometimes several times a day. It was a very ‘wiggly’ road and so the daily commute got him interested in ‘wiggly lines’. Up to that point his LA paintings had had very straight lines, reflecting the gridlike layout of the city and its rectangular office blocks, not to mention the beautifully rectangular swimming pools and rectilinear architecture of the poolside houses. But this new commute made him think again about ‘wiggly lines’ and so he started to put more ‘wiggly lines’ into his paintings. That simple.
  • In 1992 Hockney made a deliberate decision to paint in a new very brightly coloured and much more abstract style than previously and he called the resulting series ‘Very New Paintings’. The titles of  his work have generally been very flat and deliberately unimaginative. The 1963 exhibition, Paintings with people in them kind of sets the low expectations.
  • Hockney read somewhere that the Grand Canyon was ‘impossible to paint’, took that as a challenge and so set out to paint it. Which he did in a number of oil paintings composed of separated canvases placed in grids. It’s almost like doing it for a bet. Maybe this explains the effective, big bright but curiously disengaged impact of the result.
  • One critic commented that the Four Seasons videos shot from the point of view of a car rumbling very slowly along a country lane in Yorkshire created an art work benefiting from a ‘hi-def post-cubist’ vision of the world. Maybe. But the room showing them has a nice comfy bench to sit on which, when I was there, was packed grey-haired old-age-pensioners watching in effect a really relaxing, slow motion travelogue through beautiful English countryside. It felt about as radical or challenging as BBC’s Springwatch programme.
  • Talking about his experiments with iPad art from 2010, Hockney explained that it was easy to create the works, especially the depictions of dawn, while lying in bed at his mother’s house. (The comments about the bed-bound nature of composition explain the number of window frames, curtains and vases of flowers which occur in these iPad works). It so happened that the sun came up on his bedroom’s side of the house first, which leads him to the insight that sunrise is ‘a rather beautiful thing’.
  • At the very end of the audioguide, the curators asked Hockney what he hoped visitors would get out of the exhibition and – admittedly put on the spot about defining a lifetime of work – Hockney says he hopes his art will bring visitors ‘some joy’… because ‘I do enjoy looking’.

I’m not intending to criticise. I’m just pointing out that the more we heard from the man himself the more mundane, domestic, homely and banal the inspiration, creation and naming of so many of the works were revealed to be.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1971) by David Hockney © David Hockney

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1971) by David Hockney © David Hockney

Change and experiment

The exhibition blurb makes much of Hockney’s ‘restless experimentalism’ and enthusiastic ’embracing of new technologies’. Well, yes and no. I remember the press coverage when he exhibited the works made from collages of Polaroid photos back in the 1980s. Then the revelation of his iPad works at the 2012 Royal Academy exhibition, along with the stunningly high quality Four Seasons video.

But this keeping up-to-date seems, to me, always done in the name of a very conservative vision, a very tame and simplified view of the world. Thus the huge paintings of the Yorkshire landscape which dominated the 2012 Royal Academy show are stunning and striking, bold and simplified and colourful but – in their way – profoundly conservative and reassuring. It’s Britain with everything 21st century taken out – refugee crisis, Islamic terrorism, urban blight, housing crisis – all politics – even other art or cultural movements – all are weirdly absent from these big, confident, colourful and yet somehow strangely blank works.

Art doesn’t have to have anything to do with politics or anything the artist doesn’t want it to, and most of the work here is of a very high order of imaginativeness and execution, and the consistent reinvention over such a long period is impressive, awesome even. But for me much of Hockney’s work seems homely and decorative – depictions of his family and friends, his house, his drive to work, his boyhood landscape – lots of memorable, confident and stylish images – but it almost all lacks the urgency, excitement and dynamism which is what I most value and enjoy in art.

In the room devoted to drawings, in a corner, was my favourite image from the show. It is a typically relaxed and nicely executed detail from Hockney’s world, a very peaceful, modest world of friends and family, homes and pools and woods and fields, a very sedate, unthreatening essentially picturesque world. But how he captures it! With what a casually brilliant eye!

Videos

There are, of course, several videos promoting the show.

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In their way as affable, well-mannered, reasonable and breezy as the work itself.

//players.brightcove.net/1854890877/4811b2e3-75b4-4489-b1a5-21a18a61075e_default/index.html

I also enjoyed this brief and enthusiastic critical overview.

Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Embers of War by Frederik Logevall (2012)

This is a staggeringly good book. The main text is a hefty 714 pages long, with another 76 pages of endnotes, a comprehensive list of further reading, and a thorough index. It is beautifully printed on good quality paper. It is in every way an immaculate book to own and read and reread (in fact I found it so addictive I read the first 500 pages twice over).

Vietnam before the war

Most histories of the Vietnam War focus on ‘the American War’ of the mid- and late-1960s. Logevall’s epic account comes to an end in 1959, when there were still only a few hundred U.S. troops in the country, before the American war of the movies and popular legend had even started (the Gulf of Tonklin Resolution in the U.S. Congress which gave President Johnson full power to prosecute a war was passed in August 1964.)

Instead, Logevall’s focus is on everything which preceded the full-blown American involvement. It is a masterly, incredibly detailed, superbly intelligent account of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule over Indochina, which has its roots way back before the First World War, but whose major and fateful decisions were made in the years immediately after the Second World War. For the core of the book covers the twenty years between 1940 and 1960 which saw the First Indochina War of Independence and the bitter defeat of the French imperial army. Logevall’s intricate and comprehensive account for the first time makes fully comprehensible the circumstances in which the Americans would find themselves slowly dragged into the quagmire in the decade that followed.

Above all this is a political and diplomatic history of the events, with a great deal of space devoted to the personalities of the key political players – Ho Chi Minh, Viet Minh General Giap, U.S. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, French president Charles de Gaulle – along with exhaustive explanations of their differing aims and goals, and thorough analyses of the diplomatic and political negotiations which were constantly taking place between a dizzying and continually changing array of politicians, statesmen and military leaders.

The attractiveness of the book is the tremendous intelligence with which Logevall dissects and lays bare the conflicting political goals and shifting negotiating positions of all these players. Time and again he puts you in the room as Truman and his team discuss the impact of China going communist (in 1949) on the countries of the Far East, or Eisenhower and his team assessing the French forces’ chances of winning, or the debates in the Viet Minh high command about how best to proceed against the French army at Dien Bien Phu. In every one of these myriad of meetings and decision-points, Logevall recaptures the cut and thrust of argument and paints the key players so deftly and vividly that it is like reading a really immense novel, a 20th century War and Peace only far more complex and far more tragic.

Ho Chi Minh

A central thread is the remarkable story of Ho Chi Minh, who could have been a sort of Vietnamese Mahatma Gandhi, who could have led his country to peaceful independence if the French had let him – and who certainly emerges as the dominating figure of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence, from 1918 to 1975.

Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyễn Sinh Cung in 1889. In his long life of subterfuge and underground travel he used over 50 pseudonyms. The text skips through his education to his travels from Asia to Europe via the States (as a cook on merchant navy vessels, seeing the major American cities, establishing himself as a freelance journalist in Paris), and then the story really begins with Ho’s presence at the peace conference which followed the Great War.

Vietnam had been colonised by the French in the 1850s and their imperial grip solidified around the turn of the century. The French divided Vietnam into three units, Tonkin in the north (capital Hanoi), the narrow central strip of Annam, and Cochin China in the south (capital Saigon). Logevall eloquently evokes the atmosphere and beauty of these two cities, with their wide boulevards, French cathedrals and opera houses. The French also colonised Laos, which borders Vietnam to the central west, and Cambodia, which borders it to the south-west. These three countries were collectively known as French Indochina.

Between the wars

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson arrived at the Versailles peace conference which followed World War One brandishing his much-publicised Fourteen Points, the noble principles he hoped would underpin the peace, the fourteenth of which explicitly called for the self-determination of free peoples.

As Logevall points out, in practice the Americans were thinking about the self-determination of the peoples in Europe, whose multicultural empires had collapsed as a result of the war e.g. the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires; the principle wasn’t really addressed at the inhabitants of Europe’s overseas empires.

In a typically vivid snapshot, Logevall describes how the young optimistic Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, who had already gained a reputation as a journalist advocating independence for his country, hired a morning coat and travelled to Versailles hoping to secure an interview with President Wilson to put the case for Vietnamese independence. But his requests were rebuffed, his letters went unanswered, nobody replied or took any notice. It was the start of a long sequence of tragically lost opportunities to avert war.

Instead the ‘victorious’ European empires (Britain and France) were allowed to continue untroubled by American interferences and French colonial administration of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with all its snobbery and exploitation, strode on into the fragile 1920s and troubled 1930s.

Dispirited by the complete lack of interest from the Allies at Versailles, Ho traveled to Soviet Moscow in the early 1920s, where he received training from the infant Communist International (or Comintern) before returning to Vietnam to help organise a Vietnamese nationalist and communist movement.

But according to Logevall’s account, Ho continued to have a soft spot for America – not least because it was itself a country which had thrown off colonial shackles – and continued for decades to hope for help & support in Vietnam’s bid to escape from French control. In vain. Maybe the central, tragic theme of the book is how the American government went in the space of a decade (1940 to 1950) from potential liberator of the world’s colonial subjects, to neo-imperial oppressor.

The impact of the Second World War

In the West, and particularly in Britain, we think of the Second World War as starting with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, which prompted Britain and France to declare war on Nazi Germany. But the war in the East had its own timeframes and geography, and is really marked by the step-by-step aggression of Japan through the 1930s. For the highly authoritarian, militaristic Japanese government was the rising power in the East. Japan invaded Manchuria in northern China 1931 and then, in 1937, invaded the rest of coastal China, penetrating south. China was already embroiled in a chaotic civil war between various regional warlords, the nationalist movement of Chiang Kai-Shek and the nascent communist forces of Mao Zedong, which had been raging since the late 1920s. The border between north Vietnam and China is 800 miles long and the French colonial administrators watched developments in their huge northern neighbour with growing trepidation.

Meanwhile, in faraway Europe, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime successfully intimidated the western democracies (i.e. Britain and France) into allowing him to reoccupy the Rhine (March 1936), occupy Austria (March 1938) and seize the Czech Sudetenland (September 1938). But it was the surprise Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and then Hitler’s September 1939 invasion of Poland which plunged the continent into war.

None of this affected distant Indochina until the Germans’ six-week Blitzkrieg campaign in May 1940 against France. The victorious Nazis allowed a puppet right-wing government to be created in France, under the 84-year-old Marshall Petain and based in the spa town of Vichy. As a result of their defeat, the colonial administrations around the French Empire – in West and North Africa, in the Middle East and in Indochina – found themselves obliged to choose between the ‘legitimate’ new Vichy administration, which soon began persecuting socialists, freemasons and Jews (Logevall makes the ironic point that there were only 80 Jews in all Indochina and most of them were in the army) or the initially small group of followers of the self-appointed leader of the ‘Free French’, Charles de Gaulle.

When the highly armed and aggressive Japanese continued their expansion into northern Vietnam in September 1940, the Vichy French briefly resisted and then found themselves forced to co-operate with their supposed ‘allies’ – or the allies of their Nazi masters back in Europe. The Japanese wanted to cut off supply lines to the Chinese nationalists opposing them in China and also needed the rice, rubber and other raw materials Indochina could offer. In an uneasy understanding, the Japanese allowed the Vichy officials to administer the country at a civil service level – but they were the real masters.

Pearl Harbour

By setting it in its full historical context, Logevall for the first time made clear to me the reason the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour (on 7 December 1941) and the central role played in this cataclysmic event by Indochina.

From 1940 U.S. President Roosevelt and his advisers were concerned about Japan’s push southwards and especially their seizure of Vietnam. If they continued, the Japs would be in a position to carry on down the Malay peninsula, taking Singapore and threatening the Philippines in the East and Burma to the West.

When, in July 1941, Japanese troopships were sighted off Cam Ranh Bay on the south coast of Vietnam, it set American alarm bells jangling and, after much discussion, the President imposed a goods blockade on Japan, including oil and rubber, insisting the Japanese withdrew from China. Negotiations with the moderate Japanese Prime Minister Konoye continued through the summer but neither side would back down and, in October 1941, Konoye was replaced by General Hideki Tojo, who represented the aggressive stance of the armed forces. His government decided the only way Japan could continue to expand was by eliminating the American threat and forcibly seizing required raw materials from an expanded Japanese empire. Hence the plan was formulated to eliminate the American Pacific fleet with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, and it was in this context that the Japanese Fleet launched the notorious attack on 7 December 1941.

Logevall describes this tortuous process and its consequences with great clarity and it is absolutely fascinating to read about. He introduces us to all the key personnel during this period, giving the main players two or three page biographies and explaining with wonderful clarity the motives of all the conflicting interests: The Vichy French reluctant to cede control to the Japanese and scared of them; the Japanese busy with conflicts elsewhere and content to rule Indochina via the compliant French; the Americans reeling from Pearl Harbour but already making long-term plans to regain Asia; and in Vietnam, alongside Ho’s communists, the activities of the other groups of Vietnamese nationalists, as well as numerous ‘native’ tribes and ethnic minorities. And far away in embattled London, the distant but adamantine wish of General de Gaulle and the ‘Free French’ to return Indochina to French rule.

Roosevelt and Truman

For most of the war the key factor for Asia was President Roosevelt, a lifelong anti-colonialist, who condemned and opposed the European empires. Admittedly, he had to tread carefully around key ally Winston Churchill, who was doggedly committed to the preservation of the British Empire, but he had no such qualms about France, which he despised for collapsing so abjectly to the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.

Roosevelt was only reluctantly persuaded to support the haughty, pompous General de Gaulle as representative of the so-called ‘Free French’ – he preferred some of the other leaders in exile – but took a particular interest in Indochina. Roosevelt gave strong indications in speeches that – after the Germans and Japanese were defeated – he would not let the French restore their empire there. Instead, the president got his State Department officials to develop the idea of awarding ‘trusteeship status’ to post-colonial countries – getting them to be administered by the United Nations while they were helped and guided towards full political and economic independence.

Alas for Vietnam and for all the Vietnamese, French and Americans who were to lose their lives there, Roosevelt died just as the Second World War drew to a close, in April 1945, and his fervent anti-imperialism died with him.

He was replaced by his unassuming Vice-President, plain-speaking Harry S. Truman from Missouri. (In the kind of telling aside which illuminates the book throughout, Logevall points out that Truman was only selected as Vice-President because he was so non-descript that when all the competing factions in the Democratic Party cancelled out each other’s nominations, Truman was the only one bland enough to be left acceptable to all parties.)

Vietnam’s first independence and partition

The atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki crystallised Japan’s defeat and she surrendered on 2 September 1945. Within days of Japan’s fall, Ho and his party were organising major celebrations of Vietnam’s independence. In a historic moment Ho spoke to a crowd of 300,000 cheering compatriots in Ba Dinh Square, central Hanoi, on 2 September 1945, formally declaring Vietnam’s independence. Logevall quotes American eye witnesses who were startled when Ho quoted extensively from the American Declaration of Independence, as part of his ongoing attempt to curry favour with the emerging world superpower.

But alas, back in Washington, unlike his predecessor Roosevelt, President Truman had little or no interest in Indochina and all talk of ‘trusteeship’ leading to eventual independence disappeared. Instead the victorious allies had to make practical arrangements to manage Indochina now Japan had surrendered. It was agreed that the north of the country would be taken over by an army of the nationalist Chinese (at this stage receiving huge aid from America) while the British Indian Army would take over temporary running of the south, in a temporary partition of the country while both forces waited for the full French forces to arrive and restore imperial rule.

Riven by political infighting and a spirit of defeatism, the French had rolled over and given up their country in 1940. Then a good number of them spent five years collaborating with the Nazis and shipping Jews off to concentration camps. Now they expected the Americans to give them huge amounts of money and military resources to help them return to their colonies, and they expected the colonial peoples to bow down to the old yoke as if nothing had happened.

General de Gaulle typified the militaristic, imperial French view that ‘metropolitan’ France was nothing without its ‘magnificent’ Empire; that France had a unique ‘civilising mission’ to bring the glories of French culture to the peoples of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia (and Algeria and Syria and Mali and so on). Of course, the Empire provided cheap raw materials and labour for France to exploit.

The tragedy is that the Rooseveltian anti-imperial America which Ho and his followers placed so much hope on, betrayed them. Why? Two main practical reasons emerge:

  1. Restoring France Almost immediately after the end of the Second World War Stalin set about consolidating his grip on the Russian-occupied nations of Eastern Europe by establishing puppet communist regimes in them. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the start of the Berlin Airlift, both in 1948, epitomise the quick collapse of the wartime alliance between Russia and America into a Cold War stand-off. In this context, the Americans thought it was vital to build up Western Europe‘s capitalist economies to provide economic and military counterweight to the Soviet threat. Hence the enormous sums of money America poured into Europe via the Marshall Plan (which came into force in June 1948). A glance at the map of post-war Europe shows that, with Germany divided, Italy in ruins, Spain neutral, and the Benelux countries small and exposed, France emerges as the central country in Western Europe. If France’s empire contributed economically (through its raw materials), militarily (through colonial soldiers) and psychologically to France’s rebuilding, then so be it. The nationalist aspirations of Algeria, Tunisia and the other African colonies, along with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were sacrificed on the altar of building up a strong France in Europe to act as a bulwark against the Soviet threat.
  2. The domino theory It was only later, after China fell to communist control in October 1949, that Cold War hawks began to see (not unjustifiably) evidence of a worldwide communist conspiracy intent on seizing more and more territory. This received further shocking confirmation when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. It is from the communist victory in China and the start of the 1950s that the Americans began to talk about a ‘domino effect’ – seeing non-communist countries as dominoes lined up in a row, so that if one fell to communism all the others would automatically follow. As the map below shows, the fear was that i) communist victory in Korea would directly threaten Japan ii) communist forces in central China would threaten the island of Formosa and the other western Pacific islands, and iii) most crucial of all – the collapse of Vietnam would allow communist forces a forward base to attack the Philippines to the east, open the way to the invasion of Thailand to the west, and threaten south down the long peninsula into Malaya and Indonesia.

Cast of characters

Logevall introduces us to a number of Americans on the ground – diplomats, analysts and journalists – who all strongly disagreed with the new American line, but were powerless to change it. Against their better judgement the Americans allowed the French to return to run Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Logevall explains the arguments among the French themselves, and accompanies his account of the next nine years (1945-1954) with a running commentary on the changing patterns of the very fractured French political system (19 governments in just 8 years), and the conflicting priorities of the French communist party, the Socialists, the centre and the Gaullist right.

In contrast to French perfidy and inconsistency, Ho emerges as very much the hero of this account for the patience and mildness of his demands. Ho was in communication with both the French and American authorities – the French ignored all requests for independence, but he had some hopes the Americans would listen. Ho guaranteed that his independent Vietnam would allow for capitalism -for private property, a market economy. He said American firms would receive preferential treatment in rebuilding the post-war economy.

All on deaf ears. The same crowds who had greeted Ho’s historic declaration of independence in September 1945, stayed away from the pathetic French re-entry into Saigon the next year. On their first night of freedom, French troops who had been interned by the Japanese were released and went on a drunken rampage, beating up Vietnamese in the streets for being collaborators. Photo journalist Germaine Krull saw Vietnamese nationalists paraded through the streets with ropes tied round their necks while French women spat on them. Krull realised, right there and then, that the French had lost all respect and deference – instead of befriending the Vietnamese and creating a genuine partnership with promises of ultimate nationhood, the French hardliners had insisted nothing must question the ‘Glory’ and ‘Honour’ and ‘Prestige’ of La Belle France.

And so the quixotic quest for gloire and grandeur and prestige condemned France to nine years of bitter war, hundreds of thousands of death and, ultimately, to crushing humiliation. It feels like a grim poetic justice for the arrogance and stupidity of the French.

Dien Bien Phu

Almost immediately armed clashes between French soldiers and small guerrilla units or individuals began in all the cities and towns. Various nationalist groups claimed responsibility for the attacks but slowly Ho Chi Minh’s communists emerged as the best disciplined and most effective insurgent forces. The communists made up the core and most effective part of the coalition of nationalist forces christened the Viet Minh. Saigon became a twitchy nervous place to be, with an irregular drumbeat of gunshots, the occasional hand grenade lobbed into a cafe, assassinations of French officials in the street.

Logevall gives a detailed narrative of the slow descent of the country into guerilla war, with the dismal attempts of successive generals to try and quell the insurgency, by creating a defensive line of forts around Hanoi in the north, or sending search and destroy missions into the remote countryside.

The diplomatic and political emphasis of the book comes to the fore in the long and incredibly detailed account of the manoeuvring which surrounded the climactic Battle of Dien Bien Phu, from the beginning of its inception in 1953.

I have just reviewed a classic account of this battle, Martin Windrow’s epic military history, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, so won’t repeat the story here. Suffice to say the French had the bright idea of creating a defensive stronghold in an isolated valley in remote north-west Vietnam which could only be supplied from the air. Why? a) They intended to use it as a base to undertake offensive actions against Viet Minh supply lines running from China past Dien Bien Phu southwards into neighbouring Laos and b) they planned to lure the Viet Minh into a set piece battle where they would be crushed by overwhelming French artillery and airborne power.

The plan failed on both counts, as the Viet Minh surrounded the fort in such numbers that ‘offensive’ missions became suicidal; and with regard to luring the Viet Minh to their destruction, the French a) badly underestimated the ability of the Viets to haul large-calibre cannon up to the heights commanding the shallow valley and b) the battle took place as the monsoon season started and so air cover was seriously hampered (and in any case the Viet Minh were masters of camouflage, who only manoeuvred at night, making them very difficult to locate from the air).

The result was that the series of strongholds which comprised the French position were surrounded and picked off one by one over the course of a gruelling and epic 56-day battle.

Logevall devotes no fewer than 168 pages to the battle (pp.378 to 546) but relatively little of this describes the actual fighting. Instead, he chronicles in dazzling detail the intensity of the political and diplomatic manoeuvring among all the interested powers, particularly the Americans, the British and the French. Each of these governments was under domestic political pressure from conflicting parties in their parliaments and congresses, and even the governments themselves were riven by debate and disagreement about how to manage the deteriorating situation. Press reports of the French Army’s ‘heroic’ stand against the surrounding forces for the first time caught the public imagination, in France and beyond and the battle began to become a symbols of the West’s resolve.

It is mind-boggling to read that the Americans repeatedly mooted the possibility of using atom bombs against the Chinese (who were by now openly supporting the Viet Minh forces) or of giving the French some atom bombs to deploy as they wanted. The generals and politicians rejected dropping atom bombs directly onto Dien Bien Phu since they would obviously wipe out the French garrison as well as the attacking forces. Extra peril was added to the international scene when the Americans detonated their first hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in March 1954, intensifying the sense of Cold War superpower rivalry.

But it is in his running account of the minute by minute, phone call by phone call, hurried meetings between ambassadors and Foreign secretaries and Prime Ministers, that Logevall conveys the extraordinary complexity of political and strategic manouevring during these key months. The central issue was: Should the Americans directly intervene in the war to help the French? The French pleaded for more, much more, American supplies and munitions; for American troops on the ground; or for a diversionary attack on mainland China; or for more, many more bombing raids over Viet Minh positions.

Republican President Eisenhower was himself a supremely experienced military leader and had come to power (in January 1953) by attacking the (Democrat) Truman administration’s ‘capitulation’ in letting China fall to communism – and then for letting the Korean War to break out on Truman’s watch.

Logevall’s account is so long because it chronicles every important meeting of Eisenhower’s cabinet, examining the minutes of the meeting and analysing the points of view of his political and military advisers. And then analysing the way decisions were discussed with other governments, especially the British Foreign secretary (Anthony Eden) and Prime Minister (an ageing Winston Churchill).

Basically, Eisenhower found himself forced into a position of issuing fiercer and fiercer threats against the growing communist threat. In a keynote speech delivered on 7 April 1954, he warned of the perils of the Domino Effect (the first time the phrase entered the public domain) but hedged his bets by insisting that America wouldn’t go to war in South-East Asia unless:

a) the decision was ratified by Congress (one of the Republican criticisms of Truman was that he took the Americans into the Korean War by Presidential Decree alone, without consulting the Congress)
b) it was a ‘United Action’ along with key allies, namely the British

The focus then moves to the British and to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Would he agree to U.S. demands to form a coalition, and thus give the Americans the fig leaf they needed to go in and help the French, whose situation at Dien Bien Phu was becoming more desperate each day.

But Logevall explains the pressure Eden was under, because he knew that any British intervention to prop up the ailing French imperial position in Indochina would be roundly criticised by India and other members of the newly-founded Commonwealth at an upcoming meeting of Commonwealth heads of state, and the British very much wanted to ensure the continuation of this legacy of their Empire.

Moreover, British government opinion was that the French were losing and that the Americans, if they intervened, would quickly find themselves being sucked into bigger and bigger commitments in Vietnam in a war which the British thought was doomed to failure. The risk would then be that the Americans would be tempted to ‘internationalise’ the conflict by directly attacking the Viet Minh’s arms supplier – China – possibly, God forbid, with atomic weapons – which would inevitably bring the Russians in on the Chinese side – and we would have World War Three!

Hence the British refusal to commit.

American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles flew to Britain several times but failed, in one-on-one meetings, to change Eden’s position. And it was this failure to secure British (and thence Australian and New Zealand) support to create a ‘United Action’ coalition which meant that Eisenhower wouldn’t be able to win round key members of Congress, which meant that – he couldn’t give the French the vital military support they were begging for – which, ultimately, meant that Dien Bien Phu was doomed.

It has been thrilling to read Martin Windrow’s bullet-by-bullet account of the battle (The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam) alongside Logevall’s meeting-by-meeting account of the diplomacy. Logevall gives you a sense of just how fraught and complex international politics can be and there is a horrible tragic inevitability about the way that, despite the French paratroopers fighting on bravely, hoping against hope that the Americans would lay on some kind of miracle, a massive air campaign, or a relief force sent overland from Laos – none of this was ever to materialise.

Instead, as the battle drew towards its grizzly end, all the parties were forced to kick the can down the road towards a five-power international conference due to start in Geneva in May 1954. This had been suggested at a meeting of the Soviets, British and Americans in Berlin late the previous year, to address a whole range of Cold War issues, from the status of West Germany and a final peace treaty with Austria, through to the unfinished aspects of the Korean War Armistice, and only partly to the ongoing Indochina crisis.

Dien Bien Phu had begun as only one among several operations carried out by General Navarre, head of French forces in Indochina, but it had steamrollered out of control and its air of a heroic last stand had caught the imagination of the French population and, indeed, people around the world, and had come to symbolise all kinds of things for different players – for the West a last ditch stand against wicked communism, but for many third-world populations, the heroic overthrow of imperial oppressors. And so the military result came to have a symbolic and political power out of all proportion to the wretched little valley’s strategic importance.

In the event, the central stronghold of Dien Bien Phu was finally overrun by the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954, the Viet Minh taking some 10,000 French and colonial troops (Algerian, West African, Vietnamese) prisoner. About two-thirds of these then died on the long marches to POW camps, and of disease and malnutrition when they got there. Only a little over 3,000 prisoners were released four months later.

The Geneva Conference (April 26 – July 20, 1954)

Meanwhile, Logevall works through the geopolitical implications of this titanic military disaster with characteristic thoroughness. Briefly, these were that the French quit Indochina. News of the French defeat galvanised the Geneva Conference which proceeded to tortuously negotiate its way to an agreement that a) the French would completely quit the country; b) Vietnam would be partitioned at the 17th parallel with the North to be run by an internationally-recognised Viet Minh government, while the South would be ruled by the (ineffectual playboy) emperor Bao Dai (who owned a number of residences in the South of France and was a connoisseur of high class call girls).

The negotiations to reach this point are described with mind-boggling thoroughness in part five of the book (pages 549 to 613), which give a full explanation of the conflicting views within each national camp (Americans, Russians, French, Chinese, British, Viet Minh) and the key moments when positions shifted and new lines of discussion became possible. Maybe the key breakthrough was the election of a new French Prime Minister, the left-of-centre Pierre Mendès France, who broke the diplomatic stalemate and set himself the deadline of one month to negotiate an end to the whole wasteful, crippling war.

Why did the Viet Minh in the end accept less than total independence for their country? Because they were leant on by the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, himself carrying out the orders of his master, Mao Zedong. Mao didn’t want to give the Americans any excuse to intervene in the war, with the risk of attacks on mainland communist China. In fact the Russians and Chinese partly agreed to this temporary partition because they secured agreement from everyone that full and free elections would be held across the entire country in 1956 to decide its future.

The Americans, meanwhile, held aloof from the final agreement, didn’t sign it, and now – with the French definitively leaving – felt that the old colonial stigma was gone and so they were free to support the newly ‘independent’ nation of South Vietnam by any means necessary. When July 1956 – the date set for the elections – rolled around, the elections were never held – because the communist North had already in two years become very unpopular with its people, and because the Americans knew that, despite everything, Ho Chi Minh’s nationalists would still win. So both sides conspired to forget about elections and the partition solidified into a permanent state.

This then, forms the backdrop to the Vietnam War – explaining the long tortuous history behind the creation of a communist north Vietnam and a free capitalist South Vietnam, why the Americans came to feel that the ongoing survival of the south was so very important, but also the depth of nationalist feeling among the Vietnamese which was, eventually, twenty years later, to lead to the failure of the American war and the final unification of the country.

The volta

A high-level way of looking at the entire period is to divide it in two, with a transition phase:

  • In part one America under Roosevelt is trenchantly against European empires and in favour of independence for former colonies.
  • Under Truman there is growing anxiety about Russian intentions in Europe, which crystallise with China going red in 1949 and the North Korean attack in 1950 into paranoia about the communist threat so that –
  • In part two, America under Eisenhower (president for the key eight years from January 1953 to January 1961) reverses its strategy and now offers support to Imperial powers in combating communist insurgencies in Indochina, Malaya, Indonesia, as well as in Africa and South America.

What I found particularly rewarding and instructive was the detail on the earlier, wartime Roosevelt period, which I knew nothing about -and then Logevall’s wonderfully thorough explanation of what caused the change of attitude to the European empires, and how it was embodied in anti-communists like Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959 John Foster Dulles, and Eisenhower’s clever Vice-President, Richard Nixon.

Dien Bien Phu as symbol of French occupation of Indochina

Ngo Dinh Diem

The last hundred pages of the book cover the six and a half years from the end of the Geneva Conference (July 1954) to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as the youngest ever U.S President in January 1961.

Titled ‘Seizing the Torch 1954 – 59’, this final section deals relatively briefly with the French withdrawal from Tonkin and northern Annam i.e. from the new territory of ‘North of Vietnam’ which was now handed over to the control of Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. (There is a good description of this difficult and potentially dangerous operation in Martin Windrow’s book).

The partition triggered the flight of an estimated 900,000 Vietnamese refugees from the North to the South – shipped to the South in a fleet of American passenger ships in what was titled Operation ‘Passage to Freedom’.

And in the North, the communists began to implement a foolishly harsh and cruel regime copied direct from the communist tyrannies of Russia and China. Most disastrous was their ‘land reform’, based on the categorisation of rural dwellers into different types – landlord, rich peasant, middle peasant, poor peasant etc – made with a view to rounding up and executing, or torturing or sending to labour camps everyone arbitrarily put in the ‘rich’ categories.

All this led swiftly to the predictable collapse of rural markets and the threat – yet again – of famine. There are records of Ho himself berating his top comrades for the brutality and foolishness of this brutal policy, but he doesn’t seem to have done much to stop it: the cadres had learned it from the masters; this was how Stalin and Mao had led their ‘revolutions’.

But Logevall’s real focus, as always, is not so much on these domestic social changes but on the continuing  international diplomatic and political jockeying, now focusing on the supposedly ‘independent’ and ‘democratic’ regime in the new territory of South Vietnam. With the French withdrawing all colonial forces and administration during 1955, the path was for the first time clear for the Americans to act with a free hand. As usual Logevall explicates the complex discussions which took place in Washington of the various options, and shows how policy eventually settled on installing the peculiar figure of Ngo Dinh Diem as President, under the aegis of the docile emperor Bao Dai.

Logevall first paints a thorough picture of Diem’s personality – a devout Catholic who went into self-imposed exile in Europe at various Catholic retreats in between cultivating American opinion-formers in his perfect English -and who, upon taking power in South Vietnam, began to immediately display authoritarian traits, namely confining power to a small clique of  his own direct family, and launching harsh persecutions of suspected communists and ‘traitors’.

In parallel, Logevall shows the tremendous efforts made by the American government to justify his corrupt and inefficient rule. The fundamental problem in Vietnam, as in so many other U.S. puppet states, would turn out to be that the Americans’ candidate was wildly unpopular: everyone knew that if a genuinely democratic election were held, Ho Chi Minh would win a decisive victory, even in the capitalist south. Thus the Americans, in the name of Democracy, found themselves defending a leader who would lose a democratic vote and showed clear dictatorial behaviour.

Diem wasn’t the representative of ‘democracy’ – he was the front man for free-market capitalism. As such he was enthusiastically supported by Eisenhower, Dulles and – as Logevall shows in some fascinating passages – by the stranglehold that mid-twentieth century U.S. media had on public opinion. Logevall lists the activities of a well-connected organisation called the ‘American Friends of Vietnam’, which included all the main publications of the day, most notably Time magazine, which ran glowing tributes to Diem in every edition.

Logevall introduces us to the born-again anti-communist doctor, Tom Dooley, whose account of working as a medic among refugees from the North – Deliver Us From Evil – was filled with the most appalling atrocity stories and became a highly influential bestseller, serialised in Reader’s Digest, which had a circulation of 20 million. Only decades later was it revealed to be a preposterous fake – with none of the atrocities Dooley recorded having any basis in fact.

It was ordinary American families who consumed this barrage of pro-Diem propaganda through the press and radio and TV from the mid-1950s onwards, with kids who in eight years time (when the States escalated the war in 1965) would be old enough to be drafted to go and give their lives to support the Diem regime.

But the reality in South Vietnam was much different from this shiny propaganda. Almost none of the huge amounts of American aid, soon rising to $300 million a year, went on health or education. Over 90% went on arming and training the South Vietnam Army which, however, continued to suffer from low morale and motivation.

America’s ‘support’ ignored much-needed social reform and was incapable of controlling Diem’s regime which passed increasingly repressive laws, randomly arresting intellectuals, closing down the free press, and implementing a regime of terror in the countryside.

More and more peasants and villagers found themselves forced to resist the blackmailing corruption of the Diem’s rural administrators, and revolt arose spontaneously in numerous locations around the country. This is a historical crux – many commentators and historians insist that the communist agitation in the South was created by the North; Logevall demurs and calls in contemporary analysts as evidence and witnesses. In his opinion, revolt against Diem’s repressive regime grew spontaneously and was a natural result of its harshness.

Indeed, newly opened archives in the North now reveal that the Hanoi leadership in fact agonised about whether, and how much, to support this groundswell of opposition. In fact, they were restrained by China and, more distantly, Russia, neither of whom wanted to spark renewed confrontation with America.

Nonetheless Hanoi found itself drawn, discreetly, into supporting revolutionary activity in the South, beginning in the late 1950s to create an administrative framework and a cadre of military advisers. These were infiltrated into the South via Laos, along what would become known as the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’. In response the Diem regime used a nickname for the communist forces, calling them the Viet Cong, or VC, a name which was to become horribly well-known around the world.

While the American press and President awarded Diem red carpet treatment, a tickertape parade in New York, and fawning press coverage when he visited the States in 1956, back home things were growing darker. As 1957 turned into 1958, Diem reinstituted the use of the guillotine as punishment for anyone who resisted his regime, and his roving tribunals travelling through the countryside used this threat to extort even more money from disaffected peasants. But simultaneously, the communist apparatus in the south began to take shape and to receive advice about structure and tactics from the North.

The beginning

The book ends with an at-the-time almost unnoticed event. On the evening of 8 July 1959 eight U.S. military advisers in a base 20 miles north of Saigon enjoyed a cordial dinner and then settled down to watch a movie. It was then that a squad of six Viet Cong guerrillas who had cut through the flimsy surrounding barbed wire, crept up to the staff quarters and opened fire with machine guns. Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand and Major Dale Buis died almost immediately, before armed help arrived from elsewhere in the camp to fight off the intruders. Ovnand and Buis’s names are the first of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam and whose names are all carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Conclusion

Embers of War won many prizes and it really deserves them – it sheds light not only on the long, tortured death of French imperialism in Indochina, and gives incredible detail on the way the Americans inch-by-inch found themselves being drawn deeper into the Vietnam quagmire – it also shows any attentive reader how international affairs actually work, how great ‘decisions’ are ground out by the exceedingly complex meshing of a welter of complex and ever-shifting forces – at international, national, domestic, military, political and personal levels. On every level a stunningly informative and intelligent work of history.

Related links

The Last Valley by Martin Windrow (2004)

‘While an increasing flow of American dollars, weapons, vehicles and aircraft in the early 1950s did improve the fire and mobility of the CEFEO, they could not offset the fundamental disadvantages of a roadbound army facing a hill and forest army in a country which had few roads but a great many hills and forests.’ (p.129)

This is a really epic book about an epic battle. Its full title is The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam and it does what it says on the tin at immense length and in fascinating detail, clocking in at a whopping 734 pages, including detailed endnotes, bibliography, list of acronyms, no fewer than 21 maps, and a thorough index. It clearly sets out to be the definitive account of this debacle.

1. Background

The first hundred or so pages take us through the origins and early stages of the First Indochina War (1946-1954). Vietnam had been part of French colonial Indochina since the 1850s, colonial rule which was consolidated at the turn of the century. The higher education the French offered the natives ironically educated a generation to demand greater freedom and independence.

The most notable of these nationalists Ho Chi Minh (born 1890) travelled to France after World War One and tried to contact the American delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference, hoping President Woodrow Wilson would apply his Fourteen Points to Europe’s colonies – particularly French Indochina – and secure their independence. But his letters went unanswered.

Rebuffed, Ho set about educating himself in communist doctrine and guerrilla tactics, traveling to Soviet Moscow to study, then returning to Vietnam where he helped set up the Indochina Communist Party in 1930 and then helped weld the various disparate nationalist groups into a united front, the Viet Minh, in 1941.

After the Fall of France to the Nazis in June 1940, the French authorities in Indochina (as in France’s other colonies) switched allegiance to the new Vichy government, a puppet state which the Nazis allowed to administer the south of France and the French Empire.

On September 27, 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, which became known as the Axis alliance. Japanese forces entered French Indochina and took over all important administrative powers from the Vichy French. The native Vietnamese (and Laotians and Cambodians) watched in wonder as their European imperial masters were humiliated by fellow Asians. In a culture based on ‘face’, the French empire in the East (like the British one) never recovered from the loss of face involved in their feeble surrender to the Japanese.

France was finally liberated by the Allies in late 1944 and the Vichy regime was overthrown. This put the Vichy administrators in Indochina in a tricky position vis-a-vis their Japanese masters and the growing tension came to a head in March 1945 when the Japanese rounded up the Vichy forces, locking them up in Japanese prison camps and executing anyone who resisted (‘In Saigon the senior military and civil prisoners, General Lemonnier and Resident Auphalle, were beheaded after being forced to dig their own graves.’ p.81)

In the six months between Japan’s seizure of power and the final Japanese defeat in September 1945, the Japanese left the Viet Minh to their own devices, allowing them to organise and set up cells throughout the country. The Japanese concentrated their efforts on pillaging Vietnam’s food resources to feed Japan, leading to the catastrophic famine of45 in which well over one million Vietnamese starved to death.

When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the Viet Minh, led by Ho, their by-now veteran organiser, immediately declared Vietnamese independence to cheering crowds and amid nationwide rejoicing. Frederick Logevall’s epic account of the period, Embers of War, includes eyewitness accounts by the handful of Americans on the scene who were amazed and impressed when Ho quoted the American declaration of Independence. Like the Americans, the Vietnamese just wanted to be free from an imperial oppressor.

Which makes the tragedy all the more bitter, which makes you want to weep tears of frustration to read of the way the Americans under President Truman abandoned their wartime commitment to liberate colonial peoples, and instead stood behind General de Gaulle’s arrogant insistence that all of Indochina must be returned to French Imperial rule.

As per the agreement made between the Big Three powers (the USA, Britain, USSR) at Potsdam earlier in 1945, a ragtag army from nationalist China was allowed to occupy the north of the country, and a division of the British Indian army occupied the south, both of them holding the ring until the French returned.

Thus, through into spring 1946 the French armed forces arrived from Europe, determined to restore the status quo ante, immediately rounding up any nationalists foolish enough to trust them, amid an atmosphere of mistrust and tension. Scattered moments of resistance quickly grew into a guerrilla insurgency across the country, in the north and south, which was crystallised in a dispute over customs dues in the port of Haiphong. On November 26 1946 the French navy bombarded the city, seriously damaging it and killing over 6,000 civilians, in just one afternoon. After such massacre, there was no going back (p.90).

2. The first Indochina war

So by 1947 France found itself drawn into an unwinnable guerrilla war against an enemy who mostly refused open battle in preference for urban terrorist attacks and hit-and-run guerrilla operations in the steamy jungles of northern Vietnam. In a way the 8 years of war, from 1946 to 1954, are footnotes to, or simply the logical consequence of, the fatal initial French decision to reoccupy the country against the express wishes of the majority of the population.

The French military struggled to contain an insurgency which was so unpredictable and where the terrain and the people were so much on the side of the insurgents. French generals arrived in Indochina full of enthusiasm and confidence, slowly grasped the hopelessness of the situation, and ended up writing bleak reports back to Paris, while all the time little convoys and isolated outposts were ambushed and annihilated.

Back in Paris the governments of the Fourth Republic proved themselves as addicted to bickering and posturing as the French governments before the war, lacking – in a neat formulation of Windrow’s – either the strength to prosecute the war with conviction (to implement conscription and triple the number of French troops in Vietnam) or the political courage to face the facts and concede to talks with the Viet Minh.

The situation underwent a sea change in October 1949 when Mao Zedong’s communist forces finally secured power in war-torn China. Mao immediately set about sending supplies to the Viet Minh and Windrow describes how military training camps were set up in south China for cohorts of Viet Minh forces to attend – learning skills of organisation, rifle, machine gun, mortar and artillery technique.

Reading the history of this period has taught me that the fall of China to communism caused massive recriminations in American politics, with a wave of republicans queueing up to accuse President Truman’s Democrat government of being ‘soft on communism’. The American political atmosphere was paranoid even before communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, precipitating America into a bloody three-year struggle in support of the beleaguered south.

All this turned the independence struggle in Vietnam into a cauldron of the Cold War and, especially after the Korean War ground to a long-delayed armistice in summer 1953, the two sides (Viet Minh and French) were supplied ever increasing amounts of arms and matériel by their respective backers (China and America – by the time it ended in 1954, the United States was paying three-quarters of the cost of the war.)

3. Dien Bien Phu

In 1951 and 1952 there were larger scale engagements as the Vietnam Army’s self-taught general, Vo Ngyen Giáp, experimented with larger attacks on French positions around Hanoi. Windrow describes each of these in meticulous detail, with precise maps showing troops dispositions in staggering detail and there are very precise maps for each of them, so that you can follow the night’s or day’s events with great precision.

November and December 1952 saw the Battle of Nà Sản. Giáp attacked the French outpost at Nà Sản, an isolated fortified camp in Tonkin supplied only by air. Giáp sent wave after wave of Viet Minh infantry in direct attack, but these either failed, or seized territory was immediately retaken by aggressive French paratroop units. Ultimately Giáp failed, with the Viet Minh suffering very heavy losses.

In May 1953 General Henri Navarre was dispatched to Vietnam with orders to bring the situation to some kind of resolution favourable for possible negotiations. He based himself in Hanoi in the north of the country, where the Viet Minh were strongest. His first priority was maintaining security in the corridor from Hanoi down to the port of Haiphong and in the broader delta of the Red River. Late in the year he launched an anti-insurgency operation in the middle of the country known as Annam. But the idea slowly took shape of deliberately recreating the Nà Sản experience on an even larger scale with the aim of drawing Giáp into committing the bulk of the Viet Minh forces – alternately known as the Vietnam Liberation Army – into a massed assault. This would allow superior French artillery, armour and air support to decimate the exposed VPA.

Given the French total domination of the air, the base would be supplied by air and air forces would also help decimate all VPA units brought against it. Windrow charts the process whereby various factors led to the decision to locate this ‘air-land base’ at the remote settlement of Dien Bien Phu. This was actually a straggle of small villages in a long narrow valley far in the north-west of the country. It was given strategic value by being a kind of crossroads for Viet Minh forces coming from China or heading south-west to threaten French-occupied Laos.

Plans were drawn up to parachute in over 10,000 men, mainly crack paratroop regiments and Foreign Legionaries, along with vast amounts of equipment, including 10 Chaffee tanks, bulldozers to create a working airstrip – Operation Castor, as it was called, commenced on 20 November 1953.

Once the airstrip was laid, old Dakota transport planes from the war began flying in scores of artillery guns, hundreds of mortars, vast amounts of ammunition and everything required to build a vast military encampment in the long narrow valley. During this set-up phase there was little or no sight of the enemy and countless politicians and journalists flew in to be impressed by the might and power of the French Army. In actual fact, right from the start a lot of the planes, crews and equipment were supplied by the Americans.

4. Catastrophe

The entire project rested on a number of assumptions or propositions:

  • Dominance in the air would prove decisive:
    1. supplies could be dropped indefinitely
    2. wounded taken out
    3. new men brought in
    4. Vietnam Liberation Army forces would be identified from the air and wiped out
    5. VLA artillery would be identified from the air and wiped out
  • The VLA would not be able to get their artillery over the high ridges surrounding the valley, and if they did they’d be wiped out from the air
  • The base could be used for offensive attacks on VLA supply lines

In the event every single one of these assumptions proved false. The few attempts to go out on offensive patrol were beaten back by the encircling VLA with heavy French losses. As January changed to February the early monsoon brought fog and mist, drastically reducing flights in and out of the airstrip. The VLA went to extraordinary lengths to camouflage their supply tracks, bending trees over to be tied in the middle above jungle paths, meticulously camouflaging each other’s uniforms and helmets and, most effectively, only moving at night. The VLA did manage to haul their heavy guns over the ridges, in heroic efforts which Windrow describes at length. This took the French completely by surprise. And then the VLA dug them into deeply embedded fissures and caves with huge overhangs of solid rock. For the entire battle the French struggled to locate the attacking guns and, despite dropping hundreds of tons of explosives, didn’t destroy a single one.

French intelligence knew that Giáp was building up large forces around the base and expected an attack on 25 January. By 31 January they were completely surrounded. The battle proper started on 13 March 1954 with a devastating barrage of one of the most remote outposts of the base. (In a hilariously French touch, it is alleged that the nine or so outcrops, based on small hillocks scattered over the valley, were named after mistresses of the womanising camp commander, Colonel Christian de Castries – Eliane, Beatrice, Gabriele etc.)

That first evening’s barrage destroyed lots of French illusions. It was as intense as a Great War artillery attack and ranged freely from the intended target (the most isolated stronghold, ‘Beatrice’) across the entire camp, damaging the airstrip, threatening command HQ deep in the compound, and killing key commanders at Beatrice within half an hour. De Castries’ chief of staff had a nervous breakdown on that first night from which he never recovered. It took only a few more days of such intense barrage for the French artillery commander, Charles Piroth, to realise that a) the VLA had brought their artillery over the mountains b) they had hidden them so effectively they couldn’t even be located let alone pummeled by the French c) air attacks were similarly ineffective. Plunging into a depression, after only a week he withdrew to his hut and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Windrow then describes the 56 day-long ordeal of the French forces as they are then slowly, systematically reduced, the VLA targeting one stronghold after another, softening them up with overwhelming artillery attacks and then sending wave after wave of fanatical VLA troops against the French forces who showed episodes of tremendous courage but time and again were borne down by sheer numbers. (In one of the countless insights the book provides, Windrow points out the narrowness and inflexibility of Gap’s tactics which were, in essence, exactly the same as First World War tactics – dig trenches close up to the enemy positions – fire a devastating bombardment – then pour endless troops into the breach, regardless of horrendous losses.)

Windrow

What makes Windrow’s account distinctive is the immense detailed attention he pays to every aspect of the military side of the battle. For example,

  • He devotes pages to a minute breakdown of the exact structure of the Viet Minh forces (named the Vietnam Liberation Army), giving the names and numbers of each division, brigade, along with the respective generals and senior officers.
  • He explains the threefold division of the Viet Minh forces, into local irregulars based in villages who provided support; militia based in villages who were organised to carry out small scale engagements; and regular army who were fully trained and lived in jungle ‘barracks’ high up in the inaccessible hill and jungle territory of North Tonkin, near the Chinese border.
  • He gives comprehensive histories of all the French divisions, regiments and battalions involved in the battle, down to platoon and squad level of all the French forces.

I have never read such an exhaustive account of a sustained military operation, such a precise breakdown of the forces involved, nor such a minute-by-minute narrative of almost every parachute that opens, every canon that fires, every machine gun blockhouse which fights on to the death.

Hundreds of pages are filled with comprehensive blow-by-blow descriptions of every units involved in the battle, clotted with division or regimental or battalion numbers, commanders and personnel, sometimes amounting to lists of acronyms and locations which can get quite confusing. This is a typical paragraph from thousands like it:

The withdrawing Group East consisted of Colonel Barrou’s GM 100, the Vietnamese light infantry unit TDKQ 520, and irregular scouts. Although much harried over the past five months this motorised brigade had a fine reputation; its infantry were the two-battalion Régiment de Corée – the former French UN battalion from the Korean War, expanded by local recruitment – and BM/43 RIC, a good unit enlisted mainly from ethnic Khmers from western Cochinchina. Coming to meet them in Lieutenant Colonel Sockeel’s Group West were GM 42, built on three montagnard battalions recruited among Rhadés from around Ban Me Thuot; each brigade had the usual 105mm artillery battalion and a few Stuart tanks from the 5th Cuirassiers. Group West also had a small airborne brigade: GAP 1, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Romain-Defossés, with 7 BPC (Major Balbin) and 3 BPVN (Major Mollo). (p.634)

Learnings

It is a profoundly instructive book because it takes you so deeply and exhaustively into every aspect of the battle – not only into the experience of the men fighting in the trenches and front line of each stronghold, but giving a complete account of all the orders issued, signals sent and plans devised both by General Navarre and his staff in Hanoi, and de Castries and his in the camp, as well as insights into the challenges faced by the different air forces which were involved in the non-stop drop and resupply of the base. We get to know many of the officers, including the legendary Lieutenant-Colonel Marcel Bigeard and Colonel Pierre Langlais.

It is fascinating to have such an epic battle so firmly located within the larger French strategy, for Navarre had also to defend the Delta and provision his campaign in Annam.

It is a major revelation to learn that most of the French forces fighting in the battle were not strictly French, for they included a large number of native forces, both Vietnamese and Thai regiments recruited from the locality; as well as a large number of Algerian forces, and colonial troops from West African countries such as Senegal. A significant number of battalions were from the French Foreign Legion, none of whose men were French and a frisson goes through the reader to learn that many of these men were former Wehrmacht soldiers who had various reasons to flee Europe with no questions asked.

At regular intervals Windrow stops his narrative to explain aspects of warfare, always writing with clarity and common sense.

  • He gives a detailed technical explanation of artillery shell fire, how it works, what it feels like, the kind of wounds it inflicts (pp.371-374)
  • what it’s like inside a tank (hot, cramped, blind, poisoned by fume) (pp.448-449)
  • how a flamethrower works and what the flame looked like and did (p.504)

One of these digressions is the best description of what motivates men to fight I think I’ve ever read.

The section were the soldier’s closest comrades- his copains, mates or buddies; he marched, fought, ate and slept beside them, and came to know them as well as he had known his childhood brothers. It would be absurd to imagine that every soldier likes and trusts all the men in his squad; nevertheless, every serious study of human motivation among combat soldiers confirms that the key to a man’s behaviour in battle is his feeling of mutual dependence and obligation towards these immediate comrades. Today many veterans of serious and prolonged combat are not embarrassed to use the word love. This unique sense of unselfish fellowship forged in shared ordeals is the principal reward of soldiering, and its rupture by the death of friends is the most painful price. (p.176)

This put me in mind of all those accounts of British officers in the First World War who came to love their men, and were upset to be separated from them, by different postings or injury. The war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon write eloquently of this soldierly love, and only a force this powerful and primeval can explain why right up to the end French troops were being parachuted into Dien Bien Phu to fight alongside their fellow Legionnaires or Parachute divisions, in a cause which was obviously hopelessly lost.

The Geneva Conference

As the battle grew more intense, preparations began for a major conference of diplomats and politicians to be held in Geneva, designed to bring together all the interested parties in South-East Asia (China, Russia, America, Britain, France) in order to address the aftermath of the Korean War as well as the situation in Indochina. Though it hadn’t been planned this way, political and military commanders on both sides (Ho and Giap, Navarre and de Castries) now realised that the outcome of the Battle at Dien Bien Phu could well determine the outcome of the conference, and thus the entire fate of the French Empire in Asia.

Also the open access given to journalists early on ensured the battle had more, and more graphic, coverage on French radio, in newspapers and magazines, than previous confrontations. The struggle against overpowering odds of their brave boys in the jungle seized the French imagination more powerfully than any previous engagement in the eight-year-old war. As the situation became progressively more grim so did the mood of the French public.

I hadn’t really grasped how fragile France was after the Second World War. There were some 19 different governments between 1945 and 1954, many lasting only months, as the relentless backbiting of a host of extreme parties, including a powerful communist party, stymied the ability to govern.

Amid a welter of parliamentary backstabbing, and recriminations among the generals and between military and politicians, Dien Bien Phu eventually fell to the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954.

In fact, as Windrow harrowingly shows, the misery for many was only just starting because around half of the prisoners of war taken by the Viet Minh died on the long jungle marches to POW camps, or in the camps themselves, due to malnutrition and disease, a process he describes with characteristic grim thoroughness.

A thoroughly demoralised French government announced its intention to quit Indochina, despite the readiness of many, including General Navarre to fight on. The Geneva Conference agreed to partition Vietnam along the 17th parallel, handing the north – Tonkin – to the Viet Minh, while the south was to be under the ‘democratic’ rule of the puppet emperor Bao Dai. Even before the French had left Americans were appearing in numbers to give political, strategic and material aid to the southern regime, a further decisive step towards their entanglement in what became known as the Vietnam War, a decade later.

Right to the end Windrow’s book is full of fascinating insights. The final pages explain how many of the survivors of Indochina found themselves redeployed to French Algeria, where the first attacks by the Front for National Liberation took place in October 1954, just a few weeks after the French evacuated Hanoi. He goes on to describe how many French soldiers felt betrayed by lack of political and military support at Dien Bien Phu. The suffering was on such a scale that for the whole cause they were fighting for – to preserve the French Empire in the Far East – to be overthrown within weeks seemed like a grotesque betrayal. This laid the seeds of the growing alienation of the French Army in Algeria, which saw a similar betrayal by politicians beginning to take place and led to the creation of the Organisation armée secrète which waged a terrorist campaign against French politicians and tried to mount a military coup in 1962.

For France herself, that was to be one legacy of Dien Bien Phu. For America, it was to be dragged into a catastrophic war. For the poor Vietnamese it was to be another 20 years of war before they finally secured their independence.

Video

There’s no shortage of videos and documentaries about both the First Indochina War and Dien Bien Phu in particular. This is the pithiest one I’ve watched.

Credit

The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow was published in 2004 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Cassell Military Paperback edition.

Related links

Vanessa Bell @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

‘You have a genius in your life as well as in your art’
(Art critic Roger Fry to his sometime lover, artist Vanessa Bell)

More than anything I can write, this YouTube montage of Vanessa Bell’s paintings set to music by Chopin gives a good overview of her work.

Biography

Vanessa Stephen (1879-1961) was born into an upper-middle-class and well-connected Victorian family. She was the eldest daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Duckworth, Julia being a niece of the pioneering Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, and cousin of the noted temperance leader, Lady Henry Somerset.

Her siblings were a younger sister, Virginia (later renowned as a great novelist under her married name of Virginia Woolf), brothers Thoby (Clifton College and Trinity, Cambridge) and Adrian (Westminster school and Trinity, Cambridge), and half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth (both educated at Eton, Gerald went on to found the publishing house named after him, and was able to help Virginia set up her publishing house, Hogarth Press).

The Stephen family lived in a smart house at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Westminster, with lots of servants where Vanessa was home educated in languages, mathematics and history. She showed an early gift for art and had drawing lessons from Ebenezer Cook, before she attended Sir Arthur Cope’s art school in 1896, and then went on to study painting at the Royal Academy in 1901 under John Singer Sargent.

After the death of her father in 1904, Vanessa sold the Hyde Park Gate house and moved to Bloomsbury, along with Virginia and the brothers. Here they began socialising with the like-minded artists, writers and intellectuals who would form the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ who, in all areas of life, art and literature, set themselves to overthrow the stifling influence of their Victorian parents.

Self–Portrait (c. 1915) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Self–Portrait (c. 1915) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Vanessa married the art critic Clive Bell in 1907 and they had two sons, Julian and Quentin. The couple had an open marriage, both taking lovers throughout their lives. Bell had affairs with art critic Roger Fry and with the notoriously bisexual painter, Duncan Grant, with whom she had a daughter, Angelica, in 1918.

Vanessa and husband Clive, their lover Duncan Grant and his boyfriend ‘Bunny’, all moved to the Sussex countryside shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, and settled at Charleston Farmhouse near Firle in East Sussex. By farming here the menfolk, all pacifists and conscientious objectors, evaded service in the Great War.

Here Vanessa and Grant painted and also worked on commissions for the Omega Workshops, an artists’ co-operative for decorative arts established by Roger Fry that operated between 1913 and 1919, and which produced interesting work in a Vorticist/Futurist style. Her first solo exhibition was at the Omega Workshops in 1916. The influence of contemporary radical experiments in Futurism and Vorticism are immediately obvious in many of these bold, colourful designs.

Design for Omega Workshops Fabric (1913) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Design for Omega Workshops Fabric (1913) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Bell lived a long life and painted right through to the 1950s, but even her most devoted fans admit that the 1910s represent her most creative and innovative period. In the 1910s, 20s and 30s she was a member of a group of friends and acquaintances who pioneered new ways of living, open marriages and a very liberal approach to sexuality. But works from the 1940s and 50s show her slowly losing the radical edge of the period either side of the Great War, her depictions of the Sussex countryside or of interiors with vases of flowers, becoming steadily more conventional.

The exhibition

This is the first ever retrospective of Bell’s work. It brings together some 100 paintings, book jackets she designed for the Hogarth Press, ceramics, fabrics, photos, diaries and letters to present a themed overview of Bell’s life and career. As always with the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it offers a beautifully laid out and informative opportunity to assess a rather neglected figure in English modern art.

Several things emerge from a slow perusal of the exhibition’s six rooms:

Blocky painting style

Bell’s earliest paintings reflect the sophisticated sheen of her teacher John Singer Sargent (note the telltale flecks of white on the vase to give the illusion of reflected light in Iceland Poppies 1908). But even then she was being exposed to the revolutionary influence of Picasso, Matisse and contemporary French painting. In fact right from the earliest portraits shown here, she seems more naturally to take a slabby, blocky approach to paintwork – instead of trying to capture the smooth contours of a fabric or a face, preferring to map out areas of solid colour, depicted with broad chunky brushstrokes. The rough, sketched-out feel, the deliberate lack of finish and the deliberate use of non-naturalistic colour are all suggestive of contemporary experiments in Europe, but are done with a distinctive English gentleness. Despite this, something of all her formal training comes out in the naturalistic outline and presence. these traits are exemplified in one of her many portraits of her novelist sister, Virginia:

Portraits of friends and family

In fact portraits of family and friends are a recurrent feature of Bell’s work and occupy one of the six rooms here.

They represent a decisive break with Victorian naturalism and Salon art, and a wholesale incorporation of the unreal colours, simplification of pattern, crude brushstrokes and awkward anti-aesthetic shapes found across the continent in the work of Gauguin, Die Brucke, the Fauves and so on.

The portraits of her sister are among the most persuasive or gripping. I think this is the best one, all the more powerful for its ‘modern’ blanking of the face, the part which should, traditionally, be the most detailed, revealing the sitter’s character etc. All that has been rejected in favour of an interest in composition and colour.

Virginia Woolf (c. 1912) by Vanessa Bell © National Portrait Gallery, London

Virginia Woolf (c. 1912) by Vanessa Bell © National Portrait Gallery, London

In the portraits, as in her other genres, the later work becomes noticably more conservative and straighforwardly figurative. Enjoyable, but in a different way.

Derivative

After a few rooms I felt I had seen a lot of these paintings before, or ones very much like them – most recently in the early-twentieth-century rooms of the excellent Courtauld Gallery, which contains works by Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Bonnard and other post-impressionists. (The term ‘Post-impressionism’ was in fact coined by Vanessa’s friend and sometime lover, art critic Roger Fry, as an umbrella term to cover developments in French art since Manet.)

This feeling was confirmed by many of the wall labels for individual paintings and by the (very useful) audioguide by exhibition co-curator Sarah Milroy. Both frequently pointed out the influence of the Nabis (a group name given to the French painters Vuillard, Bonnard et al), of Cézanne, of Matisse, of Picasso, on individual Bell works.

For example, it is hard not to see the largest work in the show, The Other Room (1930) as anything other than a homage to Matisse – the emphasis on design and areas of bright colour over detail, the interest in the design on fabrics (the curtains, the chair cover), the wilful indifference to anatomical realism in the human figures.

The Other Room (late 1930s) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow

The Other Room (late 1930s) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow

Landscapes

When Bell moved to the country, she took the urban continental style developed in her portraits (and the occasional, rare depiction of urban scenery) with her and applied it to numerous images of the landscape around the Sussex farmhouse. Many of these are strikingly composed in a kind of flat, blocky, post-impressionist style. They apply a continental mentality to the south of England countryside, a blockiness derived from Cézanne, along with the big slab brushwork of maybe Vlaminck or Derain.

Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Bell painted landscapes for the rest of her life and the selection here allows you to see how her style, over the decades, lost the modernist edge it once had, and reverted to a tamer figurativeness. Thirty years separate the painting above from the one below.

Flowers and vases

Bell painted flowers and vases throughout her long working life. There is a room devoted just to this subject. I found these a lot less interesting than the landscapes or portraits.

Once again, a careful examination of the chronology suggests a falling away of intensity in the later paintings. The later flower paintings lack oomph. Maybe they’re content. Happy.

Wallflowers by Vanessa Bell (c. 1950) © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images

Wallflowers by Vanessa Bell (c. 1950) © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images

A note on colour and reproduction

Despite the brightness of many of the images included in this review, the colour which perhaps came over most from these paintings was a kind of turd brown, obvious in a work like The Conversation, or the double portrait of Frederick and Jessie Etchells (1912). A congeries of dark and murky browns, emphasised by the often plain wooden frames.

Without exception all the reproductions I’ve seen online – and even the reproductions on the hand-held audioguide – come out brighter and more colourful than the actual works themselves which, in the flesh, are mostly dour and drab, with a particular deep brown the prevailing tone. As one of the commenters I quote below put its – with some notable exceptions – ‘muddy’ gives a good summary of the majority of the paintings’ visual impact. In fact, the main visual takeaway from the show has been to make me notice just how much brown there is around us in everyday life – bricks of walls and houses, reddy-brown roof tiling, brown fences and so on.

The Bloomsbury group

More than enough has been written about the loose group of artists, writers, novelists and critics, economists and philosophers who lived in and around Bloomsbury Square near the British Museum, and also had connections with Trinity College Cambridge. They shared a desire to overthrow the stuffy prudery of their Victorian parents. The philosopher G.E. Moore in his vast Principia Ethica emphasised the centrality of honest personal relationships in his definition of ‘the good’ and ‘the good life’. This represented a massive break with the strongly social basis of Victorian ideals of Duty, Honour and so on.

Thus Bell’s wholesale rejection of the Victorian naturalistic tradition in painting can be seen as part of the wider rejection of Victorian values among her wider family and friends, and her ‘open’ marriage and the complex love lives of herself and her friends constituted a breath-taking departure from the norms of her parents and the stuffy Edwardian society she worked in.

The importance of Bloomsbury as a hotbed of new ways of seeing and living is emphasised throughout the exhibition – it is unavoidable since her portraits were all unofficial depictions of her family and close friends, and so the audiocommentary and wall labels insistently namecheck members of the Group, providing details of Bell’s lovers and associates. The show features a display case showing photographs of friends and family together in the garden of the Sussex house, which convey the casual informality of this impressive group of thinkers and artists.

Bell and feminism

The Canadian curator Sarah Milroy emphasises that Vanessa was a feminist pioneer. The first wall panel claims that Bell’s

‘portraits of women offer bracing encounters with female subjects given startling new force and agency.’

With the best will in the world, I couldn’t quite see this. Some of the earliest work captures an odd, alien effect which I enjoyed, for example the worrying intensity of the female figures in –

and many of the first room of portraits are deliberately unnerving and unsettling –

and amount to a full-frontal assault on Victorian aesthetics of female beauty –

The commentary tells us that the strange and ominous Studland Beach is considered one of her masterpieces. It certainly has a kind of Expressionist alienation and Symbolist portentousness. But I don’t see it as particularly giving the women depicted in it ‘agency and force’.

Studland Beach (c.1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit © Tate, London 2016

Studland Beach (c.1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit © Tate, London 2016

And these are exceptions to the majority of works here. The more frequent portraits of Virginia, Iris, Molly and so on, although modernist in form, are supremely calm and placid in tone. Her sitters are generally ensconced in a comfy chair in a nicely furnished living room – and the presence in the surrounding rooms of so many depictions of the peaceful Sussex countryside, not to mention the umpteen paintings of tasteful vases of flowers – the overall effect is a great feeling of calm and tranquility.

And the early experimentalism in this genre, as in the others, slips away as the later paintings become more conventional.

The final wall label repeats this feminist emphasis, which is clearly important to the show’s organisers:

‘One of Bell’s greatest legacies is her reimagining of the image of womanhood, with her powerful female bodies and countenances claiming pictorial space with a kind of brute force.’

Many of the female portraits from her glory years around the Great War are strange rebellions, and just focusing on the work from that specific period does emphasise their originality in the hidebound English tradition. But even the weirdest of them feel to me static and dreamlike. ‘Brute force’ is just not a phrase I would apply to Bell’s work.

As to subverting or revolutionising women’s roles, which the commentary claims she did, I also couldn’t really see it. Bell designed fabrics and painted vases of flowers; she moved to a lovely farmhouse in the countryside where she hosted charming weekends for her artistic friends; she was the loving mother of two adorable sons (Julian, who went to private school and King’s College before becoming a poet, and Quentin, who went to private school before becoming an art historian). I genuinely don’t see how this is revolutionary or subversive.

Possibly I don’t understand the times well enough, and the ongoing weight of conformity to Victorian gender stereotypes which most of her contemporaries endured. Maybe it was precisely Bell and her friends who opened the door to this kind of lifestyle, which eventually became so widespread as to become a cliché in succeeding generations.

The Omega workshop and abstraction

The works of Bell’s which approach nearest to the dynamic abstractions of her contemporaries on the English art scene – Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg or C.R.W. Nevinson – derive from her period with the Omega workshop, set up by close friends Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, with the idea of producing fabrics and textiles based on their own designs. It opened in 1913, produced a wide range of domestic furnishings to modernist designs, before closing in 1920.

One of the six rooms is dedicated to Bell’s Omega phase, with patterns and designs for rugs, curtains and so on, for example the Design for Omega Workshops Fabric reproduced above. There are also examples of the book jacket illustrations she provided for the Hogarth Press, the small publishing house set up by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1917.

The biggest object in the show is the painted screen from this period, Tents and Figures – a big powerful work which conveys Bell’s interest in abstraction and bold geometric design – but with a power, you can’t help thinking, borrowed from Cezanne’s landscapes and the Fauvist use of African masks for the faces. It’s good but haven’t I seen these clashing diagonals and mask-faced figures before?

Tents and Figures (1913) by Vanessa Bell. A painted folding screen. Victoria & Albert Museum. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tents and Figures (1913) by Vanessa Bell. A painted folding screen. Victoria & Albert Museum. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Conclusion

I found many of the the early portraits novel and fresh, some of her odder stuff (e.g. The Conversation) bracingly disconcerting, the Omega workshop designs and artefacts an interesting variation on the Modernism of her contemporaries. I found a number of the landscapes evocative, especially the earlier, more modernist ones, and some of the still lifes prettily decorative.

But, in general, the paintings which make the biggest impact are the ones most obviously derived from Continental exemplars. Bell is an interesting artist, who produced lots of good work but maybe, in the end, is an example of the way hundreds, maybe thousands of artists in the 1910s, were gripped and liberated by wholly new ways of seeing and painting created by a handful of pioneers in France and Germany (the Expressionists, the Fauves).

One of the best paintings in the show is Nude with Poppies – admirable but… isn’t it almost entirely Matisse?

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

I worried that maybe I was failing to ‘get’ Bell, so I was reassured by these comments added to the online Guardian review of the exhibition:

  • “Looks very derivative to me. Not a patch on the originals, ie. Matisse, Mondrian, Gauguin, Munch”
  • “Not in the same league as the greats of the period, though, but still… pretty pictures.”
  • “I love her early work – the abstracts and experimental portraits. The later stuff is too muddy and repetitive, and the radical edge disappears pretty quickly.”
  • “Probably nice above the mantlepiece in a suburban villa. Nowt wrong with that, I’m a great lover of domestic art. But put her in a public gallery and her work withers to almost nothing. A very second rate artist.”
  • “you really have to work hard at liking them – and that’s because they are poor; badly done, lazily composed, arrogantly confident. “

Summary

So – some arresting and some eerie portraits, a few impressive semi-abstract landscapes, lots of vases of flowers. But with the nagging sense that they are very derivative, throughout. And – to step back a bit – the enormous social, political and philosophical upheavals which were going on at exactly this time (1914-1930) and are represented in the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Russian Revolutionary art – or the impact and experience of the two cataclysmic world wars as captured in, say, the recent big exhibition of Paul Nash at Tate Britain – are completely absent.

It is interesting that the curators chose to arrange the exhibition by theme and not chronologically. Is it because a chronological presentation would highlight the way the impact of the European post-impressionists set off a storm of creativity in Bell’s work during the 1910s – but also show how that energy faded in the 1920s so that by the 1940s and 1950s she is painting capable enough works, but many so bland they wouldn’t be out of place in a local jumble sale.

On the Steps of Santa Maria Salute, Venice (1948) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: The Bloomsbury Workshop

On the Steps of Santa Maria Salute, Venice (1948) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: The Bloomsbury Workshop

As ever with the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it’s a thorough, well-presented and elegant exhibition of a neglected artist, and so a welcome opportunity to find out more, to range over Bell’s work, to try and formulate a view. Maybe I’m missing something but for me, although it contains some arresting work and some surprises and convinces me that her name should be better known and more of her work displayed in public collections – it ultimately doesn’t persuade me that Vanessa Bell was in any way a major figure.

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Unintentional comedy There are three articles about this show in the Guardian, all of which complain that Bell has too long been in the shadow of the more famous Bloomsburyites. But ironically, the subtitles of all three articles define her in precisely the terms they claim to be trying to rescue her from:

  • “Vanessa Bell to break free from Bloomsbury group in Dulwich show – The sister of Virginia Woolf and lover of Duncan Grant is long overdue recognition as pioneer of modern art, say curators”
  • “Vanessa Bell: stepping out of the shadows of the Bloomsbury set – The artist, best known for her tangled love life and being Virginia Woolf’s sister, gets her first major solo show”
  • “Design and desires: how Vanessa Bell put the bloom in Bloomsbury – She was best known as a member of the Bloomsbury group and sister of Virginia Woolf – but will the first major show of her artwork change her reputation?”

The answer to the last question is surely – No, not as long as her biggest fans, her most knowledgeable curators and her supportive journalists, continue to define her in terms of her better-known sister, her numerous lovers and her social set – and not as an artist in her own right, which is surely how she should be presented.

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Robert Rauschenberg @ Tate Modern

This exhibition is a gas, I can’t remember laughing so much at a show for ages. It’s a big one, the biggest retrospective of Rauschenberg’s art for a generation, and he worked for six decades – from the 1940s to the 2000s (his dates are 1925 – 2008) – covering a lot of ground, producing a huge body of work.

I’ve recently read history books about the Second World War in the Pacific, the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. The major theme which emerges from all of them is the incredible, overwhelming power and wealth of America as it emerged from WW2 to be the first superpower in world history, capable of projecting bottomless economic aid and phenomenal military force right around the world, from Korea to Greece and Turkey.

Seen against this historical backdrop, the Abstract Expressionists, Rauschenberg’s generation, and then the Pop artists, represent three waves reflecting the unstoppable economic and military power of their country. As the recent show at the Royal Academy showed, the Abstract Expressionists were very interior, psychological artists, traumatised by the war, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, stuck in their new York lofts painting huge blocks of rough-edged colour or splattering the surface of the canvas with flickering expressions of existentialist angst. The Pop artists from the very end of the 1950s/dawn of the 1960s conveyed the sense of a society drowning in its own consumer products, sometimes with unironic adulation (Warhol), comic book fandom (Lichtenstein) or ironic questioning (Hamilton).

Rauschenberg falls in middle. His works are more fun, open-ended and disruptive than the serious AEs, but deliberately lack the sheen and finish of Pop. They include ready-made objects and junk found in the streets, magazine articles, random objects, and a randomised, carefree approach to cutting and combining materials and objects together. He wanted to bring the outside world into the artist’s studio.

The exhibition is in 11 big rooms which take his career chronologically introducing us to key themes and sets of works in different forms and media.

Photographer

Rauschenberg had an excellent eye as a photographer and at first considered photography as a professional career. An early set of works used photographic images and X-rays to produce experimental images of the human body.

Untitled/double Rauschenberg (c.1950) by Robert Rauschenberg

Untitled/double Rauschenberg (c.1950) by Robert Rauschenberg

Beginnings

Rauschenberg was born in 1925 and grew up in Port Arthur Texas, surrounded by big open spaces and the oil industry. Enrolled in the US Navy he saw his first art gallery in California, used his G.I. Bill money to travel to Paris where he studied art and met his wife-to-be, Susan Weil. Back in the States she enrolled in the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina where Rauschenberg quickly became a major player.

Hundreds of books have been written about the college, founded by exiles from the Bauhaus in Germany, who taught a complete integration of all the arts, with no gap between ‘fine’ and ‘applied’. Experimental poets, playwrights, artists, painters, sculptors, composers and choreographers worked together and exchanged ideas. It was the setting for the first ‘happenings’ and multi-media experiments which were to become so widespread in the 1960s.

Here he met the composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Rauschenberg created sets and backdrops for performances of avant-garde dance to Cage’s avant-garde scores, and was to remain involved in dance for decades. He painted a set of pure white canvases, using industrial paint and rollers to achieve no surface texture. The idea was that the art was the change of light and shadow, the drift of motes of dust, across the surface. Apparently this helped inspire Cage’s most famous work, 4’33”, in which the performer comes on stage, opens the piano and sits there without moving. The ‘art’ is in the audience being forced to pay attention, not to the silence (for there is never silence) but to the ambient sounds around them. It creates a Buddhist-style act of attention and focus.

‘The world around him’ could have been Rauschenberg’s motto. Whereas the Abstract Expressionists for the most part stayed inside their New York loft studios, Rauschenberg opened the windows and doors to let in the big dirty world, and went out a-walking through it to see what he could see, and then to create works which brought the ‘outside’ into art.

Hence Automobile Tire print (1951) in which he got twenty or so bits of common or garden typewriter paper, glued them together, then rang up Cage and asked him to come round in his Model A Ford. They applied black paint to the car’s tyre then Cage drove very slowly and carefully along the paper. Voilà!

The audiocommentary for this show is brilliant and nods to Rauschenberg’s love of collage, cutting up and mixing and matching, by having voices of the various curators interrupting each other, contributing questions and answers chopped up and sampled, alongside snippets of Rauschenberg himself from old interviews.

What comes over most is the laughter. Like Cage, Rauschenberg seems to have hugely enjoyed life and saw ‘art’ as a way of extending and exploring that enjoyment. He tells us it was a rainy day, and it was damn hard to get the paper to stay glued together.

The sense of humour comes over in what came to be known as the ‘Combines’ series, paintings made ‘awkward’ by the addition of objects. An example is Bed, a duvet and pillow stuck to a canvas and then spurted with oil paint, pencil, toothpaste and red fingernail polish. Rauschenberg gets a laugh on an interview snippet on the commentary by saying that up till then the quilt had been used to put over the radiator of his knackered car to keep it warm in the New York winter.

Bed (1955) by Robert Rauschenberg. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Bed (1955) by Robert Rauschenberg. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Junk and Arte Povera

The artist’s poverty is a running thread. The small set of boxes containing found objects, nails, insects, in room one are really the function of extreme poverty. The ‘Combines’ include works which have electric light bulbs, radios, fans, and alarm clocks embedded in them or tacked on them.

Her worked with what came to hand, what was outside on the streets, junk, wood, the cardboard boxes which are the material for a whole set of works later, in the 1990s, wood, tyres – the detritus of America’s booming consumer society.

A standout work from the period is Monogram. He came across a stuffed angora goat in a local junk shop and persuaded the owner to sell it to him, though he couldn’t afford the full $30 cost. Back in the studio he knew he had to do something to make it into ‘art’, and so tried painting its face. wedging it against a combine painting backdrop, or on a combine painting, but none of it really worked. In fact it was only a few years later when he had the idea of using a tyre which was lying around in the studio, slipping it round the goat’s belly that, he says, the thing was finally finished and – as he says on the audioguide, to appreciative laughter – the various elements of the work ‘lived happily ever after’.

Monogram (1955-59) by Robert Rauschenberg. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Monogram (1955-59) by Robert Rauschenberg. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Performance

Mention has been made of his involvement in ballet productions, and he went on a world tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, creating sets and backdrops, often spontaneously from objects found near the theatres. In the later 1950s Rauschenberg staged performances, especially in the creation of ‘combines’. We are told about one which he created in front of a gallery audience using paint and all sorts of objects, including an alarm clock which he set at the start. When the alarm clock rang, the work was finished.

Silk screens

In the late 1950s Rauschenberg discovered that if you apply lighter fluid to the images in glossy magazines, place the page on blank paper and rub it, the image transfers to the white paper, often distressed. Do it with multiple images and you have a collage. Using this technique he created a set of drawings to illustrate Dante’s Divine Inferno, and 20 or so are on display here. They look a bit scrappy at first, but if you look carefully, images begin to emerge, of police, weightlifters, American street scenes, which have a strange appropriateness to Dante’s visions of hell. (Compare and contrast the recent exhibition of Botticelli’s illustrations of Dante. Of course, contemporary references and events is precisely the point of the Divine Comedy)

In 1962, at the same time as Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg began experimenting with making paintings using silk screens, a technique previously restricted to commercial printing. Whereas Warhol’s silks tend to be of one iconic image (Botticelli’s Venus, Marilyn Monroe, Mao, Elvis) Rauschenberg’s are always collages of multiple images and use a far wider range of imagery, including political and social imagery. To the casual viewer (like myself) these are probably his best-known works and the image chosen as poster for the show, the best-known.

Retroactive II (1964) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. Photo: Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago

Retroactive II (1964) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. Photo: Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago

Having a roomful of these works all together allows us to see how snippets or individual images are re-used: for example, the classical painting of a woman looking at her own reflection is repositioned as the main feature of Persimmon, the Army truck at the top reappears in other images, and several works feature the same image of mosquitoes, recast, recoloured, with different croppings.

It’s difficult to pin down what makes these works so arresting. First and foremost they are already acute and carefully chosen images, themselves the result of other people’s professional labours – for example, of the photographer who took the Kennedy image and then the newspaper or magazine designers who cropped and positioned it – and many of the other magazine images – just so.

But the assembly of these already-burnished images together creates strange emotions – in one mood they can be experienced as vibrant and exciting depictions of America Superpower, with its go-ahead young president, its space-age technology and so on. But the same montage can also be deeply poignant, recalling a vanished era, with its vanished hopes, assassinated presidents and failed technology.

Performance

In 1964 Rauschenberg broke with the Cunningham Dance Company and formed a new company with his partner, dancer Steve Paxton. Initially he created the sets, as usual, but then experimented with choreography and even performing himself. A video here shows an entrancing work called Pelican where Rauschenberg and another performer move around the stage on roller skates with parachutes attached to their backs. It looks wonderful.

A big space is devoted to the installation titled Oracle (1962-65), ‘a multi-part sculpture made from scrap metal which contained wireless microphone systems, which could be moved around and choreographed in any configuration’. The showerhead in the middle actually spouts pouring water, and concealed loudspeakers play noises and snippets of radio music. This reminded me a lot of John Cage’s hilarious Water Walk as performed live on American TV in 1960.

You get the idea. The richness and power of America isn’t represented by diamonds and tall buildings: the opposite; a lot of this stuff is ramshackle and jimmy-rigged in the extreme. It’s the confidence of these artists, that they can now do whatever they want to, having completely thrown off the chains of the European tradition. If Cage says sitting at a piano without doing a thing is art – then it is, dammit! In another room in the show, if Rauschenberg builds a big metal tank containing 1,000 gallons of bentonite clay mixed with mud, through which pipes blow air which spurts and erupts as geyser-like bubbles on the muddy surface and calls it ‘art’ – then, why not?

After the 60s

Like a lot of artists of the time, Rauschenberg was exhausted by the end of the 1960s. In pop music I think of the famous performers who all managed to die in and around 1970 (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison). The whole culture seemed to have become too frenetic and cluttered. Bob Dylan and John Lennon who in their different ways had contributed to the sense of clutter, of psychedelic lyrics packed with references and images, both eventually rejected the whole thing, rolling back to simple folk in Dylan’s case, or a man dressed in white in an empty room playing a white piano, as in Lennon’s Imagine.

In art music, the impenetrably complex mathematically-derived music of serialism began to give way to the repetitive rhythms and simple harmonics of New York pals Philip Glass and Steve Reich which would become known as minimalism. In American art, an art movement also known as minimalism, led by Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris, represented a wish to declutter and simplify.

In tune with the mood of the times, Rauschenberg left New York City, his home and inspiration for 20 years, to resettle in Captiva of the coast of Florida, in what looks like an amazing house built on stilts in the ocean.

Deprived of the endless bric-a-brac to be found in New York Rauschenberg chose his materials more carefully and used them to create large, spare, simpler works. One series became known as the Cardboards, for the way they are made of cardboard boxes reworked into large shapes and patterns. Didn’t do much for me. On the other hand, I really like the series known as ‘Jammers’, inspired by the colours and fabrics he encountered on a trip to India in 1975.

Untitled (Venetian) could be a work by one of the Italian Arte Povera artists, which feature elsewhere in Tate Modern, made from large-scale industrial cast-offs and waste material.

One of my favourite works form the show was Albino (Jammer) – four bamboo posts leaning against the wall. On the wall is a rectangle of white fabric and each of the posts is wrapped in the same white fabric. Simple as that. It obviously relates back to the white canvas squares from early in his career, but now more mature, deeper. For me the quietness, dignity, simplicity of the rectangle is beautifully dramatised and energised by the leaning posts.

Abroad

The pop culture I grew up with was all played out by the early 1980s: prog rock, heavy metal, glam rock, disco gave way to punk then post-punk, industrial, Goth and so on. I was struck by how John Peel’s successor Andy Kershaw left the European tradition altogether and, along with other intelligent rock lovers of the period, began to explore world music, and anybody who turned on Radio 1 late at night was likely to hear music from Burundi and Mali. The trend was crystallised by Paul Simon’s best-selling album Graceland, for which he went to South Africa to find inspiration beyond the American tradition and work with vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Room nine in the exhibition tells us that Rauschenberg undertook a campaign of travel to exotic countries as part of a project he titled the ‘Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Exchange’. Between 1982 and 1990 he visited China, Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, Russia, East Germany and Malaysia, collaborating with local artists in exploring their materials and traditions, one work from each stop donated to local museums, the rest accumulating to form a travelling show. The products of this project included in this exhibition are mostly collages featuring images from local magazines.

Untitled (Spread) (1983) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Untitled (Spread) (1983) by Robert Rauschenberg. Solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, with umbrellas © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Much more striking is the ‘Gluts’ series. Rauschenberg revisited his hometown in Texas in 1985 and was shocked by the extent of deindustrialisation, abandoned oil wells, derelict gas stations.

The automobile was a potent symbol of American economic power, and the shameless creativity of industrial design in the 1940s and 1950s and as such is a recurrent motif in his work (think of the Tyre work from back in New York City). After two oil crises in the 1970s, those days of boundless prosperity and cheap cruising along endless highways were gone. And so was the happy-go-lucky liberalism of the 1950s and 60s. It is the 1980s of Thatcher and Reagan. Rauschenberg is quoted as saying: ‘It’s a time of glut. Greed is rampant.’ While  crooks on Wall street made undreamed-of fortunes, lots of industrial America fell into terminal decline.

The ‘Glut’ works use scrap metal, gas station signs, decayed car and industrial parts to create a series of wall reliefs and freestanding assemblages. I grew up in a petrol station, with the smell of petrol in my nose all day long, the oily sheen on the puddles out front, piles of knackered tyres out back of the tyre change bay, the sound of compressed air pumps which inflate the inner tubes and the machines which derimmed old tyres. I’ve always liked art made from the wreck of our ruinous industrial civilisation. The Glut series do this in excelsis, and are all the more poignant for hearkening back to Rauschenberg’s earliest inspirational use of the junk he found in the streets around his New York base.

Glacial Decoy and Photography

In 1979 Rauschenberg embarked on a 16-year collaboration with choreographer Trisha Brown. In one example of their work, Glacial Decoy, four performers dance in front of an enormous screen onto which are projected four large black-and-white stills of photographs taken by Rauschenberg. New slides appear every few seconds with a very audible click from the projector.

A whole darkened room is devoted to this slide show, each photo projected onto the wall ten or twelve feet tall. There were 620 slides and they are a revelation. They show that Rauschenberg was an extraordinarily talented photographer. All the images are very good and a lot of them are brilliantly evocative – poignant black-and-white images of brick walls, wooden steps, abandoned tyres, lilies, freight trains, roadside flagpoles, on and on, a wonderfully rich and haunting cornucopia of images of American life.

For me these slides revealed the bedrock of Rauschenberg’s artistry, which is his extraordinary ‘eye’ for composition, for imagery, for finding and combining beauty in the everyday, in magazine pictures, found objects, industrial bric-a-brac, cardboard boxes, car speedometers, the readymade junk of our civilisation.

Scenarios and Runts

Rauschenberg’s perfect judgement of how to combine, crop, place, position and work images is still very much in evidence in the final works in the last room, in which photography in fact became more central and prominent in his practice. Using newly developed water-soluble printing techniques, he mounted prints onto polylaminate supports before transferring them to the very large final works – enormous digital photograph montages.

Right up to these final paintings you have the sense of an artist who really did experiment, push the boundaries, try out new things, determined to bring the whole world into modern art and, whenever you hear snippets of him being interviewed, laughing and joking and enjoying himself hugely in the process.

This is a wonderful, eye-opening, life-affirming exhibition.

P.S.

60 years of art and not a single naked body, no tits or bums anywhere: human faces or human bodies are only included in works as semi-abstract shapes, as elements of composition. This near absence of the human face or figure emphasises Rauschenberg’s focus on the man-made, 20th century, industrialised world around us, a really genuinely modern art of the world we step out our front door and start tripping over.


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The Vietnam War by Mitchell Hall (2000)

This is one of the Seminar Studies series produced by academic publisher Longman, a set of short introductions to historical topics.

This one on the Vietnam War features an 87-page overview of the war’s long and tangled history, with 23 pages of original source documents, a 6-page chronology, a 2-page list of the main characters, a 3-page glossary, and an 8-page bibliography. Designed for A-level students this is still a very useful short overview and reference book.

Vietnam geography

Vietnam is a 1,000-kilometer-long sliver of land along the east coast of the fat peninsular once known as Indochina. It widens in the north to form a kind of flowerhead shape around the northern city of Hanoi in the delta of the Red River, which is less than 50 miles from the border with China. Along the central belt which borders Laos in the west, it is sometimes as little as 30 miles wide. In the south it broadens out again before arriving at the southern city, formerly known as Saigon, on the big delta of the River Mekong.

Map of Vietnam

From 100 BC to 950 AD Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese. In the Middle Ages various dynasties tried to unite the long coastal strip and in the 1700s successfully seized the southern tip, the Mekong Delta, from the decaying Khmer Empire in Cambodia.

European explorers arrived in the 1500s, the French bringing Catholic missionaries, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that serious exploration and missionary work began. By the 1850s the French had established military control over most of Indochina, which they divided into administrative provinces and ran in the usual patronising, exploitative style.

The disastrous 20th century

World War Two was a catastrophe for European Empires all through Asia, which were overthrown by the triumphant Japanese Empire. The Japanese allowed Vietnam to continue to be run by the new Axis-friendly Vichy French regime. But when the Nazi regime in Europe collapsed in 1945, the Japanese briefly took direct rule, before their own defeat in August 1945.

Throughout the 1920s various Vietnamese nationalist movements had arisen, only to be suppressed by the French authorities. The most enduring was to be the communist one, led by Ho Chi Minh, who had trained in Bolshevik Moscow in the 1920s, and helped form the Vietnamese communist party in 1930. In 1941 Ho helped establish a broad-based nationalist movement, including moderates and radicals, which became known as the Viet Minh (full name ‘Việt Nam Độc Lập Đồng Minh Hội’, meaning ‘League for the Independence of Vietnam’). The communists were helped by Moscow to organise during the Vichy years and were given arms and advice by the American OSS during Japan’s brief period of direct rule.

This last year of the war saw a disastrous famine in Vietnam in which as many as two million starved to death. It had been inadvertently begun by Vichy French switch of agriculture from food crops to cash crops, and was exacerbated by Japanese rule, which was focused solely on feeding Japan’s home population. The collapse of civil authority and widespread hatred of the oppressor meant that, the moment Japan surrendered in August 1945, Ho Chi Minh’s call for a general uprising was met with enthusiasm in the northern and central provinces. This ‘August Revolution’ consolidated Viet Minh rule in the north and Ho called for Allied recognition of a united independent Vietnam.

What a world of pain would have been avoided if the Americans had simply agreed. Imagine if Truman had continued to supply arms and support to Ho, helped to establish a united nationalist government, and gained the eternal gratitude of the Vietnamese people.

Instead, as in Korea, the Allies i.e. America, designated a geographic division of the country: China to accept Japanese surrender in the north and Britain to accept it in the south. British soldiers occupied Saigon and put down nationalist and communist elements, pending the return of the French.

The French returned to find that: Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh organisation effectively controlled the north of the country; and the south included large pockets of Viet Minh and communist sympathisers, alongside competing nationalist interests, for example the Buddhist, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects, which made it very difficult to rule.

Dienbienphu

The French struggled to restore peace in the south and enforce their somewhat optimistic claim to be able to control the north. As sporadic outbreaks of violence dragged on, a French general, Henri Navarre, decided to draw the Viet Minh into an open set-piece battle such as his forebears had fought in Europe and set up a massive stronghold at Dienbienphu, far in the north and west towards the border with Laos, in the spring of 1954. The Vietminh’s leading strategist, General Vo Nguyen Giap, surrounded the 13,000 French with 50,000 Vietminh troops and after a grinding two-month conflict, took Dienbienphu.

This catastrophic defeat coincided with peace talks in Geneva about the entire region, and a deal was brokered whereby Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel into a Vietminh-held north and the French-controlled south, with a promise to hold elections throughout the country in 1956. The French began withdrawing from South Vietnam, handing authority over to the ’emperor’ Bao Dai, who appointed Ngo Dinh Diem Prime Minister in June 1954.

American involvement

Immediately after the Second World War America, true to its vehemently anti-colonial principles, had sought to undermine and hamper the return of the French to Indochina. However, within a few short years Russia’s increasingly aggressive stance in Europe had driven a wedge between the wartime allies and changed US policy. Now US policy around the world was subordinated to the idea of ‘containment’: the fear that Russia would back or impose communist governments in every country it was able to, in an aggressive strategy to spread communism throughout the world – unless actively halted by the West.

This paranoid view of the world was strongly reinforced when Mao Zedong’s communists finally won the Chinese Civil War in October 1949, and then Kim Il-sung’s North Korean communists invaded South Korea in June 1950. It was easy to see this as a concerted effort to make all Asia communist, an outcome which would ultimately threaten pro-western Japan, and then the American West Coast.

And so the Americans switched from criticising the French to supporting them with supplies and advisers. Dienbienphu was a turning point. From then onwards hawks within the US administration began to win the argument. Thus, as the French withdrew their forces and administrators, the Americans found themselves getting drawn into supporting Diem’s southern government. This was despite Diem’s unsavoury policies. Himself a member of Vietnam’s Catholic minority, Diem forcefully repressed other religious groups and kept key positions of power within his family or clan. As with the unsavoury Syngman Rhee in South Korea, America found that the logic of its anti-communist position drew it into supporting a repressive dictator who breached every principle of human rights and good governance Americans supposedly believed in, solely on the basis that he wasn’t a communist.

The French leave Vietnam

In 1955 the last French troops left the country. In 1956 Diem instituted a fierce anti-communist drive. In 1957 fighting broke out between the Republic of Vietnam Army and anti-regime opponents, who Diem referred to as the Viet Cong – a name which would catch on. (The original phrase was Việt Nam Cộng-sản which means ‘Vietnamese communist’. It was abbreviated to Viet Cong, then just VC. In the NATO phonetic alphabet V and C are conveyed by ‘Victor’ and ‘Charlie’ – hence the widespread use of ‘Charlie’ by American troops to refer to the enemy.)

Hanoi, effective capital of the communist North, was able to recruit a wide range of anti-Diem forces in the name of overthrowing the dictator and reuniting the country. In 1959 Hanoi sent the first shipments of men and supplies to their forces in the south to fuel what had, in effect, become a civil war. The various nationalist forces were organised into the People’s Liberation Armed Forces, supplied and directed by communists. By 1961 they controlled significant parts of the countryside and had sympathisers in every southern city.

President Kennedy took office in January 1961 and walked straight into the Vietnam problem. Like his predecessors he saw it through a Cold War lens as a case of communist aggression. Kennedy authorised the despatch of US special forces to Vietnam to train and support the South Vietnam army. By 1962 advisers estimated that Diem held only 49% of South Vietnam – but instead of recognising historical reality, this only spurred the Americans to redouble their support for the losing side. In 1963 the North commissioned isolated attacks on southern military targets, in which growing numbers of Americans were killed. It was a red rag to a bull.

Why America lost the Vietnam War

1. Civil war or Cold War ‘invasion’ The Americans saw the Vietnam conflict solely in terms of the global Cold War, and solely as a communist conspiracy. They failed to acknowledge the nationalist motivation of many of their opponents, who simply wanted to see their country reunited and all foreign oppressors thrown out.

Thus the Americans persisted in thinking about the war as an ‘invasion’ from the communist North, which could be put down by bombing the North, as if this conflict resembled Germany invading France. But this book makes clear that as much as 40% of the population of the south were opposed to Diem’s regime and, after he was assassinated in a coup, his numerous successors were even less popular.

The Americans manoeuvred themselves into the hopeless position of propping up the unpopular side in a civil war.

2. The failure of ‘attrition’ The American military adopted a policy of ‘attrition’. They thought they could wear down the enemy through constant conflict in which America’s vastly larger weaponry would inevitably triumph. It would become a contest of wills. Victory was measured by body count. If more VC died than US troops died then, eventually, finally, in the end, America would win.

But in the event the American willpower cracked first. Why? To this day the military men and their supporters blame the tremendous anti-war movement which grew up back in the States for undermining the war effort. But politicians have to represent the will of the people and by the end of the 1960s the people of America had had enough.

At a deeper level the whole sorry saga recalls the parable of the fox chasing the rabbit: the fox is quicker, cleverer and stronger than the rabbit; but the fox is only running for its dinner whereas the rabbit is running for its life. The Americans were only fighting yet another war for not very clear aims, with a manifestly failing strategy, in defensof a corrupt and unpopular government. The Vietnamese were fighting for a free, united country. The Americans could go home anytime; the Vietnamese had to live there. Which side would you bet on?

American involvement

Hundreds of thousands of books, articles, movies, newspaper and magazine pieces, academic studies and websites are devoted to the American part of the Vietnam War, from roughly 1964 to 1973. Suffice to say that when President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, there were about 16,000 US troops in Vietnam, helping Diem’s government against Viet Cong insurgents. Six years later there were as many as 550,000 US military personnel in country.

Diem was himself assassinated a few weeks before Kennedy, and south Vietnam then suffered a series of coups by military men, rendering the southern government ever-more illegitimate and precarious. In 1965, after half a dozen military coups, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu became president and was the figurehead of the Southern regime the Americans were supposedly fighting for, for the rest of the conflict.

1964 was the key year when America could still have walked away with some dignity, and we now know it was filled with fraught debates at senior levels in the administration of President Johnson, who replaced the assassinated Kennedy.

The central event came on 2nd August when a US destroyer high up in the Gulf of Tonkin (aiding commando attacks against the North Korean coast) was attacked by some North Vietnamese boats. Two days later the same ship reported being under attack again. There is now consensus that the second attack never took place and, apparently, the first one resulted in precisely one bullet hole in the ship’s infrastructure. Nevertheless, this ‘attack’ gave Johnson administration the fig leaf it needed to go to Congress and force through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964, which allowed the president ‘to take any measures he believed were necessary to retaliate and to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.’ It was the legal fig leaf to take America into a full-blown war.

Rolling Thunder

Further North Vietnam-inspired attacks on southern targets, which killed some US servicemen, persuaded a dubious President Johnson that a bombing campaign against the North would bring them to the negotiating table. Having just read accounts of the bombing campaign of the Second World War and the Korean War, I share the President’s doubts – but the American air force won the argument and Operation Rolling Thunder – a sustained bombing campaign against Northern military targets – commenced in March 1965. Two things happened:

  • this stepping-up of the war sparked the first public protests, especially on university campuses, which formed the seeds of what would grow into a massive nationwide anti-war campaign
  • selective bombing didn’t either bolster the regime in the south or force the North to the negotiating table and so, as always happens, the generals insisted that the campaign be broadened to take in vital infrastructure, and then towns and then cities

Tim Page’s photo of the US air force man with a helmet with a set of stickers on it reading, ‘Bomb Hanoi’, ‘Bomb Saigon’, ‘Bomb Disneyland’, ‘Bomb Everything’, captures the horribly inevitable logic of all bombing campaigns. They never work and then their proponents say that’s because we’re not bombing enough.

That’s what the Luftwaffe told Hitler to get him to authorise the bombing British cities: did it bring Churchill to the negotiating table? No. Then Bomber Harris persuaded Churchill to allow indiscriminate ‘area’ bombing of German cities: did that bring Hitler to the negotiating table? No. the Americans fire-bombed Japanese cities for a year, reducing many to rubble, killing 100,000 civilians in the great firebombing of Tokyo alone: did that bring Japan to the negotiating table? No. The American Air Force bombed North Korean targets for years: did that hasten the negotiations to a conclusion? No.

But once again, the USAF persuaded a doubtful civilian leader to allow mass bombing of an enemy: did it bolster the South Vietnamese regime? No. Did it bring a defeated North Vietnam to the negotiating table? No. An estimated 50,000 North Vietnamese died.

The realisation that the (ever-expanding) bombing campaign wasn’t working, drove demands from the military authority on the ground, General Westmoreland, for more ground troops. Slowly, reluctantly, lacking a clear end-goal, Johnson authorised increasing US troops, 23,000 by the end of 1964, 385,000 during 1966, a massive 535,000 by early 1968.

The Tet Offensive

1968 was the decisive year. In January, taking the Americans completely by surprise, the North launched the Tet Offensive, striking a host of military sites all over South Vietnam, even attacking the US Embassy in Saigon.

Map of Tet Offensive targets

Although the Viet Cong lost at least 10 times the number of American dead in the Tet Offensive (45,267 to 4,124) the graphic TV images and newspaper reports, combined with the vigorous anti-war campaigns led by students back in the States, undermined American determination. It was a contributory factor to Lyndon Johnson deciding not to stand for re-election as president and to the election victory of his successor, Republican Richard Nixon, who became president in January 1969. Nixon had campaigned to bring the war to an end and tried to implement a policy of ‘Vietnamisation’ i.e. handing the war back to the South Vietnamese to fight.

Even with this determination it still took four years to get to the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, during which time plenty more pacification campaigns were carried out, plenty of programmes to bolster the South Vietnam government’s position and popularity – in fact bombing was actually increased.

In March 1969 Nixon took the fateful decision to extend the ongoing bombing into neighbouring Cambodia, through which the Viet Minh had been sending arms and supplies. This had the effect of destabilising the pro-American government there and bolstering the fierce local communist party, the Khmer Rouge, with catastrophic results.

The Americans also led a predominantly South Vietnamese Army campaign into Laos, to destroy Viet Minh bases, but the Southern army was badly worsted, abandoning much of its equipment on the field of battle. This augured badly for the whole ‘Vietnamisation’ strategy and, sure enough, once the Americans had withdrawn, the South was to ultimately lose the war. The Viet Minh knew they only had to sit tight and watch the American war effort collapse.

Decay and collapse

The biggest revelation to me in this short, punchy account, is the state of decay the American army reached during the war.

  • Drugs A Department of Defense study indicated that 60% of US military personnel in Vietnam used drugs in 1970.
  • Desertion The desertion rate hit an all-time high in 1971 – from 1963 to 1973 about half a million US soldiers deserted, nearly 20% of the total.

In 1972 the North launched the ‘Easter Offensive’, but were surprised at the solidity of the Southern fightback and the violence of the American response (this included the largest bombing campaign of the entire war, which devastated Northern supplies). As many as 100,000 Northern soldiers died and around 25,000 from the South. Even as it withdrew its troops, and transferred vast sums to President Thieu’s regime to train the southern army, America was still capable of lashing out.

Peace talks

Not only was their victory on the battlefield not as assured as they had assumed, but the international situation was shifting against the interests of the communist North. In February 1972 President Nixon made a historic state visit to China, and Hanoi could see that, ultimately, friendship with the U.S. was more important to Beijing than a never-ending war. At the same time Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were pursuing a policy of détente with the Russians. Stymied on the battlefield and sensing that either Russia or China might start to cut off supplies and force an unfavourable settlement, Hanoi finally agreed to come to the negotiating table, where all modern wars end. In fact Kissinger had been having secret talks with Le Duc Tho, a member of North Vietnamese politburo, from as far back as August 1969. Now there was movement.

A draft peace agreement had been hammered out by October 1972. But President Thieu refused to sign it without significant concessions by the North which thereupon withdrew from discussion. This led Nixon to agree to a final mass bombing of the North – the so-called Christmas Bombing campaign – in December 1972, inflicting huge damage and bringing condemnation from at home and abroad. But it brought Hanoi back to the table and Peace Accords were finally signed in Paris in January 1973. They provided for:

  • A ceasefire to begin on January 28, 1973
  • US troops had sixty days to withdraw all of their forces
  • both side to release all their war prisoners
  • South Vietnam and People’s Revolutionary Government to negotiate a political settlement which would allow South Vietnamese people to decide their own political future
  • Reunification of Vietnam was to be ‘carried out step by step through peaceful means’

The Americans withdrew their last forces but continued to send vast sums to Thieu’s administration. All prisoners were released, including some 591 U.S. prisoners of war. Only 159 Marines remained to guard the U.S. Embassy.

Final defeat

In spring 1974 the North launched a military campaign against the central highlands. In August President Nixon chose to resign rather than face impeachment over the Watergate affair. His successor, President Ford ignored Nixon’s secret promises to the southern regime. Emboldened by their success in the midlands, VC forces attacked towns and cities. Their strategists had thought it might take as long as two years to wear down the Southern army, particularly in light of the billions of dollars of munitions the Americans had sent them. In the event the entire campaign to conquer South Vietnam took 55 days.

Right up to the last week, U.S. officials avowed confidence in the South, which explains the final, panic-stricken scenes of helicopters landing on the Embassy roof as communist forces closed in on Saigon. Saigon fell to the North on 30 April 1975, and Vietnam was finally, after thirty years of hugely destructive conflict, reunited.

Related links

Tim Page’s Nam (1983)

No one was really sane, everyone on the point of a total numb shock, of hysteria, a madness that shrinks have only now begun to diagnose. (p.98)

The times

Page is a legendary figure about whom legends were weaved during the climactic years of a war which itself became the stuff of legends, during the legendary 1960s.

I read Michael Herr’s book of journalism from the war, Despatches, which features Page as a central character, when it came out (1977), and bought this book when it was new in 1983. I saw The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) in cinemas when they were released, and in 1980 went hitch-hiking across the USA, getting a long lift through the mid-West from a Vietnam vet who’d had a leg amputated and was stoned all the time. In Boston I hung out with a would-be rock band which featured ‘Weird Ira’ (on bass) and ‘Angry George’ (on frantic guitar), both very fucked-up Vietnam veterans, who lived in a permanent blur of drugs I’d never heard of.

That whole milieu, its culture of ‘dropping out’, drifting through casual jobs, insubordination to all authority, growing long hair, festooning yourself in beads and bangles, smoking dope, popping mandies or quaaludes or snorting speed – it all seems a long, long time ago. Another world.

The biography

In the early 1960s Page left his boring life in Orpington, a suburb of London, and made his way across Asia to Indochina, where he got aid-related jobs in Laos and taught himself photography by the age of 18. He was lucky enough to be in Laos during a coup and took photos which he was able to sell to news agencies. Then he moved across the border to Vietnam, just as the US army presence was ramping up from 1965 onwards, and as he turned 20.

Page began ‘stringing’, working freelance for whichever agencies would buy his pictures. He had survived a motorbike crash a few years earlier, and considering himself living on ‘free time’, took risks and went to places other photographers refused. He established a base in ‘Frankie’s House’, a bar-cum-hotel-cum brothel, with other western journalists and formed a close friendship with fellow photographer Sean Flynn – son of Hollywood megastar Errol. Their escapades formed the basis of a TV mini-series, Frankie’s House, broadcast in 1992.

Page’s colour and b&w photos from 1965 onwards capture all aspects of the war, military and civilian, with a raw immediacy which got them placed in news magazines especially Time-Life. He was wounded four times – the last time, in April 1969, when a soldier stepping out of a landing helicopter ahead of him trod on a mine, which blew his legs off. Page, right behind him, received a 2-inch piece of hot shrapnel in the head. He was considered dead at the scene but choppered back to the hospital, where they discovered he was alive. He was moved on to a series of hospitals back in the States where they removed part of his brain the size of an orange and stuck his skull back together.

Initially paralysed down his left side, Page slowly regained full movement, but his war days were over. He worked for a while rehabilitating other wounded and PTSD soldiers, before returning to work as a photographer for rock magazines in the 1970s. I remember finding out who Page was from a downbeat BBC ‘Arena’ documentary about him broadcast in 1979. I vividly remember him saying that these days he spent a lot of the time getting stoned and masturbating. Even then it felt like the notion that getting stoned and being ‘shockingly’ candid about sex would change anything (as they seemed to believe in the heady 1960s) was long out of date.

Tim Page’s Nam

It’s a large format book from the art publishers Thames and Hudson. Its 120 pages are divided into seven sections:

  • Chopper blitzkrieg
  • Portraits
  • The mechanics
  • Rock and roll flash
  • CV of carriers
  • Sufferings
  • The Dao of peace

A selection of images from the book is available on Page’s website.

Tim Page Nam photos

Blurbs on the back and online talk about the images’ ability to shock – but do they? It’s fifty years since many of these photos were taken, during which we have had plenty of shocking images – and even more shocking movies – depicting the killing fields of Cambodia, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the first Gulf War (with those images of skeletons in tanks on the Highway of Death out of Kuwait), anarchy in Somalia, the massacres in Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, 9/11, the American-Afghan war, the war in Iraq, and now the rise of ISIS.

We have drunk deep of horrors on TV and the press, made all the more ghastly by the CGI-enhanced violence of Saving Private RyanBand of Brothers and the hundreds of subsequent movies which have copied their terrifyingly realistic depiction of the effects of modern weapons on the vulnerable human body.

The work

For me the immense cloud of legendariness, and the repeated telling of Page’s wildness and his injuries and the brain surgery and paralysis, tend to show that people find it easier to talk and write about the biography of an artist, than about their work.

The most obvious thing about the work is its copiousness. He took a lot of photos, of everything he saw. And he went to dangerous places where other photographers didn’t venture – out on patrol with the GIs and flying all over in the choppers, as well as trips out to the huge aircraft carriers, and in patrol boats. As well as being alert to everyday scenes, particularly of Vietnamese civilians. So Page’s work demonstrates great copiousness and an impressive variety of subject matter.

Next there’s a variety of styles. Nothing is staged in a studio, but, at a formal level, some of the portraits of soldiers or civilians are carefully posed and framed. At the other extreme, he catches images of people in the street or in crowds, blurred, in action, just as he catches unrepeatable moments of choppers taking off or landing. There is a genre of ‘photos of the injured’ along with ‘photos of the dead’.

These people shots are the ones I think the critics are referring to when they write of ‘shocking’, ‘realistic’ and ‘brutal’ images of war. But it’s important to acknowledge the tremendous beauty of many of his photos, where the composition, framing and colour all combine to produce visual images as composed and complete as any painting. Especially featuring machinery – there’s a sequence of an Australian artillery piece where the contrast between the muscular men’s bodies and shining metal is beautiful. The helicopters played a key role in the war, and all the photos taken from choppers give a serendipitous frame and structure to the images.

I will always think that they make a great camera platform, but a better frame… (p.21)

So if you set aside the fact that it was a somewhat violent conflict, to a photographer the Vietnam War provided an enormous range of human situations, of types of human – soldiers, civilians, peasants, urbanites, the young and fit, the old and fearful, the dead – of intense or incongruous situations, and an enormous variety of ways human interact with beautifully-designed modern machinery – steering, guiding, flying, aiming, shooting – a really broad range of 20th-century Homo sapiens.

Some types of photos

The prose

Each of the sections is introduced by a page or two of prose. They’re made of stream of consciousness sentences, running to numerous clauses, listing equipment, feelings, impressions, studded with military jargon and acronyms.

A Delta day at 105 in the shade, 90 humidity pre-monsoon, when the air can be carved with a machete; extracting up out of 12.7 range, the airconditioned luxury of 1500 feet is truly magic, a whirl towards the PX normalcy, a sense of security after the endless plod humping 20 keys of gear through the bad dream (p.17)

The aim is to create a stoned overload of sense impressions threaded with knowing references to military hardware, and all radiating a strong sense of insiderness.

On the black you could get a hot chopper, a can of Cs or a PBR that fell of the back of a truck on the way to the front. (p.42)

Can you dig it, man? Page’s prose screams out, ‘We were there, nobody explained anything or took any pity on us, and so you readers are just going to have to work out for yourself what I’m talking about.’ The continual deployment of GI jargon maintains the author’s superior cool.

Sitting in the door gunner’s seat in a Huey fragged by PIOs of the 25th Div, getting lost over Charlie’s turf up by the Fish Hook and watching those blue-green tracers of 12.7s hover towards you… (p.21)

Don’t know what a Huey is, or the 25th Div, a PIO or a 12.7? Who Charlie is? Where the Fish Hook is? Come on, newbie, keep up!

There’s no map because you’re expected to know where all these places are, as you’re expected to know so much else. Meanwhile, have a puff of this and enjoy Page’s helter-skelter of quick intense impressions, sketches of:

… field trips, scout tracks, refuelling in the monsoon, more GIs voting for noone, Ranger advisers deep in the Plaines des Joncs on assignment for Match, black machine-gunners stoned and leech-infested south of Saigon, and LURP deer-hunter look-alikes in the Michelin sorting out Victor Charlie for Georgie Patton Junior’s 11th Armoured cav, tank drivers boring at you out of their steel hutches, the black dude from Force recon after a week out there, legs, officers, corpsmen, ARVN, ROKs, the whole lot a kaleidoscope of survivors, dead or alive. (p.32)

What comes over is how much he loved it, the glamour and excitement and fear and stylishness of it all:

So many of the lethal gadgets had a pure and simple sexiness, the romance of power over life, ego-saving, black and white decisive life and death, the ultimate blast, the final wave on the best-equipped board in the surf. I am not sure if most, even in the depth of the soul-searching hawk and dove debates, really weren’t out there mainly for the hell of it, for the kicks, the fun, the brush with all that was most evil, most dear, most profane… the camaraderie, the sheer adventure of it all, were the biggest isms that could ever frag our hearts and minds. (p.51)

This is what so many anti-war campaigners find hard to understand or underestimate – that for some men, war is the most intense experience available, that it feeds and fulfils something deep in their souls. And even the calm, polite, gentlemanly men among us, many even of them from time to time fantasise and imagine themselves into warlike situations to live out those animal needs, urges and drives. Wars happen because men like fighting.

There are disappointingly few references to the actual craft and art of photography. It would be good to have a page explaining which cameras he used for different subjects, and which lenses, and why, and with what results. Nope. Maybe there’s more about this in his autobiography. The prose here isn’t explanatory; it is designed to replicate the immediacy and confusion captured in so many of the photos. Thus the camera doesn’t appear here as the tool of a trade, but as a psychological technique:

The camera became a filter to the madness and horror, a means of portraying it…It was a passport to witness the most insane events man can put together… There was too much to shoot. Too many frames to be made. No time to do it… (p.86)

Conclusion

If you’re happy to swing with the insider argot and submit to the bombardment of sense impressions, Page’s prose is immensely enjoyable, and the pictures – the more you look at them – the more they not only convey with force the place and time and people, but also say something else, about the man’s eye, and technical ability, and range of seeing. From the formally framed to the chaotic, he finds the core. It is the consistency with which he caught ‘frames’ in all kinds of situations, which builds up a tremendous sense of artistry and instinct.

You learn absolutely nothing about the origins, history, key events, strategy, geopolitics and diplomacy, battles or outcome of the war. For that, you have to look elsewhere.

The 1979 Arena documentary

Related links

Dr. Strangelove by Peter George (1963)

‘We trust each other to maintain the balance of terror, to behave rationally and to do nothing which would cause a war by accident or miscalculation or madness. Now this  is a ridiculous trust, because even assuming we both had perfect intentions, we cannot honestly guarantee anything. There are too many fingers on the buttons. There are too many reasons both mechanical and human for the system to fail. What a marvellous thing for the fate of the world to depend on – a state of mind, a mood, a feeling, a moment of anger, an impulse, ten minutes of poor judgement, a sleepless night.’
(U.S. President Murkin Muffley to Soviet Ambassador de Sadeski, Dr Strangelove, page 113)

Background

This novel has a bit of a history to it.

In 1958 British author and former RAF officer Peter Bryan George published a Cold War thriller titled Two Hours to Doom, using the pseudonym Peter Bryant. Short and serious, it was designed to show how easily a nuclear war could be triggered. In America it was renamed Red Alert.

In the late 1950s movie director Stanley Kubrick had been mulling over the idea of some kind of story about nuclear weapons and was recommended to read George’s book. He was impressed, bought the book rights, and began working with George on a screenplay. But as work progressed Kubrick became more aware of the absurdity and black humour latent in the whole subject of nuclear weapons – the doctrine of mutually assured destruction and so on – and the project slowly morphed into a black comedy.

On the back of this realisation, Kubrick brought in comic novelist Terry Southern as a co-writer in late 1962. This eventually led to a falling-out between Kubrick and the original author, Peter George. The film was shot and edited in 1963 and was due to be released on 22 November, when President Kennedy was assassinated on the same day. The film was re-edited to remove some references to the fictional president who features in the movie (the film originally ended with a massive food fight in the Pentagon War Room and when the president is hit by a particularly big custard pie, one of the generals yells, ‘Gentleman, our beloved president has been shot!’ – this entire scene was cut). It was finally released in January 1964.

Meanwhile, a disgruntled George used a working version of the screenplay to write a short novelisation, and that is the text under review.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

It’s a short, fast-moving text, only 140 pages long and broken up into punchy scenes which alternate in quick succession, as in the movie.

The plot is: the American general of a US Air Force base – General Ripper – goes mad and orders his wing of bombers armed with hydrogen bombs to attack their targets in Russia. As per protocol the bombers cut off radio signals from any source and can only be recalled by the secret recall code known only to Ripper. Ripper then orders all the men on his base to secure the perimeter, warning them war with Russia has broken out and they are going to be attacked by commies, in all likelihood masquerading as American soldiers.

Meanwhile, General ‘Buck’ Turgidson is cavorting with a scantily clad ‘personal assistant’ in a Washington hotel, when the phone rings and he is summoned to the War Room of the Pentagon. Here he meets President Murkin Muffley and the joint chiefs of staff assembled beneath an enormous board showing a map of the Soviet Union, with dots indicating the ring of American planes converging towards Russia.

The president demands to know why this attack has been launched without his permission, and Buck Turgidson becomes the main spokesman for the armed forces, explaining why greater autonomy for commanders was thought a good idea, why nobody, not even the president, can recall the bombers, only except General Ripper can because only he has the recall codes, but that the general is holed up in his air force base and is firing on the local army unit which went along to contact him – and that an intense pitched battle has broken out at the base.

It just so happens that inside the base is an upper-class RAF officer on an exchange with the USAF, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake. He is summoned to Ripper’s office and becomes a sort of confidante for the rest of the novel to the general’s thoughts. Mandrake learns to his horror that Ripper has ordered a nuclear attack, and then listens in bewilderment to Ripper’s mad explanation about some kind of commie conspiracy to poison our drinking water with fluoride in order to sap ‘our vital bodily fluids’. Mandrake listens, appalled, while Ripper reveals that he first became aware of this conspiracy during the act of love when he was not able to perform as he used to. This, Ripper tells Mandrake, could only be because of the communists sapping his bodily fluids, not because he’s getting on a bit. The fact that the governments of the West are going ahead with adding fluoride to water and even food, shows the extent of the fiendish commie conspiracy to sap the bodily fluids of the Free World. The only solution is for one brave man to take the decisive step and attack the Reds before it’s too late, and that’s why he’s sent his wing of bombers to bomb Russia.

In other words, World War Three breaks out because of one middle-aged man’s sexual dysfunction.

Back in the War Room, the president invites the Russian ambassador, de Sadeski, to come and witness everything for himself and then vouch in a phone call to the Soviet premier Kissof that the whole thing is a big accident. Unfortunately, the Soviet premier is drunk and tearful. President Muffley struggles to make it clear that he’s doing everything he can to recall the planes. It is at this stage that ambassador de Sadeski  reveals that the Soviets have a new Doomsday Bomb, of inconceivable power, designed never to be used but to intimidate any possible attack. One nuclear strike on Russia and it will go off, obliterating all life on earth.

Eventually, the besieging American troops fight their way into the air force base and, although General Ripper disappears to a corridor and then off the base, Mandrake is instrumental in figuring out the recall code, phoning it through to the Pentagon, who are able to recall all the nuclear bombers.

All except one. The plane nicknamed by its crew Leper Colony and captained by Captain ‘King’ Kong, a yee-hah Texan good ole boy, is attacked by a Soviet anti-aircraft missile as it crosses the border into Russia, which doesn’t destroy it, but knocks out its radio. Therefore it never gets the recall message. Therefore it proceeds to drop its nuclear payload on its target in Russia. Therefore the Doomsday Bomb is triggered creating a vast cloud of radiaoctive debris which will slowly encompass the earth wiping out all life on earth.

On the last few pages the hitherto minor character of Dr Strangelove, a German captured from the Nazi rocket programme who has been working for the Americans, outlines a plan to build fallout shelters in America’s deepest mineshafts, complete with food and air and water filter systems, where a select couple of hundred thousand humans can hide out for 100 years or so until it is safe to go back to the surface.

Thoughts

Comedy

Doesn’t sound that funny, does it, but the comedy emerges from the absurdity of each specific situation, and the logic of this absurdity pushes the characters into becoming larger and larger caricatures – General Ripper the deranged air force general, Buck Turgidson casually saying US casualties from the Russian reprisals will probably only be twenty million dead, thirty million tops, Captain Mandrake retaining his absurd British stiff upper lip even as he listens to General Ripper’s demented outpourings, and the redneck simplicity of Captain Kong, determined to go all the way, boys, and whose gung-ho, never-say-die spirit ends up exterminating the human race.

Comparing book and film

This book can’t help being completely overshadowed by the movie. Scenes and dialogue we know from the movie become clunky, less slick and funny, when transferred into George’s prose.

Some interest is given by spotting the differences between this text and the final movie, which were presumably added during production:

  • The army attack on Ripper’s air force base takes place during the night, in the book, but during daylight in the movie – maybe making it easier to see on film.
  • In the movie Mandrake is alerted to the fact that the Russkies have not attacked America (as Ripper claims) by finding a transistor radio which is merrily churning out pop songs – it is when he brings it to General Ripper that the general sinisterly locks the door and reaches for his handgun, effectively taking Mandrake prisoner and forcing him to listen to his demented ramblings – the book isn’t so sinister, with Ripper simply calling Mandrake to his office then, when he goes for a pee, Mandrake takes a phone call in which furious superiors shout down the phone that there is no Russian attack, and what the hell is the general playing at.
  • In the book, after his men have surrendered to the besieging force, General Ripper steps out into the corridor and disappears, Mandrake finding out later that he has flown off in his private airplane; the movie he steps into his office bathroom and blows his brains out, which is both more dramatic, more contained within the ‘set’ and so more claustrophobic, and more bleakly nihilistic.
  • In the book the character of Dr Strangelove only speaks at the end, with a brief discussion of his surreal proposal about saving the human race in mine shafts. In the movie he has dialogue from earlier on – presumably to introduce and build him up. Also in Peter Sellars’ brilliantly manic performance, Strangelove’s inability to control his artificial arm which gives impromptu Nazi salutes, is conveyed earlier, and through visual slapstick in a way the novel can’t do.
  • Finally, the book makes clear that there is going to be a 6 to 12 month delay before the whole world is wiped out, plenty of time to organise the mine shaft scenario – but the movie can’t end on this rather vague, long-term idea, and so the mineshaft discussion is moved to just before the Leper Colony bomb sets off the Doomsday machine, so that the film itself can end with footage of numerous nuclear bombs exploding, visually conveying the sense of complete apocalypse. Again, the movie ending is much tighter and more impactful.

Maybe I’m just more familiar with the movie, but where book and movie differ, the movie always seems to be smarter, funnier and more resonant.

Aliens

What is unique to the book, and may be the best thing about it, is the way it is bookended by an introduction and epilogue by supposed aliens, who, having arrived at a desolated Earth, try to piece together what has happened and have supposedly stumbled across a charred copy of this text. The text is presented as if published by these aliens as part of their series The Dead Worlds of Antiquity.

Logically, it doesn’t stand up – a written account of these events wouldn’t have been created in this format, or included detailed dialogue from a load of characters who all died e.g. the crew of Leper Colony – and you can see why the idea cluttered up the movie and so was dropped from the film version. But in the text it does work to give a brief, poignant and scary vision of a post-human world utterly destroyed by nuclear holocaust due to man’s stupidity and irrationality.

Movie trailer

Credit

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George was published by Bantam Books in 1963. All quotes and references are to the 2000 Prion Books paperback edition.

Related links

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (2005)

Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. [President Woodrow] Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail. (The Cold War, page 89)

Gaddis is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War, having been writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students, and publishers, suggested he write a less scholarly, brief overview of the subject, and this book is the result. The cover of the Penguin paperback edition promises to give you the lowdown on ‘the deals, the spies, the lies, the truth’ but this is quite misleading. Along with Len Deighton’s description of it as ‘gripping’, it gives the impression that the book is a rip-roaring narrative of an action-packed period, full of intrigue and human stories.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

In fact the book actually feels like a textbook to accompany a university course in international studies. It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of the Cold War and certainly has no eyewitness accounts or personal stories of the kind that bring to life, for example, Jim Baggott’s history of the atom bomb, Atomic, or Max Hasting’s history of the Korean War.

Instead, the book is divided into seven themed chapters and an epilogue which deal at a very high level with the semi-abstract theories of international affairs and geopolitics.

Nuclear weapons and the theory of war

So, for example, the second chapter, about the atom bomb, certainly covers all the key dates and developments, but is at its core an extended meditation on the German theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz’s, famous dictum that war ‘is a continuation of political activity by other means’ (quoted p.51). The chapter shows how U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their Russian opposite numbers, Stalin and Khrushchev, worked through the implications of this profound insight.

If war only exists to further the interests of the state (as it had done through all recorded history up till 1945) then a war which threatens, in fact which guarantees, the destruction of the very state whose interests it is meant to be furthering, is literally inconceivable.

Truman showed he had already grasped some of this when he removed the decision to deploy atom bombs from the military – who were inclined to think of it as just another weapon, only bigger and better – and made use of the atom bomb the sole decision of the civilian power i.e. the president.

But as the atom bombs of the 1940s were superseded by the hydrogen bombs of the 1950s, it dawned on both sides that a nuclear war would destroy the very states it was meant to protect, with profound consequences for military strategy.

This insight came very close to being ignored during the darkest days of the Korean War, when the massed Chinese army threatened to push the Allies right out of the Korean peninsula and plans were drawn up to drop atom bombs on numerous Chinese cities. Then again, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American generals were advising president Kennedy to authorise a devastating first strike on the Soviet Union with results not wildly exaggerated in Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr Stangelove.

And yet both times the civilian authority, in the shape of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, rejected the advice of their military and refused the use of nuclear weapons – signalling, in the first instance, to China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only, and in the second making significant concessions to the Soviets to defuse the situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of those two men.

It is by following the ramifications of this new theory of war, that Gaddis makes sense of the development of regular meetings to discuss arms limitations which took place between the Cold War antagonists, from the Cuban crisis onwards, talks which continued to be fractious opportunities for propaganda but which proved Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war’.

Capitalism versus communism

If chapter two considered the evolution of new military theory during the war, chapter three covers much the same chronological period but looked at in terms of socio-economic theory, starting with a very basic introduction to theories of Marxism and capitalism, and then seeing how these played out after World War One.

Gaddis deploys a sequence of telling dates –

  • in 1951 all nations were recovering from the devastation of war, the USSR had established communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and a newly communist China was challenging the West’s staying power in Korea
  • in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev visited America and gleefully told his audience that the communist countries would surge ahead in economic production and ‘bury’ the West
  • by 1971, as consumerism triumphed in the West, all the communist economies were stagnating, in China accompanied by inconceivable brutality and murder
  • by 1981 life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in decline and Russia was mired in a pointless war in Afghanistan
  • by 1991 the Soviet Union and all the communist East European regimes had disappeared, while China was abandoning almost all its communist policies, leaving ‘communism’ to linger on in the dictatorships of Cuba and North Korea

Capitalism won the Cold War. Marx claimed to have revealed the secrets of history, that the capitalist system was inevitably doomed to collapse because the exploited proletariat would be inevitably grow larger as the ruling capitalist class concentrated all wealth unto itself, making a proletariat revolution inevitable and unstoppable.

  1. In direct contradiction to this, living standards in all capitalist countries for everyone are unrecognisably higher than they were 100 years go.
  2. The revolution which Marx predicted could only happen in advanced industrial countries in fact only took place in very backward, feudal peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of third world basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. It only existed in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship and was thrown off the second that tyrannical grip was loosened. It was the tragedy of both Russia and China that, in order to make their countries conform to Marx’s theories, their leaders undertook policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation which led to the deaths by starvation or murder of as many as 50 million people, mostly peasants. Communism promised to liberate the poor. In fact it ended up murdering the poorest of the poor in unprecedented numbers.

Lenin’s 1916 tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is an interesting analysis of the history of the European empires up to that date and a contribution to the vast debate over the origins of the First World War. But its key practical suggestion was that capitalist states will always be driven by boundless greed and, therefore, inevitably, unstoppably, must always go to war. Gaddis shows how Stalin and Mao shared this doctrinaire belief and how it led them to bad miscalculations. Because after the Second World War Truman, Eisenhower and their advisers grasped some important and massive ideas: the central one was that America could no longer be isolationist. Throughout the 19th century America concentrated on settling its own lands and building up its economy, happily ignoring developments beyond its borders. Despite President Wilson’s achievement in persuading Americans to intervene in the Great War, immediately afterwards they relapsed into isolationism, refusing to join the League of Nations and indifferent to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Japan.

After the cataclysm of the Second World War, American policy shifted massively, finding expression in the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s pledge that America would help and support democracies and free peoples around the world to resist communism. To be precise:

‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ (Truman’s speech to Congress on 12 March 1947)

The doctrine was prompted by practical intervention ($400 million) to support the anti-communist forces during Greece’s Civil war (1945-49), which the Americans felt also had to be balanced by support ($100 million) for Turkey. In both respects the Americans were taking over from the help formerly provided by Britain, now no longer able to afford it. The doctrine’s implicit strategy of ‘containment’ of the USSR, led on to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the Marshall Plan for massive American aid to help the nations of Western Europe rebuild their economies.

Of course it was in America’s self-interest to stem the tide of communism, but this doesn’t really detract from the scale of the achievement – it was American economic intervention which helped rebuild the economies, and ensured freedom from tyranny, for France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland – in Europe – and Japan and South Korea in the Far East. Hundreds of millions of people have led lives of freedom and fulfilment because of the decisions of the Truman administration.

The power of weakness

Of course the down side of this vast new expansion of America’s overseas commitment was the way it turned into a long dishonourable tradition of America supporting repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist force. The tradition kicked off with Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader that America supported in China, then the repellent Syngman Rhee in South Korea, through Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, General Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on and so on.

This is well-known, but what’s thought-provoking about Gaddis’s account is the thesis he hangs his fourth chapter on, a teasing paradox which only slowly emerged – that many of these small, ‘dependent’ nations ended up able to bend the Superpowers to their will, by threatening to collapse. Thus many of the repellent dictators America found itself supporting were able to say: ‘If you don’t support me, my regime will collapse and then the communists will take over.’ The paradox is that it was often the weakest powers which ended up having the the strongest say over Superpower policy – thus Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime was able to summon up American support, as was the equally unpleasant Sygman Rhee in South Korea. Because America regarded their states as buffers to communist expansion, it meant the dictators could, in effect, get away with murder – and they did.

But the same could also go for medium-size allies. In 1950 both France and China very much needed their respective sponsors, America and the Soviet Union. But by 1960 both were more confident of their economic and military power and by the late 1960s both were confident enough to throw off their shackles: General de Gaulle in France notoriously withdrew from NATO and proclaimed France’s independence while in fact continuing to benefit from NATO and American protection: France was weak enough to proclaim its independence while, paradoxically, America the superpower had to put up with de Gaulle’s behaviour because they needed France to carry on being an ally in Western Europe. Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin and relied on his opinion through his achievement of power in China in 1949 through to Stalin’s death in 1953. This effect lingered on through the 1950s but China came to despise the weakness of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, and the feebleness of the USSR’s hold over its East European satellites who periodically rose up in revolt (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).

I didn’t know that border incidents between China and Russia flared up in 1969 and spread: for a while it looked as if the world’s two largest communist powers would go to war. This of course presented the West with a great opportunity and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s visits to China and meetings with Mao. The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and traditional enemy Japan to the East, realised there was merit in reaching an understanding with distant America. Nixon realised what an enormous coup it would be to prise apart the two largest communist nations, as well as helping sort out some kind of end to the disastrous war in Vietnam.

By this stage, 25 or so years in the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers has become considerably more complicated, with increasing complexity created by the newly independent nations of the developing or third world, and the growth of a would be ‘non-aligned’ group of nations, seeking to avoid entanglement with either side, but cannily playing both superpowers off against each other in order to extract maximum advantage.

Other themes

These first chapters deal with:

  • the realisation of the nuclear stalemate and its implications i.e. superpower war is self-defeating
  • the failure of both capitalism and communism to deliver what they promise
  • the realisation by ‘weak’ states that they could use the superpower rivalry to their advantage

Further chapters discuss:

Human rights The rise of the notion of human rights and universal justice which was increasingly used to hold both superpowers to ever tighter account. Gaddis looks in detail at the slow growth of official lying and ‘deniability’ within American foreign policy (epitomised by the growth in espionage carried out by the CIA) which reached its nadir when the systematic lying of President Nixon unravelled after Watergate. He fascinatingly compares the discrediting of American policy with the long-term effects of the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. In a kind of mirror of the Watergate experience, this act of obvious repression planted seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of communist rule in the minds of much of the Soviet population and especially among its intellectuals. From the 1970s onwards the Soviets had to cope with home-grown ‘dissidents’, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev worked hard to secure the ‘Helsinki Accords’, a contract with the West giving a permanent written guarantee of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He allowed the declarations of human rights which made up its latter sections to be inserted by the West as a concession, and was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by. When a Czech rock band was arrested, leading intellectuals protested and signed Charter 77, which politely called on the Czech communist government to respect the human rights which were paid lip service in the Czech communist constitution. And when the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II, visited his homeland in 1979, he also called on the Polish government to respect human rights as defined in the Helsinki Accords.

Gaddis identifies this emergence of human rights over and above any actual government, of West or East, as a major development in the 1970s.

The power of individuals A chapter is devoted to the importance of individuals in history – contrary to Marxist theory which believes in historical inevitabilities driven by the power of the masses. Thus Gaddis gives pen portraits of key players in the final years of communism, namely Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, but above all space is given to the importance of Ronald Reagan.

Gaddis explains that détente, the strategic policy developed by President Nixon and continued by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and on the Soviet side agreed by Brezhnev, amounted to an acceptance of the status quo, especially the borders in Europe, thus solidifying Russia’s grasp in the East. With this defined and agreed, both sides could:

a) Settle down to a routine of talks about reducing nuclear weapons (which, by this stage, came in all shapes and sizes and hence the complexity of the Strategic Arms Limitations (SALT)) talks.
b) Sublimate their confrontation into the developing world: hence the stream of local conflicts in far away countries like Ethiopia or Nicaragua, although Gaddis quotes Kremlin advisers confessing that the Soviet leadership often had second thoughts about getting involved in some of these remote conflicts, e.g. in Angola or Somalia, but felt trapped by the logic of being seen to support ‘national liberation struggles’ wherever they involved self-proclaimed Marxist parties.

At the time it felt as if Soviet communism was funding revolutions and spreading its tentacles around the world; only in retrospect do we see all this as the last gasps of a flailing giant. The great visionary who brought it to its knees was Ronald Reagan!

As someone alive and politically active during the 1980s I know that the great majority of the British people saw Reagan as a bumbling fool, satirised in the Spitting Image TV show in a recurring sketch called ‘The President’s brain is missing’. In Gaddis’s account (and others I’ve read) he is portrayed as a strategic genius (one of America’s ‘sharpest grand strategists ever’ p.217) who swept aside détente in at least two ways:

a) he thought communism was an aberration, ‘a bizarre chapter’ (p.223) in human history which was destined to fail: so instead of accepting its potentially endless existence (like Nixon, Ford and Carter) his strategy and speeches were based on the idea that it would collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
b) similarly, he rejected the entire twisted logic of mutually assured destruction which had grown up around nuclear weapons: he was the first genuine nuclear abolitionist to inhabit the White House. Hence his outrageous offer to Gorbachev at the Iceland summit for both sides to get rid of all their nuclear weapons; and when Gorbachev refused, Reagan announced the development of his Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars) i.e. the creation of a satellite shield which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles attacking the United States.

At the time, as we lived through this in the 1980s, a lot of this seemed reckless and dangerous and the entrenched détente establishment on both sides agreed, so that newspapers and magazines were full of criticism. It is only with the enormous benefit of hindsight – the knowledge that the Soviet Union and communism collapsed like a pack of cards in 1989 – that Reagan’s approach and all his speeches take on the light not of a mad old man (he was 74 when Gorbachev came to power in 1985) but of a bold visionary.

The steady growth in Reagan’s stature is a salutary lesson in how history works, how what we think about a period we’ve actually lived through can be completely transformed and reinterpreted in the light of later events. How our beginnings have no inkling about our ends. A lesson in the severe limitations of human understanding.

Conclusion

To summarise – The Cold War is not a straightforward historical account of the era 1945 to 1991 – it is really a series of thought-provoking and stimulating essays on key aspects and themes of the subject. In fact each chapter could well form the basis of a fascinating discussion or seminar (of the kind that Gaddis has no doubt supervised by the hundred). Thus coverage of specific incidents and events is always secondary to the ideas and theories of geopolitics and international strategic ideas which the period threw up in such abundance, and which are the real focus of the text.

It’s a fascinating book full of unexpected insights and new ways of thinking about the recent past.

I was politically active during the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember the later stages of the Cold War vividly. Maybe the biggest single takeaway from this book is that this entire era is now a ‘period’ with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be studied as a whole. As it recedes in time it is becoming a simplified artefact, a subject for study by GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students who have no idea what it felt like to live under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and when communism still seemed a viable alternative to consumer capitalism.

Although many of its effects and implications linger on, with every year that passes the Cold War becomes a distant historical epoch, as dry and theoretical as the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Thirty Years War. I try to explain how it felt to be alive in the 1980s to my children and they look at me with blank incomprehension. So this is what it feels like to become history.


Credit

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis was published by Allen Lane in 2005. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Penguin paperback edition.

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