Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American—adapted into films in 1958 and 2002—was inspired by the author’s experiences as a war correspondent in French Indochina in the early 1950s, in particular by his conversations with American aid worker Lee Hochstetter while the two were driving back to Saigon from a tour to Ben Tre province in the countryside in October 1951.

As the Swedish-born historian and Cornell University professor Fredrik Logevall recounts in Embers of War, during their ride to the city Hochstetter, who had served as the public-affairs director for the U.S. Economic Aid Mission in Saigon, lectured Greene about the need for a “Third Force” in French-ruled Vietnam, one not beholden either to the French colonialists or to their main adversaries, the guerilla forces led by Ho Chi Minh.

Ho’s fighters—the Viet Minh, a nationalist and communist movement—operated from Hanoi in the north of the country and were resisting French attempts to re-establish control over Indochina after the end of Japanese occupation in 1945, part of a wider strategy of restoring the French empire in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

But as Hochstetter explained to Greene, French efforts to defeat the Viet Minh militarily while denying the non-communist Vietnamese real independence were doomed to fail. The Vietnamese fighting on the side of the French against Ho had to be convinced that they were advancing the cause of democracy for their own country, the young American aid worker insisted. “The only way to make them so convinced was to build up a genuine nationalist force that was neither pro-Communist nor obligated to France and that could rally the public to its side,” writes Logevall.

In The Quiet American—set in 1952, and which Greene started writing that year in his hotel room in Saigon—the character of Alden Pyle was modeled after Hochstetter (and not, as some have speculated, after the legendary Cold War-era counterinsurgency strategist Edward Lansdale). Pyle’s views are described to the novel’s protagonist, a British war correspondent named Thomas Fowler (based on Greene himself), as follows: “There was always a Third Force to be found free from Communism and the taint of colonialism—national democracy, he called it; you only had to find a leader and keep him safe from the old colonial powers.”

That Logevall devotes an entire chapter to Greene’s experiences in Vietnam—beginning with the French occupation and ending with a similarly disastrous effort by the United States to pacify that Southeast Asian country—demonstrates his skills and creativity as a writer and historian.

The chapter about the writing of The Quiet American makes for a powerful narrative-inside-a-narrative. Greene’s novel not only foreshadowed the collapse of the remnants of the French empire in Indochina and the making and the unmaking of America’s Vietnam in the years to come; more importantly, and not unlike Logevall’s Embers of War, it highlighted the tragedies of trying to use military power to overcome the most potent political force in the modern era: nationalism. Both books tell of costly and futile efforts on the part of the French and the Americans—one could as well substitute the British or the Soviets—to advance fanciful universal ideologies (such as liberal democracy or international socialism) in the face of intractable local realities.

In a way, Alden Pyle is the tragic hero of an historical epoch that has not yet ended. In Logevall’s final chapter, against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, neoconservatives and liberal internationalists continue to fantasize about a Third Force, one that rejects pro-Western military dictators and the anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood alike and is expected to promote liberal-democratic values in Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and right now in Syria.

Substitute “Iraq” or “Syria” for “Vietnam,” and “American” for “French,” and the arguments that Logevall quotes from journalist Sol Sanders, writing in The New Republic in 1951, would sound familiar to readers of The New Republic today: “Beneath the layers of opportunists, French spies, and hangers-on, there is a hard nucleus of patriots who are fighting for an independent, libertarian Vietnam.” Before Ahmad Chalabi in Iraq, there was Bao Dai (the westernized Emperor of Vietnam) or Trình Minh Thế (a flamboyant colonel with ties to an exotic religious sect) in Indochina—favorites of the democracy-promoters in Paris and Washington.

Another effective way in which Logevall lays out his historical investigation is by introducing a series of “What if?” suppositions. History is “full of alternative political choices, major and minor, considered and taken, reconsidered and altered, in Paris and Saigon, in Washington and Beijing, and in the Viet Minh’s headquarters in the jungles of Tonkin,” explains Logevall, who insists that his narrative is “a reminder to us that to decision makers of the past, the future was merely a set of possibilities.”

Logevall’s starts his account in 1940, with the fall of France to Nazi Germany and implications that would have for France’s empire in Southeast Asia. He concludes that the decline and fall of European hegemony in Indochina was inevitable, and the pressing question for all major players in the region’s drama—for the French and the British, for the Chinese and the Soviets, for Ho Chi Minh and the noncommunist Vietnamese—was from the start: what were the Americans going to do?

Indeed, according Logevall, the United States had been a key part of the story going back to the Paris peace conference of 1919, when Ho—an admirer of America’s political ideals and of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—tried in vain to approach President Woodrow Wilson, present him with “The Demands of the Vietnamese People,” and convince the Americans that he represented a group of rebels fighting for liberty against colonialism.

Wilson’s notion of making the world safe for democracy did not extend to the Vietnamese and other colored peoples. But Ho stuck to his conviction that the Americans would eventually support him in his quest for independence—and some, in spirit at least, did, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

This is where Logevall’s alternate history comes in. FDR and some of his leading foreign-policy advisors were staunch anti-colonialists who believed that the goal of World War II was to liberate everyone—Europeans and non-Europeans—from foreign occupation: Britain should be forced out of India, and France should not reclaim Indochina. So imagine if FDR had not died in 1945, and he and his anti-imperialist allies provided support for Ho, who had actually based Vietnam’s declaration of independence on the American one.

Logevall believes that history would have turned in a different direction if Roosevelt had been responsible for drawing the outlines of Washington’s post-1945 global strategy instead of President Harry Truman and the architects of the Cold War. In the case of Indochina, the Americans would have prevented the return of French rule, and Ho and other leaders of independence movements in the region would have allied with the United States.

Instead, thanks to Truman, U.S. policy in Southeast Asia became an integral part of Washington’s Cold War strategy for the next 20 years, with American policymakers propping up French efforts to maintain control of Indochina while fighting Ho—who was, after all, a self-proclaimed Communist. The Americans needed the French to help contain the Soviet menace in Europe, and so the restoration of the French empire in Southeast Asia was seen as advancing struggle against Communism.

The United States played a critical role in assisting the French in what became known as the First Indochina War, which ended with France losing and Vietnam being divided into a pro-Western state in south and a northern one led by Ho and backed by the Soviet Union and China. That was the turning point: thereafter, America’s policy blueprint vis-à-vis Vietnam did not really change until the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Yet there may have been a few opportunities to reverse U.S. policy and change history, according to Logevall. Rejecting French requests for support in the First Indochina War would have been one alternate scenario. (As it happened, however, President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were eager to help the French and draw the U.S. directly into the war. “Eisenhower actively contemplated taking the United States directly into the war and sought a blank check from Congress to free his hands,” Logevall notes.)

Or Washington could have pulled its support from Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s staunchly anti-communist Catholic president, whose authoritarian methods—along with the corrupt practices of his family and political supporters—alienated Vietnam’s Buddhist majority.

Yet even if one agrees with Logevall’s assumption that Ho was first and foremost a nationalist for whom Communism was only an ideology that helped promote economic development and social cohesion, the context of the Cold War made it difficult for the U.S. to pursue policies that amounted to betraying real or imagined allies.

If historical outcomes are not predetermined, what accounts for the recurrence of certain glaring foreign-policy mistakes? “Somehow, American leaders for a long time convinced themselves that the remarkable similarities between the French experience and their own were not really there,” Logevall argues. “It was, for the most part, self delusion.”

At the center of this delusion lies the notion that in going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy” America is different from everyone else: the U.S. supposedly is not practicing cynical forms of Realpolitik, like the French and others, but making the world safe for liberal democracy and free markets. This explains the never-ending search for that elusive Third Force in Vietnam or Syria, a foreign faction that will of its own accord take up America’s most cherished values.

But genuine nationalists in Vietnam or Syria see in America a foreign power motivated mostly by its own interests. They may want the United States to assist their political struggles, but they don’t imagine America’s objectives are synonymous with their own freedom and independence.

And when Americans try to pretend otherwise—that ideals and not interests are what drive the U.S. to send troops to foreign lands for “regime change”—those on the receiving end of this generosity are not moved. As a young congressman who had visited Saigon in 1951 wrote in his journal: “We are more and more becoming colonialists in the minds of the people.” Unfortunately, John F. Kennedy as president would become one of the architects of U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and foreign-policy analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.