Fredrik Logevall spent 11 years working on Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam.
Fittingly, the Pulitzer Prize for History Logevall received for his book was also the eleventh Pulitzer won by a member of the UO family.
The Pulitzer committee awarded Logevall its prestigious literary prize for “A distinguished and appropriately documented book on the history of the United States.” Logevall began working on the book, his fourth about the Vietnam War, while teaching at UC Santa Barbara. The work then continued as he moved east to Cornell University, where he is currently the John S. Knight Professor of International Studies, Vice Provost for International Affairs, and the Director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.
“This was an eleven-year-project, from the signing of the contract to publication, and although I did not work on the book continuously during that time it was my main research project throughout,” said Logevall. “I spent a lot of time early on just reading in the existing literature, much of it in French, and the book in the end is in part a synthesis of the existing scholarship, even though it's also based on my work in the archives. More than my previous books I also tried to write it for a broader, non-specialist audience, even as I also wanted it to have enough of an analytical thrust to be taken seriously by fellow scholars.”
It’s safe to say he succeeded on both fronts. The New York Times called Embers of War a “powerful portrait of the terrible and futile French war,” while the Wall Street Journal called it “a widely researched and eloquently written account.” Three fellow Pulitzer Prize winners who have written about Vietnam also heaped praise on Embers of War, with Neil Sheehan calling it “a splendid account,” Frances FitzGerald calling Logevall “a wonderful writer and historian,” and Robert Olen Butler saying Logevall “has the eye of a novelist, the cadence of a splendid prose stylist, and a filmmaker’s instinct for story.”
Born in Sweden, Logevall moved with his family to Canada when he was 12. A TIME magazine subscription and a BBC documentary about World War II piqued Logevall’s curiosity about Canada’s neighbor to the south, and after graduating from Simon Fraser University with a bachelor of arts degree, he enrolled in the University of Oregon’s master of arts program—for reasons pertaining both to the head and the heart.
“First, I had heard very good things about the MA program at UO—a rigorous two-year MA that prepares students exceptionally well for doctoral studies—and in particular about professor Glenn May, who given my research interest in US foreign relations would likely be my main adviser,” Logevall said. “Second, my wife Danyel and I had just gotten married and she had a year left to go in her BA studies at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. I knew I wanted to pursue graduate studies, and to be near her; UO was the obvious place.”
Logevall flourished at the UO, and found it more than adequately prepared him for his next stop—the Ivy League.
“It was demanding and intense, but in a supportive and nurturing way,” he said. “I had received a solid undergraduate education at Simon Fraser University in Canada, but only at UO did I learn how to be a historian. Only at UO did I get a thorough grounding in historical methods, in historiography, in how to frame research topics and ask the right questions.
“From the start I also had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant, which mattered greatly, and which l loved from the first day. About the best thing I can say about the "groundwork" is that when I arrived at Yale for my PhD studies I was extremely well prepared, more so than most others in the Yale program.”
Logevall’s research and writing process for Embers of War, was not easy. In addition to juggling researching and writing with his teaching duties at UC Santa Barbara and later Cornell, Logevall also had to work around co-authoring two books, including the US history textbook A People and a Nation. Logevall’s publisher, Random House, nominated him for the Pulitzer without his knowledge—he did not even know when the award was announced, which made April 15—also known as Tax Day—a decidedly pleasant surprise this year.
“I was in a meeting with the provost on April 15 when my assistant got a call from a reporter with the Associated Press, seeking a comment from me,” Logevall said. “When I came out of the meeting at 3:30, I had dozens of emails in my inbox. I was utterly floored, needless to say, and for the rest of the day was in a kind of disbelieving fog. But it was immensely gratifying to get so many emails and calls during those first hours, including from childhood friends and Swedish relatives.
“The following morning, April 16, the phone rang at 5 a.m. My wife picked up. It was Swedish national radio, calling to ask for a live interview, in Swedish, right then and there. I obliged.”
Requests for speaking appearances have increased dramatically since winning the Pulitzer, but due to the time constraints that are an unavoidable part of being a vice provost, Logevall has to be selective about which requests he accepts. One request he was happy to accept, though, was one that came from the University of Oregon. On May 14, 2014, Logevall will return to the UO to speak about Vietnam in the Knight Law Center as part of the Wayne Morse Legacy Series.