The United States in Vietnam 1944-66: Origins and Objectives of an Intervention

The United States in Vietnam 1944-66: Origins and Objectives of an Intervention

The intervention of the United States in Vietnam is the most important single embodiment of the power and purposes of American foreign policy since the Second World War, and no other crisis reveals so much of the basic motivating forces and objectives - and weaknesses - of American global politics. A theory of the origins and meaning of the war also discloses the origins of an American malaise that is global in its reaches, impinging on this nation’s conduct everywhere. To understand Vietnam is also to comprehend not just the present purposes of American action but also to anticipate its thrust and direction in the future.

Vietnam illustrates, as well, the nature of the American internal political process and decision-making structure when it exceeds the views of a major sector of the people, for no other event of our generation has turned such a large proportion of the nation against its government’s policy or so profoundly alienated its {76} youth. And at no time has the government conceded so little to democratic sentiment, pursuing as it has a policy of escalation that reveals that its policy is formulated not with an eye to democratic sanctions and compromises but rather the attainment of specific interests and goals scarcely shared by the vast majority of the nation.

The inability of the United States to apply its vast material and economic power to compensate for the ideological and human superiority of revolutionary and guerrilla movements throughout the world has been the core of its frustration in Vietnam. From a purely economic viewpoint, the United States cannot maintain its existing vital dominating relationship to much of the Third World unless it can keep the poor nations from moving too far towards the Left and the Cuban or Vietnamese path. A widespread leftward movement would critically affect its supply of raw materials and have profound long-term repercussions. It is the American view of the need for relative internal stability within the poorer nations that has resulted in a long list of United States interventions since 1946 into the affairs of numerous nations, from Greece to Guatemala, of which Vietnam is only the consummate example - but in principle no different from numerous others. The accuracy of the ‘domino’ theory, with its projection of the eventual loss of whole regions to American direction and access, explains the direct continuity between the larger United States global strategy and Vietnam.

Yet, ironically, while the United States struggles in Vietnam and the Third World to retain its own mastery, or to continue that once held by the former colonial powers, it simultaneously weakens itself in its deepening economic conflict with Europe, revealing the limits of America’s power to attain its ambition to define the preconditions and direction of global economic and political developments. Vietnam is essentially an American intervention against a nationalist, revolutionary agrarian movement which embodies social elements in incipient and similar forms of development in numerous other Third World nations. It is in no sense a civil war, with the United States supporting one local faction against another, but an effort to preserve a mode of traditional colonialism via a minute, historically opportunistic comprador class in Saigon. For the United States to fail in Vietnam {77} would be to make the point that even the massive intervention of the most powerful nation in the history of the world was insufficient to stem profoundly popular social and national revolutions throughout the world. Such a revelation of American weaknesses would be tantamount to a demotion of the United States from its present role as the world’s dominant super-power.

Given the scope of United States ambitions in relation to the Third World, and the sheer physical limits on the successful implementation of such a policy, Vietnam also reveals the passivity of the American military establishment in formulating global objectives that are intrinsically economic and geopolitical in character. Civilians, above all, have calculated the applications of American power in Vietnam and their strategies have prompted each military escalation according to their definitions of American interests. Even in conditions of consistent military impotence and defeat, Vietnam has fully revealed the tractable character of the American military when confronted with civilian authority, and their continuous willingness to obey civilian orders loyally.

It is in this broader framework of the roots of United States foreign policy since 1945 that we must comprehend the history and causes of the war in Vietnam and relate it to the larger setting of the goals of America’s leaders and the function of United States power in the modern world.


Throughout the Second World War the leaders of the United States scarcely considered the future of Indochina, but during 1943 President Roosevelt suggested that Indochina become a four-power trusteeship after the war, proposing that the eventual independence of the Indochinese might follow in twenty to thirty years. No one speculated whether such a policy would require American troops, but it was clear that the removal of French power was motivated by a desire to penalize French collaboration with Germany and Japan, or de Gaulle’s annoying independence, rather than a belief in the intrinsic value of freedom for the Vietnamese. Yet what was critical in the very first American position was that ultimate independence would not be something that {78} the Vietnamese might take themselves, but a blessing the other Great Powers might grant at their own convenience. Implicit in this attitude was the seed of opposition to the independence movement that already existed in Vietnam. Indeed, all factors being equal, the policy towards European colonialism would depend on the extent to which the involved European nations accepted American objectives elsewhere, but also on the nature of the local opposition. If the Left led the independence movements, as in the Philippines, Korea or Indochina, then the United States sustained collaborationist alternatives, if possible, or endorsed colonialism.

Although Roosevelt at Yalta repeated his desire for a trusteeship, during March 1945 he considered the possibility of French restoration in return for their pledge eventually to grant independence. But by May 1945 there was no written, affirmative directive on United States political policy in Indochina. The gap was in part due to the low priority assigned the issue, but also reflected growing apprehension as to what the future of those countries as independent states might hold.1

At the Potsdam Conference of July 1945, and again in the General Order Number 1 the United States unilaterally issued several weeks later, the remaining equivocation on Indochina was resolved by authorizing the British takeover of the nation south of the 16th parallel and Chinese occupation north of it, and this definitely meant the restoration of the French whom the British had loyally supported since 1943. One cannot exaggerate the importance of these steps, since it made the United States responsible for the French return at a time when Washington might have dictated the independence of that nation. By this time everyone understood what the British were going to do.

Given the alternative, United States support for the return of France to Indochina was logical as a means of stopping the triumph of the Left, a question not only in that nation but throughout the Far East. Moreover, by mid-August French officials were hinting that they would grant the United States and England equal economic access to Indochina. Both in action and thought the United States government now chose the reimposition of {79} French colonialism. At the end of August de Gaulle was in Washington, and the President now told the French leader that the United States favoured the return of France to Indochina. The decision would shape the course of world history for decades.2

The OSS worked with the Viet Minh, a coalition of Left and moderate resistance forces led by Ho Chi Minh, during the final months of the war to the extent of giving them petty quantities of arms in exchange for information and assistance with downed pilots, and they soon came to know Ho and many of the Viet Minh leaders. Despite the almost paranoid belief of the French representatives that the OSS was working against France, the OSS only helped consolidate Washington’s support for the French.3 They and other American military men who arrived in Hanoi during the first heady days of freedom were unanimous in believing that Ho ‘... is an old revolutionist ... a product of Moscow, a communist’.4 The OSS understood the nationalist ingredient in the Vietnamese revolution, but they emphasized the communist in their reports to Washington.5

During September the first British troops began arriving in the Indochinese zone which the Americans assigned them and imposed their control over half of a nation largely Viet Minh-controlled with the backing of the vast majority of the people. The British arranged to bring in French troops as quickly as they might be found, and employed Japanese troops in the Saigon region and elsewhere. ‘[On] 23 September,’ the British commander later reported to his superiors, ‘Major-General Gracey {80} had agreed with the French that they should carry out a coup d’état; and with his permission, they seized control of the administration of Saigon and the French Government was installed.’6 The State Department’s representative who visited Hanoi the following month found the references of the Vietnamese to classic democratic rhetoric mawkish, and ‘perhaps naïvely, and without consideration of the conflicting postwar interests of the “Big” nations themselves, the new government believed that by complying with the conditions of the wartime United Nations conferences it could invoke the benefits of these conferences in favour of its own independence.’7 From this viewpoint, even in 1945 the United States regarded Indochina almost exclusively as the object of Great Power diplomacy and conflict. By the end of the Second World War the Vietnamese were already in violent conflict with the representatives not only of France, but also of England and the United States, a conflict in which they could turn the wartime political rhetoric against the governments that had casually written it. But at no time did the desires of the Vietnamese themselves assume a role in the shaping of United States policy.

1946-9: United States inaction and the genesis of a firm policy

It is sufficient to note that by early 1947 the American doctrine of containment of communism obligated the United States to think also of the dangers Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh posed, a movement the United States analysed as a monolith directed from Moscow. It is also essential to remain aware of the fact that the global perspective of the United States between 1946 and 1949 stressed the decisive importance of Europe to the future of world power. When the United States looked at Indochina they saw France, and through it Europe, and a weak France would open the door to communism in Europe. But for no other reason, this {81} meant a tolerant attitude towards the bloody French policy in Vietnam, one the French insisted was essential to the maintenance of their empire and prosperity, and the political stability of the nation. Washington saw Vietnamese nationalism as a tool of the communists.

In February 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall publicly declared he wished ‘a pacific basis of adjustment of the difficulties could be found’,8 but he offered no means towards that end. Given the greater fear of communism, such mild American criticisms of French policy as were made should not obscure the much more significant backing of basic French policy in Washington. By early 1949 Washington had shown its full commitment to the larger assumptions of French policy and goals, and when Bao Dai, the former head of the Japanese puppet regime, signed an agreement with the French in March 1949 to bring Vietnam into the French Union, the State Department welcomed the new arrangement as ‘... the basis for the progressive realization of the legitimate aspirations of the Vietnamese people’.9 Such words belied the reality, for the course of affairs in Asia worried Washington anew.

The catalysis for a reconsideration of the significance of Vietnam to the United States was the final victory of the communists in China. In July 1949 the State Department authorized a secret reassessment of American policy in Asia in the light of the defeat of the Kuomintang, and appointed Ambassador-at-Large Philip Jessup chairman of a special committee. On 18 July Dean Acheson sent Jessup a memo defining the limits of the inquiry: ‘You will please take as your assumption that it is a fundamental decision of American policy that the United States does not intend to permit further extension of Communist domination on the continent of Asia or in the southeast Asia area... ’10 At the end of 1949 the State Department was still convinced the future of world power remained in Europe, but, as was soon to become evident, this involved the necessity of French victory in Vietnam. {82}

Most significant about the Jessup Committee’s views was the belief that, as a State Department official put it, ‘In respect to south-east Asia we are on the fringes of crisis’, one that, he added, might involve all of Asia following China.11 It appears to have been the consensus that Bao Dai, despite American wishes for his success, had only the slimmest chance for creating an effective alternative to Ho in Vietnam. The Committee compared French prospects to those of Chiang Kai-shek two years earlier, and since they acknowledged that the Viet Minh captured most of their arms from the French, the likelihood of stemming the tide seemed dismal.

There were two dimensions to the Vietnam problem from the United States’ viewpoint at the end of 1949. First, it was determined to stop the sweep of revolution in Asia along the fringes of China, and by that time Vietnam was the most likely outlet for any United States action. Second, it was believed that small colonial wars were draining France, and therefore Europe, of its power. Yet a Western victory had to terminate these struggles in order to fortify Europe, the central arena of the Cold War. ‘I found all the French troops of any quality were out in Indochina,’ Marshall complained to the Jessup Committee, .... and the one place they were not was in Western Europe. So it left us in an extraordinarily weak position there. ...’12 Massive American intervention in Vietnam was now inevitable.

1950-53: America escalates the war in Indochina

The significance of the struggle in Vietnam for the United States always remained a global one, and for this reason Vietnam after 1950 became the most sustained and important single issue confronting Washington. The imminent crisis in Asia that the Jessup Committee had predicted was one John Foster Dulles, even then one of the key architects of United States diplomacy, also anticipated. Dulles, however, thought it a mistake to place the main emphasis on American policy in Europe, and he, like everyone else in Washington, was not in the least impressed by the future of {83} the Associated States of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia which the United States recognized on 7 February 1950, with a flurry of noble references to independence and democracy. A ‘series of disasters can be prevented,’ Dulles advised in May 1950, ‘if at some doubtful point we quickly take a dramatic and strong stand that shows our confidence and resolution. Probably this series of disasters cannot be prevented in any other way.’ It would be necessary, he believed, even to ‘risk war’.13

The official position of the Truman Administration at this time was to insist on regarding Vietnam as essentially an extension of a European affair. As Charles E. Bohlen of the State Department explained it in a top-secret briefing in April:

As to Indochina, if the current war there continues for two or three years, we will get very little of sound military development in France. On the other hand, if we can help France to get out of the existing stalemate in Indochina, France can do something effective in Western Europe. The need in Indochina is to develop a local force which can maintain order in the areas theoretically pacified...
It is important, in order to maintain the French effort in Indochina, that any assistance we give be presented as defence of the French Union, as the French soldiers there would have little enthusiasm for sacrificing themselves to fight for a completely free Indochina in which France would have no part.
Suffice it to say, the French were hard pressed economically, and they needed United States aid on any terms, and in May 1950 direct United States economic aid was begun to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Immediately after the Korean affair Truman pledged greater support to the French and the Bao Dai regime.15

During mid-October 1950, shortly after some serious military reverses, Jules Moch, the French Minister of National Defence, arrived in Washington to attempt to obtain even greater United States military aid. By this time, despite earlier reticence, the French had come to realize that the key to their colonial war was in Washington. {84}

The aggregate military aid the United States contributed to the French effort in Vietnam is a difficult matter of book-keeping, but total direct military aid to France in 1950-53 was $2,956 million, plus $684 million in 1954. United States claims suggest that $1.54 billion in aid was given to Indochina before the Geneva Accords, and in fact Truman’s statement in January 1953 that the United States paid for as much as half of the war seems accurate enough, and aid rose every year to 1954.16 The manner in which this aid was disbursed is more significant.

The United States paid but did not appreciate French political direction, though no serious political pressure was put on the French until 1954. Dulles, for one, was aware of Bao Dai’s political unreliability and inability to create an alternative to the Viet Minh, and he regretted it. ‘It seems,’ he wrote a friend in October 1950, ‘as is often the case, it is necessary as a practical matter to choose the lesser of two evils because the theoretically ideal solution is not possible for many reasons - the French policy being only one. As a matter of fact, the French policy has considerably changed for the better.’17 It was Dulles, in the middle of 1951, who discovered in Bao Dai’s former premier under the Japanese, Ngo Dinh Diem, the political solution for Indochina. At the end of 1950 he was willing to content himself with the belief that the expansion of communism in Asia must be stopped. The French might serve that role, at least for a time.

In developing a rationale for United States aid, three major arguments were advanced, only one of which was later to disappear as a major source of the conduct of United States policy in Vietnam. First of all, the United States wished to bring France back to Europe via victory in Vietnam: ‘The sooner they bring it to a successful conclusion,’ Henry Cabot Lodge explained in early 1951, ‘the better it would be for NATO because they could move their forces here and increase their building of their army in Europe... ’18 The French insistence until 1954 on blocking {85} German rearmament and the European Defence Community until they could exist on the continent with military superiority over the Germans, a condition that was impossible until the war in Vietnam ended, gave this even more persuasive consideration special urgency. From this viewpoint, Vietnam was the indirect key to Germany. In the meantime, as Ambassador to France David Bruce explained it, ‘I think it would be a disaster if the French did not continue their effort in Indochina.’19

Victory rather than a political settlement was necessary because of the two other basic and more permanent factors guiding United States policy. The United States was always convinced that the ‘domino’ theory would operate should Vietnam remain with the Vietnamese people. ‘There is no question,’ Bruce told a Senate committee, ‘that if Indochina went, the fall of Burma and the fall of Thailand would be absolutely inevitable. No one can convince me, for what it is worth, that Malaya wouldn’t follow shortly thereafter, and India ... would ... also find the Communists making infiltrations. ..’20 The political character of the regime in Vietnam was less consequential than the larger United States design for the area, and the seeds of future United States policy were already forecast when Bruce suggested that ‘... the Indochinese - and I am speaking now of the... anti-Communist group - will have to show a far greater ability to live up to the obligations of nationhood before it will be safe to withdraw, whether it be French Union forces or any other foreign forces, from that country’.21 If the French left, someone would have to replace them.

Should Vietnam, and through it Asia, fall to the Viet Minh, the last major American fear would be realized. ‘[Of] all the prizes Russia could bite off in the east,’ Bruce also suggested, ‘the possession of Indochina would be the most valuable and in the long run would be the most crucial one from the standpoint of the West in the east. That would be true not because of the flow of rice, rubber, and so forth... but because it is the only place where any war is now being conducted to try to suppress the overtaking of the whole area of south-east Asia by the Communists.’22 {86}

Eisenhower and Nixon put this assumption rather differently, with greater emphasis on the value of raw materials, but it has been a constant basis of United States policy in Vietnam since 1951. ‘Why is the United States spending hundreds of millions of dollars supporting the forces of the French Union in the fight against communism?’ Vice President Richard Nixon asked in December 1953. ‘If Indochina falls, Thailand is put in an almost impossible position. The same is true of Malaya with its rubber and tin. The same is true of Indonesia. If this whole part of south-east Asia goes under Communist domination or Communist influence, Japan, who trades and must trade with this area in order to exist, must inevitably be oriented towards the Communist regime.’23

The loss of all Vietnam [Eisenhower wrote in his memoir], together with Laos on the west and Cambodia on the southwest, would have meant the surrender to Communist enslavement of millions. On the material side, it would have spelled the loss of valuable deposits of tin and prodigious supplies of rubber and rice. It would have meant that Thailand, enjoying buffer territory between itself and Red China, would be exposed on its entire eastern border to infiltration or attack. And if Indochina fell, not only Thailand but Burma and Malaya would be threatened, with added risks to East Pakistan and South Asia as well as to all Indonesia.24

Given this larger American conception of the importance of the Vietnam war to its self-interest, which impelled the United States to support it financially, the future of the war no longer depended largely on whether the French would fight or meet the demands of the Vietnamese for independence. Already in early 1952 Secretary of State Dean Acheson told Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, as recorded in the latter’s memoir, ‘... of the United States’ determination to do everything possible to strengthen the French hand in Indochina. On the wider question of the possibility of a Chinese invasion, the United States Government considered that it would be disastrous to the position of the Western powers if south-east Asia were lost without a struggle.’25 If Acheson promised prudence {87} by merely greatly increasing arms aid to the French, he also talked of blockading China. The war, even by 1952, was being internationalized with America assuming ever greater initiative for its control. When Eisenhower came to the Presidency in January 1953, Acheson presented Vietnam to him as ‘an urgent matter on which the new administration must be prepared to act’.26 Given Dulles’s experience and views on the question, Acheson’s words were not to be wasted.

By spring 1953 the United States government was fully aware of the largely tangential role of the French in its larger global strategy, and it was widely believed in Congress that if the French pulled out the United States would not permit Vietnam to fall. The United States was increasingly irritated with the French direction of affairs. The economic aid sent to Vietnam resulted merely in the creation of a speculative market for piastres and dollars which helped the local compradors enrich themselves while debilitating the economy. ‘Failure of important elements of the local population to give a full measure of support to the war effort remained one of the chief negative factors,’ the State Department confided to Eisenhower.27 ‘[It] was almost impossible,’ Eisenhower later wrote, ‘to make the average Vietnamese peasant realize that the French, under whose rule his people had lived for some eighty years, were really fighting in the cause of freedom, while the Viet Minh, people of their own ethnic origins, were fighting on the side of slavery.’28 Bao Dai, whom the United States had always mistrusted, now disturbed the Americans because, Eisenhower recalls, he ‘... chose to spend the bulk of his time in the spas of Europe...’29

The French, for their part, were now divided on the proper response the massive American intervention into the war demanded. But during July 1953 Bidault and Dulles conferred and Dulles promised all the French desired, also admonishing them not to seek a negotiated end to the war. In September the United States agreed to give the French a special grant of $385 million to {88} implement the Navarre Plan, a scheme to build French and puppet troops to a level permitting them to destroy the regular Viet Minh forces by the end of 1955. By this time the essential strategy of the war supplanted a strict concern for bringing France back to NATO, and the Americans increasingly determined to make Vietnam a testing ground for a larger global strategy of which the French would be the instrument. Critical to that strategy was military victory.

The difficulty for the United States undertaking was that, as General LeClerc had suggested several years earlier, there was.... no military solution for Vietnam’.30 The major foreign policy crisis of late 1953 and early 1954, involving Dulles’s confusing ‘massive retaliation’ speech of 12 January 1954, was the first immediate consequence of the failure of the Navarre Plan and the obvious French march towards defeat. The vital problem for the United States was how it might apply its vast military power in a manner that avoided a land war in the jungles, one which Dulles always opposed in Asia and which the Americans too might lose. At the end of December 1953 Dulles publicly alluded to the possibility that in the event of a Chinese invasion of Vietnam the Americans might respond by attacking China, which several weeks later was expressed again in the ambiguous threat of the American need ‘... to be willing and able to respond vigorously at places and with means of its own choosing’.31 Every critical assumption on which the United States based its foreign and military policy they were now testing in Vietnam.

1954: the Geneva Conference

Given the larger regional, even global, context of the question of Vietnam for the United States, a peaceful settlement would have undermined the vital promise of Washington since 1947 that one could not negotiate with communism but only contain it via military expenditures, bases and power. In February 1954, as Eden records, ‘... our Ambassador was told at the State Department {89} that the United States government was perturbed by the fact that the French were aiming not to win the war, but to get into a position from which they could negotiate’.32 The United States was hostile to any political concessions and to an end to the war. To the French, many of whom still wished to fight, the essential question was whether the United States government would share the burden of combat as well as the expense. The French would make this the test of their ultimate policy.

At the end of March the French sought to obtain some hint of the direction of United States commitments, and posed the hypothetical question of what United States policy would be if the Chinese used their aircraft to attack French positions. Dulles refused to answer the question, but he did state that if the United States entered the war with its own manpower, it would demand a much greater share of the political and executive direction of the future of the area.33

It is probable that the United States government in the weeks before Geneva had yet to define a firm policy for itself save on one issue: the desire not to lose any part of Vietnam by negotiations and to treat the existing military realities of the war as the final determining reality. Eden’s memory was correct when he noted that in April the Under Secretary of State, Walter Bedell Smith, informed the British government .... that the United States had carefully studied the partition solution, but had decided that it would only be a temporary palliative and would lead to Communist domination of south-east Asia’.34

During these tense days words from the United States were extremely belligerent, but it ultimately avoided equivalent actions, and laid the basis for later intervention. On 9 March Dulles excoriated Ho and the Viet Minh and all who ‘... whip up the spirit of nationalism so that it becomes violent’. He again reiterated the critical value of Vietnam as a source of raw materials and its strategic value in the area, and now blamed China for the continuation of the war. After detailing the alleged history of broken Soviet treaties, Dulles made it clear that the United States would go to Geneva so that ‘... any Indochina discussion {90} will serve to bring the Chinese Communists to see the danger of their apparent design for the conquest of south-east Asia, so that they will cease and desist’.35 Vice-President Richard Nixon on 16 April was rather more blunt in a press conference: Geneva would become an instrument of action and not a forum for a settlement. ‘[The] United States must go to Geneva and take a positive stand for united action by the free world. Otherwise it will have to take on the problem alone and try to sell it to others. ... This country is the only nation politically strong enough at home to take a position that will save Asia. ... Negotiations with the Communists to divide the territory would result in Communist domination of a vital new area.’36

The fact the United States focused on, Chinese ‘responsibility’ for a war of liberation from the French that began in 1945, years before the Chinese communists were near the south, was not only poor propaganda but totally irrelevant as a basis of military action. There was at this time no effective means for United States entry into the war, and such power as the Americans had would not be useful in what ultimately had to be a land war if they could hope for victory. War hawks aside, the Pentagon maintained a realistic assessment of the problem of joining the war at this time from a weak and fast-crumbling base, and for this reason the United States never implemented the much publicized schemes for entering the war via air power. The United States government was, willy nilly, grasping at a new course, one that had no place for Geneva and its very partial recognition of realities in Vietnam.

On 4 April Eisenhower proposed to Churchill that the three major NATO allies, the Associated States, the ANZUS countries, Thailand and the Philippines form a coalition to take a firm stand on Indochina, by using naval and air power against the Chinese coast and intervening in Vietnam itself. The British were instantly cool to the amorphous notion, and they were to insist that first the diplomats do their best at Geneva to save the French from their disastrous position. Only the idea of a regional military alliance appealed to them.37 Despite much scurrying and bluster, {91} Dulles could not keep the British and French from going to Geneva open to offers, concessions and a détente.

On 7 May, the day before the Geneva Conference turned to the question of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Dien Bien Phu fell to the victorious Vietnamese. Psychologically, though not militarily, the United States saw this as a major defeat in Vietnam. Militarily, about three quarters of Vietnam belonged to the Vietnamese and imminent French defeat promised to liberate the remainder. That same evening Dulles went on the radio to denounce Ho as a ‘Communist ... trained in Moscow’ who would ‘deprive Japan of important foreign markets and sources of food and raw materials’.38 Vietnam, Dulles went on, could not fall ‘into hostile hands’, for then ‘the Communists could move into all of south-east Asia’.39 Nevertheless, ‘The present conditions there do not provide a suitable basis for the United States to participate with its armed forces’, and so the hard-pressed French might wish an armistice. ‘But we would be gravely concerned if an armistice or cease-fire were reached at Geneva which would provide a road to a Communist takeover and further aggression.’40

The United States position meant an explicit denial of the logic of the military realities, for negotiations to deprive the Viet Minh of all of their triumphs was, in effect, a request for surrender. Even before the Conference turned to the subject, the United States rejected - on behalf of a larger global view which was to make Vietnam bear the brunt of future interventions - the implications of a negotiated settlement.

The Geneva Agreement

Others have authoritatively documented the United States’ role during the Geneva Conference discussions of 8 May-21 July - the indecision, vacillation and American refusal to acknowledge the military and political realities of the time. The British, for their part, hoped for partition, the Russians and the Chinese for peace {92} - increasingly at any price - and the Vietnamese for Vietnam and the political rewards of their near-military triumph over a powerful nation. The American position, as the New York Times described it during these weeks, was .... driving the US deeper into diplomatic isolation on south-east Asian questions’, and ‘Though the US opposes ... these agreements, there appears to be little the US can do to stop them’ 41

To the Vietnamese delegation led by Pham Van Dong, the question was how to avoid being deprived of the political concomitant of their military triumph, and they were the first to quickly insist on national elections in Vietnam at an early date - elections they were certain to win. As the Conference proceeded, and the Russians and then the Chinese applied pressure for Vietnamese concessions on a wide spectrum of issues - the most important being the provisional zonal demarcation along the 17th parallel - the importance of this election provision became ever greater to the Viet Minh.

To both the Vietnamese and the United States, partition as a permanent solution was out of the question, and Pham Van Dong made it perfectly explicit that zonal regroupments were only a temporary measure to enforce a cease-fire. Had the Viet Minh felt it was to be permanent, they unquestionably would not have agreed to the Agreements. When Mendès-France conceded a specific date for an election, the world correctly interpreted it as a major concession to Vietnamese independence. By the end of June, the Vietnamese were ready to grant much in the hope that an election would be held. During these very same days, Eden finally convinced the United States that a partition of Vietnam was all they might hope for, and on 29 June Eden and Dulles issued a statement which agreed to respect an armistice that ‘does not contain political provisions which would risk loss of the retained area to Communist control’.42 Since that loss was now inevitable, it ambiguously suggested that the United States might look askance at elections, or the entire Agreement itself. When the time came formally to join the other nations at Geneva in endorsing the Conference resolutions, the United States would not consent to do so. {93}

The final terms of the Agreements are too well known to need more than a resume here. The ‘Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities’ that the French and Vietnamese signed on 20 July explicitly described as ‘provisional’ the demarcation line at the 17th parallel. Until general elections, the Vietnamese and French respectively were to exercise civil authority above and below the demarcation line, and it was France alone that had responsibility for assuring conformity to its terms on a political level. Militarily, an International Control Commission was to enforce the terms. Arms could not be increased beyond existing levels. Article 18 stipulated ‘... the establishment of new military bases is prohibited throughout Vietnam territory’, and Article 19 that ‘the two parties shall ensure that the zones assigned to them do not adhere to any military alliance’, which meant that Vietnam could not join the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization the United States was beginning to organize.43 The Final Declaration issued on 21 July ‘takes note’ of these military agreements, and ‘... that the essential purpose of the agreement relating to Vietnam is to settle military questions with a view to ending hostilities and that the military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary’.44 Vietnam was one nation in this view, and at no place did the documents refer to ‘North’ or ‘South’. To achieve political unity, ‘... general elections shall be held in July 1956, under the supervision of an international control commission’, and ‘consultations will be held on this subject between the competent representative authorities of the two zones from 20 July 1955 onwards’. 45

To the United States it was inconceivable that the French and their Vietnamese allies could implement the election proviso without risk of total disaster. It is worth quoting Eisenhower’s two references to this assumption in his memoir: ‘It was generally conceded that had an election been held, Ho Chi Minh would have been elected Premier.’46 ‘I have never talked or corresponded {94} with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than Chief of State Bao Dai.’47

The United States therefore could not join in voting for the Conference resolution of 21 July, and a careful reading of the two United States statements issued unilaterally the same day indicates it is quite erroneous to suggest that the United States was ready to recognize the outcome of a Conference and negotiated settlement which it had bitterly opposed at every phase. Eisenhower’s statement begrudgingly welcomed an end to the fighting, but then made it quite plain that ‘... the United States has not itself been a party to or bound by the decisions taken by the Conference, but it is our hope that it will lead to the establishment of peace consistent with the rights and needs of the countries concerned. The agreement contains features which we do not like, but a great deal depends on how they work in practice.’48 The ‘United States will not use force to disturb the settlement We also say that any renewal of Communist aggression would be viewed by us as a matter of grave concern.’49 Walter Bedell Smith’s formal statement at Geneva made the same points, but explicitly refused to endorse the 13th article of the Agreement requiring consultation by the members of the Conference to consider questions submitted to them by the ICC,‘... to ensure that the agreements on the cessation of hostilities in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are respected’.50

1955-9: the aftermath of Geneva: the US entrenchment

The United States attached such grave reservations because it never had any intention of implementing the Geneva Agreements, and this was clear from all the initial public statements. The Wall {95} Street Journal was entirely correct when on 23 July it reported that ‘the US is in no hurry for elections to unite Vietnam; we fear Red leader Ho Chi Minh would win. So Dulles plans first to make the southern half a showpiece - with American aid’.51

While various United States missions began moving into the area Diem controlled, Dulles addressed himself to the task of creating a SEAT 0 organization which, as Eisenhower informed the Senate, was .... for defence against both open armed attack and internal subversion’.52 To Dulles from this time onwards, the SEATO treaty would cover Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, even though they failed to sign the Treaty and in fact the Geneva Agreement forbade them to do so. Article IV of the SEATO treaty extended beyond the signatories and threatened intervention by the organization in case of aggression ‘against any State or territory’ in the region, or if there was a threat to the ‘political independence ... of any other State or territory’.53 Under such an umbrella the United States might rationalize almost any intervention for any reason.

The general pattern of United States economic and material aid to the Diem regime between 1955 and 1959, which was $2.92 billion in that period, indicates the magnitude of the American commitment, $1.71 billion of which was advanced under military programmes, including well over a half billion dollars before the final Geneva-scheduled election date.

That elections would never be held was a foregone conclusion, despite the efforts of the North Vietnamese, who on 1 January 1955 reminded the French of their obligation to see the provision respected. Given the internecine conduct of the local opposition and its own vast strength among the people, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had every reason to comply with the Geneva provisos on elections. During February 1955 Hanoi proposed establishing normal relations between the two zones preparatory to elections, and Pham Van Dong in April issued a joint statement with Nehru urging elections to reunify the country. By this time {96} Diem was busy repressing and liquidating internal opposition of every political hue, and when it received no positive answer to its 6 June pleas for elections, the DRV again formally reiterated its opposition to the partition of one nation and the need to hold elections on schedule. During June the world turned its attention to Diem’s and Dulles’s response prior to the 20 July deadline for consultations. Diem’s response was painfully vague, and the first real statement came from Dulles on 28 June when he stated that neither the United States nor the regime in the south had signed the Agreement at Geneva or was bound to it, a point that Washington often repeated and which was, in the case of the south, patently false. Nevertheless, Dulles admitted that in principle the United States favoured ‘... the unification of countries which have a historic unity’, the myth of two Vietnams and two nations not yet being a part of the American case. ‘The Communists have never yet won any free election. I don’t think they ever will. Therefore, we are not afraid at all of elections, provided they are held under conditions of genuine freedom which the Geneva armistice agreement calls for.’54 But the United States, it was clear from this statement, was not bound to call for the implementation of the agreement via prior consultations which Diem and Washington had refused until that time, nor did Dulles say he would now urge Diem to take such a course.

Diem at the end of April 1955 announced he would hold a national referendum in the south to convoke a new national assembly and on 16 July he categorically rejected truly national elections under the terms of Geneva until ‘.. . proof is ... given that they put the superior interests of the national community above those of Communism’.55 ‘We certainly agree,’ Dulles stated shortly thereafter, ‘that conditions are not ripe for free elections.’56 The response of the DRV was as it had always been:

Geneva obligated the Conference members to assume responsibility for its implementation including consultations preparatory to actual elections, and in this regard Diem was by no means the responsible party. But the British favoured partition, {97} and the French were not about to thwart the United States government. The fraudulent referendum of 23 October which Diem organized in the south gave Diem ninety-eight per cent of the votes for the Presidency of the new ‘Government of Vietnam’. Three days later Washington replied to the news by recognizing the legitimacy of the regime.

In reality, using a regime almost entirely financed with its funds, and incapable of surviving without its aid, the United States partitioned Vietnam.

To the DRV, the United States and the Diem Administration’s refusal to conform to the Geneva Agreements was a question for the members of the Geneva Conference and the ICC to confront, and while it had often made such demands - during June and again in November 1955, and directly to Diem on 19 July - in September and again on 17 November 1955 Pham and Ho publicly elaborated their ideas on the structure of an election along entirely democratic lines. All citizens above eighteen could vote and all above twenty-one could run for office. They proposed free campaigning in both zones and secret and direct balloting. The ICC could supervise. On 25 February 1956, Ho again reiterated this position.

On 14 February 1956, Pham Van Dong directed a letter to the Geneva co-chairmen pointing to the repression in the south, its de facto involvement in an alliance with the United States, and the French responsibility for rectifying the situation. He now proposed that the Geneva Conference reconvene to settle peacefully the problem of Vietnam. The British refused, and again on 6 April the Diem government announced that ‘it does not consider itself bound by their provisions ’.57 On 8 May the Geneva co-chairmen sent to the north and south, as well as to the French, a demand to open consultations on elections with a view to unifying the country under the Geneva Agreements. Three days later the DRV expressed readiness to begin direct talks in early June at a time set by the Diem authorities. Diem refused. The DRV continued to demand consultations to organize elections, submitting notes to this effect to the Geneva co-chairmen and the Diem government in June and July 1957, March and December 1958, July 1959 and July 1960, and later, for arms reduction, resumption {98} of trade and other steps necessary to end the artificial partition of Vietnam. These proposals failed, for neither Diem nor the United States could survive their successful implementation.58

Washington’s policy during this period was clear and publicly stated. On 1 June 1956, after visiting Diem with Dulles the prior March, Walter S. Robertson, Assistant Secretary of State, attacked the Geneva Accords, which ‘... partitioned [Vietnam] by fiat of the great powers against the will of the Vietnamese people’. He lauded Diem’s rigged ‘free election of last March’ and stated the American determination ‘to support a friendly non-Communist government in Vietnam and to help it diminish and eventually eradicate Communist subversion and influence.... Our efforts are directed first of all towards helping to sustain the internal security forces consisting of a regular army of about 150,000 men, a mobile civil guard of some 45,000, and local defence units. ... We are also helping to organize, train and equip the Vietnamese police force.’59 Such policies were, of course, in violation of the Geneva Agreements forbidding military expansion. The term ‘eradicate’ was an apt description of the policy which the United States urged upon the more-than-willing Diem, who persecuted former Viet Minh supporters, dissident religious sects and others. An estimated 40,000 Vietnamese were in jail for political reasons by the end of 1958, almost four times that number by the end of 1961. Such policies were possible because the United States financed over seventy per cent of Diem’s budget, and the main United States emphasis was on the use of force and repression. There were an estimated minimum of 16,600 political liquidations between 1955 and 1959, perhaps much higher. Suffice it to say, every objective observer has accepted Life magazine’s description in May 1957 as a fair estimate:

Behind a facade of photographs, flags and slogans there is a grim structure of decrees, ‘re-education centres’, secret police. Presidential ‘Ordinance No. 6’ signed and issued by Diem in January 1956 provides that ‘individuals considered dangerous to national defence and common security may be confined on executive order’ in a ‘concentration camp’. ... Only known or suspected Communists ... are {99} supposed to be arrested and ‘re-educated’ under these decrees. But many non-Communists have also been detained. ... The whole machinery of security has been used to discourage active opposition of any kind from any source.60

The International Control Commission’s teams complained of these violations in the south, and in the north they claimed that the only significant group to have its civil liberties infringed was the Catholic minority, approximately one tenth of the nation. The cooperation of the DRV with the ICC was a critical index of its intentions, and an example of its naive persistence in the belief Geneva had not in reality deprived it of its hard-fought victory. The vast military build-up in the south made real cooperation with the ICC impossible, and its complaints, especially in regard to the airfields and reprisals against civilians, were very common. In certain cases the Diem regime permitted ICC teams to move in the south, but it imposed time limits, especially after 1959. Although there is no precise way of taking a count of what figures both Diem and the United States were attempting to hide, by July 1958 the DRV’s estimate that Diem had 450,000 men under arms was probably correct in light of Robertson’s earlier estimate of United States plans and the $1.7 billion in military expenditures for Diem through 1959.61

Although the large bulk of American aid to Diem went to military purposes, the section devoted to economic ends further routed an entirely dependent regime to the United States. That economic aid was a total disaster, exacerbated a moribund economy, ripped apart the urban society already tottering from the first decade of war, and enriched Diem, his family and clique. Yet certain germane aspects of the condition of the southern economy are essential to understand the next phase of the revolution in Vietnam and further American intervention, a revolution the Americans had frozen for a time but could not stop.

The Viet Minh controlled well over half the land south of the 17th parallel prior to the Geneva Conference, and since 1941 they {100} had managed to introduce far-reaching land reform into an agrarian economy of grossly inequitable holdings. When Diem took over this area, with the advice of United States experts he introduced a ‘land reform’ programme which in fact was a regressive ‘modernization’ of the concentrated land control system that had already been wiped out in many regions. Saigon reduced rents by as much as fifty per cent from pre-Viet Minh times, but in fact it represented a reimposition of tolls that had ceased to exist in wide areas. In cases of outright expropriation, landlords received compensation for property that they had already lost. In brief, the Diem regime’s return to power meant a reimposition of a new form of the prewar 1940 land distribution system in which seventy-two per cent of the population owned thirteen per cent of the land and two thirds of the agricultural population consisted of tenants ground down by high rents and exorbitant interest rates. For this reason, it was the landlords rather than the peasantry who supported ‘agrarian reform’.

Various plans for resettling peasants in former Viet Minh strongholds, abortive steps which finally culminated in the strategic hamlet movement of 1962, simply helped to keep the countryside in seething discontent. These agrovilles uprooted traditional villages and became famous as sources of discontent against the regime, one which was ripping apart the existing social structure. In brief, Diem and the United States never established control over the larger part of south Vietnam and the Viet Minh’s impregnable peasant base, and given the decentralization and the corruption of Diem’s authority, there was no effective basis for their doing so. The repression Diem exercised only rekindled resistance.62

In the cities the dislocations in the urban population, constantly augmented by a flow of Catholic refugees from the north, led to a conservative estimate in 1956 of 413,000 unemployed out of the Saigon population of two million. The $1.2 billion in non-military aid given to the Diem regime during 1955-9 went in large part to pay for its vast import deficit which permitted vast quantities of American-made luxury goods to be brought into the country’s {101} inflationary economy for the use of the new comprador Class and Diem’s bureaucracy.

The United States endorsed and encouraged the military buildup and repression, but it did not like the strange mélange of mandarin anti-capitalism and Catholic feudalism which Diem jumbled together in his philosophy of personalism. Diem was a puppet, but a not perfectly tractable one. The United States did not appreciate the high margin of personal graft, nor did it like Diem’s hostility towards accelerated economic development, nor his belief in state-owned companies. Ngo Dinh Nhu, his brother, regarded economic aid as a cynical means of dumping American surpluses, and the United States had to fight, though successfully, for the relaxation of restrictions on foreign investments and protection against the threat of nationalization. Ultimately Diem was content to complain and to hoard aid funds for purposes the United States thought dubious.

The US thought of Vietnam as a capitalist state in south-east Asia. This course condemned it to failure, but in April 1959, when Eisenhower publicly discussed Vietnam, ‘... a country divided into two parts, and not two distinct nations’, he stressed Vietnam’s need to develop economically, and the way ‘... to get the necessary capital is through private investments from the outside and through government loans’, the latter, in so far as the United States was concerned, going to local capitalists.63

1959-64: the resistance is rekindled

Every credible historical account of the origins of the armed struggle south of the 17th parallel treats it as if it were on a continuum from the war with the French of 1945-54, and as the effect rather than the cause of the Diem regime’s frightful repression and accumulated internal economic and social problems. The resistance to Diem’s officials had begun among the peasantry in a spontaneous manner, by growing numbers of persecuted political figures of every persuasion, augmented by Buddhists and Viet {102} Minh who returned to the villages to escape, and, like every successful guerrilla movement, it was based on the support of the peasantry for its erratic but ultimately irresistible momentum. On 6 May 1959, Diem passed his famous Law 10-59 which applied the sentence of death to anyone committing murder, destroying to any extent houses, farms or buildings of any kind, or means of transport, and a whole list of similar offences. ‘Whoever belongs to an organization designed to help to prepare or perpetrate crimes ... or takes pledges to do so, will be subject to the sentences provided.’64

The regime especially persecuted former members of the Viet Minh, but all opposition came under the sweeping authority of Diem’s new law, and between 1958 and the end of 1961 the number of political prisoners quadrupled. The resistance that spread did not originate from the north, and former Viet Minh members joined the spontaneous local resistance groups well before the DRV indicated any support for them. Only in 1960 did significant fighting spread throughout the country.

At the end of 1960 the United States claimed to have only 773 troops stationed there. By December 1965 there were at least fourteen major United States airbases in Vietnam, 166,000 troops, and the manpower was to more than double over the following year.65 This build-up violated the Geneva Accords, but that infraction is a fine point in light of the fact that the United States always had utter contempt for that agreement. In reality, the United States was now compelled to save what little it controlled of the south of Vietnam from the inevitable failure of its own policies.

It is largely pointless to deal with the subsequent events in the same detail, for they were merely a logical extension of the global policies of the United States before 1960. One has merely to juxtapose {103} the newspaper accounts in the United States press against the official rationalizations cited in Washington to realize how very distant from the truth Washington was willing to wander to seek justification for a barbaric war against a small nation quite unprecedented in the history of modern times. To understand this war one must always place it in its contextual relationship and recall that the issues in Vietnam were really those of the future of United States power not only in south-east Asia but throughout the entire developing world. In Vietnam the United States government has vainly attempted to make vast power relevant to international social and political realities that had bypassed the functional conservatism of a nation seeking to save an old order with liberal rhetoric and, above all, with every form of military power available in its non-nuclear arsenal.

By 1960 it was apparent that Diem would not survive very long, a point that an abortive palace revolt of his own paratroop battalions emphasized on 11 November. When Kennedy came to office amidst great debates over military credibility and the need to build a limited-war capability, Vietnam inevitably became the central challenge to the intellectual strategists he brought to Washington. In May 1961, Kennedy and Dean Rusk denounced what they called DRV responsibility for the growth of guerrilla activity in the south, a decision Rusk claimed the Communist Party of the DRV made in May 1959 and reaffirmed in September of the following year. This tendentious reasoning, of course, ignored the fact that the prior September, Pham Van Dong had again urged negotiations on the basis of reciprocal concessions in order to achieve unity without recourse to ‘war and force’.66 By the fall two missions headed by Eugene Staley and the leading limited-war theorist, General Maxwell Taylor, went to Vietnam to study the situation. On 18 October Diem declared a state of emergency, and on 16 November Kennedy pledged a sharp increase in aid to the regime, which newspapers predicted would also involve large United States troop increases. During November the Wall Street Journal, for example, admitted that aid would be going to a regime characterized by ‘corruption and favouritism’, and described {104} the ‘authoritarian nature of the country’ which allowed the National Liberation Front, formed at the end of December 1960, to build up a mass base among ‘the farmers who welcome an alternative to corrupt and ineffective appointees of the regime’.67

The United States government could hardly admit that the problem in southern Vietnam was the people’s revolt against the corruption of an oppressive regime that survived only with American guns and dollars, and not very well at that, and so it was necessary, while once again violating the Geneva Accords, to build up the myth of intervention from the DRV. At this time, the United States government effected a curious shift in its attitude towards the Geneva Accords, from denouncing or ignoring it to insisting that it bound the other side and, implicitly, that the United States had endorsed it. When asked about how a vast increase in United States military aid affected the agreement, Washington from this time on insisted, in Rusk’s words, that ‘the primary question about the Geneva Accords is not how those Accords relate to, say, our military assistance programme to south Vietnam. They relate to the specific, persistent, substantial, and openly proclaimed violations of those Accords by the north Vietnamese. ... The first question is, what does the north do about those Accords?’68 ‘If the North Vietnamese bring themselves into full compliance with the Geneva Accords,’ Rusk stated on 8 December as he released the so-called White Paper, ‘there will be no problem on the part of South Vietnam or any one supporting South Vietnam.’69 Only the prior month Ho publicly called for the peaceful reunification of the country via the terms of Geneva.70 Not surprisingly, Rusk never referred to the question of elections.

The United States White Paper of December 1961 was inept, and an excellent source of information for disproving nearly all the American claims of the time. It consisted of a melange of data, case histories and quotes from DRV statements, most obviously {105} out of context. As for China or Russia supplying the NLF with arms, the White Paper admitted, ‘The weapons of the VC are largely French- or US-made, or handmade on primitive forges in the jungle.’71 Evidence ranged from South Vietnamese interrogation records to reproductions of human anatomy from a Chinese text book to photos of medical equipment made in China and the cover of a private diary. The White Paper exhibited no military equipment and the long extracts from various DRV congresses and publications revealed merely that the DRV was officially committed to ‘... struggle tenaciously for the implementation of the Geneva Agreements’ and ‘peaceful reunification of the fatherland’.72 The State Department’s incompetent case was less consequential than the renewed and frank exposition of the ‘domino’ theory: if all of Vietnam chose the leadership of Ho and his party, the rest of Asia would ‘fall’. Above all, as the American press acknowledged, if the United States did not intervene the shabby Diem regime would collapse without anything acceptable replacing it.’73

During early 1962 the United States announced and began the Staley Plan - Operation Sunrise - for razing existing villages and regrouping entire populations against their will, and in February created a formal command in Vietnam. Officially, to meet ICC complaints, the United States reported 685 American soldiers were in Vietnam, but in fact reporters described the truth more accurately, and Washington intensified a long pattern of official deception of the American public. Yet the United States position was unenviable, for on 27 February Diem’s own planes bombed his palace. This phase of the story need not be surveyed here - more pliable and equally corrupt men were to replace Diem. One American officer in April 1962 reported of growing NLF power, ‘When I arrived last September, the Viet Cong were rarely encountered in groups exceeding four or five. Now they are frequently met in bands of forty to sixty.’74

On 1 March, while alleging DRV responsibility for the war, {106} Rusk declared it ‘all in gross violation of the Geneva Accords’. The problem, he argued over the following years, came from the north. As for the DRV’s appeal that the Geneva Conference be reconvened, he suggested, ‘There is no problem in South Vietnam if the other side would stay its hand.... I don’t at the moment envisage any particular form of discussion... ’75 No later than March, American forces in Vietnam were actively locked in combat.

Despite propaganda of the lowest calibre which the State Department and White House issued, more authoritative statements from various government agencies indicated reluctance to base planning on the fiction that the DRV started the war in Vietnam. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report of January 1963 admitted that the NLF ‘is equipped largely with primitive, antiquated, and captured weapons’.76 Despite the weakness of the NLF in this regard against a regular army of well over 150,000, plus police, etc., ‘by 1961 it was apparent that the prospects for a total collapse in South Vietnam had begun to come dangerously close’.77 American intervention had stayed that event. Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee in early March, General David Shoup, Commandant of the Marine Corps, freely admitted there was no correlation between the size of the NLF and the alleged infiltrators from the north: ‘I don’t agree that they come in there in the numbers that are down there....’78

Not until July 1963 did the United States publicly and unequivocally claim that, for the first time, it had captured NLF arms manufactured in Communist countries after 1954.

By the summer of 1963 it was obvious that the American government and its ally Diem were headed towards military defeat in Vietnam and new and unprecedented political resistance at home. Diem’s oppression of all political elements, his active persecution of the Buddhists, the failure of the strategic hamlet programme, the utter incompetence of his drafted troops against {107} far weaker NLF forces, the American press described in detail. At the beginning of September Washington was apparently bent on pressuring Diem but preserving him against mounting Buddhist protests, but as Kennedy admitted on 9 September as audible stirrings from senators were heard for the first time, ‘What I am concerned about is that Americans will get impatient and say, because they don’t like events in south-east Asia or they don’t like the government in Saigon, that we should withdraw.’79 Quite simply, he stated four days later, ‘If it helps to win the war, we support it. What interferes with the war effort we oppose.’80 The Americans would not sink with Diem.

On 21 October, after some weeks of similar actions on forms of economic aid, the United States Embassy in Saigon announced that it would terminate the pay for Diem’s own special political army unless they went into the field. On 30 October this private guard was sent out of Saigon. The next day a military coup brought Diem’s long rule to an end.81

The United States recognized the new Minh coup on 4 November, amid disturbing reports of continued squabbling within its ranks. On the 8th Rusk confirmed that the mood in Washington was now tending towards winning military victory by rejecting a neutralist solution for Vietnam south of the 17th parallel, linking it to ‘far-reaching changes in North Vietnam’, again insisting that the north was responsible for aggression. ‘The other side was fully committed - fully committed in the original Geneva settlement of 1954 to the arrangements which provided for South Vietnam as an independent entity, and we see no reason to modify those in the direction of a larger influence of North Vietnam or Hanoi in South Vietnam.’82 The creation of this deliberate fiction of two Vietnams - North and South - as being the result of the Geneva Accords now indicated that the United States government would seek military victory. {108}

The new regimes were as unsatisfactory as the old one, and by mid-December the American press reported dissatisfaction in Washington over the dismal drift of the war. In his important dispatches in the New York Times at the end of 1963, David Halberstam described the failure of the strategic hamlet programme, the corruption of Diem, the paralysis of Minh in these terms:

The outlook is that the situation will deteriorate unless the Government can wrest the initiative from the guerrillas. Unless it can, there appear to be only two likely alternatives. One is a neutralist settlement. The other is the use of United States combat troops to prop up the Government.83
The drift towards a neutralist solution at the beginning of 1964 was so great that Washington sought to nip it in the bud. In his New Year’s Message to the Minh regime, President Johnson made it clear that ‘neutralization of South Vietnam would only be another name for a Communist takeover. Peace will return to your country just as soon as the authorities in Hanoi cease and desist from their terrorist aggression’.84 Peace would be acceptable to the Americans after total victory. To alter their losing course, they would escalate.

At the end of January, as the Khanh coup took over, one of the new ruler’s grievances against his former allies was that some had surreptitiously used the French government to seek a neutral political solution. During February, the New York Times reported that Washington was planning an attack on the north, with divided counsels on its extent or even its relevance to internal political-economic problems. The United States preferred air bombing and/or a blockade, because as Hanson Baldwin wrote on 6 March, ‘The waging of guerrilla war by the South Vietnamese in North Vietnam has, in fact, been tried on a small scale, but so far it has been completely ineffective.’85

On 15 March Johnson again endorsed the ‘domino’ theory and {109} avowed his resolution not to tolerate defeat. On 26 March McNamara in a major address stressed the ‘great strategic significance’ of the issue, and Vietnam as ‘... a major test case of communism’s new strategy’ of local revolution, one that might extend to all the world unless foiled in Vietnam. Behind the DRV, the Secretary of Defense alleged, stood China. The Americans rejected neutralism for Vietnam, reaffirmed aid to the Khanh regime, and darkly hinted at escalation towards the north.86 During these same days, for the first time in two decades key members of the Senate voiced significant opposition to a major foreign policy. It had become a tradition in the Cold War for Presidents to marshal support from Congress by creating crises, thereby defining the tone of American foreign policy via a sequence of sudden challenges which, at least to some, vindicated their diabolical explanations. A ‘crisis’ was in the making.

All of the dangers of the Vietnamese internal situation persisted throughout spring 1964. On 24 July the New York Times reported that Khanh was exerting tremendous pressures on the United States to take the war to the north, even by ‘liberating’ it. During these same days both the French, Soviet and NLF leaders joined U Thant in a new diplomatic drive to seek an end to the war by negotiations. Washington, for its part, resisted these pacific solutions.

On 4 August Johnson announced that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had wantonly attacked the US destroyer Maddox in the Bay of Tonkin and in international waters, and as a result of repeated skirmishes since the 2nd he had ordered the bombardment of North Vietnamese installations supporting the boats. The following day he asked Congress to pass a resolution authorizing him to take all action necessary ‘to protect our Armed Forces’.87 It was maudlin, fictional and successful.

It was known - and immediately documented in Le Monde - that the United States had been sending espionage missions to the north since 1957 - as Baldwin had implied the prior February - and that on 30 July South Vietnamese and United States ships had raided and bombarded DRV islands. It was too far-fetched that {110} DRV torpedo boats would have searched out on the high seas the ships of the most powerful fleet in the world, without scoring any hits which the United States might show the sceptical world. On 5 August the press asked McNamara for his explanation of the events. ‘I can’t explain them. They were unprovoked ... our vessels were clearly in international waters ... roughly 60 miles off the North Vietnamese coast.’ When asked whether reports of South Vietnamese attacks in the area during the prior days were relevant, McNamara demurred: ‘No, to the best of my knowledge, there were no operations during the period ....’88 In testimony before the Senate during the same days it emerged that United States warships were not sixty miles but three to eleven miles off DRV territory, even though, like many states, the DRV claimed a twelve-mile territorial limit. Over subsequent days more and more information leaked out so that the essential points of the DRV case were confirmed, the long history of raids on the north revealed. By the end of September the entire fantasy was so implausible that the New York Times reported that the Defense Department was sending a team to Vietnam to deal with what were euphemistically described as ‘contradictory reports’. They did not subsequently provide further details, for ‘contributing to the Defense Department’s reticence was the secret mission of the two destroyers’, a mission the New York Times described as espionage of various sorts.89

The United States escalated in the hope that it could mobilize a Congress at home and sustain the Khanh regime in Vietnam, which nevertheless fell the following month. During these days the United States government admitted that the war was now grinding to a total halt as the Vietnamese politicians in the south devoted all their energy to Byzantine intrigues. With or without war against the DRV, the United States was even further from victory. In assessing the condition in the south a year after the downfall of Diem, the New York Times reported from Saigon that three years after the massive increase of the American commitment, and a {111} year after Diem’s demise, ‘the weakness of the Government [has] ... once again brought the country to the brink of collapse.

... Once again many American and Vietnamese officials are thinking of new, enlarged commitments - this time to carry the conflict beyond the frontier of South Vietnam’.90

The bombing of the DRV

On 20 December 1964, there was yet another coup in Saigon, and during the subsequent weeks the difficulties for the United States resulting from the court manoeuvres among generals who refused to fight were compounded by the growing militancy of the Buddhist forces. By January of 1965 the desertion rate within the South Vietnamese army reached thirty per cent among draftees within six weeks of induction, and a very large proportion of the remainder would not fight. It was perfectly apparent that if anyone was to continue the war the United States would have to supply not only money, arms, and 23,000 supporting troops as of the end of 1964, but fight the entire war itself. During January, as well, a Soviet-led effort to end the war through negotiations was gathering momentum, and at the beginning of February Soviet Premier Kosygin, amidst American press reports that Washington in its pessimism was planning decisive new military moves, arrived in Hanoi.

On the morning of 7 February, while Kosygin was in Hanoi, American aircraft bombed the DRV, allegedly in response to a NLF mortar attack on the Pleiku base in the south which cost eight American lives. There was nothing unusual in the NLF attack, and every serious observer immediately rejected the official United States explanation, for the government refused to state that the DRV ordered the Pleiku action, but only claimed the DRV was generally responsible for the war. The United States attack had been prepared in advance, Arthur Krock revealed on 10 February, and the New York Times reported that Washington had told several governments of the planned escalation before the 7th. The action was political, not military in purpose, a response to growing {112} dissatisfaction at home and pressures abroad. It was already known that de Gaulle was contemplating a move to reconvene the Geneva Conference - which he attempted on the 10th, after DRV urgings - and during the subsequent weeks, as the United States threatened additional air strikes against the DRV, both Kosygin and U Thant vainly attempted to drag the United States government to the peace table. In response, the Americans now prepared for vast new troop commitments.91

On 26 February, the day before the State Department released its second White Paper, Rusk indicated willingness to consider negotiations only if the DRV agreed to stop the war in the south for which he held it responsible. Hence there was no possibility of negotiating on premises which so cynically distorted the facts, and which even Washington understood to be false. ‘[They] doubt that Hanoi would be able to call off the guerrilla war,’ the New York Times reported of dominant opinion in Washington barely a week before the Rusk statement.92 The DRV could not negotiate a war it did not start nor was in a position to end. The United States determined to intervene to save a condition in the south on the verge of utter collapse.

In its own perverse manner, the new White Paper made precisely these points. It ascribed the origins of the war, the ‘hard core’ of the NLF, ‘many’ of the weapons to the DRV. The actual evidence the Paper gave showed that 179 weapons, or less than three per cent of the total captured from the NLF in three years, were not definitely French, American or homemade in origin and modification. Of the small number of actual case studies of captured NLF members offered, the large majority were born south of the 17th parallel and had gone to the north after Geneva, a point that was readily admitted, and which disproved even a case based on the fiction - by now a permanent American premise - that Vietnam was two countries and that those north of an arbitrarily imposed line had no right to define the destiny of one nation.93 The tendentious case only proved total American {113} responsibility for the vast new increase in the aggression. Despite the growing pressure for negotiations from many sources, and because of them, by March the United States decided to implement the so-called ‘McNamara-Bundy Plan’ to bring about an ‘honourable’ peace by increasing the war. On 2 March air strikes against the DRV were initiated once more, but this time they were sustained down to this very day. There were incredulously received rumours of vast increases in troop commitments to as high as 350,000. Washington made an accurate assessment in March 1965 when it realized it could not expect to save Vietnam for its sphere of influence, and that peace was incompatible with its larger global objectives of stopping guerrilla and revolutionary upheavals everywhere in the world. Both McNamara and Taylor during March harked back to the constant theme that the United States was fighting in Vietnam ‘to halt Communist expansion in Asia’.94 Peace would come, Johnson stated on 13 March, when ‘Hanoi is prepared or willing or ready to stop doing what it is doing to its neighbours’.95 Twelve days later the President expressed willingness to grant a vast development plan to the region - which soon turned out to be Eugene Black’s formula for increasingly specialized raw-materials output for the use of the industrialized world - should the Vietnamese be ready to accept the fiction of DRV responsibility for the war.

It made no difference to the United States government that on 22 March the NLF, and on 8 April the DRV, again called for negotiations on terms which in fact were within the spirit of the Geneva Accords the United States had always rejected. It was less consequential that on 6 April the official Japanese Matsumoto Mission mustered sufficient courage to reject formally the thesis of DRV responsibility for the war in the south and its ability, therefore, to stop the Vietnamese there from resisting the United States and its intriguing puppets. More significant was the fact that, as it announced 2 April, the Administration had finally decided to send as many as 350,000 troops to Vietnam to attain for the United States what the armies of Diem, Khanh, and others could not - victory. The official position called for ‘peace’, but in his famous Johns Hopkins speech on 7 April Johnson made it {114} clear that ‘we will not withdraw, either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement’. Though he agreed to ‘unconditional discussions’, he made it explicit that these would exclude the NLF and would be with an end to securing ‘an independent South Vietnam’, which is to say permanent partition and a violation of the Geneva Accords.96 From this time onwards the United States persisted in distorting the negotiating position of the DRV’s four-point declaration and effectively ignored the demand of the NLF for ‘an independent state, democratic, peaceful and neutral’. It refused, and has to this day, a voice for the NLF in any negotiations, and insisted that the NLF and DRV had attached certain preconditions to negotiations which in fact did not exist and which on 3 August the NLF again attempted to clarify - to no avail.

Experience over subsequent years has shown again and again that the words ‘peace’ and ‘negotiations’ from official United States sources were from 1964 onwards always preludes to new and more intensive military escalation.97

To the United States government the point of Vietnam is not peace but victory, not just in Vietnam but for a global strategy which it has expressed first of all in Vietnam but at various times on every other continent as well. Johnson’s own words in July 1965 stressed this global perspective while attributing the origins of the war to the DRV and, ultimately, China.

Its goal is to conquer the south, to defeat American power and to extend the Asiatic dominion of Communism.

And there are great stakes in the balance...

Our power, therefore, is a very vital shield. If we are driven from the field in Vietnam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American promise or American protection. ... We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else.98

One does not have to approve of this vision to accept it as an accurate explanation of why the United States government is willing to violate every norm of civilized behaviour to sustain the successive corrupt puppet governments in the south. But any {115} careful reading of the declarations of Rusk and McNamara in the months preceding and following this statement reveals that it was not the Geneva Accords but rather SEATO and, more critically, the survival of United States power in a world it can less and less control that has defined the basis of United States policy in Vietnam. This official policy, as Rusk expounded it again in March 1966, is that Vietnam is ‘the testing ground’ for wars of liberation that, if successful in one place, can spread throughout the world.99 When, as in January 1966, Under Secretary of State George Ball explained that Vietnam ‘is part of a continuing struggle to prevent the communists from upsetting the fragile balance of power through force or the threat of force’, in effect he meant the ability of the United States to contain revolutionary nationalist movements, communist and noncommunist alike, unwilling to accept United States hegemony and dedicated to writing their own history for their own people.100


Any objective and carefully prepared account of the history of Vietnam must conclude with the fact that the United States must bear the responsibility for the torture of an entire nation since the end of the Second World War. The return of France to Vietnam, and its ability to fight for the restoration of a colony, was due to critical political decisions made in Washington in 1945, and the later repression depended on financial and military aid given to France by the United States. First as a passive senior partner, and then as the primary party, the United States made Vietnam an international arena for the Cold War, and it is a serious error to regard the war in Vietnam as a civil conflict, or even secondarily as a by-product of one for in that form it would hardly have lasted very long against a national and radical movement that the vast majority of the Vietnamese people always have sustained.

The United States government responded to its chronic inability to find a viable internal alternative to the Viet Minh and the NLF by escalating the war against virtually the entire nation. To escape certain defeat time and time again, it violated formal {116} and customary international law by increasing the scale of military activity. The United States met each overture to negotiate, whether it came from the Vietnamese, the French or the Russians, by accelerated warfare in the hope of attaining its unique ends through military means rather than diplomacy.

Ultimately, the United States has fought in Vietnam with increasing intensity to extend its hegemony over the world community and to stop every form of revolutionary movement which refuses to accept the predominant role of the United States in the direction of the affairs of its nation or region. Repeatedly defeated in Vietnam in the attainment of its impossible objective, the United States government, having alienated most of its European allies and a growing sector of its own nation, is attempting to prove to itself and the world that it remains indeed strong enough to define the course of global politics despite the opposition of a small poor nation of peasants. On the outcome of this epic contest rests the future of peace and social progress in the world for the remainder of the twentieth century, not just for those who struggle to overcome the legacy of colonialism and oppression to build new lives, but for the people of the United States themselves.


  1. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conference of Berlin (Washington, 1969), I, p.920.Back
  2. Charles de Gaulle, Memoirs de Guerre: Le Salut, 1944-6 (Paris, 1964), pp. 467-8. See also Marcel Vigneras, Rearming the French (Washington, 1957), p. 398.Back
  3. General G. Sabathier, Le Destin de L’Indochine (Paris, 1952), pp. 336-8. During October 1945 Major Patti of the OSS approached DRV officials with the offer to trade aid in building an infrastructure for certain economic rights for American interests. The offer was declined, but it is most questionable if Patti spoke with official authority or whether this was a means for obtaining information.Back
  4. General Philip Gallagher to General R. B. McClure, 20 September 1945 (Department of State Report, Gallagher Papers).Back
  5. Department of State, Research and Intelligence Service, Biographical Information on Prominent Nationalist Leaders in French Indochina, 25 October 1945.Back
  6. UK Documents Relating to British Involvement in the Indo-China Conflict, 1945-65, Cmd 2834 (London, 1965), p.50. See also F. S. V. Donnison, British Military Administration in the Far East 1943-6 (London, 1956), pp. 404-8.Back
  7. Department of State Report, Gallagher Papers, p.10.Back
  8. New York Times, 8 February 1947. See also Bernard Fall, Two Viet Nams (New York, 1963), pp. 75-6.Back
  9. William C. Bullitt, ‘The Saddest War’, Life, 29 December 1947, p.69.Back
  10. US Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearings: Nomination of Philip C. Jessup (Washington, 1951), p. 603.Back
  11. Department of State, Conference on Problems of United States Policy in China, 6-8 October 1949, p.207; see also pp. 99 ff.Back
  12. ibid., pp. 222-5.Back
  13. ibid., p.405.Back
  14. ‘Statement of Charles E. Bohlen Before the Voorkeers Group, 3 April 1950’, Joseph Dodge Papers, Detroit Public Library.Back
  15. Ellen J. Hammer, The Struggle for Indochina (Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 270-72.Back
  16. US Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, 14 January 1965 (Washington, 1965), p. 137; US AID, Obligation and Loan Authorization (Washington, 1962), p.12; Harry S. Truman, Memoirs New English Library, 1965), II, p.519.Back
  17. Dulles to Frank C. Laubach, 31 October 1950, Dulles Papers.Back
  18. US Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearings (Washington, 1951), p.207.Back
  19. ibid.Back
  20. ibid., p.208.Back
  21. ibid.Back
  22. ibid., p.211.Back
  23. Allan B. Cole (ed.), Conflict in Indo-China and International Repercussions: A Documentary History, 1945-55 (Ithaca, 1956), p.171.Back
  24. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change (Heinemann, 1963), p. 333.Back
  25. Anthony Eden, Full Circle (London, 1960), p.92.Back
  26. Truman, op cit., II, p.519.Back
  27. Eisenhower, op. cit., p.168.Back
  28. ibid., p.337.Back
  29. ibid., p.338.Back
  30. Quoted in Alexander Werth, ‘Showdown in Viet Nam’, New Statesman, 8 April 1950,p.397.Back
  31. Department of State Press Release, No. 8, p.4. {89}Back
  32. Eden, op. cit., p.100.Back
  33. Eisenhower, op. cit., p.345.Back
  34. Eden, op. cit., p. 102.Back
  35. Department of State, American Foreign Policy, 1950-55 (Washington, 1957), II, pp. 2374 ff.Back
  36. Cole, op. cit.; p.174.Back
  37. UK Documents Relating to British Involvement, pp. 66-7.Back
  38. American Foreign Policy, II, p.2385.Back
  39. ibid., p. 2386.Back
  40. ibid., pp. 2389-90.Back
  41. New York Times, 27 June 1954.Back
  42. Eden, op. cit., p. 149.Back
  43. US Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Background Information, p. 35, pp. 28-42.Back
  44. ibid., pp. 58-9.Back
  45. Eisenhower, op. cit., pp. 337-8.Back
  46. loc. cit.Back
  47. ibid., p.372.Back
  48. Background Information, p.60.Back
  49. ibid.Back
  50. ibid., pp. 60-61.Back
  51. Wall Street Journal, 23 July 1954.Back
  52. US Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearings (Washington, 1954),p.1.Back
  53. Background Information, p.63.Back
  54. American Foreign Policy, II, p. 2404.Back
  55. Cole, op. cit., pp. 226-7.Back
  56. Quoted in F. B. Weinstein, Vietnam’s Unheld Election (Ithaca, 1966), p.33.Back
  57. UK Documents Relating to British Involvement, p.95.Back
  58. Weinstein, op. cit., p.53.Back
  59. American Foreign Policy: Current Documents (Washington, 1959). p.861.Back
  60. Quoted in Robert Scheer, How the United States Got Involved in Vietnam (Santa Barbara, 1965), p.40. See also Nguyen Kien, Le Sud-Vietnam Depuis Dien Bien Phu (Paris, 1963), p.109; Jean Lacouture, Le Vietnam Entre Deux Paix (Paris, 1965), p.46.Back
  61. DRV, Imperial Schemes (Hanoi, 1958), pp. 30 ff.Back
  62. Jean Lacouture and Philippe Devillers, La Fin d’une Guerre: Indochine 1954 (Paris, 1960), pp. 301-2; Kien, op. cit., pp. 122-30; Lê Châu, La Révolution Paysanne du Sud-Vietnam (Paris, 1966), pp. 16-24, 54-79.Back
  63. Background Information, p.75. See also Kien, op. cit., p.131; John D. Montgomery, The Politics of Foreign Aid (Pall Mall, 1963). pp. 67-94; Fall, op. cit., pp. 303-6.Back
  64. Marvin E. Gettleman (ed.), Vietnam: History, Documents and Opinions on a Major World Crisis (New York, 1965; Penguin Books 1966), p.79. See also Fall, op. cit., p.344; Devillers in Gettleman, op. cit., pp. 210 ff.; Lacouture, op. cit., pp. 34 ff.; Z, ‘The War in Vietnam’, pp. 216; James Alexander, ‘Deadlock in Vietnam’, Progressive, September 1962, pp. 20-24; and especially George McT. Kahin and John W. Lewis, The United States in Vietnam (New York, 1967), Chapter V.Back
  65. Background Information, p.137; New York Times, 1 December 1965; New York Herald Tribune, 17 October 1966.Back
  66. DRV, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Memorandum (Hanoi, 1962), p.33; see also Background Information, pp. 76-8.Back
  67. Wall Street Journal, 8 November 1961.Back
  68. Background In formation, p.81; New York Times, 13 December 1961.Back
  69. Background In formation, p. 83.Back
  70. Lacouture, op. cit., pp. 56-7.Back
  71. Department of State, A Threat to the Peace: North Viet-Nam’s Effort to Conquer South Viet-Nam (Washington, 1961), I, p.9.Back
  72. ibid., II, p.5.Back
  73. ibid., I, p.52; New York Times, 27 November 1961.Back
  74. New York Times, 19 April 1962.Back
  75. Background Information, pp. 88-9.Back
  76. US Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Viet Nam and Southeast Asia (Washington, 1963), p.5.Back
  77. ibid.Back
  78. US Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Hearings: Military Procurement Authorization, 1964 (Washington, 1963), p.707.Back
  79. Background Information, p.101; New York Times, 27 April, 23 July, 9, 21 September 1963.Back
  80. New York Times, 13 September 1963.Back
  81. Franz Schurmann et al., The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam (New York, 1966), pp. 23-5; New York Times, 3 October 1963; Background Information, p. 102.Back
  82. New York Times, 9 November 1963.Back
  83. ibid., 23 December 1963; 29 November, 10, 14, 15, 20 December 1963.Back
  84. Background Information, pp. 106-7.Back
  85. New York Times, 6 March 1964; 23 February 1964; Schurmann et al., op. cit., pp. 27-34.Back
  86. Background Information, pp. 111-17.Back
  87. ibid., p. 124.Back
  88. New York Times, 6 August 1964; Le Monde, 6-12 August 1964.Back
  89. New York Times, 11, 14 August, 25 September 1964; Schurmann et al., op. cit., pp. 35-43; DRV, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Memorandum, August 1964 (Hanoi, 1964); US Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearings: The Gulf of Tonkin (Washington, 1968).Back
  90. New York Times, 2 November 1964; 25, 27, 28 August, 4 September 1964.Back
  91. ibid., 19 January, 3, 8, 10, 12, 13 February 1965; Schurmann et al., op. cit., pp. 44-61.Back
  92. New York Times, 18 February 1965; 26 February 1965.Back
  93. Text in Gettleman, op. cit., pp. 284-316; answer by I. F. Stone, ibid., pp. 317-23.Back
  94. New York Times, 12 March 1965; 1, 3, 28 March 1965.Back
  95. ibid., 8 April 1965.Back
  96. ibid., 8 April 1965; 26 March, 3,7 April 1965.Back
  97. Schurmann et al., op. cit.Back
  98. New York Times, 29 July 1965.Back
  99. Department of State, The Heart of the Problem ... (Washington, 1966), pp. 12-13; Why Vietnam? (Washington, 1965), pp. 9ff.Back
  100. George W. Ball, The Issue in Viet-Nam (Washington, 1966), p 18.Back
Gabriel Kolko