World War II provided the foundation for ending colonial rule in southeast Asia. Japanese forces ousted colonial regimes in Burma and Malaya (Britain), Indonesia(Holland), and Vietnam and Cambodia (France). Japanese rhetoric—though mostly self-serving—spoke of creating a Pan-Asian bloc of independent nations. And when the Japanese failed to deliver on their promises, intense partisan revolts erupted in Indonesia and French Indochina. In Indonesia, the partisan movement headed by Sukarno, the archipelago’s first president, assumed a firmly non-communist tone. In French Indochina, on the other hand, the nationalist movement was led by a communist, Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969).
The First Vietnam War. Ho first attracted international attention in1919, when he petitioned Woodrow Wilson, at the Paris Peace Conference, to support Vietnamese independence. Wilson, whose vision of self- determination was Eurocentric, declined to meet with the Vietnamese delegation, and shortly thereafter Ho joined the French Communist Party, the one major political movement in France that opposed imperialism. He worked as a low-level covert agent for the Soviet Union during the 1920s, and founded the IndochineseCommunist Party in 1929. Ho remained in exile until 1940, when he returned to his homeland for the first time since 1911 and founded the Viet Minh, or VietnamIndependence League, which resisted both the Japanese and the restoration ofFrench rule. With covert backing from U.S. agents in the Office of StrategicServices (OSS), the Viet Minh proved an effective fighting force.
On September 2, 1945, in the power vacuum that followed Japan’s defeat, Ho and proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Borrowing heavily fromEnlightenment ideals, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and the FrenchDeclaration of the Rights of Man, the declaration charged that “French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow citizens,” acting “contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.” The truth, Ho argued, “is that we have wrested our independence from the Japanese and not from the French,” and he expected that if Allied nations wanted to live up to the pledges made in theAtlantic Charter and the UN Charter, they would support Vietnamese independence.Two OSS officers stood on the platform, behind Ho, as he made his address.
The West, however, did not back independence for Vietnam. Although FranklinRoosevelt, who believed that the French had failed as colonizers, strongly opposed allowing France to return to Vietnam, he yielded to Allied military plans that assigned liberation of Indochina to Britain’s Lord Mountbatten(1900-1979), Supreme Allied Commander of the Southeast Asia Theater. LestVietnamese independence be used as a pretext to support dissolution of theBritish Empire, Mountbatten and the British remained in place until the French government could send troops to restore French rule over its colony. The UnitedStates did not protest.
Desultory negotiations between the French and Ho collapsed in mid-1946. Since Ho demanded independence and the French wanted to reestablish colonial control to prove that France remained a great power, a compromise between the two was impossible. Instead, France established a puppet state under Emperor Bao Dai(who spent most of his time in the French Riviera), and the Viet Minh rebelled.
While the French relied on conventional military strategy, Ho and Viet Minh General Vo Nguyen Giap (1912-2003CK) imitated the tactics of Mao Zedong and theCCP. By fighting a guerrilla war, the Viet Minh took advantage of their popular support. French opinion, meanwhile, divided between those who favored force and those who recommended negotiations, tried to locate blame for the conflict. (Ina 1950 French poll, more than 60 percent listed either the United States, Japan,China, or Britain as primarily responsible for the war; only 5 percent considered France to blame for the outbreak of hostilities.) As they would later do in North Africa, the French recognized the independence of less significant parts of Indochina (Cambodia and Laos) in a vain effort to build international support for their retention of economically and strategically areas of Vietnam.
The CCP’s triumph in China and the outbreak of the Korean War internationalized the French-Vietnamese conflict. Despite the historical animosity between Vietnam and China, Mao’s regime sent both military advisors and modern hardware to the Viet Minh, allowing Giap to adopt a more aggressive strategy. From the other side, the United States boosted funding to the French, so that by 1953 Washington was paying two-thirds of the war’s cost.With the newly adopted NSC 68 guiding U.S. foreign policy, the Viet Minh’s communist ideology made it a threat. Moreover, U.S. policymakers worried about how the Asian realignment would affect Japan. With the loss of traditionalJapanese markets in China, a non-communist Southeast Asia loomed as a possible substitute for Japanese exports. Otherwise, officials in the Truman administration feared, the Japanese government would have no choice but to accommodate itself to China.
This outside backing only made the war more grisly. Declining popular support for the war in France prompted the French military to engage in increasingly risky tactics. In late 1953, hoping to draw out Viet Minh forces into a large-scale conventional battle, the new French new commander, General Henri Navarre (1898-1983) adopted a new strategy of building entrenched, isolated outposts in northern and western Vietnam. Hoping to cut off Viet Minh attacks on Laos, Navarre decided to fortify Dien Bien Phu, a small town located in a northwestern Vietnam valley that the French could supply only by air. The plan was disastrously conceived, and Giap took advantage. Giap’s troops began a siege in March 1954, dragging 200 howitzer guns up rugged mountain sides to target the French air base. Nearly 10,000 soldiers were trapped, and soon ran out of supplies. In a last-ditch effort to salvage the battle, the French appealed for formal U.S. assistance in early May 1954, andJoint Chiefs of Staff chairman Arthur Radford recommended employing atomic weapons to break the siege. Eisenhower demurred and the French garrison fell. A conference in Geneva, Switzerland ended the first Vietnam War. Vietnam was divided into two states, with Ho ruling the North (the Democratic Republic ofVietnam, or DRV) and Bao Dai placed in charge of the South. The Geneva Accords restricted the foreign military aid that either Vietnamese state could receive,and called for all-Vietnam elections in 1956 to reunify the country.
American Involvement. These elections never took place. Continuing a pattern he had demonstrated during the war, Ho’s government cracked down against its domestic foes, triggering a mass migration, mostly of Catholics, to theSouth. Meanwhile, the United States, which did not sign the Geneva Accords,aggressively supported a non-communist regime in South Vietnam. Concluding that Bao Dai could not capably govern, the United States backed Ngo Dinh Diem(1901-1963), one of the few Vietnamese political figures with impeccable anti-communist and nationalist credentials.
Between 1955 and 1960, the United States flooded South Vietnam with economic and, increasingly, military aid. The Eisenhower administration justified its course by citing the “domino theory,” which held that a Communist victory inVietnam would result in surrounding countries becoming Communist like a “falling row of dominoes.” Yet as a Catholic in a predominantly Buddhist nation and an autocrat who relied on advice from his even more autocratic brother, Ngo DinhNhu (1904-1963), Diem’s political position grew more precarious. In 1960, the newly formed National Liberation Front (NLF), which consisted of Communist cadres left behind in South Vietnam after the end of the French-Vietnamese war,launched a revolt.
The NLF rebellion coincided with a new administration in Washington, as DemocratJohn Kennedy, the youngest elected President in U.S. history, replacedEisenhower. Kennedy promised to bring new ideas to U.S. foreign policy. In military affairs, he was attracted to the work of Edward Lansdale, who argued that winning the “hearts and minds” of the civilian population was critical to victory in a guerrilla war. Kennedy also paid attention to the writings of MIT economist Walt Rostow, whose GET TITLE hypothesized that all nations passed through five stages of economic development—the traditional society, the preconditions for takeoff, the takeoff, the drive to maturity, and the age of high mass consumption—with vulnerability to a communist takeover occurring in the second stage, when traditional society collapsed.
Kennedy formed from these theories a national security doctrine called flexible response, and the administration considered the situation in Vietnam as a testing ground for the new theory. In reality, the new President dramatically expanded the U.S. military commitment inSoutheast Asia. In Kennedy advisers Rostow and Maxwell Taylor recommended more aid, as well as the dispatch of an 8,000-man “logistic task force” to assist theSouth Vietnamese army. Kennedy declined the latter suggestion but accepted the first, and even that restriction carried little force: by the end of 1962, 9,000U.S. “advisors” were stationed in South Vietnam (the Geneva Accords permitted just over 700) and the U.S. Army had assumed responsibility for training theSouth Vietnamese military. Seeking to deny NLF forces backing from the SouthVietnamese peasantry, U.S. advisors pressured Diem into adopting a “strategic hamlet” policy, which called for herding rural civilians into camps patrolled by the South Vietnamese army.
These policies only intensified South Vietnam’s political unrest. On June 11,1963, after Diem’s refusal to implement an agreement ending religious discrimination, a Buddhist monk set himself on fire, receiving extensive coverage in the international media. Nhu’s wife, Madame Nhu, dismissed the event, saying that she would “clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show.”Kennedy took the self-immolation far more seriously. He ruled out withdrawal,and instead urged the South Vietnamese military to organizing a coup against theDiem regime. On November 1, 1963, the generals acted, toppled the government,and assassinated Diem and Nhu.
Kennedy expected that the new government would wage the war more effectively.Instead, the coup destabilized South Vietnamese politics, creating the impression that the weak military regimes that followed Diem were little more than puppets of Washington.
Americanizing the War. Three weeks after Diem’s killing, Kennedy himself was assassinated. While a lively scholarly debate exists over whether Kennedy would have Americanized the conflict in Vietnam (around 19,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam at the time of his death), his successor committed himself to victory. Lyndon Johnson (-1973) told advisors that he would not be the firstAmerican president to lose a war, and he recalled the criticism that fellowDemocrat Harry Truman had received from Republicans like Joe McCarthy during theKorean War. In summer 1964, with CIA assistance, South Vietnamese armed forces initiated a covert operation called OPLAN 34-A, which involved small-scale naval raids on the North Vietnamese coast. On August 2, shortly after one such raid,North Vietnamese forces fired on the U.S.S. Maddox, which was insideNorth Vietnam’s 12-mile territorial waters. After confusing reports suggested an attack two nights later, the administration proposed a measure, which came to be known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution,authorizing the President to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Only two senators—Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska—voted against the bill, which would be used by Johnson as evidence thatCongress approved a dramatically expanded U.S. military presence in SoutheastAsia.
U.S. policy toward Vietnam during theJohnson administration suffered from a fatal flaw. Like Dwight Eisenhower andJohn Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson did the minimum possible to prevent South Vietnam from coming under Communist control. During the Eisenhower administration, the minimum possible was large-scale U.S. economic aid. Under Kennedy, the minimum possible was boosted military aid, along with an increased presence of U.S.advisors. Because of the weakness of the regimes that succeeded Diem, however,for Johnson, the minimum possible was to introduce U.S. combat troops, since otherwise the South Vietnamese government was likely to collapse. But by waging the war with U.S. soldiers, Johnson only strengthened the DRV’s contention that the United States had succeeded the French in waging a colonial war, and ensured that any government in South Vietnam would be perceived as a U.S. puppet regime.
The Americanization of the conflict occurred at an alarming pace. In early 1965, seeking to bolster morale in the South, the United States initiated a campaign to bomb the DRV, calledOperation Rolling Thunder. To protect the air bases that housed the RollingThunder planes, Johnson sent the first U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam. by the end of 1965, over 180,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Vietnam. The military commander of the operation, General William Westmoreland, devised a policy called “search and destroy,” in which U.S. troops aggressively sought outNLF forces. The progress of this approach was determined by a daily “body count”that listed enemy casualties. Westmoreland believed that a high enough “kill ratio” would eventually break the will of the North Vietnamese to carry on the war. Instead, despite administration promises of a “light at the end of the tunnel,” more and more troops were sent to Vietnam (over 500,000 by the end of1967), with no end to the war in sight.