“We should have seen it as the end of the colonial era in Southeast Asia, which it really was” says Donald Gregg of the Central Intelligence Agency in the new Burns/Novick documentary about the Vietnam war. “Instead we saw it in Cold War terms, . . . as a defeat for the free world, that was related to the rise of China. And it was a total misreading of a pivotal event that cost us very dearly.” This is presented as the official judgment of the CIA on the Vietnam war. It seems like a correct judgment.
Like tales of war immemorial, this tale of Vietnam is a tragedy borne of ignorance, misjudgment, willful stubbornness, great courage, dedication, sacrifice, and cruelty. Seen in hindsight like this, it’s hard not to add “stupidity.”
We are shown tantalizing possibilities of an alternate, better, history. Off-ramps that would have spared the lives of more than 100,000 French soldiers in the mid-20th century, the lives of 58,220 Americans sacrificed by the Johnson and Nixon administrations in 1965-’73, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.
Four decision points stand out where we could have chosen a better course.
The League of NationsThe first opportunity came at the conclusion of World War I. Vietnam had been brutally colonized by the French in the latter half of the 19th century. By 1919 the Vietnamese yearned for freedom. They were inspired by the American Revolution; they had justice on their side. A young Ho Chi Minh was present at the Versaille peace conference after World War I, and he attempted to present a petition to President Wilson for an independent Vietnam. He was not heard, and the French colonial regime stayed in place.
Vietnam Declares IndependenceThe second opportunity presented itself after World War II. Vietnam had been occupied by Japan in September 1940, but Vichy France cooperated with the Japanese throughout World War II and they continued to administer Vietnam for the Japanese. In February 1941, Ho Chi Minh slipped across the Chinese border and set up headquarters for a guerilla army in the mountains. The Vietnam Independence League was born (the Vietmin).
By the Spring of 1945, the U.S. was looking for allies in Vietnam to undermine Japanese forces. The Americans were contacted by Ho Chi Minh and they sent a team of paratroopers from the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to CIA) to make contact with the Vietmin. They found Ho Chi Minh sick and in desparate need of medical treatment in his hideout. The OSS team provided necessary medical care, and then supplied the Vietmin with arms. The Americans were impressed with the abilities of the Vietmin fighters who called themselves the Viet-American army. They praised the U.S. as champions of democracy. “Don’t take this “communism” business too seriously,” Ho told the OSS.
On the day Japan surrendered (Sept. 2, 1945), Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam a state independent from France. Speaking in Hanoi before a cheering crowd, Ho hoped for support from the United States. But Charles DeGaulle would not hear of it. If you don’t let us keep our colonies, including Vietnam, he warned Truman, we may have to fall under the orbit of the Soviets. Truman threw his lot in with the French.
At least one OSS officer, Peter Dewey, knew this was a mistake. He advised his superiors in the U.S. that, in his opinion, the French and British were finished in Vietnam, and the U.S. should also clear out of Southeast Asia.
Instead of clearing out, of course, the U.S. helped France pave the futile path we would later follow. Over the next eight years France fought the Vietmin, now supported by the Soviets and Chinese, in the cities and jungles of Vietnam. France lost more than 100,000 soldiers killed in this fighting. The French unsuccessfully attempted to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese population. French society at home, like American society in the later sixties, became polarized and torn over the loss of French lives and the brutality of the war. As time went on, the United States shouldered a bigger and bigger share of the financial cost of this war.
Nation Building Done RightThe third opportunity for a better decision came after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The world powers convened a peace conference in Geneva. Talks dragged out for 10 weeks. Despite their victory, Ho Chi Minh and his generals could not keep fighting without additional Russian and Chinese support. But China had lost 1 million men in Korea, and the Soviets wanted better relations with the West. So both communist patrons urged the Vietmin to agree to a negotiated settlement: a partition like the one that ended the Korean war. They had no option but to give in.
The agreement directed French troops in the North to withdraw to the South, and for Vietmin fighters to transfer to the North. A demilitarized zone was established until an election could be held to reunify the country. Promises were made that this would take place in two years. But the fact that civilians were also granted one year to relocate to the North or South, as they desired, suggested that the parties suspected reunification might not follow within two years.
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that if elections were held within two years, Ho Chi Minh would have won. The country would be unified under North Vietnam rule. If we were serious about democratic rule—respecting the will of the people in Vietnam—we would have supported this process. But Eisenhower, who came into office in January 1953, was more interested in having a client sate to fight communism than to support the national aspirations of the Vietnamese. So instead of working towards an election to unify the country, the Eisenhower administration attempted nation building in the South. They only managed to prop up a client regime with no political legitimacy.
“South Vietnam is our offspring; we cannot abandon it,” said John F. Kennedy after Ngo Dinh Diem declared himself president of the Republic of Vietnam in 1955.
The Point of No ReturnAfter ten years of nation building in South Vietnam, the regime was corrupt, venal, and hated by the population. The regime was unstable, suffering from serial coups. More than half the countryside was controlled by forces loyal to North Vietnam. Kennedy had reluctantly authorized the introduction of more than 10,000 military advisors to help prop up the South Vietnamese military. By the time Johnson succeeded to the Presidency (November 22, 1963) it was clear that South Vietnam would fall to the North, without significantly stepped up U.S. military aid.
Johnson provided the aid. The North Vietnamese were determined to reunify the country "whatever the cost." Johnson was equally stubborn. South Vietnam must not be allowed to fall, and Johnson was prepared to commit forces "whatever the costs" to prevent a collapse. The point of no return came with the introduction of 500,000 ground troops during 1965-66. Once you go in, it will be very hard to get out, warned Secretary of Defense McNamara.
It would have been wiser to cut and run, and attempt to work with a unified Vietnam. Wilson, Truman, Eisenhower all had opportunities to steer a better course. But it was Johnson who drove us over the cliff.
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