Indochina and the Vietnam War.
Seven years after the fall of Saigon, American soldiers killed in the Vietnam War were
finally honored by the unveiling of the "wall" in Washington, D.C., and the parade on
Veterans' Day, November 11, 1982, honored the survivors. The reason for this belated
recognition was not only the U.S. defeat, but also, and above all, the divisive nature of that
war. Indeed, some historians claim that the Vietnam War divided U.S. opinion as no other
issue had done since the civil war.
Although direct U.S. military involvement began in August 1964, with the full support
of Congress and public opinion, this consensus began to erode by late 1967 and open protest
erupted in 1968. Between 1968 and 1975, opponents of the war in the United States engaged
in unparalleled protest actions, some going as far as to support the North Vietnamese
communists against the U.S. government. During the Democratic Convention in Chicago in
1968, the "Youth International Party," founded by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, led a
protest demonstration. There was a violent clash with police, who clubbed both
demonstrators and bystanders -- all of which was seen on TV. Students conducted mass
protests on the campuses.
In spring 1970, after the accidental shooting of four students protesting the extension
of the war to Cambodia by nervous soldiers of the National Guard at Kent State University,
Ohio, mass protests broke out all over the country, including the normally staid University
of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas. There were two bomb explosions: one in the Kansas Union and
one at the high school, and feelings ran high on both sides. The Chancellor, Lawrence
Chalmers, decided to avert any confrontation between students and the National Guard by
cancelling final examinations; instead, he allowed the students to conduct "workshops"
discussing the war. Some professors gave their male students As and Bs for inferior work,
because a B average would keep them out of the army, and thus out of Vietnam.
Some students, particularly in California and New York, burned their draft cards,
while others went into hiding or escaped to Canada and other countries. The U.S. flag was
burned on occasion. Famous people like Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, former Attorney General
Ramsey Clark and others even went to North Vietnam to manifest their opposition to U.S.
policy. Jane Fonda was even filmed sitting on an anti-aircraf gun and joking with North
Vietnamese soldiers in Hanoi. In 1988, she apologized for her actions to U.S. veterans, who
were opposing the making of a film starring her; she then claimed she had gone to Hanoi to
help release U.S. prisoners of war. (In fact, she was allowed to interview some prisoners, who
had been bullied or tortured into telling her they were being well treated).
The protests against the war soon combined with protests against President Richard
M. Nixon's cover up of the bugging of Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel,
Washington, D.C., which led to the Watergate inquiry and ultimately his resignation in early
August 1974. All this produced a deep crisis of confidence in the U.S. government. This, in
turn, led to the passing by Congress of acts restricting presidential war powers. However,
while U.S. domestic turmoil was an important aspect of the war, it was far from being the
In fact, the Vietnam war had four key aspects:
(1) The goals and methods of the Vietnamese communists led by Ho chi Minh;
(2) U.S. involvement in Vietnam, how it came about and why the U.S. was defeated;
(3) Domestic protest in the U.S;
(4) Soviet and Chinese policy toward North Vietnam, which stemmed from rivalry for
predominant influence in that country.
But let us first look at the historical background.
I. The Rise and Development of Vietnamese Communism.
Vietnamese communism was, above all, a movement for the independence and
unification of a communist Vietnam, even though as time went on, it became clear that not
all Vietnamese wished to see their country ruled by communists. The most prominent leader
of this movement was Ho Chi Minh, (1890-1969). He chose communism at first as the most
promising path to gain independence from France as well as to unite and modernize the
country. In order to understand Vietnamese national-communist goals, we need to have some
idea of Vietnamese history before and during the period of French domination, and then
during World War II.
a. The History of Vietnam to the French Conquest, 1856.
Independent Vietnamese states and a Vietnamese culture had emerged before the first Chinese invasions of the period 221 - 111 B.C. These were followed by the so-called Chinese millennium, or 1,100 years of Chinese rule over the northern part of the country.
After several revolts came the establishment of the first significant Vietnamese
dynasty, the Ly, which ruled from 1009 to 1225, and was followed by the Tran dynasty, ruling
in 1225-1400. These dynasties fought and expelled the Chinese but, like the Koreans, the
Vietnamese adopted key characteristics of Chinese culture and government, i.e.,
Confucianism; Mandarin (classical written) Chinese; state examinations for entry into the
bureaucracy; and of course, the bureaucracy itself. The majority religion was Buddhism.
The third and greatest Vietnamese dynasty was the Le, (1427-1778), which was
established after another war with China. The heroes of that war, Le Loi and his adviser, the
scholar Nguyen Trai, were regarded as the greatest national heroes before Ho chi Minh
appeared on the scene. By the 1400s, the Vietnamese emperors expanded their rule into
central Vietnam, and into southern Vietnam by the 1700s, thus establishing a unified state.
Then, in the 1770s and 1780s, a great popular rebellion overthrew the Le dynasty. The fourth
and last native dynasty was the Nguyen, founded in 1802.
b. French Conquest and Colonial Rule, 1856-1940.
The British piecemeal conquest of Burma (1824-86) impelled France to seek dominion
over Indochina. In 1856, Napoleon III, Emperor of France, began the conquest of this
region. By 1862, the French conquered most of southern Vietnam (Cochin China) as well as
Cambodia (Kampuchea). In the Treaty of Saigon, June 5, 1862, the emperor of Annam
recognized French possession of the three eastern provinces of Cochin China. In 1867, the
French occupied the three western provinces. In 1873-74, they conquered Hanoi and most
of the Red River basin. Finally, after more fighting, the Treaty of Saigon, March 15, 1883
confirmed French rule over central Vietnam (Annam) and northern Vietnam (Tonkin). Now
China stepped in, only to be defeated. The Treaty of Hue, June 6, 1884 gave the French the
right to occupy any location in Annam; a few days later, they signed a treaty with Cambodia,
confirming their "protection," as established in 1863.
In 1887, the French established the Indochina Union to which they added Laos in
1893, and established a united administration over all these territories. They allowed the
Nguyen emperors to rule ceremonially in the capital city of Hue, but administered the whole
area through French Governors General in Hanoi, who, in turn, ruled through five "residents
superieurs" in the five capitals of Indochina.
By 1931, the French numbered some 4,500 officials, 10,500 soldiers, 500 police, and
about 5,500 settlers with families. They carried on the administration with the help of some
23,000 native officials, drawn mostly from the old scholar-bureaucrat class, who were
sometimes allowed to take French citizenship. There were French plantations, located in the
central highlands, growing rubber, jute and coffee. In the north and south lowlands watered
by the Red River and the Mekong River, the staple agricultural product was rice. While there
were some wealthy Vietnamese landowners, most farmers had some land of their own and
there was usually enough to eat, except in times of flood or other natural disasters.
Although the Vietnamese people remembered their history as a great and united
kingdom and resented French rule, the emerging Vietnamese national consciousness was
limited at first to a few intellectuals. They were split into several different groups, united only
by their desire to modify or abolish French colonial rule. (1)
c. Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese Communism to 1941.
Ho Chi Minh was born on May 19, 1890, in Nghe An province on the central northern
coast of Vietnam, into a family of scholar-patriots who resented French rule. He studied at
the National Academy in Hue and was briefly a school teacher, but left this work when he
became disgusted with French oppression. He left in 1911-12 to see the West, and worked
his passage as a cook on the French ship, "Admiral La Touche-Treville" named after (Louis
de La Touche-Treville, 1745-1804, who participated in Napoleon's expedition to San
Domingo). Ho must have been a very good cook indeed, because he became an assistant to
the famous French chef, Auguste Lescoffier, at the Carlton Hotel in London. He then moved
to France on the eve of World War I, and joined the exile Vietnamese community in Paris.
Here he worked as a photo retoucher.
In 1919, Ho drew up a list of Vietnamese requests for the leaders and representatives
of the "Great Powers" gathered at the Paris Peace Conference. These requests were quite
moderate; the signatories asked for autonomy or home rule for the Vietnamese in French
Indochina; freedom of association, press, religion, and movement; an amnesty for political
prisoners; equal rights for the French and the Vietnamese, etc.
But Ho was just as unsuccessful in his efforts on behalf of Vietnam, as were the Koreans and the Chinese (Shantung). Western statesmen simply ignored them. However, before we condemn the Western Powers out of hand for not even considering these demands, we should remember that in politics causes are not judged on their merits, but according to the amount of clout, or at least nuisance value, that their leaders happen to have. Unfortunately, at this time the Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese had neither, while Japan and France were great powers.
Embittered, Ho looked elsewhere for support. The French Socialist Party (PSF) showed no interest in his cause, so he was all the more impressed by Lenin's Theses on the National and Colonial Question, which were printed in the French radical left-wing paper L'Humanite. Lenin called for the national liberation of colonial peoples in order to overthrow imperialism, and thus aid Soviet Russia and its cause of world revolution.
Ho joined the radical wing of the Parti Socialiste Francais (PSF), and became a
founding member of the Parti Communiste Francais (PCF), established at the famous PSF
Congress held at Tours in late December 1920, when the party split into the PSF and PCF.
In 1923, Ho was called to Moscow by the Comintern and stayed there for a while. He
then went to the Guomindang headquarters in Canton, China, where he served ostensibly as
interpreter to Mikhail Borodin, the chief Soviet/Comintern adviser there. (Like all educated
Vietnamese, Ho knew Mandarin Chinese). In reality, however, Ho worked to establish
contacts for the Comintern in Southeast Asia and supervised the founding of the first
communist organization in French Indochina.
At the end of 1925, Ho published his programmatic work, The Road to Revolution,
setting out the specific tasks of a Vietnamese revolution. He also founded a journal for the
"League of Oppressed Peoples of Asia," which was smuggled into French Indochina. He
advocated a combination of nationalism and watered-down Marxism, designed to secure
maximum support from all classes. Of particular importance was the support of the educated
middle class which, according to Lenin's theory, was to lead the first "bourgeois" stage of the
anticolonial revolution, like the Guomindang in China. However, attempts to unify the
opposition groups in Indochina failed. It was also difficult to unite the communists, but Ho
was able to accomplish it in 1930, and thus established the Indo-chinese Communist Party.
In 1931, Ho was jailed in Hong Kong. Two years later, in 1933, he went to Russia and
spent some time there. He studied and taught at the Lenin Institute. In late 1938, he went to
Mao Tse-tung's headquarters in Yenan and then trained communist guerrillas in southern
China. Here he worked with two other prominent Vietnamese communists, Vo Nguyen Giap
and Pham Van Dong.
d Indochina in World War II (1940-45).
After the collapse of France in June 1940, the Japanese occupied French Indochina, but they left the French administration and small army in place. This was in accordance with an agreement with Petain's Vichy government, which collaborated with Germany. The Franco-Japanese Treaty of September 22, 1940, allowed the Japanese to enter Tonkin (North Vietnam) and use the airfields against China. During their occupation, the Japanese supported Vietnamese nationalist groups in this area with the goal of eventually creating a strong movement to overthrow the French and set up a proJapanese government.
The Vietnamese communists, however, decided to organize a resistance movement
against the Japanese, with the aim of taking over the country once the war was over. In
February 1941, they established the Viet Minh, i.e., Vietnam Independence League, in
northern Vietnam. Their propaganda called for united efforts against the French and the
Japanese. On June 6, 1941, Ho, who was then in southern China, issued an appeal to all
Vietnamese to fight the "double yoke" of France and Japan. (2)
During the war, the Viet Minh played down Communism and even renamed their
party the Lao Dong, which means "Labor Party." This was, of course, in line with the Soviet
policy of creating united "national fronts," led by communists, against the enemies of the
"Grand Alliance." However, we should note that in calling on the Vietnamese to fight both
the French and the Japanese two weeks before Germany attacked the USSR, Ho Chi Minh
probably acted on his own initiative and not on orders from Moscow.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt included Indochina in his proposal of trusteeships for
former colonial areas, made to British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill in March 1943.
He also briefly discussed Indochina with Stalin at the Teheran Conference, on 28 November
1943. Stalin expressed opposition to restoring French rule there and Roosevelt agreed. Like
many Americans, he wished to see the dissolution of the French and British empires.
However, the concept of a multilateral trusteeship for Indochina was not welcome
either to Charles De Gaulle, the leader of the Free French, (who was not consulted anyway),
or to Churchill, who feared that if France lost her colonies, then Britain would do so too.
Furthermore, Churchill wanted to see a quick rebuilding of French strength in Europe so that
France could contribute to its defense against the Soviets after the U.S. pulled out of Europe,
as it was expected to do. The U.S. State Department also opposed the trusteeship idea,
because it did not wish to weaken France, which it viewed as a future allyd to help maintain
world peace. Finally, by spring 1945, the State Department was already expressing fears of
the USSR. (3)
Meanwhile, the Viet Minh slowly built up the anti-Japanese resistance movement.
They even helped downed U.S. fliers to hide from the Japanese. In this connection, a small
U.S. military/OSS (Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of CIA) mission visited Ho in his
jungle hideout in August 1945. Ho was very sick, and his life was probably saved by a U.S.
doctor who came with the mission. (4)
II. The Return of the French and the Indochina War, 1946-1954.
a. From the End of One War to the Beginning of Another.
In March 1945,just before Roosevelt's death, the Japanese took over complete
control of Vietnam from the French. The war was coming to an end in Europe and the
Japanese feared an Allied invasion of Indochina. (Allied forces were fighting the Japanese in
Burma, known today as Myanmar). The Japanese then turned to the former emperor, Bao
Dai, to set up a proJapanese government. Bao Dai did so on March 11, 1945; he had the
support of those Vietnamese who saw this as the long-awaited opportunity to establish an
On August 19, 1945, shortly after the Japanese surrender, Ho began a national insurrection against the Japanese in Tonkin, i.e., northern Vietnam. He had great success in the countryside beause of famine, so the peasants gladly followed Viet Minh instructions to seize the food stockpiled by the Japanese authorities. They also followed Ho because he promised land reform, and finally, because he led the fight for independence. In this he also had the support of many non-communist Vietnamese.
The Viet Minh took Hanoi. Emperor Bao Dai resigned, and, on September 2, 1945,
Ho proclaimed the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi. On this
occasion, he read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, which cited the opening
words of the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the
Rights of Man of 1789. He then launched into an attack of French crimes and misdeeds in
Vietnam, emphasized the right of its people to independence, and expressed the hope that it
would be recognized by the Allied leaders.
The U.S. OSS team accompanied Ho to Hanoi and was present when Ho's Viet Minh
took over the independence ceremony prepared by non-communist national leaders. The latter
were divided and unable to take decisive action. A pro-Ho Chi Minh demonstration also took
place in the southern capital, Saigon, where the Viet Minh took over key government posts,
since the noncommunist Vietnamese were not prepared to act there in time either. However,
in both cases, popular support went to Ho, not as a communist, but as the leader of the most
effective movement for independence. (5)
In early January 1946, the Viet Minh held elections in northern Vietnam. Although
there was only a single slate of candidates, a few non-communists were included to give the
appearance of a coalition government. According to an anticommunist source, however, in
March 1946 Ho began to liquidate all non-communist parties and about 5,000 nationalists
were killed. Some 25,000 others were put in concentration camps and about 6,000 escaped
to China. (6) These repressions were partially acknowledged by Vietnamese communist
sources in 1988. We willl learn more of what happened in northern Vietnam if and when
Vietnamese communist leaders allow this history to be rewritten, or when communism
However, while they consolidated their power in the north, the Viet Minh soon lost
it in the south. At wartime Allied conferences, it had been decided that British influence was
to prevail in East Asia. Therefore, the British were to accept the Japanese surrender in
Indochina below the 16th Parallel. It was also agreed that Chiang kai-Shek's troops were to
accept the surrender above this line.
When the British entered Saigon at the end of August 1945, they found a Viet Minh
government in place. The British Commander, Gen. Douglas Gracey, was persuaded by the
French delegate to Indochina, Lt. Col. Jean Cedile, to restore French authority. Gracey
proceeded to suppress the Viet Minh with the help of Japanese prisoners, who acted as a
supplementary police force under British command. Cedile took over the administration on
September 23rd, and French troops arrived in October. The British withdrew at the end of
General Charles de Gaulle, who headed the new government in France, did not want
to give up Indochina, but he did not want to reinstate the old colonial regime either. He spoke
of an "Indochina Federation," which would include Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as a free
state within the "French Union." However, when French troops arrived in Saigon under Gen.
Jacques Leclerc, they finished the work begun by the Japanese and crushed the communists
in this area. However, this did not mean that Leclerc opposed Vietnamese national
aspirations; in fact, he was one of the few French leaders on the spot who recognized the need
to fulfill them; but he opposed communism.
Ho decided not to fight, but to negotiate with the French. He wanted their help to oust
Chiang kai-Shek's troops from northern Vietnam. He may also have followed Soviet advice,
for at that time Stalin did not want to alienate the French.This last assumption seems to be
confirmed by the fact that, once the war began (see below), even the communists in the
French cabinet voted to support it, while Soviet policy was noncommittal. (7) But it is also
possible that in 1945 Ho himself judged it premature for the Viet Minh to confront the
French. Whatever the case may be, he negotiated a preliminary agreement with Jean
Sainteny, the French commissioner's delegate in Hanoi, another Frenchman who supported
Vietnamese aspirations; it was signed on March 6, 1946. The French recognized the
Republic of Vietnam as part of the Indochinese Federation and of the French Union. In
return, the Ho government promised to welcome the French army, which was to "relieve" the
Chinese troops in Tonkin. It is important to note that according to one S. Vietnamese source,
Jean Sainteny tried to persuade the former Emperor Bao Dai to participate in the agreement,
perhaps as a counter to Ho Chi Minh, but Bao did not take any action. (8)
Unfortunately, while some French statesmen and military leaders in Indochina,
particularly Jean Sainteny and Gen. Jacques Leclerc, realized the Vietnamese had to be
granted real autonomy within the Indochina Union, others were opposed. Thus, Lt. Col.
Cedile and Admiral Georges Thierry d'Argenlieu, the French High Commissioner, held that
the March 6th agreement with Ho applied only to Tonkin, i.e., northern Vietnam, while
Cochin China, i.e., south Vietnam, was to be a free state equal to the others in the French
Federation, i.e., Laos, Cambodia, and Tonkin. This was confirmed by the French Overseas
Minister, Marius Moutet, on March 14, 1946.
Still, on March 24th, Ho and d'Argenlieu met on the latter's flagship in the Bay of Along, and agreed to hold a preparatory conference in Dalat in April; this was to be followed by a conference in Fontainebleau, France, later that year. However, two days later, French troops entered Hue, the old capital of Annam, and set up a provisional government for Cochin China headed by a Vietnamese nationalist, Nguyen Van Trinh. He accepted the position as the best way of working for a future united, independent, Vietnam. (9)
The Dalat conference of April 17th between d'Argenlieu and Ho Chi Minh came to
nothing, because the French insisted that five separate states be set up as members of the
French Union of Indochina. Negotiations were then transferred to France. The Franco-Viet
Minh conference began at Fontainebleau on July 6, 1946, but the VM delegates refused to
sign an agreement because the French would not commit themselves to a date for the
referendum on Vietnamese unification, as stipulated in the accord of March 6th. Nevertheless,
Ho went to France to negotiate a final agreement and signed it on September 14, 1946. This
elaborated on the agreement of March 6th, i.e., it confirmed there was to be a referendum --
though no date was given -- and established peaceful relations. The agreement was to go
into effect on October 30th. (10)
However, the French opened a customs office in the port of Haiphong, thus
controlling all the trade, and therefore annoying the Vietnamese. On November 20th, the
French seized a Chinese boat suspected of carrying contraband goods, and were then fired
on by the Vietnamese. In retaliation, the French issued an ultimatum demanding the
withdrawal of all Vietnamese troops from Haiphong; they also demanded a French occupation
zone around the city. When the Viet Minh failed to agree, the French launched an artillery
and naval attack on Haiphong. It was led by the warship "Dumont d'Urville" (French
navigator, 1790-1842) on which, ironically, Ho had returned from France. The bombardment
was carried out on the orders of Admiral Jean-Etienne Valluy, who wanted to teach the
communists a lesson. The Viet Minh replied by attacking the French on December 19th. This
was the beginning of the French Indochina War. In the meanwhile, Dr. Trinh, the President
of the Provisional Government set up by the French in Cochin China, hanged himself on
November 10th, in protest against French misrule. (11)
Thus, the French provoked the outbreak of the Indochina War. We should, however,
bear in mind that at this time most Frenchmen supported the restoration of French control
over Indochina. As for the French Communist Party, it had to act in accordance with Stalin's
policy of not alienating France.
b. The French Indochina War, 1946 - 1954.
French military leaders fought the war in textbook fashion. They sought to destroy the enemy in pitched battles, also by seizing his strongholds. Their limited manpower made them rely increasingly on air power. However, this type of war proved ineffective against the mobile armies of the Viet Minh with their guerrilla tactics.
The French would take a village, and then retire because they did not have enough
manpower to hold it. Then the Viet Minh would take it back. The VM often had peasant
support, but sometimes met with resistance. Some peasants helped willingly, hoping to gain
land if the VM won; others helped because the VM used ruthless methods to obtain rice and
recruits. In fact, if their demands were refused, the VM routinely killed the village headman
and anyone else known to oppose them. Thus, the ordinary peasant was most often the victim
in the war.
The French never had more than 150,000 of their own troops, though these were
backed by some 300,000 "loyal" Indochinese from the five states of the Indochina Union. (12)
As noted above, they also had an air force. In the later stages of the war - which grew
increasingly unpopular at home - the French began work on creating a South Vietnamese
army, but this hardly got off the ground by 1954. The Viet Minh claimed to have 8 million
men, which was an exaggeration; but they had an army in the field plus guerrillas behind the
French lines. All in all, the VM outnumbered the French and their "loyal" troops by at least
ten to one.
In spring 1949, when Mao Zedong was clearly winning the civil war in China against
Chiang kai-Shek, the U. S. government concluded that it must support the French in
Vietnam. The assumption was that a communist victory there would mean Chinese
communist control of the whole of Indochina, with the consequent spread of communism to
Thailand, Burma, India, and Indonesia. This might then lead to communism in the
Phillipines.Thus, it was not surprising that the U.S. government came to see Southeast Asia
as a sphere of vital American interest, and thus support the containment of communism in
the region. At the same time, the U.S. needed French support in Europe, and U.S. authorities
perceived that their credibility as leader of NATO would be undermined if they did not stop
communism in S.E. Asia. Therefore, by 1954, the U.S. was paying about 80% of French war
expenses in Vietnam.
A French-supported government existed in French Vietnam. At first, it was headed
by a Vietnamese politician, Nguyen Van Xuan, and from late April 1949, by the former
Emperor Bao Dai. However, he was not a strong ruler and, in any case, the French authorities
undercut his government by refusing to allow it to conduct its own foreign relations. Perhaps,
if the French had allowed the South Vietnamese government more elbow room, it might have
had a chance of undermining the Viet Minh claim to represent the cause of Vietnamese
independence. Indeed, U.S. government officials always hoped this would happen, but were
chary of pressing the French on this point for fear that, if they withdrew, American forces
would have to replace them. (13)
A Personal Recollection.
In June 1950, when I was vacationing near St. Malo in Brittany, I spoke to a young
French paratrooper on leave from Indochina. He told me that any Vietnamese woman or child
could carry a hand grenade or a gun, so the soldiers felt they had no choice but to shoot them
on sight. He also said his buddies had fallen into horrible booby traps spiked with poison-tipped bamboo sticks. There was also the constant danger of stepping on mines and other
explosive devices; he had been hit by shrapnel, and showed me his badly-scarred legs. He was
very bitter because the war was unpopular in France and people didn't even want to speak to
soldiers on leave.
I felt sorry for him and remembered him many years later, when the American soldiers
were fighting the same kind of war in the same place.
The French general Henri Navarre finally decided to force the Viet Minh into a huge
pitched battle in order to defeat their main force. For this purpose, he chose Dien Bien Phu,
located in the highlands about 150 miles west-northwest of Hanoi, and fortified it. It is not
generally known that Navarre did this against the almost unanimous opposition of his
commanders, who warned him that the Viet Minh would surround the place and capture it.
So why did he insist on carrying out this operation? It seems that he believed the only way
to prevent the VM from breaking into Laos was to tie them down and, if not defeat them,
then at least delay them. If French troops received no help from home and/or from the United
States and were defeated, then at least he could not be blamed by French politicians and
public opinion for losing Laos, and could retire with honor.
As it happened, the Viet Minh brought up not only masses of troops but also heavy
guns, and surrounded Dien Bien Phu so that the French had to depend on air supplies. With
inadequate help from home and President Eisenhower's refusal to involve the United States,
Dien Bien Phu fell on May 8, 1954. The Viet Minh meted out abominable treatment to the
French prisoners. They left the wounded to die, while many others died of ill treatment or
The French defeat led to the election of the socialist Pierre Mendes France as Premier
on June 17, 1954, largely because he promised to end the war. Indeed, the war ended and
there was a settlement of sorts. The Geneva Accords of July 20-21, 1954 "temporarily"
divided the country into two parts at the 17th Parallel. Free elections were to be held two
years later, i.e., in July 1956, in order to reunite the country. In the meanwhile, people who
wished to move, could do so. About 100,000 communists and sympathizers went north, while
about one million people, mostly Catholics, moved south.
It is important to note that both the Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav M. Molotov,
and the Chinese Foreign Minister, Zhou Enlai, supported the French proposal for the
temporary recognition of two Vietnams. This was so because both Mao Zedong and, Nikita
S. Khrushchev was very anxious to prevent American military involvement in Vietnam.
Furthermore, the Soviet leader did not want to antagonize the French, whom he wanted to
stay out of the projected European Defense Community (EDC). Finally, he wanted to keep
China from getting dominant influence in Vietnam, which he expected to occur if the United
States stepped into the war.
The Chinese communists also wanted peace in the area - so they could increase their
influence peacefully. We do not know what Ho Chi Minh was thinking; some sources claim
the Viet Minh were exhausted, while others say they wanted to push into the southern part
of the country. In any case, all available evidence points to the fact that the Soviet, Chinese,
and Viet Minh motive in accepting the division of Vietnam at this time was to prevent a
direct U.S. military involvement. It is also possible that the Soviet, Chinese and Vietminh
leaders believed the South Vietnamese government would not last very long, so the
communists would take over in a short time, uniting the whole country under their rule. (15)
As it happened, there were no nationwide elections in 1956 because both the U.S. and
the South Vietnamese government, now headed by Ngo Dinh Diem, (of whom more later),
III. The U.S. Involvement in Vietnam.
a. From 1945 to 1964.
As mentioned earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had opposed the restoration
of French rule in Indochina, and agreed on this with Stalin. Ho Chi Minh may have learned
of the President's attitude from Soviet or Chinese Communist sources, or perhaps from the
U.S.military/OSS mission which reached him in August 1945 and accompanied him to Hanoi.
Whatever the case may be, he seems to have hoped for U.S. support. He not only inserted
words from the U.S. Declaration of Independence in his own declaration, but also wrote
several letters to President Harry S. Truman; however, he received no reply. It is very likely
that he followed this policy for the same reason as Mao Zedong did at the beginning of his
rule, that is, not because they wanted good relations with the United States, but because it
was in their interest, and Stalin's, to avoid U.S. military intervention or U.S. support of enemy
forces. In Ho's case, this meant the French..
It is worth noting that in 1945-48/49, U.S. policymakers disagreed among themselves
on what policy to follow. Some opposed U.S. involvement in Indochina on the assumption
that the French could not win. Others believed the United States should try to secure the
establishment of a truly representative national government, but do this through diplomatic
pressure, not direct involvement. Still others advocated U.S. support for France as a vital
factor in the defense of Western Europe against the USSR. (16)
In May 1949, President Truman's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Dean Acheson, considered the possibility that Ho Chi Minh might prove a Vietnamese Tito, i.e., an independent communist leader. However, Acheson rejected this variant on the assumption that a communist Vietnam would be dominated by Red China, which would then also dominate the whole of Southeast Asia. (17) This view was, of course, reinforced by the outbreak of the Korean War and Chinese involvement in it.
As mentioned earlier, by 1954 the U.S. was footing about 80% of the French bill for
the Indochina war. After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva accords signed
that year, President Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, helped set up the
South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO, Manila Pact, November 1954). Its members
were the United States, Great Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Thailand,
and the Philippines. They were to consult among themselves in case of a threat to Laos,
Cambodia, or Vietnam. SEATO represented both the U.S. goal of providing multilateral great
power and regional protection for the non-communist governments of Southeast Asia, and
also the interests of the Southeast Asian governments themselves, especially Thailand, which
was the traditional rival of Vietnam for the control of Cambodia.
When the French left Vietnam, the United States assumed responsibility for large scale
economic and military aid to the Diem government in Saigon, although this aid was
theoretically conditional on Diem's carrying out much needed reforms, including land reform.
Ngo Dinh Diem, The Leader of South Vietnam.
Ngo Dinh Diem was born in 1901 into a respected family of Mandarin scholars in
Hue. However, he was a Catholic, and thus member of a minority religion in preponderantly
Buddhist Vietnam. This would later lead to actions that made him very unpopular.
Diem was a Vietnamese patriot and wrote about establishing an independent
Vietnamese republic modeled on the United States. In 1940, however, he accepted French
protection against the Japanese. After the war, he seems to have thought briefly of becoming
a priest and spent the years 1951-53 at the Maryknoll Seminary in Lakewood, New Jersey.
At the same time, he was apparently charged by Bao Dai to make some important contacts
in the U.S. He impressed the people he met as a sincere Vietnamese patriot and an anti-communist. He had previously refused to serve under Bao Dai but finally accepted the post
of Prime Minister on June 15, 1954. He refused to sign the Geneva Accords and replaced
Bao Dai as Head of State in October 1954.
President Eisenhower saw Diem as the best, if not the ideal native leader to save
Vietnam from communism. Here we should note that Eisenhower and his advisers saw the
situation in terms of the "Domino Theory," i.e., if South Vietnam became communist, so
would the other states of Southeast Asia, and all would come under the domination of Red
China. Therefore, the U.S. decided to support Diem.
To begin with, Diem had the support of a group of professors from Michigan State
University headed by Wesley Fischel and Wolf Ladejinsky. They helped Diem organize the
state police in South Vietnam. His chief supporter and adviser in the CIA was Gen. Edward
G. Lansdale, who served as the model for Graham Greene's novel, the Quiet American, and
for The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick. It is unlikely that U.S.
involvement with Diem would have been avoided if Lansdale had not been available, but the
fact is that he was, and he did much to create Diem's South Vietnam. While Lansdale
praised Diem, however, we should note that the latter also had his critics in the United States,
especially after he took over power from Bao Dai.
In October 1954, when Diem became the head of the S. Vietnamese government,
Eisenhower decided to continue what the French had barely begun, and launched a crash
program to train a South Vietnamese army. The goal was to avoid direct U.S. involvement
in case of a war between North and South Vietnam. By 1954, there were about 343 U.S.
military advisers in Saigon.
Meanwhile, the U.S. foreign policy establishment view that Vietnam must not fall to
the communists and thus come under Chinese control, was confirmed by the progress of the
Cold War. In June 1956, Senator John F. Kennedy called South Vietnam the "cornerstone
of the Free World in Southeast Asia." He said it was an alternative to communism, a bulwark
against communist China, and a test of American responsibility and determination in the
region. Many U.S. policymakers and journalists also believed that giving up S. Vietnam
would be a new "Munich," i.e., that appeasement would lead to more communist aggression
and expansion in Asia, just as the Munich Conference of late September 1938 had encouraged
Hitler to further aggression and expansion in Europe. (This was also Truman's thinking when
he decided to oppose the communist takeover of South Korea in June 1950). Finally, they
believed that U.S. appeasement of communism in Southeast Asia would undercut the
credibility of U.S. commitments in Europe and thus weaken NATO. Recently declassified
Russian documents show that while Soviet leaders tried to check the N.Vietnamese from a
policy of outright war, they had the same thoughts about their "allies" in Eastern Europe. We
also know the latter feared that if the USSR did not support the North Vietnamnese, it might
not support them against the U.S. and other NATO powers. The Poles were particularly
fearful of West Germany, which did not recognize the postwar western frontier of Poland.
The Chinese Communist Party also wavered, but Mao plumped for support of N.Vietnam in
1964. After that, Moscow vied with Beijing for influence over the N. Vietnamese
The U.S. view of Vietnam was put to the test when, after a few years of relative
peace, the N. Vietnamese leadership decided to start guerrilla action against Diem in S.
Vietnam. In 1960, some S. Vietnamese opponents of Diem formed the National Liberation
Front of South Vietnam (NLF). It was not known until much later that these people -- most
of whom sincerely opposed Diem and believed his overthrow would lead to the establishment
of a true democratic system -- took their orders from Hanoi. It is true, of course, that South
Vietnamese members of the NLF were outraged by the corruption and repression of the Diem
regime -- as were many Americans.
The whole problem of corruption, however, must be seen in a larger context than that
of S. Vietnam. Repression and corruption prevailed not only in most non-communist
Southeast Asian countries, but also in most of the existing communist regimes, i.e., in the
USSR, East Europe and Asiam also in Cuba. However, Diem's idealistic opponents in S.
Vietnam believed that the unification of the country under Ho was the only solution to
Vietnamese problems, and that it would lead to true democracy. (18)
In 1962, the NLF was followed by the establishment of the People's Revolutionary
Party of South Vietnam (PRPSV), which was also directed by Hanoi. Meanwhile, the NLF
and the heirs of the Viet Minh, the Viet Cong (Vietnamese communists, VC) carried out
selective terrorism, killing South Vietnamese (SV) officials, local administrators, teachers, etc.
Furthermore, they had some Soviet support, for Khrushchev had promised Soviet help for
"wars of liberation" (1961), and even greater Chinese support. What few people in the West
knew at the time was that there was bitter Soviet-Chinese rivalry for influence in North
Vietnam. This became particularly evident after the United States entered the war in August
Meanwhile, increased communist activity in South Vietnam led the government of
President John F. Kennedy to reevaluate U.S. policy in the fall of 1961. After a visit by
General Maxwell Taylor and Walt W. Rostow to Saigon, the President accepted their
recommendation, which was supported by Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Dean Rusk,
and Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. The recommendation was that the United
States must prevent the fall of S.Vietnam to the communists; therefore, it must put the S.V.
governmentin a position to win the war against the communist guerrillas. This
recommendation, which, in fact, accorded with existing U.S. administration views, was
accepted by President Kennedy in November 1961. As a result, the number of U.S. military
advisers in South Vietnam went up from 875 in 1960 to 11,326 in 1962, to 16,263 in 1963,
and 23,310 in 1964. Their task was to train the South Vietnamese army.
However, by 1963 it was also clear that the Diem government had become very
unpopular with the people of South Vietnam. This was the result of many factors, e.g., the
distribution of land to Catholic refugees from the north; corruption on all levels of
government and in the army; repression of all criticism, plus the imprisonment and torture of
those who opposed or even criticized Diem and his relatives, especially his powerful brother,
Nhu, and his wife, the beautiful and arrogant Mme. Nhu.
What ultimately brought things to a head was Diem's clash with Buddhist monks, several of whom immolated (burned) themselves in public protest against his policies. Furthermore, some of their leaders were granted asylum in the U.S. Embassy. Here we should note that the Buddhist leaders not only loudly criticized the corruption of the "Catholic" Diem government, but also advocated an end to the war.
By late 1963, President Kennedy and his advisers were convinced there would have to be a change of government in S. Vietnam. The President rejected advice that the United States support an assassination plot against Diem, but the U.S. ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, was instructed to keep in touch with the military conspirators so that, when they came to power, they would cooperate fully with the United States. The leader of the military conspiracy was Gen.Minh, known as "Big Minh" because of his size. He was seconded by Gen. Tran Van Don, who gives a detailed account of the plotting and the coup in his book.
Unfortunately, although the plan called only for the kidnapping and exile of Diem and his
brother, Nhu, both were assassinated on November 2, 1963 on the orders of "Big Minh."
President Kennedy was horrified. (19)
President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who became President after John F. Kennedy's
assassination in November 1963, inherited the Vietnam War. This was a tragedy for him, for
not only did he entertain serious doubts about U.S. involvement, but his dream of building the
"Great Society" was undermined by the war.
b. The U.S. War in Vietnam to the Spring of 1968.
On August 2, 1964, the U.S. destroyer Maddox was intercepted by a North
Vietnamese torpedo boat 28 miles off shore in the Gulf of Tonkin. Two days later, on August
4th, there was a report that the same ship was attacked again by N.V. torpedo boats 68 miles
off shore, whereupon U.S. planes from the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga allegedly destroyed
one North Vietnamese boat and damaged two others. President Johnson called in eighteen
Congressional leaders and explained his reasons for ordering an air strike. On August 5th, he
asked for Congressional support and received almost unanimous approval from both houses
two days later; this was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
However, it was not public knowledge at the time that the U.S. ships were in the Gulf
of Tonkin to gather electronic information during South Vietnamese commando landings
there. Also, while the N.V. apparently mistook the U.S.S. Maddox for an S. V. ship escorting
S V.landings, it is questionable that they made the same mistake twice. In fact, it seems that
there was no second N.V. attack. The nervous crew of the Maddox seem to have
misinterpreted their sonar blips as evidence of attack, and at least one sonar reader later
denied that he had seen anything at all. The same denial came from Commander (later
Admiral) James B. Stockdale, who flew over the site several times. It is, therefore, most likely
that President L.B. Johnson, who was then running for re-election against Sen. Barry
Goldwater -- whose platform was opposition to communism everywhere, particularly in
Vietnam -- felt that he must respond to any attack on U.S. ships by military action. This is a
more likely explanation for Johnson's decision than the claim that the second attack was
"manufactured" in order to provide the United States with a pretext for full scale military
We should note that up to this time, U.S. policy had aimed to avoid direct
involvement in the South Vietnamese "Operation North," i.e., S.V.landings in North Vietnam.
But when a U.S. ship was attacked, and this not once, but allegedly twice in a row, the natural
U.S. reaction was to retaliate, even though Khrushchev warned President Johnson against it.
(21) We should also note that the governments of the region, including Prince Sihanouk of
Cambodia, the governments of Malaysia, Thailand, as well as India, Australia and New
Zealand supported the U.S. view that a North Vietnamese victory over South Vietnam would
lead to Chinese domination over Southeast Asia, and they certainly did not want that to
As mentioned above, Congressional support for U.S. military involvement was given
in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of August 7, 1964. This stated that the attacks on U.S. ships
in international waters created a serious threat to international peace; that the United States
was assisting the peoples of Southeast Asia to protect their freedom; and that it regarded
peace and security in that region as vital to its national interests and to world peace.
Therefore, the United States was prepared to take all necessary steps, in keeping with the
U.N. Charter and the Southeast Asia Defense Treaty, as the President would determine. The
Congressional resolution was to expire when the President determined that the peace and
security of the area were reasonably assured. This resolution passed with a vote of 416-0 in
the House of Representatives and a vote of 88-2 in the Senate, with Senators Wayne Morse
and Stevens voting against. (22)
Thus, initially, there was Congressional support for U.S. military action, as well as
support by U.S. public opinion. However, the general U.S. consensus supporting war against
North Vietnam began to erode by late 1967, and turned into open opposition after the Tet
Offensive of February 1968. In this offensive, the Viet Cong launched attacks on all cities and
towns in S. Vietnam, including Saigon, with the aim of overthrowing the S.V. government
both by N.V. military action and the massive support of the people.
Ironically, although the communists failed to mobilize popular support and sustained heavy losses, the very fact that they could launch the attacks -- including one on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, all of which was seen on TV -- had a decisive psychological impact on U.S. opinion. This was so because the N.V. Tet Offensive challenged the official U.S. view that the war was being won; indeed, it convinced many Americans that it was a lost cause.
This is ironic because we know that by late 1967 the Vietnamese communists were losing the
shooting war in South Vietnam and were also hurting from the bombing of the north. Yet,
just at this time, the U.S. government began to lose the psychological war at home. (23) This
was, of course, due to the increasing numbers of body bags arriving in the U.S., also to the
fact that the bloody scenes of the war could be seen everyday on TV. Because of TV
coverage, the war affected people at home much more than had been the case with World
War II and the Korean War. At that time, the authorities kept gruesome picture and footage
out of the news reels.
While U.S. television coverage was generally sympathetic to South Vietnam in the
years 1964-68, this changed with the Tet Offensive. U.S. viewers now saw the strong Tet
attacks as well as the brutal S.V. treatment of captured VC and suspects. They did not see
VC losses and VC brutality, except for the thousands of victims killed by the VC during
their short occupation of Hue, an atrocity recorded on film once the city had been retaken.
However, instead of convincing U.S. viewers that VC brutality balanced or even outweighed
SV brutality, these pictures merely reinforced the misleading impression that the VC were
winning the war.
Thus, the psychological impact of the Tet offensive, as seen on TV, plus the young
men's protest against conscription, led to open and sometimes violent opposition to the war
in the United States. This was most marked on university campuses, especially in California
and New York. On March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced that he would not run for
re-election. In the same speech, he stressed that the United States was willing to work for a
peaceful solution of the war. Of course, Johnson had hoped for this solution all along, and
had made serious efforts to bring it about, but failed. His speech of March 31st reaffirmed this
aim, giving it more publicity.
At the time, most people thought Johnson decided not to run because, faced with
growing opposition to the war, he felt he would be a liability to the Democratic Party.
Twenty years later, Johnson's White House Chief of Staff, James R. Jones, revealed that the
President became increasingly haunted by the war and especially by growing American losses.
He decided privately not to run for re-election as early as September 1967, intending to
devote himself to working for peace, unhampered by politics. However, he also decided not
to announce his decision until his State of the Union message to Congress in January 1968.
He did not make the announcement at the time, because he wished to push some key bills
through Congress. Still, he talked to his close collaborators about his wish to be with his
family, and of his fear that he would die of heart failure at age 64, like his father before him.
On March 31st, he told Vice-President Hubert Humphrey that he would make the
announcement that evening, to which Humphrey reacted with horror, saying he could not
possibly beat the Kennedys. (Bobby Kennedy was seeking nomination as the Democratic
candidate for President). Finally, according to James R. Jones, it is not true that Johnson
decided to withdraw because he believed he could not win the election; on the contrary, an
opinion poll conducted a few days before his speech, showed that if he ran, he would win.
(24) We do know, however, that by fall 1968 public had definitely turned agaisnt the war, and
that Johnson was identified with it. The violence which erupted outside the Democractic
Convention in Chicago has been mentioned earlier.
As we know, Richard M. Nixon ran for President in 1968 on the promise that if he
won, he would seek a negotiated peace. Like Eisenhower, who made the same promise
regarding Korea in 1952, he won a sweeping victory. However, the Viet Cong did not show
any interest in negotiations, so Nixon renewed the policy of massive bombing of the north to
persuade the communists to come to the negotiating table. As the fighting and bombing went
on, domestic opposition increased. As mentioned earlier, some famous opponents of the war
began to visit N. Vietnam and established contact with the government in Hanoi, the enemy
of the U.S. These people believed that the communists were justified in fighting for the unity
and independence of Vietnam, and condemned the U.S.government for supporting a corrupt
and repressive government in the south. They refused to believe what did not suit them, e.g.,
that U.S. prisoners of war were badly treated. In fact, U.S. critics of the war were permitted
by North Vietnamese authorities to visit some prisoners. The visitors did not know -- and
refused to believe later -- that the prisoners, who told them they were well treated -- had, in
fact, been forced by torture to make these statements.
Thus, in March 1967, Commander Richard Stratton told the journalist Dave Dellinger
that he was well treated. Together with statements by other prisoners, this led Dellinger in
December 1970 to denounce President Nixon's claim of bad North Vietnamese treatment of
U.S. prisoners as the "Prisoner of War Hoax." But, in 1973, it was revealed that Stratton had
been brutally tortured in January 1967, just two months before Dillinger's arrival, to make him
(Stratton) sign a much publicized confession acknowledging his "crimes against the
Vietnamese people." He was then chosen for an interview with Dellinger. Lt. Commander
David W. Hoffman later told how he had been "persuaded" to meet with former Attorney
General Ramsey Clark in August 1972, and tell him the U.S. prisoners were well treated. The
"persuasion" consisted of his being hung up by his broken arm the night before he saw
We know that many of those who only gave their name, rank, and serial number did
not come home. But U.S. opponents of the war who visited North Vietnam believed their
hosts rather than their own government. Even when the truth came out some years later, it
did not create much of an impression because both Nixon and the war had become discredited
in the United States. (25)
c. .Soviet and Chinese Policy on Vietnam and U.S. Attempts to Negotiate an End to the War.
The Soviet leadership, both under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, at first tried to persuade the NV. leaders not to fight, and later to conclude peace with S. Vietnam. Moscow was always afraid of war with the United States. It did provide the N.V. with sophisticated weapons after the war escalated in late 1964, partly to preserve its image as supporter of national liberation movements, and partly to counter Chinese influence . Mao Zedong, for his part, provided massive arms' support to the N.V. commuists, which made it possible for them in 1962-64 to increase their intervention in S.Vietnam to the point that the U. S government decided first to increase the number of its military advisers, and then to to enter the war. At the same time, however, Washington made constant efforts to start negotiations in order to end the fighting. In the mid-1960s it approached the Polish Communist leaderhip under Wladyslaw Gomulka which agreed to play the role of intermediary between Moscow, Beijing, Hanoi, and Washington. This initiative was approved by Moscow and might have led to negotiations in 1966, although the N.V. leadership's determination to fight until they unified Vietnam, as well as Mao's opposition to peace, would probably have prevented a successful outcome. (25a)
President Nixon's goal was to end the war, obtain the return of U.S. prisoners, and --
at least officially -- secure the continued existence of South Vietnam. The on and off
negotiations dragged on for years because the N.V. leaders would not accept the continued
division of the country, no matter what the cost to their people might be. They also counted
on the pressure of U.S. opinion on the government to end the war and cut off military
supplies to South Vietnam.
These calculations proved correct. President Nixon's decision in early 1970 to send
U.S. troops to Cambodia for 3 months in order to destroy VC arms dumps there, provoked
great protest on U.S. campuses. As noted earlier, at Kent State University, Ohio, a nervous
National Guard unit fired at students, killing four and wounding others. This, in turn, led to
demonstrations elsewhere, including the University of Kansas. Yet, Nixon's decision to move
into Cambodia was justified on military grounds, for the VC carried arms down the Ho Chi
Minh trail to southwest Cambodia, and then to the National Liberation Front (NLF), as well
as to regular communist forces in South Vietnam, called the People's Army of Vietnam
(PAVN). These forces then used the arms against the South Vietnamese and U.S. Army.
The U.S. government followed a policy of troop withdrawals and negotiations with
the North Vietnamese, at the same time bombing North Vietnam to make the N. V.
government more amenable to a negotiated settlement. At the same time, the U.S. also made
severe cuts in military appropriations, which demoralized the South Vietnamese army.
Finally, the considerable land reform carried out in South Vietnam attracted little attention,
and U.S. opinion also failed to register the fact that the 1972 N.V. offensive actually broke
The U.S.-North Vietnamese negotiations finally resulted in the Paris Agreements of
January 27, 1973. The key points, as negotiated by Secretary of State (formerly National
Security Adviser) Dr. Henry Kissinger for the U.S. and by Le Duc Tho for North Vietnam,
stipulated that U.S. forces would withdraw from South Vietnam; however, this was not
required of the People's Army of Vietnam, at least 150,000 of whom remained there.
Furthermore, a "National Reconciliation Council" (NRC) was to be set up in the south,
which was to include the Hanoi-controlled National Liberation Front; the NRC was to
maintain the ceasefire, and preserve the peace. (26) In reality, the agreements were a fig leaf
for the communist takeover of South Vietnam. By this time, the most important U.S. goal
was to secure the release of American prisoners, and Hanoi played this to the hilt in the
The Soviet government, which had reluctantly helped the N.V. government in its war
with S.Vietnam, played an important role by pressuring the N.V.leadership to accept the
settlement. They did so in return for promises of extensive Soviet economic help after the
war. The Soviets did not want jeopardise their detente with the United States. Fruthermore,
they wanted the war to end because they feared that the longer it went on, the more likely
would China obtain dominant influence, or even control of the wholeof Indochina. By 1972,
both Moscow and Washington agreed that such an outcome was undesirable. (26a)
Meanwhile, the Chinese delayed Soviet trains passing through their territory. This forced the
Soviets to ship arms by sea from Vladivostok to Haiphong. Interestingly enough, U.S.
bombing of that port did not affect the "detente" between Moscow and Washington, which
Nixon initiated in 1972 after his trip to China. (27)
The South Vietnamese government was understandably reluctant to accept an
agreement allowing the withdrawal of U.S. forces, while the Peoples' Army of Vietnam stayed
in South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese government was, therefore, subjected to enormous
U.S.pressure. Finally, Nixon committed himself personally to send massive aid in case of a
North Vietnamese attack. The South Vietnamese government accepted this commitment for
lack of anything better. However, this was an empty promise for Congress was most unlikely
to go against U.S. opinion, which wanted out. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were jointly
awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, while the North Vietnamese prepared for an all-out
campaign against South Vietnam.
In spring 1975, the N.V. communists, well supplied with weapons by the Soviet Union
and China, launched an all out attack on the South Vietnamese army which, due to the cut
off of U.S. supplies, did not have enough shells for its guns, nor sufficient air cover for its
troops. Even so, it might have survived a while longer if not for the S.V. Command decision
to abandon the Pleiku base and the highlands. This led to mass panic and brought the
communists into Saigon.
In one of the most inglorious episodes of American history, U.S. TV showed masses of terrified South Vietnamese trying to escape on every available means of transport. Finally, on April 29, TV viewers saw the evacuation of U.S. and some South Vietnamese personnel by helicopter from the embassy roof in Saigon. Congress rejected President Gerald Ford's pleas to vote military aid for South Vietnam.
Last minute attempts by the South Vietnamese government to negotiate with the National Liberation Front for a new coalition government were doomed to failure, since Hanoi had no intention of carrying out the Paris agreements of January 1973. On April 30th, communist tanks entered the grounds of the Presidential Palace in Saigon. President Minh stayed behind in the forlorn hope that he could negotiate some settlement. He was taken prisoner. Only a few thousand South Vietnamese, who had worked with the U.S. forces, could be evacuated, while some 2 million had to stay behind. They became the victims to communist revenge. Many thousands crowded into camps in Hongkong and elsewhere, hoping to enter the United States. Some were successful, but many were forced to return. Finally, S.V. army veterans who had been captured by the communists after commando landings in the North, were either killed or suffered for years in concentration camps. Those who survived then were allowed to enter the United States were denied pensions because they were not on the Pengagon budget - they had been written off as war casualties. Finally, in 1996, a bill was passed in Congress to compensate each of these survivors living in the U.S. with the sum of $20.000.00.
Ho Chi Minh attained his goal of unifying Vietnam under communist rule, though at
a terrible cost in the lives of his people. However, he did not live to see victory, for he died
Retrospect: American and North Vietnamese Views
After a few years of silence, when veterans of the war were shunned, the Vietnam
Memorial was unveiled in Washington, D.C., in 1982. Courses on the war proliferated at
universities, and a 13 part PBS TV series was made, titled "The Thousand Day War."
In general, most historians and students of the war are critical of U.S. involvement and
policies; this was reflected in the PBS series which gave more space to the critics than to the
defenders of the war. It is impossible here to do justice to both sides, but a few examples of
each will be presented.
A. Some American Views.
In mid-May 1985, George W. Ball, who had been Under Secretary of State in the
Kennedy and Johnson administrations, published a summary of his views on why the United
States had lost the war. (According to Dean Rusk, Ball was the only member of these
administrations who had consistently opposed U.S. military involvement from the beginning).
Ball wrote that President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger remained "bemused" by the thought
that brutal bombing of North Vietnam could force Hanoi to break. It was only 20 months
into the (first) Nixon administration (inaugurated January 1969), writes Ball, that Kissinger
played a card with any meaning to Hanoi -- a hint at the possibility of a unilateral withdrawal
of U.S. troops. By then, wrote Ball:
Mr. Nixon had destroyed our bargaining leverage by
announcing major troop withdrawals and indicating that he
planned a phased withdrawal of all American forces. At that
point, the North Vietnamese had effectively won the war - and
they knew it.
Ball concluded that:
. . . the Nixon administration kept America in the war a further four years at
a cost in lives of 20,000 young Americans and several hundred Vietnamese.
No doubt future historians will reject efforts to invent a Vietnam betrayal
To balance Ball's article, the New York Sunday Times of September 29 1990,
reprinted a short article, dated January 9, 1973, by Barry Goldwater, R. Senator from
Arizona, who ran against Lyndon Baines Johnson as the Republican candidate for President
in 1964. At the time the Paris Agreements were signed, Goldwater defended Nixon's decision
to bomb North Vietnam into a peace agreement. He then wrote:
I believe the President and Henry A. Kissinger recognized in the changing
demands of the Hanoi representatives a belief that they could go on arming for
the destruction of South Vietnam for as long as this task required and without
interference from American bombers. I believe the President and Mr.
Kissinger recognized in the attitude and actions of the Hanoi negotiators a
belief that they could act militarily without interference in the belief that
American public opinion and Congressional sentiment would never sanction
a resumption of the bombing.
Had our negotiators permitted this Hanoi attitude to go unchallenged, the
peace negotiations would have dragged on until either we gave in on every
Communist demand or until the doves in Congress forced an American
surrender on Communist terms. (28)
Dean Rusk, who supported Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in their decisions and
their policy, never changed his mind, even though he became increasingly depressed by
American losses. At first, however, he opposed U.S. military intervention. In his memoirs,
dictated to his son, he cites a cable he sent to President Kennedy on November 1, 1961. In
this cable, he opposed sending U.S. troops to support Ngo Din Diem, whom he then called
a "losing horse." However, he changed his mind and wrote a memorandum advocating
American support for South Vietnam. Here we read:
The loss of South Vietnam to Communism would not only destroy SEATO but would undermine the credibility of American commitments elsewhere. Further, the loss of South Vietnam would stimulate bitter domestic controversies in the United States and would be seized upon by extreme elements to divide the country and harass the administration . . .
The United States should commit itself to the clear objective of preventing the fall of South Vietnam to Communists. The basic means for accomplishing this objective must be to put the Government of South Vietnam [GVN] into a position to win its own war against the guerrillas . .
We should be prepared to introduce United States combat forces if that
should become necessary for success. Dependent upon the circumstances, it
may also be necessary for United States forces to strike at the source of the
aggression in North Vietnam.
Dean Rusk saw no contradiction between the cable of November 1st, and the
memorandum cited above. As he put it: "Throughout this period, I believed that we had to
help the South Vietnamese without adopting the war as our own." (29) Unfortunately, this
proved impossible; however, Dean Rusk always believed that the decision to involve the
United States was the right one. He believed that the U.S. government was bound by its
commitments under SEATO, and that reneging on the treaty would undermine U.S. credibility
elsewhere, particularly in Europe.
Robert S. McNamara (1916-1996), who was then Secretary for Defense, writes in
his memoirs that he had sent a memorandum to President Kennedy on November 8,
recommending U.S. U.S. military support of S. Vietnam. On November 11, after discussing
the issue with Dean Rusk, they both submitted a memorandum to the President in which they
advised against sending U.S. forces to Vietnam, as recommended by U.S. military leaders.
The memorandum stated the dilemma as Rusk and McNamara saw it: "It there is a strong
South Vietnamese effort, [U.S. combat troops] may not be needed; if thre is no such effort,
U.S. forces could not accomplish their mission in the midst of an apathetic or hostile
McNamara devoted his book - which covers the years he was Secretary of Defense
1961-68 - to recounting the course of the war as he knew it, and explaining why the U.S.
entered the war and then fought it for so many years . From the perspective of time and his
own reflections, he gives 11 major causes for the U.S. disaster in Vienam:
1. We misjudged then - as we have since - the geopolitical intentions of our
adversaries (in this case, North Vietnam and the Vietcong, supported by
China and the Soviet Union), and we exaggerated the dangers to the United
States of their actions.
2. We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own
experience. We saw in them a thirst - and a determination to fight for -
freedom and democracy. We totally misjudged the political forces within the
3. We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people (in this case, the
North Vietnamese and Vietcong) to fight and die for their beliefs and values - and we
continue to do so today in many parts of the world.
4. Our misjudgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance
of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the
personalities and habits of their leaders. We might have made similar
misjudgments regarding the Soviets during our frequent confrontations - over
Berlin, Cuba, the Middle East, for example - had we not had the advice of
Tommy Thompson, Chip Bohlen, and George Kennan. These senior diplomats
had spent decades studying the Soviet Union, its people and its leaders, why
they behaved as they did, and how they would react to our actions. Their
advice proved invaluable in shaping our judgments and decision. No Southeast
Asian counterparts existed for senior ofifcials to consult when making
decision on Vietnam.
5. We failed then - as we have since - to recognize the limitations of modern
high-technology, military equipment, forces, and doctrine in confronting
unconventional, highly motivated people's movements. We failed as well to
adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and midst of
people from a totally different culture.
6. We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank
discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale U.S. military
involvement in Southeast Asia before we initiated the action.
7. After the action got under way and unanticipated events forced us off our
planned course, we failed to retain popular support in part because we did not
explain fully what was happening and why were were doing what we did. We
had not prepared the public to understand the complex events we faced and
how to react constructively to the need for change in course as the nation
confronted uncharted seas and an alien environment. A nation's deepest
strength lies not in its military prowess but, rather, in the unity of its people.
We failed to maintain it.
8. We did not recognize that neither our own people nor our leaders are omniscient.
Where our own security is not directly at stake, our judgment of what is in another
people's or country's best interest should be put to the text of open discussion in
international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in
our own image or as we choose.
9. We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action - other than in
response to direct threats to our own security - should be carried out only in
conjunction with mulitnational forces supported fully (and not merely
cosmetically) by the international community.
10. We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of
life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions. For
one whose life has been dedicated to the belief and practice of problem
solving, this is particularly hard to admit. But, at times, we may have to live
with an imperfect, untidy world.
11. Underlying many of these errors lay our failure to organize the top
echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarly
complex range of political and military issues, involving great risks and costs -
including, above all else, lost of life -associated with the application of military
force over a long period of time. Such organizational weakness would have
been costly had this been the only task confronting the presidnet and his
advisers. It, of course, was not. It coexisted with the wide array of other
domestic and international problems confronting us. We thus failed to analyze
and debate our ctions in Southeast Asia - our objectives, the risks and costs
of alternate ways of ealing with them, and the necessity of changing course
when failure was clear - with the intensity and thoroughness that characterized
the debates of the Executive Commitee during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
These criticisms are sincere and precise, but we should bear in mind what McNamara
also tells us in his book - that American policy makers at that time did not know, and could
not know, what is known about many of these problems today.
As to point 1, it is known today that Mao Zedong was willing to support the N.V.
leaders in their war with S.Vietnam even to the point of an all out war with the U.S. - in
which he was prepared to face the risk of nuclear war. We also know today, that Soviet
leaders were willing to do all they could to prevent such a war, but that despite their aid to
their N.V. brothers, they had very little influence over them. Therefore, Moscow failed in the
1960s to bring about N.V.-U.S. negotiations.
Points 2,3, and 4 underline the lack of knowledge and expertise in the State
Department regarding Southeast Asia. This is true, but we may ask whether anyone in the
State Deparment read the excellent little book on Vietnam by British author P.J. Honey,
published in 1961. He gave much valuable information and stressed old Vietnam's long
struggle for independence from China; thus, there were people who knew that Chinese help
would not make N. Vietnam a satellite of Beijing . It is curious that McNamara does no even
mention China in his 11 points. It is hard to believe he did not consider important the role
it played in supplying the N.V. armed forces with weapons and supporting the N.V. leaders'
determination to fight the war until the U.S. left S. Vietnam, no matter what the cost in
Vietnamese lives might be.
As for points 6 and 7, it is difficult to see how the government could have explained
their reasons for continuing the war. Most Americans supported it until the body bags began
to come in and TV coverage showed the Tet Offensive of Feb. 1968. After that, political and
military arguments for carrying on the war carried progressively less weight with the
Point 8 shows some confusion. If the U.S. had no right to judge what was in another
country's best interest - did the N.V. communists have the right to do so? Even those S.
Vietnamese who supported Ho Chi Minh did not, by any means, foresee their fate under N.V.
communism. It was soon clear that N.V. used terror to keep power in South Vietnam. The
question was not of U.S. or N.V. right to judge, but of either trying to stop communist
expansion in Southeast Asia, or allowing it to take place. Until 1968, the prevailing
perception in both the U.S. government and public opinion was that is should not. The same
applies to point 10.
Regarding point 11, cold war perceptions and distance were surely the factors which
prevented the U.S. government from analysing and debating its actions in Southeast Asia. As
for debating policy on Cuba - that was on our doorstep and Vietnam was not. But a
Communist victory in Vietnam could lead to a communist Southeast Asia, and perhaps be a
threat to the Phillipines. In fact, a communist guerrilla movement did not emerge there.
Finally, there was a controversy over the U.S. military conduct of the war. Critics
claimed that if the U.S. had gone all out to win, victory would have been assured. Others
claim that it was impossible for the U.S. to wage such a war because of the danger of nucelar
war and opposition at home.. Here are a few quotations from a 1988 book on the Vietnam
War by Philip B. Davidson, who was the Chief of Military Intelligence for Gen. William C.
Westmoreland, U.S. Army Commander in South Vietnam.
In the final chapter titled "Why We Lost the War," Davidson writes: "Above all, it was
a war waged in a critical, but indeterminate manner, in the uncharted depths of the American
psyche and in the obscurity of the national soul."
At the same time, he claims the the main lesson to be learned from the war is that the
communists had a superior grand strategy, which was that of a revolutionary war. This
strategy, which combined both regular and guerrilla forces, and involved a staggering loss of
life unacceptable to democratic countries, was developed and implemented principally by Gen.
Vo Nguyen Giap. Giap evolved this strategy by using elements from past Vietnamese wars,
a s well as from his reading of Western strategists and commanders, especially Carl von
Clausewitz and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Returning to the question why the United States lost the war, Davidson writes:
Our principal vulnerability was the weakness inherent in
democracy itself - the incapacity to sustain a long, unfocused,
inconclusive, and bloody war far from home, for unidentified
or ill-defined national objectives. We had other weaknesses,
but that was our Achilles' heel.
This weakness was, Davidson claims, consummately exploited by Gen. Giap. "After
1968, Giap avoided direct attack on our forces in Vietnam in favor of striking at the will of
the American people." Davidson also notes that U.S. media played a significant part in
demolishing popular support for the war, but that the greatest erosion of this support came
from growing American casualties.
Davidson is critical of the U.S. strategy of "limited war," i.e., of not invading North
Vietnam, and of not trying to destroy North Vietnamese supply bases in Cambodia until very
late in the war, although the U.S. consistently bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and also
bombed North Vietnam, especially Hanoi. As he puts it, the principle U.S. advantage was that
of tremendous military superiority over the enemy. Therefore, at least in theory, American
strategy should have been to launch an all-out attack with immense military force and thus
end the war. (30)
However, and this is a point which many students of the war overlook, or to which
they give insufficient attention, Presidents Johnson and Nixon chose to fight a limited war for
fear of provoking a nuclear war between the United States, on the one hand, and China and/or
the USSR, on the other. Furthermore, the Chinese warned the United States that if the latter
attacked the N.Vietnamese, they would support them even to the point of war with the United
States Therefore, the U.S. presidents decided against a U.S. attack on North Vietnam, and,
until later in the war, on North Vietnamese supply bases in Laos and Cambodia..
The strategy of limited war could succeed in a short war fought by regular armies,
i.e., Korea, but it could not succeed against the North Vietnamese strategy of revolutionary
war, in which the Vietnamese communist leaders regarded extremely heavy loss of life on
their side as acceptable. At the same time, the division of U.S. opinion at home pressured the
government to end the war.
There was, perhaps, one theoretical possibility of U.S. victory in a limited war, i.e.,
in the sense of excluding an invasion of North Vietnam. The French journalist and author of
several books on the French Indochina War, Bernard Fall, spoke at the University of Kansas
on November 8 1965, shortly before he was killed in Vietnam. He then pointed out that out
of 10 U.S. soldiers in South Vietnam, only one was engaged in combat while 9 served in
support services. He concluded that if U.S. forces were not only to win territory in battle but
also to hold it, they would have to have 10 million soldiers in South Vietnam in order to have
1 million available both for fighting and for holding the territory they won from the
communists. This was a valid suggestion. However, such a massive involvement in Vietnam
would have meant the commitment of U.S. resources on a scale comparable with World War
II, and this was never considered seriously either by President Johnson or by President Nixon.
Curiously, American writers on the Vietnam War generally ignore the French
Indochina War and the lessons which stemmed from it - especially the futility of fighting a
textbook war when the enemy used mobile guerrilla forces. It is said that when General
Westmoreland was asked if he saw any lessons in the French Indochina War, he answered:
" No. They lost didn't they?" He ignored the fact that much can be learned from defeat.
B. Vietnamese Views.
South Vietnamese emigre authors either accuse the United States of betrayal and/or
blame the U.S. military for not training the South Vietnamese army to fight a guerrilla war,
and or for not adapting its own strategy to fight such a war. (31)
The chief North Vietnamese spokesman is the architect of Hanoi's victory, General
Von Nguen Giap (b. 1912), whom Davidson rightly sees as the "connecting symbol" of the
war. He was, after all, the principal figure in all three wars: the Indochina war with the
French, the war with the United States and South Vietnam, and, of course, the war between
North and South Vietnam. (32)
An interview Giap gave to the leading American historian of the war, Stanley Karnow,
was published in the New York Sunday Times Magazine of June 22, 1990. Among the
various statements Giap made, which summarized what he had already written earlier, was
We were not strong enough to drive out a half-million American troops, but
that wasn't our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the American
government to continue the war. Westmoreland was wrong to expect his
superior firepower would grind us down. If we had focused on the balance of
forces, we would have been defeated in two hours . . . . In war there are the
two factors - human beings and weapons. Ultimately, though, human beings
are the decisive factor. Human beings! Human beings!
Asked how long he was prepared to fight, Giap said: "Another twenty years, even a
hundred years, as long as it took to win, regardless of cost." When asked what the cost was,
he said he still did not know and refused to guess. However, one of his aides told Karnow
that at least a million North Vietnamese soldiers had perished, most of them in the American
war. He had no idea of the cost in civilian lives.
Although Giap claimed that the Tet Offensive of early 1968 was a victory, he admitted
that North Vietnamese casualties had been "devastating." He also admitted that U.S. bombing
had further crippled North Vietnamese forces as peasant supporters fled to refugee camps.
He also admitted the North Vietnamese were ravaged by the U.S. "Phoenix Program," which
devastated North Vietnamese rural sanctuaries. (Davidson also makes this point in his book).
However, when President Nixon began withdrawing U.S. troops, Giap said he knew
that victory was only a matter of time. (This was a point made by Ball in his 1985 article).
Giap admitted that the North Vietnamese attack of 1972 failed when U.S. bombers crushed
their divisions. But, said Giap, Nixon was eager to win the 1972 election, so he compromised
on a ceasefire. Giap knew that the Paris Agreements of January 1973 would gradually erode;
indeed, two years later, he entered Saigon.
Of course, in his analysis, Giap ignored the real limitation on U.S. military power, i.e.,
the fear of a land or nuclear war with China and/or a nuclear was with the USSR, if the U.S.
invaded North Vietnam.
IV. The Aftermath.
The North Vietnamese treated South Vietnam as a conquered country. They sent in
their own bureaucrats to rule the natives; they also arrested tens of thousands of people,
including members of the National Liberation Front whose criticism of the new state of affairs
made their loyalty suspect. Many of these prisoners were kept for months and even years in
concentration camps, where they were subjected to "thought reform," i.e., indoctrination.
Those who resisted were put in leg irons and had their rice rations cut, until they changed
their minds. Most were "persuaded" to accept their jailers' political views, i.e., communism.
South Vietnamese began to flee, some to Hongkong, and some to Thailand, many
travelling in open boats through seas infested by sharks and pirates. The general estimate is
that some 2 million Vietnamese fled from South Vietnam over the next few years. Some were
fortunate enough to find refuge in the U.S., but many ended up in refugee camps in Thailand
and elsewhere, particularly Hong Kong. Thousands of Amerasian children fathered by U.S.
soldiers grew up living a hand-to-mouth existence, treated as outcasts by the Vietnamese. The
process of getting them to the United States was painfully slow and most remained in
The Vietnamese economy stagnated, due to the war but even more, because of the waste, inefficiency, and lack of initiative inherent in the communist economic system. Indeed, economic stagnation forced the Vietnamese government to initiate some economic reforms in 1985. They canceled previous subsidies for certain goods, which had kept prices low, and devalued the Dong (currency), allowing prices to seek their own level. However, these measures only led to massive inflation, which reached 700% by 1987. In 1988, per capita income was only 4% of the average in "socialist," i.e., communist-ruled countries, and was 10-15% lower than that in poor countries as Cuba and Mongolia. The average monthly wage sufficed to buy food for only 2 weeks. Although produce contracts on the Chinese model were introduced for peasants, the country, which used to feed itself and export rice, could not feed its people. A leading Vietnamese writer, Nguyen Van Bong, wrote that the soldier who won the war could not afford to educate his only son. (34)
Therefore, in March 1988, the government decreed that peasants could keep 40-50%
of the value of their produce, condemned collectivization, encouraged family farming, and
announced that state farms that did not make a profit by the end of 1989, would be dissolved
and transformed into cooperative or private farms. Thus, Vietnam tried to follow the example
set by Deng Xiaoping in China.
Given the economic crisis, it is not surprising that there were also signs of some
liberalization. In 1988, censorship was relaxed, though nowhere near to the extent this had
been done in Gorbachev's USSR. Still, plays and films were produced showing party brutality
to the people; perhaps reformers had gained the ear of the Ho's successor, Nguyen Van Linh,
who used them to discredit hardliners. Whatever the case might be, writers were allowed to
describe the brutal collectivization carried out by Ho Chi Minh in the early 1950s. The
authorities also admitted that countless people were killed at that time by militiamen with
quotas to fill -- just like the NKVD under the Stalin terror of the 1930s.
What is more, a documentary film on life in Vietnam today, showed people collapsing from hunger in the streets. Catholic nuns were shown caring for lepers. In contrast, high party officials were shown alighting from Soviet-made limousines, unconcerned by the misery around them. The final picture showed an old man, who had only his war medals to console him, for he had to struggle for a living. (35) This "candid camera" was surely meant to serve someone's political aims.
However, as in China, the Vietnamese communists feared they might lose power.
Perhaps the massacre in Tiananmen Square on June 3-4, 1989, encouraged hardliners, for a
wave of arrests took place in early 1990; it seems that most of those arrested were South
Vietnamese, including some who had been closely associated with the communists before
1975. Indeed, in late March 1990, the Vietnamese leadership dismissed a senior member of
the Politburo, Tran Xuan Bach. In December 1989, he had called for more democracy and
more social justice, warning that turbulence would not be limited to Europe, so changes must
also take place in Asia. (36) Bach's dismissal indicated that the reformers had lost in Vietnam,
at least for the time being.
Finally, in 1990, Vietnamese authorities agreed that U.S. representatives could search
for MIAs (missing in action). Talks began on normalizing relations between the two countries.
There was also a meeting of the minds over Cambodia (see below). By the fall of 1993,
several U.S. missions, including Congressmen and Senators, had visited Vietnam and a search
for missing U.S. service men is still going on. An American researcher, Stephen J. Morris, of
Harvard University, found in the Russian archives a Russian translation of an alleged
Vietnamese report of September 1972, showing that Vietnam still held 1,475 U.S. prisoners
of war, although all were supposed to have been released. (New York Times, April 13, 1993).
However, the author of the report retried Vietnamese General Tran Van Quang, who is still
living, denied he had written it, and the whole matter remains unclear. At the same time, no
trace of the U.S. servicemen, who were allegedly sent for special interrogation to the USSR,
have been found in Russia, at least not up to this time. (Nov. 1996).
Normal relations between the U.S. and Vietnam were established in July 1995. U.S.
business is beginning to come into the country, but it is far behind other nations, especially
Japan. Private business is encouraged; much investment comes from overseas Vietnamese.
The armed forces and police are also running businesses - as they are in China. As of mid-1995, the estimated population s tood at about 75,000,000 with a very high density of 589.4
per sq. mile.
V. The Other States of the Former French Union of Indochina.
a. Kampuchea (Cambodia).
France recognized Kampuchean independence in 1953. For many years, the head of
the government was Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who tried to balance between the U.S.,
North Vietnam, and China. In March 1970, he was overthrown by the U.S.-supported Lon
Nol government, which fought the communist Khmer Rouge movement led by Pol Pot.
In April 1975, when the final withdrawal of the United States from Southeast Asia,
signalled by the fall of Saigon, Pol Pot defeated Lon Nol, who could no longer count on U.S.
support. The Khmer Rouge decided to destroy the urban population, whom they did not trust,
and proclaimed the establishment of a rural Kampuchea. Therefore, they deported the town
people and made them do forced labor in the countryside, where they died like flies. The
Khmer Rouge also killed anyone they believed to be "enemies of the people."
It is estimated that the Khmer Rouge killed over 1 million people out of a total
population of 7 million, before they were overthrown by the combined forces of Kampu-chean
rebels and the North Vietnamese army in 1979 (see film "The Killing Fields"). The People's
Republic of China, which opposed Vietnamese domination or control over Cambodia,
attacked Vietnam in 1979. However, it met with stiff resistance and withdrew from the war.
Beijing then threw its diplomatic support to the Khmer Rouge, which continued to harass the
new, Vietnamese-supported government.
The PRC continued to support the Khmer Rouge in an ongoing civil war, because
Chinese leaders did not want the area to be under North Vietnamese domination, while the
latter was supported by Moscow. We should note that one of the PRCs conditions for re-establishing good relations with the USSR was that it cease supporting the Vietnamese
occupation of Kampuchea. The Vietnamese finally withdrew and the Khmer Rouge began
trying, with some success, to establish their control over the masses of Kampuchean refugees
living in camps along the country's borders, and even over parts of the country. (37)
Prince Sihanouk lined up with the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese and the
government they established; thus, he continued his dependence on Chinese support. He
justified this policy by saying that the primary goal was to throw the Vietnamese out of the
country, after which he expected a compromise government to be established. (Interview with
Sihanouk, World Monitor TV news, Discovery channel, late February 1989). This policy was
supported for years by the United States. Indeed, during his visit to Beijing on February 25-26, 1989, President George Bush declared his support for Sihanouk, thus supporting the
Chinese goal of a complete withdrawal of Vietnamese influence from Kampuchea.
A U.N. Declaration on Cambodian independence was passed on January 16, 1990.
However, nothing happened until mid-July 1990, when the United States finally ended its
recognition of the Sihanouk coalition, which includes the Khmer Rouge, and agreed to
conduct talks with Hanoi to settle the conflict. This meant that United States was willing to
alienate China and leaned now toward the USSR, probably a result of the vastly improved
U.S.-Soviet relations after the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Thus, it
seems that a shift in great power relations, helped by improved relations between Washington
and Hanoi, allowed some hope for an end to the civil war. (38) Indeed, an armistice between
the two warring sides was signed on June 20, 1991.
In October 1991, the warring factions and 18 nations signed a peace treaty in Paris.
After attempts had failed to bring the Khmer Rouge into the government, elections were held
under U.N. supervision in May 1993. These were won handily by the party lead by the son
of Prince Sihanouk, who was crowned again King of Cambobodia in fall 1993. However, the
Khmer Rouge, which killed many villagers as well as U.N. peace-keeping troops in the period
preceding the elections (March 1992-May 1993), still refused to recognize the results.
Unfortunately, the new Cambodian government has proved to be both brutal and
corrupt. It has been a government made up of two administrations: one headed by Sihanouk's
son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and the other by the ex-Khmer Rouge official - in opposition
to the K.R. since 1979 - Hun Sen, who has more power than the Prince. In 1996, this
government co-opted the no. 2, Khmer Rouge leader, Ieng Sary ,brother-in-law of Pol Pot.
On November 3, 1996, the world learned that some 3,500 Khme Rouge fighters would
become part of the Cambodian army. (38a) We may well wonder what the future will bring
for the long suffering people of Cambodia.
The French recognized the independence of Laos in 1953. A long civil war followed
between the royalist government on the one hand and the communist Pathet Lao (PL) on the
other. The PL assumed full control after the collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975. Some
100,000 fled the country and in 1977, Vietnam established dominant influence there.
Here we should note that many Laotians perished in communist labor camps. The
victims included the royal family -- King Savang Vatthana, Queen Khamboui, and Crown
Prince Say Vonsavang. According to a 1987 report, they were placed in camp 01 in the
village of Sam Neua in September 1977. They were forced to perform hard labor six days a
week on daily rations of two cups of rice. The king and his son died within 11 days of each
other in May 1978, while the queen, who was in the women's section of the camp, died on
December 12, 1978. Thus, they shared the fate of many of their subjects.
Referring to the political upheaval in Eastern Europe, the communist Laotian government, in its New Year broadcast for 1990, called 1989 "a nightmare year for socialism," but claimed its ideology would prevail. It called for national unification under the banner of the party leadership. (39). However, we should note that the government obviously sought some popular support, for it relaxed its persecution of the Buddhist religion, to the extent of allowing the repair of some temples and not opposing the open practice of this religion. From 1993, the communist government began the country's transition to a free market economy.
The Domino Theory proved partly correct for the communist victory in Vietnam also
lead to the establishment of communist governments in Laos and Cambodia. However, these
countries came under the domination of Vietnam, and not of Red China, as U.S. leaders had
feared. Indeed, Vietnam faced constant Chinese opposition to its goal of dominating the
region which had been French Indochina. At the same time, U.S. fears of communism
spreading all over Southeast Asia and beyond were not realized, for Thailand, Burma,
Malaysia and Indonesia did not become communist.
While the United States won a limited war in Korea, there were many reasons why
it failed to win in Vietnam. We should also note that in both cases, external factors played a
decisive role, i.e., the United States did not want to provoke a nuclear war with China and/or
the USSR, and the latter did not want a war with the United States..
Likewise, it is clear that the weakening and then collapse of the USSR has had a
decisive impact on the rest of the world, including Southeast Asia. It is also clear that the
leaders of Red China do not seem to want to dominate this region, since there is no military
threat form any Western power and Soviet influence has disappeared. Thus, we may expect
gradual economic-political reform in the communist regimes in this part of the world, as in
1. See William L. Duiker, The Rise of Nationalism in Vietnam, 1900-1914, Ithaca, New
York, 1976, "Part I. Scholar-Patriots."
2. See letter by Ho Chi Minh from abroad, June 6, 1941, in Gareth Porter, ed., Vietnam. A
History in Documents, New York, 1981. (This is an abridged version of a book first published
in 1979; it contains a selection of both U.S. and Vietnamese documents).
3. For U.S. thinking on Vietnam at this time, see William Conrad Gibbons, The U.S.
Government and the Vietnam War. Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, "Part
I. 1945-1960," Princeton, N.J., 1986, ch. I; see also Gary R. Hess, "Franklin D. Roosevelt
and Indochina," Journal of American History, 59, September, 1972, pp. 353-368, and same,
The Emergence of the United States as a South East Asian Power, 1940-1950, 1987.
4. See Charles Fenn, Ho Chi Minh. A Biographical Introduction, New York, 1973, and Tran
Van Don, Our Endless War. Inside Vietnam, San Rafael, California, 1978, p. 22 (The author
was a high military officer closely involved in the political life of South Vietnam after 1945).
5. See Porter, Vietnam, doc. no. 17, also: Robert V. Daniels, A Documentary History of
Communism, rev. ed., v. 2, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1984, pp. 197-98, 3rd ed. , 1994, and
Tran Van Don, Our Endless War, pp. 22-24, 145.
6. See Tran Van Don, Ibid., p. 27.
7. See Douglas Pike, Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Anatomy of An Alliance, Boulder,
Colorado and London, 1987, pp.31-32.
8. See Porter, Vietnam, doc.no. 29, and Tran Van Don, Our Endless War, pp. 29, 41.
9. See Tran Van Don, Ibid., p. 31.
10. See Porter, Vietnam, doc. no. 33.
11. See Tran Van Don, Our Endless War, pp. 33-35. On this period, see also James Pinckney
Harrison, The Endless War. Fifty Years of Struggle in Vietnam, New York and London,
1983, Part One.
12. See Ibid., p. 2.
13. On U.S. views, see Gibbon, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, part I, chaps.
14. See Philip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War. The History, 1946-1975, Novato, California,
Presidio, 1988, chaps. 8 through 11.
15. See Douglas Pike, Vietnam and the Soviet Union, pp. 39-42, and references there.
16. On U.S. views, see note 13 above.
17. See Dean Acheson's telegram of May 20, 1949 to the U.S. Consulate, Hanoi, in Foreign
Relations of the United States, 1949, v. II, pp. 29-30, reprinted in Porter, Vietnam, doc. no.
52; see also Gibbons, The U.S. Government, pp. 48-54.
18. On the National Liberation Front, see the account of one of its founders, who left
Vietnam for the United States when he became disillusioned with the communist regime,
Truong Nhu Tang, "The Myth of Liberation," The New York Review of Books, 21 October,
19. On U.S. policy toward the anti-Diem conspiracy, see Gibbon, The U.S. Government, v.
II, ch. 3; a detailed account from the Vietnamese side is to be found in Tran Van Don, Our
Endless War, ch. 6.
20. On the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, see Gibbon, The U.S.Government, v. II, ch. 5; see also,
Porter, Vietnam, doc.nos. 178-180; see also Davidson, Vietnam, ch. 13, and Dean Rusk, As
I Saw It, New York, 1990, ch. 28; also, memoirs by Admiral James B. Stockdale, In Love
and War, New York, 1984. (Stockdale was later shot down and suffered long imprisonment
21. For Khrushchev's letter to President Johnson, and the latter's reply, see Porter, Ibid., doc.
nos. 181, 182.
22. For the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, see Gibbon, Ibid., pp. 301-303, and Porter, Ibid., doc.
no. 183; see also Davidson, Vietnam, p. 289 and Dean Rusk, As I saw It, pp. 501 ff.
23. See Davidson, Vietnam, p. 403.
24. See James R. Jones, "Behind L.B.J.'s Decision Not To Run in '68," New York Times,
April 16, 1988, sec. 1, p. 17.
25. See Gunter Lewy, America in Vietnam, New York, 1978, pp. 336-37, 339.
25 a. See: Qiang Zhai, "Beijing and the Vietnam Conflict, 1064-1965; New Chinese
Evidence," Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issues 6-7, winter 1995-66,
p.233 ff. This author claims that there was no debate in the CCP over this policy. See also
Jerzy Michalowski, "Polish Secret Initiatives in Vietnam, " CWIHP Bulletin, 6-7, p. 241 ff.
26. For U.S. accounts of the negotiations, see Henry Kissinger, The White House Years,
Boston, 1979, chaps. VIII, XII, XXIII, XXV, XXVII, XXXI -XXXIV, and same, Years of
Upheaval, Boston, 1982, ch. VIII; see also The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, New York, 1978
(see Vietnam in Index); and same, No More Vietnams, New York, 1985; for a Vietnamese
insider's view, see Tran Van Don, Our Endless War, chaps. 11-15. Le Duc Tho died on Oct.
13 1990, see obituary in New York Sunday Times, October 14, 1990, p. 26.
26 a. On Soviet policy regarding Vietnam and Moscow's role in the Paris Peace talks, see:
Ilya V. Gaiduk, "The Vietnam War and Soviet-American Relations, 1964-73: New Russian
Evidence," in CWIHP Bulletin, 6-7, p. 232 ff, also: Ilya V. Gaiduk, The Soviet Union and the
Vietnam War, Chicago, 1996.
27. On Sino-Soviet rivalry in North Vietnam, see Pike, Vietnam and the Soviet Union, chaps.
4, 5. also articles and documents on Sino-Soviet relations in CWHIP Bulletin, 6-7.
28. See New York Sunday Times, September 30, 1990 (Op-Ed, p. 4).
29. See Dean Rusk, As I Saw It, p. 433; Ibid., for his statement on George W. Ball.
29a. See Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect. The Tragedy and
Lessons of Vietnam, New York, 1995, p. 39.
29b. McNamara, In Retrospect, pp. 321-323.
30. See Davidson, Vietnam, ch. 27.
31. Examples of these views are to be found in, for example, Tran Van Don, Our Endless
32. See Davidson, Vietnam, p. viii.
33. See Barry Wain, "The Indochina Refugee Crisis," Foreign Affairs, Fall 1979; on Vietnam
since 1975, see Nguyen Van Canh, Vietnam under Communism, 1975-1982, Stanford,
California, Hoover Institution, 1983, and William Duiker, Vietnam Since the Fall of Saigon,
Columbus, Ohio, 1982.
34. On the economic situation in Vietnam and reforms, see Waldemar Kedaj, "Reformowac
albo zginac ["Reform or Perish"]," in the Polish weekly, Polityka [Warsaw], no. 28 (1627),
July 9, 1988, p. 11.
35. On liberalization in Vietnam, see Barbara Crossette, "All Vietnam is Now a Stage; Its
Players are Mostly Angry," New York Times, April 22, 1988, sec.1, pp. 1, 4.
36. See David C. Unger, "Vietnam Again, for the First Time, New York Sunday Times,
August 10, 1990, A-14, and Steven Erlanger, "Vietnamese Communists Purge an In-House
Critic," New York Sunday Times, April 1, 1990, Y-5.
37. See William Shawcross, The Quality of Mercy. Cambodian Holocaust and Modern
Consciousness, New York, 1984; see also"Sources on the Khmer Rouge Years: The
Cambodian Genocide Program," CWIHP Bulletin, 6-7, p. 260 ff..
38. For the U.N. Resolution on Cambodia, see New York Times, January 17, 1990; for the
shift in U.S. policy on Cambodia, see Ibid., July 19, 1990, A-1.
38a. See: William Shawcross, "Tragedy in Cambodia," (Review Essay), New York Review
of Books, Nov. 14, 1996, pp. 41-46.
39. On the fate of the Laotian royal family, see New York Times, February 8, 1990, Op-ed;
for the New Year's message of the Laotian communist government, see, Ibid., January 5,
James Pinckney Harrison, The Endless War. Fifty Years of Struggle in Vietnam, New York
and London, 1982 (sympathetic to North Vietnam).
David G. Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945, Berkeley, California, 1981.
2. The French Indochina War.
Bernard Fall, Hell is a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, Philadelphia,
Bernard Fall, Street Without Joy; Insurgency in Indochina, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1957.
Bernard Fall, The Two Vietnams: A Political and Military Analysis, New York, 1963.
Bernard Fall, Vietnam Witness, 1953-1966, New York, 1966.
R. Irving, The First Indochina War: French and American Policy, 1945-1954, London, 1975.
Robert B. Randle, Geneva 1954: The Settlement of the Indochinese War, Princeton, New
Jules Roy, The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, New York, 1965.
3. The U.S. and the War in Vietnam.
(N.B. Several books come out in the United States every year on the U.S. involvement in
Vietnam; this is only a selection, including chapters in books).
Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation. My Early Years in the State Department, New York,
1969, ch. 70, "Indochina," pp. 671-678.
George W. Ball, The Past has Another Pattern. Memoirs, New York, 1982, Part VII, chaps. 24-26.
Larry Berman, Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam, New York, 1982.
Larry Berman, Lyndon Johnson's War. The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam, New York and London, 1989.
Robert Blum, Drawing the Line: The Origin of the American Containment in East Asia, New York, 1982.
Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam, Free Press, 1990.
William Colby with James McCarger, Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America's Sixteen-Year Involvement with Vietnam, Contemporary Books, 1990 (Colby was involved in Vietnam since 1959; for disagreements, see DeForest below).
Cecil B. Currey, Edward Lansdale. The Unquiet American, Boston, 1988.
Lawton Collins, The Development and Training of the South Vietnamese Army, 1950-1972, Washington, 1975.
Philip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War. The History: 1945-1975, Novato, California, Presidio, 1988 (by Gen. Westmoreland's Chief of Intelligence).
Orrin DeForest and David Chanoff, Slow Burn: The Rise and Bitter Fall of American Intelligence in Vietnam, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1990 (for disagreements, see William Colby, above).
Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, Boston, 1972 (a very influential book at the time).
Stephen A. Garrett, Ideals and Reality: An Analysis of the
Debate over Vietnam, Washington, 1978.
Leslie L. Gelb and Richard K. Betts, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, Washington, 1979.
Allan E. Goodman, The Lost Peace: America's Search for a Negotiated Settlement of the Vietnamese War, Stanford, 1978.
Joseph C. Goulden, Truth is the First Casualty, Chicago, 1969 (on the Tonkin Gulf incident).
George Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, New York, 1979.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Vantage Point. Perspectives on the Presidency, 1963-1969, New York, 1971, chaps. 3, 6, 11, 17-22.
George McT. Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam, New York, Knopf, 1986.
Stanley Karnow, Vietnam. A History, New York, 1983 (the most extensive study yet, and the basis for the 13 part PBS series entitled "The Thousand Day War").
Henry Kissinger, White House Years, Boston, 1979, chaps. VIII, XII, XXIII, XXV, XXVII, XXXI-XXXIV.
Henry Kissinger, Years of Upheaval, Boston, 1982, chaps. I-II, VII.
Edward Lansdale, In the Midst of Wars, New York, 1972 (memoirs of Diem's closest U.S. adviser).
Peter Macdonald, Giap. The Victor in Vietnam, New York, Norton, 1993.
Robert S. McNamara and Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect. The Tragedy and Lessons of
Vietnam, New York, 1995.
Richard Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, New York, 1978.
Richard Nixon, The Real War, New York, 1980.
Richard Nixon, No More Vietnams, New York, 1985.
Don Oberdorfer, Tet!, New York, 1971.
Gareth Porter, A Peace Denied: The U.S., Vietnam, and the Paris Agreements, Bloomington, Indiana, 1976.
Dean Rusk, As I Saw It, New York, 1990, Part V.
Morley Safer, Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam, New York, Random House, 1990 (by a well-known journalist who had covered the war; interesting conversations by Safer with Giap and other high Vietnamese officials on his first return to Vietnam since he left in 1971).
Al Santoli, ed., Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War as Told by Thirty American Soldiers Who Fought It, New York, 1981.
Herbert Y. Schandler, The Unmaking of a President: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, Princeton, 1977.
Niel Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie. John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, New York, 1988 (Vann played a key role in organizing South Vietnamese defense from 1963 to his death in 1972. Sheehan obtained the Pentagon Papers for the New York Times from Daniel Ellsberg).
James B. Stockdale, In Love and War, New York, 1984.
Gen. William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, New York, 1976.
4. Vietnamese Communism.
William Duiker, The Comintern and Vietnamese Communism, Athens, Ohio, 1975.
William Duiker, The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam, Boulder, Colorado, 1981.
Ho chi Minh on Revolution: Selected Writings, 1920-1966, edited by Bernard Fall, New York, 1967.
Jean Lacouture, Ho chi Minh, New York, 1986 (favorable).
Douglas Pike, History of Vietnamese Communism, 1925-1976, Stanford, California, 1978.
William Turley, ed., Vietnamese Communism in Comparative Perspective, Boulder, Colorado, 1980.
Richard Turner, Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development, Stanford, California, 1975.
Vo Nguyen Giap, The Military Art of People's War, New York, 1970.
Vo Nguyen Giap, Unforgettable Months and Years, New York, 1975.
Vo Nguyen Giap and Van Tien Dung, How We Won the War, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,
6. Soviet and Chinese Policy toward the Vietnam War.
See "New Evidence on the Vietnam/Indochina Wars," Cold War International History
Project, Bulletin 6-7, Washington D.C., 1995-65, p. 232ff.
Ilya V. Gaiduk, The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War New York, 1995.,
David P. Chandler, Brother Number One. A Political Biography of Pol Pot, Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press, 1992 (by a specialist, who has published many works on Cambodia; see also the review-essay of this book by William Shawcross, "A New Cambodia," New York Review of Books, August 12, 1993, pp. 37 ff).
May M. Ebihara, Carol A. Mortland, and Judy Ledgerwood, editors, with a preface by David P. Chandler, Cambodian Culture Since 1975. Homeland and Exile, Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1994.
"Sources on the Khmer Rouge Years: The Cambodian Genocide Program," Cold War
International History Project Bulletin 7-6, Washington D.C., winter 1995-96, p. 260 ff.
William Shawcross, The Quality of Mercy. The Cambodian Holocaust and Modern
Consciousness New York, 1982.
Same, "Tragedy in Cambodia, " New York Review of Books, Nov. 14, 1996, pp. 41-46.
Kaysone Phomvihane, Revolution in Laos, Moscow, 1981 (transl from Russian). Account
by leader of the Laotian Communist Party; he was elected President in 1991, and died