List of Abbreviations
2 The Eisenhower Era 1954 - 1961
3 The Kennedy Era 1961 – 1963
4 The Johnson Era 1963 – 1965
List of Abbreviations
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“Vietnam, VietnamThere are no sure answers,” the veteran Southeast Asian correspondent Robert Shaplen wrote during an especially perplexing period of a long and confusing war. Despite the passage of time, the publication of hundreds of books, and the declassification of thousands of documents, Shaplen’s lament remains as real today as when it was penned thirty years ago. Why did the United States make such a vast commitment in an area of so little importance, one in which it had taken scant interest before?
This paper wants to demonstrate the most important incidents in the years of 1954 – 1965 in Vietnam and in the United States and how the United States became involved in the war. The first part is about the historical backgrounds after the Geneva Conference in 1954 and the beginning of the American engagement in Indochina. The second part deals with the changes in politics under President Kennedy. And the third part is about the events that led the United States into a war against North Vietnam.
2 The Eisenhower Era 1954 – 1961
The Geneva Conference took place in the time of May 8 – July 21, 1954 under the co-chairmanship of the Soviet Union and Great Britain. Delegations from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the State of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, France, the United States, and the People’s Republic of China took part. According to the Final Declaration, issued on July 21 but not actually signed by any of the delegations, Vietnam was parted at the 17th parallel by a provisional military demarcation line that “should not in any way be interpreted as ... a political or territorial boundary.” It was also constituted that the states of Indochina are not allowed to join any military alliance nor that any foreign military bases could be installed in South Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia. The introduction and supply of new weapons and personnel was strictly limited.
After the Geneva Conference the National Security Council (NSC) recommended, among other things, the use of ‘all available means’ to weaken the infant Vietminh regime in Northern Vietnam. Throughout the rest of the year, a CIA team stationed in Saigon and headed by Colonel Edward Lansdale devised numerous clandestine methods to harass the Hanoi government. Paramilitary groups infiltrated across the demilitarized zone at the 17th parallel on sabotage missions, attempting to destroy the government’s printing presses and pouring contaminants into the engines of busses to demobilize the transportation system. The teams also carried out “psywar” operations to embarrass the Vietminh regime and encourage emigration to the south. They distributed fake leaflets announcing the harsh methods of the government was prepared to take and even hired astrologers to predict hard times in the north and good times in the south.
But in reality South Vietnam had been devastated by nearly fourteen years of war and was held together by enormous French military expenditures which would soon cease. Its colonial economy depended entirely on exports of rice and rubber to finance essential imports.
Had looked all over the world, the United States could not have chosen a less likely place for an experiment in nation-building. The French had finally granted unqualified independence to the State of Vietnam in June 1954, but the government, still nominally presided over by Bao Dai, was a fiction. Assuming the premiership in the summer of 1954, the staunchly anti-French Ngo Dinh Diem inherited antiquated institutions patterned on French practices and ill-suited to the needs of an independent nation. His government lacked experienced civil servants. Tainted by its long association with France, it had no base of support in the countryside, where approximately 90% of the South Vietnamese lived, or among the non-Communist nationalists in Saigon. “Its authority did not extend beyond its own offices.”
Following the provisions of the Geneva Accords, thousands of Vietminh moved north, leaving a political vacuum throughout much of the countryside, while nearly 900,000 northerners came south, bringing with them traditions and ways of life which contrasted sharply with those of the southerners. Inasmuch as political authority existed in the South, it was exercised by the so-called sects, politico-religious organizations with their own governments and their own private armies. In the words of Frances Fitzgerald, the south was a “political jungle of warlords, sects, bandits, partisan troops and secret societies”
Some American officials warned the pitfalls of nation-building in South Vietnam. A National Intelligence Estimate of August 1954 admonished that even with firm support from the United States the chances of establishing a strong, stable government were “poor”. When asked to formulate a program for training a South Vietnamese army, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) demurred, advising that it would be “hopeless” to build an army without a “reasonably strong, stable civil government in control” and that the “tenure of the present government appears to be in doubt.”
But US-secretary of state John F. Dulles had the opinion that the United States could succeed where France had failed and that a strong army would do more than anything to stabilize the government of South Vietnam. And Eisenhower said that the United States “expects that this aid will be met by performance on the part of the government of Vietnam in undertaking needed reforms.” But the significance of the step was unmistakable: the experiment in nation-building had been launched.
This experiment was combined with Diem who was known as a patriot. His love for his country in the abstract was profound, but he was an elitist who had little sensitivity to the needs and problems of the Vietnamese people. Not perceiving the extend to which the French and Vietminh had destroyed traditional political processes and values, he looked backward to an imperial Vietnam that no longer existed.
The Americans knew that Diem was questionable, and conceded his shortcomings, but accepted Ambassador Edward Heath’s argument in December 1954 “that there is no one to take his place who would serve US interests better”. Also Diem may have been the “best available man” like Dulles said, but he lacked the qualities needed for the formidable long-range task of nation-building. Diem did not understand the revolutionary changes that had occurred in his country over the past fifty years, and he attempted to rule according to the precepts of imperial Vietnam.
In spring 1955 the problems of and with Diem getting bigger. He had huge domestic problems with a mafia-like organization called Binh Xuyen that tried to force Diem’s resignation. After a mortar attack against the presidential palace, Diem ordered his army into, and to the surprise of all, it was a quick success for his troops. After that the CIA had the opinion that the successful counterattack demonstrated the loyalty of the army and Diem’s strength as a leader and persuaded him to ignore a cable from Bao Dai demanding his resignation. It also produced an American policy reversal of enormous long-range significance. The American commitment to Diem provoked a final crisis with France with the result that the French declared if the United States persisted in its support, France would have to withdraw from Vietnam. This reaction of the French, although desirable from the long-term standpoint, would have left South Vietnam highly vulnerable, so Dulles persuaded the French to remain and to support Diem until the Vietnamese themselves could settle the future of their country through elections.
 Shaplen, R., (1970) “The road from war: Vietnam, 1965-1970” New York: Harper & Row, p. 283
 Herring, G. C., (1979) “America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam 1950 – 1975” New York: John Wiley & Sons, p. IX.
 Legler, A. and Hubinek, K., (1969) “Der Krieg in Vietnam. Bericht und Bibliographie bis 30.9.1968” Frankfurt am Main: Bernard & Graefe, p. 3; Smith, R. B., (1985) “An international history of the Vietnam War. Volume 1. Revolution versus Containment, 1955-61,” Houndmills: The Macmillan Press Limited, p. 22.
 Smith, p. 22.
 Herring, p. 44.
 Herring, p. 46.
 FitzGerald, F., (1972) “Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam“ Boston: Brown, p. 69
 quoted in Herring, p. 46.
 Herring, p. 47.
 Herring, p. 48.
 Herring, p. 50.