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Point of No Return
The Inevitability of the American War in Vietnam
Just as it is pointless to call heads or tails after the outcome of the toss is viewed, it is equally pointless to ask whether or not the United States’ War with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was inevitable from a post war perspective. A more pragmatic use of analysis would be to identify key moments when actions and decisions increased the odds that the U.S. would go to war in Vietnam. Arguably, the potential outcomes were more identifiable as November of 1955 approached (the official starting date of the conflict according to the U.S. DoD). Michael Lind, author of "Vietnam: The Necessary War" wrote, "The emerging scholarly synthesis interprets the war in the global context of the Cold War… In this view, Vietnam was neither a crime, a forfeit, nor a tragic mistake. It was a proxy conflict in the Cold War." This makes the beginning of the Long War a proper place to begin. The American War in Vietnam was not inevitable, however, the odds of armed conflict increased as specific events and decisions took place.
Vietnam is a nation that grew out of dynastic and then imperial control for over two thousand years by various domestic and Chinese dynasties. The French invaded in the mid to late nineteenth century, viewing Vietnam as a key geo-political strategic location and as having promising economic potential; Vietnam holds vast and various valuable natural resources. Gaining total control of Vietnam in 1883, the French went on to dominate the nation for the better part of one hundred years. In the 1920s, during the earliest years of the Cold War, a new level of radical political thought took root in Vietnam. Socialist ideals had been introduced to the Vietnamese through the writings of Chinese intellectuals decades earlier, inspiring a new movement with its own vision for independence. A young, radical man, Ho Chi Minh, started the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League in 1925, with the group acting as the "forerunner of Vietnamese Communism" (Bradley, 25). A major contribution to the future conflict between the U.S. and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam occurred in these years.
"After President Woodrow Wilson ignored a petition calling for Vietnamese self-determination drafted by Ho and other Vietnamese exiles… he became a founding member of the French Communist Party in 1920." (Bradley, 25) This was significant in two direct ways. First, Woodrow Wilson brought forth a unique foreign policy for his time, setting the precedent for international political organization and persistent rhetoric of a nation's right to self-determination. Wilson then entirely ignored a country's request for just such a right. Wilson was known for favoring stability over any revolutionary change, believing this to be the answer to a young United States’ rapid growth and success. Wilson supported despotic Latin American regimes at times for the sake of domestic economic stability and prosperity. U.S. presidents would continue to champion internationalism and self-determination, portraying some degree of what came to be called Wilsonianism. An essential component of Wilsonianism is the divergence between rhetoric and action. Wilson modeled this with his pursuit of the League of Nations combined with his ignoring Vietnam and actions in Latin America. Many of his successors would imitate his style for one paramount reason, national interest: power, stability, and security. Another source of significance was Ho establishing himself, at least in the eyes of the U.S., as a Communist. While the absence of actions from a U.S. President predating the war in Vietnam by roughly four decades may seem abstract, Wilson was setting the precedent for placing U.S. interests ahead of any international obligation to uphold another nation's right to self-determination. A little over a decade later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be one of the first to truly imitate Wilsonianism and to continue affecting what would effectively become the model for twentieth and twenty first century foreign policy.
As tensions rose and war broke out in Europe, the U.S. first stayed on the side lines, abiding by the Neutrality Acts. After FDR's New Deal failed to produce sufficient economic prosperity, he was drawn into the European conflict and eventually began preparing to fight Germany, only to declare war on Japan after the attack on the U.S. Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor; The U.S. had entered World War II. Walter LaFeber, author of "The American Age: U.S. Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad 1750 to the Present", wrote that "the Constitution's provisions that outlined how Americans were to go to war in an open, accountable process had broken down. Roosevelt secretly placed U.S. ships in areas where incidents could force Americans into war. He then misled the American people about his actions." (LaFeber, 405) This observation is all too reminiscent of when President Lyndon Johnson was granted The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by Congress in 1964. Senator J. Fullbright, a democratic Congressman during Johnson's time, had said that "FDR's deviousness in a good cause made it much easier for [President Lyndon Johnson] to practice the same kind of deviousness in a bad cause." (LaFeber, 406) FDR's practice was also utilized by Truman and Eisenhower, developing into the installation of the Military Assistance Advisory Group in 1955. Just as Wilson had modeled a misleading divergence between rhetoric and action while pursuing international stability (though not at the expense of U.S. power), FDR directly influenced Vietnam, setting a modern precedent for using deceit and abusing executive power in order to draw the U.S. into war, a tactic which eventually supplied a duplicitous legitimacy to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. FDR still had years left in office and was not finished exerting his influence onto the future events in south east Asia.
It is worth noting that FDR did not believe the French should be given control of Vietnam in the post war settlements. His plans for an international trusteeship "had rested on the widely shared belief that the Vietnamese were too backward to help themselves," (Bradley, 53). However, Truman's presidency and major Cold War developments in Asia would change the U.S. strategy. In terms of how the odds could have been drastically changed, it is also worth considering what may have come of U.S. aid to the French had FDR not decided to replace his vice-president, Henry Wallace, with Harry Truman, a Missouri Senator with little knowledge and experience with foreign policy. Wallace provided somewhat of a voice of reason, giving a speech in 1946 "in which he condemned the arms race and blamed U.S. as well as Soviet policy. Wallace urged a return to economic cooperation between the two powers." (LaFeber, 472) Wallace's acceptance (nationally) of some of the blame suggests his rhetoric may have been more true to his actions, should he have served as president. Wallace's discharge, among FDR's final decisions, is especially crucial in relation to the U.S.-Vietnam Conflict considering the fundamental role played by Harry Truman and his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson.
Before exploring the Truman administration's role in Vietnam, it is paramount to discuss the source of what became not only Truman's policy, but a general guideline for much of the rest of the Cold War. George Kennan, a Foreign Services diplomat who had spent much of the previous decade living in the Soviet Union was the source of this policy. Kennan sent a telegram which provided an explanation for Stalin's infamous "election" speech and advice on ways for the U.S. to respond. It ultimately earned him a ticket back to Washington D.C. Kennan's cable became known as "The Long Telegram", the original source of the Cold War policy of containment. Truman and Acheson favored Kennan's views over the alternatives impart from his timing and appeal to their initial ideas, but also "because it entirely blamed the Soviet Union for the growing Cold War." (LaFeber, 475) Containment and the domino theory (proposing that one nation falling to Communism was a catalyst for others to do the same) were used as justifications for the Truman Doctrine, enabling the U.S. to fight Communism in Greece and Turkey while Stalin did not interfere in this region. If Wilson and FDR built the foundation of what would lead to U.S. double standards in foreign policy, then Truman's administration carve the steps towards direct U.S. intervention in Vietnam. To further Kennan's influence, his cable and containment policy has been called Truman's "political miracle". It allowed him to pick himself up from a public approval rate of thirty-two percent and defeat Wallace in the election of 1948. The Cold War began so soon upon World War II's conclusion. Two nations emerged practicing what were perceived as polar opposite political and economic states. This was a threat to U.S. power; Containment can be seen as an extension of Wilsonianism as it was designed to protect the perceived U.S. interests. In a cruel form of irony, Kennan came to disapprove of the direction in which Truman's administration took his containment policy.
"For a few weeks in September, 1945, Vietnam was - for the first time and only time in its modern history - free of foreign domination, and united from north to south under Ho Chi Minh…" "Ho had built the Viet Minh into the only Vietnam-wide political organization capable of effective resistance to either the Japanese or the French." (Zinn, 470) These quotations are from a U.S. Defense Department study released by Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo in a collection of what came to be known as the "Pentagon Papers." The post war occupation saw the Chinese in the north and the British in the south. Both nations returned control to the French who formed the Associated States. This collaboration of western powers (the U.S. working through the Chinese) and disregard for the young United Nations is an example of how alliances among former and quasi imperial nations affected the odds of the coming years, encouraging further partisanship and discouraging international cooperation. Supporting the French in this case may be viewed by some as the first truly direct act the U.S. took against Vietnamese independence. This may have shocked Ho, considering that he served as an agent for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Ho wrote several letters to Truman in 1945 and 1946 asking for aid and the right to self-determination that the Atlantic Charter declared. Like Wilson, Truman ignored Ho's requests. The French War in Vietnam began later in 1946 with the French bombardment of Haiphong. Truman had a powerful opportunity here; He could have brought Ho's letters to a young United Nations. However, containing Communism was prioritized over any international rhetoric. In this way, Truman helped to shape a precedent that Wilson and FDR had set years before. Other results to consider is what may have come should the Truman administration not have gone with containment; this is not an abstract what if scenario, as the powerful adverse effects had been brought to his attention. Kennan thought of FDR as naive for thinking he could negotiate with Stalin in 1945. It may be fair to say that he underestimated the true nature of Wilsonianism, of firmly pursuing our national perspective of international stability, albeit not at the cost of U.S. power.
Although Truman was regaining popularity in the late forties, he was taking heat from members of Congress and U.S. citizens. Republican senator Robert Taft affirmed the hypocrisy of the Truman Doctrine, saying that "if we assume a special position in Greece and Turkey, we can hardly… object to the Russians continuing their domination," referring to Soviet activity in eastern Europe; Taft's connection could be made again in when the U.S. began providing direct military support to the former French Associated States. This observation beholds a powerful allusion to part of the heart of the Cold War; U.S. officials and citizens believed that they knew what was best for both our country and others (not to exclude the power concept, separate from political economics). What was best was a rhetorically democratic republic (corruption aside) and a Capitalist, free market economy. Had we accepted the truism that there is more than one way to live and instead focused on cooperation, we may live in a very different world today and the U.S. may have considerably less to do with the history of Vietnam. Heavily biased international involvement (by domestic means), in terms of containment and the Truman Doctrine, were dissected and discarded by Walter Lippmann. Lippmann noted how the Truman administration's actions seriously jeopardized the legitimacy of the young United Nations. Lippmann expressed that, should the U.S. continue with these policies, and then the U.N. would have to be "cast aside like the League of nations" or "transformed into an anti-Soviet coalition. In either event the U.N. will have been destroyed." (LaFeber, 484) Lippmann's reasoning would prove prescient in the coming U.N. involvement in Vietnam at the end of the French War (or rather the lack of follow through involved). Lippmann's faith in the Marshall Plan proved futile as the U.S.-Soviet relations heated up in Germany. Again, a voice contrasting Wilsonianism did not play a large role in U.S. policy. Even though it would not very likely leave the U.S. a sole, global superpower, Lippmann saw the potential for the U.N. to serve as a moderator of powers, an international equalizer.
In the early summer of 1948, the Soviets acted to further divide west Germany from the Communist controlled east. A cable sent to D.C. from U.S. General Lucius Clay expressing that war "may come with dramatic suddenness," (LaFeber, 484) resulted in Secretary of Defense Forrestal securing a sudden increase in military expenditures that would, according to historian Frank Kofsky, outdo Reagan, even in his prime. The increase in military expenditures and sudden scare tactic seemed to feed the arms race and increasing Cold War tensions on the part of the U.S. Stirring up somewhat of a panic at home in the U.S., Clay's cable was similar to FDR's misleading the people although again, this time for an ethically questionable cause. Kennan seemed to have ended up an ethical victim of a transformation of his own design: containment, twisted from diplomacy to militarism. With a different idea of what national interest, Kennan resigned from his post as policy planner in 1949.
When the Communist party defeated U.S. backed Chiang Kai-shek's KMT forces at Nanjing, U.S. policy took a sudden turn in the region. "The colonial war became a part of the emerging global cold war in 1950 when the People's Republic of China and the United States intervened." (Bradley, 42) The new Democratic Republic of Vietnam was recognized by many eastern European allies of the Soviet Union and newly Communist China. The U.S. changed its policy of stifling the Japanese economy, fearing they would turn to Chinese support if they remained weak and would eventually fall as another domino to Communism. The rich resources of Vietnam and other Indochinese nations were looked at as useful to rebooting the Japanese economy, which already largely depended on the region's rice production. This factor may have been difficult for the American public to decipher at first, as namely standard Cold War rhetoric was mediated, although the Pentagon Papers would shed light upon this matter in the years to come. To both Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, with Mao's China backing of the DRV, Vietnam had now truly become a proxy-conflict in the Cold War. "The Truman administration allocated $15 million in military and economic aid to the French and the Bao Dai government… At the war's end in 1954, the United States had paid as much of 80 per cent of its cost, some $1 billion." (Bradley, 56) Again, the Pentagon Papers supplied a view into the reasoning of officials at the time and a look at just how close we were to armed conflict just three months before the Democratic Republic of Vietnam agreed to negotiate with the French in Geneva. A National Security Council Memorandum, dated to August, 1953, discussed in part how losing Vietnam meant losing" security of the U.S. Communist control of Indo-China would endanger vital raw material sources," which the U.S. felt it needed for Japan, the last real hope of keeping much of the eastern hemisphere from entirely succumbing to Communism. It went on to affirm that “If the French actually decided to withdraw, the U.S. would have to consider most seriously whether to take over in this area." (Pentagon Papers, Volume 1, Document 16) U.S. officials were now openly, amongst themselves that is, considering superseding the U.N. with utter force in the name of U.S. interests: containing and diminishing Communism.
Eisenhower came into the presidential office early in 1953 to tumultuous times. Championed as a military hero in Europe during World War II, Eisenhower was considered experienced and a relatively moderate Republican. Well known for his negotiations in Korea during the first year of his presidency, even the official White House website's summaries of each of the nation's presidents leaves Vietnam out of Eisenhower's portion entirely (and Truman's as well for that matter). Eisenhower came into office expressing his desire for the French to grant Vietnam independence while also continuing monetary support. Eisenhower was hesitant to become involved in Vietnam, voicing that the U.S. stood alone among the powerful nations of having "a tradition of anti-colonialism." (Smith, 615) One could likely define the modes of colonialism, if not a more modern form, without much (if any) excess and disprove his thoughts on the matter. Eisenhower showed his Wilsonian-like idealism here and the Cold War motif of a high sense of morals and worth as a nation. He arguably would express more accurately the roots of his indecisiveness, leaving out anti-colonialism, including U.S. interest, and continuing part of the basic form of Wilsonianism.
Eisenhower saw the situation as "a course between two extremes," "One of which, I would say, would be unattainable, and the other unacceptable." (Smith, 613) Considering the year, the unattainable he referred to was a French victory, as they were currently struggling and requesting immediate and emergency aid at Dien Bien Phu. This battle was akin to the French going all-in in a poker game and was a strategy discouraged and discredited by Eisenhower. Still, it was deemed unacceptable for Vietnam to turn to Communism as a unified nation. Eisenhower would not put troops on the ground but did aid the French with two hundred planes, mechanics, and napalm, all despite his anti-colonial rhetoric. Perhaps he was not willing to colonize directly at this point, but he acquiesced to aiding and abetting in the name of containment. With the Chinese backing the Viet Minh, it hardly seemed that the nation would be left to self-determination. Regardless, the Pentagon Papers show that U.S. officials were not naive as to where popular support in Vietnam lie.
In an effort to consider strong possibilities that could have made the situation worse, one cannot overlook the Eisenhower administration's drastic proposal of response as the French forces moved toward defeat and negotiations. The advice from his vice president, Richard Nixon, and several other top members of his administration was to utilize atomic weaponry; to make the Cold War hot, so to speak. Eisenhower replied "You boys must be crazy." "We can't use those awful things against Asians for the second time in 10 years. My god." In this moment, Eisenhower served as a voice of reason that, should it have been absent, could have affected the odds of the coming events of the Cold War in such a powerful way as to render modern history unrecognizable. It could easily have been interpreted by the Chinese and Soviets as a blatant attack against Communism. A tragic convergence of Lippmann's and Kennan's worst fears nearly became reality; Eisenhower was the determining factor in avoiding any kind of outcome. Although, fortunately, Eisenhower was unwilling to escalate the conflict to a nuclear one nor to put U.S. troops on the ground, he did not resolve to allowing the Viet Minh to bring Communism upon all of Vietnam without a challenge. With France's surrender, both western nations considered the future they'd prefer in Vietnam. Eisenhower chose not to leave the aftermath of the French war to the U.N., going with his gut and U.S. interest; Communism was "unacceptable".
Negotiations in Geneva began in 1954 and it was decided that the country would be divided at the seventeenth parallel: the Viet Minh in the north and Bao Dai in the south, maintaining Frances influence in the nation. Plans were made for a nationwide election, taking place in 1956. DRV officials were "confident that… the DRV would win." (Bradley, 68) About to broach Saigon's southern government was an old official of the Bao Dai regime during France's later colonial years. Ngo Dinh Diem came from a reputable, Catholic, anti-Communist family. He spent the first three years of the 1950s living in a "seminary in New Jersey and came to impress a number of influential American political figures," including Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster, who would come to praise Diem in conversation with the French, if only ever so slightly. Diem began campaigning in France in 1953, aiming to lead Associated States in the south. There is no evidence of direct U.S. pressure on Bao Dai to appoint Diem. It was only after the French forces had been defeated that "it became clear that American rather than French power would be more critical in the post-war era" and "Bao Dai [did] turn to Diem," (Bradley, 81) Diem defeated the southern based sectarian forces which battled for a voice in his government or else refused to cooperate. Diem secured his power in October of 1955 and attempted to legitimize it with an election in the south. "Diem's vote tallies exceeded the number of registered voters." So, "despite a bit of embarrassment… the United States gave Diem its warm official embrace." (Bradley, 83) With this, Eisenhower took the stairs into Vietnam that Truman had carved for him in the foundation lay by Wilson and FDR. To make matters worse, Eisenhower's actions coupled with his predecessors cleared the way for his successors to not only follow suit but to increase the turmoil. The Eisenhower administration's blatant ignoring of a corrupt political foundation in the Associated States was accepted as the independence and self-determination the U.S. once claimed to strive for. It also serves as proof that such was not our obligation; stopping Communism was the priority which loomed as the largest threat to U.S. power and stability.
To avoid any disagreements over semantics, it is important to note that the U.S. has formally declared war just five times in the nation's history. The vast majority of military intervention, often called wars, are more technically defined as conflicts. Although such cases had occurred since the eighteenth century, it was after the conflict in Vietnam that the War Powers Resolution was passed by Congress, defining the precise rules by which the President could send troops abroad without a formal declaration of war. This leaves an ambiguity as to the official start of the conflict which is still debated today. The Department of Defense was charged with collecting the names in a database to be put on the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. The names of Sergeant Richard Fitzgibbon and others had been excluded from this database on account of the starting date for data collection, June 1, 1961. In 1998, several years after the conclusion of the cold war, the Department of Defense reviewed "the circumstances of loss for pre-1961 casualties," and changed the starting date for the collection of names to November 1, 1955. This marks the establishment of the Military Assistance Advisory Group, comprised of U.S. military personnel, to which Sergeant Fitzgibbon and eight other men belonged to whose names were added to the memorial. By our own standards, calling the soldiers of this group who were on the ground in Vietnam veterans makes them veterans of conflict, a conflict that officially began under the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower late in 1955. John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson would certainly escalate our involvement in the nation but the fact of the matter remains that we were already in it. Once the U.N. planned elections did not happen, we were in Vietnam to stay until 1975.
Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt certainly could not have predicted the conflict with Vietnam. However, in a world increasingly globalized largely on account of their own ideals and actions, they should have been able to recognize how prioritizing domestic interests, whether built upon fear or prosperity, might be echoed through the rest of the century and into the future. While both men had amazing dreams for a better world, they both could not and would not let go of the U.S. leading the way, resulting in steps to build and maintain power that resulted in, at times, double standards that time proved difficult to eradicate. There certainly has been a shift in U.N. power from the balance, however lopsided, offered by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Of course, it would not be sensible for a nation to drive itself to its own destruction for the sake of a young, idealistic organization. National interests some would argue may always dominate international politics. However, if the United Nations is to be both productive and sustainable in creating valid, greater peace, certain lines cannot be crossed. Eleanor Roosevelt was an early and influential U.N. advisor. Knowingly or not, she described an intrinsic issue of Wilsonianism and modern foreign policy: hypocrisy. When U.S. interests are decidedly worth superseding the declarations of the United Nations, as long as the rights of citizens of the world take the back seat "we could not have peace." (Eleanor Roosevelt). Ignoring violations where convenient for powerful nations still dominant in the U.N. injects inconsistencies and will only serve to hurt the organization and its quixotic goals. It would seem to be as Eisenhower said: "The Supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity."
1. LaFeber, Walter. The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad : 1750 to the Present. New York; London: Norton, 1994.
2. Bradley, Mark. Vietnam at War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
3. Smith, Jean Edward. Eisenhower: In War and Peace. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2013.
4. Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. Originally published: New York: HarperCollins, c2003. [New ed.], 2005.
5. 1, MICHAEL LIND-January, and 2013. “Why We Went to War in Vietnam.” The American Legion. Accessed November 23, 2013. http://www.legion.org/magazine/213233/why-we-went-war-vietnam.