Military history

Chapter Five


1. In Embryo: 1945–46

Ignorance was not a factor in the American endeavor in Vietnam pursued through five successive presidencies, although it was to become an excuse. Ignorance of country and culture there may have been, but not ignorance of the contra-indications, even the barriers, to achieving the objectives of American policy. All the conditions and reasons precluding a successful outcome were recognized or foreseen at one time or another during the thirty years of our involvement. American intervention was not a progress sucked step by step into an unsuspected quagmire. At no time were policy-makers unaware of the hazards, obstacles and negative developments. American intelligence was adequate, informed observation flowed steadily from the field to the capital, special investigative missions were repeatedly sent out, independent reportage to balance professional optimism—when that prevailed—was never lacking. The folly consisted not in pursuit of a goal in ignorance of the obstacles but in persistence in the pursuit despite accumulating evidence that the goal was unattainable, and the effect disproportionate to the American interest and eventually damaging to American society, reputation and disposable power in the world.

The question raised is why did the policy-makers close their minds to the evidence and its implications? This is the classic symptom of folly: refusal to draw conclusions from the evidence, addiction to the counter-productive. The “why” of this refusal and this addiction may disclose itself in the course of retracing the tale of American policy-making in Vietnam.

The beginning lay in the reversal during the last months of World War II of President Roosevelt’s previous determination not to allow, and certainly not to assist, the restoration of French colonial rule in Indochina. The engine of reversal was the belief, in response to strident French demand and damaged French pride resulting from the German occupation, that it was essential to strengthen France as the linchpin in Western Europe against Soviet expansion, which, as victory approached, had become the dominant concern in Washington. Until this time Roosevelt’s disgust with colonialism and his intention to see it eliminated in Asia had been firm (and a cause of basic dispute with Britain). He believed French misrule of Indochina represented colonialism in its worst form. Indochina “should not go back to France,” he told Secretary of State Cordell Hull in January 1943; “the case is perfectly clear. France has had the country—thirty million inhabitants—for nearly a hundred years and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning. [They] are entitled to something better than that.”

The President “has been more outspoken to me on that subject,” Churchill informed Anthony Eden, “than on any other colonial matter, and I imagine that it is one of his principal war aims to liberate Indochina from France.” Indeed it was. At the Cairo Conference in 1943, the President’s plans for Indochina made emphatic capital letters in General Stilwell’s diary: “NOT TO GO BACK TO FRANCE!” Roosevelt proposed trusteeship “for 25 years or so till we put them on their feet, just like the Philippines.” The idea thoroughly alarmed the British and evoked no interest from a former ruler of Vietnam, China. “I asked Chiang Kai-shek if he wanted Indochina,” Roosevelt told General Stilwell, “and he said point blank ‘Under no circumstances!’ Just like that—‘Under no circumstances!’ ”

The possibility of self-rule seems not to have occurred to Roosevelt, although Vietnam—the nation uniting Cochin China, Annam and Tonkin—had before the advent of the French been an independent kingdom with a long devotion to self-government in its many struggles against Chinese rule. This deficiency in Roosevelt’s view of the problem was typical of the prevailing attitude toward subject peoples at the time. Regardless of their history, they were not considered “ready” for self-rule until prepared for it under Western tutelage.

The British were adamantly opposed to trusteeship as a “bad precedent” for their own return to India, Burma and Malaya, and Roosevelt did not insist. He was not eager to add another controversy to the problem of India, which made Churchill rave every time the President raised it. Thereafter, with liberated France emerging in 1944 under an implacable Charles de Gaulle and insisting on her “right” of return, and with China as a trustee ruled out by her own now too obvious frailties, the President did not know what to do.

International trusteeship slowly collapsed from unpopularity. Roosevelt’s military advisers disliked it because they felt it might jeopardize United States freedom of control over former Japanese islands as naval bases. Europeanists of the State Department, always pro-French, thoroughly adopted the premise of French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault that unless there was “whole-hearted cooperation with France,” a Soviet-dominated Europe would threaten “Western civilization.” Cooperation, as viewed by the Europeanists, meant meeting French demands. On the other hand, their colleagues of the Far East (later the Southeast Asia) desk were urging that the goal of American policy should be eventual independence after some form of interim government which could “teach” the Vietnamese “to resume the responsibilities of self-government.”

In the struggle of policies, the future of Asians could not weigh against the Soviet shadow looming over Europe. In August 1944, at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference on post-war organization, the United States proposal for the colonies made no mention of future independence and offered only a weak-kneed trusteeship to be arranged with the “voluntary” consent of the former colonial power.

Already Indochina was beginning to present the recalcitrance to solution that would only deepen over the next thirty years. During the war, by arrangement with the Japanese conquerors of Indochina and the Vichy government, the French Colonial administration with its armed forces and civilian colonists had remained in the country as surrogate rulers. When, at the eleventh hour, in March 1945, the Japanese ousted them from control, some French groups joined the native resistance under the Viet-Minh, a coalition of nationalist groups including Communists which had been agitating for independence since 1939 and conducting resistance against the Japanese. SEAC (Southeast Asia Command), controlled by the British, made contact with them and invited collaboration. Because any aid to resistance groups would now unavoidably help the French return, Roosevelt shied away from the issue; he did not want to get “mixed up” in liberating Indochina from the Japanese, he irritably told Hull in January 1945. He refused a French request for American ships to transport French troops to Indochina and disallowed aid to the resistance, then reversed himself, insisting that any aid must be limited to action against the Japanese and not construed in the French interest.

Yet who was to take over when the war against Japan was won? Experience with China in the past year had been disillusioning, while the French voice was growing shrill and more imperative. Caught between the pressure of his Allies and his own deep-seated feeling that France should not “go back,” Roosevelt, worn out and near his end, tried to avoid the explicit and postpone decisions.

At Yalta in February 1945, when every other Allied problem was developing strain with the approach of victory, the conference skirted the subject, leaving it to the forthcoming organizing conference of the UN at San Francisco. Still worrying the problem, Roosevelt discussed it with a State Department adviser in preparation for the San Francisco meeting. He now retreated to the suggestion that France herself might be the trustee “with the proviso that independence was the ultimate goal.” Asked if he would settle for dominion status, he said no, “it must be independence … and you can quote me in the State Department.” A month later, on 12 April 1945, he died.

With the way now clear, Secretary of State Stettinius told the French at San Francisco twenty-six days after Roosevelt’s death that United States did not question French sovereignty over Indochina. He was responding to a tantrum staged by de Gaulle for the benefit of the American Ambassador in Paris in which the General had said that he had an expeditionary force ready to go to Indochina whose departure was prevented by the American refusal of transport, and that “if you are against us in Indochina” this would cause “terrific disappointment” in France, which could drive her into the Soviet orbit. “We do not want to become Communist … but I hope you do not push us into it.” The blackmail was primitive but tailored to suit what the Europeanists of American diplomacy wished to report. In May at San Francisco, Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew, the dynamic former Ambassador to Japan and polished veteran of the Foreign Service, assured Bidault with remarkable aplomb that “the record is entirely innocent of any official statement of this government questioning, even by implication, French sovereignty over that area.” Recognition is a rather different thing from absence of questioning. In the hands of an expert, that is how policy is made.

Roosevelt had been right about the French record in Indochina; it was the most exploitative in Asia. The French administration concentrated on promoting the production of those goods—rice, coal, rubber, silk and certain spices and minerals—most profitable to export while manipulating the native economy as a market for French products. It provided an easy and comfortable living for some 45,000 French bureaucrats, usually those of mediocre talent, among whom a French survey in 1910 discovered three who could speak a reasonably fluent Vietnamese. It recruited as interpreters and middlemen an assistant bureaucracy of “dependable” Vietnamese from the native upper class, awarding jobs as well as land grants and scholarships for higher education mainly to converts to Catholicism. It eliminated traditional village schools in favor of a French-style education which, for lack of qualified teachers, reached barely a fifth of the school-age population and, according to a French writer, left the Vietnamese “more illiterate than their fathers had been before the French occupation.” Its public health and medical services hardly functioned, with one doctor to every 38,000 inhabitants, compared with one for every 3000 in the American-governed Philippines. It substituted an alien French legal code for the traditional judicial system and created a Colonial Council in Cochin China whose minority of Vietnamese members were referred to as “representatives of the conquered race.” Above all, through the development of large company-owned plantations and the opportunities for corruption open to the collaborating class, it transformed a land-owning peasantry into landless sharecroppers who numbered over 50 percent of the population on the eve of World War II.

The French called their colonial system la mission civilisatrice, which satisfied self-image if not reality. It did not lack outspoken opponents on the left in France or well-intentioned governors and civil servants in the colony who made efforts toward reform from time to time which the vested interests of empire frustrated.

Protests and risings against French rule began with its inception. A people proud of their ancient overthrow of a thousand years of Chinese rule and of later more short-lived Chinese conquests, who had frequently rebelled against and deposed oppressive native dynasties, and who still celebrated the revolutionary heroes and guerrilla tactics of those feats, did not acquiesce passively in a foreign rule far more alien than the Chinese. Twice, in the 1880s and in 1916, Vietnamese emperors themselves had sponsored revolts that failed. While the collaborating class enriched itself from the French table, other men throbbed with the rising blood of the nationalistic impulse in the 20th century. Sects, parties, secret societies—nationalist, constitutionalist, quasi-religious—were formed, agitated, demonstrated and led strikes that ended in French prisons, deportations and firing squads. In 1919, at the Versailles Peace Conference, Ho Chi Minh tried to present an appeal for Vietnamese independence but was turned away without being heard. He subsequently joined the Indochinese Communist Party, organized from Moscow in the 1920s like the Chinese, which gradually took over leadership of the independence movement and raised peasant insurrections in the early 1930s. Thousands were arrested and imprisoned, many executed and some 500 sentenced for life.

Amnestied when the Popular Front government came to power in France, the survivors slowly reconstructed the movement and formed the coalition of the Viet-Minh in 1939. When France capitulated to the Nazis in 1940, the moment seemed at hand for renewed revolt. This too was ferociously suppressed, but the spirit and the aim revived in subsequent resistance to the Japanese, in which the Communists, led by Ho Chi Minh, took the most active part. As in China, the Japanese invasion endowed them with a nationalist cause and when the colonial French let the Japanese enter without a fight, the resistance groups learned contempt and found renewed opportunity.

During the war clandestine American OSS groups operated in Indochina, joining or aiding the resistance. Through airdrops they supplied weapons and on one occasion quinine and sulfa drugs that saved Ho Chi Minh’s life from an attack of malaria and dysentery. In talks with OSS officers, Ho said he knew the history of America’s own struggle for independence from colonial rule and he was sure “the United States would help in throwing out the French and in establishing an independent country.” Impressed by the American pledge to the Philippines, he said he believed that “America was for free popular governments all over the world and that it opposed colonialism in all its forms.” This of course was not disinterested conversation. He wanted his message to go further; he wanted arms and aid for a government that he said was “organized and ready to go.” The OSS officers were sympathetic but their district chief in China insisted on a policy of “giving no help to individuals such as Ho who were known Communists and therefore sources of trouble.”

At Potsdam in July 1945, just before the Japanese defeat, the question of who would take control of Indochina and accept the Japanese surrender was resolved by a secret decision of the Allies that the country below the 16th parallel would be placed under British command and that north of the 16th under Chinese. Since the British were obviously dedicated to colonial restoration, this decision ensured a French return. The United States acquiesced because Roosevelt was dead, because American sentiment is always more concerned with bringing the boys home than with caretaking after a war and because, given Europe’s weakened condition, America was reluctant to enter into a quarrel with her Allies. Pressed by the French offer of an army corps of 62,000 for the Pacific front, to be commanded by a hero of the liberation, General Jacques Ledere, the Combined Chiefs at Potsdam accepted in principle on the understanding that the force would come under American or British command in an area to be determined later, and that transport would not be available until the spring of 1946. It was hardly a secret that the area would be Indochina and the mission its reconquest.

French restoration thus slid into American policy. Although President Truman meant to carry out Roosevelt’s intentions, he felt no sense of personal crusade against colonialism and found no written directives left by his predecessor. He was moreover surrounded by military chiefs who, according to Admiral Ernest J. King, the Naval Chief of Staff, “are by no means in favor of keeping the French out of Indochina.” Rather, they thought in terms of Western military power replacing the Japanese.

American acceptance was confirmed in August when General de Gaulle descended upon Washington and was told by President Truman, now thoroughly indoctrinated in the threat of Soviet expansion, “My government offers no opposition to the return of the French army and authority in Indochina.” De Gaulle promptly announced this statement to a press conference next day, adding that “of course [France] also intends to introduce a new regime” of political reform, “but for us sovereignty is a major question.”

He was nothing if not explicit. He had told the Free French at their conference at Brazzaville in January 1944 that they must recognize that political evolution of the colonies had been hastened by the war and that France would meet it “nobly, liberally” but with no intention of yielding sovereignty. The Brazzaville Declaration on colonial policy stated that “the aims of the mission civilisatrice … exclude any idea of autonomy and any possibility of development outside the French empire bloc. The attainment of ‘self-government’ in the colonies, even in the distant future, must be excluded.”

A week after the Japanese surrender in August 1945, a Viet-Minh congress in Hanoi proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and after taking control in Saigon declared its independence, quoting the opening phrases of the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. In a message to the UN transmitted by the OSS, Ho Chi Minh warned that if the UN failed to fulfill the promise of its charter and failed to grant independence to Indochina, “we will keep on fighting until we get it.”

A moving message to de Gaulle composed in the name of the last Emperor, the flexible Bao Dai, who had first served the French, then the Japanese, and had now amiably abdicated in favor of the Democratic Republic, was no less prophetic. “You would understand better if you could see what is happening here, if you could feel this desire for independence which is in everyone’s heart and which no human force can any longer restrain. Even if you come to re-establish a French administration here, it will no longer be obeyed: each village will be a nest of resistance, each former collaborator an enemy, and your officials and colonists will themselves ask to leave this atmosphere which they will be unable to breathe.”

It was one more prophecy to fall on deaf ears. De Gaulle, who received the message while he was in Washington, doubtless did not transmit it to his American hosts, but nothing suggests that it would have had any effect if he had. A few weeks later, Washington informed American agents in Hanoi that steps were being taken to “facilitate the recovery of power by the French.”

Self-declared independence lasted less than a month. Ferried from Ceylon by American C-47S, a British general and British troops with a scattering of French units entered Saigon on 12 September, supplemented by 1500 French troops who arrived on French warships two days later. Meanwhile, the bulk of two French divisions had sailed from Marseilles and Madagascar on board two American troopships in the first significant act of American aid. Since the shipping pool was controlled by the Combined Chiefs and the policy decision had already been taken at Potsdam, SEAC could request and be allocated the transports from those available in the pool. Afterward, the State Department, closing the stable door, advised the War Department that it was contrary to United States policy “to employ American flag vessels or aircraft to transport troops of any nationality to or from the Netherlands East Indies or French Indochina, or to permit the use of such craft to carry arms, ammunition or military equipment to those areas.”

Until the French arrived, the British command in Saigon used Japanese units, whose disarming was postponed, against the rebel regime.* When a delegation of the Viet-Minh waited on General Douglas Gracey, the British commander, with proposals for maintaining order, “They said, ‘welcome’ and all that sort of thing,” he recalled. “It was an unpleasant situation and I promptly kicked them out.” Though characteristically British, the remark was indicative of an attitude that was to infiltrate and deeply affect the future American endeavor as it developed in Vietnam. Finding expression in the terms “slopeys” and “gooks,” it reflected not only the view of Asians as inferior to whites but of the people of Indochina, and therefore their pretensions to independence, as of lesser account than, say, the Japanese or Chinese. The Japanese, notwithstanding their unspeakable atrocities, had guns and battleships and modern industry; the Chinese were both admired through the influence of the missionaries and feared as the Yellow Peril and had to be appreciated for sheer land mass and numbers. Without such endowments, the Indochinese commanded less respect. Foreshadowed in General Gracey’s words, the result was to be a fatal underestimation of the opponent.

The French divisions from Europe arrived in October and November, some of them wearing uniforms of American issue and carrying American equipment. They plunged into the old business of armed suppression during the first fierce days of arrests and massacre. While they regained control of Saigon, the Viet-Minh faded into the countryside, but this time colonial restoration was incomplete. In the northern zone assigned to the Chinese, the Vietnamese, armed with weapons from the Japanese surrender which the Chinese sold them, retained control under Ho’s Provisional Government in Hanoi. The Chinese did not interfere and, loaded with booty from their occupation, eventually withdrew over the border.

In the confusion of peoples and parties, OSS units suffered from a “lack of directives” from Washington which reflected the confusion of policy at home. Traditional anti-colonialism had left a reservoir of ambivalence, but the governing assumption that a “stable, strong and friendly” France was essential to fill the vacuum in Europe tipped the balance of policy. Late in 1945, $160 million of equipment was sold to the French for use in Indochina and remaining OSS units were instructed to serve as “observers to punitive missions against the rebellious Annamites.” Eight separate appeals addressed by Ho Chi Minh to President Truman and the Secretary of State over a period of five months asking for support and economic aid went unanswered on the ground that his government was not recognized by the United States.

The snub was not given in ignorance of conditions in Vietnam. A report in October by Arthur Hale, of the United States Information Service in Hanoi, made it apparent that French promises of reform and some vague shape of autonomy, which American policy counted on, were not going to satisfy. The people wanted the French out. Posters crying “Independence or Death!” in all towns and villages of the north “scream at the passerby from every wall and window.” Communist influence was not concealed; the flag of the Provisional Government resembled the Soviet flag, Marxist pamphlets lay on official desks, but the same might be said for American influence. The promise to the Philippines was a constant theme, and a vigorous enthusiasm was felt for American prowess in the war and for American productive capacity and technical and social progress. Given, however, the lack of any American response to the Viet-Minh and such incidents “as the recent shipment of French troops to Saigon in American vessels,” the goodwill had faded. Hale’s report too was prophetic: if the French overcome the Provisional Government, “it can be assumed as a certainty that the movement for independence will not die.” The certainty was there at the start.

Other observers concurred. The French might take the cities in the north, wrote a correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor, “but it is extremely doubtful if they will ever be able to put down the independence movement as a whole. They have not enough troops to root out every guerrilla band in the north and they have shown little capacity to cope with guerrilla fighting.”

Asked by the State Department for an evaluation of American prestige in Asia, which it suspected was “seriously deteriorating,” Charles Yost, political officer in Bangkok and a future Ambassador to the UN, confirmed the Department’s impression, and he too cited the use of American vessels to transport French troops and “the use of American equipment by these troops.” Goodwill toward America as the champion of subject peoples had been very great after the war, but American failure to support the nationalist movement “does not seem likely to contribute to long-term stability in Southeast Asia.” The restoration of colonial regimes, Yost warned, was unsuited to existing conditions “and cannot for that reason long be maintained except by force.”

That American policy nevertheless supported the French effort was a choice of the more compelling necessity over what seemed a lesser one. George Marshall as Secretary of State acknowledged the existence of “dangerously outmoded colonial outlook and methods in the area,” but “on the other hand … we are not interested in seeing colonial empire administrations supplanted by philosophy and political organizations emanating from and controlled by Kremlin.” This was the crux. The French peppered Washington with “proof” of Ho Chi Minh’s contacts with Moscow, and Dean Acheson, Under-Secretary of State, was in no doubt. “Keep in mind,” he cabled Abbot Low Moffat, chief for Southeast Asia affairs, who went to Hanoi in December 1946, “Ho’s clear record as agent international communism, absence evidence recantation.”

Moffat, a warm partisan of the Asian cause, reported that in conversation Ho had disclaimed Communism as his aim, saying that if he could secure independence, that was enough for his lifetime. “Perhaps,” he had added wryly, “fifty years from now the United States will be Communist and then Vietnam can be also.” Moffat concluded that the group in charge of Vietnam “are at this stage nationalist first” and an effective nationalist state must precede a Communist state, which as an objective “must for the time being be secondary.” Whether he was deluded history cannot answer, for who can be certain that, at the time Ho was seeking American support, the development of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was as irrevocably Communist as the course of events was to make it?

The compulsion of the French to regain their empire derived, after the humiliation of World War II, from a sense that their future as a great power was at stake, but they realized the necessity of some adjustment, at least pro forma. During temporary truces with the Viet-Minh in 1946 they tried to negotiate a basis of agreement with promises of some unspecified form of self-government at some unspecified date, so worded as never to ruffle the edges of sovereignty. These were “paper concessions,” according to the State Department’s Far East desk. When they failed, hostilities resumed and by the end of 1946 the first, or French, Indochina war was fully under way. There was no illusion. If the French resumed the repressive measures and policy of force of the past, reported the American Consul in Saigon, “no settlement of situation can be expected foreseeable future and period guerrilla warfare will follow.” The French commander assigned to carry out the reconquest himself saw, or felt, the truth. After his first survey of the situation, General Leclerc said to his political adviser, “It would take 500,000 men to do it and even then it could not be done.” In one sentence he laid out the future, and his estimate would still be valid when 500,000 American soldiers were actually in the field two decades later.

Was American policy already folly in 1945–46? Even judged in terms of the thinking of the time, the answer must be affirmative, for most Americans concerned with foreign policy understood that the colonial era had come to an end and that its revival was an exercise in putting Humpty-Dumpty back on the wall. No matter how strong the arguments for bolstering France, folly lay in attaching policy to a cause that prevailing information indicated was hopeless. Policy-makers assured themselves they were not attaching the United States to that cause. They took comfort in French pledges of future autonomy or else in the belief that France lacked the power to regain her empire and would have to come to terms with the Vietnamese eventually. Both Truman and Acheson assured the American public that the U.S. position was “predicated on the assumption that the French claim to have the support of the population of Indochina is borne out by future events.” To assist her now for the sake of a strong presence in Europe was therefore no crime—though it was a losing proposition.

The alternative was present and available: to gain for America an enviable primacy among Western nations and confirm the foundation of goodwill in Asia by aligning ourselves with, even supporting, the independence movements. If this seemed indicated to some, particularly at the Far East desk, it was less persuasive to others for whom self-government by Asians was not something to base a policy on and insignificant in comparison to the security of Europe. In Indochina choice of the alternative would have required imagination, which is never a long suit with governments, and willingness to take the risk of supporting a Communist when Communism was still seen as a solid bloc. Tito was then its only splinter, and the possibility of another deviation was not envisaged. Moreover, it would be divisive of the Allies. Support of Humpty-Dumpty was chosen instead, and once a policy has been adopted and implemented, all subsequent activity becomes an effort to justify it.

An uneasy suspicion that we were pursuing folly was to haunt the American engagement in Vietnam from beginning to end, revealing itself in sometimes contorted policy directives. In a summary of the American position for diplomats in Paris, Saigon and Hanoi, the French desk in 1947 drafted for Secretary George Marshall a directive of wishful thinking combined with uncertainty. It saw the independence movements of the new nations of Southeast Asia, representing, so it said, a quarter of the world’s inhabitants, as a “momentous factor in world stability”; it believed the best safeguard against this struggle’s succumbing to anti-Western tendencies and Communist influence was continued association with former colonial powers; it acknowledged on the one hand that the association “must be voluntary” and on the other hand that the war in Indochina could only destroy voluntary cooperation, and “irrevocably alienate Vietnamese”; it said that the United States wanted to be helpful without wishing to intervene or offer any solution of its own, yet was “inescapably concerned” with the developments in Indochina. Whether foreign service officers were enlightened by this document is questionable.

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