Military history

2. Self-Hypnosis: 1946–54

Inchoate cold war entered maturity with Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946, in which he stated that no one knew “the limits, if any, to [the] expansive and proselytising tendencies” of the Soviet Union and its Communist International.

The situation was in fact alarming. Roosevelt’s vision of a postwar partnership of wartime allies to maintain international order had vanished, as he knew before he died, when on his last day in Washington he acknowledged that Stalin “has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta.” By 1946, Soviet control had been extended over Poland, East Germany, Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Albania and more or less over Yugoslavia. Domestic Communist parties in France and Italy appeared as further threats. From the Embassy in Moscow George Kennan formulated “a long-term patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansionist tendencies.” In 1947, Secretary Marshall summoned America to develop “a sense of responsibility for world order and security” and a recognition of the “overwhelming importance” of United States acts and failures to act in this regard. Moscow answered by a declaration that all Communist parties in the world were united in common resistance to American imperialism. The Truman Doctrine was announced, committing America to support of free peoples resisting subjugation by “armed minorities” or by external pressure, and the Marshall Plan adopted for economic aid to revive the weakened countries of Europe. A major effort was launched and succeeded in obstructing a Communist takeover in Greece and Turkey.

In February 1948, Soviet Russia absorbed Czechoslovakia. The United States re-enacted the draft for military service. In April of that year Russia imposed the Berlin blockade. America responded with the bold airlift and kept it flying for a year until the blockade was withdrawn. In 1949, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was formed for a common defense against attack on any one of its member countries.

The event that shook the balance of forces was the Communist victory in China in October 1949, a shock as stunning as Pearl Harbor. Hysteria over the “loss” of China took hold of America and rabid spokesmen of the China Lobby in Congress and the business world became the loudest voices in political life. The shock was the more dismaying because only a few weeks earlier, in September, Russia had successfully exploded an atomic bomb. As 1950 opened, Senator Joseph McCarthy announced that he had a list of 205 “card-carrying” Communists in the employ of the State Department, and for the next four years Americans joined in more than they opposed his vilification of fellow citizens as Communist infiltrators of American society. In June 1950, North Korea, a Soviet client, invaded South Korea, an American client, and President Truman ordered American military response under United Nations authority. During these abject years the Rosenbergs were tried for treason, convicted in 1951, and when President Eisenhower refused to commute a death sentence that would make orphans of two children, were subsequently executed.

These were the components of the cold war that shaped the course of events in Indochina. Its central belief was that every movement bearing the label Communist represented a single conspiracy for world conquest under the Soviet aegis. The effect of Mao’s victory in China seemed a terrible affirmation and when followed by the attack on South Korea induced a panic period in American policy regarding Asia. It was now “clear” to the National Security Council “that Southeast Asia is the target for a coordinated offensive directed by the Kremlin.” Indochina was viewed as the focus, partly because a war was already in progress there with European troops pitted against an indigenous force under Communist leadership. It was declared to be the “key area,” which, if allowed to fall to the Communists, would drag Burma and Thailand in its wake. At first, the Communist offensive was seen as generated by Soviet Russia. After Chinese troops entered the Korean combat, China was seen as the main mover, with Vietnam as its next target. Ho and the Viet-Minh took on a more sinister aspect as agents of the international Communist conspiracy and ipso facto hostile to the United States. When Chinese Communist amphibious forces seized the island of Hainan in the Gulf of Tonkin, held until then by Chiang Kai-shek, the level of alarm rose. In response, on 8 May 1950, President Truman announced the first direct grant of military aid to France and the Associated States of Indochina in the amount of $10 million.

The Associated States, comprising Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, were a creation of France in the previous year under the Elysée Agreement, which had recognized the “independence” of Vietnam and resurrected Bao Dai as its chief of state. Thereupon, the Soviet Union and China, in February 1950, promptly recognized the Democratic Republic in Hanoi as the legitimate government, followed in the same month by the United States’ recognition of Bao Dai. No actual transfer of administrative powers or authority into Vietnamese hands resulted from the Elysée Agreement, and the French retained control of the Vietnamese army as before. The Bao Dai regime, with officials more efficient in graft than in government, was inept and corrupt. Yet Americans tried to persuade themselves that Bao Dai was a valid nationalist alternative to Ho Chi Minh and that they could thus support France, his sponsor, without incurring the stigma of colonialism. As the hoped-for alternative, however, the Bao Dai solution proved empty, as even its titular figure acknowledged. “Present political conditions,” he said to an adviser, Dr. Phan Quang Dan, “make it impossible to convince the people and troops that they have something worthwhile fighting for.” If he expanded his army, as the Americans were urging, it could be dangerous because they might defect en masse to the Viet-Minh. Dr. Dan, a sincere nationalist, was more emphatic. The Vietnamese army, he said, officered by the French and with virtually no leaders of its own, was “without ideology, without objective, without enthusiasm, without fighting spirit and without popular backing.”

American government was in no ignorance of this state of affairs. Robert Blum, of the American Technical and Economic Mission accredited to Vietnam, reported that Bao Dai’s government “gives little promise of developing competence or winning the loyalty of the population,” that the situation “shows no substantial prospect of improving,” that in the circumstances no decisive military victory was likely to be achieved by the French, leading to the gloomy conclusion that “the attainment of American objectives is remote.” After eighteen months of frustration, Blum returned home in 1952.

While Washington departments continually assured each other that the “development of genuine nationalism” in Indochina was essential to its defense, and repeatedly tried to push France and the passive Bao Dai himself to perform more actively in that direction, they continued to ignore the implications of their own knowledge. Regardless of the absence of popular backing for the Bao Dai regime, the specter of advancing Communism demanded aid to France against the Viet-Minh. Immediately following the invasion of Korea, Truman announced the first despatch to Indochina of American personnel. Called the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), starting with 35 men at the opening of the Korean war and increasing to about 200, it was supposed to introduce American know-how—which the French did not want and persistently resented—and supervise the use of American equipment, the first consignment of which was airlifted to Saigon in July. At French insistence, the materiel was delivered directly to the French themselves, not to the Associated States, demonstrating all too patently the fiction of independence.

With this step onto the ground of the struggle, American policymakers felt impelled to assert the American interests that justified it. Policy statements about the vital importance of Southeast Asia began to pour from the government. It was presented as an area “vital to the future of the free world,” whose strategic position and rich natural resources must be held available to the free nations and denied to international Communism. Communist rulers of the Kremlin, President Truman told the American people in a radio address, were engaged in a “monstrous conspiracy to stamp out freedom all over the world.” If they succeeded the United States would be among “their principal victims.” He called the situation a “clear and present danger” and raised the Munich argument that was to become a staple: if the free nations had then acted together and in time to crush the aggression of the dictators, World War II might have been averted.

The lesson may have been true, but it was misapplied. The aggression of the 1930s in Manchuria, North China, Ethiopia, the Rhineland, Spain and the Sudetenland was overt, with armed invasions, planes and bombs, and occupying forces; the envisaged aggression against Indochina of 1950 was a self-induced state of mind in the observers. In a revealing appraisal, the National Security Council (NSC) in February 1950 called the threat to Indochina only one phase of “anticipated” Communist plans to “seize all of Southeast Asia.” Yet a State Department team investigating Communist infiltration of Southeast Asia in 1948 had found no traces of the Kremlin in Indochina. “If there is a Moscow-directed conspiracy in Southeast Asia,” it reported, “Indochina is an anomaly so far.”

That the Russian danger in the world was nevertheless real, that the Communist system was hostile to American democracy and American interests, that Soviet Communism was expansionist and directed toward the absorption of neighboring and other vulnerable states, was undeniable. That it was joined in aggressive partnership with Communist China was a natural conclusion but exaggerated and soon to prove mistaken. That it was right and proper in the national interest for American policy-makers to try to contain this inimical system and to thwart it where possible goes without question. That the Communist system threatened American security through Indochina, however, was an extrapolation leading to folly.

American security entered the equation when China entered the Korean war, a development that President Truman said put the United States in “grave danger” from “Communist aggression.” Doubtless General MacArthur’s crossing of the 38th parallel into Communist-held territory—the action which provoked the Chinese entry—put China’s security in grave danger from the Chinese point of view, but the opponent’s point of view is rarely considered in the paranoia of war. From the moment the Chinese were engaged in actual combat against Americans, Washington was gripped by the assumption from then on that Chinese Communism was on the march and would next appear over China’s southern border in Indochina.

Battered and abused by charges of having “lost” China and having invited the attack on Korea by Acheson’s “perimeter” speech—leaving Korea outside the perimeter—the Truman administration was determined to show itself combatively confronting the Communist conspiracy. The menace to all Southeast Asia became doctrine. Soviet rulers, Truman told Congress in a special message announcing a program of $930 million in military and economic aid for Southeast Asia, had already reduced China to a satellite, were preparing the same fate for Korea, Indochina, Burma and the Philippines and thus threatened “to absorb the manpower and vital resources of the East into the Soviet design of world conquest.” This would “deprive the free nations of some of their most vitally needed raw materials” and transform the peaceful millions of the East into “pawns of the Kremlin.” The otherwise suave Acheson echoed the rhetoric on repeated occasions. He found proof of the Communist conspiracy in Russia’s and China’s recognition of Ho Chi Minh, which should “remove any illusions” as to Ho’s nationalism and reveal him “in his true colors as the mortal enemy of native independence in Indochina.”

A new voice, that of Dean Rusk, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, who was to prove the most unwavering, the most convinced, the most sincere, the most rigid and the longest-lasting of all the policy-makers on Vietnam, found a way to put Vietnam’s struggle for independence, the source of so much American ambivalence, in a new light. The issue, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was not French colonialism but whether the people of Vietnam were to be “absorbed by force into a new colonialism of a Soviet Communist empire.” The Viet-Minh were a “tool of the Politburo” and therefore “part of an international war.”

By these arguments the American government convinced itself that it was a vital American interest to keep Indochina out of the Communist orbit and that therefore French victory in Indochina, whether colonial or not, was “essential to the security of the free world.” (The question of what France was fighting for if Vietnam was indeed to be “independent” was not discussed.) The word passed to the public in a New York Times editorial that proclaimed, “It should now be clear to all Americans that France is holding a front-line section of great importance to the whole free world.” While there was no impulse to send American troops, the United States was determined to “save for the West the Indochinese rice bowl, the strategic position, the prestige that could be shaken throughout Southeast Asia and all the way to Tunisia and Morocco.” The NSC at this time drew a prospect of even Japan succumbing if it were cut off from the rubber and tin and oil of Malaya and Indonesia and its rice imports from Burma and Thailand.

The process of self-hypnosis came to its logical conclusion: if the preservation of Indochina from Communist control was indeed so vital to American interest, should we not be actively engaged in its defense? Armed intervention, given the fear that it might precipitate a Chinese military response as it had in Korea, aroused no eagerness in the American military establishment. “No land war in Asia” was an old and trusted dogma in the Army. Cautionary voices were not lacking. Back in 1950, at the time of China’s intervention in Korea, a State Department memorandum by John Ohly, Deputy Director in the Office of Mutual Defense Assistance, had suggested the advisability of taking a second look at where we were going in Indochina. Not only might we fail, wasting resources in the process, but we were moving toward a point when our responsibilities would “tend to supplant rather than complement the French,” and we would become a scapegoat for the French and be sucked into direct intervention. “These situations have a way of snowballing,” Ohly concluded. As is the fate of so many prescient memoranda, his counsel made no impact on, if it ever reached, the upper echelon but lay silently in the files while history validated its every word.

Before it went out of office, the Truman Administration adopted a policy paper by NSC which recommended, in the event of overt Chinese intervention in Indochina, naval and air action by the United States in support of the French and against targets on the Chinese mainland but made no mention of land forces.

The advent of the Republicans under General Eisenhower in the election of 1952 brought in an Administration pushed from the right by extremists of anti-Communism and the China Lobby. Opinions of the Lobby were epitomized in a remark of the new Assistant Secretary of State, Walter Robertson, a fervent partisan of Chiang Kai-shek, who, when given a CIA estimate of Red China’s steel production, replied indignantly that the figures must be wrong because “No regime as malevolent as the Chinese Communists could ever produce five million tons of steel.” The extremists were led by Senator William Knowland of California, Majority Leader of the Senate, who accused the Democrats of “placing Asia in danger of Soviet conquest,” fulminated regularly against Red China and swore to hold the Administration accountable if Mao’s People’s Republic were admitted to the UN. The pressure of the far right on the Administration was a constant factor. This was “the Great Beast to be feared,” as Lyndon Johnson, though under far less pressure, was to testify to its power nearly fifteen years later.

The Republicans also brought to office a domineering policy-maker in foreign affairs, John Foster Dulles, a man devoted to the offensive by training and temperament. If Truman and Acheson adopted cold war rhetoric even to excess, it was at least partly in reaction to being accused of belonging to the “party of treason,” as McCarthy called the Democrats, and to the peculiar national frenzy over the “loss” of China. Dulles, the new Secretary of State, was a cold war extremist naturally, a drum-beater with the instincts of a bully, deliberately combative because that was the way he believed foreign relations should be conducted. Brinksmanship was his contribution, counter-offensive rather than containment was his policy, “a passion to control events” was his motor.

When a Senator in 1949, following the fall of Nationalist China, he stated that “our Pacific front” was now “wide open to encirclement from the East.… Today the situation is critical.” His concept of encirclement was a Chinese Communist advance to Formosa and from there to the Philippines, and a capacity, if once allowed to push beyond the Chinese mainland, “to move and keep on moving.” When Mac-Arthur’s forces in Korea were thrown back by the Chinese, Dulles’ estimate of the enemy grew more bloodcurdling. Huk banditry in the Philippines, Ho Chi Minh’s war in Indochina, a Communist rising in Malaya, Communist revolution in China and the attack on Korea were “all part of a single pattern of violence planned and plotted for 35 years and finally brought to a consummation of fighting and disorder” across the length of Asia.

This melding of the several countries of East Asia as if they had no individuality, no history, no differences or circumstances of their own was the thinking, either uninformed and shallow or knowingly false, that created the domino theory and allowed it to become dogma. Because Orientals on the whole looked alike to Western eyes, they were expected to act alike and perform with the uniformity of dominoes.

As the son of a Presbyterian minister, a relative of missionaries and himself a devoted churchman, Dulles possessed the zeal and self-righteousness that such connections endow, not precluding the behavior, in some of his official dealings, of a scoundrel. His perception of Chiang Kai-shek and Syngman Rhee was that “these two gentlemen are modern-day equivalents of the founders of the Church. They are Christian gentlemen who have suffered for their faith.” Far from a source of suffering, their adopted faith had in fact been a source of power for both.

Under the title “A Policy of Boldness,” Dulles published in Life magazine in 1952 his belief that with regard to Communist-dominated countries, America must demonstrate that “it wants and expects liberation to occur”—“liberation” meaning of course overthrow of Communist regimes. As author of the foreign-policy section of the Republican platform in that year, he rejected containment as “negative, futile and immoral,” and spoke in a muffled jargon of encouraging “liberating influences … in the captive world,” which would cause such stresses as would make “the rulers impotent to continue their monstrous ways and mark the beginning of the end.” If the rhetoric was more than the usual bluster even for an election year platform, it characterized the man who was to be a policy-making, not merely an office-holding, Secretary of State throughout the next seven years. During his tenure Dulles became the supreme public relations officer of American intervention in Vietnam.

Stalin’s death in March 1953 was the event that opened a path to the Geneva Conference of 1954 and an international settlement of the war in Indochina. Taut confrontation in Europe loosened when the new Russian premier, Georgi Malenkov, used the funeral oration to speak of the need for “peaceful coexistence.” Foreign Minister Molotov followed with overtures toward a conference of the powers. President Eisenhower responded, much to Dulles’ distaste, with a speech welcoming signs of détente and expressing Americans’ desire, once an “honorable armistice” was concluded in Korea, for “a peace that is true and total” throughout Asia and the world. Pravda and lzvestia paid him the compliment of printing the speech verbatim. Dulles had attempted to write into it a condition linking American agreement to a Korean armistice dependent on the Kremlin’s explicit promise to end the Viet-Minh’s rebellion against the French; he was making his usual assumption that Moscow pulled the operative strings in Hanoi. In this case his suggestion did not prevail, but his premise of the Soviet Union as an omnipotent master criminal of world conspiracy never wavered.

Conclusion of the Korean armistice in July 1953 had raised a new alarm that China might transfer its forces to aid a Communist victory in Vietnam. The Viet-Minh had succeeded in opening supply lines to China and they were receiving fuel and ammunition that had risen from a trickle of ten tons a month to more than 500 tons a month. The option of American military intervention was now intensively debated in the government. As the arm that would bear the burden of land war, and sullen from the experience of limited war in Korea, the Army did not want to fight under such restrictions again. The Plans Division of the General Staff struck the central issue when it asked for a “re-evaluation of the importance of Indochina and Southeast Asia in relation to the possible cost of saving it.” The same concern had once worried Lord Barrington when he argued that if Britain made war on its colonies, “the contest will cost us more than we can ever gain by success.” This crucial question of relative value was never answered for Vietnam, as it never had been in the case of the colonies.

While several naval and air commanders in the discussions urged a decision in favor of combat, Vice-Admiral A. C. Davis, the adviser on foreign military affairs to the Secretary of Defense, counseled that involvement in the Indochina war “should be avoided at all practical costs,” but if national policy determined no other alternative, “the United States should not be self-duped into believing in the possibility of partial involvement such as ‘Naval and Air units only.’ ” Air strength, to be worth anything, he reminded the group, would require land bases and bases would require ground force personnel and these would require ground combat units for protection. “It must be understood that there is no cheap way to fight a war, once committed.”

“Partial involvement” was—not without reason—the key objection. Pentagon chiefs in advice to the Executive deplored a “static” defense of Indochina and stated their belief that war should be carried to the aggressor, “in this instance Communist China.” That was the enemy in Asia; the Vietnamese, in the Pentagon’s view, were only pawns. The chiefs added a warning that would echo through the years to come: “Once United States forces and prestige have been committed, disengagement will not be possible short of victory.”

The factors that could make any victory elusive were known to Washington—known, that is, if we assume that department heads and presidents avail themselves of the information they have sent government agents to obtain. A CIA report, speaking of the “xenophobia” of the indigenous population, stated that “Even if the United States defeated the Viet-Minh field forces, guerrilla action could be continued indefinitely,” precluding non-Communist control of the region. In such circumstances, the United States “might have to maintain a military commitment in Indochina for years to come.”

The debate of the departments—State, Defense, NSC and the intelligence agencies—continued without a solution, knotted as it was in a tangle of what-ifs: what if the Chinese entered; what if the French asked for active United States participation, or, alternatively, pulled out, as a strong current of French opinion was demanding, abandoning Indochina to Communism. Every contingency was examined; an interagency Working Group delivered exhaustive reports of its studies. Again there were few illusions. It was recognized that the French could win only if they gained the genuine political and military partnership of the Vietnamese people; that this was not developing and would not, given French reluctance to transfer real authority; that no valid native non-Communist leadership had emerged; that the French effort was deteriorating and that United States naval and air action alone could not turn the tide in France’s favor. The conclusion reached by President Eisenhower was that armed American intervention must be conditional on three requirements: joint action with allies, Congressional approval and French “acceleration” of the independence of the Associated States.

In the meantime, in proportion as a French slide appeared imminent, American aid increased. Bombers, cargo planes, naval craft, tanks, trucks, automatic weapons, small arms and ammunition, artillery shells, radios, hospital and engineering equipment plus financial support flowed heavily in 1953. Over the previous three years, 350 ships (or more than two every week) had been delivering war matériel to the French. Yet in June 1953 a National Intelligence estimate judged that the French effort “will probably deteriorate” during the following twelve months and if current trends continued could subsequently “deteriorate very rapidly”; that “popular apathy” would continue and the Viet-Minh “will retain the military initiative.” Whether taken as a prescription to withdraw from an inherently flawed cause or to bolster it by increased aid, the Intelligence estimate should at least have resulted in sober second thought. That it did not was due to fear that a cut-off of aid would mean losing French cooperation in Europe.

“The French blackmailed us,” as Acheson put it; aid in Indochina was France’s price for joining the European Defense Community (EDC). American policy in Europe was tied to this scheme for an integrated coalition of the major nations, which France feared and resisted because it included her late conqueror, Germany. If the United States wanted France’s membership and her twelve divisions for NATO, it must in turn pay for her holding back Communism—and incidentally holding on to her empire—in Asia. EDC would become operative only if France joined. The United States was committed to it, and paid.

The reason why the French with superior manpower and American resources were doing so poorly was not beyond all conjecture. The people of Indochina, of whom more than 200,000 were in the colonial army together with some 80,000 French, 48,000 North Africans and 20,000 Foreign Legionnaires, simply had no reason to fight for France. Americans were always talking about freedom from Communism, whereas the freedom that the mass of Vietnamese wanted was freedom from their exploiters, both French and indigenous. The assumption that humanity at large shared the democratic Western idea of freedom was an American delusion. “The freedom we cherish and defend in Europe,” stated President Eisenhower on taking office, “is no different than the freedom that is imperiled in Asia.” He was mistaken. Humanity may have common ground, but needs and aspirations vary according to circumstances.

There was no delusion or ignorance about the absence of will to fight in the Associated States. A high-ranking officer, Major General Thomas Trapnell, returning from service with MA AG in 1954, reported a war of paradoxes, in which “there is no popular will to win on the part of the Vietnamese” and in which “the leader of the Rebels is more popular than the Vietnamese Chief of State.” His recognition of absent will, however, did not preclude this officer from recommending more vigorous prosecution of the war. Eisenhower, too, had to admit at a press conference to “a lack of enthusiasm which we would like to have there.” In his memoirs, published in 1963 (well before his successors took America into the war), he acknowledged that “the mass of the population supported the enemy,” making it impossible for the French to rely on their Vietnamese troops. American aid “could not cure the defect.”

By 1953 French domestic opinion had grown weary and disgusted with an endless war for a cause unacceptable to many French citizens. The conviction was growing that France could not at the same time maintain guns in Indochina and guns for the defense of Europe while providing the butter of domestic needs. Although the United States was paying most of the bill, the French people, assisted by Communist propaganda, were raising increasing clamor against the war and mounting heavy political pressure for a negotiated settlement.

Dulles’ desperate effort was now exerted to keep the French fighting lest the awful prospect of losing Indochina to the Communists become a reality. Early in 1954 forty B-26 bombers with 200 United States Air Force technicians in civilian clothes were despatched to Indochina, and Congress appropriated $400 million plus another $385 million to finance the offensive planned by General Henri Navarre, in a last fevered burst of French military effort. By the time of the terminal catastrophe at Dien Bien Phu a few months later, American investment in Indochina since 1946 had reached $2 billion and the United States was paying 80 percent of the French expenditure for the war, not counting aid to the Associated States intended to stabilize their governments and strengthen their resistance to the Viet-Minh. Like most such aid, the bulk of it trickled away into the pockets of profiteering officials. As the Ohly memorandum had predicted, the United States was ineluctably approaching the point of supplanting rather than supplementing the French in what remained, whether we liked it or not, a colonial war.

Knowing what was wrong, American officials kept insisting in endless policy papers addressed to one another and in hortatory advice to the French that independence must be “accelerated” and genuine. Here was folly shining bright. How could the French be persuaded to fight more energetically to hold Vietnam and simultaneously be brought to pledge eventual true independence? Why should they invest a greater effort to retain a colonial possession if they were not going to retain it?

The contradiction was clear enough to the French, who, whether they were for or against the war, wanted some form of limited sovereignty that would keep Indochina within the French Union, a postwar euphemism for empire. French pride, French glory, Frenchsacrifice, not to mention French commerce, demanded it, the more so as France feared the example for Algeria if Indochina succeeded in breaking loose. In American policy the underlying absurdity of expecting both battle and renunciation from the French was possible because Americans thought of the war only in terms of fighting Communism, which could include independence, and closed their eyes to its aspect as the dying grip of colonialism, which obviously could not.

Mesmerized by a vision of Chinese intervention, Dulles and Admiral Arthur Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others believed that as long as the Chinese were discouraged from entering by subtle warnings of “massive”—meaning nuclear—retaliation or other American action against the mainland, the balance in Indochina would eventually swing toward the French. Characteristically this ignored the Viet-Minh and a hundred years of Vietnamese nationalism, a miscalculation that would dog the United States to the end.

At the same time, policy-makers understood, as their anxious memoranda show, that the United States was becoming tainted in Asian eyes as the partner in a white man’s war; that French success via the Navarre Plan was illusory; that, in spite of the optimism expressed by General “Iron Mike” O’Daniel, chief of MAAG, increased American supply could not assure General Navarre’s victory. American aid remained somehow ineffectual. They knew that unless the Chinese supplies, which had now reached 1500 tons a month, could be cut off, Hanoi would not give up; they were painfully conscious of the growing disaffection of the French public and the French National Assembly and the possibility that the war might be terminated by political crisis, leaving the United States with a wasted effort or the alternative of taking on the ill-omened cause for itself. They knew that without American support, the Associated States could not sustain themselves. In this knowledge and this awareness, what was the rationale of continued American investment in a non-viable client on the other side of the world?

Having invented Indochina as the main target of a coordinated Communist aggression, and having in every policy advice and public pronouncement repeated the operating assumption that its preservation from Communism was vital to American security, the United States was lodged in the trap of its own propaganda. The exaggerated rhetoric of the cold war had bewitched its formulators. The administration believed, or had convinced itself under Dulles’ guidance, that to stop the advance of the Communist octopus into Southeast Asia was imperative. Morever, to “lose” Indochina after the “loss” of China would have invited political catastrophe. Liberals, too, joined the consensus. Justice William O. Douglas, after visiting five regions of Southeast Asia in 1953, pronounced his judgment that “each front is indeed an overt act of a Communist conspiracy to expand the Russian empire.… The fall of Vietnam today would imperil all of Southeast Asia.” Senator Mike Mansfield, normally a steadying influence in foreign policy and an influential member of the Foreign Relations Committee with a special interest in Asia dating from his years as a professor of Far Eastern history, returned in 1953 from a survey of the situation on the spot. He reported to the Senate that “World peace hangs in the balance” along the avenues of Communist expansion in the Far East; “Hence the security of the United States is no less involved in Indochina than in Korea.” Our aid in the conflict was being given in recognition of Indochina’s “great importance to the non-Communist world and to our own national security.”

The matrix of this exaggeration was the state of the union under the paws of the Great Beast. The witch-hunts of McCarthyism, of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the informers, the blacklists and the fire-eaters of the Republican right and the China Lobby, the trail of wrecked careers, had plunged the country into a fit of moral cowardice. Everyone, in and out of office, trembled in anxiety to prove his anti-Communist credentials. The anxious included Dulles, who, according to an associate, lived in constant apprehension that the McCarthy attack might turn next upon him. Less intensely, it reached up to the President, as shown by Eisenhower’s silent acquiescence in McCarthy’s attacks on General Marshall. Nothing was so ridiculous, Macaulay once wrote, as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality—and nothing so craven, it could be added, as the American public in its fit of the 1950s.

During the Eisenhower Administration the New Look had overtaken military strategy. The New Look was nuclear, and the idea behind it, as worked out by a committee of strategists and Cabinet chiefs, was that in the confrontation with Communism, the new weapons offered a means to make prospective American retaliation a more serious threat and war itself sharper, quicker and cheaper than when it relied on vast conventional preparations and “outmoded procedures.” Eisenhower was deeply concerned about the prospect of deficit budgets, as was his Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey, who said flatly that not defense but disaster would result from “a military program that scorned the resources and problems of our economy—erecting majestic defenses and battlements for the protection of a country that was bankrupt.” (That was thirty years ago.) The New Look was motivated as much by the domestic economy as by the cold war.

Intending a warning to Moscow, Dulles made the strategy public in his memorable “massive retaliation” speech of January 1954. The idea was to make clear to any “potential aggressor” the certainty and force of American response, but the gun was muffled by the uproar and confusion that greeted the speech. Half the world thought it was bluff and the other half feared it was not. It was in this context that crisis approached in the affairs of Indochina.

In November 1953, General Navarre had sent 12,000 French troops to occupy the fortified area of Dien Bien Phu in the far north, to the west of Hanoi. His purpose was to tempt the enemy into frontal combat, but the position, surrounded by high ground in a region largely controlled by the Viet-Minh, was a rash choice that was to prove disastrous. At about the same time, at the Foreign Ministers’ conference in Berlin, Molotov proposed extending the discussions to the problems of Asia at a five-power conference to include the People’s Republic of China.

Harried by disturbing reports from Dien Bien Phu, and by extreme pressure at home to end the war, the French clutched at the opportunity to negotiate. The five-power proposal horrified Dulles, who considered any settlement with Communists unacceptable and sitting down with the Chinese, which might be taken to imply recognition of the People’s Republic, unthinkable. He believed that Russian overtures ever since Malenkov’s coexistence speech were a “phony peace campaign,” and a ruse designed to make opponents drop their guard. He set himself to resist the five-power conference by every twist and device of intimidation in his arsenal while at the same time trying to keep France fully committed to the war and yet not so irritated by American pressure as to jeopardize EDC. As the French government, to save its political skin, was bent on putting Indochina on the agenda, Dulles could persist only at the cost of a quarrel he could not risk. He had to give way. The five-power meeting was scheduled for Geneva at the end of April.

The prospect it raised of having to acknowledge a Communist presence in Vietnam and of France giving up the war induced a spasm of horror in the planning centers of American policy. Contingency plans for American armed intervention to replace the French took formal shape, and the strenuous Chairman of the Joint Chiefs produced a policy paper in preparation for the Geneva Conference that carried exaggeration to dizzying heights. A former carrier commander in World War II, Admiral Radford was a forthright apostle of air power and the New Look, and his political perceptions were melodramatic. Presenting the reasons for American intervention, he argued that if Indochina were allowed to fall to the Communists, the conquest of all Southeast Asia would “inevitably follow”; long-term results involving the “gravest threats” to “fundamental” United States security interests in the Far East and “even to the stability and security of Europe” would ensue. “Communization of Japan” would be a probable result. Control of the rice, tin, rubber and oil of Southeast Asia and of the industrial capacity of a Communized Japan would enable Red China “to build a monolithic military structure more formidable than that of Japan prior to World War II.” It would then command the western Pacific and much of Asia and exercise a threat extending as far as the Middle East.

The specters that thronged Admiral Radford’s imagination—which have so far fallen rather short of being realized—raise an important question for the study of folly. What level of perception, what fiction or fantasy, enters into policy-making? What wild flights soar over reasonable estimates of reality? What degree of conviction or, on the contrary, conscious exaggeration is at work? Is the argument believed or is it inventive rhetoric employed to enforce a desired course of action?

Whether Radford’s views were shaped by Dulles or Dulles’ by Radford is uncertain but either way they reflected the same over-reaction. Dulles now bent his energies to ensure that the Geneva Conference would allow no inch of compromise with Hanoi, no relaxation by the French, and that the terrible danger inherent in the meeting be understood by his countrymen. He summoned Congressmen, newspapermen, businessmen and other persons of prestige to briefings on the American stake in Indochina. He showed them color charts of Communist influence radiating outward in a red wave from Indochina to Thailand, Burma, Malaya and Indonesia. His spokesmen listed strategic raw materials which would be acquired by Russia and China and denied to the West, and they raised the specter, if America should fail to hold the bulwarks, of Communist gains across Asia from Japan to India. Dulles left the impression, according to one listener, that if the United States could not hold the French in line then we would have to commit our own forces to the conflict. The impression conveyed itself to Vice-President Nixon, who, in a supposedly off-the-record speech naturally widely quoted, said, in a foreshadowing of Executive war, “If to avoid further Communist expansion in Asia and Indochina, we must take the risk now of putting our boys in, I think the Executive has to take the politically unpopular decision and do it.”

The President made the most important contribution to the hypnosis at a press conference on 7 April 1954 when he used the phrase “falling dominoes” to express the consequences if Indochina should be the first to fall. The theory that neighboring countries of Southeast Asia would succumb one after the other by some immutable law of nature had long been voiced. Eisenhower’s press conference gave it a name as instantly accepted in the annals of Americana as the Open Door. Whether it was realistic was not questioned, although it encountered some skepticism abroad, as Eisenhower attests in his memoirs. “Our main task was to convince the world that the Southeast Asia war was an aggressive move by the Communists to subjugate that entire area.” Americans “as well as the citizens of the three Associated States had to be assured of the true meaning of the war.” The hypnosis, in short, had to be extended and war’s “true meaning” conveyed by outsiders to a people on whose soil it had been fought for seven years. The need for so much explaining and justifying suggested an inherent flaw which, as time went on, was to widen.

Anticipating Geneva, the Viet-Minh gathered forces for a major show of strength. By raids and artillery they laid siege to Dien Bien Phu, destroyed the French airstrips in March 1954, cut off French supply lines and with the aid of augmented Chinese supplies, which reached a peak of 4000 tons a month during the battle, reduced the fortress to desperate straits.

The crisis echoed in Washington. General Paul Ely, French Chief of Staff, arrived with an explicit request for an American air strike to relieve Dien Bien Phu. The emergency moved Admiral Radford to offer a raid by B-29S from Clark Field in Manila. He had tentatively raised among a few selected officials at State and Defense the possibility of asking for French approval in principle of using tactical atomic weapons to save the situation at Dien Bien Phu. A study group at the Pentagon had concluded that three such weapons properly employed would be sufficient to “smash the Viet-Minh effort there,” but the option was not approved and not even broached to the French.* Radford’s proposal for conventional Air Force intervention, although it acquired the historical dignity of a code name, Operation Vulture, was unauthorized by the Joint Chiefs as a whole and, as the Admiral stated later, was “conceptual” only. Ely went home with nothing definite except a promise of 25 additional bombers for French use.

At the same time Dulles was grasping for the conditions that would permit American armed intervention in the event of French collapse. He summoned eight members of Congress, including the Majority and Minority leaders of the Senate, William Knowland and Lyndon Johnson, to a secret conference and asked them for a Joint Resolution by Congress to permit the use of air and naval power in Indochina. Radford, who was present, explained the nature of the emergency and proposed an air strike by 200 planes from the aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. Dulles at high voltage expounded his vision of encirclement if Indochina should be lost. Discovering that Radford’s plan did not have the approval of the other Joint Chiefs and that Dulles did not have allies lined up for united action, the Congressmen would go no further than to say that they could probably obtain the resolution if allies were found and the French promised to stay in the field and “accelerate” independence.

In Paris the French Cabinet summoned Ambassador Douglas Dillon to an emergency Sunday meeting to ask for “immediate armed intervention of United States carrier aircraft.” They said the fate of Southeast Asia and of the forthcoming Geneva Conference “now rested on Dien Bien Phu.” Meeting with Dulles and Radford, Eisenhower remained adamant on his conditions for intervention. His firmness had two foundations: an innate respect for the constitutional processes of government and a recognition that air and naval action would draw in ground forces, whose employment he opposed. He told a press conference in March that “There is going to be no involvement of America in war unless it is the result of the constitutional process that is placed upon Congress to declare it. Now let us have that clear; and that is the answer.” Further he agreed with the military conclusion that air and naval action without ground forces could not gain the American objective, and he did not believe ground forces should again be committed, as in Korea, without prospect of decisive result.

In the military discussions, the resolute opponent of ground combat was the Army Chief of Staff, General Matthew B. Ridgway, who had saved the situation in Korea. Sent to take over the command from MacArthur, he had pulled the 8th Army out of disarray and led it to a fight that frustrated North Korea’s attempt to take over the country. If not victory, the outcome had at least restored the status quo ante and contained Communism. Ridgway’s views were emphatic and subsequently confirmed by a survey team he sent to Indochina in June when the issue of United States intervention became critical. Headed by General James Gavin, Chief of Plans and Development, the team reported that American ground combat would take “heavy casualties” and require five divisions at the outset and ten when fully involved. The area was “practically devoid of those facilities which modern forces such as ours find essential to the waging of war. Its telecommunications, highways, railroads, all the things that make possible the operations of a modern force on land, were almost nonexistent.” To create these facilities would require “tremendous engineering and logistical efforts” at tremendous cost, and in the team’s opinion “this ought not to be done.”

Eisenhower agreed, and not only for military reasons. He believed unilateral United States intervention would be politically disastrous. “The United States should in no event undertake alone to support French colonialism,” he said to an associate. “Unilateral action by the United States in cases of this kind would destroy us.” The principle of united action should apply too, he emphasized, in case of overt Chinese aggression.

The threat of a settlement with Communism threw Dulles into a fury af activity to round up allies, especially the British, for united action, to keep the French in combat, to scare the Chinese from intervention by hints of atomic warfare, to thwart coalition, partition, cease-fire or any other compromise with Ho Chi Minh and in general to scuttle the Geneva Conference either before or after it convened.

Like fibers of a cloth absorbing a dye, policy-makers in Washington were by now so thoroughly imbued, through repeated assertions, with the vital necessity of saving Indochina from Communism that they believed in it, did not question it and were ready to act on it. From rhetoric it had become doctrine, and, in the excitement of the crisis, evoked from the President’s Special Committee on Indochina a policy advice with respect to the Geneva Conference that in simple-minded arrogance might have been Lord Hillsborough come back to life. Comprising Defense, State and CIA, the Committee included among its members Deputy Secretary of Defense Roger Kyes, Admiral Radford, Under-Secretary of State Walter Bedell Smith, Assistant Secretary Walter Robertson and Allen Dulles and Colonel Edward Lansdale of CIA. On April 5 it recommended as a first principle that “It be United States policy to accept nothing short of a military victory in Indochina.” Considering that the United States was not a belligerent, an element of fantasy seems to have entered into this demand.

Secondly, if failing to obtain French support for this position, the United States should “initiate immediate steps with the governments of the Associated States aimed toward continuation of the war in Indochina to include active United States participation” with or without French agreement. In plainer language that meant that the United States should take over the war by request of the Associated States. Further, that there should be “no cease-fire in Indochina prior to victory” whether the victory came by “successful military action or clear concession of defeat by the Communists.” Since, with Dien Bien Phu falling, military action hardly pointed toward success, and since concession of defeat by the Viet-Minh was a hypothesis made of air, and since the United States was in no position to decide whether or not there should be a cease-fire, this provision was entirely meaningless. Finally, to combat a certain passivity with regard to the American thesis, the Committee urged that “extraordinary” efforts be made “to give vitality in Southeast Asia to the concept that Communist imperialism is a transcending threat to each of the Southeast Asia states.”

The fate of this document, whether discussed, rejected or adopted, is not recorded. It does not matter, for the fact that it could be formulated at all reflects the thinking—or what passes for thinking by government—that conditioned developments and laid the path for future American intervention in Vietnam.

Dulles’ efforts to assemble united action were unavailing. The British proved recalcitrant and, unpersuaded of the American view that Australia, New Zealand and Malaya were candidates for the domino list, firmly refused to commit themselves to any course of action prior to the outcome of the Geneva discussions. The French, in spite of their crisis and their request for an air strike, refused to invite the United States to take part in their war, feeling that outright partnership would damage their prestige, which no nation takes so seriously as the French. They wanted to keep Indochina their own affair, not part of a united front against Communism. The reluctance Dulles met in both cases was in part of his own making because the alarm raised by his “massive retaliation” speech of the previous January caused the allies to worry about America initiating atomic warfare.

On 7 May, Dien Bien Phu fell, giving the Viet-Minh a stunning triumph to support their claims at Geneva. Braving it out, Dulles assured a press conference that “Southeast Asia could be secured even without perhaps Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia”—in other words, the dominoes would not be falling as expected.

In the gloom of the day after the news from Dien Bien Phu, the parley on Indochina opened in Geneva. It was held at the upper level, with France represented by Premier Joseph Laniel and the other powers by their Foreign Ministers—Anthony Eden and Molotov as co-chairmen, Dulles and Under-Secretary Bedell Smith for the United States, Chou En-lai for China, Pham Van Dong for the Viet-Minh, and representatives of Laos, Cambodia and the Associated States of Vietnam. Tension was high because Premier Laniel had to bring home a cease-fire to save his government, while the Americans were bending their efforts to prevent it. The Europeans pressed, terms acceptable to both sides were hard to find, coalition government was abandoned in favor of partition, the demarcation line and withdrawal zones were fiercely disputed, arguments festered, emotions rose.

As the weeks went by, Laniel’s government fell and was replaced by one under Pierre Mendès-France, who believed that continuation of the war in Indochina “does much less to bar the road to Communism in Asia than to open it in France.” He announced that he would end the war in thirty days (by 21 July) or resign, and he bluntly told the National Assembly that if no cease-fire were obtained at Geneva, it would be necessary for the Assembly to authorize conscription to supplement the professional army in Indochina. He said his last act before resigning would be to introduce a bill for that purpose and the Assembly would be required to vote on it the same day. To enact conscription for an already unpopular war was not a measure the members cared to contemplate. With that threat in his pocket, Mendes-France went at once to Geneva to make good his self-imposed deadline.

The Conference struggled through a thicket of antagonisms. Partition of Vietnam was pressed as the only means of separating the belligerents; the French claimed the 18th parallel, as opposed to the Viet-Minh’s claim of the 13th, later of the 16th, which would have included the ancient capital of Hue in their zone. The Associated States balked at all arrangements. Dulles, refusing to join in any concession to the Communists, departed, then returned. While back in Washington, he renewed his drum-beating about Chinese intervention. “If such overt military aggression occurred,” he said in a public speech, “that would be a deliberate threat to the United States itself.” He thus firmly placed United States security out on the limb of Indochina.

As Mendes’ deadline approached at Geneva, breakdown threatened over the demarcation line and the timing of elections for eventual reunification. Bargainings and bilateral conferences took place behind the scenes. The Soviet Union, moving toward detente after Stalin, exerted pressure on Ho Chi Minh to settle. Chou En-lai, China’s delegate, told Ho that it was in his interest to take half a loaf in order to get the French out and keep the Americans out, and that he would gain the whole eventually. He was prevailed upon very unwillingly to settle for the 17th parallel and a two-year lapse before elections. Settlement was reached in time for a final declaration on July 21 that brought the French war to an end. Insofar as France had to acknowledge defeat by conceding half of Vietnam to the rebels, the result was more damaging to her prestige than if she had conceded voluntarily at the start. In this error too the United States would later follow.

The Geneva Accord declared a cease-fire, confirmed under international auspices the independence of Laos and Cambodia and partitioned Vietnam into separate North and South zones, under the specific provision that “the military demarcation is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary.” The Accord further permitted French forces to remain until requested to leave by the Associated States, provided for elections by July 1956, for limits and regulations on foreign military bases, armaments and personnel and for an International Control Commission to supervise implementation of the terms. The government of neither Hanoi nor Saigon signed the agreement, nor did the United States, which would go no further than a sulky declaration to refrain from “the threat or the use of force” to disturb the arrangements.

The settlement at Geneva ended a war and averted wider participation by either China or the United States, but lacking satisfied sponsors anxious to sustain it, and including dissatisfied parties looking to reverse it, it was born defective. Not the least of the dissatisfied was the United States.

Geneva represented defeat for Dulles in all aspects of his Indochina policy. He had failed to prevent establishment of a Communist regime in North Vietnam, failed to gain Britain or anyone else for united action, failed to keep France actively in the field, failed to gain approval for American military intervention from the President, even failed to gain EDC, which the French Assembly unkindly rejected in August. These results left little impression; he was not prepared to infer from them any reason to re-examine policy. As in the case of Philip II, “no experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.” He called a press conference in Geneva not to “mourn the past,” as he said, but to “seize the future opportunity to prevent the loss of Northern Vietnam from leading to the extension of Communism throughout Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific.” The refrain was the same as before. He adduced one lesson, however, from the experience: “that resistance to Communism needs popular support … and that the people should feel that they are defending their own national institutions.” That was indeed the lesson and it could not have been better stated, but as events were to show, it had only been stated, not learned.

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