At this stage, with eight years of American effort in aid of the French having come to nothing, and with the French effort having failed at a cost in French Union troops of 50,000 killed and 100,000 wounded, the United States might have seen indications for disengagement from Indochina’s affairs. The example of futility in China was fresh, where a longer and greater effort to direct that country’s destinies had been dissipated by the Communist Revolution like sand before the wind. No inference from the Chinese experience—that Western wishes might not apply to the situation, that foreign politics, too, is the art of the possible—had been derived. The American government reacted not to the Chinese upheaval or to Vietnamese nationalism per se, but to intimidation by the rabid right at home and to the public dread of Communism that this played on and reflected. The social and psychological sources of that dread are not our subject, but in them lie the roots of American policy in Vietnam.
The United States had no thought either of disengaging from Indochina or of acquiescing in the Geneva settlement. Dulles’ immediate task as he saw it was two-fold: to create a non-colonial Southeast Asia treaty organization like NATO which should provide authority in advance for collective defense—or its image—against the advance of Communism in the area; and secondly, to ensure the functioning of a valid national state in South Vietnam able to hold the line against the North and eventually recapture the country. The Secretary of State was already engaged in both efforts in advance of the Geneva Declaration.
Dulles had begun drum-beating for a SEA mutual security pact in May as part of his campaign to counteract Geneva. Whether consciously or not, he was moving to bring the United States into position as the controlling power in the situation, replacing the colonial powers. He wanted a legal international basis for intervention as had existed in Korea because of violation of a boundary established by the UN. The implications alarmed observers, among others the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which asked in a series of editorials before the Geneva cease-fire whether Dulles’ purpose was “to provide a backdoor method by which the United States can intervene in the Indochina war.” Do the people of the United States wish “to organize the use of armed forces against internal revolt of the kind that started the Indochina war”? Answering in the negative, the Post-Dispatch reiterated the theme “This is a war to stay out of.” It foresaw that intervention would commit the United States to a “limited” war which probably “could only be won by making it unlimited.” For further emphasis, the newspaper published a cartoon by Daniel Fitzpatrick showing Uncle Sam gazing into a dark swamp labeled “French Mistakes in Indochina.” The caption asked, “How would another mistake help?” The fact that the cartoon won a Pulitzer Prize is evidence that its message, as early as 1954, was not obscure.
Tragedy deeper than a mistake was seen in the same year by an observer deeply concerned with the American relation to Asia. In his book Wanted: An Asian Policy, Edwin O. Reischauer, Far East specialist and future Ambassador to Japan, located the tragedy in the West’s having allowed Indochinese nationalism to become a Communist cause. This is what had come of American support of the French in “an extremely ineffective and ultimately hopeless defense of the status quo.” The result “shows how absurdly wrong we are to battle Asian nationalism instead of aiding it.”
Under Dulles’ relentlessly organizing hand, a conference to establish the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) met at Manila in September 1954. By involving only three Asian nations, and only two—Thailand and the Philippines—from Southeast Asia (the third was Pakistan), and only one contiguous to Indochina and none from Indochina itself, it lacked a certain authenticity from the start. The other members were Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Combatively as ever, Dulles informed the delegates that their purpose was to agree in advance on a response “so united, so strong and so well-placed” that any aggression against the treaty area would lose more than it could gain. Since the Asian members of the conference had no appreciable military power, and the others were either in no geographical position to deploy it or were already withdrawing from the area, and since the United States itself had reached no settled commitment of forces for the defense of Southeast Asia, the Secretary’s demand was an exercise in make-believe. In Article IV, the operative core of the treaty, he obtained a commitment by each member to “meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.” This was not exactly the ready sword Excalibur.
In a separate protocol, Dulles managed to bring the Associated States of Indochina under the protection of Article IV and to define its obligations, to his own satisfaction, as a “clear and definite agreement on the part of the signatories” to come to the aid of any member of the pact subjected to aggression. In real terms, as a delegate from the Defense Department, Vice-Admiral Davis, said, the treaty left Southeast Asia “no better prepared than before to cope with Communist aggression.”
In the meantime a new premier of South Vietnam had been installed who from the start to violent finish was an American client. Chosen not from within the country but from the circle of Vietnamese exiles outside, he was elevated by French and American manipulations in which France was a very reluctant partner. For the sake of motivating greater energy and self-reliance in South Vietnam, the United States was determined to remove the French presence apart from the unfortunate necessity of retaining France’s armed forces until a reliable Vietnamese army could be officered and trained to take their place. Under the Geneva arrangements, the French were obligated to supervise the armistice and the eventual elections, and for them it was hard not to assume that during the transition period their commercial and administrative and cultural ties could be maintained and developed toward a voluntary inclusion of Indochina in the French Union.
The United States wanted the contrary and found a player in Ngo Dinh Diem, an ardent nationalist of a Catholic mandarin family whose father had been a Lord Chamberlain at the Imperial Court of Annam. Diem had served as a provincial governor in the French Colonial service and as Minister of Interior under Bao Dai, but had resigned in 1933 in protest against French rule and the cancellation of promised reforms. He retired to Japan and after his return had refused a Japanese offer in 1945 to form a government under the ever available Bao Dai. As fervent an anti-Communist as he was a nationalist, he had likewise rejected the alternative of joining Ho Chi Minh, who had offered him a post at Hanoi. This non-cooperation led to his arrest and detainment for six months by the Viet-Minh. Recognized as the leading non-Communist nationalist, he had refused to serve under the Elysée Agreement as incompatible with sovereignty, and in 1949 went again into exile in Japan. In 1950 he came to the United States, where by virtue of a brother who was a Catholic bishop he made contact with Cardinal Spellman of New York.
Introduced by the Cardinal to influential circles, Diem met Justice Douglas in Washington soon after Douglas’ discovery of the “five fronts” of Southeast Asia. Impressed by Diem’s vision of a future for his country combining independence and social reform, Douglas believed he had found the man who could be a real alternative to both the French puppet Bao Dai and the Communist Ho Chi Minh. He conveyed his discovery to the CIA and introduced his candidate to Senators Mansfield and John F. Kennedy, both Catholics. Thereafter, Diem was on his way.
Here at last was the American candidate, a valid Vietnamese nationalist whose Francophobia absolved him of any taint of colonialism and whose approval by Cardinal Spellman certified his anti-Communism. He was safe from Senator McCarthy. He went to Europe in 1953 to promote his candidacy among the Vietnamese expatriates in France and was actively lobbying in Paris in 1954 during the Geneva parley when discovery of a promising leader was urgent. Diem was certainly not a French choice, but France’s need of a cease-fire was more compelling than her dislike of the candidate. With American backing and the wire-pulling of various factions among the expatriates, and with Mendès-France’s deadline drawing close, Diem was reluctantly accepted. Bao Dai, still Chief of State in a comfortable retreat on the Riviera, was prevailed upon to appoint him premier just before the Geneva Accord was signed.
Around this figure, over the next nine years, the effort to construct a viable democratic self-sustaining state of South Vietnam centered and collapsed. Diem proved ill-equipped. Living on theory and high principle, he had no experience of national independent government; he shared the general antagonism to the French, yet inherited the colonial legacy through the class that benefited from it and to which he belonged; he was a devout Catholic in a largely Buddhist society; he had to contend with divisive sects and Mafia-type factions with private armies and gangster methods. Rigid in his ideas, unschooled in compromise, unacquainted with democracy in practice, he was unable to deal with dissent or opposition except by fiat or force. In one of the sad betrayals that high office inflicts on good intentions, circumstances turned him into a dictator without giving him a dictator’s iron means.
Now, with an American Ambassador and full-scale Embassy in Saigon, and with proliferating advisers and agencies in addition to MAAG, United States policy injected itself more purposefully than ever, taking as its first task the training of an effective and, it was to be hoped, loyal and motivated Vietnamese army. MAAG wanted to do it alone without participation by the French, on the theory that American influence would thereby be differentiated from the French. That we would inherit the distaste felt for any white intrusion was not contemplated. Americans saw themselves as “different” from the French, to be welcomed as well-wishers of Vietnamese independence, while the fact that it was the United States which had brought back the French and financed their war was mentally swept under the rug. By helping an independent South Vietnam to establish itself, it was thought we could prove our good intentions.
Requirements for the training program brought out in discussion the reluctance of military policy-makers in Washington to become further involved. But given a mission, the good soldier carries it out without question. General O’Daniel, the MAAG commander, drew up a schedule of procedures and requirements for the training program and pleaded for an enlarged staff to be despatched before the Geneva cut-off for additional personnel.
With ample reports about the mood and uncertain loyalties of the Vietnamese army, the Joint Chiefs were thoroughly skeptical; they did not want to be held responsible for failure, or worse, in case of a clash, having American troops drawn in to rescue an inadequate force. They concluded in an unambiguous memorandum of August 1954 that it was “absolutely essential” to have “a reasonably strong stable civil government in control,” and that it was “hopeless to expect a United States training mission to achieve success” unless the nation concerned could effectively perform all functions necessary to recruitment and maintenance. They foresaw “a complete military vacuum” if French forces were withdrawn and, if the United States took over, an unwanted American “responsibility for any failure of the program,” and they judged in conclusion that the United States “should not participate.” They hastened to add, with the care of government advisers never to be too definitive, that if “political considerations are overriding” they would “agree to the assignment of a training mission.” In official process, advice tends to be flexible because it is afraid of closed options.
Strenuous arguing ensued about the force levels to be trained, the cost of maintaining the French army in place—$100 million for 1955, $193 million for 1956—and the timing of phased French withdrawals, while the Joint Chiefs’ doubts of success grew all the while stronger. In November 1954, given the chaotic internal political situation in Vietnam, they found “no assurance … of loyal and effective support for the Diem Government” or of “political and military stability within South Vietnam.” Unless the Vietnamese themselves showed the will to resist Communism, “no amount of external pressure and assistance can long delay complete Communist victory in South Vietnam.” With hindsight, it is impossible to avoid asking why the American government ignored the advice of the persons appointed to give it.
Harassed by internal opponents and rivals, and by incompetence, dissent and corruption, Diem had also to cope with an influx of nearly a million refugees from the North during the 300 days allowed by Geneva for exchange of populations. In response to Catholic propaganda spreading the word that “Christ has moved south” and “the Virgin Mary has moved south,” the mass movement was 85 percent Catholic. It represented nevertheless a significant group who did not want to live under Communism, and by providing Diem with a coherent body of support actually helped to consolidate his rule, although his favoring them in official positions aroused antagonism. The United States assumed much of the burden; the Navy transported 300,000 of the refugees and their resettlement was underwritten by an outpouring of funds raised by Catholic Charities and others.
“Highly placed officials from Washington,” after visiting Saigon, according to one report, privately indicated their conclusion that “Vietnam probably would have to be written off at a loss.” Assailed by contrary advice, struggling with the problem of how to strengthen and stabilize Diem, of how to retain the French forces while eliminating their interests, of what to decide about training the Vietnamese army, of what degree of investment to make in general, American policy found itself in a morass. The French, who never liked Diem, reported him, in the words of Premier Faure, “not only incapable but mad.” Senator Mansfield, on the other hand, after a second fact-finding trip, reported him to be a genuine nationalist whose survival was essential to American policy. Mansfield’s report to the Senate, however, was more discouraged than in the previous year. He said the situation had “seriously deteriorated” owing to a “consistent underestimating” by everyone of the political and military strength of the Viet-Minh. Because of dissatisfaction with Diem’s policies, there appeared to be “scant hope of achieving our objectives in Indochina in the near future.” If Diem fell, Mansfield believed, his successors would be even less democratic, and in that event the United States “should consider an immediate suspension of all aid to Vietnam and the French Union forces there.” He concluded with a cold dose of common sense: “Unless there is reasonable expectation of fulfilling our objectives, the continued expenditure of the resources of the citizens of the United States is unwarranted and inexcusable.”
Eisenhower hesitated. He addressed a letter to Diem in October expressing his grave concern for the future of a country “temporarily divided by an artificial military grouping” (not the “international boundary” that his successors liked to claim) but advising that he was ready to work out with Diem “an intelligent program of American aid given directly to your Government,” provided that Diem gave assurance of the “standards of performance” his government would maintain if the aid were supplied. With little confidence in promises, the President sent General J. Lawton Collins, a trusted colleague from World War II, on a special mission to work out relations with the French and the “standards” expected of Diem.
Collins’ report was negative. He found Diem “unready to assert the type of leadership that can unify this country and give it a chance of competing with the hard, effective, unified control of Ho Chi Minh.” The choices open to American policy, as he saw them, were either to support Diem for a little while longer without commitment or, if he failed to make progress, to bring back Bao Dai, and if that was unacceptable, “I recommend re-evaluation of our plans for assisting Southeast Asia with special attention to earlier proposal,” namely, “the gradual withdrawal of support from Vietnam.” This was “the least desirable [but] in all honesty, and in view of what I have observed here to date, this may be the only solution.”
Asked to stay on to work out a program of support with General Ely, the French commander, Collins reaffirmed his advice five months later. Vietnam would not be saved from Communism, he reported, unless a sound program of political, economic and military reforms were put into effect based on wholehearted coordination among Vietnamese, Americans and French, and if this were not secured, “in my judgment we should withdraw from Vietnam.”
Why, in the light of all these doubts and negatives, did the United States not take the opportunity to pull back? It did not because always the argument arose that if American support were withdrawn, South Vietnam would disintegrate and the front against Communism would give way in Indochina just when it faced a new threat elsewhere. The Quemoy-Matsu crisis over the Chinese offshore islands erupted at this time, bringing Dulles to his most paranoid and to the “brink”—in his terms—of war. with Red China. The crisis quelled any impulse to look at Vietnam with realism or to consider General Collins’ alternative.
Collins himself, though convinced of Diem’s incapacity, was working energetically to make the regime qualify as a client worth American support, and in response to his pressure a program of land reform was drawn up and a provisional assembly appointed to draft a constitution. Washington seized on these signs of progress and, motivated also by desire to frustrate French overtures to Diem’s rivals, officially confirmed American support of his government. At the same time, in February 1955, the decision to undertake the training of a “completely autonomous” Vietnamese army was taken, and with it a deep step into Vietnamese affairs.
The assumption of American responsibility had already brought with it the creeping companion of all interventions, covert operations. A combat team calling itself the Saigon Military Mission had begun operating in North Vietnam under the direction of General O’Daniel and the command of Colonel Lansdale, an officer of the Air Force and later of the CIA who had led activities against the Huk guerrillas in the Philippines. Conceived and organized before the Geneva Agreement, its operations were conducted for a year after the Geneva provisions made them illegitimate. The Mission’s original assignment was to “undertake paramilitary operations against the enemy”—although technically speaking the United States as a non-belligerent had no “enemy.” Its purpose was modified after Geneva to read “prepare the means” for such operations. To that end the Lansdale Mission engaged in the sabotage of trucks and railroads, undertook the recruiting, training and infiltrating of two covert South Vietnamese “paramilitary” teams, and planted for their use caches of smuggled supplies, arms and ammunition. Since the Geneva Agreement had prohibited the introduction of all war matériel and personnel after 23 July 1954, and the United States had pledged not to “disturb” these provisions, the Mission after that date violated the pledge. While not very heinous per se and normal enough if the nation had been at war, the violation began the series of falsehoods that were to widen until they engulfed the reputation and damaged the self-respect of the United States.
A feasible alternative to the embracing of an infirm client was possible, and attempted, in fact, by the French. Accommodation with Hanoi was now openly the French aim, not only for the sake of French investments and commercial interests in both North and South, but also to test Mendès-France’s political philosophy of peaceful coexistence. The French government, reported Ambassador Douglas Dillon from Paris, was more and more “disposed to explore and consider … an eventual North-South rapprochement,” and in pursuit of this aim sent a major figure, Jean Sainteny, to Hanoi. A former colonial official and a Free French officer during the war, he had maintained relations with Ho Chi Minh and served during the Indochina war as French Commissioner for the North. Ostensibly his mission in Hanoi was to protect French business interests, but Ambassador Dillon learned that Sainteny had convinced his government that South Vietnam was doomed and that “the only possible means of salvaging anything was to play the Viet-Minh game and woo the Viet-Minh away from Communist ties in the hope of creating a Titoist Vietnam which would cooperate with France and might even adhere to the French Union.”
While the Titoist solution now seems illusory, it was no more so than the American belief in building a strong capable democratic alternative to Ho Chi Minh in the Diem regime; one scenario could have been tried as easily as the other. The French program did not work out because Mendès-France lost office in 1955 and because French businessmen, unable to realize profits under Communist restrictions, gradually withdrew from the North while the French hold in general was being reduced by the United States.
Failure, however, does not necessarily mean that the goal was impossible. Ho’s primary object at this time was to gain and maintain Vietnam’s independence of France just as it was Marshal Tito’s to gain Yugoslavia’s independence of Russia. If the United States could aid Tito, why should it have to crush Ho? The answer is that the self-hypnosis had worked: mixed with a vague sense of the Yellow Peril advancing with hordes of now-Communist Chinese, there was felt to be something peculiarly sinister about Communism in Asia. As its agent, North Vietnam remained “the enemy.”
The client was not doing well. An attempted coup d’état by Diem’s antagonists in April 1955, a Cabinet crisis and the active disloyalty of his Chief of Staff revived American anxiety. According to a New York Times correspondent, his government “has proven inept, inefficient and unpopular,” the “chances of saving it were slim” and “brooding civil war threatens to tear the country apart.” Even Dulles had said to General Collins when Collins left to take up his post that “the chances of our saving the situation there are not more than one in ten.” In the light of Diem’s further troubles, he now concluded that “the only serious problem we have not yet solved is that of indigenous leadership.” The implications of this stunning assessment did not occur to him.
Washington was in a quandary, vainly seeking an alternative to Diem, anxiously questioning whether to invest more support in a wavering regime. General Collins was re-called for consultation. At a press conference, President Eisenhower allowed an almost painful glimpse of his hesitation: “In Vietnam there have occurred lots of difficulties. People have left the Cabinet and so on … it is a strange and almost inexplicable situation.… What the exact terms of our future policy will be I can’t say.”
Here was another opportunity for disengagement. Diem’s government had not lived up to the “standards of performance” on which Eisenhower had conditioned American aid. The implications of the French defeat, the refusal of the British to commit themselves to united action, the pallid partnership of the NATO nations—why did not the Eisenhower Administration put it all together and, given the President’s great prestige at home, detach itself from a losing proposition? In the bureaucracy, doubtless no one did put it all together; and besides, the fear of being “soft on Communism” abided.
Diem’s success in smashing the coup d’état with troops loyal to the source of American largesse gave him a reprieve. He tightened his government by bringing in his three brothers to replace opponents and took on the appearance of a strong man. The United States, relieved of the pain of re-thinking, publicly reaffirmed its support for him, chiefly because it feared the consequences of letting him fall. Donald Heath, the new Ambassador in Saigon, stated the choice: committing “over $300 million plus our national prestige” on the retention of a Free Vietnam was a gamble, but withholding support would be worse by assisting a Communist takeover. The choice, as all too often, was between two undesirables.
Enforcing the choice was always the fear of domestic outcry. Mansfield, the influential Senator, “believes in Diem,” it was said, and the reaction to be expected from Cardinal Spellman if his protégé were dumped was unpleasant to contemplate. “Alas! for the newly betrayed millions of Indochinese,” he had declared after Geneva, “who must now learn the awful facts of slavery from their eager Communist masters” in repetition of “the agonies and infamies inflicted upon the hapless victims of Red Russia’s bestial tyranny.” Communism had been following a “carefully set-up timetable for the achievement of a world plan.” Red rulers knew what they wanted with “terrible clarity” and pursued it with “violent consistency.” The Cardinal had continued in this vein, rousing a convention of the American Legion to unanimous bristle. In mid-1955, when Eisenhower was preparing to run for a second term, he had no desire to let loose more tirades of this kind.
Adoption of the client made the United States a sponsor in Diem’s fateful denial of the nationwide elections to be held in 1956 as agreed on at Geneva. The North, with a population of 15 million to South Vietnam’s 12 million, and a general acknowledgment of the greater popularity of the Viet-Minh, had counted on the elections to gain command of the country as a whole. When in July 1955 it invited the South to consult on preparations for the event, Diem refused on the ground that no election under the Hanoi regime would allow a free vote, that enforced results would overwhelm the votes of the South and that in any event he was not bound by the Geneva Accord. While valid, his objection lost something of its force when three months later, in a referendum held in the South to depose the absent Bao Dai as Chief of State and confer the Presidency on Diem, the desired result was achieved by what a foreign observer called “outrageous” methods that delivered 98.8 percent of the vote. A free expression of the voters’ will was obviously not to be expected on either side, nor could it have been otherwise in a country devoid of democratic experience. As a solution for Vietnam’s civil conflict, the election—supposed to have been supervised by a powerless International Control Commission—was never more than a charade devised at Geneva as a desperate expedient to allow temporary partition and a cease-fire.
No one questioned that if the elections were held, as one official reported, “the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese would vote Communist.” In the course of a speech opposing equal status for a Communist regime, Senator John F. Kennedy acknowledged “the popularity and prevalence” of Ho Chi Minh’s party “throughout Indochina”—which seemed to him reason not to allow its participation in a national government. Eisenhower, informed by advisers that Ho would certainly win the election, “refused to agree” (according to General Ridgway) to its taking place. While Diem did not need American advice in the matter, his refusal rested on American support. By 1956 more evidence of harsh measures in the North, including widespread killing of landlords on the Chinese pattern, was at hand. Terrorist tactics in an election could be assumed. In June 1956 the State Department officially announced that “We support President Diem fully in his position that when conditions do not exist that could preclude ‘intimidation or coercion’… there can be no free choice.”
The consequence was that, failing reunification by election, North Vietnam resorted to other means—the encouragement of insurgency followed by the so-called War of Liberation. No egregious folly may be charged to the United States in this affair except that, by backing Diem’s decision, America seemed to share in what critics of the war were to claim was a brazen suppression of the people’s will, leaving the North no alternative but insurgency. Suppression it was not, because the people’s will would not have found a free voice in any case. The non-holding of the elections was an excuse for, not a cause of, renewed war. “We shall achieve unity,” the North’s Deputy Premier Pham Van Dong had warned at Geneva. “No force in the world, internal or external, can make us deviate from our path.”
In the next five years, with a flow of American funds that paid 60 to 75 percent of its budget, including the total cost of its army, and supported an unfavorable trade balance, South Vietnam appeared to flourish in unanticipated order and prosperity. The French armed forces, under insistent American pressure, gradually departed in phased withdrawals until the French High Command was dissolved in February 1956. The American Friends of Vietnam, organized by the Catholic Relief Services and the International Rescue Committee (originally formed to save victims of Nazism and having a list of the most respectable liberal names running down its letterhead), spread word with the assistance of a public relations agent in Saigon, on a $3000 monthly retainer, of the “miracle” of South Vietnam. It seemed, during these five years, as if progress had been made and the gamble would work.
Behind the miracle, facts were less favorable. Ill-planned land reforms alienated more than they helped the peasants; “Communist denunciation” programs, in which neighbors were induced to inform on one another, and endless busy and corrupt official interferences in peasant lives turned sentiment against Diem. Critics and dissenters were arrested, sent to “re-education camps,” or otherwise silenced. The flood of imports paid for by the United States was used as a political instrument to win middle-class support through a generous supply of consumer goods. A study by Americah political scientists reported that South Vietnam “is becoming a permanent mendicant” dependent on external support, and concluded that “American aid has built a castle on sand.”
Peasant discontent supplied ready ground for insurgents. Operating on the move, Viet-Minh partisans native to the South, who had stayed behind after partition, formed guerrilla groups, which were joined by partisans who had gone North at the partition and, after training and indoctrination, filtered back over the border. By 1959 insurgents controlled large areas of South Vietnam. “If you drew a paint brush across the South,” an intelligence agent told Senator Mansfield, “every hair of the brush would touch a Viet-Minh.”
In the same years the North too suffered disaffection, owing partly to food scarcity as a result of being cut off from the rice bowl of the South, and partly to Communist oppression. In a public confession to Party colleagues, General Giap acknowledged in 1956 that “We executed too many honest people … resorted to terror … disciplinary punishments … torture.” Internal stresses kept Hanoi too preoccupied in its own territory to launch war against the South, but reunification remained the fixed goal. While crushing resistance and establishing control during the period 1955–60, Hanoi enlarged and trained its forces, accumulated arms from China and by degrees built up connections with the insurgents in the South.
By 1960 between 5000 and 10,000 guerrillas, called by the Saigon government Viet-Cong, meaning “Vietnamese Communist,” were estimated to be active in the South. While the Vietnamese army, under American advice, was mainly stationed along the partition line to guard against a Korea-style attack, the insurgents were spreading havoc. According to Saigon, they had in the past year assassinated 1400 officials and civilians and kidnapped 700 others. Diem’s most stringent measures, including death sentences authorized for terrorists, subversives and “rumor spreaders,” and relocation of peasant communities into fortified village clusters, proved ineffective, The population felt no active loyalty either to Diem or, on the other hand, to Communism or the cause of reunification. They wanted safety, land and the harvest of their crops. “The situation may be summed up,” reported the American Embassy in January 1960, “in the fact that the government has tended to treat the population with suspicion or to coerce it and has been rewarded with apathy and resentment.”
In that year the Manifesto of the Eighteen, issued by a Committee for Progress and Liberty that included ten former Cabinet members, called for Diem’s resignation and sweeping reforms. He had all of them arrested. Six months later a military coup attempted his overthrow on the ground that he had “shown himself incapable of saving the country from Communism and of protecting national unity.” With the aid of troops summoned from outside the city, Diem suppressed the coup within 24 hours. He received Washington’s congratulations and expression of the hope that with strengthened power, he could now proceed to “rapid implementation of radical reforms.” This American hope was conveyed with monotonous regularity, always with the hint behind it that continuance of aid depended on “standards of performance.” Yet when reforms failed to follow, American aid did not stop, for fear that if it were withdrawn Diem would fall.
American confidence vis-à-vis the Soviet Union suffered another shock in 1957 when the Russians launched Sputnik into orbit to a height of 560 miles and a speed around the globe of 18,000 miles per hour. In the year before this dismaying feat, Soviet armed forces had taken over Hungary while the United States, for all Dulles’ boasts, remained passive. In the year after Sputnik, Communists under Fidel Castro took over Cuba, likewise watched helplessly by the United States, though only 90 miles away. Yet the Communists in faraway Vietnam were perceived as a direct threat to American security.
In consultation between Washington and Saigon, a counter-guerrilla or counter-insurgency plan was developed to coordinate the work of American agencies with the Vietnamese army. MAAG’s personnel was doubled to 685 for the program. The new Ambassador, Elbridge Durbrow, had misgivings. He did not think the additional military aid the plan called for should be delivered, or would be effective, without political improvement. But Diem exerted the perverse power of the weak: the greater his troubles, the more support he demanded—and received. In a dependent relationship the protégé can always control the protector by threatening to collapse.
In September 1960 the Communist Party Congress in Hanoi called for the overthrow of the Diem regime and of “American imperialist rule.” Formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam followed in December. Though nominally native to the South, it echoed the call for the overthrow of Diem and the “camouflaged colonial regime of the American imperialists” and announced a ten-point program of Marxist social reforms dressed in the usual garments of “democracy,” “equality,” “peace” and “neutrality.” Overt civil war was thus declared just as a new American President, John F. Kennedy, took office in the United States.