Still blanketed in yellow smoke laid down to mark their position so that a U.S. airstrike would not inadvertently hit them, GIs unwind after a firefight near Hue.
A wounded American and a wounded South Vietnamese soldier comfort each other aboard a medevac helicopter that has lifted them off the battlefield near An Loc, 1972.
Humping the boonies: Monsoon rain lashes men of the U.S. Second Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade, as they ford a river near Ben Cat, September 25, 1965. They had been searching the area for twelve days without a glimpse of the elusive enemy.
Wounded Marine Gunnery Sergeant Jeremiah Purdy reaches out to his dying captain during the fierce battle for Hill 484, south of the Demilitarized Zone, in 1966.
A South Vietnamese soldier flushes a father and son suspected of being loyal to the Viet Cong from the rice paddy in which they had been hiding, Mekong Delta, 1962.
Construction workers and antiwar demonstrators fight for the flag during a demonstration on Wall Street in Manhattan, 1970.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., former Staff Sergeant Dwight Holliday finds the name of a friend, James Miremont, who died in his arms from friendly fire.
A wounded French soldier is evacuated from the battlefield at Dien Bien Phu, to be helicoptered to an army hospital at Hanoi in May 1954. The Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu signaled the end of their war with France and indirectly ushered in a new war, with the Americans.
Ho Chi Minh in Paris, 1921. He was shy and soft-spoken, the wife of one expatriate Vietnamese living in France recalled, but she remembered being frightened by the intensity lurking in his eyes.
FOR SIX MONTHS in the winter, spring, and summer of 1919, Paris was the center of the world. The Great War had ended. The victorious Great Powers—Britain, France, Italy, and the United States—were redrawing much of the world’s map, “as if they were dividing cake,” one diplomat noted in his diary.
The city’s streets teemed with petitioners from nearly everywhere on earth, eager to enhance their own position in the final settlement: Africans, Armenians, Bessarabians, Irishmen, Koreans, Kurds, Poles, Ukrainians, Palestinians, Zionists, and desert Arabs in flowing white robes all elbowed their way past French war widows dressed in black. The British diplomat Harold Nicolson compared the colorful scene to “a riot in a parrot house.”
A good many of these supplicants asked to see President Woodrow Wilson, whose American delegation was housed in the Hotel Crillon. “About every second man…one meets,” the journalist Ray Stannard Baker noted, “fishes out of his pocket a copy of a cablegram that he or his committee has just sent to President Wilson. It is marvelous indeed how all the world is turning to the president! The people believe he means what he says, and that he is a great man set upon securing a sound peace.”
And so, on June 18, when a gaunt twenty-nine-year-old Asian man in a rented morning coat appeared at the door of the American suite and asked if he might see Wilson, it caused no particular stir. The visitor did not get an appointment—the president and his wife were out of town that day, in any case, touring the Belgian battlefields—but a secretary politely accepted a petition from him. It set forth a series of requests on behalf of the people of what we now call Vietnam, then under French control.
There is no evidence that Wilson ever saw the petition, but it was understandable that colonized peoples looked to him for help. His Fourteen Points, the wartime statement of Allied principles intended to guarantee fairness in the peace negotiations, had pledged that during “the free, open-minded and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims,” the interests of the colonized should be given “equal weight” with those of the colonizers.
That was precisely what the Vietnamese petitioners wanted. As a subject people, they declared, Wilson’s advocacy of self-determination had filled them “with hope…that an era of rights and justice [was opening] to them.” They did not demand independence from France, but they did call for “a permanent delegation of native people elected to attend the French parliament” as well as freedom of speech and association and foreign travel, technical and professional schools in every province, and equal treatment under the law.
“Claims of the Annamite People,” a copy of the petition addressed to the American secretary of state, Robert J. Lansing, and delivered by Ho Chi Minh to the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919
The petitioner may have been disappointed that he’d been unable to see the American president, but his visit to the Hotel Crillon was just one of many stops he made in Paris that season. The Western world was woefully ignorant of the plight of the colonized people of Indochina, he told a friend. “We need to make a lot of noise in order to become known.” He pressed his petition on other delegations to the peace talks and on members of the National Assembly, saw to it that it was published in the left-wing newspaper L’Humanité, persuaded a trade union to print up thousands of copies and had them handed out to Paris crowds—and then dispatched thousands more to Vietnam, to be distributed on the streets of Saigon, the largest city in the South.
The French Ministry of Colonies and the secret police demanded to know just who this agitator was. Three undercover agents were assigned to report on his every move. He called himself Nguyen Ai Quoc—“Nguyen the Patriot”—but his real name was Nguyen Tat Thanh. During his long, shadowy career he would assume some seventy different identities, finally settling on “Ho the Most Enlightened”—Ho Chi Minh—the name by which he remains best known (and by which he will be known in these pages).
Ho was born sometime between 1890 and 1893, ten miles west of the city of Vinh in the province of Nghe An. His father, who began life as a rice farmer, served briefly as a minor official in the colonial regime, but resented the French nonetheless. He sent his son to the finest Franco-Vietnamese schools, believing that unless young Vietnamese better understood the world of their colonial masters they could never become free of them. One of Ho’s French teachers hailed him as a “very distinguished student,” but in the spring of 1908, he got into trouble. When hundreds of peasants gathered in the imperial capital of Hue to protest rising agricultural taxes, forced labor, and rampant corruption, Ho volunteered to act as an interpreter when they confronted the French authorities. Things got out of hand. Colonial security forces opened fire.
Shadowed by the French secret police, Ho fled south, went into hiding for a time, and then in 1911, at the age of twenty-one, signed on as an assistant cook aboard a steamship bound from Saigon to Marseille. “The people of Vietnam,” he said many years later, “including my own father, often wondered who would help them to remove the yoke of French control. Some said Japan, others Great Britain, and some said the United States. I saw that I must go abroad to see for myself. After I had figured out how they lived, I would return to help my countrymen.”
He would not return for thirty years. It is impossible to know precisely where he went and what he did over much of that time. In France, he applied for a scholarship to the Colonial School that prepared civil servants to run the empire, hoping, he wrote, that the training he received might benefit his “compatriots.” His application was turned down. He returned to the sea, and witnessed the impact of European colonialism in the African and Asian ports visited by the ships on which he served. He seems to have lived in London for two years, studying English and working at the Carlton Hotel as an assistant to the celebrated chef Auguste Escoffier. He also evidently visited the United States twice, working as a pastry chef at the Parker House in Boston, cooking for a wealthy Brooklyn family, and visiting Harlem to hear Marcus Garvey denounce racism, before turning up in Paris for the peace talks.
French records suggest that Ho landed in France again, just weeks before he tried to see President Wilson. Frail looking and shabbily dressed, he seemed an unlikely revolutionary at first. He stuttered when called upon to speak in public and seemed so diffident that some Parisian radicals dismissed him as “the mute of Montmartre.” But he quickly proved a prolific propagandist—“indefatigable,” said one intelligence report—and increasingly scornful of older expatriate Vietnamese who urged patience in the belief that France might somehow be persuaded to reform its rule. He joined the French Socialist Party because he thought it exemplified the values of liberté, égalité et fraternité that had inspired the French Revolution and was bitterly disappointed when his comrades proved largely uninterested in extending the protection of those principles to the people of the French colonies. But then he discovered the writings of the mastermind of the Bolshevik revolution, Vladimir Lenin. Lenin shared the orthodox Marxist view that real revolution could only be achieved in industrial nations. But he also thought anticolonial movements had an important role to play in overthrowing global capitalism. He argued that agents should establish communist parties in colonized countries, join forces with other nationalist groups, and then, once their colonial masters had been overthrown, jettison their non-communist allies and seize power in the name of international communism.
Interviewed many years later about the impact upon him of Lenin’s writings, Ho’s stilted language could not disguise his initial excitement: “What emotion, enthusiasm, clear-sightedness and confidence it instilled in me! I was overjoyed to tears. Though sitting alone in my room, I shouted aloud as if addressing large crowds: ‘Dear martyrs, compatriots! This is what we need, this is the path to liberation.’ ”
In 1920, when the radical wing of the French Socialist Party broke away to form the French Communist Party, he went with them.
Minister of Colonies Albert Sarraut, a reformer who genuinely wanted to better the lives of France’s Vietnamese subjects but without granting them political autonomy, summoned Ho to his office and alternately threatened him and tried to buy him off. Those who aligned themselves with “Bolsheviks” would be crushed, he warned, but if Ho were willing to cooperate with French authorities his future could be very bright. Ho was unmoved, or so he remembered many years later. “The main thing in my life and what I need most of all is freedom for my compatriots,” he said, rising from his chair. “May I go now?”
The government rescinded Ho’s passport, intending to keep him in France and under continuing surveillance, but in June 1923 he managed to slip out of the country disguised as a Chinese businessman, and head for Moscow. There, he underwent training at the newly established University of the Toilers of the East, and argued before the Communist International that if it wished to defeat the imperialist powers, their colonies—and the all-important raw materials they provided—would first have to be ripped from them; otherwise, he said, the Comintern would be powerless, like the man who tried to kill a snake by stepping on its tail.
In a photograph taken by a fellow member of the French Socialist Party at its annual congress at Tours in December 1920, Ho Chi Minh seeks to persuade his fellow delegates to “act effectively in favor of the oppressed natives” of his homeland. When they did not, he left them and helped establish the French Communist Party.
He was sent to southern China, determined to put Lenin’s precepts into practice among the Vietnamese students living there. In 1925, he created the Revolutionary Youth League of Vietnam, which welcomed both communist and non-communist nationalists and trained many of Vietnam’s future leaders. He also drafted The Revolution Path, a training manual that shrewdly blended Marxist dogma with Confucian precepts and practical considerations. “Peasants believe in facts, not theories,” he wrote. In 1930, he helped establish what became the Indochinese Communist Party.
He remained constantly on the move, eluding French agents and changing names and destinations. He disguised himself as a Buddhist monk and a Chinese reporter, spent two years in a British jail in Hong Kong, was presumed dead by many of his old comrades, and, when he managed to talk his way to freedom, was suspected by some in Moscow of making a deal with the enemy and sidelined.
During the 1930s, Ho remembered, his was “a voice crying in the wilderness.” But through it all, one friend recalled, he remained “taut and quivering…with only one thought, his country, Vietnam.”
THOSE BLUE-EYED, YELLOW-BEARDED PEOPLE
A French fleet attacks the Citadel of Saigon, February 17, 1859. Three years later, the city itself fell to the French, and in 1863 they laid claim to the three provinces surrounding it, the first foothold of France’s empire in Indochina. Painting by Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio.
Annam’s ostensible ruler, Emperor Khai Dinh, and the man who wielded real power, French governor-general Albert Sarraut. A relatively progressive French official who championed education and medical care for the Vietnamese, Sarraut nonetheless saw them as children who could only slowly be allowed to play a part in governing themselves.
AS A NATION-STATE, Vietnam is younger than the United States. The S-shaped region we now know as Vietnam—stretching more than a thousand miles from China’s southern border to the Ca Mau Peninsula in the Gulf of Thailand—was not effectively united under a single ruler until 1802. In that year, a general who called himself Gia Long emerged from thirty years of civil war and established the Nguyen dynasty.
But the roots of Vietnamese civilization stretch back much farther, to the centuries before the Christian era when Chinese chroniclers wrote of the “hundred Viets”—an assortment of non-Chinese peoples scattered across the Red River Delta in the North. (“Viet” in Chinese meant “those from beyond”—foreigners.) Off and on for a thousand years, Chinese rulers sought to conquer these groups, and Vietnamese folklore is filled with the stories of heroes and heroines who led resistance against them.
The Vietnamese may have often resented their powerful neighbor to the north, but their daily lives came to be profoundly influenced by Chinese culture—from the chopsticks they wielded to the way in which they were governed. The education and civil service systems followed strict Confucian lines; to serve the emperor, mandarins, or scholar-officials, had to pass rigorous tests in subjects that included classical Chinese history, literature, and calligraphy. Court business was conducted in Chinese by courtiers wearing Chinese dress. Even the formidable citadel the Nguyen emperors built for themselves at Hue was modeled after the imperial Forbidden City in Beijing; only the ruler and his household were allowed inside its innermost enclosure.
French mercenaries armed with up-to-date weaponry had helped Gia Long establish his empire, and he had granted trading concessions to them in exchange for their help. But neither he nor any of his successors was comfortable with their presence or with that of the European missionaries who had been at work converting Vietnamese to Roman Catholicism for more than a century.
In 1858, when the emperor had two missionaries executed, France sent a fleet to seize the port of Danang. French naval forces took Saigon the following year and then forced the emperor to cede the three surrounding provinces to them. Over the four decades that followed, French forces captured Hue and Hanoi and steadily extended their power and influence until the French colonial government could officially declare in 1900 that the “pacification of Indochina” was complete. “The great [Indochinese] possessions,” wrote an early colonial administrator, “should be organized as true states…and made to possess all the characteristics that define states, except one: political independence.”
France divided Vietnam into three parts: the French colony of Cochinchina, which encompassed the sprawling, sparsely peopled Mekong Delta in the South; and two “protectorates”—Annam, the poorest and most mountainous part of the country, just thirty miles wide at its narrowest point, and Tonkin, the densely populated Red River Delta. These protectorates were nominally overseen by a compliant descendant of the Nguyen emperors, but actually ruled—along with Laos and Cambodia—as part of the Indochinese Union by a French governor-general from his palace in Hanoi.
The French Indochinese Union
The French claimed they had begun to amass their Indochinese empire simply to protect the Christian faithful and professed always to be undertaking a “civilizing mission,” meant to bring material and cultural benefits to an allegedly benighted people. But their initial motives were less lofty. French Indochina was meant to provide a path for penetrating the Chinese market and create a buffer against the British and Dutch, who had already carved empires of their own from India, Burma, Malaya, and Indonesia.
More important, it provided the bright prospect of fortunes to be made through exploitation of the land and its people. To that end, the French would transform much of the Vietnamese landscape. In Cochinchina, they carved out a complex network of canals that turned tens of thousands of acres of marshy wilderness into some of the most productive rice-growing country on earth. They developed modern ports at Haiphong and Danang and Saigon, too, so that Vietnamese raw material could more efficiently be shipped abroad and French-manufactured goods could more easily be unloaded. They also built a railroad to move French products north from Saigon all the way to China; one out of three of the more than 100,000 Vietnamese conscripted to lay its tracks is thought to have died along the way. The French hacked down highland forests as well, displacing tribal people who depended on them for their livelihood, and planted millions of rubber trees in their place; the miserably paid contract workers who tapped the trees were ravaged by malaria and “treated like human cattle,” one colonist admitted, and “terrorized by the overseers….On the rubber plantations the people had a habit of saying that children did not have a chance to know their fathers, nor dogs their masters.” In the North, tens of thousands of contract laborers risked their lives beneath the earth, mining coal, tin, tungsten, and zinc for the benefit of investors in France. They worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and those who tried to get away were often beaten before being forced back to work.
French musicians entertain guests in the grand café of the Grand Hôtel de la Rotonde in Saigon, 1920s. For the French naval officer and future novelist Pierre Loti, coming ashore at Saigon provided “an unexpected sensation, that of coming home…the sudden rediscovery of the sound and momentum of a city, the open cafés, the women dressed in French style, the hum of cars.”
The French largely lived apart from their subjects on plantation estates and in neighborhoods designed and built to look as much as possible like those at home. Most did not bother to learn the language spoken by their subjects. In 1910, the year before Ho Chi Minh fled Cochinchina, a government survey found that just three French officials in the whole colony understood Vietnamese well enough to make policy decisions on their own. The French depended instead on a network of French-speaking Vietnamese willing to carry out their wishes—and all too often eager to enrich themselves in the process.
Other Vietnamese benefited by colonial rule. They became bankers, merchants, or landlords in Cochinchina, where the availability of cheap, newly opened lands created a fresh entrepreneurial frontier for those with enough capital to get started. These privileged people created a Westernized urban world of their own; they spoke French, drank wine, and followed Paris fashions.
A giddy French newcomer, carried ashore by Vietnamese porters, 1902. “The French usually disembarked in Indochina determined to be on the best possible terms with the Annamese,” one critical colonist remembered. “It was only gradually, moving from one small misunderstanding to another, that they arrived at isolation and a separation from the Annamese world.”
But for the peasants who made up 90 percent of Vietnam’s population, colonial rule provided few benefits. Subject to French monopolies on salt and alcohol, sometimes dragooned to labor without pay on public works, burdened by ever-climbing taxes and saddled by debt, many stood by helplessly as lands they once had owned slipped into the hands of big landowners. By the beginning of the twentieth century, just 5 percent of the population owned 95 percent of the arable land in Cochinchina.
Resentment festered. “Our soil is fertile, our mountains and rivers [are] beautiful,” the nationalist firebrand and pamphleteer Phan Boi Chau noted in 1907.
Compared with other powers in the five continents, our country is inferior only to a few. Why, then, do we suffer French “protection”?…Frenchmen hold…the power of life and death over everyone. The life of thousands of Vietnamese people is not worth that of a French dog; the moral prestige of hundreds of our officials does not prevail over that of a French woman. Look at those men with blue eyes and yellow beards. They are not our fathers, nor are they our brothers. How can they squat here, defecating on our heads? Are the men from Vietnam not ashamed of their situation?
Three generations of Vietnamese nationalists struggled to provide answers to those questions. First, a group of Mandarins led a guerrilla war aimed at restoring the Nguyen dynasty to its former splendor—and returning themselves to positions of power. The French defeated them, but it took a dozen years. A second generation of scholar-gentry, hostile to France but increasingly open to influence from the West and impatient with the way things had been done before the French arrived, fostered nationalist movements of their own. Some championed armed resistance and called for a constitutional monarchy or a democratic republic. Others deplored violence and insisted instead that France live up to the ideals it professed to cherish and teach the Vietnamese how they might rule themselves. The French considered all opposition suspect. Some nationalists were executed. Hundreds more were imprisoned.
French officials preside over the public guillotining of a Vietnamese prisoner in Saigon, 1888. French onlookers crowd the upstairs balconies, but the grisly spectacle was intended to impress the silent Vietnamese who line the surrounding streets with the cost of defying French law.
Vietnamese colonial troops and cooks accused of plotting to poison officers at their Hanoi garrison, 1908. Thirteen were decapitated, and four more were sentenced to life in prison. “Hanoi is currently the property of the French,” a nationalist pamphlet declared after the executions, “but the traces of these heroes’ blood will never be erased even for three thousand years.”
None of these movements ever managed to broaden its appeal much beyond the urban middle-class world from which their leaders came. The communists were different. They set out from the first to unite Vietnam’s factory workers with the peasant majority, but they were plagued by factionalism: three communist parties competed with one another before Ho brought their leaders together in Hong Kong in 1930 and united them under a single banner. Still, the French proved too strong for them, crushing peasant rebellions in Tonkin and northern Annam in 1930, and again a decade later in Cochinchina. The French strafed demonstrators, bombed villages suspected of harboring rebels, and shot unarmed civilians. Party leadership in the South was virtually eliminated.
When France meekly surrendered to Nazi Germany after just six weeks of fighting in June 1940, many Vietnamese nationalists rejoiced in the humiliation of their colonial masters. Imperial Japan, soon to ally itself with Germany and eager to move against British and Dutch colonies throughout Asia, then forced the collaborationist Vichy French to permit them to station troops in Tonkin in exchange for the right to continue day-to-day administration of the colony. Within a year, Japanese soldiers would occupy all of Vietnam.
To some Vietnamese, the collapse of the French and the coming of the Japanese had seemed to signal a welcome end to white colonial rule. But Ho Chi Minh saw things differently. To him, the Japanese were alien invaders, no more welcome than the French. France might be an “imperialist wolf,” he said, but Japan was a “fascist hyena,” interested only in exploiting his country, commandeering rubber for its war machine, and seizing Vietnamese crops to fill its own rice bowls. “The Japanese [have] become the real masters,” he wrote. “The French [have] become kind of respectable slaves. And upon the Indo-Chinese falls the double honor of being not only slaves to the Japanese, but also slaves of the slaves—the French.”
Ho identified with the Allies, sure that they would eventually defeat the Japanese and hopeful that once the war was over they would reject the now-discredited French and reward Vietnamese nationalists with the independence they’d been seeking for decades. “It was a once-in-a-thousand-years propitious situation,” he told his followers, and he was determined to take advantage of it.
A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE
Like many sons of mandarins, Bui Diem, born in 1923 in Annam, was raised to resent the French. His grandfather and his father had each refused to serve at the Nguyen court because the emperors were doing Paris’s bidding, and he had personally experienced the color prejudice that characterized the relationship between colonial rulers and those they ruled. Although he was well read, Westernized, and eloquent in French, he was barred as a young man from the only tennis courts in his hometown simply because he was Vietnamese.
Nonetheless, he remembered, it also sometimes seemed to him that he’d learned “everything” from the French—“their language, their culture. Studying their revolution taught me the difference between being a slave and being a free man.” That lesson was brought home to him at the elite Hanoi high school he attended, by an eager young history teacher named Vo Nguyen Giap, who would one day disappear mysteriously from school. Much later, he reemerged on the battlefield to defeat first the French and then the Americans in Vietnam.
During World War II, Bui Diem attended the University of Hanoi, the sole institution of higher learning the French had seen fit to build in Indochina. When, in the spring of 1940, he and his fellow students learned that it had taken Nazi Germany just six weeks to humiliate the once-mighty French, they were swept up in nationalist feeling. There was renewed interest in resistance heroes from Vietnam’s distant past. Secret societies and nationalist parties competed for young peoples’ loyalty.
“Although no one knew anything concrete about these parties, what their policies were, or even the names of their leaders, we were caught in a rush of excitement,” he remembered.
We felt that our country was on the verge of striking out for its freedom, and there wasn’t a soul who didn’t want to be a part of that….Gradually, each of us joined one or another of the parties that promised to mold a reality from the desire for freedom….At that time,…few had had any idea of the distinctions between these parties, or even a good concept of which was which. They all said they were fighting for independence; that was enough….It was not generally known, for example, that the Viet Minh was communist controlled. Ho Chi Minh was not a name anyone had yet heard of.
In the end, and only because a close friend encouraged him to do so, Diem cast his lot with one faction of the anticommunist Dai Viet, or “Greater Vietnam,” Party. “Its raison d’etre was national freedom,” he recalled, “and it had neither the time nor the inclination to look far beyond that goal….It was a moment of innocence, the last one, perhaps, before the fratricidal war between communists and non-communists bore down on us.”
Japanese troops advancing on Haiphong unopposed in September of that same year
Bui Diem as a student at the University of Hanoi, 1940
THE DECISIVE HOUR
At Ho Chi Minh’s jungle redoubt, Viet Minh volunteers watch an OSS weapons instructor demonstrate how to fire a U.S.-supplied rifle grenade. “To see our company…armed with new rifles and shining bayonets,” Vo Nguyen Giap remembered, “filled us with jubilance and confidence.”
ON FEBRUARY 8, 1941, Ho Chi Minh, disguised as one of the local Nung people, slipped across the Chinese border into Tonkin near the remote mountain village of Pac Bo and set up headquarters with a handful of followers in a limestone cave at the side of a mountain he named for Karl Marx, which overlooked a jungle stream he named for Lenin. The surrounding thickly wooded hills were already a communist stronghold, but he made sure that if a French patrol came too close, escape back into China was only steps away. Still, for the first time in three decades, he was back home in Vietnam.
He gathered the members of the Central Committee of the Indochinese Communist Party at Pac Bo in May, and persuaded them temporarily to submerge the party within a broad patriotic front to be called the League for the Independence of Vietnam—the Viet Minh. The time had come, he said, to rally “patriots of all ages and all types, peasants, workers, merchants and soldiers” to defeat the Japanese—as well as the French. Behind the scenes, communists would be in overall command, but nationalists of every kind would be welcome. Freedom from France would come first; party objectives like land redistribution could wait.
To build and lead a guerrilla liberation army, Ho called upon Vo Nguyen Giap, the onetime history teacher who had once instructed the children of Hanoi’s elite. Giap was an early convert to communism whose lifelong hatred of the French only deepened when he learned that his wife had died after being tortured in a French prison. He had already begun to develop a distinctive theory of revolutionary warfare based on his reading of Napoleon, the Chinese general Sun Tzu, and Lawrence of Arabia. In fighting the French and the Japanese, he said, his armies would be “everywhere and nowhere.”
The Viet Minh worked first to win the support of the Nung and other highland peoples living in the North, then spread their influence steadily southward from village to village across the Red River Delta. They strengthened their appeal by their efforts to alleviate the impact of the terrible famine that took between one and two million lives in the northern and north-central parts of the country during the winter of 1944–45. When neither the French nor the Japanese nor any other nationalist organization seemed capable of dealing with the crisis, the Viet Minh raided granaries, distributed rice to the hungry, and were widely hailed as saviors.
Ho Chi Minh (first row, third from right) at Pac Bo with members of the OSS Deer Mission, 1945. The officer to Ho’s right is the team’s commander, Major Allison Thomas. The man wearing the tie is Vo Nguyen Giap.
Meanwhile, the war went badly for the Japanese. By early 1945, their fleet had largely been destroyed. American forces were making one amphibious Pacific landing after another. Fearing that Indochina might be next and that their French allies would turn against them, the Japanese staged a coup on March 9. They killed some two thousand French officers and men, disarmed and interned twelve thousand more—and then, in an attempt to win Vietnamese support, declared Vietnam “independent” and allowed the puppet emperor, Bao Dai, to remain on the throne so long as he did their bidding.
In the end, the Americans never invaded Indochina. They focused instead on preparing to assault the Japanese home islands. But American agents working in southern China for the OSS—the Office of Strategic Services, wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency—sought allies behind enemy lines to gather intelligence and rescue downed American pilots. Ho Chi Minh eagerly joined forces with them, hoping that if the Viet Minh came to America’s aid, then America would support Vietnam’s bid for independence once the fighting ended.
A six-man OSS team parachuted into his jungle encampment, supplied Ho’s men with modern arms, and marveled at how quickly they learned to handle them. Ho began to call his followers the “Viet-American Army.”
On August 14, Japan indicated her willingness to surrender. Two days later, Ho issued “an appeal to the Vietnamese people,” urging them to seize control of their country before Allied troops arrived in Indochina.
Dear Fellow Countrymen! The decisive hour has struck for the destiny of our people. Let all of us stand up and rely on our own strength to free ourselves. Many oppressed peoples the world over are vying with each other in wresting back independence. We should not lag behind. Forward! Forward! Under the banner of the Viet Minh, let us valiantly march forward!
Popular uprisings erupted in rural districts all across the Red River Delta, some incited by the Viet Minh, some spontaneous. The Viet Minh took over Hanoi, seized Hue, forced Bao Dai to abdicate, and established a tenuous hold on Saigon, despite other nationalist factions jockeying for power in the South. The Vietnamese would remember this successful insurrection as the “August Revolution.” In the years to come, its memory would inspire—and then dangerously mislead—the men who ran North Vietnam.
ON THE MAP OF THE WORLD
ABOVE AND BELOW Hanoi, Sunday afternoon, September 2, 1945. A throng gathers in front of the Municipal Theater, hung with the single-starred Viet Minh flag, before making its way to Ba Dinh Square (top). There, while Viet Minh guards with drawn revolvers protect the podium, Ho Chi Minh declares Vietnam’s independence beneath an umbrella that shields the pages of his speech from the sun’s glare.
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 1945, the day Japan formally surrendered, was declared Vietnamese Independence Day. More than 400,000 people gathered in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square that afternoon. Many had never visited the big city before. Ho Chi Minh had never been there, either, and when he and the members of his new cabinet stepped onto a makeshift platform, the crowd could pick him out only because he was dressed differently from his colleagues. They wore Western coats and ties. He chose the simple peasant clothing he would wear for the next twenty-four years as head of state: a battered hat, faded khaki jacket, and rubber sandals.
He began to speak, then stopped and shouted, “Countrymen, can you hear me?”
The people roared back, “Clearly!” At that moment, General Giap remembered, “Uncle [Ho] and the sea of people became one.”
With OSS officers looking on, Ho began with the familiar words of Thomas Jefferson. “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” He quoted the promises contained in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, as well, and then contrasted these high-minded ideals with the crimes committed by France against his people for more than eighty years. He declared the independence of the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam and then called upon the Allies to recognize the right of the Vietnamese people to full independence.
Many in the crowd wept. “I was so proud,” a Viet Minh veteran remembered. “It was wonderful that our country was now officially named on the map of the world.”
Ho’s hope that the United States could be persuaded to support Vietnamese independence was understandable. Even before America entered the war, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had promised a postwar world that would “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they…live,” and he had an almost visceral scorn for the French and for French colonialism. “Indo-China should not be given back to the French Empire,” he had told his commanders. “The French [have] been there for nearly one hundred years and [have] done nothing…to improve the lot of the people.” He was equally sure the Vietnamese were not yet ready for self- government and so hoped the United Nations would make Vietnam a trusteeship, running it for the benefit of its people while preparing them for full independence, as the United States was doing for the Philippines.
But Roosevelt had died in April, and his plans for a trusteeship had died with him. His successor, Harry Truman, had little interest in colonial questions. The Grand Alliance of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union had not survived the war it won. The Soviet Union had borne the brunt of the fighting. Some twenty-seven million Soviet citizens had died in the war, and Joseph Stalin was determined that his country would never again be vulnerable to attack from the West. Ruthless and paranoid, he refused to withdraw his armies from the eastern European countries they had overrun, insisted that states beyond those expanded borders remain within Moscow’s sphere of influence, and hoped to spread that influence still further—into Iran, Turkey, and the Mediterranean.
Concern over Soviet expansion in Europe indirectly affected postwar policy toward Indochina. The U.S. State Department was sharply split. The Far East division saw that the colonial era was coming to an end and warned that American support for the restoration of French rule in Indochina would result only in “bloodshed and unrest for many years.” But the European Affairs bureau disagreed. General Charles de Gaulle, president of France’s provisional government, had already made it clear that restoration of the French empire was nonnegotiable; if the United States insisted on independence for her colonies, France might have no choice, he said, but to “fall into the Russian orbit.” The Europeanists argued that the United States must do nothing to undercut the restoration of France’s prewar empire—including Vietnam.
The Allied leaders, meeting in Potsdam, Germany, in July, weeks before Japan’s surrender and Ho’s declaration of Vietnamese independence, had already agreed temporarily to divide French Indochina into two separate zones for purposes of disarming the enemy and restoring law and order. Nationalist Chinese troops were to handle things north of the 16th parallel while British troops performed the same task to the south. Once that was accomplished, the future status of the region could be negotiated. The United States agreed to remain officially neutral in those talks—but would make no objection to the restoration of French rule.
A former French prisoner of war, newly released and rearmed, stands guard over Vietnamese nationalists rounded up in Saigon, September 1945. The brutality of the coup that reestablished French control of the city, one rueful Frenchwoman wrote, showed the Vietnamese “that the new France [is] even more to be feared than the old one.”
COCHINCHINA IS BURNING
ON SEPTEMBER 9, the advance guard of a 150,000-man Nationalist Chinese occupation army marched into Hanoi—weary, ragged, eager for plunder. On their way through Tonkin, they had evicted Viet Minh committees from power, and replaced them with members of the anticommunist Nationalist Party, allied with Chiang Kai-shek. In Hanoi, the illusion of an easy path to independence had lasted just one week.
Things had gone badly in Cochinchina, too. On Independence Day, banners hung across the streets of Saigon: “Down with French Fascism,” “Give Us Liberty or Death,” “Welcome to the Deliverers.” Somewhere between thirty and forty thousand peasants and their families had gathered in front of the French governor-general’s palace, now occupied by the Viet Minh. Some carried Japanese swords, ancient shotguns, and sharpened bamboo spears, and all hoped to hear Ho Chi Minh’s words broadcast live from Hanoi. But Japanese roadblocks kept the transmitter from ever reaching Ba Dinh Square. There was no broadcast. As the disappointed crowd broke up, someone fired several shots. The Vietnamese blamed the French, killed a Catholic priest who happened to be nearby, then roamed the streets randomly beating French men and women. A rumor spread through French neighborhoods that the Viet Minh had “declared their intention to kill every white man in the city.”
Two days later, the first members of an OSS team landed at Saigon. Their commander was a remarkable twenty-eight-year-old officer, Lieutenant Colonel A. Peter Dewey. He was a New York congressman’s son and a Yale-educated newspaperman, an author and student of French history who had been awarded the French Legion of Honor for the courage he displayed behind enemy lines in North Africa and southern France. His official mission was clear enough: he was to care for American prisoners of war, protect American property, and gather information about enemy atrocities. But he was also secretly to learn everything he could about French plans for Indochina after the war.
Japanese soldiers guard a Saigon neighborhood against the ongoing street fighting raging in the distance, October 1945. In the confusion that followed the war’s end, the shorthanded British commander felt he had no choice but to arm former enemies to keep order between mobs of angry Frenchmen and Vietnamese.
Saigon was in chaos. “It wasn’t quite a civil war,” the OSS team’s translator, George Wickes, remembered, “but it was getting very close to civil war in the streets.” Fluent in both French and Vietnamese, Wickes was at first delighted to find himself in Vietnam “when hardly any Americans knew where it was.” But the Viet Minh seemed powerless to impose order. Snipers fired from rooftops. Mobs looted homes and shops. Terrified French civilians remained barricaded inside their homes.
Dewey tried to make sense of it all. “Right from the start he was in touch with everybody,” Wickes recalled. “Not only the French but very soon he established connections with the various Vietnamese groups and sorted them out. From them he was getting a sense of which way the Vietnam independence movement was likely to go.”
The British, challenged by nationalist movements in their own Asian colonies, favored the swiftest possible return of French rule in Indochina. Major General Douglas Gracey, British commander of the small contingent of Gurkha troops assigned to disarm the Japanese and reestablish order, had little time for talk of independence. He was blunt, impatient, and convinced that European rule over Asian territories was both right and inevitable; he refused even to speak to the Viet Minh. “He was inclined to restore the French,” Wickes remembered. “It was not a part of his official mission, but he felt that he was simply holding the fort until the French could take over.”
Gracey rearmed eight thousand Japanese soldiers and sent them out with orders to disarm every Vietnamese and to evict the Viet Minh from the governor-general’s residence.
Colonel Dewey tried to broker talks between a Viet Minh spokesman and the senior French representative in the city. The talks went nowhere. The Frenchman insisted there could be no discussion of the future until French rule was restored; the Viet Minh said the French would have to promise independence before talks could begin. But Dewey’s efforts infuriated General Gracey. By conferring with the Viet Minh, he said, Colonel Dewey had become a “blatant and subversive” force, undermining his authority. He declared the American persona non grata.
Dewey continued to collect intelligence as best he could. When he realized the British were watching him, he sent George Wickes, disguised as a former prisoner of war, into the streets after dark to meet with spokesmen for various Vietnamese factions and then report back.
The Viet Minh called for a general strike and mass demonstration, one organizer recalled, in hopes of attracting British and French reprisals that would “cause many casualties and attract world attention.” In response, General Gracey imposed martial law, then released and armed fourteen hundred French prisoners of war. Together with a mob of angry French civilians, they stormed through the streets, clubbing any Vietnamese who got in their way. They lynched Viet Minh officials, looted shops, and raised the French flag above the city’s most important buildings as a sign that France was once again in charge.
Dewey hurried to British headquarters to protest. General Gracey refused to see him—and sent orders that Dewey was to leave Saigon as soon as arrangements could be made.
At dawn the next day, a Vietnamese mob shouting “Death to Europeans” and bent on revenge stormed through a French neighborhood, butchering some 150 men, women, and children and carrying off others who were never seen again.
Dewey cabled one more report to his superiors: “Cochinchina is burning,” he wrote. “The French and British are finished here and we [the United States] ought to clear out of southeast Asia.”
Two days later, on September 26, Dewey and an American colleague left the villa the OSS was now occupying on the outskirts of the city and set out in a jeep for Tan Son Nhut airport, prepared to fly out to OSS headquarters in Ceylon.
“There were Vietnamese roadblocks all around the town, part of the resistance to the French and the British,” Wickes recalled. “One was just down the road, and we’d passed through it many times without incident.” When Dewey drove to the airport and discovered that his plane was not yet there, “he decided to come back to the villa for lunch. As he started passing through the same roadblock, a machine gun opened fire and killed him.”
The Viet Minh machine gunner had evidently mistaken the American officer for a Frenchman. The first postwar American death in Vietnam was the result of a tragic misunderstanding—the first of many between the people of the United States and the people of Vietnam.
Ten days after Dewey’s death, fresh French troops began arriving at Saigon to take over from the British. “We are fighting for the reestablishment of French greatness,” said their commander, General Jacques-Philippe Leclerc, who had led the forces of Free France into Paris. His men quickly subdued Saigon, cleared an area ringing the city twelve miles deep, and then, as new troops arrived to swell his ranks, pushed across the Mekong Delta and up into the Central Highlands. They were harassed by guerrillas wherever they went, were able to take territory but then didn’t seem able to hold on to it. “If we departed, believing a region pacified,” one frustrated soldier wrote, “the Viet Minh would arrive on our heels.” Combat in Vietnam would follow that pattern for the following three decades.
Lieutenant Colonel A. Peter Dewey (top) and the monument that once marked the spot where he was killed, near Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport. Dewey’s body was never found.
A HARD LESSON
“WE APPARENTLY stand quite alone,” Ho told a Western reporter in Hanoi that fall. No nation, not even the Soviet Union, was willing to recognize his government. Even the French Communist Party he had helped to found refused to support Indochinese independence. “We shall have to depend on ourselves.”
To keep the Nationalist Chinese occupiers of Tonkin from interfering with his government—and forestall French forces from reclaiming the region—he bribed the warlords in command with gold and opium, formally dissolved the Indochinese Communist Party (though it would continue to operate in secret), offered Nationalist rivals posts in his cabinet, and agreed to elections for a new National Assembly with guaranteed seats for the anticommunist opposition.
The delaying action did not last long. In early 1946, the Chinese and French reached an agreement: the French relinquished prewar trading rights in China, and the Chinese agreed to go home. France, already engaged in retaking the South, was now poised to retake the North, as well. Some of Ho’s comrades urged him to resist. But he knew his forces were not yet up to the task of combating the French and preferred to negotiate. In the end, France and the Viet Minh reached an uneasy compromise: Paris pledged to consider Vietnam a self-administering “Free State” within a newly organized imperial framework to be known as the French Union. There was no mention of “independence.” In return, Hanoi agreed to let France station fifteen thousand troops in northern Vietnam for five years. Hanoi argued that Cochinchina was an integral part of Vietnam. Paris insisted it remain a separate colony tied to France. The two sides agreed that a plebiscite would eventually settle the matter.
On May 31, Ho left for Paris, a city he knew far better than Hanoi, hoping to get the French to live up to their promises. He was greeted as if he were a head of state, spent time with old friends, visited the streets and cafés and parks he’d loved a quarter of a century earlier. But the talks went nowhere. The French definition of a Vietnamese “Free State” turned out to provide very little actual freedom, and without any warning Paris declared Cochinchina a separate “autonomous republic.” Vietnam would neither be independent nor reunited.
“The French…wave flags for me,” Ho told an American reporter, “but it is a masquerade. We will have to fight.” It would be a war between the French elephant and the Vietnamese tiger, he said.
If the tiger ever stands still the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger does not stand still. He lurks in the jungle by day and emerges by night. He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing huge chunks from his hide, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death. That will be the war of Indochina.
Ho was away for four months, long enough for General Giap to conduct a merciless purge of people he called “reactionary saboteurs”—landlords and moneylenders, members of rival nationalist parties, Trotskyites and Catholics, men and women accused of collaborating with the French or the Japanese. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were shot, drowned, buried alive. Thousands more were sent to prison camps. Later, Giap and Ho would acknowledge that at least some of the killings had been “mistakes,” but by then they had essentially destroyed all opposition to their leadership in the North. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam would be run by Ho Chi Minh, General Giap, and their inner circle.
In November 1946, a customs dispute between the French and Viet Minh in the port of Haiphong led to a day-long exchange of gunfire. Two hundred and forty Vietnamese and seven Frenchmen were dead by nightfall. A tenuous ceasefire took hold. But in Saigon, General Jean Valluy, commander of French forces in Indochina, insisted the city be punished. Accordingly a French warship shelled Haiphong, killing six thousand civilians—to “teach a hard lesson,” its commander said.
French troops return to Hanoi, March 20, 1945. “Watching them…brought the taste of gall,” Bui Diem remem-bered. “It seemed the return of Vietnam’s colonial enslavement. On the sidewalks French civilian residents of Hanoi stood cheering. On the balcony each one of us was brushing away tears.”
French officials escort Ho Chi Minh after he made a formal call upon the French prime minister, Georges Bidault, July 2, 1945. When a reporter remarked on the large crowds that gathered to see Ho wherever he went in France, the Vietnamese leader was not surprised. “Why, of course,” he said, “everyone wants to see the Vietnamese version of Charlie Chaplin.”
In December, fighting broke out in the streets of Hanoi. Ho and Giap and their comrades fled the city and returned to their mountain strongholds along the Chinese border. “Those who have rifles will use their rifles,” Ho declared in a radio address calling for the war he had tried so hard to avoid. “Those who have swords will use swords; those who have no swords will use spades, hoes, or sticks.”
The London Times that week was prophetic: “Any colonial power which puts itself in the position of meeting terrorism with terrorism might as well wash its hands of the whole business and go home. We are about to see a French army reconquer the greater part of Indochina, only to make it impossible for any French merchant or planter to live outside barbed wire perimeters thereafter.”
France poured troops into both halves of the country—Frenchmen, European mercenaries, and colonial troops from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Senegal—and enlisted Vietnamese willing to fight against the Viet Minh. Unprepared to fight in summer heat and monsoon rains, underfinanced and poorly led, these forces still managed to take and hold most of the large towns and province capitals in northern and central Vietnam and to establish some nine hundred watchtowers and blockhouses scattered across the countryside.
But the Viet Minh owned most of the rural areas in between. They mined roads, blew up bridges, ambushed French patrols that dared venture outside their strongholds, attacked French bases by night, then disappeared into the darkness. Tactics set forth by the Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Zedong were initially their guide: “The enemy advances,” Mao said, “we retreat; the enemy halts, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”
The French often responded with brutality—razing villages, raping women, torturing and executing men suspected of aiding the Viet Minh. “We suffered losses but we also responded well and inflicted a lot of damage, ” one French Legionnaire reported after destroying a village. “Within a 6-kilometer radius, nothing remains: from ducks to cattle, women and children, we have purged everything.”
The Viet Minh proved ruthless too. They drew up lists of persons suspected of having links to the French and then assigned “assassination committees” to eliminate them. “It is better to kill even those who might be innocent,” they said, “than to let a guilty person go.”
French casualties continued to mount. “There are days when we are so discouraged that we would like to give it all up,” a French soldier wrote his family. “Convoys under attack, roads cut, firing in all directions every night, the indifference at home.”
It eventually became clear that this was a war neither side could win without aid from elsewhere. Both sides lobbied hard to get it.
France looked to the United States for help, but American planners remained ambivalent about events in Indochina. The U.S. “fully recognized French sovereignty,” Secretary of State George Marshall wrote, and was opposed to its being “supplanted by a philosophy emanating from and controlled by the Kremlin,” but he also remained frankly baffled at the persistence of France’s “outmoded colonial outlook.” Why hadn’t Paris been able to work more closely with the people of its colonies?
TOP TO BOTTOM The French War begins: Viet Minh troops barricade the streets of Hanoi in early December 1946, then struggle to defend their city against the French. Within a few days, French troops were in control. “If war is imposed on us,” Ho Chi Minh told a French reporter before he fled Hanoi, “we will fight rather than renounce our liberties.”
Paris argued that since Ho Chi Minh was a communist and only pretending to be a nationalist, it was pointless to seek a settlement with him. France hoped to win American support—and deflect Vietnamese support away from Hanoi—by installing Emperor Bao Dai as the titular head of a new “Associated State of Vietnam,” ceding to him a handful of mostly meaningless powers, and then continuing to wage their war in his name. Paris hoped that this “Bao Dai solution” would help free their struggle from the taint of imperialism. (A few months later, Laos and Cambodia would also be made Associated States under local monarchs.)
Bao Dai himself, who had been Tokyo’s puppet and now answered to Paris, ruefully admitted that the “solution” named for him was “just a French solution.” Some in Washington saw through the smokescreen too.
But then, events overtook the United States. Back in February 1946—while Ho Chi Minh was still in Paris, arguing in vain for genuine Vietnamese independence—a junior U.S. diplomat stationed in Moscow named George F. Kennan had sent a secret telegram to his superiors in Washington. The Soviet threat was genuine, he argued, but neither open warfare nor concessions should be necessary to offset it, provided Washington pursued what he would call “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
Kennan’s concept of containing Soviet power rather than attempting to roll it back would form the basis of American foreign policy for nearly half a century. To contain Moscow, Washington stationed the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, provided aid to Greece and Turkey, undertook the enormous task of rebuilding western Europe, and responded to the Soviet seizure of Czechoslovakia and its blockade of Berlin by forming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which pledged American protection to all of western Europe.
Until 1949, containment applied only to Europe. Then, everything seemed to change. In August, the Soviet Union exploded its own atomic bomb, ending America’s monopoly on the world’s most lethal weapon. A few weeks later came still more stunning news: America’s Nationalist Chinese ally Chiang Kai-shek had been defeated by the forces of Mao Zedong; China, the most populous nation in Asia, was now in communist hands.
Republicans and some Democrats now accused the Truman administration of having “lost” China—as if it had somehow been America’s to lose. Some charged that communists within the U.S. government itself had somehow been responsible.
In January 1950, Mao formally recognized the Viet Minh. Ho Chi Minh lost no time in asking China for the arms and equipment and military training he needed to continue his war with France. Mao agreed to help. Tens of thousands of Chinese workers hacked roads through the jungle so that Russian trucks could carry arms and heavy weapons to the Vietnamese border. Meanwhile, in training camps within their own territory, Chinese advisers began turning General Giap’s ragged army into a conventional modern fighting force. Within two years, Giap would command a well-armed regular army of 300,000 men, backed by a militia of nearly two million. Meanwhile, the Soviets recognized the Viet Minh, and also offered help.
On February 7, Washington recognized the Bao Dai regime.
International tensions continued to rise. In June, communist North Korea invaded South Korea, American troops were dispatched to repel them, and American suspicions that China and the Soviet Union were determined to conquer Asia seemed to be confirmed. “Communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese had ten, fifteen, and twenty years earlier,” President Truman wrote. “I felt certain that if South Korea was allowed to fall, Communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our shores.”
France encouraged the idea that Korea and Vietnam were part of the same global conflict. “The war in Indochina is not a colonial war,” one French commander claimed. “As in Korea, it is a war against Communist dictatorship.”
The National Security Council now seemed to agree. It warned Truman that without U.S. help, France would be unable to defeat the Viet Minh, and once Vietnam fell, “the neighboring countries of Thailand and Burma could be expected to fall and the balance of power in Southeast Asia would be in grave hazard.” An American diplomat in Saigon went further: If Vietnam were to fall, he warned Washington, “most of the colored races of the world would in time fall to the Communist sickle.”
Accordingly, in July, Truman approved a $23 million aid program for the French in Vietnam—that number would rise to $100 million by year’s end—and he quietly dispatched transport planes and a shipload of jeeps. Thirty-five military advisers went along to oversee their use. None of them—and no one in the American legation—spoke a word of Vietnamese.
The United States was no longer neutral. The Truman administration had firmly linked U.S. security to France’s success in Indochina and turned a colonial conflict into a cold war confrontation—a proxy war. “Southeast Asia is [now] the center of the cold war,” said the liberal New Republic. “Indo-China is the center of Southeast Asia. America is late with a program to save Indo-China. But we are on our way.”
In the autumn of 1951, Massachusetts congressman John F. Kennedy undertook a trip around the world, meant to polish his foreign policy credentials for an upcoming run for the Senate. One evening he, his younger brother, Robert, and his sister Pat dined at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Majestic, overlooking Saigon. As they ate, they could see the flash of guns across the Saigon River. The next day, French commanders assured Kennedy that with more American support, French rule would soon be reestablished. But the congressman also spent two hours with Seymour Topping, a seasoned American reporter, who gave him a very different perspective: the French were losing, he said, and many Vietnamese who had once admired the Americans were beginning to despise them for backing the French. Kennedy believed the reporter. Unless the United States could persuade the Vietnamese that it was as opposed to “injustice and inequality” as it was to communism, he told his constituents when he got home, the current effort would result in “foredoomed failure.”
The president’s advisers did not share the young congressman’s doubts, and when, in October 1952, American forces drove deep into North Korea and Chinese troops poured into North Korea to drive them back, Washington doubled, tripled, and then quadrupled its support for the French war in Indochina. By 1952, American taxpayers were paying more than one-third of the cost of France’s war. When that conflict ended, the number had risen to nearly 80 percent.
WITNESS TO HISTORY
When twenty-two-year-old PFC George Wickes arrived in Saigon on September 4, 1945, just two days after Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence, he realized he would be witnessing history firsthand. “It’s a most fascinating thing watching the succession of episodes,” he wrote to his mother. “What will the French do? What will the Annamese do? The British? The Japs? The Chinese?”
Over the next few weeks he saw vicious street fighting, engaged in clandestine meetings with the Viet Minh under orders from Colonel A. Peter Dewey, and took part in a firefight with those who killed his commander. In November, he traveled north of Saigon in search of Dewey’s body. It was never found, but Wickes saw for himself the difficulty French troops were already having subduing Vietnamese guerrillas and wrote home about it.
The French are not quite so confident as they were at the start that this would be cleared up in a few weeks. I believe that, unless they always keep large garrisons and patrols everywhere they will not be able to keep the country submissive as it was before….The Annamites’ great advantage lies in the fact that he is everywhere, that he does not need to fight pitched battles…to be a threat and that no amount of reprisal can completely defeat him. I cannot say how it will end, but at least it will be a long time before Frenchmen can roam about the country with peace of mind.
On March 16, 1946, ten days after Ho Chi Minh reluctantly agreed to permit France to station troops in northern Vietnam, Wickes and another intelligence officer were sent to Hanoi to interview him. There, they witnessed the arrival of General Leclerc and the advance guard of his army. “They were wildly acclaimed by hysterical French crowds,” Wickes reported, while the Vietnamese watched “with singular apathy.”
Ho assured his American visitors that while he was himself a communist he could not determine whether an independent Vietnam would adopt communism as its form of government. That was for the people to decide, he said, and he asked his visitors to tell Washington of his hopes that the United States would support his call for full independence.
Wickes told his mother how impressed he’d been.
When you talk to [Ho] he strikes you as quite above the ordinary run of mortals. Perhaps it is the spirit that great patriots are supposed to have. Surely he has that—long struggling has left him mild and resigned, still sustaining some small idealism and hope [that even after the March 6 agreement real independence could still be achieved]. But I think it is particularly his kindliness, his simplicity, his down-to-earthness. I think Abraham Lincoln must have been such a man, calm, sane and humble.
Seventy years later, and despite everything that happened in the intervening years, George Wickes still held to that view.
Snapshots: George Wickes, shown above on the roof of the Continental Hotel, the first OSS billet in Saigon, used his amateur camera to capture Japanese troops formally surrendering to officers of the British Indian Army and the arrival of the first French troops in Saigon on October 4, 1945.
AS FRIENDS, AS BROTHERS
Tran Ngoc Chau was one of thousands of young nationalists who volunteered to join the Viet Minh and free their country. The pampered son of a mandarin whose family had served the imperial family of Annam for centuries, he had grown up in their capital city of Hue, and spent five years studying to be a Buddhist priest before the struggle began. But he’d also served as an intelligence agent for the Viet Minh, he recalled, and when the call to revolution came, he and his two older brothers boarded a train with other volunteers and went to war.
“The French had reoccupied the South first so we had to go to the South to fight,” he recalled. “Everywhere the train stopped the people came out with all kinds of food, good food that they had cooked themselves. That was my first lesson about how important it was to have the people with us. And even though at first only a few of us were communists, we heard the name of Ho Chi Minh everywhere.”
There were far more volunteers than weapons at first—some twelve-man units had to share a single rifle. Chau’s own gun fell apart the first time he fired it in battle. There was too little food. He was forced to walk mile after mile, week after week, without shoes. But he soon found himself part of hit-and-run raids, attacks on French outposts, ambushes of French convoys—and was learning useful lessons from every encounter. After each firefight died down, Chau and his comrades would gather to discuss what had happened and how they might do better the next time. Those who had made mistakes were required to confess them; if they failed to do so their comrades were expected to denounce them.
Most urban middle-class youths found jungle warfare too demanding and fell away, Chau recalled. He himself suffered from malaria and was severely wounded by shrapnel. But he had a gift for leadership, was made a company commander within a year, then a battalion commander, and experienced firsthand the bitter reality of the lives led by the poor peasants who made up the majority of his fellow countrymen.
They were a revelation to him. The people among whom he’d grown up “looked down on the peasants,” he remembered, “almost as if they were servants.” The men with whom he served were illiterate, ill-fed, ill-informed about the world beyond their villages, and angry at the landlords for whom they and their parents had been forced to work. But they were also uncomplaining, undemanding, and willing to undergo all sorts of privation for the cause they shared. Their stoicism shamed and embarrassed him. He taught many of his men to read.
Infected wounds and recurrent malaria eventually sent Tran Ngoc Chau to the hospital for months, time he spent thinking about the struggle in which he had been engaged so deeply. He had already begun to privately question his superiors—who were now insisting that he join the Communist Party. He admired the communists’ devotion to their cause, but he did not share their scorn for religion, disliked the way they punished or eliminated those who dared differ with them, and did not believe that whole classes of people—mandarins, landowners, intellectuals, businessmen—should be suppressed or annihilated, as they seemed to believe.
He also learned that other Asian colonies—India, Pakistan, and Burma—had recently won their independence without prolonged wars. And now that Bao Dai, the emperor whose forebears Chau’s family had served, had returned to Vietnam as head of state, he began to think there might be another way to win independence—a negotiated agreement between the emperor and Ho Chi Minh.
Tran Ngoc Chau
He wanted to help work toward that goal. But to do so, he would have to abandon the Viet Minh. It was not an easy decision. For five years, he later remembered, “we’d lived together as friends, as brothers,” but in the end, Tran Ngoc Chau resolved to slip away from his comrades and make his way toward territory still controlled by the French.
UNDER TWO OPPRESSORS
“During the French War we lived under two oppressors: the Viet Minh and the French,” remembered Tran Ngoc Hue—known as Harry Hue to his American friends. He was born in the imperial city of Hue in 1942, the great-great-grandson of a nineteenth-century soldier who committed suicide when Hanoi fell to the French and thereby became a nationalist hero.
In the chaos that followed the Japanese coup in 1945, eight-year-old Harry and his family fled to their ancestral village of Khe Mon, just twenty miles northeast of Hue, in a region largely controlled by the Viet Minh. There, he saw two sights he never forgot.
His father was away by then, serving as a junior officer in the embryonic Vietnamese National Army (VNA). It had been recently created by the French, ostensibly to defend their puppet emperor, Bao Dai, actually in the hope, as one Washington report put it, that “much of the stigma of colonialism can be removed if, where necessary, yellow men will be killed by yellow men rather than by white men alone.” The Viet Minh ambushed another VNA unit near the village.
The outnumbered troops surrendered. The Viet Minh dragged them into the center of the village. There, while Harry and the rest of the people watched, “they stripped them naked and buried them alive,” he remembered. “They didn’t want to waste a bullet on those people.”
A few days later, French Legionnaires arrived, determined to punish Khe Mon even though the Viet Minh had long since disappeared. They rounded up everyone, burned a number of homes to the ground, and gang-raped one of Harry’s young cousins.
“The French wanted to ‘civilize’ our country,” Harry recalled, “and then they came and burned houses and raped and pillaged in a very evil, savage way. And on the other side, the Viet Minh claimed they were protecting the people against colonialism and then acted inhumanely. Those images were seared into my consciousness and that’s the reason that afterward I fought to protect the free South.”
Tran Ngoc Hue as a lieutenant colonel in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, photographed at the Dong Ha firebase in 1969
NO MILITARY VICTORY IS POSSIBLE
BY 1953, the French had been fighting in Indochina for seven years. They had suffered over 100,000 deaths and failed to “pacify” the countryside. Six commanders had come and gone. Nevertheless, the seventh, General Henri Navarre, assured his countrymen upon arriving in Vietnam that year that victory was near: “Now we can see it clearly,” he said, “like the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Large sections of the French population had wearied of the war. Grieving for their dead and appalled by reports of French brutality, including the widespread use of napalm—gelatinized petroleum that burned foliage, homes, and human flesh—they began to call the conflict “la Sale Guerre”—the Dirty War. When returning French troops disembarked at Marseille, members of the left-wing longshoremen’s union pelted them with rocks.
In July, the Korean War ended in a negotiated settlement and a still-divided peninsula. American policymakers saw it as proof that communism in Asia could be contained.
That fall, the French indicated their willingness to begin talks to end the fighting. Ho Chi Minh agreed to take part. Before the negotiators were to convene in Geneva the following May, each side sought to improve its position.
General Navarre set up a fortified base in a remote valley in northwestern Vietnam called Dien Bien Phu, where he hoped to lure the Viet Minh into a major set-piece battle. Navarre was certain that superior French firepower and the ability to call in air support would crush any attack by the Viet Minh and saw no serious threat from the jungle-covered hills that overlooked his eleven thousand men, dug in and around eight strongpoints on the valley floor. Dien Bien Phu was “like an immense stadium,” one French soldier wrote home. “The stadium belongs to us; the bleachers in the mountains to the Viets.” The French artillery commander was so confident of victory, he boasted that he had “more guns than I need.”
General Giap saw his chance. “We decided to wipe out at all costs the whole enemy force at Dien Bien Phu,” he remembered. To do it, he pulled off one of the greatest logistical feats in military history. A quarter of a million civilian porters—nearly half of them women—moved everything he needed for a siege, from sacks of rice to disassembled artillery pieces, on foot through the jungle for more than one hundred miles.
Giap surrounded the valley with fifty thousand men and two hundred big guns, dug-in and camouflaged so well they could not be spotted from the air. Thirty-one thousand more men provided support, and an additional twenty-three thousand personnel maintained supply lines back to the Chinese border.
On March 13, 1954, Viet Minh artillery on the hillsides be-gan raining fifty shells a minute down onto the troops below. It was “like a hailstorm,” one survivor recalled. “Bunker after bunker, trench after trench collapsed, burying men and weapons.” The airstrip was destroyed. The besieged troops could only be reinforced and resupplied by airdrop. There was no way to lift out the wounded or the dead. The French artillery commander who had so badly underestimated the enemy blew himself up with a grenade.
The Viet Minh drew closer and closer, digging their way toward their trapped quarry. Outgunned and outnumbered, and unable to retreat, the French did their best to hold on while their desperate government appealed to Washington to intervene directly and strike the surrounding hills from the air.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a veteran soldier who had commanded Allied forces in Europe in World War II, was “horror-struck” by the predicament in which Navarre’s troops found themselves. “They are just going to be cut to pieces,” he said. He had been elected president in part because he’d promised to wage the cold war more aggressively than Truman had. And, as he explained in an April 7 press conference, he subscribed fully to what came to be known as the “domino theory.”
You have a row of dominoes set up, and you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly….When we come to the possible sequence of events, the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following,…now you are talking really about millions and millions and millions of people.
Some of Eisenhower’s advisers, fearing that if the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu they would abandon Indochina and leave the struggle against Ho Chi Minh up to the Americans, urged the president to authorize a massive nighttime bombing raid on Viet Minh positions. But Eisenhower refused open American intervention without congressional approval and support from Britain, America’s closest European ally.
London refused to get involved. And, so soon after Korea, Congress was not in the mood for unilateral action. The president did secretly send American transport planes, their markings painted over and flown by civilian volunteers, to help resupply Dien Bien Phu. Two Americans died when their plane was shot down. But that was all the president was willing to do. “I am convinced,” he confided to his diary, “that no military victory is possible in this theater.”
Meanwhile, for the French at Dien Bien Phu, things went from bad to worse. Monsoon rains filled their trenches with three feet of mud. Wounded men drowned in the underground infirmary, where sixteen hundred helpless men eventually lay, maggots swarming over their wounds. Hidden loudspeakers ceaselessly demanded that they surrender or die.
General Vo Nguyen Giap (left) in a still from a Soviet-made propaganda film about Dien Bien Phu
During a brief lull in the shelling, a wounded French lieutenant emerges from a makeshift underground infirmary.
Twenty thousand men on specially reinforced bicycles carried rice and vegetables and other supplies to the Viet Minh at the front. “This method of transportation,” General Giap remembered, “greatly surprised the enemy’s army and completely upset his original calculations.”
The Viet Minh suffered, too. Mud also inundated their trenches. A single surgeon and six assistants struggled to meet the needs of fifty thousand men. Morale plunged. Political commissars harangued the wet, exhausted men, denouncing those who displayed doubt, fear, or combat fatigue for what they called “rightist tendencies.” Had General Giap not been able to continually bring in fresh troops, the siege’s outcome might have been different.
But on the afternoon of May 7, 1954, after fifty-five days of siege, the exhausted French forces at Dien Bien Phu finally surrendered. They had lost eight thousand men, killed, wounded, or missing. General Giap had lost three times as many, but he had won a great victory and brought an end to what would come to be called the First Indochina War.
The next morning, representatives of the Vietnamese communists and those who opposed them, along with diplomats from nine nations, gathered in Geneva, hoping to settle the future of Indochina.
The talks, led by Great Britain and the Soviet Union, would drag on for nearly four months. Since the United States did not recognize the new communist regime in China, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to speak to the chief Chinese negotiator, Zhou Enlai. The French puppet emperor Bao Dai would not parley with the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh—who now occupied four-fifths of Vietnam—demanded total French withdrawal from all of Indochina, Laos, and Cambodia, as well as Vietnam.
But now their Chinese allies refused to back them. China had lost nearly a million men in Korea, did not want to face the possibility of American troops again along its border, and was wary of Vietnamese domination of Laos and Cambodia. “I have come to Geneva to make peace,” Zhou Enlai told a French delegate, “not [to] back the Viet Minh.”
The Soviet Union agreed. Stalin had died, and for the moment, his successors hoped to ease tensions with the West.
On the third day of shelling at Dien Bien Phu, French paratroopers run for cover. “We’re done for,” said one commander. “We’re heading for a massacre.”
Adding to the misery of the French troops trapped at Dien Bien Phu were day-and-night exhortations to surrender, broadcast from the surrounding hills.
Viet Minh march past the camera some of the ten thousand prisoners who surrendered to them at Dien Bien Phu. They include troops from French colonies in North and West Africa as well as France, Germany, and Indochina.
Both of Ho’s communist patrons pressed him to agree to a negotiated settlement, a temporary partition like the one that had finally brought the Korean War to its uneasy end. “It is possible to gain all Vietnam through peace,” Zhou assured Ho. “It is possible to unite Vietnam through election when [the] time is ripe.” And Ho faced other problems. The Viet Minh defeat of France had exacted a fearful cost. Its army was exhausted and depleted. If the war continued, there was no guarantee of final victory and there was always the chance that the United States still might intervene. He had no option but to give in. Once again, he would have to postpone his dream of a unified and independent Vietnam.
Vietnam was temporarily to be divided at the 17th parallel. For two years the two halves would be separated by a demilitarized zone until a plebiscite overseen by Canada, Poland, and India could be held to reunify North and South, a plebiscite everyone believed Ho Chi Minh was sure to win. In the interim, neither side was to join a military alliance or introduce fresh troops or permit foreign military bases to be established on its soil.
Under the provisions of the agreement, 130,000 French-led troops and their families would withdraw to the South. Simultaneously, somewhere between fifty thousand and ninety thousand southern Viet Minh regulars and their relatives would “regroup” to the North. “We promise our beloved compatriots that one bright and happy day we will return,” one officer said as he packed to leave. Thousands of other Viet Minh and their sympathizers would remain in the South eager for that day, ready to vote to reunite their country and to fight for that cause if asked to do so.
Neither Washington nor a new anticommunist Vietnamese government based in Saigon signed the agreements, though they did agree to “respect” them. Even before the Geneva talks ended, American policymakers determined that Vietnam south of the 17th parallel must never come under communist rule, and sought somehow to turn the battered, demoralized region into a resilient anticommunist state.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE MAN IN ASIA
THAT TASK WOULD FALL to the man Bao Dai had appointed as his prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem. Over the nine years that followed, Diem would routinely be denounced by his enemies as an American puppet, but those who tried to pull his strings were disappointed more often than not. From the first, he was his own man.
He was a veteran nationalist politician whose loathing for the French was matched only by his hatred for the communists who had briefly imprisoned him and buried alive his eldest brother and his nephew. A Roman Catholic in a largely Buddhist country, and a celibate bachelor who had once planned to be a priest, he was aloof, autocratic, and seemingly convinced always of the correctness of his decisions and the righteousness of his cause. He was mistrustful of anyone much beyond his own family. But he also proved to be a shrewd and ruthless political infighter, skilled at playing his rivals off against one another.
Born in Hue in 1901, the third of six sons of the high chamberlain of the imperial court, he had played many roles during his career—province chief in the French colonial government, Japanese ally, Viet Minh captive who nonetheless flirted briefly with joining Ho Chi Minh’s government, and exile in Washington, where he lobbied for the establishment of what he called a “rallying point between the communists and the French”—a new independent government run by an anticommunist nationalist very like himself. Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York became one of his champions; so did John F. Kennedy, now a senator, and senators Mike Mansfield of Montana and Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.
In the end, Bao Dai recalled, he chose Diem as his premier because “he was well known to the Americans, who appreciated his intransigence. In their eyes, he was the man best suited for the job and Washington would not be sparing in its support of him….Yes, he was truly the right man for the situation.”
Not every American official agreed. Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson and a number of senior military men had argued for immediate American withdrawal; they did not wish to become mired in another Asian conflict after Korea and thought it unlikely that the “Diem experiment” could possibly succeed. “Diem is a messiah without a message,” one Saigon embassy official cabled Washington. “His only formulated policy is to ask immediate American assistance in every form.”
Diem’s first challenge was to manage the sudden influx of tens of thousands of refugees from the North. The Geneva Accords decreed that civilians living in either half of Vietnam who wanted to shift to the other would have just three hundred days to do so. Diem’s fellow Catholics above the 17th parallel lived in fear of what the communist regime might do to them. Whole Catholic hamlets packed up to move, and the United States mobilized a flotilla of ships to carry them to safety in the South in an operation they called “Passage to Freedom.” In the end, some 900,000 refugees—including more than half of all the Catholics living in the North—fled to the South and were resettled in villages of their own, a reliable source of support for Diem but a source of growing resentment among Buddhists.
Despite the influx of so many potential new supporters, Diem seemed to face insurmountable odds. No one—neither the Nguyen emperors nor the colonial French—had ever been fully in control of the Mekong Delta. The last part of the country to be settled by the Vietnamese, it was still considered a sort of frontier region, much of it virtually impenetrable—vast wetlands with thick forests along the Cambodian border—and its people lived in scattered, isolated communities.
At first, Diem’s power did not extend much beyond his palace grounds. Rivals were everywhere. In addition to the Viet Minh cadre and the French colonists who wished him ill, warlords belonging to two rival religious traditions—the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao—held large swaths of territory west of the capital. Much of Saigon itself was run by the Binh Xuyen—an eight-thousand-man criminal cartel who, with the connivance of the French, controlled prostitution, gambling, and the drug trade, as well as the police force meant to control them. And the Vietnamese National Army was commanded by General Nguyen Van Hinh, an ambitious soldier who owed his first loyalty to France and spoke openly of staging a coup to put himself in power.
Fresh from his victory over the Binh Xuyen, President Ngo Dinh Diem paces in his Saigon palace in May 1955. “In [the] U.S. and [the] world at large,” John Foster Dulles wrote, “Diem rightly or wrongly is becoming [a] symbol of Vietnamese nationalism struggling against…corrupt backward elements.”
Fearing the collapse of the fragile new regime, the U.S. em-bassy urged Diem to compromise with his rivals and create a “government of national union” in which they all could take part—and warned that aid might be cut off if he failed to go along. Instead, he resolved to pick off his enemies, one by one. First, he outmaneuvered General Hinh and sent him into exile, then began buying off warlords with U.S. funds provided by his admiring friend Colonel Edward Lansdale of the CIA.
On November 8, 1954, a “special presidential representative” arrived in Saigon from Washington with the rank of ambassador. General J. Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins had fought on Guadalcanal, led troops in Normandy, and served as Army chief of staff during the Korean conflict. He told the press he had come to “give every possible aid to the government of Ngo Dinh Diem.” But in fact, Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had sent him to Vietnam to see if he thought continuing to sustain Diem was really in America’s interest. Dulles himself was doubtful: he admired Diem but warned Collins that the chances of long-term success were no better than “one in ten.”
Collins was a brusque, profane, by-the-book soldier with little interest in the complexities of Vietnamese politics, and quickly came to the conclusion that “Diem…represents our chief problem.” He was too slow, too suspicious, and too stubborn ever to succeed. Collins warned Diem that America would no longer back him if he did not pursue a policy of “political means…without fighting” toward his enemies.
Again, Diem paid little heed. Instead, he moved against three of the armies that threatened his survival. He refused to renew the license that allowed the Binh Xuyen to reap its enormous profits from the city’s wide-open vice and gambling district. And he told two of the warlords that their militias would no longer be receiving the subsidies the French had provided.
His rivals responded with an ultimatum: they wanted subsidies, cabinet posts, and permanent authority over the territories they dominated—and they wanted it all within five days. Collins tried to convince Diem and his rivals to get together. He was afraid that the Vietnamese troops he hoped to train to fight communists from North Vietnam were, instead, about to find themselves facing gangsters in the streets of their own capital.
The deadline passed. Diem rescinded Bao Dai’s grant of police powers to the Binh Xuyen. The Binh Xuyen retaliated by attacking army headquarters—and shelling the palace. Scores of civilians were caught in the crossfire.
The French arranged a tenuous ceasefire. From his home on the French Riviera, Bao Dai demanded Diem’s resignation. Diem ignored him. A full-scale civil war seemed only days away. Collins believed it would end in chaos—and an eventual communist takeover. He flew back to Washington, determined to persuade the president to end American support for Diem before it was too late. “[Diem’s] inability to compromise, his inherent incapacity to get along with other able men, and his tendency to be suspicious of the motives of anyone who disagrees with him,” Collins insisted, “make him…incapable of holding this government together.”
Collins prevailed. On April 27, Secretary of State Dulles reluctantly cabled the American embassies in Paris and Saigon that there was to be a new South Vietnamese government; if Diem refused to support it, “the program should…be carried out anyway.”
But just six hours later, Dulles received a telegram from Colonel Lansdale: open warfare had broken out in Saigon between Diem’s army and the crime syndicate. Diem’s forces had made an all-out assault on the Binh Xuyen—something General Collins had expressly told him he should not do. Troops on one side of the street battled those on the other. The fighting went on for three bloody days. Some five hundred civilians died. Twenty thousand more lost their homes. But in the end, Diem’s forces prevailed. The surviving Binh Xuyen fled into the swamps south of the city, where many of those who failed to surrender were hunted down and killed. Diem’s forces then went on to dismantle what remained of the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai militias.
Dulles hurriedly ordered the U.S. embassies in Paris and Saigon to burn his earlier cables: Diem had triumphed; the United States was now fully committed to him. “Whatever [the] U.S. view has been in the past,” the secretary of state told America’s Western allies, “today [the] U.S. must support Diem wholeheartedly.”
The French, who had never trusted Diem to look out for their interests, now announced their intention to withdraw the last of their troops from South Vietnam. “That made [Diem] popular,” one American remembered, “because he seemed to embody the nationalist cause in the South. Ho Chi Minh had only got the French out of the North. Diem drove the last Frenchmen from Vietnamese soil.”
Flushed with victory, Diem called for a referendum between himself and Bao Dai. He left little to chance. In the old imperial capital of Hue, hundreds of suspected pro–Bao Dai voters were arrested just before election day. At the polls, government monitors kept track of who had voted for whom. The vote count was in the hands of Diem’s supporters. When the votes were counted, Diem claimed to have won 98.2 percent of them. He got 200,000 more votes in Saigon alone than there were registered voters in the city.
Diem simultaneously proclaimed himself the first president of a brand-new Republic of Vietnam and announced that it would not participate in talks with the North unless it renounced “terrorism” and “totalitarian methods.” The plebiscite on the question of reunification promised by the Geneva Accords would never take place. Instead, Diem believed, his republic would so swiftly outperform its northern rival and refugees would stream south in such numbers that the Hanoi regime would collapse and Vietnam would be reunified under his leadership. In the interim he saw to it that a new “representative assembly” packed with loyal supporters ratified a new constitution that invested in him as president executive powers more authoritarian than democratic. It allowed him to override any law he liked and suspend freedom of the press and assembly whenever he wished. A song dedicated to him, entitled “Adoration of President Ngo”—modeled after a song eulogizing Ho Chi Minh that was performed at public events in the North—was duly sung at schools and theaters following the national anthem.
“The president,” Diem’s new constitution said, “leads the nation.” But he made sure that his family led it with him. All four of his surviving brothers wielded power of one kind or another: elder brother Ngo Dinh Thuc was the bishop of Vinh Long Province and later archbishop of Hue; Ngo Dinh Luyen served as Diem’s ambassador to Great Britain; and Ngo Dinh Can was the warlord of central Vietnam, commanding a personal army and enriching himself by smuggling opium and siphoning off U.S. aid funds. But the most powerful—and to Americans as well as to many Vietnamese, the most sinister—brother proved to be Ngo Dinh Nhu. “If one hundred people came to Diem and called something white and Nhu called it black,” a close associate said, “Diem would believe Nhu.” Nhu had helped mastermind Diem’s rise to the premiership. He espoused a murky political philosophy called “personalism,” supposedly a middle ground between liberal individualism and Marxist collectivism, that even its adherents found hard to understand. He also ran a clandestine political party from within the president’s palace that mirrored the techniques and ruthlessness of the communists, commanded his own Special Forces unit, and eventually supervised thirteen separate internal security organizations that spied on and seized enemies of the regime. His imperious wife, Tran Le Xuan—better known as Madame Nhu—served as her bachelor brother-in-law’s unofficial first lady and issued edicts of her own against contraceptives and divorce, gambling and prostitution, and beauty contests.
President Dwight Eisenhower, Ngo Dinh Diem, and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles at the White House, May 9, 1957. At a state dinner that evening, Eisenhower would toast his visitor for demonstrating “how much moral values and the concept of human dignity could count for in the minds of men.”
Under the slogan “Denunciation of the Communists,” Diem set out to destroy the Viet Minh wherever its cadre and their sympathizers could be found. Tens of thousands of citizens were eventually imprisoned. Most were dedicated communists, but included among them were many people whose only crime had been having criticized Diem’s regime. Hundreds were sent to Con Son Island, a former French prison two hundred miles offshore in the South China Sea. Shackled prisoners were taken there by boat. Two paths led from the landing to the prison. One was named Ngo Dinh Diem Road, the other Ho Chi Minh Road. Those who chose the Ho Chi Minh Road were poorly fed, beaten, tortured, and chained inside so-called tiger cages. More than twenty thousand are believed to have died there between 1954 and 1970. Survivors called it “the revolutionary university.” One man remembered that the cruelty he experienced on Con Son Island had turned him into “hardened steel. My human feelings were leaving me. I was more than capable of doing the same things to my enemies that they were doing to me—no question. Without a moment’s hesitation. The same and worse.”
Saigon’s city hall displays the spectacularly skewed margin of Diem’s referendum victory over Bao Dai, along with a portrait of the winner. While the referendum had been “a resounding success for the Diem government,” the American ambassador admitted privately, “the results do not prove that Diem commands even majority support in South Vietnam.”
Communist “regroupees” heading south to resume the revolutionary struggle, 1960. “They could not stand to let people in their native villages suffer under Diem’s rule,” one of them remembered, and “when they were finally allowed to go south they were exuberant.”
For better or worse, keeping South Vietnam from falling to the communists had become an American project. Most politicians, Democrats as well as Republicans, had come to share the current views of John F. Kennedy, just emerging onto the national stage. Now that South Vietnam was free of France, he said, it “represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike….If we are not the parents of little Vietnam, then surely we are the godparents…this is our offspring. We cannot abandon it; we cannot ignore its needs.” If Vietnam fell—to chaos or poverty or communism—the United States would be “held responsible; and our prestige in Asia will sink to a new low.”
When Diem made a state visit to the United States in the spring of 1957, praise for him was nearly universal. Life magazine hailed him as “The Tough Miracle Man of Vietnam.” Reader’s Digest saw him as the “Biggest Little Man in Asia.” Thousands of New Yorkers turned out for a ticker-tape parade. And President Eisenhower himself called him “the greatest of statesmen,…an example for people everywhere who hate tyranny and love freedom.”
To bolster Diem’s regime, American civilian advisers de-scended on Vietnam, full of plans for reform and development, eager to turn South Vietnam into a showcase for how a beneficent America could help people help themselves.
Most important was an interdisciplinary team from Michigan State University headed by an early Diem admirer, the political scientist Wesley R. Fishel, who saw his mission as “saving” his friend’s government. For seven years, he and his staff proposed American-style changes in everything from policing to public administration to the installation of traffic lights in Saigon.
Diem listened to them all, accepted almost $2 billion in aid between 1955 and 1960, and again and again went his own way. Americans urged him to make sweeping land reforms; he expropriated vast tracts of land from wealthy French and Vietnamese landlords but then failed to redistribute most of them among the landless. They suggested he encourage democracy on the local level; instead, he replaced elected village chiefs and village councils with outsiders, hand-picked by bureaucrats loyal to him. Urged to adopt principles of small-scale community development that had been adopted in India and elsewhere, he tried forcibly resettling thousands of people into new communities instead, and then required them to perform weeks of compulsory and uncompensated labor. “Coercion,” he explained, “has had a vital role in most change.”
Meanwhile, American advisers working for the U.S. Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) had arrived with orders to modernize, train, and equip Diem’s newly named Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the ARVN. Like their predecessors, the 342 uniformed newcomers spoke no Vietnamese, and knew little about the country or its culture. Their commander was Lieutenant General Samuel “Hanging Sam” Williams, a tough-talking veteran of combat in both world wars and Korea. He understood that the immediate threat to the Diem regime came from local Viet Minh cadres, who, he said, needed to be “destroyed like vermin.” But that was a “police-type task,” he said, best left to two paramilitary forces: the fifty-thousand-man Self-Defense Corps, made up of small squads of local men expected to protect their own villages; and the 54,000-man Civil Guard, assigned to man scattered outposts throughout the countryside.
Williams’s task was to create an up-to-date regular army, 150,000 well-trained men whose mission would be to hold the line against a full-scale conventional North Vietnamese invasion for at least a month, enough time for American forces to come to the rescue as they had done in Korea five years earlier.
“The Vietnam War was a civil war right down to the family level,” Duong Van Mai remembered. Her own family provided a vivid example. She and her eleven siblings grew up in cosseted comfort. Her father, the son and grandson of mandarins, was an important official under the colonial regime, not because of any special fondness for the French but because, when contrasted with the Viet Minh, he considered them “the lesser of two evils.”
Hundreds of Catholics crowd the dock at Haiphong, eager to board the USS Montague for the voyage to the South, part of the massive effort the Americans named Operation Passage to Freedom. By 1956, the diocese of Saigon had more practicing Catholics than Paris or Rome.
But when the French war began in 1946 and the family left Hanoi and moved to their ancestral village to escape the fighting, Mai’s older sister, Thang, fled with her husband and their six-month-old son to join the Viet Minh in their mountain stronghold. Her parents, Mai remembered, were “ambivalent” about their decision, “objecting to their ideas for a social revolution but sympathizing with their struggle to recover national independence.”
During the war, Mai’s father served as mayor of Haiphong and governor of the surrounding Maritime Zone and helped organize training for the new Vietnamese National Army. Viet Minh assassins tried to kill him three times. But when news came of Dien Bien Phu, she remembered, her parents were “very proud that the Viet Minh had defeated the French. They felt admiration and respect on the one hand but fear on the other hand. And fear was the stronger emotion.”
Mai was thirteen years old in 1954, when fear forced her and the rest of her family to flee the North and begin new lives in Saigon. “Saigon was like a foreign country to us at the time,” she recalled.
Some hated us for having abandoned the Viet Minh and clung to the French; others saw us as carpetbaggers who were going to steal their jobs and their rice bowls, or who were going to drive up the price of everything and make life difficult for everyone….Instead of seeing us as compatriots, many people thought of us as aliens: they called themselves “Vietnamese,” while calling us “Northerners.”
Duong Van Mai, photographed in Saigon in 1960
Slogans on walls—some scrawled by CIA agents—urge northerners to flee communist rule.
A FEROCIOUS TIME
BUT NO ONE in North Vietnam was planning a conventional invasion. Hanoi’s patrons, China and the Soviet Union, were steadily growing apart, and neither was willing to underwrite another war. And in any case, Ho Chi Minh and his comrades were focused on rebuilding their country. Years of fighting had taken a serious toll on North Vietnam. The French had deliberately destroyed a network of dikes. Rice production had plummeted. Railroads no longer ran. Vast areas had been abandoned by farmers who had fled to the cities for safety during the fighting.
The communists now imposed land reforms modeled on those imposed by Mao Zedong in China with a ruthlessness that left as many as fifteen thousand people dead, including not only landlords and their allies but many peasants who had fought in the ranks of the Viet Minh. Hanoi’s policies were so harsh and uncompromising that one province was driven to open rebellion and had to be brought to heel.
Ho eventually apologized for “mistakes and shortcomings,” as he had a decade earlier. But by the mid-1950s, more than half the families in North Vietnam had become landowners, and Ho Chi Minh—“Uncle Ho”—remained a hero to his people.
Diem’s refusal to submit reunification to a vote had bitterly disappointed the North Vietnamese. Ho was still determined to reunite the country, but he felt that there was little he could do about it. He worried that if North Vietnam took direct military action, the United States would be drawn more deeply into the struggle, and so he cautioned his comrades in the South to avoid violence, to be patient and put their faith in political agitation. “Our policy,” Ho explained, “is to consolidate the North and keep in mind the South.”
That was cold comfort to embattled southern revolutionaries struggling to survive under the grim efficiency of Diem’s increasingly harsh regime. It was “a ferocious time,” one southerner remembered. “The enemy was brutally killing people,” a village woman recalled. “Women lost their children and their husbands. Our leaders, our comrades observed the agreement, and did not allow any of us to break it. We didn’t know what to do, we just had to accept it. I myself was very frustrated and wanted to do something.”
By 1957, an estimated 90 percent of the Viet Minh cadre left behind in South Vietnam had been rounded up or eliminated; many of the rest were in hiding. They called upon the North more and more desperately for help, and some began to argue that their northern brethren were cowards.
As violence in the South intensified, other leaders began to emerge in Hanoi. Until his death, Ho Chi Minh would remain the face of the Vietnamese revolution around the world, but he was now sharing power with men who had grown impatient with his caution, men about whom Americans knew almost nothing. The most important would prove to be a single-minded onetime railroad clerk named Le Duan. He had joined the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930, survived nearly ten years of solitary confinement in a French prison, and coordinated Viet Minh and Communist Party activities in the South during the French War.
Le Duan, photographed in 1951. Although he would be the central strategist of North Vietnam’s war effort for more than a quarter of a century, he was little known or understood in Washington.
The writer Nguyen Ngoc, then a low-ranking cadre in the Viet Minh, encountered Le Duan in 1951 and later remembered how impressed he’d been by his eloquence and revolutionary fervor. “I had never heard anyone speak like that,” he said. In the years that followed, he remembered, Le Duan seemed to embody the spirit of the southerners suffering under Diem: “The peasants in the countryside desperately wanted to rise up and Le Duan took that passion to the North.”
Le Duan’s passion was matched by his skill at political infighting, and he eventually rose to become general secretary of the party. As violence accelerated in the South, he and his hard-line allies steadily gained influence within the politburo until, in January 1959, the Central Committee of the Communist Party adopted a new program, remembered in Vietnam as “Resolution 15.” It sanctioned armed force to “end the plight of the poor and miserable people in the South” and “defeat each wicked policy of the American imperialists and their puppets.” The battle for reunification would still be fought by the South Vietnamese themselves—loyal Viet Minh as well as ordinary peasants who resented Saigon’s brutal treatment of them—but Hanoi would do all it could to help them, short of waging war itself.
Bands of forty to fifty “regroupees”—armed southern Viet Minh—began slipping back across the 17th parallel into South Vietnam, following a network of jungle paths hacked through the Laotian mountains that would come to be called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was an arduous two-month trek. When the rice they carried ran out they subsisted on leaves and roots and birds they managed to trap. But the opportunity to strike back at the Saigon regime kept them moving. “For the liberation of our compatriots in the South,” one regroupee wrote, “a situation of boiling oil and burning fire is necessary.”
For most Americans, South Vietnam still seemed to be an American success story. On July 7, 1959, the fifth anniversary of Diem’s coming to power, the editors of The New York Times wrote that “a five year miracle has been carried out. Vietnam is free and becoming stronger in defense of its freedom and ours. There is reason today to salute president Ngo Dinh Diem.”
The next evening at Bien Hoa, twenty miles northeast of Saigon, six American advisers were watching a movie in their mess hall. In the darkness, guerrillas slipped silently into the compound and took up positions at the open windows. When an American snapped on the light to change reels, the guerrillas opened fire. Major Dale Buis from Pender, Nebraska, and Master Sergeant Charles Ovnand from Copperas Cove, Texas, were killed, the first Americans officially to die in the Vietnam War.
By the end of the year, some five hundred regroupees were in place in the South, more were on the way, and violence against the Diem regime was steadily accelerating. “I didn’t have a gun so I made a bamboo spear for myself,” one southerner recalled. “Twelve of us got together with twelve spears, and we went in to where a policeman was and we all stabbed him. And then we said that anyone who went to the funeral would be killed. No one dared go.”
One hundred and fifty South Vietnamese officials were soon being murdered every month. Guerrillas began attacking ARVN patrols and isolated outposts, killing as many men as they could and seizing arms and ammunition supplied by the Americans. And for the first time, assassinations and lightning raids began to take place in central as well as southern Vietnam.
In retaliation, the Diem government enacted Law 10/59, which created mobile military tribunals empowered to stage public show trials that sent hundreds of men and women to their deaths, executed by portable guillotines ferried from one village to another. “In my village they cut off the head of a Viet Minh security guard,” one man remembered, “and they invited all the people to watch. The idea was to intimidate them and crush the revolutionary movement. But all they succeeded in doing was making the revolution grow because we young people refused to be cowed. And we joined the revolution in greater numbers.”
The struggle intensified. By the middle of the summer of 1960, there were running gun battles between revolutionaries and ARVN troops and mass anti-Diem demonstrations south of Saigon, with thousands of people gathered in one village or another to listen to speeches and shout slogans. Government officials and their sympathizers were forced to flee. Those who did not were sometimes beheaded with machetes in front of the crowd in order to intimidate anyone else tempted to side with Saigon. Many people, one villager recalled, felt as if they were living with two nooses around their necks, each pulling in the opposite direction.
These demonstrations and the violence that often accompanied them were remembered by the communists as “the Concerted Uprisings”—the real beginning of the mass revolt against the Diem government.
In mid-October 1960, Elbridge Durbrow, the American ambassador in Saigon, made a formal call on Independence Palace, hoping to have what he called a “frank and friendly talk” with the president. He told Diem that he feared he was “in quite serious danger,” not only from the growing insurgency but also from widespread resentment of his own harsh security measures and rumors of widespread corruption and political favoritism. Durbrow suggested again that Diem welcome opposition leaders into his government and urged him to send his hugely unpopular brother and sister-in-law into exile abroad.
Diem angrily objected to everything the ambassador had to say, and promised nothing. He privately hated the reliance on the United States that made his critics call him My-Diem—“American Diem”—but he also understood that he could not survive without it. At the same time, he knew that if the United States was serious about maintaining South Vietnam as an anticommunist stronghold in Southeast Asia, it had no real choice except to stick with him.
On November 8, 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States, narrowly defeating Vice President Richard Nixon. Ngo Dinh Diem was delighted. Kennedy was a fellow Catholic who had received him with special warmth during his state visit to Washington four years earlier and whose own vigorous anticommunism was beyond question. “American frontiers,” Kennedy had said on the campaign trail, “are on the Rhine and the Mekong and the Tigris and the Euphrates and the Amazon. There is no place in the world that is not of concern to all of us….We are responsible for the maintenance of freedom all around the world….The enemy is the communist system itself—implacable, unceasing in its drive for world domination.” Diem was sure that communication between Saigon and Washington was about to improve.
But three days after Kennedy’s election, elite troops of the ARVN’s Airborne Brigade seized parts of Saigon and began an assault on the Independence Palace itself, intent on toppling Diem and establishing a new military government. The Presidential Guard held them off while Diem stalled for thirty-six hours until loyal armored and infantry units could roll into the city and force the rebels to flee. It had been a close thing and only served to deepen the Ngo brothers’ distrust of nearly everyone, now including the U.S. ambassador, whom they suspected of encouraging the coup plotters.
And more trouble was coming. On December 20, 1960, at Tan Lap, a remote jungle village near the Cambodian border, representatives of more than a dozen southern political parties and religious groups met to form a new front organization, dedicated to overthrowing Ngo Dinh Diem, ousting the Americans who supported him, and reuniting Vietnam under an ostensibly “neutral” government the communists believed they could quickly dominate. Behind the scenes, the politburo in Hanoi and the southern cadres who did its bidding would orchestrate everything. The new organization would be called the National Liberation Front—the NLF. It had an armed wing called the “People’s Liberation Armed Forces,” but in the eyes of its enemies in Saigon and Washington the revolutionaries were “Communist Traitors to the Vietnamese Nation”—the Viet Cong.
PATHS TO POWER
HO CHI MINH and Ngo Dinh Diem, the two best-known Vietnamese leaders of the Vietnam War era, have long been viewed as polar opposites. As the leader of North Vietnam during the 1950s and ’60s, Ho was an icon of Third World revolution and international communism. Diem, in contrast, was a devout Catholic and anticommunist and was credited with “saving” South Vietnam from a takeover by the communist bloc. The ideological differences between the leaders were accented by their contrasting personalities and reputations. The image of Diem as an aloof mandarin stood in stark opposition to the genial “Uncle Ho” persona projected by his rival. And while popular memories of Diem are dominated mainly by the 1963 South Vietnamese army coup that resulted in his ouster and death, Ho is still remembered by many in Vietnam and elsewhere as the supreme hero of the Vietnamese revolution.
For all their differences, however, Ho and Diem also had a lot in common. Although they ended up on opposite sides of the cold war, they emerged from remarkably similar backgrounds, and their early lives and careers moved along parallel tracks. Both were born and grew up in Central Vietnam, which was the last part of Vietnam to be conquered and colonized by France. Both were members of elite families with patriotic reputations, and yet both had fathers who worked for the colonial state. As young men, Ho and Diem were deeply shaped by their interactions with French colonial leaders and institutions. Both initially tried to work as collaborators with the colonial system before eventually becoming anticolonial activists.
The most striking parallels between Ho and Diem had to do with their political ambitions. Both were activists who aspired to be state builders. Each dreamed of becoming the leader of an independent Vietnamese state and guiding his country toward its postcolonial future. Amazingly, despite the turmoil and war that wracked Indochina during the 1940s and ’50s, they each found the means to realize this aspiration. As the founders of rival Vietnamese republics—Ho in 1945 and Diem in 1955—they both overcame long odds and endured considerable hardship. However, instead of ushering in an era of postcolonial peace, their remarkable political achievements laid the groundwork for a new conflict that would eventually become the Vietnam War. Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem took separate paths to power, but their destinies were intertwined from the outset.
THE MAKING OF “NGUYEN THE PATRIOT”
Ho Chi Minh’s early life has long been shrouded in revolutionary myths, many of them crafted by official Communist Party biographers. Even the date of his birth is uncertain. We know he was born around 1890 in a rural village in Nghe An Province, one of the poorest in Vietnam. He was the son of a Confucian scholar who worked as a magistrate in the imperial bureaucracy of the Nguyen dynasty. In good Confucian fashion, Ho’s father trained him to write Chinese characters and to read the books of the Chinese classical canon. When the son turned ten, his father gave him a new name: Nguyen Tat Thanh (“Nguyen the Accomplished”).
Like many Vietnamese mandarins at the turn of the twentieth century, Ho’s father was both a patriot and a collaborator with the French colonial state. As a loyal supporter of the Nguyen dynasty, he was dismayed by the French conquest of his country. Yet he also believed that collaboration with the French offered the best way for Vietnam to modernize and eventually regain its independence. On this point, he agreed with Phan Chu Trinh, a fellow mandarin from Central Vietnam who resigned his official post in 1904 so he could lobby the French to fulfill the “civilizing mission” they claimed to be pursuing in Indochina.
When Nguyen Tat Thanh was a teenager, his father arranged for him to attend the National Academy, a prestigious high school in the imperial capital of Hue. At the academy, Thanh learned French and studied a “Franco-Annamite” curriculum alongside the sons of court officials and the Nguyen royal family. He appeared on track to follow his father into the imperial bureaucracy.
In 1908, Central Vietnam was rocked by popular protests over taxes. Ho Chi Minh later claimed to have watched as colonial security forces killed several protestors at a demonstration. Communist Party accounts depict this episode as the moment when the young man dedicated himself to anticolonialism. But contemporary evidence suggests that Nguyen Tat Thanh did not shift so decisively away from collaboration—at least, not right away. Records show that he did not leave the National Academy until 1909. Moreover, his departure seems to have been triggered not by the protests but by a scandal involving his father, who was accused of the brutal beating of a criminal suspect.
Nguyen Tat Thanh drifted southward and eventually arrived in Saigon. In June 1911, he signed on as a cook aboard a French ocean liner headed to Marseille. In the official narrative of Ho’s life, this move is represented as another deliberate step down a revolutionary path. Again, however, the available evidence points to other motives. Upon arriving in France, the young man immediately sought admission to the School of the Colonies, an institution that trained colonial subjects to serve as imperial administrators. His application stated that he “would like to become useful to France in relation to my compatriots, and would like at the same time to help them profit from the benefits of Instruction.” Despite this explicit appeal to colonial ideals, his request was denied, due to his father’s recent demotion.
Nguyen Tat Thanh spent the next several years crisscrossing the Atlantic and Indian Ocean basins, alternating between jobs at sea and manual labor on shore. He lived and worked in both the United States and in England. He also visited multiple colonized countries and met many Asian and African opponents of colonialism. But while he was sharpening his critique of French imperial policies, he had not yet become either an anticolonial revolutionary or a communist. Like his father, Thanh continued to admire Phan Chu Trinh and his advocacy of a reformist brand of collaboration. In 1918 or 1919, Thanh returned to Paris to live and work with Phan Chu Trinh and other Vietnamese political activists based there.
Thanh’s continued interest in collaboration was revealed in his first high-profile political act: his participation in the drafting and publication of the 1919 manifesto entitled “The Claims of the Annamite People.” Because Thanh signed this manifesto with the alias “Nguyen Ai Quoc” (Nguyen the Patriot), he has often been mistakenly portrayed as its sole author. And since he delivered a copy of the text to a U.S. official delegation in Paris headed by President Woodrow Wilson, the petition is sometimes depicted as a bid to win American support for Vietnamese independence.
In reality, Nguyen Ai Quoc (as Thanh would henceforth be known) coauthored the manifesto with several other Vietnamese activists, including Phan Chu Trinh. Moreover, the document was an explicit appeal for collaboration. It was addressed to the French government and made no mention of independence. Indeed, the word “Vietnam” did not appear in the text at all. Instead, the document called for the reform of the colonial system and for political freedoms for the “Annamite people.” (The term “Annamite” was intended to reassure French officials, who avoided using “Vietnamese” because of its nationalist overtones.)
The main target of “Claims of the Annamite People” was Albert Sarraut, a senior colonial official and former governor-general of Indochina. Sarraut was both a republican and a socialist, as well as a strong believer in France’s “civilizing mission.” In April 1919, just two months before the manifesto appeared, Sarraut delivered a widely noted speech on the subject of “Franco-Annamese” collaboration. Among other things, he hinted at democratic reforms and eventual self-government for Indochina within the French empire. In retrospect, it is evident that Sarraut’s vision of collaboration was flawed and contradictory. But for many Vietnamese activists in 1919—including Quoc—it seemed to offer exciting new possibilities.
It was only after Sarraut and other French leaders failed to deliver on their reform promises that Quoc began to sour on collaboration. In 1922, following a contentious face-to-face meeting with Sarraut, Quoc published a caustic denunciation of the Frenchman’s record in Indochina. Under Sarraut’s governorship, Quoc wrote, his country had experienced “an increasing number of spirit and opium shops which, together with firing squads, prisons, ‘democracy’ and all the improved apparatus of modern civilization, are combining to make the Annamese the most advanced of the Asians and the happiest of mortals.”
Quoc’s shift from reform to resistance coincided with his embrace of revolutionary socialism and Marxism-Leninism. In 1920, he read Theses on the National and Colonial Questions by V. I. Lenin, the head of the Bolshevik Party and founding leader of the Soviet Union. While most socialist theorists downplayed the prospects for revolutions in colonial territories, Lenin hypothesized that the colonies were actually full of revolutionary possibilities. Quoc was especially inspired by Lenin’s two-stage theory of anticolonial revolution, in which an initial “national liberation” revolt against European imperial rule would be followed by class struggle and the creation of a socialist system.
In late 1920, Quoc joined a group of radical socialists as a cofounder of the French Communist Party. His writings took on an increasingly Marxist-Leninist cast. In 1923, he slipped out of France and made his way to Moscow. There, he was recruited to work for the Communist International (Comintern), the Soviet agency that promoted communist revolution around the world. By late 1924, Quoc was in southern China, building a new revolutionary organization meant to operate inside Indochina. These efforts culminated in 1930 with the establishment of the Vietnamese Communist Party at a secret meeting organized by Quoc in Hong Kong.
Quoc envisioned the party as a Leninist organization, dedicated to the idea that national liberation would precede the establishment of socialism. But not all of his fellow communists agreed. In late 1930, Quoc was ousted as party leader after the Comintern line shifted to emphasize the primacy of socialism over nationalism. He spent the next several years in a kind of revolutionary limbo, eventually ending up back in the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror of 1936–38, when many of his fellow Comintern operatives were jailed or killed.
In retrospect, Quoc’s disillusionment with the French “civilizing mission” and his subsequent discovery of Marxism-Leninism were key turning points in his revolutionary career. Nevertheless, his journey toward resistance and revolution was far from a complete rejection of the ideals of his youth. Quoc was a dedicated communist, but he was also a nationalist who came of age at a time when patriotism and collaboration with the colonial state did not yet seem mutually incompatible, and when the meaning of revolution was still framed in Confucian terms. In this regard, he had more in common with his archrival Ngo Dinh Diem than either his admirers or his critics later cared to admit.
MAN OF FAITH
At first glance, the arc of Ngo Dinh Diem’s early life and career appears radically different from that of Ho Chi Minh. Unlike Ho, who left Vietnam when he was a young man and spent thirty years abroad, Diem lived his entire youth and young adult life in his native land and did not take his first trip outside of Indochina until he was in his late forties. Diem also enjoyed substantial success as an imperial mandarin—the career that eluded Ho. And while Ho became a socialist and a communist, Diem was a devout Catholic who abhorred communism and who rejected the Marxist idea of class struggle as the driver of positive social change.
For all of their obvious differences, however, the two men had much in common. Like Ho, Diem was raised in Central Vietnam by a domineering father who was a Confucian, a patriot, and a collaborator. And while Diem succeeded for a time in forging his own career in the colonial administration, he eventually reached the same conclusion that Ho did about the French and their “civilizing mission.” Most important of all, Diem shared Ho’s interest in combining Vietnamese values and traditions with ideas and models from outside of Vietnam. “We are not going back to a sterile copy of the mandarin past,” he once remarked. “We are going to adapt the best of our heritage to the modern situation.”
Diem was the third son of Ngo Dinh Kha, a devout Catholic and prominent Nguyen dynasty official. Kha, who spent his youth studying under European missionaries at a Catholic seminary in Malaya, was an avid proponent of the “Franco-Annamite” educational system. In the 1890s, Kha helped establish the National Academy—the high school in Hue that Ho and Diem would both later attend. Around the time of Diem’s birth in 1901, Kha became the grand chamberlain of the imperial court.
By outward appearances, Ngo Dinh Kha seemed a model colonial collaborator. But his collaboration was not predicated on blind faith in the French. At the royal court, Kha led a faction of reform-minded Catholics who accused France of breaking treaty-guaranteed promises to allow the Nguyen emperor to retain certain administrative powers. Colonial officials had little patience for such criticisms. In 1907, they abruptly removed the sitting emperor from the throne and sent him into exile. Kha angrily resigned in protest at this blatant disregard of Vietnamese sovereignty. In the process, he gained a reputation as an anti-French patriot. Kha’s Vietnamese admirers coined a proverb to celebrate his actions: “To deport the king, you must get rid of Kha.”
From childhood, Diem was shaped by the same mixture of colonial idealism, religious identity, and patriotic principle that defined his father’s career. Following his graduation from the National Academy, he briefly considered becoming a priest, like his older brother Ngo Dinh Thuc. Since Diem had already sworn a vow of celibacy—a pledge he apparently kept his entire life—he seemed well suited for such a path. But his ambition and his interest in power led him to choose a career in government instead. After two years of study in Hanoi, Diem became a junior mandarin at the age of twenty. Thus began his rapid ascent through the administrative ranks. By the time he turned thirty, Diem was in charge of an entire province. In this capacity, he claimed to have crushed an uprising instigated by the local members of Ho’s newly established Communist Party.
Diem’s rise through the imperial bureaucracy was aided by the same group of patriotic Catholic reformers who had earlier backed his father. In 1933, the colonial government tried to mollify Diem and his allies by making him minister of the interior in the cabinet of Bao Dai, a teenager who had just been installed as emperor. By co-opting Diem, the French hoped to use his nationalist reputation to shore up the legitimacy of both the monarchy and the colonial state. But Diem refused to play along. In a move that mirrored his father’s actions a quarter century earlier, he resigned after just two months on the job, citing French disrespect for the emperor’s authority and their refusal to allow even small steps toward self-rule.
Diem’s rejection of the French and Bao Dai strongly enhanced his stature as an uncompromising critic of the colonial state. But it also ended his career as a mandarin and left him without a clear route back to power. Diem spent the rest of the 1930s living quietly in Hue, under the watchful eye of the police. Except for occasional appearances with his older brother Thuc, who in 1938 became one of the first Vietnamese priests to be elevated to the rank of bishop, Diem kept mostly out of the public eye. Like Ho Chi Minh, Diem had definitively rejected the idea of collaboration with the colonial state on its own terms. But in the late 1930s, his chances of devising an effective alternative strategy seemed as poor as those of Ho, who was still languishing in exile in the Soviet Union. For both Ho and Diem, the opportunity to resume their political careers would come only in the following decade, with the onset of war and the arrival of new foreign actors in Indochina.
World War II was a time of both danger and opportunity for anticolonial activists in Southeast Asia. In 1940, Imperial Japan demanded control of key military bases across Indochina. French colonial officials were dismayed, but had no choice but to comply, given that most of metropolitan France had already been conquered by Nazi armies. Over the next five years, Indochina endured a bizarre dual occupation by French and Japanese regimes that deeply mistrusted each other.
The Japanese occupation provided Nguyen Ai Quoc the opportunity he needed to regain leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party, now renamed the Indochinese Communist Party. Although he returned to China from the Soviet Union in 1938, Quoc did not recover effective control of the ICP until May 1941, when he crossed the border into northern Vietnam, ending three decades of exile. At a key meeting of senior party leaders held in a mountain cave, Quoc announced the creation of a new front organization: the League for Vietnamese Independence, known simply as the Viet Minh.
In keeping with the two-stage theory of revolution that Quoc had developed, the Viet Minh was an ostensibly noncommunist organization dedicated solely to the cause of national liberation. In propaganda and recruitment, the front strongly emphasized national liberation and opposition to both the French and the Japanese. Socialism and communism were hardly mentioned. The Viet Minh also organized rudimentary militia forces and established a large “liberated zone” in the Northern Highlands.
As the Viet Minh movement grew, Quoc was anxious to gain foreign backing. With the Soviet Union preoccupied with the war against Nazi Germany in Europe, he turned to the Allied powers who were actively fighting against Japan—specifically, to Nationalist China and the United States. During the war, Quoc secretly traveled back to southern China twice to meet with Chinese and American officials and to offer his cooperation. (It was during one of these trips that he first began using the alias Ho Chi Minh.) U.S. commanders eventually agreed to dispatch a small team of American operatives to the Viet Minh zone in northern Indochina to provide light weapons and training to the rebels. The American aid was insignificant from a military standpoint, but its delivery reflected Ho’s intense interest in obtaining outside support.
Diem also sought foreign backing during the war years, but from a different source: Imperial Japan. For Diem, cooperation with Japan was a calculated risk. On the one hand, the country was an expansionist empire that obviously aimed to dominate all of East and Southeast Asia. On the other hand, the Japanese occupation of Indochina was relatively benign compared to the brutal military campaigns that Tokyo’s forces waged in China and elsewhere in the region. Moreover, many of the Japanese military officers and diplomats stationed in Indochina backed the cause of Vietnamese national liberation, and argued that the French regime should be replaced with a Vietnamese government under Japanese sponsorship. Several of these Japanese “idealists” lent support to Diem and protected him and his supporters from French harassment and arrest.
In the spring of 1945, it briefly appeared that Diem’s Japanese gambit was going to pay off. As Allied naval forces drew closer to Indochina, Japanese leaders decided to end their marriage of convenience with the French. On the night of March 9, imperial troops detained senior French colonial officials, bringing French rule over Indochina to an abrupt end. To replace the French, Japanese commanders installed the Nguyen emperor Bao Dai as the ruler of a reconstituted “Empire of Vietnam.” Bao Dai immediately asked Diem to serve as prime minister of the new government. For reasons that remain unclear, Diem turned down Bao Dai’s invitation. Had he accepted, Vietnam’s postcolonial era might have unfolded very differently.
As it happened, it was Ho, not Diem, who emerged as Vietnam’s preeminent nationalist leader in 1945. In August, just five months after the Japanese coup against the French, World War II came to a dramatic end in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The unexpectedly early conclusion of the war created a power vacuum in Indochina. Ho and the Viet Minh moved rapidly to fill it. Over a two-week period that became known as the August Revolution, hastily organized Viet Minh “people’s committees” seized control of cities, towns, and villages across Indochina. On September 2, Ho stood before a cheering crowd of hundreds of thousands in Hanoi and proclaimed the formation of a new and independent Vietnamese state: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Its creation was a historic achievement, but it was also a tenuous one. Despite its popularity, Ho’s new state was exceedingly weak, in desperate need of experienced personnel, reliable communications, and funds. Since the entire membership of the Indochinese Communist Party at this time totaled only about five thousand cadres in all of Indochina, Ho could not initially count on the party to staff or administer his government. The fledgling state also lacked effective military forces and foreign allies, which deeply worried Ho, since the French had already signaled their determination to reestablish colonial rule in Indochina.
For more than a year after the August Revolution, Ho desperately sought to avoid war with France through diplomacy and negotiation. He continued his outreach to the United States, hoping that Washington would pressure Paris to reconsider its plans to restore its empire. But Ho realized that the U.S. would not provide recognition or aid in the absence of an agreement with France. So he opted for direct negotiations with Paris, in the hope that the two sides might reach a deal for gradual decolonization. In the spring of 1946, Ho went to France for several months of talks with colonial officials. It was a risky gamble that did not pay off. By the time he sailed back to Indochina that fall, both sides were preparing for war. Ho’s actions came in for considerable criticism among party members, some of whom argued that war was both inevitable and preferable to any compromise with the hated French.
It was during this anxious period that Ho and Diem had their first and only face-to-face meeting. Shortly after the August Revolution, Diem was detained by Viet Minh forces in Central Vietnam. In early 1946, they brought him to see Ho, who professed admiration for Diem and offered him a cabinet position in the unity government he was trying to build. Diem was willing, but only if Ho granted him substantial powers over DRV internal security forces. Ho refused. He then ordered Diem released, over the objections of other party leaders. Asked why he allowed a dangerous rival to walk free, Ho cited the reputation of Diem’s father, Ngo Dinh Kha. “The memory of such a father prevents us from laying a hand on the son,” he declared. More than his comrades, perhaps, Ho understood that allies and alliances would be critical in the struggles that lay ahead.
The war that began in Indochina during 1945–46 and lasted until 1954 was a complex event defined by three main axes of conflict. First and most obviously, the war was a decolonization struggle between France and the Viet Minh, fought to settle the question of the Democratic Republic’s independence. At the same time, the war was also a civil war among multiple Vietnamese groups and factions. The antagonists in this second struggle included not only communists and other supporters of the new government but also many noncommunist Vietnamese who espoused their own visions of their country’s postcolonial future. Finally, the Indochina War gradually became a cold war conflict, in which three major international powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China—played key roles. For both Diem and Ho, devising an effective strategy to address all three of these overlapping conflicts would prove a daunting task.
From the outbreak of general hostilities until around 1949, Ho Chi Minh continued to emphasize national unity and outreach to noncommunist groups and leaders. But within the party, other leaders were pushing for a different approach. Several key figures, such as General Secretary Truong Chinh, wanted more attention to the party’s advocacy of socialist revolution. These leaders also favored alignment with the Soviet Union.
In October 1949, the strategic situation inside Indochina was transformed by the triumph of Mao Zedong and his Chinese Communist Party in China’s long civil war. Shortly afterward, China and the Soviet Union officially recognized Ho’s government and began supplying military aid and advisers to Viet Minh forces across the border in northern Vietnam. The assistance greatly improved Viet Minh battlefield capabilities and enabled them to launch their first major offensive of the war. It also afforded the Chinese advisers the chance to press their Vietnamese counterparts to demonstrate their commitment to Marxist-Leninist ideology. In 1951, the Indochinese Communist Party, which had been operating in secret, reemerged under a new and more doctrinaire-sounding name: the Vietnam Worker’s Party. The party also stepped up its plans for socialist-style mass mobilization, including a military draft and a land reform campaign.
The 1949–50 period was also a turning point for Diem. Following his release by Ho in 1946, Diem spent three mostly fruitless years trying to build a coalition of noncommunist nationalists. Then, in 1949, he confronted a major new political development: the establishment of a new anticommunist Vietnamese state, known as the Associated State of Vietnam (ASVN). It was the brainchild of French colonial officials who viewed it as a way to attract noncommunist Vietnamese nationalists who might otherwise back Ho and the DRV. To bolster the new state’s legitimacy in the eyes of Vietnamese conservatives, the French selected the ex-emperor Bao Dai (who had abdicated his throne during the August Revolution of 1945) to serve as chief of state.
Bao Dai’s first move was to ask Diem to serve as prime minister. As before, Diem declined the former monarch’s offer. Instead, he announced plans to launch an independent anticolonial political movement that would be aligned with neither the French nor the Viet Minh. Unfortunately for Diem, his call attracted little substantive support. Viet Minh leaders responded by putting his name on a list of political figures marked for assassination.
With his political fortunes ebbing, Diem embarked on a new strategy. In 1950, he departed Indochina on what would eventually become a four-year overseas exile. Diem spent much of that time in the United States, where he sought to impress American leaders with his principled opposition to both colonialism and communism. He did not win any official pledges of U.S. support during his stay in America, but he did use his Catholic connections to meet with sympathetic journalists, academics, and members of the U.S. Congress—including the newly elected Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy. Many of these Americans would champion Diem after he became leader of South Vietnam.
In the spring of 1953, Diem crossed the Atlantic to Europe, with the goal of patching up his relationship with Bao Dai. (Despite serving as titular head of the Associated State of Vietnam, Bao Dai preferred life on the French Riviera.) This proved to be the most prescient and decisive move of Diem’s career to date. While Bao Dai had not forgotten Diem’s previous refusals, he recognized that the Catholic leader’s reputation as an uncompromising nationalist and anticommunist would bolster the legitimacy of the ASVN. In addition, Bao Dai was impressed by Diem’s younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, who had emerged as a leading voice in nationalist circles in Saigon. The ex-emperor also calculated that Diem would strengthen the ASVN’s ties to the United States, given his connections to Americans.
Meanwhile, Ho and the Viet Minh were preparing for their biggest military gamble of the war: the siege of the French garrison in the northern mountain valley of Dien Bien Phu. To prepare for the operation, commanders pushed their forces to the breaking point, ordering hundreds of thousands of porters to transport weapons and supplies over rugged terrain. Once the siege began, Viet Minh fighters endured such hellish combat, plummeting morale, and heavy casualties that Vo Nguyen Giap, the Viet Minh commander in charge, briefly considered raising the siege. But his Chinese advisers persuaded him to continue. On May 7, 1954, the last French outpost surrendered. Ho and the Democratic Republic finally had the high-profile military success they had long sought.
But victory on the battlefield did not translate into triumph at the negotiating table for the Viet Minh. During the summer of 1954, an international conference at Geneva produced a compromise peace agreement: Vietnam was temporarily split at the 17th parallel, with Ho’s DRV administering the northern half of the country and the ASVN (which Diem now headed) taking over the South. The division was supposed to last only until 1956, pending the results of all-Vietnam elections to choose a new, unified national government.
Many Communist Party members and DRV supporters were dismayed by the terms of the Geneva peace treaty. But Ho argued for accepting them. He did so in part because of pressure from his Soviet and Chinese allies, and because he expected that the Viet Minh would win the elections easily. He also feared the possibility of American military intervention against his exhausted forces if the war continued.
The promised elections were never held, due mainly to the opposition of Diem. Although he faced a bewildering array of hostile parties and factions when he took power in Saigon in mid-1954, Diem outmaneuvered all of them through a combination of intrigue, bribery, and military force. By the summer of 1955, he was strong enough to announce that South Vietnam (as the Associated State was now called) would not participate in the 1956 elections. Senior U.S. government officials, though initially skeptical about Diem and his staying power, put aside their doubts and gave him strong backing. From his capital in Hanoi, Ho protested bitterly, but to no avail. In October 1955, Diem ousted Bao Dai from power in a carefully stage-managed referendum. Three days after the vote, he announced the birth of a new state, known as the Republic of Vietnam.
Diem’s creation of the Republic of Vietnam in 1955, like Ho’s establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam ten years earlier, was a remarkable achievement. Indeed, the two leaders and the states they founded can be thought of as the primary winners of the Indochina War. Although Ho and the Democratic Republic had paid a far higher price for its victory, Diem and the Republic of Vietnam had also emerged from the conflict with a plausible claim to lead Vietnam into the postcolonial era. In this regard, both Diem and Ho had accomplished far more by 1955 than anyone could have imagined twenty years earlier.
But even though Ho and Diem had each realized some of their most cherished ambitions, neither man was content. The era of colonial rule had ended, but the conflicts among Vietnamese appeared more sharply drawn than ever before. With Vietnam’s territory now evenly divided between rival republics, the prospects for lasting peace seemed tenuous at best. In the years that lay ahead, the fates of Diem and Ho—and the states they led—would remain deeply intertwined. The consequences for them and their compatriots would prove far more destructive than either leader ever anticipated.