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Vietnam War Overview Part 2: 1945-1955
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The Creation of North Vietnam & President Truman’s Decisions
Ho Chi Minh Delivers Address, 1945
Ho Chi Minh Delivers Address, 1945
With the French authorities still interned at the time of Japan's unconditional surrender in August 1945, the Viet Minh, largely supported by the Vietnamese population, rushed to fill the power vacuum. Guerillas quickly seized villages and set up an administration for the rural areas. Ho Chi Minh persuaded Emperor Bao Dai to abdicate on August 25, 1945, thus ending the last of the Vietnamese dynasties. Bao Dai was subsequently appointed "supreme adviser" to the new Viet Minh-led government in Hanoi. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) before a crowd of 500,000 in Hanoi. Although dominated by the communists, this new government included Vietnamese patriots and members of several non-communist parties. In an overture to the Americans, he began his speech by paraphrasing the United States Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal. The Creator has given us certain inviolable Rights: the right to Life, the right to be Free, and the right to achieve Happiness.”

Ho sought U.S. recognition of his new government.  If Truman had agreed to do so, this would have put tremendous pressure on the rest of the West to do the same, and North Vietnam would have become a new Republic with Western ties.  But would it have remained a Republic, or would the communists have pushed out the other parties anyway?  Some historians believe the United States missed a golden opportunity to further develop its relationship with Ho Chi Minh. These historians believe Ho might possibly have been wooed toward an alliance with the U.S. But American political leaders continued to view Ho with suspicion. Their early Cold War worldview tended to cast Ho as a tool of Soviet world domination.  They just couldn’t see that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist first (as late at 1948, investigations by the U.S. State Department and American officials in Saigon “no evidence” that Ho was politically controlled or allied with communists in the Soviet Union or in China).  Additionally, President Truman was conscious of the Cold War boundaries that
Truman
President Truman
were being drawn across war torn Europe. Keeping France as an ally was an essential part of the plan to resist the spread of communism further westward.  In order to not antagonize the French, Truman ignored Ho’s diplomatic overtures.
 
The First Indochina War
The French were not willing to give up their colony, and both the United States and Great Britain subsequently agreed that Indochina belonged to France.  To help the French restore control, it was agreed that British troops would move in and occupy the south, while Nationalist Chinese forces would move in from the North. Because China was Vietnam’s historic enemy and a regional power growing in stature, Ho wanted to deal with them first.  He couldn’t fight both, so he made a deal with the French. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam would be recognized as a "free" republic within the French Union.  In exchange, Ho Chi Minh agreed to allow the return of economic, military, and cultural presence of the French.  Before a formal agreement could be signed, however, the deal disintegrated.  A new French government elected in 1946 refused to compromise.  They wanted to restore France’s national honor that had been lost to the Axis powers during WWII.  Taking back Indochina was one way to do that.

Meanwhile, clashes along the border erupted between French and North Vietnamese forces, and the delicate balance of power between communists and non-communists in Hanoi fell apart.  The communists subsequently took over the North Vietnamese government. In November, a disagreement over the control of customs revenues resulted in the French bombarding the port city of Haiphong, killing thousands of civilians.  Convinced that war was inevitable, Ho Chi Minh ordered his Minster of Defense to prepare for war.  On December 23, 1946, Viet Minh forces launched a surprise attack on French installations in Hanoi, while their main forces withdrew to prepared positions in the mountainous region north of the city.  This marks the beginning of the First Indochina War.
Vo Nguyen Giap Vo Nguyen Giap Emperor Bao Dai (right) returns to Indochina, 11/6/53
Emperor Bao Dai (right) returns to Indochina
The man in charge of the North Vietnam’s military strategy for the entire Vietnam War years was Vo Nguyen Giap, considered by many to be one of the most capable military strategists of the twentieth century.  Giap’s plan for the first few years of the war was to wage a low-level insurgency against French authority, mostly in the north. The French had superior numbers and firepower, but Ho and Giap believed they could win by mobilizing the peasants into a guerilla force. By 1948 their plan seemed to be working.  The French realized they needed a symbol of their own to rally the Vietnamese against the communist menace.  They turned to Bao Dai, the former emperor, who by now had left Vietnam and settled in Hong Kong.  Bao Dai agreed to return on the condition that Vietnam be given
independence, or at least substantial autonomy.  The French were reluctant to give up their authority, but after China became a communist nation and sent troops to aid the Viet Minh, Bao Dai and France quickly reached an agreement.  They formed the Associated States of Vietnam.  This new country had some independence, but the French retained significant authority over foreign and military affairs.

Early in the First Indochina War the French appealed to the U.S. for financial aid.  Truman was reluctant to help. He was displeased at the failure of the French to recognize the independence of non-communist Vietnamese.  But after the Chinese Nationalists were defeated by the Chinese communists, Truman’s fears focused on the influence of Chinese communism over Southeast Asia, and the political fallout of being labeled “soft on communism” by his political opponents on the right.  After the agreement was reached between Bao Dai and the French, Truman recognized the Associated States of Vietnam and agreed to send aid ($15 million of more than $2.6 billion sent over the next five years). He hoped it would be able to defeat the Viet Minh and evolve into a stable government resistant to communism.  Ironically, American assistance to the French forced Ho to become dependent on China and the Soviet Union for modern weaponry and financial aid. Three more years of war passed with neither side gaining an advantage.
Eisenhower Elected
With the election of President Eisenhower in 1952, American funding for the war increased. By 1954 American taxpayers were spending about $1 billion per year in Vietnam, roughly 80 percent of France's costs. The French parliament had voted to stop sending French draftees to the conflict back in 1950.  The actual fighting was done by troops from other parts of the French empire, and by the French Foreign Legion, so that the war would not become unpopular at home. But French strategy suffered from a lack of construction materials for building adequate defenses, and for lack of armor and air support.  Most troubling was that Bao Dai, who lacked leadership skills and spent much of his time in France on the Riviera, was losing the support of the people.  In particular, the Associated States of Vietnam failed to address the crucial problem of land ownership inequality.  In South Vietnam, forty percent of the rice-producing land was in the hands of one quarter of one percent of the population.  To the vast majority of landless peasants living in abject poverty, the Viet Minh were becoming increasingly appealing.
Eisenhower
soundPresident Eisenhower on the importance of Indochina, 8/4/53
Dien Bien Phu
By 1954, even without French draftees, the war was becoming unpopular in France.  The French people took to calling it, “La guerre sale,” “the dirty war.” With support for the war declining, the French Premier began talking about the possibility of peace talks.  A month later, Ho Chi Minh responded positively to the overture, and it was agreed the two sides would meet in the spring in Geneva, Switzerland.  Meanwhile, the war continued.

The French commander in Vietnam was General Henri Navarre.  He had arrived in country in 1953, full of the arrogance that typified French officers new to the country.  An aide to Navarre was quoted by Time magazine as saying, “A year ago none of us could see victory.  There wasn’t a prayer. Now we can see it clearly—like light at the end of a tunnel.”  The general himself dismissed warnings from outgoing officers and said to his staff, “Victory is a woman who gives herself only to those who know how to take her.”  Navarre had been directed by his superiors to seek some kind of settlement with the Viet Minh.  His strategy was to assemble a force so impressive that its mere existence would drive the Viet Minh submissively to the bargaining table. Navarre broke off major contact with the enemy for more than a year so that he could rebuild his forces.  But the French cabinet refused to pay the extra $300 million the plan would cost.  Reluctantly, the Eisenhower administration agreed to fund the plan.
Map: Dien Bien Phu
Map: Dien Bien Phu
With peace talks looming, both the French and the Viet Minh wanted a decisive victory on the battlefield that would improve their bargaining position.  The Navarre plan soon centered on committing French resources to the defense of a small outpost on the mountainous Laotian border named Dien Bien Phu, once used by the French as an air base but now of no real strategic value.  Dien Bien Phu was actually a cluster of small villages sitting in a valley stretching about eight miles long and five miles from east to west.  Surrounded by mountains, it was exceptionally vulnerable to attack and difficult to resupply.  Navarre’s plan was to use this apparent vulnerability as bait to lure the Viet Minh into attacking, thus committing their forces in open combat.  He calculated that Giap would
only be able to maneuver a single division into position, would be tricked into standing and fighting, and would be worn down by superior French firepower fighting from entrenched positions. Western arrogance played a role in these calculations.  Despite warring against them for years now, the French had not bothered to study their enemy, who were extremely disciplined and resourceful.  In French dispatches, Giap’s rank of general was mockingly put in quotation marks.  They thought he could easily be trapped.

Instead, it was the French who would be trapped.  Giap moved three full divisions (about 50,000 men) into the mountains.  This was a force four times larger than the
The French at Dien Bien Phu
The French at Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu
French force, and four times larger than French estimates of what Viet Minh forces would be.  It was backed up by another 10,000 peasants committed to resupply efforts.  The French believed the Viet Minh could never move artillery up the mountains.  They were able to move four times the number of French guns into place, including 105 20 mm howitzers. Meanwhile the Frenchman in charge of artillery, Colonel Charles Piroth, repeatedly turned down offers from his superiors for additional artillery pieces for his forces. Ammunition and other supplies were brought in by peasants strapped to reinforced bicycles able to carry up to 500 pounds they pushed up the mountains.  All of this was done without being discovered by the French, who continued to believe that the enemy forces lurking about the mountains were a small force that would be quickly destroyed.  When the siege of Dien Bien Phu began on March 13, 1954, the French were completely outgunned.  Two of the three key French positions in the valley fell within the first two days.  Defeated and humiliated, Colonel Piroth pulled the pin out of a hand grenade and committed suicide.  The siege continued, but the French did not have the resources to rescue their men.  In desperation French officials flew to Washington and met personally with President Eisenhower.  They asked the U.S. to help by bombing Viet Minh artillery around Dien Bien Phu.

Herblock
Cartoonist Herblock attacks Republicans, 3/26/54
President Eisenhower’s First Decision
This then was the first real test of the Eisenhower administration’s foreign policy.  Since the first days of the Cold War, Republicans had hammered Truman’s containment policy as too weak.  They had successfully blamed the Democrats for losing China, and for the dissatisfying stalemate in Korea.  The cornerstone to the Eisenhower administration’s foreign policy was that no additional Asian country would fall to communism. No one was a stronger believer in the policy than Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.  Some officials, including Vice President Nixon, wanted to send American aircraft or even American troops to Vietnam.  But Eisenhower, drawing on the lesson of Korea, wanted allies for an intervention and none were forthcoming.  The most likely ally, Great Britain, had recently lost India without fighting a war, and was just finishing up a war in Malaya.  They had no interest in fighting a war to save French colonialism.  Various alternatives were considered, including the use of atomic bombs, but President Eisenhower refused.

Yet the President had decided that containing communism in Indochina was vital to America's national security. At a press conference on April 4, 1954, Eisenhower articulated his own containment rationale by using a metaphor that would subsequently be known as The Domino Theory

“You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have the beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound consequences.”

Map: The Domino Theory
Map: The Domino Theory
He went on to say, “The geographical position achieved thereby does many things. It turns the so-called island defensive chain of Japan, Formosa, of the Philippines and to the southward; it moves in to threaten Australia and New Zealand.”  In other words, Eisenhower was saying that if Vietnam fell to the communists, America’s entire security perimeter in the Pacific would be jeopardized, putting the United States at considerable risk.  Various forms of this theory were adopted by several U.S. presidents, Republicans and Democrats, and ultimately used to justify a major American ground war in Vietnam.

But Eisenhower believed it was not the time to commit U.S. ground forces.  A military assessment of the situation initiated by General Matt Ridgway concluded that as many as 1 million men would be needed to achieve victory in Vietnam. Construction costs would be enormous, and the war would be fought mostly without the support of the Vietnamese people.  To save face and to ward off attacks from Democrats, Dulles went on national television and blamed the British.  We would have gone in but for the lack of allies, he suggested.  As an additional face-saving measure, Dulles engineered the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), an 8-member group that included the U.S., Great Britain, and France. But it had no joint commands with standing forces, nor did it provide for mutual protection. SEATO proved woefully ineffective.

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles
sound Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on the prelude to Geneva, c. 4/54
North Vietnamese Premier Ho Chi Minh, 9/1/54
North Vietnamese Premier Ho Chi Minh, 9/1/54
Even as the battle of Dien Bien Phu continued, negotiations between the French and Viet Minh began in a multi-nation conference in Geneva. Dien Bien Phu fell to the Viet Minh during the negotiations. The final fall took two days, May 6 and 7th, during which the French were overrun by a huge frontal assault. In the 55-day battle, 3,000 French troops had been killed, 8,000 wounded. The Viet Minh suffered much worse: 8,000 dead and 12,000 wounded.  12,000 French prisoners were taken.  The able-bodied were force marched 250 miles to prison camps in the northeast. They were severely mistreated throughout their captivity. Only 3,013 of them were alive four months later. Most importantly (and most prophetically), the Viet Minh won the
battle of public relations. Voters in France elected an anti-war government. The French no longer had the will to carry on.  They would pull out of Vietnam. [soundSecretary of State Dulles on the fall of Dien Bien Phu]
 
The Geneva Conference (1954)
The U.S. reluctantly attended the Geneva Conference where, to achieve peace, Vietnam was granted independence from France and divided at a demilitarized 17th parallel, behind which the Viet Minh were to retreat. “Free” elections would be held in both the North and South in July 1956 to reunify Vietnam under either Ho Chi Minh or Bao Dai (who remained “head of state” but continued to spend most of his time in France). Despite being on the verge of total victory, Ho Chi Minh agreed to the Geneva Accords, bowing to pressure from the Chinese and the Soviets.  Anyway, with unification elections coming up, Vietnamese self-determination finally seemed at hand.
Map of the demarcation line after Geneva
Map of the demarcation line after Geneva
Herblock promotes independence for Indochina
Herblock promotes independence for Indochina, 4/14/54
Have the colonial powers learned their lesson?, 7/26/54
Have the colonial powers learned their lesson?, 7/26/54
 

Back in the U.S., Secretary of State John Foster Dulles went into spin mode. He used Ho’s acceptance of the accords as evidence that the Viet Minh had been influenced by the threat of American airpower from two carriers in South China Sea, and from fear of the atomic bomb.  In an interview with Life magazine, Dulles bragged about the peace that the administration had helped achieve in Geneva:

“Some say we were brought to the brink of war.  Of course, we were brought to the brink of war.  The ability to get to the verge without getting into war is the necessary art.  If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war.  If you try and run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost….We walked to the brink and we looked it in the face.  We took strong action.”

Ngo Dinh Diem
Ngo Dinh Diem
President Eisenhower’s Second Decision & the Creation of South Vietnam
During the Geneva conference the U.S. pressured Bao Dai to appoint an anti-communist Catholic named Ngo Dinh Diem as Prime Minister. Diem had no intention of following through with unification elections.  He publicly stated he did not believe that “free” elections could be held in the North unhindered by propaganda and terrorism.  This might be true, but it was also clear that if a truly “free” election was held in South Vietnam with Bao Dai on the ballot against Ho, the communists would win (President Eisenhower predicted that Ho would win with 80 percent of the vote).  Instead, Diem began a takeover of the government.

In April 1955 Diem consolidated power, using bribery and violence to take control of the police and military. He abolished Bao Dai's Imperial Guard, seized his imperial lands, and had the Council of the Royal Family strip
Bao Dai of his powers.  During this leadership crisis, Bao Dai stayed on the French Riviera. On July 16, Diem publicly announced he would not hold the unification election required by the Geneva Accords. The United States, which had been present at the Geneva negotiations but had not signed them, backed him up. Instead, Diem proposed an election between him and Bao Dai.  Through widespread fraud (he won 98% of the vote) Diem became President of a new country, The Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Bao Dai abdicated once again and remained in exile in France for the rest of his life. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), which had declared independence back in 1945, did not hold the “free” election either and continued as a communist country.   To prevent the domino theory from becoming reality, the United States became the main partner of South Vietnam. On November 1, 1955, just days after the election in South Vietnam, the United States established MAAG Vietnam (Military Assistance Advisory Group) to train the South Vietnamese military (This date is now recognized as the official beginning of the Vietnam War).
Bao Dai spent the crisis on the French Riviera
Bao Dai spent the crisis on the French Riviera
Staged demonstration against Bao Dai
Demonstration against Bao Dai in Saigon, staged by Revolutionary Committee favoring Premier Diem's regime, 5/19/55
sound During Diem's consolidation of power, E.R. Murrow predicted Diem might declare his own republic. Murrow said, "if this happens, we will inherit the mess," 5/4/55
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Last modified June 3, 2012