In what was America’s longest and perhaps its most debated war, America sleep walked into war in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s. It fought a regime headed by a former admirer of an American president, Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. In World War II, Ho Chi Minh helped form the Viet Minh and was jailed by the Chinese. This was a guerrilla group that fought the French Empire, seeking independence for the nations of Indo-China (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos). But it also worked with the Americans to defeat the Japanese.
Yet Ho Chi Minh had battled against—and after World War II tried to come to terms with—the French Empire. But he was also suspicious of the Chinese. Ho Chi Minh’s goal was to re-unite all three Ky. These were the sections of the ancient kingdom of Annam that had been overrun by outsiders. (i) Although a Communist for decades—-he had been active in the French Communist party after World War I and admired Lenin—he nevertheless saw the possibility of alliances with some liberal elements in the West.
During World War II he tried to get along with the Americans. (ii) That’s because they shared common interests in fighting the Japanese. In the 1930s, the Japanese had brutally imposed their empire across Southeast Asia. They took over parts of Vietnam after the French were defeated by their German ally in Europe in 1940. However, they pretended that the French were still in charge of their Southeast Asian empire. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), in the late 1930s, pushed the Japanese to get out of China and Indo-China.
FDR also made critical statements about the French and British Empires during WWII. He complained that generations of French rule had made the life of the peasant miserable. FDR also objected to the Japanese acting as the power behind the throne of Vichy France rule in Southeast Asia. Ironically, the Viet Minh had also helped French officials escape the Japanese toward the end of World War II. That’s when the fiction of French Vichy rule in Vietnam broke down and the Japanese took direct control.
Ho Chi Minh, or “Uncle Ho” as he was known to friends including some Americans during the war, had also helped saved downed Allied fliers. He developed good relations with the OSS. It was the predecessor of the CIA. Why had Communist Ho Chi Minh thought it possible to get along with America, a capitalist country?
FDR’s statements condemning the British and French empires in Asia and Africa gave him hope. FDR had signed the Atlantic Charter with British. That, in theory, meant the end of empires after the war. (Churchill hedged this. He claimed the promises of the charter didn’t apply to the British Empire).
So the latter war in the 1960s and 70s between the Vietnamese Communists and the Americans, who had been anti-colonialist during World War II, was unnecessary. Indeed, many times during the war the Viet Minh had shared interests, or their interests had not clashed, with the Americans. US policy on Vietnam under FDR during WWII had been somewhere between neutral and pro Viet Minh, according to “The Pentagon Papers.” The latter was a controversial Defense Department study of three decades of US-Vietnamese relations.
However, after FDR’s death in April 1945, the Truman administration would eventually change the policy as anti-communism became the dominant theme of American foreign policy and “isolationism,” the idea that the US should not enter into permanent military alliances, was discarded (Interestingly, the man most identified with so-called isolationism, Senator Robert Taft, spent the last months of his life warning President Eisenhower not to send US troops to Southeast Asia. This was advice heeded by the president. However, it was ignored by later administrations).
And it was these foreign policy changes adopted by various succeeding administrations—along with a controversial commitment to anti-Communism everywhere—that was able to persuade the American people into fighting a tragic war. These war oriented policies were based on the domino theory. They were the result of the Truman Doctrine. That was the idea that, if one country goes Communist, all their neighbors will likely go Communist. This was detailed in the Pentagon Papers. (iii)
This led to America waging or financing many wars in Southeast Asia. Still, when America’s regime was defeated in Vietnam in 1975 it was a Pyrrhic victory for the winners. Journalist and historian Stanley Karnow wrote that the Vietnam War, with its incredible destruction and death, was “the war nobody won.”
When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, he quoted the ancient historian Tacitus, who wrote “they made a wasteland and called it peace. (iv) The wasteland was the result, critics said, of the inability of American policymakers to recognize the unique nationalist character of each people and each Communist party. For instance, Ho Chi Minh often emphasized that he was a “Vietnamese Communist.” So every Communist regime wasn’t a threat to the United States. In fact, some were ready to have diplomatic relations and trade with the so-called evil capitalist United States. (v)
Ho Chi Minh, who at the end of World War I had been at Versailles as the victors hammered out a treaty. He was hoping in vain that the Allies would recognize the Vietnamese independence movement. (vi) He could be brutal with his enemies. But, like communist leader Tito of Yugoslavia in the 1940s, he could get along with the West. Ho Chi Minh made a number of friends who were not Communist. (vii)
He needed their help. Ho Chi Minh hated the Chinese leaders, both Communist and non-Communist. He had been jailed during World War II by the Nationalist Chinese regime. Over centuries, Vietnamese nationalists complained, the Chinese looked down on the Vietnamese as barbarians who they needed to civilize. (viii)
Ho Chi Minh believed the Chinese wanted to steal some Vietnamese border provinces. He grew suspicious when the Chinese accepted some surrenders of the Japanese at the end of World War II, establishing themselves in parts of Indo-China. That was dangerous for the Vietnamese people, he contended. Once invited in, he contended, the Chinese would stay forever and started lording it over the Vietnamese. “Far better to smell the dung of the French than to eat Chinese dung all one’s life,” Ho Chi Minh said. (ix)
He hoped the Vietnamese Communist might work out some sort of deal with the Americans. Possibly, FDR would convince the French to offer some kind of trusteeship status in which the Vietnamese would gradually rule their country.
“President Roosevelt,” wrote one of Ho Chi Minh’s biographers, “had emerged during the Pacific War as one of the most powerful and vocal spokesman for the liberation of the oppressed people of Asia and Africa from colonial rule.”
At the very least, FDR’s policy during the war on Vietnam, on whether or not the French Empire should be restored, was neutral. And he was possibly leaning toward supporting liberation. The same as President Kennedy’s long term Vietnam policy, it is impossible to be sure of FDR’s ultimate goals. They both died before they could complete the policy. (JFK sent the first combat troops to Vietnam in the early 1960s. But it was a relatively small number, some 16,000. And debate continues to this day over if he was going to bring them home).
However, whether it was a policy of neutrality or anti-colonialism in Vietnam, the policy was changed just after World War II by the Truman Doctrine. The latter called for the US to fight Communism almost everywhere and offered aid to any regime doing so. (x) George Kennan was one of the godfathers of the doctrine. But he thought it, as interpreted by the Truman Administration, put too much emphasis on military aid. Kennan believed military aid and advisors should only be sent to a few strategically important areas, such as Western Europe, not Southeast Asia.
The State Department and President Truman changed their views of Indo-China. The U.S. Government stopped communicating with Ho Chi Minh. The Cold War had begun. Strong anti-communist policies were about to turn a friend who had saved Americans into a new enemy who would kill Americans.
Yet Ho Chi Minh had American friends who he thought might support or at least tolerate a Vietnamese independence movement. That’s because FDR, who died in April 1945, had criticized colonialism. Ho Chi Minh tried to play on this apparent American sympathy. So, just after World War II, the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence contained parts of the American Declaration of Independence. Despite the ideological differences, some Vietnamese Communist officials, based on their WWII experiences, regarded Americans as friends. Indeed, American OSS officials—the OSS was the precursor of the CIA—were invited to the Vietnamese independence ceremonies. (xi)
Wasn’t this a seeming contradiction?
Ho Chi Minh was a communist who emphasized that he was “a Vietnamese Communist.” In some ways he presaged the Euro-communist movements of the 1970s and 80s, movements that clashed with the Soviets, who considered themselves the arbiters of world communism. It is ironic that a section of the first volume of the Pentagon Papers, “Vietnam and the United States, 1940-1950,” discussed whether Ho Chi Minh was independent of Moscow and the Chinese Communists. It cited evidence on both sides of the argument.
By the 1970s and 1980s, the debate had been settled. Various national Communist leaders, many influenced by Euro-communist movement, declared their independence of Moscow. (xii) And that, by implication, meant some Communists were willing to co-exist with capitalist nations. Some, such as a Spanish Communist leader, would later talk of his party as a traditional parliamentary party. It didn’t seek a one-party state. It, he said, would accept elections and wait its turn to rule the same as any other democratic party.
Nevertheless, after defeating the French in 1954, Vietnam was divided in half, with a regime friendly to the West in the South. Ho Chi Minh resumed his war for unification of Vietnam. Still, American presidents from Truman on saw him as part of a worldwide international conspiracy, with all communist parties supposedly marching in lockstep.
President Eisenhower in the 1950s repeatedly stated his belief in the domino theory in backing a South Vietnamese regime ready to battle with Ho Chi Minh’s regime to the north. President John Kennedy in the early 1960s certainly accepted this domino theory in several public speeches. He believed it was the duty of the U.S. to prevent the dominoes from falling in Southeast Asia.
The logic of the policy was that Communist regimes had to be opposed everywhere by America. It would act as the world’s policeman and confront the growing power of the Soviet Union everywhere. Cold warrior Senator John Kennedy was elected as president in 1960 in part on the canard of a non-existent missile gap. Yet historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a JFK aide, in a semi-official history of the administration (xiii), would concede the gap was a fiction; that the US had not fallen behind the Soviets as a nuclear power. Kennedy, seeking to prove he was tough on Communism, quietly sent troops to Vietnam in the early 1960s. He neither announced the move nor called for a national debate on whether or not the U.S. should make a military commitment.
Kennedy, whose inauguration speech was a virtual declaration of war against the Soviet Union, made both pro and con statements on Vietnam in his Labor Day 1963 interview with CBS’ Walter Cronkite. This happened two months before his assassination. Kennedy’s defenders, who often ignore the fact that he had sent the first combat troops to Vietnam, insist that Kennedy had privately said he was going to pull out after winning re-election in 1964. (xiv)
This leaves one to wonder what he would have done had he not died in 1963 and had he won re-election the following year. (Answer: It is likely unknowable). Still, Kennedy certainly wanted to be viewed as a tough anti-Communist.
Lyndon Johnson, who would succeed to the presidency in November 1963, also didn’t want to be perceived as soft on Communism. He sought to build support in Congress for his ambitious domestic agenda, the Great Society. So he would need a certain amount of republican votes. He believed that an easy on Communism label had wrecked the Truman administration and its domestic agenda (Truman, critics charged, had “lost” China when the Communists won the civil war in 1949. Other critics noted that China was never America’s to lose).
Yet a decade before, Johnson, as leader of the democrats in the Senate, agreed with majority leader Senator Robert Taft’s warnings about Vietnam. Johnson then opposed “sending American GIs into the mud and muck of Indochina on a bloodletting spree to perpetuate colonialism and the white man’s exploitation in Asia.” (xv)
In his last days, Taft had warned the Eisenhower administration not to send troops to save the endangered Southeast Asian French Empire in 1954. (xvi) It is a warning that Eisenhower heeded with the support of his military adviser General Matthew Ridgway. However, those in favor of sending in US troops to save the French included Vice President Nixon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.
“The cost of an American victory in Vietnam would have been as great or greater than what we paid in Korea,” Ridgway presciently wrote in 1956. (xvii) Johnson, running for election as president in 1964, seemed to have learned the lesson. On the hustings, he famously said, “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys should do for themselves.” (xviii)
After Johnson’s victory in 1964—-an election in which he campaigned as the peace candidate—he suddenly favored an expansion of the war. For Johnson, who idolized FDR, these turned out to be echoes of FDR’s famous 1940 promise not to send American boys into foreign wars. (xix)
This is a familiar pattern that was seen in their series. It is one in which presidents campaign on a peace platform, then, once in office, wage war. (Wilson campaigned for re-election in 1916 as the president who had kept us out of World War I. Five months after re-election, America joined the war. McKinley, in 1896, said America shouldn’t intervene in the Cuban revolution. Two years later, America was at war with Spain. George W. Bush, running for president in 2000, said the U.S. should stop sending troops around the world. Three years later, the nation was waging another war against Iraq, the second one in less a generation).
Johnson’s rationale in 1965 for his change was America supposedly was attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin incident. But it had happened, or possibly never happened, during the summer of 1964. Vietnamese torpedo boats supposedly fired on the U.S. warship Maddox. Today it is questionable whether anyone fired at the American ship. And, unlike the Maine incident in 1898 that led to the Spanish-American War, doubts surfaced immediately.
The captain of the Maddox would ultimately report, “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear very doubtful.” (xx) Johnson, interestingly, had his own doubts about the incident. (xxi) Still, Johnson used this fake attack to justify war. He asked Congress, not for a war declaration, but for an authorization to use force.
The authorization was rushed through. A CBS TV news executive resigned when the network wouldn’t air hearings, but instead opted for its usual programming: re-runs of “I Love Lucy.” The resolution, years later during the succeeding Nixon administration, was later revoked to no effect. A dissenting vote in the 1964 Senate debate on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution came from Ernest Gruening.
Gruening recently had made a speech in which he complained that Kennedy’s dispatch of troops to Vietnam had constituted a state of war. Unfortunately, the speech was ignored by major media outlets. Gruening said, in effect, what Johnson had said a decade before as Senate minority leader about a possible Vietnam intervention.
“All Vietnam,” Gruening said, “is not worth the life of a single American boy.” (xxii)
Overwhelmingly elected in his own right as president in 1964, Johnson used the fake attack as a pretext for war. He would send 500,000 more soldiers to Vietnam. Johnson temporarily solved a political problem. He certainly wouldn’t be viewed as soft on Communism, although the long-term costs would eventually destroy his administration and career.
Johnson, with little foreign policy experience or knowledge—his forte was domestic policy and legislative skills—ignored or ridiculed warnings about Vietnam from French president Charles de Gaulle. (xxiii) He had faced a similar problem. He came to power in 1958 to retain Algeria as a province of France. Yet De Gaulle later did something remarkable that few leaders ever consider and even fewer actually do: He would reverse himself. That nearly led to his murder by right-wing army elements as detailed in the novel and later movie “Day of the Jackal.”
De Gaulle pulled his country out of a disastrous situation in Algeria by ending the war and conceding independence. Nevertheless, Johnson claimed that, if the U.S. didn’t win in Vietnam, Hawaii and the West Coast would be threatened. The nation pressed on to another disastrous war in Vietnam. This was a war substantially continued by Johnson’s successor Richard Nixon. He was a president who believed, like Charles I of England in the 17th century, that leaders were above the law. More wars would follow Nixon’s imperial rule.
The irony of yet another superfluous war is the victorious Communist Republic of Vietnam, about a decade later after it had defeated the United States and its backed regime in Saigon, had many problems. Vietnam was left a wrecked country. It sought American aid that never came. And the 1,000 year struggle with the Chinese was about to be resumed, a specter that had haunted the Vietnamese communists. In Ho Chi Minh’s last will and testament in 1969, he bemoaned that the Communist world was so often at war with itself. Communist movements, he complained, had to choose either the Soviet or the Chinese side.
Was war with Vietnam necessary or justified? And did Americans, as in so many other prior and succeeding wars, really want to send their young people to be killed? These are questions that are still debated more than forty years after the last American soldier died.
Why did America turn Communist Vietnam into an enemy and make war? It didn’t have to happen. Vietnam was not an ally of America, but the interests of the two nations could actually have coincided with a more enlightened, history-smart American leadership. There was certainly no need for a war. Some 35 years after the end of the war, an overburdened United States, which had seeming endless defense responsibilities around the world, announced it was cutting back its naval presence in the South China Sea.
Which nation wanted the US Navy to stay? And which nation, because it feared the rising, aggressive power of China, wanted to conduct joint maneuvers with the US Navy and possibly even provide it with docking facilities?
The nation that the United States had once been try to bomb out of existence: The Communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
End of Part VI
(i) See “Ho Chi Minh and His Vietnam, a Personal Memoir,” p 48, Jean Sainteny (Cowles Books, Chicago, 1970).
(ii) Ho Chi Minh, a Life, p 283, William A. Duiker (Hyperion, New York, 2000)
(iii) “The Pentagon Papers,” www. Archives.gov. See especially volume 1, p c-13 in which Ho Chi Minh, from the province of Annam, repeatedly asks during and after World War II for the backing of the United States against the Japanese and the French Empire (a Vichy dominated regime continued to rule nominally during WW II under the Japanese. The Pentagon Papers sums up the position of Ho’s communist group: “Annamite nationalists spoke of the United States as men speak of a hope they know is forlorn but to which they desperately cling all the same…Would not the United States still find it wiser for the sake of its position in the Far East to win support among the people rather than to cling to the rotten imperial system of the past?” C13
(iv) See “Vietnam, a History,” Stanley Karnow, pp2-47 (Viking Press, New York, 1983)
(v) Personal aside: A friend recently traveled to Vietnam and, like most Americans, was well received everywhere. He asked why the Vietnamese weren’t upset with him because he was an American. His hosts told him that it was Chinese, not the Americans, who were hated. “You weren’t trying to conquer us. That’s not true with the Chinese. We’ve had 11 wars with them.”
(vi) See “Paris 1919,” Margaret MacMillan, p 59, (Random House, New York, 2003).
(vii) See Ho Chi Minh and His Vietnam: A Personal Memoir,” (Cowles, 1972) Jean Sainteny
(viii) See Sainteny a former French colonial official, who emphasizes throughout his book that Ho was a fatherly figure who got along with many Westerners, especially Americans.
(ix) Sainteny Ibid. Sainteny, a former French official who had good relations with Ho Chi Minh, depicts him as a nationalist first, a Communist second. This is also a theme struck by General LeClerc, a French general during the Vietnamese war for independence after World War II. LeClerc warns that “anti-communism will be a useless tool as long as the problem of nationalism remains unsolved. See “The Pentagon Papers, Vietnam and the United States, 1940-1950,” p 43
(xi) When Ho Chi Minh was pressed on the issue of whether he was a Communist or a nationalist: “His reply was always he was both.” Duiker, p 20
(xii) See “Euro-communism and the State,” by Sanitago Carrillo (Lawrence and Wishart (London, 1977). A similar theme is explored by a former East German Communist leader in “Three Faces of Marxism, The Political Concepts of Soviet Ideology, Maoism and Humanist Marxism,” by Wolfgang Leongard, (Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, New York, 1970).
(xiii) See the book, “ A Thousand Days, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “in February (1961) McNamara” (Kennedy’s defense secretary), in a candid background talk to newspapermen, was ready to dismiss the gap as an illusion.” p 317
(xiv) An example of this is the book by a former Kennedy aide Kennedy O’Donnell, “Johnnie We Hardly Knew Ye.” (Pocket Books, New York, 1970). Unfortunately, for those who believe in the Kennedy would have pulled out legend, the Pentagon Papers consistently depict the president as someone who—the same as his predecessor and successor—-believed in the domino theory.
(xv) The Two Vietnams: A Political and Military Analysis,” Bernard B. Fall (Westview Press, 1985).
(xvi) See “Why the Futile Crusade?” Leonard P. Liggio, Mises.org
(xvii) “Soldier; the Memoirs of Matthew Ridgway.” as told to Harold H. Martin (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1956).
(xviii) See “The Bitter Heritage, Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941-1966,” Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., (Fawcett Crest, New York 1967) Pp44-45
(xix) “Roosevelt,” said one commentator, “could be said to have taught his successors, the most worshipful of whom was Lyndon Johnson, that lying succeeded and could be for the public good. “The Wound Within: America in the Vietnam Years, 1945-1974,” Alexander Kendrick, p20, (Boston, Little Brown, 1974)
(xx) “Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam,” George T. McT.Kahin, p 221 (New York, 1986)
(xxi) ”LBJ, Architect of American Ambition,” Randall B. Woods, (Free Press, New York. 2006), pp514-515. The commander of the attacked American ship would cable headquarters, “Review of action makes reported contacts seem very doubtful.”
(xxii) “Many Battles: The Autobiography of Ernest Gruening,” (Liveright Publishing, WW Norton and Company) pp465-471.
(xxiii) “DeGaulle and the World, The Foreign Policy of the Fifth French Republic,” W.W. Kulski, p 373 (Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York, 1966).