Harry R. Targ
from. Strategy of an Empire in Decline: Cold War II
MEP Publications, Minneapolis, 1986, 125-128, 150-157, 167-172.
(I am going on an educational visit to Vietnam sponsored by the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) and hosted by the Vietnam Women's Federation. I am motivated by a compulsion to revisit our political past. This essay covers briefly the history of the U.S. policy toward Vietnam, 1950-1960 which I will be reflecting upon as we observe Vietnam today. I will follow in weeks ahead with essays on the escalating U.S. war in the administrations of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. These will be interspersed from time to time with my impressions of Vietnam today. Perhaps these brief descriptions will stimulate your memories and thoughts about ways in which United States foreign policy has not changed since the Cold War) .
The Cold War in the Third World: Indochina
During this period the Eisenhower administration concerned itself increasingly with the Third World. The peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America were actively opposing colonialism and neocolonialism. European and U.S. imperialism in the Third World required markets, resources, cheap labor, and investment sites for profit making. To Europeans in Africa and U.S. interests in Asia national liberation meant the threat of an end to foreign control of indigenous economies. The best opportunity for international capital, then, required continued opposition to anticolonial struggles (as in Indochina, Algeria, Kenya, Ghana, Malaya, etc.) and opposition to movements challenging neocolonialism (as in the Philippines, Guatemala, Iran, and Egypt).
The United States continued its commitment to the reactionary forces in Vietnam, for example. Vietnam had been a colony of France since 1859. During World War II the French collaborated with the Japanese, who had occupied Vietnam. After the Japanese had surrendered at the close of the war, the nationalist and Communist-led Vietminh forces controlled much of the country, and Ho Chi Minh, the movement leader, issued a declaration of independence. The French returned and sought to reestablish their dominance of the country. After the French attempted to achieve full control of Vietnam by means of negotiations, war broke out in 1946 and continued until 1954. The French formed their own Republic of Vietnam in June, 1948, and appointed the collaborationist Bao Dai as leader of the new state. The Bao Dai regime was opposed by a broad front of political forces, of which Ho Chi Minh's Communists were in the lead. The Communist-led movement had the unqualified support of the Vietnamese people.
In February, 1950, the United States recognized the Bao Dai regime. In May, Acheson called for the support of the French war effort in Vietnam, and an aid package was announced on June 27, after the Korean War had begun. From 1950 to 1954 the United States funded eighty percent of the cost of the French war. In February, 1954, France and other nations agreed to plan a conference at Geneva to discuss the continuing civil war. To improve their bargaining position the French simultaneously began an offensive by landing twenty thousand troops at the northern outpost of Dienbienphu. Within two months the French post was near capture.
During this last phase of the French war, the Eisenhower administration was seriously considering increased support for the French. Admiral Radford, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for the use of atomic weapons in keeping with the Dulles strategy of "massive retaliation" to defend the losing French effort. Dulles proclaimed that "communist domination" of Indochina and Southeast Asia would be a "grave threat to the whole free community." Eisenhower talked of "falling dominoes": if Indochina fell, then so would Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Indonesia, then India, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan as a series of falling dominoes. Vice President Nixon said on April 17, 1954:
"The United States as a leader of the free world cannot afford further retreat in Asia. It is hoped the United States will not have to send troops there, but if this government cannot avoid it, the Administration must face up to the situation and dispatch forces."
Dulles and Radford met with members of Congress in late April to discuss U.S. air and troop support for the French, who were on the verge of surrender at Dienbienphu. The congressional leaders said they would support the military commitment only if the British would cooperate. When Dulles conferred with the British, the latter claimed that an act of intervention just shortly before the Geneva conference would be counterproductive. Thus, the U.S. drive toward intervention was temporarily stalled.
The Geneva Conference on Indochina opened on May 8. 1954, the same day that Dienbienphu fell to the forces of Ho Chi Minh. The signatories to the July, 1954, conference accords recognized the independence of Laos and Cambodia, temporarily split Vietnam at the Seventeenth Parallel, called for elections throughout Vietnam to occur by' June, 1956, and agreed not to introduce outside military force into the temporarily divided country. The United States did not sign the accords but agreed to honor them if the signatories did. Dulles's displeasure with the conference and with the need to meet with representatives from the People's Republic of China was evidenced by his personal withdrawal in the middle of the conference.
After the conference the Eisenhower administration exerted pressure on Bao Dai and the French to install a hand-picked client, Ngo Dinh Diem, to serve as South Vietnam's new prime minister. Diem, who had lived in the United States from 1950 to 1953, was a friend of Cardinal Spellman, Senator John F. Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice William 0. Douglas, and other U.S. notables. In the fall of 1954, President Eisenhower sent his famous letter to Diem promising U.S. military and economic assistance to South Vietnam if the government would carry out social reforms.
One year after the Geneva accords were signed, Diem announced that South Vietnam would not participate in negotiations for the holding of elections throughout Vietnam. He claimed that no elections in North Vietnam would be free. In October, 1955, Diem ousted Bao Dai from his honorific post as chief of state and, with selected members of his family, assumed ultimate power in South Vietnam. One analyst said that the United States had its Syngman Rhee for South Vietnam. The U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group then assumed full responsibility for training the South Vietnamese Army, contrary to the Geneva accords.
While the United States was replacing the French in South Vietnam, Secretary of State Dulles was expanding a network of alliances with client states around the world. The United States had already established a twenty-one-nation Western Hemispheric alliance, guaranteeing mutual consultation if any nation was attacked. NATO, created in 1949, represented fifteen north Atlantic and Mediterranean nations. The United States had joined in alliance with New Zealand and Australia. Finally, Dulles organized the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in September, 1954, to counter the advance of communism that he saw as the result of the Geneva accords. Member countries were Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, and the United States. The SEAT0 Treaty called for the protection of the Indochinese states, despite the fact that the latter were not members. Several Asian states, including India, refused to participate in the SEAT0 pact. Later, Dulles was to add the Baghdad Pact, or CENTO, as an alliance of client states in the Middle East. The United States also had treaty commitments to nations on a bilateral basis. All together, the United States had committed itself to the defense of at least fifty-four nations by the mid- 1950s.
From 1957 to 1960 a rapid escalation of violence occurred in South Vietnam as Diem sought to crush his growing opposition. During 1957-58, the United States entirely funded the Vietnamese armed forces, eighty percent of other government expenditures, and ninety percent of its imports. The Diem regime failed to carry out land reforms, and the countryside continued to be controlled by a small number of landlords. The repression against opposition of various political tendencies led finally to the formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF), in December, 1960, to oust the ruthless Diem regime, which maintained itself in power solely through U.S. support.