Tuesday, January 7, 2014

American Mismanagement in South Vietnam

Even decades later, the United States remains haunted by the memory of Vietnam. Despite winning every battle, perception prevails that the U.S. “lost” the war in Vietnam. And this is not surprising, after all, given that the purpose was to prevent the conquest of South Vietnam by communist-ruled North Vietnam and, in the end, it was the communists who ended up ruling the entire country. Never has America fought a war so riddled with mismanagement, misunderstanding, deception and confusion both on the field of battle and on the home front. The American people were promised “peace with honor” but were delivered a South Vietnam torn to pieces and an American government dishonored by abandoning an ally to oppression and death. The American people were told that the war could not be won at a time when U.S. troops were everywhere successful. The South Vietnamese were told that America stood behind them only to see mobs of American students waving the flag of the communist terrorist groups, American celebrities hobnobbing with North Vietnamese officials and the American media denouncing them as a cowardly and untrustworthy people. American politicians set up leaders in South Vietnam and then tore them down only to later lament the instability in Saigon. They criticized France as a colonial power, for never giving South Vietnam “true” independence only to then orchestrate the downfall of South Vietnamese leaders who would not rule in the fashion the President of the United States saw fit. It was quite a mess.

Presidents Thieu and Nixon
Where did it all go wrong? The shortest answer would be another question. Where did it not go wrong? The politicians in Washington seemed to have an immense talent for making the exact wrong decision at almost every step. Thanks to the skill and courage of the U.S. armed forces and (when given the proper support) the South Vietnamese armed forces, on numerous occasions opportunities arose to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and yet, again and again, Washington made exactly the wrong decisions. Ironically, it was one of the most reviled of all American presidents, Richard Nixon, who came the closest to winning the war. Through his strategy of “Vietnamization” and the “Nixon Doctrine” he began to pull American combat troops out, leave the war up to the South Vietnamese but supporting them with advisors, material and the air support their government lacked. After gaining some battlefield experience and learning some hard lessons, this strategy worked. The South Vietnamese defeated the most massive communist invasions of their country and this, combined with American bombing in the north, forced the communists to the conference table. Unfortunately, when the malevolent Nixon was forced to resign, replaced by the spineless nonentity Gerald Ford, the Democrats in control of Congress cut off all aid to South Vietnam and repudiated all promises made to that country, leaving them helpless in the face of a renewed communist offensive backed up by the Soviet Union.

That was the end but such mistakes and deception and lost opportunities had been present from the very beginning. In Vietnam we can see the pattern for similar disasters which befell countries all across Africa and Asia; colonial regimes brought down and replaced by communist tyrannies because of the United States splitting the anti-communist opposition over their own ideological hatred of “imperialism”, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a huge de facto American empire had been established ever since World War II. In virtually every case, this American opposition to colonialism (odd for a country that would never have ever existed without it) went hand in hand with a mindless opposition to monarchy, be it those of the local populations or the colonial power in such cases as that of Great Britain and The Netherlands. As it concerns Vietnam specifically, we can see the beginning during World War II under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he made no secret of the fact that, second to destroying the power of the Empire of Japan, his ultimate goal was to end the British-led Empire of India and French influence and control in Indochina.

Ho Chi Minh
From 1940 to 1951 all American foreign policy in regard to Vietnam was driven by removing France from the region. The United States, using the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, forerunner of the CIA), funded, armed, trained and gave material support to the guerillas under the control of a revolutionary later known as Ho Chi Minh. The American plan was to give these insurgents everything they needed to fight the Japanese who were in Vietnam and who, in 1945, supported Emperor Bao Dai in renouncing the treaties with France and declaring the independence of a reunited “Empire of Vietnam”. And, if, afterwards, these men fought the French who would naturally try to return after the war was over, FDR certainly would not be too upset about that. One might ask why, when Emperor Bao Dai had declared independence from France, the anti-colonial Roosevelt still considered him “untouchable”. The given answer is that this was done in partnership with Japan and anyone associated with Japan was considered ‘tainted’ in the eyes of FDR. However, the only real answer is that Bao Dai was a monarch and he was opposed for no other reason given that the United States was only too willing to support the republican Sukarno in Indonesia against the Dutch in spite of the fact that he had collaborated with Japan. No, FDR would have nothing to do with the Vietnamese Emperor and when Ho Chi Minh, only a short time later, issued his own declaration of independence, it was almost a word-for-word copy of the American version. When the communists then forced Emperor Bao Dai to abdicate it was with every indication that they had full American support thanks to the policies of FDR.

Vietnam was divided into two zones, north and south, with the north being occupied by China and the south by Great Britain. Ho Chi Minh allowed the French back in the north in order to get rid of the Chinese (the nationalist faction) while maintaining his own power base. In the south, the British prevented the communists from taking over, even offending American sensibilities by taking the very logical step of re-arming the surrendered Japanese to maintain order and prevent the communists seizing power before the French could reestablish themselves. During this time it was President Harry Truman (Democrat) in the White House and he had little time to bother about Vietnam as he had his hands full trying to prevent General Douglas MacArthur (Republican) from winning the war in Korea too completely so as to become a political rival. Harry Truman was all about containing communism but not defeating it, always fearful of Red Chinese or Soviet intervention. In fact, during most of this period the political elites in Washington displayed an inordinate fear of the Soviet Union. They seemed utterly oblivious to the fact that communism not only encourages incompetence but that, especially after the crisis of World War II had passed, Stalin seemed determined to seek out any talent in Russia and destroy it. The United States did not begin to take a real interest in Vietnam (or Indochina as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were still grouped together in the French Union) until the administration of President Eisenhower (Republican).

Dwight D. Eisenhower
It was President Eisenhower who first began to make the case to the American public that communist expansion in Indochina had to be stopped and if that meant supporting the French then so be it. However, Eisenhower was somewhat tainted by the anti-colonial attitude as well. The first opportunity to stop communism in Indochina had already been squandered by FDR (and Truman continuing his policies) by failing to support the Empire of Vietnam and actually supporting the communists outright. Eisenhower would be the one to let the next opportunity for real victory slip through his fingers. To his credit, Eisenhower did strongly support the French effort in Vietnam. Eventually, the United States was bankrolling the vast majority of the French war effort. However, Eisenhower was reluctant to get too involved for political reasons. He had swept to office on the promise of ending the war in Korea and it would not serve his public image to then turn around and commit American troops to Vietnam. He was also determined to (and did) drastically downsize the American military, putting all his faith in a huge nuclear arsenal to deter any enemy powers.

Eisenhower also had his political enemies at home to worry about, particularly the rising star of presidential aspirant Senator John F. Kennedy. While Eisenhower was urging more support for the French in stopping communism in Vietnam, Kennedy was condemning this as American support for colonialism and advocated a “third force” to combat the Reds in Vietnam. By this time the French had restored the former Emperor as “Chief of State” of Vietnam and his fortunes were tied to those of France. Eisenhower had not great admiration or even interest in Emperor Bao Dai but at that stage Vietnam was still the responsibility of France and he did favor aiding the French so Bao Dai benefited by proxy. Kennedy and the anti-colonialist crowd, however, had their eye on a former mandarin, staunch Catholic and noted nationalist named Ngo Dinh Diem. He was singled out early on as someone untainted by association with Japan or France and was soon being built-up by the Kennedy crowd as the indispensable man who could “save” Vietnam and make it America’s “showcase for democracy” in Southeast Asia. And, this period was extremely significant as it presented the last, best opportunity to defeat the communist Vietminh before they became an established, recognized power.

French Foreign Legion in Vietnam
Contrary to what many think, the French actually did extremely well in their war against communism in Vietnam. Unlike the United States would do later, France fought offensively and most battles occurred in the north, in the communist heartland, rather than in the south where order was maintained by various local groups united in loyalty or at least common cause with Emperor Bao Dai. When it came time for the epic battle of Dien Bien Phu it was a last-ditch effort, not only by the French but by the communists as well. Actually, it was not such a complete disaster for France as many think. France could have gone on after the loss at Dien Bien Phu and probably won, however, the crucial point was the French home front where war weariness and communist subversion had totally killed the will to carry on the struggle for the French empire. That was what made Dien Bien Phu the “last stand” for France in Indochina. However, it was for the communists as well as they had been extremely worn down by their conflict with France, much more so than most realize and even after winning at Dien Bien Phu, their army was all but wiped out by it and it would take four years to really rebuild it to any appreciable degree even with massive outside assistance.

Dien Bien Phu then, was a pivotal moment and in that pivotal moment, Eisenhower was the man who blinked. Part of the reason was his own early opposition to the idea of European powers maintaining colonial influence as well. He had completely undercut the British in the Suez Crisis based on the ignorant assumption that siding with the nationalist republican faction in Egypt would win them to the side of America rather than the Soviets. It did not of course and only made the British understandably unwilling to do the United States any favors. Eisenhower said he would commit the bombers France needed to totally wipe out the VietMinh army at Dien Bien Phu if he could obtain British support for the move but Great Britain refused to cooperate. This, combined with his own reluctance to get more involved and the crowd in Washington howling against any American aid going to help restore the French colonial empire caused President Eisenhower to pass up the opportunity to crush the communist presence in Indochina with a single blow. After the defeat at Dien Bien Phu, France began to pull out and basically told America that Vietnam was their problem now.

Emperor Bao Dai
This did not bode well for Emperor Bao Dai who had his strongest foreign backers among the French (which is not surprising given that he had been educated in France and spent most of his youth there). Although in name his regime was the “State of Vietnam” and he was “Chief of State” it effectively amounted to a constitutional monarchy though by this time with a mostly absentee monarch. Everything he had been through up to that point had made the Emperor a rather cautious and skeptical man. Now things were only set to get worse. Eisenhower was, at best, disinterested in how or by whom South Vietnam was governed but the Emperor was seen as being a creature of France and with the French on the way out there was a renewed drive to replace him with someone who would be the creature of the United States. With Emperor Bao Dai as “Chief of State” and his cousin Prince Buu Loc as Prime Minister, the regime did not seem sufficiently “American”. It was at this point that the name of Ngo Dinh Diem began to get more and more press attention and more attention in the halls of power in Washington DC. Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, Justice William O. Douglas and Senators Mike Mansfield and John F. Kennedy were among the luminaries enlisted in the pro-Diem camp. This was the core of the “third force” idea of opposing both the French and the communists which reached such a pitch that even while the French and the non-communist Vietnamese of Emperor Bao Dai were in the midst of their climactic battle, Senator John F. Kennedy was saying, “Force them [the French] to give independence to Indochina and they will form a crusade for liberty”.

And as the Americans were replacing the French in Vietnam, and the Eisenhower years were drawing to a close, it was American pressure that persuaded Emperor Bao Dai to appoint Ngo Dinh Diem as prime minister. Once in power, he immediately set to work consolidating his position, all along with American support, to crush the power of the autonomous military forces that existed in South Vietnam to unify the country and stamp out communism, though many of those he moved against were moved into the communist camp because Diem was determined to remove the autonomy they enjoyed under Bao Dai so long as they were loyal to him. American dollars also helped win him the support of some of these sects, momentary though it might have been. Finally, in 1955, U.S. Colonel Edward Lansdale helped engineer the referendum that removed the Emperor (residing at that time still in France) and made Diem the first President of the Republic of Vietnam. As Hilaire du Berrier wrote, “And it is part of the phenomena of American liberalism that any anti-western demagogue hard-pressed for a victory to hold up to his people has only to attack a king to enjoy American approval and recognition.” President Eisenhower sent in the first American advisors to the new republic and was the first to recognize the regime as a sovereign nation. When President Diem came to the United States for a formal visit, Eisenhower pledged American support to his government and urged his successor, John F. Kennedy, to do the same and make fighting communism in Southeast Asia a priority.

President Diem & U.S. Counselor Daniel Anderson
When Kennedy came into the White House, along with a gaggle of highly educated but woefully inexperienced young people, the United States sought to increase its role in Vietnam where it seemed that Diem had already, pretty much, finished the hard fighting. It was assumed that, after the embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and other things, Vietnam would be a place where Kennedy could gain credit as a crusader against communism by taking the credit for a battle that seemed to have already been won. So, American “support” for South Vietnam became American “partnership” with South Vietnam, the first U.S. combat troops were sent in and American aid poured in as did the tributes to President Diem. However, as the U.S. presence increased, Diem pushed back just as hard, determined not to be an American puppet as the communists invariably portrayed him. Needless to say, as he did so, his image in the American media plummeted rapidly. The man who had been praised endlessly in the previous years was suddenly being portrayed as a tyrant.

In this, even for the first president of a new republic, anti-monarchist sentiment was common. Suddenly it was fashionable to point out that Diem was the son of a high-placed mandarin in the court of Emperor Khai Dinh, that his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, was married to a distant cousin of the last Emperor and that Diem was behaving more like a monarch than a president. In many ways, Diem was being attacked for the very same reasons that he was most feared by the communists; he was single-minded, ruthless and would stop at nothing to win. Especially after the Buddhist crisis, as the elite liberal media in America turned against Diem so too did President Kennedy. The expected easy victory for him was turning into a public relations embarrassment. Fuel was added to the fire by those in Vietnam who hoped to seize power. They contradicted the reports from military observers that the war was being won and portrayed the Diem regime as a ticking time bomb that Kennedy should drop as soon as possible. In one of the most dramatic foreign policy betrayals in American history, Kennedy decided to shed himself of Ngo Dinh Diem, the same man he had so long championed. Word was sent to the military elite in Saigon that Kennedy would stop all American aid to Vietnam unless Diem was removed. So, in 1963, a military coup removed Diem from power as per American wishes. Later, Diem, Nhu and any other family members they could get their hands on were killed. When Kennedy himself was later assassinated, someone asked Madame Nhu (widow of the murdered Ngo Dinh Nhu) if she had anything to say to Jackie Kennedy. Understandably bitter, her reply was, “Now she knows how it feels”.

Madame Nhu
However, unlike Jackie Kennedy who would remain an international celebrity and remarry to a fabulously wealthy Greek shipping tycoon, Madame Nhu would live out her years in obscure and very modest exile from her homeland. The last chance for a real victory in Vietnam was lost as, after the fall of Diem, political stability in South Vietnam became impossible. One general succeeded another in coup after coup in the following years while America assumed virtually sole responsibility for the entire war effort. America could have made the best of a bad situation with Diem, but that opportunity was tossed aside. America could have stuck with Emperor Bao Dai and his broad-based coalition but that was never even considered and America could have responded in force to help the French wipe out the communists but that opportunity was squandered as well. As the astute observer Hilaire du Berrier wrote later, “A one-hour, carrier-based air strike could have destroyed Ho Chi Minh’s decimated army in March 1954, saved the beleaguered garrison at Dien Bien Phu and changed the course of history. But there was a virus in the bloodstream of America that desired a Vietminh triumph. The story of Indochina is the story of the decline of the West.”


  1. Thank you for this article! It's so helpful to see the long view of events.

  2. Great article, unfortunately the "virus" is so wide spread in America and most of the world through the media and the public schools/universities, the question is how do we get rid of it once and for all?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...