|Presidents Thieu and Nixon|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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”.