For generations of Americans the Vietnam War has become a social, political and military symbol.

For millions of others there was nothing symbolic about the Vietnam War—it was very real. However, almost all Americans associate the Vietnam War with the administration of Lyndon Johnson. Militarily speaking, this is probably fair. However, United States involvement in Vietnam from a diplomatic and political perspective stretches to the end of World War II. The focus of this paper will be on Johnson’s predecessors in the White House, specifically, John F. Kennedy and to a lesser degree, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

When John F. Kennedy became President of the United States in January 1961 it was heralded as a new era for the country. As Kennedy himself said, for the first time, men “born in this century” would lead the country. Many of the problems, domestic and international, waiting on Kennedy’s desk in the Oval Office were the same ones faced by the previous occupant of the office, Dwight Eisenhower. The situation in Vietnam, like virtually every diplomatic initiative of Kennedy’s administration, was colored by the elephant in the room—The Cold War. Much like Korea, the country had been split into two with North Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh and South Vietnam led by Ngo Dinh Diem. Meanwhile, the specter of communism almost immediately replaced the void left by the French in North Vietnam. The mere thought of Vietnam becoming Communist was alarming to the Eisenhower administration for many reasons not least of which was Vietnam’s proximity to Russia and to the growing Communist power that was China.

2 The possibility that Vietnam and other countries in mainland Asia could “go Communist” gave rise to what became known as the “Domino Theory.” Eisenhower was reluctant to make any sort of military commitment, especially in light of the stalemate that was the Korean War. Kennedy, on the other hand, came to office as a man of new ideas and new solutions to old problems. While Kennedy was just beginning his term, Diem and his military strongman Ngo Dinh Nhu were clinging to power in a country disenchanted with their leadership. Diem, especially, realized his political survival hinged on forging a relationship with the new president. Whenever Vietnam is mentioned in conversation, especially in the political or military arenas, somewhere soon the term “lessons of Vietnam” comes up. But what are those lessons? I think one of the main lessons—which have not been learned to this day —is that building alliances in the international community is a complex process that can go wrong in the worst ways. Too often, United States foreign policy has been dictated by the simplistic theory that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” At different points in the last third of the 20th Century the United States supported the likes of Augusto Pinochet, Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.

Vietnam, like so many of its Asian neighbors, has spent very little of its existence as a truly independent nation. Since 1976 Vietnam has been independent and it was only through over 20 years of virtually continuous war that independence was attained. Throughout its history different sections of what is now Vietnam had varying degrees of autonomy. From approximately 1002 until the middle of the 19th century parts

3 of Vietnam were under the control of one dynasty or another, though the continuation of rule wasn’t always peaceful. At this point in time Vietnam was known as Indochina. The mid-19th century marked the height of European colonization in Asia. In 1858 France, under the direction of Napoleon III, made its first forays into Vietnam by military attack and captured Saigon. By 1862, a treaty was signed giving France control of three southern provinces of Indochina. Five years later French forces had made their way through the provinces around the Mekong Delta and created a French Colony which came to be called Cochin China. Later, French forces landed and seized the northern part of the country which they dubbed Tonkin. Finally, in 1887 French Indochina was formed with Annam as the central colony, Tonkin the northern colony, and Cochin China as the southern colony. France allowed the monarchial structure to continue, but in practice there was little doubt to who was governing the country. This series of events should have sent a message to future invaders or would-be occupiers of this mountainous, humid land filled with densely populated jungle regions. Vietnam is essentially protected by the South China Sea in the southeast and the Gulf of Tonkin in the northeast. Furthermore, it is lengthy country meaning that it is approximately 1000 miles from north to south but only 400 miles across at its widest point. At its narrowest point it is less than a 100 miles east to west. Consider: a technologically superior country (France) needed 25 years to finally take control of what would now be considered a third-world country. The French tried to bring western reforms to the land and even brought Christianity in an effort to modernize Indochina but instead spent much of the next 50 years heading off one insurrection after another. This is

4 a revelation not only about the dramatic geography of Vietnam but of the intense anticolonial feelings of its citizens. At the beginning of World War II France went from being the colonizer to the colonized as the Japanese routed French forces in Indochina yet allowed the Vichy government to retain control of the land while acting as puppet for Tokyo. As Japanese fortunes in the war turned worse so did those of the Indochinese people. A famine from the end of 1944 into 1945 killed an estimated two million people in the Tonkin province alone. Once Japan surrendered to the Allies in August 1945 a power vacuum existed and the Nguyen Dynasty Emperor Bao Dai declared Vietnam independent even though his standing in the Asian and international community was largely ceremonial. Starting on August 19th millions of people filled the cities and towns of Vietnam to protest a return to colonial rule. These demonstrations, which were led by Ho Chi Minh, became known as the August Revolution. While the protests were a clear rejection of colonialism it could also be argued that a significant part of Vietnamese wanted no part of a monarchy either. Symbolically, a new era was born when on September 2, 1945 in Hanoi, Minh declared Vietnam independent by the name of Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Although the new country wasn’t recognized by any other government, it was the moment for which Minh had been preparing for all his life.

Born in 1890, Ho Chi Minh is the dominant political figure in 20th Century Vietnam. The city formerly known as Saigon now bears his name.

5 The French formally educated Minh, whose birth name was Nguyễn Sinh Cung, but his father was a Confucian scholar and his influence is undeniable. While Minh was young he came to resent the treatment of the French colonists but also disliked the monarchy that existed. Minh left Vietnam in 1910 and traveled to England, the United States and France. It was in France after World War I that Minh took to Communism and where he received his political training. His bravado was never in doubt. With no authority other than his own, he petitioned the Versailles peace talks to give French Indochina independence from France as part of the negotiations ending World War I. He was denied a seat at the table. Not long after Minh became a founding member of the French Communist Party and made his way to Russia where Communist International (Comintern) was formed in Moscow in 1919. During this time Minh formally changed his name to Ho Chi Minh. The Comintern made Minh their Asian liaison and he spent much of the next twenty years moving throughout Asia fortifying or establishing Communist beliefs in Laos, Hong Kong, Thailand and of course China. He was jailed by the British authorities in Hong Kong for his organizing activities for two years starting in 1931. In 1941 with the region on the brink of World War II Minh returned to his homeland with the hopes of leading it to independence. At this point, Vietnam was in the hands of Japan who had routed Vichy French forces. The French remained in place but were under orders from the Japanese. Minh, with assistance from Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor to the CIA), led a series of military raids meant to undermine local authority. He was actually too successful and got the attention of the anti-

6 communist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang Kai-shek’s jailed Minh through 1943. When Germany’s surrender and was followed by Japan’s in Minh leaped at the opportunity and by virtue of the August Revolution he became chairman of the newly created Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Assisting Minh in his subversive activities against Japan may be one of the earliest examples of United States adopting the doctrine of the “Enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It is certainly the first example of this policy with respect toward United States-Vietnam relations. The United States was undoubtedly aware of Minh’s Communist leanings—they participated in a war against him several years later—or were they? Minh had portrayed himself to the Americans as a Nationalist who wanted to rid his homeland of foreign invaders. Yet, his seizure on the orders of such a devout anti-Communist as Chaing Kaishek should have sent a message to American observers about his true politics. The United States’ leaders felt the imperative at the time was to undermine Japan, who controlled Vietnam at the time, in whatever way possible. At first glance their efforts seemed to be derailed when Chaing Kai-shek arrested Minh, the imprisonment had the effect of emboldening Minh’s followers. When he was released in 1943 it could be argued that Minh’s following became wider and more passionate. Events bear this opinion out as he led the August Revolution and had enough political capital to create an independent government. So, did the United States empower a figure who a short time later would inflict all manner of political and military damage upon them?

7 At the Yalta Conference in February 1945 where post-war plans were made by Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, Vietnam was a source of disagreement among the three leaders. Roosevelt and Stalin felt Vietnam should be governed be the Chinese while Churchill felt control should be returned to the French. Churchill’s disagreement was based not so much on the power of the French as giving control to the Chinese. Later at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, where Harry Truman, now the President of the United States after the death of Roosevelt joined Churchill and Stalin it was agreed that the Chinese would accept surrender of Japanese control of Indo-China above the 16th parallel. The French would control the area south. It should be noted that these negotiations took place without consulting any Vietnamese representatives. Should it come as a surprise then that the plan was met with immediate resistance? Minh seized on this discontent to create a government and schedule elections in January of 1946. By this point, September 1945, the country was in a state of chaos. In the north, 200,000 anti-communist troops poured into Vietnam from China. In the south, the French army released from Japanese prisons and armed by the British pushed Vietnamese troops, known as the Viet Minh, into the many forests and deltas. In the north, the troops that were sent in from China were there to support an opposition to Minh. Minh chose to negotiate with opposition leaders rather than put his weakened country at war. Seats in the National Assembly would be predetermined for his rivals. This satisfied the anti-communist leaders and the troops departed without bloodshed. When the elections came in January 1946 candidates supported by Minh won 300 of the 350 seats in the National Assembly.

8 Ho had little time to celebrate. On March 6, 1946 he was forced into signing an agreement with the French to prevent invasion of their troops from the south. While Minh’s government would be recognized as a free state it would be considered a member of the French Union and the French would maintain a small military presence in the north. The agreement was scarcely recognized by the Vietnamese people. Throughout the country French civilians were kidnapped and murdered while negotiations for a more amenable agreement continued. In November 1946 French soldiers in the northern coastal town of Hai Phong were killed while shopping. Random fighting broke and almost the entire town evacuated. A French cruiser in port took the evacuation to be an attack by the Viet Minh on a neighboring airfield. He opened fire. By the time the panic subsided six thousand civilians had either been trampled or killed by ammunition. On December 19, 1946. The First Indochina War Began as the Viet Minh, on orders from Ho Chi Minh, conducted raids throughout Vietnam. The Viet Minh, which would later be known as the Viet Cong, was essentially a guerrilla army and that was both its weakness and its strength. The Viet Minh operated in small groups and were difficult to track. As such, organizing on a large scale, given the communications abilities of the day, was difficult. Which made attacking and defeating them difficult. This factor mixed with the densely forested, mountainous terrain made significant battlefield victories for the French almost impossible. Add in the intense desire for independence and it became clear the Viet Minh strategy would be to outlast French troops.

9 United States involvement in the First Indochina War was basically non-existent until 1950 and only then was its involvement dictated by factors that can only be considered be political. The factors would be known as the Cold War, a war where the main combatants never actually fought each other in battle but fought instead through subordinates and intermediaries. Ultimately, it was a political war. First, Ho Chi Minh made no secret about his Communist intentions. Mao Zedong had supplanted Chaing Kai-shek in China and turned it into a Communist country in 1949. Mao not only recognized Ho Chi Minh’s government in 1950 but supplied the Viet Minh with weapons, ammunition, medical supplies and virtually anything he needed to defeat the French. Second, and perhaps most alarming to the United States was when Stalin and the Soviet Union recognized Ho Chi Minh’s government. The Soviets armed and supported the Viet Minh but not to the extent that the Chinese did. Not long after Stalin and Mao recognized Minh, the United States and the United Kingdom recognized the Associated State of Vietnam based in Saigon with the former emperor Bao Dai as head of state. The Cold War had made its presence known domestically as well. On February 9, 1950 a previously unknown Republican Senator named Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin gave a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia and said there were Communists working in the State Department. McCarthy later expanded his accusations to include the Army and other government agencies thereby creating fear among many Americans that Communists were subverting the country.

10 In September 1950 President Truman announced that the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) would advise the French on how to use $10 million worth of military equipment supplied by the United States. The French were reluctant to accept the advice or the equipment as they saw it as an insult to their colonial role. By the time it was put to use, its effectiveness was limited. From 1951-1954 the United States role in Indochina was limited to the lending of aircraft carriers and aircrafts. This is not to imply that the United States was disinterested in the course of events. Rather, they had become engaged militarily in another part of Asia: Korea. In an eerily similar scenario to Vietnam, Communist-supported forces in the north fought Democratic-led forces in the south. It’s unknown how many actual Chinese forces were in North Korea (estimates range between 500,000 and 1,000,000) but at the height of the Korean Conflict, as it was known, the United States had 480,000 troops on the ground. The war ended in a stalemate on July 27, 1953. These wars by proxy such as the Korean War and the Indochina War gave rise to the Domino Theory as named by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954. The belief was that in the Cold War era the United States must fight regional wars and be victorious for if one country were to become Communist other countries around it would fall like dominoes to Communism. The First Indochina War culminated in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu which lasted from March through May 1954. Dien Bien Phu borders Laos in the northwest part of Vietnam. A tenth of the total French fighting force found themselves sealed in and were captured. The Viet Minh took heavy casualties but in relation to the French losses they were not considered marginal, but heroic.

11 In the United States, while the battle was ongoing, the Eisenhower Administration, did not publicly acknowledge any military support for the French beyond the limited naval and air support that was guaranteed in the Mutual Defense Assistance Act. Later, it was revealed that two American pilots were shot down and killed in support of the French. After the Viet Minh won the battle, the Geneva Conference finally gave Vietnam independence from France. Once again, however, the country was essentially divided into two, but this time it was along the 17th parallel.

The Geneva Conference was meant to be a temporary peace agreement until elections ultimately re-united the country. It should be noted that while the other world powers signed the Geneva agreements, the United States did not, which caused some to question their commitment to democracy and, therefore, peace in Vietnam. Until, the elections took place Ngo Dinh Diem was asked by the United States, via former emperor Bao Dai, to be the leader of the new country in the south, known as the Republic of Vietnam. Diem would be the United States’ proxy in Vietnam or South Vietnam as it would come to be called. Diem graduated from college in 1921 at the age of twenty and joined the civil service, rising quickly through the ranks. In 1933, Diem was appointed by the French to be Bao Dai’s minister. Three months into the position, Diem called for a Vietnamese legislature and the French stripped him of his title, threatening him with arrest.

12 Diem spent the next 21 years traveling the globe speaking out on behalf of Vietnamese freedom. When Ho Chi Minh came to power Diem denounced him. Upon hearing this Minh had Diem exiled and tortured and killed one of his brothers. For Diem, a Catholic and a man devoted to his family, this was a devastating blow. Diem was a professional intellectual. He had no known official job between his dismissal as interior minister in 1933 and becoming leader of Vietnam in 1954. He never married, was an avid gardener, meditated, read and went to church. Today, he might be considered an eccentric. Once Minh demanded Diem’s exile, Diem left Vietnam quietly in 1950 and tried to gather support, especially from the United States, for a free Vietnamese state. He met with one United States luminary after another. In 1951, he met with Secretary of State Dean Acheson, he earlier met with Cardinal Spellman in New York City. Later, he talked Asian policy with a fellow Catholic politician—John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts. From 1951-1954, Diem actually lived in a Spellman’s Maryknoll Seminary. He was also a consultant to Michigan State University. Then in June 1954 he returned to Vietnam. United States political experts were split in their opinions about Diem from the start. Some felt that his long-standing dedication to his country and consistent renunciations of Communism were admirable. While others were concerned that he was overly loyal to his family and considered him to be almost excessively religious—to the point where that if he believed in something that it must be God’s will. Diem’s biggest United States backer in 1954 was Edward Lansdale of the CIA. Lansdale had a keen feel for Vietnam and he understood the situation “in country” as well as anyone. He informed his boss, CIA chief Allen Dulles, that there would be an influx of

13 refugees from the North. Lansdale and members of the United States Navy then organized what became known as Operation Passage to Freedom. The vast majority of Vietnam’s Catholic population was in the North so this would provide a boost to Diem and undoubtedly help him when elections came in 1956. However, neither Lansdale, Dulles or Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (Allen’s older brother) could have anticipated the tidal wave of humanity that came from the north. Most figures estimate that one million people crossed into the south, approximately 60% of whom were believed to be Catholic. Seemingly overnight, in the eyes of America, Diem had gained legitimacy. While The United States didn’t ignore Vietnam during Eisenhower’s presidency but they did not commit anything beyond advisors and only interceded when they felt it was necessary. The reason for this may never be known. It could be a lack of belief in Diem, the inability to win an all-out war, the feeling that Vietnam was not critical in the fight over Communism or some combination of all of these. On the surface things may have seemed rosy to outsiders but the reality was quite different. Fears about Diem were realized in short order. He canceled the elections scheduled for 1956. He surrounded himself—some might say insulated—with his family members as advisors. He installed his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu as head of the secret police. Nhu’s wife, Madame Nhu, was named first lady. One brother was named archbishop to the city of Hue, another the mayor and given his own police force. Yet another brother was named Ambassador to the United Kingdom.

14 While the brothers turned the country into their personal fiefdom, Madame Nhu acted as the face of social reform. Brothels and gambling houses were closed. Divorce and prostitution were made illegal. Soon, the family was arresting potential rivals or threats to their power. Between 1954-1957 an estimated 50,000 dissidents were killed, many of them on religious grounds. Diem put down any attempt to organize a religion other than Catholicism. In August 1959, at Eisenhower’s insistence Diem was forced to have an election and form a national legislature. However, newspapers were not allowed to publish the names of candidates and in the rural areas candidates who ran were threatened to be communist sympathizers which was a crime punishable by death. Once again more people from the north were arriving, but this time were not nearly as sympathetic to Diem. They formed a loose coalition called the National Liberation Front (NLF) who later became known as the Viet Cong. They were dedicated communists committed to overthrowing Diem. They weren’t Diem’s only problem. Buddhist’s throughout the country were increasingly alienated and making their protestations known.

This was what waited for Kennedy. The public had started to hear about protests and lack of freedom in this far away country of Vietnam. Kennedy’s intelligence reports revealed a grim reality. Diem was essentially a dictator who had isolated himself from his own people. He built walls around himself with his own family and penetrating them proved exceedingly difficult. When the information came from people like Lansdale, who had supported Diem so greatly since 1954, it was especially discouraging. The only

15 government official who Diem actually met with during Kennedy’s tenure was Lyndon Johnson, then the Vice President in early 1961. Johnson’s report back to Kennedy was not reassuring. It confirmed what many had suggested, but Johnson added that there didn’t appear to be too many alternatives. After Johnson’s visit Kennedy sent 400 Army Special Forces to train the south against the Viet Cong. Diplomatically, politically, militarily—no matter, how he looked at it the situation was complicated. It became even messier in April 1961 for Kennedy with the Bay of Pigs fiasco—a CIA-led attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in communist Cuba that went horribly wrong. It was an international embarrassment for Kennedy and victory for Communists. He couldn’t afford another mistake. Fortunately for Kennedy—and the rest of mankind—he was able to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis with the Soviet Union in October 1962. While those two events balanced each other out, their effect on the events in Vietnam is debatable. Like every president, Kennedy had an official cabinet; Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State, Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense and McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Advisor were the key figures when it came to Vietnam. But Kennedy, as is the case with most presidents, had an informal cadre of advisors who he counted on. Foremost among them on Vietnam was his brother Robert, the Attorney General, Walt Rostow, who was technically an assistant to Bundy, and Maxwell Taylor a highly regarded retired general.

16 Robert Kennedy was a clinical thinker. He saw points of view that others might miss and Kennedy believed that his brother could suggest possibilities or outcomes that others with far more experience might overlook. Rostow was very much a Cold Warrior. He believed the United States should have militarily supported the French at the Battle Dienbienphu. He also believed that the United States had the ultimate weapon in its Air Force, which was so technologically advanced that it could overcome any obstacle geographical or otherwise. He was aggressive and had called for sending as many as 25,000 troops near the Laos-Vietnam border. Taylor was not a typical military man. When Kennedy asked him to join his staff Taylor was the President of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Not many generals have held that title. His official title was Special Military Representative which Kennedy allowed him to create out of respect. He was forward thinking and believed that the future of warfare was guerrilla warfare or precisely the type that would take place in Vietnam. No large battles won, but only small victories and crushing defeats. So it was that in October of 1961 that Rostow and Taylor went to Vietnam on behalf of Kennedy to file a report and ultimately make recommendations. When the two men came back and said that 8,000 troops would be required to stabilize the deteriorating situation in Vietnam, Kennedy was stunned. He didn’t expect this from Taylor. Rostow expertly pointed out how vulnerable North Vietnam would be to air raids but admitted that the jungles in the South would be problematic.

17 Politically, Rostow and Taylor said the only way to make progress with Diem was to somehow separate him from his family and it was plain to see that this was not going to happen. One of the first major initiatives was the Strategic Hamlet Program, which was a plan to allow thousands of South Vietnamese to communicate with other for the purposes of being notified of Viet Cong movements in their area. It was also a way to circumvent dealing with Diem and the inefficiency of his government. The program never really took hold because many residents needed to be displaced to new villages for the program to work and resented being moved, especially by foreigners. In February of 1962, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) was created to assist the south in its military efforts against the Viet Cong. This was a direct result of Rostow and Taylor’s report. At the start 700 troops were assigned to the area. By the time of Kennedy’s death there are 12,000. By the middle of 1962 diplomatic ties were virtually non-existent with Diem. The situation in Vietnam slowly deteriorated resulting in additional troops being sent by the United States. As far as Kennedy was concerned a turning took place in the spring and summer of 1963. On May 8th , 1963 nine unarmed Buddhists were killed in the city of Hue, where Diem’s brother was the Archbishop. A month later on June 11th, in the main streets of Saigon a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death in protest of treatment by the Diem governemt. In September, Kennedy publicly criticized Diem for the first time, saying he is out of touch with his people and needs to step down as leader. Two months later, on

18 November 2, with the United States approval, Diem and Nhu were ousted from office and executed. Exactly three weeks later Kennedy himself was assassinated while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Lyndon Johnson took over as President, The United States military presence in Vietnam increased steadily while Johnson was in office.

At what point the chain of events that led to over 58,000 Americans being killed actually began will never be clear. What is clear, however, is that long before a single shot was fired at a United States soldier in Vietnam someone had to think of a reason to put him there. The guiding philosophy seems to have been that South Vietnam was the enemy of our enemy (Soviet Union and its friend, North Vietnam). Equally clear is that there were plenty of opportunities for men of responsibility and in positions of leadership to keep that soldier out of the jungles and rice patties that hid the friend of our enemy.


Bibiography Baritz, Loren. 1985. Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did. New York. Walter Morrow and Company, Inc. Cima, Ronald J. ed. 1989. Vietnam: A Country Study. Washington. United States Government as represented by the Secretary of the Army Diem, Bui. 1987. In the Jaws of History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Donovan, Robert J. 1984. Nemesis: Truman and Johnson in the Coils of War in Asia. New York. St. Martins/Marek Doyle, Edward, Weiss, Stephen and the editors of Boston Publishing Company. 1984. The Vietnam Experience: A Collision of Cultures. Boston. Boston Publishing Company Halberstam, David. 1972. The Best and the Brightest. New York. Fawcett Crest. Kahn, George McT. 1986. Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. Lederer, William J. 1968. Our Own Worst Enemy. New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. McNamara, Robert S. 1995. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York. Random House. Newman, Bernard. 1965. Background to Vietnam. New York. Roy Publishers. Newman, John M. 1992. JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue and the Struggle for Power. New York. Warner Books. Roy, Jules. 1965. The Battle of Dienbienphu. New York. Harper & Row. ***Note*** -all facts checked by at least two sources from above texts.