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Political Boundaries in World History

The Division of the Middle East

The Treaty of Sèvres

The Iron Curtain

The Cold War in Europe

The Mason–Dixon Line

Vietnam: The 17th Parallel

Korea: The 38th Parallel

The U.S.–Mexico Border

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
Political Boundaries in World History

The 17th Parallel

Robert C. Cottrell

Foreword by
Senator George J. Mitchell

Introduction by
James I. Matray
California State University, Chico
Dedicated to Sue and Jordan

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Foreword by Senator George J. Mitchell vi

Introduction by James I. Matray ix

1 Geneva, 1954 1

2 Vietnamese History 13

3 French Colonization 22

4 Vietnamese Resistance 32

5 Vietnam at War 46

6 The French Indochina War 55

7 Dienbienphu 68

8 A Divided Vietnam 79

9 The Americanization of the War 94

10 War’s End and the Aftermath 110

Chronology and Timeline 121

Source Notes 124

Bibliography 127

Further Reading 129

Index 133
Senator George J. Mitchell

I spent years working for peace in Northern Ireland and in the Middle
East. I also made many visits to the Balkans during the long and vio-
lent conflict there.
Each of the three areas is unique; so is each conflict. But there are also
some similarities: in each, there are differences over religion, national
identity, and territory.
Deep religious differences that lead to murderous hostility are com-
mon in human history. Competing aspirations involving national iden-
tity are more recent occurrences, but often have been just as deadly.
Territorial disputes—two or more people claiming the same land—are
as old as humankind. Almost without exception, such disputes have been
a factor in recent conflicts. It is impossible to calculate the extent to which
the demand for land—as opposed to religion, national identity, or other
factors— figures in the motivation of people caught up in conflict. In my
experience it is a substantial factor that has played a role in each of the
three conflicts mentioned above.
In Northern Ireland and the Middle East, the location of the border
was a major factor in igniting and sustaining the conflict. And it is
memorialized in a dramatic and visible way: through the construction of
large walls whose purpose is to physically separate the two communities.
In Belfast, the capital and largest city in Northern Ireland, the so-called
“Peace Line” cuts through the heart of the city, right across urban streets.
Up to thirty feet high in places, topped with barbed wire in others, it is
an ugly reminder of the duration and intensity of the conflict.
In the Middle East, as I write these words, the government of Israel has
embarked on a huge and controversial effort to construct a security fence
roughly along the line that separates Israel from the West Bank.

Having served a tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Berlin, which was
once the site of the best known of modern walls, I am skeptical of their
long-term value, although they often serve short-term needs. But it can-
not be said that such structures represent a new idea. Ancient China
built the Great Wall to deter nomadic Mongol tribes from attacking its
In much the same way, other early societies established boundaries and
fortified them militarily to achieve the goal of self-protection. Borders
always have separated people. Indeed, that is their purpose.
This series of books examines the important and timely issue of the
significance of arbitrary borders in history. Each volume focuses atten-
tion on a territorial division, but the analytical approach is more com-
prehensive. These studies describe arbitrary borders as places where
people interact differently from the way they would if the boundary did
not exist. This pattern is especially pronounced where there is no geo-
graphic reason for the boundary and no history recognizing its legiti-
macy. Even though many borders have been defined without legal
precision, governments frequently have provided vigorous monitoring
and military defense for them.
This series will show how the migration of people and exchange of
goods almost always work to undermine the separation that borders seek
to maintain. The continuing evolution of a European community pro-
vides a contemporary example illustrating this point, most obviously
with the adoption of a single currency. Moreover, even former Soviet bloc
nations have eliminated barriers to economic and political integration.
Globalization has emerged as one of the most powerful forces in inter-
national affairs during the twenty-first century. Not only have markets
for the exchange of goods and services become genuinely worldwide, but
instant communication and sharing of information have shattered old
barriers separating people. Some scholars even argue that globalization
has made the entire concept of a territorial nation-state irrelevant.
Although the assertion is certainly premature and probably wrong, it
highlights the importance of recognizing how borders often have
reflected and affirmed the cultural, ethnic, or linguistic perimeters that
define a people or a country.
Since the Cold War ended, competition over resources or a variety of
interests threaten boundaries more than ever, resulting in contentious

interaction, conflict, adaptation, and intermixture. How people define

their borders is also a factor in determining how events develop in the
surrounding region. This series will provide detailed descriptions of
selected arbitrary borders in history with the objective of providing
insights on how artificial boundaries separating people will influence
international affairs during the next century.

Senator George J. Mitchell

October 2003
James I. Matray
California State University, Chico

T hroughout history, borders have separated people. Scholars have

devoted considerable attention to assessing the significance and
impact of territorial boundaries on the course of human history, explain-
ing how they often have been sources of controversy and conflict. In the
modern age, the rise of nation-states in Europe created the need for gov-
ernments to negotiate treaties to confirm boundary lines that periodi-
cally changed as a consequence of wars and revolutions. European
expansion in the nineteenth century imposed new borders on Africa and
Asia. Many native peoples viewed these boundaries as arbitrary and, after
independence, continued to contest their legitimacy. At the end of both
world wars in the twentieth century, world leaders drew artificial and
impermanent lines separating assorted people around the globe. Borders
certainly are among the most important factors that have influenced the
development of world affairs.
Chelsea House Publishers decided to publish a collection of books
looking at arbitrary borders in history in response to the revival of the
nuclear crisis in North Korea in October 2002. Recent tensions on the
Korean peninsula are a direct consequence of the partitioning of Korea at
the 38th parallel after World War II. Other nations in the course of
human history have suffered due to similar artificial divisions. The rea-
sons for establishing arbitrary borders have differed, but usually arise
from either domestic or international factors and are often a combina-
tion of both. In the case of Korea, it was the United States and the Soviet
Union who decided in August 1945 to partition the country at the 38th
parallel. Ostensibly, the purpose was to facilitate the acceptance of the

surrender of Japanese forces at the end of World War II. However, histo-
rians have presented persuasive evidence that a political contest existed
inside Korea to decide the future of the nation after forty years of
Japanese colonial rule. Therefore, Korea’s division at the 38th parallel was
an artificial boundary that symbolized the split among the Korean peo-
ple about the nation’s destiny. On the right were conservative landown-
ers who had closely aligned with the Japanese, many of whom were
outright collaborators. On the left, there were far more individuals who
favored revolutionary change. In fact, Communists provided the leader-
ship and direction for the independence movement inside Korea from
the 1920s until the end of World War II. After 1945, two Koreas emerged
that reflected these divergent ideologies. But the Korean people have
never accepted the legitimacy or permanence of the division imposed by
foreign powers.
Korea’s experience in dealing with the artificial division of its country
may well be unique, but it is not without historical parallels. The first set
of books in this series on arbitrary borders examines six key chapters in
human history. One volume will look at the history of the 38th parallel in
Korea. Other volumes will provide description and analysis of the division
of the Middle East after World War I; the Cold War as symbolized by the
Iron Curtain in Central Europe; the United States.-Mexico Border; the
17th parallel in Vietnam, and the Mason-Dixon Line. Future books will
address the Great Wall in China, Northern Ireland’s border, and the Green
Line in Israel. Admittedly, there are many significant differences between
these boundaries, but these books will cover as many common themes as
possible. In so doing, each will help readers conceptualize how factors
such as colonialism, culture, and economics determine the nature of con-
tact between people along these borders. Although globalization has
emerged as a powerful force working against the creation and mainte-
nance of lines separating people, boundaries are not likely to disappear as
factors with a continuing influence on world events. This series of books
will provide insights about the impact of arbitrary borders on human his-
tory and how such borders continue to shape the modern world.

James I. Matray
Chico, California
November 2003


A fter ten weeks of prolonged negotiations, the delegates

in Geneva finally devised a solution to bring the French
Indochina War to a close. In the fashion of the Hebrew King
Solomon or the Allies, wrestling with Korea as World War II
ended, they agreed to a temporary partition of Vietnam.
The dividing line—an arbitrary border—was the 17th par-
allel, near the country’s midsection, less than 100 miles
north of the ancient capital of Hue. This meant that the
French provinces of Tonkin and Cochinchina would be
controlled by the communist-led Democratic Republic of
Vietnam and the anticommunist State of Vietnam, respec-
tively. The third province, Annam, was also virtually split in
half, although more territory was placed under the control
of the State of Vietnam than under that of the Democratic
Republic of Vietnam. The expectation was that Vietnam
would be reunified after national elections that were to be
held within two years.
As it turned out, however, the 17th parallel, like the 38th in
Korea, long separated parties on either side of the line while
serving as a battleground for the Cold War fight that raged in
Vietnam and throughout the world. In each instance, drawing
an artificial border in no way ensured that further hostilities
would be avoided.
Despite seven and a half years of continuous warfare, the
French Indochina conflict had remained deadlocked as the
summer of 1954 approached. That spring, the French fortress
at Dienbienphu, in the northwestern sector of Vietnam near
the border with Laos, along with more than 10,000 soldiers, fell
to Vietminh forces led by General Vo Nguyen Giap. The
Vietminh, who had suffered far greater losses at Dienbienphu,
continued to harass French soldiers and those associated with
the State of Vietnam throughout the countryside. Nevertheless,
the French remained in control of large urban centers, includ-
ing Hanoi in the north, Hue and Danang in the country’s mid-
section, and Saigon in the south. Still, the defeat at
Dienbienphu was noteworthy: it was arguably the first such
Geneva, 1954 3

setback Western powers had experienced in dealing with Asian

revolutionaries in modern times.
Worries that the war in Southeast Asia could spread had led
some of the great powers, including the United States, England,
France, and the Soviet Union, to call for a conference in Geneva,
Switzerland, to discuss events in Indochina. A Five-Power
Conference, which also included China, had begun in April and
was intended to tackle issues related to two divided hot spots:
Berlin and Korea. Representatives from the Five-Power coun-
tries gathered in Geneva, along with others from Cambodia,
Laos, the State of Vietnam, and the communist Democratic
Republic of Vietnam. Indian delegates were also present,
although India, a country that tried to carve out a middle path

The Geneva conference on Indochina opened on May 8, 1954. After 10 weeks of negotia-
tion, the parties agreed to a temporary partition of Vietnam. The expectation was that
Vietnam would be reunited following national elections to be held within two years. That
expectation was never to be realized.

during the Cold War, had not received an official invitation to

attend the conference.
The gathering began on May 8, the day following the surren-
der of the French garrison at Dienbienphu after a nearly two-
month-long siege. France’s position appeared weak, with one
diplomat indicating that the French arrived in Geneva with a
“two of clubs and a three of diamonds.”1 That European coun-
try, which had suffered German occupation of its divided home-
land during World War II, attempted to recoup wounded
national pride by retaining colonial possessions such as Vietnam
and Algeria as the postwar era unfolded. After long years of
struggle, however, the war in Indochina produced only more
casualties, mounting opposition at home, and a lack of resolution
in the field. The refusal of the United States to intervene at
Dienbienphu had ensured the French defeat. Nevertheless,
Georges Bidault, who led the French delegation in Geneva,
sought a military cease-fire that would enable France to retain the
southern portion of Vietnam, the area known as Cochinchina.
The French position increasingly appeared desperate.
The United States, on the other hand, stood as the preeminent
world leader, having won a great amount of good will because of
its fight against the Axis Powers—Japan, Italy, and Germany—
during World War II. America’s apparent support for decolo-
nization also was well received in many corners of the globe,
including Southeast Asia. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had
spoken of the need to terminate French rule in the region. The
development of the Cold War, however, led many American pol-
icymakers to insist that aggression in Indochina, which leaders
such as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles blamed on the
Vietminh, must be halted. Consequently, Dulles was determined
not to allow the Geneva Conference to relinquish any territory
to Ho Chi Minh.
Dulles, in fact, had been concerned about the possibility of
U.S. involvement at Geneva. The very appearance of American
representatives, he feared, might be viewed as amounting to U.S.
recognition of Communist China, something the staunchly
Geneva, 1954 5

anti-communist Dulles opposed. Dulles, biographer Townsend

Hoopes indicated, therefore displayed in Geneva the “pinched
distaste of a puritan in a house of ill repute.”2 He refused to take
the hand offered in greeting by Zhou Enlai, China’s foreign min-
ister. Dulles muttered that he might run into Zhou if they were
in a car crash together, but he clearly had no intention of dis-
playing cordiality. Above all, Dulles insisted that the whole of
Indochina not fall to communist control.
On the evening of May 10, President Eisenhower met with
Dulles and Admiral Arthur Radford, chairman of the U.S. Joint
Chiefs of Staff. The president told Dulles to consider possible
military solutions for Indochina and to produce a joint resolution
that could be sent to Congress to request authorization to send
American troops into battle. As it turned out, General Matthew
Ridgway, the army chief of staff, had ordered a study of military
possibilities in Vietnam the previous year. The report indicated
that anywhere between half a million and a million soldiers would
be required, that conditions difficult in Korea would be worse still
in Vietnam because of the jungle terrain and monsoon seasons;
and furthermore, that the Vietnamese people, with their lengthy
heritage of nationalism, would hardly support an American cam-
paign. The drawing of an arbitrary border had seemed to resolve
the Korean conflict, and American policymakers envisioned a
similar solution for Vietnam. That approach, they hoped, would
avoid the loss of American lives or financial resources.
The Americans were hardly the only reluctant or less-than-
gracious participants in Geneva. The Vietminh wanted no deal-
ings with officials from the State of Vietnam, which was still led
by the former Emperor Bao Dai, and did not willingly meet with
the French, either. In an unrealistic demand, Bao Dai insisted
that Vietnam be unified under his control, and the Vietnamese
communists reasoned that their successes in the battlefield
entitled them to control the entire nation. Concerned about
the intentions of Pham Van Dong, who represented the
Democratic Republic of Vietnam, both Laos and Cambodia
feared that the Vietminh sought to dominate all of Indochina.

The French and the Americans distrusted one another, and the
Americans considered the British, who favored an artificial divi-
sion of Vietnam and wished to operate as peacemakers, too
weak. The Russians and the Chinese appeared mutually hostile
to one another, disproving the notion that all communists acted
in unison. Moreover, Zhou Enlai, drawing on a careful reading
of history, was opposed to the idea of a unified Vietnam,
whether placed under colonial or Vietnamese rule. At the same
time, he wanted to keep the United States out of Indochina and
avoid a repetition of the Korean War, in which the Chinese suf-
fered a million casualties. The Soviets, experiencing increasingly
strained relations with China, hoped for improved dealings with
the United States and adopted a less belligerent stance. Still,
British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden acknowledged that he
had never before encountered diplomatic maneuvering of this
sort: “The parties would not make direct contact, and we were in
constant danger of one or another backing out the door.”3
The United States apparently had little desire or few hopes that
a peaceful resolution of the conflict without communist control
over all of Indochina could be achieved in Geneva. Secretary of
State Dulles fired off instructions to the U.S. delegation on May
12, ordering them, in effect, not to deal with representatives
from China or other governments that the United States refused
to recognize. Dulles also ordered American delegates to present
themselves as representatives of an “interested nation” only, not
as a “belligerent or a principal.” American participation in
Geneva, Dulles continued, resulted from a desire to help nations
in Southeast Asia “peacefully to enjoy territorial integrity and
political independence under stable and free governments.” The
United States remained adverse to peoples in those countries
being “amalgamated into the Communist bloc of imperialistic
dictatorship.” Furthermore, the United States opposed any
action that would result in the subverting of “the existing lawful
governments” of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.4
Pham Van Dong continued to press the case of the Democratic
Republic of Vietnam, demanding that a political settlement
Geneva, 1954 7

resulting in a withdrawal of French forces and enabling the

Vietnamese to chart their own course be arrived at first. At the
same time, he called for the Pathet Lao and the Free Khmer
guerrilla forces, backed by the Vietminh in Laos and Cambodia,
respectively, to be accorded legal recognition and allowed to
remain in control of the land they dominated.
Only a week and a half into the conference, however, a Chinese
deputy informed a French delegate that his nation was deter-
mined to help bring about peace in the region and to avoid sup-
porting the Vietminh. Zhou Enlai soon told both Eden and the
French diplomat, Georges Bidault, that he did not favor
Vietminh control of bordering states. By some accounts, Zhou
also warned Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader of the
Democratic Republic of Vietnam, that Chinese economic assis-
tance would be decreased unless the Vietminh adopted a more
conciliatory tone in Geneva.
On June 17, Pierre Mendes-France, recently named prime
minister of France, promised the French National Assembly that
he would strive to bring the war in Indochina to an end. In fact,
he informed those in attendance, “My government will give
itself—and its adversaries—four weeks.... If no satisfactory solu-
tion can be achieved by then, I will resign.”5 Mendes-France
asked for help from U.S. Undersecretary of State Walter Bedell
Smith, suggesting that the Americans convince the Vietnamese
“that they would be wise to accept the French agreement with
the Vietminh as the best agreement obtainable.”6 The appoint-
ment of Mendes-France as the French head of state caused
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to advise President
Eisenhower that the new French leader “has made up his mind
to clear out on the best terms available.” Given France’s past
reliance on “untrustworthy local troops,” Churchill continued, “I
think he is right.”7 Churchill then suggested the formation of a
military alliance for Southeast Asia similar to the one founded in
1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which
the United States, Canada, and a number of Western European
states had joined. Dulles liked this idea because he thought that
such an alliance could help “keep freedom alive.”8

Zhou Enlai informed a surprised Mendes-France that he

thought “two Vietnams” might result from the conference. At the
same time, he worried about the heightening of U.S. involve-
ment in the region and insisted that his country sought only
peace, held “no other ambitions [and] poses no conditions.”9
Dulles, on the other hand, worried that both Laos and
Cambodia, along with southern Vietnam, might soon come
under Communist domination.
In the midst of the negotiations in Geneva, American diplo-
mat Rob McClintock informed the U.S. State Department of the
deterioration of relations between the French and leading fig-
ures representing the State of Vietnam. McClintock called par-
ticular attention to the agitated reaction of Ngo Dinh Diem,
selected as prime minister of the State of Vietnam, and his
brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, to French actions. As McClintock
pointed out, Diem displayed “a curious blend of heroism mixed
with a narrowness of view and of egotism which will make him
a difficult man to deal with.” To McClintock, Diem was “a mes-
siah without a message. His only formulated policy is to ask
immediate American assistance in every form including refugee
relief, training of troops and armed military intervention.”10
Ho Chi Minh’s analysis of the situation in his homeland was
equally charged. In a report to the Vietnam Workers’ Party
Central Committee, delivered on July 15, Ho applauded “the
heroism of our armed forces and people,” in addition to “the
fraternal countries and the world’s people” that had provided
assistance to the resistance struggle. Ho condemned the contra-
dictory nature of U.S.-led imperialism and dismissed Ngo Dinh
Diem as an American puppet. He denounced the call for an
American-sponsored military alliance for Southeast Asia, claim-
ing that it would compel Asians to fight against other Asians.
American imperialism, Ho accused, was the greatest threat to
world peace.11
One of the most contentious matters confronting the represen-
tatives gathered in Geneva involved the question of where to tem-
porarily divide Vietnam through the establishment of a border.
Geneva, 1954 9

Under the terms of the Geneva Accord, the partition at the 17th parallel provided the
Vietminh with the richest section of Vietnam, including control over Hanoi. Shown here in a
picture taken on October 9, 1954, barefoot children run into the streets to welcome the com-
munist Vietminh troops.

Ho Chi Minh’s representatives demanded that the division

acknowledge the Vietminh’s military success, be temporary only,
and lead to elections reunifying the nation within six months. At
a bare minimum, they insisted that the division be drawn at the
13th parallel, only 100 miles north of Saigon. Equally recalci-
trant, the French called for the separation to occur at the 18th
parallel, just south of Vinh; the French ultimately accepted the
17th parallel, only miles north of Quang Tri, Khe Sanh, and Hue,
as the dividing point. After Chinese pressure was brought to
bear, Ho agreed to accept the French proposal that the country
be divided at the 17th parallel. Referring to Zhou Enlai, an infu-
riated Pham Van Dong charged, “He has double-crossed us.”12

American journalists worried that the partition at the 17th par-

allel provided the Vietminh with the richest section of Vietnam,
including control over Hanoi and the Red River Delta. Newsweek
magazine fretted, like many American policymakers, about the
loss of 12 million people, along with “another 75,000 square
miles of ... rich, rice-producing territory” to communist con-
trol.13 The South, the magazine noted, was headed by “divided
and demoralized” forces, possessed a weaker army than that of
the Vietminh, and had “always been more favorable to Ho Chi
Minh than the North.”14
Despite the hostile attitudes of the American and Vietnamese
delegates, the Geneva Conference produced accords during the
late evening of July 20 and the early morning hours of July 21,
just in time to prevent the fall of Mendes-France’s government.
The final declaration noted the end of hostilities throughout
Southeast Asia. This would supposedly enable Cambodia, Laos,
and Vietnam “to play their part, in full independence and sover-
eignty, in the peaceful community of nations.”15 The govern-
ments of Cambodia and Laos agreed to hold general elections in
1955, and similar elections were slated for Vietnam in July 1956.
Other agreements included a prohibition against foreign troops,
arms, and munitions being imported into Vietnam. In addition,
there was to be no establishment of a military base controlled by
a foreign state and no military alliances drawn with other
nation-states. The Conference acknowledged that “the military
demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be
interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary.”16
Undersecretary of State Smith confirmed that his government
was not prepared to offer full support for the agreement. Rather,
the United States delivered its own interpretation of the accords.
It would view “with grave concern” any violation of the provi-
sions devised by the Conference, the American government
warned.17 Britain’s Anthony Eden dismissed the American
response as “unreasonable.”18 On July 22, Ngo Dinh Diem con-
demned the decision to cede “to the Communists all the north
and more than four provinces of the central part” of Vietnam.
Geneva, 1954 11

Diem refused to accept what he called “the seizure by Soviet

China—through its satellite the Vietminh—of over half of our
national territory.”19
That day, Dulles told a gathering of the National Security
Council in Washington, D.C., that the Vietminh had elected to
compromise; the Vietminh believed that they would gradually
obtain what they really desired. Allen Dulles, director of the
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the brother of the
Secretary of State, worried that Diem faced a host of problems in
South Vietnam, where, he pointed out, the partition had made
the French highly unpopular.
The Geneva Accords resolved little, in the end, by setting up an
arbitrary border at the 17th parallel. The agreement amounted
to, as Canadian diplomat John Holmes indicated, a “nasty bar-
gain accepted by all parties as the only way to avoid a dangerous
confrontation.”20 Still unresolved were the very issues that had
produced the French Indochina War, and both the United States
and the State of Vietnam expressed considerable misgivings
about the actual agreement. Nevertheless, the Eisenhower
administration, undoubtedly recalling developments in Korea,
reasoned that the temporary partition provided a chance to
create a viable anticommunist government in the area south of
the 17th parallel. Also fortunate, from the perspective of
Secretary of State Dulles, was the fact that the accords allowed
both Laos and Cambodia to emerge as independent states.
Moreover, Dulles recognized that the demands of the commu-
nist representatives had hardly been unreasonable given the
communists’ position on the battlefield. Such a development
had taken place, Dulled rationalized, because of concerns that
failing to placate the United States would increase the possibil-
ity of a larger war unfolding.
The Vietminh and the French were not thoroughly pleased
with the accords, either. The Vietminh seethed that their mili-
tary triumphs had not been matched by successes in the diplo-
matic realm while still anticipating that reunification elections
would enable them to establish control over all of Vietnam. The

French continued to hope that French rule in southern

Vietnam, particularly in Saigon and the Mekong Valley, could be
maintained. Thus, the setting of an arbitrary border at the 17th
parallel hardly settled long-standing issues relating to
Vietnamese nationalism and attempts by other states to establish
control over Vietnam.


A rcheological discoveries indicate that Vietnam was inhab-

ited possibly half a million years ago. People on Vietnamese
soil may have employed agricultural techniques 9,000 years in
the past in a way few others did at that time. Approximately
3,000 years ago, the Red River Delta boasted a sophisticated civ-
ilization rooted in wet rice production and trade with other peo-
ples. Soon, the kingdom of Van Lang, whose Hong Bang Dynasty
existed for more than two millennia, emerged. Eventually
dwelling in the southern section of the Red River Delta were the
Lac Viet, who joined with other groups of Viet peoples to estab-
lish the government of Au Lac, an aristocratic and agriculturally
based state whose capital was situated in the north at Co Lao,
close to the Chinese border.
Dynastic struggles in neighboring China led to the formation of
the kingdom of Vietnam (or Nam Viet), with its capital of Canton,
by Chinese General Chao T’o. The general, whose name in
Vietnamese was Trieu Da, crushed the military forces of Au Lac,
taking control of the Red River area. After his death, the Han
Dynasty, from China, vanquished Vietnam in 111 B.C., making it
part of the Chinese empire. Almost immediately, it became clear
that the Vietnamese were not willing to accept such external con-
trol, no matter the territorial borders involved. This was especially
true if others attempted to build arbitrary borders for Vietnam.
Initially, China remained content to allow local tribal figures
to maintain control of Vietnam. As the Common Era (the period
dating to the birth of Jesus Christ) began, however, Chinese
immigration into Vietnam mounted, as did the appearance of
Chinese administrators. Those officials attempted to introduce
more Chinese practices and institutions in a deliberate effort to
transform Vietnam, which they considered backward. The
Chinese incorporated new agricultural techniques, relying on
plows and draft animals to cultivate rice paddies. They also used
advanced irrigation and flood control systems. Such changes
increased food production and resulted in a population boom.
The Vietnamese themselves employed an intricate system of
dams, dikes, and canals to take advantage of the Red River.
Vietnamese History 15

Despite the economic and technological improvements ush-

ered in by the Chinese, the Vietnamese demonstrated a reluc-
tance to accept political domination by their northern
neighbors. In the year 39, Trung Trac and her sister, Trung Nhi,
spearheaded a temporarily successful uprising against Chinese
rule. As defeat approached, rather than submit to the Chinese,
the sisters drowned themselves in a river. Over the course of the
next several centuries, other revolts took place, drawing on the
legend of the two women who had battled against a mighty
imperial force.
Despite repeated stirrings of Vietnamese nationalism that sug-
gested the need for national borders, China held onto Vietnam for
a full millennium. The Chinese set up a mandarin system to run
the government bureaucracy by appointing a group of
Vietnamese landlords to relatively low-level administrative posi-
tions. Serving as public officials or civil servants, these adminis-
trators (mandarins) began to adopt the dialect and style of the
Chinese, who viewed the Vietnamese as barbarians. In the villages,
Chinese rituals and practices supplanted those of the Vietnamese,
and the educational system drew from Confucian works, which
emphasized the need for social loyalty and obedience. Still, the
majority of Vietnamese held to the older customs and ways,
ensuring a divide between the countryside and provincial towns.
With the passage of time, Vietnamese mandarins grew
increasingly resentful of Chinese hegemony (dominance).
Finally, they aligned with peasants, who were suffering from
crushing taxation, to revolt against their Chinese overlords. This
occurred in the tenth century, when the T’ang Dynasty was
increasingly in disarray. In A.D. 939, the Vietnamese, guided by
Ngo Quyen, ousted the Chinese, and the reestablished state of
Nam Viet refused to pay tribute to China. Early in the following
century, the Ly Dynasty emerged and soon pushed Vietnamese
boundaries southward beyond the Red River Delta. All the while,
the Vietnamese called on Confucian practices to help centralize
government. The economy thrived, too, thanks to agricultural
pursuits, commercial transactions, and handicrafts.

In the late thirteenth century, the Tran Dynasty—which had

supplanted another Vietnamese dynasty, the Ly—faced a grow-
ing threat from Mongols who had created a new Chinese
dynasty. In a display of resistance, the Vietnamese twice held
back the powerful Mongol invaders. Leading the defense of his
homeland was the Vietnamese hero Tran Hung Dao. In 1407,
Vietnam suffered another assault by the Chinese, this time trig-
gered by the Ming Dynasty, which was angered by the
Vietnamese refusal to pay tribute. Although the Chinese army
prevailed, the reign lasted only two decades and faced continu-
ous Vietnamese guerrilla activity. In 1428, Le Loi, who had
recently proclaimed himself king, forced a Chinese withdrawal
after relying on guerrilla strikes. A famous Vietnamese poem
heralded the triumph:

Henceforth our country is safe.

Our mountains and rivers begin life afresh.
Peace follows war as day follows night.
We have purged our shame for a thousand centuries.
We have regained tranquility for ten thousand generations.21

The new emperor undertook a series of major changes in

Vietnamese society, including the redistribution of the land of
large estate holders who had supported the Chinese. Peasants
were provided with land, had their rents reduced, and saw legal
restrictions lightened. The Le bureaucracy increased the reliance
on Confucian tenets, and the Hong Duc Code helped establish
the principle of rule of law.
The Le Dynasty also continued a hard-fought battle with the
Indianized kingdom of Champa, which flourished in Vietnam’s
central highlands until the sixteenth century. Gradually, the
Vietnamese proceeded southward, eventually taking control of
the Cham capital at Vijaya in 1471. That development, coupled
with the weakening of the Le Dynasty, led to a new struggle for
power that pitted the Trinh family against the Nguyen family.
The Trinh became dominant in the North, and the Nguyen con-
trolled the South, moving to extend Vietnamese control
Vietnamese History 17

throughout the Mekong Delta. As the Khmer empire of Angkor

weakened in Cambodia, the migration of farmers into newly
acquired territories cemented Vietnamese dominance.
Over the course of four centuries, the Vietnamese conducted a
long march southward, seeking more land to provide for their
growing population. It was increasingly clear that Vietnamese
nationalists were unwilling to accept any arbitrary borders that
prevented their takeover of the entire landscape all the way south
to the South China Sea. Section by section, the movement con-
tinued, with the Vietnamese establishing settlements along the
way. The Vietnamese cultivated rice until food supplies were
depleted, before moving onto the next river valley.
With the completion of the long march southward, Vietnam
extended more than 1,200 miles from north to south in an “S”
or snakelike fashion. Potentially rich rice-bearing deltas existed
along the Red River in the North and the Mekong River in the
South, and extensive mountain chains coursed over the national
landscape. Most of Vietnam was forested or covered by jungle,
with pockets of ethnic tribes residing on highlands.
The expansion of Vietnam continued until the close of the
eighteenth century, which coincided with another dynastic
struggle pitting the Nguyen family against the Trinh. This con-
flict concluded with the triumph of Prince Nguyen Anh, who
came to be known as the Emperor Gia Long. The emperor took
control of Hanoi and set up his capital in Hue, located along
Vietnam’s central coastline nearly 50 miles from what became
the 17th parallel. Gia Long governed in the typical fashion of
many Vietnamese leaders, cementing his reign over the country
as a whole while acceding to local control provided that his rule
was unquestioned. That was in keeping with the Vietnamese tra-
dition of having imperial rule stop at the village gate. At the
same time, Gia Long clearly appeared to possess the requisite
“mandate of heaven,” or approval from divine forces. This pow-
erful Confucian concept was derived from the Chinese, who
believed, as did the Vietnamese, that a ruler’s hold on power
could be lost if corruption or despotism prevailed or if there
were a failure to attend to the people’s basic needs.

Gia Long possessed an insular attitude about Vietnamese
involvement with the West, but he did allow French missionaries
to remain in Vietnam. The French were not the first Westerners to
come to Southeast Asia: a Portuguese ship had landed in Malaya
in the early sixteenth century. Within a matter of decades, Spanish,
Dutch, French, and English seamen could be found on the Indian
Ocean and the South China Sea. Some Westerners came to trade
with the people of the region, and others were determined to con-
duct missionary enterprises. The first Western ship to appear in
Vietnam landed in 1535, when a Portuguese boat headed into the
Bay of Danang. Shortly thereafter, Portugal established a trading
station in Faifo (later called Hoi An), just south of Danang.
By the early seventeenth century, additional European trading
posts could be found along the seaboard. That period also saw
the first group of Jesuit missionaries—fresh from the Portuguese
colony in Macao—arrive in Faifo. Within a short while, however,
French churchmen, led by Alexander of Rhodes, began to sup-
plant the Portuguese. That scholar’s impact on Vietnamese his-
tory was considerable because he trained Vietnamese to become
Catholic priests and introduced the Roman alphabet to
Vietnam. These endeavors became controversial as concerns
spread that Catholicism endangered Confucian principles and
even allegiance to Vietnamese rulers. Edicts barred proselytizing
by Christians; many missionaries faced expulsion, and some suf-
fered an even harsher fate.
For a period, European involvement in Vietnam slackened
noticeably, but the dynastic squabbles of the latter stages of the
eighteenth century again afforded an opportunity for the French
to make inroads. The backing of a French bishop, Pigneau de
Behaine, helped bring about the defeat of the Trinh.
Nevertheless, Gia Long refused to give the French preferred
trade relations, as would his successor, Minh Mang. Indeed,
Minh Mang proved to be more heavy handed in his dealings
with Christian missionaries than Gia Long had been, and he per-
secuted Vietnamese who had converted to Catholicism.
Vietnamese History 19

The treatment of both missionaries and Vietnamese Catholics

provided a justification for a French incursion (hostile entrance
into a territory) into Vietnam at mid-century. Perhaps even
more influential were French traders who sought expanded
commercial opportunities in Southeast Asia and worried about
losing out on the China market to the British. At the same time,
the Nguyen Dynasty’s appeal had lessened among its own peo-
ple because of corruption, land inequities, and resulting peasant
unrest. Thus, from two perspectives, the mandate of heaven held
by Nguyen rulers appeared increasingly shaky.
Then, repression suffered by Catholic missionaries in Hue led to
demands that the French protect those religious emissaries and
the Vietnamese who had adopted the faith. Consequently, in 1857,
the government in Paris instructed a French boat to take control
of Danang until France’s demands were met. The action was
undertaken the following summer but proved unsuccessful when
a hoped-for peasant revolt failed to materialize. Watching as dis-
ease afflicted his men, Admiral Charles Rignault de Genouilly
abandoned his intention to move against the capital city of Hue.
“Everything here tends toward ruin,” he declared.22 Eventually, in
1861, de Genouilly, calling on 70 ships and 3,500 soldiers, decided
to capture the southern city of Saigon. The French soon took con-
trol of larger sectors of territory and, in 1862, compelled Emperor
Tu Duc (reign: 1847–1883) to agree to the Treaty of Saigon, which
resulted in three provinces in the area ceded to France, three ports
opened up to French boats, and priests allowed to conduct mis-
sionary work. Tu Duc also relinquished Vietnam’s claims to
Cambodia, which the French would soon assume. From 1863 to
1867, the French carried out a series of military actions in the
Mekong River Delta region. At the end of this period, they formed
the colony of Cochinchina. Thus, the French began carving out
new arbitrary borders, much to the dismay of Tu Duc and other
Vietnamese nationalists. These proved to be not only territorial in
scope, but political, cultural, and economic as well.
Tu Duc’s attempts to ward off the French were weakened by
divisions that existed among the Vietnamese. He decided to


Continuing the Nguyen Dynasty, Tu Duc was the last emperor of independ-
ent Vietnam, ruling from 1847 to 1883. He was also the one who witnessed
his nation fall increasingly under the control of the French as they created
arbitrary borders on Indochinese soil.
Born in 1829, Tu Duc witnessed the reign of his grandfather, Minh Mang,
and his father, Thieu Tri, whose persecution of foreign missionaries and
Vietnamese Catholics provided a justification for French encroachments.
Almost immediately after his rule began, Tu Duc faced challenges from
French military leaders and forces, which he attempted to resist. He also
wrestled with the issue of modernization, a phenomenon his immediate pred-
ecessors had avoided as much as possible. Ultimately, Tu Duc, who was
compelled to accept borders arbitrarily drawn by the French, presided over
the dismemberment of much of his homeland.
Tu Duc’s reign was one of the lengthiest in the Nguyen Dynasty but was
troubled throughout because of strife among Vietnamese nobles, conflicting
ideas about modernization, and French challenges to Vietnam’s national
autonomy. The first Vietnamese provinces to fall victim to French control were
found in southern Vietnam, the area the French referred to as Cochinchina. A
treaty signed in 1862 acknowledged French sovereignty over Cochinchina,
including Saigon, and two decades later, France took hold of the rest of
Vietnam. Beginning in August 1883, French forces attacked Hue, in central
Vietnam—the territory referred to as Annam—and Hanoi in the northern sec-
tor known as Tonkin.
A month before a treaty ceding this land to the French was signed, Tu Duc
died of natural causes. He was devastated by the turn of events in his home-
land and reportedly cursed the French at the end of his life. The imperial court
proclaimed that sorrow resulted in Tu Duc’s death. Vietnamese nationalists
were encouraged to avenge him and to quash French efforts to devise arbi-
trary borders for Vietnam.

negotiate with the French in part so that his forces could subdue
peasants in the North who were battling against mandarins they
considered corrupt. He also ordered an emissary to the United
States in 1873 in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain assistance
against French colonialism.
Vietnamese History 21

The French continued to make demands on the Vietnamese.

In 1873, local officials began harassing a French gunrunner, Jean
Dupuis. Subsequently, Dupuis put together a band of Europeans
and Asians to protect his interests and asked for support from
Admiral Jules-Marie Dupré, the governor of Cochinchina.
Spotting an opportunity to extend French dominion, Dupre sent
military forces to link up with Dupuis and grab hold of Hanoi.
Opposition to this action arose in Paris, leading to a withdrawal
after the Vietnamese government’s acknowledgement of French
control of Cochinchina.
As demands again arose for expanded commercial markets in
Vietnam, there was another campaign to extend French control.
After a Chinese contingent arrived in northern Vietnam at the
request of the Vietnamese court, Captain Henri Riviere and his
band of 200 soldiers swept into Hanoi and the Red River Delta.
The death of Emperor Tu Duc afforded still more opportunities
to subjugate the Vietnamese, leading to a treaty, signed in August
1883, that established a French protectorate over the whole area.
China relinquished any claims to sovereignty over Vietnam.
Within 10 years, the French added control over the kingdom of
Laos. In the process, France devised a series of arbitrary borders
that appeared to contradict the general pattern of the history of
Vietnam and the Vietnamese people’s ingrained sense of nation-
alism that soon forces clashed with the imperialist designs of the

French Colonization 23

W ith the end of the nineteenth century fast approaching,

French domination of Indochina, as exemplified by the
shaping of arbitrary borders, was more fully in place. The French
undertook a concerted effort to quash Vietnamese resistance
and, in the process, to eliminate a sense of national identity long
held by the people they were subjugating. The Vietnamese were
deliberately referred to as “Annamites,” and the French refused
to mention the name “Vietnam” and divided the country itself
into three distinct regions. Northern Vietnam, including the Red
River Delta area, came to be known as “Tonkin.” The nation’s
central province, which contained Hue and Danang, was called
“Annam.” Vietnam’s southern sector, which held the Mekong
River Delta territory, was tagged with the label “Cochinchina.”
The French then established the Indochinese Union, which
included the protectorates of Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina,
along with the formerly sovereign states of Laos and Cambodia.
The French determination to exercise control over Indochina
was in keeping with the pattern of European imperialism that
flourished throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.
The French considered it essential to expand their colonial wings
in order to compete with other great European powers, includ-
ing Britain, Germany, and Russia. Social Darwinist thought,
with the belief that nations, like plant and animal life, had to
compete strenuously or be left behind, prevailed.
Another key idea propelling French imperialism and that of
other European actors, along with the United States, was the
“white man’s burden.” This was the notion that people of
European ancestry had a duty to care for their less fortunate and
less capable “little brown brothers”—as top American policy-
makers referred to them—found across the globe. God had sup-
posedly ordained this development to ensure that progress,
civilization, and Christian beliefs would be transmitted world-
wide. The French, for their part, spoke of the need to conduct a
mission civilisatrice, or civilizing mission, in Indochina.
Economic designs also often guided the European and American
forces that envisioned expanded market and investment

opportunities in the far-flung corners of the planet. Throughout

the world the architects of imperialism drew up arbitrary bor-
ders, as in Vietnam, in keeping with their colonial aspirations.
Ultimately, those agents of Western-style imperialism proved
incapable of controlling, let alone quashing altogether, national-
ism in other lands.
As French soldiers arrived in Vietnam, so too did civilians who
supplied those troops. Others soon followed suit, including
traders, farmers, various business operators, bankers, editors,
physicians, and government officials. In the typical fashion of
colonialists, these Frenchmen sought to benefit themselves more
than the empire itself. Demands from French colons (colonial
farmers or plantation owners) could prove as troublesome for
governors-general as Vietnamese resisters, at least on occasion.
At a minimum, the provincial nature of the colons ensured that
France never truly carved out a long-term plan for Vietnam. Of
little help was the fact that many of the French administrators
sent to Vietnam were not of the finest caliber and often proved
susceptible to corruption and bribery. All the while, the levels of
bureaucracy mounted, with one Frenchman complaining that
England possessed colonies for commercial purposes whereas
France did so to provide jobs for bureaucrats.
The burden of such bureaucracy fell most heavily on the
Vietnamese, who were saddled with heavy taxation to cover part
of the costs of French governance. The poorest peasants paid
taxes at 33 times the rate of wealthy colons. Calling on a poll,
head, or “body tax,” which the Trinh family had initiated in the
early years of the eighteenth century, the French increased the
amount demanded of each man in Tonkin fivefold. Those
employed by the French and the Vietnamese who collaborated
with them paid no such tax; Europeans residing in Vietnam,
who saw themselves as forming a new aristocracy, received a
similar exemption.
The Vietnamese faced additional tax burdens, with levies placed
on paddy rice, rice wine, and land. To ensure that sufficient funds
were derived from the wine tax, French administrators required
French Colonization 25

each province to purchase a certain amount of wine. If provinces

failed to meet their quotas, local officials were punished. Also
afflicting the Vietnamese, particularly poor peasants, was the
land tax, which could take as much as one-fifth of a peasant’s
annual harvest. When harvests were sparse, peasants sold their
land for next to nothing, enabling wealthy purchasers to acquire
the property; those large landholders then exploited the labor of
the peasants.
Adding to the misery of the peasants—the vast bulk of the
Vietnamese populace—was the corruption in which officials
engaged. With the advent of French colonialism, local adminis-
tration rapidly deteriorated. Previously, a rigorous examination
system produced well-qualified officials who adhered to
Confucian precepts. When the French marched into Vietnam,
many of those officials refused to collaborate with the European
colonialists. Less well-trained and often less honest figures came
to replace them. With the passage of time, the situation became
even worse as a relatively high percentage of these newer officials
became addicted to opium, one of the government monopolies.
Those officials acted as “contractors” for the French, or so Paul
Doumer, who became governor-general of French Indochina in
1897, determined.


A former cabinet official, Doumer sought to convert

Indochina into a profitable concern for the French, something
that had not happened for the previous 40 years. Doumer
wanted to centralize administration, produce balanced books,
and quash guerrilla activity. He resorted to direct taxation of his
colonial subjects and obtained additional revenue from a high
tariff rate and through the sale of licenses for state-directed
monopolies on opium, rice alcohol, and salt, which was used for
food preservation; the monopolies generated nearly three-quar-
ters of the general revenue. Some of the funds were employed to
establish an extensive transportation infrastructure involving

Soon after they had secured their rule in Indochina, the French began to mistreat the
native people. In 1926, when this photograph was taken, there were many large rubber
plantations in the province of Bie Hao, French Indochina. Landless peasants by the thou-
sands went to work in these plantations. These shown are pouring rubber sap into large
vats by hand.

roads, bridges, railroads, and ports. To encourage economic

exploitation of southern Vietnam, Doumer sold large plots of
land to wealthy colons and Vietnamese, resulting in the emer-
gence of a considerable number of landless tenants. Rice pro-
duction soared, enabling Vietnam to become the third-greatest
exporter of the crop by the late 1930s.
All this resulted from massive exploitation of the general
Vietnamese populace. As Vietnam turned into a leading exporter
of rice, rice consumption among the Vietnamese plummeted
dramatically, decreasing 30 percent over a four-decade period
when the population increased 80 percent; much of this decrease
occurred with the unfolding of the severe depression of the
French Colonization 27

1930s. One report issued during World War II described the

deteriorating condition of the Vietnamese people: “It is only in
periods of intense agricultural labor, which means during one-
third of the year and particularly during the harvest, that the
people have enough to eat.”23
Landless peasants, either by choice or, much more frequently,
through conscription (forced labor, in this instance), toiled in
mines, plantations, and construction projects of various sorts
headed by French engineers and foremen. Rubber plantations,
including those run by Michelin, enforced horrific working
conditions and had high disease rates. To maintain workforces,
French employers turned to Vietnamese agents, who were paid
for each worker they signed to extended contracts that could
not be declined. The French treated reluctant Vietnamese like
deserters from military service.
The building of the Trans-Indochina Railroad from Saigon to
Hanoi, which took 40 years to construct, not the 10 years ini-
tially anticipated, required 80,000 workers, who labored on
mountains, in rivers, and through jungles. The price they paid
was enormous, with accidents and disease taking the lives of
nearly one-third of that workforce. Workers were yanked away
from their families, saddled with fines for not laboring diligently
enough, and physically abused by their overseers. Workdays were
lengthy, the laborers were ill-fed, and medical care was generally
not provided. In the end, the project they participated in, like so
many others Doumer devised, demonstrated little careful
thought on his part. The Trans-Indochina Railroad, for example,
effectively replicated an already-existing path, which peasants
often preferred. Highways likewise benefited tourists, not the
Vietnamese people.
As economic oppression befell the Vietnamese, the French
tightened their political grip. Doumer established direct control
over Tonkin, centralized French rule in Annam, and reigned in
colons and their government allies in Cochinchina; all of these
provinces involved the establishement of arbitrary borders, not
always of the territorial variety. Doumer terminated Vietnamese

The governor-general of Indochina
from 1897 to 1902, Paul Doumer was
the embodiment of French coloniza-
tion in the region and the leading
advocate of the establishment of
arbitrary borders to lengthen imperial
control. Striving to make Indochina a
profitable enterprise for France,
Doumer attempted to tighten the
existing colonial bureaucracy while
improving the economic condition of
French Indochina. This resulted in a
job freeze and a campaign to curb
administrative expenses, causing a
Paul Doumer was the governor-general on
centralized treasury to take control of Indochina from 1897–1902. He lived in
colonial budgets. Hanoi and oversaw French rule of
Under Doumer’s watch, taxes fell Cochinchina and the protectorates of
heavily on the Vietnamese populace, Annam, Tonkin, Cambodia, and Laos.
causing a great deal of resentment,
as did his extension of the infrastructure in the form of roads, bridges, and rail-
roads, which relied heavily on the forced labor of often overworked and disease-
riddled Vietnamese peasants. The French government’s monopolistic hold on
salt, opium, and alcohol also wore down the Vietnamese, many of whom labored
in coal mines and on rice plantations. Doumer’s government sponsored the use
of opium by the Vietnamese and ran a modern refinery in Saigon that produced
prepared opium fit for smoking by more affluent purchasers. The government
also set up government dens and shops where poorer workers could acquire the
drug. Opium use mushroomed, as did levels of addiction. The collected revenues
resulted in a budgetary surplus, the first in more than a decade. Doumer thus
was able to expand his public works program and to obtain a large loan that
helped with the building of hospitals and schools. Doumer witnessed the estab-
lishment of the Ecole Française d’Extreme-Orient—which first appeared in
Saigon in 1898—to offer an opportunity for elite education.
Residing in Hanoi, Doumer oversaw French rule of Cochinchina and the pro-
tectorates of Annam, Tonkin, Cambodia, and Laos. Doumer determinedly guided
a policy of pacification designed to eradicate guerrilla insurgencies, which
challenged the placement of the arbitrary borders that he helped create.
French Colonization 29

authority in the northern and central provinces by removing

from the mandarins the power to collect taxes. Doumer effec-
tively bought off the emperor, providing him with a substantial
annual allowance, and he converted the mandarins into ill-paid
colonial employees. The French governor-general replaced the
emperor’s secret council in Annam, which was made up of
Vietnamese, with a council made up of equal numbers of
French and Vietnamese members.
Doumer attempted to keep a handle on the French colons in
Indochina, and his departure in 1902 enabled them to reassert
their dominion throughout the region. The colons continued to
favor economic enterprises designed for quick profits. Rice
farming, coffee, tea, and rubber all offered such a possibility, as
did the extraction of mineral resources. The colons proved far
more interested in such pursuits than in various types of heavy
industry, with the exception of coal mines located near
Haiphong. Consequently, rich opportunities were lost, with nei-
ther rubber factories nor steel plants established in Vietnam.
The French did take certain steps to modernize Vietnam.
Administrators introduced Western educational practices and
theories but ultimately offered such instruction only to mem-
bers of the Vietnamese elite and then only haphazardly at best.
The large majority of citizens generally failed to acquire even
that kind of exposure to Western culture.
Vietnamese schooling and literacy actually thrived more
fully before French colonization. A reported 20,000 schools
existed in Tonkin and Annam, and private tutoring by individ-
ual families was carried out in villages. One Vietnamese
researcher contended that a pair of schools could be found in
each village, resulting in an even higher literacy rate in the
country than in cities and towns. Eventually, the scholar gentry
insisted that the French adopt certain educational reforms.
Nevertheless, even at the end of World War I, only one out of
10 Vietnamese children attended Franco-Vietnamese schools.
At the onset of World War II, a mere 14 secondary schools and
one lone university could be found in Vietnam. Thus, in the

educational realm, as in so many others, the French devised

additional arbitrary borders that worked against the best inter-
ests of the Vietnamese.
In a similar fashion, the French promised to bring economic
prosperity to Vietnam and to elevate living standards of the gen-
eral populace. In the end, however, it became increasingly clear
that such improved economic conditions were limited, and
numerous Vietnamese clamored for independence.
Pockets of commercial and industrial enterprise did flourish
in various areas, including the largest urban areas, provincial
capitals, and market towns. Light industry associated with tex-
tiles, paper, and sugar thrived in particular. Infrastructural
improvements also occurred, with bridge construction allowing
passage over important waterways, railroads built across much
of Vietnam, and Southeast Asia’s most noteworthy series of met-
aled roads laid out.
Also, French agricultural techniques increased the amount of
acreage under cultivation. In the Mekong Delta region, marshlands
were drained and canals devised, and the French turned to cash
crops along the border with Cambodia; these included coffee, tea,
and rubber produced on labor-intensive plantations run by the
French. Absentee landlords often controlled the new lands opened
up in the Mekong Delta, saddling poor peasants, who had recently
migrated from northern and central Vietnam, with high rents.
Then, as agriculture became commercialized, many who had
worked the land lost their jobs and ended up working in factories
in cities or relegated to laboring in coal mines or on plantations.
To a large extent, a Vietnamese business class involved with
either commerce or manufacturing failed to develop, and the
French actively discouraged the emergence of native industry.
The result was a very skewed pattern of modernization that
proved unsettling to many Vietnamese, including an important
segment of the small but increasingly disenchanted elite.
A lack of economic and political opportunities, coupled with the
severe exploitation of the Vietnamese people, produced consider-
able resentment about French colonization. Thanks to Vietnam’s
French Colonization 31

long-standing nationalistic traditions, resistance to French rule

inevitably sprouted, and, in the end, Doumer’s determination to
eradicate guerrilla activity provided seeds for still greater discord.
The brutal treatment of Vietnamese rebels did not make the
French popular with the people they had colonized, and the carv-
ing up of Vietnam and all of Indochina with arbitrary borders did
not help. Vietnamese nationalists refused to accept the shaping of
the distinct provinces of Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin.

Vietnamese Resistance 33

T he severity of French colonization, as exemplified by the

debilitating nature of forced labor, crushing levels of taxa-
tion, and a brutal pacification campaign, soon resulted in new
anticolonial efforts. After decades of colonial government,
Vietnamese nationalists called on the historic tradition of resist-
ing outside rule, and newer ideas as well, in urging their country-
men to expel the French and overcome the arbitrary borders
Doumer and other French administrators had set and main-
tained. In addition to the physical borders creating Tonkin,
Annam, and Cochinchina, social and economic borders existed
that reduced the vast majority of Vietnamese to a servile status in
relation to French colonialists. Such differentiated treatment led
to protracted battles against French control during the first several
decades of the twentieth century, through two world wars, and
into the Cold War.
In the last stages of the previous century, French colonialists
grappled with a series of irregular forces (those not belonging to
an organized or official group), including Chinese ones based in
Tonkin called the Black Flags. Both the Chinese and Vietnamese
imperial courts offered at least tacit support to those guerrillas.
After the death of a French captain in Tonkin, Commissioner-
General Jules Harmand coldly warned the Vietnamese,

We could, for we have the means, destroy your dynasty from

top to bottom down to its very roots, and seize for ourselves
all the kingdom as we have done in Cochinchina. You will be
perfectly aware that this would present no difficulty to us. You
are incapable of putting up a serious resistance to our armies
... you are at our mercy. We have the power to seize and
destroy your capital and to cause you all to die of starvation.
You have to choose between war and peace.24

Denying a desire to subjugate the Vietnamese, Harmand indi-

cated that the French protectorate, with its arbitrary borders, must
be accepted. This, he indicated, would result in “peace and pros-
perity” for the Vietnamese and offered “the only chance of sur-
vival” for the Vietnamese government and court. If this

In the late nineteenth century, French colonialists were forced to grapple with Vietnamese
guerrillas who had the tacit support of the emperor’s court.

supposedly magnanimous offer were declined, Harmand contin-

ued, “the most frightful things” would befall the Vietnamese: “The
Dynasty, its Princes and its Court will have pronounced sentence
on themselves. The name of Vietnam will no longer exist in his-
tory.”25 The Vietnamese emperor responded by signing a treaty
establishing a protectorate in Annam and giving the French con-
trol over Tonkin.
By 1885, the French had induced the Chinese to relinquish
their claims to Vietnam but quickly confronted a rebellion asso-
ciated with the boy emperor, Ham Nghi. Although Ham Nghi
was soon captured and shipped to northern Africa, the resist-
ance and his departure led to another movement, the Can
Vuong, or Rescue the King campaign, spearheaded by the
scholar Phan Dinh Phung. The Vietnamese nation had endured,
Phung believed, because “the destiny of our country had been
willed by Heaven itself.”26 Eventually, the French drove Phung
Vietnamese Resistance 35

and his depleted band of rebel fighters into the mountain area by
the Laotian border, where dysentery killed the great nationalist
leader in 1896.
Although the administration of Paul Doumer was particularly
determined to eradicate the vestiges of Vietnamese resistance,
opposition to French rule never entirely dissipated. Prince
Cuong De, who traced his claim to the throne to Gia Long,
hoped that Japan, which was undergoing a time of rapid mod-
ernization, might provide military assistance to drive out the
French colonialists in Vietnam. Japan’s stunning victory in the
Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, the first example in modern
times of an Asian nation defeating a major European power,
provided still more hope for Vietnamese nationalists.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, on the heels of
Doumer’s departure from Vietnam, two great nationalists, Phan
Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh, offered contrasting approaches
to expelling French colonialists and aradicating their arbitrary
borders. Born in the central province of Nghe An in 1867, Phan
Boi Chau began spearheading resistance efforts against the
French shortly after completing his mandarin examinations
with honors in 1900; his organization, Duy Tan Hoi, the
Reformation Society, first appeared in 1904. Phan Boi Chau
asserted that “the French treat our people like garbage.... The
meek are made into slaves, the strong-minded are thrown into
jail. The physically powerful are forced into the army, while the
old and weak are left to die.... The land is splashed with
blood.”27 Condemning antiquated feudal ways, Phan Boi Chau
championed modernization. Initially, Phan Boi Chau backed
the restoration of the monarchy, supporting Cuong De’s claim
to the throne.
After Japan’s sweeping victory over Russia, the two men
decided to spend time in the rising Asian powerhouse, hoping to
obtain backing for their campaign to reassert Vietnamese auton-
omy. Phan Boi Chau was drawn to the reformist program that
the Emperor Meiji seemed to accept for Japan. Heeding the
advice of the Japanese, Phan Boi Chau urged scores of young

men to receive military and political instruction in Japan; such

patriots, he hoped, would lead the fight against the French.
Phan Boi Chau attempted to lead such a revolt against French
rule in late 1907, but that resulted in the execution of a number
of his supporters. Hoping to avoid capture by the French, Phan
Boi Chau spent time in Siam but went to Canton when the
Chinese Revolution of 1911 began unfolding. Attracted by Sun
Yat-sen and Chinese champions of democracy, Phan Boi Chau
became less desirous that the monarchy be reformed. Instead,
Phan Boi Chau set up the Viet Nam Quang Phuc Hoi, the
Vietnam Restoration Society, and favored the creation of a dem-
ocratic republic. Phan Boi Chau suffered imprisonment from
1912 to 1917, and blame also came his way for a failed assassi-
nation attempt against the French governor-general of
Indochina, Albert Sarraut.
Born five years after Phan Boi Chau, Phan Chu Trinh was a
member of an elite, landowning family that respected education.
His father, a military officer and supporter of the Emperor Ham
Nghi, had joined the Scholar’s Revolt but was murdered by other
rebels, who viewed him as suspect. Phan Chu Trinh received the
most advanced degree awarded to students who undertook clas-
sical studies to become mandarins, but he became disillusioned
with the imperial bureaucracy shortly after meeting Phan Boi
Chau and learning about the other man’s ideas. The two men,
however, soon disagreed about tactics, with Phan Chu Trinh ini-
tially possessing less faith in the Vietnamese monarchy and the
Japanese. Phan Chu Trinh also called for modernization, envi-
sioned a new educational bureaucracy and legal system, and
favored industrialization. In 1906, Phan Chu Trinh urged the
new French governor-general, Paul Beau, to usher in such
reforms, along with Western-style democracy:

If the French government is really determined to treat the

Annamite people more liberally, it cannot but approve my
initiative and adopt my advice. It will invite me to present
myself before its representatives to explain my case at ease.
Vietnamese Resistance 37

And on that day I will open my whole heart. I will show

what we suffer and what we lack. And I dare to hope that
this will mark the awakening, the resurrection of our

Phan Chu Trinh’s plea, like Phan Boi Chau’s exhortations, res-
onated with the Vietnamese people, who were chafing at French
colonialism and the arbitrary borders that reinforced it. Some
intellectuals established the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc, or the Free
School of Hanoi, hoping to foster Western and Chinese concepts
of a progressive cast. Within a matter of months, however, the
French shut the school down. All the while, Phan Chu Trinh
continued to disagree with Phan Boi Chau’s willingness to resort
to violence, instead maintaining a faith in French anticolonialists
that many other Vietnamese nationalists considered naïve.
Despite his nonviolent approach, however, Phan Chu Trinh was
arrested by the French and charged with provoking tax revolts in
Annam in 1908. Receiving a death sentence, Phan Chu Trinh
ended up on the island of Con Son, where other political dissi-
dents were sent. His release came after three years at Con Son
and was followed by a stay in France, where he sharply criticized
French colonial rule in Indochina.


Vietnam’s two greatest nationalists of the early twentieth century

thus suffered exile and imprisonment during World War I. The
treatment Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh received kept them
from cultivating the mass support necessary to challenge French
power. Another figure was also absent from Vietnam for an even
greater period of time, but that did not prevent him from acquir-
ing a reputation as his country’s leading nationalist and the one
most able to expel French overlords and to obliterate the arbitrary
borders that they had created. Born Nguyen Sinh Cung in Nghe An
on May 19, 1890, he later called himself Nguyen Ai Quoc—
Nguyen the Patriot—but became known as Ho Chi Minh.

Densely populated and impoverished, Nghe An proved diffi-

cult to subdue, with its stubborn people referred to as the
“Buffalos of Nghe An.”29 Ho continued a family tradition of bat-
tling against French rule, following the lead of his father, Nguyen
Sinh Sac, a mandarin with a doctorate who backed Phan Boi
Chau and lost his government job because of his nationalistic
activities. Nguyen Sinh Sac repeatedly declared, “Being a man-
darin is the ultimate form of slavery,” and refused to let his son
take the mandarin examinations.30 His daughter, Nguyen Thi
Thanh, assisted the De Tham guerrillas who were fighting the
French, which resulted in her conviction for treason and a life sen-
tence. One son, Nguyen Sinh Khiem, crafted biting letters con-
demning the destitute and servile condition of the Vietnamese,
and Khiem’s brother Ho helped the Vietnamese underground
from the time he was five years old. Among those visiting the fam-
ily home were Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh.
Initially, Nguyen Sinh Sac tutored Ho, now referred to as
Nguyen Tat Thanh, for “he who will succeed,” in the classics.
Then, Nguyen Sinh Sac enrolled his son in a local school, where
his friend Vuon Thuc Qui, whose own father had been an ardent
Vietnamese nationalist, taught Confucian classics but also fos-
tered his students’ patriotism. Ho’s education was broader still,
because he listened to the local blacksmith discuss the Can
Vuong leader Phan Dinh Phung and other Vietnamese who
fought for independence.
In 1905, Ho and his brother enrolled in a Franco-Vietnamese
preparatory institution located in Vinh. Later, they entered a
Dong Bong upper-level elementary school, where they received
instruction in Vietnamese, French, and Chinese. By the fall of
1907, the two brothers attended the Quoc Hoc or National
Academy, Hue’s most prestigious Franco-Vietnamese school.
While there, Ho participated in a protest movement that led a
French policeman to inform this supposed troublemaker that he
had been dismissed from the National Academy.
In an effort to remain outside the clutches of French authori-
ties, Ho began a lengthy odyssey that took him first throughout
Vietnamese Resistance 39

Annam and Cochinchina and then outside Vietnam altogether.

Along the way, he took on odd jobs, even serving for a time as a
teacher in Phan Thiet, where he spoke to his own students about
such French philosophers as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and
Rousseau. At the beginning of his classes, Ho led his students in
reciting a poem once heard at the Hanoi Free School:

Oh, Heaven! Can’t you see our suffering?

The nation is in chains, languishing in grief,
Foreigners have doomed it to hunger,
They’re robbed it of everything it had.31

After spending some time in Saigon, Ho left Vietnam, begin-

ning a nearly three-decade-long journey that took him to far-
flung lands, including both the United States and France. He
boarded a French freighter that eventually docked in Marseille,
briefly returned to Saigon in an attempt to see his father, and
went back to Marseille, where he discovered that he had been
denied admission to the Colonial School there. His exact where-
abouts during this period are unknown, although he may have
traveled to Paris to speak with Phan Chu Trinh.
Over the course of several months, Ho passed through both
Africa and Asia and then sailed for the Western Hemisphere. He
may have gone to Argentina and Brazil before arriving on the
eastern seaboard of the United States. Ho lived for a while in
both New York City and Boston and also traveled to southern
states, where he reportedly witnessed lynchings of African
Americans carried out by the Ku Klux Klan. Traveling back
overseas, Ho resided in London, hoping to study English
there; obtained a job as a snow sweeper at a school; and then
got work in the kitchens of various hotels. Eventually, he
worked as an assistant to Auguste Escoffier, the renowned chef
at the Carlton Hotel.
Ho’s social conscience hardly abated while he was in England. He
became active in union affairs, joining the secretive Overseas
Workers’ Association, which was largely composed of Chinese
laborers concerned about the plight of workers in British factories.

Later, Ho indicated that he also had joined in street demonstra-

tions supporting Irish independence and had begun to examine
the writings of Karl Marx. Ho’s concerns about his own home-
land remained paramount, and he wrote a series of letters to
Phan Chu Trinh. At least some of these ended up in the hands of
French officials, with one note indicating that Ho hoped to con-
tinue Trinh’s work.
At some point, either late during World War I (1914–1918) or
shortly thereafter, Ho moved to Paris. Jobs were difficult to come
by, but Ho eventually became a photo retoucher, working at a
shop run by Phan Chu Trinh. Ho was one of 50,000 Vietnamese
then dwelling in the French capital. During the summer of 1919,
Ho, supported by Trinh and Trinh’s associate, Vietnamese lawyer
Phan Van Truong, established the Association des Patriotes
Annamites, or the Association of Annamite Patriots. Aided by
Phan Van Truong, Ho wrote a petition, “Revendications du peu-
ple annamite,” or “Demands of the Annamite People,” which
called for political autonomy for Vietnam, along with demo-
cratic liberties and an end to despised colonial practices. The sig-
nature at the bottom of the petition was that of Nguyen Ai
Quoc, “Nguyen the Patriot,” the name soon associated with Ho.
The petition appeared in L’Humanité, a leading radical French
newspaper, and was distributed by the General Confederation of
Labor, but it elicited little response from the delegates attending
the Versailles Conference. Colonel House, a top adviser to
United States President Woodrow Wilson, did send a pair of
short replies; one indicated that the petition would be forwarded
to the American head of state.
Attention, desired or not, now came to Ho, who was inter-
viewed by government officials and tailed by the French police.
At a minimum, this resulted in publicity for the campaign for
Vietnamese independence. Ho soon joined the ranks of the
Socialist Party, believing, as he later recalled, that its members
“had shown their sympathy toward me, toward the struggle of
the oppressed peoples.”32 Socialism appeared to be in keeping
with Confucian ideals, because of its emphasis on community
Vietnamese Resistance 41

and equality of both condition and opportunity. Soon, after

hearing discussion of Vladimir Lenin’s “Theses on the National
and Colonial Questions,” Ho moved further leftward. Lenin
seemed to be urging western communists to link up with
nationalist movements in Asia and Africa.
A series of articles by Ho began appearing in left-wing publi-
cations in Paris. He denounced the educational system that the
French had instituted in Vietnam, which had resulted in only a
few Vietnamese being exposed to Western ideas. He began craft-
ing a manuscript, Les opprimés, or “The Oppressed,” which con-
demned French policies in Southeast Asia. Police agents took
hold of the manuscript, although the same theme, with a
harsher Marxist quality, would appear in Ho’s 1925 book, Le
procès de la colonisation française, or French Colonialism on Trial.
His movement in a more radical direction led to Ho’s estrange-
ment from his mentor, Phan Chu Trinh. By late 1920, Ho had
called for the French Socialist Party to join the Communist
International (Comintern). Ho now became a founding mem-
ber of the French Communist Party, but he soon criticized oth-
ers in the new organization for failing to support revolution in
the colonial world.
The people of Asia in particular, Ho believed, would gravitate
toward communism. They recognized that wholesale reform of
their societies was necessary and had historic ties to community
concerns and the idea of social equality. A full quarter of
Vietnamese farmlands, for example, remained communal. By con-
trast, Ho debunked the very notion of the supposed superiority of
French civilization. Rather than liberty, equality, and fraternity, the
French afforded the Vietnamese humiliation and subjugation.
Ho continued to write articles condemning French colonial-
ism and urging social revolution, and he remained involved in
organizational work in radical circles. In 1922, he established a
new journal, titled Le Paria or The Pariah, which sought to reach
out to colonial people throughout the French empire. In the
summer of 1923, Ho went to Moscow, where he criticized his fel-
low communists for failing to focus on colonial concerns. He

served as a delegate representing Southeast Asia when the

International Peasant Conference was held in Moscow in October
of that year. By December, he had enrolled in classes at the
Communist University of the Toilers of the East.
Increasingly well regarded inside the communist movement,
Ho encountered several Chinese communists, including Zhou
Enlai, along with Jiang Jieshi (often called Chiang Kai-shek),
then acting as military adviser to Sun Yat-sen. At international
conferences, Ho continued to warn those in attendance not to
ignore “the fate of the oppressed peoples of the colonies.”33 Soon
serving as an agent of the Comintern, Ho undertook another
round of travels that took him back to China. He landed in
Canton in November 1924.
In the period just ahead, Ho, even more than before, began to
supplant Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh as the most
prominent Vietnamese nationalist who could contest the arbi-
trary borders that the French had imposed in Indochina. In
1925, Phan Boi Chau faced charges of sedition in Shanghai.
French agents extradited him to Hanoi, where he was convicted
of sedition and then placed under house arrest until his death in
1940. Phan Chu Trinh returned to Vietnam in 1925 but died the
following year. The passing of these two great leaders ensured a
further weakening of the scholar-gentry class. In Vietnam, the
impact of the war and Western ideals helped lead to the growth
of an urban middle class, with a group of young intellectuals
troubled by French colonialism. Bui Quang Chieu helped estab-
lish the Constitutionalist Party, and Nguyen An Ninh set up a
journal, La Cloche Felée (The Cracked Bell), which demanded
even greater reforms.
In the meantime, Ho continued his journeys and set up the
secret Quoc Dan Dang Dong Duong, or Indochinese Nationalist
Party, in February 1925. He also linked up with the Tam Tam Xa,
a radical group that he hoped to convert into a Marxist-Leninist
organization. Ho was instrumental in establishing the Hoi Viet
Nam Cach Mang Thang Nien, or Vietnamese Revolutionary
Youth League, which championed both nationalism and social
Vietnamese Resistance 43

revolution. Within two years, he was a well-regarded figure in

revolutionary circles in Canton, but he departed in 1927 as word
arrived of his impending arrest by forces associated with Jiang
Jieshi, now engaged in a bloody civil war with the communists.
In November 1927, Ho received instructions to return to Paris
to help his French comrades establish a program to assist revo-
lutionaries in Southeast Asia. Concerns that the French police
were searching for him perhaps led to the decision for Ho to
head back to Asia. In mid-1928, he traveled to Siam, which was
home to a large number of Vietnamese nationals and a branch
of the Revolutionary Youth League. Sometime in late 1929, Ho,
often in disguise at this point, got word that a court in Vinh had
condemned him to death in absentia for conspiring to provoke a
rebellion in central Vietnam.
Competitors in the Vietnamese nationalist camp continued to
surface, including those who joined the Viet Nam Quoc Dan
Dang (VNQDD, or Vietnamese Nationalist Party), in late 1927.
All the while, divisions developed within the ranks of the
Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League; some demanded that
the fight for national independence take precedence over the
quest for social revolution and others argued to the contrary. By
the end of the 1920s, three competing communist organizations
had appeared; Ho attempted to merge the parties. In early 1930,
he called for the establishment of the Vietnamese Communist
Party (VCP), urging that both workers and peasants lead the
revolutionary struggle, something that doctrinaire communists
(those who concentrated more on putting the theory into prac-
tice than on the practical difficulties involved) opposed. Ho also
helped set up new communist parties in Siam and Malaya.
As he did so, the revolutionary movement in Vietnam suf-
fered severe blows after failed uprisings sparked by the
VNQDD took place. Nevertheless, labor unrest occurred on
plantations and in factories alike, with communist activists
involved in the campaign in central Vietnam. Peasant coun-
cils called “soviets” appeared; they declared debts and taxes
void, demanded a reduction of land rents, and confiscated

communal lands. Some even more zealous peasants took over

estates and assassinated landlords.
In October 1930, communist delegates called for an “anti-
imperialist united front,” declaring that the poor and the middle
class would line up with Vietnamese workers. They also changed
the name of the VCP, now referring to it as the Indochinese
Communist Party (Dan Cong San Dong Duong, or ICP). The
intention undoubtedly was to emphasize the class struggle more
than the fight for national independence, which was not to Ho
Chi Minh’s liking. In contrast, he was pleased with the call for a
united front, which allowed for reaching out to various classes of
Vietnamese. Less encouraging was the news about the more vio-
lent treatment the insurgency received from the French. Also
troubling to Ho were the terrorist strikes undertaken against the
French or their supposed collaborators.
Nevertheless, Ho attempted to draw attention to the plight of
his countrymen in Vietnam, and he became frustrated about his
inability to do more for them. The toll of French repression of
activists in Vietnam was heavy, with a reported 2,000 killed by
the spring of 1931 and another 51,000 detained. In June, Ho
himself was arrested by British police in Hong Kong, and French
authorities demanded that he be turned over to them. After a
year in captivity, however, the British released him, after he
promised to leave Hong Kong. In January 1933, immigration
officials in Singapore grabbed Ho and returned him to the
British colony. Once again, he was released, having agreed to
leave Hong Kong within three days.
Over the next several months, Ho spent time in Shanghai
before heading back to Moscow in the spring of 1934. Somehow
he avoided the dragnet initiated by Soviet Premier Joseph
Stalin’s regime that proved so devastating to many communists,
both Russian-born and foreigners like Ho. That same period was
a difficult one for party activists throughout Vietnam, who
endured police surveillance and lack of public interest.
Ho attended the Seventh Congress of the Communist
International held in Moscow in mid-1935, when a new party
Vietnamese Resistance 45

line was adopted. Now communists were urged to support

Popular Front alliances with liberals and noncommunist radicals
and to back anti-imperialist fronts that warned against the
threat posed by Nazi Germany and Japan. Little is known about
Ho’s activities during much of this period, although he did
enroll at the Institute for the Study of the National and Colonial
Questions. He also helped translate Karl Marx and Friedrich
Engels’ The Communist Manifesto and Lenin’s Leftism: An
Infantile Disorder into Vietnamese. In September 1938, he finally
left the Soviet Union and headed for China.
That country was facing an onslaught from the Japanese, who
had occupied Manchuria as early as 1931 and had initiated a
wholesale assault against the Chinese mainland in 1937.
Desperate circumstances compelled Jiang Jieshi to seek a new
alliance with the communists, who were still in their Popular
Front phase. Now, Ho discovered more about recent develop-
ments in Vietnam, where similar united front efforts had
enabled the Indochinese Communist Party to acquire a certain
respectability. Party membership had mushroomed, and new
figures, including Vo Nguyen Giap and Truong Chinh, had
achieved recognition. Operating out of south China, Ho pro-
duced editorials for the Notre Voix, a French-language
Vietnamese newspaper that the Indochinese Communist Party
put out in Hanoi.
In July 1939, Ho relayed a message to a colleague in Vietnam,
through which he too supported the Popular Front approach.
The Communist Party, Ho wrote, should downplay its demands
for national independence and highlight instead its insistence on
Western-style democratic freedoms. To do otherwise, he feared,
“would be to play into the hands of the Japanese fascists.” What
was needed, Ho insisted, was “a broad National Democratic
Front,” which would include Indochinese and “all progressive
French people” residing in the region.34 This would bring
together workers and members of the middle class, who would
fight to vanquish arbitrary territorial, social, cultural, and eco-
nomic borders that divided the Vietnamese people.

at War
Vietnam at War 47

I n August 1939, the foreign ministers of Nazi Germany and

the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact, effectively
bringing the Popular Front to an end and almost immediately
ushering in hostilities in Eastern Europe. After the German
invasion of Poland later in 1939, Great Britain and France
issued declarations of war. In Indochina, the French moved
against the Indochinese Communist Party, arresting such lead-
ers as Nguyen Van Cu and Le Duan. In June 1940, however,
France surrendered to Germany, leading Ho Chi Minh to sug-
gest that “the French defeat represents a very favorable oppor-
tunity for the Vietnamese revolution.” Consequently, he
decided, “We must seek every means to return home to take
advantage of it.”35
During the last months of 1940, Ho called for the establish-
ment of another united front that would bring together
Indochinese patriots who were determined to rid the region of
French colonialism and the arbitrary borders France had estab-
lished in Vietnam. He envisioned the unification of his native
land in a manner that had been impossible since the reign of the
Emperor Tu Duc. Ho suggested that the new organization be
called the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, or the League for
the Independence of Vietnam, which came to be referred to as
the Vietminh Front. A Kuomintang military officer, Ho Hoc
Lam, became chair, and Pham Van Dong, already a leading
Vietnamese communist, served as vice chair. Insurgent activity
emerged in both urban and rural sections of Vietnam, only to be
harshly put down by the French. A number of important com-
munist figures were executed.
In early 1941, after three decades in exile, Ho Chi Minh, wear-
ing the attire of a Chinese journalist, finally returned to Vietnam.
The village of Pac Bao served as an operational base and was
where Ho greeted comrades such as Pham Van Dong and Vo
Nguyen Giap. During their discussions, Ho told Giap, “In about
five years the revolution will be victorious and we will have a
bright future. I only want to create one thing—to completely free
our country and provide everyone with the necessities of life.”

When one compatriot asked Ho how they could succeed with-

out arms, he replied,

We must rely on our own force with some outside help. When
the people absorb this beautiful idea of revolution, they will
create the strongest of forces. Everything because of the peo-
ple; everything for the people. People first, guns last. If we
have the people on our side, then we will have guns. If we have
the people, we will have everything.36

These and other communist leaders gathered for a series of

meetings in May and June, at which Ho presided. They decided
that the Indochinese Communist Party should silence the calls
for social revolution and focus on the emancipation of Vietnam
from colonial rule. Party leaders were to support moderate social
reforms and democratic liberties rather than the nationalization
of industries or the collectivization of farming lands. To support
the nationalist struggle, the party leaders sought support from
Vietnamese across the social spectrum, including peasants,
workers, soldiers, intellectuals, and even sympathetic merchants.
Ho wrote a letter intended for a wide audience across Vietnam:

National salvation is the common cause of our entire people.

Every Vietnamese must take part in it.... The hour has struck.
Raise aloft the banner of insurrection and lead the people
throughout the country to overthrow the Japanese and the
French. The sacred call of the fatherland is resounding in our
ears, the ardent blood of our heroic predecessors is seething
in our hearts.37

Thus, Ho pointed to another problem confronting Vietnamese

nationalists: the movement of Japanese troops into Vietnam.
This had occurred in Tonkin shortly after the establishment of
the Vichy government in France, which collaborated with the
German takeover. In July 1941, only days after the German army
invaded the Soviet Union, Japanese forces headed into Annam
and Cochinchina as well. The Japanese invasion, which was wel-
comed by some Vietnamese who thought it foreshadowed an
Vietnam at War 49

Ho Chi Minh spent many years fighting for Vietnamese independence. He is seen
here saddling a mule for a mission against the French in 1954.

expulsion of the French, proved at least as equally brutal as that

by the European occupier. Several Vietnamese who were mem-
bers of two religious sects, the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao, at first
looked favorably on the Japanese move into Vietnam. Eventually,
that enthusiasm waned, along with the sense that the Japanese
truly believed in pan-Asian nationalism. Nevertheless, the
Japanese thrust was important, because it helped to dispel
notions regarding Western supremacy. Ho Chi Minh viewed the
Japanese no more favorably than he did the French. He warned
that counting on Japanese troops to fight French bureaucrats
could be likened to hunting for “the tiger only to be eaten by the
Japanese and French forces both sought to quash radical
nationalists in Vietnam, resulting in the need for sanctuaries

across the northern border in China. The Japanese involvement

also produced the first signs of American military engagement
in Vietnam. The Flying Tigers of General Claire L. Chennault,
who served as a military adviser to Jiang Jieshi, began targeting
Japanese airbases in northern Vietnam by early 1942. President
Roosevelt had other interests in mind regarding Southeast Asia,
believing that European-style imperialism, particularly the kind
practiced in French Indochina, should come to an end.
Even before the United States entered the war, Roosevelt had
joined with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in issuing
the Atlantic Charter, patterned after Woodrow Wilson’s vision of
his own nation as peace keeper. From Roosevelt’s vantage point,
this was designed to counter isolationism in the United States
and to place England on record as committed to basic American
ideals, including open diplomacy, national self-determination,
and unrestricted trade. The Atlantic Charter as a whole appeared
to encompass the idealistic tenets associated with Woodrow
Wilson’s Fourteen Points and Roosevelt’s own “Four Freedoms,”
propounded in January 1941. Roosevelt frequently expressed his
opposition to the restoration of French colonialism in
Indochina, something he believed the people of the region also
opposed. The French, he said, had been in Indochina for more
than a century without bettering the situation for the people there.
By 1943, Roosevelt had informed his son Elliot that he would
strenuously oppose any plan to advance French imperialism.
Roosevelt soon envisioned an international trusteeship for
Indochina being established after the war. After all, as he saw it,
“France has had the country—30 million inhabitants—for nearly
one hundred years, and the people are worse off than they were at
the beginning.... France has milked it for one hundred years. The
people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that.”39
Both Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, who headed the Free
French government-in-exile that was based in London during the
war, however, opposed Roosevelt’s call for decolonization.
Eventually, Roosevelt turned to Jiang Jieshi, wondering if he
would care to rule over postwar Indochina. Fully cognizant of
Vietnam at War 51

the Vietnamese antipathy to colonialism, Jiang declined the

offer, declaring that his southern neighbors were “not Chinese.
They would not assimilate into the Chinese people.”40 Roosevelt
then called for a trusteeship that would remain in place until the
people of Indochina were prepared for independence, possibly
after two or three decades.
The historian George Moss affirms that Roosevelt remained
“anticolonialist to the core, an antiimperialist ideologue” who
“especially wanted to see Vietnam free of the burden of French
colonialism.”41 Other well-regarded scholars, however, includ-
ing journalist Stanley Karnow and historian Robert D.
Schulzinger note that on January 1, 1945, Roosevelt informed
Secretary of State Edward R. Stenninus, “I still do not want to get
mixed up in any military effort toward the liberation of
Indochina from the Japanese.... From both the military and
civilian points of view, action at this time is premature.”42


During World War II, many American operatives in the field

came to appreciate the guerrilla forces associated with Ho Chi
Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, who became the leading military
strategist for the Vietminh fighters. Seeking international back-
ing for the independence struggle, Ho and another communist
leader, Le Quang Ba, had returned to China in August 1942. The
former now held a card identifying him as a Chinese reporter
named Ho Chi Minh. Chinese police, concerned that the two
might be Japanese agents, arrested them. A military court
decided that Ho was a political prisoner after he acknowledged
being involving with the Communist movement in Southeast
Asia. Over the span of one five-month period alone, Ho was held
in 18 prisons in districts throughout southern China while a
leading Chinese general called for his execution. Hopes that Ho
could revitalize the flagging Vietnamese nationalist movement
based in southern China led to his release in September 1943.
Ho became immersed in the activities of the Vietnamese

The Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, or the League for the Independence of
Vietnam, provided an organizational apparatus to battle French colonialism,
Japanese occupation during World War II, and the arbitrary borders France
had previously devised for Vietnam. In May 1941, the Eighth Plenum of the
Indo-Chinese Communist Party established the League, whose members
became known as the Vietminh. Headed by prominent communists such as
Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietminh nevertheless adopted a front-
like posture to attract Vietnamese nationalists of all types. Moreover, the
Communist Party deliberately downplayed the call for social revolution,
emphasizing instead the need for all Vietnamese to battle against colonial
The Vietminh adopted a strategy of guerrilla warfare, conducting insurgent
strikes in both rural and urban sections of Vietnam. In August 1945, the
Vietminh helped spark the August Revolution, which resulted in the procla-
mation of Vietnamese independence and the establishment of the
Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
From 1946 to 1954, the Vietminh fought against the French, a conflict that
concluded with one of the century’s most important battles, which occurred
at Dienbienphu. After the Geneva Accords of 1954, the Vietminh heeded calls
to lay down their arms, which resulted in the capture and execution of many
by soldiers and government agents associated with Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime
in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, Vietminh veterans began to urge peasants to
take land from the gentry throughout the Mekong Delta area and the rest of
the territory in Vietnam situated south of the 17th parallel.
Eventually, Vietminh forces would be reconstituted as members of the
National Liberation Front once another guerrilla war—this one—waged
against Diem and his American backers, broke out. That war continued the fight
to overcome arbitrary borders, both long-standing and new, afflicting Vietnam.

Revolutionary League, known as the Viet Nam Cach Mihn Dong

Minh Hoi. He also sought to befriend American officers operat-
ing in Liuzhou on behalf of the Office of War Information. By
August 1944, Chinese General Zhang Fakui had decided that Ho
could best lead the fight against the Japanese in Vietnam.
Vietnam at War 53

While Ho was away in China, his colleagues in Vietnam sought

to build bases for the revolutionary struggle, particularly in the
north; they also attempted to revitalize their cadre in the central
and southern parts of the country. In July 1944, Vo Nguyen Giap
called for guerrilla insurrections that would lead to the libera-
tion of various territories. Other communist leaders worried
about a possible French counteroffensive. They also questioned
whether guerrilla fighters could battle against both the French
and the Japanese. When Ho returned from China, he argued that
a wholesale insurrection at present could prove disastrous. “The
phase of peaceful revolution has passed,” he acknowledged, “but
the hour of the general insurrection has not yet sounded.”43 He
rejected Giap’s call for the establishment of a people’s liberation
army, but Ho agreed that the first stages toward creating such a
military force should be undertaken. In late December, the
Vietnamese Liberation Army began to emerge.
By that point, Ho and the Vietminh had begun to develop
something of a sort of relationship with American operatives.
This followed the rescue of a downed American pilot,
Lieutenant Rudolph Shaw, who been forced to parachute near
the border separating Vietnam from its formidable northern
neighbor. Vietminh forces handed Shaw over to Ho, who
greeted him warmly and agreed to help the American officer
reach the Chinese border. The two men traveled together to
Kunming, where the U.S. 14th Air Force was headquartered. As
they traveled, the Japanese carried out a coup in early March,
resulting in the expulsion of the French regime. Ho informed
his new American allies about the Japanese grab for power:
“The French imperialist wolf was finally devoured by the
Japanese fascist hyena.”44
Ho met up with Charles Fenn, a Marine lieutenant, who
reported that the Vietminh leader desired “only recognition of
his group,” in addition to “arms and medicines,” in return for
helping gather intelligence information about Japanese move-
ments in the region.45 Fenn set up a meeting with Ho for
General Chennault, who thanked him for helping rescue

Lieutenant Shaw. Then, in Paise, located in Guangxi province, Ho

encountered another American intelligence officer, Archimedes
Patti, of the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS: the precursor to
the CIA), who was ready to work with the Vietminh.
Ho agreed to track Japanese troop movements, to help any
downed American pilots or escaped prisoners of war, and to
provide guerrilla fighters who would assist on sabotage mis-
sions. The OSS promised to deliver radios, several thousand
guns, and ammunition to the Vietminh. French intelligence
agents in Kunming had spoken critically about Ho, calling him
“fearless, sly, clever, powerful, deceptive, ruthless—and
deadly.”46 The Americans, however, were impressed with Ho’s
intelligence apparatus and his guerrilla forces, with one OSS
member declaring, “They had an uncanny ability to learn and
adapt. They learned to pull a rifle apart and put it together again
after being shown only a couple of times.”47
Under Ho and Giap’s guidance, the Vietminh battled the
Japanese during the occupation; this enabled the Vietminh to
align with American intelligence operatives. At that point, as ear-
lier, both Ho and Giap remained adverse to foreign control and
attempts to establish arbitrary boundaries that violated
Vietnamese autonomy. They were committed to the unification
of Vietnam with single-minded devotion; meanwhile, they
watched as their nation experienced a terrible famine that took
the lives of one million peasants. Although apparently willing to
temporarily defer the drive for social transformation until the
end of the war, the two leaders continued to stand as ideologi-
cally rooted revolutionaries seeking to prevent artificial borders
from crippling their nation.

The French
Indochina War

W hen the Japanese took control of Vietnam in early 1945,

they arrested French officials and set up a government led
by the Emperor Bao Dai. On March 11, Bao Dai proclaimed an
end to Vietnam’s protectorate status within the French empire,
but at the same time, Vietnam was compelled to accept Japanese
hegemony. This helped discredit Bao Dai’s regime and enabled the
Vietminh to expand their operations. Once again, the weakening
of French rule further dampened beliefs about Western invinci-
bility. It would likewise help challenge the supposedly sacrosanct
nature of the arbitrary borders French officials had constructed
for Vietnam.
The Vietminh, led by General Giap, took control of half a dozen
provinces in Tonkin, making inroads into cities as well as the
countryside. In areas they dominated, the Vietminh abolished
taxes, reduced rents, and redistributed estates held by French
landowners. They also helped mitigate the impact of the famine
that had crippled Vietnam in 1944, resulting in the death of as
many as one million peasants. The Vietminh took control of
local granaries and passed out rice to alleviate the distress. They
also engaged in guerrilla strikes against both the Japanese and
the French, while resorting to terror to intimate and silence
political opponents.
By August 1945, Japanese forces had surrendered to the
Vietminh. Large gatherings occurred in Hanoi, Saigon, and
other major urban centers throughout Vietnam to demonstrate
support for Ho Chi Minh’s cadres (core groups of supporters).
Virtually unopposed, the Vietminh swept into both district and
provincial capitals and established the Provisional Government
of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which was headquar-
tered in Hanoi. When speaking to a gathered throng in that city
on September 2, Ho drew from the American Declaration of
Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man
and the Citizen in proclaiming, “All men are created equal. They
are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights;
among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ho
also requested backing from “the Allied nations, which ... have
The French Indochina War 57

General Vo Nguyen Giap was a talented Vietminh leader who turned a largely dis-
organized collection of guerrilla fighters into an army powerful enough to defeat
the French.

acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality

of nations.”48
As it turned out, however, the Vietnamese path to independ-
ence and the overcoming of arbitrary borders associated with
colonialism would not proceed easily. Instead, the French, soon
supported by the United States, proved determined to reestab-
lish colonial rule.

The death of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in

April 1945 led to the presidency of Harry S. Truman, who had to
contend with the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the
United States and the Soviet Union. Before World War II even
ended, the seeds for another conflict, the Cold War, as it came to
be called, existed. In the postwar period, the battleground
included not only war-torn Europe but also much of the colo-
nial world, such as Southeast Asia. American officials, including
Truman, did not completely understand the complexity of the
situation in Indochina. Moreover, the new American president
informed Charles de Gaulle, the head of the Free French forces
during World War II, the United States would not contest
France’s dominance of the region.
In the meantime, Truman, meeting with the other Allied lead-
ers in Potsdam, Germany, in late July, indicated that the tempo-
rary division of both Korea and Vietnam would soon follow.
This seemed natural to Truman, subsequent to the earlier deci-
sion to establish occupied zones in Germany after it was defeated
by Allied Powers—the United States, Britain, liberated France,
Soviet Union, and China—in World War II. Berlin itself had
been divided into four sectors placed under military occupation.
The partition of Vietnam would supposedly ensure the dis-
arming of the Japanese and was to take place at the 16th paral-
lel, situated between Danang and Hoi An in the central section
of Vietnam. In the northern sector, 200,000 of Jiang Jieshi’s
Nationalist soldiers, under the command of General Lu Han,
took control of the surrendered Japanese troops, and in
Vietnam’s southern half, 20,000 British troops led by General
Douglas D. Gracey were in charge. No decision was made about
the future of Vietnam, which played into the hands of French
colonialists. Desiring American support, Ho informed an OSS
agent that he would be pleased by the appearance of a million
American soldiers, but not any French ones.
Shortly after Ho Chi Minh issued his Declaration of
Independence, General Gracey called for the French to reassert
civil and military control. Using American weapons, French
The French Indochina War 59

soldiers ousted the Vietminh government that had been estab-

lished in Saigon. After Vietminh fighters slaughtered 150 peo-
ple in a French suburb of the city, Gracey, in an astonishing turn
of events, placed arms in the hands of the Japanese, who were
now called on to help suppress Giap’s forces. The situation in the
north was not much better for the Vietminh, who were also
driven out of power in Hanoi.
The first American casualty of the conflict in Vietnam was
OSS agent A. Peter Dewey, who had worked closely with Ho. Not
permitted by Gracey to display the American flag on his jeep,
Dewey drove to the Tan Son Nhut air base in Saigon in late
September. Recently, Dewey had affirmed, “Cochinchina is
burning, the French and British are finished here, and we ought
to clear out of Southeast Asia.”49 Vietminh forces shot at
Dewey’s jeep, killing him.
By the end of the year, British and Indian troops departed
from southern Vietnam and were replaced by American-backed
French forces. In the north, the Chinese also agreed to leave and
were also supplanted by the French. Both Ho and General
Jacques Philippe Leclerc, who now guided French operations in
Vietnam, sought a compromise. In a prophetic statement,
Leclerc warned, “Fighting the Viet Minh will be like ridding a
dog of its fleas. We can pick them, drown them, and poison
them, but they will be back in a few days.” Subsequently, he
affirmed that his nation could not “control by arms an entity of
24 million people.”50 General Douglas MacArthur, of the U.S.
army, also expressed concerns about developments in
Indochina: “If there is anything that makes my blood boil, it is to
see our allies in Indochina deploying Japanese troops to recon-
quer the little people we promised to liberate.”51
Ho again attempted to reach out to the United States, sending
a lengthy letter to President Truman on February 16, 1946. He
insisted that the French possessed no legitimate claim to
Indochina and called on the United States to intervene in the
region. Shortly thereafter, in early March 1946, French and
Vietminh representatives produced accords that resulted in

France’s recognition of Ho’s free state inside the French Union;

this attempt to produce a different kind of artificial division of
Vietnam did not please many of Ho’s compatriots, who contin-
ued to insist that a unified Vietnam should replace French colo-
nialism. Nevertheless, free elections were planned, which were to
decide the fate of Cochinchina.
As a matter of strategy, however, Ho acceded to the demand
that 25,000 French soldiers replace Chinese operatives in the sec-
tion north of the 16th parallel. When criticized by compatriots
about this decision, Ho exclaimed,

You fools! Don’t you realize what it means if the Chinese

remain? Don’t you remember your history? The last time the
Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are
foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white
man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will
never go.52

As Ho traveled to France to finalize the agreement, however,

the recently appointed commissioner for Indochina, Georges
Thierry d’Argenlieu, proclaimed the establishment of the
Republic of Cochinchina, with its rich rice-bearing deltas. Once
again, the French sought to splinter Vietnam while ensuring that
the most fertile land remained under their control. Ho unsuc-
cessfully pressed his case for Vietnamese independence with
both French and American officials. Before returning home, he
agreed to a call for a referendum that was to take place in
Cochinchina the following year to decide the matter of unifica-
tion. Before his departure, Ho warned French Prime Minister
Georges Bidault, “If we must fight, we will fight. You will kill ten
of our men, and we will kill one of yours. But you will be the
ones to end up exhausted.” At the same time, Ho worried that he
had given up too much and had “signed my death warrant.”53
By November, the level of violence in Vietnam had mounted
once again. Angered by the killing of three French soldiers in
Hanoi, the French struck back, shelling much of Haiphong,
which resulted in the death of 6,000 and the wounding of
The French Indochina War 61

In December 1946, French troops came into Hanoi demanding that the Vietminh disarm.
They took up positions on rooftop perches where they could train their machine guns down
onto the street. This photo from January 1947 shows troops from the French Indochinese
Union Army in one such location.

another 25,000. In mid-December, French troops marched into

Hanoi to demand that the Vietminh disarm. Instead, General
Giap called for a campaign of national resistance. Guerrilla
attacks followed, including the bombing of the power plant in
Hanoi, mines exploding in that city’s streets, and the assassina-
tion of several French officials.
The Vietminh under Ho and Giap resorted to guerrilla strate-
gies, retreating into the countryside and mountains in northern
Vietnam. At first, they deliberately avoided set battles with the
better armed and more numerous French forces, instead engag-
ing in political agitation in villages throughout Vietnam. Next,
they planned to build up their own units until they equaled

those of their foes. Finally, the Vietminh envisioned a general

offensive that would force the French to leave Vietnam. Once
more, the Vietnamese anticipated protracted war, which they
had already waged against the Chinese and the French.


At the outset of the French Indochina War, the French

remained dominant in Cochinchina, and they soon controlled
the largest municipalities in both central and northern Vietnam;
these also represented borders to a great extent. In the country-
side, however, the Vietminh often seemed to be in control, and
they received considerable backing from the peasants. A major
offensive conducted by the French in late 1947 nearly resulted in
the capture of Ho and other Vietminh leaders and caused an
estimated 10,000 casualties among the Vietminh, along with the
abandonment of sanctuaries in Tonkin.
The next year, the Vietminh, relying on both guerrilla tactics
and quick strikes against French troops, won back control of the
territory lost in 1947 and strengthened their grip over the terri-
tory they held in Cochinchina; thus, the Vietminh continued to
attack the arbitrary borders linked with French imperialism.
With the Vietminh holding the upper hand in more than half of
the villages throughout Vietnam, the French worried about
being mired in a war that could be compared to quicksand. The
French also sought a political solution to the dilemma by estab-
lishing a government headed by the former Emperor Bao Dai.
However, noncommunist forces proved unable to avoid the
political squabbles that had divided them in the past, and Bao
Dai’s government was dismissed by many Vietnamese as a “pup-
pet” regime. Nevertheless, in 1949, France declared that Vietnam
was an associated state inside the French Union, thus supposedly
giving independence to the State of Vietnam.
During this period, as the Cold War unfolded in Europe and
elsewhere, the United States sided even more strongly with the
French in their fight against the Vietminh. The U.S. State
The French Indochina War 63

Department expressed increasing concerns about Ho’s avowed

communist affiliation. At the same time, certain conflicts existed
regarding the United States’ support of the restoration of colo-
nial rule in Indochina. The American embassy in Paris received
a cable in early 1947 declaring that nineteenth-century–styled
empires were quickly becoming antiquated. The American con-
sul in Saigon, Charles Reed, soon affirmed that “something must
be done to bring home to the French that times have changed
and that the natives have the right to more than a semblance of
independence.” Yet Reed worried if Ho’s “totalitarian” regime
would relinquish control over Annam or Cochinchina.54
Still, the United States, as Secretary of State George C. Marshall
indicated, possessed no interest in seeing “colonial empires and
administrations supplanted by philosophies and political organi-
zations emanating from and controlled by the Kremlin [the Soviet
government].”55 A State Department document from September
1948 acknowledged the “unpleasant fact” that Ho stood as the
“strongest and perhaps the ablest figure in Indochina.” Moreover,
“any suggested solution which excludes him is an expedient of
uncertain outcome.”56 In addition, American diplomats seemed to
agree that “the French are no longer capable of carrying on the war
in Indochina.” They heard warnings that “all independence move-
ment leaders can take courage from the fact that ... no matter how
large and well equipped an Army is, it can be worn down by stub-
born resistance.”57
For a time, the State Department proved unable to demon-
strate that “a Moscow-directed conspiracy” existed in
Indochina.58 As Cold War tensions heated up through 1949, that
kind of carefully drawn evaluation began to be discarded.
Secretary of State Dean Acheson pointedly denounced Ho as an
“outright Commie” who had refused to disassociate himself
from a “Moscow connection and Commie doctrine.”59 Various
State Department experts nevertheless continued to acknowl-
edge the potency of “militant nationalism” in Asia and worried
that the United States’ ties to outmoded European colonialism
could prove discrediting.60

In 1949, Cold War stances solidified. A Soviet blockade of

Berlin that had begun a year earlier remained in place for several
months, and reports spread that the Russians had detonated an
atomic bomb. Furthermore, the Chinese communists under
Mao Zedong came to power. Now China began to supply the
Vietminh with automatic weapons, bombs, and trucks. In the
United States, Cold War tensions, which had resulted in a
domestic red scare (fear of radicals, particularly communists),
heightened. The Truman administration had already subscribed
to the policy of containment urged by State Department analyst
George Kennan, which called for the United States to be always
on guard against potential encroachments by the Soviet Union.
Kennan argued that this required a willingness to act against
both military forces that attacked another country and “subver-
sives” who sought to infiltrate from within.
Increasingly, the battle in Vietnam came to be viewed through
the Cold War lens. That was particularly true as the 1950s began
to unfold. In January 1950, both China and the Soviet Union
extended formal recognition to Ho’s Democratic Republic of
Vietnam. The following month, the United States did the same
for Bao Dai’s government, although various figures warned
against doing so. In this way, both sides in the Cold War struggle
continued to maintain a belief in the arbitrary borders that char-
acterized Vietnam. Raymond B. Fosdick of the State Department
feared that Bao Dai’s regime was “doomed” and asserted that
“whether the French like it or not, independence is coming to
Indochina.” Why, he asked, “do we tie ourselves to the tail of
their battered kite?”61 Nevertheless, in March, President Truman
approved sending $15 million to assist the French war effort.
The level of support intensified greatly after the outbreak of the
Korean War in late June.
Another reason the United States chose to provide increased
assistance was the deteriorating French position in Indochina.
Beginning in September 1950, General Giap attacked French
military stations near the Chinese frontier, resulting in a heavy
loss of men and arms for the French. In January, Giap attempted
The French Indochina War 65

to seize the offensive, sending “human waves” at French posts

near Vinh Yen, a mere 25 miles outside Hanoi. Now the
Vietminh casualties became considerable, although the French,
who relied on napalm (a jellied gasoline) and howitzers (a type
of cannon) provided by the United States, suffered more losses
of their own. Two attacks carried out in the northern country-
side that spring were equally disastrous for Giap’s forces, causing
Giap to return to a guerrilla strategy.
The French then began building a series of forts—known as
the de Lattre Line, after General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, the
new commander of French forces in Indochina—throughout
the Red River Delta. Meanwhile, France requested and received
more American military assistance. Much of the war matériel,
however, ended up in the hands of the enemy. Fearing that a
French defeat was impending, American policymakers began
discussing what options the United States should consider. With
American forces bogged down in Korea, the Joint Chiefs of Staff
argued against becoming involved in another land war in Asia.
Still, President Truman refused to accept the possibility of a
communist victory in Indochina and began readying a plan to
bomb Chinese cities and conduct a naval blockade if China sent
troops into Vietnam as it had in Korea. The growing recognition
that the Korean conflict might result in a return to the 38th par-
allel undoubtedly influenced administration officials regarding
Vietnam, including a willingness to accept communist control in
the nation’s northern sector as long as a noncommunist regime
would be established in the South.
In October 1952, the French amassed 30,000 soldiers and
numerous tanks and airplanes, hoping to batter Vietminh forces
situated in jungle terrain northwest of Hanoi. After a matter of
weeks, however, the French were forced to head back to the Red
River Valley. In January 1953, a new administration, led by
Dwight David Eisenhower, the World War II hero, came to
power in Washington, D.C. Like Truman and Acheson had
been, Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles,
were determined to prevent a communist takeover in Vietnam.

The French, it was clear, were demonstrating increasing war

weariness. With casualties mounting, support for the war effort
continued to decrease in France itself. As the Korean War came
to a close in July 1953, the Eisenhower administration, like its
predecessor, worried about the possibility of Chinese interven-
tion. Dulles suggested that nuclear bombs be dropped on China
if such an event were to occur. In the meantime, the Vietminh
remained a formidable force; journalist Theodore White con-
tended that Giap’s army had “become a modern army, increas-
ingly skillful, armed with artillery, organized into divisional
Shortly after the death of General de Lattre, Henri Navarre
became head of the French military campaign in Indochina.
Navarre hoped to prevent defeat by augmenting the Vietnamese
National Army and by sending additional troops to Vietnam. At
the same time, Navarre, who planned to conduct an offensive
against the Vietminh, soon informed French officials that vic-
tory would not likely result. This warning was not delivered to
the United States, which footed the bill more and more for the
French war effort. By 1954, the United States was paying for
nearly 80 percent of that campaign and would eventually cover
$2.6 billion of the $4.0 billion France spent during the war.
Despite that assistance, the position of the Vietminh contin-
ued to improve. On the other hand, the Vietnamese auxiliary
army, made up of 300,000 recruits, proved woefully ineffective,
because many peasant soldiers were not inclined to fight. While
Navarre focused on the Red River Valley, Giap’s forces expanded
their activities in the Tonkin Delta and swept into Laos.
Consequently, Navarre felt compelled to land 3,000 elite para-
chuters in an area near Dienbienphu, a village situated in
Vietnam’s northwestern corner, close to Laos. Navarre’s plan was
to draw Giap into a large-scale battle; Navarre believed that he
could build an impregnable fortress, despite American warnings
to the contrary. Navarre positioned his forces in the flat valley,
which was ringed by high hills.
The French Indochina War 67

At the same time, the French began negotiating with the

Vietminh, much to the displeasure of Dulles and Eisenhower.
On March 12, a memo from the Joint Chiefs of Staff indicated
that a negotiated settlement would lead to free elections, which
would result in a communist victory. That, it was believed,
would be followed by other communist successes in the region.
Thus, belief in the domino theory—that if one country fell to
communism, nearby states would probably do so as well—
guided American thinking. Communist Party leaders through-
out Vietnam similarly reasoned that if one region of the country
were liberated, then the likelihood of terminating the arbitrary
borders separating Vietnamese provinces increased. On March
13, the battle of Dienbienphu began in earnest as Vietminh how-
itzers began attacking the French garrison.

Dienbienphu 69

T he decision of French military commander Henri Navarre

to concentrate his troops at Dienbienphu, the scene of a
small military base before World War II, proved to be a disas-
trous mistake. Rather than proving invulnerable to attack, as he
had anticipated, the heavily fortified French base at
Dienbienphu, situated in northwestern Tonkin, in a valley sur-
rounded by hills, soon fell under a massive assault by Vietminh
forces. Seeking to draw General Giap into battle, Navarre placed
17 battalions within the main compound. The French general
eventually stationed 12,000 men, who relied heavily on a pair of
nearby airstrips and airbases in Haiphong and Hanoi, at
Dienbienphu. Navarre selected Colonel Christian Marie
Ferdinand de la Croix de Castries to guide the French forces at
Dienbienphu, located only eight miles from the Laotian border
and 170 miles northwest of Hanoi.
Castries relied on a series of defensive perimeters to shield
Dienbienphu from a human wave assault, but little was done to
protect his men from artillery. Ever confident, Castries, in early
January 1954, foresaw “total victory after six months more of
hard fighting.”63 In reality, the crushing defeat soon experienced
by France threatened to bring the arbitrary borders long
imposed on Vietnam to an end.
Certain that he could improve the French position in
Indochina, Navarre initially believed that success was imminent:
“Now we can see it clearly—like light at the end of the tunnel.”
In a more practical vein, Navarre hoped that he had discovered
a “mooring point” that would offer an ideal springboard from
which French forces could remove Vietminh guerrillas from
mountainous areas.64 He sought to ensnare the Vietminh in a
trap, with French soldiers in Tonkin and Cochinchina bearing
down on them. Navarre also wanted to close off the opium
trade, which the Vietminh relied on for money to purchase
arms. At the same time, Navarre anticipated that both Ho and
Giap would be compelled to respond to the challenge he was
posing. The fortress at Dienbienphu, Navarre believed, would
prove sufficiently enticing to attack but would be strong enough

to withstand such an assault. Anticipating air supremacy and an

advantage in artillery, Navarre envisioned raining death on
Vietminh attackers.
Beginning in late 1953, French pilots flying American planes
dropped thousands of elite paratroopers and vast amounts of
war matériel into the area. They joined other combat soldiers and
support personnel; a third of the French Expeditionary Corps
were members of the newly formed National Army of Bao Dai.
Others came from various parts of the French empire, including
Laos, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Syria. Also
present were Foreign Legionnaires from Germany, Italy, Spain,
Poland, and Eastern Europe. A small band of Americans was at
Dienbienphu; most of those Americans served as pilots for the
Civil Air Transport Company, which was based in Taiwan. A few
were active duty American military personnel, who, as journalist-
historian Bernard Fall saw it, were seeking to familiarize them-
selves with the area if U.S. air power were needed.
As the French buildup occurred, General Giap moved his
troops into position. Assisting them was an intricate transporta-
tion network involving both coolie (unskilled laborers usually
from the Far East) porters and a rebuilt major road that allowed
the passage of trucks and artillery. Some of the regiments trav-
eled across hundreds of miles of mountain trails. As Giap
reported, “Truck convoys valiantly crossed streams, mountains
and forests; drivers [faced] sleepless nights, to bring goods and
ammunition.” Furthermore, “our troops cut through mountains
and hacked away jungles to build roads and haul our artillery
pieces to the approaches of Dien Bien Phu. Where roads could
not be built, [cannons] were moved by nothing but the sweat and
muscle of our soldiers.”65 Giap could call on a main-force fight-
ing unit of 50,000 men backed by an equal number of support
personnel and assisted by 20,000 to 30,000 Chinese workers,
technicians, advisers, soldiers, and staff officers. The Soviets also
provided trucks, artillery, and financial assistance for Giap’s fight.
Meanwhile, both the Chinese and Soviets encouraged their
Vietminh allies to strive for a political solution to the dilemma
Dienbienphu 71

in Indochina. The Chinese heard French Premier Joseph Laniel,

annoyed by Bao Dai’s demand for full independence, proclaim
that his own country had “no reason to prolong its sacrifices if
the very people for whom they are being made disdain these sac-
rifices and betray them.”66 The war-weariness of the French
troubled the Chinese, who feared that a French pullout might
result in American intervention. Chinese Prime Minister Zhou
Enlai recognized that the United States posed a far greater threat
to China than did France. The Chinese therefore warned the
Vietminh to heed French peace efforts. The Soviets also hoped
that the war in Indochina could be resolved peacefully, in order
to curb East–West tensions. The Soviets particularly desired to
establish improved relations with the French, which, they hoped,
would convince France not to join the European Defense
Community, a plan that sought to integrate French and German
military units; that plan, to the dismay of the Soviet Union,
called for the rearming of West Germany. Undoubtedly respond-
ing to pressure from his allies, Ho Chi Minh had declared as
early as November 1953 that he would support the convening of
an international conference to discuss Vietnam.
France also decided that the war in Indochina could be dis-
cussed at such a forum. Plans were afoot to hold such a gather-
ing, which would begin on April 26, 1954 in Geneva, Switzerland.
A Five-Power Conference on Far Eastern Problems, to be
cochaired by Britain and the Soviet Union and includeing France,
China, and the United States, intended to discuss the now lengthy
war in Vietnam. Eisenhower and Dulles recognized that they
could not directly oppose efforts to bring about a peaceful reso-
lution of the French Indochina War. Moreover, in early January
1954, the president conveyed to the National Security Council his
opposition to sending American ground troops to Vietnam. At
the same time, he likened Southeast Asia to a “leaky dike” and
acknowledged that it was “sometimes better to put a finger in
than to let the whole structure wash away.”67
As the enemy buildup continued, Navarre received warnings
that the French position at Dienbienphu was not as impregnable

as he had anticipated. Intelligence reports indicated that large

numbers of Vietminh were gathering near the fortress, and
Navarre had already been informed that the continued resup-
plying of the French forces was inadequate. On February 25,
1954, the French chief of air staff attempted to convince Navarre
that the fortress should be evacuated. On the other side, Giap
ignored the call by Chinese advisers to initiate massive human
wave assaults. Instead, he adopted what he considered the “fun-
damental principle of the conduct of a revolutionary war: strike
to win, strike only when success is certain; if it is not, then don’t
strike.”68 Giap also planned to surround the French defenders in
a viselike grip of his own, penetrating ever deeper until an over-
whelming final assault would occur.


To further weaken the French position and undoubtedly in

something of a diversionary move, Giap conducted strikes in Lai
Chau province, Laos, and Dak To in Kon Tum province. This
compelled the French to send troops from the Red River Delta to
both Laos and the western highlands. Giap’s soldiers also wiped
out 78 French planes at airfields in Hanoi and attacked enemy
posts across Cochinchina, even attacking French ships in
Saigon’s harbor. Then, sometime between March 10 and 12,
both ground action and the initial shelling of one of the French
airstrips at Dienbienphu began. At 5:00 P.M. on March 13, Giap’s
larger artillery shells began falling on Him Lam Hill at
Dienbienphu, to the dismay and surprise of the French forces.
By boring into trenches, the Vietminh avoided much of the
French artillery fire and edged ever closer to the fortress. There
was fierce fighting for hilltops, with some taken and then battled
over again and again. French bunkers and trenches collapsed,
and Thai tribesmen defected to the Vietminh.
On March 26, General Paul Ely, the French chief of staff,
informed President Eisenhower, Secretary of State Dulles, and
Dienbienphu 73

As the Vietminh bombarded the French defenses at Dienbienphu, the besieged

troops were desperate for reinforcements. In an attempt to help the French
forces, these paratroopers were dropped at Dienbienphu in March 1954.

Admiral Arthur Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,

that Dienbienphu might soon be lost. At the battle site, the fight-
ing sometimes involved brutal hand-to-hand combat. In the
United States, American officials increasingly drew on the
domino theory. In a public address on March 29, Secretary of
State Dulles spoke about “The Threat of a Red Asia.” He declared,

Southeast Asia is astride the most direct and best developed

sea and air route between the Pacific and South Asia. It has
major naval and air bases. Communist control of Southeast
Asia would carry a grave threat to the Philippines, Australia
and New Zealand.... The entire Western Pacific area, includ-
ing the so-called “offshore island chain,” would be strategi-
cally endangered.69

Dulles pushed for something called “United Action,” a coali-

tion made up of the United States, Great Britain, France,
Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, and the
Associated States of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia),
to provide a defense shield for the region. President Eisenhower
announced that he could foresee no larger tragedy than for his
nation to become engaged in a major conflict in Indochina.
Indeed, back in 1951, Eisenhower had written in his diary that
he could envision no attainable military victory in such a mili-
tary theater.
Nevertheless, at a news conference on April 7, the president
discussed the possibility of U.S. intervention, noting that
Indochina was an important source of tin, tungsten, and rubber.
In addition, Eisenhower asserted, China had been lost to the
communists, and the United States simply could not tolerate
more such losses. Then he warned about what fate might be in
store for the region if Vietnam fell: “You have a row of dominoes
set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the
last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you
could have the beginning of a disintegration that would have the
most profound influences.” Eventually, Japan would fall under a
communist sign. Thus, “the possible consequences of the loss,”
Eisenhower declared, “are just incalculable to the free world.”70
The British, led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill,
responded with a critical perspective of their own. The British
Foreign Office warned Washington that the fortress at
Dienbienphu could not withstand the enemy assault. British
diplomats doubted whether a successful conclusion to the war
Dienbienphu 75

were possible. Churchill was perfectly willing to join a collective

security agreement after the sessions in Geneva, but he opposed
military intervention in Vietnam, fearing that it might result in
the deployment of Chinese troops. Anthony Eden worried about
possible American plans, no matter how idealistically drawn, to
replace the French in Vietnam. If that occurred, disaster loomed
ahead, Eden predicted.
The French delivered their own cutting analysis, declaring “a
warning” without military intervention to be in vain and might
further dampen French support for the war. The French also
were unwilling to accept American demands that they promise
to continue fighting while granting full independence to
Vietnam. Eisenhower and Dulles were infuriated by both the
French demands and by their insistence that the Americans
“come in as junior partners.”71 Members of Congress also
expressed concerns about heightened U.S. involvement, believ-
ing that once American military action was undertaken, land
troops would follow. Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy
insisted that military assistance alone would not defeat “an
enemy of the people which has the support and covert appeal of
the people.”72
Fearing that Dienbienphu might indeed be lost, Admiral
Radford called for implementing Operation Vulture, the
employment of American B-29s to quash the Vietminh artillery
guns, an operation that Vice President Richard M. Nixon sup-
ported. Earlier, Nixon had argued, “We have adopted a new prin-
ciple. Rather than let the communists nibble us to death all over
the world in little wars, we will rely in the future on massive,
mobile retaliatory forces.”73 Radford also suggested that if nec-
essary, atomic weapons should be considered for deployment.
This was not surprising, because Radford had suggested the
“New Look” approach that the Eisenhower administration
adopted. This approach urged reliance on nuclear weapons,
which would provide “more-bang-for-the buck.”74
Eisenhower, who still desired to assist the French, worried
about the possibility of the United States becoming mired in

another land war in Asia. Deflecting Radford’s request for the

time being, Eisenhower sent Dulles to seek support from
European allies. That effort proved useless, and General
Matthew Ridgway, the army chief of staff, expressed his opposi-
tion to the use of nuclear weapons. Ridgway also declared that
air strikes alone would not work: ground troops would be
required. Dulles soon told the French that no American inter-
vention would be forthcoming. Historian Melanie Billings-Yun
suggests that France was of mixed mind regarding greater U.S.
engagement in the war, hoping to rely on the threat of that very
possibility but worrying that it might actually take place. For his
part, Dulles, was displeased that the French had expressed a will-
ingness to negotiate with the other side. Vietnamese nationalists
such as brothers Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu were no
happier that such talks might be conducted.
As the fighting wore on, Giap had to contend with refusals to
obey orders, which began after the Vietminh endured terrible
losses. Encouraged by political officers, the Vietminh continued
to attack, clamping down on the French even more. On May 7,
Vietminh soldiers captured Castries, who had refused to surren-
der. The next morning, the French raised a white flag of surren-
der, thereby ending the 55-day battle. The French suffered 7,500
casualties, and 10,000 men ended up in captivity; more than half
the French prisoners of war did not survive their period of cap-
tivity. The Vietminh endured 25,000 casualties of their own.
Nevertheless, the battle of Dienbienphu resulted in a telling
victory for Ho and General Giap, whose forces wore down the
French soldiers and public. Recognizing the significant nature
of the conflict, Giap declared, “A colonized and weak people
once it has risen up and is united in the struggle and deter-
mined to fight for its independence and peace, has the full
power to defeat the strong aggressive army of an imperialist
country.”75 A French soldier who had fought at Dienbienphu
later explained to a reporter that he was told in a prison camp
the Vietminh had prevailed because they, in contrast to the
French, had fought for an ideal.
Dienbienphu 77

After the surrender of the French troops to the Vietminh on May 8, 1954, 10,000 French
troops became prisoners of war. Some of these captured men are shown being marched
across the field after their surrender at Dienbienphu. This defeat ended nearly a century of
French occupation of Indochina.

The day after the surrender at Dienbienphu, the delegates

involved in the Geneva Peace Conference began to closely exam-
ine the French Indochina War. The Vietminh now held control of
80 percent of the Vietnamese landscape, and the French remained
concentrated near Hanoi and Haiphong. Giap’s forces prevailed
throughout most of Tonkin and Annam, and in approximately
half of Cochinchina, including large portions of the Mekong River
Delta. The dire situation in Vietnam helped topple the French
government of Joseph Laniel, who on June 12 was replaced as
prime minister by Pierre Mendes-France. The new French leader
promised that a cease-fire would be obtained in Indochina, and
the Geneva Accords, signed on July 21, 1954, brought the war to
an official close. The eight-year-long French Indochina War had
taken the lives of approximately 95,000 French soldiers, 300,000
Vietminh, and 1,000,000 Vietnamese civilians.

The war ended inconclusively, with the decision made in

Geneva to divide Vietnam artificially at the 17th parallel, thereby
continuing the French practice of setting arbitrary borders for
the nation in defiance of Vietnamese nationalism. The demarca-
tion was intended to be temporary and actually ran just south of
the 17th parallel, from a point along the B River to the village of
Bo Ho Su and to the Vietnam border to the west. A demilitarized
zone (DMZ) extended for three miles on either side of the
demarcation line. Vietnam thus followed Korea in being saddled
with arbitrary borders, a by-product of both historical develop-
ments and the relatively new Cold War struggle.


T he signing of the Geneva Accords in late July 1954 pleased

few of the parties involved. On top of the indignities they
suffered during World War II, the French now endured the loss
of a major portion of their empire; this would lead them to fight
more fiercely to retain control of Algeria, another troubled spot.
Vietnamese associated with the State of Vietnam, ranging from
Bao Dai to Ngo Dinh Diem, considered the appalling loss of the
northern half of their country to the communist government
headed by Ho Chi Minh. Ho was no happier with the final
results, which were hardly in keeping with comrade Vo Nguyen
Giap’s successes on the battlefield. The Vietnamese communists
felt pressured by their big power allies, the Chinese and Soviets,
to accept the temporary partition at the 17th parallel. This was
not pleasing to the Vietminh, who remained determined to
reunite their country and remove the arbitrary borders identi-
fied with despised colonialism. The British appeared somewhat
more content with the decision that called for France’s departure
from an imperial possession; of course, Britain had recently
given up India, the jewel of its own empire, and had relinquished
other valuable lands as well.
The Americans, who refused to sign off on the Geneva
Accords, were also somewhat comfortable with the results and
the setting up of new borders inside Vietnam; at the same time,
they appreciated that the precedent established in Korea had
proven to be a troubling one. Both President Eisenhower and
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles recognized that Ho would
likely sweep to victory if reunification elections were held soon.
On the other hand, a 24-month period of delay, they anticipated,
would enable them to create a nation-state in the area south of
the 17th parallel. Thus, the Americans immediately began an
experiment in nation building in which they sought to support
a noncommunist government situated in Saigon that would
remain in control of the former Cochinchina and parts of the
area previously known as Annam. Only the region of Tonkin was
seemingly lost to the communists, or so American policymakers
hoped. By that stage, they did not believe that a rollback of the
A Divided Vietnam 81

This map of Indochina in 1954 shows the partition line between North and South
that was agreed upon by the parties who signed the Geneva Accord. This line, at
approximately the 17th parallel, did not satisfy anyone, but the communist
Vietnamese were particularly unhappy with it. Their ultimate goal remained the
reunification of their country.

communist takeover in the North was possible without conflict

that might draw in China or Russia and involve the use of
nuclear weapons.
Much depended on the creation of a viable nation–state in the
stretch of territory from just above Quang Tri to the tip of the
Mekong River Delta region. This area included much of
Vietnam’s most arable land, along with the ancient imperial cap-
ital of Hue, the port city of Danang, and the bustling metropo-
lis of Saigon, with the sweeping boulevards that had led some to
view the city as the Paris of the Orient. It soon became clear that
the Republic of South Vietnam, as the government entity in the
south came to be called, could draw on seemingly limitless sup-
port from the United States, the world’s richest nation.
All of this began to unfold despite the fact that those taking
part in the conference in Geneva hardly anticipated that the par-
titioning of Vietnam and setting up of arbitrary borders, which
followed the pattern established in Korea, would become per-
manent. They sought instead to develop a provisional military
demarcation “point, around which the various forces would
gather after they withdraw.” The initial plan called for Giap’s
forces to be situated north of the parallel and those of France
and its Vietnamese allies to be relocated to the south. Most of the
Geneva delegates, in contrast to the American representatives,
did not anticipate creating two separate states. Rather, they
hoped to prevent further fighting in Indochina by establishing a
300-day cooling-off period during which personnel would shift
from one region to the other if necessary. The two zones had the
right to self-defense, but neither was supposed to join any mili-
tary alliance, welcome additional soldiers or armaments, or
establish new military bases.
Moreover, neither side accepted the possibility of a permanent
division of their native land or the artificial border established at
the 17th parallel. The Geneva Accords called for consultations to
begin on July 20, 1955. Those, in turn, were to set the stage for
reunification elections, which were supposed to take place by the
following July and were to be overseen by an International
A Divided Vietnam 83

Control Commission, with representatives from the communist

bloc, the Western states, and the nonaligned nations. An end to
hostilities also had been called for in both Cambodia and Laos,
which were proclaimed fully autonomous states.
Ultimately, both sides, along with their allies, violated the terms
of the agreement carved out in Geneva. This would provide seeds
for another, deadlier conflict. Before that war began, the con-
tending parties jockeyed for position. Defying the expectations of
the delegates in Geneva, American officials believed that their
government would replace the French as the anticommunist bar-
rier in Indochina. Initially, the Americans hoped that Bao’s gov-
ernment would present a legitimate nationalist alternative to Ho.
In the process, the United States would help thwart communist
aggression and prevent Ho from controlling all of Vietnam.


The United States thus cast its lot with the Republic of
Vietnam, headed by Bao Dai. Despite their desire for Bao Dai to
create a viable government, American policymakers feared, as
they had for some time, that the former emperor hardly seemed
credible as a rival to Ho. There did exist another model for some
American officials: Ramon Magsaysay of the Philippines. That
charismatic figure was a skillful enough politician and reformer
that he, along with counterinsurgent activities, had helped sub-
due the communist-led Huk guerrillas. Colonel Edward Geary
Lansdale, a former advertising executive, had provided valuable
public relations advice to Magsaysay. Lansdale then went to
Vietnam, where he met up with a Vietnamese nationalist chosen
by the United States to become prime minister under Bao Dai:
Ngo Dinh Diem. A staunchly nationalist anticommunist, Diem
had refused to continue in a ministerial post under a govern-
ment he saw as too beholden to the French. He had also refused
to work with Ho and then left Vietnam in 1950, undoubtedly to
escape assassination at the hands of the Vietminh, a fate suffered
by one of his brothers.

In the wake of the apparent success in fostering an anticommunist demo-
cratic government in the Philippines and inconstructing arbitrary borders,
American policymakers believed that they could also create a viable nation-
state in the area south of the 17th parallel, another artificial partition estab-
lished by the demands of Cold War participants. As the policymakers saw it,
the United States was not a colonial power and had no designs of an impe-
rial cast in Southeast Asia. Rather, the United States only wanted to ensure
that the people in the southern part of Vietnam could experience economic
and political opportunities of the sort obviously denied to those living under
the Communist dictatorship in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. American
administrations from Truman onward denied that nationalist sentiments
associated with Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh existed, considering the
Northern regime, like the guerrillas in the South, to be part of an international
communist conspiracy.
Clearly, U.S. intentions in Vietnam appeared altruistic, or so the American
public was led to believe. As it turned out, however, not all Vietnamese, com-
munist or not, agreed with this perception of developments in Southeast Asia.
For many, the United States came to be viewed as a neocolonial power deter-
mined to continue the Western rule established by the French. Fair or not, the
United States was considered arrogant, and the attempts to create a govern-
ment in the South were seen as heavy-handed and oppressive. Fueling such
perceptions was the association of the United States with a series of unpop-
ular and repressive governments in the South. As events unfolded, the United
States never did uncover a Vietnamese version of Ramon Magsaysay but was
saddled instead with the Ngo Dinh Diem and his successors.

Not all were pleased with the decision to back Diem or the
experiment in nation building in South Vietnam, the direct by-
product of the arbitrary border allowed by the Geneva
Accords. A National Intelligence Estimate delivered in August
1954 to the Eisenhower administration warned that the likeli-
hood of establishing a viable government was “poor,” and the
Joint Chiefs of Staff indicated that it would be “hopeless” to
construct an army without a “reasonably strong, stable civil
government in control.”76 Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson
A Divided Vietnam 85

declared the situation “utterly hopeless” and suggested that the

United States should extricate itself “completely and as soon as
possible” or “nothing but grief ” loomed ahead.77 Another critic
of American actions in Vietnam was British author Graham
Greene, whose 1955 novel The Quiet American scathingly
indicted CIA-styled operations in that nation.
Over the next few years, Diem acquired some powerful allies,
including a number of key figures who would later be associ-
ated with an organization called American Friends of Vietnam.
These included Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas,
Cardinal Francis Spellman, and Democratic senators Mike
Mansfield, John F. (Jack) Kennedy, and Hubert Humphrey.
Diem became prime minister of Bao Dai’s government in June
1954. Also backing Diem was Colonel Lansdale, who conducted
a series of operations, drawing on funds supplied by the CIA.
Lansdale sent paramilitary operatives north of the 17th parallel
to cripple transportation networks in that region and to carry
out psychological warfare against Ho’s regime. The CIA joined
with South Vietnamese commandos in an effort to weaken Ho’s
hold on power. One of the major efforts involved encouraging
a mass exodus of Northerners southward across the DMZ.
Propaganda indicated that “Christ has gone to the South” and
that a bloodbath would be carried out by the communists.78
Under Operation Exodus, almost a million Vietnamese
migrated across the demarcation line, assisted by the U.S. navy
and the American government, which helped resettle those who
headed south.
Operation Exodus provided a base of support for Diem. Many
of the refugees were, like Diem, both Catholics and staunch
opponents of the Vietminh. Several had worked for the French-
controlled government or had been soldiers in the auxiliary
forces. A large number of these Northern transplants would
become officials in Diem’s government or serve in his military
units. Not all were pleased with this state of affairs: some com-
plained that “Vietnamese Catholics are the claws by which the
French crab has been able to crawl across and devour our

land.”79 Little troubled by such a charge, Diem established a

regional defense group that viewed the partition of Vietnam as
exactly what the delegates at Geneva had warned against: a per-
manent political boundary, and he was pleased when the United
States spearheaded the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty
Organization (SEATO), an anticommunist alliance joined by
Great Britain, France, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand,
Pakistan, and Thailand.
Fearing that Ho would win the scheduled reunification elec-
tions, American officials also strove to ensure that such an event
would not occur. Secretary of State Dulles encouraged Diem to
insist on election safeguards that Ho could not accept. Diem
went further, refusing even to explore the matter with his com-
munist counterpart. Then, on August 9, 1954, he declared that
the planned elections would not occur as long as the commu-
nists continued to rule north of the 17th parallel.
As unrest threatened in the region south of the demarcation
line, the Eisenhower administration began to question whether
it should continue to back Diem or seek another anticommunist
alternative. In 1955, however, Diem began to quash the Cao Dai
and Hoa Hao religious sects, both of which possessed their own
militias, and the Binh Xuyen criminal gang, which controlled
gambling, prostitution, and opium rackets in the South. Diem
then held a national referendum to decide if South Vietnam
should be ruled by Bao or by himself. With 600,000 ballots
reportedly cast—although only 400,000 voters were eligible to
cast them—Diem won 98.2 percent of the vote.
Diem soon insisted on the removal of the last French troops,
declaring that their presence was incompatible with Vietnamese
independence. In deference to American complaints, he created
a legislative assembly in 1956. This assembly was dominated by
Diem and his brother and right-hand man, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who
headed a succession of police and paramilitary units. Once Diem
had established himself as the strong man of South Vietnam, the
United States backed him fully, helping build the Army of the
Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). Now, Senator Kennedy, conjuring
A Divided Vietnam 87

up the image of an artificial border, referred to South Vietnam as

the “finger in the dike” preventing “the red tide of Communism”
from enveloping Southeast Asia.80
As Diem solidified his power south of the 17th parallel, in the
North, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam continued to be
dominated by such communist leaders as Ho, Truong Chinh,
Pham Van Dong, and Vo Nguyen Giap; thus, the presence of arbi-
trary borders continued to beset the people of Vietnam. The party
leadership sought to industrialize North Vietnam by nationalizing
former French enterprises and turning commercial establish-
ments previously run by Vietnamese into producer cooperatives.
In adopting an austerity plan, North Vietnam seemingly
offered little improvement in the everyday lives of the people.
Still, a concerted effort at land reform, with small plots of land
distributed to landless peasants, was also integral to the eco-
nomic program. Those peasants, it was hoped, would produce
surplus crops, resulting in profits that would enable them to
purchase factory goods. As the land reform unfolded, many saw
fit to settle old scores, and doctrinaire party members vilified
landlords and wealthier peasants. This resulted in thousands
being jailed or murdered, and it eventually compelled Ho to dis-
card the program and issue a public apology. Despite the some-
times tragic mistakes made by his party leaders, Ho, in contrast
to Diem in the South, retained the allegiance of the vast major-
ity of people in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
The repressive nature of the regime in the South ensured that
Diem was unable to do the same there. Not helping matters was
the skewed nature of economic development that occurred, a
phenomenon intensified by the receipt of nearly one billion dol-
lars in aid from the United States from 1955 to 1959. The bulk of
that financial assistance helped finance military and paramilitary
operations, not industrial or entrepreneurial activities, in the
South. Despite such aid, the ARVN forces were hardly stellar.
Their performance was tainted by Diem’s rampant favoritism,
corruption, insistence on loyalty to Diem rather than battlefield
accomplishments, and the perception that the officer corps—
many of whom had supported the French—lacked patriotism.

Also not helping matters was that in contrast to the commu-

nist government in the North, Diem’s regime failed to undertake
land reform, actually returning lands that the Vietminh had dis-
tributed to peasants to their previous owners. Thus, Diem
moved to restore arbitrary boundaries of a socioeconomic cast
that the French had inflicted on his countrymen, a move that did
not endear him to many.
Perhaps worst of all, Diem and Nhu headed a government
that proved to be highly undemocratic, despite attempts by
American officials to portray that regime in a different light.
Once in power, Diem undertook a systematic campaign, led by
Nhu, to wipe out the Vietminh who remained in the South.
Executions increased, as did the number of individuals placed
in concentration camps, where they were supposed to be “reedu-
cated.” Diem ruled with an iron fist, calling on the Can Lao, a
secret organization that dug deep roots throughout South
Vietnam. In a move that alienated many and violated longstand-
ing practices, Diem refused to allow village councils to be elected
by local communities, instead appointing officials beholden to
him. Diem angered ethnic tribes when he allowed settlements in
the Central Highlands. He infuriated some peasants whom he
compelled to relocate to enclosed agrovilles (where peasants were
placed in secure enclaves), often far removed from ancestral
grounds. Ordinance No. 6, issued by Diem, allowed the govern-
ment to arrest anyone viewed as a security threat. The later pas-
sage of Law 10/59 in May 1959, intended to eradicate the
Vietminh “stay-behinds,” set up special military courts, complete
with guillotines, to handle any individual who committed or
sought to commit crimes against Diem’s regime.
Diem believed that the greatest threat to his regime was the
possibility of a conventional attack by North Vietnamese forces
across the 17th parallel or through Vietnam’s neighbors to the
west, Laos and Cambodia. He therefore stationed troops just
below the demilitarized zone. At this stage, however, it was a new
guerrilla movement, not regular army units from the North, that
Diem had to confront.
A Divided Vietnam 89

After the July 1956 date for reunification elections passed,

Vietminh leaders in the south began to strike back. Shortly
thereafter, other Vietminh who had migrated north across the
17th parallel after the signing of the Geneva Accords returned to
do battle against Diem’s regime. Initially, Ho and the
Communist Party leadership in Hanoi refused to support armed
insurrection. As Diem’s repressive actions intensified, however,
the Communist Party shifted course, backing guerrilla action
against the South Vietnamese government. Beginning in the late
1950s, Southern leaders resorted to the politics of assassination,
murdering hundreds of local government officials. Individuals
viewed as corrupt were among those targeted, as were officials
considered to be doing a good job. Diem responded by denounc-
ing the guerrillas as communists, derisively referring to them as
Vietcong (VC: meaning Vietnamese communists); the Americans
did likewise. In reality, the Southern insurgency was rooted in
indigenous grievances but was soon spearheaded by the
Communist Party leadership in North Vietnam.
In May 1959, the Communist Party leaders in the North began
building the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, an intricate network
of mountain and jungle pathways that darted along the eastern-
most sectors of Laos and Cambodia, enabling North Vietnamese
soldiers to cross into South Vietnam. The very idea of that trail
challenged the survival of the artificial border at the 17th parallel
established in Geneva. Men and matériel began pouring down
south, helping fuel the insurgency there. The communist leader
in the South, Le Duan, ordered guerrillas to disperse when the
enemy massed, to harass when the enemy passed by, to withdraw
when the enemy advanced, and to mass when the enemy dis-
persed. In December 1960, Southern guerrillas established the
National Liberation Front, which urged the setting up of a coali-
tion government and the eventual obliteration of the temporary
division at the 17th parallel. Late the next year, communist forces
established the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG).
American officials again became doubtful about the effec-
tiveness of Ngo Dinh Diem. Starting in May 1959, American

advisers joined military missions conducted by ARVN forces.

American military figures began to recognize that the guerrilla
activity posed the greatest threat to Diem’s regime, leading to
greater emphasis on counterinsurgency. At the same time, how-
ever, few reforms were enacted that might have improved the
chances for a successful government in the South. Then, in
November 1960, Diem prevented a coup attempt undertaken by
discontented military officers.
The new administration of President John F. Kennedy, which
came to power in Washington, D.C., in January 1961, appeared
determined to battle guerrilla forces in Vietnam and elsewhere.
A mere two weeks before Kennedy took office, Soviet Premier
Nikita S. Khrushchev proclaimed support for wars of national
liberation, the kind waged so recently in Vietnam, Cuba, and
Algeria, and that threatened to break out in other hot spots
around the globe. Kennedy hoped that economic support and
the aid provided by the newly created Peace Corps, which sent
educated Americans to provide technical and educational assis-
tance to poorer lands, would make a difference. He also believed
in the need to contain communist-inspired revolutions: thus his
focus on counterinsurgent agents such as the Green Berets.
Initially heeding warnings from the outgoing president,
Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kennedy worried that Laos might fall
under communist control, triggering a domino effect on sur-
rounding states; indeed, Eisenhower had referred to Laos as the
“cork in the bottle.”81 Thus, American policymakers believed
that Laos, like Vietnam, required artificial barriers to prevent
communist subversion.
As it turned out, Kennedy worked to bring about a coalition
government in Laos, but Vietnam proved to be the most dan-
gerous spot in the region. Reading a report by the now General
Lansdale, Kennedy recognized that the revolts in South Vietnam
endangered Diem’s government. Lansdale worried that the col-
lapse of South Vietnam would be “a major blow to U.S. prestige
and influence, not only in Asia but throughout the world.”82
Kennedy responded by increasing American economic aid and
A Divided Vietnam 91

the number of military advisers the United States sent to the

region. The president also authorized covert operations that
took place north of the 17th parallel. These included support for
South Vietnamese commando units and efforts to sabotage
installations in the North. At the same time, the Pentagon indi-
cated that eight ARVN divisions were required to safeguard both
the demilitarized zone and the Central Highlands.
Kennedy began to consider the possibility of committing
American ground troops to Vietnam, something he and others
had once opposed. Over the course of his 33-month administra-
tion, which ended abruptly with his assassination in November
1963, Kennedy increased the number of American advisers in
Vietnam from about 800 to more than 16,000. He justified this
buildup—known as “Project Beef-Up”—which apparently vio-
lated the 1954 Geneva Accords, as a response to North
Vietnamese encroachments of those same accords. Kennedy also
encouraged American representatives in Saigon to convince
Diem of the need for genuine political and economic reforms,
which the South Vietnamese leader refused to enact. The
Kennedy administration sought to create new fortified settle-
ments—now referred to as strategic hamlets—and resorted to
the use of napalm and chemical defoliants (chemicals that made
the leaves fall off plants) that destroyed to plant, animal, and
human life.
The increased American involvement temporarily appeared to
boost the morale of the South Vietnamese military. The opposi-
tion to Diem, however, continued to mount in the countryside,
where greater numbers of peasants refused to pay taxes and
failed to report for induction into ARVN units. Meanwhile, the
guerrillas, fueled in part by perceptions about the repressive and
corrupt nature of the Diem government, appeared to multiply.
In contrast, the guerrillas received support, particularly when
they carried out land reform in territories they dominated.
The ARVN forces, backed by the United States, drove some
peasants into strategic hamlets, often at the point of a gun, and
often dealt with them in a fashion that failed to discriminate

This family portrait of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his family was taken in Saigon in 1963,
the same year that his regime was overthrown. Diem (second from the left, standing) and
his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu (left, standing) were subsequently murdered in the year this pho-
tograph was taken. The woman seated is Diem’s mother, shown with her grandchildren, the
children of Nhu and his wife.

between guerrillas and civilians. This enabled the guerrillas to

wage an effective propaganda campaign through which they
declared their fight to be against feudalism and imperialism,
both associated with the Diem regime. They dismissively decried
him as beholden to the Americans, resulting in the denigrating
phrase, “My Diem.” At the time, a group of young American
journalists, including David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan,
warned that optimistic reports presented by U.S. military offi-
cials were sorely exaggerated.
A series of setbacks began to befall Diem. In early January
1963, a Vietcong battalion battered a large ARVN unit at the
Battle of Ap Bac, in the Mekong Delta 50 miles outside Saigon.
The VC killed 61 ARVN soldiers and shot down five helicopters,
which had previously instilled great fear among many of the guer-
rillas. As opposition to Diem soared, religious discontent, encour-
aged by a sense that Diem favored Catholics over the Buddhist
A Divided Vietnam 93

majority, led to an attack on a religious procession in Hue that

resulted in nine deaths. Buddhist-inspired protests surged forth,
with a series of self-immolations attracting worldwide attention.
Ngo Dinh Nhu ordered his Special Forces to attack a series of
pagodas, producing more casualties and outrage.
Finally, on November 1, military officers encouraged by the
new American ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot
Lodge, ousted Diem, who had attempted to rule as a neo-
Confucian dictator. To Kennedy’s dismay, Diem and his brother
Nhu were subsequently murdered, bringing the United States’
experiment in nation building in Southeast Asia to an inglorious
end. That was assured when, only three weeks after the over-
throw of Diem, an assassin killed President Kennedy.
As 1963 neared its end, the United States had invested a great
amount of material resources, along with the lives of more than
100 of its soldiers, in an effort to sustain a nation–state in the
southern half of Vietnam. President Eisenhower refused to allow
promised reunification elections, opting instead to back Diem
and the plan to carve out an independent, noncommunist gov-
ernment in the South. Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy,
opted for a similar approach, at least until the end of Diem’s
regime. Neither president questioned the appropriateness of a
divided Vietnam, choosing instead to view that country as
another chapter in the Cold War saga that produced artificial
boundaries of various sorts. Some were territorial in nature, but
all, to a large extent, were shaped by ideological, cultural, and
political differences that pitted the East against the West.

of the War
The Americanization of the War 95

D isturbed by infiltration from across the DMZ, Secretary of

Defense Robert McNamara, formerly president of the
Ford Motor Company and an ardent believer in the superior-
ity of American technology, proposed the building of an elec-
tronic barrier that would sustain the arbitrary border
established more than a decade earlier in Geneva. The
“McNamara Line,” it was hoped, would make reliance on the
Ho Chi Minh Trail more difficult.
In the spring of 1966, McNamara asked the Pentagon to
explore the possibility of devising “an iron-curtain counterinfil-
tration barrier across northern South Vietnam and Laos from
the South China Sea to Thailand.”83 The Joint Chiefs of Staff did
not like McNamara’s idea, having already questioned the practi-
cality of such a barrier. In addition, they believed that it would
prove to be a “visible, fixed, long-term” violation of diplomatic
agreements. Thus, the U.S. military chiefs worried about an elec-
tronic barrier’s impact on the arbitrary border at the 17th paral-
lel established at the Geneva Conference.84
Nevertheless, responding to McNamara’s directive, the Joint
Chiefs devised a plan, as historian John Prados reports:

The concept provided for a cleared path, or “trace,” five hun-

dred yards wide, from which all vegetation had been
removed, sowed with mines or other devices. The trace was to
parallel the north side of Route 9 and have barbed-wire
entanglements along its perimeters. Behind the trace would
be an electrified fence, and behind that, watchtowers or
bunkers for observation of the barrier area. Reserve bases
would be located at intervals along the 225-mile length of the
barrier. A less developed barrier would also be placed along
the south side of Route 9 for a total length of 120 miles to pro-
tect from rear attack at key points.85

Such a barrier, the Joint Chiefs warned, would take three com-
plete divisions, years to build, and a vast amount of construction
material. It would serve as an impediment only to thrusts by
large numbers of NVA troops and would fail to prevent seaborne

assaults or those initiated in Cambodia. Joint Chiefs Chairman

Earle Wheeler criticized the McNamara plan, arguing that its
reliance on too many troops would weaken American military
power. General William Westmoreland; Admiral Ulysses S.
Grant Sharp Jr.; and other top military figures also condemned
the idea.
During the summer of 1966, the JASON Group of the
Institute for Defense Analysis presented to Secretary McNamara
its own report regarding an electronic barrier. This study did not
highlight the need for large numbers of troops up and down the
line but instead called for “ground and air barriers with defenses
limited to those under the DMZ, and a remote-controlled block
on the Laotian side of the border, enforced by aircraft, artillery
fire, and area-denial weapons such as mines.”86
Pleased with the JASON report, McNamara instructed the
Joint Chiefs to construct it within a year, with secrecy surround-
ing the project, called Joint Task Force 728. The Joint Chiefs
quickly indicated that this program should not replace other
military plans, but McNamara convinced President Johnson to
deliver a National Security Action Memorandum, NSAM-358,
which gave the barrier the highest priority. Laotian leader
Souvanna Phouma requested information from U.S.
Ambassador William H. Sullivan. As the ambassador indicated,
“Specifically he wanted to know if we intended to attempt to seal
the DMZ hermetically. Were we going to clear a strip, put in
minefields, barbed wire, control towers, etc., ‘line the Iron
Curtain.’” Moreover, Souvanna asked if the barrier would reach
to the border with Thailand. Secretary of State Dean Rusk
informed Sullivan that the question of the barrier’s reach
remained “an open question.” On further discussion, Souvanna
warned Sullivan that the barrier would not be “watertight.”87
Responding to continued resistance from the Joint Chiefs,
McNamara, who remained determined to solidify the border at
the 17th parallel, revised the plans for the electronic barrier, sub-
mitting the latest version to President Johnson in January 1967.
Now, the barrier began “from the coast below the Demilitarized
The Americanization of the War 97

Zone (DMZ).” At that location, which had experienced infiltra-

tion by the NVA, the new plan called for “strongpoints of com-
pany-size backing up the trace plus observation towers. At key
terrain features would be even bigger bases manner by full bat-
talions.” Those stations would be dispersed in central Vietnam
and the foothills.88
Opposition to the electronic barrier continued. One civilian
consultant, Richard S. Greeley, insisted that a series of events
would have to take place for air strikes to knock out North
Vietnamese supply troops heading down the Ho Chi Minh Trail
and passing over the artificial boundary of the 17th parallel.
This, chemist Greeley suggested, was unlikely to occur. When
pressure was brought to bear, Greeley produced a more favor-
able estimate. Subsequent tests proved ineffective but were nev-
ertheless deemed a success.


As the United States came to supplant the French as the lead-

ing Western power involved with Vietnamese affairs, charges of
American “imperialism” took hold. Certainly, the American
presence intensified, because of the concern that communism
not be allowed to envelop the former jewel of French Indochina.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the new man in the
White House remained determined that his country not “lose
another one” to the communists. Indeed, shortly after taking
office, Lyndon Baines Johnson asserted that he was not going to
be known as the president who allowed Southeast Asia to “fall”
as China had. Johnson received advice from a group of self-
assured men, such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara,
Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Advisor
Walter Rostow, a group that the journalist David Halberstam
would ironically refer to as “the best and the brightest.”89
Under Johnson’s watch, the limited nature of U.S. involvement
in the war began to be discarded. The death of Diem had not led
to improved conditions in South Vietnam, as had been hoped

for, but rather heightened political instability. The Communist

Party leaders in the North called for an escalation of activities
south of the 17th parallel. The party’s Central Committee
declared, “We must strive to attain victory step by step and grad-
ually push back the enemy before reaching the General Offensive
and Uprising to win complete victory.”90
U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge warned the State
Department that neutralism, an ever-present danger in South
Vietnam, could lead to the disintegration of anticommunist
forces there, eventual reunification with the North, and commu-
nist victories throughout the region. Convinced that a failure to
demonstrate American support for the government in Saigon
could produce such results, Johnson steadily increased the level
of American engagement in the war. The Joint Chiefs of Staff
considered the battle in South Vietnam the first genuine test of
the U.S. commitment to suppress communist-inspired wars of
national liberation. Johnson also continued Kennedy’s attempt
to take the war to the North, conducting unpublicized raids
across the 17th parallel. Such covert activities were part of
Operation Plan 34-Alpha.
After a pair of skirmishes involving American destroyers sup-
posedly took place in the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson upped the
ante, unleashing American planes to bomb North Vietnam sites.
Later it was indicated that the second destroyer incident proba-
bly never took place, but reports of strikes against the American
ships led to the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which
gave Johnson, as he saw it, virtual carte blanche (full discre-
tionary power) to wage the war in Vietnam.
Only two members of Congress, senators Wayne Morse of
Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, voted against the meas-
ure, although others would soon offer similar critiques. Gruening
had declared previously, “All Vietnam is not worth the life of a
single American boy.... The United States is seeking vainly in this
remote jungle to shore up self-serving corrupt dynasties or their
self-imposed successors, and a people that has demonstrated that
it has no will to save itself.”91 Now he condemned the sending of
The Americanization of the War 99

“American boys into combat in a war in which we have no busi-

ness,” and Morse charged that future generations would rue
“such a historic mistake.”
Though little heeded at the time, the admonitions of the two
legislators suggested, even at this relatively early point, that
President Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam could pro-
duce a new kind of artificial chasm: impassioned disagreement
regarding U.S. foreign policy that would fracture the Cold War
consensus and divide the American people in a manner they had
not experienced since the Civil War.92


In late 1964 and early 1965, Vietcong attacked American tar-

gets in Vietnam. Coupled with warnings that the situation of the
government in Saigon remained precarious, Johnson again
decided that forceful action was necessary. In February 1965,
Johnson ordered a systematic bombing campaign against North
Vietnam in an effort to compel the communist leaders in Hanoi
to “cry uncle” and withdraw support for the guerrillas in the
South. Almost immediately thereafter, Johnson introduced the
land forces other American leaders had worried might be
planted in Southeast Asia. The result was another bloody quag-
mire, both similar to and quite different from the one that had
taken place in Korea. Once again, a splintered nation, with a
demarcation line, was torn apart more fully as it became
ensnared in Cold War developments.
As had occurred in Korea, a war would be waged in Vietnam
largely to ensure that an arbitrary border remained in place;
in the case of Vietnam at least, it happened with seeming dis-
regard for the will and the well-being of the people. Once
again, key American figures were divided regarding how the
war should be waged, with some viewing the Vietnam War as
the embodiment of the containment ideal and others hoping
that the conflict would result in the liberation of the North
from communist tyranny.

On April 8, 1965, as Operation Rolling Thunder continued

and American ground troops conducted sweeps, North
Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong proclaimed “four points”
supposedly derived from the Geneva Accords. Those points
required, in his estimation, recognition of Vietnamese auton-
omy and territorial integrity—which urged an end to the arbi-
trary borders established in 1954—along with the termination of
all American military action in Vietnam. The points also called
for acceptance of that agreement’s prohibition of the introduc-
tion of foreign military bases or the establishment of military
alliances with other nations, for the shaping of internal affairs in
the South according to the designs of the National Liberation
Front, and for reunification of the Vietnamese people. Pham Van
Dong’s “four points” demanded the termination of the artificial
boundary established near Vietnam’s midsection 11 years earlier.
As American involvement in Vietnam escalated, opposition to
the war on the home front did as well. In the spring of 1965,
teach-ins, in which discussion of the conflict occurred, took
place on university campuses. At the same time, demonstrations
in the street cropped up, with Washington, D.C. the scene of the
largest antiwar gathering in American history, when 25,000 peo-
ple congregated in mid-April to hear speakers denounce U.S.
policy. In the period ahead, demonstrations became even larger,
and the antiwar movement employed different tactics to chal-
lenge U.S. actions in Vietnam.
Attempting to deflect criticism of his administration, President
Johnson expressed his readiness to go wherever necessary at any
point if that would help bring about an honorable peace. At the
same time, the pace and scale of U.S. operations in Vietnam
heightened, something the president attempted, in a fashion, to
keep concealed from the American public. Nevertheless, by the
end of the year, there were 185,000 American troops stationed in
Vietnam. Johnson’s refusal to explain fully the heightened nature
of U.S. involvement ensured that another kind of artificial divi-
sion emerged, one that involved a battle for the hearts and minds
of the American people.
The Americanization of the War 101

Throughout the 1960s opposition to American involvement in Vietnam escalated at home

with teach-ins, demonstrations, and antiwar rallies. Despite President Johnson’s promise
that he was working for peace, thousands of new troops were continually sent to war,
including the U.S. First Calvary Air Mobile division pictured here approaching the Vietnam
beach in 1965.

Despite the intensified nature of American engagement, the

situation in the region south of the 17th parallel failed to
improve. As had occurred since the removal of Ngo Dinh Diem,
regimes came and went, until Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky
and General Nguyen Van Thieu became the dominant political
figures in South Vietnam. Like Diem and other predecessors, Ky
and Thieu failed to adopt the kind of reforms that might have
lessened support for the Vietcong. Instead, the new South
Vietnamese leaders seemed willing to do America’s bidding, at
least as far as accepting greater numbers of foreign troops and
allowing the United States to conduct the bombing campaigns it
considered necessary.

That did not endear Ky and Thieu to the vast majority of the
civilian populace in South Vietnam, who were increasingly
caught in the crossfire of a brutal war that appeared both civil
and colonial in nature. American policies were unpopular too,
particularly General William Westmoreland’s emphasis on
search-and-destroy missions, body counts, free fire zones
where pilots could strafe whatever targets they considered
essential, and the production of ever-greater numbers of
refugees forced into overpopulated slums in urban centers
throughout the South. For Westmoreland, the United States
and its South Vietnamese ally had to wage a “war of attrition”
against the enemy.
Few people in the Johnson administration proved willing to
challenge the president’s Vietnam policy. One who did so was
Undersecretary of State George Ball, who warned the president
in mid-1965:

No one has demonstrated that a white ground force of what-

ever size can win a guerrilla war—which is at the same time a
civil war between Asians—in jungle terrain in the midst of a
population that refuses cooperation to the white forces (and
the South Vietnamese) and thus provides a great intelligence
advantage to the other side.93

Clark Clifford, who had advised Democratic presidents since

Truman, worried about the potential cost of expanded American
operations. He predicted, “If we lose 50,000 men there, it will be
a catastrophe for the country. Five years, billions of dollars, hun-
dreds of thousands of men—this is not for us.”94
By 1966—the year American deployment figures in Vietnam
surged to 365,000—additional critics within the ranks of the so-
called “Establishment,” those in power, emerged. These included
J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who headed the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee and began holding televised hearings into
American operations in Vietnam. Fulbright spoke and wrote
about “the arrogance of power” that characterized U.S. dealings
in Southeast Asia.95 Delivering critical testimony before his
The Americanization of the War 103

Despite intensified fighting, the situation in South Vietnam failed to improve in

the mid-1960s and both American and South Vietnamese forces suffered con-
siderable casualties. Here, a South Vietnamese soldier waits to be evacuated
while kneeling with a row of dead soldiers.

committee were George Kennan, the author of the doctrine of

containment, and former generals David Shoup, James Gavin,
and Matthew Ridgway. Kennan indicated that he never intended
for his theory to be applied globally or in an exclusively military

fashion, and Gavin suggested the United States had devoted an

overabundance of resources to Vietnam.
More heated rhetoric could be heard on college and university
campuses, where New Left groups such as Students for a
Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC) expressed disdain for the war.
Both organizations also offered support for young men who
desired to file with the Selective Service as conscientious objec-
tors. Dissent cropped up even within the ranks of the U.S. armed
forces, with the Fort Hood Three, a trio of enlisted men, declar-
ing that they refused to participate in an “unjust, immoral, and
illegal war.”96
The Johnson administration was also criticized by those who
believed that U.S. policy was too timid. Both John P. McConnell,
the Air Force chief of staff, and Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp,
Jr., the navy’s commander in chief in the Pacific, called for the
president to bomb the North more heavily, striking military
bases, industrial plants, and transportation networks. Many
slammed the concept of limited war, which Johnson seemed to
be applying in Vietnam. General Curtis LeMay believed that the
United States should bomb cities and target dikes rather than
pummel only military and industrial centers.
Ironically, American ground and air operations in South
Vietnam led to charges that the United States was employing fire-
power indiscriminately. The use of herbicides to prevent guerril-
las from employing the countryside as a sanctuary increased;
Agent Orange was the most popular. The reliance on B-52s ini-
tially appeared to make a difference, thoroughly frightening both
civilians and combatants. With the passage of time, however, the
Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers, often heading down the
Ho Chi Minh Trail, began to adjust to the terrible noises, even as
500-pound bombs pockmarked the Vietnamese landscape.
Historians James S. Olson and Randy Roberts argue that
American policymakers continued to resort to bombing because
it was less expensive, in terms of resources expended and lives
lost, than ground operations. Secretary of Defense Robert
The Americanization of the War 105

McNamara, however, had envisioned an electronic barrier to

prevent enemy forces from crossing the 17th parallel into South
Vietnam, so American marines laid out “a twenty-five-mile bull-
dozed strip of jungle complete with acoustic sensors, land mines,
infrared intrusion detectors, booby traps, and electronic wires
along the northern border of South Vietnam.”97 Opposition from
the military doomed the project. North Vietnamese General Tran
Do asked, “What is the use of barbed wire fences and electronic
barriers when we can penetrate even Tan Son Nhut air base out-
side Saigon?”98 McNamara eventually resorted to the building of
a batch of American firebases along the DMZ.
The type of warfare waged in Vietnam began to wear down
American soldiers, 475,000 of whom were stationed in that
country by 1967; 550,000 would be there by the following sum-
mer. Considerably younger on average than World War II–era
combatants, these men, an increasing number of whom were
drafted (forced into military service), contended with 12 or 13-
month tours of duty in which they effectively rotated in and
then out of Vietnam alone.
The infantrymen, or “grunts” as they were known, had it
worst. They had to endure searing heat and biting rainy cold,
debilitating levels of humidity, swamps, jungles, mountainous
terrain, malaria, dysentery, poisonous insects and snakes, traps,
feces-tinged sticks, and homemade incendiary devices.
Confronting them were battle-hardened Vietminh veterans and
fresh recruits who seemed to have more of a sense of why they
were fighting—for land, for country, to expel outside domi-
nance, to overthrow the regime in Saigon, to cut down the arbi-
trary border that splintered their nation—than their American
counterparts. As the Vietminh had against the French, the com-
munist-backed Vietcong and North Vietnamese army troops
often seemed to pick and choose when they were willing to fight.
They were generally more able to draw on support from villagers
than could the ARVN or American soldiers.
Nevertheless, enemy casualties mounted through 1967.
Westmoreland’s search-and-destroy operations seemed to

succeed, at least in terms of producing more dead VC. When a

thrust by NVA forces just below the DMZ at Con Thien resulted
in a thunderous response from American B-52s, Westmoreland
claimed, “It was Dienbienphu in reverse,” because the NVA
reportedly suffered 2,000 casualties.99
Thus, by the end of 1967, General Westmoreland’s strategy of
attrition appeared to be succeeding, or so he informed the
American people on his return home, declaring that “an impor-
tant point” in the war had reached. As Westmoreland insisted,
“The enemy’s hopes are bankrupt.”100 American and South
Vietnamese forces had driven the Vietcong into remote sections
of Vietnam or across the border into Cambodia while pushing
NVA soldiers away from central and northern border areas. By
all accounts, the enemy troops had suffered heavy casualties.
At the same time, however, the VC and NVA still controlled
the pace of fighting. Moreover, the policy of attrition produced
more negative results still, with the rural economy crumbling
and the number of civilian casualties and refugees growing. The
failure to establish a truly representative government in the
South hardly helped matters. All of this ensured that the United
States was not accomplishing what it needed to in this fight: to
win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese population. As a
consequence, the attempt to create a viable South Vietnamese
state, which would have made the artificial boundary established
at the 17th parallel genuine, failed.
It was increasingly clear that something similar was taking
place back home, where opposition to the manner in which this
first televised war was being waged intensified. The artificial
divisions in the United States, like the conflict several thousand
miles away, thus continued to intensify. So-called “hawks” (those
who supported the war) demanded more forceful action, but
attention was focused more and more on the “doves” (those who
opposed the war), many of whom challenged American involve-
ment altogether. In the spring of 1967, massive antiwar rallies
occurred in New York City and San Francisco, and Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr., the great civil rights leader, condemned the
The Americanization of the War 107

United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world

today.”101 The Resistance, a new antidraft movement, called for
young men to refuse to register with the Selective Service. In

The scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the Vietnam War, Khe Sanh is
a valley encircled by mountains, located a half-dozen miles from the Laotian
border and 14 miles from the demilitarized zone. In the summer of 1962, the
U.S. Military Assistance Command instructed a Special Forces unit to join
ARVN forces in setting up a surveillance camp outside the village of Khe
Sanh. Operating out of a base constructed in the valley, U.S. Study and
Observation Groups conducted a series of reconnaissance missions into Laos
to check out enemy infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail near the border
drawn at the 17th parallel; those missions were designed to reinforce that
boundary. As the number of NVA troops coming down the trail increased in
1966, General Westmoreland ordered American Marines to build a base of
their own at Khe Sanh.
During the next spring, NVA fighters attacked a team of Marines west of
Khe Sanh. A firestorm of criticism resulted after a rescue patrol suffered
heavy losses because of the faulty performance of their M16 rifles. That
same period witnessed a series of assaults by Marines on the hills around
Khe Sanh, where tough, hand-to-hand fighting occurred. Later that year,
intelligence reports indicated that 25,000 to 40,000 NVA soldiers were gath-
ering for a major assault. General Westmoreland believed that the 6,000 U.S.
Marines stationed at Khe Sanh, along with massive firepower, could with-
stand an enemy offensive.
On January 22, 1968, the Battle of Khe Sanh began. Fearing that another
Dienbienphu would result, Westmoreland and President Johnson remained
determined that Khe Sanh would not fall. The U.S. forces relied heavily on
B-52s to pound enemy forces. Undoubtedly designed by the NVA as a diver-
sionary move, the attack on Khe Sanh soon was overshadowed by the Tet
Offensive. In March, the NVA units called off the siege of Khe Sanh; three
months later, General Creighton Abrams, the new commander of U.S. forces
in Vietnam, ordered the closing of American bases in Khe Sanh, which were
intended to maintain the border along the DMZ. The fight for Khe Sanh and
the Tet Offensive graphically demonstrated the artificiality of the border divid-
ing North and South Vietnam.

mid-October, street fighting broke out in Oakland, and in

Washington, D.C., thousands of demonstrators encircled the
Pentagon, the symbol of the American military establishment.
Then, beginning in late January 1968, North Vietnamese and
Vietcong forces combined to initiate the Tet Offensive, in which
provincial capitals and all the major cities in South Vietnam
were attacked. This occurred after a diversionary strike at Khe
Sanh, near the 17th parallel, and clearly caught the Americans
and their South Vietnamese allies off-guard; the size of the
offensive also demonstrated the impotence of that border.
“Seismic/acoustic sensors” first put in place for McNamara’s
proposed electronic barrier indicated that heavy enemy move-
ment was underway. General Westmoreland and President
Johnson feared that another Dienbienphu might be approach-
ing, but an NVA officer later explained that that would have been
“impossible” given the strength of the U.S. military.102 Rather,
the NVA wanted to know how the Americans would respond to
the initiation of attacks from the DMZ. Most important, mili-
tary commanders wanted to discover if such action would result
in the American troops being sent over the partition line.
Although the Vietcong in particular suffered tremendous
losses as the Tet Offensive unfolded, news of fighting on the
grounds of the U.S. embassy in Saigon and the 25-day holding
of Hue by enemy troops were among many events that called
into question the optimistic reports the Johnson administra-
tion and General Westmoreland had been delivering. Even
General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
admitted that Tet had been a “very near thing,” and the conser-
vative Wall Street Journal suggested that “the American people
should be getting ready to accept ... the prospect that the whole
Vietnam effort may be doomed.”103 A loss of support for the
war effort became evident, as Senators Eugene McCarthy and
Robert F. Kennedy challenged Lyndon Johnson for the
Democratic Party’s 1968 presidential nomination. Equally
striking, a group of leading advisers to Democratic presi-
dents—including the newly appointed secretary of defense,
The Americanization of the War 109

Clark Clifford—urged Johnson to deny military requests for an

additional 200,000 troops.
Eventually, Johnson withdrew from the presidential race and
agreed to open peace talks in Paris, but violence prevailed both
in Vietnam and at home. In March, in a village known as My Lai,
American soldiers engaged in a rampage that resulted in the
massacre of hundreds of civilians. The American public did not
hear of the My Lai story for another 19 months. Meanwhile,
assassinations of key political figures took place in the United
States, with both Dr. King and Senator Kennedy shot. Anger and
disillusionment spread, particularly among disaffected young
people, as exemplified by protests at Columbia University and a
violent clash with police that occurred in Chicago during the
Democratic Party’s national convention.
Thus, in the United States itself, divisions and boundaries
among the American populace increased; some of those divides
threatened to become permanent. Such developments, coupled
with the continued reports of casualties in Vietnam, led to the
November election of Republican Richard M. Nixon as presi-
dent of the United States. Nixon promised to restore “law and
order” at home and hinted that he had various plans that would
lead to an end to the war and protect the nation-state that had
resulted from the arbitrary border at the 17th parallel.

War’s End
and the
War’s End and the Aftermath 111

T he division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, the arbitrary

border drawn during the Geneva Convention in 1954, con-
tinued to haunt that country a decade and a half later. By that
later date, Vietnam had endured another lengthy period of war
but appeared no closer to the reunification envisioned by
nationalists for centuries and promised so recently in
Switzerland. As the 1960s came to an end, the Vietnam War con-
tinued to rage, notwithstanding tremendous setbacks suffered
by Vietcong guerrillas during the Tet Offensive and caused by
Operation Phoenix, a CIA-orchestrated counterinsurgency cam-
paign throughout the South Vietnamese countryside.
With the weakening of the VC and in further response to U.S.
engagement in the war, more and more North Vietnamese sol-
diers came down the Ho Chi Minh Trail or across the demarca-
tion line. Over the next half-dozen years, this scenario was
repeated again and again, until the long-hoped-for reunifica-
tion of Vietnam did come about, not through elections but by
way of military conquest. Only that would allow for the aboli-
tion of the arbitrary border separating the Vietnamese from
their countrymen.
In January 1969, the administration of Richard Nixon came to
power in Washington, D.C. Nixon, who had been a staunch
hawk on the war, possessed varied ideas on how to bring it to a
close. He recognized the extent of opposition at home and the
difficulty of battling enemy forces—committed ones, no less—
several thousand miles away. Still, like his predecessors, Nixon
was determined not to lose the Vietnam War, even hoping at
times that his military forces might prevail. Relying on advice
from his top foreign policy advisor, Henry Kissinger, Nixon—
who insisted on achieving “peace with honor”—also explored
diplomatic angles that would allow his country to save face as
American troops withdrew. Responding to domestic and inter-
national affairs, both Nixon and Kissinger reluctantly readied to
abandon the artificial border dividing Vietnam.
Kissinger convinced the president to propose a pullout of
American and North Vietnamese troops, along with a “restora-
tion” of the 17th parallel as a point of demarcation. As historian

William S. Turley noted, such a proposal inferred that neither

American nor NVA forces were indigenous to the area below the
17th parallel—that, in effect, Vietnam was made up of two
nation–states. This stood in stark contrast to the centuries-old
desire of Vietnam rulers and nationalists to represent a united
state, one that refused to accept foreign domination in any fash-
ion. The new American proposal was also at odds with North
Vietnam’s insistence that the Geneva Accords had called for the
nation’s reunification, because the 17th parallel was truly an
arbitrary border.
Borrowing from President Eisenhower’s move during the
Korean War, Nixon considered threatening North Vietnam with
nuclear weapons. As Nixon informed an aide,

I call it the Madman Theory. I want the North Vietnamese to

believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to
stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that “for God’s
sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We
can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on
the nuclear button, and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris
begging for peace.104

Working another angle, Nixon hoped to convince the Soviet

Union to pressure Ho to accept a diplomatic solution. In return,
Nixon, long viewed as an out-and-out anticommunist, offered the
Soviets needed food supplies, technology, and an arms agreement.
While suggesting that such “linkage” of Soviet and American
assistance would benefit both sides in the Cold War struggle,
Nixon called on American firepower to demonstrate something
of the Madman Theory in action. Although the operations were
concealed from the American public and much of the govern-
ment, B-52s conducted aerial attacks against North Vietnamese
sanctuaries inside Cambodia. Nixon also urged that all
non–South Vietnamese troops be removed from the area south
of the 17th parallel.
In June 1969, Nixon declared that 25,000 American soldiers were
being withdrawn from Vietnam. Perhaps Nixon felt compelled to
War’s End and the Aftermath 113

do so in part because of disturbing developments plaguing

American forces on the battlefront. That spring, American sol-
diers engaged in continuous attacks on Ap Bia Mountain in the
A Shau Valley refused orders to conduct another sweep. Also,
reports increased about “fragging” incidents, in which American
troops deliberately fired on their compatriots, usually gung-ho
officers who seemed to expose them to unnecessary risks.
Still determined, however, Nixon threatened forceful action
against North Vietnam, but Ho Chi Minh—before h e died on
September 3—and his fellow Communist Party leaders refused
to heed such warnings. Nixon also had to contend with the con-
tinued opposition to the war in the United States. On October
15, a one-day moratorium enveloped America, amounting to a
strike on university campuses, businesses, and even government
offices. On November 15, 400,000 people rallied in the nation’s
capital to protest American actions in Vietnam. Later that
month, revelations of the My Lai massacre came to light, and
Nixon implored the so-called “Silent Majority” of his country-
men to support him.
Nixon remained committed to his multipronged approach to
the war, continuing to withdraw American troops and calling for
a policy of “Vietnamization” to help sustain the nation–state
made possible by the border at the 17th parallel. This required
more of the fighting of the war to be done by ARVN forces and
paralleled earlier French attempts to “yellow” the war (or replace
French casualties with Asian ones). In other ways, the Nixon
administration expanded the war, as demonstrated by an incur-
sion by American and South Vietnamese troops into Cambodia
in the spring of 1970 and a U.S.-backed push into Laos by ARVN
soldiers the following year. Both involved crossings of real terri-
torial borders by American units and forces identified with the
southern regime that had been created after the establishment of
the boundary at the 17th parallel in Vietnam.
To Nixon’s chagrin, opposition to developments in Southeast
Asia continued to unfold in the United States, with more calling
for “bringing the war back home.” Some, as had been the case

When President Nixon took office he initiated the withdrawal of some American troops
from Vietnam. However, protests of the war continued in the United States, including the
demonstration shown here at the Washington Monument on Moratorium Day, November
15, 1969.

since 1967, urged revolution in America, with a small number,

including a group called the Weathermen, resorting to terror-
ism. A band of returned soldiers who joined the Vietnam
Veterans Against the War (VVAW) became important new fig-
ures in the ranks of the antiwar movement. Tragedy befell the
peace forces when National Guardsmen killed four students at
Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, 1970, in the midst of
massive protests against U.S. actions in Cambodia.
In Southeast Asia, notwithstanding the ferocity of the bomb-
ing campaigns undertaken in Cambodia, Laos, and on both sides
of the 17th parallel in Vietnam, the war remained a bloody stale-
mate. In fact, setbacks mounted as American troops withdrew,
demonstrating the poor quality of many of the ARVN forces.
War’s End and the Aftermath 115

This proved true during the invasion of Laos, known as Lam Son
719, when the South Vietnamese experienced terrible losses.
Kissinger believed that ARVN units opted to withdraw quickly,
fearing a large North Vietnamese attack that could result in a
massacre of their own forces.
A continually frustrating problem for the United States
involved the plight of several hundred servicemen, most of them
aviators, held as prisoners of war (POWs) by the VC or the
North Vietnamese. Starting in May 1971, Kissinger began par-
ticipating in secret meetings with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho,
in which the American policy advisor indicated that the United
States would remove its remaining troops from South Vietnam
in return for the release of the POWs. The North Vietnamese
delegate insisted that his country would not accept an armistice,
or truce, until the South Vietnamese government, headed by
President Nguyen Van Thieu since 1967, was replaced by one
that included VC members.
When the attempt to resolve matters diplomatically failed, the
North Vietnamese, seeking to drive Thieu from power, con-
ducted another major offensive. In the spring of 1972, North
Vietnamese troops led by General Vo Nguyen Giap flooded
across the 17th parallel. Attacks occurred in South Vietnam’s
northern sectors, across the Central Highlands, and then near
Saigon itself. The NVA offensive surprised the South
Vietnamese, whose commander in the northern sector, General
Lam, did not believe the communists would violate the Geneva
Accords so flagrantly. He had previously insisted that the North
Vietnamese simply could not move over the 17th parallel.
The enemy forces, President Nixon reflected in his diary, were
more willing than their ARVN counterparts to make the kinds of
sacrifices that would result in victory. To prevent the collapse of the
South Vietnamese regime during the so-called Easter Offensive,
Nixon undertook massive bombing strikes against the north, rely-
ing on B-52s to carry out Operation Linebacker I. Targets previ-
ously off-limits to American planes were now hit; Haiphong was
mined and a naval blockade was instituted against North Vietnam.

In the fall, Le Duc Tho informed Kissinger that the North

Vietnamese no longer demanded Thieu’s removal before a ces-
sation of hostilities. Thieu, however, insisted on the withdrawal
of all NVA forces north of the 17th parallel. Nixon, then in the
midst of a presidential election, nevertheless allowed Kissinger
to proclaim, “Peace is at hand.”105 Following Nixon’s sweeping
electoral triumph, however, Kissinger, in keeping with Thieu’s
stipulation, called for the North Vietnamese to pull back above
the 17th parallel.
Le Duc Tho responded by referring to the Geneva Accords,
which had indicated that the demilitarized zone “should not in
any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial
boundary;”106 it was, he argued, an arbitrary border that had to
be discarded. Nixon chose to strike back at the North
Vietnamese with another series of massive bombing raids. These
occurred during the Christmas season, with American pilots
dropping bombs on both Hanoi and Haiphong during
Operation Linebacker II. Once again, Nixon removed previous
restraints, informing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “This is your
chance to use military power to win this war, and if you don’t,
I’ll consider it your responsibility.”107
The damage was considerable, ranging from the killing of
nearly 2,000 civilians to the downing of 15 B-52s and 11 other
planes, which resulted in the death or capture of almost 100
American crewmen. A firestorm of criticism erupted, with
Nixon denounced as a “madman” and Swedish Prime Minister
Olaf Palme likening Operation Linebacker II to Nazi atrocities.
In reality, the U.S. military struck at military targets only, and
those in densely populated locations were off-limits.


Peace negotiations resumed soon, with an agreement reached

in January 1973. For the initial time, the North Vietnamese
agreed to the inclusion of an explicit reference to the demilita-
rized zone, and the American diplomats acknowledged that it
War’s End and the Aftermath 117

was intended to be a “provisional” boundary, not one that was

either political or territorial. Both sides promised to release pris-
oners of war within 60 days of the cease-fire. The United States
was to withdraw its remaining 24,000 soldiers from South
Vietnam 60 days after the return of 591 American POWs, and
the North Vietnamese were not compelled to send their troops
already stationed in the South back across the 17th parallel. The
Communist Party leaders did promise that there would be no
attempts to take advantage of the cease-fire or to send more
troops into the South. This soon became a point of contention,
because American diplomats believed that the North had agreed
not to send additional forces across the demilitarized zone. The
North Vietnamese contested that interpretation of the Paris
Accords, reasoning that they could send troops to replace those
returning home.
Although Thieu remained in power in Saigon, the Committee
on National Reconciliation, which had representatives from the
National Liberation Front, was established and planned to hold
elections that would lead to the formation of a new government
in the South. The International Commission for Supervision
and Control of the Cease-Fire, made up of representatives from
Canada, Indonesia, Poland, and Hungary, was set up to track
developments and to see if the cease-fire remained in place. The
United States agreed to provide $3.25 billion in economic aid to
rebuild Vietnam. (That assistance was never forthcoming.) The
North Vietnamese began releasing American prisoners of war in
stages, beginning on February 12.
For the American public, the war had seemingly come to an
end. It had caused tremendous damage and suffering in three
Southeast Asian nations and had threatened to tear apart the
United States itself apart. An untold number of Vietnamese,
Cambodians, and Laotians lost their lives because of the conflict,
and more than 58,000 Americans died as well.
Still unresolved was the future of South Vietnam, which con-
tinued to appear to many as an artificial state made possible by
the creation of an arbitrary boundary. For several months after

the Paris Accords were signed, President Nixon intensified

bombing campaigns in Cambodia, hoping to hit sanctuaries
used by the communist Khmer Rouge and North Vietnamese. As
Congress moved to prohibit the bombing of Cambodia and
Laos, however, North Vietnam stepped up the pace of its infil-
tration into the South; the North Vietnamese also increased the
assistance provided to communist guerrillas in both Cambodia
and Laos. The North Vietnamese–backed Khmer Rouge contin-
ued their advance toward Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and by
1974, the Pathet Lao held much of northern Laos.
As fighting continued in Southeast Asia in 1974, the U.S.
Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, which requires the
president to notify Congress before sending American forces
into foreign conflicts; congressional approval is required to
keep those troops in action for more than 60 days. Congress,
dealing with a president weakened by the Watergate scandal,
which eventually led to his resignation, sharply reduced the
level of economic assistance provided to the Thieu regime in
South Vietnam.
The situation continued to deteriorate in the nation–state that
the United States had helped construct south of the the 17th
parallel. The South Vietnamese economy, so long dependent on
American dollars, experienced crippling inflation and massive
unemployment in major urban centers. Repression character-
ized Thieu’s government—dissidents were treated harshly, as
they had been all along. More and more people poured into
Saigon, which was flooded with larger numbers of prostitutes,
black marketeers, orphans, refugees, and military deserters.
Because of decreased support from the United States, the ARVN
no longer possessed a seemingly endless supply of war matériel.
Matters soon went from bad to worse, as the Communist
Party leadership in Hanoi undertook the final offensive. In
January 1975, a two-year program for taking over South
Vietnam began; the actual reunification of Vietnam occurred
much more quickly. On March 10, the North Vietnamese Army,
reinforced with additional troops that had come across the
War’s End and the Aftermath 119

demarcation line, struck in the Central Highlands, causing a

panicked retreat by South Vietnamese forces. On March 26, in
the midst of a growing exodus of civilians and ARVN soldiers
alike, Hue fell, and Danang did so four days later. On May 1,
Saigon—soon to be referred to as Ho Chi Minh City—fell,
Phnom Penh did so within two weeks, and Vientiane would later
in the year. The Republic of South Vietnam came to an end, as
did the temporary partitioning of Vietnam at the 17th parallel.
Thus, after decades of warfare, Vietnam was reunited. The
reunification promised through the Geneva Accords had finally
occurred, allowing the removal of the demarcation line, an arbi-
trary border that resulted from Cold War concerns and compro-
mises that offended Vietnamese nationalists. Scars and memories
remained, however, and as a new era dawned, sounds of ord-
nance exploding along the former DMZ could be heard, causing
still more casualties in beautiful, but often tragic, Vietnam.
The removal of the arbitrary boundary that had splintered
Vietnam for so long did not overcome all the cultural, political,
and ideological differences that had divided the Vietnamese peo-
ple. French imperialism had been vanquished, along with
American neocolonialism, but Vietnam was still set by internal
chasms, including those that evidently caused Northerners and
Southerners to be viewed differently. After the war ended, many
Southerners, including large numbers who had supported the
struggle against the French, the Americans, and their Saigon-
based allies, found themselves viewed with suspicion by their
supposed comrades from north of the 17th parallel.
New divisions soon surfaced, too, with Communist Party
leaders quarreling among themselves about the future of their
nation. An American-led economic and diplomatic boycott of
Vietnam continued, and the resulting isolation crippled that
country’s ability to rebuild after the war, as did communist
economic policies, which eventually compelled some in the
party to call for market solutions. That tendency heightened
after China’s adoption of economic liberalism and the collapse
of the Soviet Union.

Most striking of all is that other divisions remained in place as

Americans struggled with the meaning of the war that had gone
so badly for the United States, while the Vietnamese retained a
communist political monopoly in the midst of a campaign to
open up their nation for trade, commerce, and tourism. With
the passage of time, American government leaders, veterans, and
common citizens began responding more favorably to calls to
establish relations with the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese, in
turn, appeared increasingly receptive to that possibility, suggest-
ing that efforts be undertaken to mend various rifts and ruptures
that had wounded the peoples of both Vietnam and the United
States. As the early years of the twenty-first century unfolded,
the struggle to overcome the legacy of long-entrenched arbitrary
borders remained in place in each country and in the hearts and
minds of their citizens.

111 B.C. China’s Han dynasty conquers Nam Viet.

A.D 39–43 The Trung sisters conduct a revolt against Chinese rule.
939 Ngo Quyen drives out the Chinese and reestablishes the
state of Vietnam (Nam Viet).
1400s to 1700s Dynastic struggles and the long march southward unfold.
1407–1428 The Ming Dynasty attacks Vietnam, but King Le Loi suc-
cessfully repels the Chinese.
1471 The Vietnamese capture the Cham capital at Vijaya.
1500s Europeans start making inroads into Vietnam.
1802 The reign of the Emperor Gia Long begins.
mid-1800s French incursions take hold. Vietnamese resistance
occurs immediately.
1862 The Treaty of Saigon is signed.
1867 The French form the colony of Cochinchina.
1883 The French establish a protectorate over Vietnam.
1893 The French take control of Laos.
1897–1902 Paul Doumer serves as governor-general of Indochina.
1903–1919 Pham Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh are the outstanding
nationalist figures of Vietnam.
1911–1941 This is the period of the lengthy exodus of Ho Chi Minh.
1930 Ho Chi Minh helps found the Indochinese Communist
1940–1945 The Japanese become the effective rulers of Vietnam.
1941 Ho returns to Vietnam and soon founds the Vietminh
1944–1945 The Vietminh establish relations with the agents from the
Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
1945 The Japanese stage a coup against the French. The
Vietminh sweep into a series of cities and rural areas
across Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh declares the establishment
of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The United
States begins to lend support to the French, who are
determined to reestablish their dominance in Indochina.
The French Indochina War begins.
1948 The French name former emperor Bao Dai head of the
State of Vietnam.
1950 The United States agrees to provide military assistance to
the French. The first U.S. Military Advisory Assistance
Group arrives in Saigon.


1954 The battle of Dienbienphu rages, culminating with a

Vietminh triumph. The Geneva Accords produce a tem-
porary division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel. The
United States supports the selection of Ngo Dinh Diem
as prime minister of the Republic of Vietnam. Operation
Exodus occurs in the North, resulting in one million
Vietnamese migrating south of the 17th parallel.
1955 Diem solidifies his hold on power in the South. He
refuses to allow reunification elections, instead conduct-
ing a referendum in which he receives 98.2 percent of the
1960 The National Liberation Front is founded.
1963 Buddhist protests mount in Vietnam, and Diem is over-
1964 U.S.-backed actions against North Vietnam intensify.
Congress passes the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
1965 The U.S. undertakes a systematic bombing campaign
against North Vietnam. President Johnson sends

China’s Han dynasty
conquers Nam Viet 1930
Ho Chi Minh helps
found the Indochinese
1500 Communist Party
Europeans begin to
make inroads into 1862
Vietnam The Treaty of
Saigon is signed

111B.C. 1802
The reign of the Emperor
Gia Long begins
French incursions take
hold with Vietnamese
resistance resulting
939 1883
Ngo Quyen drives out The French establish
the Chinese and reestablishes a protectorate
the state of Vietnam over Vietnam


American ground troops to Vietnam. Opposition to the

war mounts in the United States.
1968 The Battle for Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive occur;
550,000 American troops are stationed in Vietnam.
1969 President Nixon attempts to rely on the Madman Theory.
Nixon begins to withdraw American troops but expands
the air war over Laos and Cambodia.
1970 American and ARVN forces make an incursion into
1971 The U.S.-backed ARVN incursion into Laos takes place.
1972 The North Vietnamese conduct a major offensive in the
spring. The U.S. carries out Christmas bombings.
1973 Peace accords are signed in Paris. The last American
ground troops withdraw.
1975 The fall of Saigon occurs, resulting in Vietnam’s reunifi-

1940—45 1948
The Japanese French name former
effectively emperor Bao Dai head
rule Vietnam of Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh declares 1965
the establishment President Johnson
of the Democratic sends American ground
Republic of Vietnam troops to Vietnam

1940 1973
Battle of Dienbienphu

The Geneva Accords produce

a temporary division of Vietnam 1973
at the 17th parallel Peace accords are
1941 signed in Paris
Ho returns to Vietnam
and founds the Vietminh Front The last American
ground troops withdraw


Chapter 1 19. Quoted in Ngo Dinh Diem, “Statement

Regarding the Geneva Accords,” July 22,
1. Quoted in Chester Cooper, The Lost
1954, American Journey Online.
Crusade: America in Vietnam. New York:
20. Quoted in George C. Herring, America’s
Dodd Mead, 1970, p. 79.
Longest War: The United States and
2. Quoted in Townsend Hoopes, The Devil
Vietnam, 1950–1975. New York:
and John Foster Dulles. Boston: Atlantic,
McGraw-Hill, 2002, p. 49.
Little, Brown , 1973, p. 222.
3. Quoted in Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A
History. New York: Penguin Books, 1984, Chapter 2
p. 199.
4. Quoted in John Foster Dulles, 21. Quoted in Karnow, Vietnam, p. 104.
Memorandum on Instructions to the 22. Quoted in Thomas D. Boettcher,
American Delegation at Geneva, May 12, Vietnam: The Valor and the Sorrow.
1954, American Journey Online, Boston: Little Brown, and Company, 1985, p. 8.
5. Quoted in Karnow, Vietnam, p. 201.
Chapter 3
6. Quoted in Robert D. Schulzinger, A Time
for War: The United States and Vietnam, 23. Quoted in Boettcher, Vietnam, p. 24.
1941–1975. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1997, p. 74.
7. Ibid.
Chapter 4
8. Quoted in James S. Olson and Randy 24. Quoted in Anthony Short, The Origins of
Roberts, Where the Domino Fell: the Vietnam War. New York: Longman,
American and Vietnam, 1945–1995. St. 1989, p. 13.
James, NY: Brandywine Press, 1999, p. 49. 25. Ibid., pp. 13–14.
9. Quoted in Karnow, Vietnam, pp. 26. Quoted in William J. Duiker, Ho Chi
201–202. Minh: A Life. New York: Hyperion, 2000,
10. Quoted in Rob McClintock to State p. 14.
Department, July 4, 1954, American 27. Quoted in Olson and Roberts, Where the
Journey Online. Domino Fell, p. 11.
11. Quoted in “Report by Ho Chi Minh to 28. Quoted in Duiker, Ho Chi Minh, p. 30.
the Sixth Plenum of the Party Central 29. Ibid., p. 15.
Committee,” July 15, 1954, Vietnam: A 30. Quoted in Schulzinger, A Time for War,
History in Documents. New York: p.7.
Meridian, 1971, pp. 155–157. 31. Quoted in Duiker, Ho Chi Minh, p. 40.
12. Quoted in Patrick J. Hearden, The 32. Ibid., p. 62.
Tragedy of Vietnam. New York: 33. Ibid., p. 99.
HarperCollins Publishers, 1991, p.60. 34. Ibid., p. 235.
13. Quoted in “The Uncertain Calm,”
Newsweek, August 2, 1954, 15.
14. Quoted in “Asia: Attack and Retaliation,” Chapter 5
Newsweek, August 2, 1954, 32. 35. Ibid., p. 242.
15. Quoted in “The Final Declarations of the 36. Quoted in Cecil B. Currey, Victory at Any
Geneva Conference,” July 21, 1954, in A Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam’s Gen. Vo
Vietnam Reader: Sources and Essays. Nyugen Giap. Dulles, VA: Brassey’s, Inc.,
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991, 1999, p. 60.
p. 40. 37. Quoted in George Donelson Moss,
16. Ibid, pp. 40–41. Vietnam: An American Ordeal. Upper
17. Quoted in “The American Response to Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002, p. 22.
the Geneva Declarations,” July 21, 1954, 38. Quoted in Olson and Roberts, Where the
in A Vietnam Reader, pp. 40–41. Domino Fell, p. 21.
18. Quoted in Schulzinger, A Time for War, p. 39. Quoted in Moss, Vietnam, p. 24.
77. 40. Ibid., p. 25.


41. Ibid. Chapter 7

42. Quoted in Schulzinger, A Time for War,
63. Quoted in Olson and Roberts, Where the
pp. 14–15. Domino Fell, p. 39.
43. Quoted in Duiker, Ho Chi Minh, p. 281. 64. Ibid, p. 37.
44. Ibid., p. 296. 65. Quoted in Currey, Victory at Any Cost, p.
45. Ibid., pp. 289–290. 193.
46. Quoted in Karnow, Vietnam, p. 139. 66. Quoted in Schulzinger, A Time for War, p.
47. Ibid. 60.
67. Quoted in Herring, America’s Longest
War, p. 37.
Chapter 6 68. Quoted in Currey, Victory at Any Cost, p.
48. Quoted in “The Vietnamese Declaration 191.
of Independence,” September 2, 1945, A 69. Quoted in “Address by Dulles,” March 29,
Vietnam Reader, p. 32–33. 1954, Vietnam: A History in Documents,
49. Quoted in Karnow, Vietnam, p. 139. p. 135.
50. Quoted in Olson and Roberts, Where the 70. Quoted in “Eisenhower Counts the
Domino Fell, p. 28. Dominoes,” A Vietnam Reader, pp. 38–39.
51. Quoted in Moss, Vietnam, p. 36. 71. Herring, America’s Longest War, p. 43.
52. Quoted in Hearden, The Tragedy of 72. Ibid.
Vietnam, p. 33. 73. Olson and Roberts, Where the Domino
53. Quoted in Duiker, Ho Chi Minh, pp. Fell, p. 44.
379–380. 74. Ibid., p. 43.
54. Quoted in “Airgram from Reed to 75. Quoted in Young, The Vietnam Wars
Acheson,” June 14, 1947, Vietnam: A 1945–1990, p. 36.
History in Documents, p. 66.
55. Quoted in Herring, America’s Longest
Chapter 8
War, p. 13.
56. Quoted in “Department of State Policy 76. Quoted in Herring, America’s Longest
Statement on Indochina,” September 22, War, p. 57.
1948, Vietnam: A History in Documents, 77. Ibid.
p. 75. 78. Quoted in Schulzinger, A Time for War, p.
57. Quoted in Schulzinger, A Time for War, p. 81.
79. Quoted in Hearden, The Tragedy of
Vietnam, p. 63.
58. Quoted in Marilyn B. Young, The
80. Quoted in William S. Turley, The Second
Vietnam Wars 1945–1990. New York:
Indochina War: A Short Political and
HarperCollins Publishers, 1991, p. 23.
Military History, 1954–1975. New York:
59. Quoted in “Telegram from Acheson to
Mentor, 1987, p. 38.
the Consulate in Hanoi,” May 20, 1949, in 81. Quoted in Herring, America’s Longest
Vietnam: A History in Documents,, p. 79. War, p. 86.
60. Quoted in State Department Report for 82. Quoted in Hearden, The Tragedy of
the National Security Council (NSC), Vietnam, p. 87.
“U.S. Policy Toward Southeast Asia,”
(NSC 51), July 1, 1949, in Vietnam: A
History in Documents, p. 81. Chapter 9
61. Quoted in “Memorandum by Raymond 83. Quoted in John Prados, The Blood Road:
B. Fosdick (Consultant to the Secretary of The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam
State on Far Eastern Policy) for War. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.,
Ambassador at Large Philip Jessup,” 1998, p. 213.
November 4, 1949, Vietnam: A History in 84. Ibid.
Documents, Porter, pp. 83–84. 85. Ibid.
62. Quoted in Herring, America’s Longest 86. Ibid.
War, p. 29. 87. Ibid., pp. 214–215.


88. Ibid., p. 215. Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh. New York: W.
89. Quoted in David Halberstam, The Best W. Norton & Company, 2002, p. 70.
and the Brightest. New York: Random 100. Quoted in “Address by Commander of
House, 1969. U.S. Forces in Vietnam, Gen. William C.
90. Quoted in “Resolution of the Ninth Westmoreland,” November 21, 1967,
Conference of the Lao Dong Party Vietnam: A History in Documents, p. 354.
Central Committee,” December 1963, 101. Quoted in Martin Luther King Jr.,
Vietnam: A History in Documents, p. 257. “Declaration of Independence from the
91. Quoted in Olson and Roberts, Where the War in Vietnam (April 1967),” in Against
Domino Fell, p. 118. the Vietnam War: Writings by Activists.
92. Quoted in “The Senate Debates the Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press,
Tonkin Gulf Resolution,” August 6–7, 1999, p. 102.
1964, in A Vietnam Reader, pp. 75–76. 102. Quoted in Turley, The Second Indochina
93. Quoted in “Undersecretary of State War, p. 108.
George Ball’s Memo to President 103. Quoted in Pisor, The End of the Line, p.
Johnson,” July 1, 1965, A Vietnam Reader, 236.
p. 87.
94. Quoted in Schulzinger, A Time for War, p.
178. Chapter 10
95. Quoted in J. William Fulbright, The
104. Quoted in Hearden, The Tragedy of
Arrogance of Power. New York: Random
Vietnam, p. 153.
House, 1967.
105. Quoted in Schulzinger, A Time for War, p.
96. Quoted in Herring, America’s Longest
War, p. 208.
97. Quoted in Olson and Roberts, Where the 106. Quoted in “The Final Declarations of the
Domino Fell, p. 158. Geneva Conference,” July 21, 1954, in A
98. Ibid. Vietnam Reader, p. 40–42.
99. Quoted in Robert Pisor, The End of the 107. Quoted in Moss, Vietnam, p. 395.


American Journey Online.

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Emerson, Gloria. Winners and Losers. New York: W. W. Norton &

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Fall, Bernard. Hell in a Very Small Place. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1967.

———. Street Without Joy. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1963.

———. The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis. New

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Fitzgerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake. Boston: Atlantic/Little, Brown,

Gardner, Lloyd C. Approaching Vietnam: From World War II through
Dienbienphu. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988.
Gettleman, Marvin, et al., Eds. Vietnam and America: A Documentary
History. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1985.
Gravel, Senator, Ed. Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of
United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam. Boston: Beacon Press,
Halberstam, David. Ho. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.
———. The Making of a Quagmire. New York: Random House, 1964.
Hammer, Ellen J. The Struggle for Indochina, 1940–1954. Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press, 1954.
Higgins, Hugh. Vietnam. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1982.
Johnson, Lyndon B. The Vantage Point. New York: Holt, Rinehart &
Winston, 1971.
Kaplan, Lawrence, et al. Dien Bien Phu and the Crisis of Franco-
American Relations, 1950–1954. Eds., Wilmington, DE.: Scholarly
Resources, 1990.
Kutler, Stanley I. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War. New York: Charles
Scribner’s, 1996.
Lacouture, Jean. Ho Chi Minh. New York: Random House, 1968.
Langguth, A. J. Our Vietnam: The War 1954–1975. New York: Simon &
Schuster, 2000.
Maclear, Michael. The Ten Thousand Day War. New York: St. Martin’s,
Mann, Robert. A Grand Illusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam. New
York: Basic Books, 2001.

Marr, David G. Vietnam Anticolonialism, 1885–1925. Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1971.


Moise, Edwin E. Historical Dictionary of the Vietnam War. Lanham,

MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001.

Nixon, Richard M. The Memoirs of Richard M. Nixon. New York:

Grosset & Dunlap, 1978.

Oberdorfer, Don. Tet! Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.

Olson, James, Ed. Dictionary of the Vietnam War. New York: Peter
Bedrick Books, 1987.

Patti, Archimedes L. Why Viet Nam? Berkeley: University of California

Press, 1981.

Randle, Robert. Geneva 1954: The Settlement of the Indochina War.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Rotter, Andrew J. Light at the End of the Tunnel: A Vietnam War

Anthology. Ed., Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1999.

———. The Path to Vietnam: Origins of the American Commitment to

Southeast Asia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.

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Publishers, 2002.

Shaplen, Robert. The Lost Revolution. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

Shultz, Richard H., Jr. The Secret War Against Hanoi: The Untold Story of
Spies, Saboteurs, and Covert Warriors in North Vietnam. New York:
Perennial, 2000.

Simpson, Howard R. Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle American Forgot.
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Tucker, Spencer C., Ed. The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political,
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VanDemark, Brian. Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the
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Wells, Tom. The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1994.


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against the War in Vietnam 1963–1975. Garden City, NY: Doubleday
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June 2003, p. 1657–1666.

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1954: A New Look,” Diplomatic History, 14, Winter 1990, p. 1.


American Imperialism, 8 photograph with caption, 92

Americanization of the War, 94–109 secured power, 87–89
bombing of North Vietnam, 98–99 Dienbienphu, 68–78
charges of imperialism, 97–98 defeat at, 1–2
General Westmoreland’s strategy, 105–107 as French fortress, 1–2, 4
and Khe Sanh, 107 lost in war, 72–73
maintaining the arbitrary border, 99–100 photograph with caption, 73
and the McNamara Line, 95–97 positioning of French troops in, 69–72
photograph with caption, 103 and United States refusal to intervene, 4
protests in America, 101–105 victory for Ho and Giap, 76–77
Vietcong attacks, 99–100 Divided Vietnam, 79–93
Annamites and America, 80, 82
as Vietnamese, 21 and ARVN, 86–87
Army of the Republic of Vietnam, (ARVN), big loss for the French, 80, 82
86–87 and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, 89–90
join Americans, 90–93, 105–106, 115–116 and Ho, 80, 82
Atlantic Charter, The and the likelihood of a viable government,
during the Vietnam War, 50–51 83–85
Axis Powers, 4 Operation Exodus, 85–86
and SATO, 86–87
Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc
Bibliography, 127–128 established during Vietnamese resistance, 37
Dong Minh Hoi
and The Vietnamese Revolutionary
Chau, Phan Boi League, 52–53
and alliance with Trinh, 35–40 Doumer, Paul
executed supporters, 36 biography, 28
rise of, 35–40 determination to eradicate the Vietnamese
Chronology, 121–123 resistance, 35
Churchill, Winston and role in Indochina, 26–31
advice to President Eisenhower, 7–8 Dulles, John Forster
critical perspective, 74–75 meeting with the National Security
issuance of the Atlantic Charter, 50–51 Council, 11
Clifford, Clark, advisor to Johnson, 102–103 orders no deals with China, 6–8
Cold War, The role of Secretary of State, 4
unfold of, 62–63 and the Threat of Red Asia, 73–74
Contributors, 138

Easter Offensive, 115

Dai, Emperor Bao Eisenhower, President
and Geneva conference, 5 advice from Churchill, 7–8
and the Japanese control of Vietnam, 56 Enlai, Zhou, 6
opponent of Ho, 83–84 encounter with Ho, 42
d’Argenlieu, Georges Thierry and Mendes–France, 8
established the Republic of Indochina,
de Gemouilly, Admiral Charles Rignalut France
movement against Hue, 19–20 misgivings of Geneva Conference,11–12
Dewey, OSS agent A. Peter Free Khmer
first United States casualty in the Vietnam guerrilla forces,7
War, 59 French colonization, 23–31,
Diem, Ngo Dinh, 8, 10–11 and arbitrary borders, 22
death of, 97–98 and the cost to the Vietnamese, 24–25


and Doumer’s role, 26–31 war in Vietnam, 47–48

economic depression of the Vietnamese, Indochinese Nationalist Party
27–28 also referred to as Quoc Dan Dang Dong
exploitation of the Vietnamese, 25–27, 30 Duong, 42–43
and Vietnamese resistance to, 32–45
and Vietnamese schooling, 29–30
French Indochina War, 1, 55–67 Jason Group, The
dominance of, 62 report on the McNamara Line, 96–97
French troops Johnson, President
photograph with caption, 61 expression of readiness for war, 100–102
Further Reading, 129–133

Khe Sanh
Geneva Conference of 1954, 1–12, 111 synopsis of, 107
acknowledgements of, 10–11
arguments over the divide, 9–10
conference about Vietnam, 2 Lattre Line, de
and the fall of Mendes–France French forts built, 65
government, 10 Lattre, General Jean de
as five-power conference, 2 orders in French Indochinese War, 65–66
misgivings of France and Vietminh, 11–12 Le Dynasty
misgivings of United States and Vietnam, battle with Champa, 16
11–12 Long, Gia
opening day, 2 insular attitude about Vietnam, 18–19
partition of Vietnam, 2–3 Ly Dynasty, emergence of, 15–16
turmoil with, 82–83
as two divided hot spots, 2
Giap, Vo Nguyen Matray, James I., 134
attack on French troops, 64–65 McClintock, Rob
attacks on South Vietnamese, 115–116 on Diem, 8
call for guerilla forces, 53–54 McNamara Line, The
photograph with caption, 57 establishment of, 95–97
role in the Vietnam War, 51 and the Jason Group, 96–97
strike on Lai Chau, 72–73 McNamara, Robert
Guerrilla forces, 7 Americanization of the war, 95–97
Mendes–France, Pierre
on Enlai, 8
Hanoi Free School Geneva conference and the fall of his gov-
established during Vietnamese ernment, 10
resistance, 37 Prime Minister of France, 7
Harmand, General Jules strive to bring the war in Indochina to
warning to the Vietnamese, 33–34 rest, 7
Ho Chi Minh Trail Minh, Ho Chi, 4
building of, 89–90 analysis of his homeland, 8–9
Hoopes, Townsend attempt to reach out to the United States,
as Dulles’ biographer, 4–5 59–61
encounter with Enlai, 42
issuance of Declaration of Independence,
Indochina 58–59
French domination in, 21–31 and the plight of his countrymen, 44–45
map of, 81 referenced as Ho, 8–9
and the Whites Man’s Burden’, 21 return to Vietnam, 47–49, 51
Indochinese Communist Party schooling of, 38–41


starting the Indochinese Nationalist Party, Radford, Admiral Arthur

42–43 and meeting with Roosevelt, 5
support for, 56 Republic of Indochina, The
and the Vietnam War, 47–48 establishment of, 60–61
Mitchell, Senator George J., 134 Roosevelt, President Franklin D.
Mongol invaders, and Vietnamese history, 16 death of, 58
on French rule, 4
Hooper as biographer, 4–5
Nation Building, 84 issuance of the Atlantic Charter, 50–51
Nghi, Emperor Ham and meeting with Radford, 5
as boy emperor, 34
murder of, 36
Nguyen Family, Scholar’s Revolt, The, 36
struggle with Trinh Family, 17–18 17th parallel, The, 112, 114–115,
and Vietnamese History, 17–18 acknowledgement of the Vietminh’s
Nguygen The Patriot, 37–45 military, 9
see Nguygen Ali Quoc an arbitrary border, 1–12
Nhu, Ngo Dinh,8 compared to the 38th parallel, 1–2
Nixon, President Richard controlling borders,1–2
administration of and the end of the war, official divide by Geneva, 78
Smith, Walter Bedell
Undersecretary of State, 7, 10
withdrawal of troops, 112–113
Source notes, 124–126
Nonaggression pact
Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SATO),
ending the Popular Front, 47
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
alliance of, 7–8
Tam Tam Xa
radical group, 42
Operation Exodus, 85–86
T’ang Dynasty, 15–16
Operation Linebacker, 115–116 38th parallel, The
Operation Vulture compared to the 17th parallel, 1–2
attempt to save Dienbienphu, 75–76 Tho, Le Duc
response to Geneva Accords, 116–117
Tran Dynasty
Pac Bao threats to, 16
operation base for The League for the Trinh Family
Independence of Vietnam, 47–48 dominance in the North, 16–17
Paria, Le (journal) struggle with Nguyen Family, 17–18
established by Ho, 41 Trinh, Phan Chu
Pathet Lao, guerrilla forces, 7 and alliance with Chau, 35–40
Prados, John death sentence of, 37
reporting on the McNamara Line, 95–96 rise of, 35–40
Truman, President Harry S.
contentions with Vietnam War, 58
Quoc Dan Dang Dong Duong Tu Duc, Emperor, 47
also referred to as the Indochinese attempt to ward off French, 19–21
Nationalist Party, 42–43 continuing the Nguyen Dynasty, 20
Quoc, Nguyen Ai
Vietnam’s leading nationalist, 37–45
Quyen, Ngo U.S. First Calvary Air Mobile division
ousted Chinese, 15–16 photograph with caption, 101
United States


involvement in Vietnam, 63–67 referred to as “Annamites”, 23

misgivings of Geneva Conference, 11–12 Vietnamese History, 13–21
refusal to intervene at Dienbienphu, 4 and China, 14–21
as world leader, 4 emergence of Ly Dynasty,15–16
and Emperor Tu Duc, 19–21
European involvement in, 18–19
Van Dong, Pham, 47 inhabitance of, 14
as Democratic Republic of Vietnam repre- and the Kingdom of Nam Viet, 14
sentative, 5–7 and Le Dynasty, 16
orders to Pathet Lao and Free Khmer long march southward, 16–21
guerilla forces, 7 and Mongol invaders, 16
outrage of, 9–10 protection by French interests, 19–21
Viet Nam Doc Lab Dong Minh Hoi and Quyen, 15–16
leaders of, 47–48 and Red River Delta, 14–15
also referred to as The League for the stirrings of Vietnamese nationalism, 15–16
Independence of Vietnam, 47–48 and T’ang Dynasty, 15–16
Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang and Tran Dynasty, 16
also referred to as the Vietnamese and Trinh Family, 16–17
Nationalist Party, 43–44 Vietnamese Nationalist Party
Vietcong also referred to as the Viet Nam Quoc Dan
suffering of, 108–109 Dang, 43–44
Vietminh Vietnamese resistance, 32–45
battle with Japanese, 54 hardships of the revolutionary movement,
control of Vietnam, 56 43–44
feared to dominate all of Indochina, 5–6 Vietnamese schools, 29–30, 38
losses of, 1
misgivings of Geneva Conference, 11–12
photograph with caption, 77 War’s end and the Aftermath, 110–120
resistance of, 5 and the 17th parallel, 119–120
synopsis of, 52 American response to, 117–118
their control of the divide, 9–10 American struggle with the war, 119–120
Vietnam bombing in Southeast Asia, 114–115
compared to World War II, 2, 4 Easter Offensive, 115
first United States casualty in, 59 and the Geneva Accords, 116–117
guerrilla forces in, 61–62 and Geneva conference, 111
Japanese control of, 56 Giap’s attacks, 115–116
misgivings of Geneva Conference, 11–12 and the Nixon administration, 111–120
Vietnam at War, 47–54 Operation Linebacker, 115–116
and Duc, 47 peace agreement of 1973, 116–117
and the Atlantic Charter, 50–51 and a photograph of Washington
and Ho, 47–48 Monument, 114
and the Indochinese Communist Party, plight for POWs, 115–116
47–48 policy of ‘Vietnamization’, 113–114
The League for the Independence of and the reunification of Vietnam, 118–120
Vietnam, 47–48 withdraw of American troops, 112–113
and the movement of the Japanese into, Washington Monument
48–49 photograph with caption, 114
and the need for sanctuaries, 49–50 World War I, 40
and the nonaggression pact, 47 World War II
Vietnamese compared to Vietnam, 2, 4
burden of French democracy, 24–25 guerrilla forces in, 51
economic depression, 27–28 and Indochina, 26–27
exploited by the French, 25–27, 30


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57 Associated Press, AP


Robert Cottrell has been a faculty member in the Department of History

at California State University at Chico since 1984. Since arriving at the
university, Cottrell has taught over a dozen different history courses and
two American Studies courses. He was chosen as Outstanding Professor
for 1998–99, an award that recognized both scholarship and excellent
teaching. He has published a number of books, predominantly in his
major are of interest, twentieth-century U.S. history. He looks forward to
writing and is always thinking ahead to his next project. Vietnam: The
17th Parallel is his first book for Chelsea House and another is in the
planning stages.

George J. Mitchell served as chairman of the peace negotiations in

Northern Ireland during the 1990s. Under his leadership, an historic
accord, ending decades of conflict, was agreed to by the governments of
Ireland and the United Kingdom and the political parties in Northern
Ireland. In May 1998, the agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed by a
referendum of the voters of Ireland, North and South. Senator Mitchell’s
leadership earned him worldwide praise and a Nobel Peace Prize nomi-
nation. He accepted his appointment to the U.S. Senate in 1980. After
leaving the Senate, Senator Mitchell joined the Washington, D.C. law firm
of Piper Rudnick, where he now practices law. Senator Mitchell’s life and
career have embodied a deep commitment to public service and he con-
tinues to be active in worldwide peace and disarmament efforts.

James I. Matray is professor of history and chair at California State

University, Chico. He has published more than forty articles and book
chapters on U.S.-Korean relations during and after World War II. Author
of The Reluctant Crusade: American Foreign Policy in Korea, 1941–1950
and Japan’s Emergence as a Global Power, his most recent publication is
East Asia and the United States: An Encyclopledia of Relations Since 1784.
Matray also is international columnist for the Donga libo in South Korea.