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Vietnam, Part I: Colonialism and National Liberation

Politics / US Politics Mar 20, 2019 - 04:05 PM GMT

By: Raymond_Matison


By late 1960’s America’s involvement in the Vietnam War had become the most divisive issue in the nation’s history since the Civil War of the1860s.  This involvement extended over the terms of six Presidents making it America’s longest war.  President Truman and his Secretary of State Dean Acheson believed that if Southeast Asia is swept up by Communism, as had China, and if Vietnam was allowed to fall, other countries in a domino fashion would follow suit. 

The American people, born of anti-colonial revolution, were hostile to colonialists by tradition.  President Roosevelt in his early years in public life had been a proponent of imperial control.  Echoing very much the French mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission), FDR thought it justifiable and necessary for the United States to impose the blessings of her civilization on the more backward and less fortunate peoples, by force if necessary.  But by the time of Pearl Harbor he had become a committed anti-colonialist.  European colonialism had helped bring on both the First World War and the current one, he was convinced, and the continued existence of empires would in all likelihood result in future conflagrations.  He went so far as to say that Western sway over much of Asia and Africa was no less threatening to world stability than German expansionism. Therefore, all colonies should be given their independence.  FDR never retreated from his belief that the continued existence of European colonial empires undermined the peace of the world.

President Truman continued Roosevelt’s policy, and created the Truman Doctrine which stated that “I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Nationalist leaders in colonies all over the globe, not least Indochina, interpreted these views as an unambiguous commitment to independence.

President Eisenhower was concerned that the West had to deny Communism tin, tungsten, iron ore, rubber, rice and other riches of South Asia as a means to contain their expansion, and to make them available to the United States.  President Kennedy was constrained by the action of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to keep up the fight against Communism.  President Johnson dramatically expanded the war by directly committing U.S. troops, and was hounded by public resistance such that he could not seek reelection. 

President Nixon had the public mandate to disengage America from the war and bring our troops back home.  He wanted to achieve our leaving Vietnam “with honor”, which first required an expansion of the war effort.  This actual historic saga is of such immense and sweeping scope that the most imaginative fiction writer could not envision its twists and turns.

Over ensuing decades people forgot the basis for our government’s war commitments andcompelling reasons for spending both national treasure and sending troops, incurring injury and death to our soldiers.  This article (in two parts) attempts to condense the experience of those decades and the people who lived through, fought, studied and wrote about our Vietnam experience - so that we are reminded of it and may hopefully learn from it and not repeat mistakes of the past.

The writer/compiler of this article is no expert of Vietnam.  For the purpose of bringing credibility and gravitas, the views, ideas, and words of five outstanding and respected authors on Vietnam and Communism have been coalesced into one comprehensive tapestry.  Since these authors include two Pulitzer Prize winners, it would be difficult to improve on their writing, and therefore where possible their sentences are used and integrated in a compelling mosaic.  Thus, if these two articles on Vietnam have merit, it is substantially because of the literary giants who wrote these books, rather than to the blending of their individual observations.

The five books integrated in these articles are as follows:

  1. Vietnam, a History by Stanley Karnow, 1983
  2. Embers of War by Fredrik Logevall, 2012
  3. The March of Folly, Barbara W. Tuchman, 1984
  4. The Savage Wars of Peace by Max Boot, 2002
  5. The Rise and Fall of Communism, by Archie Brown 2009

In addition, Wikipedia’s web site contained information was that was quite useful. This writer added some views, interpretations and emphasis with the benefit of hindsight in political developments over decades since these books were written.  With a topic spanning decades, and in the interest in limiting the ultimate length of these articles choices had to be made as to the selection of information to be included for which this writer assumes responsibility.  

“The Vietnam War bore witness to the end of American’s absolute confidence in its moral exclusivity, its military invincibility, its manifest destiny.”  Henry Kissinger wrote: “Vietnam is still with us.  It has created doubts about American judgment, about American credibility, about American power – not only at home, but throughout the world.  It has poisoned our domestic debate.  So we paid and exorbitant price for the decisions that were made in good faith and for good purpose.”  George Ball, a senior figure during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations looked back on the war as “probably the greatest single error made by America in its history.”

In order to properly understand America’s war commitment in Vietnam in the 1965-1973 period it is essential that one knows the history of France’s colonialism in Vietnam since the turn of the last century, and America’s geopolitical policies supporting the French during the decade that preceded it, to providing “advisors” to a partitioned South Vietnam, as it inexorably mired towards committing troops in a strategic folly.    
Historic Vietnam Characteristics

The country of Vietnam has its northern border with China, and a long eastern border with the South China Sea.  Its nearly one thousand miles strip of land from the north in the Gulf of Tonkin to the south narrows to just thirty miles at its narrowest and goes south to the Mekong River delta.   At the northern portion of the country at its western border lies Laos, while in the southern portion of the country its western border is with Cambodia.

Vietnam is a country covering a land area of 128,000 sq. mi., which is roughly four fifths the size of the state of California, having a comparable long north/south shape.  Its population today consists of 95 million people. At the time of its civil war, it had a population of about 27 million people.

Vietnam is populated by Viets, a people of Mongolian origin who had migrated south through China into what is now the peninsula that contains Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The Viets had opposed Chinese intrusions for two millennia even as China ruled the area for more than one thousand years.  Over centuries the Viets would repeatedly challenge Chinese domination as China failed to assimilate the Vietnamese who retained their ethnic singularity. Their country’s frequent wars also infused in the Vietnamese a readiness to defend themselves, so that they evolved into a breed of warriors.

Because of the agricultural bounty in its watery deltas, eighty percent of the people lived in 10% of the country, the bulk of them in small farming communities.  The soaring temperatures of the dry season, and enduring the heavy rains of the monsoon which typically sees over sixty inches of rain between July and September, made life challenging.

The Tonkin Gulf in the north, while poorer in natural resources, is one of the world’s scenic wonders.  Junks and sampans ply its blue waters, silhouetted against a horizon of sharp karsts rising strangely from the sea, their peaks shrouded in gray mist show vast deltas, astonishingly eroded limestone peaks, sand-dune coastal forests, and savanna-like grassland.  Many shades of green, in the rice paddies, the grasses, the palms, the rubber trees with their green oval leaves, the pine trees of faraway hills. 

Mekong Delta, built up from alluvial deposits of its namesake river was the rice basket of South Vietnam, where 40 percent of the population lived. The colony’s capital, Saigon, became known as the “Pearl of the Far East” or “Paris of the Orient”.  As this became the commercial center of Vietnam it provided for an emerging affluent Vietnamese bourgeoisie, while the French comparably had less interest in the north.

The few Americans familiar with the majority peasant populace of Vietnamese knew them to be passionately independent and atavistically hostile toward the Chinese.  All Vietnamese hated foreigners. Even the lowliest peasant is deeply nationalistic. Their profoundest ideology and the pervasive feeling of their peoples - is patriotism.

French colonialism

In the mid-seventeenth century Paris had established missionary and trade organizations in Vietnam – but only in 1850, under the pretext of protecting Vietnamese Catholics, did they begin their conquest.  By 1884, France had achieved colonial domination of Vietnam, and in short order they added neighboring Cambodia and Laos to what now became the Indochinese fold.  Vietnam had become an outright French possession.

The publicized goal of the civilizing mission and bringing God to the heathen rested uneasily alongside the pragmatic objective of exploiting the economic resources of the colonial territories for the benefit of the home country.  In truth, the lure of profit was the engine that drove French colonial policy.  As a result, the colonial government was never prepared to support the development of an indigenous manufacturing and commercial sector in Indochina that might compete against manufactured goods imported from France.

France had a vast colonial empire.  In 1940, it ranked in size second only to the British, extending some six million square miles, with an overseas population of eighty million.  Their Madagascar island colony alone was bigger than metropolitan France.  The colonies of Equatorial and West Africa together were as large as the United States.  In the Middle East, the French were a major presence, and they had holdings as well in the Caribbean and the Pacific.   And of course, there was Indochina, the Pearl of the Empire, rich in rubber plantations and rice fields.  As the farthest-flung of the key French possessions, it along with Algeria conferred great power status on France, and gave her an important voice in global affairs.

Reordering of empires

As the 1930’s drew to a close, only the most pessimistic colonial administrator could believe that France would soon be made to part with this Pearl of the Far East, this jewel of the imperial crown.  In September 1939 a new war broke out, and by mid-June 1940, France stood on the brink of defeat at the hands of invading Nazi German forces.  A prostrate France, was overrun my Nazi Germany in a mere six weeks.  No one had imagined that the defeat of la belle France could ever occur so swiftly, so completely.  It was further humiliated in meekly ceding Indochina to Japanese control, at a time when the whole edifice of the European imperial system was crumbling.  Japan, on friendly terms with Germany and sensing an opportunity to expand southward, prepared to seize French Indochina.  In August 1940, the Vichy (French government in exile) concluded an agreement with Japan that recognized Japan’s “preeminent position”.  In the space of a few days, French colonial authority had disappeared, in plain view of Vietnamese in both urban and rural areas.

At the end of the Pacific War in 1945, Americans had stood supreme, immensely popular throughout Southeast Asia for their vanquishing of Japan and for the steadfast anti-colonialism of the just-deceased Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Their esteem grew when America followed through on a pledge to grant independence to the Philippines.  Americans seemed instinctively repelled by the idea of governing other peoples.

After beating Japan, the Allied leaders had devised a scheme to disarm the Japanese in Vietnam by dividing the country - as had been done in Korea.  A peace agreement signed in Geneva divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel pending nationwide elections in 1956.  Ho’s Communist nationalist government took control north of the parallel in its capital Hanoi, while the southern portion came under the rule of the Catholic nationalist Ngo Ding Diem.

France might have fallen out of the ranks of great powers, but Washington needed a stable and friendly France in order to fully secure in peacetime the hard-fought victories on the battlefield.  Although President Roosevelt’s strong sentiment had been to liberate colonized countries, in order to animate France in the battle against Germans, he promised them all of the overseas dominions after the war.  A similar decision was made by Truman with respect to choosing between France and Vietnam - which had little to do with Vietnam itself but rather about American primacy on the world stage.  The administration did not dare to defy a European ally that it deemed crucial to world order.  Thus by assisting France at that time, Americans were acting to maintain U.S. security, our power and ability to get certain things we need from the riches of the Indonesian territory, and from Southeast Asia.

French intransigence

Vietnamese counted on French authorities to adopt a reformist policy in Indochina, greatly increasing local autonomy.  The French understood that in Vietnamese nationalism they faced a potent adversary; but they could never bring themselves to grant the concessions necessary to mollify this force.  Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam, was not demanding full and complete independence.  He sought compromise and indicated a willingness – maybe even a desire – to maintain an association with France.  He understood that granting full independence to the Vietnamese was out of the question for France as it would compel Paris to make similar pledges to other colonies.  However, an independent Vietnamese nation-state wholly or even mostly free of French control remained outside their imaginations.  Unfortunately, at that time French rule was being tested as well by dissident movements in other French possessions – Algeria, Madagascar, Morocco, and Tunisia.

France had convinced her principal Western allies that she was bearing the brunt of an international struggle between East and West, between the force of Communism and the forces of freedom.  The U.S. had to support France because without it the Communists would win.  U.S. made the decision to provide aid to the French military – and by August of 1951 military supplies sufficient to equip twelve infantry battalions were en route by ship to Vietnam.  Later, Congress had approved the administration’s request for $400 million for Indochina for fiscal year 1954, despite complaints the money would merely support France’s colonial oppression.  However, despite ever-rising levels of U.S. assistance, France’s fortunes continued to spiral downward.

In 1951 Vietnam War with France began to gather momentum. The French land forces in Indochina totaled some 250,000.  By late 1952, French dead, wounded, missing and captured totaled more that ninety thousand since the war had begun six years earlier.  The French in Indochina in early 1952 understood that they were utterly dependent on U.S. economic and military and diplomatic support.  The French were frustrated by its dependence on Washington and by the Eisenhower administration’s insistence on a military solution in Indochina at the same time it sought a political settlement in Korea.  It was inevitable that the growth in U.S. involvement gave Washington officials increased leverage in the decision making and lessened France’s freedom of maneuver.  However, U.S. support was not sufficient for the French to prevail, so U.S. contemplated getting itself involved directly.

The Korean armistice, signed on July 27, 1952, had a devastating effect of French thinking, causing a further slackening of the will to continue the fight, for now the Chinese, being no longer preoccupied in Korea, could turn their focus southward.  Nevertheless, Truman declared, that the U.S. would oppose negotiations leading to a French withdrawal, while Eisenhower had made it unambiguously clear: France had to stay in the fight. 

Eisenhower’s inaugural address characterized Indochina struggle as part of a worldwide
fight against Communist aggression.  Eisenhower and Dulles also saw Indochina as a key Cold War struggle.  Ho Chi Minh had to be defeated, which meant the French had to stay in the fight.   Eisenhower would not allow communists to win – whatever the cost.  We must not allow the riches of Indochina (zinc, tin, rubber, rice etc.)  to fall into the hands of Communists.  The Eisenhower administration could not bring itself to take the next step and support a negotiated settlement.  The Eisenhower administration, by then was far more committed to the war effort than were the French themselves, and actively considered intervening with military force.

French attitude was undergoing a sea change, as French public opinion had turned against the war.  The war had never been popular, but now, for the first time, one could speak of genuine antiwar agitation.  Two-thirds of French voters favored either a unilateral withdrawal of French forces or a negotiated armistice.  On June 24, 1954, Pierre Mendes France (President of France) did what previous French leaders refused to do: he formally agreed to seek the temporary division of Vietnam, as a means of bringing the long and bloody Indochina war to an end.

Mendes France stated that France should guarantee immediate and full independence to the Indochinese states and should set a definite time schedule for the withdrawal of French force.  France would then propose an armistice to Ho Chi Min, subject to nationwide elections.  Confronted by the inevitable, the Washington hierarchy now accepted the imminent French defeat. The French pulled out in 1954, having lost the pivotal battle of Dien Bien Phu, one of the great military engagements of modern times.   A peace agreement signed in Geneva divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel - pending nationwide elections in 1956 – between a Communist government in Hanoi led by Ho Chi Minh and a non-Communist one in Saigon led by Ngo Dinh Diem.

Ho Chi Minh, independence and Communism

Born in 1890, Ho Chi Minh by 1907 had already committed himself to the great task of reclaiming Vietnam for the Vietnamese people.   For thirty years he travelled and worked in numerous countries of the world: America, Britain, France, Russia learning its languages and political realities.

The longing to be free from foreign domination was the most potent force in Vietnam.
Ho had opposed the Japanese and driven out the French and thereby secured a nationalist legitimacy that was, in a fundamental way, fixed for all time –whatever their later governing misdeeds.  They were the heirs of an anti-colonial revolution.

Many thousands of Vietnamese who might otherwise have wanted no part of Communism joined the Viet Minh against the French, motivated by a deep desire to achieve national independence.  The freedom that the mass of Vietnamese wanted was freedom from their exploiters.  In order to fight Communism you need the French colonists, but to get rid of the colonists one needed to become Communist in order to gain independence.  There seemed to be no real way of resisting Communism except by the unpalatable means of accepting French control or the formation of a government inspired by and beholden to the Paris master.  Abbot Low Moffat, chief for Southeast affairs, reported that in a conversation with Ho he had disclaimed Communism as his aim, saying that if he could secure independence, that was enough for his lifetime.  Perhaps, he added wryly, ”if fifty years from now the United States will be Communist and then Vietnam can be also.”  This seemingly outlandish comment is now seemingly confirmed by several socialist contenders for the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.

Edwin O. Reischauer a Far East specialist, author and future Ambassador to Japan identified the possible basis for the eventual U.S. military tragedy.  In his book “Wanted: An Asian Policy” he located the tragedy in the West’s having allowed Indochinese nationalism to become a Communist cause.

Having not succeeded in securing liberation from French colonial rule by peaceful means, Ho and the Vietnamese Communists turned to force.  Thus the revolution had redefined from class struggle to national liberation.  Therefore, they saw no contradiction between their Communism and their fervent desire to make Vietnam Vietnamese again.  Ho Chi Minh brought together the dynamism of nationalism and that of international Communism.  Marxism promised revolution, an end to oppression, the happiness of mankind.  It echoed the appeals of Ho Chi Minh, who wrote that downtrodden peoples should join the proletariat of all countries to gain their liberation.  Nationalism, he said, made me a Marxist, as it did so many Vietnamese - especially intellectuals and students. 

On a stifling hot September day in 1945 Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnamese independence.  He asserted Vietnam’s independence with phrases unknown to most of his audience.  He said: “We hold the truth that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Ho had deliberately borrowed the passage from the American Declaration of Independence.  Nationalists of all stripes hoped for American support.  To a degree difficult to appreciate today, without knowledge of the bloodshed and animosity that was to follow, admiration for the United States was intense and near universal that summer.  Emperor Bao Dai announced he would support a government led by Ho Chi Minh.  But by the start of 1947 there was fighting throughout Vietnam, with France bearing the responsibility for the conflict in trying to control its colony.

The thirty years, from the 1910s until 1949, Ho Chi Minh clung to the hope that the United States was different – a new kind of world power that had been born out of an anti-colonial reaction and was an advocate of self-determination for all nations, large and small.  Yet this hope was unsatisfied, as global geopolitics required the U.S. to make decisions in line with its and their allies’ vision of world order.  In addition, that would have created the untenable situation where a supposedly convinced Communist deeply involved in the global Soviet network received American support.

Ho Chi Minh-led Viet Minh, had the backing of China and the Soviet Union.  In 1950 the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union extended formal recognition to Ho Chi Minh’s government.  Ho Chi Minh captured the leadership of the Vietnamese nationalist movement and had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of recruits for his army.  He also controlled the mountain passes to China, whose leader, Mau Zedong, was supplying the Viet Minh with weapons and training.

Divided Vietnam

Between 1945 and July 1954, Paris sent a total of 489,560 soldiers to the Indochinese peninsula.  By the end of the Geneva Conference, approximately 110,000 troops from the French Union side had been killed in combat or were presumed dead.  The price of victory for the Vietnamese over France also had been enormous, in both blood and treasure.  From 1946 to 1954, the Viet Minh suffered some 200,000 soldiers killed, and an estimated 125,000 civilians also perished.

After the armistice, a fragile peace settled across Vietnam in the second half of 1954, awaiting the elections in 1956.  Some 132,000 French Union troops withdrew to the south, while a slightly smaller number Communists moved north.  The American objective had not changed: to maintain a separate, non-Communist bastion in southern Vietnam.  Washington would not stand idly by if South Vietnam looked likely to go Communist.

For nine years, President Diem served as America’s surrogate in Vietnam, and through him the US commitment to Southeast Asia deepened.  Diem opposed both Communist domination and French colonialism, thus he claimed to represent true nationalism. The peasants sympathized with neither Diem nor the Vietcong, only leaning to the side that harassed them less. 

An intelligent patriot, Diem was the only major noncommunist political figure to emerge in Vietnam.  Diem was accredited with his love of freedom, his Western attire, his can-do optimism, and most of all, his Catholic faith.  His shortcomings as leader were his rigidity, his easy resort to political repression.  Diem’s repressive system of governance elicited particular concern.  Though the repression was in theory aimed at Communists, in practice it targeted anyone, of whatever political stripe, who dared challenge the government.  Diem’s repression only stimulated his adversaries.  This war was not primarily a military but a political conflict for the allegiance of the people, and the Diem regime was losing it.

For all its electoral and constitutional show, South Vietnam appeared in many ways to be as much of a police state as its Viet Minh rival to the north, and Diem may easily be mistaken for another dictator. Torture became to be regarded as common practice.  He had created a relatively stable South Vietnam, but in order to do so he had resorted to draconian measures, ultimately fomenting hatred of his government.

No one questioned that if the elections were held, the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese would vote Communist.  By backing Diem’s decision to avoid an election, America seemed to share in what critics of the war were to claim was a brazen suppression of the people’s will, leaving the North no alternative but insurgency.  It is a dismaying fact that throughout the long folly of Vietnam, Americans kept foretelling the outcome and acting without reference to their own foresight.

July 1956 came and went, according to the final declaration at Geneva, the elections for the reunification of Vietnam, to be supervised by the ICC, were to be held in this month, but no voting took place, and July ended without incident in Vietnam and without much international comment.

In September 1960 the Communist Party Congress in Hanoi called for the overthrow of the Diem regime and of “American imperialist rule.”  The political reality was total stasis arising from Diem’s greater need to protect himself from a coup than to protect the country from the Viet-Cong.  Meanwhile General J. Lawton Collins on a special assessment mission found Diem “unready to assert the type of leadership that can unify this country and give it chance of competing with the hard, effective, unified control of Ho Chi Minh.  U.S. concluded that the conflict could not be won with Diem.  Consequently Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge encouraged a cabal of South Vietnamese generals to oust Diem.  This proposal had significance far transcending Vietnam, for it meant that the United States reserved the right to replace a dependent government that failed to conform to its standards. 

Diem’s mandate to govern, never thoroughly accepted by the mixture of sects, religions and classes, was finally shattered by the Buddhist revolt in the summer or 1963. Long resentment of the favored treatment of Catholics practiced by the French and continued by Diem fired the Buddhist cause and gave it a native appeal.  In May, when Saigon prohibited celebrations of Buddha’s birthday, riots followed and government troops fired of the demonstrators, killing several.  Repressions and violence rose, known to be guided by Diem’s brother Nhu and culminating in a raid on the Buddhist pagoda and the arrest of hundreds of monks – Diem’s government began to crack.  By November 2, Diem and his brother Nhu had both been assassinated to the relief of South Vietnam’s majority of citizens. 

Problems of colonialism

In Indochina the United States had allied itself with the desperate effort of the French regime to hang on to the remnants of their empire.  It was abundantly clear from decades of military confrontation, that France would never willingly allow Vietnam to become independent.  The disease of colonialism could only be cured by overwhelming military force.  

There was no broad general support of the native Vietnam Government among the people of what “is a puppet government.” Every neutral observer believed that a free election would go in favor of Ho and his Communists.  The French were greatly hated, and America’s aid made her unpopular by association. 

The United States should have learned to avoid the path trod by the declining British and French empires and instead show that the enemy is not merely Communism but “poverty and want,” “sickness and disease,” and “injustice and inequality, all of which are the daily lot of millions of Asians.”

It seems at this early time that America’s conviction about extending independence to colonial countries was perhaps starting to change as it realized the political compromises necessary to maintain the new world order, and the vast wealth that could be extracted from captive colonies.  America first supported and later supplanted the hated French in Vietnam, and thus became in the eyes of Vietnamese hated colonialists and imperialists.

The second segment of this article describes America’s slide and experience into the quagmire that became America’s War in Vietnam, and its eventual exit.

Raymond Matison

Mr. Matison was an Institutional Investor magazine top ten financial analyst of the insurance industry, founded Kidder Peabody’s investment banking activities in the insurance industry, and was a Director, Investment Banking in Merrill Lynch Capital Markets.   He can be e-mailed at
Copyright © 2019 Raymond Matison - All Rights Reserved

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