This essay deals with U.S policy towards Vietnam from the close of World War Two up until the first monetary commitment direct to the Associated States of Indochina, (i.e. Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), announced by Acheson on May 8 1950. I have taken this as a suitable point to break off, since at least one respected commentator considers this to be the turning point in U.S policy towards Indochina: ‘By this decision [To send aid to the Associated States] ….. the United States made a profoundly important policy decision: it [rather than the French] accepted responsibility, in the final analysis, for preventing the Communists taking control in Indochina.’1 Thus, in many ways it would be true to say that by the early 1950s, and certainly by 1956, the essential themes of U.S policy towards Indochina, and in particular Vietnam, had been established, and although subsequent administrations escalated the involvement in Vietnam, the origins of the conflict lie within U.S policy from 1945-1954.
The end of the Second World War and next few years saw a change in U.S policy from Roosevelt’s support for international trusteeship of former colonies including Vietnam, to support for the French attempts to bring Vietnam back as part of France, or at least part of the French Union. Certainly among the general populace, and in Congress as well, there was a great deal of anti-colonial feeling.2 But already, towards the end of the Second World War, problems began to emerge with this strict position of total adherence to the Atlantic Charter. The first problem to arise was the desire of the Navy, whose concerns were shared at least to some degree by the civilian authorities as well, to retain base rights on the Mariana, Caroline and Marshall islands which had been taken from the Japanese. The Navy did not ‘have much confidence in civilian controls [i.e. trusteeships]’ and even sent its own delegation to the San Francisco U.N. conference to ‘protect themselves against the “international welfare boys”’3. But this policy in itself caused problems not only because it hindered the American’s bargaining position with the colonial powers but also because it gave further impetus to Russian demands for former colonial territories in North Africa. This along with the fact that ‘by the spring of 1945 … the debate over postwar policy was shifting towards a new anti-Communist perspective’4, lead to the advice in an O.S.S. memorandum of April 1945 that the U.S. should ‘avoid championing schemes of international trusteeship which may provoke unrest and colonial disintegration, and may at the same time alienate us from the European states whose help we need to balance Soviet power.’5 Thus, already by the Potsdam conference in July-August 1945, Roosevelt’s trusteeship policy was being replaced by a policy more attuned to the realities of the incipient cold war where the United States’ allies in Europe mattered more than the former colonies and the small country in south-east Asia called Vietnam.
This debate was mirrored within the State Department where by 1945 the argument about U.S. policy towards French repossession of her former colonies was raging. The Office of European Affairs (EUR) supported the strengthening of France and consequently the view that the U.S. should ‘neither oppose the restoration of Indochina to France, … nor take any action toward [sic] French overseas possessions’. The Office of Far Eastern Affairs (FE) on the other hand said that the U.S. should insist upon concessions to the Nationalists in Indochina, and presciently Abbot Low Moffat, Chief of the Division of Southeast Asian Affairs, responding to a memorandum from EUR on April 21 said, ‘If really liberal policies toward [sic] Indochina are not adopted by the French -policies which recognise the … interest of the native people and guarantee … a genuine opportunity for … self-government- _there will be bloodshed and unrest for many years, threatening … the peace and stability of Southeast Asia _[Italics added].’6 Eventually a compromise was reached, but it was a compromise heavily weighted towards EUR’s view, for the conclusions on the subject of Indochina was this:
The United States recognises French sovereignty over Indochina. It is however, the general policy of the United States to favor [sic] a policy which would allow colonial peoples an opportunity to prepare themselves for increased participation in their own government with eventual self-government as the goal.7
Consequently it is abundantly clear that the battle within the State Department had been decisively won by the Europeanists, and that support for French allies came before support for trusteeship and independence for colonial peoples. This victory within the bureaucracy, was reflected in the Executive: Truman, who on August 29 told Madame Chiang Kai-shek when asked about Roosevelts proposal of trusteeship for Indochina, that ‘there had been no discussion of a trusteeship for Indo China [sic] as far as he was concerned’8, and already on June 22 Secretary of State Stettinius had told Georges Bidault, French foreign minister, that ‘the record was entirely innocent of any official statement of this government questioning, even by implication, French sovereignty over Indochina.’9 So, as 1945 drew to an end, and the French returned to Indochina, the U.S. chance to alter events significantly in Indochina had gone. As Abbot Low Moffat was to explain subsequently, ‘with French forces back in Indochina and with all potential leverage gone, there was little that the United States could do to alter the outcome.’10
As 1946 saw the French and Vietminh negotiate, compromise, and finally go to war on the 23 of November 194611, the Americans stood by and in any event a new period of American policy was about to be ushered in, a policy where compromise with a Communist, Ho Chi Minh, would be deemed unthinkable.
As pointed out above, by late 1945 there was a new anti-Communist factor in U.S. foreign policy. It was not until March 12 1947 that this anti-communism was clearly and internationally made part of policy by President Truman in an address to Congress in which he said, ‘I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities [Communist nationalists as in Vietnam] or by outside pressures [Soviet Russia or other Communists states although these were usually considered to be puppets of the Russians anyway]‘. This commitment to defend ‘free peoples’ everywhere became known as the Truman Doctrine, and not only did the speech espouse containment of Communism for the idealistic principle of defending other peoples’ freedom, but also because ‘If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world - and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our Nation [Italics added for emphasis].’12 The specific purpose of this speech was to request aid for Greece and Turkey but its generalisations could be applied anywhere, including Vietnam as it would be13, and this policy along with the other facets of the anti-Communist mindset, or Munich Syndrome as one author has called it, such as the Domino theory and a ‘fixation on the theory of monolithic, aggressive communism’ which had begun ‘to affect our [the Administration’s] objective analyses of certain problems.’14, and which in retrospect can be said to be one of the major causative factors in the failure of U.S. policy towards Vietnam.15
This mindset also contributed to the continual dilemma the U.S. faced, namely that the ‘U.S. cannot be party to pre-war status [i.e. colonialism] or even give such an appearance without risking destroying large amount of confidence the natives still have in U.S.‘, while believing at the same time that it was ‘of paramount importance that Indo-China [sic] does not become prey to an imposed totalitarian regime’16. And since the U.S. were determined to see Ho Chi Minh as a communist first, and a communist of course with orders from Russia, and a nationalist second, it was impossible to allow him to be leader of Vietnam, even though he was the only viable nationalist leader.17
What we must examine though is the change in U.S. policy from one where they hoped for a negotiated settlement which satisfied both sides of their dilemma (although according to word usage this should be impossible) to almost solid support for the French by the time they granted aid in 1950 to the Associated States. The period from 1947 to early 1949 was a period of inactivity as far as Vietnam is concerned: the U.S. hoped for a negotiated solution, and tried ‘to maintain as far as possible the position of non-support of either party [French or Vietminh]‘, including the refusal to export arms to the French in Indochina (though as Short notes since the U.S. continued to export arms to France ‘the restrictions were more nominal that real’).18 At the same time there was still the murmur of the communist mantra reaffirmed in a State Department memorandum on October 13 1948 entitled ‘Pattern of Soviet Policy in Far-East and South-East Asia’, which inferred a single Soviet goal which was ‘to ensure Soviet control being as surely installed and predominate as in the satellite countries behind the Iron Curtain’. Moreover there was the realisation that the present policy was not working and that ‘concessions’ would have to be made, but as yet the U.S. was not ‘prepared to accept the onus of intervention’.19 All this would change in the next two years. The U.S. would start on:
In January 1949 Dean Acheson became Secretary of State. At least one of Acheson’s biographers considers that he was a major factor in what the author calls a ‘Reversal of Policy toward Indo-China’ which came to a head with the commitments in the spring of 1950 (although it should be noted that the biographer tempers his account by saying that the U.S. was already moving towards a more involved policy and that Acheson was often vacillating and undecided).20 This along with the developments in Indochina in the next year and a half served to make U.S. commitments both to the French and to an anti-Communist stand much firmer.
The French had eventually realised. under some pressure, that they had to find a nationalist alternative to Ho Chi Minh. For this role they produced Bao Dai former emperor of Vietnam who abdicated in favour of Ho Chi Minh in the August revolution of 1945. He signed with the French on March 8 1949 the Elysee Agreement. In it the French reaffirmed independence for Vietnam but remained in control of Vietnam’s defence, diplomacy and finances. It was obvious that as a real nationalist alternative this was a sham, Bao Dai himself saying contemptuously afterwards: ‘What they call a Bao Dai solution turns out to be just a French solution.’21 Moreover it presented the U.S. with a dilemma. Should they recognise a government and thus an agreement (the Elysee) which several members of the State Department thought was doomed? Or should they accept, as Acheson put it on 23 December 1949: ‘There is no apparent alternative to Bao Dai regime other than the Commie domination of Indo-China [sic]‘, an outcome which was then unthinkable.22 Eventually in early 1950 the U.S. recognised Bao Dai’s government and established an embassy, just after Ho Chi Minh had up all hope of reconciliation with the West and had therefore persuaded both Russia and China to recognise his government. Any hope now of reconciliation or compromise between Ho’s government, now regarded as just a front for Russia by the U.S., and America had disappeared.
This hardening towards the Vietminh had already begun before the recognition of Bao Dai’s regime. The nationalists had, in China, been facing defeat for over a year when they were finally ejected to Formosa in the autumn of 1949.23 Even so, throughout the previous year (from the end of 1948 to autumn 1949) despite the hopelessness of the situation, there had been great attempts to authorise assistance to China following on from the enactment of the China Aid Act of 1948 which had authorised $125 million for military assistance in China. These attempts came to fruition with the Mutual Defence Assistance Bill which was passed on the 6th October 1949 and provided $75 million to be used as aid in the ‘general area of China’.24 Thus with the fall of China of to the communists this aid became available totally to the ‘general area’ rather than to China.25 Not only did the loss of China provide a new momentum to the administration’s efforts in the rest of Indochina, but it seems clear that Robert Blum’s assertion that ‘The American containment policy in South-East Asia arose from the ashes of its failed policy in China’26 is in the main correct. All that remained was official confirmation of the new policy on Indochina, and this came with National Security Council report 48⁄1 ‘The Position of the United States with respect to Asia’, whose conclusions were confirmed by the President on the 30 December 1949 (NSC 48⁄2).27 As the Pentagon Papers concluded ‘Thus, in the closing months of 1949, the course of U.S. policy was set to block Communist expansion in Asia … . On that policy course lay the Korean War of 1950-53, the forming of the Southeast Treaty Organisation of 1954, and the progressively deepening commitment to Vietnam. [Italics added for emphasis]‘.28
Drawing The Line: The Origins Of The U.S. Containment Policy In South-East Asia
This is an interesting an extremely detailed account of how the U.S. actually committed themselves to South Vietnam and the rigid orthodoxy about North Vietnam. Also this book also usefully reprints verbatim large amounts of the relevant State Department documents.
Executive And Legislative Roles And Relationships: Vol. 1 1945-60.
This book and it successors are considered the authoritative text on its subject and list every vote and debate on Vietnam and moreover lucidly charts the change in U.S. policy set out in the above essay.
This book provides a massively detailed background on Vietnam and its culture particularly its literary heritage. Interesting but to an extent irrelevant to my essay.
Vietnam: A History
This book is widely praised and well written, providing a good basic history of Vietnam from ancient times to today, but the book because of its breadth lacks detail and in depth analysis and as an authoritative source is handicapped by its lacks of footnotes.
Debate About The Causes Of The Vietnam War
This book provides the reader with a great breadth of opinion on Vietnam war, for example giving some of the speeches of the presidents who were in power during the U.S. involvement with Vietnam. A useful source but often dealing with the period not dealt with in my essay.
Anatomy Of A War
This book concentrates far more on North Vietnam and unfortunately the author, I feel, allows his bias to interfere with his analysis of the U.S. (he is a strong believer in U.S. imperialism).
Origins Of The Vietnam War
Short’s book is good but not as lucid or as detailed as it could be. Nevertheless this book was very useful and provided the most direct analysis of what the U.S. was doing and why.
The Viet Nam Wars
A concise account of the wars in Indo-China post-Second World War. Useful for facts but it contains no analysis.