Illusion And Confusion Americas Policy Concerning Vietnam 1945 To 1950

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 World War Two And The Beginning Of The First Indochina War: What Were Changes In U.S. Policy Towards Vietnam From The Ending Of The Second World War To The Beginning Of The First Indochina War And Why Did They Occur?

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.

The Mindset: To What Extent And How Did The Anti-Communist Mindset Affect U.S. Policy Towards Vietnam?

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:

The Road to Intervention: Acheson, China and the Elysee Agreement: How Did The U.S. Actually Become Involved In Vietnam Through The Direct Commitment Of Aid To The Associated States And Thus To France In 1949-50 And What Role Did Acheson And The Fall Of Chine Have In This Decision?

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 481 ‘The Position of the United States with respect to Asia’, whose conclusions were confirmed by the President on the 30 December 1949 (NSC 482).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

Bibliography

Blum

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.

Gibbons

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.

Jamieson

Understanding Vietnam

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.

Karnow

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.

Kimball

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.

Kolko

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).

Short

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.

Wintle

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.



  1. The U.S Government and the Vietnam War Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships: Part 1 1945-1960. Dr William Conrad Gibbons. Prepared for the Committee on Foreign Relations United States Senate. (Originally Washington 1984 and subsequently Princeton University Press 1986). Hereinafter cited as Gibbons. P.64. See also for suggestion this was a turning point in U.S policy The Origins Of The Vietnam War. Anthony Short. (Longman 1989) pp. 83-4. Hereinafter cited as Short. [return]
  2. Gibbons. pp. 3-5. [return]
  3. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1945, vol. 1 (Washington D.C: U.S. Govt. Print. Off.), pg. 122. (Hereinafter FRUS) [return]
  4. Gibbons, pg 17. [return]
  5. O.S.S. (Office of strategic Services), ‘Problems and Objectives of United States Policy’, Apr. 2, 1945. Memorandum located in the Truman library.
    [return]
  6. Both quotes come from EUR and FE memoranda which can be found in the Pentagon Papers, Department of Defence Edition (hereinafter cited as PP, DOD ed.), (Washington D.C.: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1971), book 8, V. B. 2, vol. 1, pp. 5-21. [return]
  7. FRUS, 1945, vol. 6, pp. 556-580. This policy paper was prepared by the State Dept. for the War Dept. and presented on June 22 (1945). Note that the ‘anti-Communist perspective’ already mentioned also helped EUR in debate with FE: ‘Fear of Communist expansion also tended to strengthen the Office of European Affairs … in its argument with the Office of Far Eastern Affairs over U.S. policy toward [sic] Indochina.’ Gibbons, pg 18. [return]
  8. Ibid. vol. 7, pg. 541. [return]
  9. Ibid. vol. 6, pg. 312. [return]
  10. Causes, Origins and Lessons of the Vietnam War, Hearings before the Committee on Foreign Relations. United States Senate, 9, 10, 11 May 1972 (Washington 1973) Testimony of Abbot Low Moffat, p. 168. [return]
  11. Firstly it is not entirely clear where one should decide the First Indochina War began. It is agreed that it began with an incident at Haiphong where the French shelled the town killing between 1000 and 7000 civilians and the subsequent attacks by the Vietminh on Hanoi. The problem is that the incident that initiated the shelling of Haiphong; the seizure of a junk by the French and its subsequent recapture by a Vietminh militia; occurred on the 20 November, but the shelling occurred three days later on the 23, moreover the final retaliatory attacks by the Vietminh occurred a few days later and it was not until mid-December that pitched battles occurred in Hanoi between Vietminh and the French when French retook the city. There are numerous sources here and interestingly they disagree, Gibbons [pg. 26] says the shelling occurred on the 26 of November, while both Short [pp. 54-5], S. Karnow in Vietnam A History (Pimlico 1994, first published in Great Britain 1983 Century Publishing Co.), [pp. 171-2], and J. Wintle in ‘The Vietnam Wars’ (Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1991), [pp. 52-3], say that the shelling occurred on the 23 of November, I have gone with the latter figure. Moreover beyond this point, information on Vietnam in the period from the Vietminh assumption of power in the ‘August Revolution’ of 1945 to the breakout of war can be found in Short, pp.41-56, Karnow, pp. 146-175, and Wintle, pp. 41-54.
    [return]
  12. For speech see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States (Washington D.C.: Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service), Harry S. Truman, 1948, pp. 176-180. [return]
  13. An example of this application of the Truman Doctrine to Vietnam occurred in 1966 when Dean Rusk then Secretary of State appearing before the Senate foreign Relations Committee who having quoted the Truman Doctrine said ‘That is the policy we are applying in Vietnam in connection with specific commitments which we have taken in that country.’ U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Supplemental Foreign Assistance Fiscal Year 1966 -Vietnam, 89th Congress, 2nd session. (Washington D.C.: U.S. Govt. Print. Off. 1966) pg. 2. [return]
  14. Testimony of Abbot Low Moffat in Causes, Origins and Lessons of the Vietnam War, pg. 169. [return]
  15. The concept of the Munich Syndrome appears in a book by a Swedish historian Goran Rystad, Prisoners of the Past? The Munich Syndrome and Makers of American Foreign Policy in the Cold War Era (Lund, Sweden: Cwk Gleerup, 1982), but my actual source is To Reason Why The Debate About the Causes of U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War, by Jeffrey P. Kimball (McGraw-Hill 1990) pp. 53-78, this also highlights some of the fallacies in U.S. assumptions that were to cause problems. Moreover To Reason Why contains much other useful information on the Mindset, including the printing of speeches by Presidents from Truman to Nixon. [return]
  16. From a telegram by U.S. consul in Saigon in FRUS 1947, vol. 6 pp. 141-2. [return]
  17. As with previously there was disagreement within the State Department where the South-East Asian Department thought that if Ho and friends were to be given power ‘the ardent leadership of the small Communist group will become less vital’ i.e. Vietnam would not go Communist but over time democratic, and where the Western European Division thought that it would be a ‘hell of a big chance to take [and not a good idea]’ to allow Ho power in Vietnam. Quoted in Short, pg. 68. Other interesting facts on pp. 70-72. [return]
  18. For quote about ‘non-support of either party’ see policy statement from State Department on 27 September 1948 in FRUS 1948, vol. 6, pp.32-3, and for quote from Short see Short, pg. 68. [return]
  19. For memorandum ‘Pattern of Soviet Policy …’ see FRUS 1948 vol. 1, part 2, pg. 643. For quotes on ‘concessions’ and being ‘prepared to accept …’ see FRUS 1948, vol. 6, pp. 43-49. [return]
  20. The biographer is Gaddis Smith and the book is Dean Acheson (New York 1972), Chpt. 12 being entitled The Reversal of Policy toward Indo-China’. [return]
  21. Quoted in Karnow, pg. 190. [return]
  22. Acheson quote: FRUS 1949, vol. 7, pg. 113. Objections within the State Department were several, Charlton Ogburn who was in the State Department’s Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs described Bao Dai as ‘a figure deserving of the ridicule and contempt with which he is generally regarded by the Vietnamese, and any supposition that he could succeed or that a French army in Indochina could possibly be an asset to us could be entertained by one totally ignorant of Asian realities.’ R. B. Fosdick another State Department expert, said in another impassioned and exceedingly prescient memorandum that: ‘This shabby business … probably represents an improvement over the brutal colonialism of earlier years, but it is now too late in the history of the world to settle for the price of this cheap substitute [Bao Dai]’ and concluded bitterly that: ‘Whether the French like it or not, independence is coming to Indochina. Why, therefore, do we tie ourselves to the tail of their battered kite?’. Higher up the ladder there is evidence that as yet not all intelligent or questioning thinking had been stifled. Just after the Elysee agreements in March Walton Butterworth who was Director of Far Eastern Affairs in the State Department while Acheson was absent sent a memorandum to the French recommending that the French should actually give total sovereignty to the Vietnamese and that Vietnamese participation in the French Union (like the British Commonwealth but giving slightly more of a role to the colonial power than the Commonwealth did) should be voluntary. The hope was then that in the ensuing independence the Communists would have to declare themselves either nationalists or communists and thus the communists would lose their support which stemmed mainly from nationalist feeling. FRUS 1949, vol. 7, pp. 39-45.
    [return]
  23. See Gibbons, pp. 38-48
    [return]
  24. The two bills mentioned are in order of mention: Public Law 80-472 and Public Law 81-329. [return]
  25. And in fact was money from this $75 million fund from which the first $15 million of aid to Vietnam came. [return]
  26. Robert M. Blum, Drawing the Line (New York, 1982), pg. 214. [return]
  27. For the text see FRUS 1949, vol. 7, pt. 2, pp. 1215-1220. [return]
  28. PP, Senator Gravel Edition (Boston: Beacon Press 1971), vol. 1, pg. 40. [return]