The United States parachuted OSS agents into northern Vietnam in 1945, before the end of World War II in Asia. Support was given to Vietnamese resistance against the Japanese, mainly to Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist front movement, the Vietnamese Independence League (Vietminh). However, substantial U.S. engagement did not begin until later.
In 1949, China fell to the Communists. The Cold War was at its peak in Europe, with the Berlin Air Lift underway and the U.S. desperately trying to weld Western Europe into a common defense pact. Of critical concern were France and Italy, which had strong domestic Communist parties. The French had returned to Indochina in 1945 to reassert colonial control and were caught in a deepening military struggle involving ever growing numbers of troops against the Communist controlled Vietminh. To shore up its ally against the Communists in Europe, President Truman came under increasing pressure to provide military assistance to the French in Indochina. Moreover, the fall of China in 1949 made it appear likely that all of Southeast Asia might go the same way, beginning with the associated states of Indochina: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Thus, in March 1950, President Truman approved an initial fifteen million dollar military aid program for Indochina and Thailand, with most of the aid going directly to the French armed forces in Indochina. Our involvement had taken a significant step.
By early 1954, after eight years of struggle, Indochina’s future hung in the balance. France’s war against the Vietminh was not going well. A plan to prevent a Vietminh takeover of Laos by creating a redoubt in the northern Vietnam valley of Dien Bien Phu blocking the main route of invasion and luring Vietminh forces into a decisive confrontation with French superior firepower proved a dismal failure.
By the Spring of 1954, it appeared the French might lose the battle for Dien Bien Phu, causing French support for the war to collapse. Officials within the Eisenhower Administration became frantic. The question at hand was should the U.S. directly intercede militarily to prevent a French defeat? President Eisenhower, however, strongly resisted the idea of directly intervening with U.S. troops or bombers.
Even before disaster loomed at Dien Bien Phu, French public pressure had grown for an end to the war, resulting in the French welcoming an international conference on Indochina to seek a negotiated end to the conflict. The Geneva Conference opened on April 26, 1954, with France, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, China and the United States as Great Power participants along with the Vietminh and the State of Vietnam (ruled by Bao Dai) as well as the States of Laos and Cambodia. On the 7th of May, eleven days later, Dien Bien Phu fell to the Vietminh forces of General Vo Nguyen Giap, severely undercutting any concessions which the French might have requested.
After the Saigon newspaper, Le Journal d’Extreme Orient, on May 4, 1954, published a declaration by Maurice Dejean, French Commissioner General that there was no “intention of” partitioning Vietnam, dividing Vietnam into two territories became, in June, the centerpiece of secret discussions between the French and the Vietminh. While the bulk of regular Vietminh forces were in the North, the combined French and Vietnamese forces controlled almost as much territory in the North as in the South. Moreover, a substantial part of the population in the North was Catholic, had strongly resisted the Vietminh and was certain to be a target for retaliation.
While the French secretly negotiated with the Vietminh, the non-communist Vietnamese were left in the dark until the deal was cut. As the conference droned into June a framework of understanding was reached behind the scenes. Vietnam would be separated at the 17th parallel, French forces and their Vietnamese allies would evacuate the North to regroup in the South, and Vietminh forces would evacuate from the South to the North, all this to be accomplished by May 1955. An International Control Commission, composed of Poles, Indians and Canadians, was to supervise carrying out the terms of the Cease Fire Agreement in the three Associated States of Indochina. In an unsigned protocol at Geneva, national elections, covering all of Vietnam, were proposed within two years after the conference’s conclusion. The Eisenhower Administration viewed Geneva internally as a disaster. Particularly exasperating was the French failure to train more Vietnamese soldiers and to give the noncommunist Vietnamese real independence beforehand. While Bao Dai reigned as Emperor from the Riviera, his regime as a member of the French Union still had no truly independent status. The Vietnamese Army had never operated completely on its own and was entirely dependent on French logistical support.
The non-communist Vietnamese lapsed into severe shock, depression and anger. Given the political vacuum in the South, a Communist takeover of all of Vietnam within two years, or even less, seemed unavoidable. Beyond vague ideas of somehow rallying the Vietnamese in the South and contingency plans for creating stay-behind agents to conduct guerrilla warfare against the Vietminh, the U.S. had little idea of how to prevent a complete Communist take-over.
As a desperate measure, Colonel Edward G. Lansdale, then assigned to the Central Intelligence Agency, had been asked back in January 1954, when the odds against the French were already lengthening, if he would go to Vietnam to work the same “magic” he had in the Philippines. There, as an advisor, he helped the Filipinos defeat the Communist Huks and elect Ramon Magsaysay as President in a clean election. The decision to send him was a joint one by Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, his brother Allen Dulles, Director of the CIA, and by the Defense Department. General John “Iron Mike” O’Daniel, head of the American Military Advisory Group (MAG) in Saigon and Ambassador Donald Heath, also asked for him.
When Secretary of State Dulles informed Lansdale that President Eisenhower wanted him to go, Lansdale said he would do so only if it was to help the Vietnamese, not the French. That was the idea, he was told. This became an important basis for his mission, which influenced, for a time, the course of history. It also changed the course of my life and that of others. Lansdale did not receive orders to go to Vietnam until the end of May when the outcome of Geneva was clear. Those orders ended with an unusual personal note of “God bless you” from Allen Dulles. Lansdale arrived in Saigon on June 1, 1954. After getting his feet on the ground Lansdale called for a team to assist him, known as the Saigon Military Mission. It had two daunting purposes: prevent the North Vietnamese from taking over the South and prepare stay behind resistance in the North and in the South in case it too fell.
Before the French came in the second half of the 19th Century, all of Vietnam had been a sovereign country with a common language and with a history of freeing itself from Chinese domination in the 14th Century. After dynastic wars between the regions, Emperor Gia Long of the Nguyen Dynasty united the country in 1802. Emperor, Bao Dai, represented the 13th generation of this dynasty.
After France promised, but never delivered Vietnam independence, in a succession of agreements beginning in 1948, they had ceded the northern half of the country to the Vietminh while still effectively controlling the remainder. They issued Vietnam’s currency and ran its national bank, operated the public utilities and effectively controlled the national army and police whose only source of gasoline for its vehicles and airplanes was the French Expeditionary Corps. So imbued was the French leadership with the self-justifying myth that the Vietnamese would not fight and Vietnam had never been a nation that Foreign Minister Bidault solemnly told Secretary Dulles in April 1954, “Independence was not a key to courage. Vietnam was a country, which, for 1,500 years, has never had any sovereignty.”
With teeth-gnashing reluctance the French High Commissioner would not move out of Norodom Palace in Saigon until September 1954 to make room for its new occupant, Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, who had arrived in July. Appointed by Bao Dai as a last hope for South Vietnam, Diem was viewed by many American officials as a cipher with little chance of generating popular support. Going the rounds of American opinion were the views of the American Embassy in Paris that Diem was, “a Yogi-like mystic … he appears too unworldly and unsophisticated to be able to cope with the grave problems and unscrupulous people he will find in Saigon.” Diem found himself something of a prisoner in Gia Long Palace where he was first installed. At the time, his palace guard was provided by the National Police who were in turn controlled by the Binh Xuyen, a gangster sect with its own private army funded by the French and racketeering.
A favorite French term to describe South Vietnam after Geneva was a “panier de crabes” (basket of crabs). At odds were the competing interests of the French and the Americans. The Vietnamese were divided between new Prime Minister Diem, Emperor Bao Dai, the religious sects of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, the gangster sect of the Binh Xuyen and the Vietnamese Army, as well as various displaced political parties from the North (the VNQDD and the Dai Viet) and the refugees fleeing the North. For years the French had played divide and rule so that the various Vietnamese groups had little trust in each other. The question on American minds was how could any coherent government or country ever be wrung out of this mess?
From the Prologue to “Why Vietnam Matters” with the permission of Naval Institute Press.
- Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned
- Naval Institute Press, 384 pp.