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I was naturally flattered to have my opinions on the origin of the Vietnam conflict taken so seriously in your recent postings. But this feeling gave way to a sense of bewilderment as I read further. Is it really controversial, anywhere, to assert that United States support for French colonialism was at the root of the disaster? One of your contributors thought it vastly sarcastic to picture “LBJ cozying up to de Gaulle.” Peter Robinson felt that to mention the French empire in the same breath as almost any ex-President was merely “silly.”
I have to ask myself, and your readers, whether certain facts are simply unknown to them, or known but considered somehow irrelevant. Admittedly, by the time that Charles de Gaulle made his famous speech in Phnom Penh in the mid-1960s, warning LBJ and others that their efforts in Vietnam were foredoomed, the main damage had long been done. But any irony there is not at my expense. And it doesn’t seem to be the point being made, or rather missed, in the exchange so far.
Can anybody offer to controvert the following assertions?
French Indochina was maintained as a colonial system by Vichy France, in collaboration and sometimes in competition with Imperial Japan, until 1945. In that year, the British General Gracey aroused protests across Asia by occupying Saigon, releasing Japanese soldiers from custody, and using them to put down nationalist and Communist demonstrations in favor of Vietnamese independence. By 1946 the British had handed back control of the country to France, which proposed to retain the greater part of it as – along with North Africa – an actual constituent of the French Union.
We have highly suggestive anecdotal information that Franklin Roosevelt would not have approved what happened next, which was Harry Truman’s decision to support the restoration of French rule. He even allowed the diversion of Marshall Aid from France to its Indochinese theater, where French soldiers were facing an increasingly powerful opposition from Ho Chi Minh’s forces (who incidentally were the only indigenous fighters against both Vichy and Hirohito, at one stage helping to rescue downed American fliers who they regarded as allies).
During the Eisenhower/ Nixon/ Dulles years it is agreed by most historians that the United States was paying up to 75 per cent of the cost of the French war. It was during this period that the covert forces of General Lansdale (the “Quiet” or “Ugly” American according to taste) were introduced to the country. Reluctant to commit any larger land forces of its own, the Eisenhower administration furnished many of the sinews of war to General Nivelle in the belief that he had laid a trap for General Giap at Dien Bien Phu, rather than the other way around. When the full extent of France’s humiliation became apparent, Richard Nixon and some of the Joint Chiefs actually proposed the use of “tactical” nuclear weapons before being over-ruled by the President himself. As a cover for France’s slow withdrawal, the United States made itself complicit in the unworkable and unjust partition of Vietnam at Geneva in 1954 (in which Vietnam’s historic enemy China helped in the carve-up) and was soon sharing the French role in picking and choosing Vietnamese client regimes, as well as in supplying their military wherewithal.
Perhaps the most prominent American politician to have opposed this policy (in so many words as a “French colonial” one) in the 1950s had been Senator John Kennedy. This makes it the more tragic or ironic, according to taste, that when he came to office he was made complicit in both the reign and the overthrow of the Diem family: the first truly non-French “pick” of a proxy regime but one not to be eclipsed in the annals of calamitous American statecraft until today’s Karzai dynasty in Kabul (if even by that). Worse still, having been bested by Kruschev in an early face-down over the critical question of Berlin, Kennedy seems to have decided that Indochina was an easier place in which to throw some weight around. There must have been some uproarious laughter in Hell, not to say Moscow, on that day.
I am sorry to have taken up more space than any of my critics but I hope I have helped show why some of us at the time regarded the Vietnam war as having been irretrievably “lost” in 1954. The origins of the American intervention in that country condemned the whole enterprise from the start, both historically and practically as well as morally. So once again I ask – are the foregoing factual statements mistaken? Are they irrelevant? Or do they come, as seems depressingly to be the case, as a near-complete surprise to the readers of Ricochet?