(COLD WAR: 1953-60 – continued)

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COLD WAR: 1953-60 (4 of 11)

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France requests Help in Vietnam

After Eisenhower took office in January 1953, US aid to the French effort in Vietnam increased, and by 1954 the US was paying 80 percent of the financial cost of the French effort. The Communists were receiving heavy weaponry from China, which was no longer bogged down in Korea, and the Communists were defeating the French. Since September 1954 France was a member of the Eisenhower administration's Southeast Asia alliance (SEATO). The view of France fighting to re-establish its colonialism in Southeast Asia was minimized in favor of France fighting communist aggression.

The French asked the US to contribute air and naval power. Admiral Radford, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted to help the French with a force of planes from the aircraft carriers Essex and Boxer. Army Chief of Staff, Matthew Ridgway, complained to Eisenhower that US bombing would need to be followed by US ground troops – around 500,000 – and that Vietnam was a mess not worth getting into. Eisenhower listened to Ridgway and also heard a chorus of calls for intervention from the let's-be-strong members of Congress, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council.

If the Communists win in Vietnam, said Secretary of State Dulles on 26 March 1954, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand would be threatened. Eisenhower agreed. He believed in the domino theory of falling nations in Southeast Asia. Congressmen wanted France to declare Indochina independent so that the United States would not appear to be fighting for colonialism, but France did not want to declare Indochina independent. The Eisenhower administration decided that if the US was to intervene in Vietnam it had to have allies, and Dulles went to Britain, where Winston Churchill – now eighty -  was again prime minister. Churchill's view of the communist menace had changed since his "iron curtain" speech in 1946. On 1 January 1953 he had spoken of the Soviet Union having digestive problems regarding its satellites in Eastern Europe, and he had predicted that Eastern Europe would be free of communism in about thirty years or so. Churchill did not fear that the Russians were out to conquer the world or that the free nations were so weak that they were about to crumble. He saw weakness instead in the Soviet Union's position in Eastern Europe. Churchill was opposed to joining Britain to a US intervention in Vietnam. And some in the United States favoring a more aggressive stand against communism dismissed Churchill as having become senile.

Dulles also asked Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines to join a US effort to stop the Communists in Vietnam, but without success. A month later, on May 7, the French at Dienbienphu surrendered to the Viet Minh, with Dulles claiming that the US would have joined the war in Vietnam if it had not been for Britain's opposition.

It had been only a year since the end of the war in Korea, and China was afraid of another war with the United States. China wanted stability in its part of the world, and the Soviet Union, represented by Foreign Minister Molotov, also favored peace with Western powers. Both China and the Soviet Union were pushing for what Churchill favored. Churchill arrived in Washington, and speaking to leading politicians said that he thought it better to "jaw-jaw" than to "war-war." Then Churchill spoke to more than a thousand reporters, telling them of his opinion that "we ought to have a try for peaceful coexistence – a real good try." note23

A new premier in France, Pierre Mendès-France, chose to negotiate an end to France's seven years of war in Vietnam. At Geneva Switzerland, in July 1954, the French and Viet Minh signed a settlement. Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, Communist China, and representatives from the two other Indochina nations, Laos and Cambodia, attended the conference.

But US strategists, John Foster Dulles among them, believed that nothing could be gained from the agreements at Geneva. (See the Pentagon Papers.) The Republican leader in the Senate, William Knowland, called the Geneva Accords the "greatest victory the Communists have won in twenty years." President Eisenhower said he would neither accept responsibility for the agreements at Geneva nor try to overthrow them.


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