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Saving Vietnam

Americans like to think that their armies have always fought to defend their nation or to liberate others – never to impose themselves upon others. There is the great example of the US liberating France toward the end of World War II.

After the war, our friends, the French, were imposing themselves upon the Vietnamese – not all of the Vietnamese but most of them. Catholicism had extended to Vietnam with French colonialism and about 10 percent of the Vietnamese were Catholics. From 1946 the French were employing violence in an effort to reestablish their authority in Vietnam. Fighting on the side of the French were some Vietnamese, despised by some of their fellow Vietnamese who wanted to be rid of foreign rule.

Since September 2, 1945, the Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, was president of what he and his comrades and many other Vietnamese considered an independent Vietnam: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Ho and others representing that regime made sustained appeals to the US that President Truman ignored. Truman was siding with the French. The historian Mark Philip Bradley writes:

Asianists in State Department believed aggressive French policy in Vietnam, if unchecked and supported by the United States, could produce a destabilizing climate throughout South-East Asia and potentially estrange America's future allies in Vietnam and the decolonizing world.

There was a Europeanist wing in the State Department and, according to Bradley, they "stressed the overriding importance of France in the construction of a stable post-war order in western Europe and enthusiastically supported the French position in Vietnam." (Vietnam at War, by Philip Bradley, p. 52)

But the war did not go well for the French, fighting as they were against a great body of Vietnamese who adhered to the common dislike of foreign rule. The French military effort in Vietnam was being paid for in part by US taxpayers, but while the French were losing their war they wanted more: they invited the US to help them militarily. But Eisenhower refused.

Having failed to impose themselves upon the Vietnamese in general, the French agreed to leave Vietnam within two years. They were to have authority in the southern half of the country during that period and then elections were to take place that would unite the country. That would have been the year 1956.

The Eisenhower administration participated in the conference, as did the Soviet Union, Britain and the People's Republic of China, but the US was not a signatory to the agreement. The Eisenhower administration recognized that elections to unite Vietnam would turn the whole of Vietnam over to the Communist regime, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The Eisenhower administration took it upon themselves to prevent the spread of Communism. It supported as an alternative a Vietnamese who had been studying in the United States, who was a nationalist and who also was a Catholic: Ngo Dien Diem.

Diem was not popular. He sided with the wealthy landlords who wanted to reimpose rents upon peasants who had come to consider the land they worked as theirs. Diem was brutal in his treatment of peasants, mostly Buddhists, and the peasants were inclined to side with Communist organizers.

The Diem regime formula for saving Vietnam was destined to fail. Diem was assassinated and the anti-communist regime in the South propped up by the United States failed to win hearts and minds by bombing peasant villages in order to discourage them from supporting Communist guerrillas. To save the Saigon regime, the US sent in its own military, eventually around 500,000 boots on the ground, with the idea that the US military was invincible. A lot of Americans believed that a fight against Communism was ipso facto liberation. But many Vietnamese associated the Saigon regime with the foreign power killing people in their country – something Americans would understand if foreign troops were in the US killing people on behalf a political faction in Washington.

The manner in which the conflict in Vietnam was explained to the American people was an egregious distortion. President Johnson described what was happening in Vietnam simply as the Communists of North Vietnam invading South Vietnam. Nothing was said about the promised elections to unite Vietnam. In Korea it had been the Communist North had had refused elections. but in 1963 regarding Vietnam it was the anti-Communists who were doing the refusing. Also that Vietnamese communities in the South were being rounded up and put into camps.That forces in North Vietnam had more right in the south of Vietnam than did US forces was not considered – to say nothing about the phony Tonkin Gulf incident which President Johnson used in obtaining congressional approval to send troops to Vietnam.

Truth was, US forces had no business in Vietnam. It was an imposition and not liberation. It was a tragedy not only for the Vietnamese but for the United States and a tragedy that US troops were asked to win where they should not have been sent in the first place.

It is painful to realize that some of those who fought alongside of you died for nothing. Understanding that horror helps in understanding the twentieth century.

In Korea the US was on the side of freedom and self-determination. Not so in Vietnam. Instead, the US weakened itself economically and lost a lot of respect in the world.

Copyright © 2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.