When was the decisive moment for the U.S. in making a lasting commitment in South Vietnam?

It took place during and after the Geneva Conference of April 26 to July 20, 1954.  We’ll focus on that part of it that dealt with a resolution of the conflict in French Indochina which had lasted eight years at the instigation of the French.  The agreement temporarily separated Vietnam into two zones, a northern zone to be governed by the Viet Minh rebels who had defeated the French, and a southern zone to be governed by the temporary State of Vietnam, then headed by former emperor Bảo Đại, who had been put there by the French. A Conference Final Declaration, issued by the British chairman of the conference, provided that a general election be held by July 1956 to create a unified Vietnamese state.

The U.S. took a unique approach to this conference that still seems a bit bizarre.  We sent a delegation to the conference.  But, they were instructed to not participate, in fact to not say anything. They were there just to observe.  Try to imagine being in that delegation’s shoes.  Observe and do nothing?

Why?  So that the U.S. government could do whatever it wanted to do.  Here was an opportunity to just let the Final Declaration be implemented.  The U.S. could have done that and then there likely would not have been a Second Indochina War.

But, instead, we ignored the Declaration and helped set up Ngo Diem as the ruler of South Vietnam. That regime never had a good chance of being able to work.   He had played no role in defeating the French and could never get past being set up by the U.S. and thus being dependent on the U.S. for his survival.  He was part of a corrupt elite, though he was not corrupt, that never had built any strong constituency of its own in Vietnam.  He was Catholic, a minority in Vietnam, and set up his regime to marginalize all others.  That was bound to fail.  He was the Eisenhower administration’s candidate, not Vietnam’s.  The Viet Minh had won and felt cheated of its likely victory in the forthcoming election which was never held.  Why not?  Ho Chi Minh would have won.

By setting up and sustaining a South Vietnamese government with American advisors, that made it quite difficult for any of the succeeding US administrations to withdraw or win (winning meant having a sustainable South Vietnamese government that could survive without being dependent on the U.S.). 

The U.S. turned a local conflict into a much bigger one.  Did Ho Chi Minh deserve better?  See below:

HO CHI MINH LETTER TO TRUMAN ASKING FOR U.S. HELP

Ho Chi Minh letter to Harry S. Truman, 16 February 1946.

I avail myself of this opportunity to thank you and the people of United States for the interest shown by your representatives at the United Nations Organization in favour of the dependent peoples.

Our VIETNAM people, as early as 1941, stood by the Allies’ side and fought against the Japanese and their associates, the French colonialists.

From 1941 to 1945 we fought bitterly, sustained by the patriotism of our fellow-countrymen and by the promises made by the Allies at [the summits in] YALTA, SAN FRANCISCO AND POTSDAM.

When the Japanese were defeated in August 1945, the whole Vietnam territory was united under a Provisional Republican Government which immediately set out to work. In five months, peace and order were restored, a democratic republic was established on legal bases. and adequate help was given to the Allies in the carrying out of their disarmament mission.

But the French colonialists, who had betrayed in war-time both the Allies and the Vietnamese, have come back and are waging on us a murderous and pitiless war in order to reestablish their domination. Their invasion has extended to South Vietnam and is menacing us in North Vietnam. It would take volumes to give even an abbreviated report of the crimes and assassinations they are committing every day in the fighting area.

This aggression is contrary to all principles of international law and to the pledges made by the Allies during the World War. It is a challenge to the noble attitude shown before, during and after the war by the United States Government and People. It violently contrasts with the firm stand you have taken in your twelve point [January 1, 1942, United Nations] declaration, and with the idealistic loftiness and generosity expressed by your delegates to the United Nations Assembly, MM [James] BYRNES, [Edward] STETTINIUS and J.F. DULLES.

The French aggression on a peace-loving people is a direct menace to world security. It implies the complicity, or at least, the connivance of the Great Democracies. The United Nations ought to keep their words. They ought to interfere to stop this unjust war, and to show that they mean to carry out in peace-time the principles for which they fought in war-time

Our Vietnam people, after so many years of spoliation and devastation, is just beginning its building-up work. It needs security and freedom, first to achieve internal prosperity and welfare, and later to bring its small contribution to world-reconstruction.

These securities and freedoms can only be guaranteed by our independence from any colonial power, and our free cooperation with all other powers. It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United States as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence.

What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.

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There is NO evidence that President Truman ever saw this letter or anyone else of any major consequence.  Would he have paid attention? We can not know that.

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