THE VIETNAM CONFLICT
A thumbnail sketch by David Crippen, MD, FCCM
“What expertise and history teach is this- that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles derived from it”
“We have met the enemy and he is us”
Authors note: This desultory epistle is intended to give background information to today’s lecture/slides and does not purport any other purpose. The compilation of historical data is freely permeated by my own biases and should be considered in that light. Any similarity the reader might find between the my historical conclusions and the developing political conundrum in Central America would be considered coincidental by present foreign policy makers.
VietNam has always been a country besieged. The origins of modern nationalism, however, began in May, 1941 with the formation of the VIETNAMESE INDEPENDENCE LEAGUE, (VietMinh) a national front organization with communist influences dedicated to the ejection of Japanese and, especially, French colonialism. It’s founder was Ho Chi Minh.
After the defeat of the Japanese, the a provision of the POTSDAM TREATY of 1945 divided up French Indochina between the French and the Chinese under Chaing Kai Shek. During the period from 1946 to 1950 the Vietnamese struggled to remove both noxious influences, especially the French who plundered the country unmercifully. Aid to the anticolonialist movement was a scarce as a herd of elephants in a North Maine woods. Pleas to the United States for aid were ignored since VietNam had no particular strategic or economic value and because of the VietMinh’s communist roots
Feb 2, 1950 the French National Assembly ratified the ELYSEE AGREEMENTS establishing the “associated states of French Indochina” headed by Bao Dai in a move to repeal the communist influence of the VietMinh and especially to qualify for economic aid from the United States, a support which was in ready supply to any country alleging to be anti communist. The “new” French Indochina under the French influenced leader Bao Dai now recognized as sovereign by the U.S. was in reality a puppet front for French colonialism which carried on business as usual during this period. The conflict at this time revolved around the anti colonial forces led by Ho Chi Minh and the French Colonialists led by Bao Dai.
American money and especially arms were imported for use against the VietMinh, a fact never forgotten by Ho Chi Minh in later dealings with the U.S. This economic and military influence was to no avail, however, and in May of 1954 the French forces under General Navarre were defeated during the classic battle at Dien Bien Phu.
Following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the problem of Indochina was taken up at the Geneva Conference of 1954, attended by the “big four” powers. Among those in attendance were Anthony Eden (GB), Georges Bidault (Fr), Molotov (USSR) and Walter Bedell Smith (USA). Also attending as invited guests of the big four were Chou En-Lai (China) and representatives from both warring VietNamese factions.
During this meeting, the Geneva Accords of 1954 were established and, in part, provided for:
1) The cessation of hostilities between the factions.
2) The creation of a temporary GEOGRAPHICAL boundary located at the 17th Parallel which would provide separation between the two factions while they re-grouped. The forces loyal the the VietMinh would relocate to the north of this boundary and the forces loyal to Bao Dai and the French influence would relocate to the south.
3) After this relocation there would be free elections held to determine who would rule the country, winner take all. There would be then, after these elections, one VietNam again under one sovereign rule.
THE DOUBLE CROSS:
It is important to understand that the provisions of this dictum specifically prohibited the buildup or any new military force, the influx of any new arms or influence before the elections. The purpose of the Accords was to insulate VietNam from the Cold War so that they alone could decide their fate. As the French influence progressively receded, a new premiere was installed, Hgo Dinh Diem, a Catholic with strong French influences. He was to deal with the U.S. as the leader of the anti-communist South VietNam.
Since the Bao Dai regime, taken over by Diem was still considered to be heavily influenced by Catholic (rather than Buddhist) and French ideology, it had virtually no popular support among the people. The Accords were presented to Ho Chi Minh as a chance to manifest his obvious popular mandate as the “George Washington” of his people. He readily agreed to give up geography in the South and move his influences to the North in anticipation of elections which virtually guaranteed his victory.
It was only too obvious to U.S. decision makers that if the elections were held, the VietMinh would carry the country easily since they were historically the anticolonial freedom fighters and bastions of nationalism. The Geneva accords guaranteed the VietNamese people the ability to choose their fate, unfettered by cold war influences and Ho Chi Minh had been offered this deal in return for the temporary abeyance of his political and geographical presence. The U.S. strategists had other plans, however. During this period in history, the term “communist” had many other meanings than a socioeconomic theory. The term incited emotional turmoil and knee jerk reflexes by U.S. bureaucrats rather than pragmatic and utilitarian decisions.
The doublecross began on July 16, 1955 when Diem, with the United States’ silent acquiescence, refused to cooperate with elections promised by the Accords. “We (the South Vietnamese) have not signed these agreements and we are not bound by them”. The election date came and went with no vote.
On September 8, 1955 the United States, along with several other postwar allies ratified the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) which provided in part that any member countries who feel as if they are being impinged upon by “communist influences” could call on economic and/or military support from the other free nations in the pact. Part of the SEATO pact recognized South VietNam as a sovereign “protocol State”, where it had previously been defined as a geographical entity for reorganization purposes only under the Geneva Accords. This change in terminology, actively legislated by U.S. bureaucrats effectively neutralized the entire thrust of the Geneva plan for VietNamese self determination. Instead of a geographical boundary at the 17th parallel, there now stood a political boundary separating the sovereign states of North and South VietNam.
THE SELF FULFILLING PROPHECY:
Now, any attempt of the VietMinh factions in the north to assume power, even if elected, could be construed as “aggression by a communist influence” and the South VietNamese could legally ask for military aid to resist such aggression. The United States had successfully hedged it’s bets by undermining VietNamese self determination if such self determination proved to be contrary to U.S. self interest. Ho Chi Minh had been effectively conned and then doublecrossed (some might say Seduced and Abandoned) and he never forgot it in his negotiations for peace in the early 70’s.
On Oct 23, 1955, Diem held a referendum and booted Bao Dai out as president by a margin of 98% of the vote. (it would seem that you couldn’t get 98% of a population to agree on whether it was a nice day- some suspicious voting practices have been postulated in this election, to say the least.). On October 26, Diem was proclaimed the first president of the new “Republic of VietNam”, which was officially recognized by the U.S. government as a sovereign state.
Diem, aided and abetted by his brother in Law Ngo Dinh Nhu proceeded to impose a totolitarian rule over the country and diverted millions of U.S. aid into their own coffers from 1955 to 1964. In fact, the origin of the term “VietCong” came from a popular revolt against the repression of the Diem-Nhu regime. This separate insurgency (separate from the original VietMinh which opposed the French) began in the Mekong Delta area in the South by civilians but was taken over ideologically and logistically by Ho Chi Min around 1960. Thus, the origins of the popular revolt against oppression began with the Diem regime (as supported by the U.S.) as it’s focus and then was ultimately expanded to include foreign oppressors, such as United States land troops, under Ho’s influence in the early 60’s.
David Galula (see references) contends that insurgency requires the following four prerequisites, all of which were met fully in VietNam:
1) A Cause: The corruption of the Diem-Nhu regime.
2) A weak Counterinsurgent: The Army of South VietNam, “trained” by the U.S. Army.
3) Good geographical conditions to hide insurgents: Mountains and Jungle
4) Adequate outside support: Ho Chi Minh and financial support of Red China and the USSR.
The stage was set for a conflict which clearly could not be won by conventional methods. U.S. economic aid and arms continued to escalate but with a minimum of actual troop involvement. The South VietNamese began to request land based troops.
THE PRIMROSE PATH:
John F. Kennedy was elected President in November 1960, an event which was quickly followed by the naively conceived, ineffectually implemented and incredibly stupid Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1960. After this fiasco, Kennedy had lost a great deal of credibility in international politics and he was reluctant to slam the same thumb again with a different hammer. Kennedy procrastinated by sending two separate fact finding missions to VietNam, one to determine economic conditions and headed by Dr Eugene Staley, the other to assess military possibilities, headed by General Maxwell Taylor. Taylor and other “new Frontier” intellectuals headed by Walt Rostow formulated the half baked doctrine of “limited warfare” and proposed to send military advisors to teach the South VietNamese how to defend themselves by U.S. support and training of their own army. Kennedy took all this under advisement but never made a decision as he was assassinated on November 22, 1963.
Meanwhile, the fully baked VietCong were growing in influence as the corrupt practices of Diem created further hardships on the people. In 1962, Ho infiltrated men and supplies through Laos and the Buddhists began to revolt against Catholic influence. The first Buddhist immolation by flame occurred in the Saigon district of Cholon in June 1963 and had profound effect on the primarily Buddhist populace. On November 1, 1964, Major General Duong Van Minh (called “Big Minh” because of his physical stature) led the successful military coup leading to the assassination of both Diem and Nhu and the establishment of a military provisional government. The U.S. recognized the Minh reorganization of November 7 but the inevitable confusion as to who was in charge resulted in the fall of most of the geography previously held by the Diem regime to the VietCong. The practical result of this shakeup was an escalation of U.S Aid followed by a series of short term juntas ultimately leading to the ascension of president Nguyen Van Thieu (thought to be living in France today) and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky (who currently operates a liquor store in Chicago).
The democratic party convention for the 1964 election was in sight and LBJ needed a big splash to insure his longevity with the voters. In a classic crapshoot, he gambled that the conflict could be quickly resolved with a massive bolus of troop action and he would be perceived as the savior of VietNam as well as an international deterrent to the spread of world communism. Accordingly, the celebrated “Gulf of Tonkin incident” occurred on August 2, 1964 when the U.S. destroyer MADDOX was allegedly fired on by ancient North Vietnamese PT boats. On August 4, the destroyer TURNER JOY was also allegedly attacked sixty five miles from shore. There is a great deal of controversy as to whether this attack ever actually occurred but on the evening of August 4, at 11:30 PM, President Johnson informed a television audience that “relief was underway”. With tears in his eyes, he faced congress requesting the power to retaliate the next day and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed 88-2 in the Senate and 466-0 in the House.
This vote represented the largest majority of any resolution ever considered by congress, only two senators from the whole of the most representative legislative body in existence willing to propose that the emperor had no clothes. A fitting tribute to the undisputed master flim-flam artist of all time. The President was given broad powers to “repel an armed attack against the United States and prevent further aggression”. In October 1964 we went “all the way with LBJ” and such strategic North Vietnamese targets such as rice paddies, tree tops and water buffalos were bombed by American aircraft for the first time.
Marines were deployed to DaNang in March 1965. National support for the war was at it’s peak. National rallies such as one formed at Emory University in Atlanta and dubbed “affirmation VietNam” rallied over 10,000 participants. U.S. land troops were deployed exponentially to South VietNam. In the immortal words of vice presidential candidate (on the Wallace ticket) General Curtis LeMay “we’ll bomb ’em back into the stone age”.
Escalation of troops and money previously opposing the insurgency of the VietCong culminated with the first full fledged land battle against North VietNamese regular troops on April 24, 1967 at Khe Sahn, 10 miles from the Laotian border. Strategic points, “hills 861 and 881” were successfully defended by american troops at a cost of 900 NVA dead, 155 american marines killed and 425 wounded. This provided the point of no return from which president Johnson found himself irrevocably committed.
I have stopped here as the story now progresses into a different phase, hoping to have piqued the reader’s curiosity and interest to delve further into this fascinating topic.
STREET WITHOUT JOY: (the pre-Dien Bien Phu period): Bernard Fall.
VIETNAM WITNESS; 1953-1966: Bernard Fall.
HELL IN A VERY SMALL PLACE; THE SEIGE OF DIEN BIEN PHU: Bernard Fall.
THE TWO VIETNAMS: A POLITICAL AND MILITARY ANALYSIS: (Diem period) Bernard Fall.
The books by Bernard Fall are recognized gold standard texts of the social history of VietNam. Absolute” must-read” material.
THE BETRAYAL: Col William Corson., All things considered, the very best account of the military history of VietNam, written by a combat marine veteran.
VIETNAM: A DRAGON EMBATTLED: Joseph Buttinger. An excellect presentation of VietNamese political history.
THE BATTLE OF DIEN BIEN PHU: Jules Roy. A factual account.
THE UNITED STATES IN VIETNAM: Kahin and Lewis. Delta Publishing. 1969. An analysis of the origins of the war in textbook form.
COUNTERINSURGENCY WARFARE: THEORY AND PRACTICE, David Galula, a textbook of political theory.
HO CHI MINH ON REVOLUTION; Selected writings from 1920-1966.