Copyright © 1972 by Truong Buu Lam.
A Vietnamese Viewpoint by Truong Buu Lam
When the President of the United States declares that American troops will remain in the southern part of Vietnam as long as needed to preserve the Vietnamese people’s right to self-determination, what he means, quite simply, is that the American military shall not leave Vietnam until a pro-American government in Saigon manages to survive on its own and so maintain that part of Vietnam within the American sphere of influence. It is the self-reliance of a pro-U.S. government then that is at issue, not the self-determination of the Vietnamese people, and certainly not the relationship of the Vietnamese people toward that government. From the beginning until now, that has been the primary concern of U.S. policy-makers. The Pentagon Papers demonstrate this clearly, and the Nixon administration recently reiterated the position in unmistakable terms. In his news conference of January 1, 1972, Mr. Nixon imparted the impression that the release, by the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam, of U.S. prisoners of war remained the sole obstacle to a total withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam. The very next day, however, an administration spokesman hurriedly modified the presidential statement: “... as in the past, he said, the survivability of the Saigon government of President Nguyen van Thieu remains a second condition for a total U.S. pull-out” (The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 3, 1972). Again, in his speech of January 25, although Mr. Nixon did commit his administration to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam within six months were his latest plan accepted, that plan contained conditions that amounted to a demand that the NLF lay down their arms and surrender to the Saigon authorities.
My task in this paper is to stress the deception which most have now come to see as a deception: that the interests of the Vietnamese people counted for something in Washington policymaking. With the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Americans can no longer grope for respectability with the adage that “We went in with good intentions.”
When, at the American Historical Association meeting in 1971, two of the authors of the Pentagon Papers, Leslie Gelb and Daniel Ellsberg, were questioned on the lack of material relating to social conditions in Vietnam in the Papers, they replied: “... if the study failed to deal with the underlying social and human conditions in Vietnam, it was because these conditions were not being considered by American policy-makers” (The New York Times, Thursday, December 30, 1971).
Of course one did not need the Pentagon Papers to learn that, from Truman’s administration on, altruistic concern for the welfare of the Vietnamese people meant nothing more than a very sick public relations joke to Washington. Bombs, defoliants, prisoners in tiger cages, political assassinations—these represent the net contribution of the United States to the welfare of Vietnam. Of interest in the Pentagon Papers, rather, is the unfolding of a policy which, while constantly holding certain American interests in focus, sought to secure those interests with increasingly desperate means, under increasingly untenable conditions.
In reviewing all the decisions made which propelled the United States into Vietnam, President Roosevelt’s stand apart, in that his attitude toward Indochina seems to have included a measure of concern for the area’s well-being. Having been drawn into a war in the Pacific with Japan, Roosevelt developed an interest in the affairs of Southeast Asia. Possibly irate during the war over Vichy’s policy of surrendering to the Japanese and so effecting a cooperative relationship between local colonial administrators and the Japanese army, Roosevelt decided, in 1944, that Indochina should not be returned to France, but that it should be, instead, administered by an international trusteeship
.... France has had the country—30 million inhabitants for nearly one hundred years, and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning.... France has milked it for a hundred years. The people of Indo-China are entitled to something better than that (Gravel edition, I:10).
The trusteeship concept was approved by Russia and China, but it met strong opposition from France and, understandably, Britain, which feared that its own possessions would be lost to the concept. Another factor still was to hinder the establishment of a trusteeship. In early 1945, the status of the Pacific islands captured by the Allies from the Japanese came under the consideration of various departments of the U.S. government. The Department of War and the Navy “advocated their retention under U.S. control as military bases” (Gravel ed., I:14). Avid for one set of territories, Roosevelt found it difficult to deny France another. In a statement issued by the State Department on April 3, 1945, the United States left the question of the international trusteeship of colonial territories on a fully voluntary basis, that is, up to the colonialists. Roosevelt, however, did not quite abandon his plan for Indochina. Earlier, in March, the Secretary of State had in fact drafted a statement in which the United States would explicitly pledge to “do all it can to be of assistance” to the French government in the latter’s moves in reconquering Indochina from the Japanese. Roosevelt refused to issue that statement.
After Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, his lingering influence could be seen in the initial U.S. refusal to help the French reestablish their control over Indochina. Which is not to say that the United States favored the Vietnamese, either, who, by mid-August, had gained control over the entire territory of Vietnam and, by September 2, 1945, established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. In the American neutral stance, one could already see the balance tilt in France’s favor, as indicated in the following document, possibly a telegram sent by the State Department to the American representative in Paris, or Saigon:
US has no thought of opposing the reestablishment of French control in Indochina and no official statement by US GOVT has questioned even by implication French sovereignty over Indochina. However, it is not the policy of this GOVT to assist the French to reestablish their control over Indochina by force and the willingness of the US to see French control reestablished assumes that French claim to have the support of the population of Indochina is borne out by future events (Gravel ed., I:16-17).
Between 1945 and 1950, at which time the U.S. government definitively committed itself to the French side in the Franco-Vietnamese conflict, U.S. policy toward Vietnam developed in three distinct stages, in none of which were the interests of the Vietnamese people to count for anything.
First, the United States categorically refused to recognize Ho Chi Minh and his organization, the Viet Minh, as the true, legal representatives of the new Vietnamese state. In late 1945 and early 1946, the President of the United States and his Secretary of State received at least eight communications from Ho Chi Minh asking for U.S. recognition of Vietnam’s independence, and even for the establishment of an international trusteeship over Vietnam. The United States chose to leave all those messages unanswered (Gravel ed., I:50). It paid no attention to Ho Chi Minh because, as the then Secretary of State put it in his telegram to the American representative in Hanoi, Ho had a “clear record as agent of international communism.” What the American diplomat in Vietnam should try to avoid, he went on to say, is the “establishment of a Communistdominated, Moscow-oriented state [in] Indochina” (Gravel ed., I:20).
Having decided to reject the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the United States sought to forward French interests more and more. The Franco-Vietnamese war broke out at a time when the United States was involved in helping Europe rebuild its economy out of the ruins of World War II. The Vietnamese war also coincided with British and French moves to check Soviet influence in Europe. Under the circumstances, the United States found it impractical to disassociate itself from the French recapture of Indochina. The French, for their part, discovered early in the conflict the usefulness of waging colonial wars under the guise of anticommunism. The merging of American interests with those of Western Europe is clearly demonstrated in the following instructions the State Department sent to its diplomats in Paris and Vietnam:
Key our position is our awareness that in respect developments affecting position Western democratic powers in southern Asia, we essentially in same boat as French, also as British and Dutch. We cannot conceive setbacks to long-range interests France which would not also be our own (Gravel ed., I:31).
The commentator of the Pentagon Papers states rightly that, in those years, the United States “cared less about Vietnam than about France” (Gravel ed., I:51), and that “compared with European recovery, and escape from communist domination, the United States considered the fate of Vietnamese nationalism relatively insignificant” (Gravel ed., I:29).
The third stage in the evolution of U.S. policy paved the way for the ensuing civil war. Being hostile to the government of President Ho Chi Minh, the United States put pressure on France to create an alternative Vietnamese government. The State Department itself instructed its representatives in Vietnam to gather all information available pertaining to the “strength of non-Communist elements in Vietnam” (Gravel ed., I:21). The search for a non-Communist Vietnamese regime was clearly stated to the French in February of 1947. While the United States “fully recognized France’s sovereign position in that area [Indochina],” it advised France to abandon “its outmoded colonial outlook and methods.” France was to emulate the outstanding examples of Britain and the Netherlands in their respective colonies, and yield a measure of autonomy to the Vietnamese. Still, the United States “does not lose sight the fact that Ho Chi Minh has direct Communist connections and it should be obvious that we are not interested in seeing colonial empire administrations supplanted by philosophy and political organizations emanating from and controlled by Kremlin” (Gravel ed., I:31). By the end of 1947, the French did, indeed, establish contact with Bao Dai, the former emperor of Vietnam, with the intention of using him to form a mildly independent, but above all anticommunist, government. The United States, for its part, devoted all its resources to bring about the Bao Dai solution. In 1948, the State Department instructed its ambassador in Paris to urge the French government to leave nothing undone “which will strengthen truly nationalist groups in Indochina and induce present supporters of the Viet Minh to come to the side of that group” (Gravel ed., I:32). The United States justly estimated that it would be impossible for any Vietnamese leader to form a government, or rally popular support, without displaying a modicum of independence. The French, however, were not quite willing to yield even a fraction of their prewar privileges. Finally, U.S. pressure assumed its familiar financial form. The American ambassador in Paris informed the French Foreign Minister that the United States was willing “to consider assisting French Government with respect to matter of financial aid for Indochina through ECA but could not give consideration to altering its present policy in this regard unless real progress made in reaching non-Communist solution in Indochina based on cooperation of true nationalists of that country” (Gravel ed., I:33).
Immediately on February 2, 1950, when the French government announced the ratification by the French National Assembly of the independence of Vietnam, the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the State of Vietnam, headed by Bao Dai. On February 16, 1950, France requested military and economic assistance in prosecuting the war in Indochina, and rapidly obtained it. In May 1950, the United States publicly announced the beginning of military and economic aid to the government of Bao Dai. An aid mission was established in Vietnam a few days later.
From 1950 on, U.S. policy toward Vietnam was not unlike what Washington now calls “Vietnamization,” except that then, both the French and the Vietnamese were being used. On the one hand, the United States gave France enough money and military equipment to stave off its military defeat; on the other, it siphoned enough aid to the Bao Dai government to enable it to raise an army of Vietnamese men, equipped with modern Western weapons, trained by French officers, to fight other Vietnamese men.
Less than a year after the Communist victory in China, and at about the time of the outbreak of the Korean war, the United States became totally committed to France’s aims in Vietnam. The events in China and Korea did not, as often supposed, incite the United States to blindly adopt an anticommunist stance vis-d-vis Vietnam. That course of action, as we are now able to trace it, had been set back in late 1946. The anti-Ho Chi Minh, pro-French, and then pro-Bao Dai policies stemmed from one and the same preoccupation of the State Department’s: to stop “Moscow-oriented regimes” in Asia and in Western Europe from becoming a strong defense shield for the Soviet Union. That the United States, along with much of Western Europe, should have feared the Communist threat to their hitherto comfortable world of empires and colonies is understandable. What the United States failed to grasp, however, was that socialism, wedded to the desire for independence, had become a formidable local force in many of the old colonies, and that no alleged links to the Kremlin would explain it away. At every stage in the evolution of U.S. policy toward Vietnam, the United States was warned of this analytical confusion by its own agents, or by people familiar with the problem. The State Department made its decisions in full knowledge of the data. For example, the State Department knew of Ho Chi Minh’s commitment to the Communist ideology. It also knew perfectly well that Russia had had very little to do in Vietnam. According to a report from the Office of Intelligence Research of the Department of State itself, “evidence of Kremlin-directed conspiracy was found in virtually all countries [of Southeast Asia] except Vietnam” (Gravel ed., I:34). The United States chose to side with France against Vietnam when its Director in the Office of Far Eastern Affairs in the State Department wrote the following memorandum:
Although the French in Indochina have made far-reaching paper-concessions to the Vietnamese desire for autonomy, French actions on the scene have been directed toward whittling down the powers and the territorial extent of the Vietnam “free state.” This process the Vietnamese have continued to resist. At the same time, the French themselves admit that they lack the military strength to reconquer the country. In brief, with inadequate forces, with public opinion sharply at odds, with a government rendered largely ineffective through internal division, the French have tried to accomplish in Indochina what a strong and united Britain has found it unwise to attempt in Burma. Given the present elements in the situation, guerrilla warfare may continue indefinitely (Gravel ed., I:29).
Washington actively supported the Bao Dai solution, although it was surely familiar with the following remark of the Chief of Staff of the French Army on his return from an observation tour in 1949:
If Ho Chi Minh has been able to hold off French intervention for so long, it is because the Viet Minh leader has surrounded himself with a group of men of incontestable worth.... [Bao Dai, by contrast, had] a government composed of twenty representatives of phantom parties, the best organized of which would have difficulty in rallying twenty-five adherents ... (Gravel ed., I:59).
The conflict in Vietnam which began as a struggle for independence against a colonial power waged by a coalition of several political groups, the Viet Minh, in which the Communists played a leading role, now had added to it a new and disastrous dimension in 1950: that of a civil war. That the United States created the conditions for a civil war is obvious. The French were primarily interested in defeating the Viet Minh forces and repossessing their former colony. At the instigation of the United States, they adopted a secondary political ploy: the setting up of an anticommunist “national” government in Saigon, whence have derived all the “Saigon” governments since. Without the support of France and the United States, the Bao Dai government would never have come into being, and the anticolonial war would have been waged and won, whereas today, the war of independence and a civil war rage on, side by side.
After 1950, and particularly after the onset of the Eisenhower administration in 1952, Vietnam assumed the importance of a test-case for the United States. The events in Vietnam were perceived to be intimately, and inextricably, linked to events in other Southeast Asian countries. The outbreak of the Korean war and the signing of the peace treaty with Japan in 1951, stimulated the United States to secure all countries from Burma to Japan for the “free world.” In concrete terms, keeping Southeast Asia “free” meant the following: demonstrating to capitalist and other noncommunist countries the resolve of the United States to withstand Communist expansion; assuring a Southeast Asian market for the Japanese economy which would otherwise lean too heavily on American aid; removing the need for a Japanese accommodation with the Soviet bloc; securing access to the world’s richest sources of natural rubber and tin, and perhaps second-richest source of petroleum; securing access to direct and well-developed air and sea routes between the western Pacific and India and the Near East; gaining control of military bases and other facilities on mainland Southeast Asia which would lessen the need for less desirable insular installations. All these considerations are set forth in a National Security Council staff study dated February 13, 1952 (Gravel ed., I:375-376). Given the importance of Southeast Asia and given the fact that Indochina has long been considered “a key area of Southeast Asia ... under immediate threat” (Gravel ed., I:373), the United States decided that, in the case that the Vietnamese [the Saigon government] should be weary of the war, and the French should accept to negotiate an end to it, the United States should still “continue to oppose any negotiated settlement with the Viet Minh,” because “any settlement based on a withdrawal of French forces would be tantamount to handing over Indochina to communism” (Gravel ed., I:379).
A year later, actual entry into the war by the United States was anticipated: “If the French actually decided to withdraw, the United States would have to consider most seriously whether to take over in this area.” So advocated a report by the State Department, in August of 1953, at a time when the United States raised its aid to the Paris and Saigon forces from $1,700,000 in that year to $2,160,000 in 1954, or from 33 percent to 61 percent of the total war cost (Gravel ed., I:407-408).
In 1954, while the Viet Minh besieged the French at Dien Bien Phu, the National Security Council debated the advisability of salvaging the French military fiasco by dispatching into Vietnam U.S. naval, air and ground forces (Gravel ed., I:465-472). The use of nuclear weapons was suggested quite matter-of-factly: “the estimated forces initially to be supplied by the U.S. ... are based on the assumption of availability [of nuclear weapons]. If such weapons are not available, the force requirements may have to be modified” (Gravel ed., I:466-467). While the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons were carefully studied, that is, the repercussions of their use on U.S. allies, on nonaligned couptries, and on the Soviet bloc, not a word is to be found concerning what they would do to the Vietnamese people or country.
Even after Prime Minister Eden had shown him a map of Indochina which, according to Dulles, indicated that “virtually all of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia is under or subject to imminent control by the Viet Minh,” the Secretary of State concluded that “it would be a tragedy not to take action which would prevent Indochina from being written off.”
From all the documents available on the U.S. role in the Geneva talks from May 8 to July 21, 1954, it appears that the United States attended the negotiations with the clear intention of persuading the French to continue the fighting and to seek a military victory. French proposals for a Vietnamese coalition government were strongly discouraged, for such a government “would open the way for the ultimate seizure of control by the Communists under conditions which might preclude timely and effective external assistance in the prevention of such seizure,” the “timely and effective external assistance” to come from the United States, clearly. Neither was any territory to be ceded to the Viet Minh, because that “would constitute a retrogressive step in the Containment Policy and would invite similar Communist tactics against other countries of Southeast Asia.” Set dements based on self-determination through free elections were not to be given a thought for that “would be attended by almost certain loss of the Associated States [Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos] to Communist control” (Gravel ed., I:449).
But the map that Eden showed to Dulles spoke louder to a weakened France than all of Dulles’ exhortations, so that the American Secretary of State soon had to renounce too much of his desiderata.
On June 14, 1954, Dulles cabled his ambassador in Paris informing him that plans for a U.S. intervention in Indochina were now virtually abandoned. “This,” wrote Dulles, “is the inevitable result of the steady deterioration in Indochina which makes the problem of intervention and pacification more and more difficult” (Gravel ed., I:524). Soon after this, the question of the partition of Vietnam was broached. Dulles’ immediate reaction to this was: “There can ... be no repeat no question of U.S. participation in any attempt to QUOTE sell UNQUOTE a partition to non-Communist Vietnamese” (17 June 1954, Gravel ed., I:531). The following day, Dulles sent another cable to Geneva saying that the United States was willing to “reexamine possible de facto partition Vietnam” (Gravel ed., I:532). The reason for this about-face was that the proposed demarcation line seemed advantageous to the French, and that, in any event, the French military situation in the Tonkin delta had rapidly deteriorated and become desperate.
The Geneva Accords were signed on July 21, 1954. The war between the French and the Viet Minh officially ended. Vietnam was temporarily divided into two regions. At that very moment, the United States prepared to pick up the pieces the French were leaving. Already, by June 1, 1954, Colonel Lansdale had arrived in Saigon to direct the Saigon Military Mission, the aims of which were to “undertake paramilitary operations against the enemy and to wage political-psychological warfare. Later, after Geneva, the mission was modified to prepare the means for undertaking paramilitary operations in Communist areas rather than to wage unconventional warfare (Gravel ed., I:574).
The interests of the Vietnamese people dictated that the country be united under a single government of independence. But it was against the interests of the United States, as Washington conceived of them, to have that government be Ho Chi Minh’s. The United States, therefore, undertook to lend total support to the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, who became Prime Minister of the Bao Dai government in 1954 and who eventually replaced Bao Dai as Chief of State in 1955, in hopes of seeing it develop into a viable alternative to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. It would be wrong to think that the United States opposed the concept of reunification. It had taken, at the Geneva Conference, the pledge to “continue to seek to achieve unity” for the divided countries, but how the National Security Council conceived of reunification is another matter. In 1956, after the deadline for the reunification elections had passed, the National Security Council directed all U.S. agencies in Vietnam to:
Assist Free Vietnam to develop a strong, stable, and constitutional government to enable Free Vietnam to assert an increasingly attractive contrast to conditions in the present Communist zone ... [and] work toward the weakening of the Communists in North and South Vietnam in order to bring about the eventual peaceful reunification of a free and independent Vietnam under anti-Communist leadership (Gravel ed., I:267).
In the meantime, then, southern Vietnam had to be made workable, appealing, and U.S. money poured into Saigon to do precisely that. How much of the largess benefited the Vietnamese living in southern Vietnam? The purpose of the aid was not to lift the standard of life of the Vietnamese:
Security was the focus of U.S. aid; more than 75% of the economic aid the U.S. provided in the same period went into the GVN [Government of Vietnam-Saigon] military budget; thus at least $8 out of every $10 of aid went directly toward security. In addition, other amounts of nominally economic aid (e.g., that for public administration) went toward security forces, and aid for agriculture and transportation principally funded projects with strategic purposes and with an explicit military rationale. For example, a 20-mile stretch of highway from Saigon to Bien Hoa, built at Gen. Williams’ instance for specifically military purposes, received more U.S. economic aid than all funds provided for labor, community development, social welfare, health, and education in the years 1954-1961 (Gravel ed., I:268).
Being a nation of peasants, the Vietnamese desperately needed an agrarian reform to abolish the inequalities spawned under colonialism: after six years of study, research, and various programs, the situation, as of 1960, remained as follows: “45% of the land remained concentrated in the hands of 2% of landowners, and 15% of the landlords owned 75% of all the land” (Gravel ed., I:254).
Not only did the Ngo Dinh Diem regime make no attempt to eradicate social injustices, it prevented its citizens from attempting to redress these wrongs in the political arena. The government tolerated no opposition of any kind and political life was at a virtual standstill. Prisons overflowed with political prisoners. “In brief, Diem’s policies virtually assured that political challenges to him would have to be extra-legal” (Gravel ed., I:257).
Some U.S. policymakers were naturally uneasy at the blatantly dictatorial ways of their proteges in Saigon, but even with the advent of a new U.S. administration in 1961, they hesitated to revise U.S. policy toward the Ngo Dinh Diem government, simply because “South Vietnam (unlike any of the other countries in Southeast Asia), was the creation of the United States” (Gravel ed., I1:22).
Most of the Vietnamese who cared to know, had known that since 1954. And those who cared to fight, or saw no alternative but to fight, quietly picked up their arms again and resumed the old anti-colonialist struggle which had merely subsided.
Studies of peasant attitudes conducted in recent years have demonstrated that for many, the struggle which began in 1945 against colonialism continued uninterrupted throughout Diem’s regime: in 1954 the foes of nationalists were transformed from France and Bao Dai, to Diem and the U.S. ... but the issues at stake never changed (Gravel ed., I:295).
Subsequent to 1960, all U.S. interventions in the Vietnamese situation developed logically out of the premise that South Vietnam was to be kept within the boundaries of the “free world,” regardless of how that affected the Vietnamese people.
After 1960, events in South Vietnam were but the reenactment of events fifteen years earlier. There was a change of actors, but not of plots. The Viet Minh were replaced by the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, the French by the Americans, and the Bao Dai government by subsequent Saigon governments. In the eyes of the Americans, just as the Viet Minh had to be controlled by Moscow, although no evidence for it could be found, so now the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam had to have been directed by North Vietnam, although ample proof could be found for localized, southern grievances and organized opposition. The real difference, though, is that whereas France was not able to bomb Moscow, the United States has been absolutely free to all but devastate North Vietnam. What saved North Vietnam from total destruction, and the North Vietnamese people from annihilation, is the risk the United States of America always faces of bringing China and the Soviet Union into an enlarged war. American planes did not bomb the oil depots and power plants around Hanoi and Haiphong not for the sake of the Vietnamese people, but because that would “trigger Chinese intervention on the ground.... This is what we wish to avoid” (Gravel ed., IV: 31). But if other less risky ways could be found to arrive at the same results, they were to be considered:
Strikes at population targets (per se) are likely not only to create a counterproductive wave of revulsion abroad and at home, but greatly to increase the risk of enlarging the war with China and the Soviet Union. Destruction of locks and dams, however—if handled right—might ... offer promise. It should be studied. Such destruction does not kill or drown people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after time to widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food is provided—which we could offer to do “at the conference table” (Gravel ed., IV: 43).
Southern Vietnam, however, was truly a free-fire zone, with China safely at a distance. And that is why the United States has been destroying its people outright, in order to “save” them.