Copyright © 1972 by Philippe Devillers
“Supporting” the French in Indonesia? A key to an intelligent reading of Vol. of the Gravel edition of the Pentagon Papers by Philippe Devillers
United States involvement in the Vietnam war is said to have originated in President Truman’s decision to provide assistance to France and the three Indochinese “Associated States” (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) in the pivotal month of February 1950.
Actually, a turning point, a crucial dilemma, was reached when the United States was asked by France to recognize the “Associated States,” to whom sovereignty had just been transferred. While there was no particular problem with regard to Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam, on the contrary, did present a serious one. France wished to introduce into the community of nations a “State of Vietnam” headed by Bao Dai (a former emperor), but at the same time, Ho Chi Minh, President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, claimed (on January 14, 1950) that he and the DRV were “the only legal government of the Vietnamese people.” The DRV was recognized as such by Peking and Moscow (January 1950), a fact which hastened the American decision.
The perception of a powerful Communist threat to American world interests, the collapse of the Chinese Nationalist government, the apparent alignment of People’s China with Moscow indeed combined to induce Washington to action. Southeast Asia seemed to be “the target of a coordinated offensive directed by the Kremlin” (Gravel ed., I:186). U.S. policy was set to block further “Russian” expansion in Asia, the domino principle being at the root of this policy.
Indochina was of special importance “because it was the only area adjacent to China which contained a large European army which was in armed conflict with ‘communist’ forces” (Gravel ed., I:82). “The attempt of the patently Communist Ho Chi Minh regime to evict the French from Indochina was seen as part of the Southeast Asian manifestation of the communist world-wide aggressive intent. The resistance of France to Ho, therefore, was seen as a crucial stand on the line along which the West would contain Communism” (Gravel ed., I:81).
French ratification of the transfer of sovereignty, the French government’s request for American aid in Vietnam (February 16, 1950), prompted the United States to action. Discussing the issue, the National Security Council, in NSC 64 (February 27, 1950), determined: “It is important to United States security interests that all practicable measures be taken to prevent further communist expansion in Southeast Asia. Indochina is a key area of Southeast Asia and is under immediate threat” (Gravel ed., I:76).
Urged by the then Deputy Under-Secretary of State Dean Rusk to consider “the strategic aspects of the situation,” the Secretary of Defense, in a memorandum for the President dated March 6, 1950, described U.S. options as follows:
The French are irrevocably committed in Indochina and are supporting the three states as a move aimed at achieving non-Communist political stability ... The choice confronting the United States is to support the legal [sic] governments in Indochina or to face the extension of Communism over the remainder of the continental area of Southeast Asia and possibly westward (Gravel ed., I:195).
On May 8, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced an aid program for France and the Associated States of Indochina. Thus, six weeks before the Korean war, a crucial decision was made which “directly involved [the United States] in the developing tragedy in Vietnam” (Gravel ed., I:42). The die was cast.
The Pentagon Papers introduce an impressive amount of information and document well a period which was neglected (for lack of space) by the New York Times editors. With about 240 pages of “summary” and 230 pages of documents, this is an essential book for understanding American policy and the U.S. decisionmaking process. However, even in the “full edition,” the perspective is disappointing because many important documents are missing (1) and this gap probably will prevent the reader from getting a clear idea of the chain of events leading to the early (but capital) American decisions. Also there is a surprising absence of analysis of American motivations and interests. In this respect, a key to the reading of the Pentagon Papers is useful because the official language must be decoded in order to determine precisely which American interests were being served when decisions were made.
THE BACKGROUND OF THE FATAL DECISION OF FEBRUARY 1950
When the United States decided to join (and support) France on the Indochina front, a war had been going on there for three long years. And, far from being a small conflict, it had already become a major issue in the world power-game.
Much has been said about U.S. policies in Indochina during and immediately after World War II. Did the United States back the Viet Minh, first against the pro-Vichy administration and then against de Gaulle’s representatives? Did it support policies that aimed to replace a colonial administration by “international trustees”? Did it really back France to reimpose French colonial power, as the Viet Minh said?
The Pentagon Papers seek to restore the balance. “Neither interpretation squares with the record,” they say. The United States was less concerned over Indochina and less purposeful than critics assume. As a matter of fact, ambivalence and ambiguity had characterized U.S. policy regarding Indochina during World War II, and this was the root of a long misunderstanding between Paris and Washington. On the one hand, Washington repeatedly reassured the French about the return of their colonial possessions; on the other, in the name of self-determination, it stood for trusteeship or independence. But trusteeship is now said to have foundered as early as March 1943, and as of April 3, 1945 (a week before the death of Roosevelt), the new doctrine of trusteeship left any decision on Indochina to France.
Truman did not question French sovereignty over Indochina, but wanted to know more about Paris intentions with regard to establishing civil liberties and increasing measures of self-government in Indochina, before formulating a declaration of policy. He did not want the French to reassert control by force. In November 1945, Washington was satisfied with French explanations and pledges that, once order was restored throughout Indochina, the “natives” would be given a greater voice in their affairs while new agreements would be concluded with the individual states.
From the Pentagon Papers, it appears that the United States did not feel concerned about the turn events took in Indochina after the Japanese surrender. They state simply that “the DRV ruled as the only civil government in all of Vietnam for a period of about 20 days. On 23 September 1945 ... French forces overthrew the local DRV government, and declared French authority restored in [ Cochinchina” (Gravel ed., I:16). They mxention that Ho Chi Minh sent eight messages to the United States between October 1945 and February 1946, but that the United States did not reply. They go on to report “recognition of the DRV as a Free State, part of the French Union,” through an agreement signed on March 6, 1946, between Ho Chi Minh and Jean Sainteny, the French representative in Hanoi, omitting however one of its most important clauses on self-determination of Cochinchina. In April 1946, the United States acknowledged to France that all of Indochina had reverted to French control. Allied occupation 1 of Indochina was officially over. “Thereafter, the problems of U.S. policy toward Vietnam were dealt with in the context of the U.S. relationship with France” (Gravel ed., I:3; emphasis ours).
This is fundamental for a sound understanding of the situation: Indochina was not in the same theater as China and Japan (in which West Coast and Texan ini terests hoped to play a major role), but part of the “European Theater,” in which France played a capital role.
Washington seemed satisfied with the “peaceful cooperation between France and the DRV in North Vietnam for eight months,” but the Papers do not detail or discuss the issues at stake at either the Dalat or the Fontainebleau conferences. They mention a casual contact between Ho Chi Minh and the U.S. ambassador in Paris (the Catholic Jefferson Caffery). The September 14 (1946) agreement between the French government and Ho Chi Minh, about a ceasefire and selfj determination in the South as a quid pro quo with restoration of a federal ecoli nomic authority in Indochina, is hardly mentioned, nor the subsequent failure to implement it.
When tensions developed between Paris and Hanoi, Washington apparently did its best to help, as is shown by an extremely interesting telegram, dated December 5, 1946, from Dean Acheson to the U.S. representative in Hanoi, warning against violence in Vietnam, stressing the dangers of provocateurs and the risks of a ‘ conflict, as well as the possibilities for compromise (Gravel ed., I:29). And then, on December 19, 1946, the North Vietnamese attacked.
In a memorandum to Undersecretary Acheson (December 23), John Carter Vincent, Director of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs, in a very sharp analysis indeed, recommended that the French be reminded of inherent dangers in the situation. However, the conflict was already there, and the United States regarded it as fundamentally a matter for French resolution.
The French government, in a message of January 8, 1947, assured that their “principal objective ... was to restore order and reopen communications ... and that after this was done, [they] would be prepared to discuss matters with the “Vietnamese” and to live up to the agreements of March 6 and September 14.
The Americans wanted to be reassured; they accepted the French version, and in a probably sincere desire to be helpful, did try to prevent the conflict from widening. Secretary of State George Marshall said he hoped that “a pacific basis of adjustment of the difficulties could be found.”
Early in February 1947, while General Leclerc recommended a political solution, the French government’s position shifted to state that “before any negotiations, it was necessary to have a military decision’ (emphasis ours). The U.S. ambassador in Paris, however, received revealing directives. He was given instructions first to reassure French Premier Ramadier that Indochina was of course a matter of French sovereignty, but the French certainly knew that colonialism was dead, as shown by their recent agreements with Vietnam. Washington remarked that French “understanding” of the Vietnamese position was more pronounced in Paris than in Saigon, but understood that the Vietnamese had attacked on December 19 and that the French had no reason to be generous. Furthermore, Ho Chi Minh was a Communist, and the United States did not desire to see colonial empires replaced or controlled by the Kremlin. They wanted to remain aloof, and had no solution to suggest (Gravel ed., I:4, 30-31, 50).
The solution of neutrality was thus chosen. The issue of Vietnam was completely overshadowed by the role France could be expected to play, on the Western side, in Europe. The Conference of “Big Four” foreign ministers opened in Moscow on March 10, 1947, and the Truman Doctrine was enunciated on March 12. Even if “the U.S. knew little of what was transpiring inside Vietnam,” as the Papers say (Gravel ed., I:51), it is true that it “certainly cared less about Vietnam than about France.”
It was within the French sphere, and by the French themselves, that the elimination of the Communists in Vietnam had to be achieved. Ramadier’s government favored “independence and unity” for Vietnam. In accordance with Admiral d’Argenlieu’s suggestions, it turned then to a political solution: restoration of Bao Dai, the former emperor. It was with him, not Ho Chi Minh, that the French decided to negotiate for a political settlement with Vietnamese nationalists. With French encouragement, groups of Vietnamese right-wing “nationalists” began advocating the installation of Bao Dai as the head of an anti-Vietminh Vietnamese regime.
Very early in the war, the French had indeed raised the specter of communism and of Red conspiracy. More recently Admiral d’Argenlieu had stressed that France’s role in Indochina was primarily to stem the expansion of communism there. Implicitly Washington had agreed with this aspect of French policy and favored a non-Communist political solution, even if, in order to get it, the French had to resort to “Vietnamization” of the conflict, as was proposed, for the first time (although the word was not used), in Directive No. 9 (January 4, 1947) of the Political Section of the French High Commissioner’s Office in Saigon. (2) Actually, the French approached Bao Dai with terms not unlike those accepted by Ho Chi Minh (unity, and autonomy within Indochinese Federation and the French Union), “provided Bao Dai formed a government which would furnish a clear alternative to Ho Chi Minh” (Gravel ed., I:25; emphasis ours).
The United States could then go ahead. On May 13, 1947, a few days after the Communists were ousted from the government in Paris, and immediately after the “rejection” by Ho Chi Minh of the French ultimatum for surrender, a Department of State guidance affirmed that in Southeast Asia the United States was “in [the] same boat as [the] French” (Gravel ed., I:31), that to prevent trouble, it sought “close association between newly-autonomous peoples and powers which have long been responsible [for] their welfare.” This association, however, should be voluntary, avoid bitterness and frustration. Although the United States would not interfere in French affairs, it wanted to let it be known that it felt concerned. It was important to find “true representatives of Vietnam,” and not impotent puppets. A restoration of Bao Dai could do harm because it would show the world that the democracies were reduced to resorting to monarchy as a weapon against communism. It made clear that the United States foresaw France’s losing Indochina if it persisted in ignoring American advice, and bypassing “truly nationalist groups” able to induce actual Vietminh supporters to come to the Western side.
The “True Doctrine” was formulated, but for a long time French and Americans were to differ as to who were the “true nationalists.”
What is really appalling in the Pentagon Papers is that there is not the slightest hint that there was in Washington, at any level, a critical examination of the French theses or versions of events, as well as of the legality of the French policy from an “international law,” or “peoples’ law” (jus gentium) point of view. It is amazing that such a poor analysis of the origins of a major war could be made by “experts” occupying high and crucial positions. Summaries and documents never go to the roots and remain for the most part superficial.
At the base of the whole of the “Indochina tragedy” is the fact that the West (France first and the United States afterwards) ignored the evidence that the DRV was the new, but legal, form of the Empire of Annam, a thousand-year-old nation-state, one of the oldest in Asia, although it had been enslaved for eighty years under the guise of a French protectorate. As the Papers acknowledge, the DRV enjoyed full independence for a few weeks after September 2, 1945, restoring between North and South a unity that had been broken by France eighty years before.
It was fairly reasonable for the United States to abstain from interference in the French attempt to seek new relationships with the different states of Indoi china. A new agreement was concluded between France and Cambodia as early as January 7, 1946. The March 6, 1946, agreement was signed with Ho Chi Minh as leader of Vietnam (the new name of Annam) and in it France did “recognize the Republic of Vietnam as a Free State with its Government, its Parliament, its Treasury, its Army, within the framework of the Indochinese Federation and of the French Union.” This event, which was of international significance, was hailed throughout the world, from Chiang Kai-shek to Chou En-lai and Attlee, as a sign of great French wisdom and realism. The French concluded other agreements with the DRV government: a military one (April 3), a few economic accords, and a general modus vivendi (September 14, 1946). It was decided that, despite transformation by the French of the colony of Cochinchina into an au- tonomous republic, the people of Cochinchina would freely decide their relationi ship with the DRV.
The Ho Chi Minh government was therefore the only legal government of Vietnam and there was no challenge of this fact from the French side. Former emperor Bao Dai had abdicated (not under force) on August 25, 1945, and had become Ho Chi Minh’s “Supreme Adviser.” Ho Chi Minh had been received , and welcomed in Paris as Head of State and Government (July-August 1946) and in this capacity he had signed agreements with the French government. There was no further problem for anybody, including the U.S. Ambassador, about meeting with him.
How is it then, that because a confusing conflict suddenly flared up about customs and road traffic between the DRV and the French High Commission in Saigon (and their military in Tonkin), the DRV government ceased overnight to be “legal” or, to quote the Papers, “the DRV government [sic, emphasis ours] took to the hills to assume the status of a shadow state” (Gravel ed., I:47)?
In fact, just because of the December 19 “attack”? The Pentagon Papers, however, cautiously add: “The issue of who was the aggressor has never been resolved” (Gravel ed., I:22).
Actually this was pure French right-wing officials’ arrogance. Alleging Vietnamese breach of faith, the Bidault government and High Commissioner Admiral d’Argenlieu decided that the Ho government, as such, no longer existed! One may wonder if the explanation should not be looked for in the mind of Premier Georges Bidault. It has to be borne in mind that when things began to worsen in Morocco, in 1953, Mr. Bidault suddenly decided to depose Sultan Mohammed V and replace him by Ben Arafa. The same psychological process could have led him to believe (six years earlier) that since “Sultan Ho Chi Minh” was bad, it was necessary to get rid of him and replace him by a more amenable man, as the French generals and governors had done with the Vietnamese emperors between 1885 and 1916. Nineteenth-century colonial thinking was still prevalent among right-wing French politicians in 1946/47, and it influenced their masterplans. Looking for an alternative to the “opponents” or “resisters” led to “Vietnamization” of the conflict, i.e.. helping right-wing puppets or allies of the West to “replace” leftist nationalists.
The trouble was precisely that although the United States “regretted” the risks inherent in the new conflict, it neither challenged the French legal position nor interfered in the French field of responsibility. For reasons of sheer opportunism, the United States failed to tell France that it could not ignore the legal government of Vietnam and especially that it should not look for an alternative, through “Vietnamization” of the war. Actually, the United States agreed with this French course, and abdicated then all principles of morality. This essential, fundamental aspect of the story is totally lacking in the Pentagon Papers, and therefore remains practically hidden from the American public.
Why did the United States endorse (at least implicitly) the French position?
Because it gave priority to the “Battle for Europe”! France was an essential piece in the American game in Europe, and at the time France was causing some anxiety in Washington because it was still trying to remain unaligned and independent between the Soviet Union and the Anglo-American bloc. Also, a powerful Communist party was participating in the French government at that moment. Taking sides just then in favor of Ho Chi Minh, in this colonial crisis, would certainly have infuriated the French right wing and made it anti-American, unwilling to come, under the Western banner, against communism. The Communists would have exploited U.S. interference for their own benefit.
Hardening of anticommunism in the United States, plus the priority given to the “necessary containment of Soviet Russia,” made it impossible to weaken the French and allow them to be replaced in Indochina by “Kremlin agents.” There was no risk, however, in having them replaced, in the long run, by “true nationalists.” At that moment, these latter were in China, protected by the Chinese Kuomintang and their friends in General Donovan’s OSS, with support of the California-based China Lobby. The problem now was to decide how to manage to get the Chinese-American agents (the “true nationalists”) aboard the French “boat,” Bao Dai, and under this cover, achieve successful “Vietnamization” of the conflict.
The Pentagon Papers do not say a word about the activities of the “true nationalists” at that time, or about the OSS-CIA plans. The Defense Department probably had no such files. The writers, consequently, could only offer poor, very poor, excuses for the choice Washington made in 1946-1947.
Here are two examples: “No French government is likely to have survived a genuinely liberal policy toward Ho in 1945 or 1946. Even French Communists then favored redemption [5/c] of control in Indochina” (Gravel ed., I:52). Further, they say that U.S. support for Ho Chi Minh would have involved perspicacity and risk, “a perspicacity unique in U.S. history,” but Washington could not take the risk of having a domino fall. So “the path of prudence rather than the path of risk seemed the wisest choice.”
This was, however, also a risk. As the Papers say, “Washington and Paris did not focus on the fact of Ho’s strength, only on the consequences of his rule”: Ho was a Communist....
In fact, the record shows that the United States well knew what was at stake, and how extensive was the strength of Ho. In an interesting analysis (“The Character and Power of the Vietminh. A Summary”), the Pentagon Papers throw light on how highly appraised Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh were. The Vietminh is described as “the principal vehicle for Vietnamese nationalism and anti- French colonialism,” and Ho Chi Minh as “the only Vietnamese wartime leader with a national following” (Gravel ed., I:49). Elsewhere the report adds: “It seems likely that in the absence of the French, the Vietminh, through its governmental creation, the DRV, would have overridden indigenous, tribal, religious and other opposition in short order” (Gravel ed., I:43).
Unfortunately for Washington, the ICP (Indochinese Communist Party) was the controlling element in the Vietminh, and the French exploited this fact in order to restore by force their control over Vietnam. Consequently “Ho again became the head of Viet resistance and the Vietminh became the primary nationalist protagonist. Hence Ho Chi Minh, both on his own merits and out of lack of competition, became the personification of Vietnamese nationalism” (Gravel ed., I:49).
Moreover, the Vietminh was not even anti-American. In the fall of 1948, the Office of Intelligence Research (Department of State) wrote a survey of Communist and American influence in Southeast Asia in which it said that “evidence of Kremlin-directed conspiracy was found in virtually all countries except Vietnam.” It added that “since December 19, 1946, there have been continuous conflicts between French forces and the nationalist government of Vietnam [emphasis ours]. This government is a coalition in which avowed communists hold influential positions. Although the French admit the influence of this government, they have consistently refused to deal with its leader. Ho Chi Minh, on the grounds that he is a Communist. To date the Vietnam press and radio have not adopted an anti-American position.... Although the Vietnam radio has been closely watched for a new position toward the U.S.. no change has appeared so far” (Gravel ed., I:34).
There was clearly an “anomaly” in the Soviet conspiracy, but the State Department rejected as unlikely the possibility that the Vietnamese Communists might not be subservient to Moscow’s foreign policy.
However, although French chances of crushing Vietnamese nationalism were limited, Washington decided to back French policy of “Vietnamization” on the basis of anticommunism. This meant that in a different context of course, the United States approved a policy which was not basically different from those followed by the Third Reich in Norway (with Quisling), or by Japan in occupied China (with the Nanking government of Wang Ching-wei). It was the policy of imposing a regime and policy on a country through Quisling or puppet governments. As the Papers say: “When the U.S. was faced with an unambiguous choice between a policy of anticolonialism and a policy of anticommunism, it chose the latter” (Gravel ed., I:179). This was to be confirmed again in the spring of 1950.
By completely omitting the crucial legal aspect of the conflict, the Pentagon Papers tend to give some legitimacy to the French action, because supporting the French in the name of anticommunism is the only presentable basis for the American involvement in Vietnam. Within the framework of French sovereignty, everything became honorable, but it is precisely the upturn given their Indochina policy by the French right-wing and Socialist parties which is at the root of the tragedy.
Taking for granted that the Soviet Union was “The Enemy,” and that the struggle for “containment” had to be fought all over the world, it was legitimate to help France resist Communist “subversion” in its colonies. As long as Moscow did not push too much in Asia, it was believed that France would do the job in Indochina. It could get rid of the Communists there through its own ways and means. But when Russia “conquered” China with Maoism and made it a “Slav Manchukuo” (Dean Rusk dixit), Red China became the main danger, and France could no longer cope with it alone. The United States had to come in and help. Anyway it was the Joint Chief of Staff’s belief, early in 1950, that “attainment of United States objectives in Asia can only be achieved by ultimate success in China.” (3)
Basically, this was the theme of the famous “China lobby.” Nobody tells us, in this volume, why “the Communists” won in China and why they came to be hostile to the United States. There is not a word about the American intervention in China or of the failure of “Sinization”‘ of the conflict there.
Fundamental omissions thus make the Pentagon Papers rather disappointing on the “French period.” The Papers give rare clues as to how mistakes or miscalculations developed in the formation and implementation of policies but offer only very superficial insights into the deep, real causes or origins of the war. However, it is clear to every objective historian that the United States cautiously but graciously supported France on the wrong road on which it was embarking. In Washington, France and the United States were indeed considered to be “in the same boat.”
THE AMBIGUITY OF AMERICAN-FRENCH RELATIONS ON VIETNAM
While cautiously endorsing, as early as February 1947, French policy in Indochina, the Truman Administration was nevertheless skeptical and even believed that the French were unrealistic, that they did not have “the technique” to wage ‘ an efficient anti-Communist battle, and would eventually fail.
In its opinion, France had to win the support of the “true nationalists,” i.e., anti-Communist Nationalists. (4) It was prompUy made clear by Washington that France would eventually lose Indochina if it did not offer the “true nationalists” enough (independence, etc.) to induce the Vietminh supporters to come to their side. The French, however, were reluctant to yield anything significant to Bao Dai.
The Papers briefly report that Bao Dai was “convinced that the French situation in Indochina was sufficiently desperate that they would have to honor commitments they made to him” and that he also “seems to have believed that he could attract American support and material aid—a view which may have stemmed in part from a 1947 Life magazine article by William C. Bullitt, the influential former U.S. ambassador to France, endorsing Bao Dai as a solution to France’s dilemma” (Gravel ed., I:25).
Actually, while remaining a private person without a clear mandate, (5) Bao Dai negotiated new agreements with the French. Paris had been urged by the Americans to reach “a non-Communist solution in Indochina based on cooperation of true nationalists of that country” (September 1948) and warned against attempting to set up a puppet government (January 17, 1949). On March 8, 1949, France recognized Vietnam as an independent state within the French Union and agreed to a merger of Cochinchina with Vietnam. Bao Dai returned to Vietnam and appointed himself head of the newly formed “State of Vietnam.”
On May 10, 1949, the French raised the problem of U.S. aid and recognition. They stressed that a decision was urgent because of the Communist advance in China. In their opinion, there was no alternative to Bao Dai.
In Washington, however, there was no enthusiasm for and even reluctance to support the French and Bao Dai in Vietnam. To the United States, “the State of Vietnam [had become] a camouflage for continued French rule in Indochina” (Gravel ed., I:59). Nevertheless, there were, in 1949, significant behind-the-scene negotiations and agreements between American and French banking concerns on future cooperation in “overseas development” and this apparently encouraged the New York and possibly San Francisco financial and economic groups to support the French position in Indochina. The “loss” of China accelerated the process: Southeast Asia could now be a substitute market.
At the end of 1949, after the Jessup fact-finding mission, a new policy was formulated: increase the ability of the free peoples to resist direct and indirect aggression and to maintain internal security; prevent Southeast Asia from being overrun by communism and encourage European friends to make use of their knowledge and experience and Asian non-Communist states to join the UK and the U.S. The New York economic establishment would be happy to support such schemes because its “European friends” would give it advantage over the competitive West Coast interests in the area. The National Security Council, on December 30, 1949, approved: it was necessary to bring the “nationalists” to back Bao Dai, to increase the Western orientation of the area, to block further Communist expansion in Asia. This was the green light for recognition of Bao Dai.
But the fatal decision of February 1950 turned out badly. Who should be the recipient of the aid? Bao Dai or France? And consequently whose policies would U.S. aid support? How could the Americans insist upon having what they called a “democratic-nationalist government” in Vietnam? A decision was difficult. The French were intransigent, opposed direct U.S. aid for the Vietnamese forces, even though they could not instill real determination and elan into the Bao Dai army. Strong-willed French military commanders, being suspicious of the United States were determined on a military victory and believed they could win, provided they got American weaponry.
Washington well knew that the Bao Dai regime was neither popular nor efficient and that the French also were very reluctant to yield power to Bao Dai. Americans got impatient and, going over the head of the French, tried to encourage Bao Dai to play a more active role. The Papers publish an extraordinary message from Dean Acheson to Edmund Gullion, U.S. representative in Saigon (October 18, 1950), directing him to tell Bao Dai what he should do: abandon neutralism and passivity, and fight the Communists (Gravel ed., I:70-71).
The U.S. efforts were in vain, and critics (probably from the West Coast circles and interests) began to say that the United States was not using enough leverage to move the French toward granting genuine Vietnamese independence.
The Defense Department Papers answered the critics by alleging that during this period, because of “the primacy accorded in U.S. policy to the containment of communism in Southeast Asia” (Gravel ed., I:75), France had a stronger bargaining position than the United States.
This, however, is only part of the truth. In fact, the U.S. interests in Europe (mainly from the East Coast, i.e.. New York) had given France prominence and this had led to a pragmatic alliance between the New York and French rightwing bourgeoisie against the Soviet Union and “socialism” in general. This implied that New York could force the California-based Far Eastern lobby to respect French interests in Indochina and support Bao Dai. To the extent that the United States needed and pursued an anti-Soviet policy in Europe, and wanted to discourage neutralism in Paris, it had to respect and even to support French Indochinese policy.
As the Papers rightly say:
Neither NATO nor the Marshall Plan offered usable fulcrums for influencing French policy on Indochina. Both were judged by the U.S. government and public to be strongly in the American national interest at a time when the Soviet threat to Western Europe, either through overt aggression or internal subversion, was clearly recognizable. A communist take-over in France was a real possibility.... Thus, an American threat to withdraw military and economic support to metropolitan France if it did not alter its policies in Indochina was not plausible. To threaten France with sanctions ... would have jeopardized a U.S. interest in Europe more important than any in Indochina (Gravel ed., I:76).
Actually, the real bargaining had to take place, within the U.S. economic empire, between the European-oriented interests and the Asian-oriented ones. The strength of the former allowed France to resist pressures about any policies in Indochina. There was incompatibility, not (as the Papers allege) in the two stands of U.S. policy, but between the foreign policies of the two main factions of the American Economic Establishment.
Therefore, rather than aiding France as a colonial power or a fellow NATO ally, the rationale for the decision to aid the French was simply to keep Indochina in the Western domain, to avert its sliding into the Communist camp. As far as the distribution of “shares” between the West Coast and New York interests was concerned, they would determine that later. Both agreed that, for the moment, the United States should support independence for the Associated States of Indochina, encouraging the French to grant them full independence and to train good public servants for them.
Certainly, it was uncomfortable for the United States to find itself “in the same bed as the French” (Gravel ed., I:76), and Washington was also quite aware of the high sensitivity of the French to any interference in their internal affairs, but it thought the deal was worthwhile.
With the outbreak of the Korean war, holding the line in Southeast Asia became essential to American security interests, and “the French struggle in Indochina came far more than before to be seen as an integral part of the containment of Communism in that region of the world. Accordingly, the United States intensified and enlarged its program of aid in Indochina.” But “a consequence of the Korean war, and particularly the Chinese intervention, was that China replaced the Soviet Union as the principal source of the perceived communist threat in Southeast Asia ...” (Gravel ed., I:82). This suited perfectly well the West Coast economic interests: the Chinese Communists were their main enemies. They now had good leverage against New York, because the Pentagon would now support them more than before. As the Papers clearly state: “The French [in Indochina] were, in a way, fighting a U.S. battle” (Gravel ed., I:79) and it was no longer useful to know who was right in Vietnam and what the Vietnamese people might think or prefer.
Primarily, however, it was still France’s war, and French leverage had not weakened. France could now use the threat of negotiating a pulling out from Vietnam [“an important instrument of blackmail,” the Papers say (Gravel ed., I:79)], because the U.S. leverage in Europe was losing strength. Washington and New York wanted to rearm West Germany against the Soviet Union to alleviate the U.S. “burden.” French opposition to German rearmament led to a compromise: the EDC Project (European Defense Community). The purpose was to “envelope” a West German army into an integrated six-nation army for the defense of Western Europe (thus making possible a reduction, not the elimination, of American ground forces in Europe and a sharing of the “burden”). Because of the necessity to push the EDC through, there was in Washington further reluctance to antagonize the French in Indochina. But the French gave EDC a far lower priority than expected. They did not feel any longer that there was a serious threat in Europe; they were wary of Germany and they gave low probability to a Soviet attack. They further stressed that there was a conflict between EDC (West German rearmament and the corresponding French balancing effort in Europe) and a massive French drive for victory in Vietnam. EDC could start only after 2l French victory in Indochina, they said.
The Papers stress Washington’s poor bargaining position: “The U.S. became virtually a prisoner of its own policy. Containment of communism, concern for the French in relation to the postwar Europe of NATO, EDC, and the Soviet threat in the West, combined with a fear ... that a French withdrawal from Indochina would leave exposed the U.S. flank in Korea, all compelled the U.S. to continue aid” (Gravel ed., I:203).
It can thus safely be said there was great ambiguity in the relationship of France and the United States concerning Indochina, but it was not clear that there was, as the Papers write, “incompatibility of American and French objectives” (Gravel ed., I:80). Were these objectives and interests really and basically different? While the United States seemed only concerned with the containment of communism and restricting the spread of Chinese influence in Southeast Asia (to protect potential or future markets) the French were not simply fighting to contain communism, but primarily to maintain their influence in Indochina and to avoid a crumbling of the French Union. They could not be expected (as the United States wished) to just “win the war” and then gracefully withdraw. And if their enemy now was the same as the United States’, they stiU nourished a deep suspicion that the United States desired above all to supplant them in Southeast Asia.
The Pentagon Papers shed some light on the ultimate American goals. The United States, involved in the Korean war, could not afford to wage another war in Indochina at the same time. But it was willing to help in the formation of national armies (this would increase the influence of the military). This would require much time and it was necessary to have the French remain there at least until these national armies were ready, because no American troops were available. I, A National Security Council paper (NSC 64/1, dated November 28, 1950), written just after Chinese intervention in Korea and the French disaster in North Tonkin and which was to remain the basis of U.S. policy toward Indochina for the duration of the French war, set short- and long-term objectives: deny Indochina to communism, promote self-government there, help in the formation and training of national armies. This policy, it was added, would be reconsidered if France abandoned the struggle (Gravel ed., I: 198-200).
In the meantime, there was an apparently serious fear of Chinese intervention in Indochina, and although this fear was later to subside, the National Security Council in 1952 listed “courses of action” to defend Indochina (in such a case) : with aerial and naval action against China itself (which was to be the point of “ultimate success”). Thus, the anti-Peking lobby concentrated on the less probable hypothesis (presenting risks of major and even world conflict) rather than on the more likely course, a deterioration of the French military position, which would have to be alleviated, but without giving the United States the leadership or relieving France of its basic responsibility for the defense of the Associated States.
Assuming power in January 1953, the Republican Eisenhower-Nixon Admin- istration proposed a “new, positive foreign policy,” but designated China as “the principal enemy,” linking from the start Indochina with Korea.
The Vietminh invasion of Laos and increasing war-weariness in France were a source of worry for Washington. Indochina’s importance to U.S. “security interests” in the Far East was now taken for granted by all American factions. Its “loss” would not be permitted. Although Stalin’s death had introduced possible flexibility in Communist policies and let the French wonder why they couldn’t have in Indochina an armistice like the one the United States had just concluded in Korea, Dulles urged the French to drive toward military victory rather than to look to a ceasefire with the DRV. He barred negotiations until France had “markedly improved its bargaining position through action on the battlefield” (Gravel ed., I:55).
Of course Dulles, at that moment, was not ready again to involve American land forces in another war on the continent of Asia. He thought victory could be achieved through increased military assistance to France, the Associated States and Thailand. Strongly supported by U.S. General O’Daniel, the French “Navarre Plan” was found attractive, and an expectation of French military victory, or at least of a good French show of strength, swept Washington in the fall of 1953.
There was, however, considerable risk that China, now relieved from the war in Korea, would intervene in Indochina on Ho Chi Minh’s side. The French wanted to get American guarantees against it. Basically they were now eager to find an honorable end to the war and hinted that they would welcome negotiations once the military situation permitted it. Dulles agreed to issue warnings to Peking, in order to deter further Chinese involvement. He threatened China with massive retaliation if it shifted its offensive to Indochina, but “the U.S. sought to convince the French that military victory was the only guarantee of diplomatic success” (Gravel ed., I:96), and foreclosed negotiating in Indochina until after a Chinese decision to eliminate or cut down aid to the Vietminh. Dulles reportedly told Bidault that “negotiations with no other alternative usually end in capitulation” (Gravel ed., I:96).
Quite suddenly, there was great concern about French political determination, The Papers do not even hint that Washington officials had any perception of the causes of French hesitation. With the emergence in Saigon (in the fall of 1953) of an anti-French right wing (under Ngo Dinh Nhu), and the related change in Bao Dai’s attitude, the public urge for peace gained momentum, and the French Assembly’s debate expressed it. Although the French government dis missed as “pure propaganda” Ho Chi Minh’s interview (November 29, 1953) and reassured the United States, the peace-feelers had a great effect on opinion.
The antiwar feehng and movement led by the influential weekly L’Express developed so fast that in January 1954 Laniel could no longer ignore it. When the Big Four Conference opened in Berlin, French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault had to put forward the idea of an international conference on Indochina. He could pressure Dulles by threatening to scuttle the project for the European Defense Community (EDC), which then was a top U.S. priority. On January 18, 1954, the Big Four decided that a conference on Indochina would start in Geneva on April 26, with the participation of People’s China. In Washington, there was the beginning of near panic.
TAKING OVER THE WAR FROM FRANCE
Indochina was seen as an essential area mostly by the West Coast interests and the Defense industries tied to them, for whom the containment of China had high priority. They also feared that the loss of Southeast Asia would force Japan into an accommodation with the Communist bloc. These circles simply could not accept the prospect of a settlement which would either leave France in control (alone or in alliance with New York interests) or (worse) give the Communists a part of the area. The widening audience of the “Peace faction” in Paris was a source of considerable anxiety and perplexity.
As early as February 1952, the National Security Council had suggested that the United States might be forced to take military action in Indochina. With the deterioration of the French military situation there in December 1953, serious attention was given for the first time to the manner and size of a possible U.S. intervention, which could at least deter (or prevent) the French from resorting to negotiations.
The Defense Department, however, was not of a single mind on this question. It is worth recording that Vice-Admiral A. C. Davis, Director of the Office of Foreign Military Affairs (Office of the Secretary of Defense) then stressed that “involvement of U.S. forces in the Indochina war should be avoided at all practical costs,” because it is impossible to engage “Naval and Air units only.” “There is no cheap way to fight a war, once committed,” he said (Gravel ed., I:89).
Evident disparity between how East and West Coast interests appreciated strategic evaluation of Indochina, and incapacity to reach a decision on the forces required to defend the area, led to an important NSC meeting on January 8, 1954. It appeared that the State Department favored intervention, probably as insurance against French “dissidence” (the Berlin conference was to open next week). The Defense Department opposed it, arguing that France could win only with U.S. aid and indigenous support. In order to agree, both sides decided to set up a special working group, under General Erskine.
An important NSC paper (5405, January 16, 1954) discussed the possibility of negotiations (Dulles was then talking about that at Berlin), and the author of the Papers’ summary analyzed it as follows:
The NSC decided the U.S. should employ every feasible means to influence the French Government against concluding the struggle on terms “inconsistent” with the basic U.S. objectives. The French should be told that: (1) in the absence of a marked improvement in the military situation, there was no basis for negotiations on acceptable terms; (2) that the U.S. would “flatly oppose any idea” of a cease-fire as a preliminary to negotiations, because such a cease-fire would result in a irretrievable deterioration of the Franco-Vietnamese military position in Indochina; (3) a nominally noncomnninist coalition regime would eventually turn the country over to Ho Chi Minh with no opportunity for the replacement of the French by the United States or the United Kingdom [Emphasis added]. (6) ... If the French actually enter into negotiations with the communists, insist that the United States be consulted and seek to influence the course of the negotiations. (7)
General Erskine’s two reports, which were discussed on February 6 and March 17, were extremely negative and tough about the possible solutions of the conflict, successively rejecting (a) imposition of a ceasefire; (b) establishment of a coalition government; (c) self-determination through free elections (“such a course would in any case lead to the loss of the Associated States to Communist control”). A partition of the country would be bad and the maintenance of the status quo was now difficult. In brief, Erskine’s report concluded that from the point of view of the U.S. strategic position in Asia, no solution to the Indochina problem short of victory was acceptable. It recommended that prior to the start of the Geneva conference the United States should inform Britain and France that it was only interested in victory in Indochina and would not associate itself with any settlement which fell short of that objective. Acknowledging that “the French desire for peace in Indochina almost at any cost represents our greatest vulnerability in the Geneva talks” (Gravel ed., I:452), it further recommended that in the event of an unsatisfactory outcome at Geneva, the United States should pursue ways of continuing the struggle in concert with the Associated States, the UK and other allies. The NSC had therefore to determine the extent of American willingness to commit forces to the region with or without French cooperation. With the siege of Dien Bien Phu just beginning, and the Geneva Conference six weeks away, Erskine nonetheless suggested that the United States observe (and influence) developments at the conference before deciding on active involvement (Gravel ed., I:91).
However, the problem now was to know whether the United States could eventually accept the “loss” of “French” Indochina (while doing everything to prevent further deterioration), or undertake new direct action to save Indochina before some unacceptable settlement should emerge at Geneva.
The military chiefs were against direct U.S. intervention, but would agree to help the French to hold and even to “rectify” French deficiencies. In this respect, the Pentagon Papers say that no record of Operation Vulture (U.S. bombing against Communist forces besieging Dien Bien Phu) has been found in the files . (Gravel ed., I:97). It seems, nevertheless, that Admiral Radford (Chairman of the JCS) and Vice-President Nixon, then a clever spokesman for West Coast interests, favored strong, swift and decisive action on the side of the French.
President Eisenhower was opposed to any direct intervention, and probably . Dulles, too. The Pentagon Papers, however, do not throw light on their motivations, which are left to the reader’s guess. They record almost incidentally (Gravel ed., I:134) that “the partition alternative, specifically at the 16th parallel, [was] intimated to American officials as early as March 4 by a member of the Soviet Embassy in London, apparently out of awareness of Franco-American objections to a coalition arrangement for Vietnam.” This certainly had given Dulles a clue that the other side might accept a territorial compromise. Was this not an opportunity for the United States to take over the political leadership of the truncated Vietnam State? Dulles was then to develop a subtle maneuver that the Papers, without mentioning it, document well.
Actually Dulles was to hide the maneuver behind various smokescreens, and first of all strong militant words basically aimed at giving the US an ultimately controlling position in the negotiation, while preventing, in the interval, negotiations by others and primarily by France.
Dulles’ maneuver developed fast. In a memorable speech on March 29, he stressed the alarming situation in Indochina, alleged and dramatized the Chinese threat, delivered a strong warning to Peking, and called for the “united action” of the West. This was to reassure and please right-wing (Southern and Western) opinion inside the United States. It also: (a) gave apparent support to the French, who would be tempted at least to delay negotiation and wait for improvement of their military situation; and (b) extended East Coast leverage (through a NATOlike structure), probably bring genuine “nationalists” into power in Saigon, and offer a scapegoat (the British) if something failed. Anyway, at least for a while, “united action” would be used as an alternative both to negotiation and to U.S. unilateral intervention.
On April 3, President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles got the approval of congressional leaders on the course they had chosen. The United States would not undertake unilateral intervention. Its participation in the war would be contingent upon the formation of a coalition (with the UK and Asian powers), a French declaration giving full independence to the Associated States, and congressional approval (which was dependent upon the first two conditions). The French would continue the war, with allied support, until victory, except if negotiations were just a face-saving device to cover a Communist withdrawal.
As everyone knows, the British government’s answer was negative. They would do nothing before the Geneva Conference, they said, but would decide later, according to the results. Meanwhile they would give full diplomatic support to the French, and in their view, the best outcome would be a negotiated partition (In March the Soviet Embassy in London had also approached the British).
France remained the key. Was she ready, with allied support, to pursue the war until victory? Washington intensified U.S. pressure on the French to deter them from negotiation. On April 17, Nixon went so far as to advocate sending the boys to Indochina (Gravel ed., I: 104). At the end of April, a dramatic show (of strength) to force the British to accept a commitment ended in complete failure. The United States was forced to accept the fact that at least the negotiations would start at Geneva.
However, Washington was sure that Communist terms would be “unacceptable” and defined its position in “maximalist” terms, equivalent to victory, to be imposed upon the others. A National Security Council meeting, on May 8, set forth the guidelines of U.S. policy on negotiations for the U.S. delegation at Geneva.’ (8) The United States would stand for nothing less than territorial integrity, political independence, security against aggression and subversion, stability of government, economic expansion, etc.. but would not associate with a settlement, nor guarantee it, retaining the possibility of retaking the initiative. Moreover, in this meeting
the NSC ... decided that the French had to be pressured into adopting a strong posture in the face of probable Communist intransigence. The President was urged to inform Paris that French acquiescence in a Communist takeover of Indochina would bear not only on France’s future position in the Far East, but also on its status as one of the Big Three; that abandonment of Indochina would grievously affect both France s position in North Africa and Franco-U.S. relations in that region [emphasis ours]; that U.S. aid to France would automatically cease upon Paris’ conclusion of a unsatisfactory settlement; and, finally, that Communist domination of Indochina would be of such serious strategic harm to U.S. interests as to produce consequences in Europe....” In addition, the NSC recommended that the United States determine immediately whether the Associated States should be approached with a view to continuing the anti-Viet Minh struggle in some other form, including unilateral American involvement “if necessary.” The NSC clearly viewed the Indochina situation with extreme anxiety, and its action program amounted to unprecedented proposals to threaten France with the serious repercussions of a sell-out in Southeast Asia. (9)
But the American leverage was not good. The Administration had carefully made direct involvement conditional on a range of French concessions and promises, especially concerning Vietnamese independence and separate peace. They said it was just to provide an alternative, once the French had conceded that negotiation was a wasteful exercise. Dulles still thought the French would like to win the war (rather than negotiate), and hoped that through “united action” and U.S. “aid,” Washington would quietly take over leadership of the struggle, eventually imposing “true nationalists” (in fact, obvious CIA agents or puppets) in the Saigon government.
The French, however, had different thoughts. Premier Laniel reaffirmed in Paris that his government would not directly or indirectly turn Indochina over to the Communists. But the French desired only local assistance, not an “internationalization of the war” (in which they would lose control). At bottom, they did not wish American intervention. For them it was just an option, to be kept open until every effort to reach serious agreement at Geneva had been exhausted. Moreover the American conditions were unacceptable to them: they could not accept having the Associated States secede from France (to become Washington’s satellites), while France would still continue to fight for their defense, as the Pentagon’s infantry.
Just here a great turningpoint was reached, and strangely enough the Papers do not throw light on, and even seem to avoid mentioning two often-unnoticed but capital events which suddenly changed the whole American approach.
On the one hand, the “Saigon Military Mission” (SMM)—a cover for the CIA—with its chief. Colonel Ed Lansdale, USAF, arrived in Saigon on June 1 (Gravel ed., I:574), and met General Donovan (a CIA boss) there on June 3. Awkwardly the Papers do not publish the decisions reached at the 200th NSC meeting on June 3. On the other hand, French sources had revealed that at this very moment, Bao Dai, under U.S. pressure, called on Ngo Dinh Diem to become Vietnam’s Prime Minister. Dulles had got his trump cards and aces. The United States could quietly drop “united action.”
Actually, Washington security planners then began to focus on the future possibilities of collective defense in Southeast Asia, a system to be set up after a Geneva settlement. The consequence was a sudden determination to help to bring about the best possible settlement terms.
After the fall of the Laniel-Bidault government in Paris, Dulles decided on June 15 that “united action was no longer tenable.” The new French Cabinet, with Pierre Mendes France as Premier, had a quite different approach and Washington feared that the French would yield in Geneva or even accept some “sell- out.” “Paris, it was felt, could no longer be counted on as an active participant in regional security” (Gravel ed., I:131).
With the softening of Chinese attitudes, the possibility of a compromise no longer looked grim, (10) and at this point “the United States began to move in the direction of becoming an influential actor at the negotiations.... Washington believed that inasmuch as a settlement was certain to come about, and even though there was near-equal certainty it could not support the final terms, basic American and Western interests in Southeast Asia might still be preserved if France could be persuaded to toughen its stand” (Gravel ed., I: 141).
The British then still believed in the possibility of a “neutral belt” giving the Communists the security they needed; they still believed in the possibility of dividing Vietnam in this framework, and accepted the view that once a settlement had been achieved, a system for guaranteeing the security of the “neutral states” thus formed would be required.
A partition settlement would certainly offer many dangerous aspects, but the question then was turning out to be “how much territory the Communists could be granted without compromising non-Communist Indochina’s security, what measures were needed to guarantee that security, and what other military and political principles were vital to any settlement which the French would also be willing to adopt in the negotiations” (Gravel ed., I: 142).
It has to be understood (and this aspect is totally absent from the Pentagon Papers) that once Diem had come to power in Saigon (June 17), the United States could accept partition. The United States needed British support and participation in the Collective Defense arrangement. “American acceptance of partition as a workable arrangement put Washington and London on even terms” (Gravel ed., I:143). Eisenhower and Churchill could agree, on June 29, on the “Seven Points”: the United States “would not oppose a settlement which conformed to the Seven Points” and would even “respect” it. On July 13, Mendes France, in order to bring the Americans to support him at Geneva in the final bargaining, “formally subscribed to the Seven Points and ... agreed to American plans for dealing with the aftermath of the Conference” (Gravel ed., I:152).
The Chinese, however, made plain that a settlement was contingent upon Western acceptance of their neutralization plans: foreign military bases had to be barred from Indochina, and the Associated States denied admission to any military bloc. Mendes France accepted that too.
France, on July 20, concluded agreements with the DRV on the basis of “independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Vietnam” and the designation of a “provisional military demarcation line” between the French Union’s forces and the Vietnamese People’s Army (a de facto partition) tied to a date for all-Vietnam elections. The United States only took note, but pledged it would “refrain from the threat or the use of force to disturb the accords.”
Washington had to concede that the Geneva Accords represented a reasonable outcome, given the military conditions prevailing in Indochina. Bedell-Smith said he was “convinced that the results are the best that we could possibly have obtained in the circumstances” (Gravel ed., I:176).
However, “the view that Geneva had come out better than could have been expected was the one offered publicly” (Gravel ed., I:176). Although the major provisions of the settlement conformed surprisingly well with the Seven Points, the fact that another territory had been formally ceded to the Communists, that American military assistance to Indochina (at a cost of $2.6 billion) had neither assured the French a military or diplomatic success nor prevented the “loss” of North Vietnam weighed heavily on the Administration. In its meetings of August 8-12, 1954, the National Security Council evaluated the Geneva Accords as “a major defeat for United States diplomacy and a potential disaster for United States security interests ... a major forward stride of communism which may lead to the loss of Southeast Asia.” A new objective was set: at all costs “to prevent a Communist victory through all-Vietnam elections” (Gravel ed., I:177).
Having failed in their attempt to dominate (with the French) the whole of Vietnam through a “national” government of the Quisling or Wang Ching-wei type, the United States was then retreating on a “separatist” (secessionist) solution, the model of which could be found in a Japanese-type Manchukuo, or in the German-type Slovakia, with a puppet government manipulated by “advisers.”
Washington was eager to strengthen “free” Vietnam, needed French cooperation and support to implement its “aid” programs, but demanded that France treat South Vietnam as an independent sovereign nation, in the hope of winning nationalist support away from the Vietminh. Economic and financial aid would be given directly to Diem, as a way to accelerate the “dissociation of France from economic levers of command” and boost Vietnamese independence. French domination in this area, the Papers admit, “also inhibited American economic interests” (Gravel ed., I:214; emphasis ours). Militarily, the United States would build up “indigenous military forces necessary for internal security ... working through the French only insofar as necessary.” In other words, the United States asked the French to stay in Vietnam militarily, but to get out of Vietnamese economic and political life. As the Papers say, “this was probably asking too much.” (11)
Decisions reached in Washington in August 1954 probably reflected the outcome of the behind-the-scenes inner struggle which, within what could be called the “Central Committee of the American Mammonist (or Capitalist) Party,” opposed the Eastern Economic Establishment and the Western Military-Industrial Complex. The Dulles-Robertson-Young team offered two courses: (a) to strengthen the Diem government by political and economic means (this suited the East Coast interests; and (b) to bolster this government by strengthening the army that supports it (good news for the West Coast, the Pentagon and the Military-Industrial Complex).
Political considerations were to bring U.S. policy to shift to a decision to replace France in Vietnam as rapidly as possible. With the arrival of the Sainteny Mission in Hanoi in early October 1954, the fear swept official Washington that France and the DRV might make a deal and agree to keep the United States on the outside. This was now too great a risk to be accepted.
Resolutions of differences within the Eisenhower Administration on military issues (the training of the Vietnamese army) opened the way for U.S. assumption of responsibilities in Vietnam. To back Diem and oust the French became the basic motivations as early as October 1954. Washington first cut down by twothirds funds for supporting the French military presence in Indochina. In November, the outbreak of the Algerian uprising gave timely help to the American plans in Vietnam. There was thereafter “strong sentiment in France for sending the French Expeditionary Corps to North Africa” (Gravel ed., I:224).
Tensions arose between the United States and France about Diem and the Saigon army. “To support or not to support Ngo Dinh Diem was the issue over which France and America split” (Gravel ed., I:225). Washington stood firm. “No other suitable leader can be seen,” Dulles said, and the Papers add: Diem “for all his failings and weaknesses was the only available leader for South Vietnam.” He actually was the only important American stooge in Vietnam and had strong U.S. economic interests and hopes behind him. Moreover he had already refused to be bound by the Geneva Accords in any way.
Both countries, France and the United States, remained deadlocked until February 11, 1955, when the terms (not the form) of the original Ely-Collins agreement were finally agreed upon during the “power vacuum” which, in Paris, followed Mendes France’s resignation. Colonel Lansdale (CIA) got the direction of the key office in the military training mission in Saigon: “Operations.” He first set out to help Diem liquidate the French-oriented sects, bringing in Northern Catholics instead. In May 1955, rather than break with the United States, French Premier Edgar Faure preferred to withdraw from Vietnam.
Although remnants of the French forces remained until April 1956, “France was out of Vietnam to all intents and purposes by May 1955, ten months after Geneva.” Diem had then established his rule with almost unwavering American support, and “the anti-Communist moralism of Dulles and Diem rejected any rapprochement with the North, ultimately assuring that the temporary military demarcation line would become a permanent division of Vietnam” (Gravel ed., I:211).
With American advisers, the war then resumed against the people of South Vietnam, in flagrant violation of the clauses of the Geneva agreements. Diem had to terrorize the people in order not to lose the elections, if any had to be held. Intense and quite permanent mopping-up operations and repression were to lead, in 1956, to the Southern Insurrection. The course of the American War was set.
Once decoded, and though the evidence they contain is quite scattered and rather difficult to gather and grasp by anyone not aware of what was at stake, the Pentagon Papers (Gravel edition) are helpful for clarification of the long process by which the United States became involved in the Vietnam war. As they show well, this involvement was not at all accidental, but the logical result of a determined and deliberate approach to Asia, with a precise view of what was meant by “the security of U.S. interests.” Notwithstanding many gaps, the “thread of the story” is quite perceptible and the book reveals a lot about decisionmaking processes and approaches.
For the French, this first volume certainly makes sad reading; but it is also illuminating, especially on the nature of Franco-American relations during the Cold War era. It shows how U.S. policy was basically calculated to ensure the success of right-wing forces in France and enlist France in the anti-Soviet alliance in Europe. Indochina then was low on the priority list. At all times, since 1947, French and American policies in Europe as in Indochina were closely related. This alliance between Paris and Washington was decidedly a “right-wing Front,” a “conservative solidarity,” and in this respect the Papers give evidence of a real conspiracy, born in 1946/47, to crush the liberation movement in Indochina, destroy the newly emerged “free” and proud Republic of Vietnam, and reimpose upon its people a puppet government. This kind of conspiracy at Nuremberg was called “crime against peace.”
It is not easy, even now, to determine which ideologies or interests kept France involved so long in a war in Indochina, nor is the tie-up between French and American private or public interests which led Washington to subscribe to the French goals and pay for 70 percent (in 1953) of France’s war costs better understood. But what the Papers document well is the way the U.S. Republican Administration made this war its own war. Actually, when the French government late in 1953 changed its mind and decided to put an end, through negotia tion, to what had been a folly, Washington decided to enter the scene and, later, to get rid of the French, to take over the immoral undertaking and to go alone with what was to become pure aggression.
Considering the sufferings imposed by the war upon the Vietnamese people, and the utter devastation of this old, serene and beautiful country, no French reader of this book will shut it without a deep and sad feeling: indeed, the colonial war was wrong, from the start, even if it developed later, through skillful maneuver, into an anti-Communist or Christian crusade; but probably worse has been, at the very moment when peace was near, the surrender of French responsibilities to those people who, in Vietnam as well as in America, rejected peace and thought only of revenge and victory.
1. In the letter of transmittal to Secretary of Defense Clark M. Clifford, Leslie Gelb wrote: “Because many of the documents in this period were lost or not kept (except for the Geneva conference era) we had to rely more on outside resources” (Gravel ed., I:xvi).
2. Mentioned in P. Devillers and J. Lacouture, End of a War: Indochina 1954, New York, Praeger, 1969, p. 12. Joint Chiefs of Staff’s memorandum for the Secretary of Defense, April 10, 1950 (Gravel ed., I:366).
3. The rationale is “If you are ‘true nationalists,’ you can’t be inclined toward communism, and if you are a leftist, you can’t be a ‘true nationalist.’”
4. The Pentagon Papers ignore persistently the fact that the French and Bao Dai had agreed to set up a “provisional government of Vietnam” in May-June 1948. The position of Bao Dai, however, remained unsettled.
5. Gravel ed., I:87. A coalition government, Dulles thought, would be “the beginning of disaster” (Gravel ed., I:116).
6. The full text of NSC 5405 is published in the Papers as Document 20 (pp. 434-443). This sentence is “Point 29” (Gravel ed., I:442).
7. On the opening day of the conference at Geneva, Soviet officials had again approached American delegates on the subject of partition, averring that the establishment of “a buffer state to China’s south would be sufficient satisfaction of China’s security needs” (Gravel ed., I:134). The Department of Defense (on May 5) drew up a settlement plan that included provision for a territorial division. (This amounted to containing the Communist forces above the 20th Parellel, while denying them sovereign access to the sea. The Hanoi-Haiphong area would be held by Bao Dai.)
8. Gravel ed., I:117. The Erskine report had suggested “political action” to ensure a French agreement “with particular attention to possible pressure against the French position in North Africa, and in NATO” (Gravel ed., I:454; emphasis ours).
9. The Papers say “The Communist side was not so intransigent as to make agreement impossible” (Gravel ed., I: 139).
10. Gravel ed., I:214. “It would be militarily disastrous to demand the withdrawal of French forces before the creation of a new national army,” Dulles said.