Vietnam
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Vietnam

The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975

John Prados

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eBook - ePub

Vietnam

The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975

John Prados

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About This Book

Henry Adams Prize The Vietnam war continues to be the focus of intense controversy. While most people—liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, historians, pundits, and citizens alike—agree that the United States did not win the war, a vocal minority argue the opposite or debate why victory never came, attributing the quagmire to everything from domestic politics to the press. The military never lost a battle, how then did it not win the war? Stepping back from this overheated fray, bestselling author John Prados takes a fresh look at both the war and the debates about it to produce a much-needed and long-overdue reassessment of one of our nation's most tragic episodes. Drawing upon several decades of research-including recently declassified documents, newly available presidential tapes, and a wide range of Vietnamese and other international sources—Prados's magisterial account weaves together multiple perspectives across an epic-sized canvas where domestic politics, ideologies, nations, and militaries all collide. Prados patiently pieces back together the events and moments, from the end of World War II until our dispiriting departure from Vietnam in 1975, that reveal a war that now appears to have been truly unwinnable—due to opportunities lost, missed, ignored, or refused. He shows how—from the Truman through the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations—American leaders consistently ignored or misunderstood the realities in Southeast Asia and passed up every opportunity to avoid war in the first place or avoid becoming ever more mired in it after it began. Highlighting especially Ike's seminal and long-lasting influence on our Vietnam policy, Prados demonstrates how and why our range of choices narrowed with each passing year, while our decision-making continued to be distorted by Cold War politics and fundamental misperceptions about the culture, psychology, goals, and abilities of both our enemies and our allies in Vietnam. By turns engaging narrative history, compelling analytic treatise, and moving personal account, Prados's magnum opus challenges previous authors and should rightfully take its place as the most comprehensive, up-to-date, and accurate one-volume account of a war that—judging by the frequent analogies to the current war in Iraq—has not yet really ended for any of us.

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Year
2009
ISBN
9780700623631
1 A Splendid Little War
Long before there was a government in conflict with its people, there was a distant war in Asia that had nothing to do with Vietnam. That beginning was a nexus, a moment when nothing was determined and events might have taken many different directions. War in Southeast Asia did not amount to even a mote in Washington’s eye. The story traces back to the height of the great global conflict called the “Good War,” World War II, when Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, collectively known as French Indochina, were occupied by Japan. From President Franklin D. Roosevelt on down, Americans focused on defeating the totalitarians, Hitler’s Germany and Imperial Japan. Vietnam figured at most tangentially. At one point in early 1945 the famous American aircraft carrier fleet, Task Force 38, entered the South China Sea to make air raids against Japanese naval and air forces in Indochina. The Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, ran an escape network in Indochina to rescue Allied airmen downed in southern China. And Allied intelligence services of the Southeast Asia Command (SEAC), including British and Free French operatives, worked there to link up with former French colonial officials and military men ousted by the Japanese. That was it. No armies crisscrossed Indochina; no battles took place—except between the French and Japanese or between the French and certain revolutionaries fighting for the independence of Vietnam. There lies the genesis of this conflict, which at first could be seen as a splendid little French war.
Roosevelt held the reins when America had its first opportunity to steer clear of what was to come. But that chance would be lost because of developments in the war, relations among the Allies, and FDR’s own failing health. Roosevelt’s instincts were sound. He foresaw the end of the old order of empires and colonies, of which Indochina had been one, and set the example even before the war by preparing to accept the independence of the Philippines, a U.S. territory since the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt also saw security interests in French Indochina: in a sense, the Pacific part of the world war had begun there, where weak colonial authorities had been unable to resist Japanese encroachments.
President Roosevelt championed a system of collective security based on a United Nations, envisioning UN trusteeship for Indochina. He spoke of that informally to British diplomats in 1942 and then openly at the inter-Allied conferences at Cairo and Tehran in late 1943. On the latter occasion Russian leader Josef Stalin remarked that the Allies ought not to expend blood and treasure to restore French colonial rule. Roosevelt expressed fierce agreement. After Tehran he told diplomats that he was laboring to prevent a French return.
Great Britain had the greatest colonial empire of all. It was the British, not the French, who were the hidden enemy and stumbling block. Sir Winston Churchill led the British government and committed himself to preserving the empire. Britain was also America’s key ally. Though Churchill despised Charles de Gaulle and the Free French, he could hardly collaborate in dismantling the French empire while preserving Britain’s. The Free French also made Churchill’s choice easier, with a 1944 colonial conference in Brazzaville, Congo, where they proclaimed a liberalized empire christened the French Union. Local autonomy and a greater voice in French policy would replace tight control. After Brazzaville Churchill broadened his support, instructing his SEAC commander to accept increasing French participation.
FDR’s policy aimed to marginalize France. His approach to Indochina should be seen primarily in that context. Although Roosevelt expressed sympathy for the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians who had lived under French rule, his fundamental view was only somewhat less patronizing than the colonials’. Churchill’s opposition complicated FDR’s task. Meanwhile, the war situation developed in a way that made French cooperation increasingly important. As the Allies invaded northwestern Europe at Normandy in June 1944, soon restoring a French government under de Gaulle, their military resources were stretched thin. By the end of that year the British were disbanding formations to strengthen others, while the United States was combing out its rear service units, air forces, and every available staff to put more troops on the ground. The reconstituted French army then became the largest untapped pool of Allied military manpower.
The campaign against Germany constituted only half the war. Looming ahead was the need to invade Japan. These decisions were made when the existence of the atomic bomb remained a closely held secret and those few who knew about it had no idea whether the weapon would work—long before any were dropped on Japan. The problem was to gather enough troops in the Far East for an invasion. In late 1944 the French government offered to contribute an Expeditionary Corps to the Pacific campaign. The French certainly anticipated that positioning forces in the Far East would provide them with the means to return to Indochina.
Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945. Some treat FDR’s death as an opening for the French to reinsert themselves in Indochina. That is too simplistic. The anticolonial rhetoric had already weakened. European experts in the State Department, emphasizing the need to rehabilitate France, were asserting themselves. Roosevelt had been forced into a rearguard action—rather than pressing trusteeship for Indochina, he had been reduced to insisting that no immediate decision be made. The logic is inexorable: a serious Roosevelt anticolonial policy required preventing French military forces from appearing in the Far East. Instead, that force was accepted. The key decision involved the ships necessary to move French troops, and that decision would be made by an Allied board in January 1945. FDR could have blocked that action, but he did not. The troops began to sail from Marseilles in March, just as Japan overthrew the French administration in Indochina.1
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The Japanese and Vietnamese set the stage for the first act. Increasingly beleaguered in the Pacific war, Japan worried about Allied moves on many fronts, Indochina among them. An Allied invasion there remained a possibility. If that happened, the French colonial forces were likely to join with the invaders. To forestall this, on March 9, 1945, the Japanese overthrew the colonial governor. In a short, sharp military campaign, the Japanese army either compelled surrender of the French colonial troops or drove them across the border into southern China. Next came the turn of the Vietnamese. The French administration operated in tandem with a Vietnamese monarchy (and Cambodian and Lao ones, too) that, formally, the French were merely protecting. For years, decades even, nationalist and then communist sentiment had grown in Indochina, fanned by colonial excesses. Since about the 1920s the growth of this movement had accelerated. The Indochinese Communist Party formed in 1929. There were abortive revolts in Vietnam in the 1930s. The French military and police repeatedly broke up nationalist plots until the Japanese swept into Indochina, after which the colonial security services were greatly hampered. The Japanese themselves followed a policy of encouraging Asian nationalisms as a counterweight to the European colonialists. For its part, the French administration made certain concessions to nationalists that it considered friendly in order to preserve control in the face of Japanese occupation. The net result was that World War II witnessed a huge shift in the political development of Indochina, Vietnam particularly.2
The nationalists took advantage of the French colonial programs, from Boy Scouts to bike races, to assemble a core of modernist activists. Of all the nationalists, the Indochinese Communist Party was the best prepared for this. Leaders such as Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap moved back and forth across the Chinese border, established bases in caves in the northern Vietnamese mountains, and began to build networks throughout the country. In 1941 they created a united front group, the Vietminh (Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi), disguising communist dominance and emphasizing the struggle for independence (doc lap) from France. Vietminh cadres spread the message while leaders sought outside support, initially from Nationalist China. The Chinese never quite made up their minds about the Vietminh, sometimes helping them, sometimes imprisoning Ho and other figures. But the Vietminh were successful enough to set up a standing committee at a village quite close to the French colonial capital, Hanoi. French troops began military operations aimed at the Vietminh as early as 1943 but were unable to eliminate them. On December 22, 1944, under Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietminh formed the Vietnam People’s Army, an armed force that grew slowly but gradually cleared whole districts in the mountains. By the time of the Japanese coup the Vietminh had a true base area.
At this point American operatives from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) arrived on the scene. The Americans had several purposes. They sought data on the Japanese and on Indochina itself, established contacts with the French that might be of use to them, and set up rescue networks for Allied pilots. The OSS ran one agent network out of China. The first OSS officer to land in the country arrived in late March 1945 at Dien Bien Phu, joining a French column that would retreat to China. A full team followed in April, but it was driven across the border after clashes with the Japanese. From the moment of the Japanese coup, Vietnamese, not French, sources offered the best potential for accomplishing OSS aims in Indochina.
By then Ho Chi Minh had direct contact with OSS officers in China, who actually introduced him to the U.S. China air commander, General Claire Chennault, at a meeting in Kunming. Ho trekked with another OSS team into northern Vietnam a few weeks later. From then on Americans resided with the Vietminh, trained a few as radio operators, and provided some weapons. The Americans and Vietnamese were friendly even though OSS officers such as Charles Fenn and Rene Dufourneaux knew that Ho was, in fact, a communist. At one point the Vietnamese leader became sick, and treatment by OSS medic Paul Hoagland saved his life. Hoagland belonged to an OSS “Deer” Mission under Major Allison Thomas that arrived in mid-July. For the Vietminh, OSS ties enabled them to claim a relationship with the powerful United States, an important political advantage.3
As the days passed, Japanese power waned visibly. News of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan galvanized the Vietminh. On August 12 they determined to stage a general uprising in Vietnam. Ho, Giap, Truong Chinh, and other leaders led columns toward Hanoi. Local committees organized peasants throughout the country. On August 16 Ho Chi Minh declared himself president of a provisional government of an independent Vietnam, which became the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Responding to the patriotic mood, the French satrap Emperor Bao Dai abdicated in favor of Ho’s government. Vietminh columns actually arrived at Hanoi on August 19, and cadres quickly created the administrative structures of government. This became Vietnam’s August Revolution.4 Neither that summer’s famine nor the political jockeying of other nationalist groups shook Vietminh dominance. Any French return would involve dealings with the DRV government, not simply a reinforcement of the French colonial structure.
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Japan’s surrender on August 15 made it necessary to disarm Japanese garrisons throughout China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. The Allies had a plan for that. With regard to Indochina, the scheme provided for temporary occupation by Nationalist Chinese in the north and British forces in the south. This arrangement turned out to have important political implications. It set off a chain of events that led from the August Revolution to a Vietnamese war of independence against France.
In the north the Nationalist Chinese were not averse to cooperating with the DRV. Chinese commanders saw an opportunity to enrich themselves. The Vietminh were glad to oblige, using Chinese entrepreneurs to obtain weapons and medicines for the Vietnam People’s Army (the Japanese also gave the Vietminh some weapons rather than handing them over to Chinese enemies). The Chinese occupation effectively gave Ho Chi Minh half a year to consolidate control. During part of this time the OSS teams were still present, and U.S. officers Captain Archimedes L. A. Patti and General Phillip Gallagher attended the official ceremonies marking the foundation of the DRV. Again, the Americans helped confer a certain patina of international knowledge, if not recognition, on Ho Chi Minh’s government.
Events in the south developed very differently. Disarming the Japanese there fell to Lord Mountbatten’s SEAC. Mountbatten had a host of responsibilities in an area that encompassed a significant portion of the surface of the globe. He had to preserve the British position in India, complete the Burma campaign, and reoccupy Malaya—and those were merely London’s imperial interests. SEAC also had to insert forces into Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies) as well as Indochina.5 Mountbatten could spare only a few troops for the former French colony—specifically, General Douglas D. Gracey’s 20th Indian Division, which began arriving at Saigon by air in early September. Stepping off his plane at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport, Gracey spoke only to the Japanese and hardly acknowledged the presence of a Vietminh delegation on hand to greet him. That foreshadowed what was to come.
General Gracey’s problems were a microcosm of the SEAC’s. He began with just a couple of thousand troops; the bulk of his division, following by sea, was not expected for several weeks. Riots rent the city days before Gracey’s Gurkha soldiers arrived. Merely establishing order in Saigon posed a formidable obstacle, and he had to do the same for all of southern Indochina. Gracey adopted expedients. Instead of disarming 4,000 Japanese troops, for weeks he used them to impose security under Allied command. A token French unit, a company of commandos, had landed with Gracey, and the general used them as the nucleus for another force, which was greatly expanded after September 12, when the British liberated and rearmed some 1,400 French colonial troops whom the Japanese had imprisoned. French soldiers and colonists, freed from the Japanese yoke, went on a rampage. Vietnamese protests were met with force. Instead of treating with the Vietnamese, General Gracey treated them as lawbreakers, a situation exacerbated when the Frenchman who had been designated temporary high commissioner issued a proclamation that foresaw a new governor-general and an administration little changed from that of the prewar colony.6
The Vietminh were not as well established in the southern part of Vietnam, called Cochin China or Nambo. They did have weapons, though, mostly of British origin and possibly obtained from intercepted supply drops to the underground network SEAC had earlier tried to create.7 But there were other political groups, including a significant one of communist Trotskyites, competing for popular support. The latter were especially strong in Saigon. The rioting of September 1945 gave General Gracey a reason to suppress them. The French certainly appreciated that, but so did the Vietminh—their principal competition was thereby neutralized. Gracey declared martial law on September 21. The following night French troops carried out a coup de force, occupying city hall, the police and SuretĂ© headquarters, the treasury, and other key buildings, raising the French flag. The Vietnamese responded with a general strike, and in one neighborhood they seized several hundred French hostages, killing half of them.
As in the north, there was an OSS team in Saigon, led by Lieutenant Colonel A. Peter Dewey. The OSS contingent had flown in from Rangoon even before the first of Gracey’s soldiers arrived, and it quickly ran into trouble with the general, who rejected any political role for the OSS. He viewed the OSS as useful for securing Allied prisoners and gathering evidence for war crimes trials. From both Saigon and Hanoi the OSS warned Washington that the occupiers were laying the groundwork for reassertion of the French colonial regime. Colonel Dewey offered himself as intermediary to the Vietminh in Saigon, but both the British and French snubbed him, and Gracey ordered him to leave. Dewey’s last report warned, “Cochinchina is burning, the French and British are finished here, and we ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.”8 On September 26, while passing a roadblock between Tan Son Nhut and American headquarters, Dewey was killed by Vietnamese, who no longer bothered distinguishing Americans from other whites. Dewey became the first U.S. com...

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