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October 2, 2017

U.S. Entry into Vietnam: More Doctrine than Disorder

[Self-published blog post]

In this essay, I wish to touch on some of the circumstances and thinking that resulted in US operations in Vietnam. It was the political and ideological substructure that produced the war, and therefore is the only means of comprehending it.

Two connected points highlighted in particular are (1) the feeble claim that Ho Chi Minh and his party were communists above all else, and (2) that primary to US decision making was not communism, but power projection and enhancement of its own prestige, with consideration given to markets and resources.

"Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country—and in fact is so already."[1] These words were spoken on September 2, 1945, by Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnamese nationalism, when he declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Ho and his party, the Viet Minh, were embarking on the creation of a (very) long-desired independent Vietnam. This should have been the birth of a sovereign nation.

The Vietnamese had lived under French colonial control since the mid-1800s, and briefly under Japanese rule (1940-45) during World War II, with France functioning as an adjunct during that period. After the war, and with Japan defeated, France moved against history to reestablish itself in Indochina, just when colonialism was coming to an end elsewhere in Asia and Africa. In late 1946, tensions escalated between Vietnamese desire for self-rule and French imperialism, ushering in the First Indochina War.

Despite reduction by Washington to a puppet of international communism—for either China (after 1949) or the Soviet Union—Ho was nothing of the sort. Even early on, in the 1920s, his relations with the Kremlin had been touch and go, mostly owing to Ho being too flexible and inclusive in his approach to revolution for Moscow's liking. By the 1940s, there was no evidence to suggest Ho was a Soviet pawn. Even US diplomats maintained he was nothing more than a nationalist who had the support of the vast majority of the country.[2]

Similarly, there is little to show for Stalin's interest in Vietnam, being concerned primarily with postwar reconstruction and security. The scholarly literature presents the Kremlin in a light wholly different from the one Americans have come to know through spy thrillers.[3] As for China: though Ho, for lack of options, accepted material support from Beijing in the Viet Minh's war against France, his words of hesitation on the matter are revealing: "It is better to sniff French shit for a while than eat China's all our life."[4]

In addition to principally being a nationalist, Ho was heavily influenced by Western liberalism and was almost notoriously moderate. As one surveys the standard histories of the Vietnam War,[5] one repeatedly encounters both how much those who worked with him (French diplomats, American intelligence agents, and others) were impressed by Ho and found him likable; and that Ho was ready and eager to negotiate with anyone. On multiple occasions he was criticized within his own party for being overly moderate.

Though fond of Western liberalism, Ho grew familiar with its lack of hospitality. Near the end of World War I, Woodrow Wilson issued his Fourteen Points, a blueprint for world peace upholding such principles as self-determination and democracy. Following the war, at the Versailles peace conference in 1919, Ho petitioned for Vietnamese self-determination, perfectly in accordance with Wilson's avowed ideals. It would not be the first time the United States would ignore Ho's entreaties. Ho would then take an interest in Leninist thought and its anti-colonialist orientation, thus providing the Americans with a certified reason to dismiss him.

Of course, there were Wilson's words and then there was Wilson. The twenty-eighth president did indeed speak of lofty ideals, but those ideals generally applied to powerful countries or weak countries ruled by a powerful someone. His administration's foreign policy was defined largely by interventionism, projecting US power into a list of countries in the Western Hemisphere—Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Mexico—not to mention Russia.

The point is that Wilson was a continuation of an increasingly interventionist and expansionist US foreign policy. In a sense, expansionism is in the country's DNA; crossing the continent and realizing Manifest Destiny was only the beginning. By the twentieth century, a set of principles and doctrines steering US foreign relations had been established that did not spell tolerance for small countries pursuing a course of autonomy, typically viewed as radical or militant nationalism. In essence, this is the beginning of what would later be labeled the domino theory.

The domino theory was based on a fallacy called "slippery slope": if one country "fell" (that is, became independent and self-sufficient), then the next might, then the next, and so on. And typically, the countries in question tended to be small in size and economy, and commonly agrarian.

This logic was self-evident and required no justification. Any country judged to be a domino soon to fall—other metaphors included rotten onions and apples, and infected meat—needed US protection from itself. After WWII, White House planners operating within the largely contrived Cold War ideology applied the domino theory in an expressly communist context, referred to as containment.[6] And with the United States taking its expansionism global after 1945, Northeast and Southeast Asia became early priorities.

Vietnam fell squarely in the domino-about-to-fall category. It was endeavoring to cut its own path, improve the lives of its people, and make its way in the world. Free and fair elections were held in 1946. A famine was fought. And literacy rates were going up. The DRV was moving forward—despite the presence of three foreign powers on its soil at the time: China, France, and Great Britain. Ho would also make multiple attempts to reach out to President Truman, and was paid no attention just as he was at Versailles by Wilson.

France, however, decided to stay, wanting to reassert itself as an imperial power, if for no other reason than to give its self-image a boost. The Truman administration, regardless of the opposition of world opinion to the French presence in Vietnam, transitioned from consent to support for French designs on Indochina. And the more Truman and his advisers read communism into the activity in the region, the more it was axiomatic that France needed assistance, another matter looked upon unfavorably by world opinion. "Most of the countries of the world do not share our view," observed John Foster Dulles, secretary of state under President Eisenhower, "that Communist control of any government anywhere is in itself a danger and threat."[7]

At the peak of US support for French operations, the United States was footing 80 percent of the bill for the Franco-Viet Minh war. It was of course better that Paris do the dirty work, though Washington viewed French efforts with disdainful disappointment for not being aggressive enough. By 1954, France became the ultimate disappointment and called it quits, especially after the battle at Dien Bien Phu.

The peace conference in Geneva shortly after Dien Bien Phu bisected the country into North and South, as had been done in Korea, this time at the 17th parallel. The accords called for elections in two years' time, which Ho Chi Minh would have won handily. However, this gave White House strategists ample time to ram into place a system of governance in a newly independent South Vietnam, or Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Though the South would suffer under this system's repeated brutality and corruption, it was brutality and corruption that Washington could superintend; for American officials, anything was preferable to genuine Vietnamese sovereignty.

Those in the South found the viciousness of leaders like Ngo Dinh Diem not to their liking, and a deep resentment took hold throughout the country. This resentment eventually grew into organized resistance in the form of the National Liberation Front (NLF; dismissed as Vietnamese Communists, or Viet Cong). Washington viewed the NLF as a marionette operated by the DRV, as it was unthinkable that villagers in the South would be unappreciative of all that America was doing for them.

For the Vietnamese in general, the Americans were merely the new French. As historian Marilyn Young points out in her classic survey: "Indeed, the divisions within villages reproduced those that had existed against the French: 75 percent support for the Front, 20 percent trying to remain neutral, and 5 percent firmly pro-government."[8]

Simply put, the Vietnamese people were never on-board. And the more Washington pushed, the further it got from its goal. This is how and why the American war in Vietnam began.

This is why the United States killed millions of people, subjecting a peasant country the size of New Mexico to unprecedented firepower. Strategists, advisers, policy architects, military officers, and a series of presidents pursued the preservation of a wholly unpopular system in an artificial country (the RVN), and the more the Vietnamese—North and South—refused to yield, the harder Uncle Sam brought down the hammer.

Integral to the domino theory, of course, was intimidation. Small and weak countries were expected to cower. And anything short of cowering was met with corrective action. The resistance that the United States encountered in Vietnam was beyond the pale, elicited outrage, and had to be dealt with accordingly.

What was deliberate and based on long-established doctrines has been replaced in the popular imagination with the language of "mistakes" and getting "sucked in." This language is not new and, in the case of Vietnam, has its roots in Washington's "liberal" (centrist) criticism of the war. "In this view," says historian Mark Atwood Lawrence, "the U.S. commitment in Vietnam represented major errors of judgment but did not flow from deeper flaws in American motives or institutions."[9] The distinction is a crucial one.

It is precisely the "deeper flaws in American motives" that resulted in the US military deploying over two million service personnel (1964-75) to carry out democracy prevention. This would, in turn, send a message to the next country considering self-determination, while enhancing the reputation of US hard power.

The melodramatic photos of key players like President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara belie the consistency of US decision making. Talk of policy instead gets replaced with talk of personalities—always a dangerous preoccupation in the realm of politics. Yet, under the noise of individual behavior existed a regularity, an order, and a logic. "If personalities, egos, and individual factors were the dominant building blocks of crucial historical decisions," observes war historian Gabriel Kolko,

there would hardly be more than chaos to cope with, and social processes, forms, and patterns would be buried under a mass of idiosyncratic behavior. Vietnam's place in postwar American foreign policy can be traced very clearly and explained as part of a coherent strategy as well as a continuous dilemma.[10]

The atrocity that was the Vietnam War was not merely the collective savagery committed on the ground or the spectacle of violence seen in footage and movies. The atrocity was also the calculated resolve among successive White Houses and corresponding staff that spanned three decades and displayed a consistent line of reasoning that made sense given the priorities.


[1] Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (HarperPerennial, 1991), 11.

[2] George C. Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 4th ed. (McGraw-Hill, 2002), 13.

[3] See Melvyn Leffler, The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917-1953 (Hill and Wang, 1994), ch. 2. Leffler is a leading Cold War scholar who has done detailed work, but this title is short and reader-friendly. Likewise with David S. Painter, The Cold War: An International History (Routledge, 1999), ch. 2.

[4] Herring, America's Longest War, 22.

[5] In addition to the general surveys cited in these notes—Young, Herring, and Lawrence—see also Robert D. Schulzinger, A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975 (Oxford University Press, 1997).

[6] One of the best corrective analyses of Cold War ideology remains Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy (Hill and Wang, 1992), ch. 1

[7] William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions, since World War II, rev. ed. (Common Courage Press, 2004), 124.

[8] Young, Vietnam Wars, 73.

[9] Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (Oxford University Press, 2008), 112.

[10] Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience, reprint (The New Press, 1994), 168.

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