Donald Elder-Events in American History-VIET NAM

Feb 20, 2017 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder-Events in American History-VIET NAM

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Professor Elder, you and I both lived through the Vietnam era, and I was ready to be drafted, but that never occurred. But historically speaking, how the heck did we get involved in yet another skirmish halfway around the world?

Most of the conflicts that the United States has gotten involved in saw the nation decide to commit its military forces in one fell swoop. From our first declaration of war against the British in 1812 to the initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom, once the United States determined to engage in hostilities it immediately brought to bear as much force as it could muster. Vietnam, however, represents a totally different matter. In some respects, our involvement in Vietnam bore a striking resemblance to our engagement in the Korean conflict. Like Korea, Vietnam (at the time referred to as French Indochina) found itself occupied by Japanese troops during the Second World War, and here again the victorious nations had to decide on a method for disarming and repatriating those forces.

At the conclusion of the war, both Nationalist China and Great Britain had forces fairly near Vietnam, and the allies decided to give China authority in the north and Britain responsibility in the south. Here, however, the similarity between Korea and Vietnam ends. In Korea, the allies foresaw a day when the residents of Korea would control their own affairs, but one of the victorious nations had a prior claim on Vietnam. France had colonized that part of Southeast Asia, and at the end of the Second World War it sought to reassert its authority there. France quickly learned, however, that it would not have a peaceful resumption of power. Almost from the beginning of French colonial rule, many indigenous Vietnamese had taken up arms to oppose their rulers, and when the Japanese occupied their homeland in the 1940s they began to resist them as well.

A Vietnamese Marxist who used the alias Ho Chi Minh led this opposition, and at the end of the Second World War many Vietnamese wanted him to organize an independent government. The French rejected this movement, and sent troops to Vietnam as soon after the war as they could. Ho Chi Minh attempted to negotiate a peaceful transition of power, but by 1946 he gave up all hope of achieving that goal. As a consequence, he began a revolution against the French. At first, the French tried to end Ho Chi Minh’s rebellion without outside help, but it soon became apparent that they would require significant assistance in terms of both money and materiel to achieve their goal.

They turned to the United States for help, and in 1950, President Harry Truman began to supply their needs. Gaining a $10,000,000 appropriation from Congress to purchase military supplies, Truman then created the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) to oversee the transfer of these goods to the French. American military personnel comprised this organization, and MAAG thus represents the first commitment of American advisors to Vietnam. The US took great pains to emphasize that these men had only an advisory role, and would not see combat. Unfortunately for the French, American aid could not help them defeat the insurgents, and in 1954 France decided to end its presence in Vietnam. This did not, however, end America’s involvement in that region. An international conference to determine the fate of Vietnam took place after France announced its withdrawal, and this resulted in the creation of two independent countries: Laos and Cambodia. In addition, the conference created a third country known as Vietnam.

According to the terms agreed to by the participants at the conference, that country would be temporarily divided at the 19th Parallel. North of that line, Ho Chi Minh and his followers could organize a civil government based on communist ideology. Those Vietnamese that did not embrace communism could move south of the 19th Parallel and organize a democracy. After four years, a national election would take place, allowing the residents of Vietnam to determine their political future.

Hoping to ensure that democracy would prevail in Vietnam, the United States continued to provide assistance to the new government in the south. Moreover, the United States helped a former resident of Vietnam named Ngo Nguyen Diem return to his homeland from exile and become the political leader of that territory. Upon his arrival in Vietnam, Diem soon recognized that he stood little chance of defeating Ho Chi Minh in a national election, and he decided to postpone such an event indefinitely.

This caused residents in the southern half of Vietnam who supported Ho Chi Minh to begin a rebellion against Diem. Labelled “Viet Cong” by Diem, the rebels soon posed a serious threat to the viability of his rule. He asked for greater aid from the United States, and President Dwight Eisenhower began to send more advisors. When John Kennedy took office, he increased the number of advisors from 1,000 to 16,000. Although technically there in only an advisory role, by the end of Kennedy’s presidency they had begun taking on an increasingly more actively engaged role. The only question that remained at that point focused on whether the United States would commit combat troops to Vietnam or not.

Still, by 1963 the situation in Vietnam still seemed dire for Diem. Some military leaders suggested to Kennedy that only direct US military involvement could save the southern portion of Vietnam from falling to the communists. Much of the blame lies with Diem, as he adopted a number of policies that alienated a large portion of the civilian population. Kennedy’s advisor suggested that Diem could never quell the rebellion, and they recommended that the United States should encourage Diem’s generals to stage a coup. Kennedy agreed, and in November of 1963 a coup removed Diem from power.

2. I have visited THE WALL in Washington, and apparently American advisors were in Viet Nam for several years. Do we have a specific date as to the beginning of Viet Nam conflict, or did the U.S. seem to drift into it over several years?

As we have seen, American involvement began in 1950 with MAAG. However, Americans had served in Vietnam 5 years earlier. Towards the end of the Second World War, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) had sent teams of operatives to Vietnam to make contact with Ho Chi Minh. They sought him for two reasons.

First, American pilots flying missions against the Japanese in Southeast Asia had to occasionally parachute to safety over Vietnam, and the OSS hoped to coordinate rescue efforts with forces loyal to Ho Chi Minh. And second, the United States had not finalized a plan for invading the Japanese homeland, and some military officials thought that Vietnam could provide a staging area for such an offensive. OSS agents proved successful in finding Ho Chi Minh, and began to give him a small amount of weaponry to help him fight the Japanese. Ironically, they also supplied him with antibiotics that saved his life from an otherwise incurable infection. Thus, a small number of OSS agents found themselves in Vietnam at the end of the war. Unfortunately, one of these agents found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When the French came back to occupy Vietnam, the vast majority of them worse uniforms given them by the US military. On September 26, 1945, one of Ho Chi Minh’s followers mistook OSS agent Peter Dewy for a French officer, and fatally wounded him. Dewey thus became the first American fatality in what would become Vietnam.

3. I suspect America was shaken by the assassination of JFK, and I am not sure how much leadership Lyndon Johnson provided. How much support was there for Viet Nam—I remember quite clearly many, many demonstrations against our involvement?

By 1963, the situation in Vietnam still seemed dire for Ngo Nguyen Diem. Some military leaders suggested to Kennedy that only direct US military involvement could save the southern portion of Vietnam from falling to the communists. Much of the blame for this lies with Diem, as he adopted a number of policies that had alienated a large portion of the civilian population. Most of Kennedy’s advisors suggested that Diem could never quell the rebellion, and they recommended that the administration should encourage Diem’s generals to stage a coup.

Kennedy agreed, and in November of 1963 a coup did indeed remove Diem from power. At that point, the unexpected happened. Assuming that the generals would simply take Diem prisoner, the US had sent an airplane to South Vietnam’s capital with instructions to take him into exile.

But the generals obviously wanted Diem removed permanently, as they assassinated him after securing his surrender. Although many historians feel that Kennedy should have recognized that this could happen, all the evidence that we have demonstrates that Diem’s death shocked the president. Learning of Diem’s death, Kennedy ordered a review of his options regarding Vietnam. Those close to Kennedy believe that the president already wanted to end American involvement in Southeast Asia, and feel that had he lived he would have gradually pulled all American advisors out of Vietnam.

No one will ever know, as Kennedy died three weeks after Diem did. Vice-president Lyndon Johnson then became the chief executive, and he never considered ending our involvement in Vietnam. Indeed, during his presidency he widened the scope of American military involvement in that part of the world, eventually committing all the branches of the military to Southeast Asia.

After becoming president in 1969, Richard Nixon initially continued America’s involvement there. But the erosion of popular support for the war eventually led him to negotiate a peace treaty, which ended America’s presence in that region in January of 1973.

4. How did it finally end and what is the current status of that country?

Although he had initially sought to guarantee the future of South Vietnam through military force, an event known as the Tet Offensive that took place in January-February 1968 changed his perspective. During that time period, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops launched a nation-wide campaign in South Vietnam that belied President Johnson’s claim that the war would soon end with a victory. By March of that year, Johnson had come to recognize that the United States might not achieve that goal without suffering unacceptably high losses. He therefore announced that he would not seek reelection, and opened peace talks with Ho Chi Minh. These discussions continued after Richard Nixon took office in January of 1969. Nixon announced that he would seek “peace with honor,” which he initially took to mean a guarantee from Ho Chi Minh that he would agree to a negotiated settlement.

By his third year in office, however, he had come to recognize that he could not simply dictate an agreement because of the erosion of American support for our continued military presence in that region. Because of this, he delegated an advisor of his named Henry Kissinger to begin secret negotiations directly with North Vietnam. Gradually, the two sides worked out a compromise solution. The United States would withdraw all of its troops, and in return the North Vietnamese would return our prisoners of war. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong military units would remain in South Vietnam, but would agree to begin discussions with the South Vietnamese to create a plan for ending hostilities in the region.

When informed of this plan, South Vietnam reacted with anger. It knew that it had only a limited chance of surviving without American military assistance, and demanded that Nixon negotiate a treaty guaranteeing their independence. Nixon refused, informing the South Vietnamese that he lacked the leverage to strike a harder bargain with the North Vietnamese. Secretly, he promised the South Vietnamese that if they signed the treaty, he would guarantee to commit military forces if the communists broke the treaty. South Vietnam grudgingly agreed, and the treaty was signed in January of 1973.

As the South Vietnamese feared, the communists did begin an offensive in 1974, and by the spring of 1975 they stood poised to conquer South Vietnam. No American came to their aid, however, because Nixon had resigned in August of 1974. His successor, Gerald Ford, chose not to honor Nixon’s promise, and by May of 1975 the communists succeeded in conquering the South. That ended the Vietnam War.

5. Are there books written about Viet Nam and this time period, and have we learned anything from our involvement there?

A great many books have been written about America’s involvement in Vietnam. Politicians, historians, and participants have all contributed to that body of work. Interestingly, the first book on the subject may have been the most significant.

In 1955, the British author Graham Greene (who had worked as a foreign correspondent in Vietnam from 1952 to 1955) wrote a novel titled The Quiet American. Set in Vietnam during the last years of the French occupation of that land, his novel focuses on an American working there for the Central Intelligence Agency. A British journalist tries to explain to the American why no outsiders could ever impose their will on the Vietnamese people, but the CIA agent repeatedly informs the writer that American exceptionalism would allow us to succeed where others failed. Uncannily, Greene thus correctly assessed the hubris that would lead the United States ten years later to believe that our military would help an independent, democratic South Vietnam survive. Sadly for the United States, this effort proved unsuccessful, and wound up resulting in 58,000 American deaths. Had politicians read Greene’s work and learned from it, America might never have gotten involved in that part of the world.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Trevor Dupuy

    I have read Graham Greene’s book, The Quiet American, which is supposedly based on a true story. Without ruining the story for those who might like to read the book, the British journalist (probably Greene in real life) used assumptions and circumstantial evidence to reach a conclusion about the American that was likely false. There was also a romantic interest that could have influenced the journalist’s thinking.

    The overthrow and subsequent assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu in November 1963 were likewise blamed on an American CIA liaison/adviser to some of the junta leaders. Having some knowledge of that event, I don’t believe that American adviser had any fore knowledge of the coup. Nhu, not Diem, was the real problem. He controlled both the national police and the military special forces and was responsible for the policies that alienated much of the non Catholic population in the South.

    I am familiar also with another similar circumstance in a different country where, in the same general time frame, a general based outside the Capital City pulled off a coup. It might have been assumed that the the American adviser to that general was involved in the planning and supplying of the coup because he arranged to have weapons and ammunition delivered to the general which were subsequently used in the coup. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. Indigenous military commanders looked at the advisers as a means to get things, but would never have included the advisers with such closely held information as coup plans, because the consequences of a leak would have been deadly to the planners. In this case the adviser knew nothing about the coup. One of the responsibilities of advisers was to gather information (such as cliques and coup plans) for the Americans. If he had known about the coup plans, the adviser would have alerted the proper authorities to head it off with as little blood shed as possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.