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November/December 2017

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum
From Anticolonialism to Anticommunism: The Genesis of the American War in Vietnam

“Indochina should not go back to France…. France has had the country—thirty million inhabitants—for nearly one hundred years, and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning… The people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that.”

—President Franklin D. Roosevelt,
January 24, 1944

The United States began fighting communism in Vietnam not long after the end of World II. Officially, the U.S. remained neutral in 1946 when war broke out between France and the revolutionary Vietnamese communist/nationalist forces, the Viet Minh. But well beneath the radar, the U.S. turned over thousands of leftover World War II combat and other military vehicles, artillery pieces, ammunition, fighter aircraft, light bombers, and transport planes to the French military in Vietnam.

Then, in 1948, billions of dollars in Marshall Plan funds began flowing to France. That financial bonanza allowed the French government to use its own limited funds to finance its war against the Viet Minh. In May 1950, five years after the end of World War II in Europe, President Harry S. Truman officially authorized the use of U.S. funds to back the French in their war against the Viet Minh: some $22 million in economic and technical aid and $426 million earmarked for military use.

Despite U.S. materiel assistance, that war ended in May 1954 with the disastrous defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu. Within weeks after the French surrender, the United States threw its strong support behind the fledgling noncommunist government of South Vietnam. That commitment to keep South Vietnam free of communism began with a small number of American military advisors and a large amount of military and foreign aid.

Both the number of advisors and the amount of money grew steadily until March of 1965 when the first U.S combat troops arrived in South Vietnam. The rest is American Vietnam War history.

The Roots of the U.S. Commitment

That history has its roots in the momentous American decision to back France in its effort to reclaim its colonies in Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) at the close of World War II. How the United States—a nation founded on the principle that no country has the right to subjugate citizens under the guise of colonialism—made that momentously fateful decision is a comparatively little-known story that played out during the final years of World War II (1943-45) and in the five years after the end of hostilities.

When Nazi troops marched into Paris in June of 1940, France’s worldwide empire consisted of some six million square miles of territory in Africa, South America, the Middle East, and Asia with some 80 million inhabitants. Indochina was considered the “Pearl of the Empire” and Vietnam’s capital Saigon the “Paris of the Orient.”

France had begun its conquest of Vietnam in 1858, ostensibly to protect Roman Catholics living there. The French conquered Cochin China (what later became southern Vietnam) in 1867. In 1884, France added Tonkin (northern Vietnam) and Annam (central Vietnam) to its Southeast Asian colonial roster. Three years later France set up the colony of French Indochina, which also included the conquered kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos.

The first formal Vietnamese appeal to the United States for help to get free of French rule came in June 1919 following World War I, an era when colonies around the globe were pushing for independence under the principle of national self-determination. An anti-French nationalist movement had grown up in Vietnam early in the 20th century. One of its leaders—a socialist and the founder of the French Communist Party who became known by the nom de guerre Ho Chi Minh—arrived at the Versailles Peace Conference outside Paris to lobby the world’s heads of state for a free Vietnam.

Ho was especially keen to make his case with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who indicated in his famous Fourteen Points (for the post-WWI era) that “all subject peoples” should have the right of self-determination. Ho sent his petition, entitled “The Demands of the Vietnamese People,” to U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing. The manifesto called for Vietnamese representation in the French Parliament and for freedom of the press and other rights for the colonized Vietnamese people.

There is no evidence that President Wilson ever saw the petition. Whether he did or not, the Americans took no action on it. That likely had to do with the fact that “subject peoples” in Wilson’s view did not include people who lived in Asian and African colonies. Wilson was referring to European peoples who had been ruled by Germany and Austria-Hungary.

FDR’s Ardent Anticolonialism

France kept its Indochinese colonies after World War I. But that idea did not sit well with some Americans. Among them was U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took office during the Great Depression in early 1933 and steered the nation through that long economic crisis and into World War II.

Roosevelt was “a committed anticolonialist,” Frederik Logevall noted in his Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire, and the Making of America’s Vietnam. One reason: FDR believed that colonialism was responsible for both world wars. He was especially disdainful of France’s rule of its Asian colonies.

“There has never been, there isn’t now, and there never will be, any race of people on earth fit to serve as master over their fellow men,” Roosevelt said in a March 1941 speech. “We believe that any nationality, no matter how small, has the right to its own nationhood.”

Indochina “should not go back to France,” FDR said three years later. “France has had the country—thirty million inhabitants—for nearly one hundred years, and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning. France has milked it for one hundred years. The people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that.”

Japan had rolled over all of French Indochina in 1940, but did not rule the country. Instead, the Japanese allowed the pro-Nazi French Vichy government, backed by Japanese troops, to administer the colony. In March 1945, with the war in Europe nearing its conclusion, the Japanese ousted the Vichy administration and set up a puppet state under the Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai.

PA Media - Pictures from History/GRANGERIt was around that time (in the spring of 1945) that officers of the American OSS (the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA), in what was known as the Deer Mission, had begun providing limited amounts of arms, ammunition, and training to a small band of fighters led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Those guerrillas, the Viet Minh, were waging a war against the Japanese in northern Vietnam near the Chinese border.

Ho Chi Minh “made a winning impression” on the OSS men,” Logevall wrote, “who invariably described him as warm, intelligent, and keen to cooperate with the United States.” During many conversations with the OSS members, Ho said “that American technicians could help build an independent Vietnam. Citing history, Ho remarked that ‘your statesmen make eloquent speeches about… self-determination. We are self-determined. Why not help us? Am I different from… your George Washington?’ ”

Shaping the Postwar World

FDR did not have Ho Chi Minh in mind, though, when he brought up the issue of what would happen to France’s Indochina colonies during a series of allied conferences to plan the postwar world held during the war in 1943 and 1945. Roosevelt first spoke out against France retaining its empire at the January 1943 Casablanca conference. Free French leader Charles de Gaulle and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for their part, argued strongly that their nations had the right to reclaim their colonies after the war. FDR reiterated his position in November 1943 at the Cairo Conference with Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China, and at the Tehran Conference a few days later (with Churchill, Chiang, and Joseph Stalin).

Then, at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, just two months before his death, a physically weakened FDR softened his position. He agreed to setting up postwar trusteeships in Indochina under the United Nations that eventually would lead to independence.

FDR died on April 12, 1945. The new president, Harry Truman, “did not share his predecessor’s personal interest in Indochina or his concern about colonialism,” George Herring wrote in his classic Vietnam War history, America’s Longest War. Truman’s main concerns in the last months of the war were finishing the job against Germany and planning the final attack on Japan. What would become of French and British colonies barely dented Truman’s radar.

Not long after World War II ended in August 1945, Ho Chi Minh tried to get American support in his fight against the French. He wrote at least eight letters to President Truman asking for American help. In them, Ho played down his communist background and hinted that he would welcome U.S. investment in a free Vietnam and would permit the United States to set up a naval base there.

“For the time being, Ho discarded all communist trappings,” Vietnam War historian Bernard Fall wrote. “Emphasis was laid on ‘nationalism’ alone.”

The Truman administration turned down the appeals for recognition and support. One big reason: national security in the postwar world, as it became clear that the Soviet Union would be the primary power in Europe and Asia—and as the Soviets began fostering wars of communist national liberation in countries all over the globe. There were crises in Iran in 1946; Greece, Turkey, and Berlin in 1947; in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1948, along with communist insurgencies in Burma, the Malayan Peninsula, and Indonesia. Truman wanted strong relationships with England and France as “bulwarks against Russian expansion,” as Herring put it.

Rue des Archives/GRANGER

The ‘Asianists’ vs. the ‘Europeanists’

Some Asian specialists in the State Department (“Asianists”) pressed Truman to lobby France to implement FDR’s trusteeship idea. But they were soon overwhelmed by many other government officials who wanted to cement the U.S. relationship with France, something that would be impossible to do while pushing for that nation to give up its colonies in Southeast Asia.

Cooperating with France, the “Europeanists” in the State Department argued, “would be needed to check possible Soviet expansionism,” Logevall wrote, “a specter made more real by Moscow’s tightening grip in early 1945 over Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.”

As The Pentagon Papers put it: “Beginning in 1946 and 1947 France and Britain were moving toward an anti-Soviet alliance in Europe and the U.S. was reluctant to press a potentially divisive policy” of pushing for Vietnam’s (and India’s) independence.

In February 1947 U.S. Ambassador to France Jefferson Caffrey announced that the United States government “fully recognized” France’s “sovereign position” in Indochina, saying “we do not wish to have it appear that we are in any way endeavoring to undermine that position.”

While this country, Caffrey said, abhorred what he called the “continued existence of a dangerously outmoded colonial outlook and methods” in Indochina, “we do not lose sight of the fact that Ho Chi Minh has direct communist connections.” The U.S., he said, was “not interested in seeing colonial empire administrations supplanted by philosophical and political organizations emanating from and controlled by the Kremlin.”

Then came two earth-shattering geopolitical developments that cemented the U.S. commitment to help France retain Indochina. On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union conducted its first successful test of a nuclear weapon. Then, on October 1, 1949, the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong defeated the nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and took full control of the world’s most populous nation. With the communist Russians in possession of the bomb, and China under control of communists, any Asianist voices minimizing the threat of the communist Viet Minh were all but drowned out.

It didn’t help the Asianists’ cause when in November the Communist Chinese moved troops to the northern border with Vietnam. Or when both the Chinese and Soviets officially recognized Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam in January 1950. A month later, on February 27, 1950, the U.S. National Security Council issued a report that concluded that “the Departments of State and Defense should prepare, as a matter of priority, a program of all practicable measures designed to protect U.S. security interests in Indochina.”

Prior to that report, The Pentagon Papers pointed out, “the U.S. had remained neutral, hesitating to choose between supporting France, a friendly colonial power engaged in re-establishing its authority, or supporting the Viet Minh, a communist-dominated independence movement in opposition to that European ally. This dilemma had been resolved by the victory of the Chinese Communists over the Nationalists, and by the threat posed to Indochina.”

U.S. Undersecretary of State Dean Rusk spoke out strongly in favor of American support of the French on March 7, 1950. The State Department “continues to hold that Southeast Asia is in grave danger of Communist domination as a consequence of aggression from Communist China and of internal subversive activities,” said Rusk (who would go on to be a strong Vietnam War hawk as Secretary of State under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson). “The Department of State maintains that Indochina, subject as it is to the most immediate danger, is the most strategically important area of Southeast Asia.”

U.S. “resources,” Rusk said, “should be deployed to reserve Indochina and Southeast Asia from further Communist encroachment…. It is now, in the opinion of the Department, a matter of the greatest urgency that the Department of Defense” consider, “from the military point of view, how the United States can best contribute to the prevention of further Communist encroachment in that area.”

And so it came to pass that on May 8, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced that “genuine nationalism” in Vietnam would best be served—not by backing independence for the Vietnamese—but by defeating the communist Viet Minh.

“The United States Government, convinced that neither national independence nor democratic evolution exist in any area dominated by Soviet imperialism,” Acheson said, “considers the situation to be such as to warrant according economic aid and military equipment to the [the French-backed governments] of Indochina and to France in order to assist them in restoring stability and permitting these states to pursue their peaceful and democratic development.”

Within days, President Truman officially authorized the use of U.S. funds to back the French in their war against the Viet Minh. And the United States took the first step into the most controversial overseas war in its history.

VVA Veteran Arts Editor and columnist Marc Leepson’s latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, is a biography of former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.





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