Misadventure in Vietnam: The Mix of Fact and Myth | The Nation


Misadventure in Vietnam: The Mix of Fact and Myth

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CSU Archives/Everett CollectionPresident Lyndon B. Johnson

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With the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing war in Vietnam, its clear that America hasn't learned its lesson from previous foreign policy mistakes in the region.

The weathered headstones in the old Protestant cemetery of Portuguese Macao tell of the misadventures of many Americans in the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea. In the early years of our Republic, the Americans who died in this faraway area were sailors, Yankee traders, missionaries and visionary diplomats -- like Edmund Roberts, who first sought treaties for the United States in Southeast Asia, journeying to Cochin China, Siam and Muscat in 1832. Today, the headlines toll the death of many Americans pursuing the political interests of the United States in Southeast Asia.

From small beginnings our interest in Southeast Asia swelled to include a colonial em-pire highlighted by our half century in the Philippines. The United States blundered into empire in 1898 by defeating the weak Spanish imperialists in the Battle of Manila Bay. Now we are fighting again in the Gulf of Tonkin and in the steaming jungles of old Indo-China. For many Americans today our deep involvement in Southeast Asia's civil wars is as inexplicable as was our plunge into empire in the Philippines. For fourteen years we have propped the French effort to keep Indo-China, or have underwritten the "democratic" regimes of such as Bao Dai, Ngo Dinh Diem and the subsequent military dictators. We have stumbled into "colonial" responsibilities without corresponding authority since the defeat of France by the Vietnamese in 1954.

The dilemma we faced in mid-1954 was very different in some respects from the dilemma President McKinley faced in 1898 when he was informed that all of the Philippine Islands were ours for the taking -- and holding. In 1954, there was nothing ready for the taking in Indo-China -- unless we were prepared to battle the well-armed, well-led and tough Vietnamese and almost certainly the colossus of Communist China. We nevertheless decided to try to hold South Vietnam against a Communist take-over.

In doing so we underestimated Communist power and the response of great numbers of the Vietnamese to Ho Chi Minh's leadership, plus the extent of Communist outside aid, especially from the Chinese. When Secretary Dulles went to the Geneva Conference of April, 1954, called to discuss Korea and dispose of the pieces of the broken French empire in Indo-China, reportedly he refused to look at the chief Communist Chinese delegate, Premier Chou En-lai. This news sparked one of Fletcher Knebel's best quips to the effect that the Republicans were an odd lot, for Senator Joseph R. McCarthy saw Communists where they did not exist, and Secretary Dulles couldn't see them where they did exist. And here is a large part of our trouble: the refusal to look at facts which we dislike and hope will go away.

It has taken the French, through the voice of General de Gaulle, to tell us that no settlement of any Asian problem is possible -- that doesn't take Communist China fully into account. The British recognized this fact in, 1950 but they have not been so blunt in asserting its validity. Americans have not dealt with a strong, unified China since 1842, when the British forced the opening of several Chinese ports to Western trade with various related privileges. In 1844, we got our treaty with China, including trading rights and extraterritorial courts for our citizens in China. This period of wars with the West marked the end of a strong China for a hundred years. It is time we now adjusted ourselves to the fact of a new China. Is this hard to accept? Indeed it is, and for a long time we will no doubt fight this gross fact of our times. Eventually, it will have to be accepted and it must henceforth be included in the ingredients that shape our Asian policy.

In 1954, we chose not to join in the Final Declaration of the Geneva Conference on Indo-China of July 21, 1954. (The United States made a unilateral statement, however, accepting the armistice agreements.) All the other nations (UK., France, USSR, People's Republic of China, Laos, Cambodia and the People's Republic of Vietnam [North Vietnam]) at this conference, except the State of Vietnam. (South Vietnam), accepted the agreements drawn there. South Vietnam, with our backing, refused to carry out the provisions of the 1954 Geneva agreement for elections in North and South Vietnam to form one government and instead set its course against the intent of this agreement. South Vietnam refused to permit the elections, began its military build-up, and prepared for the inevitable war of Vietnamese against Vietnamese, with both sides drawing on outside aid to maintain the fight. From here on it is the old familiar story of who first violated the accords or the intent of the accords, etc , etc. The fact that we first refused to accept them puts both the US and South Vietnam in a dubious role -- in the objective light of history -- a role our government has been diligent to gloss over. We refused to permit "free elections" in Vietnam because we were sure we would lose them.

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