Misadventure in Vietnam: The Mix of Fact and Myth
When we found the 1954 Geneva agreements unacceptable to us, although acceptable to the other signatory nations, we had two broad alternatives open to us. One alternative was to reject the final conclusions of, the conference, disregarding thereby the majority decision, and continue our own bilateral policy with South Vietnam. This we chose to do.
The second alternative was to seek a higher forum than the Geneva Conference nations. Resort to the United Nation's through various possible approaches would have involved all who were concerned with peace and freedom, which we alleged were threatened in Indo-China. The UN supervised an election and a plebiscite on the restoration of the monarchy in war-torn Greece in 1946. The conditions were hardly worse in all Vietnam in 1954, or even 1956, when a general election was to be held in July of that year. To those who say that a UN-supervised election in Vietnam would not have been acceptable to North Vietnam and Communist China, one answer is that we never tried this course of action and hence we can't say what the response might have been. In-stead, we pressed for a Southeast Asian military security pact, which Secretary Dulles had urged in 1954.
The Eisenhower administration had just swallowed the bitter pill of negotiating with Communist China and North Korea an armistice in the Korean War. The Republican campaign oratory of 1952 would have sounded hollow and mocking indeed if the Dullesian trumpets of "liberation from communism" had sounded another retreat on the "roll-back" front. Some prominent Republicans had wanted our fighting forces to join the Indo-Chinese fray in early 1954, beside France, but the general in the Commander in Chief's chair had overruled 'that, as he had rejected any renewal of fighting in Korea above the 35th parallel. Nevertheless, Republican leaders knew from innumerable charges of their own what a powerful weapon the Democrats would have in our domes-tic politics if the Republican administration now "lost Indo-China." Ironically enough, as with mainland China allegedly "lost" by the Democrats, the United States never had Indo-China and couldn't have held it if, we had tried. Therefore, another war in Asia was not a feasible political course for a US administration, even one led by a five-star general.
Yet we did decide to try to "hold" at least part of Indo-China, namely, the new State of Vietnam below the 17th parallel. And so the newest phase of Western adventure in Indo-China began with that decision. We have been trying for ten years to prove it a sound one.
In retrospect the foundations for our 1954 decision appear to be part fact and part myth-a fairly common "mix'' in foreign as well as domestic policy decisions. The facts were that (1) Southeast Asia was a recognized target of Communist subversion and possible take-over; (2) many of the native occupants of the Indo-Chinese peninsula wanted no part of a future regime that might be dominated by Communist-oriented leaders. For religious, economic and political reasons many feared the kind of society they would have if Ho Chi Minh and others of his strong Communist belief became the new rulers of this war-weary part of Asia. The foreign businessmen, rubber planters and mine operators also, of course, feared the consequences of a Communist regime.
Moreover, the United States had become so conspicuously identified with the French in their struggle against Ho Chi Minh, albeit in the name of 'defense 'against international communism, that no further action by us now would mean that we, as well as the French, had gone down to defeat in another sector of the "containment" periphery of militant anti-communism.
So much for three quite substantial facts: a strong Communist drive for Southeast Asia internal lndo-Chinese anti-Communist opinion; and the posture, or "face," of the US if no further efforts were made to "save" 'Indo-China.
On the side of the myths that entered into our policy calculations, directly or indirectly, there was first the one, still often expressed, that it was possible to "draw a line" beyond which there would not be tolerated any expansion of Communist control. This appealing myth evokes images of a resolute US cavalry stand at the pass, or "ils ne passerant" at Verdun in World War I, or a more sophisticated but still quite naive "containment-of-communism" concept. Thinking of communism as an ideology ought to make people chary of expounding on "drawing a line" to stop the spread of ideas. Interestingly, history provides no example of appealing ideas having been impeded effectively in their spread and adoption because of lines drawn on political maps.