Misadventure in Vietnam: The Mix of Fact and Myth
CSU Archives/Everett Collection
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.
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.
The second myth that we embraced was that military action would be an acceptable substitute for basic political and social action. Again the lessons of the bitter and frustrating American experience in Nicaragua, Haiti and Santo Domingo in the years be-tween World Wars I and II were passed over or rejected, if ever remembered. Military force -- if sufficient in amount and ruthless enough in direction -- can suppress rebel-lions, but rarely has it produced the reform's of conditions which lead men to join the ranks of rebellion. We ventured to combine some economic and technical, aid with military support, but the rationale for military measures has prevailed increasingly as our efforts in Indo-China have persisted. The creation of SEATO in 1954 epitomizes this fu-tile faith in military power to solve the problems of disorder in politically inchoate states desperately in need of social reform.
The third myth that we followed was the "domino" theory of the inevitable loss of all of Asia and a vital threat to our own continental security if any additional part of Asia came under Communist control. This theory was the delight of Sen. William Knowland, who trumpeted it in the Senate and across the land as if it had the infallibility of Newton's law of gravity. Even President Kennedy repeated the arguments of the "domino" theory and few voices were raised to question its logic of inevitable, irresistible and sequential massive defeat once the first (additional) little domino fell against the bastions of our friends.
The domino theory overlooks the possibility of strong reaction by other nations at different points when they are confronted by new circumstances clearly threatening their security. The theory assumes that all powerful force's are, on only one side, always moving outward, and it neglects the possibility of disruptive internal forces and counter-forces moving against the presumed massive seismic wave set in motion by any little change of political status. It is a negative, fearful and mechanistic view of politics and man, but for those very reasons it finds countless advocates.
So, we took some facts and added some myths and came up with a decision -- many times reaffirmed -- to deny all Southeast Asia to communism, with military aid, and we created SEATO to do the job for us. Ten years later this queasy foundation of fact and myth finds us mired very deeply and sinking in more and more. After expending many billions of dollars and sacrificing hundreds of lives in combat or related services, after twistings and turnings of CIA undercover operations, with resulting changes of leader in some of the states, there is still no end in sight.
What could we have done that we didn't do? If it had been possible for the Republicans to have done otherwise -- or for the Democrats to have altered that policy after they took over in 1961 one would like to think that they would surely have done so. The losses of American lives, the outpouring of many billions of taxpayers' dollars and the strains on our friendship with many other nations which, have not seen the issues as we have seen them, would not normally be called assets to any political party seeking voter support. And so the American people have been told over and over that there were and still are no other alternatives but to stand on the 17th parallel (or well south of it) and fight the devils (allegedly all from the north) in the ancient battlegrounds of Indo-China. What we have done is intervene in a third civil war in Asia; China and Korea being the other two very costly interventions.
Until recently, too, we have lacked critical voices which, while not acting as "the devil's advocate," would at least ask if we ore sure that what we are attempting is the only pos-sible alternative acceptable to our people. Like McKinley and the Philippines, the vast majority of the American people in 1954 had only the vaguest notion of where Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were -- and, they cared less. Do they even now believe these areas so vital to their welfare that very extensive and long-term involvement is all that we can consider?
In due time, probably later than would have been, an optimum time for us, we will be forced to face the "unthinkable" possibility of the neutralization of all of the lndo-Chinese peninsula. Secretary of State Ruth and Secretary of Defense M'cNanara repeatedly say that no thought is 'being given to this alternative to our present massive military aid-cum-cheers-for-Khanh as our approach to the problem. The McNamara shuttle to Sai-gon carries threadbare calls for "greater resolve" and warnings of "an unforseeable end to the effort," and then the familiar and unconvincing reports of "gratifying progress" and "encouraging developments" on the Westbound run back to Washington. In the mean-time, the Vietcong strike villages and cities at will in South Vietnam and simultaneously detail spare forces to push their campaign In Laos. Recruits and military equipment are picked up in abundance from the South Vietnamese civilian and military forces.
"Why are we involved in Southeast Asia?" "Where do we go for the next ten years?" These are the questions that beg and receive no clear answers," other than "Carry on!" What was valid in 1954 is still valid in 1964 although the Asian world has changed greatly since then. At some point -- and soon perhaps - we must face up to: (1) our dubious legal position in South Vietnam, with our shooting and destroying of military forces under the thin deceit of being "advisers"; (2) the soundness of our continuing passivity toward a strong role for the UN in Southeast Asian strife, while at the same time we have pressed for UN action in the internecine fighting of the Congo, Cyprus and the Middle East; (3) a new look at neutralization of "border" areas between East and West in Asia and the established examples, both satisfactory and unsatisfactory, of neutralization in Europe and elsewhere; (4) a hard review of all our interests in Asia, eventually in conference with Communist China; and (5) abandoning the shibboleth of containing communism along artificial latitudes or longitudes. The truth is that the ideological appeal of Marxist doctrine and the reforms that communism often has espoused effectively appeal to many people around the world; and the spread of these ideas will not be stopped by military fiat. Nor will it help at all to continue the repeated plaintive lament of Secretary Rush that there would be peace in Indo-China if only the North Vietnamese and the Chinese would leave their neighbors alone. If all countries would leave their neighbors alone, it would be a very different world, but it is not realistic to expect this change in our times. To expand the war would assure only another Korea or worse, with all the possibilities of a nuclear war.
Will the new year or the post-election period see us re-examine our decade of "active defense" in Southeast Asia's Indo-Chinese peninsula? Perhaps not; it has become a habit to argue as we have for so long. Apparently only a Senator Wayne Morse can change his mind as fully as the circumstances require and still retain his following. Politics doesn't stop at the water's edge, but rather it governs all we do. Only a statesman above politics can change our course now. Events in Indo-China may not wait for our politician's to clear the November election hurdle before they can "lead" our discontented people to a new and more realistic settlement in Southeast Asia, and extricate us from a misadventure born of good motives based on some faulty calculations and expectations.