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.