Historical Context on American Involvement in Viet Nam
Perhaps before I go any further with my story I should provide some context for my younger readers who may know nothing of this chapter in American history.
For most of my generation, who came of age in the 1960s, the Viet Nam War became the framework through which we viewed the world. But few us us understood it. We were told that we had to stop the communist advance there in Southeast Asia or next it would be on the beaches of Hawaii. As the decade wore on this explanation rang increasingly hollow and public discussions in the press and on TV about “Why We Fight” became more frequent to drive home the point of the “domino theory.” Despite these explanations for many of us, if not most, the Viet Nam war made no sense at all.
However, in US foreign policy terms, the Viet Nam War was the beginning of a string of interventions that grew and maintained American Hegemony. The loss of colonies by the great european powers, beginning in WWI and culminating in WWII, offered a fabulous opportunity for the only manufacturing economy left standing; the United States. By gaining control of the colonial ports ringing the Asian land mass, the US positioned itself to reap the benefits that once accrued to the European colonialists.
American involvement in Viet Nam is unique when compared to efforts at regime change since. American involvement in French Indochina grew out of World War II. It began in 1940 with the clandestine support of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh by the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA). Japan represented the Axis Powers in the pacific, which included the Vichy French. Containing the Japanese interests throughout the pacific was of paramount importance so Roosevelt sought an ally in Ho. With American support, the Viet Minh succeeded in harassing and raiding Vichy French and Japanese positions throughout the war and by 1945 Ho had amassed about 10,000 armed followers.
In March 1945 the Japanese turned on the Vichy French, who they had coerced into tacit support during the war, and whom the Japanese feared would turn on them as they became the Free French after the German surrender. The following bloodbath decimated the French and would have ended French colonial rule over Indochina but for American support after Roosevelt’s death in 1945. Between March and August 1945 Ho had agreed to supply intelligence to the OSS in exchange for military training. By August, as the Japanese surrendered, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Min had filled the power vacuum left by the decimation of the Vichy French and rekindled the Vietnamese fighting spirit. Ho then persuaded Emperor Bau Dai, who had been a puppet of the Japanese during the war, to abdicate and Ho assumed political power.
But the French were not done with Indochina. In December1946 French forces mined Haiphong Harbor and retook Hanoi from the Viet Minh, who then declared war on the French beginning the First Indochina War. The french then carried on a bloody war with the Viet Minh that lasted until 1954.
Bau Dai lived in exile from 1945 until 1949 when, persuaded by the French, he returned to Viet Nam as head of state not emperor, with Buu Loc as his prime minister. In 1954 with the rout of the French at Dien Bien Phu, Viet Nam was partitioned into north and south Viet nam under the Geneva Accords, which neither Bau Dai’s government nor the US signed. The conventions called for a vote on reunification in 1956, which was never to happen. It was assumed that Ho would win such an election hands down. Through influence of the US, Bau Dai appointed Ngo Dinh Diem as his prime minister in place of Buu Loc and moved to Paris. Diem was well connected in the US and his reintroduction into Vietnamese politics proved to be a seminal event.
With Diem in power, the American strategy with regards to Vie Nam now became maintaining a friendly, anti-communist government as a bulwark in Southeast Asia. That bulwark was to be part of the string of American bases that ringed the Eurasian land mass inherited from the former colonial powers. This strategy of surrogate governments helped maintain American global hegemony much as the British had but without having to be resident colonial rulers as with the British. Instead, the Americans installed friendly dictators who would become dependent and do their bidding, maintaining control over their populations and developing production-for-export economies.
In the Viet Nam era, the term “American Empire” was used as an epithet on university campuses but had no currency in mainstream discourse. It was, in retrospect, an apt characterization of American foreign policy but at the time fighting communism was the framework for discussion , as it had been for decades and would be for decades to come. In the name of that fight, many democratically elected governments that were perceived to be insufficiently friendly to American interests were overthrown by clandestine methods. That list is long but includes most notably, Iran (1954), Honduras (1954), Cambodia (1968) and Chile (1973) Nicaragua (1986), Iraq (2003), Afghanistan (Still in progress) and many more. In other cases as former colonies gained independence, America’s policy was to install friendly governments, most notably for present purposes, Viet Nam and Laos and by 1975 on the heels of the Viet Nam war, Angola.
For example, in 1954 Ngo Dinh Diem, who had been living in Europe and the US for many years, had little political support within Viet Nam but had powerful patrons within the US foreign policy establishment. They believed he could be relied on to effectively resist communism. So during the chaos following the French defeat, Diem was installed as president in a rigged election besting Emperor Bau Dai and ending the Vietnamese monarchy. Some accounts insist that Diem was appointed by Bau Dai.
The fact that these regime changes were done almost exclusively by clandestine methods indicated that those activities had to be hidden from an American public who considered such activities immoral and perhaps criminal. Funding for the CIA was intentionally limited to what congress believed they needed for intelligence gathering, which had been their original charter when they assumed the operations of the OSS in 1949.
To finance their activities they turned to innovative methods often involving wholly owned front companies including banks, such as Australia’s Nugeant Hand Bank and using the services of organized crime, such as the Corsican Mafia to derail communist incursions among French dock workers. In exchange the Corsicans were provided access to Heroin from French Indochina. This resulted in bourgeoning international trade in drugs and weapons; the Arms-For-Hostages deal with Iran, circumventing congress to fund Nicaragua’s Contras, is a case in point.
Southeast Asia was central to his sort of activity during the Viet Nam War. Not surprisingly, these activities created considerable tension between the military and the clandestine operations. “Turf wars” hardly begins to describe it but there was frequently begrudging cooperation between military operations and the CIA and its assets.
After the partition into North and South Viet Nam in 1955, John said, Diem had become increasingly politically powerful as he cultivated the loyalties of the large land owners and certain wealthy refugees encouraged to move from Hanoi. A good percentage of peasant refugees, however, were Viet Minh, covert communists or communist sympathizers who dispersed throughout South Viet Nam. As the former Viet Minh organized into the National liberation Front better known as Viet Cong they were able to take advantage of the resentment of Diem among the peasants. Diem was an autocrat with repressive internal security forces. Most president Diem’s policies had favored the upper class at the expense of the peasants and left them more sympathetic to the communists, dubbed Viet Cong as a pejorative by the Saigon government.
Resentment of Diem was exacerbated in the late 1950s when he instituted a land reform and rural education program with American support known as the Rural Community Development Program. This was an echo of the French program of relocation begun in 1952 with American financial support and for the same reasons: Surveillance and control of people is much easier in larger organized villages than with the population scattered across the countryside. By my era it had become known as the Strategic Hamlet Program and had mostly garnered support for the communists.
Diem however, was rabidly anti-communist and established a secret police to root out the communist infiltrators. In public pronouncements he vilified the communists as a threat to his continued rule and a vision of an independent and prosperous Viet Nam free of colonial rule. Yet to the State Department this rhetoric echoed Uncle Ho and his communist land reform and social programs. Some feared he might strike a deal with the communists. However, perhaps to placate the State Department, Diem declared that being a Viet Cong was punishable by death. His brother, General Nhu, who was head of the secret police, brutally rounded up suspected Viet Cong and summarily tortured and shot them. This effort, known as the Phoenix Program was supported by the US and continued through 1970 under his successor Thieu.
Despite State Department cautions, while on a visit to Saigon in 1961, then Vice President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that Diem was the Churchill of Southeast Asia. Johnson promised Diem continued American financial aid. When asked about his statement of financial support he told reporters that Diem was “the only guy we’ve got out here.” But by 1963 Diem’s Phoenix and Strategic Hamlet programs had backfired and greatly strengthened the popularity of the communists and the Buddhists, another culturally strong group. Diem’s brother, General Nhu, began a brutal crackdown on Buddhists that resulted in a dramatic uprising. That revolt became visible internationally when, in protest of the repression, a Buddhist monk set himself afire in the busiest Intersection in Saigon. Photographs of the self-immolation appeared on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Madame Nhu further enflamed the situation by publicly stating that she would personally supply the gasoline for any future immolations. Student-led riots in support of the monks erupted in Saigon and spread throughout the countryside and were brutally repressed by Diem’s forces.
It turned out that Diem was not as obedient a vassal as Washington hoped. Continued American support of Diem had become a political liability, particularly after Diem threatened to travel to Hanoi and meet with Ho regarding a coalition government. Despite this Diem apparently held control over the country, if through brutal police tactics. Uncle John told me later that on returning from Hawaii in ’63, he had assumed an intelligence position in the pentagon. He had made it known that he thought the State Department’s support of a coup was uninformed, misguided and would end badly, a position apparently shared by Vice President Johnson. Ho Chi Minh agreed too, saying he could scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid as to overthrow Diem and Nhu who had been a formidable adversary who had held the Viet Cong in check and the North Vietnamese Regular Army at bay for nearly a decade. John’s position represented the rift between the State Department and the Pentagon, most of whom in believed in Diem’s support as a practical matter.
Four months after the monk’s self-immolation, on November 2, 1963, Diem and Nhu were overthrown and killed in a military coup orchestrated by the CIA with ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge’s acquiescence. Within the State Department and the administration there had been considerable debate about what to do with Diem. Finally, President Kennedy was persuaded to sign the infamous secret Cable No.243 of August 1963 authorizing Diem’s overthrow. According to John, Air Force Intelligence had got wind of the memo and tried to persuade Gen. Maxwell Taylor to prevail on Secretary of State Dean Rusk to block such a coup. As a senator, Kennedy along with Senator Mike Mansfield had supported Diem’s installation as Bao Dai’s prime minister and Kennedy was reportedly appalled by his assassination. Uncle John believed that the memo was hastily written in response to Diem’s brother Nhu’s brutal raids on Buddhist temples. The result of Diem’s overthrow was a catastrophe whose corruption knew no bounds. There was a series of coups ending in the shared power of General Ky and General Thieu and then only Thieu as he pushed Ky aside in 1967.
But in 1964 it was clear that American military intervention would be required beyond the “Advisory Teams” that had been there since the mid fifties. In August, ’64, in the midst of the chaos following Diem’s overthrow, Johnson having then assumed the presidency, received intelligence that the American ship Maddox had had been attacked by North Viet Namese patrol boats on two separate occasions, August 2 and August 4. Uncle John said that there was no strategic reason why Ho’s forces would make such an attack; that these were at best reports of a deliberate provocation on the part of the Maddox and possibly a false-flag attack. Either was an attempt to manipulate Johnson into escalating the war. When I spoke with him in 1969 I did not believe it. But decades later John’s position was supported by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the film “The Fog of War.” While McNamara said that there there was “no Defense Department response” to the presumed attack August 2 attack, other sources stated that the Maddox first fired “warning shots” on the patrol boats from a distance of nearly 10 kilometers.
In what became known as The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Johnson had allies in congress introduce the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving him carte blanche authority to conduct the war without participation of congress. This authority granted by this resolution set a precedent every President and congress since Johnson has used.
By1969, the Saigon government had little support of the civilian population and seemed not to care that the countryside was mostly sympathetic to the communists. As long as they could rake a percentage of the “foreign aid” from the US they were happy. The lower ranks of the army saw little point in risking their lives in a military escalation not of their making, particularly when the officer corp clearly was only in it for themselves. Securing the countryside and the area around Saigon was the American’s problem. American soldiers of my acquaintance complained bitterly about how the ARVN were unreliable at best and traitorous at worst.
This was the situation when we walked into Col. Suel’s office in mid 1969, barely two years after Thieu’s power grab. Viet Nam, at the time I arrived had become mired in an un-winnable battle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, especially the peasants.