American Policy With Vietnam Essay, Research Paper
Few events of the twentieth century have been as ideologically charged as America s involvement in Vietnam. The Vietnam experience has had a long lasting effect on American foreign policy to this day. The study of the United State s involvement in Vietnam involves the examination of many issues, since the conflict and American involvement in it had spanned the better part of thirty years. However, it is the aim of this essay to show how America’s internal and external fear of Communism caused it to bypass two obvious opportunities to resolve the problem of Indochina’s independence and self-governance. The first opportunity was the trusteeship plan put forward by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Second World War as envisaged under the Atlantic Charter. The second chance was the attempt by the United Nations to resolve the Indochina issue in the 1954 Geneva Agreements. The United States could have addressed the Indochina problem through Roosevelt s trusteeship plan and the 1954 Geneva Agreements even after ignoring Ho Chi Minh s international call for Indochina’s independence after the First World War, and his requests for American assistance during the Second World War. These opportunities were casually ignored by what the West believed was a far greater concern, namely the Soviet Union.
As one of the two great powers left after the Second World War, the United States of America faced an unfamiliar global political stage. The United States had to deal with an increasingly unpredictable and polarized post-war political order. Post-war American foreign policy was geared towards a hard stance in opposition of Communism. There are several roots to this American disposition and they all arose from the ashes of the most influential war of our century. Several power vacuums were opened up after the end of the war. The first vacuum was the Europe, a direct consequence of the division of Germany, and West and East Europe. The second vacuum was in the Far East where Japan s Imperial influence was replaced by American and Soviet occupation of Imperial Japan s holdings. It did not take long for the United States of America to realize that they had been thrown into the forefront of international politics. Their development and application of foreign policies would influence millions of people, not only in the Western first world countries but also to the seconds and third world countries around the world. The fine line between Communism and Fascism was quickly identified and targeted. The Americans vowed that they would never again make the same mistake of appeasement that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made at the Munich Conference of 1939. Appeasing Nazi Germany did not contain their aggression in 1939, and it was concluded that appeasing the Communists in the post-war era would likewise be a fatal mistake. Furthermore, the Nationalist Communist World Revolution threatened the social and economic structure of Western nations. To make matters worse, the Soviet Union seemed to have no desire to demobilize their immense Red Army after the war, and proceeded to occupy Eastern Bloc territories. All of these signals made the West quite paranoid and cautious of Communist Soviet Union s intentions in this new world. Thus, America’s foreign policy had to change and adapt to meet the new threat of worldwide Communism and devise a new strategy to counter its apparent spread. In that respect, President Truman set a very important precedent in Communist and Indochina policy that successive presidents also followed. In light of the internal and external pressures on Truman’s Administration, the Administration concluded that the only language the Communists understood was the one of force and hostility.
It was this steadfast policy of determination against Communist interests which led the United States into foregoing the two blatant opportunities it had prior to 1956 to intervene using negotiations rather than force. This belief also motivated the next three presidents to commit increasingly more military resources to Vietnam. However, this resolute policy of forceful opposition was only one of the factors that made up America’s Indochina policy prior to 1956. There was also the classic Eurocentric belief that primary American interests and foreign policy were situated in Europe, in direct opposition to the Soviet Union s aggressive interests. This Europe-first policy was the second major factor in the United States rejection of the trusteeship plan and 1954 Geneva Accords. Both the trusteeship plan and 1954 Geneva Accords were rigorously opposed by France, for obvious colonial reasons concerning French Indochina. However, France s European cooperation was essential for American Communist containment policies in Europe. The belief in France’s importance to its overall interests and belief Communists only understood force caused America to overlook the two initiatives to be discussed as viable alternatives to a policy of force in Indochina. In addition, the American belief in force toward Communism would translate into the United States impending hardline stance against Ho, and North Vietnam. When the French withdrew from Indochina, America was left with its hardline stance against Communism, which it unsuccessfully attempted to implement to protect its rapidly deteriorating prestige in the region. The only two realistic opportunities America had to bring the Indochina problem to a conclusion, would never be realized. America’s failure to enforce the trusteeship plan and 1954 Geneva Accords, lay in its belief in force and primacy of European interests. If the United States did not so emphatically committed to these two beliefs, Roosevelt’s initial goal of self-government and independence for Indochina may have been realized for much less cost.
America’s preoccupation with Communism was not always a feature of American foreign policy. The primary concern of America after the Second World War was reconstruction of the two major theatres in such a way as to prevent the outbreak of another world war. At the time, President Roosevelt had felt the next major problem in creating a new political structure in the Far East was the prevalence of colonial rule in South East Asia. Indeed, throughout the Second World War he had raised his anti-colonial sentiments many times with the three leading colonial powers Britain, France, and Holland, which culminated in the Atlantic Charter of August 1941.
If the war is in fact a war for the liberation of peoples, it must assure the sovereign equality of peoples throughout the world, as well as in the world of the Americas. Our victory must bring in its train the liberations of all peoples. Discrimination between peoples because of their race, creed, or colour must be abolished. The age imperialism is ended . . . The principles of the Atlantic Charter must be guaranteed to the world as a whole-in all oceans and in all the continents.
The Atlantic Charter was a bold commitment for Roosevelt. Unfortunately, it was to have the same effect on Indochina as Wilson’s earlier proposal for world wide self-determination for all people after the First World War, very little. Understandably, all colonial powers preferred to defer the resolution of colonialism until the war against Japan and Germany ended. Imperialists saw their influence in the global world slowly deteriorate since the Great War. The imperial powers of Europe would continue to carry out clandestine efforts to re-establish themselves in their colonies in the meantime. These were imperial Europe s efforts pre-empt post-war meddling by the Americans. Roosevelt was however quite persistent with his anti-colonial stand, especially in view of Vietnam and the consequences of French rule there. America’s initial policy towards Indochina was one of anti-colonialism and called for France to give Indochina up or to enact radical reforms.
Roosevelt said that he felt Indo-China should not be given back to the French Empire after the war. The French had been there for nearly one hundred years and had done absolutely nothing with the place to improve the lot of the people . . . The President said that he felt thirty five million people should not be exploited; that the French had taken a great deal from them . . . The President said that after the war we ought to help these 35, 000, 000 people. Naturally they could not be given independence immediately but should be taken care of until they could govern themselves . . . In the meantime we would treat Indochina as a trustee.
Roosevelt felt the French had a poor colonial record compared to the United States and the Philippines. The American public and Roosevelt believed America was preparing the Philippines for self-government, while the French indulged in colonial decadence and exploitation in Indochina. Roosevelt’s plans for a trusteeship would involve a group of great and regional powers who would administer Indochina until it was ready for self-government. He believed that it was more beneficial to have the masses of Asia as American allies, rather than enemies being held captive against their will. Unfortunately, President Roosevelt and his altruistic goals for South East Asia were never realized. Throughout the Second World War Roosevelt was especially concerned with Asia. However, his death and the loss of his leadership would cause the importance of the Far East to American policy decline. In addition, Stalin’s apparent land grab of Eastern Europe after 1945 lead the Americans to place Communism with new importance for within American foreign policy. The American global Communist watch would in turn greatly influence American policy towards Indochina. Before his death, Roosevelt had been promoting a system of international trusteeship for Indochina, motivated by his anti-colonial beliefs and the Atlantic Charter. However, there were a number of reasons why a United Nations trusteeship was not created in Indochina. First of all, the British, French, and Dutch felt Indochina was only to be an example and soon their own colonies would also be placed under trusteeships, which would be dominated by the United States and serve as a cover for American imperialism. Due to the fear of a new American imperialism, Britain, France, and Holland deferred the colonial issue until after the conclusion of the Second World War, upon which Roosevelt promptly passed away. Secondly, France had no desire in giving up its colony in Indochina and had tried to find ways to coerce the United States into helping keep the French influence in Indochina alive. Fortunately for France, the changing world political atmosphere gave it leverage over the United States. As the post-war years progressed and the threat of world-wide Communism began to seem more imminent, America began to look for allies in Europe to help contain it. Once France astutely sensed America’s fear of Communism, de Gaulle very shrewdly used it as leverage to induce America intervention in Indochina on France s behalf.
In Paris, de Gaulle increases the pressure by saying that if the French public learns that America resists restoring French rule in Indochina there will be uncalculable consequences including the possibility that France itself will fall into the Communist orbit. It is the first time a French official finds the key, American fear of Communism that will eventually unlock the floodgate restraining American aid.
In hindsight, de Gaulle’s claim that France would become Communist if it was not restored as an imperial power seemed quite tenuous if not absurd. France’s situation was becoming less and less defendable in Indochina, but in a last attempt to regain power in Indochina, it convinced America to finance much of its campaign and supply materiel. France knew United States needed its cooperation in Europe to contain the USSR, and used Indochina as a bargaining tool in its relations with America. Thus, Roosevelt’s plans for political tutelage and gradual self-government for Indochina were pushed by the wayside, and in Indochina actually transformed into a policy of maintaining imperialism. As we can see , Roosevelt’s plans for an anti-colonial order in South East Asia was slowly being supplanted by the belief that containment of Communism in Europe must be achieved at all costs. So it was not surprising to see that Roosevelt’s altruistic goal of anti-colonialism was replaced with more practical concerns. However, since the United States of America chose not to respond to Ho Chi Minh’s early requests for assistance during and after the Second World War, America only served to increase the trend towards Communism in Indochina. With the passing of Roosevelt and the abandonment of an effective plan for a trusteeship in Indochina, American foreign policy makers forewent one of the only opportunities to influence the decolonization of Indochina in a non-violent, legitimate method. Instead the United States of America had set the groundwork for its future anti-Communist agenda in Vietnam.
The goal of containing Communism gained momentum as world events demonstrated that even European countries were susceptible to Communism. After Roosevelt died, his successor, Truman was forced to deal with the rapidly changing post-war era and tried to identify the types of threats that would emerge. As we have seen, Roosevelt had felt the Far East posed the future’s largest problem because he did not believe the West could continue to carry its burden and subject the brown and yellow races of the east to colonialism. However, Communism the other threat, seemed to be the most direct and threatening to Truman, especially since Communist expansionism made itself apparent in Europe first. In conjunction with the convincing argument of helping France so America could achieve its aims in Europe, the centre of world importance, America’s anti-colonial policy in Indochina was sacrificed, but would later resurface in another form to haunt America. As the post-war era progressed and Truman saw the threat of Communism grow more acute, the Truman Administration began to draw its own conclusions about solutions to the spread of Communism.
World War Two was the formative experience for the highest echelon of American policy makers as they guided foreign policy into the 1950’s. From their perspectives, the appeasement of the 1930’s had led to war. In Europe, they saw a straight chain of events from German re-occupation of the Rhineland to the Austrian Anschluss to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia at Munich, to general war in Europe. Almost everyone was less familiar with events in the Pacific, yet here too there had been a similar chain of events beginning with Japan’s seizure of Manchuria, subsequent invasion of the rest of China, occupation of Indochina, and strike on Pearl Harbor. Viewed differently, after the toppling of the first domino, the remainder of the chain had inevitably collapsed leading to World War. Truman did not intend for this to happen again.
As illustrated above the Truman Doctrine and popular “Domino Theory”, both had an important theoretical precedent, the explanation of the Second World War. Drawing upon the conclusion they could not let the first domino fall due to appeasement or weakness, Truman and policy makers concluded compromise was not possible with Communists. It was concluded that negotiations with Communists was not a viable option. Truman automatically gave up every chance he had to resolve the Indochina issue through the United Nations or bilaterally with Ho Chi Minh. Truman and his administration came to the conclusion Communists only understood force through foreign events such as China’s fall, and the Korean War, but also through various internal pressures. America’s Red Baiting scandal of the 1920’s laid the foundations for the subsequent anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950’s. Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade had wide-ranging effects on the American population and government employees. No person was spared scrutiny, and after much of the small group of China experts in the State Department had been discredited, the government itself was accused of letting China become Communist without a fight.
But conspiracy theories bloomed, circulated primarily by Republican politicians and their allies who wanted to discredit the Democrats and the New Deal. Most of these theories involved charges that Communists had infiltrated the State Department where they induced Franklin D. Roosevelt to give Poland to Stalin at the Yalta Conference in 1945 and then betrayed China to the Communists.
The theories put forward by McCarthy on China’s betrayal by the United States were uneducated accusations. Most people familiar with China’s actual situation at the time, knew it was beyond America’s abilities or wildest dreams to influence China’s civil war in any way, let alone ensure China did not become Communist. Most importantly, McCarthy popularized the belief the American government was “soft on Communists”, which forced Truman to defend himself by taking an extreme stand on Communism. As we can see during Truman’s presidency his administration came under increasing attack as Eastern Europe, China, and Korea came under the Communist sphere. These accusations had an additional allegation that Truman harbored Communists within his own government. These two allegations were to have a profound and lasting effect on Truman and successive presidents as they began to view Communism as the primary threat to American security in the post war era, especially in regard to Indochina. To prevent his political enemies from accusing him of political backsliding, Truman felt that he had to adopt a hard stance against the Communists in Indochina and later North Vietnam. At the time it may have seemed like a prudent decision, Indochina was small, weak, and of little interest, even if there were a Communist problem in Indochina America felt it had the resources to deal with it. Therefore, whenever Truman was presented with an opportunity to use negotiations he preferred to use force. Unfortunately this trend was also followed by later presidents regarding Vietnam. It was not surprising, in addition to the Europe-first atmosphere of the early 1950’s Roosevelt’s plan, that trusteeship was supplanted by a rigid anti-Communist policy.
As the post-war years progressed and the Communist threat in Europe began to become more acute, the State Department and Truman began to regard the anti-Communist crusade as their primary interest, thus marking the definite death of Roosevelt’s anti-colonial policy. After seeing Eastern Europe become Communist, there was a real fear Communism would slowly spread westward. France was considered instrumental in containing Soviet Communism and America would soon become quite keen on supporting France in Europe and unfortunately, in Indochina. For that reason, Indochina was still on the American agenda, because it would affect French-American relations, which would in turn impact on the American Communist containment policy in Europe.
Within the State Department experienced bureaucrats who should have assisted Truman’s learning failed to do so. Instead they engaged in a bitter battle to tilt United States policy toward France as the department divided into pro-Asia versus pro-Europe camps. The latter camp which consisted of men who had earned a professional reputation based on their European understanding, men who retained profound respect for their European heritage, was dominant . . . The value of tradition had just been demonstrated when American allied with Great Britain and France, had vanquished world threatening fascism. Moreover, under Stalin a new world threat was emerging.
Previous to World War Two, Indochina held little interest for American policy makers. Under Roosevelt and the Atlantic Charter, Indochina had become more important to American interests. Roosevelt’s death would lead the pro-European and pro-Asian experts in the State Department to debate over the importance of American interests in Indochina. Europe had been the most important region for American interests with the Far East ranking well below it. The question was not what should be done in Indochina, but what should be done about American anti-Communist policy in Europe. Indochina at this point, remained only a consequence of American policy in Europe. The European experts wanted America to support France in regaining its colony in Indochina because the French in exchange would help contain European Communism. The pro-Europe experts did not feel establishing a trusteeship or the independence of Indochina was as important as having France’s help to contain Communism in Europe. Whereas the pro-Asia experts in the State Department warned about alienating the Vietnamese population, and the effect maintaining French imperialism in Indochina would have on future Indochinese-American relations. The pro-European bureaucrats argument seemed to be the most important and immediate, as Stalin had occupied Eastern Europe just after the end of the Second World War. The need for Soviet containment seemed to outweigh any concern for Indochina and Ho Chi Minh. Truman’s advisors had felt it was imperative France be included in a European security agreement to counter the USSR’s power. Britain was not a continental power and had been terribly weakened by both world wars, and Germany was a divided, vanquished aggressor. Thus France remained the only continental power that could effectively help the United States protect Europe from Communism. As discussed earlier, de Gaulle had used France’s re-establishment in Indochina as a lever to force America to help France in Indochina. The majority of American opinion leaned towards helping France to maintain its overseas empire, thereby allowing the United States to further its interests in continental Europe. Indeed, that was the price the French demanded for their cooperation in Europe. In contrast, the weakness of the pro-Asian experts at the time are nicely summarized below.
We should consider with all seriousness the question of whether that aim can be best accomplished . . . through cooperation with the French or through denial of a role to France, and operate through an international trusteeship. In reaching that decision we must determine whether it is of more interest to us and the world as a whole to have a strong, friendly cooperative France, or have a resentful France plus having on our hands a social and administrative problem of the first magnitude.
The position of the pro-European experts seemed quite reasonable. If America helped France in Indochina, which was of little concern to America, France would help contain Stalin in Europe, which was of primary concern. In contrast, trying to administer Indochina through a United Nations trusteeship would entail a commitment in Indochina that the United States did not feel was its responsibility. It would also needlessly humiliate France, harming American interests in Europe. Consequently, Pro-Asian experts to lost their predominance due to the prevailing Communist situation and traditional bias towards Europe. The attitude that European interests outweighed Asian interests was hardly a new one. It was put forward by Roosevelt himself during the Second World War, and unfortunately for America’s later grief in Vietnam, continued into the immediate post-war era.
The President in conference with the two service secretaries, Stimson and Knox, and the two service chiefs, Marshall and Admiral Harold Stark, agreed, in the event of the United States being drawn into the war, on a basic strategy of primary action in Europe while maintaining the defensive in the Pacific. This “Europe First” strategy reflected the recognition that Europe was the site of world power and the belief that it would always be.
According to the predominance of the European experts in the State Department and the traditional bias towards the Europe-First policy, American policy makers were not sensitive to their current issues, frequently constructing problems in the future such as Indochina. Instead of trying to assuage tensions in Indochina, American policy was gradually moving away from Roosevelt’s goal of anti-colonialism in Asia towards a policy of sacrificing anti-colonialism in areas that seemed to be of little importance at the time for European interests. As we can see, immediately after the Second World War, when Ho Chi Minh appeared to be a bit player, China was still ruled by the Kuanmingtang, and the Korean War had not begun, the United States saw little reason to advocate an anti-colonial policy in Indochina which would endanger its Communist containment plans in Europe. Therefore, American policy in Europe and the cooperation of France were deemed crucial to American security, while Indochina and its independence was not. American foreign policy drifted further away from an anti-colonial stance to supporting the fight against Communism at any cost especially after 1949. America was unknowingly laying a trap for itself. As it sacrificed Indochina for its European Communist containment policy, America further neglected the opportunity of establishing Roosevelt’s trusteeship in Indochina and perhaps saving itself a lot of trouble in the future.
So far we have examined the impact of America’s Europe-First strategy on Roosevelt’s trusteeship plan, the American policy of Communist containment in Europe and how it was linked to American assistance to France in maintaining colonial Indochina. It would now be beneficial to examine the impact of Communism in Asia directly and how America’s hardline against Communism affected America’s policy towards North and South Vietnam, specifically in regard to the 1956 elections. In this second phase, America had moved beyond the Europe-First policy that had dominated and expanded its scope towards the ideology that Communism anywhere in the world was to be extinguished. Throughout the Second World War Ho Chin Minh had been working to free Vietnam from the rule of the French. Ho traveled to Versailles after the First World War and called for Indochina’s independence according to Wilson’s proposal for self-determination in his famous Fourteen Points. The Allies, including the United States rebuffed him because they had absolutely no interests in Indochina at the time. After his rejection by the Allies, Ho had turned to radicalism and Communism as a way to win independence for Vietnam. Before the Second World War started in the East, Ho was a Communist and also an avowed nationalist, Ho’s nationalism and requests to America for help had made the Soviets skeptical about Ho’s commitment to Communism. It would be interesting to note, had Wilson really believed in self-determination for all peoples, perhaps he would have responded to Ho’s call for assistance against the French and saved America much unknown grief forty seven years later. Roosevelt’s, Truman’s, and Eisenhower’s failure to examine any plan to cooperate with Ho Chi Minh in achieving Indochina’s independence eventually led to the escalating American military involvement in Indochina. The main factor which halted American assistance to Ho during the Second World War and immediately following the war, besides State Department ignorance, was the fact Ho claimed to be a Communist. As we have seen, Truman was under intense domestic pressure to be anti-Communist and Stalin’s actions in Europe made Truman oblivious to attempts by Ho to gain independence from France. The trend of a rigid non-negotiable policy towards Communism in Vietnam extended to Eisenhower. Eisenhower bypassed America’s second chance at peaceful intervention in Indochina, by refusing to ensure the execution of the 1954 Geneva Agreements to hold elections in North and South Vietnam, in 1956 precisely because Ho was Communist and the American belief the only way to get rid of the Communist threat was through force.
How has the U.S. government explained the failure to carry out the 1956 elections? First it has offered the theory that the election proviso of the Geneva Agreements was based upon a Communist plot.
The American rationale that the 1956 elections in North and South Vietnam were a Communist plot, fit very nicely with the convoluted and contradictory American policy towards Indochina. Elections would not be held because the Communists would not allow true elections to take place.
A second reason sometimes advanced for the failure to hold free elections in 1956 is that with the Communists in control of the North, it is impossible to hold really free elections. This is argued on the grounds: (a) that the Communists are not willing to hold genuinely free elections; and (b) that brain-washing and threats of reprisals by the Communists make free elections impossible.
In fact, these were merely American machinations and poor excuses to avoid admitting they knew there was no way North and South Vietnam would remain divided if elections were to be held. Most Asian experts in the American government knew if Ngo Dinh Diem, the American supported puppet dictator of South Vietnam, ran against Ho Chi Minh in a free national election, Ho would win a landslide victory.
The probability confronting the United States, the CIA concluded one month after the Geneva Conference, was the following: “If the scheduled national elections are held in July 1956, and if the Viet Minh does not prejudice its political prospects, the Viet Minh will almost certainly win.”
For the United States of America, it was justifiable to deny democracy as a means because the end achieved would be Communism. In oth