The new academic year has seen my involvement in A-level teaching increase: from covering one module in both the first year and second year I’m now teaching all classes 100% of the time. This has led to the inheriting of a module to continue to its conclusion in the second year; the AQA module ‘The American Dream: Reality & Illusion’, which covers the years 1945 to 1980. I’m not sure if the module would have been my first choice (and to illustrate this I’ve switched for the first years to the module ‘Democracy and Nazism’), but it does contain a healthy dose of American foreign policy. This focuses on the Cold War, and America’s involvement in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War has gone down in history as a costly mistake; the war in which the United States of America met defeat. During summer reading it dawned on me just how much of a mess the entire enterprise was, from America’s escalation to all-out war and bombing. Nobody seems to have had a clear plan in mind, which led to the bloodshed and slaughter of many innocent lives. To help highlight this mess I utilised a handful of sources from the period 1945-1963 to chart America’s increasing involvement in Vietnam. Under Truman they re-instilled Vietnam’s previous colonial masters, the French, which went against America’s previous anti-colonial approach; under Eisenhower they effectively became the guarantor of the South Vietnamese state against the Communist North; and under Kennedy they increased their aid and assistance to the South. It seems that none of these presidents – or advisers – were particularly pleased of their increasing involvement, but none was prepared for America to back down in the face of Communist aggression and expansion (the so-called Domino Theory).
The sources below include many key voices during this period, including those of Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, and American presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. The private words of Kennedy conflict with his public popular message; here was a president who knew that they were getting themselves too far into the deep. De Gaulle’s warning of a ‘quagmire’ would prove to be correct.
Source A: Ho Chi Minh discussing possible American ambitions in 1945:
‘They [the Americans] are only interested in replacing the French…. They want to reorganise our economy in order to control it. They are capitalists to the core. All that counts for them is business.’
Source B: Ho Chi Minh on preferring to fight against the French, rather than others:
[The French] ‘are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.’
Source C: Defence Department official warned in November 1950 that America was becoming dangerously and deeply involved:
‘We are gradually increasing our stake in the outcome of the struggle… we are dangerously close to the point of being so deeply committed that we may find ourselves completely committed even to direct intervention. These situations, unfortunately, have a way of snowballing.’
Source D: In 1954 Eisenhower explained that Vietnam was vitally important to America:
‘You have the specific value of a locality in its production of materials [rice, rubber, coal, iron ore] that the world needs. You have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world. You have the broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle… You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have the beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences… You are talking about millions and millions of people.’
Source E: Eisenhower’s reaction to the suggested that atomic bombs should be dropped on Vietnam:
‘You boys must be crazy. We can’t use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than ten years. My God.’
Source F: Kennedy portrayed himself as a crusader in the Third World. His inaugural addressed was devoted to foreign policy:
‘Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foes to assure the survival and the success of liberty.’
Source G: When Kennedy visited France in May 1961 President de Gaulle warned him:
‘The more you become involved out there against Communism, the more the Communists will appear as the champions of national independence…. You will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire, however much you spend in men and money.’
Source H: Kennedy provided more aid to Diem (the South Vietnamese ruler), but he was unwilling to send in ground troops:
‘The troops will march in, the bands will play; the crowds will cheer, and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It’s like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another.’
Source I: Kennedy talking to a journalist friend:
‘We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam… These people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out… But I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and then get the American people to re-elect me.’
Source J: A January 1963 State Department report summarised America’s problems in Vietnam:
‘There is no overall planning effort that effectively ties together the civilian and the military efforts. There is little or no long-range thinking about the kind of country that should come out of victory and about what we do now to contribute to this longer-range goal… The real trouble, however, is that the rather large US effort in South Vietnam is managed by a multitude of independent US agencies and people with little or no overall direction.’
Source K: September 1963, Kennedy criticised the Saigon regime:
‘We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men as advisers, but they have to win it – the people of Vietnam – against the Communists’.