Retrospective

01

Dec
2021

The beginning of United States involvement

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Until 1950, the United States was uninvolved in the Vietnamese conflict. While supportive of France as a Cold War ally in Europe, the Truman administration refrained from providing direct assistance to French operations in Indochina, not wanting to be associated with what it viewed as a colonial policy. In early 1949, with the ongoing Berlin Blockade, the United States was concerned to obtain full French participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. American policymakers worried about the large representation of the French Communist Party in the French National Assembly and the instability of Fourth Republic governments. Although the American State Department considered the Elysée  Agreement to be significantly less than the granting of independence and insuffi- cient to rally Vietnamese nationalists, the United States kept these doubts to itself  in view of the importance of France to American policy in Europe. But with the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War and the recognition of Ho Chi Minh’s government by the Chinese and Soviet governments, the Cold War came to Asia, and the United States could no longer stand aloof. In February 1950, days after the French National Assembly ratified the Elysée Agreement, the United States and the United Kingdom announced diplomatic recognition of Bao Dai’s State of Vietnam.  There was a contradiction at the center of American policy toward the Viet- namese situation, which was an extension of the contradiction at the center of  French policy. Was France fighting to create a non-communist independent Vietnam or to retain some form of neo-colonial control? Despite talk to the contrary, French behavior revealed that the answer to this question was the  latter. For its part, the United States wanted France to grant Bao Dai’s govern- ment the genuine independence required to compete with communists for the  nationalist cause and to build a Vietnamese army able to take over the war, but it did not believe that it could force France to do this without erasing French incentive to continue the war and without risking a breakdown in the Cold War alliance. Beginning already in the late 1940s and continuing through 1950, various studies and memos produced in the American Departments of State and Defense debated the benefits and liabilities of getting involved in the Vietnamese war with cogent arguments on each side of the issue. However, the communist victory in China and concern about the extension of communist regimes elsewhere in Asia became the decisive consideration, overriding doubts raised by the afterlife of French colonialism. Once the decision was made to grant diplomatic recognition to the Bao Dai government in February 1950, American involvement developed rapidly. In March, following a French request for help, President Truman released money previously allocated by Congress for “the non-communist areas of China,” the first direct American funding for the French in Indochina. A mission sent to study French needs in Indochina reported that much greater assistance would be  required. The outbreak of the Korean War in June appeared to American policy- makers as a second front in China’s promotion of communist regimes in neigh- boring countries and accelerated plans to send assistance to Vietnam.  In July, the United States sent another mission to survey conditions in Vietnam. The report of this mission was pessimistic about the military situation, which it considered to be a stalemate in which the French were taking unsustainable casualties. It asserted that the war could not be won militarily and that the main problem required a political settlement that the French were unwilling to make. Because of the urgency of the situation, the report nevertheless recommended the formation of a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) to fill French military needs and to build a Vietnamese army. Despite French objections to the presence of an American MAAG, which they viewed as an unnecessary infringement upon their prerogatives, the United States established a MAAG in Saigon in the autumn of 1950 to deliver, account for, and evaluate the use of military material provided to the French. American policy was aimed at providing what was necessary to keep the French military from defeat while maximizing the possibilities of building a Vietnamese army and government administration within the constraints imposed by the French. With this in view, in addition to the MAAG, the United States set up a Special Technical and Economic Mission (STEM) to work directly with the Bao Dai government on civilian development projects. This irritated the French, who suspected that the Americans were seeking to displace them. At the beginning of 1950, Bao Dai appointed Nguyen Phan Long, the veteran Constitutionalist politician of the 1920s and 1930s, as prime minister of the  Saigon government. Nguyen Phan Long called for full independence, for Ameri- can aid to be given directly to his government, and for rapidly building up a  Vietnamese army. He had no personal political following, so it was easy for the French to obtain his replacement in April 1950 by the governor of Cochinchina, Tran Van Huu (1896–1984), a French citizen, wealthy landowner, and former partisan of the Cochinchina separatist movement. Despite his background, Tran Van Huu strained at the French leash to enlarge the Saigon government’s authority. Notwithstanding the limitations of the Elysée Agreement, the French acquiesced to his opening diplomatic relations with the United States, the United Kingdom, Thailand, India, and other countries. In June 1950, Tran Van Huu began what turned out to be five months of difficult negotiations at Pau in southwestern France with representatives of France and the other two associated states of Indochina, Cambodia and Laos. The agenda was to resolve issues remaining from the Elysée Agreement that were ostensibly to be handled at the federal level of the Indochinese Federation: communications, immigration, customs, foreign trade, and finance. Cambodia and Laos supported French involvement in these matters from fear of being dominated by their Vietnamese neighbor. Tran Van Huu vainly appealed to the Americans and British to pressure France to be more accommodating to the  Vietnamese. The arrangements that were ultimately reached appeared to repre- sent a compromise among all the concerned parties, but, when implemented, the  French gave up very little of their control. France’s stubborn clinging to power frustrated both Tran Van Huu and the Americans and stymied any effort to raise the credibility of the State of Vietnam in what, beneath the surface of France’s persistently colonial attitude and of the United States’ Cold War agenda, was becoming more and more of a civil war among Vietnamese. During his two years as prime minister, Tran Van Huu became more nationalistic and revealed an increasing willingness to work directly with the United States, prompting French chagrin. In June 1952, the French obtained his replacement by Nguyen Van Tam (1893–1990), another French citizen and former Cochinchina separatist, who had made a reputation in military and security affairs. Nguyen Van Tam demonstrated subservience to French interests and to the commandeering style of Jean Letourneau (1907–1986), who combined the ministerial post in charge of the Indochinese associate states with the post of high commissioner for most of 1952 and 1953. The military situation from 1950 to 1953, with the additional participation of China and the United States, attained a new level of stalemate. The French loss of their Sino-Vietnamese border forts in late 1950 prompted the appointment of a well-known and respected Second World War military leader to both command the armed forces and be high commissioner: Jean Joseph Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny (1889–1952). During 1951, Vo Nguyen Giap launched three major attacks from the mountains into the lowlands of the Red River, first from the north, then from the east, and finally from the southwest. De Lattre defeated all of these offensives with American logistical assistance. He built a string of forts along the edge of the deltaic plains to insulate the lowlands from the mountains. Known as the “de Lattre line,” this defensive formation did not prevent routine communist infiltration of the plains, but de Lattre’s strong personality and competent leadership briefly raised French morale. De Lattre mixed talk of a truly independent Vietnam and measures to build up the State of Vietnam’s army with acts that guarded French supremacy, such as vetoing a bilateral aid agreement between the Saigon government and the United States. Nevertheless, the United States was sufficiently impressed with his achievements to significantly accelerate the military supply line to Vietnam. After he died of cancer in January 1952, his successor was unable to sustain his moment of optimism, and French public opinion began to turn against the war. A series of military setbacks in 1952 spread gloom among French policymakers. By January 1953, when René Mayer (1895–1972) became Prime Minister of France and Dwight David Eisenhower (1890–1969) became President of the United States, French war weariness and American skepticism of French policy had reached new levels of seriousness. In Vietnam, the French were mostly ascendant from Nha Trang south. Aside from that, they tenuously held a coastal strip from Da Nang to Dong Hoi, and in the Red River plain they held major cities and towns and were dominant in much of the countryside. French forces were for the most part tied down in static defensive positions and strongly invested in road-bound supply operations. They lacked sufficient manpower to  undertake offensive operations and were slow to expand and train the Vietnam- ese army. When Mayer requested increased American funding for the war, the  Eisenhower administration responded that before considering the request it would be necessary to see a French plan for defeating the enemy within two years. Mayer and Letourneau visited Washington, DC, in March to make their request in person. Discovering that Eisenhower was serious about wanting to  see a plan, Letourneau proposed a three-step scenario of building up the Viet- namese army to secure the south, of consolidating French forces in the north, and then of taking the offensive to finish the war in 1955. The Americans accepted this plan despite doubts and reservations. In June, the newly appointed French commander, Henri Eugène Navarre (1898–1983), produced an accelerated version of the Letourneau plan that envisioned offensive operations as early as the autumn of 1953. The new French government of Joseph Laniel (1889–1975) publicly embraced this Navarre plan and indicated that substantial reinforcements would be sent from France. The Laniel government was a finely balanced coalition that included four former prime ministers, each with his own analysis of the Indochinese situation and his own circle of experts. French policy lost coherence as it entered a phase of keeping up wartime appearances while seeking a way to negotiate an end to the fighting. The idea of obtaining a favorable battlefield position from which to negotiate became the most plausible way to portray French policy under Laniel. Reinforcements sent to Navarre were negligible, and he was left to his own devices. Although American officers assigned to the MAAG in Saigon reported that they could see no evidence of the Navarre plan being implemented, Navarre was determined to do what he could with available resources to demonstrate the  aggressive intent of his plan. He was inhibited by elements in the Laniel govern- ment eager to negotiate an end to the conflict and that adjusted the adminis- trative hierarchy in Indochina to increase civilian control over the military.  Paul Reynaud (1878–1966), a former prime minister prominent in the Laniel government, obtained the appointment of Maurice Dejean (1899–1982), then ambassador to Japan, to replace Letourneau. Reynaud had been Minister of  Colonies in the early 1930s and had visited Indochina in the wake of the Nghe- Tinh soviet uprising. He was now in favor of negotiating an end to the war and  estimated that Dejean, who had been a subordinate of his for a time in the late 1930s, would be an appropriate person to oversee matters in Indochina. Dejean, a career diplomat, would be disgraced in the 1960s after a scandal while serving as ambassador to the Soviet Union amid rumors that he had been recruited by Soviet intelligence during the Second World War or even earlier. There were stories of friction between him and Navarre because he was supposedly holding back the allocation of resources in accordance with a shadow policy of the Laniel government to minimize military operations while stalling for negotiations. Although both men publicly denied that this was the case, their sensing the need to do so revealed that French policy toward the war was shifting. In early July 1953, the Laniel government informed the associated states of Indochina that it  was ready to discuss “the transfer of powers” and “the perfecting of independ- ence and sovereignty.” This, combined with the departure of Letourneau’s heavy  hand, brought Saigon politics to life with new energy.

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