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A Debacle That Could Have Been Avoided

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Library of Congress
Nguyen Ai Quoc (before he took the name Ho Chi Minh) at the Congress of the French Socialist Party, Tours, December 29, 1920

On September 3 of this year, an alarming headline ran across six columns of the “World” section of The Times of London: “US Suspends Police Training After Big Rise in Green-on-Blue Attacks.” The dateline was Afghanistan and the peg was that forty-five coalition troops had been killed by Afghan soldiers and police already this year, compared with thirty-five for all of 2011. The number has since risen to fifty-one and joint US–Afghan patrols have been canceled.

I remembered American soldiers in Vietnam wishing that either the Vietcong or Hanoi’s regulars were on their side rather than the Army of the Republic of [South] Vietnam (ARVN). They were notorious for knowing about upcoming ambushes and melting away just before they were sprung, or standing back on sentry duty to allow enemy soldiers to infiltrate American camps where they caused havoc before disappearing into the night. Already in 1954, early in the Eisenhower administration, Walter Robertson, the hard-line assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, admitted to C.L. Sulzberger of The New York Times, “If only Ho Chi Minh were on our side we could do something about the situation. But unfortunately he is the enemy.”

From the early 1960s, American soldiers in Vietnam knew the truth about the situation in which over 58,000 of them were to die. Apart from a few who deserted or shot themselves badly enough to be invalided home, they had little choice. As Fredrik Logevall’s book Embers of War makes admirably clear, the choices were made by American presidents from Truman to Nixon who knew that Washington had determined, often for domestic American reasons, to back a corrupt and incompetent Vietnamese side, after having paid most of the bills for the French until their collapse in the mid-1950s. By that time, most Vietnamese despised the French.

In 1963, now no longer president, Dwight Eisenhower would write:

I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs, who did not agree that had an election been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than [the French- appointed ex-emperor] Chief of State Bao Dai.

Since it was Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who ensured that no free elections took place in Vietnam, they bear a heavy responsibility for the American deaths, and for the millions of Vietnamese who died in the American–Vietnamese war before it ended.

Fredrik Logevall teaches history at Cornell and his earlier book, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam,1 showed him to be a considerable authority on Vietnam. Now the eight-hundred-plus pages of his Embers of War provide the most comprehensive account available of the French Vietnamese war, America’s involvement, and the beginning of the US-directed struggle.

Quite rightly, Logevall begins this long and awful story by tracing the career of Ho Chi Minh, including the poignant photograph of the young Ho in Tours in 1920, appealing to French socialists to support his calls for Vietnamese independence. At Tours a majority of the delegates left the Socialist International to form the French Communist Party. As Sophie Quinn-Judge writes in her uniquely sourced biography of Ho:

Ho’s participation…made him one of the founding members of the French Communist Party….[He] gave his allegiance to a force which would dominate the rest of his life. The world communist movement would become both his family and his chief employer.2

Logevall recounts Ho’s years of hoping that the United States would support the cause of Vietnamese independence, noting his well-known use of the Declaration of Independence in his own speeches and in documents of the Viet Minh, the Communist national coalition he led from its creation in 1941. I doubt, however, that Ho, a master of international manipulation, would ever have abandoned communism. When American OSS teams landed in Communist-controlled areas of Vietnam during World War II, Ho pressed them on “whether Washington would intercede in Indochina or leave matters to the French….” (Carleton Chapman, a doctor with one of the teams and later dean of the Dartmouth Medical School, told me that when he examined Ho he found his tuberculosis to be so grave that he was certain the Viet Minh leader could not survive long.) But Ho also wrote pessimistic letters to an American friend, Charles Fenn, expressing fears that relations with Washington might become “more difficult.”

Ho had every reason for this fear. Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Logevall writes, “brought to power a new administration, one with a markedly different assessment of what ought to happen in Indochina and in the colonial world generally.” Truman had little knowledge or experience of such matters and after 1949 focused on warding off McCarthy-inspired attacks on those who had “lost China.” Before long the State Department was making clear that it did not object to a full-scale French return to Indochina, as well as tepidly suggesting that Paris might support some local autonomy in its colony. Logevall writes:

In historical terms, it was a monumental decision by Truman, and like so many that US presidents would make in the decades to come, it had little to do with Vietnam herself—it was all about American priorities on the world stage.

By 1947, with the beginnings of the “Truman Doctrine,” Washington conflated the Indochinese conflict with the cold war, seeing it “in the context of the deepening confrontation with the Soviet Union.” This “marked the beginning of an anti-Communist crusade inside the United States” and “a staunch and undifferentiated anti-Communism [that] became the required posture of all aspiring politicians, whether Republican or Democrat.” And yet, as Logevall shows, throughout those years Stalin showed little interest in Ho Chi Minh’s appeals, as was the case to a lesser extent with Mao after 1949.

What Truman knew little about, and his successors ignored even when they suspected it, was

the strong anti-French and nationalist feelings among the vast majority of Vietnamese…. The pervasive anti-French animus enabled Viet Minh forces to assemble undetected, to withdraw when the enemy appeared in force, to hide their weapons, to expand their ranks, and to gather excellent intelligence concerning the strength, the maneuvers, and often even the plans of the French…. Women, children, the elderly, all contributed to the common cause.

The French authority on Indochina Paul Mus wrote in 1945, “In short, what the Vietnamese have preserved, through all the vicissitudes of their history, is a community of blood, of language, of sentiment.” In 1965 I saw a village puppet show in South Vietnam in which, to the delight of the watching peasants, traditionally dressed Vietnamese warriors were knocking about plainly Caucasian puppets. Watching with me was John Paul Vann, a ruthless American of long experience of Vietnam. “That’s us they’re smashing,” he remarked. Such attitudes, as Rory Stewart has shown in these pages,3 are very likely true in Afghanistan today.

Also notable, according to Logevall, was the French intelligence system, which was able to identify with 80 percent accuracy the Viet Minh’s order of battle and predict when major Viet Minh operations would take place. But because this information was never available to units in the field, they were “often victims of the most brutal surprises.” As was true in the American period as well, “it didn’t take French commanders long to realize that many Vietnamese agents had contacts on both sides; one could never be assured of their loyalty.” One of the best-known Vietnamese journalists working in Saigon turned out, after Hanoi’s victory, to be a Viet Minh spy.

Logevall ably surveys decades of scholarship and reporting on the jockeying for advantage at Geneva in 1954, after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. He contends that near the end of the siege, when a French defeat was certain, the US offered the French nuclear weapons; the French declined largely because such a weapon would have wiped out their own beleaguered garrison. At Geneva, he shows, it was Beijing that persuaded the victorious Viet Minh to agree to a temporary division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, which was intended to lead to national elections and unification in 1956, an agreement never agreed to by Eisenhower and Dulles, who were to scupper both the temporary nature of the division and the election by ensuring that the government they helped install was not temporary.

In his earlier book Choosing War, an equally solid study, Logevall considered whether at any point during the war, until the Viet Minh had plainly won, there had been “any [serious] interest in negotiations…. At no point during…1964 were American leaders hemmed in on Vietnam…. They always possessed a real choice. Neither domestic nor international considerations compelled them to escalate the war.” This is overdrawn. In both books Logevall is at pains to show that domestic considerations about not looking weak animated each American administration. As I mentioned above, he writes in Embers, “It had little to do with Vietnam itself—it was all about American priorities on the world stage.” This was the reality behind the endless repetitions of the domino theory, that if Vietnam “went,” the rest of Southeast Asia, and possibly beyond, would “go,” too.

Choosing War, substantial and well documented though it is, is less satisfying than Embers of War. It focuses on the years 1963–1965 and so it barely explains how the US got into the situation described in David Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire or Daniel Ellsberg’s “The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine.” In that vital regard Logevall’s Embers of War tells the whole story of the First Vietnam War and the beginning of the second, from the time of Ho Chi Minh’s early years in France.

From the start, as Logevall convincingly shows, the US link to the French was a tangle. He notes the various strands. There was the fear that if France carried the burden in Indochina alone, it could not afford to meet its military and economic obligations in Europe. Washington also feared that Paris might negotiate with the Viet Minh. But there was a concern as well in Washington that Americans must avoid looking like colonialists. In a particularly disgusting—unsourced—document in 1950, it was observed that “much of the stigma of colonialism can be removed if, where necessary, yellow men will be killed by yellow men rather than by white men alone.”

This was the illusion of finding Vietnamese soldiers who would enthusiastically fight the Viet Minh, a proposition leading under US direction to the formation and enlargement of the ARVN. Those were the soldiers so feared by many US troops. That could now be seen by some as similar to raising hopes that someday, in Afghanistan, Afghan soldiers, also increasingly feared as treacherous, will fight the Taliban without Americans at their sides.

  1. 1

    University of California Press, 1999; see my review in these pages, May 25, 2000. 

  2. 2

    Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, 1919–1941 (University of California Press, 2003), pp. 31, 33. 

  3. 3

    Afghanistan: What Could Work,” The New York Review, January 14, 2010. 

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