www ISR
For ISR updates, send us your Email Address

Back to issue 29

International Socialist Review Issue 29, May–June 2003

Vietnam: The war that the U.S. lost

Part One: from the French conquest to the overthrow of Diem


WHEN THE last Americans fled Saigon in April 1975, then-President Gerald Ford declared that "the book was closed" on American involvement in Indochina. Yet, almost immediately another book began to be written, or more precisely, the story of what really happened during the war was systematically rewritten. The Vietnam War was the greatest military defeat ever suffered by the United States. Memory of this humiliating defeat had to be erased from peoples’ minds and replaced by stories that either denied or made excuses for the defeat. The U.S. ruling class and its intellectual pundits needed to overcome what became known as the Vietnam Syndrome–the fear on the part of American planners that any large-scale military engagement might become a "quagmire" and provoke mass opposition. It has never ceased.

Looking back over the last decade it is almost unthinkable that the world’s most formidable war machine could ever be defeated in a military conflict. Yet, this was also true on the eve of the Vietnam War. Why was it that the U.S. suffered such complete and total defeat in Vietnam? This question has become more relevant for millions of people around the world who face an even more virulent American imperialism under the new Bush Doctrine. To answer the question "Why Vietnam?" we need to go back to before the large-scale landing of U.S. troops in 1965 and look at the history of the struggle for Vietnamese independence and the communist movement that led it to victory twice–first over the French, then over the Americans.1

The French conquest

When France arrived in Indochina, the Annamites [Vietnamese] were ripe for servitude.

–Paul Doumer, Governor General of Indochina2

Vietnam was an independent nation until the French conquered it during the latter half of the 19th century. While French missionaries and businessmen had been going to Vietnam since the early 1600s, converting inhabitants to Catholicism and establishing commercial ties with the country, it was in the mid—19th century that the fundamental direction of French policy toward Indochina rapidly changed. The French no longer wanted simply the concessions they had won in the past, they wanted complete control of the whole country. France’s rivals–Britain, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal–were all engaged in a struggle to carve up and colonize those parts of the globe that could serve them as sources of raw materials, markets and profitable investments. As the British consolidated their position in India and China, the French made their move into Indochina so as not to be denied the potential fortunes to be made there.

The French were aided in their conquest of Indochina by a policy of appeasement pursued by the Vietnamese Royal Court under the unpopular Emperor Tu Duc (1847—83) of the ruling Nguyen family. Tu Duc’s regime faced a growing revolt of the peasantry, which the royal family perceived as a greater threat to its rule than the French hovering off the coast. This was a serious miscalculation. Tu Duc signed away the country piece by piece to the French beginning in 1863, when the French captured six Vietnamese provinces around Saigon. In 1874 Tu Duc made more territorial concessions and finally in 1882 the French fleet capture Hanoi. The French were now in control of all of the country.3

The first thing the French did when they completed their conquest of Vietnam was to abolish Vietnam as a political entity. It was a classic case of divide and conquer. France divided Vietnam into three administrative provinces: Tonkin in the north, Annam in the center and Cochinchina in the south. Tonkin and Annam were considered "protectorates," where Vietnamese royal power was allegedly still intact, while Cochinchina was ruled directly as a colony. In practice, the difference between a protectorate and a colony was pure fiction, the French ran everything. They chose the emperor along with a host of advisors and a colonial bureaucracy dominated by Frenchmen.4

The Vietnamese economy was reorganized for the benefit of the French and their Vietnamese collaborators. The chief architect of France’s policies in Vietnam was Paul Doumer, who was appointed governor general of Indochina and arrived in 1897. His goal from the day he arrived was to make Vietnam a "profitable colony" for France. Doumer said Indochina will "serve France in Asia on the day that it was no longer a poverty-stricken colony…Its strong organization, its financial and economic structures…are being used for the benefit of French prestige." Doumer established monopolies for the production and marketing of alcohol, salt and opium. French businessmen, whose monopolies were interlocked with the powerful Bank of Indochina, became very wealthy.5

French colonial policies had their biggest impact on rice farming, the source of livelihood for the vast majority of people. The French and their collaborators stole most of the best land for themselves within a generation of the conquest. Tens of thousands of acres of land were taken away from the Vietnamese and given to the French at dirt-cheap prices. Many of the French owned 3,000 to 7,000 acres. Despite this robbery most Vietnamese still owned something. After 1900, the French theft of land increased. By the 1930s over half of the peasants in Tonkin and Annam were landless, while in Cochinchina 75 percent were landless and the rest owned next to nothing.6 Tenant farmers and sharecroppers had to pay anywhere between 50—70 percent of their crops to landlords and in addition, provide free gifts and services.

France’s investments in industry and rubber plantations also had an enormous impact on Vietnam, much of it coming after World War I. The bulk of it was in the booming rubber plantations, where 100,000 to 200,000 Vietnamese were annually tricked or forced into working on them. The conditions were slave-like. Michelin rubber plantations were called slaughterhouses. "Rubber, the second largest Vietnamese export after rice, was produced by virtually indentured workers so blighted by malaria, dysentery and malnutrition that at one Michelin company plantation, twelve thousand out of forty-five thousand workers died between 1917 and 1944." These slave-like conditions were also found in the mines, which were called death valleys. Miners as well as rubber workers had to pay for the shacks that they lived in and for their tools. Punishment was severe for the smallest of infractions and those who attempted to escape were subjected to torture and hunger.7

How much were Vietnamese workers paid for their hard labor? According to French colonial statistics, a fully employed worker had an average annual income of 48 piasters in the late 1920s, which was barely enough for a person to buy enough rice to live off for a year. Or as Vietnamese historian Ngo Vinh Long put it graphically: "Even a dog belonging to a colonial household cost an average of 150 piasters a year to feed." In addition, many workers were cheated out of their wages by their bosses and in other cases instead of receiving wages, they were paid in rice and vegetables (sometimes rotten) from the company store. By 1929, before the worldwide depression hit, there were nearly 220,000 workers in the industrial and commercial sector of the economy.8

The French didn’t bring just economic exploitation to Vietnam; they also brought their "mision civilisatrice" (civilizing mission), a mixture of paternalism and racism aimed at molding the Vietnamese in the image of the French. As one enthusiastic supporter of French imperialism put it–it was the duty of France to bring "into light and into liberty the races and peoples still enslaved by ignorance and despotism." This mission of delivering people into "light" really meant fostering cultural repression, directed particularly at the Vietnamese peoples’ language, and political repression, directed against any organized dissent.9

Before the French conquest, 80 percent of the Vietnamese population were functionally literate in the Chinese ideographs used for written Vietnamese. The French banned the Chinese characters and introduced either French or quoc ngu, the Latin alphabet for the Vietnamese language. It proved to be a disaster. On the eve of the Second World War, less than one fifth of school age Vietnamese boys were attending school. "The Vietnamese can speak their tongue but neither read nor write it. We have been manufacturing illiterates," commented one former governor general.10

Political repression was the rule in Vietnam. Any form of organized dissent against the colonial authorities was ruthlessly repressed. The handful of wealthy Vietnamese who sent their children to school in France had a rude awakening upon their return to Vietnam. Rights and privileges that they enjoyed in France ended upon return. The colonial police confiscated books and newspapers deemed "subversive." One student was so enraged by his treatment upon his return to Vietnam that he told a judge at his trial that French injustice "turned me into a revolutionary." 11 The French surété (colonial police) hunted dissidents, tortured them and imprisoned them at the notorious island fortress of Poulo Cordone with its infamous "tiger cages."

Nationalism and communism

At first, patriotism, not yet communism, led me to have confidence in Lenin, in the Third International.

–Ho Chi Minh12

By the beginning of the 20th century, France was the master of all of Indochina. However, as historian James Gibson points out, "in attempting to grind colonial rule so deeply into Vietnamese culture, the French aroused resistance. Colonialism ruled Vietnam, but at the same time it created contradictions that weakened it." Modern Vietnamese nationalism appeared in the first decade of the new century out of a dissident section of the mandarin class.13

While the bulk of mandarins served the puppet emperors of the French, some began to question their role in colonial Vietnam. "Who lost Vietnam?" first arose as a burning question among the disaffected mandarins, who looked to the past for inspiration, while simultaneously looking to the modern West for knowledge to create a resistance movement. Two strains of thought emerged. Phan Boi Chau who believed that a strong emperor with the help of the Chinese and Japanese could defeat the French, represented the first. His thinking at first was essentially feudal in outlook and aimed at restoring the power of the emperor supported by his mandarins in an independent Vietnam. He had almost nothing to say about the vast economic and social changes brought by French imperialism. Constantly hounded by the French surété, he lived in exile until he was arrested in 1925 at the age of 58. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese followed his trial and were angered by the death sentence that was handed down to him by French judges. It was later commuted. He died under house arrest in 1940.

Phan Chu Trinh represented a second current of emerging Vietnamese nationalism. He was the son of a rich landowner. Early in his life he rallied to the side of dissident Emperor Ham Nhgi. Later he accompanied Phan Boi Chau to Japan, where he broke with Chau over the question of Japan’s real intentions toward Indochina. He returned to Vietnam an and opened a modern school to teach children of both sexes and he railed at the French for their hypocrisy. While Phan Chu Trinh attacked the French, he also believed that with the help of the French bureaucracy Vietnam could become a modern society. In 1908, the French closed his schools, arrested him and sentenced him to death, but his death sentence was commuted to life in prison in Poulo Cordone. Released from prison after three years, Phan Chu Trinh symbolized resistance to the French for many educated Vietnamese. When he died in 1926, 60,000 people marched in his funeral procession.14

While Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh inspired many people who would later come to be involved in nationalist politics, their political movements remained small. The main reason for this was that their politics appealed to a very thin layer of educated middle class Vietnamese. Yet, the end of both of their political lives in the 1920s coincided with a major turning point in the consciousness of the Vietnamese people. According to historian David Marr, "The 20th century history of Vietnam must be understood within the context of fundamental changes in political and social consciousness among a significant segment of the Vietnamese populace in the period of 1920—45."15 The major beneficiary of this would be the Communist Party (CP), led by Ho Chi Minh, that combined the struggle against imperialism with a social base among the peasantry, intellectuals and to a much smaller degree, the small working class.

Ho Chi Minh grew up in a nationalist household with a father who was also a disaffected mandarin. Ho’s father hated both the French and the mandarin system. In 1908 when he was fifteen years old, Ho participated in demonstrations against the French. The savage repression that followed began to radicalize him and he started to attract the attention of the French police. Fearing arrest, he decided to leave the country in 1911. He got a job aboard a French ocean liner and headed for France. He would not return to Vietnam for 30 years. In 1917 he moved to Paris. By then the patriotic euphoria that gripped the European countries at the beginning of the First World War had been replaced by widespread antiwar sentiment. The revolutionary left began to revive and the impact of the Russian Revolution was just beginning to be felt. The very large Vietnamese community in France–numbering 100,000 people–was alive with political debate. Ho was at the right place at the right time. He was then known as Nguyen Ai Quoc or Nguyen "the patriot." Drawn to activists in the French Socialist Party, Ho very quickly became the leading Vietnamese activist in France.

In 1919, the Versailles peace conference met to discuss the settlement at the end of the First World War. Ho Chi Minh went there to petition for the rights of Vietnam. He was drawn to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points program that included the right of nations to self-determination. Ho stopped short of calling for independence for Vietnam but in his appeal to the Versailles conference, he called for more democratic rights for the Vietnamese people along with the release of all political prisoners. Ho tried to meet with the American delegation, but was turned away. Ho Chi Minh learned, like many colonial nationalists, that Wilson’s call for self-determination was meant for European countries, not colonial peoples. Yet Ho Chi Minh’s advocacy for the Vietnamese people at Versailles gained him enormous prestige that would last for decades.16

A year later, he was the Indochinese delegate to the French Socialist Party conference in Tours. The party was about to split between a majority who wanted to affiliate to the Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow and a minority that did not. While at the conference, Ho got a copy of Lenin’s "Thesis on the National and Colonial Questions." It had an enormous impact on him, primarily because unlike the national chauvinism of the Second International, the thesis supported the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. "At first, patriotism, not yet Communism, led me to have confidence in Lenin, in the Third International. Step by step, along the struggle, by studying Marxism-Leninism parallel with participation in practical activities, I gradually came upon the fact that only socialism and communism can liberate oppressed nations," he told an interviewer in 1960. Ho joined the new French Communist Party and after several more years of political activity in France he left for Moscow in 1924.17

When Ho Chi Minh arrived in Moscow, the Comintern was politically degenerating, becoming increasingly an arm of the emerging Stalinist bureaucracy’s foreign policy. Stalin’s new theory of "socialism in one country," the political expression of the rising bureaucracy, transformed socialism from one of working-class internationalism to one of nationalist state-led development. These changes had their most devastating impact on the Far East. Lenin had warned in his 1920 Comintern thesis that revolutionaries should not to "merge" with "bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries," and "should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement."18 Stalin followed precisely the opposite policy in China.

China was in a revolutionary situation in the mid—1920s, yet instead of calling on Chinese workers to seize power in alliance with the rebellious poor peasants, Stalin compelled the Chinese Communist Party to join Chang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang under an agreement which virtually tied the CP’s hands politically. Though the Kuomintang represented China’s small corrupt and reactionary capitalist class, Chang was fêted for years by the Russian CP and given lavish aid and training to build up his army. China needed first to complete a bourgeois-nationalist phase of the revolution, it was now argued, before workers could fight for socialism. This "alliance" resulted in the revolutionary workers and communist militants being massacred by Chang in 1927.

Ho Chi Minh was in China as a Comintern representative and witnessed Chang Kai-Shek’s massacre, but he never raised any criticisms of Stalin’s policies. He was to remain an uncritical Stalinist for the remainder of his life. Indeed, his communism was essentially radical nationalism with a red gloss.19 While in China, Ho trained several hundred Vietnamese in schools set up by the Comintern; they were to become the seeds of the Vietnamese communist movement.20

Meanwhile political struggles began to revive in Vietnam in the mid—1920s. Several revolutionary groups emerged to organize peasants, workers and intellectuals against the colonial regime. The small working class began to flex its muscles, starting with a strike movement that began in 1928 by Saigon brewery workers that was soon joined by petroleum workers, rubber workers, textile workers and railroad workers. The worldwide economic depression, starting with the Wall Street stock market crash of 1929, hit Vietnam especially hard with widespread hunger and unemployment. Anger began to boil to the surface, symbolized by a failed rebellion of indigenous colonial troops in Vietnam.

Feeling the pressure to catch up with political developments in Vietnam, the fractured Vietnamese communist movement met in February1930 at a unification conference in Hong Kong. During the conference the three Vietnamese Communist Parties merged into one Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). Ho Chi Minh convened the meeting. Among the points in its political program: the overthrow of French imperialism, complete independence of Vietnam, confiscation of wealth held by the French, the implementation of the eight-hour day, abolition of unjust taxes, universal education and equality of the sexes.

The ICP immediately faced savage repression, resulting in the imprisonment and deaths of thousands of people. In the mid—1930s, the French made some concessions by opening up the election process. The French Popular Front government led by the Socialist Leon Blum, which came to power in July 1936, ordered the release of thousands of Vietnamese political prisoners. In 1938, thousands marched in May Day parades led by the ICP and it began to emerge as a serious political force. In 1939, the atmosphere turned sharply with the election of a right-wing government in France. In Vietnam, repression against nationalists and communists was the order of the day. What was legal just a short time before was now illegal. The ICP was driven underground and some fled to China. Vo Nguyen Giap, who led the Vietnamese troops from 1946—1980, lost almost all of his immediate family who died in prison. The French executed Ho’s second wife. Yet a small Communist Party was still intact and world events were about to take a dramatic turn.21

War and revolution

I have a government that is organized and ready to go. Your statesmen make eloquent speeches about helping those with self-determination. We are self-determined. Why not help us? Am I any different from Nehru, Quezon–even your George Washington? I, too, want my people free.

–Ho Chi Minh, to an American O.S.S. agent, summer 194522

For most Europeans or Americans, the Second World War began with the German invasion of Poland in 1939 or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. For the people of East Asia it started with the Japanese invasion of China in 1931. While Japan proved itself to be just as ruthless in oppressing the people of East Asia as the Europeans and Americans were, its stunning military victories in the end destroyed the foundation of the old colonial empires.

It should be kept in mind that on the eve of the war almost all countries in East Asia, with the exception of Japan, were either colonies or semi-colonies ruled indirectly by one of the colonial powers. While Britain retained formal dominance in the area, the U.S. and Japan were challenging it. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched a massive invasion into most of Southeast Asia, sweeping away 200 years of colonial rule in a matter of a few weeks. Japan tried to disguise its imperialism in grand slogans, "Asia for Asians" and proclaiming an "East Asia co-prosperity sphere." Despite the false promise of liberation from the Japanese, this was a stunning turn of events, nowhere more deeply felt than in Vietnam.23

In May 1940, Hitler attacked France. Within a month, the French government surrendered and a puppet government headed by the aging Marshall Philippe Petain was set up in Vichy, France. The French colonialists in Vietnam were initially confused about what to do after the collapse of the French government. After a small skirmish with Japanese troops on September 22, 1940, French Governor General Jean Decoux surrendered Indochina to the Japanese, who were given unfettered access to Vietnam’s ports and were allowed to station troops. However, the Japanese left the French in charge of administration. This was unique of the colonies occupied by the Japanese, where the former Dutch, British and American colonialists were imprisoned by the Japanese.The French were collaborating with the Japanese in Indochina just as they collaborated with the Germans in occupied France. Now Vietnam had two masters, the Japanese and the French, both of whom were determined to destroy any opposition.

Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam in 1941, after 30 years abroad, to take direct charge of the struggle against the French and the Japanese. The ICP dissolves itself into "a broad National Front uniting not only workers, peasants, the petit bourgeois and the bourgeois, but also a number of patriotic landowners." The League for the Independence of Vietnam, known as the Vietminh, set as its goal the "overthrow of the Japanese fascists and the French imperialists" and the establishment of "a revolutionary government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam." 24 Three years of guerilla war ensued.

Other crucial events in 1941 would dramatically effect events in Vietnam. Following the German invasion of Russia and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the major players in the war dramatically changed. A "Grand Alliance of the Four Great Democracies"–Britain, China, the Soviet Union and the United States–was formed to fight the Axis powers. This meant that the U.S. in particular had to cloak its imperialism in the guise of anticolonialismism to combat Japanese influence in the Pacific. The U.S. argued that the right of nations to self-government agreed to in the Atlantic Charter must be applied to the world, not just Europe. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union instructed members of the Comintern to support the Allies in the "antifascist" war. This shift meant that the Vietminh developed a small but important working alliance with the United States in the war against Japan.25

While the French and the Japanese worked together to try to destroy the Vietminh, its popularity grew through out the country. During the Japanese occupation a famine broke out that could have easily been stopped by the Japanese and the French moving stored rice and grain to needed areas. Instead they allowed the famine to rage out of control. The Vietminh organized peasants and city residents to raid rice storage facilities and as a result their reputation soared even higher. However, in Tonkin, a major center of Vietminh resistance, one quarter of the population–two million people–died in the famine. It was one of the great acts of colonial genocide in the 20th century.

In July 1944, Allied troops marched into Paris and the Vichy government collapsed. Eight months later the Japanese unilaterally ended French rule in Indochina. The war was decisively turning against the Axis powers, and total defeat was only a short time away. The Japanese, in a last ditch effort to rally support to themselves, proclaimed an "independent Vietnam," with Emperor Bao Dai as its head of state. It was at this time that the first American Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S., the immediate predecessor agency to the CIA) agents arrived in Vietnam. Their mission was to provide military training to the Vietminh, while the Vietminh agreed to help locate and rescue downed Allied pilots in Vietnam. Many of the O.S.S. developed enormous sympathy for the Vietnamese struggle for independence and a deep hatred for the French and colonialism.

The Vietminh moved quickly to take advantage of the fast changing situation. Writes historian Marilyn Young,

During the five-month interlude between the Japanese coup and the end of the Pacific War, the Vietminh base in Cao Bang expanded to include six provinces in northern Vietnam. In this "iberated zone," entirely new local governments were established, self-defense forces recruited, taxes abolished, rents reduced and, in some places, land that belonged to French landlords was seized and redistributed. Above all, the Vietminh acted to alleviate the famine then raging in the North by opening local granaries and distributing rice.26

The August Revolution began on August 13, 1945, when the Vietminh issued orders to its military wing and a call to the Vietnamese people to immediately launch a general insurrection. Between August 14 and18, the administrative centers of almost every village, district and in twenty-seven provinces the Vietminh took power. The big cities of Hanoi, Hue and Saigon took a few more days to fall, but it was virtually a bloodless revolution. On August 30, Emperor Bao Dai installed as the figurehead of "independent Vietnam" abdicated his office. "I prefer to be a citizen of an independent nation rather than to be a king of an enslaved country." 27 He then handed over the gold seal and sword symbolizing royal power to a representative of the provisional government of the Vietminh and declared the abolition of the monarchy.

On September 2, Ho Chi Minh, proclaimed the independence of Vietnam and the formation of a Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to a crowd of 200,000 people in Hanoi, including members of the American O.S.S. Vietnam would be the first colony to declare independence following the end of the war. The opening line of his speech paraphrased the American Declaration of Independence –"All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights: among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Ho was more than just paying homage to the American Revolution, he was hoping to rely on the Americans to keep the French from returning to Vietnam. After all, in the minds of the Vietminh they were loyal allies in the war while the French collaborated with the Japanese. Who should better curry America’s favor?28

If the story had ended there with the U.S. recognizing Vietnam’s independence, then over 58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese would not have died in the following two wars. It was not to be.

The first Vietnam War

Cochinchina is burning, the French and the British are finished here, and we [the Americans] ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.

–O.S.S. Lieutenant Colonel Peter Dewey’s last message _to O.S.S. command, September 194529

The French were coming back with the help of the British and the Americans. For all of the American talk of self-government, they were going to support re-colonization. Why? As U.S. policy makers shifted their attention from the defeat of the Axis power to a looming confrontation with the Soviet Union in Europe, they needed a strong and loyal France. This meant giving France back her empire in Indochina. The foot in the door for the French return was the landing of Allied forces to take the surrender of Japanese troops, a landing that the Vietminh initially welcomed.

At the Potsdam conference in July, the Allies agreed that Chinese nationalists were to occupy and take the surrender of Japanese troops north of the 16th parallel (a line that ran about midpoint between north and south of the country); while British troops were to do the same south of the 16th parallel. Chinese nationalist troops started entering Vietnam in late August 1945, just before Ho’s declaration of independence. By mid—September there were over 200,000 Chinese troops in Tonkin. In the south, British General Douglas Gracey arrived in Saigon on September 22, 1945 with a detachment of Indian troops. At this time no government in the world recognized Vietnam’s independence or Ho’s government in Hanoi.

The British, who were acutely aware of the possibility of their own empire coming apart at the end of the war, had a vested interest in helping the French reestablish their presence in Indochina. Soon after the British arrived they released and rearmed 1,500 French troops who had been imprisoned by the Japanese and were kept in custody by the Vietminh. Soon after their release, French soldiers–with the support of Gracey–attacked Vietminh offices. French residents began assaulting and killing Vietnamese on the streets of Saigon. The Vietminh counterattacked on September 24, 1945. O.S.S. Lieutenant Colonel Peter Dewey was killed that night outside of Saigon– the first American to die in Vietnam. In his last message to O.S.S. command, he issued his warning that "we ought to clear out of Southeast Asia."

Gracey needed more troops to get control of Saigon and to begin to take the surrounding countryside from the Vietminh. While he conducted negotiations with the Vietminh, his Indian troop strength was increased to 10,000 soldiers and the first 1,000 French combat troops under Marshall Leclerc arrived armed and equipped by the Americans. The Vietminh, realizing that the talks with Gracey were a cover for bringing more troops, attacked the Franco-British forces but were driven out of Saigon. To augment their forces even further, Gracey authorized the arming of Japanese prisoners of war to help suppress the Vietminh.

Gracey’s coup should go down as one of the great acts of deceit and betrayal in modern history. He sponsored a coup against the Vietminh (who had been allies in the war against the Japanese) to put the French back in power (who had collaborated with the Japanese and the Germans) with the help of the recently defeated enemy–Japanese soldiers. Gracey’s shameless actions were all done with the connivance of the U.S. government.30

But the_Viet Minh also helped create confusion by initially welcoming the British landing._For this, they were denounced by the Vietnamese Trotskyist International Communist league, who at the war’s end organized dozens of working-class Popular Action Committees throughout Saigon that called for armed resistance against the landing of allied troops, and for the arming of workers and peasants. Two days after Gracey’s troops landed in Saigon, the Viet Minh police chief in Saigon began rounding up and arresting Trotskyists. The Viet Minh wanted to negotiate with the imperialists, urging a "moderate" course, and it was explicitly opposed to turning the national struggle into a class struggle against the Vietnamese landlords and capitalists. In the months that followed, the Viet Minh murdered the leadership of the Trotskyist movement, thereby gaining unchallenged control of the nationalist movement.31

Despite Gracey’s coup, the French were very far away from regaining full control of their colonial possession. The Vietminh still controlled most of the country and the Chinese nationalists had a huge presence in Tonkin. Jean Sainteny, the French envoy and Marshall Leclerc decided to enter into negotiations with the Vietminh to buy time to build up their strength. Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh then made a series of disastrous decisions. In March 1946 they agreed to French terms. The substance of the agreement was that Vietnam would only get minimal rights inside the French Union, while Cochinchina would hold a referendum to decide its fate. The French military would reenter Hanoi and the Chinese would leave. Ho justified all this by saying it was a way of getting rid of the Chinese: "I’d rather sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese for a thousand."32

However a double cross was in the works. While Ho and a Vietminh delegation were heading to France in 1946, the French resurrected Boa Dai and proclaimed him emperor of a new nation based in Cochinchina. The French then refused to recognize the tiny mini-state, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in Tonkin. In October 1946, after a clash between French and Vietminh military forces, the French Prime Minister George Bidault ordered the shelling of Haiphong, killing 6,000 Vietnamese. The order to shell Haiphong was co-signed by the French deputy prime minster and head of the French Communist Party Maurice Thorenz. The first Vietnam War had begun with the support of the French Communist Party.

U.S. aid to the French began in 1947 with financial credits totaling $160 million. By the end of the war in 1954, the U.S. was financing 80 percent of the French war effort ($2 billion). Ho’s government was forced to abandon Hanoi, without receiving diplomatic recognition–not even from Russia. Ho Chi Minh was forced to acknowledge that all of his maneuverings had achieved disaster. "We apparently stand quite alone; we shall have to depend on ourselves." The French had early success but then got bogged down. The Vietminh had the allegiance of the population, particularly the peasantry–something that the French could not break. The war was unpopular in France. To decrease opposition they didn’t impose conscription and instead relied heavily on 40,000 Legionnaires, over half of whom fought for the Nazis in the Second World War. In 1949, the war shifted decisively against the French. Because of the Chinese Revolution, the Vietminh would now be able to receive direct military aid from Mao’s government.

In 1950, Russia and China finally recognized Ho Chi Minh’s government, breaking its diplomatic isolation. On the military front, the French continued to suffer heavy losses. By 1952, the French dead, wounded, missing or captured totaled 90,000, despite claims that "there was light at the end of the tunnel." The war was becoming increasingly unpopular in France. The French generals were still hoping for a decisive victory over the Vietminh. In late 1953, they picked a spot for their decisive battle over the Vietminh. It was a remote outpost on the Laotian border called Dien Bien Phu. What the French got instead was a siege that ended in their complete defeat and surrender on May 7, 1954. The French war was over after nine bloody years.33

The Geneva Conference and Accords

The Geneva Conference…was merely an interlude between two wars.

–Stanley Karnow

As the battle raged at Dien Bien Phu, a conference was already planned to take place in Geneva, Switzerland in July 1954 to deal with issues left over from the recently finished Korean War. The attendees at this conference were the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China. Vietnam was added to the agenda following the French surrender. However, the "Geneva Conference produced no durable solution to the Indochina conflict, only a military truce that awaited a political settlement, which never really happened. So the conference was merely an interlude between two wars–or, rather, a lull in the same war."34

It had been originally part of France’s plan that after their anticipated victory at Dien Bien Phu they would go to Geneva in a position of strength and get a settlement beneficial to themselves and their Vietnamese collaborators. Now the Vietnamese nationalists were in a position of strength. Yet at Geneva, Ho Chi Minh would once again make a series of disastrous decisions that would only delay Vietnam’s independence and set the stage for the next war.

President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a fanatical anti-communist, represented the United States. Dulles was committed to preventing any other nationalist movements from taking power. The Chinese Revolution of 1949 had already humiliated the U.S. and the three-year Korean War had left the Americans with an unhappy stalemate. The U.S. had contemplated intervening at Dien Bien Phu to save the French, and was continuing to make threats to intervene after the French surrender. While the economic importance of Vietnam was not significant, it assumed a vital political importance that would underpin U.S. policy for the next twenty years. Dulles was committed to denying the Vietminh the full fruits of their victory. An unlikely ally, the Chinese, would help Dulles in this.

The Chinese policy at Geneva, formulated by Chou En-Lai, was motivated by a desire to avoid a further military conflict with the U.S. after having fought a very bloody war in Korea with them for three years. The irony of this situation is that the U.S. was in an extremely difficult position to intervene in Vietnam in the mid—1950s. It had just finished a very unpopular war in Korea, the French were on the run and the potential U.S. allies in Vietnam were weak and discredited by collaborating with the French and the Japanese. Nonetheless, the Chinese brought enormous pressure to bear on the Vietnamese to make major concessions.

The Geneva Accords signed by the Vietminh delegation and the French agreed to the following: Vietnam would be divided into two troop regroupment zones along the 17th parallel with a demilitarized zone separating them. The divide was stipulated as strictly temporary, pending elections in two years to decide who would run a unified Vietnam–while Laos and Cambodia would become independent countries. Though the U.S. never signed the accords, it said that it would abide by them. But it was only buying time. U. S. intelligence at the time admitted that in any freely held election Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh would win 80 percent of the vote. U.S. policy set out to stop the mandated elections and build an anti-communist state in South Vietnam.35

From nation-building to assassination

South Vietnam is today a quasi-police state characterized by arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, strict censorship of the press and the absence of an effective political opposition…

Foreign Affairs, January 195736

The U.S. set out to build an anti-communist state in South Vietnam in direct violation of the Geneva Accords, though at the time it was not clear at all whether it would succeed in its efforts. While the U.S. initially did succeed in creating a mini-state in South Vietnam, the regime it created proved so unpopular and unstable that only the direct intervention of American troops could keep it from collapsing.

For the French the settlement at Geneva was the road out of Indochina. They left behind a devastated country and corrupt allies grouped around Emperor Bao Dai and a colonial army officer corps. The U.S. quickly stepped into this situation and used the remnants of the French colonial state to begin building a new one. The U.S. got Emperor Bao Dai to appoint Ngo Dinh Diem as president of the new Republic of Vietnam. Diem was a Catholic mystic who had been living in the United States, and had cultivated powerful friends such as Cardinal Spellman and Senator John F. Kennedy.37

The nation that the U.S. built in South Vietnam during the 1950s was a brutal, corrupt dictatorship around the Diem family–very similar to the Duvaliers in Haiti, the Somoza family in Nicaragua and the Marcoses in the Philippines. Diem’s brother, Nhu, would become head of the secret police while his other brother was the Catholic Bishop of Hue. Though Diem was praised by many liberals in the U.S. as the best hope for freedom and democracy, he saw himself as a modern day emperor. In his own words, "A sacred respect is due to the person of the sovereign. He is the mediator between the people and heaven as he celebrates the national cult." During another interview he described himself as a "Spanish Catholic," at a time when Spanish Catholic was closely identified with Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship.37 He held a rigged referendum on his rule in 1955 after which he announced that he had won 98.2 percent of the vote.39

Diem’s immediate goal was getting control of his capital city. The CIA sent a team led by Colonel Edward Landsdale to help Diem launch a war for the control of Saigon, defeating a bizarre collection of gangsters and armed religious groups. Then Landsdale turned his attention to covert action in North Vietnam. He helped create the flight of nearly one million Catholic refugees to South Vietnam. Many of these refugees became the political base, along with landowners, former French collaborators and the local bourgeoisie, for Diem’s anti-communist government. Diem then unleashed a wave of terror against supporters of the Vietminh. Tens of thousands were jailed or killed, virtually wiping their presence out in many areas by the late 1950s. Diem’s government’s own figures–which most likely underestimated the numbers–reported that they had placed up to 20,000 Vietminh supporters in detention camps and had jailed 48,250 people between 1954 and 1960.40 In one district of 180,000 people, 7,000 were imprisoned and another 13,000 simply disappeared.41

Diem carried out a counterrevolution in the countryside by using the power of the state to return the rich landlords to power. A the same time U.S. military and economic aid poured into the country creating a garrison state and a new corrupt business class loyal to Diem. As opposition grew to Diem in the late 1950s, he increased the repression symbolized by Law 10/59 that allowed the Saigon government to jail any oppositionists under the allegation of "communist activity." By 1960, Diem’s regime was so corrupt, isolated and hated by the mass of the population that widespread opposition began to emerge. Former Vietminh cadre began to rebuild their decimated ranks in the countryside and resume the armed struggle. Opposition to Diem exploded on the street, led by Buddhist monks who had suffered at the hands of Diem’s strident Catholic regime.42

During the latter half of the 1950s, Ho Chi Minh and his Workers Party (the newly renamed Vietminh), spent the bulk of their time consolidating their regime in the northern half of the country. Their response to the atrocities committed by Diem and the open disregard for the Geneva Accords was to publicly commit themselves to their implementation. This, however, became increasingly impossible to do. Tens of thousands of Vietminh fighters, political organizers and their families, who went north after the accords were signed, as well as those who remained in the south, were a constant pressure on Ho’s regime to do something.

In 1959, Ho Chi Minh finally committed to liberate the south from Diem’s dictatorship and his U.S. master. In 1960, the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam was formed, an umbrella organization combining opponents of the Diem regime with the supporters of the Communist Party as the paramount political formation within it. It was committed to a program of democratic reform and eventual reunification of the country. This program was to be achieved by armed struggle in the countryside based on the support of the rural population. Very quickly the NLF (later derisively called the Viet Cong by U.S. forces) became a serious political force. In 1960, the NLF had 5,000 armed guerillas, which by the end of 1961 had grown to 15,000. The CIA reported that a year later, the NLF was in control of most of the South Vietnamese countryside.

John F. Kennedy, one of Diem’s earliest supporters, assumed the U.S. presidency in 1961, and realized quickly that Diem was facing disaster. Kennedy’s response was to increase the number of military and civilian advisors and pressure Diem to broaden the base of his government. Diem refused to share power and increased the repression inside the country.

The Kennedy administration turned South Vietnam into one gigantic laboratory for counterinsurgency techniques. These included a massive project to evaluate the effectiveness of herbicidal warfare. The slogan of Operation Ranch Hand, which began dropping defoliants from airplanes in 1962 and didn’t stop until eight years and 100 million pounds of herbicides later, was "Only we can prevent forests."43 The other main counterinsurgency project was the "strategic hamlet," a policy of using massive military incursions to clear the guerrillas from an area, round up the remaining population at gunpoint and herd them into guarded compounds. The aim was to drain the ocean (the people) of the fish (the guerrillas). But the March 1962 pilot project, "Operation Sunshine," resulted in the NLF taking over the areas where the population had been resettled.44

Diem’s government continued to spiral downward, its base of support becoming unsustainably thin. It was clear that Diem had to go or that the NLF would soon be in power. However, Diem was also becoming aware that the Americans wanted to get rid of him. In a final effort to save himself he had his brother Nhu approached the North Vietnamese about a political rapprochement. That was the last straw for the Kennedy administration. He ordered the CIA to overthrow Diem’s government. Diem was overthrown by his own military on November 2, 1963. Diem and his brother Nhu were assassinated. Two weeks later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. During Kennedy’s tenure in office the number of American military advisors grew from 800 to 16,700.45

Diem’s overthrow only deepened the political crisis in Saigon and set the stage for the U.S. invasion in 1965.

Coming next: Part II–From the U.S. invasion to the Fall of Saigon.


1 While this article concentrates on U.S. involvement in Vietnam it should be keep in mind that the U.S. carried out equally if not more devastating policies in Laos and Cambodia. For readings on the U.S. role in those countries see Alfred McCoy, Laos: War and Revolution, (New York: Harper and Row, 1970); William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia (new York: Simon and Shuster, 1979); and Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, The Political Economy of Human Rights, two volumes (Boston: South End Press, 1979).

2 Quoted in Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: The Viking Press, 1983), p. 97.

3 Quoted in Ngo Vinh Long, "Vietnam’s Revolutionary Tradition in Vietnam and America," in Vietnam and America: A Documented History, edited by Marvin Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young and H. Bruce Franklin (New York: Grove Press, 1995), pp. 5—8.

4 James William Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (Boston/New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986), p. 33.

5 Quoted in Karnow, p. 116.

6 Ngo, p. 9.

7 Karnow, pp. 117—118.

8 Ngo, p. 11.

9 Quoted in Karnow, p. 79.

10 Quoted in Karnow, p. 115.

11 Karnow, p. 115.

12 Quoted from Ho Chi Minh, "The Path Which Led Me to Leninism in Vietnam and America," in Gettleman et al., p. 22.

13 Gibson, p. 33.

14 Gibson, pp. 37—38. For a complete account of the nationalist response to French colonialism see David Marr’s Vietnamese Anti-colonialism 1885—1925 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971) and Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920—1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

15 Quoted in Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, p. 2.

16 Gibson, pp. 39—40.

17 Quote from "The Path Which led Me to Leninism in Vietnam and America," p. 22. For a complete account of Ho Chi Minh’s life, see the most modern biography William Duiker, Ho Chi Minh: A Life (New York: Hyperion, 2000).

18 Vladimir Lenin, "Preliminary Draft Thesis on the National and Colonial Question," available at

19 Lenin’s "Preliminary Draft Thesis" also emphasized in his thesis "the need for a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist coloring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends in the backward countries."

20 To understand the deterioration of the Communist International during this period see Duncan Hallas, Trotsky’s Marxism (London: Pluto Press, 1979) and The Comintern (London: Bookmarks, 1985).

21 Gibson, pp. 41—43, and Ngo, pp. 12—15. See also Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War (New York: The New Press, 1985), pp. 28—31.

22 Quote in Lloyd C. Gardner, Approaching Vietnam: From WWII through Dienbienphu (New York: W.W. Norton, 1988), p. 62.

23 For a more in-depth discussion of the clash between U.S. and Japanese imperialism, see Walter LaFeber, The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997). To understand the divisions and goals of the British and Americans during the war in the Pacific, see Christopher Thorne, Allies of a Kind: The United States, Britain and the War against Japan, 1941—1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).

24 Gibson, p. 42.

25 To understand the wartime policies of Stalin’s Russia and the Comintern, see Hallas, The Comintern, pp. 155—159.

26 Quote in Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), p. 9. For a complete account of the O.S.S.’s relationship with the Vietminh, see Archimedes Patti, Why Vietnam?: Prelude To America’s Albatross (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

27 Ngo, p. 17. For the complete text of Bao Dai’s abdication speech, see Vietnam and America, pp. 24—25.

28 Ho Chi Minh, "Vietnam Declaration of Independence," in Vietnam and America, pp. 26—28. For a complete overview of that momentous year in Vietnam’s history, see David Marr, Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

29 Quote from Karnow, p. 139.

30 George McTurnan Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press, 1987) pp. 15—19.

31 For further reading on the Vietnamese Trotskyists, see the chapter "Vietnamese Trotskyism,"_in Robert J. Alexander, International Trotskyism 1929-1985 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991). Also see Milton Sacks, "Marxism in Vietnam," in Frank N. Trager (Editor):_Marxism in Southeast Asia:_A Study of Four Countries (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959).

32 Quote from Karnow, p 153. It should also be kept in mind that Ho’s success in selling this strategy to his supporters was based on a real fear of Chinese domination. China occupied Vietnam for 1,000 years and Vietnamese nationalism has its origins in resisting this domination.

33 Young, pp. 20—6.

34 Karnow, p. 199.

35 Kahin, pp. 52—65.

36 Kahin, p. 97.

37 Karnow, p. 217.

38 Quote in Gibson, p. 172.

39 Gibson, p. 72.

40 Kahin, p. 96.

41 Young, pp. 44—46.

42 Kahin, pp. 97—98.

43 Young, p. 82.

44 Young, pp. 82—83.

45 Young, pp. 60—88; Kahin, pp. 122—181.

Back to top