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empire defeated - vietnam war, lessons for today by Peter Taaffe

2. From Dien Bien Phu to Gulf of Tonkin

The US used the breathing space of the Geneva Accords to build up an alternative puppet regime in the south. The purpose was to prevent any possibility of the ‘communists’ coming to power through elections or by any other means.

Initially the US based itself upon Ngo Dinh-Diem, an unfortunate choice because he was a ‘devout Catholic’ in a country where 95 per cent of the population were Buddhists. The US advanced the slogan “Sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem”.1 The US ultimately sank by backing Diem and subsequent South Vietnamese gangster landlord-capitalist regimes. In a three-month transition period the populations of the North and South were allowed to freely migrate. The CIA, under the slogan “God has gone South”, whipped up the sizeable Catholic population of the north with tales of their eventual slaughter by Ho Chi Minh! Within a few weeks of the Geneva Accords, 850,000 people migrated south, most of them Catholics and some of them small landholders. In the opposite direction went an estimated 80,000 guerrilla cadres who had resisted the French. The 10,000 or so guerrillas who were left in the South lived in the jungle in violation of the Geneva peace deal.

The US now quickly directed aid which had previously gone to the French to the Saigon government. The approach of the US was criticised by one of its own diplomats, Kenneth Galbraith: “It was, in my view, simplistic.”2 The million or so Catholics who had emigrated from the North became a prop for the Diem regime. They had been successfully resettled but at the same time Diem, in the redistribution of the land, begun in mid-1956, carried it out in a corrupt fashion, with a system of nepotism and corruption. The land often went to the highest bidder, rather than those who needed it, that is the landless labourers.

The huge network of government controls pushed village taxes as high as 60 per cent. Complaints were then heard from the agricultural population that they were paying more for the same land than they had under the French. Diem responded to the protests of the villagers by abolishing traditional elections of village chiefs and replacing them with Saigon appointees. This is something that not even the French colonial administration had done. On the economic and social field, Fall pointed out:

“There is perhaps no more damning statistic… than that on building construction in South Vietnam, put out by the American aid mission in Saigon: Between 1957 and 1960, South Vietnam built 47,000 square metres of cinemas and dance halls and 6,500 square metres of hospitals; 3,500 square metres of rice mills and 56,000 square metres of churches or pagodas; 86,000 square metres of schools but 425,000 square metres of high-rent villas and apartment buildings. That is the sort of thing – far more than weapons and infiltrators from across the 17th parallel – that makes Communist guerrillas out of peaceable peasants.” 3

Moreover, the land problem remained insoluble so long as the landlord-capitalist regime was propped up by US bayonets. The Pentagon Papers revealed that,

“Studies of peasant attitudes conducted in recent years have demonstrated that for many, the struggle which began in 1945 against colonialism continued uninterrupted throughout Diem’s regime: in 1954 the foes of nationalists were transformed from France and Bao Dai, to Diem and the US… but the issues at stake never changed.” 4

At the same time a systematic purging of the opposition – carried out by the Can Lao secret police under Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu – of alleged supporters of the Viet Minh resulted in an estimated 75,000 people being killed and more than 50,000 imprisoned. This was the ‘democratic’ regime that the US was defending internationally.

The Pentagon Papers confirm:

“Not only did the Ngo Dinh regime make no attempt to eradicate social injustices, it prevented its citizens from attempting to redress these wrongs in the political arena. The government tolerated no opposition of any kind and political life was at a virtual standstill. Prisons overflowed with political prisoners. ‘In brief, Diem’s policies virtually assured that political challenges to him would have to be extra-legal.’[Pentagon Papers, vol I, p257]” 5

The Papers also show that,

“Security was the focus of US aid; more than 75% of the economic aid the US provided [up to 1967] went into the GVN [Government of Vietnam – Saigon] military budget; thus at least $8 out of every $10 of aid went directly towards security.”

Other so-called economic or social expenditure was geared towards the military situation:

“For example, a 20-mile stretch of highway from Saigon to Bien Hoa, built at General Williams’ instance for specifically military purposes, received more US economic aid than all funds provided for labour, community development, social welfare, health, and education in the years 1954-1961.” 6

US drawn in

US representatives, in order to try and secure a popular base for the increasingly unpopular Diem regime, even cultivated the leaders of religious sects. One of these, the Cao Dai sect, worshipped the statues of Shakespeare and Victor Hugo, while another was comprised of a huge private force with a fleet of river boats, controlling Saigon’s commerce, gambling, opium dens and lavish brothels. After a Diem decree outlawing prostitution, the leader of these ‘pirates’ mortared Diem’s palace!

The Diem regime would not have lasted a week without the prop of the US and certainly had no real basis amongst the population, resting ultimately on the landlords and their relatives in the army. Increased state oppression, including the assassination of ‘communists’ and the increased alienation of the peasantry, comprising 85 per cent of the population, followed. It was only natural that the South Vietnamese ‘communists’ who had been left behind clamoured for the northern leadership of their party to give the signal to recommence the struggle in the South. At the beginning, Ho Chi Minh and the northern leadership resisted these calls, partly because of the war weariness in the North arising from the struggle against the French, as well as the pressure from the world ‘communist’ movement. The Russian Stalinists, towards whom the North Vietnamese looked, were opposed to anything which would disturb their attempt to arrive at an agreement for peaceful co-existence with world imperialism. Even while they were backing the Viet Minh in the war against the French, they never recognised them as the legitimate representatives of the Vietnamese people until 1950, five years after Ho Chi Minh had proclaimed the independence of Vietnam. However, the situation in the South compelled the northern leadership not just to ratify a new struggle but also to sanction the return of southern-born Viet Minh veterans.

US financial assistance to the Diem regime was considerable, even at this stage, but the level of direct military support was still very small, 685 US personnel. However, US imperialism was terrified at the consequences of the South being lost after the fall of the North. Republican Party President Eisenhower pressed his views on the new incoming Democratic President John Kennedy. According to Clark Clifford, who would later become Secretary for Defense, in 1961 on the eve of Kennedy’s inauguration, Eisenhower made clear the importance of maintaining a US presence in Southeast Asia to Kennedy:

“The first item on Eisenhower’s agenda was Southeast Asia. He attached unusual and unique importance to it. He said he had placed it first on the agenda because it offered the greatest danger to peace in the world. He ended his briefing on Southeast Asia by saying he felt the matter was so important that first we should call upon our ten member nations of SEATO [South-East Asia Treaty Organisation]. He said at the very end – and this is almost a quote – ‘If we cannot get our allies to help us then we must do it unilaterally.’” 7

Shades of the Bush doctrine 40 years later in relation to Iraq and the neo-colonial world as a whole! Clifford goes on:

“He had in mind that if we let South Vietnam fall, the next domino Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and on down into the sub-continent would go, the Philippines would go and possibly even Australia and New Zealand. That had an enormous impact on the thinking of President-Elect Kennedy.” 8

From the other side, however, de Gaulle, the president of France, starkly warned Kennedy:

“The ideology that you will invoke will not change anything… You Americans wanted, yesterday, to take our place in Indochina, you want to assume a succession to rekindle a war that we ended. I predict to you that you will, step by step, be sucked into a bottomless political and military quagmire.” 9

Kennedy and Vietnam

Events were to drive home the warnings of de Gaulle, not initially in Vietnam but in the crisis provoked by the CIA-inspired failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. After this Kennedy said:

“The Bay of Pigs taught me a number of things. One is not to trust generals or the CIA, and the second is that if the American people do not want to use American troops to remove a Communist regime 90 miles away from our coast, how can I ask them to use troops to remove a Communist regime 9,000 miles away?” 10

All the evidence shows that Kennedy himself was undecided, torn by contrasting pressures. He was no simpering liberal, as is sometimes pictured, implacably wedded to American ‘democracy’, his government a kind of lost American Camelot. He was a hard-headed representative of the US ruling class, albeit more intelligent than those presidents who followed him. Like every capitalist politician, he was not averse to using ‘illiberal’ methods such as lies and duplicity on a grand scale. The same goes for his entourage, such as his brother Robert. He was involved in the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s against radicals and labour movement figures. Daniel Ellsberg, then working for the Rand Corporation, witnessed the methods of President Kennedy. He

“was put to work on command and control problems in fighting a nuclear war. Disillusionment set in at once. In the autumn of 1961, shortly after Kennedy had effectively exploited the so-called missile gap for his own electoral purposes, Ellsberg read a highly classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the subject and discovered that it had all been a lie: there was a gap but it was ten to one in favour of the US. This, he said, had a ‘shocking effect on my professional worldview’.” 11

Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the first tentative US intervention took place under Kennedy. Retired General Maxwell Taylor recommended to Kennedy the introduction of “combat troops” under the cover of providing “flood relief”. He wrote:

“We should put in a task force consisting largely of logistical troops for the purpose of participating in flood relief and at the same time providing a United States military presence in Vietnam… To relate the introduction of these troops to the needs of flood relief… gives a specific humanitarian task as the prime reason for the coming of our troops… As the task is a specific one, we can extricate our troops when it is done if we so desire. Alternately, we can phase them into other activities if we wish to remain longer. The strength of the force I have in mind is six to eight thousand troops… In addition to the logistical component it will be necessary to include some combat troops… Any troops coming to Vietnam may expect to take casualties.” He later cabled Washington: “The introduction of a United States military Task Force without delay offers definitely more advantages than it creates risks and difficulties. In fact, I do not believe that our program to save South Vietnam will succeed without it.” 12

Kennedy feared that the Eisenhower doctrine of the ‘dominoes’ would be realised under him but he also had an equal, if not greater, fear of being drawn into de Gaulle’s ‘quagmire’. According to his closest collaborators, such as Assistant Secretary of State Hilsman, Kennedy had informed him, that “the time had come for us to seriously consider withdrawing. In my office as Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs, we had begun actively to seek ways to withdraw. We began to look for a neutralist leader in Vietnam as we had in [Premier] Souvanna Phouma in Laos, around whom we could build a Geneva Accord neutralising the country.” 13 The same source, Hilsman, states: “Here you had a country that’s 95 per cent Buddhist led by French-speaking Vietnamese who were beating up pagodas, killing nuns, killing priests. I would say certainly at the beginning of the Buddhist crisis he [Kennedy] was already discouraged; by the middle of it I think he was totally discouraged.” 14

The self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Saigon further undermined the Diem regime in the eyes of the US administration. Diem became more and more unpopular and, moreover, was not under the full control of the Vietnamese capitalists, landlords or the US. He was therefore assassinated in a coup prepared by the US ambassador to Saigon, Cabot Lodge – Diem was ‘dis-Lodged’! But the coup was also ratified by Kennedy himself. Only one of the main South Vietnamese generals demurred and was executed. Gore Vidal, in his memoirs, writes that he himself witnessed the role of Cabot Lodge in a similarly ruthless coup, leading to the overthrow of the Guatemalan President Guzman Arbenz in 1954. He comments on a discussion with a Guatemalan intellectual, who warned that the US government was preparing to overthrow the democratically elected Guatemalan government. Vidal writes:

“I was astonished. I had known vaguely about our numerous past interventions in Central America. But that was past. Why should we bother now? We control most of the world. ‘Why should we care what happens in a small country like this?’ Mario [The Guatemalan] gave me a compassionate look – compassion for my stupidity. ‘Businessmen. Like the owners of United Fruit. They care. They used to pay for our politicians. They still pay for yours. Why, one of your big senators is on the board of el pulpo’ [the octopus – the United Fruit Company]. I knew something about senators. Which one? Mario was vague. ‘He has three names like us. He’s from Boston I think…’ ‘Henry Cabot Lodge? I don’t believe it.’ Lodge was a family friend; as a boy I had discussed poetry with him; in fact he was a poet’s son. Years later, as Kennedy’s ambassador to Vietnam, Lodge would preside over the murder of the Diem brothers.”15

Unstable regimes

The junta which replaced Diem lasted for only three months. In the next 20 months, there were ten changes of government with generals rapidly deposing each other. Soon after Diem’s assassination, Kennedy himself met the same fate in Dallas, Texas, and was replaced by Vice-President Lyndon Johnson. A brief struggle took place between Kennedy’s advisers, offering opposite interpretations of the late president’s intentions towards Vietnam. Some said that he was prepared from 3 December 1963 to begin the withdrawal of American troops. But it was Defense Secretary McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk who won out, convincing Johnson not only to remain in Vietnam but to step up US involvement.

Two days after Kennedy’s assassination, Lodge told Johnson: “‘The picture is bad… If Vietnam is to be saved, you, Mr President, are going to do it.’ Johnson responded instantly: ‘I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.’”16 Johnson claimed, to his biographer Doris Kearns, after he had left office, that he

“knew that if we let Communist aggression succeed in taking over South Vietnam, there would follow in this country an endless national debate – a mean and destructive debate – that would shatter my presidency, kill my administration, and damage our democracy. I knew that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness from the day the Communists took over China.” He further stated that if he had lost Vietnam, people would say, “that I was a coward. An unmanly man. A man without spine.”

As Davidson put it: “Vietnam had become a test of his very manhood.”17 Later, however, as the US was sucked more and more into the bloody trap of the war, Johnson confessed to British Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart: “I believe I have the will to do what’s right. My problem is to know what’s right.” 18

Without an enhanced military and political presence, South Vietnam would have collapsed then. The conspiring groups of generals who replaced one another had no real electoral or social roots in a society which was more and more against them. Johnson was forced to deal with a new Saigon government, installed on average every two months for the next two years. The regime led by the gangster Nguyen Khanh, who urged the US to support an invasion of North Vietnam, was overthrown in another US-led coup which installed Thieu in power. Khanh’s crime was to flirt with the idea, after invasion was ruled out, of a ‘neutralist’ Vietnam, with the hint of an agreement between the South and the North, and with the US out of the country. The narrower the base of the South Vietnam regimes, the more US imperialism was drawn in.