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United States – Viet Nam

The American approach to the Vietnam crisis employed a complex mixture of risky, unclear proposals and concrete policy decisions. Taken together, these divulged that the Government, while cognizant of the long-range threat posed by Communism in Southeast Asia, treaded a far less certain path when dealing with the war crisis itself and with those allies whose acquiescence was requisite to action. At bottom, the chief stumbling block of both proposals and policy lay in an underestimation of the fundamental political problems posed by the Indochina war (Hammer, 1954).

The American military and diplomatic proposals did constitute policy in the sense that they must certainly have been advanced by the Secretary of State or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with the full knowledge of the President on the understanding, moreover, that fulfillment of definite preconditions would result in favorable Presidential action (Buttinger, 1958). It is difficult to believe that approaches to allies and Congressmen were made without explicit Presidential authority.

And in view of the formidable, at times dominant, place of Dulles in the formulation of American foreign policy, together with Eisenhower’s great confidence in his Secretary, it seems quite likely that a recommendation from Dulles for intervention would have obtained the President’s approval provided Dulles could acquire the support of key allies (Donovan, 1956). Dulles was given considerable leeway toward seeking to sway allies and Congressmen; but the President, by his insistence on at least allied sanction of American participation, never had to make a policy decision on the proposals.

In this light, the American plans were not Administration policy but overtures, since they were ultimately subject to Presidential veto. The breaking point of the United States reaction to the crisis was our consideration that French choice of primarily military over political means was logically justifiable, diplomatically unappeasable, and therefore worthy of material support. It was a consideration which deepened the United States involvement and eventually left them without allied backing. The Proposals: The trouble of, and American armed forces plans for, interference would not have arisen had French optimism been well grounded.

Early suppositions of the no-necessity of direct American engrossment in Indochina were joined inextricably to a strong belief that the French eventually would overwhelm the Vietminh (Tanham, 1961). Washington deemed economic and military assistance adequate to insure victory. But the hoped-for series of battlefield triumph and victory by 1955 never came about. Consistently favorable reports made by American as well as French observers and visitors at the front obscured the ever increasing threat posed by the Vietminh.

Until late March 1954 the White House held to the belief that the French could succeed in Indochina so long as the Chinese were kept out, a confidence that had long been part of the underlying principle behind warnings to Peking, dramatizations of Indochina’s security value to the West, and conditioning of direct American involvement on overt Chinese intervention. The initial willingness to “let things ride” in Indochina seems explainable as a product of imprecise coverage from the front lines, and over optimism in certain divisions of the American decision-making apparatus.

Put another way, intervention did not become a problem for Washington until so late because of the existence of a very real intelligence gap, the product of a “French” policy toward Indochina. (Hammer, 1954) The foundations of over optimism lay in the association between Saigon’s intelligence network and Washington’s policy. In Saigon, assessments of the military situation were based mainly on French intelligence sources. The reason for these occurrences has already been intimated.

The leading American representatives in Indochina, Ambassador Heath and Generals Trapnell and O’Daniel, were following a policy formulated in Washington, and that policy, beginning in 1950, called for only the most discreet involvement in French activities (Dan. 1954) The policy required that the French receive complete American cooperation; any attempt at going over the heads of French authorities, as by establishing a totally autonomous intelligence or evaluation network in Indochina, might be construed as intervention and decisively undercut Franco-American relations.

It also appears that the intelligence problem in Saigon was complicated by a lack of full cooperation between the Embassy and O’Daniel’s MAAG. (Buttinger, 1958) The picture of inadequate American intelligence from the front, an Indochina policy compromised by consideration of an ally, and differences within our own politico-military team helps to give details why it was possible for eminent Administration officers to continue to predict victory under the Navarre Plan until the latter days of March 1954.

The same factors would also account for the stark contrasts between the troubled findings of survey teams of congressmen, who were independent observers, and the glowing reports of Stassen, Trapnell, and O’Daniel, who were influenced by loyalty to Administration policies (Dan. 1954). The Navarre Plan did not fail simply because of “the declining will of the French people and the French Parliament to see the struggle continued… ,” (Secretary Dulles, 1954).

Every indication is that the plan’s collapse, notably over the decision to stand at Dienbienphu, rested equally on fundamental military and political flaws discounted by the confident French and accepted by an inadequately informed and overly cooperative American advisory mission. Subsequently, the bases for American adoption of a “pro-French” policy shall be examined; for now, it is necessary to evaluate the American reaction to the discovery that the Navarre Plan had failed. In 1954, the Vietnam War equaled the outline the Eisenhower management had been arranged to deal with (Adams, 1961).

The battle which was being fought was not a war the French could succeed, even with immense American support; neither was it a war which could be categorized as a main belligerence insisting on enormous revenge (Buttinger, 1958). As a result, the attempt to frustrate the Vietminh offensive went awry. Washington claimed British recalcitrance and French dalliance; Paris, which had invited VULTURE but rejected united action, finally joined the Americans in pinning the blame on Britain; and London alluded to American acceptance of the consequences of a widened war.

It now rests to examine the American proposals in the light of these accusations. (Tanham, 1961) The sudden offer of American planes and flyers to Ely on March 25, the first united action formula presented to London and Paris in the wake of decisions reached by Congressmen April 3 and by the White House April 4, and the final plan hastily coordinated three days prior to the first Geneva session all contained a common intangible thread: They betrayed Washington’s conviction that an exclusive reliance on military means would somehow eradicate the Vietminh threat.

From the British standpoint, the American plans with respect to VULTURE were ultimately infeasible. Dulles and Radford were originally convinced that a single air strike could, as Bidault believed to the end, knock out the main cog of the VPA and virtually end the fighting in France’s favor. Put another way, it was felt initially that air power would shift the balance of power on the ground even though, in a guerrilla war that balance was born of political rather than military advantages. As the British pointed out consistently, the American plans made no immediate provision for removing the basis of Vietminh strength popular support.

Nor did the plans take account of the need to eliminate the Vietminh supply lines, which would have involved the fruitless task of flying sorties against coolie lines, underground fortresses, and trench communications networks. (Robert Guillain 1954) Another drawback to VULTURE centered about Radford’s intention to relieve Dienbienphu with air power while not annihilating the defenders of the fortress. As we have seen Dulles was not at all certain by late April whether the maneuver could be executed; yet his doubts did not prevent him from proposing the raid to Eden.

It was left to Eisenhower to nullify VULTURE since allied sanction of VULTURE meant war, the British, aware of the operation’s grave deficiencies, feared that the war would necessarily spread into CPR territory when local attacks proved indecisive (Donovan, 1956). As we shall explain subsequently, Radford was probably correct to have depreciated the probability of Chinese intervention under air attack confined to Dienbienphu; but his accuracy was highly questionable on the effectiveness of VULTURE itself.

For at the heart of British cynicism over VULTURE was the conviction that, far from turning the tide in Vietnam, the operation would inevitably create the need for ground forces (principally American) and a repetition of the Korean conflict. (Chi, 1964) Aside from over optimism and the basic military drawbacks of American planning, the manner in which the Administration conducted diplomacy during the hectic months prior to the fall of Dienbienphu also revealed a lack of circumspection.

Statements of American officials during mid-1953 hinted at our hope for the future deterrence of Communist aggression in Asia through some form of collective defense (Truong, 1963). Yet the Administration, from the available evidence, did not follow up on this until the conclusion of the Berlin Conference in mid-February 1954, when Dulles recognized the depths of the Vietminh threat to Dienbienphu. (Tanham, 1961) The switch from thinking about an informal defense mechanism for Southeast Asia to belatedly pushing for its implementation, represented by Dulles’ Overseas Press Club speech on March 29, was ill-timed.

Although regarded from allied capitals as a proposal worthy of future study, united action nevertheless revealed that the Administration had miscalculated the impact upon our allies of the decision to convene an international conference at Geneva. Made without thorough soundings in either Paris or London, united action implicitly assumed that both allies would fall in line behind a united front against Peking. But to the French, action in unity not only with Washington but a host of other nations aroused the old fear that singular control of Indochina would gradually be eroded by a coalition.

Related to that belief was the French attitude toward negotiations. Laniel’s allusions between November 1953 and April 1954 to an honorable peace were tacit admissions that the eight-year struggle in Indochina would have to result in much less than total French victory (Dan. 1954). Ever mindful that full-scale American entry into the fighting would considerably reduce France’s opportunity to salvage economic, political, and cultural influence in the region.

The Administration grossly underestimated the power and purpose of the “peace faction” in Paris. The highest circles of French officialdom were firmly behind talking peace at the first reasonable opportunity; any united action courted war with China at worst and the collapse of hopes for an Indochina settlement at best. Thus, the possibility in late 1953 that different war aims might lead to different tactical thinking and different views on the timing of negotiations became a reality in the spring of 1954. (Buttinger, 1958)

To the British, Dulles’ request for united action appeared as an attempt to dictate policy. In London as in Paris, the Administration had incorrectly gauged official opinion; far from leaning toward action in Indochina, the British, well in advance of Dulles’ trip of April 11, were committed to giving the Chinese a hearing at Geneva. Aside from a constant, stubborn determination not to get involved in Asia again, the British were terribly disturbed by the lack of clear American military aims under united action.

Until April 7, when Dulles publicly discarded thoughts of an air-naval attack upon the CPR if a joint warning were disregarded, the United States had evinced a readiness to engage in full-scale war with Peking (Tanham, 1961). Thereafter, perhaps to meet British objections, Dulles proposed an ad hoc defense body which would, he believed, be sufficient to deter Chinese aid. Despite the shift, the British were certain that the coalition would be ignored by the CPR and the West’s bluff called. On at least one point London considered a warning and a coalition synonymous; both entailed the risk of internationalizing the war with Geneva days away.

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