Essay: A Historical Overview of Vietnam from WWII through the Vietnam War

From time to time, I like to post complete essays of mine which touch upon topics near and dear to my heart. If you know me, you won’t be surprised that this one is about Vietnam. I try to give a broad overview of the historical context which led to the Vietnam War of the 1960s. To do so, one has to start at the broader context of French Indochina and World War II. Then I try to analyze useful historical approaches to this topic. I’d appreciate your feedback.

The legacy of the Vietnam War continues to resonate loudly today especially in the shadows of the war in Iraq. The war of 1963-1975, which so vividly helped to define a generation, had its roots in the post World War II power vacuum caused by the defeat of the Japanese and the collapse of the French colonial infrastructure.  This enabled the United States to take a foothold in Indochina which would have broad consequences in the following decades.  In this short paper, I will give an overview of US involvement in Indochina during the two decades prior to the Vietnam War.  I will then discuss the type of historical theory or approach which may be most useful when researching this topic.

In the early months of 1945, the Allied forces saw the European Theatre coming to a close, but a peaceful ending to the war in the Pacific remained anything but certain.  The death of US president Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945 cast a cloud of doubt over the future status of the European colonial territories of Southeast Asia.   Roosevelt was a harsh critic of European colonialism and had no desire to see the French, in particular, reclaim Indochina after the war (Abouzahr 50). Even the communist led Vietnamese independence group, the Viet Minh, lamented Roosevelt’s death as a blow to the anti-colonial cause (“World News”).  Yet even with Roosevelt’s passing, America was determined to use all forces and tools at their disposal to fight against the Japanese who had imposed their suzerainty over most of the region.

After some initial contacts between the Viet Minh and the Allied forces in southern China, the US sent some officers from the newly formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh headquarters in Tan Trao one hundred miles north of Hanoi (Marr 286).  The OSS officers spent several weeks training Viet Minh forces (Marr 364).  Six days after the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, the Viet Minh received word of Japanese surrender and celebrated with the Americans remaining in camp (Marr 368).    A week later as Ho Chi Minh and his cadres trekked to Hanoi for the first time to fill the void in the political vacuum left because of the Japanese surrender, he was accompanied by some of those OSS officers who even dined with the enigmatic Vietnamese leader in Hanoi (Marr 488).  On September 2, 1945 as Ho Chi Minh delivered Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence, American officers stood with the swelling crowd which nearly seemed like an American endorsement of the ceremony (Marr 538).  However, relations between the Vietnamese and Americans would never seem so close again.  In fact, official US policy at the time was to ignore Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence in favor of supporting the French claim on Indochina (Latham 29).

At the closure of World War II, the Truman administration had very little regard for the small colonial countries of Southeast Asia and did not at all question France’s sovereignty over Indochina (Previdi 146).   Truman was completely in support of France’s desire to reclaim their Indochinese possessions, and he even had US war ships carry French troops back into southern Vietnam within weeks of Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence (Marr 545).

By the end of 1946, Ho Chi Minh realized that coming to peaceful terms with the French over the make-up of Vietnam was impossible, and on December 19, 1946 from a cave on the outskirts of Hanoi, he broadcast the call for a war of resistance against the French.  This war became known as the French-Indochina War.   The US strongly needed France’s support of the Marshall plan in Europe to rebuild the war torn countries and stop the tide of encroaching communism (Abouzahr 49).  While the Marshall plan did not directly support France’s war efforts in Indochina, the billions of dollars they did receive enabled them to free up resources that otherwise would not have been available in their war effort (Abouzahr 50).

The US, however, was not totally content with France’s aims in Indochina.  The US wanted the French to grant Vietnam enough autonomy that would shift public opinion away from Ho Chi Minh (Abouzahr 50).   Some US officials wanted France to be given an ultimatum to either grant Vietnam their sovereignty or risk losing US aid (Abouzahr 51).   The French countered with their ‘Bao Dai solution’ which granted Vietnam independence with former emperor Bao Dai as head of state.  However, in reality, France still called the shots and Bao Dai had little power in his own country (Abouzahr 52).  But this tactic did seem to set up a significant situation which would be played out over the next few years.  Bao Dai’s government was a legitimate alternative to Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam which still operated in exile from the hills of northern Vietnam.  These two governments were locked in a power play which would come to its head at the Geneva Conventions of 1954.  The ‘Bao Dai’ tactic also seemed to placate the Americans who, by the early nineteen fifties, were bankrolling nearly eighty percent of France’s war effort in Indochina (Umetsu 398).

By spring 1954, the long French-Indochina War continued to rage.  France’s will to fight was wavering as French public opinion soured toward the war (Umetsu 400).  The US wanted the French to continue fighting until a military solution was accomplished so that the states of Indochina could become independent and foment indigenous support against the communist cause (Umetsu 401).  As the western powers moved toward an international conference in Geneva to settle the issue of Indochina, Ho Chi Minh’s forces moved against the large French army which had dug itself into the remote valley of Dien Bien Phu in northwestern Vietnam.  Against overwhelming odds, Ho Chi Minh’s forces methodically dissected the valley bringing complete French surrender on May 7, the day before the opening of the Indochina phase of the Geneva Convention (Umetsu 411).  The Vietnamese had their signature victory and the communist forces could no longer be brushed aside.  The Vietnamese came to the bargaining table from a position of strength which eventually shifted US policy and led to the division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel.  The north would be controlled by Ho Chi Minh’s communist government and the south by the French supported and soon to be American backed Republic of Vietnam led by Ngo Dinh Diem.  Elections to re-unify the country were scheduled to take place in 1956.

The reunification elections never took place.  The US believed that the popular anti-colonial figure Ho Chi Minh would easily win the election (Latham 29).  The US decided to invest heavily in ‘nation-building’ in South Vietnam in order to build a strong economy and a legitimate government (Latham 29).  The US spent $1.65 billion dollars in South Vietnam between 1955-1961 yet did little except alienate the South Vietnamese public (Latham 29).  In the north, Ho Chi Minh’s government used land reform as a means of collectivizing the land which resulted in an unpopular land policy which bullied former landowners and allowed no resistance to their policy (Duncansan 51).  However, South Vietnam’s land policy was little better if not worse.   The Saigon government did little to rectify large discrepancies in wealth by allowing families to own up to 100 hectares which was nearly 30 times the maximum allowed under other US-advised land reform programs in Asia (Latham 29).  This meant that poor families with no land remained at the whim of the land owners who often rented land at exorbitant rates.  This is perhaps one reason that the Vietnam communist’s infiltration into the south was so successful later on because peasants had nothing to lose and possibly a lot to gain by supporting the communist cause.

To further exacerbate the widening gap between US policy and the average peasants, the US backed South Vietnamese government set up the Strategic Hamlet Program by relocating peasants in places which Diem called ‘prosperity and density centers’ (Latham 34).  It was really a disastrous move in social engineering.   Many peasants were forced to leave their homes often at gunpoint (Latham 35).  As I have spent many years in Vietnam, I understand clearly the Vietnamaese concept of “que” or “homeland”.  It is the sacred place of their ancestors which gives them their connection to the past.  There is little else which could incite such anger and hatred in a Vietnamese heart than to drive them forcefully from their home.  US planners thought that these strategic villages, complete with a security force and government provided provisions, would help replace traditional family loyalties with loyalties to the state (Latham 34-35).   This was clearly a grave miscalculation. The US nation building plan was a disaster which led a repressive environment (Latham 36).    By 1963, Diem’s government was such a failure that the US supported a coup d’état to overthrow Diem weeks before John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 (Karnow 293-294).   Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson believed that Vietnam’s social engineering would not be possible without US troops on the ground (Latham 37).  Thus, without a complete change in US policy, war with the north seemed inevitable.

I would now like to look briefly at the historical methodology used in some of the literature on this topic.  The first temptation a historian would have when analyzing this era would most likely be to give it a political treatment.  The massive volume of larger than life figures from FDR to Johnson, from Truman to JFK, from Ho Chi Minh to Ngo Dinh Diem, from Charles DeGualle to Vo Nguyen Giap, give the researcher quite a range of characters in which to build a fascinating narrative.  David Marr did it brilliantly in Vietnam 1945 when he captured the post World War II struggles of the fledgling nation of Vietnam (Marr). Stanley Karnow also gave this era a thorough political overview in Vietnam: A History as he weaved stories of US & French policy against the backdrop of the Vietnamese struggle for independence (Karnow).   William Duiker defied some of the conventional wisdom of historical study by putting together the most exhaustive, and authoritative biography of Ho Chi Minh.  Ho Chi Minh is such a striking and overwhelming figure that the biography works on many levels.  His life touched upon so many facets of the entire Indochinese story from the USA to France, from the Soviet Union to China and Vietnam that this biography is thorough and important in scope (Duiker).

Besides the tendency to focus on political history, Marxist theory would be especially helpful when looking at divided Vietnam after the 1954 convention.  Northern Vietnam collectivized society in such a way that it ripped the social fabric in two.  Dennis Duncanson describes this vividly in the article “The Legacy of Ho Chi Minh” in which he describes the gap of economic ideas which Marx and Lenin left to Stalin to define.  Stalin’s ideas eventually led its way to China’s Mao and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh (50).  This economic restructuring affected every facet of Vietnamese life from the 1950s to the 1990s.  It is in this breadth of scope that Marxist theory would be successful in dissecting the communist state apparatus which controlled Vietnam.  Latham does a similar thing defining the societal changes that took place in the south in “Redirecting the Revolution?” He looks at how US policy was implemented on the local level, disrupting the lives of peasants and sending them into the arms of the communists (Latham). On this micro-level, Marxist theory would be helpful in understanding the totality of Vietnamese societal change.

One temptation that I have when looking at this topic is to read into the scenarios and play the ‘what if’ game.  What if FDR didn’t die?  What if Truman decided not to back the French and supported Vietnamese independence in 1945?  What if the French chose a Buddhist instead of Catholic to lead the south?  What if elections in 1956 were allowed to go forward?  There are so many seemingly connected parts to the puzzle that it makes one wonder how the Vietnam War ever really did come about.  As tempting as this game may be, it is most likely not useful to try to find an overriding theme or purpose by trying to directly connect the dots between 1945 Indochina and 1963 South Vietnam.  As Abouzahr reminds us, “Given the complexity of the issue such as the Indochinese Wars, it seems unlikely that a clear pattern of cause and effect can exist” (49).  This is perhaps the clear reminder to all to approach Vietnam with a heavy dose of historicism.  We must describe as accurately as possible what led to the Vietnam War, but we must be careful not to make too much out of the missed chances of diplomacy.

Works Cited

 Abouzahr, Sami. “The Tangled Web.” History Today 54.10 (Oct. 2004): 49-55.

Duiker, William J.  Ho Chi Minh: A Life.  New York: Hyperion, 2001.

Duncanson, Dennis. “The Legacy of Ho Chi Minh.” Asian Affairs 23.1 (Feb 1992): 49-65.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.

Latham, Michael E. “Redirecting the Revolution? The USA and the Failure of nation-

building in South Vietnam.”  Third World Quarterly 27.1 (Feb 2006): 27-41.

Marr, David G. Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power.  University of California Press.

Berkeley: 1995.

Previdi, Robert. “Vietnam 1945 to 1975: Communism on Display.” Parameters: US Army

War College 33.3 (Sep. 2003): 146.

Umetsu, Hiroyuki. “Australia’s Response to the Indochina Crisis of 1954 amidst the Anglo-

American Confrontation.” Australian Journal of Politics & History 52.3 (Sep. 2006): 398-416.

“World News.” Bao Chi Viet Nam Doc Lap 14 April 1945.

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