Did Truman Start the Vietnam War?

The headline is purposefully provocative. How could Truman, who came on the scene after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, have started the Vietnam War of two decades later? He didn’t, of course, but the case could be made, and was made in my thesis, that Truman instituted a policy shift towards Indochina which set the groundwork for what was to come. Here’s a snippet of my introduction on the topic.

Harry S. Truman, Vice-President and former Senator from Missouri, assumed the office of the Presidency on April 12, 1945 after the death of the longest serving U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Truman immediately found himself in charge of a nation embroiled in the most all-encompassing war in human history. Unprecedented in scope and in challenge, President Truman faced the ravages of war waning in Europe but with the likelihood of a long and costly affair in the Pacific Theater against Japan. The Truman administration was charged with the task of managing war reparations, checking Communist advances, attacking an entrenched Japanese army, and balancing fragile relations with Britain and France. This would have been enough of a challenge for a seasoned leader like Roosevelt, but for the inexperienced Truman, it was truly daunting.

Truman had served as Vice President for only a matter of weeks before Roosevelt’s death. His senatorial background gave him limited experience in the realm of foreign affairs, and Roosevelt did not include the new V.P. in important matters of state during the nascent hours of FDR’s fourth term.  In fact, Truman had been excluded from most executive branch conferences on foreign policy, leaving him to gleam his knowledge of world events mostly from reading newspapers and listening to Capitol Hill chatter (Donovan xiv).  When he became president, Truman did not know about the Manhattan Project (Bradley 103), and had not been informed of what Roosevelt had said at the meetings in Tehran and Yalta earlier in the year (Donovan 10).  He entered the Presidency as a neophyte in foreign policy with no experience in the art of negotiating (Donovan 10), and he brought with him a new Secretary of State, James Byrnes, who also had little foreign policy training (Donovan 17).  This lack of experience, coupled with Roosevelt’s confusing and often contradictory foreign policy, presented Truman with great challenges as his administration tried to bring closure to two wars while balancing world peace.

Not surprisingly, Truman said very little publicly about foreign policy over the first few months of his presidency, but a closer look at the actions of the executive branch in the early days of his administration reveals a clear shift in foreign policy which favored an understandably strong commitment toward France and Britain as tensions heightened with the Soviets over the make-up of post-war Europe (Lucas 13).  In July 1945, the discord over Poland unraveled the trust between the two war-time allies and put Warsaw firmly under control of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (Donovan 57). This undoubtedly gave Britain, France, and the U.S. a great deal of apprehension concerning the Soviet Union’s long-term plans. The U.S. viewed the Soviets in purely ideological terms, thinking that worldwide Communism was the goal (Lucas 13). By the end of 1945, most American policy experts viewed Soviet aggression as the greatest threat to world security, and they saw the Soviets emerging as the dominant power in Asia (Buhite and Hamel 370). Because of this, Truman’s focus on repairing European alliances in the summer of 1945 made a lot of sense; however, this European-focused foreign policy shift would have grave consequences for the peoples of Indochina.

Viet Minh and USA Relations in 1945

Part of my Master’s Thesis that I wrote a couple years back dealt with the Viet Minh, the Vietnamese nationalistic rebels who warred with the Japanese and French during and after WWII. The Americans had some very interesting interactions with them in the summer of 1945. Some have called these interactions nothing less than a missed opportunity which may have drastically altered the future geo-political alignments in southeast Asia. No matter what may have changed, the Viet Minh-USA relations in 1945 are fascinating – so fascinating, in fact, that I based a good portion of my third novel on a Viet-Minh-American connection. So in this post, I just want to highlight a paragraph from my thesis which outlines the politics of the region in the summer of 1945. I’m sure I’ll connect it to my novel at a different time.

 

After the initial contacts between the Viet Minh and the Allied forces in southern China, the U.S. sent some OSS officers to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh headquarters in Tan Trao, one hundred miles north of Hanoi (Marr, “Vietnam” 286). The OSS officers spent several weeks training Viet Minh forces (Marr, “Vietnam” 364), which the Americans believed could be used to help fight the Japanese. The views of certain officers who came into contact with Ho during that time bolstered the claim that the Americans, perhaps in hindsight, had missed an opportunity by sidelining the Viet Minh’s nationalistic movement in favor of French restoration. OSS lieutenant Dan Phelan, who began his mission to Vietnam leery of the possible communist connections of the Viet Minh, soon raved about the Viet Minh, stating that they were “patriots deserving full trust and support” (qtd. in Marr, “Vietnam” 289). Other military personnel with boots on the ground in Indochina expressed the opinion that Ho could be trusted as a democrat at heart who cared about American ideals (Bradley 136-139). But the fractured nature of affairs in Washington had already delineated military operations with political realities as OSS assessments of the developments of Indochina had no bearing on policy toward the French. The OSS troops in Vietnam that summer were not privy to the fact that the non-French trusteeship model for Indochina was sidelined and that the administration had shifted its goals to the assumption that the French would once again rule Indochina (Marr, “Vietnam” 291). However, from a military standpoint, Washington did not want to limit the use of any groups, including the Viet Minh, to further military objectives (Marr, “Vietnam” 291). As the summer plodded on, the Americans helped train the Vietnamese, who were preparing for the end of the war to declare their independence, and hoped that this eventual announcement would be backed by the U.S. These naive hopes were later crushed by the Truman administration’s continued support of France’s control in Indochina.

Ho Chi Minh & Truman: Part II

Part II of my post from yesterday: http://wp.me/p25YFc-C8  – The second part of this post even talks about Tan Trao, the mountainous headquarters of the Viet Minh which is home to the glorious banyan tree which inspired my third novel, soon to be released.

Ho took up the mantle of fighting for Indochinese independence by supporting the Allied cause against the Japanese, much like the CCP did in China. By the summer of 1945, Ho’s independence movement found itself in a favorable position with the French reeling from the Japanese takeover and Tokyo facing mounting war pressures.

Throughout the early months of 1945, Ho hoped for an Allied invasion of Indochina, which he believed would spell the end of French colonialism, commenting that “he would accept a million U.S. soldiers [on Vietnamese soil] but no French” (qtd. in Rossiter 29). Ho met with U.S. Air Force General Claire Lee Chennault in the hopes of gaining American favor by offering intelligence information on Japanese operations (Bradley 125). This solid intelligence led to a favorable impression of Ho by the OSS, which received approval to work more closely with him and the Viet Minh (Bradley 125-126). After the Japanese overthrew the remaining French administration in March 1945, Emperor Bao Dai declared Vietnam unified and independent under Japanese protection (“Summary”). But Ho and the Viet Minh did not jump on the Japanese bandwagon as they saw the bigger picture of the Allied defeat of Japan being of immediate more importance than the end of French rule. The Viet Minh resisted the urge to let their colonial animosity strike out against French soldiers retreating from the Japanese and even supplied the French with military provisions and intelligence (Marr, “Vietnam” 203). As the final summer of the war progressed, Ho and the Viet Minh worked closely with the OSS in hopes of building mutual goodwill and trust.After the initial contacts between the Viet Minh and the Allied forces in southern China, the U.S. sent some OSS officers to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh headquarters in Tan Trao, one hundred miles north of Hanoi (Marr, “Vietnam” 286). The OSS officers spent several weeks training Viet Minh forces (Marr, “Vietnam” 364), which the Americans believed could be used to help fight the Japanese. The views of certain officers who came into contact with Ho during that time bolstered the claim that the Americans, perhaps in hindsight, had missed an opportunity by sidelining the Viet Minh’s nationalistic movement in favor of French restoration. OSS lieutenant Dan Phelan, who began his mission to Vietnam leery of the possible communist connections of the Viet Minh, soon raved about the Viet Minh, stating that they were “patriots deserving full trust and support” (qtd. in Marr, “Vietnam” 289). Other military personnel with boots on the ground in Indochina expressed the opinion that Ho could be trusted as a democrat at heart who cared about American ideals (Bradley 136-139). But the fractured nature of affairs in Washington had already delineated military operations with political realities as OSS assessments of the developments of Indochina had no bearing on policy toward the French. The OSS troops in Vietnam that summer were not privy to the fact that the non-French trusteeship model for Indochina was sidelined and that the administration had shifted its goals to the assumption that the French would once again rule Indochina (Marr, “Vietnam” 291). However, from a military standpoint, Washington did not want to limit the use of any groups, including the Viet Minh, to further military objectives (Marr, “Vietnam” 291). As the summer plodded on, the Americans helped train the Vietnamese, who were preparing for the end of the war to declare their independence, and hoped that this eventual announcement would be backed by the U.S. These naive hopes were later crushed by the Truman administration’s continued support of France’s control in Indochina.

Ho Chi Minh & Truman: Part I

My new novel coming out in a couple weeks, “The Reach of the Banyan Tree”, is in no small part a by-product of my love for 20th century Vietnamese history. Unlike most Americans who study Vietnam, I became much more fascinated at the 1945 connections between the Americans and the Vietnamese rather than the Vietnam War itself. This led me to write my master’s thesis on the topic of Roosevelt, Truman, and the shifting of US policy toward Indochina at the end of WWII. All of this is clearly connected with the story I created about Charles Carson, the fictional character who helped train the Viet Minh in the summer of 1945 before the Japanese capitulated. It’s a fascinating story – both the real one of the OSS team that came to Indochina and the fictional one that I had a blast creating. The following two posts come from my master’s thesis on the topic. And while it may be thick with references and rather boring academic stuff, I hope my underlying fascination of the time period seeps through. Here is part I:

Another matter of great importance that received only cursory acknowledgment from the Truman administration in the summer of 1945 was the issue of the Viet Minh and its leader for Vietnamese independence, Ho Chi Minh. The stature of Ho Chi Minh and his resolve to overthrow the French loomed large in the subsequent two decades of American Southeast Asian foreign policy, but in 1945, his faction was, to the Americans, nothing more than a curiosity and potential pawn to be used against the Japanese. Ho Chi Minh, known by the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen “The Patriot”), founded the Indochinese Communist Party in the early 1930s. He arrived in southern China by 1940 to work alongside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) guerrilla trainers, who were tasked to help Chiang’s effort in mounting a guerrilla resistance against their common enemy – the Japanese (Duncanson 60). The transformation of the CCP during the war years would not have been lost on Ho. The CCP’s image was strengthened by the United Front, formed with the Nationalists, against the Japanese invaders, demonstrating “the willingness of Communists to subordinate their own interests to national ones” (Gordon 167).  The CCP’s focus on the Japanese also convinced millions of patriot Chinese that it was using its energy on defeating the invading Japanese, when, in fact, the Japanese were the only ones who prevented the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) from completely decimating the Communist movement (Gordon 166). As Gordon states, “The CCP thus made itself appear the embodiment of moderation, reformism, and pragmatism rather than radicalism” (167).  Ho would have been conscious of the CCP’s tactics of cooperation against the Japanese as he initially came into contact with the Americans during this time (Duncanson 60). These contacts later proved useful to him during the Vietnamese drive for independence in 1945.

Ho, more a pragmatist than an ideologue, confused the KMT in some respects as to his true intentions, and eventually ended up in prison. Staffers at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the precursor to the C.I.A. – saw a possible tool for the Allies in Ho Chi Minh and suggested that the U.S. could apply pressure on China to secure his release to support the Allies’ cause (Gardner 44). Ho likewise saw cooperation with the OSS as a possible way to further the cause of Vietnamese independence, but this view was widely disputed between the U.S. intelligence community, which tended to trust Ho, and the diplomatic corps, which did not look favorably upon the enigmatic Viet Minh leader (Gardner 44). The Chinese thought Ho’s popularity “threatened their control” but, after being pressured by the Americans, they released him from prison to head the Vietnam Revolutionary League only after he agreed to follow the lead of the KMT (La Feber 1283).

Tomorrow: The Viet Minh and the Americans in the summer of 1945

 

History: Did you know?

Today’s topic: Harry S. Truman.  Here’s a paragraph I wrote about him which emphasizes his inexperience when he assumed the office of the Presidency on April 12, 1945.

Truman had served as Vice President for only a matter of weeks before Roosevelt’s death. His senatorial background gave him limited experience in the realm of foreign affairs, and Roosevelt did not include the new V.P. in important matters of state during the nascent hours of FDR’s fourth term.  In fact, Truman had been excluded from most executive branch conferences on foreign policy, leaving him to gleam his knowledge of world events mostly from reading newspapers and listening to Capitol Hill chatter (Donovan xiv).  When he became president, Truman did not know about the Manhattan Project (Bradley 103), and had not been informed of what Roosevelt had said at the meetings in Tehran and Yalta earlier in the year (Donovan 10).  He entered the Presidency as a neophyte in foreign policy with no experience in the art of negotiating (Donovan 10), and he brought with him a new Secretary of State, James Byrnes, who also had little foreign policy training (Donovan 17).  This lack of experience, coupled with Roosevelt’s confusing and often contradictory foreign policy, presented Truman with great challenges as his administration tried to bring closure to two wars while balancing world peace.