Diem's gov of South Vietnam (1955-61)

  • Diem and his American patrons wanted to build a stable, non-Communist south Vietnamese state.
  • Although Eisenhower urged Diem to implement land reform, it was MAAG (US Military Assistace Advisory Group) and its emphasis on military solutions rather than social and economic reform that dominated US assistance to Diem.
  • American officials variously referred to Diem as a 'yogi-like mystic' or a 'Messiah without a message', while the JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) considered Diem's regime unstable, even hopeless. 
  • In October 1955, Diem held an election in South Vietnam. Those voting for Bao Dai were punsihed and Diem claimed 98.2% of the vote despite ony receiving 60%.
  • Although, through a combination of force, fraud and friendship with America, Diem impressed Eisenhower.
  • Thus, Diem was given:

1. Hundreds of millions of dollars.

2. Advise on politics, land reform and covert operations against the Viet Minh. 

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Miracle man?

  • When Diem visited America in 1957, Eisenhower praised him as the 'miracle man' of Asia. 
  • When Americans advised Diem that his repressive and unpopular administration needed to reform to ensure long-term survival, he did nothing. 
  • Diem's family dominated the government in their struggle to get rich.
  • Diem favoured his fellow Catholics from the wealthy landowner class and never appealed to the ordinary people.
  • Diem promised a land reform programme, but proved uncommitted to it: for example, in Long An province, near Saigon, fewer than 1,000 out of 35,000 tenants received property.
  • Diem infuriated peasants by demanding payment for land they had been given for free by the Viet Minh in the war against the French.
  • Unlike 'Uncle Ho' he lacked the common touch.
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Support for Ho and Communism

  • In many ways, the Communist regime in the North was as unpleasant as that of Diem in the South. For example, when Ho's PAVN (People's Army of Vietnam) had to put down a revolt in 1956, 6,000 peasants were killed or deported. 
  • On the other hand, egalitarian ( believing in or based on the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities ) and free from apparent foreign domination, Ho's regimed won the hearts of the people in a way that Diem's never did. 
  • Many southerners remained quietly loyal to Ho after Vietnam was divided in 1954, although others disliked both Diem and the Communists. 
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Relations between Diem and Hanoi

Hanoi: North Vietnam.     Saigon: South Vietnam

  • Relations between Hanoi and Saigon were uneasy between 1955 and 1959.
  • Hanoi wanted to be seen to be abiding by the Geneva agreements. Hanoi's conservatism gave Diem the opportunity to arrest and executed many southern Communist activists, whose numbers droppd from around 10,000 in 1955 to nearer 2,000 in 1959.
  • Hanoi created what would soon become known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail (North Vietnamese Communist supply route going south from North Vietnam through Cambodia and Laos to South Vietnam).
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  • From 1960, Ho's southern supporters called themselves the National Liberation Front, but Diem called them the Viet Cong.
  • Like the Viet Minh in 1945, the NLF emphasised national independence rather than social revolution and contained non-Communists. 

PLAF: People's Liberation Armed Forces- the name which Ho's southern supporters called their forces after 1960.

  • Diem responded to the rising levels of violence and disruption caused by the NLF by relocating peasants to army-protected villages called agrovilles ( new and well-defended villages set up by Diem's regime to keep Communists out). 
  • The peasants were extremely unhappy; Diem responded to opposition with greater repression.
  • By 1961, Diem had received around $7 billion form Eisenhower. Many knowledgeable Americans warned that the struggle could not be won with Diem in power, but others saw the conflict in Vietnam in simple military terms. Even his army, ARVN, contained opponents, some of whom successfully rebelled against him in 1960
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Eisenhower's policies toward Indochina.

Was Vietnam 'Eisenhower's war?'

  • Eisenhower's policies toward Indochina can be divided into two phases. In the first phase, his policy in Vietnam was to continue Truman's financial and advisory support for the French colonial regime in its struggle against the Communists. The second phase was the establishment of the anti-Communits state of South Vietnam.
  • Eisenhower knew that if elections prescribed by the Geneva Accords were held in 1956, the whole of Vietnam would have become Communist, so it could be argued that his nation-building in South Vietnam consisted of rollback (rollback is the strategy of forcing a change in the major policies of a state, usually by replacing its ruling regime)
  • By the end of Eisenhower's presidency in January 1961, Diem's regime was greatly threatened by the Communist opposition. 
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Eisenhower and Vietnam War

  • Eisenhower's successors greatly escalated the US involvement in Vietnam. 
  • He rejected the atomic option at Dein Bien Phu as he recognised that it would probably lead to conflict with the Soviets and China.
  • Eisenhower did not send thousands of American troops to Vietnam as Johnson did. When Eisenhower left the White House in January 1961, there were just under 700 military advisers in South Vietnam- in line with the maximum mandated by the Genva Accords.
  • In defiance of the Geneva Accords, Eisenhower effectively made the United States the guarantor of an independent state of South Vietnam and committed it to the defence of a particularly unpopular leader in Diem
  • Eisenhower gave Diem large-scale financial aid and 1,500 American advisers, nearly half of whom were military. Once such a committment was undertaken, it was arguable that America had incurred an obligation to see it through. 
  • The Eisenhower administration made Vietnam far more important to the United States than it had been under Truman and in some ways Vietnam could justly be called 'Eisenhower's war'
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Eisenhower and Laos

  • During the Franco-Viet Minh war, the Viet Minh sought sanctuary in northeastern Laos. By the time of the Geneva conference, the Viet Minh-supported Pathet Lao (Laotian Communists) independence movement controlled roughly half of Laos.
  • After Geneva, the Eisenhower administration sent in billions of dollars in military aid and advisers to assist pro-Western Laotian politicians and generals.
  • By 1959-60 three factions were engaged in the Laotian civil war:

1. General Phoumi's pro-Western group.

2. The Communist Pathet Lo.

3. Neutralists who sought to keep out of the Cold War.

  • The Soviets and Chinese assisted the Pathet Lao and neutralist forces against General Phoumi's US-supplied troops.
  • Eisenhower said 'We cannot let Laos fall to the Communists, even if we have to fight... with our allies or without them.'
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Eisenhower's advice to Kennedy on Laos

  • Eisenhower told Kennedy that Laos was 'the cork in the bottle'- a vital domino, whose independence the United States had to preserve in the face of attempted Chinese, North Vietnamese and Soviet domination. Eisenhower advised Kennedy not to opt for neutralisation.
  • He said if American failed to persuade its SEATO allies to help defend the freedom of Laos, it would simply have to act alone. Eisenhower's emphasis upon the importance of Laos greatly impressed Kennedy and greatly impacted upon Kennedy's policies in Vietnam. 
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Kennedy's policies toward Indochina

Was Vietnam 'Kennedy's war'?

  • In early 1961, Kennedy considered tiny, mountainous Laos and its 3 million population a greater problem than Vietnam. His belief that the Laotian civil war was part of the Cold War struggle was strengthened by Khrushchev's 1961 speech in support of wars of national liberation in the Third World.

Decisions over the intervention in Laos: 

  • The State Department, the CIA, the JCS and close advisers urged military intervention, but Kennedy knew it would be hard to explain to the US public why he was sending American troops to Laos. British Prime Minister (1957-63) Macmillan told Kennedy Laos was militarily indefensible and not vital to Western security. 
  • Initially, it seemed that Kennedy might send US troops into Laos. In a March 1961 news conference he said 'The secuirty of all Southeast Asia will be endangered if Laos loses its neutral independence.' In late March, he sent 5,000 Marines to the border between Thailand and Laos
  • However, supported by Congress, Kennedy never sent US ground troops to fight in Laos. 
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Kennedy and Laos

Kennedy did not send Americans to fight in Laos because:

1. The number of available soldiers and aircraft was limited.

2. Congress feared intervention might lead to a clash with China.

3. Landlocked Laos was relatively inaccesible and he knew the American people and important allies opposed the idea.

  • Kennedy moved 3,000 US troops to Thailand, which promopted the Soviets to quickly reaffirm their support for neutral Laos. 16 nations, including the USA and the USSR signed the declaration on the neutrality of Laos.
  • The 7,000 or so North Vietnamese forces there did not leave, so the US quickly initiated another military assistance programme
  • Although the neutralisation of Laos did not cause the great Cold Warrior outcry in the US that many in the Kennedy administration had feared, it nevertheless impacted greatly upon Kennedy's Vietnam policies.
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Vietnam-Kennedy's war?

  • While Vietnam was a minor Cold War sideshow under Truman and Eisenhower, it became far more important during the Kennedy presidency.
  • Kennedy is important in the Cold War conext in that his presidency was full of crises. Despite his Cold Warrior rhetoric, he seemed to be advocating a Cold War thaw in the last year of his preseidency. He is important in the Indochinese context in that he opted against military intervention in Laos but dramatically increased US involvement in Vietnam.

Cuban Missile Crisis:

  • In 1962, Kennedy's pressure forced Soviet leader Khrushchev to remove Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba.
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Kennedy's early ideas about Vietnam

  • Kennedy agreed with the Democrat Truman that the expansion of Communism must be 'contained' by America, but attacked him for 'losing' China in 1949.
  • Feared Communism in Laos = domino theory: thought Vietnam was next.
  • In a speech in 1956 to the American Friends of Vietnam, Kennedy said South Vietnam was:

1. An important domino.

2. The 'cornerstone of the free world in Southeast Asia... a proving ground for democracy in Asia.'

  • During his 1960 presidential election campaign he described Communism as 'unceasing in its drive for world power'. 
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Kennedy and his advisers

  • The interests, emphases and characters of Kennedy and his chosen advisers shaped US policy towards Vietnam.
  • Kennedy was self-conscious about his age. Also, having made much of the need for a more dynamic foreign policy, he felt bound to increase defence expenditure and foreign involvement.
  • Kennedy also believed that the Third World War was likely to be the main future arena of the Cold War. Kennedy's character and beliefs, in combination with Eisenhower's warning that the Republican Party would attack 'any retreat in Southeast Asia', suggested Kennedy was likely to make a stand somehwere in Southeast Asia, be it Laos or Vietnam.
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McNamara and Rusk

  • Kennedy was impatient with the State Department, so he frequently looked to Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara for advice on Vietnam.
  • McNamara was naturally more inclined than the State Department and its diplomatic experrts to see problems in terms of military solutions. Enormous influence and judgemental lapses on the part of McNamara proved unfortunate in Vietnam. 
  • McNamara firmly believed in the US committment to Vietnam, but his solutions to problems were always military. He also had a lack of historical knowledge and a tendency to try to reduce problems to statisitcs by eliminating the human factor. 
  • Trained in the importance of statistics, McNamara tended to look at numbers of weapons and men and to forget that poory armed people will sometimes fight to the death for independence. McNamara subsequently admitted that his weaknesses proved disastrous in Vietnam.
  • A crusading President keen to be assertive and make a name for himself, Kennedy listened to those more likely to put emphasis on military battles than on the battles for the heart and minds of the people. All this, in combination with Kennedy's frustration over events in Cuba and Laos, contributed to increasing US military involvement in Vietnam.
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Cuba, Laos and Vietnam

  • Events in Cuba and Laos greatly impacted upon Kennedy's Vietnam policies.
  • Kennedy sponsored an ill-conceived and unsuccessful anit-Communist invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. The failure of the Bay of Pigs, coupled with the 'draw' consequent on the supposed neutralisation of Laos, convinced Kennedy that he needed outright victories elsewhere.
  • The Bay of Pigs incident was an unsuccessful attempt by the US to overthrow the Cuban government which was starting to lean towards Communism.
  • One insider has suggested that hawks (Militan Cold Warriors in the USA: pro war) within the administration would only accept neutrality in Laos in return for an activist policy in Vietnam.
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Kennedy and Diem's gov (1961-3)

Kennedy had many options in relation to Vietnam

Option 1- exit:

  • In October 1954, Eisenhower told Diem that US aid was dependent upon Diem undertaking needed reforms. Such reforms were not put in place and Kennedy could have cited this as a reason for US withdrawal but his adminstration neer seemed to give the exit option serious consideration.
  • The JCS warned Kennedy that 'any reversal of US policy could have disastrous effects, not only on our relationship with South Vietnam, but with the rest of our Asian and other allies as well'. Rusk and McNamara told Kennedy that because of Eisenhower's commitment to South Vietnam, a US departure would result in loss of face and give the Republicans a chance to attack the administration

Option 2- peace:

  • Kennedy sanctioned unofficial peace talks in the summer of 1962, but Hanoi's position was that the US must exit before any meaningful negotiations could take place. 
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Option 3- Military solutions

  • At Kennedy's accession, there were around 700 US military advisers in South Vietnam. The JCS and the National Security Council recommended putting US ground troops in. Kennedy preferred to increase the number of military advisers- there were 12,000 in 1962.
  • Increasing quantities of American weaponry flooded into South Vietnam and although Kennedy publicly denied it, US helicopters and pilots were actively involved in the war. 
  • In late 1961, the massive increase in American aid seemed to be paying off: the unprecedented mobility provided by the helicopters proved particularly useful to Diem's troops.
  • In November 1961, Kennedy sent his trusted friend Kenneth Galbraith to Saigon to assess the situation. Galbraith said:

1. Vietnam was a political not military problem.

2. Diem was a loser.

3. Increased US involvement could only end in defeat and humiliation. 

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Option 3- Military solutions

  • Subsequent reports followed by Galbraith were a mixture of pessimistic references to Diem and the optimistic belief that American firepower must win. 
  • The weaknesses of Diem's forces and the role of US military was demonstrated in the battle of Ap Bac in January 1963.

The Battle of Ap Bac:

  • Around 2,000 ARVN troops, 113 American armed personnel carriers, US-operated helicopters and bombers surronded Ap Bac, unaware that there were as many as 350 guerrillas there. 
  • The US/ARVN effort failed because: the VC were unexpectedly strong and prepared and Diem refused to listen to American advice on the deployment of his troops.
  • Ap Bac was highly significant. First, it drew unprecedented attention in the US, where the South Vietnamese performance was unfavourably reviewed. Second, it showed that, despite ever-increasing American aid, Diem was probably militarily incapable of winning the war against the Communists. 
  • Millions had been spent in Vietnam for nearly a decade without success, and Kennedy was convinced that once US ground troops were there, there would soon be demands for more. 
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Option 4- the reform option

  • The Kennedy administration frequently advised Diem that one of the best ways to defeat the Communists was to introduce greater political, social and economic equality to South Vietnam, but Diem ignored the advice.
  • In 1962, Diem introduced 'strategic hamlets' (Policy used to cut off villages from Communist guerrillas by surronding them with stockades), fortified villages in which the Vietnamese peasants would hopefully be isolated from the Viet Cong.
  • The strategic hamlets scheme was run by Diem's highly unpopular brother Ngo Dinh Nhu
  • Nhu ignored US advice about introducing social, economic and political reforms within the hamlets and about where to establish them, so that within a year, the Viet Cong captured thousands of US weapons from hamlets foolishly set up too far from Saigon.
  • The American press increased coverage of Diem's political and military ineptitude during 1962 despite Kennedy administration pressure to avoid such criticism.
  • By 1963, relations between Diem and the US were very tense. Diem resented US advice. However, their shared Catholicism probaly played a part in Kennedy's support of Diem, but Catholics were a minority in South Vietnam and in spring 1963 there was trouble.
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Catholic versus Buddhists

  • In Spring 1963, Diem allowed the flying of Catholic flags to honour his brother but banned flags to celebrate Buddha's birthday. When 10,000 Buddhists protested, Diem sent in soldiers. Seven Buddhists were killed. In June, a 73-year-old Buddhist priest set himself alight in protest against Diem's religious policies.
  • This dramatic protest made headlines in America. Kennedy was shocked at the front-page picture of the Buddhist martyrs. Possibly, Kennedy was simply tyring to deflect blame from himself here, but if he really did not now of the Catholic-Buddhist tension, he had not done his homework on a country to which he had sent 7,000 Americans.
  • By August, Diem appeared to be waging religious war on the Buddhist majority. With neither the military or reform option working, Kennedy replaced Ambassador Nolting with Lodge. Under Lodge, the US chose a third and more ruthless option, getting rid of Diem.
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Option 5- replace Diem.

  • Lodge arrived in August 1963, convinced that the US had to help South Vietnam and that effective help required the removal of Diem.
  • In what was primarily a singal to Diem that he should reform, Kennedy criticised the Saigon regime in September inverviews. However, Kennedy said it would be a mistake for the United States to get out of Vietnam, reiterated the domino theory, and warned of the influence of expansionist China in Vietnam.
  • In September, Kennedy sent more observers, including McNamara, to Vietnam: they reported optimistically on US military efforts but pessimistically on Diem's regime.
  • Kennedy was now convinced that the new Saigon government was necessary because of the 'harm which Diem's political actions are causing to the effort against Viet Cong'.
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Diem's assassination

  • In the absence of firm leadership from Washington, Ambassador Lodge acquired considerable control over US policy in Vietnam. He turned Congress and US public opinion against Diem and Nhu through press 'leaks' on their activities and was happy to learn of an ARVN (South Vietnamese army) plot against Nhu. 
  • The ARVN plotters were assured that they would have America's tactic support in their coup, which occured on 2 November 1963.
  • We might never know for certain whether Kennedy tactily approved the diea of assassinating his Vietnamese ally Diem as he was preoccupied with the civl rights March on Washington. 
  • Vice President Lyndon Johnson and General William Westmoreland believed that American complicity in the coup 'morally locked us in Vietnam'. Having got rid of Diem, the US was obliged to assist any sucessor.
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Kennedy's death

  • When Kennedy died in November 1963, there were over 16,000 Amrican 'advisers' in Vietnam. The greatly increased number of American advisers is the most convincing argument that Kennedy would not have 'got the US out of Vietnam'.
  • Many historians have defended Kennedy's Vietnam policy, arguing that as Truman and Eisehower had committed the US to involvement in Vietnam, Kennedy was caught in a 'commitment trap'.

Commitment trap: The theory that each president after Truman was bound to continue US involvement in Vietnam because the preceding president(s) had made Vietnam seem of increasing importance to the US.

  • The Kennedy administration claimed to be promoting democracy in South Vietnam but had supported a dictator and then a military clique. Kennedy had passed a poisoned chalice to his successor.
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