Vietnam 1945 to 1975: Communism on Display

By Previdi, Robert | Parameters, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Vietnam 1945 to 1975: Communism on Display


Previdi, Robert, Parameters


What makes the Vietnam War so complex is the fact that it could have been prosecuted in a number of ways that might have achieved greater success--a guerrilla war using only the South Vietnamese forces, a guerrilla war using the South Vietnamese and American forces, or as a guerrilla and main force war--but it was not. One of the overarching conclusions of this review essay is the fact that the American military never received a set of clear political objectives from its civilian leadership on how to conduct the war. President Lyndon B. Johnson was a dreadful Commander-in-Chief who lacked any semblance of a political strategy for winning the war. This fact, along with Johnson's perceived need to dominate the military leadership, made failure in Vietnam almost a certainty.

The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, by Dr. Arthur J. Dommen, is impressive and thorough. Dommen is an expert on Indochina and was Bureau Chief for United Press International and the Los Angeles Times from 1959 to 1971. This well-documented book takes the reader from 1625, when the French first arrived in Indochina, through 1975. It includes 4,090 footnotes. This is at times a difficult book to read, but it is loaded with information and insight about Indochina, including events in Cambodia and Laos that affected the war in Vietnam.

Dr. Dommen makes it clear that the Viet Minh seized power in North Vietnam in August 1945 by using their preferred strategy of brutality and deceit. The author goes on to point out that according to one estimate, the Viet Minh may have massacred as many as 15,000 nationalists. He concludes that the French failed in their efforts in Vietnam because they did not understand how to foster the growth of noncommunist nationalism or how to protect the people under their care.

According to the author, US interest in Vietnam during the 1950s was characterized by President Truman not questioning France's sovereignty over Indochina, as the Roosevelt Administration had. Truman wanted the support of the French in Europe and was therefore willing to support them financially in Indochina, and in fact did so as early as 1950. The Truman Administration provided the majority of this support without the approval of Congress. The precedent set by President Truman of acting without the consent of Congress would later influence both the Johnson and Nixon administrations and would cost the nation dearly.

Dommen writes extensively, if not favorably, about how the French handled the 1954 Geneva Conference. There is also a great deal of thoughtful reflection about the US role in the assassination of President Diem. Major players in the United States' initial development of policy related to South Vietnam, such as Lodge, Harriman, Ball, Hilsman, Mendenhall, and Michael Forrestal, do not come out favorably in this assessment. The book also devotes considerable coverage to President Johnson's decision to Americanize the war in 1965, the events leading up to the 1968 Tet Offensive, and the Paris Peace Talks that began on 13 May 1968 and lasted for over four years.

On the battlefield, Vietnamization of the war had its problems, but it appeared to be going well under the new leadership of General Creighton Abrams, William Colby of the CIA, and Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. By 1972 the war of pacification was essentially won--and the South Vietnamese army was becoming increasingly professional. When Richard Nixon took office he continued the Johnson Administration's decision to temporarily halt the bombing of the North, and would later exacerbate this mistake by refusing to mine the harbors of industrial North Vietnam, thereby losing the advantage of recent tactical and political successes.

This is an interesting history of Indochina containing more than a thousand pages of fact, insight, and references. It is not an easy read. …

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