A Short History of the War in Vietnam

By Werner, Jayne | Monthly Review, June 1985 | Go to article overview

A Short History of the War in Vietnam


Werner, Jayne, Monthly Review


In one of frequent corporate ads in the OP-Ed section of the New York Times, the one on April 30th by United Technologies addressed the issue of Vietman. As I glanced through it, I noticed the claim that the first American killed in "the Vietnam war" was in 1959. This is early enough, but it's not true and misrepresents the nature of the "Vietnam war." It also illustrates, I believe, one of the problems we Americans have about thinking about the war. In point of fact, the first American killed in Vietnam was in 1946--in the midst of hostilities between the Viet minh and Allied reoccupation forces. The casualty was Col. A.O. Dewey, the nephew of the governor of New York, who was in southern Vietnan on a mission of the OSS--the precursor fo today's CIA. He was killed in ambush by Viet Minh guerrillas.

The Vietnam war goes back a long way, and with it American involvement. This fact seems hardly noticeable in many of the recent reports on Vietnam in the press and assertions on the war in some current academic writing. In 1945, President Roosevelt was very concerned about Indo-China, then Truman became increasingly involved, and every successive president became more heavily committed up until President Nixon.

Who were the Viet Minh? Under Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese Independence League or Viet Minh took power in vietnam in August 1945, declaring the country independent of French colonial control, and naming the new state of Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Vietnam was the first country in Asia to achieve independence from colonial domination--even earlier than India. In 1945, all of Vietnam was united from north to sourth under the regime of the Viet Minh, which had come to power on the basis of a popular and broadly based nationalist movement. But the French opposed this regime and sought to reconquer Indo-China by means of a new colonial war. By the later 1940s, the United States supported the French was effort, channeling funds to France through a secret fund earmarked for Indo-China. By 1954, 80 to 90 percent of the French war was being paid for by the United States.

For nine years, 1945-1954, the French sought to drive the viet Minh from power, ultimately failing. In 1954, France was forced to conclude a settlement of the war after their defeat at Dienbienphu. The settlment which followed was known as the Geneva Agreements. According to these accords, a cease-fire was put in place and French military forces were withdrawn from Vietnam. The U.S. refused to be a signatory to these agreements, although we were asked and we had high-level representatives present at the talks. John Foster Dulles, who was secretary of state under President Eisenhower, felt the accords were a sell-out; he later sought to undermine them. Under the Eisenhower administrtion, the United States developed the policy of containing the Communis movement in Vietnam by creating a separate anti-Communist state in the south. This separate state in the south most likely would not have gotten off the ground without U.S. support.

The Geneva Agreements stipulated that nationwise elections were to be held in Vietnam in 1956. These were not in fact held because of U.S. opposition. President Eisenhower wrote later in his memoirs that if in fact the elections had been held, Ho Chi Minh would have gotten 80 percent of the vote. The United States provided the necessary wsupport to the new regime in the south--the Ngo Dinh Diem regime--to enable Diem to refuse to participate in the elections, which had been part of the settlement with France and which all observers--most of all the Viet Minh--believed would merely ratify what the Viet Minh had won on the ground.

The U.S. objective in Vietnam was to prevent a Communist regime from consolidating its power in a country we considered strategic to our interests. But the Communist regime was the legally constituted and legitimate government of Vietnam. …

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