Magazine article The New American

Vietnamese Friend or Foe: U.S. Foreign Policy Has Often Been Highlighted by Shortsightedness, Disregard of Foreign Concerns, and Regime-Change Operations-As Shown in the Lead-Up to the Vietnam War

Magazine article The New American

Vietnamese Friend or Foe: U.S. Foreign Policy Has Often Been Highlighted by Shortsightedness, Disregard of Foreign Concerns, and Regime-Change Operations-As Shown in the Lead-Up to the Vietnam War

Article excerpt

Those were the last words Ngo Dinh Diem, president of the Republic of Vietnam, heard from U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge on November 1, 1963. Lodge had just informed Diem of a "report" he had received that the Vietnamese army generals, having laid siege to the Presidential Palace in Saigon, had offered Diem safe passage out of the country as they carried out the coup that would end his nine-year reign over South Vietnam. Captured the following morning, Diem and his brother and political lieutenant, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were killed during the ride to military headquarters. The official cause of death was listed as "suicide" (later amended to "accidental suicide"), without the need for any embarrassing explanation as to how the deceased had managed to shoot and stab themselves to death with their hands tied behind their backs. Abandoned by his American sponsors and despised by his own people, the president of South Vietnam was buried in an unmarked grave in a government cemetery. Seth Jacobs, in America's Miracle Man in Vietnam, described the jubilation in Saigon as news of the assassinations poured out over the radio:

  Tens of thousands flocked around the tanks of rebel soldiers
  to shower their heroes with presents and expressions of
  gratitude. Nightclubs threw open their doors, and revelers
  danced the twist, the tango and other dances Diem had banned.
  Saigon's Buddhists had congregated at Xa Loi Pagoda for a
  daylong service of thanksgiving. Students stormed the
  shell-scarred Presidential Palace, screaming "Freedom!"
  and "Long Live the junta!"

Yet the American press and political establishment had lionized this same ruler as the savior of his country, the man who would unify his people against the communist enemy and bring freedom and democracy to South Vietnam. His heroic image was a carefully contrived myth, but his downfall was a genuine tragedy, leading to a deepening involvement of the United States in the fate of the former French colony and the ultimate conquest of South Vietnam by the communist forces of Ho Chi Minh. Decades later, Americans would still be debating "the lesson of Vietnam" even as new "nation-building efforts" were being undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who will not learn from history, it seems, are destined to be policymakers in Washington.

Dien Bien Phu--And Beyond

American policy toward Vietnam had been ambiguous from the start. During World War II, Roosevelt and Stalin agreed that France would not get back its colonies in Indochina, the tri-state area consisting of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, then occupied by Japanese forces. "After V-J Day," wrote Hilaire du BeiTier in Background to Betrayal, "it was to Ho [Chi Minh] and his American-equipped forces that the Japanese surrendered more arms, well aware of the trouble it would cause Japan's enemies, the Americans, the Chinese and the French."

The French did regain control over Indochina, however, as anticommunism trumped anticolonialism as the theme of American policy in the Far East. By 1950, the majority of funding for the French war against the Viet Minh--the Vietnamese communist troops--was coming from the United States. Three days after the fall of the French fortress at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, President Eisenhower instructed Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to draw up a resolution to be presented to a joint session of Congress, authorizing the commitment of U.S. troops in Indochina. The resolution was never presented, as the French military position deteriorated so quickly that intervention was deemed useless.

Despite Eisenhower's warning that a communist victory in Indochina could cause other nations in the region to fall to the communists like "a row of dominoes," the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote in a memo to Defense Secretary Charles Wilson: "From the point of view of the United States, Indochina is devoid of decisive military objectives and the allocation of more than token U. …

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