“Our resistance will be long and painful, but whatever the sacrifices, however long the struggle, we shall fight to the end, until Vietnam is fully independent and reunified. ” – Ho Chih Minh (1890-1969)
On March 29, 1973, the last American military unit left Vietnam as the war between the United States and North Vietnamese army moved towards its dramatic conclusion. For the first time, America had failed to reach its objective and suffered over fifty-eight thousand casualties. Vietnamese losses were counted at over two million and the nation also faced the challenging task of rebuilding its cities and villages. Millions of veterans on both sides faced a difficult journey as they rebuilt their lives upon return to civilian life. Ho Chih Minh, who died before the war’s conclusion, was vindicated in his belief that Vietnam would one day be reunited. In retrospect, we are faced with the question, why did the Vietnam War take place? Fredrik Logevall, author of JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century (1917-1956), tells the story of the French defeat and how that loss shaped the future conflict between Washington and Hanoi.
Readers should be aware that this book is lengthy, with slightly over nine hundred pages of text. But contained within these pages is the story I should have learned in school. Regarding the Vietnam War, it is accepted that the conflict began with the events in the Gulf of Tonkin between August 2-4, 1965. However, America’s role in Indochina has a long and complicated history as the author shows here. To set the stage, the author revisits World War II and the Allied effort. This is critical because that conflict changed the world and gave way to future wars in Korea and later Vietnam. The Japanese defeat left a power vacuum which Ho Chih Minh and the Indochinese Communist Party (“ICP”) capitalized on. The ICP was later dissolved in November 1945 after the founding of the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam. France was alarmed at Hanoi’s actions and embarked on a campaign to reassert its influence over Indochina. Logevall brings the past roaring to life in this account that highlights the early success and the failures that resulted in defeat. But before we reach the conclusive battle at Dien Bien Phu, we must first understand how and why France failed to recapture Vietnam in the First Indochina War (1946-1954).
The story as told by Logevall is filled with critical recreations of the moments that shaped French policy for better and worse. And as the story develops, it becomes clear that the Vietnamese would seek independence at all costs. There were those in France determined to see Ho Chih Minh fail and were willing to look past the ideology that filled the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. Curiously, Washington was also watching Indochina closely without taking any direct action. Agents of the Office of Strategic Services (“OSS”) were aware of the doom Vietnam spelled for any country who entered militarily. One of its operatives, A. Peter Dewey (1916-1945), whose story is told here, became an early casualty in a bitter struggle between Western Democracy and Eastern Communist beliefs. Dewey saw the writing on the wall and attempted to sound the alarm. Another OSS officer, Archimedes Patti (1913-1998), also sounded the alarm and takes a significant step in alerting Washington that may have changed history had it been responded to. As I read the story, I could see that experienced officers and politicians knew that Vietnam was a disaster, and the French were going to fail. One of these people was a young politician named John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) who later as president, inherited the Indochina problem from his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969). Kennedy appears sporadically throughout the book, and before he is elected to office in 1960. Eisenhower receives more of the spotlight after taking reigns from Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) whose stance of Indochina remains firmly in place long after his departure early in the story.
As the French and Vietnamese engage in heavy combat, Washington chooses it side and throws it support behind the French. However, the involvement of the United States remains limited and a premonition of how the later battle between American personnel and North Vietnam played out. But the French do have success in the book which had the North Vietnamese on the defensive. The battlefield scenes are on display and the author takes us through them as history plays itself out before the reader’s eyes. But what the French did not expect is the assistance to Ho Chih Minh by the man who is credited with the French defeat: Võ Nguyên Giáp (1911-2013). The role of this strategist deeply trusted by Ho Chih Minh should not be overlooked. His decisions and actions helped to seal France’s fate and the incredible story is told in all the dramatic detail by Logevall who has a knack for adding the right amount of suspense as the story flows. And like the first volume of his biography of Kennedy, the story here flows easily as well, and kept me engaged from start to finish.
It is imperative to keep in mind that the events taking place in the book occur over a period of nine years from 1946 to 1954. A swift defeat did not happen for reasons explained by the author and the turning tide of French opinion towards Vietnam should have raised alarm bells everywhere including in Washington. But the truth is that Vietnam was an extension of the Cold War and the obsession with Communist expansion. The Soviet Union and Chinese Communist Party are also part of the story, and the Korean War is addressed. But despite fears, neither country entered the conflict to fight the French. But they did provide support for North Vietnam in other ways. In the South, the situation is far from ideal, and this is another aspect of the Vietnam War that is critical to the debacle that ensued. Throughout the story, it is apparent to scores of people that South Vietnam lacked a stable government. The decision to install Ngo Dinh Diem (1901-1963) and his brother as the leaders of South Vietnam was doomed from the start and the tense relationship between Diem and Washington never reached a level where he could completely rely on Washington. And nor did Washington have unwavering faith in the brothers who held on to power only through America’s support. Readers may be wondering how those in power missed so many signs that showed Vietnam would be a terrible mistake. There are reasons not discussed in the book, but the short answer is profit and horrible foreign policy. Even as French losses mounted, Washington continued to increase spending. But it was not enough to stop the final French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Two years later in 1956, the last French troops withdrew ending France’s involvement with its former possession. But the story was far from over. Ho Chih Minh and his administration had succeeded in removing the French, but they knew that America was lurking in the distance. During his exit speech, Eisenhower warned of the military industrial complex. Vietnam was undoubtedly on his mind. Detractors will point out that he did not stop or reverse involvement of the United States. Between 1954 and 1964 tensions continued to mount and unification remained the goal of the North. Diem became increasingly unpopular in the South, setting the stage for the Second Indochina War (1955-1795).
The actions by Diem are shocking and horrifying and will cause readers to recoil in shock. Opposition continued to grow, and the warning signs were plenty that the Diem regime would collapse at some point in time. But he continued to receive support even as it became clear that the South could not stand on its own. Communist infiltration and disgruntled factions in the South had increased the threat around the Diem regime. Nevertheless, Washington had committed to supporting Diem based on the “Domino Theory” which never did pan out. The paranoia about communist expansion applied blinders to the eyes of policy makers and it was decided that Vietnam could not fall. However, they failed to see that the fall had already taken place and the North Vietnamese Army would never surrender. By the time Washington understood this, thousands of American troops died on battlefields across Vietnam and unrest at home plagued two presidents to whom Vietnam became a source of embarrassment and consternation. America eventually did get out of Vietnam but with damage done to its reputation and generations of people both domestic and abroad scarred for life with memories of warfare. The French experience had provided the necessary blueprint, but it is true that those who do not study their history are doomed to repeat it. This is the story of the French defeat in Vietnam and the beginning of America’s involvement in the most unpopular war it has ever fought. Highly recommended.