Vietnam and the U.S., 1954 to 1968
Draft Chapter of The U.S. War Against Asia
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In 1954 Bao Dai decided that Diem would be the ideal Vietnamese to obtain the backing of the United States. Now backed by France and the United States, he did become prime minister under Bao Dai [Karnow, 218]. Diem soon made it clear that he did not intend to hold elections in what was now being called South Vietnam, and that he intended to have the United States be his primary ally, not France. There was a debate in the higher reaches of U.S. government as to whether Diem should be supported and to what extent. In the end it was Secretary of State Allen Dulles whose view prevailed, to the tune of a $300 million American aid package for the new regime. The French meanwhile, decided to concentrate their efforts on fighting Algerian nationalists. They did not abandon South Vietnam altogether, but accepted their role as secondary to that of the United States.
A political hot potato frequently cast around modern American political circles asks the question: which President (and political party) got us into the War in Vietnam. There can be no doubt that President Eisenhower, at the urging of Allen Dulles and others, backed the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. Even before Diem returned to Vietnam in his new role of Prime Minister, the United States set up the Saigon Military Mission in June 1954. The Mission even had secret operations in North Vietnam during the transition to Vietminh rule. But this Mission was more of an intelligence operation than a military force. The civil war in South Vietnam was not a major concern to Eisenhower, partly because it was only in its initial phases. Until about 1957 the Vietminh concentrated on consolidating their governance of North Vietnam. Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime during this time was resettling Catholic refugees from the north and fighting non-communist factions including the Hoa Hao and the Binh Xuyen. He also organized an essentially phony election (he claimed to have won 98.2% of the vote) to promote himself to head of state, dismissing Bao Dai. [Karnow, 219-223]
The summer of 1956 passed without national elections. Even the Chinese and Russians backed the proposal for two separate, independent Vietnamese states. The Vietminh, however, were determined to unite Vietnam. Many Vietminh from the south however, had emigrated to the north, and Diem’s army had rounded up and executed as many of the remaining Vietminh as it could. “Diem’s forces scoured the area more thoroughly than the French had ever done” [Karnow, 229]. The National Liberation Front, or Vietcong, as the former Vietminh became known as in the south, was not an effective fighting force even as late as 1960. The game for them, in South Vietnam, was just surviving in the 1950s, while planning for an eventual armed rebellion against Diem. But more general opposition to Diem’s regime was growing due to its corruption and his inability to share power. An election for a legislature was held in South Vietnam in 1959, but irregularities and limiting the field of candidates made it more symbolic than representative. [Karnow, 233-239]
The Eisenhower administration had a mixed assessment of Diem’s regime, but saw no alternative. It poured money into Diem’s regime, and it ended with almost 700 military advisors in Vietnam [Karnow, 250]. There is no way of knowing what President Eisenhower would have done if there had been a credible threat to the Diem regime during his presidency. In the 1960 elections both Richard Nixon, the Republican Party candidate, and John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party candidate, were supporters of the Diem regime, as well as being known for their fierce opposition to Communism. When John Kennedy took office, the Vietcong, with encouragement from North Vietnam, were finally ready to begin a widespread guerilla civil war in South Vietnam.
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