FROM ANTICOLONIALISM TO ANTICOMMUNISM:
UNITED STATES POLICY TOWARDS
FRENCH RULE IN INDOCHINA
KENT GERARD SIEG
B.A., University of Colorado, 1985
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
Department of History
This thesis for the Master of Arts degree by
Kent Gerard Sieg
has been approved for the
Date i I j
Sieg, Kent Gerard (M.A., History)
From Anticolonialism to Anticommunism: United States
Policy Towards French Rule in Indochina
Thesis directed by Professor Ernest A. Andrade, Jr.
United States policy towards French Indochina
began to change during the Second World War. Previously,
President Roosevelt extended his anticolonialist
principles to the Southeast Asian Colony. By 1945,
however, his desire to see an end to French rule in the
region gave way to the dictates of military strategy.
The Truman Administration favored a restoration of
French sovereignty in Indochina, but pressed the French
to allow more autonomy and eventual independence for
their Colony. The U.S. maintained a guarded neutrality
as fighting between the French and Viet Minh guerrillas
erupted. Yet Americans continued to regard Indochina
as an exclusively French concern. With the use of the
Iron Curtain in Europe and the collapse of Nationalist
China in 1949, American policy makers became increas-
ingly apprehensive about Communist expansionism, and
were ready to undertake measures to block Communist-
inspired aggression. Accordingly, Americans supported
the French-backed "Bao Dai Solution" which in early 1950
resulted in the "independence" of the Indochina Associ-
ated States. Real power, however, remained in French
hands. In May 1950, the U.S. announced that it would
begin sending military and economic assistance to the
Associated States and France in order to further the
effort against the Communist Viet Minh. American involve
ment deepened as the Communist invasion of South Korea
and Communist Chinese aid to the Viet Minh validated
intervention in the Indochina Conflict. As the war
gradually turned against France's favor, the U.S. was
pressed by France for combat intervention. This was
refused during the siege of Dien Bien Phu as the Eisen-
hower Administration decided not to act without the
support of its allies. The Geneva Conference ended the
war in 1954 and established conditions for future
political settlement of the region. These accords were
disregarded and the U.S. ended up supporting a series of
unstable South Vietnamese regimes. The end result was
the necessitation of extensive American intervention
beginning in 1965.
The form and content of this abstract are approved.
Faculty member in ch
re of thesis
This thesis is dedicated to
my brother Keith, who gave
much thoughtful advice, and
to my mother, who made it all
possible twenty-four years ago.
I wish to acknowledge the assistance of my
father, mother, and brother on this project, who gave
encouragement to me. I would also like to extend
thanks to the staff of the Truman Presidential
Library in Independence, Missouri, for their excellent
work on my behalf and for their courteousness, and
to my relatives in Kansas City for putting up with me
on my research visits there. Regards are also in
store for Dr. John S. Haller, Jr., and his patience
and understanding in helping me complete my graduate
program. Above all, I wish to give Dr. Ernest Andrade,
Jr. my full appreciation for his tutelage and guidance
not only on this paper but also through the many
courses and conversations that I had with him. He
kept me interested in the subject of history as a
scholarly pursuit and out of the business school, which
I thank him for. Finally, I wish to applaud the
efforts of Toby Cohen, typist extraordinaire, whose
patience, hard work, and organizational talents are
clearly evident in this manuscript.
I. AN INTRODUCTION TO THE CONNECTION
BETWEEN AMERICAN ANTICOMMUNISM,
FRENCH COLONIALISM AND VIETNAMESE
NATIONALISM ................................... 1
II. THE ANTICOLONIALISM OF FRANKLIN
ROOSEVELT: THE MUDDLED POLICY
III. THE TRUMAN ADMINISTRATION AND THE
RETURN OF THE FRENCH TO INDO-
IV. TRUMAN AND WANING "NEUTRALITY"
IN THE FRANCO-VIET MINH WAR...................45
V. COLD WAR, CONTAINMENT, AND DIRECT
AMERICAN INTERVENTION IN THE
FRANCO-VIET MINH WAR ..........................59
VI. THE LEGACY TO EISENHOWER: FRENCH
FAILURE AND THE PATH TO GENEVA................76
The idea that germinated this thesis arose
during a course on the history of United States foreign
policy in which the Vietnam War was presented as an
important issue in which I was challenged to investigate
the events leading to American involvement in Vietnam.
The further that I dug, the more I realized that the
United States' intervention in Vietnam's affairs began
long before ground troops were sent in. I decided to
examine the Truman years as the seminal period in the
development of Americas relations with Vietnam. The
Truman Administration set the future policy of the U.S.
in the region by breaking with the past policies of
President Roosevelt. I extended my examination
through the Geneva Conference of 1954 in order to fully
appreciate the flow of events surrounding the policy
decisions that involved the U.S. in the Indochina
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE CONNECTION BETWEEN
AMERICAN ANTICOMMUNISM, FRENCH
COLONIALISM AND VIETNAMESE
Towards the end of World War II, a political
change began to sweep across Asia. The anticolonialist
movement had gained force due to the disruption that
the Second World War had thrust upon the world political
scene. By 1945, nationalism had risen to a frenzy.
Franklin D. Roosevelt supported this nationalist spirit
and used his good offices with the nation's allies to
secure liberation for oppressed peoples not only from
fascist dictatorships but also from Colonial empires.
Roosevelt's announcement to the world of this new
direction came with the rise of "nationalist tide which
was beginning to flow strongly in Southeast Asia."'*'
His concern for this region resulted from his attitude
towards the French, whom he believed had badly mis-
managed their colony in Indochina. Accordingly,
Roosevelt advocated a "trusteeship" concept for the
territory with the goal being independence. Thus,
the principle of trusteeship became the policy of the
United States toward Vietnam and the rest of French
Indochina during the period of the Second World War.
The advent of the Truman Administration after
Roosevelt's death clearly coincides with the rise of
the Cold War. As for its significance for Indochina,
the policy of President Truman and his advisors
signalled a distinct break with Roosevelt's pro-
nationalist policy. Indeed, by the end of 1945,
Truman had allowed the restoration of French sover-
eignty in their Southeast Asian colony. The pendulum
eventually swung so far in the opposite direction that
by 1950 the United States began overtly supplying the
French with war materiel and towards the end of the
First Indochina War was paying upwards of 80 percent
of the cost of France's war effort against the Viet
Minh guerillas. By the time Dwight Eisenhower
entered the office of President, U.S. policy towards
Vietnam had already been cemented. Eisenhower was
forced by circumstance to follow his predecessor's
policy. The logical end of this foreign policy
continuum was the eventual assumption by the United States
of the task of directly waging the struggle against
the Vietnamese Communist forces.
Thus, it is clear that the Truman Administra-
tion was pivotal in forming a break with Roosevelt's
policy towards Vietnam; the period of Truman's
presidency was the key time in which future policy
towards the region was established. There were many
factors involved in precipitating this change by the
United States. One was the rise of the Chinese
Communist threat. There was also the intransigence of
the French, and as well of the Vietnamese nationalists,
in the pursuit of their respective but opposite goals.
The British, like the French, were also interested in
re-establishing colonialism after the War and main-
taining their empire. Above all, the souring of post-
war relations between the United States and the Soviet
Union greatly effected the political change occurring
in the region. As the Iron Curtain fell across Eastern
Europe, Truman attempted to stabilize the area and
prevent the spread of Communism into Western Europe.
In order to achieve this end, the United States found
itself in the difficult role of acquiesing to French
In reaction to Soviet expansionism, the United
States began pursuing containment in the late 1940s.
This policy of "containing" the spread of Communism
reached full consummation in the Far East in 1950, with
the decision to send American aid to the French in
Indochina, and it was quickly followed by direct inter-
vention against a Communist thrust in Korea. In
conjunction with support for the French war effort, the
United States also attempted to have an indigenous,
popular government set up in Vietnam. American policy
allowed for the establishment of an anticommunist,
rather than a truly nationalist, regime to be set up.
The author, Andrew J. Rotter, contends that American
policy makers "capitulated in late 1949 and accepted
protectionism, despotism, and colonialism" in lieu of
liberalism, democracy, and freedom. Rotter asserts
that this endorsement was undertaken by the United
States "because the urgency of Cold War problems gave
it no choice." With the failure of the French in
1954, the United States was stuck with a tenuous situ-
ation that it had helped create. What followed were
efforts by various administrations to prop up a number
of anticommunist regimes in the region against the
Communist, but admittedly popular, insurgents. This
policy ended in ultimate failure, for Vietnam and the
rest of Indochina fell to the Communists in 1975.
Thus, it is very important to examine the
historical backdrop to and the reasons for Truman's
momentous and ominous break with traditional American
anti-colonial policies. There are differing views on
this. Historian Walter LaFeber believes that Roose-
velt's support for Indochinese independence had ended
before his death as Anglo-French power was re-established
in Southeast Asia and as the Chinese refused cooper-
ation with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He argues that
Truman merely accepted the fait accompli of French
restoration in Indochina as Franklin Delano Roosevelt
had done.^ Yet other historians like Gary R. Hess and
George C. Herring state that United States policy
towards Indochina underwent a complete shift after
Roosevelt's death. Herring argues persuasively that
the Truman administration made a conscious effort to
allow the French back into Indochina in hopes of
securing French cooperation in forming the United
Nations and in opposing Soviet attempts to expand
Communism into western Europe.^ Steven P. Sapp gener-
ally agrees with Herring and wrote in his dissertation
that "U.S. policy toward Indochina in the post-World
War II era must be examined in its proper perspective
as an adjunct to America's policy toward France, and
not a policy unto itself." While Sapp's argument
is limited in scope, it does bear merit. In fact,
U.S. policy in Southeast Asia seems to be a secondary
by-product, a result of events and policies enacted
elsewhere and not only in France as Sapp believes.
The shift by the United States in favor of supporting
French restoration in Indochina was motivated by
factors beyond the events in Southeast Asia.
Unfortunately, U.S. policy was not motivated by
a clear understanding of the situation in Indochina,
and especially, that of Vietnam, the largest of the
territories comprising the region. Geographically
speaking, French Indochina was divided into a number
of administrative entities after 1898. Cambodia and
Laos were separate Kingdoms under French protection,
and Vietnam itself was divided into the protectorates
of Tonkin and Annam and the Colony of Cochin-China.
Napoleon III sent, the first French soldiers to the
region who began their conquest in 1858. A slow
pacification of Indochina spread out from Annam. The
imperial court joined the resistance against French
imperialism in 1885, led by the young Emperor Ham Nighi
(who lived to the end of World War II, but not as
emperor all that time). Vietnam was only pacified by
1897, as the military superiority of the French troops
overcame but did not extinguish the flame of Vietnamese
The record of the French colonial regime is
poor. Much profit was extracted from the subjugated
area with little returned. Eighty percent of the
population remained illiterate during French rule, and
there was only one physician for every fifty thousand
people. Ten percent of the colony's inhabitants,
mostly Frenchmen, owned and controlled the nation and
its economy. Sociologist Melanie Beresford asserts
that the widespread forced recruitment of Vietnamese
labor for French plantations brought about a radical
change in Vietnamese social structure.^ Also,
there was a definite absence of any kind of civil
liberties in Indochina. Except for a tiny minority
of civil servant mandarins and landholders, native
Indochinese were generally excluded from the political
and economic aspects of society. This, according to
historian Joseph Buttinger, "explains not only the
revolutionary character of Vietnam's anticolonial
movement but also why it was easy for so many deter-
mined nationalists to embrace Communist ideals.
Thus, "the uprooting of the traditional Viet-
namese social order and the failure of the early
resistance to the French," asserts Beresford, "led
Vietnamese intellectuals to search for a new rallying
point around which a unified national movement could be
organized." The focal point became the leading
revolutionary Ho Chi Minh. His real name was Nguyen
Ai Quoc and little is known of his early years. It is
known,though, that he traveled widely and fell under
the influence of the French Communist Party in 1920.
By 1930, he had formed the Indochina Communist Party.
Forced into exile, Ho Chi Minh went to China and
founded a group in 1941 subsequently known as the
Viet Minh, which was a "united front" of various
Communist and non-Communist nationalist elements.
Yet Vietnamese nationalism remained strong throughout
its history, and there were a variety of other groups.
One important group was the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang.
(VNQDD), which instigated the infamous Yen Bay uprising
of 9 February 1930. Hundreds died and what was left
of the VNQDD was forced into exile in China. This
group eventually fell under the influence of the
Chinese Kuomintang (KMT), as did another group led by
older intellectuals known as the Dong Minh Hoi. The
other important groups in the nationalist struggle
were politico-religious sects. These were located
mostly in the South and possessed a good deal of
political influence and military strength. These were
the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai sects. Despite widely
differing orientations, all these groups were united
by their pro-independence and anti-French sentiments,
and they were all subjected to sharp repression by the
Despite the repression, Vietnamese nationalism
crystallized under French rule. According to the
Vietnamese scholar Huynh Kim Khanh, Vietnamese patriotism
as a force in the anti-colonial struggle adopted a
"racialism" that "sharpened the identification of 'we-
Vietnamese' versus 'they-foreigners.'" In fact, Khanh
believes that "the partial success of communism in Viet-
nam has been due largely to its ability to identify
itself with Vietnamese patriotism." Thus, it is not
surprising that a great degree of nationalism
arose despite the lack of civil rights in Indochina. It
is also surprising that the French never did enact
comparably adequate civil liberties in Indochina,
despite France's own revolutionary orientation and the
fact that Socialist and Communist-supported cabinets
were in power in France at various times. Indeed, it
was under a left-winged coalition government that
negotiations broke down and full-scale war erupted into
Indochina in 1946. The irony here, according to former
correspondent Ellen J. Hammer, was that both the Social-
ists and the Communists "would not risk an anti-
colonialist stand" so that they could "maintain and
extend their following among the large number of non-
party members they needed to vote them into office."'*'^
Again, outside factors influenced this policy formulation
Little attention was paid by the French, or by
the Americans for that matter, to the vigor of Indo-
chinese nationalism. Roosevelt was able to see the
impact of nationalism on the region, but his program for
eventual independence remained too broad and "left Amer-
ican and French officials confused regarding U.S. policy
towards Indochina." The Truman administration altered
the American anticolonialist stance in order to avoid an
adverse French reaction which would weaken French sup-
port for U.S. efforts to offset Soviet power in Europe.
Eisenhower followed the path that Truman had laid down,
but by his administration the United States could not
risk Communist domination in Southeast Asia. What
follows is an examination of what has come to be called
the "First Indochina War" and the part that the United
States played in it. The significance of the U.S. role
is unquestioned, for the U.S. would have ground troops
in South Vietnam a decade after the Geneva Conference
ending the War. The establishment of the controlling
anticommunist policy set by Truman and followed by
Eisenhower is examined, but it is also contrasted with
the naked colonialist and imperialist policy of France
against not necessarily Communist nationalist elements.
This divergent policy of France was (perhaps unwittingly)
supported by a United States bent on halting Communist
aggression anywhere in the world. How and why the
United States ended up supporting colonial restoration
over nationalism and independence begins with an exami-
nation in depth of the wartime policies of Franklin
^"Christopher Thorne, "Indochina and Anglo-
American Relations, 1942-1945," Pacific Historical
Review 45, no. 1 (February 1976): 96.
Gareth Porter, ed., "Memorandum of Conversa-
tion with Hull, March 27, 1945," in Vietnam: A History
in Documents (New York: New American Library, Inc.,
George McTurnan Kahm and John W. Lewis, The
United States in Vietnam (New York: The Dial Press,
Andrew J. Rotter, The Path to Vietnam: Origins
of the American Commitment to Southeast Asia (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1987), 8.
^Walter LaFeber, "Roosevelt, Churchill and
Indochina: 1942-45," American Historical Review 80,
no. 5 (December 1975): 1277.
George C. Herring, Jr., "The Truman Adminis-
tration and the Restoration of French Sovereignty in
Indochina," Diplomatic History 1, no. 2 (Spring 1977):
Steven P. Sapp, "The United States, France and
the Cold War: Jefferson Caffery and American French
Relations, 1944-1949" (Ph.D. diss., Kent State Univer-
sity, 1978) 153.
Joseph Buttinger, A Dragon Defiant: A Short
History of Vietnam (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972),
"^Melanie Beresford, Vietnam: Politics, Economics
and Society (New York: Printer Publishers, 1988), 10.
"*"Buttinger, A Dragon Defiant, 69.
Beresford, Vietnam, 10.
Chester A. Bain, Vietnam; The Roots of Conflict
(Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967), 95.
Huynh Kim Khanh, Vietnamese Communism, 1925-
1945 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 34.
Ellen J. Hammer, The Struggle for Indochina,
1940-1955 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1955),
George McTurnan Kahin, Intervention: How
America Became Involved in Vietnam (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1986), 4.
Lloyd C. Gardner, Approaching Vietnam: From
World War II Through Dienbienphu, 1941-1954. (New York:
W. W. Norton and Co., 1988), 68-69.
THE ANTICOLONIALISM OF FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT:
THE MUDDLED POLICY HE BEQUEATHED
Before World War II, U.S. involvement with
Vietnam and the rest of Indochina was minimal. Roose-
velt and virtually the rest of America had little
knowledge of the region or of its geo-political impli-
cations. Yet with the war's outbreak and the collapse
of France against the Nazi onslaught, French Indochina
was to emerge as an important preoccupation of the
Roosevelt Administration as Japanese encroachment there
increased. Indeed, the conflict between the United
States and Japan over Indochina and Southeast Asia
"set in motion the series of events that led inexorably
to Pearl Harbor."'*' Understandably, Roosevelt became
very concerned over the postwar fate of Indochina and
was determined not to allow the French to regain control
of their former holdings in Southeast Asia. Instead, he
advocated an international trusteeship and independence
as soon as possible. This was in direct opposition to
British and French positions. Yet after Roosevelt's :
death, the U.S. was compelled by events outside of the
Vietnam region to abandon the trusteeship idea.
Japan's war effort against China had long been
hampered by the supply line which ran from Haiphong
(in Tonkin) into the Yunan Province of China, which
an Imperial Army Staff estimated was supplying the
Chinese nationalists with 48 percent of their total
outside aid by June 1940. The Japanese decided to end
this traffic by demanding from the French in June 1940
that they be allowed to occupy Tonkin. As this was
on the heels of the fall of France to the Germans,
the French Governor-General had no choice but to accept
the ultimatum. The U.S. was in no position to help
French Indochina stave off Japanese demands, for the
U.S. absolutely "would not enter into war with Japan"
and thus "could do nothing." A number of Japanese
demands on the Colony were tendered and accepted, and
Japanese bases were established after August 1940. In
response, the U.S. cut scrap metal and gasoline ship-
ments to Japan, but it was to little avail. The U.S.
did continue its war of words, though, by condemning
Japan throughout the next year.
A voluminous work by a group of Japanese
scholars on the origins of the Pacific War, recently
in part translated into English, describes the
Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact of April 1941 as the
most important act in terms of accelerating hostilities
between the U.S. and Japan. They contend that "fear-
ing that the treaty had strengthened Japan's southern
advance policy, the United States accelerated its own
war preparations against Japan and adopted an even
tougher stance in its negotiations with Tokyo.While
it may be accurate to claim that U.S. actions caused
Japanese reactions, this assertion should not ignore
the obviously provocative actions of Japan leading up to
the outbreak of the War. In fact, the Japanese increased
their demands on the French and on 11 June 1941 pressed
for a military occupation of the southern part of the
colony as well. President Roosevelt informed the
Japanese Ambassador that this move "was being undertaken
by Japan for the purpose of further offense" and urged a
halt to the action. On 26 July 1941, the Vichy govern-
ment assented to a Japanese protectorate over Indochina.
Hearing this, Roosevelt immediately ordered the freezing
of Japanese assets in the U.S., which halted Japanese
The U.S. policy of economic pressure seemed to
work adversely. In effect, the cut-offs of trade with
the U.S. meant that Japan had to move rapidly or face
ruin. It was recognized by many even in the U.S.
government that "the main Japanese thrust would be
southward into Southeast Asia and the East Indies."
On 20 November, Secretary of State Cordell Hull received
a Japanese memorandum requesting the United States
resume trade and not interfere m its war with China.
On 26 November, Hull replied with U.S. requests for
the withdrawal of Japanese troops from Indochina as well
as China before trade could resume.^ Yet already by
this time Japan had decided that its only recourse was
a military invasion of Southeast Asia as well as an
attack on the U.S. fleet in Hawaii in order to secure
the raw materials it needed to fight the war in China.
U.S. economic restrictions had failed to control
Japanese aggression. The Japanese control of Indochina
was a direct result of the French colonial regime's
weakness under pressure. Accordingly, "France was
defeated in Asia in 1941 [and] the Vietnamese would
cite their failure as proof that France had forfeited
its right to 'protect' Indochina
The wartime policy of the U.S. towards Indo-
china was ambivalent. Originally, Roosevelt believed
that the French empire should be preserved. The U.S.
government repeatedly expressed to the Vichy regime and
the Free French an intention to restore to France its
overseas empire after the war. The first such expression
was the letter Roosevelt sent to Marshal Petain on
7 December 1941, which pledged U.S. support to French
colonies "as long as French sovereign control remains
m reality purely French." Similar support was given
to the Free French the next year, and there were other
occasions of support. Following the Clark-Darlan
agreement of 22 November 1942, which preceded Allied
landings in North Africa, Roosevelt issued a declaration
which stated that "French sovereignty will be
re-established as soon as possible throughout all the
territory, metropolitan or colonial, over which the
French flag flew in 1939." This early wartime policy,
however, was based on military expediency rather than on
permanent postwar goals and changes. Roosevelt realized
that French assistance would be needed for the African
Yet there was a clear shift in Roosevelt's
policy toward anticolonialism by the time of the Casa-
blanca Conference in January 1943. Roosevelt was much
disgusted by French actions in giving in to the Japanese
in 1941 in Indochina and also by the resistance that the
Vichy French put up towards American landings in Morocco
and Algeria. Yet Roosevelt on a general level was
also very anticolonialist by nature. This is most clear
in the Atlantic Charter pronouncement on self-
determination. At the Casablanca Conference, Roosevelt
questioned whether certain colonies should "be returned
to France, and he had grave doubts as to whether Indo-
china should be.""^ As Roosevelt considered alterna-
tives to French rule, he began to develop tne trustee-
ship concept for Indochina. Hull's memorandum of a
conversation between Roosevelt and British Foreign
Secretary Eden in March of 1943 clearly indicates that
Roosevelt advocated the idea, and that Eden "was favor-
ably impressed" with it. However, Eden and the
British Foreign Office realized that "if the President
succeeded in dismantling the French colonial holdings,
the British colonies would be next," and thus Eden
flatly rejected the proposal when it was proposed at
Quebec in August 1943. This marked the beginning
of the impasse between the U.S. and British over colonial
ism in Indochina.
At. the Cairo Conference in late November of
1943, Roosevelt moved his trusteeship plan along by
enlisting Chinese support in his scheme. While Chiang
Kai-shek was reluctant to extend Chinese control over
the area, probably due to his own insurmountable
problems, Chiang did agree with Roosevelt that both
countries "should endeavor together to help Indochina
achieve independence after the war." Meeting with
the Big Three at Tehran the next week, Roosevelt again
brought up the Indochina question. "After one hundred
years of French rule the inhabitants were worse off
than they had been before," Roosevelt told Stalin in
a private meeting. He continued by explaining the
trusteeship idea to Stalin, and Stalin "completely
agreed" with Roosevelt. With the support of both
China and the Soviet Union, Roosevelt was able to
state clearly his pro-international trusteeship
position on Indochina and to denounce the British
because "the only reason they seem to oppose it is
that they fear the effect it would have on their own
possessions and those of the Dutch."
Indochina was also an important military
question by late 1944. The issue in this case was
whether to support French and native resistance groups
fighting inside Indochina and whether to use French
forces to fight under Lord Mountbatten1s Southeast
Asian Command (SEAC). Mountbatten himself facilitated
the quiet filtration of French troops into his command
and suggested a presentation of this fait accompli
afterwards to Roosevelt because of his attitude.
Although these operations were important for intelli-
gence in the region, Roosevelt insisted, on 16 October
1944, that the U.S. "should do nothing in regard to
resistance groups or in any other way in relation to
Indochina." In a 3 November note to Under-Secretary
of State Stettinius, Roosevelt urged that "We must not
give American approval to any French military mission,"
but there was little that could be done to halt the
French intrusion as "the British and Dutch had arrived
at an agreement . and [were] about to bring the
French into the picture." Nevertheless, on 21 October,
Churchill had authorized the inclusion of French offi-
cers as part of SEAC without bothering to tell Roose-
velt. The ailing President could do little to keep
his ally from undercutting his positions. It is clear
in retrospect that French participation in SEAC military
operations meant the eventual return of French troops
Roosevelt seems to have been waffling after the
British moves against his trusteeship program. It seems
that he decided to postpone a concrete, decision by all
the Allies on Indochina until the War was over. A
1 January 1945 memorandum clearly reflects Roosevelt's
new attitude. He did "not want to get mixed up in any
Indochina decision" or "any military effort toward the
liberation of Indochina from the Japanese" because he
considered it "a matter for postwar." In this world
of power politics, Roosevelt's decision not to use
American troops to liberate Indochina effectively
removed the U.S. from any postwar position in Indochina.
At. Yalta, "Roosevelt continued to avoid the British on
the subject, preferring to deal with Stalin." When
the trusteeship was brought up at Yalta, Churchill
proved to be reluctant in discussion. Much recent
speculation has been centered around the physical and
mental state of Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference of
February 1945. Despite these concerns and claims,that
Roosevelt bargained too much away at Yalta, no consensus
on the trusteeship issue was arrived at. The U.S.
inability to work out a common policy with Britain
prevented any really meaningful policy towards Indo-
china from being established, and signalled the failure
of the trusteeship concept.
On 9 March 1945, the Japanese acted against
the nominally independent Decoux regime in Indochina
and managed to either kill or jail most of the French
colonial personnel. This sneak attack was precipitated
by Japanese anxieties of whether this last vestige
of Vichy-ism in Asia would remain loyal to Japan or
switch sides to the Allies. Small groups of French
were able to flee. General Chennault, commander of
U.S. Air Forces in Yunan Province, did order some
attacks on Japanese columns in pursuit of the retreating
French. This action, which marks the first U.S.
assistance to the French in Vietnam, was ordered after
pressure by the Free French leader General DeGaulle.
In pleading for aid to Indochina, DeGaulle issued a
kind of ultimatum in stating that the French "do not
want to become Communist [or] to fall into the Russian
orbit but we hope you do not push us into it."
Roosevelt again retreated from his position by allow-
ing air support. It seems he simply crumbled under
pressure. Just how far Roosevelt's position had
eroded is seen in the record of his conversation with
Charles Taussig, a State Department official, in
which Roosevelt effectively discarded the failed
trusteeship plan by agreeing to France's "retaining
these colonies with the proviso that independence was
the ultimate goal." Note here, though, that he
continued to maintain an insistence on eventual inde-
pendence for the Southeast Asian colonies.
Evidence suggests that the trusteeship plan
would have been effective in surmounting the turmoil
that ensued in subsequent years in the region. It
would have prevented the sharp internal schism that
occurred between Frenchmen and Indochinese, and the
anti-Western bias of the natives that eventually
allowed for a Communist victory would not have arisen
to such a degree since in 1945 the U.S. was still
looked upon by most captive peoples (and even by Ho
Chi Minh) as the beacon of freedom. The U.S. should
have used political and economic levers to get Britain
and France to agree to a trusteeship. This would have
been very effective during and right after the war, and
yet the U.S. did not do it.
A workable trusteeship could have been set up
under a U.N. plan as many Pacific Island territories
and other areas like Libya and Eritrea were. The
general concept of Roosevelt's trusteeship plan for
Indochina "lacked precision but he continued to hold
to the objective of independence (following an appro-
priate transitional phase)," according to historian
Gary R. Hess.^ U.N. trusteeships were based on the
old League of Nations trust territories following
World War I and had had mild success. While Roosevelt
favored an international trusteeship, he did believe
that France could accept "the delegations of a trustee
. . with the proviso that independence was the
ultimate goal." Had France accepted such a plan,
postwar conditions in Southeast Asia would have been
The implications of a successful trusteeship
for Indochina were profound. Certainly Ho could not
have been prevented from gaining a great deal of
political power in Vietnam under a trusteeship, but
at least the Vietnamese people would have avoided the
civil war which in fact did ensue. Also, they would
not have been radicalized by such a war, which certainly
would have helped the pro-Western elements in Vietnam
gain status. Furthermore, a trusteeship would have
given time for pro-Western parties to develop and take
root, and democracy might have become firmly estab-
lished in a long-term trusteeship. Interestingly, such
a scheme might have given Ho and other Communists the
opportunity to see the advantages of working with
Western nations, and his subsequent regime may have
become more like Tito's instead of Stalin's.
Yet the trusteeship idea required a greater
push for it to reach actualization, which it never
received under Roosevelt, and it failed to gain accept-
ance from the other Allies. Thus, Roosevelt's
ineffectiveness in advocacy for his concept is very
much to blame for its demise. Roosevelt also gave in
to wartime objectives too easily and allowed them to
displace the postwar changes that he wanted. The
eventual rejection of the trusteeship plan led to what
journalist Walter Lippmann described as American
"underwriting" the actions of the "ultra-Conservative"
colonial powers of Europe, and the end result of these
actions would "ultimately play into Russia's hands."
Because of Roosevelt's death, a new adminis-
tration would stand by (and later encourage) as the
flood gates opened for French restoration. But the
watershed decision of the Truman Administration to
actually send direct aid to the French in their struggle
to re-establish their empire was still years off. U.S.
policy toward Indochina remained muddled for quite some
time after Roosevelt's initial waverings beginning in
late 1944. Roosevelt's attempts to avoid having the
U.S. associated with French colonialism were irrevocably
undermined, however, after his death as mounting
Communist insurgency destabilized the region and forced
his successors to support the restoration of Colonialism
Historical Division of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff (JCS), History of the Indochina Incident/ 1940-
1954 (Washington: Department of Defense, n.d.), 19.
James William Morley, ed., The Fateful Choice:
Japan's Advance Into Southeast Asia, 1939-1941 (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1980), 160.
Joseph Buttinger, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled,
I (New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1967),
Paris Charge to Secretary of State, 21 July
1940, Department of State, Papers Relating to the
Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1940 IV:
The Far East (Washington: U.S. Government Printing
Office (GPO), 1955), 131-34.
Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years
in the State Department (New York: W. W. Norton & Co.,
Inc., 1969), 18-19.
Morley, The Fateful Choice, 160.
Cited in Edward R. Drachman, United States
Foreign Policy.Towards Vietnam, 1940-1945 (Cranbury:
Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1970), 24-25.
Acheson, Present at the Creation, 24.
^Nomura to Hull, 20 November 1941, FRUS, 1941
II: Japan (Washington: GPO, 1959), 755-56.
"'^Secretary of State to Japanese Ambassador,
^Hammer, The Struggle for Indochina, 26.
Roosevelt's letter, FRUS, 1941: Europe
(Washington: GPO, 1959), 205.
Reprinted m Mike Gravel, ed., The Pentagon
Papers: The Senator Gravel Edition, vol. I (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1971), 9.
LaFeber, "Roosevelt, Churchill and Indo-
china," 1278,and JCS, History of the Indochina
Roosevelt's Remarks on French Possessions,
FRUS, The Conferences at Washington, 1941-1942, and
Casablanca, 1943 (Washington: GPO, 1958), 514.
Hull memorandum, FRUS, 1943 III (Washington
GPO, 1961), 37.
Drachman, United States Foreign Policy, 47.
Chinese Summary Records, 23 November 1943,
FRUS, The Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, 1943 2
(Washington: GPO, 1961), 325.
Bohlen Minutes of Meeting, 28 November 1943
Roosevelt to Hull, 24 January 1944, ibid.,
Thorne, "Indochina and Anglo-American
^Roosevelt to Hull, 16 October 1944, FRUS,
1944 III (Washington: GPO, 1963), 777.
Roosevelt to Stettinius, 16 October 1944,
LaFeber, "Roosevelt, Churchill and Indo-
Roosevelt memorandum, 1 January 1945, FRUS
1945: The British Commonwealth, The Far East (Washing-
ton: GPO, 1969), 293.
Gary R. Hess, "Franklin Roosevelt and Indo-
china," Journal of American History 59, no. 1 (June 7
Weldon A. Brown, Prelude to Disaster: The
American Role in Vietnam, 1940-1963 (Boston: Little,
Brown and Co., 1969) 32 .
Caffery to Stettinus, 13 March 1945, FRUS,
1945: The British Commonwealth, The Far East (Washing-
ton: GPO, 1955), 300..
Tausig memorandum, FRUS, 1945: General, The
United Nations (Washington: GPO, 1967), 121-24.
Gary R. Hess, The United States' Emergence as
a Southeast Asian Power, 1940-1950 (New York: Columbia
Univ. Press, 1987), 149.
Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American
Century (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1980), 422.
THE TRUMAN ADMINISTRATION AND
THE RETURN OF THE FRENCH
By the time of Roosevelt's death, the prospect
for a trusteeship was virtually dead. The French never
agreed to the idea and Britain and the Dutch supported
French restoration out of their own imperialism. Even
within the United States government, there were deep
divisions towards exactly what policy should be. The
War Department was committed to French participation
in the region, and wanted the U.S. to be consistent in
its policy towards the French since Portuguese and
Dutch re-establishment had been recognized in the
region.^- The State Department remained divided. On
one side were the "Europeanists," who favored restoring
French rule in Indochina in order to get their cooper-
ation in implementing an international organization at
San Francisco. On the other side were the old "Asia
hands" who were in favor of nationalism for subjugated
peoples of the area. This duality was bound to plague
United States policy in the region. Roosevelt himself
had muddled the situation with his procrastination
toward making concrete definitions of his policy. Also
both Truman and even Secretary of State Stettinius were
relatively inexperienced in foreign affairs. Truman
"was obliged to grope uncertainly as through a mist for
the help he needed . and to accept uncritically the
recommendations of others" and thus was forced to rely
on subordinates for foreign affairs advice. Since the
foremost concern at.the time was Europe, the Europeanist
view came to dominate American foreign policy in the
. The Europeanists were led by H. Freeman
Matthews, the Chief of the State Department Division
of European Affairs. These specialists believed that
the United States should not impose its will upon the
European nations and, instead, had to obtain their
cooperation by dropping anticolonial stance. They were
not opposed to the French return in Southeast Asia, and
"ruled out 'trusteeship' without the permission of the
mother country," which signalled a significant "climb
down" from Roosevelt's position. The Far Eastern
section stressed the importance of economic opportunity
in an independent Vietnam, and they were also "certain
that France would not change its colonial policies on
its own" and American intervention would be necessary
to induce reforms. Major internal differences ensued
over Indochina throughout the spring of 1945. This
period of policy reappraisal was heightened by the
request of the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee
(SWNCC) to the State Department for a statement of a
definite course of actions and long-term plans for
Indochina on Truman's first day in office.
By late April, the State Department worked out
a compromise which favored the Europeanists' view. It
was agreed that the United States would not make any
commitments with respect to Indochina unless France
agreed to certain concessions for self-rule and open
economic policy. If the French intention was for
significant reform, then the United States would
acquiesce to French control in Indochina. This memo-
randum, signed by Assistant Secretary of State James
C. Dunn, a Europeanist, was important because it
indicated the future direction of United States policy
in this region.
Two State Department documents of May and June
1945 indicate that the United States no longer ques-
tioned French control over Indochina, although the
United States government wanted "some positive indica-
tion of [French] intentions in regard to the establish-
ment of basic liberties and increasing measures of
self-government in Indochina." Yet there were problems
as Franco-American relations deteriorated throughout the
spring. The San Francisco Conference opened on 25
April and was the organizational meeting for the United
Nations. However, it was not a rousing success for the
Americans. There was dissension between American and
Soviet delegates over which Polish delegation to seat,
and there was a barrage of complaints from smaller
nations who found themselves excluded from major
decisions. The United States looked for support from
its allies but the French were notably truculent in
demeanor towards the American delegation. Also during
this time, the United States refused to provide aid to
French forces in Indochina and elsewhere. Further-
more, while Truman agreed to accept French assistance
in the Pacific War, no plans were made to liberate
Indochina or to allow the Free French to do so.^ This
promoted a mild degree of animosity between the two
The State Department Europeanists were deter-
mined to reinstate harmony by placating the French. In
keeping with this intent, the American United Nations
Delegation issued a statement to French Foreign Minister
Georges Bidault that "no official policy statement of
this government . has ever questioned even by impli-
cation French sovereignty over Indo-China."^ A week
later, Stettinius was cited as telling of American
"assurances of our recognition of French sovereignty"
over Indochina. The American delegation's remark at
the U.N. Conference obviously excluded mention of
Roosevelt's policy or of the just-made State Department
compromise. Furthermore, Stettinius' remark mentions no
qualifications as to colonial reform or open trade.
Also, the United States delegation sided with the
British and French against a Soviet resolution on the
trusteeship question. Thus, in order to ensure amiable
relations with France, the United States had given up
much of its professed position on Indochina.
In late June, a broad policy towards Colonialism
was finally laid out by the State Department with the
circulation of a "Policy Paper on Conditions in Asia and
the Pacific." The paper was a restatement that leaned
toward the general Europeanist views. Although not
officially approved by Truman, it would serve as his
administration's master-plan for American policy towards
Indochina. The paper stated that in Asia, America's
best course of action was in promotion of its interests
in maintaining strong ties with the Colonial powers
rather than to de-stabilize them by supporting nation-
alism. The flat statement that "The United States recog-
nizes French sovereignty over Indochina" was put forth as
the American Indochina policy without qualifications,
although political and economic reforms were earlier
mentioned in the document. Overall, the United
States was prepared to "avoid any course of action
which would seriously impair the unity of the major
United Nations." Thus, America came out in favor
of colonialism in this policy paper. By avoiding
antagonizing the French, the Truman Administration
gave them a virtual "blank check" in Indochina.
The mid-July Potsdam Conference evidenced the
continued development of this policy. The French
insisted that "there were political and psychological
aspects to the matter" of entering the Pacific War,
and some French military involvement was agreed upon
and was to extend "in due course" to Indochina.
Also, the Japanese in the colony were to surrender to
the Chinese in the North and to the British in the
South and the division of the ensuing occupation was
set at the sixteenth parallel North in accordance with
the recommendations of the combined Chiefs of Staff.
Thus, the French were given an opportunity for a voice
in the surrender of the Japanese occupiers as all
roadblocks were being taken out of France's way. All
except the nationalistic fervor of the Vietnamese, that
is. Yet, the Potsdam Conference had other significance
for the region. It marked the emergence of the Cold War
as the postwar goals of the wartime Allies "were being
eroded by nationalistic hostility between the conquer-
ing powers." East-West attitudes began to harden
after Potsdam, and Harry Truman came home believing
that "force was the only thing" the Russians understood
and they "were planning world conquest." The Cold
War would have a momentous impact on United States
policy towards Vietnam.
Most important, however, was the internal
situation inside Vietnam itself. After the French
ouster by the Japanese (see Chapter II), Bao Dai, the
so-called "playboy emperor" of Vietnam, proclaimed
"independence" for Vietnam on 11 March 1945. The
scholar-Prime Minister Tran Trong Kim selected a
national government but it remained subordinate to the
Japanese authorities. Bao Dai realized that his govern-
ment would only be a puppet, but according to Vietnam
scholar Buttinger, "he had no way of refusing this
collaboration, having even fewer possibilities of
resistance than his French precursors had had when
they capitulated to Japan." This "independent"
Vietnam became part of the Greater East Asia Co-pros-
perity Sphere in service to Japan. It is interesting
to note that Ngo Dinh Diem was Bao Dai's first
selectee for Prime Minister, but the Japanese
telegraphers refused to send the appointment telegram
because they believed that Diem was too revolutionary.
The Kim government of mostly fellow intellectuals was
simply doomed by history and circumstance to fail. It
was challenged and quickly swept away by a much more
practical nationalist, Ho Chi Minh.
The Second World War definitely worked toward
the favor of Ho Chi Minh and the Communists in Vietnam.
The Viet Minh had long carried on a struggle against the
Vichy French and the Japanese, and were not identified
as collaborationists. Moreover, they maintained the
major guerilla forces inside Indochina, rescued downed
United States pilots, provided intelligence, and spread
their propaganda. Their typically tight revolutionary-
cell structure proved to be the only effective political
group in the country. There were several American
contacts with the Viet Minh during the War. One of
these Americans, a young OSS lieutenant, was credited
with furnishing Ho with a nearly exact text of our
Declaration of Independence that was used in the
Independence speech Ho was later to read at Hanoi on
2 September 1945. Ho himself had slipped back into
Vietnam in October 1944 to direct resistance efforts
but made a number of trips to Kunming, China, to request
aid from the American air unit there. Although his
requests were rejected, he managed, nevertheless, to
persuade "American OSS officers, who were aiding the
anti-Japanese resistance movements, that he was no more
than an energetic nationalist leader imbued with strong
anti-colonial sentiments." The Viet Minh generally
played down their Communist ideology. However, Ho's
links to the Soviet Union were apparent. By violent
propaganda and murder, he and his followers managed to
gain a strong foothold in Tonkin and a presence else-
where in the colony. Ho has been interpreted as being
an ardent nationalist by many and a Communist only
secondarily. Prominent Vietnam historian, Joseph
Buttinger,. agrees with this view but points out that Ho
"pursued both his aims (independence and Marxism) simul-
taneously . they were equally important to him . .
he could not conceive of pursuing one without the
other." Weldon A. Brown points out more realistically,
though, that "this interpretation does not reckon with
Ho's unwavering dedication from 1925 on to advance Gom-
munism under Moscow and later Peking guidance."
World War II ended abruptly in mid-August 1945
following, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima
and Nagasaki. The Japanese collapse sparked a renewed
outburst of nationalism in Indochina. On 13 August, Ho
used mass popular demonstrations to capture Hanoi from
the Japanese without bloodshed. Fighting continued
between the Viet Minh and besieged Japanese forces,
though, until the British landed in the South and the
Chinese in the North in September. The Kim government
collapsed and Bao Dai abdicated but assumed the title
of Supreme Advisor to the new regime. American Army and
OSS officers in the region continued cooperating with
the Viet Minh with the result that "the United States
earned the animosity of both sides in this war by giving
support to both French and Vietnamese during this
stage." OSS officers were present when Ho declared
the Democratic Republic of Vietnam's independence in
Hanoi on 2 September.
British and Indian troops landed in Saigon on
12 September. Without sufficient manpower, they had to
rely on Japanese troops to keep order. The British
officer in charge, General Gracey, "was confronted with
a political problem for which he had neither the back-
ground nor the advisors to deal with." His orders
were to merely disarm the Japanese and not to get in-
volved in keeping order. "He disregarded the instruc-
tions, however, with serious political consequences."
On 22 September, Gracey ordered his troops to take the
prison from the Viet Minh administration and free
interred French civilians. French soldiers interned
in a Saigon barracks were also let out. By 26 September,
the nationalist regime in Cochin-China had been over-
thrown. It was in the aftermath of this coup that the
first American to lose his life in Vietnam, OSS Colonel
Peter Dewey, was killed by Viet Minh troops on 26 October
1945. His final report to Washington was a pessimistic
one which stated that "Cochinchina is burning, the
French and British are finished here, and we [the United
States] ought to clear out of Southeast Asia."
Gracey's action was one of a true imperialist,
which clearly he was. He was intent on seeing the pre-
war re-established in Asia, one in which the European
was supreme. Yet there was also a practical aspect.
General Gracey simply did not have enough troops to
exert effective control in the southern part of Vietnam.
Indeed, he could not even keep order in Saigon itself,
for parts of it were under Viet Minh or Japanese occupa-
tion. He was sympathetic to French restoration in
Vietnam, though. This is clear in a statement he
issued. Upon entering Saigon he was "welcomed by the
Viet Minh" but "promptly kicked them out."^ Gracey's
attitude was in conflict with official British policy
which advocated a more neutral approach. Gracey's only
order was to disarm the Japanese. That he went further
and released and armed the French, does not necessarily
represent a violation of his instructions.
The situation in Saigon was simply unmanageable
by Gracey's small force of men. He had enough troops
only to begin disarming the Japanese, not to control
the political chaos that Vietnam had become in late
1945. As it was, more British troops under Gracey's
command would not have helped, for. he was' not instructed
to quell unrest in the region. Gracey's intervention in
favor of the French, then, was motivated primarily by
the practical aspect of allowing the French to
re-establish order and also by a personal desire to see
restored French rule in Indochina.
Gracey allowed French soldiers to return to
Indochina under General LeClerc on 5 October. On 25
October, LeClerc began the reconquest of Indochina.
Meanwhile, in the North, a large Chinese occupation
force brought with it a French Commissioner named Jean
Sainteny and a number of KMT-supported nationalists.
The 180,000 Chinese occupiers of the North allowed
Ho's government to function and seemed to be interested
only in looting and pillaging their portion of Vietnam
before they had to leave. A 28 February agreement
between China and France did provide for a French
return to Hanoi and Chinese evaculation in return for
the French bases and territories in China.
The French were back in power in Indochina and
the United States had recognized their sovereignty.
However, their armed aggression against the Viet Minh
marked the beginning of the First or French Indochina
War. The French "were headed into a prolonged, unpopu-
lar war which would weaken Western interests in the
region," Dr. Hess asserts, and "the'direction of Amer-
ican policy clearly signalled the necessity to uphold
the French position." American policy makers clearly
feared the consequences of a Communist-dominated
Southeast Asian state. The Marxist complexion of the
Viet Minh had overshadowed their nationalism and the
shortcomings of French colonialism in the eyes of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff Historical Division,
History of the Indochina Incident, 1940-1954 (Wash-
ington: Department of Defense, n.d.), 30.
Cabell Phillips, The Truman Presidency
(London: The Macmillan Company, 1966), 94-95.
Thorne, "Indochina and Anglo-American
Herring, "The Truman Administration," 102-03.
JCS, Indochina Incident, 41.
Draft memo on Indochina cited in ibid., 42.
Grew to Caffery, 9 May 1945 and Department
of State to Chungking Embassy, 7 June 1945, reprinted
in: Allan P. Cameron, Viet-Nam Crisis: A Documentary
History. Vol. I: 1940-1956 (Ithaca: Cornell Univer-
sity Press, 1971): 36-39.
Phillips, Truman Presidency, 77-82.
Secretary of State to French Ambassador,
20 April 1945, FRUS, 1945 VI, 306-07.
^JCS, Indochina Incident, 43.
'^'Conversation of French and American dele-
gations, 3 May 1945, quoted in Herring, "The Truman
12Grew to Caffery, 9 May 1945, FRUS, 1945 VI,
1322 June 1945, FRUS, 1945 VI, 567-68.
The war ended before substantial French
troops arrived. See Memorandum of Conversation,
French Ambassador and Acting Secretary of State,
23 July 1945, FRUS: Conference of Berlin/Potsdam,
1945 (Washington: GPO, 1960), 1348-49.
French Military Misson to Marshall, 29
May 1945, ibid., 1342-43.
Phillips, Truman Presidency, 85.
Truman, Memoirs, vol. I, 411-12.
Buttinger, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled,
Khanh, Vietnamese Communism, 295.
Hess, The United States2 * * 8 Emergence as a
Southeast Asian Power, 170-71.
Senate Committee on Foreign Relations,
The United States and Vietnam, 1944-1947 (Washington:
GPO, 1972), 2 .
R. E. M. Irving, The First Indochina War:
French and American Policy, 1945-54 (London: Croom-
Buttinger, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled,
vol. I, 377-79.
Brown, Prelude to Disaster, 19.
Sapp, "The United States, France and the
Cold War," 168.
Hammer, The Struggle for Indochina, 115.
Cited in Gardner, Approaching Vietnam, 72.
Edward Rice-Maximm, Accommodation and
Resistance: The French Left, Indochina, and the Cold
War, 1944-1954 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 23.
Beresford, Vietnam, 22.
Hess, The United Stats' Emergence as a
Southeast Asian Power, 204.
TRUMAN AND WANING "NEUTRALITY" IN
THE FRANCO-VIET MINH WAR
Throughout the fall of 1945, the United States
government received eight appeals from Ho Chi Minh for
United States recognition of the Democratic Republic
of Vietnam's (DRV) independence.^- The United States
took no action on these but also did not aid the
French. Although the United States government took no
official position supporting either the DRV or France,
OSS officers in Hanoi and Saigon ostensibly supported
the Viet Minh. This indecisiveness is worth exami-
Anonymous OSS memos from Indochina during
late 1945 detail the positions taken by the operatives
in the region. A 21 August 1945 memo warned that if
an occupation force had "French included, a pitched
battle would ensue." A 22 August note described the
"Annamites" desire "to bring Annam [referring to all
of Vietnam] under the status of an American protec-
torate" similar to the Philippines. The memo further
mentions that armed French re-entry from Yunan into
Indochina was halted by Chinese and American troops.
By 5 September, the OSS operatives reported that the
Vietnamese were "in full control" in Vietnam and "should
the French attempt a return, the Annamese [sic] will
maintain their independence at the cost of lives." The
OSS representative in Hanoi reported "trouble brewing"
as the French there became "belligerent" and the Chinese
"aggressive." A 22 September dispatch quoted a Viet
Minh official as hoping "that the American republic,
having fought to defend the liberty of the World, will
support and receive Indochina in its independence move-
ment." After the Gracey-assisted coup, the OSS reported
that the "Annamese were now thoroughly disillusioned
with the British" and began reporting, on 7 September,
that Chinese "plundering" had driven the regime in Hanoi
On 28 September, the OSS reported on Gracey's
order to "shoot all armed Vietnamese on sight" and
the corresponding Viet Minh slogan "Death to all
Europeans." Many Japanese "appeared to have adopted
native costume and joined the Annamese." Two notes
from Ho Chi Minh to the President dated 17 September
and 20 September expressed the Viet Minh's "willing-
ness to cooperate with the U.N. in the establishment
of peace, but, having suffered so much under French
dominion, are determined never to let the French
return to Indochina and will fight them under any
circumstances." Yet both Ho1s pleas and the OSS memos
were never seriously considered by prominent cabinet
officials. OSS Director William J. Donovan tried to
.communicate to the Cabinet that the Viet Minh-DRV
was not a "full-fledged doctrinaire" Communist movement
and that it enjoyed the support of the majority of the
people as his agents in Indochina found out. Yet
Acheson declared to the OSS on 5 October that America
did not oppose "the re-establishment of French control
The French under LeClerc consolidated their
control of the major cities in the South by February
1946. It was also in this month that Ho acceded to
Chinese pressure and included members from the pro-
Chinese parties, the VNQDD and the Dong Minh Hoi, into
his government. On 6 March 1946, the Viet Minh also
had little choice but to accept a settlement with
Sainteny to allow a number of French troops to return
to the North in exchange for recognition as a "free
State" within the French Union. Ho's position was weak
and he needed time, so he compromised. Yet the French
generally disregarded that settlement and reneged at
other Conferences, all the while occupying one strong-
hold after another. Ho launched a surprise attack on
16 December 1946, when the French demanded that Ho's
militia be disbanded after a customs incident at
Haiphong. Ho's forces retreated in to the hills in
a rout. This is considered the beginning of the
Franco-Viet Minh War.
The United States stood by as French restora-
tion occurred in Indochina. In 1946 negotiations, the
French deliberately dragged their feet hoping that
Vietnam would become pacified. American officials
recognized French insincerity about Indochina, and
recommended "that they abide by the March 6 Convention."
Ho, in France at the time, pleaded with the American
Ambassador to help him secure independence along the
6 March lines. The United States avoided any commit-
ments on Indochina, and pursued a course of neutrality
in the war as it regarded "the conflict as fundamentally
a matter for French resolution."
Along with a renewal of hostilities in Indo-
china came reports from French sources which had the
effect of stimulating American concern over Ho's
Communist leanings. The sudden French concern over
Communism in Indochina was suspect, for they were
fighting for colonial restoration and not against a
Communist menace per se. There was also a continual
threat of Communist victory at the polls in France
itself. The United States began to reconsider the
spectator role it had played since early 1945. A
dispatch by Acting Secretary of State Acheson to Saigon
in regard to a State Department fact-finding mission in
December 1946 labeled Ho a Communist and stressed that
the "least desirable eventuality would be establishment
[of a] communist-dominated, Moscow-oriented state in
Indochina." Perceiving Ho as a Kremlin tool and
worried about a Communist victory in France, it was
easy to see why American officials began to sympathize
with the French position in regard to Indochina. A long
struggle in Indochina would undermine the French economy
and destabilize it politically. A defeat would weaken
France, and a continual war would drain troops from
France's European defenses. This was the line of
thought that led to the U.S. acquiescence to French
efforts and would lead to direct U.S. aid to them.
American officials thus became convinced that although
Ho was "the only native leader with any widespread
support and following," he was also a "Communist" and
"not to be trusted."^
In accordance with this position, the French in
Indochina sought to undermine Ho's following by foster-
ing native opposition to the Viet Minh. By 1947, Bao
Dai, the ex-Emperor who had fled the DRV regime in 1946
to resume his extravagant lifestyle in Hong Kong, was
put forth as such a candidate. This was known as the
"Bao Dai Solution" and it took until 1949 to implement.
It was "not so much a policy worked out by the French
Government as a solution forced upon it by develop-
ments in Vietnam."'*'^ The French put forth this solution
due to the failure of their 1947 fall offensive against
the Viet Minh.
Bao Dai did not have the personality, the ambi-
tion, or the following to fill such a role. He was
malleable and shy, a gambler and a womanizer. It took
two years to persuade Bao Dai to return to Vietnam. The
Along Bay Agreement of December 1947 set up the condi-
tions for Bao Dai's return. But Bao Dai's advisors
were critical of the accord and urged the ex-Emperor
to demand greater concessions.'*''*' In an effort to force
Bao Dai's acceptance of their terms, the French in the
spring of 1948 proposed that General Nguyen Van Xuan
form a provisional government for Vietnam. General
Xuan had been the leader of a separate government for
Cochin-China that the French had unsuccessfully pushed
after the breakdown with Ho Chi Minh. This resulted in
a second Along Bay Agreement with qualified "inde-
pendence" for Vietnam and the establishment of Xuan's
provisional government for all of Vietnam 5 June 1948.
Bao Dai signed it as a witness but not as a party to the
agreement. Yet the Xuan government was
without an army, a government over which the
French civil service retained full control
. . [and] although a tool of the French,
was politically useless to them, and of no
value whatsoever to the Vietnamese national
Secretary of State George C. Marshall, in July
1948, requested that the French completely alter their
policy in Indochina, stating that it was critical that
an anticommunist nationalist government "be given every
chance to succeed by the granting to it of such conces-
sions as will attract the greatest possible number of
non-communist elements." Yet the situation in French
Indochina remained static as Cabinets in France were
reshuffled throughout 1948. The Saigon Consul urged
greater American diplomatic pressure be brought to bear
on France to give concessions so that Bao Dai could form
an alternate government to the DRV.^ The French
nevertheless remained intransigent.
The dilemma for the U.S. was cited in a State
Department policy paper on Indochina in September. The
U.S.'s biggest pitfall was the "inability to suggest a
practicable solution of the Indochina problem."'*'^ The
U.S. could not press France if it did not have a solu-
tion of its own and was not prepared to accept the
possibility of intervention. The State Department could
not put pressure on France, and did not through 1948.
Instead, it chose to stabilize the Paris government by
general acquiescence to its Indochina policy. It did not
want to undermine the Bao Dai solution or France. The
U.S. considered the French role in Europe critical.
Particularly, French participation in the containment
of Soviet expansionism in Europe was deemed as crucial.
France was the only continental state in Europe large
enough to provide troops for the organization (since
Germany was still under occupation and the other states
of Western Europe were too small).
The dramatic turning point was the Chinese
Civil War's outcome. In January 1949, the Communists
captured Peking. The United States judged China as
doomed to fall to the Communists. This "meant that the
Viet Minh would soon have powerful friends on its
northern borders" and have new and strong supply lines.
The imminent Communist victory in China made prospects
for France's effort in Indochina bleak. But the U.S.
State Department Europeanists were "more concerned about
the possibility of exerting undue strain on the fragile
Queuille coalition in France than in resolving the
Frenchmen were still opposed to granting mean-
ingful concessions. However, they had to develop some
solution to the Communist menace on Indochina's borders.
The results were the so-called "Elysee Agreements" of
8 March 1949. They reconfirmed Vietnamese independence
along the Along Bay lines. (Cambodia and Laos were
always considered separate associated states under
their own Kings.)
The Elysee Agreements did establish greater
autonomy for Vietnam and had the result of attracting
the support of some non-Communist nationalists. These
accords really meant something in terms of Vietnamese
unity. The French relinquished administration of key
territories in the North, which now reverted to official
Vietnamese control. Furthermore, a national army was
created as was a police force. The Vietnamese were
also allowed to begin appointing their own ambassadors
and their delegates to the French Union Assembly. The
French still maintained control of the area unofficially.
Although U.S. officials believed that the
Elysee Agreements afforded a "workable basis for the
fulfillment of Vietnam's aspirations," the United
States waited for full implementation of the accords.
The French transferred a greater degree of authority
to the Bao Dai regime in December 1949. With that
transfer of authority, U.S. recognition followed in
February 1950 of the Associated States of the French
Union of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The advent of the
People's Republic of China in October 1949 meant that
the Viet Minh would be significantly strengthened.
Also, the French and anticommunist nationalists in
Vietnam would be in an increasingly tenuous position.
This all meant that American support would have to be
significantly increased in order to prevent a similar
Communist victory in Indochina. This would be the
primary reason for U.S. aid to the French in 1950.
Under the Truman Administration, the U.S. had
adopted a position of neutrality with respect to French
Indochina. This "Europeanist" attitude assumed that
the French could solve the issue by themselves. America
was unwilling to jeopardize the fragile coalition govern-
ments in France by pressuring them for reform in Indo-
china as their military reconquest failed again and
again. The flawed "Bao Dai Solution" was put forth as
the only answer to the problem and a French-controlled
"State of Vietnam" was launched. The state was given
an army which proved as ineffective in the field as the
government was politically.
On a House Subcommittee trip to Asia in 1949,
Representative Charles B. Deans of North Carolina
reported a telling but reasoned assessment on his
The net result of the French action [to crush
the nationalist movement] was largely to solidify
the movement firmly behind a militant and Commu-
nistic leadership under the presidency of Ho Chi
Minh. [They are] now trying to win over the Viet-
namese by establishing an alternative nationalist
government under Bao Dai. They have not genuinely
transferred sovereignty. [Bao Dai] must alienate
a large segment of the nationalist support for Ho
Chi Minh if the U.S. is to successfully assist
He went on to advise against arms shipments to Vietnam
until Bao Dai's regime had popular support, citing that
80 percent of the arms sent to the KMT were now in
Communist Chinese hands.
This was the sitaution in Indochina by 1950.
The French were increasingly being seen by the U.S.
government as the anticommunist bulwark in Southeast
Asia and Europe. It was realized in Vietnam, however,
that French policy had to change from its pre-war,
colonialist view of Asia. The U.S. could not "support
an obsolete colonial policy against a movement with
such a great popular appeal." The U.S. should have
pushed France to grant independence to Indochina,
although the new regime would have been a Communist-
leaning one. Instead, pseudo-independence was given
the Bao Dai regime, and the U.S. became obliged to
extend financial and military aid to the French as
they became further bogged down in what was perceived
in the U.S. as a war against Communism and what the
French perceived as a fight for Colonial restoration.
But it was primarily a war of Colonialism against
^"Gravel, The Pentagon Papers, vol. I, 17.
These documents found in: Papers of Harry
S. Truman, Rose Conway Files (PSF), Donovan Chrono-
logical File: OSS, Feb.-Dec. 1945, Truman Library,
Donovan to Byrnes, 5 September 1945, Acheson
memorandum of 5 October 1945, quoted in Edward Rice-
Maximin, Accommodation and Resistance, 24.
James Pickney Harrison, The Endless War: Fifty
Years of Struggle in Vietnam (New York: The Free Press,
Caffery to Secretary of State, 7 July 1946,
FRUS, 1946: Vol. VIII (Washington: GPO, 1963), 48-49 .
Caffery to Byrnes, 11 September 1946, ibid.,
Gravel, The Pentagon Papers, 3.
Acheson to Saigon Consul, FRUS, 1946: Vol.
VIII, 72 .
^Caffery to Marshall, FRUS, 1947: VI, 118-19.
"^Irving, The First Indochina War, 56.
'*'"*'Rice-Maximin, Accommodation and Resistance,
Buttinger, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled, II,
"^Marshall to Caffery, FRUS, 194 8 : VI (3 July
'"'consul General to Secretary of State, 2 8
August 1948, ibid., 39.
Policy Statement of the Department of State,
September 1948, ibid., 43-49.
Hammer, Struggle for Indochina, 232.
Sapp, "The United States, France and the
Cold War," 312.
Hess, The United States1
Southeast Asian Power, 314.
Emergence as a
Caffery to Acheson, FRUS, 1949: VII (16
March 1949), 12-14.
Truman Papers, PSF Far East Subject File,
report dated 19 October 1949.
Brown, Prelude to Disaster, 36.
COLD WAR, CONTAINMENT, AND DIRECT
AMERICAN INTERVENTION IN THE
FRANCO-VIET MINH WAR
By 1950, the situation in Indochina impelled
the United States to take an active role. The Viet
Minh were growing stronger as the French weakened.
Communist China strengthened the Viet Minh and there
was the possibility of armed Chinese intervention. The
Bao Dai Solution gave little promise to any hope of
native support for the French war effort. The French
had to be helped or they would lose Indochina to the
Communists. On this basis, the U.S. made the decision
to help the French. The means for such an assistance
program would be the Mutual Defense Assistance Act's
Section 303 funds which set aside seventy-five million
dollars to combat Communism in the Far East.^ Yet,
within a few years, America would be paying upwards of
80 percent of France's war costs and would herself be
deeply involved in the quagmire of Indochina.
The presence of Chinese Communist troops on
the Indochinese border was followed in early 1950 by
official recognition of the DRV by China and the Soviet
Union. Secretary of State Acheson expressed outrage
with the Soviet decision and attacked the DRV in a
1 February 1950 memorandum:
The Soviet acknowledgement of this movement
should remove any illusions as to the "nation-
alist" nature of Ho Chi Minhs aims and reveals
Ho in his true colors as the mortal enemy of
native independence in Indochina.2
U.S. recognition of the Bao Dai regime as well as of
the governments of Cambodia and Laos followed on 2
February. This significant shift m U.S. policy
derived from the broader strategic concept of con-
tainment as espoused by Acheson and later by Dulles.
This concept was applied to Southeast Asia by a
10 April 1950 JCS memorandum, which cited the region
as "a vital segment in the line of containment." It
also listed Indochina in what later was known as the
"domino theory" concept for the first time, stating
that "the fall of Indochina would undoubtedly lead
to the fall of the other mainland states of Asia."
This theory as first articulated was to underlie all
major U.S. policy decisions toward Vietnam for decades
The "domino theory" emerged in 1947 to
describe Communist-inspired destabilizations of Greece
and Turkey. The Truman Doctrine was the first reac-
tion to this as the United States, according to Cold
War historian Gabriel Kolko, believed that other
European and Middle Eastern states would fall to
Communism if Greece and Turkey became victims of
Soviet domination. This theory was soon applied to
Europe in the form of the Marshall Plan for recon-
struction and eventually to Indochina. This "first
and probably the most durable of conventional U.S.
doctrines on the process of change and power in the
modern world," according to Gabriel Kolko, asserted
that "an area was, by this calculation, no stronger
than its weakest link." He also contends that "the
domino mode of analysis, involving interconnections
and linkages in estimating the efforts of major
political upheavals," led American policy makers to
decide to "draw the line against any new Communist
states in Asia, even though Washington was preoccupied
with European problems."^ Thus, it was the view of
the world that linked discrete and distant foreign
policy questions which was the basis for American
involvement in Vietnam.
This line of thought led to the consideration
of an American military defense assistance program
(MDAP) to Vietnam. This is clearly seen in the report
of the Far Eastern Affairs Bureau on military aid to
Indochina. Aid was recommended "in order to achieve U.S.
political and economic objectives" that would "permit the
three newly-formed states to establish economic (and
political) stability and thereby lessen the danger of
Communism in the area." The French were also asking
the U.S. for military aid at this time, "pointing out the
hope that with Section 303 funds the immediate needs of
the French military in Indochina could be supplied in
this crucial area of Communist aggression." The State
and Defense Departments approved JCS recommendations for
a military aid program for Indochina on 6 March. Acheson
accordingly recommended that fifteen million dollars of
the Section 303 funds be allocated to Indochina. An
additional amount of funds was also to be sent to Indo-
china because it was unvouchered.
The U.S. did attach strings to its aid program.
In conjunction with financing France's war effort, the
French were to move towards greater reform and independ-
ence for their Southeast Asian Colony. The American gov-
ernment expressed hope that France would "grant greater
degrees of independence to the three states as the secur-
ity position in Indochina allowed."''''*' It would expend
upon France a mild degree of verbal pressure to move along
the road for true freedom in Indochina. This situation was
paradoxical. If Indochina did obtain its freedom, the
French would stop fighting. They needed to fight for
something that they had a vested interest in. Yet, if
Indochina was not given true independence, then the
Vietnamese people would not back any puppet regime under
the French no matter what political complexion it con-
sisted of. The U.S. aid extended the war, it is true,
for the French began suffering defeat in late 1949 and
early 1950 and needed massive help, which the U.S.
rendered. But "Frenchmen would keep fighting only if the
United States would pay the bill of hundreds of millions
of dollars a year for years" to help the French subju-
gate Vietnamese nationalism (not just Communism).
The onset of the Korean conflict on 24 June 1950,
marked a significant turning point for Indochina and had
a profound impact on U.S. policy there. The Korean War
signaled the spread of the Cold War from Europe to Asia
where it became outright aggression. Although American
attention and military resources focused on Korea, the
French effort in Indochina benefited from this so-called
police action and determined American policy in South-
east Asia for a number of years. There was now a recog-
nized Communist threat to American interest in Asia and
Indochina was a key, strategically, to the defense of the
region. Military aid to the region took on a new sense
Truman reacted expeditiously in regard to the
Communist threat in Asia. In addition to announcing
the intervention of ground troops in Korea on 27 June
1950, the President also "directed acceleration in the
furnishing of military assistance to the forces of
France and the associated states in Indochina and the
dispatch of a military mission." On 1 August, Truman
asked for and later received Congressional approval for
a supplemental appropriation of four billion dollars
for FY 1951, under which an additional $107,300,000
was allocated to Indochina in addition to 303 funds
through the French government.
Yet, 1950 witnessed great reversals for the
French in Indochina as well as for the Americans in
Korea. The situation which brought about this defeat
was the victory of the Communists in mainland China
in late 1949. With this event, the Viet Minh were
"geographically linked to the Socialist bloc" and it
"opened up an avenue by which the Viet Minh could
eventually receive the supplies and arms" that the
French were attempting to deny them."^ The French
High Command continued its belief in a system of
protective forts along the frontier with China despite
the fact that these increasingly isolated posts were
vulnerable and could do little to interdict the flow
of arras to the Vietnamese Communists. The most recent
work on the military aspects of the War by retired
Army officer Phillip B. Davidson asserts that this
"stupidity and indecision of the French Command in
1949 [was] paid for in the blood of the soldiers
posted along the road" connecting the northern forts
the next year."^
The Viet Minh inflicted upon the French an
astounding military defeat at Cao Bang and Dong Khe,
with the loss of six thousand French troops and
millions ,of dollars in equipment. it was clear that
the French needed to fight the war with more determi-
nation, which, according to Davidson, only the Legion-
naires seemed to have, and to incorporate a greater
degree of native support for its efforts. Secretary of
State Acheson recalls that the State Department's view
at the time was that the French would lose in Indochina
"unless France swiftly transferred authority to the
Associated States and organized . . substantial
indigenous forces" to fight in Vietnam. Acheson became
worried after the large infusion of aid to the French
that American efforts did "tend to supplant rather than
complement those of the French" with respect to Viet-
namese independence. He and others were concerned
that the U.S. could "become a scapegoat for the French
and be sucked into direct intervention." The set-
backs in 1950 caused reconsideration by some officials
but the dire need to contain Communist aggression over
rode the advice of cooler heads.
An American military mission visited Indo-
china in the summer of 1950. The Chief of the Joint
MDAP survey mission to Indochina was State Department
official John F. Melby. Melby's most pertinent recom-
mendations centered around France's "serious failure
to develop the use of native troops." The French
feared that armed Vietnamese troops would turn on
them. Melby described the French attitude as
"defeated and despairing" and "defensive," with a
"woeful lack of war material." General Erskine, the
senior military officer with the mission, assessed the
military situation. He complained that although the
French outnumbered the Viet Minh in battalions by one
hundred to forty-five, the French "Beau Geste-type"
mentality in their strategy, especially in regards to
the frontier fortifications system. He assessed the
French military in the report, citing that half of
France's Army and Air Corps was in Indochina as was
a quarter of the Navy. Yet, only a third of the
French Union Troops were actually French, the rest
being Indochinese, North African, Senegalese, or
Legionnaires. The French had casualties of 10,218
per year since 1945. in combat in Vietnam. According
to Erskine, the reason why the French did not arm
Vietnamese was that they made deals with Viet Minh
in their sectors to avoid combat. Despite these
criticisms of the French, Erskine urged U.S. support
for the French in order to deny to the Communist
powers the use of Southeast Asia's natural resources
This report was received in Washington in
late August and action on it began immediately.
It was the basis for the $133 million total sent
to Indochina in FY 1951. Aid was sent directly
to the French and not to Bao Dai's "State of Vietnam
The Cao Bang defeat in the fall of 1950 was coun-
terchecked with massive aid and the arrival on the
scene of the very effective French General de
General de Lattre was able to repulse
Viet Minh attacks by consolidating his defenses.
The largest battle occurred in January 1951 at
Vinh Yen when the French were attacked by forty
thousand Communist troops, but MDAP aid to the
French proved to be determining factors
in repulsing this attack. De Lattre was a confident
man and, in an interview with Acheson in the fall of
1951, talked of "turning the tide" and the effective
elimination of Viet Minh fighting capabilities in one
to two years if there was no Chinese intervention.
According to de Lattre, the "front was never so stable"
and he even outlined a plan for the buildup of a national
Vietnamese army. As a further defensive measure,
General de Lattre had built 1,500 fortresses along the
Northern border of Tonkin and in the Red River delta
in 1951 alone in a strategy reminiscent of that of the
Maginot Line or of Chiang Kai-shek's defensive plan in
the Chinese Civil War.
Yet, the reversal inflicted upon the Viet Minh
was only temporary. The Viet Minh had dramatically
streamlined their organization by purging nearly all
non-Communist nationalist elements from it in 1951.
In addition, de Lattre's employment of a strategy that
was already proven in 1950 to have had serious drawbacks,
did not help the French military position. The French
had spread thin their manpower, negating their numerical
superiority, and were forced into a strangling "defen-
sive psychosis" by small bands of the enemy who could
keep them tied down at their bunkers. De Lattre
himself died from cancer at this time, further hurting
the war effort for France. By 1952, the officer attri-
tion in Indochina was "30% higher than officer gradu-
ation rate at the Ecole Militaire." Furthermore, at
a December 1952 meeting of foreign ministers it was
made clear that the Viet Minh were planning to conduct
a campaign in Laos and thereby avoid the French forces
in the Red River delta. The situation looked grim.
Despite these impediments, the U.S. continued
to provide aid. The monetary value of the material
shipped to Indochina throughout 1952 amounted to
$171,100,000, with the total value of shipments since
1950 valued at $334,700,000 (not that large a sum,
since the U.S. was giving Korea around seven hundred
million dollars per fiscal year; but this was, in fact,
nearly 80 percent of France's war costs in Indochina).
The French threatened to cut down on the European
defense commitments in 1952. Thus, the U.S. government
began sending France millions of dollars to support her
domestic budget, much of which the French government
subsequently shunted to the Indochina campaign anyway.
By December of 1952, the military situation had again
soured and the French were forced to abandon much of
Northern Laos. France then requested the U.S. to send
its aircraft mechanics to service their C-47s "operating
at several times the normal ratio" in tactical drops,
airlifts, and evacuations, and it did so.
The strategic security situation in Europe also
figured in to America's Indochina policy. According to
Secretary of State Acheson, the U.S. had pushed for a
European Defense Community (EDC) under the Bonn accords,
and the French blackmailed the U.S. in regard to a
defense commitment in Europe. The French maintained
that they could not keep up their aid in NATO unless
the U.S. continued massive aid to their war effort in
Indochina. Acheson was notably frustrated by this
threat because, due to the impending ratification of
this defense pact, the U.S. could not "end, or threaten
to end, aid to Indochina unless an American plan of
military and political reform was carried out." Thus,
the U.S. considered itself shackled to France's War.
The French stubbornly refused to carry out, or stalled,
on political reforms and refused to listen to American
recommendations on the military situation. In general,
the French "displayed scant desire to accept American
assistance in other than a solid and tangible form."
The major foreign policy issue in the election
of 1952 was the Korean War which overshadowed any
impact that increasing American involvement in Indochina
might have had. According to Robert Divine, there was no
way that the Democratic Presidential nominee, Adlai Steven
son, "could turn the Korean War against Eisenhower" or,
for that matter, Vietnam,for these were situations
that had arisen under the Truman Administration, which
Stevenson had to stand up for. Indeed, after Eisen-
hower's popular "go-to-Korea" pledge, it became evident
that the Democrats had been beaten by the Korea issue.
Indeed, the Korean War had as much impact in 1952 as
Vietnam did in 1968. The Indochina issue was important
in terms of the general effectiveness of the Containment
policy, though. Truman was perceived as simply unable to
effectively counter the Communist menace. Eisenhower, on
the other hand, was perceived as a strong military type
who would "hold the line" against Communism in Korea and
keep U.S. ground troops out of Vietnam. Americans viewed
the Indochina War as part of a worldwide Communist
strategy aimed at world domination. Both candidates in
the presidential race could only agree that this menace
had to be halted. Both knew that the French effort there
had to be supported, for the French were on the front-
line against Communism. This is why the issue of Viet-
nam had little play in the general election.
The Truman period ended in early 1953. A
brief assessment of its policy toward Indochina shows
a situation that had escalated and become much
worse since full support had been given to the French
cause in 1950. The Truman Administration left
behind a deep American commitment to a colonial war
that pitted an increasingly strong rebellion against
the decreasingly effective French. The conflict had
been internationalized by both Communist and American
intervention and France used its position in regard to
the Cold War in Europe to manipulate a deeper American
involvement in Southeast Asia. America, after 1950,
was for all intents and purposes at war with Viet-
namese nationalism due to its support of the French.
The legacy to Eisenhower and the future U.S. President
confronting this issue of Vietnam was by 1953 irrever-
sible. The Americans simply could not have told the
French "no more aid without reforms" and then stood by
it. They needed French support in Europe and by 1953
saw Indochina as the frontline in the war to contain
Communism. Despite the possibility that France would
lose the war, the U.S. was inextricably involved, and
would support France until the bitter end. Among U.S.
policy makers, by 1953 "the old doubters were gone or
quieted and a new team factored out most of the
remaining uncertainty about the wisdom of offering
France and its puppet unqualified support" in Indo-
china, according to Cold War historian Robert Blum.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Historical Division
(JCS), History of the Indochina Incident, 1940-1954
(Washington: Department of Defense, n.d.), 149.
Statement by Acheson on DRV, 1 February 1950,
cited in Gareth Porter, Vietnam; The Definitive Docu-
mentation of Human Decisions, vol. I (New York: New
American Library, Inc., 1979), 225.
"^Acheson to Truman, FRUS, 1950: VI, 716-17.
NSC paper cited m Gravel, The Pentagon
^Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the
United States, and the Modern Historical Experience
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 74.
7FRUS, 1950: VI (16 February 1950), 735-38.
JCS, Indochina Incident, 154.
"^Michael Schaller, The American Occupation of
Japan: The Origins of the Cold War in Asia (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1985), 242-45.
^'''Acheson to Truman, FRUS, 1950: VI, 716-17.
Brown, Prelude to Disaster, 38.
U.S. Department of State, American Foreign
Policy, 1950-1955: Basic Documents, vol. II (Washing-
ton: GPO, 1957), 2539-40.
JCS Indochina Incident, 171.
Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War, The
History; 1946-1975 (Novate: Presidio Press, 1988), 71
George C. Herring, Jr., America's Longest
War; The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (New
York: John Wiley and Sons, 1979), 15.
Acheson, Present at the Creation, 671-75.
^Quoted from TIA SONG editorial of 25 July
1950, Papers of John F. Melby, Chronological File
Southeast Asia, 15 July-7 August 1950, Box 11,
Truman Library, Independence, Missouri.
Undated letter from Melby to Lacy and Rusk,
Erskine Report of 8 August 1950, in ibid.
JCS, Indochina Incident, 195.
State Department Memo of 14 September 1951,
in Papers of Dean Acheson, Memoranda of Conversations
1951Copy vol. 1, Box 66, Truman Library, Independ-
Beresford, Vietnam, 28.
Melvin Gurtov, The First Vietnam Crisis:
Chinese Communist Strategy and United States Involve-
ment, 1953-1954 (New York: Columbia University Press,
20 October 1952 Meeting between Acheson
and Chinese Foreign Minister, in Acheson Papers,
Box 67, Truman Library, Independence, Missouri.
Memo of Conversation between French Foreign
Minister and Acheson, 22 December 1952, in ibid.
JCS, Indochina Incident, 261, and United States
Human Cooperation Agreement in Department of States,
American Foreign Policy, 1950-1955, Basic Documents,
vol. II (Washington: GPO, 1957), 2734-35.
Heath to Acheson, 5 December 1952, reprinted
in Porter, Vietnam, 419.
Acheson, Present at the Creation, 678.
JCS, Indochina Incident, 367.
Robert A. Divine, Foreign Policy and U.S.
Presidential Elections, 1952-1960 (New York: New
Viewpoints, 1974), 519.
Robert M. Blum, Drawing the Line: The Origin
of the American Containment Policy in East Asia (New
York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1982), 210.
THE LEGACY TO EISENHOWER: FRENCH
FAILURE AND THE PATH TO GENEVA
The Eisenhower Administration inherited a press-
ing problem with the Indochina situation. However,
Eisenhower was to continue Truman's policy of assisting
the French in resisting Ho's attempt to liberate Indo-
china from them. The Eisenhower Administration would
continue to hold the line and contain what the U.S. had
perceived as an expansion of the Soviet menace in Asia.
In his first State of the Union address, Eisenhower
liked Communist aggression in Korea with that in Indo-
china and Malaya.'*' He believed that a more vigorous
approach was needed to combat Communist imperialism
throughout the world. Indochina became doubly important
in Eisenhower's strategic scheme because of the substan-
tial involvement of China in Asian imperialism and
because of Indochina's proximity to China. The loss of
Indochina would have grave strategic consequences for
the United States. Thus, the Republican Administration
became more zealous in its pursuance of the war against
the Viet Minh as it increased its military aid to the
By 1953, the conflict in Indochina had become
an international dispute. The U.S. saw the war in Indo-
china as the front-line against Communist China, with
"the French too providing the forward defense of Malaya
and Singapore." Thus, the sturuggle took on a
conceptually broader meaning even though the French
were waging war to retain their colonial empire. In
order to achieve its ends, however, the French began
to acquiesce to demands to give more political conces-
sions to the Indochinese in order to mobilize more
support. This was most notable in France's 3 July
announcement to give the Associated States a much
greater degree of independence. The U.S. responded to
this by approving an additional $385 million in aid
to the French.
By 1953, the Vietnam War had spread to the rest
of Indochina. The French could not send more troops to
Indochina because of political pressure. Also, it has
been estimated that the French could only organize a
third of its one-half million men in Indochina against
this expanding enemy because most of the French army
was immobilized in the fortress-type defense. Never-
theless, a new strategy for a mobile French army force
was put into action by the new French Commander in
Indochina, General Henri Navarre. The Navarre Plan,
as it was called, sought the creation of ten battalions
for mobile operations to carry out offensive action
against the enemy. These reinforcements would have to
come from Europe, but were never sent. Also, Navarre
wanted additional French officers and NCOs sent to
Indochina in order to build up a larger and more effec-
tive Vietnamese National Army. America was pleased
with "the increased French effort in Indochina" and the
new determination to stick out the war until its resolu-
tion, and the U.S. agreed to underwrite the costs of
According to Buttinger in his work, Vietnam: A
Dragon Embattled, the first Viet Minh invasion of Laos
in April 1953 "frightened the French into believing
that the defense of Laos justified an exceptional
military effort." Accordingly, the first operations
of the Navarre Plan began in the summer of 1953, with
attempts to secure positions along the Chinese border
and to retake those lost earlier to the Viet Minh near
the Laotian border. Little success was achieved in the
maneuvers. The French were simply unable to deal with
the Viet Minh tactics, and were never mobile or strong
enough to counter or to hold against Viet Minh moves.
For example, on 20 September, French Union battalions
started a campaign against a lone Viet Minh regiment
in the Red River Delta. "As on many other occasions
when the enemy they faced was vastly superior, the
Viet Minh melted away." The last operation of the
Navarre Plan in 1953 was "Operation Monette," which
failed to get Viet Minh forces into a pitched battle
in the delta. After his efforts in Tonkin were blunted
Navarre concentrated more fervently on the protection
It is against this backdrop that the national-
ist upsurge in the French-controlled zones in the fall
of 1953 can best be understood. At a Congress in
Saigon in October, a demand was raised by the nation's
leading non-Communist nationalists for complete uncondi
tional independence for Vietnam. Sharp repercussions
occurred in France. The French Left argued, according
to author Rice-Maximin, that after this incident:
France could no longer claim to be preserving
the French Union, nor stopping aggression (as in
Korea) because Indochina was basically a civil
war, nor defending Southeast Asia against the
Chinese (who could easily bypass Hanoi), nor
(after the Korean armistice) participating in an
international crusade against Asian Communism.10
Thus, the military failures and the political crises
in France and Indochina in late 1953 injected a new
element into the Indochina equation: a weakened French
resolve for fighting coupled with a greater desire
toward a negotiated end to the War and a French
withdrawal. The U.S. could be left holding the prover-
bial "bag" in Vietnam if this happened.
It was clear that French will was weakening as
Navarre was not sent reinforcements, only replacements.
Thus, Navarre decided to make an incredible stand at
Dien Bien Phu, which was beginning to come under siege
in late 1953 and was fully encircled by January. Dien
Bien Phu was a large village but significant only for
the fact that it was ten miles from the Laotian border
and also on a main road into Laos. Navarre had decided
to protect Laos and this village lying in a paddyfield
basin would be the place where Navarre believed that he
could draw the Viet Minh into an open, pitched battle.
But there were drawbacks to his plans. Other French
strategists believed that fortifying such an isolated
valley "would divert badly needed combat units from the
Red River Delta to a peripheral area," and, more
importantly, "sustaining such a large combat force at
Dien Bien Phu was beyond the capacity of French air
transport.Yet Navarre and his field commanders were
so confident of success that they continued reinforcement
and it "twitched nervously at the end of a slender air
link to Hanoi and Saigon." But according to Davidson,
Navarre's biggest fault "was his underestimation of the
Viet Minh and Giap," the opposing Communist general.
Navarre realized that this outpost would be out-
numbered, but French intelligence failed to ascertain
the scope of the enemy encirclement. The Viet Minh
were able to assemble artillery in the hills overlooking
the basin and to keep them supplied with a labor force
of 200,000. The intensity of these artillery placements,
and bad weather, would eventually limit the use of
aircraft to reinforce the isolated outpost. Further-
more, the Viet Minh had fifty thousand men at Dien Bien
Phu, with more on the way, while the French had only
sixteen thousand mostly colonial and Foreign Legion
troops. Fighting broke out on 28 March, and accord-
ing to General Marchand, "compact masses of men sweeping
down from the surrounding heights flung themselves" on
the French defenders who "were swamped by the human
tide." By mid-April, the perimeter of the French
garrison had become dangerously restricted by these
assaults which even superior French firepower could not
Bernard Fall writes in his excellent work on
Dien Bien Phu that the crucial air support to the
outpost became unreliable and quickly deteriorated.
Fall points to the strength of the Viet Minh besiegers
as the main reason, citing that "some of the older
pilots who ten years earlier had flown in raids on
Germany swore that the density of Communist flak over
Dien Bien Phu often exceeded that faced over heavily
defended industrial targets in Germany." Fall notes that
on 26 April two B-26 bombers were shot down at an
altitude of ten thousand feet. This staunch assault
and air-ground defense was complicated, wrote Fall, by
"excessive prudence if not cowardice by the French Air
Ironically, while the battle raged, delegations
from both sides were meeting at the Geneva Conference
which lasted from 26 April to 21 July 1954. The Confer-
ence had been planned at Berlin several months earlier,
and the main participants were the Americans, British,
French, Russians, Communist Chinese, and various Indo-
chinese delegations. It was convened to discuss Korea
and, as a secondary issue, Indochina. Yet, as no
progress was made on Korea, the Indochina question came
to dominate the agenda. The result of the Geneva
Conference was the end to the Franco-Viet Minh War and
the withdrawal of France from Indochina.
The situation at Dien Bien Phu had become
nearly untenable. However, while the French "recog-
nized the great political and psychological importance
of the outcome both in Indo-China and in France," and
the chances for success were estimated by them at
only "50-50," they insisted that "Dien Bien Phu, even
if lost, would be a military victory for the French
because of the cost to the Viet Minh." By the end
of April there were only three thousand of the original
French garrison left to carry on the fighting. As
CBS-TV reported on.19 April, "the French Union forces
at Dien Bien Phu are fighting a modern Thermopylae."
The situation was dire and in late April the French
asked the U.S. for direct military aid by the use of
air bombardments on Viet Minh positions. The
Washington Post and Times-Herald reported that Eisen-
hower was prepared to go to Congress on 26 April to
ask for a resolution to authorize air strikes on
28 April. Yet the British Cabinet, meeting on 25
April, decided against participating in "united action"
air strikes, and without British support, the plan
collapsed. The Viet Minh were "anxious to proclaim
a victory, to a startled world before the opening of an
international Conference on Indo-China's future" (which
as a part of Geneva began on 8 May) and launched their
final offensive. The gallant Dien Bien Phu garrison
was overrun on 7 May, fighting to the virtual last
After the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the French
were not in a very strong position at the Geneva Con-
ference. Yet observers seemed to feel that the Laniel
Government was negotiating only to improve its position
to continue the war or to get better terms. The
French were, also prepared to use the threat of American
intervention to work out a cease-fire on their terms.
Meanwhile, the Soviets had altered their strategic
outlook since Stalins death and did not want to be
even indirectly involved in a war against American
troops. If it did come down to intervention, the
Soviets were prepared to compromise. "United States
policy opposed any negotiated settlement in which
concessions were made to the Viet Minh" because it
saw Indochina as the principal link in the line of the
containment of Communism. Yet, the French were able
to use their leverage in regard to the EDC (European
Defense Community) to get the United States to place
Indochina on the Geneva agenda.
Secretary of State Dulles made the American
position clear in an address to the nation on 7 May
1954. He accepted the French desire for armistice .
but sought "the establishment of a collective defense"
to intervene in Indochina in case of an unfavorable
settlement or breakdown in negotiations. Yet the
Americans believed that there would be little hope for
meaningful progress and vowed to dissociate itself
from the agreements at Geneva if they were unaccept-
After initial deadlock at the Conference, the
situation began to markedly change after the Laniel
government fell and opposition leader Pierre Mendes-
France became French Prime Minister in mid-June 1954.
He met regularly with the Chinese and the Viet Minh
delegates at Geneva in contrast to Laniel's repre-
sentative. Instead of threatening American interven-
tion, Mendes-France also openly considered the use of
French national troops if the Conference broke down.
This softened approach contributed to Communist will-
ingness to discuss the partition of Vietnam, which
ultimately became the basis for the final settlement
of the Conference. The Conference rapidly accelerated
to an end after Mendes-France's arrival in Geneva on
10 July. On 20 July, Mendes-France and the principal
Viet Minh negotiator Dong agreed to a demarcation line
at the seventeenth parallel and unification elections
for the whole of Vietnam in July 1956 Mendes-France
had a more defensible line and got territory out of
Viet Minh hands, while the Viet Minh got all of the
North and a definite day for elections, which would
enable them to politically win the South. The Final
Declaration was signed on 21 July 1954.
The result was the end of the fighting in
Vietnam by late August. The U.S. government never did
sign or accept the peace settlement, and its "Seven
Points" plan for armistice was disregarded by Eden
and Mendes-France in the final push for peace. From
the American point of view, the peace was flawed since
it almost ensured that Ho would come to power if
elections were held. This'was considered too great
a risk since it would let Vietnam go Communist. The
Eisenhower Administration could neither support nor
openly reject the settlement, as it was the will of the
Frenchmen fighting there. The Geneva Accords were a
substantial defeat in American terms, for now the
U.S., not France, would be forced to carry on the
effort against.Communism in Southeast Asia.
The American role at Geneva differed from that
of her allies. The overriding U.S. position was that
Indochina must remain non-Communist and this was non-
negotiable. The Eisenhower administration was angered
at British and French zealousness in negotiating with
the Communists, as the U.S. wanted to ensure that its
own interests were not compromised. Admittedly, Dulles
vehemently anticommunist attitude also did not serve
to expedite a settlement, but he was a realist and
adapted his position in accordance with his views on
the Indochina situation. The Americans were not
bystanders at Geneva. But the Americans, like the
Soviets, remained intransigent in their position, while
Eden, Mendes-France, and Chou-en-Rai did most of the
maneuverings. The American negotiators, in fact, did
not actively support their allies. Simply put by the
Dulles seems to have believed sincerely, if
naively, that if the United States dissociated
itself from the Colonialism of Britain and
France, grateful ex-colonies such as Vietnam
would support the Americans in their struggle
The historian Kolko also believes' along these lines,
insisting that America's role at Geneva was as a
"salvaging operation" meant "to strengthen the anti-
communists in Vietnam, which the United States considered
synonymous with removing French influence" which, by
1954, had clearly failed to hold the line against
There are various views on the Geneva Conference
by historians. There is a belief that the Soviets
acquiesced to Mendes-France's desire to end the war in
exchange for France's voting against entering the EDC.
There is little evidence, however, to support this
theory. Several authors cite the antipathy between
Eden and Dulles as important to the Conference's out-
come. Although Eden's actions were viewed as anti-
American, there is again little to suggest that a
better relationship between himself and Dulles would
have improved the outcome of the Conference. Other
factors, including the French determination to negotiate
a peace,and the loss of Dien Bien Phu, were much more
crucial to the end result. James Cable notes that
Geneva failed not because of some flaw in the makeup
of the resulting agreement; instead, he points the
accusing finger at the Americans who even before the
outset challenged the applicability of the Geneva
Agreements; increasing American intervention in Indo-
china ensured the failure of the Conference.^ The
U.S. then countermanded the diplomatic successes at
Geneva, according to the obviously British Cable.
Similarly, the author, Robert F. Randle, argues that
the Conference failed in American terms because the
Indochina Crisis was "a situation America, in effect,
had no capacity to resolve to its liking.
The Eisenhower Administration had no desire to
intervene directly, having to rely on the French for
the application of American anticommunist policy. The
French could not halt the Viet Minh advance nor prevent
the partition of Indochina at Geneva, and the U.S. had
to accept it, according to Irving in his First Indo-
china War. Irving compares the Geneva Conference of
1954 with the Versailles Treaty of 1919. Both failed
to "clear the atmosphere of bitterness and resentment"
and were unsatisfactory agreements that precipitated
further conflict. The historian Buttinger's view
is that the Geneva Conference was an utter failure for
all sides. The U.S. and the Vietnamese, both Communist
and non-Communist, remained unsatisfied. The settle-
ments failed to bring unity, lasting peace, or political
freedom and independence to the people of Vietnam. The
accords were simply unworkable, according to Buttinger,
and laid the basis for the Second Indochina War which
posed a much greater threat to world peace. Accord-
ing to Bernard Fall, the struggle of the free world
against international Communist expansion "included as
one of its basic tenets that none of the Western powers
engaged in military operations against a Communist
aggressor would negotiate a separate cease-fire."^
This explains why Korea and Indochina were tied together
at Geneva but also indicates that Fall believes that
the French under Mendes-France stabbed the anti-Communist
forces in the back.
France's gross mishandling of her colony and
of the war effort certainly is a major reason for her
failure to keep Indochina. France's fatal mistake was
in not setting up a viable alternative to Ho's DRV, a
nationalist but non-Communist regime with a great
degree of independence. But then France would have had
little reason to wage the war. Thus, U.S. objectives
clashed with France and America became identified with
the Colonial powers as a result of its support for
France. Yet Truman could see little choice but to
support France and hope for political reform. For
American foreign policy, French colonial rule was
infinitely preferable to Communist dictatorship. Accord-
ing to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. should "have
sought its objectives m a more forceful manner."
But, applying greater pressure would have caused the
possible collapse of the French government and alien-
ated opinion against the U.S. Furthermore, French
support was needed to strengthen the U.N. and in
support of the defense of Western Europe against the
powerful position the Soviets held in Eastern Europe.
Further complications include the Communist
victory in China which gave the Viet Minh a powerful
base from which to attack. The Korean War had the
effect of giving further incentive to the U.S. to
deepen its involvement in Vietnam. Also, France's will
to fight the War drastically weakened by 1952. The
French had had enough of spilling their blood for a
land which America was asking them to eventually give
up. The U.S. was forced to agree to the Geneva
Conference in consideration of France's role in the
EDC which it did not want to lose. The symbolic
importance given to Dien Bien Phu and its fall signalled
an end to France's nine-year attempt to retrieve its
Perhaps both the French and the Americans
should have listened to the warning that Emperor Bao
Dai sent over Radios Saigon, Hanoi, and Tokyo to
General DeGaulle right after V-J day as his government
collapsed around him. Speaking in threatening language
as to the prospect of a French return to his country,
the literal translation went as follows:
Your country was invaded, occupiedwe will
not accept a reassertion of your control. Even
if you should reconquer the rule of this coun-
try, no one will obey you, every village will
be a resisting force, each people will be your
enemy, you will have to withdraw, because you^
will not be able to live in that atmosphere.3
Puppet though he was, Bao Dai's exhortation
came to be borne out by the French in 1954 and the
Americans in 1973 as the Vietnamese drove from their
country what they perceived as simply other would be
conquerors in a long line of invaders.
'"Cited in Gravel, The Pentagon Papers, 85.
James Cable, The Geneva Conference of 1954
on Indochina (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986),
Cited m U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign
Relations, Joint French-U.S. Communique, 30 September
1952, Background Information Relating to Southeast
Asia and Vietnam (Washington: GPO, 1970), 136-37.
Philippe Devillers and Jean Lacouterre, End
of a War: Indochina, 1954 (New York: Frederick A.
Praeger Publishers, 1969), 33.
Cable, Geneva Conference, 22.
Threat of Chinese Intervention, Secretary
of State, in U.S. Senate, Background Information,
Buttinger, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled, 792.
Hammer, The Struggle for Indochina, 305.
"*"8Rice-Maximin, Accommodation and Resistance,
^"John Prados, The Sky Would FallOperation
Vulture: The U.S. Bombing Mission in Indochina, 1954
(New York: The Dial Press, 1983), 36.
Gardner, Approaching Vietnam, 166.
Davidson, Vietnam at War, 275.
Harrison, The Endless War, 123-24.