America's Mandarin (1954-1963)

What follows is not required for your reaction, but we will use some of it during our class discussion of the video.,_Jr.

Notes from the video transcript. We will use these notes in class today.

1. Diem had been appointed by Bao Dai, the playboy emperor picked by the French. He had few allies in South Vietnam. As austere Catholic, he had gone to America in the early 1950s and secluded himself in a New Jersey seminary. Father John Keegan remarks.

2. NARRATOR: By the fall of 1954, refugees from the North, most of them Catholics, were fleeing towards the South. Many had worked with the French, and they feared Communist reprisals. Many expected that Diem, a Catholic, would favor them.

GEN. J. LAWTON COLLINS (U.S. envoy to South Vietnam): About 900,000 Catholics, under their village Catholic priests, moved from north to south. There was only a handful of people that moved south to north to get away from the Diem government. These refugees were settled by parishes in areas that were prepared for them by the South Vietnamese government. But they remained as Catholic enclaves. And, very much as the Southerners following our Civil War objected to the carpet-baggers that came from the North and took over a good many of the political posts in the South, so also the South Vietnamese strongly objected to the Diem adherents who came south.

NARRATOR: The refugees added to the confusion in the South, but Washington saw their value as a solid anti-Communist base for Diem, and as touching symbols of the Cold War.

3. More challengers emerged from the chaos of South Vietnamese politics. Two of them headed armed religious factions. Another, backed by the French, was a former river pirate, now a notorious gangster and opium dealer.

GENERAL J. LAWTON COLLINS: Bay Vien was his name. He controlled the secret police, mind you, of Vietnam. He also controlled all the houses of prostitution and the gambling joints, and this was the source of his strength.

4. The U.S. had opposed the Geneva agreements, but pledged to respect them. Diem, who had condemned the accords, now resisted the nationwide election. Dulles has to decide what to do.

Diem welcomed the weapons and the dollars, but he often resisted the Americans' advice. He was polite, but he was rigid and proud, and fiercely nationalistic.

EVERETT BUMGARDNER: I think he looked upon us as great big children -- well intentioned, powerful, with a lot of technical know-how, but not very sophisticated in dealing with him or his race, or his country's problems.

5. NARRATOR: During the late 1950s, Diem's problems grew. Like a traditional Vietnamese mandarin, he drew his small circle closer around him, relying on his family, especially his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and Nhu's wife. Their secret police, run by Nhu, set out to eliminate Communists and other dissidents.

6. We were not Catholics; we only worshipped our ancestors. And so they forced us to throw the altar to the ancestors away and to become Catholics and to denounce the Communists.

7. At the U.N., Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev encouraged wars of national liberation. The new president took over in an atmosphere of grave threats and confrontation between East and West.

John Kennedy was in office only a few months when he suffered a humiliating defeat at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Communist leader Fidel Castro crushed a secret American plan to oust him and then paraded his prisoners for the world to see. The invasion planning had begun before Kennedy took office and Eisenhower joined him during the crisis.

Soon, a badly shaken Kennedy faced questions on another war of national liberation -- in Vietnam.

AMBASSADOR FREDERICK NOLTING: President Kennedy was determined on this one because of a number of early setbacks -- the Bay of Pigs, to begin; the dressing-down, in effect, that he got from Khruschchev in the Vienna Conference when he first...when they first met each other... And finally, the Berlin Wall. So Vietnam was the point.

NARRATOR: Kennedy and his men saw themselves in a struggle with Khrushchev for the loyalty of new nations. To them, "national liberation" was code for "Communist aggression."

8. In October 1961, two key Kennedy advisers, General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow, arrived in Vietnam. Their visit coincided with a serious flood. They recommended a big increase in military aid, including U.S. combat troops disguised as flood fighters.

Diem said no to the troops. He needed U.S. support, but he wanted to keep control, and he wanted to keep the foreigners out.

AMBASSADOR NOLTING: He feared an overwhelming American influence. That was one of the reasons he didn't want American combat forces. He was, to my mind, prescient in this, and said, in effect, he thought it would be a bonanza for the Vietcong.

9. The photos hit the front pages in America and were on Kennedy's desk in the morning. Quang Duc had become a martyr. Saigon students joined the Buddhists and the protests against Diem exploded.

10. Nolting stood by Diem.

AMBASSADOR NOLTING: I never felt that President Diem was a prisoner of his own family, or of any particular group, Roman Catholic or any other. I felt that he had a very difficult job to govern the country in a way which would not permit the Vietcong to take over.

11. NARRATOR: But Hilsman and others in Washington had decided that Diem and Nhu should go. Ambassador Nolting, Diem's ally, returned home.

The new ambassador was Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican. Kennedy wanted bipartisan company in the Vietnam crisis.

The prospect of a coup split the Kennedy ranks. But four top advisers took the initiative, cabling Lodge to tell Diem to get rid of Nhu. If Diem refused, Lodge could tell the generals to go ahead.

12. I brought up this question of getting Nhu out of the country, and he, he absolutely refused to discuss any of the things that I was instructed to discuss. And it gave me a little jolt, frankly. I think that when an ambassador goes to call on a chief of state and he has been instructed by the President to bring up certain things, the chief of state ought to at least talk about them.

MADAME NHU: Without him, the president would not be... I don't think that it would be easy for him to rule, to rule the country -- to govern the country. That's why when it was... requested... he was requested to... to send away my husband, he... he said, it was absolutely a stupid demand because he knew very well that my husband can do without him, but he, he could not do without my husband.

13. The Buddhists continued their protests, and the tensions in Saigon now reverberated in Washington, where Kennedy still had doubts about a coup. The President wavered; then, in a television interview, he sent a subtle but sharp signal to Diem.

Kennedy: In the final analysis, it's their war. They're the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it -- the people of Vietnam against the Communists. We're prepared to continue to assist them, but I don't think that the war can be won unless the people support the effort, and in my opinion, in the last two months the government has gotten out of touch with the people.

Cronkite: Do you think that this government still has time to regain the support of the people?

Kennedy: Yes, I do. With changes in policy and, perhaps, with, in personnel, I think it can. If it doesn't make those changes, I would think that the chances of winning it would not be very good.

15. LUCIEN CONEIN: I don't have any files on the dates of the conversation, or anything like that. So I don't really know at what point... I know that I gave them a green light prior to the coup -- upon the instruction of my government.

16. Madame Nhu toured America, trying to rally support for the beleaguered regime. At the same time, Nhu hinted that he might make a deal with the Communists.

NGO DINH NHU, October 1963:
I am an anti-Communist from the point of view of doctrine. I am not an anti-Communist from the point of view of politics or humanity. I consider the Communists as brothers, lost sheep. I am not for a crusade against the Communists because we are a little country, and we only want to live in peace.

17. He [Diem] telephoned me, about four o'clock. And he said, "They've started the coup," and he said, "I want to know what the attitude of the United States Government is." "Well," I said, "it's four o'clock in the morning in Washington and I just, I don't know what the attitude is."

"Oh," he said, "you must have an idea." "No," I said, "I haven't."

18. ROGER HILSMAN: In a very real sense, the ultimate responsibility for the coup lay with President Ngo Dinh Diem, because he did things that we told him over and over again that if he did them we would have to publicly disapprove of them, and that this would encourage a coup. And he said, "I know." Now he went ahead and did them, and we had to publicly disapprove of them. There was no choice.

19. FREDERICK NOLTING: My own view was that, even at that point, we would have done much better to stick with the constitutional government, or at the very least, to have let them know that our policy was changing. I don't think it was fair, just or honorable to an ally of nine years, to do this behind his back.

20. NARRATOR: John F. Kennedy's government had been complicit in Diem's overthrow, and that complicity deepened America's involvement in Southeast Asia.

Issues in the reading

You may wish for me to give you a question or series of questions to focus your attention as you read. I am not sure I want to do that. Perhaps the most important aspect of critical thinking is to determine what questions to ask. So in a way I want you to flounder a bit as you try to determine what is important in the material you read. Since I am interested in how you react to the material and what you find worthy of follow up, I don't want to circumscribe you by asking questions for you to answer. Whenever I have done that in the past, I just get everyone trying to find the answer to the questions and neglecting other avenues of inquiry into the material.

In the material for today, let's get at the overall cast of characters, what each had in the game, and what the options for each were--at particular points in the chronology.

I have pulled some quotes from the text to expound upon [my questions are usually within brackets]

The character and power of the Viet Minh.

There is a lot in the first 3 paragraphs.

What does this say to our understanding today of various resistance movements that either (a) are against America or (b) that we are deciding whether to support.

Reform parties section is important to later events with Diem and Bao Dai.

Theocratic parties. How does this compare to what we are seeing as opposition in the Middle East and Africa today.
Diem will later go after both the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao.
Check out this summary of Religions in Vietnam to understand the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao.

Revolutionary parties. [What aspects of all this resemble items familiar to you from today's news.
What terms in here don't you understand.
Do you get all the references to China.]

Each played a role in the Vietnamese resistance against the Vichy French and the Japanese during World War II: the ICP as the nucleus of the Viet Minh, and the VNQDD as the principal component of the Chinese Nationalist-sponsored Dong Minh -Hoi.
[Given Vietnamese history, a Chinese-nationalist backing is not going to be terribly popular in a widespread way.]

["united front" organization. This is a crucial concept even today: for each side in the conflict.]

During the war, some Vietnamese political parties collaborated with the Japanese or the Vichy French. [what examples of collaboration from other wars you are familiar with.] These were put at a disadvantage during and after the war in competition with the ICP, the Viet Minh, or the Dong Minh Hoi--all of which developed an aura of unwavering faith to resistance against all foreign domination.

[American O.S.S. during World War II. What was it then; now?]

In August 1945, Ho Chi Minh's forces seized over from the Japanese and Bao Dai in North Vietnam, forced the emperor [Bao Dai] to abdicate, and to cede his powers to Ho's Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). In Cochinchina, however, the Viet Minh were able to gain only tenuous control of Saigon and its environs. [so we ultimately will build from an area that the enemy was weaker in than the North.] Nonetheless, when the allies arrived, the Viet Minh were the de facto government in both North and South Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh and his DRV in Hanoi, and an ICP-dominated "Committee of the South" in Saigon.

Spreading violence rendered futile further attempts to draw together the Vietnamese factions, and prompted the French to importune the British commander to permit them to step in to restore order. [Ultimately the U.S. will take over the "colonial aura" of the French and the British.]

[Look at how the ICP in particular had to zig and zag to maneuver its way. When we read about revolutions these days it seems that we can not usually understand why the factions take the actions they do.]

It seems clear that, as matters developed, all of the non-communist nationalist movements-reformist, theocratic, or revolutionary-were too localized, too disunited, or too tainted with Japanese or Nationalist Chinese associations to have competed successfully with the ICP for control of the Viet Minh. And none could compete effectively with the Viet Minh in gaining a following among Vietnam's peasants.

Asian Tito:

Let's dissect the first paragraph.

"You fools! Don't you realize what it means if the Chinese stay? Don't you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed one thousand years!
The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying out. Nothing will be able to withstand world pressure for independence. They may stay for a while, but they will have to go because the white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never leave."

"The unresolved historic problem, of course, is to what extent Ho's nationalist goals over-rode his communist convictions in these maneuvers."

But, then, U.S. insistence on Ho's being a doctrinaire communist may have been a self-fulfilling prophesy.

There were, at least, eight communications from Ho to the President of the United States, or to the Secretary of State, from October, 1945, to February, 1946. Ho had conveyed earlier, in August and September, 1945, via O.S.S. channels, proposals that Vietnam be accorded "the same status as the Philippines," for an undetermined period of tutelage preliminary to independence.

There is no record of U.S. reply to any of Ho's appeals for aid.

The simple truth seems to be that the U.S. knew little of what was transpiring inside Vietnam, and certainly cared less about Vietnam than about France. Knowing little and caring less meant that real problems and variety of choices were perceived but dimly. For example, the U.S. could have asked itself--"Did we really have to support France in Southeast Asia in order to support a non-communist France internally and in Europe?" Another question we could have asked ourselves was--"If the U.S. choice in Vietnam really came down to either French colonialism or Ho Chi Minh, should Ho automatically be excluded?" Again, "If the U.S. choice was to be France, did France have any real chance of succeeding, and if so, at what cost?"

It may well be, however, that the "Tito hypothesis" assumes a compliance from France of which France was demonstrably incapable. No French government is likely to have survived a genuinely liberal policy toward Ho in 1945 or 1946; even French communists then favored redemption of control in Indochina. From '46 on, however, bloodshed hardened policy in France. As before, the Ho alternative was never seriously contemplated.

There is no doubt about his being the only popularly recognized wartime leader of the Vietnamese resistance, and the head of the strongest and only Vietnam-wide political movement.

Last paragraph is good summary of options.

Ho's well-known leadership and drive, the iron discipline and effectiveness of the Viet Minh, the demonstrated fighting capability of his armies, a dynamic Vietnamese people under Ho's control, could have produced a dangerous period of Vietnamese expansionism.

It could have been the "domino theory" with Ho instead of Mao. And, it could have been the dominoes with Mao. This may seem implausible, but it is only slightly less of a bad dream than what has happened to Vietnam since. The path of prudence rather than the path of risk seemed the wiser choice.