After World War II, the defeated Japanese army withdrew from Asian areas of occupation, including Vietnam, but the rule of a foreign force in that country was not over. Regaining the Vietnamese territory, the French prepared to govern their former colony. In the first years of President Harry S. Truman’s administration, the United States maintained neutrality in the French’s growing conflict with the Viet Minh, the North Vietnamese nationalist forces led by Ho Chi Minh, a Marxist-Leninist. After the Chinese communist revolution in 1949, officials in the higher tiers of the American government turned a suspicious eye to Southeast Asia, noticing the significance of Ho Chi Minh’s Marxist-Leninism. By 1950, the Truman administration began to support the French in Vietnam, pouring millions of dollars into the coffers of the French government. The following argues that American economic and diplomatic support of France was a result of growing fears of Communism’s spread, specifically after China’s successful communist revolution.
Documents in book eight of the Pentagon Papers, a collection of twelve bound volumes concerning American policy and participation in Vietnam, justify the growing active role of the United States in Vietnam, where it hoped to prevent communist influence. Covering the years 1945 to 1952, volume eight provides several documents and correspondences of government officials in President Truman’s administration. Close scrutiny of these materials reveals a significant change in American policy from its neutral, objective approach in the immediate years following World War II to an active, economic support of the French, following the Chinese revolution.
Before the end of World War II, the United States adopted a flexible policy toward Southeast Asia, and it kept friendly relations with the Chinese. A memo written on May 2, 1945 by R. E. Cox from the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee concerned the proposals for Indo-China policies set by the Assistant Secretary of War, John L. McCloy. He stated that, while the United States should offer some assistance to the French, the American government would avoid any excessive and lengthy obligations in Vietnam. Another document, a telegram sent on August 1, 1945 from President Truman to Patrick Hurley, the American ambassador to China, expressed the desire to divide Vietnam along the Sixteenth Parallel, the southern region going under the rule of France and the northern portion falling under the guidance of the Chinese government. Evidently, during the war years, the United States did not view China’s involvement in Vietnam as a threat, but as part of an important alliance against the Japanese, as indicated by the period’s documents.
By 1946, American policy toward Vietnam continued on its course, and although some officials began to wonder about Ho Chi Minh’s political leanings, American diplomats still encouraged neutrality. A telegram written on May 15, 1946 by Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson to General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the American armed forces and future author of the Marshall Plan, indicated French concern of the Chinese delay in withdrawing from Vietnam. By this time, the Chinese had agreed to leave Vietnam, but some units remained. The wording of Acheson’s telegram kept an objective tone, not overly concerned about the ideological effects of the Chinese in North Vietnam. A later telegram to Secretary of State James Byrnes from Charles Reed, the American consul in Saigon, further expressed French apprehension to several communist Chinese dissidents in North Vietnam, but Reed explained that the communist influence, even among the Viet Minh’s leaders, did not threaten the political and ideological balance of the region. Another telegram to Secretary Byrnes from Hanoi, this one written by Vice-Consul James L. O’Sullivan on December 3, questioned the French concern of communist infiltration into Vietnam. O’Sullivan wrote that the French’s concentration on communist fears might indicate a political tactic of arresting American attention from their own unpopular policies in Vietnam. Thus, the telegrams of Reed and O’Sullivan show that American policy was still fairly indecisive and neutral in 1946. Since Reed’s telegram was from Saigon, while O’Sullivan sent his from the consulate in Hanoi, the documents reflect a discrepancy among diplomats assigned to the same region, illuminating the overall indecisiveness of American diplomacy to Vietnam.
By 1947, American officials were still fairly impartial to the tensions in Vietnam. Although General Marshall, then the Secretary of State, expressed in a telegram to the American Embassy in Paris his concerns regarding Ho Chi Minh’s Marxist-Leninism and suspected connections with the Soviet Union, the primary interest of the document conveyed the need for viewing both sides of the conflict between the Vietnamese and the French. While stating that the United States would offer ample support to the French in helping its return as an important world power, the ambassador also wrote that the French used out-dated, colonial tactics that hampered a settlement with the Vietnamese people. Another telegram, sent from John Leighton Stuart, the American ambassador to China, to Marshall discussed Ho Chi Minh’s Communism but stated that Vietnam’s ultimate peace possibly rested with the North Vietnamese leader. The irony of the document, though, was the mention that the rise of Communism in Vietnam would not pose any threat to the region, specifically to China, still an ally of the United States. Apparently, the political concerns of American diplomats remained favorable to China in 1947, as indicated by various correspondences, yet the situation changed after 1949.
By June of 1949, after the success of the Chinese revolution of that year, Louis Johnson, Secretary of Defense, wrote a memorandum to James S. Lay, Executive Secretary of the National Security Council (NSC), conveying his concerns of communist infiltration in Southeast Asia. He stated that the rise of Communism in China specifically threatened the security of the United States. Consequently, Johnson urged the NSC to take a more active role in assessing the situation in the Asia. After reading this document, one can conclude that American officials began to express the need for active involvement in Vietnam, hoping to eliminate the communist threat of China in Southeast Asia.
American efforts to contain the growth of Communism intensified by 1950, and documents of this year show the United States actively supporting the French with large amounts of aid. Before the Chinese revolution, the United States attempted to remain neutral, and some diplomats questioned French motives and tactics. After 1949, the United States viewed the French as an important democratic ally in its efforts to stop Communism. In a statement to the press on October 17, 1950, the State Department reported that the United States planned to offer half a billion dollars in aid and military equipment to the French in Vietnam. The French also received the majority of the five billion-dollar aid package allocated to members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations (NATO), the pact of nations formed by the United States to contain Communism.
Two other documents from 1950 and 1951 also indicated a more active American role in curbing the spread of Chinese Communism into Vietnam. On March 7, 1950, Dean Rusk, Deputy Secretary of State, wrote to Major General James H. Burns that Communist China directly affected the situation in Vietnam. Because of this threat, Rusk believed that the United States should use any resource to prevent China’s aggression. A different document, a memorandum to James S. Lay from James E Webb in the State Department, also justified further aid to the French in order to stop Communist infiltration. On March 15, 1951, Webb wrote that, next to the military actions in the Korean War, being fought between communist North Korea and the United States, the highest allocation of military aid would go to Southeast Asia. Justifying the need for the increase in aid, Webb described the active and subversive role of the Chinese in the Viet Minh’s success and wrote that, without American aid, the French’s efforts in Vietnam would prove unsuccessful. Thus, this document, along with the others, indicated a change in American policy in Vietnam, experiencing a metamorphosis from inactive neutrality to full support of the French after the Chinese revolution.
A closer study of the American financial and military support for the French and its development throughout the Truman administration would illuminate an important issue of the period. Other documents found in volume eight of the Pentagon Papers offer insight into this topic. One will find many facets of the aid issue among the materials and could focus on the changing attitude in offering military aid to the French. Also, a researcher could study the steps taken by officials in the Truman administration to receive government money for the French. What were the tactics of the State Department in getting funds at a time when many Americans knew very little of Vietnam? An examination of the documents in volume eight offers some answers, but an individual should not exclusively use them in research. While offering answers, they also present more questions about the Vietnam era, leading to various avenues of research.
U.S. Department of Defense. United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967, bk. 8. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971.