It is not true that people learn nothing from history: they are marvellous at learning the wrong lessons. So it must seem, at any rate, to most students of America’s war in Vietnam.
It’s 1945 and Japan’s retreating fast from its Second World War conquests. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, leads his people in the Vietminh liberation movement against their new conquerors, the Japanese and their former colonial masters, the French. On 2 September 1945, the victorious Vietnamese issue a Declaration of Independence (borrowing largely from the American one). But the Americans and English are already negotiating the return of the French, as they will be a vital ally in the new Cold War against Russia. Over the next five months, Ho Chi Minh, a nationalist, but more importantly for America, a communist, writes eight letters to President Truman pleading with him to stop this. He reminds the President that all people should be allowed the right to self determination and to be rid of tyranny. Truman never replies.
In October 1946, the French bomb the rebellious northern part of Vietnam, and begin their eight year war with the Vietminh movement. France, one of the last of the old European empires, is attempting to suppress a national uprising. History is against them, and normally, so would have the Americans been.
But China becomes Communist in 1949 and the Cold War explodes in South East Asia with the Korean War. A 1950 secret National Security Council memo mentions the ‘domino theory’ stating that if the U.S lets one country become communist, then all of its neighbour will follow. (The area is also the main global source of rubber and tin so the battle is economically, as well as ideologically, vital.)
By 1954, the U.S has given 300,000 firearms to the French (enough to equip their entire army in Vietnam) and $1 billion in finance (meaning the U.S. was financing 80% of the French war effort). But the French are decisively defeated at Dien Bien Phu. At the resultant Geneva Conference, and in return for a cease fire, they agree to the country being divided into a Communist North and anti-Communist/Catholic South. Elections are scheduled which it’s hoped will unify the country.
Fearing the Communists will win, the Americans install in Saigon, President Ngo Dinh Diem, their puppet from New Jersey, USA. A rich Catholic in a largely Buddhist country of peasants, his previous government experience involved working with the universally hated former French. He and his government succeed in delaying the elections and rigging the resulting ones, but at the cost of alienating what little popular support there was left.
The first guerrilla activities against his regime begin in 1958, and two years later, the National Liberation Front, later known as the Viet Cong, forms in the South.
When Kennedy becomes President in 1961 he approves a secret plan for military action to support the increasingly repressive Diem regime.
In June 1963, a Buddhist monk sits down in the public square in Saigon and sets himself on fire in protest at Diem. His death is caught on camera and seen around the world. More follow his example.
Even the American authorities realise their man in Vietnam (no matter how anti-communist he is) is unsustainable. Kennedy authorises a coup by Vietnamese generals.
On 2 November, 1963, Diem is executed. Three weeks later, Kennedy too is assassinated. His successor, President Johnson, feels obligated to honour Kennedy’s memory and defend South Vietnam.
In August 1965, Johnson claims that U.S naval vessels while on ‘routine patrol’ in the Gulf of Tonkin, off Vietnam, had been subject to ‘deliberate attacks’. These misreported, distorted and actively faked events are the basis for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. This gives Johnson the power to declare war without Congress as the Constitution requires.
American bombing of mainland Vietnam begins.
The covert war the U.S has been waging there for nearly 15 years is over. The official war that follows will claim 58,000 American troops and 2 million Vietnamese.
Did you know?
What were the last words of the first President of South Vietnam, the American puppet, Diem? This is a man, brought from the U.S, by the U.S, for the U.S. But by 1 November 1963, he’s no longer useful to the U.S so rebels, approved by the U.S, attack the presidential palace. In desperation, Diem phones the U.S Ambassador Henry Lodge... Diem: Some units have made a rebellion and I want to know what is the attitude of the United States? Lodge: I do not feel well enough informed to be able to tell you. It is the last conversation any American has with Diem. Diem flees but he and his brother are apprehended by the plotters, taken out in a truck, and executed. The CIA effectively countenances this.