Friday, January 21, 2011

To Bear Any Burden: The Vietnam Tragedy Begins

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage I describe how the United States first got involved in the Vietnam War.

Like many of his generation, President John F. Kennedy’s worldview had been largely shaped by events in Europe in the late 1930s. Kennedy remembered how British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain repeatedly appeased German dictator Adolf Hitler, stepping aside as the Nazi government violated the Versailles Peace Treaty, built up the armed forces, and annexed Austria before forcibly taking over Czechoslovakia.

Committed to Truman’s policy of containing communism, Kennedy had favored funding the French War in Indochina, first as a congressman and then as a senator. Kennedy saw the communist regime in Moscow, like the Nazi regime in Germany, as engaged in an aggressive campaign to dominate the world. Appeasement of the communists, he argued, would only encourage more aggression from the Soviets. The United States must back anti-communist regimes wherever they stood, even in small corners of the world like Southeast Asia, to prevent “the onrushing tide of Communism from engulfing all Asia.” This aggressive stance formed the context for his pledge in his inaugural address in which he promised to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, and oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

When Kennedy took office as president on January 20, 1961, Vietnam did not top his foreign policy concerns. Kennedy saw the Soviet position in Europe and Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba as bigger threats to the United States than communist insurgencies in Vietnam and Laos. Kennedy had no great enthusiasm for committing American troops to support South Vietnam, but he was also unwilling to remove the American military “advisors” already placed there. Kennedy’s concern over the region deepened, however, upon receipt of a report by Edward Lansdale, a former Central Intelligence Agency operative in Saigon who worked as a Pentagon analyst in the opening months of the Kennedy administration.

A former advertising executive, Lansdale had launched a successful “psychological” warfare and “black operations” campaign in the Philippines from 1950-53 credited with preventing the communist Hukbalahap movement from taking power. After this success, he arrived in Saigon, the capital of the newly established government of South Vietnam. Lansdale would play a major role in shaping American policy in Vietnam.

The year 1954 saw the French surrender in Vietnam and the Geneva Peace Accords, which established separate North and South Vietnamese governments, called for national elections and unification of the two sections in 1956, and allowed Vietnamese to settle where they wished for 300 days after the accord took effect. The United States had supported French rule in Indochina. Now Lansdale deepened American involvement in the region by initiating covert operations against the communist North Vietnamese government.

He started an economic panic in North Vietnam by spreading the false story that the regime’s currency would soon be devalued. After disrupting North Vietnam’s finances, Lansdale’s men poured sugar into the gas tanks of buses in the North Vietnam capital, Hanoi, to create transportation chaos. CIA agents spread rumors that the United States would invade Vietnam soon and, to prevent the communists from expanding, would drop nuclear weapons on the North.

Hoping to trigger a mass migration of anti-communist, largely Catholic Northerners to the South, where they would likely support Roman Catholic dictator Ngo Dihn Diem, Lansdale in 1955 printed an astrological almanac predicting disasters in North Vietnam and economic prosperity in South Vietnam, n the coming year. Whether or not the almanac played a role, 900,000 North Vietnamese requested transportation South. In the end only 90,000 successfully resettled in South Vietnam, where they became a resented religious minority.

Lansdale became a major supporter of Diem and wanted a more aggressive and substantial American military presence in Vietnam. In 1957, Diem decided not to hold an election unifying North and South Vietnam as called for in the Geneva Accords. In response, the communists launched a guerilla campaign, assassinating more than 400 South Vietnamese officials. The guerillas organized 37 military companies by the end of the year. The North Vietnamese started transporting weapons and other supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which crossed into Laos and Cambodia before winding into South Vietnam. In 1960, the war escalated with the formation of the National Liberation Front, or the “Vietcong,” as they were labeled by the Diem regime. The North Vietnamese regular army amply supported the NLF. The size of the North Vietnamese Army, at the same time, grew with Hanoi’s implementation of a universal conscription law.

Lansdale told anyone who would listen that all of Southeast Asia was in danger of slipping to the communists. By the time of Kennedy’s presidency, he had become an Army colonel and submitted a report to the new commander in chief in which he claimed Diem had been unfairly maligned and urging the president to “show him by deeds, not words alone, that we are his friend.” A love of spy novels predisposed Kennedy to like the enigmatic, cloak-and-dagger personality of Lansdale, but the president eased into the Vietnam War cautiously.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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