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The Hill and Wang Critical Issues Series: concise, affordable works on pivotal topics in American history, society, and politics.
Using newly available documents from both American and Vietnamese archives, Hunt reinterprets the values, choices, misconceptions, and miscalculations that shaped the long process of American intervention in Southeast Asia, and renders more comprehensible--if no less troubling--the tangled origins of the war.
About the Author
Michael H. Hunt, Everett H. Emerson Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is a leading scholar of U.S.-East Asian relations. Among his many books are Crises in U.S. Foreign Policy: An International History Reader and The Genesis of Chinese Communist Foreign Policy
Michael H. Hunt, Everett H. Emerson Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is a leading scholar of U.S. foreign relations and international history. His most recent books are The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives.
Read an Excerpt
Lyndon Johnson's War
1THE COLD WAR WORLD OF THE UGLY AMERICANIn 1958 The Ugly American, a lively, anecdote-filled, and relentless indictment of U.S. failures in Southeast Asia, burst on the American scene. This piece of politically charged, reality-based fiction introduced readers to Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia already looming in importance in U.S. foreign policy. Across its pages paraded a small crowd of memorable characters, each with a lesson to teach about why communisma was winning in the region and how Americans needed to respond.Written in a breezy, accessible style, the book was an instant bestseller. A Book-of-the-Month Club selection, it went through twenty printings between July and November 1958, claimed a place on bestseller lists for seventy-eight weeks, and within its first three years sold two and a half million copies. Americans of all types read the book, including policymakers such as John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and perhaps even Dwight Eisenhower. The term "ugly American" soon entered everyday parlance to describe ill-behaved, boorish Americans abroad.This enormously successful book was a collaboration between a recently retired naval officer, William J. Lederer, and a university professor, Eugene Burdick. Through what Burdick called this "message book," they spoke to the faith and fears of a generation whose lives had been deeply marked by the upheaval of WorldWar II and the onset of the Cold War. The book's instant and sustained popularity tells much about that generation of Americans, including the leaders who would make the decision to fight in Vietnam and the public that would support them, at least at first.Lederer and Burdick built their account on a Cold War premise almost universally accepted by their readers--that communism was a dangerous, monolithic enemy whose fundamental values challenged those of the United States and whose ultimate goal was world domination. But what gave Lederer and Burdick's account dramatic tension was not the familiar picture of cynical, cunning, power-hungry communists but the stumbling, ineffectual, and frequently counterproductive effort by Americans on the scene to combat that menace. In sketch after sketch, The Ugly American showed how American representatives failed their country. Political appointees, foreign-service careerists, and junketing congressmen all too often lacked cultural sensitivity, command of the local language, a sense of urgency, and an identification with "the people" in the host countries. Perhaps the most memorable of these negative examples was Joe Bing. A diplomat assigned to promote an appreciation of the United States, he failed dismally as a result of his cavalier, almost colonial indifference to local opinion and customs. That he nonetheless moved ahead in his career, while more able colleagues faltered, offered the best testimony to the flaws in the U.S. foreign service.The authors, however, did not leave their readers without hope. Characters such as Ambassador Gilbert MacWhite, World War II and Korean War veteran Major James (Tex) Wolchek, and idealistic engineer Homer Atkins were the admirable heroes of this influential book. With their notable devotion to duty and their effectiveness at promoting U.S. interests, they helped define an exacting job description for American cold warriors going into the field. To be successful, these warriors for freedom had to be paragons of virtue: tough-minded but humanitarian, friends of the ordinary people yet also able to deal with the elite, advocates of American political ideals but also masters of technology and practical know-how. In the authors' own down-to-earth view, the ideal Americans abroad were salesmen--entrepreneurs of freedom anddevelopment--who believed in their product and knew their customers.The overarching theme of The Ugly American, appealing to readers now as much as it did during the Cold War, was that the success of American policy depended in the final analysis on winning hearts and minds. The battles against communism, warned Ambassador MacWhite, would mainly "take place in the minds of men." Or as the authors themselves, writing in a "factual epilogue," put it:All over Asia we have found that the basic American ethic is revered and honored and imitated when possible. We must, while helping Asia toward self-sufficiency, show by example that America is still the America of freedom and hope and knowledge of law. If we succeed, we cannot lose the struggle.1
Southeast Asia, the region to which The Ugly American so insistently drew attention in 1958, had not been even a blip on the U.S. policy radar two decades earlier. Before 1940, Vietnam in particular was a faraway land, submerged (along with Cambodia and Laos) within France's Indochina holdings, with virtually no record of American involvement and no concrete American presence or interest.World War II brought Indochina into the picture for the first time. Not long after France fell to German forces, Tokyo extracted from French collaborationist authorities permission to send troops into Indochina. The arrival of the first Japanese units in 1940 suddenly made Indochina a priority for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his close advisers. Most immediately, Indochina figured as a springboard for control of the region's resources--above all, the oil in the Dutch East Indies needed by Japan's fleet and industry. More generally, Roosevelt realized the region's importance to his prime objective, keeping the British in the war against Germany and the Chinese fighting Japan. Japan's southern thrust imperiled the colonial resources and prestige of his European allies and endangered supply lines to China. With the British and the Dutch able to do little to defend their own colonies, Roosevelt himself sought to deter Japan from taking additionalsteps south, or--better still--to compel Japan to accept a broad, pan-Asia settlement that would roll back Japanese military expansion.Once the United States entered the war in December 1941, Indochina receded to a place of peripheral strategic importance. But by 1943, as the Allied coalition glimpsed victory, Indochina reemerged, now as an element in Roosevelt's postwar peace plans. The president himself had made self-determination a wartime rallying cry, to be applied across the board in the making of the peace. He had, moreover, condemned France for mismanagement of its colony. Finally, Roosevelt's distaste for Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French resistance to Hitler's Germany, and for the French people and culture in general reenforced his preference for the decolonization of Indochina.Roosevelt's anticolonial stand was, however, qualified by a paternalism that was common for his generation and that would prove a consistent strand in later U.S. policy. He doubted the capacity of the peoples of Indochina and other "brown people in the East,"2 such as the Koreans, to exercise freedom with wisdom. Roosevelt thus concluded that they required a prolonged period of tutelage, casually citing twenty to thirty years as the time needed to imbue them with a sense of responsibility. To ensure a responsible parent for these children, Roosevelt turned to an idea from the League of Nations days, a trusteeship exercised by one or several of the victorious powers. Under this neocolonial arrangement, the peoples of Indochina could gradually move toward their national birthright.Trusteeship, the device for reconciling self-determination with paternalistic doubts, proved a dead end. Roosevelt could not enlist a suitable trustee. China, nominally a major member of the Allied coalition, was the American president's first choice by virtue of proximity. But China's leader, Chiang Kai-shek, had his own problems at home with his longtime Communist rivals and so demurred. That still left the United States, but Roosevelt anticipated little enthusiasm among Americans for making a long-term commitment to a distant region without traditional ties to the United States.Roosevelt's British partner in the wartime coalition doomed the already-troubled exercise in decolonization. Prime Minister WinstonChurchill had not fought Germany in order to abandon Britain's empire on the whim of the Americans. Not only was he adamant on preserving British colonial claims but he opposed the dismantling of the French empire, which he regarded as the outer defenses to Britain's own vast imperial realm. If Churchill could stop Roosevelt over Indochina, then he could weaken self-determination's threat to his own imperial vision. In this battle for colonial survival, France's leader Charles de Gaulle enlisted enthusiastically. He too regarded overseas possessions as a natural prize for those who fought on the winning side. Indochina in particular stood out as a symbol of French prestige, the repository of valued natural resources, and the home of a privileged and influential community of expatriates. Roosevelt admitted defeat rather than strain Allied wartime cooperation and perhaps even poison postwar cooperation. He made clear only weeks before his death that he was ready to acquiesce to restored French control in exchange for a simple pledge of ultimate independence.The Indochina issue underwent a dramatic transformation during the five years after Roosevelt's death in April 1945. Cooperation of the wartime Allies gave way to intense Cold War fears. During those pivotal five years, American officials carried forward the paternalism that had been so marked a feature of Roosevelt's thinking. Though few Americans had studied the region or knew it firsthand, officials still harbored deep skepticism about the readiness of Indochina's peoples to govern themselves. At the same time, those officials proved as reluctant as Roosevelt had been to forcefully challenge the French colonial stake there. While they thought that France was not making even the minimum practical political concessions essential to win "native" cooperation and to create the preconditions for independence, they regarded the future of the region as one for the French to resolve for themselves. Postwar U.S. officials thus proved every bit as reluctant as Roosevelt to get involved--at least until the intrusion of global anticommunism as a third, new, extraordinarily potent element in the Indochina mix. The growing conviction that the Cold War was a global struggle provided the catalyst that transformed Indochina into an important strategic area whose loss would have fateful consequences for the region and for U.S. security.These crosscurrents in U.S. policy were already evident in HarryTruman's first months in the White House. Roosevelt's successor himself knew virtually nothing about the region and felt no special sympathy for its peoples' demands for independence. Meanwhile, in the State Department, officials based their thinking increasingly on the Europe-first policy of conciliating France. This approach drew support from wartime reports from American observers in China that had described the anti-Japanese resistance in Vietnam (known as the Viet Minh and led by Ho Chi Minh) as a terrorist organization and as a negligible factor in the future of Indochina. Those same reports called for a firm foreign hand, perhaps French, to guide the Vietnamese people toward a nationhood for which they were not yet ready. Americans serving as liaison to the Viet Minh in 1945 offered a notably more sympathetic appraisal of Ho's organization and goals--but to little effect.When pressed in late June 1945 to take a stance on Indochina's future, the State Department concluded that the independence promoted by Vietnamese resistance groups would produce instability. It also endorsed the resumption of French control. Although it did express hope that France would recognize the need for concessions to the Indochinese and would afford its subjects the opportunity to prepare themselves for eventual self-government, the department discarded the idea of trusteeship and the tattered principle of self-determination and conceded instead outright sovereignty. Consistent with this pronouncedly pro-French policy, the State Department buried deep in its files appeals from Ho Chi Minh to President Truman asking him to honor the wartime promise of self-determination. And the Truman administration watched passively as the French moved to reclaim Indochina, imposing control by force, first in the southern part of politically restive Vietnam and then in the north. By late 1946, Indochina was at war, with the Vietnamese-led Viet Minh spearheading the assault against the French.By then global anticommunism was beginning to enter the picture. Washington's suspicions of the Soviet Union were gaining focus and force, in turn pushing Indochina toward greater prominence. From his first weeks in office, Truman had countenanced doubts about Soviet intentions that Roosevelt had ignored. By1946 the Truman administration had privately come to regard the Soviet Union as a menace and communism as a dangerous doctrine of world conquest. In March 1947 Truman went public in a major address to the country. He called for the defense of all free peoples threatened by communist aggression or internal subversion. The Soviet Union had to be stopped wherever it tried to expand. Climbing on the bandwagon, officials concerned with building a European alliance against the Red Army were quick to make the case for Indochina as a critical part of the Cold War. France deserved support, so they reasoned, as an indispensable element in building a solid anticommunist bloc in western Europe, the main Cold War front. Thus the French, locked in a conflict with Ho's forces, and the Americans, in a contest with the Soviet Union, became different fronts of the same war.This one-war, many-fronts view encountered resistance from U.S. diplomats reporting out of Indochina in mid-1947 to a perplexed Secretary of State George Marshall. Despite the risk to their careers, they questioned the French course in Vietnam and the French argument that the Soviet Union imperiled the region. Viewed from their vantage points in Hanoi and Saigon, Ho seemed a nationalist first and a communist second. He was "the outstanding representative of the native peoples" and a "symbol of [the] fight for independence." In practical politics he had shown himself "a wily opportunist" adept at "straddling the fence." Although the French tried to help their cause by depicting Indochina as part of the anticommunist struggle, they in fact had made a difficult situation worse by driving Ho further to the left and winning him more popular support. Reverting to Roosevelt's policy, these American diplomats urged some form of international (perhaps UN) supervision for an Indochina not yet ready for self-government. Reflecting their own deep-seated paternalism, they feared that premature independence would result in either chaos or a one-party, totalitarian police state.3Influenced by these on-the-scene assessments, Marshall held back from embracing the simple equation of Ho with communism and thus from automatically making Indochina an integral part of global containment. As late as the summer of 1948, Marshall was impressed that Ho had advanced his cause with no Sovietassistance and enjoyed a "large degree of latitude."4 Practical considerations confirmed Marshall's caution. Resources were scarce, and western Europe and Japan had first claim, far ahead of such peripheral points as Indochina. In any case, throwing good resources into a struggling French enterprise seemed an unwise decision.In the course of 1949 and early 1950, the Truman administration made the critical decision that Ho was indeed a tool of Moscow--and thus imposed on the region a Cold War logic that led inexorably to U.S. involvement. This decision reflected deepening international tensions. In 1948 the iron curtain had fallen firmly, dividing Europe in two. Then the first successful Soviet nuclear test and the 1949 victory of the Communist Party in China, just to the north of Indochina, had alarmed policymakers with the vision of a Soviet Union on the offensive. These developments also strengthened the conviction that the French, however self-interested and ineffectual, deserved stronger support as an ally on the containment line.In February 1950, Washington granted diplomatic recognition to a French-sponsored government for Vietnam headed by former emperor Bao Dai. The secretary of state, now Dean Acheson, explained the step to the president in terms of stopping communism in the most vulnerable part of the region. (He melded into his argument the predictable paternalism by stressing that Vietnam depended on France for guidance to self-government.) Ho was, Acheson announced publicly, "the mortal enemy of native independence in Indochina."5 At the end of the month, a major report prepared for Truman made a formal case for extending the containment line to Indochina. The report recommended a program of assistance to the embattled French, despite the continuing failure of France to formulate a colonial policy more responsive to "the legitimate nationalist aspirations of the people of Indochina" and more supportive of a Vietnamese government able to rally noncommunist nationalists.On 24 April Truman finally gave his approval to this report, thus formally and explicitly setting Indochina in a containment framework and at the same time embracing the French as an anticommunist proxy. The United States had made a fateful commitment.The outbreak of the Korean War two months later raised Cold War tensions, the level of funding for Indochina, and the importance of the Asian sector of the containment line. Mounting aid levels reflected the importance now attributed to French Indochina in the global anticommunist battle.The arguments used in making the 1950 commitment hardened into orthodoxy in 1951 and 1952 and would continue to define official thinking well into the 1960s. At the heart of the orthodoxy was the conviction that communist aggression in Indochina constituted "only one phase of anticipated communist plans to seize all of Southeast Asia." Moscow and Beijing were using the longtime "communist agent" Ho and his "Viet Minh rebellion" to achieve that end.6 Ho's victory would transform a populous country rich in raw materials into a satellite of the Soviet-dominated bloc. The loss of Vietnam would in turn bring the swift submission of Cambodia, Laos, and other neighboring states of mainland Southeast Asia and set off shock waves that would put at risk U.S. Pacific defenses, Japan, South Asia, the Mideast, and even Europe. In this alarmist intellectual framework, even peripheral losses could cause great damage. In Truman's own words, "To lose these countries to the rulers of the Kremlin would be more than a blow to our military security and our economic life. It would be a terrible defeat for the ideals of freedom--with grave spiritual consequences for men everywhere who share our faith in freedom."7 So much, it seemed, hung in the balance. Already, in the early 1950s, Vietnam was a nettle hard for American policymakers to grasp, but one that they did not dare ignore.
Dwight Eisenhower came into the White House in January 1953 vowing to liquidate the stalemated and unpopular Korean conflict and to avoid a reprise of limited war on the Asian mainland. While these positions did suggest that the new president would approach Vietnam cautiously, his thinking actually developed along lines virtually indistinguishable from that of the Truman administration. The president and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, embraced the commitment to defend Indochina against (in Eisenhower's words) "the implacable and frequently expressed purpose of imperialistic communism to promote worldrevolution, destroy freedom, and communize the world." The president recalled with special vividness the costs of passivity taught by the recent past (in what came to be known as the Munich analogy): "[W]e failed to halt Hirohito, Mussolini and Hitler by not acting in unity and in time. That marked the beginning of many years of stark tragedy and desperate peril." Eisenhower's own contribution to the constellation of concerns surrounding Vietnam was to give a memorable name--"the 'falling domino' principle"--to the pivotal place the Truman administration had already assigned Vietnam in the scheme of regional defense.8What changed during Eisenhower's eight years in the White House was neither the goal of containment nor the feared consequences of defeat but the means brought to bear on the problem. Eisenhower had inherited the French as the preferred tool of U.S. policy, and he had continued subsidizing their military effort. American taxpayers shelled out $2.6 billion between 1952 and 1954 to sustain the desperate colonial struggle. During those years, the United States carried well over half the war's cost. But, so the thinking went, better to support the French fight than have the United States take up the main burden of the struggle.The end for the French--and a new beginning for the United States--came in 1954, in the eighth year of the war. In mid-March Ho's forces launched an attack on the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, in a hilly region of northwest Vietnam near the Laotian border. The French had sought to lure the enemy into a conventional confrontation, but when they got what they wanted, the outcome proved a disaster. The Viet Minh encircled the garrison and gradually choked it off. Washington focused on the practical steps that might prop up the failing French. Eisenhower rejected out of hand sending American troops into another land war in Asia. Some within the administration, including Vice President Richard Nixon, favored using U.S. air and naval support to save the French garrison. Doubting the wisdom of even this minimal effort, the president took no significant action.In early May the French garrison fell, just as an international conference to end the fighting began in Geneva under British and Soviet sponsorship. Eisenhower sent a dour Dulles to encouragethe French to continue their struggle in Indochina in the interest of the "free world." The French were unwilling, however; nor would the British, once so keen on salvaging empire, now join the United States in a last-minute effort to save Indochina. Sapped by two world wars, the Europeans discovered that they had neither the will nor the resources to contest newly restive subjects. Grimly, Eisenhower and Dulles watched the French decamp. Cambodia and Laos gained independence, but the future of Vietnam--that chief battleground of the anti-French struggle--found the powers meeting at Geneva at loggerheads. Finally, on 20 July 1954, they agreed on a compromise that temporarily partitioned Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel, limited the foreign military presence on both sides of the parallel, and scheduled elections to unify the country in 1956. On instructions from Washington, the U.S. delegation in Geneva merely "noted" the conference agreement but would not sign. The French had capitulated, but not the Americans.Even before the French surrender, Eisenhower had begun a search for fresh means to halt the communist advance. One notion was a regional security arrangement to stand against further Chinese-backed aggression. By September a loose defense organization had taken form under the name Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), consisting of the United States, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Pakistan, and the Philippines. But it proved a weak reed for Washington because none of its partners shared Washington's alarm over the spread of communism in the region. Eisenhower would have to look elsewhere for a way to carry out his policy. Repeatedly Americans had bemoaned the French failure to lend support to popular anticommunist nationalists who could effectively combat internal subversion. Now Americans had a chance to do it their way with their own handpicked partners in what remained of Vietnam.Determined to create a new nation in the south, Eisenhower turned to Ngo Dinh Diem, the offspring of a prominent Catholic family with his own distinctly anticommunist and autocratic political stance. Diem's father had worked as an interpreter for French forces subduing his own angry countrymen during the late nineteenth century (including operations in 1895-1896 in Ho ChiMinh's home region), and received for his reward a post within the French administration. Ngo Dinh Diem himself had entered the bureaucracy, eventually rising to the post of provincial governor but then retiring in 1933 after falling out with the French. During World War II he had flirted with Vietnam's new masters, the Japanese, to no particular effect. His political career had remained stalled after the war. At odds with the Viet Minh no less than with the returning French, Diem had finally gone into exile in 1950.It was at this point that the American phase of Diem's political career began. He won the backing of politically influential American Catholics such as Senator John Kennedy, Senator Mike Mansfield, and Francis Cardinal Spellman. Then, with his country about to be partitioned at Geneva, Diem raced to Saigon to assume the post of premier under the old French-created government headed by Bao Dai. Eisenhower offered formal, public U.S. backing to Diem in October 1954, and a major program of military and economic support administered by a growing American bureaucracy soon followed. By 1961, total outlays on South Vietnam's defense would hit $7 billion.By the end of the Eisenhower administration, the surface signs at least indicated that Diem was a gamble that had paid off richly. He promised victory on the cheap, holding at bay the nightmare of direct U.S. combat involvement. He had consolidated his political control with the help of his family and some 800,000 Catholics who had fled south at the time of partition. Pushing Bao Dai aside in an election rigged by his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, in October 1955, Diem had created a new state, the Republic of Vietnam, and made himself president with 98.2 percent of the ballots. He had subdued all organized opposition, easing out the last of the French forces, shattering the gangs in Saigon, taming the armies of the religious sects in the countryside, and striking out at the remnants of the anti-French resistance. By the late 1950s, Americans celebrated Diem as a model nation-builder. His face appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and his U.S. sponsors congratulated themselves on their insight.But those who probed beneath the surface saw reason for worry. By the late 1950s, the American embassy was warning that Diemenjoyed little real popular support because of his stiff, aloof political style, his Catholicism (a minority faith introduced by the French), his favoritism toward co-religionists, and his heavy political dependence on his family. He was not, moreover, making effective use of American aid, and he was hobbling his army by keeping it on a leash short enough to forestall a coup attempt. This distinctly political army thus lacked a sharp fighting edge. His land-reform program had bogged down, and the return of landlords and the forced settlement of peasants in government-controlled "agrovilles" in 1959 had helped foster resentment in the countryside. His policy of settling Vietnamese in the Central Highlands alienated the ethnic minorities (Montagnards) living there, thus creating a valuable opening that his Communist rivals would exploit. Lastly, while Diem had seriously disrupted the old Viet Minh resistance network, he had not destroyed it, and by 1959-1960 the surviving activists had begun to rally their forces and rebuild their organizations.
Back in mid-1954, as the United States embarked on its own Vietnam policy unencumbered by the French, Edward G. Lansdale arrived in Vietnam. An outgoing cold warrior bursting with fresh ideas, he was literally the stuff from which fiction would be made. Graham Greene's 1956 novel, The Quiet American, featured a Lansdale-like character, an American crusader who unwittingly sowed devastation in his wake. Two years later Lansdale again assumed fictional form, this time in The Ugly American as the exemplary Air Force Colonel Edwin Barnum Hillandale. A shrewd, idealistic populist, he was pictured helping the leader of the Philippines turn back a leftist insurgency and then moving to press the struggle in mainland Southeast Asia.Compared to the character in The Ugly American, the life of the real Lansdale was less bizarre and more revealing of the difficulties Americans were encountering in Vietnam. During World War II, Lansdale had left his successful advertising work in San Francisco for the freewheeling world of American intelligence and covert operations. He joined the newly formed U.S. spy operation, the Office of Strategic Services, and for two decades he worked within the shadow of that organization and its successor, the CentralIntelligence Agency. His Cold War crusade began in the fall of 1945, when on a mission to the Philippines he identified the insurgent Huks as communist-inspired terrorists (even though they had originated to address an interwar agrarian crisis and had played a notably patriotic role in the wartime anti-Japanese resistance). Later, in 1950, with the Huks threatening Manila, Washington ordered Lansdale back to the Philippines with a small team of operatives. His task was to bolster Ramon Magsaysay, the new American political favorite, and to defeat the Huks. Within three years Lansdale could claim two victories: Magsaysay was elected president, and the Huks suffered a string of devastating reverses.This extraordinary success established Lansdale as an authority on counterinsurgency and as an Asian expert (even though he never gained fluency in any foreign language). His insights were much in demand as conflict in the third world increasingly preoccupied the U.S. security bureaucracy. Lansdale's consistent message was that a hearts-and-minds approach informed by American goodwill and democratic ideals could overcome any communist agitation. An American policy that actively promoted individual rights, dedicated government leadership, a freely operating opposition party, and fair elections would prove in the long run far more attractive than communism. Conventional warfare alone would not prevail; it would only make matters worse if the basic longing of people everywhere for freedom and a better life was neglected. Lansdale kept coming back to these points--both in Washington and in the field--with the zeal of a missionary certain of the universal applicability of American political values. In promoting these values, he drew on techniques that he had learned in advertising--get to know your audience (in this case, the Asian elite that Lansdale saw as his most critical consumers) and promote your product with energy and unwavering confidence.In June 1953 Lansdale made his first contact with Vietnam. As a member of a military advisory group on a six-week tour, he traveled widely in the war-torn country. A year later, with the French defeated and partition underway, CIA chief Allen Dulles ordered him to turn his attention full-time to Vietnam. Lansdale settled in Saigon and went to work on the familiar task of shoringup an anticommunist leader, in this case Diem. To bolster the new Diem government, Lansdale launched the familiar repertoire of sabotage, propaganda, tutoring in good government, upgrading the military, and buying off noncommunist dissident forces. But the results were unexpectedly disappointing. Diem proved less responsive to reform than Magsaysay, and Diem's brother Nhu retained a preponderant influence that always troubled Lansdale. By early 1956 Lansdale had become impatient with Diem's failure to become the George Washington of South Vietnam--the founding father of a new, democratic order in that land. In early 1957 Lansdale left Saigon despondent over his inability to make significant headway against the communist threat.Already by 1958, even as The Ugly American commanded a widening readership, Lansdale's own experience challenged the notion that responsible, middle-of-the-road Asian leaders, properly persuaded, would follow the American lead toward democracy and reform essential to blocking the communist advance. The self-righteous presumption of Lansdale and others that Americans had the answers to Vietnam's future and the right to promote those answers was simply a fresh expression of a paternalism that Franklin Roosevelt had passed along to his Cold War successors. As events would prove, this paternalistic faith carried greater risks than anyone guessed at the time. For if freedom-loving Vietnamese did not themselves recognize the severity of the threat confronting them and implement a winning strategy, then Americans would have to step forward and take over the direction of the conflict.This American paternalism was closely tied to a simple picture of Asians as either easily educable friends or implacable communist foes. In this American view, the friendly Vietnamese were the vast majority of the population--simple, warm-hearted, hard-working people--together with their anticommunist leaders. The "good" Vietnamese instinctively identified with American values and thus were attractive targets for a hearts-and-minds strategy. Honest, dedicated Americans could win their loyalty and guide them away from the pitfalls laid by international communism. On the other side, standing in the way of the U.S. crusade, was a small minority of misguided radicals led by Ho Chi Minh--those naive Vietnamese who in their impatience for change had fallen into the communist trap. But these deviant natives were in themselves less important than the people who stood behind and manipulated them, the leaders of the Soviet Union and China. Communism in Vietnam was thus seemingly a political movement in thrall to cynical, exploitative foreign powers and out of touch with the real spirit of the people.Getting beyond these caricatures of the friendly native and his foil, the wily, wild-eyed radical, would have taken a knowledge of Vietnam's peasantry, a sensitivity to its history and culture, and a fluency in its language. Lansdale did not have the necessary tools, and neither did Eisenhower and his immediate entourage. And none of them could acquire these prerequisites to understanding by a few weeks of hurried schooling or by fleeting conversations on a city street or rural lane. Nor could they rely on a hail-fellow-well-met relationship to guide elites who were, in fact, less concerned with advancing American values than with winning the backing of powerful American emissaries with deep pockets.Had a deeper and more subtle understanding of Vietnam developed, American policymakers might have discovered that the identity of interest between paternalistic Americans and willing Vietnamese pupils did not exist. If they had reached that basic insight, they would have set off a cascade of intellectual dominoes: Vietnam might not be the place to wage the Cold War; the costs of a sustained struggle might prove unimaginably high; and the price of abandoning Vietnam might be far lower than those obsessed with dominoes imagined. There was, in short, a Vietnamese world which Americans, immersed in their own Cold War world, ill understood.Copyright © 1996 by Michael H. Hunt
Table of Contents
1 - THE COLD WAR WORLD OF THE UGLY AMERICAN,
2 - HO CHI MINH'S BROCADE BAGS,
3 - LEARNED ACADEMICS ON THE POTOMAC,
4 - "THAT BITCH OF A WAR",
5 - HOW HEAVY THE RECKONING?,
ALSO BY MICHAEL H. HUNT,