For many in the Western World, the war in Vietnam has remained a huge, haunting specter that has never gone away. In the United States, the cold images of the military withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970’s still cast a grim and dark shadow on the national psyche and remains a major reason behind the doubts people have regarding any victory in the current war in Iraq. However, it is surprising that so few people understand the role that France played in the history of the United States’ role in Vietnam to say nothing of the role that France has also historically played in the United States’ role in the Middle East as well.
While there is some myth surrounding the France’s and America’s wars in Vietnam, much of the myth can be dispelled by the reality of the images that have been recorded for history. The Vietnam War was no more ugly than any other war in history, but it was the first war that had aired uncensored on American television. This time, there would be no illusory tales of grandeur that would put mythic heroics onto the exploits after they war came to a close. The blood of the Vietnam War had been captured for eternity as has the realization that the United States and the French were hardly welcome guests in Southeast Asia. “Although popular sentiment among the lower classes for the [North Vietnamese Army] was not strong, there was still a great desire for independence.” (Morrison 17)
Much of the problems with the war in Vietnam were directly related to the American and French populace’s total misunderstanding of Vietnam and its history. Vietnam had fought several centuries long war of independence with the Chinese. It also fought a hundred years war with French colonialists and also occupying Japanese forces. The country’s goals were to free itself from foreign rule. While the United States saw itself as liberating the nation from communism, the general Vietnamese population simply wanted the freedom of self determination for their nation. While the communist regimes that ended up controlling Vietnam were as brutal, if not worse, than the foreign occupying forces, at the time, the “hearts and minds” of the people were not with the American forces so the war quickly became a situation that was not winnable for the US troops and the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese were certainly not with the goals of the imperial, colonizing French forces either. As such, the French War resulted in a miserable defeat and the following US-Vietnam war trudged on without any clear goal until ending with US/French defeat and humiliation. In both wars, only two viable options existed to end US or French involvement: withdraw and surrender; or drop an atomic bomb on Hanoi. The seldom mentioned third option, perpetual aerial and ground war would simply be something that would drag on forever costing an incalculable number of lives on both sides. France eventually aborted their war and this led to a segue into an American war with Vietnam that would last over a decade and involve brutal ground and aerial bombardments. The aerial assault also included large amounts of napalm bombs that made the landscape of war even more vicious. (Franklin) From this, the entire landscape of the Vietnam War was one of mayhem that led to unspeakable acts on both sides.
As stated before, long before the United States sent ground forces into Vietnam, the French had committed troops there as well. In the 19th century, France had colonized Vietnam and throughout the early 20th century was “defending” its colonial territory it had seized from a Vietnamese independence forces. Vietnam was not the only battleground for France in the 1950’s. France was also attempting to suppress colonial uprisings in Algiers as well as other African territories that it had under its control. To be able to successful wage campaigns in Asia and Africa simultaneously would be difficult for any power to achieve and for France, a country that had been devastated under Nazi occupation during World War Two was having an impossible time achieving victory.
At the same time, the United States was establishing its policy of containment during the early days of the Cold War. France was a valuable ally and Vietnam’s fall to communist forces could have dramatic repercussions on the United States. This is why the United States heavily funded France and, later, the South Vietnamese government against the communist north. Eventually, the United States’ funding of France and South Vietnam reached such proportions that the USA was, in essence, fighting a proxy war against Vietnam. Later, this role expanded as the US added “military advisors” to the region. This eventually escalated to a full-scale war with 500,000 US ground troops committed to the region. While many believe that it was North Vietnam’s invasion of South Vietnam that led to US involvement, it was actually Vietnam’s war with and eventually defeat of French forces that was the originating factor behind United States involvement in the war.
Much of this has been lost to history or merely revised. Most history books show the United States entered the war to preserve a democracy/client state during one of the few actual military battles of the Cold War era. In reality, the situation was far more complex and covered a significantly greater period of time.
Vietnam had been a country that suffered a great deal under the weight of foreign imperialism and expansion into their territory. The Vietnamese had fought a centuries long war with China over China’s incursions into their territory. France colonized later Vietnam, along with Laos and Cambodia, under the name of French Indochina. In the late 19th century, Vietnam would fight a lengthy war of independence with France. This war of independence would seemingly end in their favor during World War Two when the Japanese occupied Vietnam and “liberated” the country from French occupation. The victory celebrations of the Vietnamese would later end as it was soon discovered that the new overlords, the Imperial Japanese Army, was hardly anything but benign rulers.
Of course, as history notes, Japan lost the Second World War and their occupation of Vietnam soon ended. The country was later divided into the North and the South (two completely independent countries) with the North under the control of China and the South under the control of France. However, the situation in the South was slightly more complicated than it appeared, as France was heavily reliant on US support and aid after France’s devastation during World War Two. Things would become further complicated when the terms of the division of Vietnam would require a general election aimed at unifying the North and the South and all polls pointed to the communist North Vietnam and its leader Ho Chi Minh were virtually guaranteed a landslide electoral victory. This would put and end to the friendly relationship between South Vietnam and the United States, so the elections were delayed. Eventually, tensions rose and a civil war of independence broke out between the French colonialists and the Vietnamese. What many did not realize at the time, however, was the fact that the United States was funding upwards of 78% of the French costs for the war.
A State Department report was kept secret that Ho Chi Minh controlled two-thirds of Vietnam and recommended that the United States support the French in Indochina or, ‘face the extension of communists over the remainder of the continental areas of Southeast Asia and, possibly, farther westward. The report further recommended that the United States furnish military aid, but not troops, to the anti-communist governments of Indochina. (Morrison Pgs. 17-18)
How serious was the United States’ commitment to France’s success in Vietnam? So serious was the United States’ stakes in a French victory and the country of Vietnam not falling under communist rule, the United States (through Vice President Richard Nixon) offered the French government three atomic bombs for use in Vietnam to assure victory. In what was an ironic turn of events, long before the war with France, Ho Chi Minh would repeatedly write letters to President Truman requesting the United States’ help with defeating the French forces and helping liberate the country. Ho felt that the United States would be sympathetic to the Vietnamese cause, as the United States was founded as a nation that had overthrown colonial oppressors.
Ho soon discovered that the United States of the 20th century and the United States of the Revolutionary War period were vastly different. The United States simply refused to even respond to Ho’s requests. As a result, North Vietnam would ally with communist powers and the line in the sand was drawn.
What was it that made a French victory in Vietnam so important for the United States? It was a matter of economics, national interest and national security. After World War Two, the Soviet Union and the United States entered into the era of the Cold War. Communist countries required vast natural resources in order to survive and capitalist countries required free and open markets to survive. So, there became a perpetual struggle for the United States to protect and expand capitalist nations while at the same time, the Soviet Union found it in its best interests to expand and protect the communist nations on the earth.
The Cold War raged for many years until the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s. Realizing that the encroachment of totalitarian, communist nations throughout the world would be devastating to the United States’ economy, President Harry Truman developed a policy of “containment,” a policy designed to control communism within certain sectors of the world. Part of this containment policy was the designation of aid (military and financial) to western democracies and their allies in order to maintain said democracies when faced with communist expansions.
In 1950, President Truman and his cabinet had no doubt about communist intentions in the far east. The president had spoken to the American people on June 22, saying that communism “had passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and now will be used for armed invasion and
war. (Morrison 20)
Much of the fear in regards to the fall of Vietnam to communist forces revolved around the “Domino Theory.” The Domino Theory revolved around the belief that once one country falls to communism, neighboring countries would fall as well. This spiral of falling dominos would later lead to massive disastrous financial repercussions for the United States and its western allies. In Vietnam, for example, not only would American businesses lose an incredible amount of income from the closing the Southeast Asian markets, but also there was the possibility of the United States being cut off from valuable natural resources if the democracies fell. Rubber, for example, was a valuable natural resource Southeast Asia supplied to the United States. If French Indochina fell to communism, then the United States would lose the supply line of rubber, rice and a host of other resources it was (and still remains) dependent.
For many nations, the only way to survive was to expand colonialism. Colonization had been the primary economic military policy of the Western European nations for hundreds of years. Colonization involved military incursions into smaller, less developed nations, conquering the nations, eliminating all form of self determination and replacing sovereignty with colonial rule, leaving all derived wealth from the natural resources of the country to be gained by the colonizer. France, for many centuries, had existed as a colonial power and, in addition to its holdings in southeast Asia, France conquered and controlled vast amounts of wealth and resources in African nations such as Algiers, Senegal and Sudan.
When reviewing the old French newsreel footage that chronicles the imperial expansions into Indochina, it is difficult to not feel a chill go up and down your spine when the narrator bloodlessly drones on about the Vietnamese people as if they were less than human. The footage was broadcast on PBS in 1983 through the American Experience documentary series that was subtitled Vietnam: A Television History.
One this episode, the images of starving Vietnamese people is shown working (toiling) in the rice fields. The question that first arises in one’s mind is how can a famine plague a country that has such an abundance of rice at its disposal. The viewer soon learns that the rice was not harvested for the people of Vietnam, but it was being harvesting by the colonial overlords, the French. The narrator of the film would drone on about how the fact that France has brought the joy of “work” into the lives of these “primitive people” to give their existence meaning was the greatest reward France could bestow upon them. Of course, this was little more than a very transparent game of moral relativism designed to justify the French occupation and repression of the Vietnamese people in order to enrich France’s economy.
The French government appropriated the rice from the country and sold it for enormous profit, the wealth of which would go to the country France. The Vietnamese people, however, were not in any way benefiting from this raping of their natural resources. Mass starvation spread across the land and this would ultimately lead to the colonial war with France.
While there were definitely those in South Vietnam who certainly would not have welcome a communist unification of their country, this is not to say that the indigenous peoples of Vietnam were all that welcome or receptive to the foreign hordes either. Despite over of hundred years of history between the two nations, France was very unknowledgeable about the people of Vietnam.
Contacts between [French Army] personnel and rural Indochinese (other than their own camp followers) were hampered by cultural and linguisitic incomprehension. Soldiers uninstructed in local beliefs could unwittingly cause great resentment. For instance, a European’s most natural response to the delightful village children was to hand out sweets, ruffle their hair, and perhaps compliment their parents. Nobody had told the soldiers that to touch an infant’s head was to damn it to lifelong bad luck or that to praise it’s beauty attracted the vengeance of envious spirits. (Windrow Pg 186)
Some may wonder what such aspects of understanding between peoples would have to do with France’s war with Vietnam being successful or not. The reality is that it is next to impossible for a foreign power to successful liberate or defend a nation, if the foreign power does not have the support of the people whom it is supposed to be protecting or helping. If the indigenous Vietnamese saw that the French army were colonial invaders who did not care about their customs or beliefs (to say nothing of the imperial theft of resources), then France would ultimately be fighting the war by themselves and without the required support of the Vietnamese people, support that was paramount for obtaining success in the conflict.
In the words of the late President Lyndon Johnson, the war in Vietnam was not so much a war that would be won on the battlefield as much as it was a war that needed to be won in the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. This was more than just a politician providing a sound byte to be played on the evening news. Johnson was completely accurate in his assessment that if the Vietnamese people did not embrace the help of foreign powers and see the foreigners as liberators, then there was no chance that any foreign power was going to succeed.
Therein was the central problem that the French faced and the French disaster in Vietnam should have provided a lesson for eventual coming of the American troops. The French were unwelcome guests in Vietnam and while the French did have the support of many local powerbrokers in the South, the reality is that the French had never captured the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. As such, France was never going to escape the stigma of being a colonial power and it was never going to succeed in Vietnam.
Since France’s efforts in Vietnam were doomed to failure, further United States’ involvement in the region would eventually be required. As advisors grew and support for the South Vietnamese government continued after the fall of French troops in 1954, the United States simply had too much invested in South Vietnam to let it fall to a communist government. So, with France’s defeat in the region and the South Vietnamese government proving unable to sustain itself, the United States started the slow escalation of committing ground troops to Vietnam and the eventual decade long commitment of military forces to the region. This forever changed the history of the United States, both internationally and domestically and the image of the Vietnam War still haunts the United States and France to this very day.
The American Experience. Vietnam: A Television History. PBS DVD. 1983.
Churchill, Ward. On The Justice of Roosting Chickens. Oakland: AK Press, 2004.
Davis, Peter. Hearts and Minds. Criterion Collection DVD. 1974
Franklin, H. Bruce. Vietnam and other American Fantasies. Boston: University of
Massachusetts Press, 2000.
Morrison, Wilbur H. The Elephant & the Tiger: The Full Story of the Vietnam War. New
York: Hippocrene, 1990.
Windrow, Martin. The Last Valley. Cambridge: De Capo Press, 2005.