Background to the Vietnam War

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The background leading up to direct American military involvement in Vietnam can be traced to the close of World War II, when a power vacuum was created with the defeat of the Japanese, and the rise of the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh. From 1945 through the events leading up to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Vietnam would become a state divided into North Vietnam, controlled by Ho Chi Minh, and South Vietnam, allied and propped up by Western powers. Through the incursion and attempt to recolonize Vietnam by France and the United Kingdom, Vietnam would be set on the path for eventual direct American incursion in a containment policy intended to curb the spread of Communism throughout southeast Asia.

French colonial period[edit]

Vice-Admiral Léonard Charner

French involvement in Vietnam began in 1787, when Monsignor Pierre Pigneau de Behaine, Bishop of Adran returned to France from Vietnam with Nguyễn Cảnh, the seven-year old son of a pretender to the throne of Vietnam.[1] Following the seating of Nguyễn Ánh (Canh's father) on the throne of Vietnam in 1802, the royal dynasty would last with French support until 1954, ending with the final Vietnamese emperor, Bảo Đại.[2]

Direct involvement began 1835 with the arrival of Dominique Lefèbvre who, in 1844, conspired with a group of French priests to replace then-emperor Thiệu Trị with another ruler more aligned with Christian interests. The plot failed and Lefebvre was imprisoned. Learning of his capture, the French fleet responded, and a battle ensued on March 23, 1847. Following this skirmish, France sent troops, who were forced to evacuate Tourane in 1859. In 1861, under the leadership of Vice-Admiral Léonard Charner, French military forces entered Saigon, claiming the city as their own. From that point forward, Vietnam was a colony of France.

The rise of Ho Chi Minh[edit]

As a colony with a long national history, France was forced to deal with a long series of civil wars and nationalist movements that marked their occupation of Vietnam, later French Indochina.

The man who would later be named Ho Chi Minh entered the scene in a country that loathed its status as a colony. French colonialism, dependent in no small measure on profits gained from cheap labor for mining, rubber, construction and other industries, had essentially laid the foundation for national unrest in the early part of the twentieth century. Added into this formula was the growing ethnic, political, and economic division between Catholic and Buddhist Vietnamese. Vietnamese society at all levels was politically and economically divided during this period, as it was at the end of French rule.

Originally named Nguyễn Sinh Cung, Ho Chi Minh was born in 1890 in central Vietnam. In 1911 he would sign on as a stoker in a French freighter, and would spend thirty years away from Vietnam. Travelling extensively, Ho would see not only France, but also visited the United States and London where he would meet Irish Nationalists, finally ending up in Paris. where he would remain for six years.

In 1919, with the close of World War I, he would attempt to meet with Woodrow Wilson, asking for a right to self-determination for Vietnam.[3] Meeting French socialists, who noted his attempt, and quickly sided with the Communist faction. In 1924, Ho moved to Moscow.

At the end of World War II, Japanese forces in Indochina turned over power to Vietnamese Nationalists as a way of causing trouble for the allied occupation forces operating in the postwar period. Japan had, late in the war, created a nominally independent Vietnamese government. Japan allowed this government to be displaced by the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh. In September 1945, Chinese forces (as agreed to at the Potsdam Conference) occupied Indochina south to the 16th parallel to supervise the surrender and repatriation of the Japanese. The next month, a British force landed in Southern Vietnam and occupied Indochina south of the 16th parallel. The immediate postwar period was very chaotic with criminals, nationalists and French soldiers released from prison all fighting for power.

The French eventually regained a measure of control over parts of Vietnam, mostly in the British zone. In early 1946, the French began a series of dual negotiations with the Chinese and Viet Minh over the future of Vietnam. The Viet Minh were willing, for nationalist reasons, to agree to almost any concessions including the return of the French in order to get the Chinese army out of the country. For their part, the French traded their pre-war concessions in Shanghai and other Chinese ports for Chinese cooperation in Vietnam. The French landed in early 1946 outside Hanoi and quickly established themselves as the administration in the cities. After failed negotiations with the French over the future of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh retreated into remote parts of the countryside to fight a small-scale insurgency against the French.

Though the United States had no direct role in the return of the French to Indochina, Washington's desire for a more uniform postwar European economy and European cooperation on a variety of other matters required French cooperation in the postwar period. And because successive French governments threatened to become more uncooperative in Europe if the United States refused to accede to their demands overseas, Washington committed itself to a policy of supporting the French in Indochina.


In 1949, the communists reached the border of Vietnam in the north. The result was that the Viet Minh were able to receive almost unlimited amounts of conventional weapons. The war in Vietnam transformed itself from an insurgency to a full war between armies in the remote areas of Vietnam. The international situation had also changed dramatically. The Soviet Union had put in place in Eastern Europe authoritarian regimes under its control. China had fallen to communist armies and war had broken out in Korea. The war in Korea helped build a U.S. perception of a general communist threat in Asia. Given China's involvement in Korea and its supply of weapons to the Viet Minh in Indochina, U.S. policymakers began giving support to the French administration.

After taking power in 1953, the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted the Indochina policy established by the Truman Administration and its foreign policy corps essentially without modification. Support for the French colonial regime was continued, on the pretense that the French were fighting towards the ultimate independence of Vietnam, as well as the defeat of the communists. With the end of the Korean War, the U.S. became less interested in sustaining the French presence in Vietnam.

The end of French involvement[edit]

It is generally accepted that the United States funded approximately one-third of the French attempts to retain control of Vietnam, in the face of resistance from the Viet Minh movement led by Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh. The French, however, failing to achieve more than what amounted to a military stalemate, under financial pressure at home and under increasing pressure from Washington to make good on their end of the bargain, adopted new measures by 1953. For instance, the so-called Navarre Plan called for a buttressing of the Vietnamese National Guard and the deployment of an additional nine battalions of French troops. The French made a request for $400 million in American assistance, of which $385 million was ultimately given. This discrepancy has often led to the charge that the United States failed to adequately fund French efforts to crush the rebellion early. (Herring, 1986, p. 27) The Navarre Plan ultimately failed to end the fighting, however. After the Viet Minh defeated the French colonial army at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French negotiated an end to their presence in Indochina.

The issue of increasing US involvement in Vietnam was by this point already proving to be divisive in Washington. President Eisenhower refused to overtly commit US forces to the region, even to support the faltering French forces at Dien Bien Phu. After the end of the Korean War, Vietnam ceased to have any strategic value for the U.S. and French colonial rule seemed to, if anything, be helping to strengthen the communist movement in the country.

Unwilling to directly support French colonialism, and somewhat disillusioned by the mixed results of American intervention in Korea, Congress instead opted for Secretary of State John Foster Dulles' proposal for "United Action" in Southeast Asia. "United Action" was an outgrowth of the Eisenhower Administration's "New Look" policy, whereby local forces should be called upon for the defense of their territories rather than relying on direct US military involvement. "United Action" called for Vietnamese forces to be responsible for the defense of Vietnam, although with US assistance. The direct results of "United Action" were Washington's tacit acceptance of the upcoming Geneva Accords and the creation of SEATO, a coalition of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan to draw a firm line against communist expansion and make war in Southeast Asia less likely. The signatories would share the military burdens of protecting Southeast Asia from "indirect aggression."

Partition of Vietnam and the Diem government[edit]

According to the ensuing Geneva Conference, Vietnam was partitioned, ostensibly temporarily, into a Northern and a Southern zone of Vietnam. The former was to be ruled by Ho Chi Minh, while the latter would be under the control of former Emperor Bảo Đại. In 1955, the South Vietnamese monarchy was abolished and Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm became President of a new South Vietnamese republic.

The Geneva Conference specified that elections to unify the country would be scheduled to take place in July 1956, but such elections were never held. In the context of the Cold War, the United States under President Eisenhower had begun to view Southeast Asia as a potential key battleground in the greater Cold War, and American policymakers thought democratic elections in Vietnam would result in an 80% vote for Ho Chi Minh and therefore blocked elections in the south of the country. With the failure to hold elections, conflict resumed between the forces of Ho Chi Minh and the US-backed government of Ngô Đình Diệm.

Ngô Đình Diệm was an anti-Communist exile previously residing in New Jersey. Over French objections, the United States installed Diệm because he was regarded as a staunch nationalist who could more adequately oversee the construction of a pro-Western South Vietnam than Emperor Bảo Đại, who was seen[by whom?] as weak and a remnant of the French colonial authority. This decision was based largely upon Diệm's anti-communist and pro-western stances, not his wisdom or experience as a ruler.

Diệm's early regime was troubled by powerful religious sects. The Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo religious sects were among the most potent political factions in Vietnam in the wake of the partition. They effectively controlled huge rural areas and maintained their own private armies. In addition, the Bình Xuyên, something of a mafia organization, wielded immense influence and military strength. Their challenge to Diệm's fledgling government cast serious doubt on the likelihood of success of the American efforts in Vietnam, and many[who?] began to expect an ultimate US withdrawal. Although it initially appeared that Diệm would be unable to resist the pressures of these organizations, his startlingly successful campaigns against them in 1955 prompted a deeper American commitment.

Dulles, on the premise that a communist leadership would win any free election with a universal suffrage, would under no circumstances allow free elections, arguing that it was in US interests to allow Diệm to hold a referendum ahead of the elections mandated by the Geneva Conference. Given the solvency of the Diệm government shown by its victory over the sects, Diệm won public support in the 1955 referendum.

In the late 1950s, the United States provided support to South Vietnam. But at the same time, North Vietnam began to activate former Viet Minh groups that had remained in the south in violation of the Geneva accords. At the highest levels in North Vietnam, it had been decided to overthrow the government in the south by force as there was no possibility of regaining power through the ballot box.

In the end, neither the US nor the two Vietnams signed the election clause in the accord. Initially, it appeared as if a partitioned Vietnam would become the norm, similar in nature to the partitioned Korea created years earlier.


  1. ^ Karnow, Stanley (1991). Vietnam: A History (10th edition ed.). New York City: Penguin Books USA. p. 68. ISBN 0-670-84218-4. 
  2. ^ Karnow, Stanley (1991). Vietnam: A History (10th edition ed.). New York City: Penguin Books USA. pp. 76–77. ISBN 0-670-84218-4. 
  3. ^ Schulzinger, Robert D. (April 1997). A time for war:The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 8. ISBN 0-19-507189-1.