The surrender of the French in Vietnam had important repercussions for US policy in Asia. To the USA, it was another example of the spread of communism and brought their involvement in the conflict in Vietnam.
The USA also developed defensive alliances, on the lines of NATO, to contain communism in Asia. In 1951 they signed ANZUS, an anti-communist alliance with Australia and New Zealand.
The French were defeated because they had no plan to combat the guerrilla tactics of the Vietminh. Instead, they alienated most of the native population with their policies. For example, in November 1946 a French cruiser bombarded the port of Haiphong, killing 6000, to ‘give a harsh lesson’ to the Vietminh. They failed to realise the need to win over the native population in order to combat guerrilla tactics.
French public opinion was divided about the war. Indeed, as French casualties mounted, the French were to lose 72,000 lives in the conflict, the media and public turned against the war. The new French government elected in 1953 was preoccupied with domestic issues and gave little direction to General Navarre, the French military commander in Indochina. He believed defeat against the guerrilla tactics of the Vietminh to be inevitable and was looking for some military success to strengthen France’s hand at the negotiating table. He drew the Vietminh into open battle at Dien Bien Phu but was defeated. After 55 days of heavy fighting the French surrendered in March 1954.
At Dien Bien Phu the French believed that the Vietminh would be forced to mount a frontal attack as it would be impossible for them to move heavy artillery through the jungle. This would allow superior French fire-power to be effective. However the Vietminh commander, General Giap, used 200,000 porters to ensure his soldiers were properly supplied and manhandle artillery through the jungle. The attack came in March 1954. The Vietminh attacked with 70,000 troops and soon overran the airfields. The French inside Dien Bien Phu were outnumbered six to one. The French had underestimated the Vietminh. The Vietminh commander General Giap had been training his army using modern weapons from China. The French defenders were outnumbered and soon came under heavy bombardment. In two months the French were forced to surrender and evacuate all of Vietnam. There was a lack of direct military support from the USA.
The USA was happy to finance the French war in Indochina but did not want direct involvement, especially having just extricated itself from the conflict in Korea. However the surrender of the French would lead to further American involvement
The Domino Theory:
American politicians believed that the fall of one country to Communism would threaten the whole of South-East Asia; notably Japan. This resulted in finance to French and further political involvement
The justification for the vast finance to the French was the Domino Theory. There was a belief that there was a ‘communist threat’ worldwide and that this was orchestrated from Moscow. Nixon (Republican Vice-President) visited Vietnam in 1953 and went on television on his return. On this broadcast he said that if Indo-China goes under communist domination then the whole of South East Asia will be threatened and that means that the economic and military security of Japan will be threatened also. This became known as the ‘Domino Theory’.
President Eisenhower actually used the image of dominoes going over in a press conference in 1954. The more that the USA seemed to confront international Communism the more realistic the threat seemed to become. Mao was driven closer to Moscow because of his confrontation with the USA in Korea and likewise Ho was driven closer to Mao because of the events so far in Vietnam.
Communist insurgency in Malaya (1948):
The threat to British rule was another example of the threat of Communism; that had to be contained
The Communist Chinese minority opposed British rule in Malaya. The Malays opposed the Chinese who feared Chinese domination. A twelve year struggle followed and the Communists were defeated.
The presence of a threat between 1948 and 1960 added to America’s impression of a generalised Communist conspiracy. Communism had to be contained or it would overrun Asia.
The withdrawal of the French led to the division of Vietnam with the prospect of future elections that would unite Vietnam under Communist rule; this increased the fear of the spread of Communism and led to US political involvement
The Geneva Conference of 1954 arranged a ceasefire and the French withdrawal from Vietnam. Vietnam was to be divided along the 17th Parallel until elections could be held within two years to unite the country under a democratic government in 1956.
North Vietnam was, temporarily under the control of the Vietminh. They strengthened their hold by introducing land reform which led to the death of many former landlords. The US exaggerated the number, with Richard Nixon claiming that 500,000 died. The figure was probably 50,000 or less.
It was widely believed that the Vietminh would win the elections due in 1956. The US refused to support the idea of a united Vietnam almost certainly under communist control. They did not see Ho Chi Minh as a popular leader but rather as an agent of communist expansion.
They rejected the elections on the pretext that they were not to be organised by the UN but by an international commission. Instead the US decided to prop up the regime established by Diem in South Vietnam. In 1956 they gave Diem $250 million and increasing sums over the next few years.
The USA was propping up a corrupt and brutal regime and used bribes to buy off some of his opponents and perpetuating the division of Vietnam.
In 1954 the USA set up SEATO to strengthen their attempts to contain the spread of communism in Asia and justify future intervention in Vietnam. The South East Asia Treaty Organisation was a collection of states in this area that would act as a bulwark to communism.
In the context of the Cold War; the pride of the USA was threatened; thus they wanted to protect democracy where it existed. This provided a justification for their involvement.
This theory was the key to US policy. Democracy and the pride of the USA were threatened by the advance of communism in Asia.
However in 1955 Ngo Dinh Diem seized power in South Vietnam and made himself president and then ruled as a dictator. The elections were not held in 1956 and Diem became increasingly corrupt and violent. Trade unionists, religious leaders and journalists were thrown into jail. Diem was a Catholic in a country where 70% of the population was Buddhist. Increasingly he faced opposition from Buddhists and replied with greater cruelty. It was actually Diem’s actions led to the formation of the Viet Cong who launched guerrilla war against the government of South Vietnam. It was backed by North Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh sent supplies.
Eisenhower decided to prop up the Diem regime and ignore the Geneva Settlement. He set up MAAG, the Military Assistance Advisory Group, to provide military advisers to South Vietnam.
Substantial aid was given to Diem to promote a policy of ‘Nation Building’ by which he was supposed to bring in economic and social reforms. He ignored the US advisers and used the money to strengthen his own regime.