Marilyn Young is Professor of History at New York University. She is author of The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990.
As we reflect on how the war began, it is worth considering how things might have played out differently. We know that Ho Chi Minh used the U.S. Declaration of Independence as a basic text for his own declaration of the end of French colonialism. He wrote a series of appeals for help to President Truman, and he offered specific economic inducements to American capital.
Suppose Truman had supported the idea of an international trusteeship in Vietnam, or taken seriously the pledges affirmed in the Atlantic Charter about the rights of all peoples to choose their own form of government. Practical revolutionary nationalist that he was, Ho Chi Minh might have gone along with the notion of trusteeship, perhaps being able to carve out the lineaments of a genuinely independent Vietnam.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
For a brief period after 1945, there was openness in U.S. policy, which yielded only slowly to definitions of a new world order in which communism replaced fascism as the enemy of all that was good and holy. It is possible to imagine Truman resisting the idle threats of the French, for example, De Gaulle’s insistence that American failure to support the French in Indochina was pushing France into the “Russian orbit.” It even is possible that Washington could have supported an independent Vietnam led by a communist-dominated coalition.
It is important to retain the possibility that something entirely different could have occurred. Otherwise one loses the sense of historical contingency, and history simply becomes the working out of flat inevitabilities. Nor is it just anti-war historians who hang onto the possibility of an alternative historical narrative.
Those responsible for prosecuting the war also looked back in sorrow. Robert S. McNamara in Rethinking the War admitted he had “totally underestimated the nationalist aspects of Ho Chi Minh’s movement. We saw him first as a communist and only second as a Vietnamese nationalist,” he wrote.
The implication is that had the Kennedy administration understood the mix, it would have welcomed a unified Vietnam under Ho’s leadership, recognizing that it did not represent a threat to the United States.
Some time ago Melvin Laird, in Foreign Affairs, echoed McNamara but was more explicit about the consequences of this misperception. “Had we understood the depth of his nationalism,” he wrote, “we might have been able to derail his communism early on.”
Here then may be part of the answer as to how and why the United States began its 30-year war in Vietnam. For Ho Chi Minh, as for social revolutionaries across the decolonizing world, there was no necessary contradiction between nationalism and social revolution, even one led by communists. For the United States, however, the only acceptable form of nationalism was the one that explicitly leaned to the U.S. side—a nationalism that embraced both capitalism and democracy, if possible, but only capitalism if necessary.
What most predicted the war in Vietnam was the naïve belief that the interests of the United States are consonant with those of the world. Instead of a structural understanding of independent interests—those of the United States, Vietnam, France or China—there are assertions of morality. Policymakers, historians, journalists, and the public thus imagine that the United States acts with the best of intentions for the freedom and well-being of whatever country to which it has brought war. This conviction of U.S. beneficence shields American politicians from taking responsibility for the disasters they create.
A FORMULA FOR PERMANENT WAR
If the wish that Truman had answered Ho’s letters is the first “might have been,” the second occurred in 1956 when, with U.S. encouragement, Ngo Dinh Diem abrogated the Geneva agreements which had ended the French war in Indochina. Instead of the country-wide elections promised in Geneva, which most observers agreed Ho Chi Minh would have won, Diem held an election in South Vietnam alone that was remarkable for its fraudulence. Ho had urged people to go along with the Geneva compromises. Unification, he insisted, would come through moderate demands and political actions. This was met with Diem’s 1956 “denounce the communists” campaign and a wave of mass arrests and executions.
Kennedy came to office as a protective parent of South Vietnam and began to build up Diem’s military. His administration put all its eggs into the counterinsurgency basket, which became a formula for permanent war. The free world was threatened, Kennedy said, “not only by nuclear attack but also by being slowly nibbled away at the periphery … by forces of subversion, infiltration, indirect or non-overt aggression, internal revolution, diplomatic blackmail, guerrilla warfare, or a series of limited wars.” That covered every possible political action one could imagine. The new policy set the United States against any movement for social change that involved the use of force—not on the wrong side of history, but astonishingly against history itself.