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Vietnam - Prelude

VietnamThe Vietnam War was the United States’s longest war, lasting from the initial commitments of American advisers in 1962 until the completion of the withdrawal of combat troops in 1973. American involvement continued, however, in support of the South Vietnamese government through the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. The War also created sharp divisions within the country, exacerbating the generational, political, social and racial conflicts that affected the nation during the turbulent period.

The origins of American involvement in Vietnam may be traced to the debate among the Allies on the future of Southeast Asia as World War II drew to a close. In both public statements and private discussions with other Allies at the Cairo, Teheran, and Yalta Conferences, President Roosevelt personally advocated independence for the former European colonies of Indochina and urged that the French possessions seized by the Japanese should be turned over to an international trusteeship rather than returned to France, a position also endorsed by Chiang Kai-shek of China and Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union. Roosevelt's position, however, faced resistance from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Charles de Gaulle. After Roosevelt's death in 1945, U.S. policy continued to encourage France to move toward granting independence to its colonial holdings but--in the face of French opposition--backed off pressing for the establishment of a trusteeship over the area.

With defeat looming in March 1945, the Japanese declared Vietnam an independent country under Bao Dai, the country's emperor who had also served as a puppet leader during French colonial rule and was similarly continued by the Japanese as a figurehead in an attempt to alleviate nationalist opposition to their occupation.

Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh

Image Source: American Film Foundation/

When Japan surrendered in August 1945, the Viet Minh, an acronym for the Vietnam Independence League primarily led by the Vietnamese communists under Ho Chi Minh, declared themselves to be Vietnam's new rulers and proclaimed the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam; they also secured the agreement of Bao Dai to abdicate as emperor in exchange for an appointment as "supreme adviser" to Ho Chi Minh. With British cooperation, French military forces were re-established in South Vietnam in September, 1945. The nationalist forces led by Ho Chi Minh challenged the reassertion of colonial control, and guerrilla warfare soon broke out against the French authorities.

Through the fall and winter of 1945-1946, the U.S. received a series of requests from Ho Chi Minh for intervention in Vietnam. While there was no official response to these requests, the U.S. declined to assist the French military effort, and prohibited American flag vessels from carrying troops or war materiel to Vietnam. In early 1946, the Chinese turned over their occupation rights in the North to France. Faced with increased French military power and Chinese withdrawal, Ho decided to negotiate with the French, and on March 6, 1946, Ho signed an Accord providing for French re-entry into Vietnam for five years in return for recognizing the DRV as a "free state" within the French union. As of April 1946, allied occupation of Indochina was officially terminated, and the U.S. acknowledged to France that all of Indochina had reverted to French control.

In late 1946, however, despite the agreements signed in March, the French war with the Viet Minh escalated.The Viet Mih insurgency increasingly became linked with the larger issues of the conflicts with Communist post-War expansion. Ho Chi Minh's affiliation with the Communists, and concerns that a U.S. split with the French government would strengthen the internal political position of the French Communist Party, gradually led to an easing of the American pressure on the French to reach an accomodation that might lead to the Marxists assuming power under Ho Chi Minh. Priorities of U.S. policy increasingly focused on other areas of the world, such as supporting post-War European economic recovery and establishing collective security alliances in other areas to deter Communist expansion.

In 1949, the victory of the Chinese Communists under Mao Zedong and the collapse of the Chinese Nationalist government sharpened American concerns over Communist expansion in the Far East. Also in 1949, at the invitation of the French, Bao Dai returned from a self-imposed exile in Hong Kong and China; the French re-installed Bao Dai with the titles of premier and emperor, hoping that he would rally nationalist sentiment away from Ho Chi Minh, whose guerrillas were increasing their strength among the peasants and escalating their harrassment of the French colonial army.

As Cold War tensions escalated with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, American policy firmly linked the Viet Minh as part of the worldwide Marxist movement to subvert existing governments. 0n February 1, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, shortly before extending official U.S recognition to the French-backed government headed by Bao Dai, stated:

The recognition by the Kremlin of Ho Chi Minh's communist movement in Indochina comes as a surprise. The Soviet acknowledgment of this movement should remove any illusions as to the "nationalist" nature of Ho Chi Minh's aims and reveals Ho in his true colors as the mortal enemy of native independence in Indochina. See The Pentagon Papers, Professor Vincent Ferraro, Mount Holyoke College

See also Statement by the Department of State, February 7, 1950
Source: The Avalon Project, Yale Law School

While the U.S military focus continued to be on the ongoing war in Korea, the Truman Administration also funneled substantial financial assistance to support the French in their battles against the Viet Minh. Again, the State Department contended that the aid was necessary since the U.S was "...convinced that neither national independence nor democratic evolution exist in any area dominated by Soviet imperialism, [and] considers the situation to be such as to warrant its according economic aid and military equipment to the Associated States of Indochina and to France. " See Indochina - Extension of Military and Economic Aid: Statement by the Secretary of State, May 8, 1950, The Avalon Project, Yale Law School.

In late 1953, planning proceeded for an international peace conference to be held in Geneva to seek a more permanent resolution of the cease-fire then in effect in Korea; at the request of the French, the conference agenda was later expanded to include the situation in Indochina. While agreeing to participate in the conference, both the French and the Viet Minh also prepared to launch military offensives that would seek to strengthen their respective negotiating leverage in the talks. French military commanders hoped to lure the Viet Minh into a classic battle at Dien Bien Phu, a village in northwestern Vietnam near the Laotian and Chinese order where the French believed their superiority in air power and heavy weapons would prove decisive. The French fortified the village with between 13,000 and 16,000 troops, thinking that the guerillas lacked the capability to transport artillery and other heavy equipment over the rugged hills surrounding the village. Ho Chi Minh's soldiers, however, succeeded in hauling their weapons and other supplies up the steep hillsides, ultimately bombarding the French in a 57-day siege that also cut off re-supply from the air. On May 7, the beleaguered French surrendered, effectively bringing an end to French rule in Indochina.

With the collapse of the French, American foreign policy was forced to consider a more direct U.S. role in Southeast Asia, and at a press conference in April 1954 President Eisenhower articulated the "domino" theory that failure to confront the Communists in one nation could lead to ultimate loss of the entire region:

Press Conference of President Eisenhower April 7, 1954, Professor James M. Lindsay, Famous Speeches and Documents, University of Iowa

Q. Robert Richards, Copley Press: Mr. President, would you mind commenting on the strategic importance of Indochina for the free world? I think there has been, across the country, some lack of understanding on just what it means to us.

The President. You have, of course, both the specific and the general when you talk about such things. First of all, you have the specific value of a locality in its production of materials that the world needs.

Then you have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world.

Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the "falling domino" principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.

On July 20, 1954, an Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Viet-Nam, was signed by the parties in Geneva. The accord provided for the cessation of hostilities; the establishment of a demarcation line in the middle of a demilitarized zone intended to separate the Viet Cong from the South Vietnamese and the French forces; the prohibition of infiltration of troops into areas controlled by the respective parties on each side of the demarcation line; creation of an International Commission composed of representatives of Canada, India and Poland for the control and supervision of the application of the agreement on the cessation of hostilities; and the eventual holding of internationally supervised elections to re-unify Vietnam under a single government.

In October, in the face of continuing incidents where the South Vietnamese alleged numerous Viet Cong violations of the July agreement, President Eisenhower agreed to step up U.S. aid to the South Vietnamese government under Ngo Dinh Diem.

Message from President Eisenhower to Ngo Dinh Diem, President of the Council of Ministers of Viet-Nam, October 23, 1954, The Avalon Project, Yale Law School

Dear Mr. President:

I have been following with great interest the course of developments in Viet-Nam, particularly since the conclusion of the conference at Geneva. The implications of the agreement concerning Viet-Nam have caused grave concern regarding the future of a country temporarily divided by an artificial military grouping, weakened by a long and exhausting war and faced with enemies without and by their subversive collaborators within.

Your recent requests for aid to assist in the formidable project of the movement of several hundred thousand loyal Vietnamese citizens away from areas which are passing under a de facto rule and political ideology which they abhor, are being fulfilled. I am glad that the United States is able to assist in this humanitarian effort.

In 1956, South Vietnam, with American backing, refused to hold the unification elections called for by the Geneva accords. In response, Ho Chi Minh escalated guerilla attacks against the South Vietnamese government. Starting in 1959, several thousand infiltrators were sent to the south to promote uprisings against the Diem regime. The Communists also announced formation of a seperate party for the south, the People's Revolutionary Party, and a broader front organization, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam-NLF. The United States began to slowly increase its aid to the South Vietnamese, primarily through providing training and equipment to the military, despite the misgivings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff "...that the limitations imposed by the Geneva agreements on the number of U.S. military personnel would make it impractical to attempt to train a new Army-particularly given the paucity of experienced leaders which was the legacy of French colonialism." See The Pentagon Papers.


The Vietnam War Internet Project

The American Experience: Vietnam Online >>

Vietnam: Echoes from the Wall

The Pentagon Papers >> Vietnam Veterans of America

US Army Center for Military History

Church Committee Report On Diem Coup >> 25th Aviation Battalion

Vietnam: Yesterday and Today >> Sandra Wittman, Professor Emeritus,
Oakton Community College

Educational Tools

The Vietnam Experience Online, Simulation of the 1964-1965 Escalation, Associated Colleges of the South

America Since 1945—E-Seminar 7, The Vietnam War >> Columbia American History Online

Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan: The War in Vietnam -
A Story in Photographs
>> National Archives

The Wars for Vietnam >>Vassar College