May 7, 2015–Last year was the 60th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu. At the time I posted a host of pieces observing aspects of the campaign, the battle, its outcome, and the American role. You’ll find these archived on the site. I especially wanted to call attention to the new evidence in my e-book on America at Dien Bien Phu, Operation Vulture. It’s perfectly true that Dien Bien Phu led to the Geneva agreements of 1954, because defeat in the battle convinced France it could no longer carry on in Indochina. Right now, however, we mark the 60th anniversary of the events that set the stage for the American War in Vietnam. These events, culminating in the “Battle of Saigon”–as intense as the Tet Offensive of 1968 but largely unremarked in history–cut the ground from under the French attempt to preserve a major role in Vietnam, confirmed the United States as guarantor of the Saigon regime, and established Ngo Dinh Diem as undisputed ruler of South Vietnam.
It happened this way: The Eisenhower administration, intensely preoccupied with the notion that it could turn back the Viet Minh challenge in Vietnam, continued to maneuver after Dien Bien Phu, attempting to keep all the pieces in play (especially the French Expeditionary Corps, already in Indochina and lavishly supported by U.S. aid). The French, desperate for help, appealed to the U.S. again and again. Washington considered intervening several times and in several forms, at the end the commitment of U.S. Marines in northern Vietnam to help defend the Hanoi region. Ultimately the French cabinet then in power lost its mandate to govern. Under its parliamentary system France then selected a new cabinet, one headed by the socialist Pierre Mendes-France, who came to power on a specific promise to make peace at Geneva or resign. That is what he proceeded to do.
Hostile to the Geneva negotiations from the outset, the United States took a very hands-off attitude towards them. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles considered Geneva a sham. (Which makes a mockery of the U.S. claim during the American War to be fighting to enforce the Geneva agreements.) Once a settlement was reached, rather than stepping up to support peace, the U.S. simply said it would do nothing to obstruct its implementation. Eisenhower and Dulles promptly broke that promise by agreeing to avoid the Vietnam-wide elections provided for by Geneva.
Eisenhower’s posture with respect to the emergent government of South Vietnam is quite revealing, as I discuss at length in my comprehensive book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War. The Saigon leader Ngo Dinh Diem actually was selected by French-backed Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai. The leader began as prime minister of a Vietnamese state that, from a legal and juridical standpoint, was an “associated state” of the French Union. The French had negotiated a treaty with that entity endowing Vietnam with “independence,” but the French National Assembly never ratified the agreement. Despite (or because of) that status, the Diem government held France at arms length. As for Geneva, Diem had his negotiator denounce the agreements and the United States supported him in that. That move amounted to Washington assuming another measure of responsibility.
Further underlining Eisenhower’s posture is the letter he sent Diem in October 1954 promising aid to South Vietnam. Mr. Diem’s intransigence and rigidity were already being marked in Saigon with the first rumblings of a series of South Vietnamese moves to unseat him. In his letter, his formal undertaking, Eisenhower made aid conditional on Diem implementing reforms and opening up his government. The Saigon leader never did so. Washington never enforced the U.S. conditions.
In a succession of political crises that spanned the autumn of 1954 and spring of 1955 the chief of staff of the South Vietnamese armed forces threatened to overthrow Diem, the CIA intervened to make that impossible; the Saigon leader promised to employ certain Vietnamese nationalists, made assurances in that regard, then did nothing; and finally Diem confronted the armed Vietnamese political-religious sects. Eisenhower had sent a friend, his Old Army colleague General J. Lawton Collins, to Saigon as his personal representative and the U.S. ambassador. With Diem at the promise-making stage, Collins reported that the Diem regime seemed on the right track. Once the Saigon leader began to show his fundamental rigidity, however, Collins concluded the U.S. backing for Diem had failed. Exactly a year after the Dien Bien Phu battle had been at its height, the U.S. proconsul in Saigon sought Eisenhower’s approval to withdraw aid to Diem, by that time actively using his Vietnam National Army to fight the sects.
General Collins even flew to Washington to argue his case. Eisenhower approved but then let himself be convinced otherwise by John Foster Dulles. Dulles, whose brother Allen ran the CIA, contrived to energize pro-Diem fighters in Saigon while delaying Lawton Collins’s return to Saigon long enough for the Diemist forces to obtain the upper hand. When Collins got back to Saigon the die was cast. As many as twenty thousand people were left homeless in Saigon, a couple of thousand ended up wounded, and there were five hundred dead.
American involvement only deepened when the South Vietnamese refused to participate in the Geneva-mandated elections. Meanwhile neither Diem nor his successors ever broadened the Saigon government as they had promised to do. This conflict proved to be based on empty promises from the very beginning.