Dien Bien Phu’s Consequences: Geneva and Diem

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.

The End in Saigon: 40 Years On

May 4, 2015–This is a bit late–and it will be posted in pieces–but there is still a lot to say, perhaps though, to a diminishing audience. The first thing I want to say is “Hurrah!” While it was going on–and no matter what side of this thing you were on–the Vietnam war was pure trauma. Tragic too, it needs to be said. It went on for years then, for that very last part, got even worse, except if you were North Vietnamese. The angst, the sadness, the heart wrenching scenes of desperation and defeat–none of it was good and its was worse if you were involved personally, as Vietnamese or American. Now it is over. For many of the boomers, that trauma came at the formative moment of their lives.

This year it is over for the 40th time. There has been a remarkable outpouring of reflections, remembrances, speculations–in the press, broadcast media, and in events such as conferences marking the occasion. I’ve participated in several of them. I have reflections of my own.

The first is to note the continued vigor of those who yearn for a different truth. Like southerners refusing to acknowledge the “Lost Cause” following the Civil War, a significant number of Americans, primarily veterans and Vietnamese-Americans (refugees and their descendants) continue to insist that America did not lose the war, even that we won–or we won but threw away the victory–or that the Congress lost the war, or that the antiwar movement lost the war, or that the media lost the war. There are many variations on the theme.

In truth the war was lost quite convincingly. Our adversaries not only marched right into Saigon, our allies collapsed. We ended by desperately evacuating Vietnamese and Americans from the city even as the North Vietnamese and Liberation Front forces took over. The argument that Congress lost the war by refusing President Gerald R. Ford’s demand for yet another aid appropriation is misinformation. Not only was that aid request intended simply to fund a last-ditch stand–not anything that could have led to a military victory–there were unexpended aid funds lying unspent in current accounts at the time Saigon fell. And it was American presidents, not the Congress, who cut the aid requests from $2.2 billion for 1973, to $1.4 billion for 1974, to $1 billion for 1975.

Lost Cause deniers present well-worn arguments, over and over, in a litany that ignores refutations. The point above has been made before. So has the point that another important causal factor in the South Vietnamese collapse was the Arab Oil Embargo, which for a time specifically intended to cut off fuel deliveries to South Vietnam, and which ultimately meant huge increases in the price of oil–with immediate consequences for the South Vietnamese military and the Saigon government. That instantly soaked up a greater proportion of the available U.S. aid. This was something that had nothing to do with the U.S. Congress, media, or the antiwar movement. No matter.

Deniers make no effort to explain how the Thieu regime could eliminate the corruption on which its leader had relied to maintain his hold on power, and which functioned to drain away another slice of U.S. aid.

Deniers deplore aid to North Vietnam from the socialist camp but fail to compare that with U.S. aid to South Vietnam. The truth is that the United States delivered more aid to Saigon after U.S. forces left the war than China and Russia together provided throughout the conflict.

Saigon as well as Hanoi conspired to tear up the Paris Ceasefire on 1973. Deniers make no effort to analyze this in a balanced way, which is unfortunate since South Vietnam’s main chance for survival at that time lay precisely in ensuring the continuing operation of that agreement. The Korean war ceasefire of 1953, which has been behind the continuing division of the Koreas, could have served as the model for South Vietnam.

The argument that the National Liberation Front was defeated and the pacification war won ignores the fact that the United States itself moved the conflict from the level of an insurgency to that of a conventional war. The various formulas for isolating the battlefield by cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail are all flawed–either the forces were not available in the moment, the logistics were not there, or the political evolution of the war had passed the point when the stated action was possible. The deniers don’t seem to care.

For the 40th time we observe the same history–that is, the North Vietnamese did march into Saigon. Our proponents of the Lost Cause, you would think, must be tired by now, since each time we revisit this history it has the same tragic and traumatic content.

A second point is that “victory” did not mean what our former adversaries thought. North Vietnamese authorities made a hash out of reunification and reconciliation, and never did escape entirely from wartime ways of thinking. The peace so many longed for was enveloped by fresh challenges from China allied with Cambodia–and the Chinese challenge continues to this day. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, meanwhile, now maintains friendly relations with its erstwhile enemy, the United States, partly to counterbalance the Chinese challenge. At the same time, the dynamism of Vietnamese of the south has come to play an important role in governing the nation and as Vietnam’s economic engine.

To learn one must start by acknowledging true conditions and developments. Our Lost Cause deniers and our North Vietnamese victors have this in common: neither group can bring itself to acknowledge truth. At their most extravagant the deniers turn history on its head and claim the war was won. The Vietnamese victors willfully refuse to admit their abuses in the postwar era. More recently, when significant capital inflows to Vietnam are coming from the overseas Vietnamese, the Viet kieu, the Vietnamese government has been slow to amend regulations that separate and divide families, or to dismantle repressive wartime ideological controls.

When the next major anniversary of the end of the war comes it would be delightful to be able to report that we have moved past these counterproductive and spiteful attitudes.

What Have We Learned from the Vietnam War?

April 29, 2015–On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in 1975 I participated in a roundtable discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations. Some of the things I heard there are actually disturbing for citizens of a nation that is continually faced with new appeals for it to commit blood and treasure in foreign ventures, some important, some not so much.

One panelist went on about transformation. That is, since the Vietnam war the lands of East Asia have enjoyed an economic boom, greater prosperity, more cohesion in terms of regional politics, and the like, attributed to the “stand” the United States made in Vietnam. When you have lemons, make lemonade. First, the United States did not make a “stand” in Vietnam, that was an intervention. More to the point, while it is perfectly understandable that national and international investments had been slowed by the security fears occasioned by the war, and therefore surged once it ended, attributing economic prosperity to the war is mistaking consequence for purpose. America lost the Vietnam war–and not prettily–and to make it out as a victory of any sort is inadmissible. This version is actually something popularized by Walt W. Rostow in the 1990s, when Robert McNamara’s memoir deploring the mistakes of White House insiders put Rostow on the hook of responsibility for some of the trauma of Vietnam.

Another panelist learned that presidents need to keep their sights on three things– the need to keep on the right side of the Congress, the American people, and the media. There were no lessons about valid purposes, none about proper commitments, nothing learned about the need for exit strategies. Apart from the question of whether it is any longer even possible to stay on the right side of the Congress, this whole thing is about freedom of action. Presidents can do anything they like so long as they follow these three easy rules.

If this is the caliber of our takeaway from the Vietnam war then perhaps it is a good thing that Americans spent several decades trying to forget all about Vietnam.

Stan, We Hardly Knew Ya!

April 9, 2015– A couple of weeks ago I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the Virginia Festival of the Book, speaking on a panel about American presidents and their audiotapes, most especially the Nixon tapes, at the Miller Center of the University of Virginia, which staged this event. We were a good panel–I had compiled a selection of presidential tape recordings from all who had used them, colleagues Luke Nichter and Ken Hughes, respectively, had co-edited a set of transcriptions specifically of Nixon tapes, or written a book based primarily on the Nixon tapes.

But I remember thinking that Stanley Kutler, the guy who really ought to have been there, was missing. Then today I see he has passed away. Much was lost there. Among historians Stan numbered among those who–absolute bulldogs–never let go until the story is told. The Nixon tapes–more specifically, the American public’s access to them–is one particular legacy of Kutler’s work.

Briefly, the Presidential Records Act of 1978, now credited with preserving the documents of denizens of the White House by making these records government property, actually followed on a Watergate-era law passed to secure Richard Nixon’s documents, including some 3,432 hours of tape recordings. A small fraction of these had been used in the Watergate investigation and prosecutions, but Nixon asserted that his tapes and documents were personal property. The disgraced president was correct in terms of practice–previous presidents had been accorded that privilege (George Washington’s relatives even sold his papers)–but perhaps only because the country had never before been forced to focus on this matter. Presidential documents, after all, are created at government expense, on government equipment, by United States employees, and housed in government facilities.

Based on congressional action the Archivist of the United States took custody of the Nixon records, but the process of opening them to scholars or anyone else halted once Mr. Nixon asserted property rights. Long negotiations followed to establish a “value,” then a price, then haggling. There were some partial deals. The former president asserted that some remnant of the set were exempt as his private records, and continued to dispute releases across the board. Nixon’s tapes and documents languished for decades. Until Stan Cutler took a hand. In 1992 Kutler and the Ralph Nader group Public Citizen filed suit to force release of the material. Under pressure of the lawsuit the Archivist stopped dragging his feet on finalizing the acquisition, and began a more systematic effort to open the files. More years passed while all this material underwent review for secret information.

Dr. Kutler got the first tranche of new tapes and commissioned transcripts, which he used for the eye-opening 1997 collection titled Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes. Since then there have been periodic releases of tapes, until today when we are near the end of the road, with only the last few months of White House tape plus the previously-excised security classified passages still kept in the darkness. But for Stan the public would likely still be waiting.

Stan’s monument of a book The Wars of Watergate, written while the tapes were still a political football, proved surprisingly generous toward a former president who went out of his way to stymie Kutler and all of those who, like him, sought to understand the dark underside of the Nixon White House.

It may be true, as the wags put it, that “even paranoids have real enemies.” But Stanley Kutler was a friend of the truth more than an enemy of Richard Nixon. With the predicament the country is in today, we need friends of the truth more than ever.

What is NAL/Caliber?

January 23, 2015–For those of you looking for the latest commentary, sorry. I’ve been out of circulation on a deadline, and now I need to reorganize to take up the next project. In the meantime I noticed a reference on the web to a question someone had actually asked me just the other day. So I’m just putting up a quick note to answer that question.

“NAL/Caliber” is a publisher. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but that’s the gist of it. In the way of agglomeration in the publishing industry the back story is this: New American Library (NAL) is an old line publishing house. If I remember correctly they used to have two lines–or “imprints” as they are called in publishing. One published useful editions of classic books and was called the Modern Library. The other did popular paperbacks and was called Signet. NAL also did some books under their own imprint.

At some point before I worked with them, NAL was acquired by Penguin Books–my theory is it was for their classics line. Penguin continued to run NAL as an imprint. NAL/Caliber is a further subset–an imprint that specializes in popular military history. I’ve published two books with NAL/Caiber–Islands of Destiny  (2013 paperback, 2012 hardcover) and Normandy Crucible.  There is a sequel to Islands of Destiny in progress.

Naturally this may all change. Penguin has been acquired in its turn by the publisher Random House. What the final disposition may be I cannot say.

 

The NSA Watch

January 3, 2015–In the first of a series of long-form collections, Prados here reprises his commentaries on the National Security Agency domestic spying and eavesdropping scandal. This selection includes commentaries posted from the end of 2013 through the winter of 2014, a period of time during which the NSA spying was found wanting by courts, presidential reviews, and a public privacy board. President Barack Obama promised reforms. These essays analyze the evolving scandal, providing background on individuals and issues involved in the controversy.

The collection is available as a product for a nominal fee from the “Downloadable” section of this website. It appears under several national security and intelligence categories.

Gamers’ Corner : Set Europe Ablaze Bibliography

November 6, 2014–Just a head’s up! We have now posted a product which lists the various histories consulted in the course of designing the game Set Europe Ablaze and compiling the historical articles that appear with it. Not everyone will be interested in the bibliography, but for anyone who wants to look into Resistance to the German occupation of Western Europe in World War II, the history of the Special Operations Executive, and the French and American (OSS) special services that matched it, this listing furnishes a useful compilation of the sources. This product can be found in the “Downloadable” section of the website. It is a premium content item.

Leyte Gulf and ISIS

October 26,2014–Seventy years ago today the United States fleet was off the Philippines, hurling bolts of lightning at the remnants of a Japanese fleet in frantic retreat from what was the greatest naval battle of World War II. The fight was the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Americans were in the Philippines to make good on General Douglas MacArthur’s promise that “I shall return!” The Japanese responded because loss of the Philippines would cut the Home Islands off from their major source of raw materials and fuel. The Imperial Navy was being destroyed without a fight. It might as well make a last stand.

In history, the Leyte Gulf battle climaxed yesterday in October 1944, with U.S. warships pursuing the fleeing Japanese down Surigao Strait, where the Allies had soundly defeated the Imperial Navy; while other Americans mopped up the last active Japanese aircraft carriers off of Taiwan, and yet other American ships desperately sought to defend themselves against a huge Japanese battle fleet that had suddenly materialized out of the dawn.

It is that last piece of the story that’s of interest here. In October 1944 all the decks were stacked in favor of the Allies. The fleet supporting MacArthur outmatched the Japanese in numbers in every category from torpedo boats to battleships, way more in tonnage (therefore size of the fleet) and in numbers of aircraft; with huge advantages in combat logistics and organization–plus highly capable intelligence. It had been a full year since the Japanese fleet had laid a glove, other than pinpricks, on the Allies. The Imperial Navy had no chance. The admiral who led that battle fleet which came out of the dawn told his captains, “You must all remember there are such things as miracles.”

As it turned out, Leyte Gulf more or less followed the pattern. The detached Japanese force in Surigao Strait was largely destroyed, the core of the carrier force was sunk, and the battle fleet suffered tremendous damage. But what is most significant is that three years into a war Japan was losing by a wide margin, its sailors, by dint of determination and fighting spirit, were able to turn the tables on the Allies despite all their advantages, and put that battle fleet up against a greatly inferior detachment of the Americans. The miracle seemed like it was happening after all.

The Japanese squandered their opportunity. Thus seventy years ago today it was Americans mopping up fleeing Japanese and not the other way around. But that is a story for another day. What is more interesting for right now is the parallel we can draw with the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the foe whom Americans and other allies are today fighting across both those countries. Today again the allies have many advantages. The ISIS fighters have only a small amount of heavy equipment, limited to what they have been able to capture from the Syrian government. The allies have air power–and complete control of the air–and can strike anywhere in the region with complete flexibility against an adversary who must move on the ground under the constant threat of air attack. ISIS fighters are also far outnumbered by the troops of the Iraqi government, the Kurds, and the other Syrian partisan factions, not to mention the forces of the Syrian government.

But like the putative Allied dominance at Leyte Gulf, the situation in the Middle East today is not so clear cut as would seem. Like the Japanese seventy years ago, what ISIS has going for it is determination and the willingness to die. That has carried it a long way under the rain of aerial munitions already. The Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga have proven much less determined. The Syrian islamist fighters other than ISIS have been divided against multiple enemies. The Turkish government, having promised to help, is effectively dragging its feet.

Those Americans at Leyte Gulf who took a complacent view of the Japanese were destined to be shocked. Do not be surprised if the same happens with ISIS today.

 

Gamers’ Corner: Set Europe Ablaze

September 2, 2014–Just a quick note! Some of you will know that Against the Odds magazine has selected my Western European  (WW2) Resistance game Set Europe Ablaze as their “annual” issue game for this year. The game is a two-player simulation of the partisan war against German occupation from 1941 to 1944. Anyway, while ATO completes its playtesting and starts to put the game itself into production, I’ve taken time to craft the historical articles that will accompany the publication. (Thus I’ve been only fleetingly on this website of late.) That work is now done.

ATO doesn’t have space for everything I did. Accordingly I lopped off the Bibliography I had prepared for the game and articles. In the next few days I am going to post that biblio as a product on this website. FYI.

John Walker: Why Remember One of the Worst?

August 31, 2014–We learned on Friday that John Walker had died. Walker, the greedy and narcissistic ringleader of a circle of U.S. Navy spies from the 1960s into the 80s, became the most notorious spy our sea service has ever seen. The extent of the damage he wrought remains unknown but it is enormous–something I’ll return to in a moment. He died in a federal prison hospital in North Carolina on August 28. Ironically Walker’s brother Arthur passed away, likely in that very same Butner, North Carolina prison, barely six weeks earlier, on July 7. It was a measure of John Walker’s selfish desire that the best people he could come up with as subagents were family–his son Michael, a sailor; his brother Arthur, a naval officer; and Jerry Whitworth, a fellow petty officer. Thus the Walkers’ case became known as the “family of spies,” after the book-length account published by Peter Earley.

Beginning in 1967, and until his 1985 arrest, John Walker sold U.S. secrets to the Russians. From what we know these consisted of documents concerning the movement and dispositions of U.S. naval vessels plus, most important, lists of codenames and encryption machine settings used in top secret U.S. military communications. These were of vital importance to the Soviets, who actively intercepted American communications traffic. The code keys Walker handed over corresponded to on-line encryption devices in U.S. service at the time. Those same types of machines were aboard the Navy spy ship Pueblo, which was pirated by North Koreans off their coast in 1968. Although it has never been clear whether the North Koreans actually captured the encoding devices or the technical manuals for them–crewmen assured the Navy the equipment had been successfully destroyed–the U.S. security services have always assumed the North Koreans passed the machines to the Russians and these were compromised. If so, the Walker code keys would have given the Soviets access to a wide assortment of U. S. military communications.

I shed no tears for Mr. Walker. His brother, nephew (Michael Walker spent fifteen years in prison) and Navy buddy (Whitworth still serves a 365-year sentence) deserve slightly more sympathy for being cajoled and duped into serving Walker’s conspiracy. Never mind that. What I want to address here is the then-and-now question.

Walker would be turned in by his divorced wife, who phoned the FBI one day to say she suspected the ex- was up to no good. After a seven months investigation the Bureau arrested him and his cohorts. The Walker ring became just one of the cases of 1985, which included those of the Israeli spy Jonathan Jay Pollard, who also targeted the U.S. Navy; Ronald Pelton, who spied for the Russians against the National Security Agency; the Soviet defector case of Vitali Yurchenko, and a number of CIA spies, the most important of whom was probably Edward Lee Howard, whose defection to Russia helped cloak the truly serious penetration of Aldrich Ames. That period became known as “The Year of the Spy” in much the same way that 1975, the time of the Church and Pike committees and the Rockefeller commission, was called the “Year of Intelligence.”

In typical Washington fashion the shortcomings of security systems that had failed to uncover all these spies led to demands for reforms in American counterespionage, and ultimately to the creation of what is now known as the National Counterintelligence Executive. That represented an expansion of a center that had been revealed by the Ames and Robert Hanssen affairs to be essentially moribund.

During the Year of the Spy the U.S. counterintelligence apparatus had its hands full combating the efforts of agents working for adversaries. What an inversion, today, where the counterspies are chasing the U.S. Congress, terrified that it is going to reveal the sordid truth of the CIA torture program; as well as intelligence community whistleblowers, whom the agencies fear will reveal other abuses. This is the world turned upside down, where the spooks create an apparatus to fight foreign spies and then turn it on Americans. Sounds just like the NSA surveillance dragnet doesn’t it?

What America needs today is a mechanism to change direction,  implement course corrections to get the spooks back on track. In The Family Jewels I called for a national commission to investigate the abuses. The paperback edition of that book, now out, discusses this option in greater detail with new material on recent cases of abuse.