The Advisory Phase
AMERICAN involvement in Indochina built up slowly and incrementally, and was at first all but invisible to most citizens. In World War 11, Vietnam was a backwater so far as the U.S. military was concerned; little went on there which was of any great consequence to the overall effort against Japan, and American officials charged with prosecuting the war in Southeast Asia characteristically gave little thought as to how their efforts might determine the shape of the postwar world. Perhaps ironically, the United States became involved in Vietnam even before the outbreak of armed hostilities between the French and Vietminh. In the final months of World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the CIA, had parachuted a small team into Vietnam to make contact with local elements resisting the Japanese with the intention of providing assistance to shot-down American aviators. The team, under Major Archimedes Patty, had made contact with the Vietminh and Patty himself was at Ho Chi Minh's side when the latter proclaimed Vietnamese independence on 2 September, 1945. In later years, some analysts were to maintain that Patti, in conveying the impression of U.S. endorsement of Ho Chi Minh, played a crucial role in swinging popular support behind the Vietminh.
In the wake of V-J Day, American awareness of Southeast Asia and Vietnam diminished from little to next to nothing, yet even as America with drew seemingly inexorable forces were at work which were to draw the United States into the Vietnamese quagmire. American hopes for a benign postwar international order based on the United Nations were dashed by intransigent Soviet imperialism in eastern Europe and by the triumph of Mao Tse Tung's Communists over Chiang Kai-shek's American-supported nationalists in China. Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain speech in March of 1946 marked the beginning of the Cold War and President Harry Truman's momentous decision in 1948 to provide aid and sustenance to the Greek government in its struggle against communist guerrillas was a watershed in international relations, marking the practical beginning of the policy of containment of communism. As American policy shifted from one of hopeful optimism to containment, the French struggle in Indochina changed in character from a campaign of colonial reconquest to a crusade against communism. It was against this back drop that the Soviet-supplied North Korean Peoples Army invaded South Korea on 25 June, 1950, a move that was followed immediately by President Truman's decision to commit U.S. ground forces to resist them. With American forces actively in combat against a communist enemy in Asia, official attitudes toward the French in Indochina completed the shift from unabashed hostility to the re-imposition of colonial rule-an attitude of which President Franklin Roosevelt was a major exponent - to increased willingness to aid allies in a common struggle. By the time the Truman Administration gave way to that of Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, the shift was complete. Eisenhower entered office with a mandate to secure an end to hostilities in Korea on which he soon made good, but the basic foundations of American foreign policy remained essentially the same.
Between 1950 and the French collapse at Dien Bien Phu, U.S. aid swelled from a trickle to a torrent. The increased flow of money and materiel was accompanied by a parallel traffic in high-level dignitaries who toured the French positions, including Dien Bien Phu itself. But even assuming that the French could have cobbled together a viable political strategy capable of containing the Vietminh appeal to anti-colonialist nationalism, it was too little and too late. Significantly, the bulk of American aircraft deliveries to the French took place after March of 1954 and, symbolically, two French Foreign Legion battalions that had fought in Korea underU.S./United Nations command were destroyed in June of 1954 as part of the principal French mobile reaction force in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. As awareness of the gravity of the situation sank in at the highest levels, desperate measures were proposed, including a massive application of air power against the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu; even the atomic bomb was mentioned in this regard, though there is no convincing evidence that the nuclear option was seriously considered within the upper echelons of the Eisenhower Administration. Ultimately, domestic political considerations and a lack of confidence in French policies and competence turned President Eisenhower from overt U.S. military involvement. Ironically, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas was apparently instrumental in persuading Eisenhower not to intervene. The only American casualties in the French phase of the war were a handful of civilian airmen flying under contract to the French, who were shot down over Dien Bien Phu in desperate eleventh-hour attempts to drop supplies to the doomed garrison.Still, awareness of the American stake in Vietnam was growing. On 7 April, 1954, a month to the day before the fall of Dien Bien Phu, President DwightD. Eisenhower, speaking at a press conference, drew on an earlier utterance by his predecessor Harry Truman in comparing the nations of Southeast Asia to a row of dominos, suggesting that communist victory in Vietnam wouldresult in the fall of Laos, Thailand and Burma and threaten the rest of the region. Eisenhower's utterance was a warning of things to come, but in the event diplomatic and political realities were to defuse for a time the underlying realities behind the domino analogy, for the French did far better diplomatically at Geneva than they had militarily in Indochina. President Pierre Mendes-France negotiated a cease-fire that limited Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh to control of Vietnam north of the 17th Parallel, preserving Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam as independent republics. In this, he was aided by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and his Chinese colleague Chou En-lai who, dealing from positions of perceived weakness and eager to allay western fears about communist expansion, pressured Ho and his delegation to accept much less than they might reasonably have expected. In addition, the agreement included a population exchange provision which permitted free travel between the communist north and the south tor a limited period of time.