The Tet Offensive and the Media
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United States: Involvement in Vietnam, 1954–1965

With the French defeat at Dienbienphu and the Geneva Accords in 1954, the United States, by its own decision, assumed responsibility for South Vietnam. Long frustrated with the French, both for their political handling of Indo-China and for what was perceived as their weak military performance against the Viet Minh, the United States sought to play the decisive hand in the future of the area. At first, President Dwight D. Eisenhower attempted to work with the French and other Western allies to contain communism in Southeast Asia. He and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles engineered the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in September 1954, which under a separate protocol gave Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam a special protected status. Eisenhower sent General J. Lawton Collins to attempt to continue a U.S. -French joint effort in the region.

In the spring of 1955 Eisenhower abandoned the allied approach and moved in a unilateral direction as the United States dedicated itself to building a strong Vietnamese nation in the South under the leadership of the enigmatic Ngo Dinh Diem. Eisenhower tried to persuade the French to support the Diem option, but they hated the aristocratic nationalist almost as much as Diem distrusted them.

The French attempted to maintain a military presence in South Vietnam by continuing to train its military establishment, but the United States assumed this role in early 1956, and France was squeezed out within a few months. The United States began to structure the South Vietnamese armed forces into a carbon copy of its own military and prepared the country to fight a mid-intensity conventional war against an invasion from the North. Only the slightest attention was given to counterinsurgency.

Diem faced an almost impossible task in a war-ravaged country, "a political jungle of warlords, sects, bandits, partisan troops and secret societies," as one commentator described it. First, he had to deal with the influx of about 900,000 refugees, mostly Catholics, into the predominantly Buddhist South. The Viet Minh left cadres behind in the South; later they were the vanguard of insurrection. In the spring of 1955 various contenders for power, including the religious sects (the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao), the Saigon gangsters (Binh Xuyen), and several coup factions in the military, challenged Diem's regime. In the midst of Diem's multiple crises, Washington was ready to cut its ties, but amazingly Diem overcame the challenges and solidified his position in the country, consequently retaining the relationship with his U.S. benefactors.

Seizing on the momentum of his victories, Diem announced that the Geneva-mandated reunification elections in 1956 would not be held, and with the assistance of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative Colonel Edward Lansdale, Diem successfully ousted Emperor Bao Dai, converted the State of Vietnam into the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), and claimed its presidency. Although the RVN was not the citadel of democracy that the United States proclaimed and Diem not the model leader, the United States had nevertheless cast its lot with him.

Full-scale insurrection against Diem resurfaced in 1957. The origins were primarily indigenous, with little direction from the North. However, the U.S. military mission continued to concentrate on building the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) along conventional lines to repel an external aggressor. Diem, though, focused on the internal threat and employed counterinsurgency military measures. These forces were poorly trained and equipped, and the social programs component was halfhearted.

U.S. economic assistance was generous, in excess of $250 million per year through the Eisenhower years—80 percent of which went to the military. The result was an economically dependent South Vietnamese client-state. As U.S. involvement increased, the first American military casualties occurred in July 1959, when two U.S. advisors were killed in a terrorist attack at Bien Hoa Air Base.

The nature of the U.S. advisory role changed in the early 1960s. In December 1960 Hanoi announced the birth of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in South Vietnam, although the organization had already existed for at least a couple of years. President John F. Kennedy feared that Indo-China was a prime theater for Soviet-sponsored "wars of national liberation," and he prepared to meet this global challenge. Influenced by his reading of The Uncertain Trumpet (1960) by former Army Chief of Staff General Maxwell Taylor, Kennedy extended Taylor's proposal for a more "flexible military response" to include low-intensity warfare and assigned this counterinsurgency role to the U.S. Army Special Forces. The regular military was not enthusiastic about counterinsurgency and did little more than pay it lip service.

Although the primary area of concern in Indo-China during the first months of the Kennedy administration was Laos, by spring 1961 the focus began to shift to Vietnam. Kennedy authorized the expansion of the RVNAF from 150,000 to 200,000 men and sent more U.S. advisors—civilian specialists in government, economic affairs, and technical areas as well as military personnel, including Green Berets. With the National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff considering combat troops, Kennedy dispatched advisors Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow to South Vietnam in October 1961 to report on the situation. Their pessimistic report called for more assistance of all kinds, including a task force that would include combat troops. Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson on an earlier trip had broached the subject with Diem, who did not want U.S. troops. Diem believed that the presence of American forces would provide the Viet Cong with a significant propaganda advantage, and he was concerned about the impact of greater American involvement on his non-Communist opposition in the South. But most importantly, he feared that American combat troops would lead to the United States assuming control of the war and ultimately the country. Diem essentially wanted unlimited American aid with no interference in internal politics or the conduct of the war.

Kennedy stepped up assistance but rejected the idea of combat troops. He remarked that the first group of troops would engender requests for more. "It's like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another." At the same time that he refused to authorize combat troops, Kennedy also rejected a negotiated settlement in Vietnam similar to one he was seeking in Laos. Thus, Kennedy opted for a mid-position between fighting and negotiating—a commitment of aid and advisors, which he recognized from the beginning might prove unsuccessful. But for the most part, Kennedy was optimistic. Like his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and others of his "best and brightest" advisors, Kennedy viewed Vietnam predominantly as a military problem to be "managed" successfully. This sanguine approach characterized American policy in 1962.

The upgrading of the Military Advisory and Assistance Group (MAAG) to Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) in February 1962 was symbolic and substantive. The number of advisors rose from 3,200 in December 1961 to 9,000 by the end of 1962. The increased American presence with helicopters, new weapons, civic action programs, and expanded training had a short-term positive impact on the war, but this advantage largely eroded by the end of the year. American optimism and cultural hubris did not. As one foreign journalist noted, "probably the only people who have the historical sense of inevitable victory are the Americans."

Despite talk about winning hearts and minds, U.S. leaders never persuaded RVN President Diem to undertake the reforms needed to win support for his government nor to address seriously the corruption that pervaded the country. The high-profile Strategic Hamlet program ultimately failed as Diem misused it, primarily to bring the rural countryside under his personal control. Diem resented American "interference" and increasingly came to fear the escalating American presence as much as his internal enemies. His concerns were not totally unwarranted.

As American journalists began to attack Diem and American Vietnam policy, the buoyancy of 1962 quickly waned. Increasingly, Kennedy became frustrated by Diem and his pernicious brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. Diem's heavy-handed and inept handling of the Buddhist uprising in the spring and summer of 1963 badly weakened American support for his regime. Despite the official rhetoric, disenchantment with the ARVN's capacity and willingness to fight grew. With his advisors greatly divided over what to do about Diem, Kennedy was wavering and evasive through the fall, finally tacitly acquiescing to a coup effort by South Vietnamese generals against Diem in November 1963. However, Kennedy personally was devastated by Diem's murder during the coup. When Kennedy was himself assassinated three weeks later, Lyndon Johnson inherited a growing political and military quagmire.

Johnson retained the Kennedy team to run the war, and he continued the same basic policies. After an extensive policy review in March 1964, the president concluded that "the only reasonable alternative" was "to do more of the same and do it more efficiently." Johnson expanded the number of advisors (from 16,300 when he took office to 23,300 by the end of 1964), and he increased assistance by $50 million. He hoped to keep Vietnam on the back burner at least through the 1964 presidential election, and he proceeded cautiously. However, at the same time, he authorized secret plans for possible military action against North Vietnam. Through intermediaries, the Johnson administration warned Hanoi that the United States was prepared to inflict a heavy punishment on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) if it continued to support the insurgency in the South. But North Vietnam responded by mobilizing its own forces for war, expanding the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and preparing to infiltrate regular People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) units into the South.

Meanwhile, political intrigue and instability dominated the South Vietnamese government and the ARVN. The war against the guerrillas was being lost. The Viet Cong controlled more than 40 percent of the territory and more than 50 percent of the population. In many areas, the Viet Cong was so entrenched that only massive military force would dislodge them.

On August 2, 1964 the budding crises between the United States and North Vietnam intensified with a DRV attack on the USS Maddox, which was engaged in electronic espionage in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of the DRV. The United States prepared for a possible military retaliation. Two nights later, another attack may have occurred, although Vo Nguyen Giap told McNamara in November 1995 that it never happened. In any case, the Johnson administration opted for the opportunity to send a message. The United States launched air strikes against the DRV, and Johnson seized the moment to extort from the frenzied Congress the Southeast Asian Resolution, better known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the president to employ military power against the DRV. Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska, one of only two senators to vote against the resolution, correctly labeled it a "predated declaration of war."

After the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Johnson reverted to a cautious strategy. During the fall presidential campaign against Vietnam hawk Barry Goldwater, Johnson emphasized that he did not wish to widen the war or "send American boys to do what Asian boys should do." He did not respond to terrorist attacks that took American lives in South Vietnam in November and December, but the administration was preparing a retaliatory bombing program against the North to be unleashed at the proper moment.

In early 1965, all the pieces began to fall in place. In response to another provocation, Johnson ordered a retaliatory bombing in early February. Individual reprisal attacks soon transformed into Operation ROLLING THUNDER, a sustained bombing campaign, and in reaction to the desperate military situation in the South, American ground troops followed in March. In July 1965, Johnson authorized independent American combat operations and began the massive American troop buildup. The advisory days were over. This was now America's war in Vietnam.

Joe P. Dunn


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