Viet Nam: The Day Our War Began
For years, I wondered when the American War in Viet Nam began. I kept looking for documents showing who, what, where, when, and why.
The day our war began is August 22, 1945.
In this photograph from the Harry S. Truman Library, taken on the afternoon of August 22, 1945, French Provisional President General Charles de Gaulle is standing on the left with U.S. President Harry S. Truman on the right in front of the White House during the welcoming ceremony for de Gaulle’s state visit to Washington (August 22‒24, 1945). In the next row are two top-level military officers from each country, France and the United States. In the last row are two staff-level officers for de Gaulle and Truman, but all of them are Americans. The two Americans on the French side traveled with de Gaulle from Paris.
As soon as I returned to Ha Noi from the Truman Library, I showed this photograph to Mr. Pham Tran Long, deputy-director at The Gioi (World Publishers), Viet Nam’s foreign-languages press. Mr. Long has excellent English.
“I spy Johnson!” he said.
Look again. Lyndon Baines Johnson is on the right, standing in the wings.
U.S. State Department records list de Gaulle’s priorities for his visit:
“1. The Pacific in general and Indochina in particular.”
Another pre-visit cable notes that France would assure “ʻAmerican and British interest in the future of Indochina, … the only real foothold on the Asiatic mainland for the occidental democracies (France, Great Britain and the US).ʼ”
Until the end of World War II, “Viet Nam” and “Vietnam” did not exist in international parlance. World maps in the West labeled Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Nam as “French Indochina,” even though the Japanese invasion of Viet Nam in 1940 had toppled the French colonial regime. Provisional President General de Gaulle held that France was not France without her colonies. He wanted to take back for France Viet Nam’s lucrative raw materials, rice-basket deltas, and strategic location.
General de Gaulle, already a hero in the United States as a leader of the Free French, was famous for his magnetism and bravado. After his state visit in Washington, de Gaulle and his senior officers traveled with senior U.S. military brass to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, then to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, and then to New York City for a ticker-tape parade. Those trips cemented the French and American military leaders’ relationships, sealing the base for the nine-year (1945‒1954) French-American military partnership in Viet Nam.
Why did de Gaulle seal this partnership so easily?
A seldom named villain is Winston Churchill.
British National Archives for this period show the most time-consuming worry at British Cabinet meetings: Gandhi’s hunger-strike protest for India’s independence.
At Yalta, U.S. President Roosevelt suggested a twenty-to-thirty-year independence mentoring process for French colonies. However, his vision held implications for other mother countries. Roosevelt had not consulted British Prime Minister Churchill, who erupted at Yalta on February 9, 1945, announcing he would not tolerate other nations “interfering in the British Empire.” After Churchill’s stand, international trusteeships became each colonial power’s domain. De Gaulle asserted France’s mother-country right to Indochina.
But what about the Vietnamese?
Look at another photograph, this one taken in Ha Noi one week after the image of de Gaulle and Truman in Washington.
Ho Chi Minh, proverbial cigarette in hand (he is said to have favored Marlboros), stands with the DRVN (Democratic Republic of Viet Nam) Provisional Government on September 3, the day after President Ho read Viet Nam’s Declaration of Independence. Five ministers or deputy ministers are not shown. Vo Nguyen Giap (later the victorious general over the French and the U.S. military) is on the left of the first row; Pham Van Dong (later Viet Nam’s longest serving prime minister in modern history) is on the left of the third row.
Everyone in the photograph was educated. Five ministers held law degrees, with one of those law degrees from France. Two held medical degrees, with one of those medical degrees from France. One held an advanced degree in the humanities, another in agricultural science, and another in engineering. One had attended Ho Chi Minh’s third political-training class in Canton (Guangzhou) in the mid-1920s. Two came from two different ethnic minorities and had studied through high school. At least four held “advanced degrees from prestigious French institutions,” which is Vietnamese slang for the classes that revolutionaries secretly organized while detained in French political prisons. Only two-fifths were communists; the majority came from other political parties.
Most important: All were patriots. All were capable. All were dedicated.
Ho Chi Minh had lived and worked overseas for nearly thirty years. He could speak and write in Cantonese, English, French, Mandarin, Russian, and Thai. He also spoke several of Viet Nam’s ethnic-minority languages. Interpreters must have extraordinary memories and know (or learn) the subject matter they interpret. Ho Chi Minh had learned foreign policy and had established international contacts while an interpreter in Moscow for the Comintern (Communist International) Executive Committee. He had learned Chinese and Russian military strategy while an interpreter for the Soviet advisor to Whampoa Military Academy in Canton. Ho Chi Minh was charismatic and carefully modest. Perhaps his least recognized attribute was the ability to attract patriots, discern their unnoticed skills, assign them to posts others would not have suggested, and then provide them with simple, clear guidance.
On August 19, 1945, before de Gaulle’s visit to Washington, the Viet Minh nationalist front, which Ho Chi Minh had established in May 1941, seized political power in Ha Noi. On the morning of August 21, Dang Van Viet and Cao Pha (two students active in the Viet Minh) raised the revolutionaries’ flag over the citadel in Hue, the imperial capital with the French-backed king. No one removed the revolutionary flag. With time-zone differences, Hue is a half day ahead of Washington. Thus, the Viet Minh flag flew over Hue early in the evening of August 20, Washington time, two days before the welcoming banquet for de Gaulle and his officers. The Viet Minh seized political power in the imperial capital, Hue, on August 23 at dawn Washington time of the morning after the formal de Gaulle – Truman welcoming photo but before the first formal French – American meetings began.
For the first time, a colonized nation with a competent provisional government had stood up and seized political power.
One can imagine the consternation, both hidden and expressed, among senior governmental leaders in the mother countries: If Ho Chi Minh and his government of competent, educated patriots successfully implemented independence, what would Gandhi and other nationalists do in the British Indian Empire (modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka)? What would nationalists do in other British colonies in Asia? What about nationalists in the British colonies in Africa (half of Africa)? What about nationalists in the French colonies in Africa (the other half of Africa)? What about nationalists opposing Dutch efforts to re-occupy the Dutch East Indies after Sukarno’s Declaration of Independence? What about Philippine nationalists, who had been active for decades but had not yet secured independence from the United States?
More than eight years later, on May 7, 1954, the Vietnamese victory over the French and the U.S. military at Dien Bien Phu sounded what General Vo Nguyen Giap called “the death knell for colonialism.” A month before, on April 7, 1954, during the battle, U.S. President Eisenhower had characterized communism with his falling-domino principle. However, the original touch point for the falling dominos was not communism. Instead, the original touch point was post-World-War-II nationalism.
In August 1945, American and French officials made key decisions for a French re-invasion.
The killing began on September 23, a month after the de Gaulle – Truman state visit and three weeks after President Hồ read Viet Nam’s Declaration of Independence. French troops traveling on British ships landed in Sai Gon. The United States had supplied the French with weapons and materiel. On October 7, French Commander Leclerc arrived in Sai Gon. He greeted a boisterous French crowd, announcing, “We have come to re-claim our inheritance!”
The motivation of the mother countries (France, Great Britain, and the United States) was retention of the old world order and protection of each mother country’s pre-World-War-II empire. In short, the motivation was unmitigated self-interest writ large.
For arguably the best book on Viet Nam in English, see Huu Ngoc’s VIET NAM: Tradition and Change, edited by Lady Borton and Elizabeth Collins:
www.ohioswallow.com/book/Viet+Nam OR www.amazon.com/Viet-Nam-Tradition-Change-Southeast-ebook/dp/B01J7SYRIG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490191978&sr=8-1&keywords=%22huu+Ngoc%22+Viet+Nam%3A+Tradition+and+Change
Visit the Vietnam Full Disclosure website at http://vietnamfulldisclosure.org