The second half of episode one begins with a nuclear explosion, quite literally. In 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb and the American nuclear monopoly was ended. Just weeks after that, all of mainland China fell to Mao Zedong's communists. Suddenly the threat of international communism became first and foremost in American policymaker's minds. At home, political opponents of Harry Truman began to demand an answer to "Who lost China?" which looking back is a patently absurd question.
TV Recap - The Vietnam War: Episode 1, Part 2
By Mark Light
September 25, 2017
To answer the external threat of both a nuclear armed Soviet Union and a newly communist China and the internal threat of opponents accusing administrations of being soft on Communism, the US developed a simplistic Us vs Them view of the world. (This internal threat was real. Eisenhower was elected in part by saying he would be harder on communism than Truman; Kennedy was elected in part by saying he would be tougher on communism than Eisenhower). Lost in the policy views were any complexities of nationalism. We were good; the other side was evil.
In January of 1950, Mao recognized the Viet Minh as the legitimate government of Vietnam and started supplying them with arms. Truman responded by approving a $23 million aid package for the French in Vietnam. We were no longer neutral; we had chosen the colonial masters over their subjects.
Newsreel footage is used to announce the invasion of South Korea by the North Koreans in June of 1950. While this war raged with the US, South Korea, and their allies almost eliminating the North Koreans causing the Chinese to enter the war in October, quieter developments happened in Vietnam. Mao's aid had turned the Viet Minh into a serious modern fighting force, so the US sent the French transport planes and jeeps and 35 military advisors. We were now officially in Vietnam. The graphic in the film shows the amount of US aid to the French war growing from 23 million to 336 million.
In the autumn of 1951, a young Massachusetts congressman named John F. Kennedy visited Saigon on a fact-finding trip. The French commanders assured Kennedy that victory was inevitable with just more American aid. But an American journalist privately told Kennedy that the French were losing and the Vietnamese were growing to despise the Americans because of the French support.
In 1952 when Eisenhower was elected, American taxpayers were supporting 30% of the French war effort in Vietnam. In two years the amount climbed to almost 80%. Film footage of Vice-President Richard Nixon shows him making a speech on television trying to convince US citizens that spending money on the French was vital to our national security. Without calling in the domino theory, he states it mentioning protecting Thailand and Malaya.
The seventh French overall commander, Henri Navarre arrives. He says he can see victory as a light at the end of a tunnel. But, as the film states, the French public at home was growing horrified of reports of French brutality and widespread use of napalm. French troops returning home were pelted with rocks, and French leftists started calling it "La Sale Guerre," (the dirty war). Remember this, because if it doesn't sound immediately familiar, it will further along in the film.
To emphasize that, the film jumps to footage of the 1968 Chicago riots. These timeline jumps happen frequently in this episode and as mentioned in the part one recap, they are immensely effective. Burns and Novick take interview subjects and find the right photo or film to underscore their subjects' words.
In July of 1953, the settlement of Korean War was reached. Policymakers in the US took this as proof that communism could be contained in Asia. In the fall, the French asked to meet the Viet Minh in negotiations to end their war. Ho Chi Minh agreed to the Geneva meeting. But before that, both sides sought to strengthen their hand by battlefield victory.
In an instance of some of the dumbest military planning in history, General Navarre sought to draw the Viet Minh out into a fixed battle by putting a large force in isolation at a place called Dien Bien Phu. They were heavily fortified but in a valley. The French in picking their battlefield had conceded the high ground before the battle was even begun.
Arrogance, overconfidence, or underestimating their enemy's capacity - whatever the reason, this was a very poor plan. General Giap saw the flaw and decided to pounce and wipe out the French in Dien Bien Phu. In a logistical maneuver that should be studied in military academies worldwide, heavily camouflaged troops and artillery (broken down and hand carried, piece by piece) were moved into the mountains surrounding Dien Bien Phu. The French, hoping to spring a trap, were themselves trapped into a siege.
The film shows footage from Dien Bien Phu but it really doesn't capture how desperate the French conditions were. They begged Eisenhower to intervene but he wouldn't do so without both congressional approval and the support of our allies. Britain said no. Film footage of Senator John F. Kennedy is shown in which he states that the French are fighting for the maintenance of colonial rule. Before the US intervenes in his opinion, the Vietnamese should be granted independence.
Eisenhower did approve of covert American supply drops to the trapped French troops. And then the tragedy of what was to come is fixed in the film. Leslie Gelb, one of the interview subjects, states that everyone knew that Vietnam in and of itself didn't mean much. But everyone believed that it would be just the first domino to fall in a series of events that would turn all Southeast Asia communist. Eisenhower's voice is heard describing the falling domino theory. We reach another "what if" moment. What if we just stayed with the original assumption that Vietnam didn't mean much to the US in a geopolitical sense and left it at that? What if we didn't talk ourselves into the domino theory?
After being besieged for 55 days, the French surrendered at Dien Bien Phu. They had lost 8,000 men killed, wounded, and missing. General Giap had suffered three times the casualties but had won the victory. This too should be remembered for later, that Giap and the rest of the Viet Minh were willing to suffer enormous casualties if they thought they would prevail in the end.
The victory freed the northern half of Vietnam from the French and instilled in the Viet Minh the confidence that they could defeat a major power. Meanwhile in America, we hear from another voice for the first time. Senate Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson fretted that this was the first step in communist domination of all of Asia. Another interview subject, Donald Gregg of the CIA, states rather that we should have actually seen it as the end of the colonial era in Southeast Asia and not how it was seen, a defeat for democracy in the Cold War.
The talks in Geneva took two and a half months. Despite the victory at Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh could not keep fighting without Chinese and Soviet support. But China had lost a million men in Korea and did not want another war on its border. The Soviets wanted easing tensions with the West. They told Ho Chi Minh to accept peace under terms similar to Korea. The country was split in two. The French were to go south and the Viet Minh to the north. They would be separated by a DMZ.
Under the Geneva Accords, civilians who wanted to live in a different half of the country than they were now in had 300 days to do so. Thousands of Roman Catholic Vietnamese fearing communist oppression went south. Thousands of southern Viet Minh soldiers went north. But thousands of cadre, dedicated communists, remained in the south, plotting and waiting.
A pivotal figure in this history is introduced now, Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem, other than Charles DeGaulle, might be the foreign person most responsible for getting the US into the Vietnam war. Diem and his personality dominate the rest of this episode. An American diplomat describes him as a "messiah without a message."
South Vietnam was divided into factions, and Saigon itself was ruled by a criminal syndicate supported by the French. Given such a mess, Eisenhower had decided to end American support for South Vietnam. But before he could announce this decision, Diem struck. He used his army to attack and defeat the criminal syndicate in a days long street battle in Saigon. After Diem's victory, the French decided to leave for good. This made Diem very popular and basically forced an uneasy marriage of him and the Americans.
Diem called for a referendum in the South. The CIA warned him not to monkey with the balloting too much, but when the poll numbers were announced, Diem claimed a dictator’s margin, 98.2% of the popular vote. Ngo Dinh Diem named himself the first president of the new Republic of Vietnam. In Geneva, an agreement was made to have an election to reunify the country. This election was never held.
Diem quickly realized that the US's goal was to keep communists from taking over South Vietnam. And in order to do that, the US could not afford to have Diem lose. He began to boss the Americans around. Americans like Senator Kennedy began to have a new view of the situations. South Vietnam was an offspring of the US and we would lose considerable prestige in Asia if it failed.
Eisenhower dispatched civilian aid to build up South Vietnam and even more military aid to build up their army. In the north, Ho Chi Minh set about rebuilding it. They underwent a brutal Chinese-style land reform, which left thousands dead. Ho Chi Minh wanted reunification, but not by military means. He feared drawing in the US even further. He wanted political agitation.
But Diem was busy crushing political agitation in the south. An anti-communist program executed hundreds and imprisoned tens of thousands without trial. Unbeknownst to the US, Ho Chi Minh now faced opposition from hardliners within his own government who were tired of his caution. He remained the public face of the country but he had to share power with a new group of men. Chief amongst them was a man named Le Duan who became First Secretary of the Communist Party.
In 1959, Le Duan and his hardline allies adopted a new position, which was to help the southern revolutionaries remove Diem by force. Viet Minh soldiers began slipping back into the south by following a path through the Laotian jungles that the US would later name the Ho Chi Minh trail. Violence increased in the south.
On July 8th, 1959, in Bien Hoa, six American military advisors were watching a movie in their mess hall. Viet Minh guerrillas who had slipped into the compound stuck their rifles in the windows and opened fire. Major Dale Buis and Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand were killed. They became the first two names on the Vietnam War Memorial.
On November 8, 1960, John F Kennedy was elected President of the United States. His Vice-President was Lyndon Johnson. Six weeks after the election, in a remote jungle village, southern revolutionaries met to form a new organization to replace the Viet Minh. They called it the National Liberation Front, the NLF, and their armed forces the People's Liberation Armed Forces. But the US and the South Vietnamese government preferred to call them a different name: Communist Traitors to the Vietnamese Nation, the Viet Cong.
On January 20, 1961, JFK was inaugurated. His speech included: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
The episode ends in a jump to 1969, where veteran Tim O'Brien states that he felt courage was just even going out on patrol in the jungle. Once again, Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain Is Going To Fall" plays, this time as the credits roll.
In Episode Two, "Riding The Tiger", the US gets even further involved in South Vietnam under President Kennedy.