TV Recap - The Vietnam War: Episode 1, Part 2
By Mark Light
September 25, 2017
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.