Truman’s Containment and Indochina

The United States accepted French influence over Indochina, but at the same time American policy wanted to favor an own government and a self-government for colonial peoples.

As a consequence there was a dispute within the Department of State, “decisively won by the Europeanists, and that support for French allies came before support for trusteeship and independence for colonial peoples. This victory within the bureaucracy, was reflected in the Executive: Truman, who on August 29 told Madame Chiang Kai-Shek when asked about Roosevelt’s proposal of trusteeship for Indochina,”[18] that

there had been no discussion of a trusteeship for Indo China as far as he was concerned[19]

and Secretary of State Stettinius had told Georges Bidault (June 22) French foreign minister, that

the record was entirely innocent of any official statement of this Government questioning, even by implication, French sovereignty over Indochina.[20]

So, as 1945 drew to an end, and the French returned to Indochina, the U.S. opportunity to alter events significantly in Indochina had gone. As Abbot Low Moffat was to explain subsequently: with French forces back in Indochina and with all potential leverage gone, there was little that the United States could do to alter the outcome.[21]

After communism’s victory in China, it was obvious that a policy based on containment was necessary in Southeast Asia. From the Foreign Relations of the United States:

Truman recognized Saigon’s weak Bao Dai Government, hoping to strengthen it; assistance increased with the outbreak of the Korean War. The fear of falling dominoes began with Truman. Some months before the start of the Korean War, Truman had already initiated America’s fateful involvement in Indochina, supporting the French and their puppet ruler Bao Dai against the nationalist and Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh. Korea furnished welcome cover for stepping up aid to the French, which soon amounted to a half-billion dollars a year. The United States was thus providing the great bulk of the material resources for France’s colonialist war. The State Department defended this commitment, rather ridiculously, by citing Indochina’s production of much-needed rice, rubber, and tin. More to the point was the fear expressed that the loss of Indochina, including Vietnam, would represent a defeat in the struggle against what was portrayed as a unified and coordinated Communist push to take over the world.[22]

Truman decided to implement a policy for preventing the Communists taking control in Indochina. It was a very important statement and it is possible to argue that Truman’s policies in the years 1950-56 represented the first step of American escalation in Indochina, and in particular in Vietnam (for instance the dislocation of a growing number of military advisors); then, the origins of the conflict are in U.S. policies of the considered period.[23] As Truman declared:

I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.[24]

Truman, with his Doctrine, stated that the United States wanted to defend free peoples everywhere not only in an anti-Communist perspective, but his aim was to preserve the principle of other people’s freedom. It is helpful to emphasize again that this was the (rhetorical) point of view of Truman and that reality, above all in the cases of Vietnam and Indochina, was different. From the FRUS:

if we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world, and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our Nation.[25]And since the U.S. were determined to see Ho Chi Minh as a communist first, and a communist of course with orders from Russia, and a nationalist second, it was impossible to allow him to be leader of Vietnam, even though he was the only viable nationalist leader.[26]

The French Government understood that it was important to find a nationalist alternative to Ho Chi Minh. Bao Dai was the first option and on March 8, 1949, he signed with the French the Elysee Agreement. As Karnow writes: “In it the French reaffirmed sovereignty for Vietnam but remained in control of Vietnam’s defense, diplomacy and finances. It was obvious that as a real nationalist alternative this was a sham, Bao Dai himself saying contemptuously afterwards:”[27] what they call a Bao Dai solution turns out to be just a French solution.[28]

Acheson (December 1949) stated:

there is no apparent alternative to Bao Dai regime other than the Commie domination of Indo-China.[29]

In 1950, the United States recognized Bao Dai’s Government after that Ho Chi Minh had convinced Soviet Union and China to recognize his Government. Always about the American perspective, as Gibbons reports: “any hope now of reconciliation or compromise between Ho Chi Minh’s Government, now regarded as just a front for Soviet Union by the U.S., and America had disappeared.”[30] As Robert Blum has written:

this hardening towards the Vietminh had already begun before the recognition of Bao Dai’s regime. The nationalists had, in China, been facing defeat for over a year when they were finally ejected to Formosa in the autumn of 1949. Even so, throughout the previous year (from the end of 1948 to autumn 1949) despite the hopelessness of the situation, there had been great attempts to authorize assistance to China following on from the enactment of the China Aid Act of 1948 which had authorized $125 million for military assistance in China. These attempts came to fruition with the Mutual Defense Assistance Bill which was passed on the 6th October 1949 and provided $75 million to be used as aid in the general area of China.[31] Thus with the fall of China of to the communists this aid became available totally to the general area rather than to China. Not only did the loss of China provide a new momentum to the administration’s efforts in the rest of Indochina, but it seems clear that the American containment policy in South-East Asia arose from the ashes of its failed policy in China.[32]

This was an official declaration of the new policy on Indochina that was confirmed by National Security Council report 48/1:

the Position of the United States with respect to Asia.[33]

And this strategy was legitimated by the President (NSC 48/2 – 30 December 1949):

as the Pentagon Papers concluded Thus, in the closing months of 1949, the course of U.S. policy was set to block Communist expansion in Asia. On that policy course lay the Korean War of 1950-53, the forming of the Southeast Treaty Organization of 1954, and the progressively deepening commitment to Vietnam.[34]