Indochina, 1954-1955: the Beginning of Vietnam

During World War II, French Indochina was occupied by the Japanese. After the war, when France tried to reestablish its control of the area, the French were met with resistance from native peoples who wanted independence from colonial rule. For the most part, these nationalist-minded rebels were also communists. In 1949, communists took control of China, and a year later, Communist North Korea invaded South Korea. The United States and its allies, fearful of communists taking control of all of Asia, were concerned about the communist tinge to the war for independence in Indochina.  Prior to Eisenhower's presidency, the United States helped France and its non-communist native Vietnamese allies by giving them weapons and other material assistance in their war against the Vietminh (the communists led by Ho Chi Minh). When President Eisenhower took office, however, he saw a problem: the French were making only a half-hearted effort to grant independence. Eisenhower knew that this played into the hands of the communist nationalists by discouraging a pro-independence, but non-communist, movement in Vietnam.

Still, President Eisenhower tried to work with the French by giving them aid to help defeat the communists while trying to persuade them to cooperate more fully in the achievement of Vietnam’s independence. In 1953, the French made a major military blunder by taking and trying to hold Dien Bien Phu, a fortress far from any major city. The Vietminh laid siege to Dien Bien Phu, and in May 1954 the French suffered a humiliating defeat. Eisenhower refused to intervene to save the French garrison because he felt it would be a mistake to commit thousands of U.S. soldiers to a land war in Asia or to risk a general nuclear war by using nuclear weapons.

In July 1954 an international conference held in Geneva, Switzerland, divided Vietnam temporarily into North and South Vietnam. The communist Vietminh were to control the North; the non-communist Vietnamese led by Ngo Dinh Diem were to control the South. The agreements provided that in two years there would be national elections to decide on a single government for the entire country. Eisenhower sent a prominent American general, J. Lawton (“Lightning Joe”) Collins to Vietnam to study the military and political situation and to recommend a U.S. policy that would stop the communists from taking over the country. Meanwhile, the US increased its military aid to South Vietnam. Collins concluded that Diem was not a viable leader of South Vietnam and should be replaced, but the Eisenhower administration threw its support to Diem anyway. When President Diem refused to hold the nationwide elections on unification in 1956 (he knew that Ho Chi Minh and his Vietminh would win), the United States backed Diem and increased its military aid, effectively making South Vietnam an independent country (in violation of the Geneva agreements). The stage was thus set for a long and bloody civil war--and the massive difficulties the United States would have to deal with ten years later.