This is my review of Timothy P. Maga’s “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to The Vietnam War”
The story of early Vietnam is one of both strife and complexity in regional politics. I begin with the period of 1945. During the Harry Truman Administration, the British held some sway over southeast Asian geopolitics. General Douglas Gracey showed up in Vietnam with nearly 20,000 British troops. He was soon joined by 10 times that number of French forces (who had previously colonized Vietnam) and 200,000 “ragtag” Chinese troops. Their goal was to eradicate communists. (China was not communist at this time.)
The communist Vietnamese were called the Vietminh (the predecessors to the Vietcong). This particular fight initiated by the British and French did not last long. Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader, had a cause of liberation that ultimately triumphed during this short-lived conflict.
A year later, though British, Chinese and Japanese forces (the Japanese were also meddling in the affairs of the Vietnamese) had largely withdrawn from Vietnam, French naval forces bombarded the northern areas of Hanoi and Haiphong. The French goal was to drive out the Vietminh. 39,000 Vietminh supporters and Ho Chi Minh fled into the jungle. Over time, however, the Vietnamese rebelled with “brushfire wars” that lasted into the early 1950’s.
During the anticommunism days of Senator Joseph McCarthy, there was a world conference in Geneva in 1954. China would also be a representative at this conference but the U.S. did not recognize communist China at this time. The goal of the conference was to discuss Vietnam and other Asian countries’ futures. This included Korea, where conflict had already transpired in 1950. A North Korean delegation was at the conference. This communist presence rattled U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles so they largely spent their time staying in a nearby hotel room in the Swiss town writing missives to the conference instead. There was no decision on peace regarding the Korean situation. On Vietnam, it was decided that Emperor Bao Dai was in charge of that country’s territory south of the 17th parallel. The Vietminh would rule the northern part of the country. Nationwide elections were set for 1956.
Monarchy gave way to partial democracy and soon south Vietnam had a new ruler named Ngo Dinh Diem. He turned out to be a dictator. By 1958 Diem had incarcerated around 50,000 “political offenders” and executed 12,500 more. American taxpayers footed the bill for all this through foreign aid. It was during this time that Diem decided to also quash the leftover Vietminh in south Vietnam who were against Diem and his foreign backers. Diem had a name for those who took up arms against his government: the Vietcong.
In 1961 when John F. Kennedy was president, he dispatched his general and his national security advisor to Saigon on a fact-finding mission. They returned with a dismal report on the situation. Diem, they concluded, could still hang on to power with continued U.S. help. They recommended a healthy economic aid package plus 8,000 U.S. troops. The latter was supposed to be a message to the Vietcong that the United States stood behind their leader Diem. The Undersecretary of State disagreed with this move, saying that the U.S. was about to inherit all of the problems that defeated the French. President Kennedy told the Undersecretary that his analysis was way off and that the current Vietnam scene was different from the old days of the French empire. The Undersecretary reminded Kennedy of Kennedy’s days in the Senate when he recognized “Third World” arguments and concerns. Kennedy told him to keep his opinions to himself.
Tensions remained constant in Vietnam and after both Kennedy and Diem were assassinated in 1963, President Lyndon Johnson took over and referred to Vietnam as “my war.” Johnson told the ambassador in Vietnam that “the whole Vietnam problem” was a pretty easy one to solve. The war in Vietnam according to Johnson was about the international communist conspiracy. The violence in south Vietnam, he said, was due to “external forces” in the communist world, and that one of the major reasons for the stumbling and bumbling of the Saigon regime was because America’s commitment to defeating communism in south Vietnam “needed to be reaffirmed and strengthened.”
In 1966 President Johnson had cleaned house by removing some of the generals and the ambassador for Vietnam. The new general was General William Westmoreland. He predicted that America could beat the Vietcong before the south Vietnamese reformed their government and adequately trained their military. Westmoreland advocated large numbers of U.S. ground troops to “get the job done.” He didn’t care for air assaults against north Vietnamese targets unless a big escalation on the ground was part of the scenario. The new general’s idea of a thorough escalation involved at least 200,000 troops. He spent a full year making sure these men were decently established and prepared to fight a sweeping campaign in Vietnam. They were proposed as systematic “sweep-and-destroy” missions to take out the enemy in south Vietnam. All this would lead to the war in Vietnam which lasted until 1975.