Or how America missed a chance to prevent its war with Vietnam, 20 years before it began.
September 2nd 1945
All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.
The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.”
Those are undeniable truths.
Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow-citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.
That initial sentence is striking. The United States and the movement Ho Chi Minh led would shortly come to view each other as enemies, a situation that would last for half a century. The conflict between them would leave millions dead. Yet Ho began telling the world about his new nation not with a quote from Mao or Marx but Thomas Jefferson.
The immediate reason why he did so is clear: he was highlighting a mismatch between how the Great Powers had treated Vietnam and the values they supposedly espoused. Yet while he was straightforwardly condemning the French as hypocrites ‘who had acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice’, he doesn’t direct that kind of anger at the US. The implicit message to the French is a statement ‘these are your values, you have not lived up to them.’ The message to America seems more like a statement ‘these are your values. Will you live up to them?’ Note, for example, his statement later on in the proclamation that:
We are convinced that the Allied nations which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.
The hopes America represented
Ho’s hope that the Americans would help Vietnam gain its independence was not without foundation. The Vietminh resistance fighters he led had co-operated with the Americans to fight the Japanese and Vichy French forces occupying ‘Indochina’ (modern day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). Indeed, Ho had actually spent time in a Chinese prison after being captured trying to make contact with American officers stationed there.
Furthermore, the US was not a friend of European Imperialism. It owed its own existence to a war of colonial independence. It had done all it could to push the Europeans out of Latin America. Ho had been in Versailles when Woodrow Wilson had advanced his view that there must be:
a free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.”
Recently deceased US President Franklin Roosevelt seems to have been emphatically opposed to the reimposition of French rule in Indochina to which he partially attributed the decadence that allowed the Germans to so easily defeat France. He had repeatedly floated the idea that Indochina should be placed under international trusteeship as a step towards its eventual independence.
And pragmatically, at this stage American diplomatic support was the only kind of meaningful international support the Vietminh could hope for. While in later years they would receive masses of military aid from the USSR and China, that was emphatically not available in 1945. China was still under the control of the nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-Shek. Thus neither the Chinese nor Soviet communists had a way to get arms into Vietnam. So it must have seemed reasonable for Ho to look to the US as Vietnam’s most likely ally.
The road to hell
But it was not to be. Roosevelt’s plan for a trusteeship was rather half-baked and easily brushed aside. The lead in South Eastern Asian military operations was taken by the British rather than the Americans. With an Empire of their own they were trying to maintain, they were much more sympathetic to French aspirations to retain control of Indochina. When they entered southern Vietnam to disarm the Japanese forces based there, they brought the French forces with them and predictably they began attempting to reassert colonial control.
There was also to a shift in Washington. Roosevelt’s successor Harry Truman was much less viscerally anti-colonial. And with the Soviet Union establishing its own empire in Eastern Europe, American policy makers felt much less able to be sanguine about Vietnam potentially turning red. So when in 1950 fighting broke out between the French and the Vietminh, the Americans backed the French, providing them with arms, supplies and money to prosecute the war. This seemed like a smart move in the battle against communism: it both would help the French prevent a Vietminh victory in Vietnam and so make them grateful to the US and more likely to co-operate with it against the Soviet Union. It was thus seen as a way of shoring up the anti-communist fight in both Europe and Asia.
In fact, it would fail on both accounts. By 1954, the French had been defeated and the Americans would increasingly be pulled into fighting themselves. Even that would not be enough to prevent a communist victory but it would create spillovers that destabilised neighbouring countries. That allowed the genocidal Khmer Rouge to seize power in Cambodia and murder millions. And in 1966 President De Gaulle, who as leader of the WWII era Free French had been more adamant than anyone that the French should reclaim its colonies withdrew France from NATO. And TV pictures of napalmed children and reports of American soldiers massacring civilians wrecked the US’s reputation in Europe as it did around the world.
This was a disaster that could have been pre-empted all the way back in 1945. Europe (and especially the UK) was in sufficiently desperate need of US economic and military support that it would have been in a position to bargain for Vietnam’s freedom. It’s true that this probably would have resulted in a communist takeover of the country but it would have been far better for US foreign policy that this happened in 1945 with their acquiescence than in 1975 with their bloody opposition. It is even possible that the US might have been able to forge an alliance with the newly free nation. That might sound fanciful but it was actually a common pattern during the Cold War. Communist regimes that had gained power through their own efforts rather than those of the Red Army often turned on Moscow: Yugoslavia did so in 1948 and China did in so in 1972. Certainly, reaching an understanding with the ideologically flexible Ho would have been easier than doing so with his more doctrinaire communist successors. And whatever else had turned out differently, it is likely that Cambodia would have been spared the nightmare of Khmer Rouge rule. While communism might well still have spread to the country, the chances of it doing in such a uniquely genocidal form without an equally unique set of circumstances preceding it.
September 2nd is a day of celebration in Vietnam, where it is the national day commemorating its independence. It is also the day when Britain and America celebrate ‘Victory in Japan day’ commemorating the end of the brutal war in the Pacific. That most certainly is an event worth celebrating. But perhaps, we should also use this day to contemplate how our two nations wasted an opportunity for peace for the sake of a French colonial project whose time had clearly passed.