A Skeptics View of American History
Episode 19 The Real Blunders of the Vietnam War
Mark Stoler PhD
In one of his better lectures, Stoler debunks a number of myths about the Vietnam War.
He traces the history of the war to the reversal of Franklin Roosevelt’s policy opposing continued French colonization of Indochina. With Truman’s initiation of the Cold War, the US sought to strengthen France’s suppression of colonial independence movements as a defense against communist expansion into Eastern Europe. Truman also saw Western control of Indochina as essential to guaranteeing US-occupied Japan’s access Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s rubber, oil and mineral resources in Indonesia and Malaysia.
In 1954, a major defeat at Dien Bien Phu led the French military to withdraw from Vietnam. Under the 1954 Geneva Accord (which the US refused to sign), Laos and Cambodia were awarded independence, while Vietnam was temporarily split at 17th parallel (pending reunification elections in 1956). The southern Republic of Vietnam was ruled by a French puppet government under King Bao Dai, and the northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam by Ho Chi Minh.
According to Stoler, the US government made their first major blunder in 1918, when President Woodrow Wilson refused to meet with Ho Chi Minh (seeking US support for Vietnam’s independence struggle) during the Versailles treaty negotiations. So he met with the Soviets. However the biggest biggest blunder was misperceiving the independence struggle (supported by the majority of both North and South Vietnames) ar in Vietnam as a Cold War proxy war sponsored by the Soviet Union and China. Stoler blames this mistake on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee and their successful purge of all major Asian experts from the US State Department.
Refusing to hold elections in 1956 (because they knew Ho Chi Minh would win), the Eisenhower administration replaced the king with a Vietnamese exile living in the US named Ngo Dinh Diem. They also massively ramped up military and economic aid to South Vietnam, emboldening Diem to begin a ruthless purge of Vietnam’s freedom fighters. Most went underground to join the Viet Minh (national independence cadres) Ho Chi Minh started in 1941. Calling themselves the National Liberation Front, they were known in the West as the Viet Cong.
Under Kennedy, the US responded to continuing Vietnamese unrest by sending in special forces (Green Berets) and allowing the CIA to assassinate Diem. The number of US “advisors” (to the South Vietnamese arm) in South Vietnam increased from 900 in 1961 to 17,000 in 1963.
By 1964, North Vietnam was on the verge of defeating the US puppet government in the South. Facing conservative hawk Barry Goldwater in the November election, President Lyndon Johnson (determined not to be blamed for losing Vietnam) increased troop numbers to 500,000.
This film can be viewed free on Kanopy.