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Hearts & Minds - How The U.S. Lost The Vietnam War Before It Even Began PART 2

Updated on October 20, 2011

This is part 2 of 3 on a look at the Vietnam War. Click here for part 1:, and here for part 2:

“Such a [South Vietnamese] Government would, I hope, be so responsive to the nationalist aspirations of its people, so enlightened in purpose and effective in performance, that it will be respected both at home and abroad and discourage any who might wish to impose a foreign ideology on your free people.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower (in Gettleman-114).

In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, the Eisenhower administration sought to create an economically viable and democratic nation of South Vietnam. However, this administration also aimed to achieve an anti-Communist defense position in Southeast Asia. Thus, much discrepancy between publicly announced plans for South Vietnam and the enactment of such plans. In the end, U.S. presidential administrations and Diem proclaimed to be backing the will of the people of South Vietnam. However, by not truly enacting policies towards this goal (but to anti-Communist policies), rebellion in the form of Buddhist uprisings and the National Liberation Front were spurred – striving towards goals initially promised under the guise of nation building. U.S. reaction to this rebellion - counterinsurgency and the overthrow of Diem - ultimately shows that the U.S. was unwilling to alter its underlying goals of creating an anti-Communist nation in favor of a country truly responsive to the will of its people – setting the foundations for U.S. failure in South Vietnam.

In order to begin an analysis of the discrepancies between planned U.S. foreign policy in South Vietnam and how it was enacted in reality, the supposed goals of the United States and President Ngo Dinh Diem must first be analyzed. From here, it can thus be seen how U.S. actions ultimately deviated from these plans, and how such plans gave rise to resistance.

In the aforementioned quote by President Eisenhower, the U.S. sought to create an independent and democratic South Vietnam responsive to the will of its people. This goal ultimately came to be the supposed goal of further U.S. presidents as well as South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. In a declaration by Lyndon Johnson, the Vice-President proclaims, “The United States…is conscious of the determination…[that] the dedicated leadership of President Ngo Dinh Diem [has] brought to the defense of freedom in their land” (Johnson in Gettleman, 161). Johnson further adds that the United States “has no other motive than the defense of freedom” (Johnson in Gettleman, 161). In a later letter to President Diem, U.S. President Kennedy asserts that the U.S. is also invested in the protection of “its [South Vietnam’s] people and to preserve its independence” (Kennedy in Gettleman, 164). Thus, it is quite clear that the overarching goals, or at least the perceived overarching goals of the U.S. is to simply create an independent country striving for the freedom and will of its people. But what of President Diem’s supposed intentions?

Upon being chosen by the U.S. to lead South Vietnam, Diem, initially was overwhelmingly hailed for his dedication to the “free world” (Scheer in Gettleman, 136). Upon travelling to New York, then-Mayor Wagner described President Diem as a man “to whom freedom is the very breath of life itself” (Scheer in Gettleman, 136). The New York Times further proclaimed of Diem: “there is not ‘neutralism’ on human rights, and this is the basis for President Diem’s stand” (Scheer in Gettleman, 137). Thus, it can be seen that, at the time, President Diem was perceived as a champion of the freedom and human rights of his people, especially by the U.S. press and U.S. government officials. Diem therefore fits into the U.S. strategy of purportedly creating a free and independent South Vietnam built on the will of the people. In the end, though, were these supposed plans instituted?

From the documents found in Gettleman, it can be concluded that the answer to this question is a resounding no. While the Eisenhower administration perpetuated nation building in South Vietnam for the purposes of creating a democratic and free country, it can be seen that the following presidential administrations also used the country as a defense position against Communism. This is overwhelmingly illustrated in the foreign aid given to South Vietnam by the U.S. Ultimately, the U.S. paid for the entire cost of the South Vietnamese Army, with much of the aid going towards this military apparatus “capable of containing the Communists” (Scheer in Gettleman, 145). Thus, more importance (as financial aid is distributed according to importance) was placed on an anti-Communist military, rather than social reforms based on the will of the people.

In terms of the people’s will, one of the over-arching needs of the people of South Vietnam was land reform. After having been destroyed by French control, the division of South Vietnamese land was in a wrecked state. Instead of enacting land reform, Diem, however, was more concerned with holding his position and taking an anti-Communist stance than the “loyalty of the rural populace” (Scheer in Gettleman, 142). Thus, Diem, despite supposedly wanting an independent country built on the needs of his people, chose instead to worry over the threat of Northern Communism. But what had Diem done to ensure human rights and freedoms along supposed U.S. plans?

One of the most damaging discrepancies between the U.S. and Diem’s supposed goals and subsequent actions was Law 10/59. The focus of Diem’s anti-Communist campaign, the law vehemently defiled human rights and basic freedoms. From mere accusations, the South Vietnamese government could sentence to death or confiscate property from anyone involved in any subversive activities against the government (Law 10/59 in Gettleman, 156). One anti-Diem individual states that her hometown lived in this “oppressive” and “suffocating atmosphere. Many patriotic people were rounded up, taken away and liquidated” (Nguyen Thi Dinh in Gettlman, 167). An assessor working for the Pentagon further proclaimed that Diem “killed” or “incarcerated tens of thousands of South Vietnamese as suspected Communists [italics added] (Marr in Gettleman, 206). Hence, Diem’s government simply killed without control, taking down any South Vietnamese persons going against the government and branding them as Communists. Diem and his government was hardly the pivotal human rights beacon he had been purported to be.

As one can see, major discrepancies existed between what the United States administrations and Diem put forth as their goals for a South Vietnam. While being told that the people of South Vietnam would have government based on their will, it was actually based on U.S. foreign policies of stopping Communism. And while also being told that they had the rights to freedom and human rights, the South Vietnamese people were stripped of any ability to express ideas for fear of death. Ultimately, these discrepancies between plan and enactment would have adverse effects on the rebellion in the south and on the future of South Vietnam.

One of the more public reactions to the inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy in South Vietnam was the Buddhist uprising in 1963. Being a Catholic, Diem “accorded Catholic refugees preferential treatment in land redistribution, relief and assistance…” (Pentagon Papers in Gettleman, 217). After the Diem government banned the public display of all religious flags (yet allowing Catholic flags to fly), Buddhists in the city of Hue revolted through public protest (Pentagon Papers in Gettleman, 217). Despite seeking to build a country based on human rights and freedom, Diem systematically sought to place his own affiliated religion higher than others in South Vietnam. In essence, Diem has placed his will before the will of his people. Thus, discrepancies in such plans and reality led to much rebellion; the U.S. reaction to this rebellion, (to be discussed later) however, is key in understanding the hidden and uncompromisable goals of the U.S. foreign policy. But what effects did these discrepancies have on the non-religious and rural portions of the population?

When looking at the Founding Program of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, one can see that many of the goals of the organization include those promised to the South Vietnamese people by the United States and Ngo Dinh Diem. Believing that the “present South Vietnamese regime is a camouflaged colonial regime dominated by Yankees” (Founding Program of the NLF in Gettleman, 189) the organization sought democracy, independence, land reform (reforms based on the will of the people), and human rights (Founding Program of the NLF in Gettleman, 189-191) – all rights promised to the people of South Vietnam by Ngo Dinh Diem and U.S. presidential administrations.

In the eyes of one National Liberation Front fighter, the oppressive policies of Diem directly attributed to the rise of the rebellion in South Vietnam. “Although Diem had issued the 10/59 decree…the people were not afraid. On the contrary, they continued to love and protect the cadres [NLF fighters] as before” (Nguyen Thi Dinh in Gettlman, 170). Hence, it is clear why the growing rebellion in South Vietnam saw the U.S. and Diem’s government as “camouflaged colonialism;” these two forces proclaimed independence, freedom and human rights, and the will of the people, but enacted polices based on self-serving goals of anti-Communism. The simple fact that the National Liberation Front pushed goals proclaimed to them by Diem and the U.S. illustrates clearly the façade put into place by the presidential administrations of the United States. In the end, however, the U.S. response to such rebellion is key to understanding the rigidity of underlying U.S. goals, and the failures that resulted.

In terms of the Buddhist uprisings, the U.S. ultimately chose to rid itself of Diem in favor of its over-arching goals of an anti-Communist South Vietnam. As U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, who was in favor of the coup against Diem, states: “We [the U.S.] are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back: the overthrow of the Diem government…there is no turning back because there is no possibility, in my view, that the war can be won under a Diem administration…” (Lodge in Gettleman, 227). Furthermore, a U.S. National Security Action Memorandum released after Diem’s assassination states: “The [U.S.] President expects that all senior officers of the government will move energetically to insure the full unity of support for established U.S. policy in South Vietnam” (National Security Action Memorandum 273 in Gettleman, 235). Thus, U.S. officials, in thinking only of U.S. foreign policy, and not of the adverse effects Diem’s and U.S. policy were having on the population, simply chose to find someone else to push U.S. policy in a softer manner. The U.S. was unwilling to alter its veiled plans of an anti-Communist South Vietnam.

In terms of response towards National Liberation Front activity, the U.S. enacted new forms of counterinsurgency methods. Because the more visible U.S. policies of Diem were not working, more secretive measures had to be enacted. Put in place to “provide strategic guidance for assisting countries to maintain internal security” (Bundy in Gettleman, 202), these policies ultimately ignore the will of the South Vietnamese people. Instead of facing the idea that the NLF constituted a portion of the population resistant to U.S. led ideas of democracy, U.S. officials simply chose to operate in clandestine circumstances to enact their own brand of foreign policy. While it is clear that U.S. reactions to the growing rebellion ignored the will of the people, it must be asked how these U.S. reactions – the overthrow of Diem and new counterinsurgency tactics – contributed to the failure of the United States in South Vietnam.

Ultimately, these reactions show that the U.S., in attempting to create an anti-Communist state, was not responsive to the will of those to which it was governing. In essence, the U.S., in trying to create such a state, was really trying to win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese. Through various policies and actions, however, the U.S. was simply pushing the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese towards the enemy. In one micro example of this, a U.S. army squad moving through DaNang ran over several Vietnamese pedestrians. The perpetrators alienated the townspeople by not allowing a court case or an investigation (Marr in Gettleman, 208). Small acts such as this, however, were inconsequential to the major failings of U.S. strategy.

For the most part, when analyzing U.S. strategy, it can be seen that the U.S. often ignored those that it needed to build a viable nation. By means of new counterinsurgency methods, power was secretly subverted from the hands of the South Vietnamese population. This can be summated in one form of U.S. military strategy – helicopter warfare. Believing the helicopter was the future of warfare, allowing troops to bypass battles and strong points, in reality it was contributing to the failure of the U.S. As Marr states, “increased air travel tended inevitably to draw the Saigon regime ever further away from the humdrum realities of creating political and social credibility at the local level” (Marr in Gettleman, 210). As Marr states further, “many ordinary Vietnamese had reason to hate the United States long before the first combat battalions set foot on their soil” (Marr in Gettleman, 208). In a sense, the U.S. was ignoring the hearts and minds that were needed for victory to be ensured (literally passing over such minds through helicopter warfare) breeding further dissent.

One U.S. state department official confirms this when analyzing the French during their time in Vietnam following World War II: “If really liberal policies towards Indochina are not adopted by the French – policies which recognize the paramount interest of the native peoples and guarantee within the foreseeable future a genuine opportunity for true, autonomous self-government – there will be substantial bloodshed and unrest for many years, threatening the economic and social progress and the peace and stability of South East Asia” (Blakeslee in Gettleman, 44). Thus, before Cold War mentality had invaded Vietnam, the U.S. recognized the failings of the French, in that they did not heed to the wishes of the people as they announced they would do. Blinded by fears of Communism, however, the U.S. did not apply the failings of the French, and followed along the same path towards defeat.

As one can see, through secretive policies covered by facades of independence, freedom, and human rights, the U.S. bred rebellion in trying to create a country contrary to the will of the people. Instead of choosing to accept the legitimacy of such rebellion and heeding to the will of the people, U.S. officials simply chose to, for the most part, ignore the situation. In the end, the U.S. and Diem told the people of South Vietnam what they should have in life, but did not allow them to obtain such a reality. In not giving the people what they promised, the U.S. was ultimately ensuring its failure in Vietnam.

Matthew Gordon is the author of The Thin Blue Line: An In-Depth Look at the Policing Practices of the Los Angeles Police Department & To Live, To Think, To Hope - Inspirational Quotes by Helen Keller.

© Matthew Gordon, 2011


· Blakeslee, G.H. "The French Return: Two State Department Views (April 1945).” in Vietnam and America. Ed. Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, & H. Bruce Franklin. New York: Grove Press, 1995. 41-45.

· Bundy, McGeorge. "US National Security Memorandum: Policy-Planning for Counterinsurgency.” in Vietnam and America. Ed. Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, & H. Bruce Franklin. New York: Grove Press, 1995. 201-205.

· Dinh, Nguyen Thi Dinh. "’No Other Road to Take:’ Origin of the National Liberation Front in Ben Tre.” in Vietnam and America. Ed. Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, & H. Bruce Franklin. New York: Grove Press, 1995. 165-188.

· Eisenhower, Dwight D. "A Flawed Commitment: US Endorsement, with Conditions, of Ngo Dinh Diem (1954)." in Vietnam and America. Ed. Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, & H. Bruce Franklin. New York: Grove Press, 1995. 113-114.

· Johnson, Lyndon B, Ngo Dinh Diem, and John F. Kennedy. "Washington’s Man in Saigon:American Commitment to South Vietnam.” in Vietnam and America. Ed. Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, & H. Bruce Franklin. New York: Grove Press, 1995. 161-164.

· Marr, David G. "The Rise and Fall of ‘Counterinsurgency,’ 1961-1964.” in Vietnam and America. Ed. Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, & H. BruceFranklin. New York: Grove Press, 1995. 205-215.

· Scheer, Robert. "Behind the Miracle of South Vietnam." in Vietnam and America. Ed. Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, & H. Bruce Franklin. New York: Grove Press, 1995. 135-155.

· “Diem Must Go: The US Embassy in Saigon Orchestrates a Coup d’état.” in Vietnam and America. Ed. Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, & H. BruceFranklin. New York: Grove Press, 1995. 225-236.

· "Founding Program of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam.” in Vietnam and America. Ed. Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, & H. Bruce Franklin. New York: Grove Press, 1995. 188-192.

· "The Legal Underpinnings of Government Terror in South Vietnam: Law 10/59." in Vietnam and America. Ed. Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young,& H. Bruce Franklin. New York: Grove Press, 1995. 156-160.

· Pentagon Papers, The. “The Buddhist Crisis of 1963: The View from Washington.” in Vietnam and America. Ed. Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, & H. Bruce Franklin. New York: Grove Press, 1995. 216-225.


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