Saturday, 01 May 2021 19:00

Why the Vietnam War? by Michael Swanson

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With an eye toward the Indochina machinations inherited by President John F. Kennedy, Jim DiEugenio reviews the new book Why the Vietnam War? by Michael Swanson, who foreshadows the fact that Kennedy was trapped by his own advisors and how his removal would lead to an epic tragedy.

In 2013, Michael Swanson wrote an interesting and unique book called The War State. That volume focused on the formation of the military industrial complex (MIC) right after World War II. One of the most important parts of the book was its description of Paul Nitze as a chief architect of that complex. Swanson detailed his role in the writing of NSC–68 and, later, the Gaither Report. Those two documents played key parts in constructing a massive atomic arsenal by wildly exaggerating the threat the USSR posed to America. They were also influential in the maintenance of a large standing army in peacetime, something America had not done after previous wars. The author also showed how crucial FDR’s death was to the rise of this deliberately alarmist illusion and how GOP Senator Bob Taft tried to resist it. He closed that work with Dwight Eisenhower’s memorable speech warning about the dangers of the MIC and President Kennedy’s dodging its attempts to persuade him to use American forces to attack Cuba during the Bay of Pigs episode and the Missile Crisis. (For my review, click here)

Swanson has now written what is clearly a companion volume. Why the Vietnam War? focuses on what the French termed Indochina and how America entered that colonial conflict after France was defeated. Quite rightly, in the opening section of the book, he scores the 2017 Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary mini-series on the subject. He says that it devoted only one episode to the key period he will devote himself to, 1945–1960. He terms the series itself more about:

the culture wars that began during those years of peak American involvement in the war and less about the causes of the war—much less any real lessons that can be drawn from it… (Swanson, pp. 17–18)

Swanson is accurate as far as he goes. But I would go further. The Burns/Novick series was actually a kiss on the cheek to the forces that have tried so hard to place lipstick and mascara on the epochal disaster that took place in Indochina. That disaster was a result of, first, American support for France and, then, direct American involvement in the second part of the war. Any series that can deal with the formative years of American involvement without mentioning the name of Ed Lansdale or Operation Vulture, and then deals with the actual fighting of the war by discounting the Mylai Massacre, that production is serving as an appendage for the forces who wish to whitewash what happened there. (Click here for details) In fact, those forces do not want anyone to learn anything from the epic tragedy that was enacted as a result of direct American involvement. (Click here for my review)

This refusal by the media and our political leaders allowed George W. Bush to pretty much repeat what Lyndon Johnson did. In 1965, Johnson used a deliberate deception to commit direct American intervention—including combat troops—into Vietnam. In 2003, Bush used a deliberate deception to commit direct American intervention—including combat troops—into Iraq. In the first instance, the deception was an alleged unjustified attack in open seas by North Vietnam on an innocent American patrol ship (i.e. the Tonkin Gulf Incident). In 2003, the deception was that Saddam Hussein possessed, and could use, Weapons of Mass Destruction. In both instances, neither the media, nor our elected representatives, supplied any kind of countervailing inquiry, in order to prevent two disastrous wars. In this author’s opinion—and likely Swanson’s—the Burns/Novick pastiche helps enable the possibility it will happen a third time.


The French first took control of Vietnam in the 1850’s; they then annexed Cambodia and Laos before the end of the century. (Swanson, p. 20) France treated Indochina as an economic colony creating monopolies on opium, salt, and alcohol. They constructed rubber plantations and mined zinc, copper, and coal. The work lasted from 6 am to 6 pm and the overseers used batons to beat anyone they thought was lazy. The colonizers also recruited informers to squeal on those who wished to rebel or organize resistance. They also taxed the colonists and sent the funds back to France. (Swanson, p. 22)

There had been periodic resistance by the Vietnamese against both China and France. But the epochal event in the anti-colonial struggle was the French defat by the Third Reich in 1940. That shockingly quick loss allowed Japan, Germany’s Axis ally, to take over Indochina. But, in large part, Japan allowed the French to stay on as managers.

In 1944, Japan took direct control. The OSS sent a man named Archimedes Patti (true name) to work against Japan and set up an intelligence unit in the area. Patti was aware that Franklin Roosevelt did not want to continue colonialism after the war. In fact, FDR told the Russians that one reason he wanted to disband colonialism was to avoid future wars for national liberation. (Swanson, pp. 25, 26)

Since this was the aim, the OSS contacted Ho Chi Minh to know what he needed for his resistance movement and Ho met with Gen. Claire Chennault of Flying Tigers fame. (Ibid, pp. 31,32) For a brief time, Ho actually worked with the OSS and they supplied him with small arms. Patti was very impressed by the resistance leader and wanted the USA to support him against Japan. Patti also met with Vo Nguyen Giap, the future military commander of the Viet Minh. How close was the OSS to Ho Chi Minh? They actually saved his life when he was sick with malaria. (Swanson, p. 41)

Once Japan was defeated, the plan was to have the Nationalist Chinese occupy the north, while the British occupied the south. (Swanson, p. 48) Everyone realized this was only a prelude to escorting the Japanese out and unifying the country. In fact, Ho and his followers had already designed a flag for Vietnam. He also went to work on a Declaration of Independence.

It was not to be. The British, the largest colonizers on the globe, betrayed their trusteeship for their wartime ally, France. (Swanson, pp. 56–58) This caused a rebellion among Ho’s followers, the Viet Minh. England then asked the Japanese to aid their fight to put down the Viet Minh. Douglas MacArthur said about this reversal:

If there is anything that makes my blood boil, it is to see our allies in Indochina and Java deploying Japanese troops to reconquer these little people we promised to liberate. It is the most ignoble kind of betrayal. (Swanson, p. 61)

Hundreds of Viet Minh were killed in this struggle. The British commander, Douglas Gracey, left in late January of 1946. The French now returned. Ho tried to negotiate independence with the French. Those negotiations failed, as did a cease-fire attempt. (Swanson, p. 74) France now began to shell Haiphong and occupy Hanoi in the north. In December of 1946, Giap began a terrific assault on the latter city. That siege is usually designated as the beginning of the French Indochina War.


In 1947, the French talked their stand-in, Bao Dai, into returning as governor. (Swanson, p. 74) At around this time, Ho Chi Minh had approximately 60,000 troops and a million local reservists at his disposal. After his failure to take Hanoi, Giap decided to fight a passive/aggressive war, while building his forces to equal those of the French. (Swanson, p. 75) What is extraordinary about Giap’s early effort was that there was really little aid given to Giap by China, and less by Russia, in the early years.

In fact, Stalin did not recognize Ho’s government at first. This changed in 1950. Swanson describes a visit to Moscow by Ho at this time. (Swanson, pp. 76–77) He then states that it was in 1950 that both the USSR and China officially recognized Ho’s government. But I think there was something else that could have been elucidated about this important time frame.

As the Pentagon Papers state, in early 1950, France “took the first concrete steps toward transferring public administration to Bao Dai’s State of Vietnam.” (Pentagon Papers, complete collection, Vol. 1, p. A–7) This infuriated Ho, since he considered Bao Dai nothing but a puppet. Now Stalin and Mao Zedong recognized Ho, and Stalin instructed him that China would be aiding him most at the start. (Swanson, p. 77)

This triggered a reaction by Washington. As Swanson notes, the 1947 announcement by the new president of the eponymous Truman Doctrine—which was based on George Kennan’s Long Telegram—signaled an end to Roosevelt’s neutralism toward nations emerging from colonialism. The team of Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson strongly differed with Franklin Roosevelt and Cordell Hull on both Russia and the Third World. Therefore, when China and Russia extended recognition to Ho, Acheson now officially reversed the prior American policy of neutralism in Indochina. (Op. Cit. Pentagon Papers) Acheson now made a public statement in this regard:

The recognition by the Kremlin of Ho Chi Minh’s communist government in Indochina comes as a surprise. The Soviet acknowledgement of this movement should remove any illusion as to the “nationalist” nature of Ho Chi Minh’s aims and reveal Ho in his true colors as the mortal enemy of native independence in Indochina.

Acheson then went further. He said that Paris bestowing administrative powers on Bao Dai would lead “toward stable governments representing the true nationalist sentiments of more than 20 million peoples of Indochina.” (Ibid) This was an absurd statement. But it constituted a milestone. Not only would Truman and Acheson be abandoning FDR and Hull, they would be reversing that policy. Anyone cognizant of the history of the area would realize that Bao Dai was simply a figurehead for Paris. It was an insult to say he represented “native independence.” But Truman followed Acheson’s lead and said America also recognized the French mandarin as leader of Vietnam. Consequently, France requested funds for this colonial regime. On May 8, 1950, Acheson complied by saying the area was under threat from Soviet imperialism, which was more full-blown Cold War malarkey. (Op. Cit., Pentagon Papers, p. A–8) This groundbreaking reversal was one more example of what Anthony Eden called the incalculable foreign policy calamity that took place upon Roosevelt’s death. (Frank Costigliola, Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances, p. 2) Swanson gets the general outline, but I wish he had been a little more precise about it.

Giap’s overall strategy proved successful. Even with Truman giving tens of millions to the French effort to reinstall colonialism, by 1951, Giap was in control of the countryside. When John Kennedy visited Saigon in that year, Giap had bases 25 miles outside the city. (Swanson, p. 67) In fact, the French had to install anti-grenade nests over restaurants and terraces. Swanson notes young Kennedy’s talks with reporter Seymour Topping and American diplomat Edmund Gullion. Both men revealed they had deep misgivings about the French effort. They did not think it would succeed and the war had now turned the Vietnamese against America. During his talk with the French commander there, Kennedy expressed so many reservations about their cause that the Frenchman filed a complaint with the American embassy about the impetuous congressman. (Swanson, p. 68) When the congressman returned to Boston, he made a speech warning about America tying itself to the desperate effort of France to hold on to its overseas empire.


To disguise the betrayal of FDR’s neutralism and counter the beginning of Kennedy’s crusade—which will culminate in 1957 with his Algeria speech contra another doomed French colonial effort—the ploy used was the Domino Theory. (Swanson, pp. 86—87) This was the idea that, somehow, if America allowed one country in southeast Asia to go communist, it would cause a chain reaction that could extend out as far as the Philippines. It was propounded forcefully by President Dwight Eisenhower.

What Swanson notes here is that, in spite of this posture, many prominent people simply did not believe the Domino Theory. And he lists high ranking Republicans like senators Barry Goldwater, Everett Dirksen, and Richard Russell. The amount of money America contributed to the French effort rose significantly when Eisenhower became president. And these three men objected to it. As Russell said of the expenditures:

You are pouring it down a rathole; the worst mess we ever got into, this Vietnam. The President has decided it. I’m not going to say a word of criticism. I’ll keep my mouth shut, but I’ll tell you right now we are in for something that is going to be one of the worst things this country ever got into. (Swanson, p. 97)

To put it mildly, these were prophetic words. Under Truman, America was giving tens of millions to the French war effort. Under Eisenhower, that figure soared into the hundreds of millions. It all culminated in the siege of Dien Bien Phu. Realizing their strategy there had been effectively countered by Giap, the French now pleaded for even more help to stave off a disastrous defeat. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Vice President Richard Nixon, and Admiral Arthur Radford all agreed the USA should offer the help, whether it be the insertion of American ground troops or Operation Vulture. The latter was the deployment of a huge air armada including atomic weapons. (Swanson, pp. 102–04)

Eisenhower would only go along with Vulture if we could get England to endorse it. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden would not approve the scheme. One reason he would not is he did not see Vietnam as being that important; another being he did not buy the Domino Theory. (Swanson, p. 108) Swanson does a good enough job on all this international intrigue, but I wish he would have included the part where, after Eden and Ike turned down the plan, Foster Dulles offered the atomic bombs to the French—and it appears he did so without the president’s authorization. (David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard, p. 245) They turned him down on the grounds the bombs would kill as many of their troops as the Viet Minh.

Dien Bien Phu fell in May of 1954. There was no domino reaction.

But Foster Dulles did react. Two days later, Dulles had a meeting with several military chiefs, one of them being Radford. The discussion centered on this question: Now that the French were gone, who would be the major power in Asia? Would it be China or the USA? (Swanson, p. 109) At this meeting, Radford was very clear that America’s enemy in Asia was now China. Unless America went after China, they would be free to spread communism throughout the continent, including Indonesia. Swanson interprets Radford’s belligerence retroactively. He now sees Radford’s Vulture plan as a way of checking China.

At this meeting, Foster Dulles admitted that the Domino Theory was not valid in Vietnam. But he saw his new duty as enlisting allies in an alliance against China. Nixon felt a soft policy against China would not work; it would allow China to dominate Asia. Foster Dulles decided that at the upcoming peace conference ending the French Indochina War, the USA would only pay lip service to the ostensible agreement. They were not going to let the Geneva Accords allow for a vote that would unify the country, since they knew Ho Chi Minh would win that election. (Swanson, p. 114)

At Geneva, the Chinese advised Ho Chi Minh to accept the partition of Vietnam. The reason being that Zhou EnLai did not want to fight another Korean War against the USA. (Swanson, pp. 124–25) Foster Dulles and his brother Allen, Director of the CIA, took control of decision making in Saigon. They employed legendary black operator Colonel Ed Lansdale to create this new country of South Vietnam, one that had not existed before. CIA official Bob Amory picked up the name of Ngo Dinh Diem from William O. Douglas. Amory then passed it on to Frank Wisner and Allen Dulles. And that is how Lansdale then chose the leader for this newly created country. (Swanson, pp. 128–29) Bao Dai agreed to appoint Diem as prime minister. Diem now denounced the Geneva Accords as non-binding. Lansdale quickly shuffled Bao Dai offstage by rigging elections for Diem. Diem would poll over 98% of the vote, garnering more votes than people who had registered in a district, which, of course, made a mockery of the whole electoral process. (Ibid, p. 128) This new country of South Vietnam was a creation of the United States and it was not at all a democracy. All this was done to deny an election that Eisenhower and Foster Dulles knew Ho Chi Minh would win.

The real story, not reported in the papers or on television, is that America had created a dictatorship.


The best book I have read about Diem is Seth Jacobs’ Cold War Mandarin. Both Jacobs and Swanson note the importance of Wesley FIshel to the rise of Diem’s career in the United States. FIshel was an academic who participated in US involvement in Asian affairs. (Jacobs, pp. 25–26) What made Diem attractive to Fishel was the fact that he was against both the French and the Viet Minh. Because of this opposition, Diem left Vietnam and began to ingratiate himself with as many luminaries as he could: Fishel, Douglas MacArthur, Cardinal Francis Spellman, and Pope Pius XII. The last two owed to the fact he was a Catholic. By early 1951, Diem was being interviewed by no less than Dean Acheson to get his input as to what was really going on In Vietnam—where the USA was now tied to a French colonial war. (Jacobs, p. 28) Acheson was impressed and Diem settled in for a long American stay.

Because of his Catholic background, Spellman offered him free lodging at Maryknoll Seminary in Lakewood, New Jersey. From this base, he went out on a speaking tour to colleges and universities in the East and Midwest, extolling his anti-French and anti-Viet Minh stance. FIshel got Diem a consultancy at Michigan State. As Jacobs notes, there was no university in the nation that was as dedicated as MSU to joining forces with the CIA and Pentagon in fighting the Cold War. Once the program was installed there, Diem and Fishel began the most ambitious of all the university’s programs in regards to nation building. (Jacobs, p. 30)

It was at New York’s Yale Club in late 1951 where Diem met Justice Douglas. Douglas advised not just Robert Amory about the viability of Diem as a leader in Vietnam, but also Senator Mike Mansfield. Mansfield had been a professor of Asian history prior to becoming a senator, therefore his views on the subject carried some weight. In 1953, Douglas invited Spellman, Mansfield, and Senator John Kennedy to a luncheon for Diem at the Supreme Court building. (Jacobs, p. 31) During his speech, Diem complained that there had to be an alternative to the French and the Viet Minh, and if there was, it would be the driving force behind an independent Vietnam. Such a cause would give the people of that country something to fight for. Whereas the French found Diem unappealing, obsolete, and even stupid, somehow, with Spellman’s backing, he became popular in America.

The timing, of course, was quite advantageous for Spellman. France was about to lose their colonial struggle at Dien Bien Phu. The Dulles brothers, Nixon, and Eisenhower had sunk 300 million into their winning this battle under General Henri Navarre. After making such an investment, that brain trust was not going to let Ho Chi Minh take command. And since Diem had been campaigning for three years, he was the natural choice to install as America’s mandarin. As Jacobs notes, what is surprising in reviewing the record is that there was really never any debate about this. (Jacobs, p. 33) Diem was popular in the proper echelons in America. There never seemed to be any question about whether or not his popularity would transfer to VIetnam, which was well over 60% Buddhist.

Diem arrived in Saigon in June of 1954. He made no speech at the airport and the windows of his car were closed as he departed. (Swanson, p. 136) He now occupied the presidential palace with his brother Nhu and Nhu’s wife, Madame Nhu. The latter’s father became ambassador to Washington and her uncle became minister of foreign affairs. Eisenhower and Foster Dulles appropriated tens of millions to construct an army for him. Yet, almost at the outset, Ambassador Don Heath cabled Washington that Diem was the wrong man for the job. At this point, the Pentagon more or less agreed with Heath. They doubted if Diem could rally the populace around him and if he could not, “no amount of external pressure and assistance can long delay compete communist victory in South Vietnam.” (Swanson, p. 147) These ominous and well-founded warnings were ignored.

Unlike Ho, Diem did not seem interested in making the lives of the peasantry easier. What he seemed to be interested in was consolidating his power. As noted above, Bao Dai was dispensed with first. Diem and Nhu then plotted to do away with the underworld drug organization, the Binh Xuyen. With the help of the army, they did. (Swanson, p. 159)

Lansdale was Diem’s chief patron. In addition to rigging elections, he devised a propaganda operation to transfer one million Catholics south, in order to bolster Diem. (Jacobs, pp. 52–53) National Assembly candidates had to be first approved by Diem before they ran. The major party, the Can Lao, was run by Nhu. Diem and Nhu, now that they were secured by Lansdale, began to imprison and torture tens of thousands they thought could pose a threat to their regime. This included beheadings and disembowelings. (Jacobs, p.90) South Vietnam was, for all intents and purposes, a one-party state and that one party was founded by and supervised by Nhu and it also controlled the press. The constitution gave Diem the ability to rule by decree and change existing laws.

As partly noted above, Diem took nepotism to new standards. Madame Nhu, the first lady, also served as a member of the assembly and headed the Women’s Solidarity Movement, a female militia. Another brother, Ngo Din Tuc, was the most powerful religious leader in the country. Diem’s youngest brother was ambassador to the United Kingdom. (Jacobs, pp. 86, 89)

The puzzling thing about the above is that, in these formative years, Diem received the nearly unalloyed backing of both the American press and the Establishment. His regime worked with Fishel at MSU, but also with the Brookings Institute and the Ford Foundation. (Swanson, p. 172) From 1955–61, the USA sent his government two billion dollars. With all this power behind him, Diem appointed province and district chiefs. (Jacobs, p. 90) Yet Diem did not redistribute land. He simply moved peasants to unpopulated areas—and they were not given title. He was attempting to build a human wall along border areas. And like the French, he posted taxes on the property. Diem also used land transfers to enrich himself. (Swanson, pp. 172–75) The net result of all this, as both Swanson and Jacobs note, is that he was not able to establish any kind of loyal following among the peasant class, which made them easy targets for, first, the Viet Minh and, later, the Viet Cong. By 1960, the political arm of the Viet Cong was formed, called the NLF or National Liberation Front. This failure contributed to the creeping Americanization of the war.


Swanson now begins to focus on a character who was central in insisting that America become directly involved in Vietnam: Walt Rostow. From his earliest days in academia—Harvard and MIT—Rostow was a rabid critic of Karl Marx and despised the doctrine of communism. At MIT, Walt became involved with the Center for International Studies (CENIS), a think tank devised as a method of getting MIT involved with the Cold War. (Swanson, pp. 194–195) In fact, even though he was a Democrat, he was discouraged by Eisenhower’s refusal to commit American ground troops to save the siege of Dien Bien Phu. He wrote several books and articles for CENIS. His most famous book was The Stages of Economic Growth. As Rostow told his friend C. D. Jackson, that volume was designed to counter Marx and show that economic progress in the Third World would lead not “to a communist end game utopia, but to a corporate capitalist end point.” (Swanson, p. 196) John Kennedy liked the aspect of Rostow’s philosophy that promoted the importance of utilizing foreign aid for democratic ends in the Third World.

John Kennedy’s ideas about Vietnam overall, and South Vietnam in particular, differed from the Dulles brothers and also with what they had let Diem construct in South Vietnam. Senator Kennedy talked about offering the people in the area a revolution, one that was peaceful, democratic, and locally controlled. (Swanson, p. 215) As Swanson has demonstrated, that is not what Lansdale, Diem, and the Dulles brothers had created. When he became president, Kennedy resisted overtures by people like Lansdale and Rostow to utilize direct American involvement in theater. After the Bay of Pigs debacle, he tended to discount the input from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and retired CIA Director Allen Dulles. The president now turned to people like speech writer Ted Sorenson, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and military aide General Maxwell Taylor for advice.

Swanson spends many pages on describing the situation in Laos, next door to Vietnam. I found this part of the book quite helpful in understanding both Indochina, the ideas of the Joint Chiefs, and why Kennedy resisted them.

Kennedy appointed a task force to study Laos and make recommendations about the country. Laos was newly formed in 1954, when it was carved out of French Indochina as a result of the Geneva Accords. It was a landlocked country of two million people. In 1954, the main vectors of power were the Royal Laotian government, the Pathet Lao, and the remnants of the French regime there. Charles Yost was the American ambassador and the embassy consisted of two rooms. (Swanson, p. 239) Prince Souvanna Phouma wanted no part of the Cold War. Prince Souphanouvong was his half-brother and he was the leader of the leftist Pathet Lao, located mostly in the northern part of the country. Because of this relationship, the prince thought he could form a working relationship with the Pathet Lao.

Washington did not care for the idea, but what made the resistance to the idea puzzling was there so little to fight over in Laos. Ninety percent of the populace lived off self-sufficient farming. But yet, Foster Dulles decided to send them five times the country’s GNP in foreign aid. (ibid, p. 240) Before leaving the country, Yost suggested a partition, but no military aid. That was ignored and he left due to illness.

Allen Dulles decided to set up a CIA station there. The Pentagon now set up a 22-man military outpost. This in a country where most of the people did not use the national currency and all but 10 per cent were illiterate. They did not even know what the Cold War was. In fact, Souvanna Phouma told the new ambassador, Graham Parsons, that the Pathet Lao were not communists. (Swanson, p. 249) In the face of this native advice, the CIA created a Cold War in Laos. Souvanna was blackballed and the CIA head of station, Henry Hecksher, invented something called the Committee for the Defense of National Interests (CDNI). Hecksher’s creation forced the prince to resign as Prime Minister. (Swanson, p. 253) The CDNI backed Colonel Phoumi Nosovan, who took power in late December of 1959. America now expanded its military mission there to 515 men. Allen Dulles assigned Phoumi a case officer, Jack Hasey. (John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, Second Edition, p. 13)

Colonel Kong Le did not like the rapid polarization and disintegration of Laos. He supplanted Phoumi in August of 1960, declared Laos neutral, and invited Souvanna to return, which he did. (Swanson, p. 256) Allen Dulles now told Eisenhower that Kong Le was a Castro type communist, which he was not. Ambassador Winthrop Brown agreed with Kong Le that Laos should be neutral. It did not matter. In December of 1960, Kong Le was displaced and the CIA and Pentagon returned Phoumi to power. This drove Kong Le and his neutralists into the arms of the Pathet Lao, who were now getting aid from Hanoi. (Newman, p. 13)

This is the messy situation that Eisenhower had left for Kennedy in Laos. What makes it even more startling is this: on January 19, 1960, the day before JFK’s inauguration, Eisenhower told Kennedy something that, in retrospect, is rather astonishing. Ike told him that Laos was the key to all Southeast Asia. If Laos fell, America would have to write off the entire area. (Newman, p. 9) If anything defines C. Wright Mills’ description of American leaders of the era as a bunch of “crackpot realists,” that judgment does.

When Kennedy took over, he called in Winthrop Brown and asked him for his opinion. Brown started with, “Well sir, the policy is…” Kennedy cut him off and said, he knew what the policy was, he wanted to know what Brown thought. Brown replied that he favored a neutralist solution with Souvanna and Kong Le. He felt the alliance with Phoumi was a disaster. (Swanson, pp. 263–64)

In what would be a repeated strophe, on April 5, 1961, Phoumi launched a (failed) assault against Kong Le and the Pathet Lao across the Plain of Jars. Brown was convinced this collapse could open up all the major cities to the Pathet Lao. (Swanson, p. 268) Kennedy decided to ignore the Joint Chiefs’ recommendation for direct intervention, made by Arleigh Burke and backed by Lyndon Johnson, which included using atomic weapons against China if they intervened. (Newman, p. 27) Instead, he made a show of force by moving a naval armada into the area. The Pathet Lao now called for a cease-fire. A neutralist conference was now at hand. After all the sabre rattling—referring to the Bay of Pigs debacle—Kennedy said to Schlesinger: “If it weren’t for Cuba, I might have taken this advice seriously” (Swanson, p. 284)


The Pentagon now switched arenas. They planned for a showdown with China in either Thailand or Vietnam. (Swanson, p. 287; Newman, pp. 28–29) This not so hidden effort should be combined with the failure of Diem to attain even the semblance of functional democracy.

Jacobs deals with what I believe is a key event indicating just how bad the Diem regime was on the eve of Kennedy’s presidency. Contrary to what the American media was depicting, there were intelligent alternatives to Diem even in the late fifties. But Diem’s Public Meeting Law stopped them from attaining recognition. That law limited candidates from speaking to a crowd of over five persons. Some candidates were threatened with arrest or trial on charges of conspiracy with the Viet Cong. (Jacobs, p. 113) In many instances, the ARVN just stuffed ballot boxes.

Diem’s best-known critic was Dr. Phan Quang Dan. In the August 1959 national assembly elections, Diem sent 8000 soldiers to vote against Dan. Not only did the Saigon physician win anyway, he won by a margin of 6–1. (Jacobs, p. 114) When Dan was about to take his seat, he was arrested on charges of fraud. This was so outrageous that a group of prominent men met at the Caravelle Hotel to sign a letter of protest. The signers included Phan Huy Quat, a man who had previously been recommended to Eisenhower and Foster Dulles as a better alternative than Diem. Although this protest garnered some media attention in the USA, on orders of Diem, it was deliberately ignored in South Vietnam. The Caravelle Group was probably the last viable opportunity to install a government that could inspire popular loyalty in Saigon. (Jacobs, p. 116)

In the summer of 1961, President Kennedy asked Vice President Johnson to go to South Vietnam on a goodwill tour. LBJ mightily resisted. Kennedy ended up ordering him to go. (Swanson, p. 303) On the advice of the Pentagon, LBJ asked Diem if he wanted American combat troops in theater. Diem declined, but said he needed more funds to build up the ARVN; apparently in order to protect his argovilles—groups of farming communities. (Swanson, p. 311) As the author notes, Diem changed his mind a few months later. In September of 1961, he was willing to accept combat troops. (Swanson, p. 326) This would later evolve into the Strategic Hamlet program.

In late 1961—around when Kennedy sent Walt Rostow and General Max Taylor to Vietnam—the president met with Arthur Krock, a friend of his father’s. He told the journalist he had serious doubts about the Domino Theory and did not think the USA should get into a land war in Asia. (Swanson, p. 335) When Taylor and Rostow returned with a recommendation for inserting combat troops, Kennedy struck this from their report. He also circulated a press story saying no such recommendation was in the report. (Swanson, p. 339) Perhaps because of the Taylor/Rostow mission, Diem now told Ambassador Nolting he would like to place American troops across the demilitarized zone. Lyndon Johnson’s initial suggestion was now bearing fruit.

Swanson names four men who had similar views to the president’s about Indochina. They were Senator Mike Mansfield, Ambassador to India John K. Galbraith, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, and, later, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. In two meetings in November, Kennedy made the decision that there would be no American combat troops sent to Vietnam. He would send more advisors and equipment, but no ground troops. Virtually everyone except the men mentioned above wanted the contrary and members of the Joint Chiefs wanted to go to war. (Swanson, p. 400) In fact, the Chiefs sent Kennedy a memo saying that a failure to enter Vietnam would lead to the collapse of Southeast Asia. But when McNamara forwarded the memo, he advised Kennedy that it required no action from the president at the time.

In his coda, Swanson writes that the headlong push to go to war in Vietnam stemmed from four issues:

  1. The atomic advantage of the USA over Russia and China

  2. The failure to use that advantage at DIen Ben Phu and in Laos

  3. The Pentagon push that a showdown with China was inevitable in the battle for Asia

  4. The monolithic view that Hanoi was a satellite of China

Swanson has written a cogent—and in some ways unique—overview of the struggle for imperial hegemony in Indochina, specifically, the rise and fall of the French effort and the seeds of the later American imposition in Laos and South Vietnam. Along the way, he foreshadows the fact that Kennedy was trapped by his own advisors and how his removal would lead to an epic tragedy.

Last modified on Saturday, 01 May 2021 23:10
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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