Viet Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present by Ben Kiernan is a refreshing historical view void of French or American influence. Kiernan is a professor of History, International, and Area Studies at Yale University.
My interest, of course, French and American wars focused on Part Five: Colonies: Chapter 9 Writing and Revolution from Colonialism to Independence, 1920-54.
Kiernan delivers an amazing deep look at the American nightmare in Southeast Asia in the twentieth century. We have few if any books that look at Vietnam’s history from Kiernan’s perspective.
Still seeking to learn new insights into French rule across Indochina this was a deep, intense review of the shifting powers between Ho Chi Minh and Bao Dai. Kiernan should be credited with documenting the impact of a great famine over the previous sixty years.
This produced a very odd relationship. Bao Dai was the final emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, the last ruling family of Vietnam. Until the end of the Second World War, Bao Dai was appointed emperor of Annam under French rule. His role remained after March 1945 when Japanese troops ousted French military rule throughout Indochina. He abdicated upon the Japanese surrendered.
Yet during the previous two generations, thousands of Vietnamese starved to death. Kiernan reveals in elaborate research the role of journalism spreading in the early 1900s throughout Indochina. The most immediate impact was upon Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism throughout Vietnam. This also launched the first public political parties in 1919.
Bao Dai ruled the State of Vietnam from 1949 to 1955 under French influence during the first Indochina war. Yet he ruled from Hong Kong and China. After the French installed Dai to govern the country, Ho persuaded Dai to abdicate in August 1945. His departure handed power to the Viet Minh. Yet Dai was appointed Supreme Advisor to Ho’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
For the build-up of America’s entry into the nightmare in Park Six: Republics addresses the era 1954-2016. My only shortcoming? The government’s shift during the third Indochina war in 1979 with China.
Kiernan must be praised for a clear, focused writing extending back to the early Paleolithic age around 500,000 BC. to a modern country that survived three foreign invaders in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
There are interesting views is his work to clearly view the complex political changes that develop within their agrarian society. I found myself very impressed with his detail to the changes in Vietnamese governments, the major areas of unified Vietnam today and measured back eras when the country was split into three and later two parts all while pushing back on China’s invasions and influence. Kiernan does an admiral job of focusing on the changes within Tonkin, Annam, and Cocinchina:
In France, a new wave of colonial fervor peaked in the 1870s. Missionary interest in the fate of long-persecuted Vietnamese Catholics combined with new French nationalist ideology and ambitions, a cultural‚ ”civilizing mission,” the demands of France’s naval and military power, and burgeoning commercial imperatives.
Yet American foreign policy expert and historian George F. Kennan took a position early that Vietnam was a mistake:
In 1950 the United States intervened in the Korean War and launched large-scale military support for the French war in Indochina. George Kennan, however, considered the French cause‚ “hopeless.” He warned‚ ”We are getting ourselves into the position of guaranteeing the French in an undertaking that neither they nor we, nor both of us together, can win.”
Washington should allow Viet Nam’s “turbulent political currents‚” to‚ ”find their own level,” even if the Viet Minh won. America, he thought, need not include Viet Nam in the key strategic contest with the Soviet Union. In 1952, Kennan became the only U.S. ambassador ever to be expelled by the Soviet Union, but the next year he was fired from the State Department by the incoming secretary of state, John Foster Dulles.
Rather than bring the war front and center, Kiernan focuses on this period on the Bao Dai/Ngo Dinh Diem relationship in the south. His focus on the war is highlighted in just a single paragraph about the battle of Dien Bien Phu:
Victory came on May 7, 1954, after nearly one hundred thousand Vietnamese laborers lugged supplies from the Chinese border, including heavy artillery pieces from the Soviet Union, over two hundred miles through northern Tonkin’s mountains and forests, to a PAVN force of 105,000 combat and support troops, plus a CCP contingent, surrounding the large French entrenched camp at Dien Bien Phu near the Lao border. In a two-month siege, the French garrison of sixteen thousand was slowly strangled. The Viet Minh captured eight thousand prisoners of war and marched them to camps in the Red River delta. A French commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bigeard, later called Giap’s army‚ “the greatest infantry in the world.” Peace talks began at Geneva the day after Dien Bien Phu fell.
Yet Viet Nam: A History from Earliest Time also reveals to be on of the rare books that remove any French and American perspective to the political landscape shifts from 1954-1975. While the US Government funded the Diem regime, Kiernan is able to reveal how early Washington reached out to Ngo Dinh Nhu during the early efforts by Kennedy and Landsdale to dodge the French efforts to reinforce Bao Dai.
There are many lessons Kiernan provide from CIA programs stretching back to 1961 in the Central Highlands. A year later the Montagnard program collapsed as the focus on village defenses were changed to more conventional warfare when directed by the US Army.
This wartime French-Japanese condominium opened a new phase in Vietnamese history. The two colonial powers had reached a compromise that protected their own closest interests but not necessarily those of their respective Vietnamese clients. Both powers also competed uneasily for the loyalty of the native population.
A few more great insights by Kiernan about the complex relationships, post World War II ambitions in Asia the growing communist threat in Vietnam:
In November 1944, Viet Minh fighters rescued the U.S. pilot Lieutenant Rudolph Shaw after his plane, flying south of the Chinese border, experienced engine trouble over Cao Bang. Ho Chi Minh personally escorted Shaw back to his U.S. base in China. There Ho met with American officials, this time including Office of Strategic Services (OSS) personnel and General Claire Chennault. He returned to Viet Nam in May 1945 with a team of forty OSS advisers and military instructors, including two Asian Americans, dispatched to help the Viet Minh rescue more downed Allied airmen and step up attacks on the Japanese.
With the liberation of Paris in August 1944, General de Gaulle had taken power in France. As Japan suffered more defeats in the Pacific, its leaders began to suspect the French administration of Indochina of loyalty to de Gaulle. On March 9, 1945, employing effective surprise, the Japanese military rounded up nearly all the French forces and top officials in Indochina. The coup led to the formation of a Japanese-sponsored Vietnamese royal government. To lead it, Emperor Bao Dai tried to recruit Ngo Dinh Diem, who had eluded French arrest in Hue the previous year when Japan’s consul there smuggled him out dressed as a Japanese officer; he then lived in Saigon under Japanese military protection. Diem declined the appointment, to his immediate regret.
Meanwhile famine raged in Tonkin and northern Annam. By mid-1945, a million people had died from hunger, one in ten of the inhabitants of Tonkin. Half the deaths occurred in four of its overpopulated coastal provinces, and another third in Annam alone.
Then, after the two very high rainfall years of 1942‚ the Red River dike system suffered major breaches in August 1945. Tonkin suffered its most catastrophic floods of the twentieth century, which inundated 230,000 ha, about one-third of the summer rice crop.
After large demonstrations in Hanoi on August 16 and 17, the Viet Minh took power there on the nineteenth. Armed Japanese troops stood by watching. The Viet Minh were careful not to further antagonize them, in most cases negotiating a transfer of power with local commanders. To forestall Japanese retaliation they even handed over a supporter who had killed two Japanese soldiers; he was released later. After demonstrators in Hanoi killed about ten French personnel, the Viet Minh forbade further attacks. This convinced the Japanese commander that they could maintain order, and it showed Americans that the Viet Minh were loyal to the Allied cause. The situation demanded a balancing act; popular feeling ran high. Peasants in a northern province drew up a banner saying ‚”Down with the French colonialists‚” and hung it upside down for emphasis.
The situation also demanded speed, for the French were keen to resume their position of power. Vo Nguyen Giap, his U.S. advisers, and his small army of two hundred mostly upland minority troops were still in the hills north of Hanoi when local Viet Minh committees took over Hue on August 23. In Saigon the previous day, the Vanguard Youth announced it had joined the Viet Minh.
At first glance for most Americans looking at Vietnam in a post-Korea view of fighting communism there was no way they could understand the following:
In January, Ho brought Ngo Dinh Diem out of detention and offered him a cabinet post. Diem refused and was allowed to leave for China.
Kiernan places the following text as the simple, yet revealing narrative for the US to enter the war in Vietnam as an outcome of the failed French effort. The US allowed the Ngo family to spin their political web around an anti-communism message to show a dictatorial control over a Buddhist nation to the benefit of their Catholic family:
The Pentagon Papers described “South Vietnam” in 1954 as “essentially the creation of the United States.” The U.S. analysts considered that its founding president, Ngo Dinh Diem, owed his survival to Washington:
Without U.S. support Diem almost certainly could not have consolidated his hold on the South during 1955 and 1956. Without the threat of U.S. intervention, South Vietnam could not have refused to even discuss the elections called for in 1956 under the Geneva settlement without immediately being overrun by the Viet Minh armies.
Though no puppet, Diem depended on U.S. support to implement his vision for his country. In turn, U.S. anticommunist imperatives made Washington itself dependent on the small circle of Vietnamese who fit its required political mold. The last French commander in chief, General Paul Ely, described Diem as ‚”the only Vietnamese politician‚” whose anti-communism was total. The CIA’s Saigon station had been working with his younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu since 1951, but Washington still sought additional options.
The CIA’s internal history, CIA and the House of Ngo, says that early in 1954, as the French military position deteriorated, the Agency started trying to identify Vietnamese leaders with whom it might work directly to resist further Viet Minh expansion.” At a January meeting of the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), “someone suggested that Colonel Edward Lansdale, USAF, renowned for his work as ‘kingmaker’ in the Philippines, be commissioned to find a Vietnamese” to play a role similar to Ramon Magsaysay, the Filipino president, whom Lansdale had served as key adviser. For its part, the CIA decided that its Saigon station would “resume the direct assessment of nationalist politicians there.” In April 1954 a new covert action chief, Paul Harwood, arrived at the station to assume the task. Separately, the NSC approved the Lansdale mission; Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen Dulles, director of Central Intelligence, “directly participated in creating the assignment.” In June, Lansdale followed Harwood to Saigon and set up a second CIA station there, reporting personally to Allen Dulles.
For several weeks after his arrival, Harwood left the station’s contact with Nhu to the “capable” contract employee Virginia Spence, who told CIA headquarters in April that Nhu believed the French premier favored Diem. As Harwood sounded out other noncommunist nationalist politicians in Saigon, “Nhu quickly emerged as the most promising of an unimpressive lot.” By early May 1954, “before Diem emerged as a candidate to head the government, Nhu’s talent and willingness to work with the Agency had helped make him the focus of CIA covert action planning Within “a few days” of Dien Bien Phu’s fall on May 7, Bao Dai in France, first offered Diem, now in Belgium, the premiership of the SVN. Diem held out for “full powers” not only over the SVN government but also over its armed forces and economy. And he wanted U.S. backing. In Saigon in mid-May, the CIA history informs us, Nhu approached Harwood “about the terms under which the US would support Diem’s bid to become prime minister.” The two parties were thinking alike. Dulles and the State Department were separately “discussing with the French a new government for non-Communist Vietnam,” and in Washington, also around mid-May, the CIA decided to involve Nhu. “At Headquarters’ request, Harwood told Nhu at a meeting in May that there were “plans which might involve Diem.’ “He asked “if Diem would accept a position other than that of prime minister.” By May 21, Nhu had replied with “a categorical “no.” At some point in May, CIA headquarters also asked the Saigon station to ascertain Diem’s intentions and Nhu’s own ambitions. Nhu wanted no cabinet post; Spence thought he had “worked so long covertly he couldn’t bear to do otherwise.” The Agency history reports the views of three subsequent Saigon station officers that Washington, without need of CIA urging, either supported or insisted on Diem’s appointment. It adds: “In fact, John Foster Dulles and the French seem to have concluded, more or less simultaneously, that there was no alternative to Diem. On 24 May, the US Embassy in Paris moved to ‘reestablish contact’ with Diem to discuss his negotiations with Bao Dai.”
If this does not reveals Kiernan depth of research. Then overall, the U.S. understood their ultimate decision:
The U.S. State Department’s Division of Research reported in February 1955: “Almost any type of election that could conceivably be held in Vietnam in 1956 would, on the basis of present trends, give the Communists a very significant if not decisive advantage.” And in the South, “maximum conditions of freedom and the maximum degree of international supervision might well operate to Communist advantage…
Kiernan has produced an amazing read. This is an indispensable book to learn the internal view of Vietnam without a heavy-handed American or French narrative.