Monday, October 20, 2008

Evolution of U.S. involvement in Vietnam

Many people are comparing the war in Iraq today with the war in Vietnam. In some ways, they are similar. In others, they are not. It may be helpful to have a condensed recounting of how the U.S. became to be involved in Vietnam:

France controlled Vietnam during the 2nd half of the 19th century, and the 1st half of the 20th. A number of uprisings occurred during this time. They were brutally suppressed. This had been common practice by ‘occupiers’ throughout colonial history. After Paris fell to Germany in 1940, the French control slackened some, and the Vietminh began to resist more openly. Japan overran Vietnam in 1942 and occupied it until the end of the war in 1945. Resistance to Japanese occupation was at a noticeably higher level.

In January 1944, General Eisenhower was appointed supreme commander in Europe. He moved his headquarters to England. During the next few months, he became familiar with the French resistance. Our viewpoint was from the resistance side. He was exposed to the organizational problems, abilities, and limitations.

After the war, Vietnam was re-occupied by the French. Resistance was at a much higher level than pre-war, and this did not drop off. In 1954, the situation had deteriorated so much for France that a good portion of their army was surrounded at Dien Bien Phu. The French government appealed for direct help, and Eisenhower said no. It fell and Vietnam was divided into North and South.

In 1956, reports began to come into President Eisenhower’s office. Small groups of armed men would enter a small village in South Vietnam and demand food (Rice) and loyalty in exchange for ‘protection’. The villagers were hostile to these demands, but frequently gave in as they were unarmed and wanted to protect their families. President Eisenhower did what any general would do: He took out a map. Terrain: Swamps and forests. Economy: Agrarian. Population: Spread out in small villages, population generally between 100 and 500 people. One large city, Saigon was the capital. The strategy that was developed and implemented was to select a village. Out of a population of 100, about 10-15 people would be men of ages 15 to 45. Have a few men (CIA or similar) enter the village; supply them with small arms and training. Enough ammunition and training to enable them to maintain the equipment and to defend themselves. The U.S. men would then go to the next village a few klicks away and begin the process again. Within the first year, this process was showing signs of success. The hostile force was entering the village and was not getting any food. They were also losing a few men in the process. It was a painfully slow process. By 1959, estimates were that the job would be completed by 1970. Then came the election of 1960. It would have been unprofessional and completely out of character for Eisenhower not to brief his replacement in what he had been doing.

Did you ever see the movie JFK? You know, the movie that claimed that JFK was killed because of a memo that he sent out a week after he took office? The memo said that he wanted the war ended by January 1st, 1964. He was setting a political deadline because he was thinking re-election. (I am guessing here.) In any case, the implication is that he needed to change the plan. Here we have a man whose military experience was command over 10 men for a few months. He had his command destroyed by an enemy ship running over his. He was going to change the military plan that had been created by one of the better military minds that this country has ever produced.

His idea was to use the officers coming out of training in guerrilla warfare and have them speed up the effort in Vietnam. This would allow us to leave by 1964. After all, the military has the assets to do this. These officers began to arrive in Vietnam during the late spring of 1961. The result was a reorganization of Vietnam’s military. It was set up as a conventional force. The villages were required to send the men 10 miles up the road into a conventional battle formation. The village had just been stripped of its defense. This placed the South Vietnamese men in a cruel position: Either be patriotic or join the other side to protect your family. The war began to go noticeably worse. Over time, we (The United States) became the enemy. President Johnson took the next step and increased the number of our men that we had posted there.

General Eisenhower knew the army. I am certain that this is why he did not have them get involved in the first place.

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