A while back, I was browsing in a bookstore and I saw a book about President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vietnam. The historical narrative that I had long heard was that President John F. Kennedy was the President who began the process of getting the United States embroiled in Vietnam, but this book was apparently claiming that such a process began with Eisenhower. I did not buy the book, nor did I read enough of it to get the gist of its author's argument. Plus, I don't remember the book's title. I'm sure that the author made a case, as many authors do. But I remembered this book during my latest reading of Stephen Ambrose's Nixon: The Education of a Politician, for Ambrose was arguing that Eisenhower was essentially inactive on the issue of Vietnam, whereas Vice-President Nixon wanted for Eisenhower to involve the U.S. more deeply in the region.
were in control of Vietnam when Eisenhower as President, yet the
Communists were making gains. According to Ambrose, there were symbolic
steps that Eisenhower took against Communism in Vietnam, but Eisenhower
used them as an excuse for inactivity. Nixon supported the Southeast
Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and Eisenhower and Secretary of State
John Foster Dulles called for "United Action" in Vietnam, which meant
that the U.S. and allies (Great Britain, France, New Zealand, Australia,
Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Laos) would unite to intervene
in Vietnam. But Eisenhower used that as an excuse to deny the French
request that the U.S. "intervene immediately and unilaterally in
Vietnam", for "Eisenhower insisted that he would not go in without
allies" (Ambrose on page 343). Eisenhower sought congressional
approval for a resolution that would grant him the authority "to use
American air and sea power in Vietnam" (page 343), but he did not get
it, for politicians did not want another Korea. And, according to
Ambrose, Eisenhower knew that he would not get it.
the French were struggling in Dien Bien Phu, which had a significant
amount of the French garrison and thus was an important site in terms of
the French retaining control of Vietnam, Operation Vulture was
organized, and it would entail air-strikes. But there was confusion
about what kind of bombs would be dropped----atomic or
conventional----plus Eisenhower insisted that he needed congressional
approval before he could launch an air-strike. Dien Bien Phu fell to
the Communists on May 7, 1954.
When Nixon was asked when he
appeared before the American Society of Newspaper Editors if he believed
in sending American troops to Vietnam if the French left, Nixon replied
that he would personally support that, as unpopular as it might be. And
yet, Nixon overall favored relying on air strikes and a naval blockade
rather than ground troops. He did not favor using atomic weapons, but
he wanted the Communists to think that such was a possibility. He
supported finding someone who could be an effective anti-communist
Vietnamese leader, "treating the Vietnamese as partners" rather than
clients (and Nixon had a problem with France's patronizing treatment of
Vietnam), strengthening the Vietnamese economy, and the
President persuading the American people that U.S. engagement in Vietnam
was the right thing to do (Ambrose on page 347). Ambrose states that
Eisenhower did not implement this program, but Nixon implemented parts
of it when he himself was President.
But Eisenhower was still doing something, according to this September 7, 2012 New York Times article:
"By 1959, Viet Minh soldiers were infiltrating the South and escalating
the violence in South Vietnam. When Eisenhower left office, there were
about 1,000 American 'advisers' (almost all of them military men), with
many more to come." Kennedy, however, increased that number, as this article indicates:
"When Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, there were more than
16,000 U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam..."
Eisenhower reluctant to get the U.S. involved in Vietnam? You may
recall that, in my last post on Ambrose's book, I referred to
Vice-President Nixon's speech in which he defended Eisenhower's foreign
policy, even though Nixon was much more hawkish than Eisenhower: Nixon
in defending Eisenhower said that the Communists want to draw the U.S.
into as many conflicts as possible to push the U.S. into bankruptcy.
Perhaps, as a former general and as one whose country had recently
experienced war and conflict, Eisenhower was sensitive to the human and
financial toll that war could take.