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C H A P T E R O N E
To understand Kennedy's war and the aftermath it is necessary to attend to the thinking that lay behind the policy choices. Kennedy planners adopted doctrines already established. Too much independence ("radical nationalism") is not acceptable; the "rotten apple" effect of possible success enhances the need to eliminate the "infection" before it spreads. The Indochina wars are only a special case, which happened to get out of hand. In this general context, independent nationalism was unthinkable, and was never seriously entertained as an option.
By 1948 Washington planners recognized that the nationalist movement was led by Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Ho was eager to cooperate with the United States, but not on the required terms of subordination. Furthermore, top policymakers feared, Vietnamese independence might fan "anti-Western Pan-Asiatic tendencies in the region," undermining the "close association between newly-autonomous peoples and powers which have been long responsible [for] their welfare"; in Indochina, the responsible authority was France, whose tender care had left the countries devastated and starving. Chinese influence, in contrast, must be excluded "so that the peoples of Indochina will not be hampered in their natural developments by the pressure of an alien people and alien interests"; unlike the US and France.
The US right to restore the "close association" is axiomatic. It follows that any problems that arise can be attributed to illegitimate nationalist aspirations. On these assumptions, the CIA warned in September 1948 that "The gravest danger to the US is that friction engendered by [anticolonialism and economic nationalism] may drive the so-called colonial bloc into alignment with the USSR": Third World nationalism is the cause of the "friction," not imperial concerns. The traditional "colonial economic interests" of the industrial countries must prevail if "friction" interferes with US global plans. Southeast Asia would have to remain under "its traditional subordination," Melvyn Leffler observes, reviewing a broad scholarly consensus.1
The major concern was Japan, the "superdomino" (John Dower). Internally, the old order had to be restored and Japan protected from what the State Department called the "concealed aggression" of the Russians, referring to internal political developments that might threaten business rule. And Japan had to be deterred from independent foreign and economic policies, from "the suicide of neutralism" (General Omar Bradley) and accommodation to China. The only hope for achieving these goals, George Kennan argued, lay in restoring for Japan "some sort of Empire toward the South." In effect, the US must provide Japan with its wartime "co-prosperity sphere," now safely within the US-dominated world system, with no fear that US business interests would be denied their proper place.2
The guiding concerns are articulated in the public record as well. Outlining the "falling dominoes" theory in a news conference on April 7, 1954, President Eisenhower warned that Japan would have to turn "toward the Communist areas in order to live" if Communist success in Indochina "takes away, in its economic aspects, that region that Japan must have as a trading area." The consequences would be "just incalculable to the free world." Walter LaFeber observed in 1968 that "This thesis became a controlling assumption: the loss of Vietnam would mean the economic undermining and probable loss of Japan to Communist markets and ultimately to Communist influence if not control." Eisenhower's public statements expressed the conclusion of NSC 5405 (January 16) that "the loss of Southeast Asia, especially of Malaya and Indonesia, could result in such economic and political pressures in Japan as to make it extremely difficult to prevent Japan's eventual accommodation to communism." Communist domination of Southeast Asia "by whatever means" would "critically endanger" US "security interests," understood in the usual sense. The "loss of Vietnam" would therefore be of great significance; that it is ours to "lose" is again axiomatic.3
Given such doctrines, it is clear why the diplomatic settlement at the 1954 Geneva conference was regarded as a disaster. Washington reacted vigorously. A few days after the accords were signed, the National Security Council decreed that even in the case of "local Communist subversion or rebellion not constituting armed attack," the US would consider the use of military force, including an attack on China if it is "determined to be the source" of the "subversion" (NSC 5429/2; my emphasis).
This wording, repeated verbatim annually through the 1950s in planning documents, was chosen so as to make explicit the US right to violate the basic principles of the UN Charter, which bar any threat or use of force except in resistance to "armed attack" (until the UN Security Council acts). The same document called for remilitarizing Japan, converting Thailand into "the focal point of U.S. covert and psychological operations in Southeast Asia," undertaking "covert operations on a large and effective scale" throughout Indochina, and in every possible way undermining the Geneva accords.
This critically important document is grossly falsified by the Pentagon Papers historians, and has largely disappeared from history.4
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1 Leffler, Preponderance, 166, 258. FRS, 32-3. See 501, ch. 2.12.
2 Leffler, 334, 463, 17, 339; also 468f. Cumings, Origins, 57. See references of 501, ch. 2, n. 16.
3 PP, I 597, 434f. AWWA, 33f.
4 FRS, 100ff.; Kahin, Intervention, 74.