Why did 58k Americans die in the Vietnam War, and 3 million Vietnamese? ‘Embers of War’

The thesis of Fredrik Logevall’s Pulitzer Prize winning history, “Embers of War,” is that the die for the tragedy of the American war in Vietnam had been decisively cast in the two decades preceding 1965, the year in which occurred the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the deployment of large units of American troops to Vietnam, and the start of the American bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

The cast of characters responsible for the tragedy includes many commonly thought of as heroes. Charles de Gaulle, who saved the honor of France in World War II, asserted that nation’s right to reclaim its colonial empire, including particularly the jewel in that crown, French Indochina. Winston Churchill, credited with saving Western civilization from the Nazis, was a British imperialist who supported French colonial aspirations as he labored unsuccessfully to cling to the crumbling British Empire.

American president Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed both British imperialism and French colonialism, and was determined that the French in particular should not be allowed to reassert their colonial administration in Indochina after the defeat of Japan in World War II. Unfortunately when Roosevelt died in 1945 he was succeeded as president by Harry S. Truman who lacked Roosevelt’s broader historical understanding and international perspective.

Truman focused exclusively on winning the war against Germany and Japan, and was unconcerned about French aspirations for a colonial restoration in Indochina. Professor Logevall speculates that had Roosevelt lived, the whole ugly history of the French Indochina war and the American Vietnam war might have been avoided.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Instead the French were able to insert military forces back into Indochina with the assistance of the British and the United States, despite the rise of a popular Vietnamese independence movement led by Ho Chi Minh and other intellectuals inspired by the French, American and Russian revolutions.

France was dismissive of the untested Vietnamese independence movement, but efforts at suppression triggered violent resistance. America under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower supported and supplied the French in their colonial war in the name of resistance to communism which had triumphed in China and fought the U.S. to a standstill in Korea. President Eisenhower’s intention to shore up French colonialism with direct U.S. military intervention in Indochina was prevented only by the refusal of Britain, Australia and New Zealand to provide political cover by joining in the intervention.

French delusions of victory were shattered by rising casualties from the Vietnamese insurgency, even before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the first time Asian troops destroyed a European army in fixed battle. That defeat made a prompt French withdrawal from Indochina inevitable.

Would Vietnam now be allowed to become independent? France was willing and anxious to withdraw completely, and agreed to national elections in Vietnam that everyone in the world including U.S. diplomats knew Ho Chi Minh and his nationalist/communist movement would win.

U.S. diplomacy at the Geneva talks to end the war succeeded in postponing the elections until 1956. Until then French forces would withdraw from north of the 17th parallel, and Viet Minh forces from south of that parallel. The U.S. then proceeded unilaterally to embrace and prop up the puppet regime the French had established in Vietnam in a vain effort to shed the opprobrium of being foreign colonizers.

The U.S. under President Eisenhower encouraged the leader of that government in south Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, to refuse to participate in the national elections scheduled for 1956. The U.S. then poured in money and personnel to create the impression that the government in south Vietnam had popular support sufficient to sustain itself.

The Republican president Eisenhower gained bi-partisan support in his effort to create an anti-communist South Vietnam from Montana Senator Mike Mansfield, who was a Democrat, had taught Asian history, and was regarded as an Asia expert. Mansfield went on to be regarded as a senior statesman and U.S. ambassador to Japan, his role as cheerleader and enabler for U.S. intervention in Vietnam conveniently forgotten.

U.S. diplomats warned that Diem was an autocratic leader of South Vietnam incapable of rallying popular support, and in fact provoking rebellion in the south through his repression and provocations. Logevall’s research shows neither Russia nor China wanted war in Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh’s government in the north was itself divided on whether to support the rebellion in the south triggered by Diem’s repression.

When the Kennedy administration finally decided in 1963 that Diem had to go and authorized his overthrow and murder, there was no junior varsity available to carry on the fight, and a succession of military coups followed until the U.S. finally settled on a general it was willing to support.

The U.S. then repeated every mistake of the French, refusing to see themselves as imperialists, failing to understand the communists as nationalists, failing to understand popular support for the Vietnamese nationalist movement, and failing to accept even after it became obvious, that international communism was in fact sharply divided, which gave the U.S. opportunities which could have been exploited, as demonstrated by Vietnam’s independence from both China and Russia today.

Domestic politics in the U.S., as in France, kept the war going long after it became obvious that victory was unattainable. No government or party wanted to be responsible for “losing” the war in Indochina. Those already dead could not be allowed to have died in vain. The treasure spent on the war could not be allowed to be viewed as having been wasted.

That’s why 58,000 young Americans died in Vietnam; and 3 million Vietnamese. Is there a lesson to be learned from this?

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal