The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, Part II: 1961-1964

The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, Part II: 1961-1964

by William Conrad Gibbons


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This searching analysis of what has been called America's longest war" was commissioned by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to achieve an improved understanding of American participation in the conflict. Part II covers the period from Kennedy's inauguration through Johnson's first year in office.

Originally published in 1986.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691610382
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #459
Pages: 440
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War

Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships Part I: 1945-1960

By William Conrad Gibbons


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07715-4



This chronicle of the U.S. Government and the Vietnam war begins in 1945 with the end of World War II and concludes in 1975 with the helicopter evacuation of remaining American personnel from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

For most Members of Congress, "Indochina," as the area comprising Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was called in 1945, was a small, distant, insignificant place of little interest to the United States. It is even doubtful whether any Member of the 79th Congress sitting in 1945 had ever been to Indochina or had any direct knowledge of its peoples and cultures. But this was not unusual. The State Department itself, in part because the area had been a French colony, had only a handful of staff who were knowledgeable on the subject.

For one future Member of Congress, however, the impressions created by a visit to Vietnam in 1945 were unforgettable. In a letter to his parents, Navy Lt. Mark 0. Hatfield, later a leader in Senate opposition to the war, described his feelings when his ship anchored at Haiphong:

It was sickening to see the absolute poverty and the rags these people are in. We thought the Philippines were in a bad way, but they are wealthy compared to these exploited people. The Philippines were in better shape before the war, but the people here have never known anything but squalor since the French heel has been on them ... I tell you, it is a crime the way we occidentals have enslaved these people in our mad desire for money. The French seem to be the worst and are followed pretty closely by the Dutch and the English. I can certainly see why these people don't want us to return and continue to spit upon them.

Thirty-five years later Senator Hatfield reflected again on this experience:

One of the most impressive things was to come into that Haiphong port in an early morning hour when the rising sun was reflecting on the colored tiles of the casino that was on a hilltop overlooking the harbor — sort of the Monte Carlo of Southeast Asia prior to the war — and to see, as we landed, the poverty and the absolute deprivation of the people living in squalid huts at the base of that hill. Here you had the casino, symbolic of the western colonial world, and the poverty of the people themselves, which sharpened the contrast for me between the oppression of colonialism, or occupation, or whatever, and what was emerging as a new spirit of identity for these people. It was going to be independent of any western power, France, America or any other.

When World War II ended in August 1945, the nationalist feelings observed a few weeks later by Mark Hatfield began to be expressed throughout Indochina. In Vietnam, the League for the Independence of Vietnam, popularly known as the Viet Minh, had become the dominant political force. Claiming full leadership, it had taken political control of much of the country after Japan surrendered. On August 26, 1945, Emperor Bao Dai abdicated in favor of the Viet Minh and its leader Ho Chi Minh, having told both the French and the Americans of the deep desire of the Vietnamese for their independence, as well as having warned the two Western powers of the consequences if the French returned. In a message in mid-August of 1945 to General Charles de Gaulle, Bao Dai said, addressing himself to the French people:

You would understand better if you could see what is happening here, if you could sense the desire for independence which runs to the bottom of every heart and which no human force can curb. Even if you should manage to reestablish a French administration here, it would no longer be obeyed; each village would become a nest of resistance, each former collaborator an enemy and your officials and your colonials themselves would demand to leave this asphyxiating atmosphere. ... We could so easily understand each other and become friends if you would drop this claim to become our masters again.

On August 20, 1945, when de Gaulle was about to meet with President Harry S Truman in Washington, Bao Dai sent a similar message to Truman, saying, in part:

... we are opposed with all our forces to the reestablishment of French sovereignty over the territory of Vietnam under whatever regime it would be. The colonial regime no longer conforms to the present course of history. A people such as the Vietnamese people who have a two-thousand year old history and a glorious past cannot accept remaining under the domination of another people. The French people must yield to the principle of equity which the powerful American nation has proclaimed and defends. France must recognize this with good grace in order to avoid the disaster of a war breaking out on the territory of our country.

When de Gaulle conferred with Truman, however, he was told that the U.S. "offers no opposition to the return of the French Army and authority in Indochina."

On September 2, 1945, the Viet Minh declared the independence of Vietnam in a document which began with these words:

All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

Bao Dai's prophetic warnings were soon confirmed. During September 1945 French forces began reentering Vietnam, and on September 23 they staged a coup d'etat in Saigon. Violence erupted, and on September 25, 1945, an American was killed by Vietnamese forces resisting the return of the French. He was A. Peter Dewey, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, and the head of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency) team in Saigon. The irony is that he was known for having established close relationships with nationalist leaders. The further irony is that he, the first uniformed American to die in a war in which Congress was to play such a prominent role, was the son of a former Member of Congress, Charles S. Dewey, an isolationist Republican from Illinois (and a well-known international banker). (Lt. Col. Dewey was also the nephew of Thomas E. Dewey, Governor of New York, and Republican nominee for President in 1948.)

On October 1, 1945, several Members of the House of Representatives eulogized Lt. Col. Dewey. Of particular interest, looking back, were the comments of Representative Harold Knutson (R/Minn.), who said that the shot that killed Dewey "... may, in a sense, be another shot 'heard round the world' in awakening the American people to the necessity of deciding how far we as a Nation are going to support with military forces the colonial policies of other nations. If the death of valiant Peter Dewey ... may result in saving the lives of many other American boys, his sacrifice may not have been in vain."

The reactions of Representative Knutson and of Mark Hatfield reflected the strong public and congressional opposition to colonialism that prevailed at the time. Typical of this attitude was the position of Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg (R/Mich.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and the foremost Republican supporter of a bipartisan foreign policy after World War II. In a major speech in the Senate on January 10, 1945, as well as subsequently during his role as a member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Conference in San Francisco, Vandenberg emphasized the importance of having a "just peace," in which the rights of small nations would be protected. He was concerned both about the occupation by Russia of the countries of Eastern Europe and the fate of Western European colonies. He was fearful that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was beginning to compromise the principles of the Atlantic Charter, especially the principle in paragraph 3 of the charter recognizing "the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live." He urged the President to stand fast. "These basic points," he said in his speech, "cannot now be dismissed as a mere nautical nimbus. They march with our armies. They sail with our fleets. They fly with our eagles. They sleep with our martyred dead. The first requisite of honest candor ... is to re-light this torch."

For many Americans, India was the colony that symbolized colonialism. But it was also the keystone of the British Empire, and American suggestions that it be given its independence after the war invariably evoked strong protests from the British. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who said that he had not "become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire," declared repeatedly that the reference in the Atlantic Charter to people's freedom to choose their form of government referred only to European countries freed from Nazi rule, and did not apply to colonies such as India. When Roosevelt specifically mentioned the problem of India, Churchill, according to his memoirs, "reacted so strongly and at such length that he [Roosevelt] never raised it verbally again."

The British were also opposed to suggestions for lessening control over other colonies, such as Indochina, because of the possible effect on their own Empire. At the Tehran Conference in 1943, Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek both approved Roosevelt's proposal for a trusteeship for Indochina, but Churchill was vehemently against the idea. Roosevelt said he told Churchill that Chiang Kai-shek did not want either to assume control over Indochina or to be given responsibility for administering a trusteeship in Indochina. Churchill, he said, replied, "Nonsense," to which Roosevelt retorted, "Winston, this is something which you are just not able to understand. You have 400 years of acquisitive instinct in your blood and you just do not understand how a country might not want to acquire land somewhere if they can get it. A new period has opened in the world's history, and you will have to adjust to it." "The British," Roosevelt said in 1944, in recounting this episode, "would take land anywhere in the world even if it were only a rock or a sand bar."

In Congress, there was strong opposition to colonialism, and widespread support for the independence of India in particular. At an executive session (closed to the public and press) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 1, 1943, the U.S. Ambassador to India, William Phillips, testified that India's demands for independence posed serious problems for the allies in the war as well as for the postwar period. This was Senator Vandenberg's entry in his diary:

Senator [Robert M.] La Follette bluntly said to Phillips that the fate of India is no longer Britain's own exclusive business, since our American boys are supposed to die there for Allied victory, and that F.D.R. should tell Churchill that he either yields to a reasonable settlement of the Indian independence question ... or that American troops will be withdrawn from that sector. Phillips substantially agreed and, to our amazement, said he had told F.D.R. that precise thing. All of which moved Senator [Tom] Connally to say that he himself had told the President that he ought to "turn the heat" on Churchill; that we ought to be "giving" instead of "taking" orders. It was clear from Phillips' testimony that India is "dynamite" — and that its destiny will be a bone of contention at the peace table.

On the other hand, there was growing concern in the executive branch and in Congress about the need for avoiding any postwar international territorial arrangements that would threaten U.S. base rights in the Mariana, Caroline, and Marshall islands which had been governed by the Japanese under mandates from the League of Nations, and were being taken during the war by U.S. forces. The argument was that in order to acquire bases in the Pacific necessary for future U.S. security these islands had to be either annexed or controlled completely by the United States.

Within the executive branch, there was solid support among civilian as well as uniformed authorities for protecting U.S. base rights in the mandated islands. The Navy was the strongest proponent, and in a discussion with one of his advisers Roosevelt asked, "What is the Navy's attitude in regard to territories? Are they trying to grab everything?" The adviser, Charles W. Taussig, replied that the Navy "did not seem to have much confidence in civilian controls," and that "the military had no confidence" in the U.N. He told the President of one admiral's letter to the Secretary of the Navy urging that the Navy be represented at the San Francisco Conference "to protect themselves against 'the international welfare boys.'"

Beginning in 1944, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and all of the service secretaries, led by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox (and subsequently James A. Forrestal), strongly opposed State Department plans for an international trusteeship system. This, they argued, could prevent the U.S. from obtaining the kind of control over the Pacific islands which it needed, as well as weakening the strategic position of the Western powers in other areas of Asia and the world.

In Congress, this position was strongly supported by the naval affairs committees in the House and Senate. The Senate committee, chaired by Harry F. Byrd (D/Va.), even traveled to San Francisco to confer with U.S. representatives to the U.N. Conference in order to make sure that U.S. naval base rights in the Pacific were adequately protected. Although the House was not directly involved in approving the U.N. Treaty, its naval affairs committee became very concerned about the effect of the U.N. on U.S. bases, and on January 23, 1945, established an investigative subcommittee to pursue the matter. Members of the House committee also toured the Pacific in July 1945, and in a report on August 6 the committee recommended, among other things:

For (a) our own security, (b) the security of the Western Hemisphere, and (c) the peace of the Pacific, the United States should have at least dominating control over the former Japanese mandated islands of the Marshalls, the Carolines, and the Marianas — commonly known as "Micronesia"— and over the outlying Japanese islands of the Izus, Bonins, and Ryukyu.

The opposition of the British on the one hand and the U.S. military on the other created a serious political and policy problem for the President and his foreign policy advisers as well as the foreign policy committees (Senate Foreign Relations, House Foreign Affairs) of Congress. This was compounded by the fact that, as Secretary of State Cordell Hull maintained, U.S. acquisition of the mandated islands would be grounds for similar claims by the U.S.S.R. And, indeed, the Russians subsequently asked for U.S. approval of a Russian trusteeship for one or more former Italian colonies in North Africa.

The solution to this problem, which was the omission of specific provisions in the U.N. Charter for the future of dependent territories such as India and Indochina, weakened the position of the U.S. in relation to dependent peoples, and, of course, worked directly against efforts to place Indochina under some kind of international trusteeship after the war. On the other hand, it may also have strengthened the postwar international security system, as well as regional security arrangements, especially NATO.

It is important to note that Congress played a double-edged role in these decisions. On the one hand, the military committees of Congress, by supporting the acquisition of Pacific islands for U.S. bases, helped to force the President and the State Department to take a position in the drafting of the U.N. Charter that favored the European powers, and made it more difficult for the U.S. to deal with the French on Indochina or the British on India or the Dutch on Indonesia.

On the other hand, the foreign policy committees of Congress, while generally favoring independence and self-determination for colonial territories, failed to anticipate adequately or to grapple with the postwar consequences of instability in the colonies. Rather, they tended to accept the compromises being made in the executive branch, and to yield to the concerns of the naval affairs committees about base rights. In part, this resulted from their preoccupation, especially in the Senate, with approval of the U.N. Treaty. They were keenly aware, as was Secretary of State Hull, a former Member of Congress, that the treaty could be threatened by the issue of military bases, and in their efforts to obtain maximum support for the U.N., and to neutralize major opposition, they tried to work out an accommodation on this point. In larger part, however, the foreign policy committees of Congress supported the position finally worked out in the executive branch, first, because they considered it to be the only practicable and workable compromise, and, second, because they were participating hand and glove with the executive branch on the development of the U.N., and therefore tended to support both the process and its results. This had the effect, however, of reducing the legislative choices of the foreign policy committees, as well as causing the "loyal opposition" party to be more loyal and less opposite.


Excerpted from The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War by William Conrad Gibbons. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • PREFACE, pg. vii
  • CONTENTS, pg. xi
  • MAP: Vietnam after the 1954 Geneva Conference, pg. xiii
  • APPENDIX: Legal Commentary and Judicial Opinions on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, pg. 403
  • INDEX, pg. 413

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