By: Dwight Eisenhower
Date: October 23, 1954
Source: Eisenhower, Dwight. Letter to Ngo Din Diem. October 23, 1954. Available online at http://www.fordham.edu/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?94827,12175; website home page: http://www.fordham.edu (accessed June 18, 2003).
About the Author: Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) graduated from West Point in 1915. By 1940, he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. With the eruption of World War II (1939–1945), he swiftly advanced to four-star general in 1943. That same year, he received the assignment to lead one of the largest military campaigns in world history: the D day invasion of June 6, 1944. After the war, he went into politics and served as the thirty-fourth U.S. president from 1953 to 1961.
On August 15, 1945, the same day that Japan surrendered to the United States, ending World War II, Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh issued a "Declaration of Vietnamese Independence." Ho approached the United States for assistance in ousting French imperialists. President Harry Truman (served 1945–1953) ignored Ho's request and instead supported the reinstallation of French colonial rulers following the removal of Japanese forces in Indochina. This decision began U.S. involvement in the conflict that came be known as the Vietnam War (1964–1975).
Between 1945 and 1954, the French battled to regain control over their former colony. A February 1950 National Security Council report emphasized that preventing the further spread of communism was crucial to U.S. security and that Indochina was "a key area of Southeast Asia" that was "under immediate threat."
During this period, presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower (served 1953–1961) began to assume greater economic responsibility for France's fight, providing about $2.5 billion to help France defeat Ho's communist forces, which were based primarily in the northern half of Vietnam. The same Cold War mentality that led to U.S. intervention in the Korean War (1950–1953) led to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Just as Truman and Eisenhower viewed the communist takeover of Korea as a threat to U.S. national security, they concluded that the same possibility existed if communists gained control of Vietnam.
By 1953, the United States paid roughly 80 percent of the French war effort. The United States had also begun to strengthen its ties with the French-installed Vietnamese leadership in the South, which had been created to compete against Ho's government in the North. When French forces were finally defeated in 1954, Eisenhower offered the "falling domino principle" to justify the necessity of further American intervention. This theory held that if one nation fell to communism, then its neighbors would automatically do likewise, eventually leading to a direct assault on the United States. The president's adherence to this ideology would lead to his refusal to support the Geneva Accords in 1954, which provided for a peaceful settlement to the Vietnam War.
The Final Declaration of the Geneva Conference presented an agreement reached by the diplomats representing France and North Vietnam, whose forces had defeated the French. The accords called for a temporary partition of Vietnam along the seventeenth parallel. In two years, elections would be held to unify the entire country under a single national government. Although representatives of other nations, including the United States and South Vietnam, attended the conference, they did not sign the final accords.
President Eisenhower's letter to Ngo Dinh Diem, whom the United States had recently installed as president of South Vietnam, revealed that he strongly opposed the terms of the Geneva agreement. Moreover, Eisenhower revealed that the United States supported the formation of a permanent state in the southern half of Vietnam. Arguing that the communists had infiltrated Vietnam and attempted to subvert the democratic process there, Eisenhower declared that the United States would not support elections involving the northern half of Vietnam. American intelligence had concluded by 1956 that Ho would receive well over a majority of the vote in the national election required by the Geneva Accords. Although the president concluded his letter with an admonition to "any who might wish to impose a foreign ideology on your free people," many historians would later conclude that the United States and the Eisenhower administration had attempted to do just that with their support of Diem's puppet regime.
Primary Source: Letter to Ngo Dinh Diem
SYNOPSIS: This letter provides crucial insight into the origins of U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. Years before the first U.S. military personnel arrived in Vietnam at the end of the Eisenhower administration, U.S. officials had begun significant investments in the prevention of a communist-governed Vietnam. President Eisenhower's decision to take over France's role in supporting a noncommunist regime in the South greatly increased U.S. involvement in the conflict.
Dear Mr. President:
I have been following with great interest the course of developments in Viet-Nam, particularly since the conclusion of the conference at Geneva. The implications of the agreement concerning Viet-Nam have caused grave concern regarding the future of a country temporarily divided by an artificial military grouping, weakened by a long and exhausting war and faced with enemies without and by their subversive collaborators within.
Your recent requests for aid to assist in the formidable project of the movement of several hundred thousand loyal Vietnamese citizens away from areas which are passing under a de facto rule and political ideology which they abhor, are being fulfilled. I am glad that the United States is able to assist in this humanitarian effort.
We have been exploring ways and means to permit our aid to Viet-Nam to be more effective and to make a greater contribution to the welfare and stability of the Government of Viet-Nam. I am, accordingly, instructing the American Ambassador to Viet-Nam to examine with you in your capacity as Chief of Government, bow an intelligent program of American aid given directly to your Government can serve to assist Viet-Nam in its present hour of trial, provided that your Government is prepared to give assurances as to the standards of performance it would be able to maintain in the event such aid were supplied.
The purpose of this offer is to assist the Government of Viet-Nam in developing and maintaining a strong, viable state, capable of resisting attempted subversion or aggression through military means. The Government of the United States expects that this aid will be met by performance on the part of the Government of Viet-Nam in undertaking needed reforms. It hopes that such aid, combined with your own continuing efforts, will contribute effectively toward an independent Viet-Nam endowed with a strong government. Such a government would, I hope, be so responsive to the nationalist aspirations of its people, so enlightened in purpose and effective in performance, that it will be respected both at home and abroad and discourage any who might wish to impose a foreign ideology on your free people.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Ambrose, Stephen E. Eisenhower: The President. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
Gettleman, Marvin E., ed. Vietnam and America: A Documented History, 2nd ed. New York: Grove, 1995.
Greene, Graham. The Quiet American: Text and Criticism. John Clark Pratt, ed. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Leffler, Melvyn P. The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917–1953. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
AUDIO AND VISUAL MEDIA
Vietnam: A Television History. American Experience, Public Broadcasting Service, 1983, VHS.