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.
The French 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.
When 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…”
Why was 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.