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Saturday, 13 September 2008

The failure of the United States diplomacy in Vietnam – 1954-1968

[The Vietnam War was the longest U.S. involvement in any major military campaign. It lasted from 1959 - 1973. In this article, I will only discuss on the diplomatic solution implemented by the U.S. leaders and military brass in Vietnam and the reason why it failed thus escalate the war to the point of no return. Please take note that the Vietnam war lasted until 1973 - Richard Nixon ended it through his triangular diplomacy in 1973]

By: Ahmad Syah Ejaz Bin Hj. Ismail

President Johnson crying over the American losses reported by his son serving in Vietnam


The United States involvement in Vietnam was started after the Geneva Accords signed by France and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in July 1954 which stipulated the partitioning of the greater Vietnam along the 17th Parallel. The Vietnam conflict was known as the longest United States involvement in Southeast Asia. The direct involvement only brought to an end by Richard Nixon - triangular diplomacy by the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords nineteenth years later.

The war was started as the best of United States intention to contain communism in Asia thus exporting its democratic principles based on progress and free trade. This involvement to contain the [1]Domino Theory were later thought to be valid by Lee Kuan Yew which according to him, in the immediate post war era, communism still possessed substantial ideological dynamism and a demonstration of communist economic miss-management was another generation away. With the launching of the [2]Sputnik satellite in 1957 by the Soviets, many in the democracies especially in the newly independent countries like Vietnam considered the communist world to be poised to surpass the capitalist world in industrial capacity.

The United States interest in Vietnam

The United States entered the conflict with full confidence. It was at the best of its height of political power. The United States whom sponsored development program that rehabilitated Europe through Marshall Plan also managed to restore Japan significance as world economic power in Asia. To add up to it’s confident in leading the newly independence nations, America managed to face down Communist expansionism in Greece, Turkey, Berlin, and managed to contain communism in Korean peninsular. As such, America had entered into its first peacetime alliances that launched a program of technical assistance to the developing world and this effort was brought to its height by the idealistic John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s.

What did actually went wrong for the United States involvement in Vietnam are still being debated among the international relations scholars today. Looking back at the previous statement on America might and its confidence, it was impossible for the United States to fail in its containment policy in Vietnam. Plus in the year of 1954, the Soviet Union was not prepared for another direct conflict with the United States so soon after the death of Stalin’s. The Soviet Union had insignificance interests in Southeast Asia. Another United States foe in the east - China feared another war with the Americans less than a year after the end of the Korean War.

The United States had tried numerous tactics to fight the communist in Vietnam. They start the containment policy in Vietnam by sending off the [3]1,500 technical assistance and [4]1 billions dollars to the South Vietnamese government in 1959. Later at the height of the conflicts, Lyndon B. Johnson sends the [5]525, 000 young Americans to engage a deadly struggle against the communist in 1968, all of the strategy failed to yield a promising result far off ending the conflict on the American side.

Early in the 1950s in Southeast Asia, the concept of statehood and nation sovereignty were just emerging. Malaya and Indonesia had just gained independence from the British and Dutch respectively and the concept of the balance of power between Soviet Union and the United States was still foreign to these newly independence states. There was no precedent of cooperation among the existing states. In Indochina, the case for containment policy of the West was initially drawn in almost exclusively geopolitical terms, making it all the more difficult to incorporate into the prevailing American ideology. American democracies were something that cannot be understood by the newly emerging leaders of the Southeast Asian states especially the former French occupied Vietnam.

The failure of France diplomacy in Vietnam

For the French government, the Vietnam conflict was beyond political reform. Its forces in Indochina were trapped in a frustrating independence war waged by the communist through guerrilla tactics which they had no experience whatsoever. The French forces always knew that in a conventional war with established front lines, superior firepower usually does promise a victory. But by contrast in Vietnam, a guerrilla war is generally not fought from fixed positions; it was however fought by the bandit which hides among the civilian population. The stark differences between a conventional war and the guerrilla war are; (1) The control of ones territory; and (2) The security of the populations.

Guerrilla war

Since the guerrilla army is not tied to the defence of any particular territory and are not bound to any military protocol and civil law, it is in an advantage position to determine the field of a battle to a considerable extent and to regulate the casualties of both sides. As such, the situation in Malayan Emergency 1948-1960 was a testament to the above statement where the ambush of the security forces by the bandits were rampant and casualties for the security forces were high compared to the casualties suffered by whole insurgents of Malayan Communist Party during the whole 1st Malayan Emergency. [6]During the span of 1948- 1960 in Malayan Emergency, a number of [7]12,818 casualties were counted on the Communist terrorist while security forces suffered a heavy [8]8,850 casualties, the civilians on the other hand suffered [9]4,668 casualties.

According to Henry Kissinger, in a conventional war, a success rate in battle of 75 percent would guarantee victory. In a guerrilla war, protecting the population only 75 percent of the time would only ensure defeat. One hundred percent security in 75 percent of the country is better than 75 percent security in 100 percent of the country. If defending forces cannot bring about nearly perfect security for the population – at least in the area they consider essential the guerrilla is bound to win sooner or later.

The guerrilla army wins as long as it can keep its movement from losing; meanwhile the conventional army is bound to lose unless it wins decisively. Stalemate never occurs. Any country which engage in a guerrilla war must be prepared for a long struggle as such that were experienced by the British in Malaya which took them 13 years to end the first emergency (1948-1960). The guerrilla army can continue its hit and run tactics for a long period even with its decreasing numbers. A clear cut victory is very rare which push the government in power to install a modern and efficient spy network in order to keep up with the reforming guerrilla tactics waged upon by the bandits from time to time. The most notable examples of victory over guerrilla forces took place in Malaya and Greece, where the defending forces succeeded because the guerrillas were cut off from outside supply sources (in Malaya by geography, in Greece due to Tito’s break with Moscow).

Neither the French nor the United States ever understood the art of dealing with communist guerrilla. Both nations previously in their long history of modern warfare had involved into Vietnam which they had been long trained and equipped by a conventional warfare based on nation boundaries and state actors involvement. In Vietnam, both countries saw that strategy turned against them by an enemy who fought for their native soil that could exhaust them with their [enemy] patience and generate domestic pressures to end the conflict. The French learned the hard way to understand guerrilla warfare in Dien Bien Phu where casualties for the security forces kept mounting while criteria to define progress remained ambiguous.

France conceded defeat more quickly than America, because its armed forces were spread more thinly in their effort to hold all of Vietnam with a third of the forces America would eventually commit to defend half of the country. Whenever it concentrated its forces around population centres, the communist backed by the North Vietnam Army would dominate most of the countryside. While when it attempted to move out of to protect the countryside, the communist would attack the towns and the forts defended by the French elite forces one by one. The North Vietnamese all-out attack on Dien Bien Phu on March 13, 1954 consequently had put the French tactics on defensive mode and reduced its options to irrelevance and defeat. Later the guerrilla tactics had bled the French white in their resources and the will for a counter offensive.

The failure of America diplomacy in Vietnam

After the 1954 Geneva Accords, everything depended on whether the new emerging states of South Vietnam could be turned into a fully functioning nation based on the Western concept of democratic elected representatives. None of them [the North of South Vietnam] had ever been governed as a political entity within its own existing borders. The French had divided Vietnam into three regions – Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina – governed by Hanoi, Hue [Hue was the imperial capital], and Saigon respectively. The area around Saigon and the Mekong Delta had only been colonized by the Vietnamese relatively recently, during the nineteenth century, at about the same time the French arrived.

The existing authorities of South Vietnam consisted of a combination of French trained civil servants and a maze of secret societies. This secret societies inherited their long lasting tradition from their Chinese ancestors from Southern China known as sects which some had religious affiliations. The long tradition of feudal wars among the unique southern Chinese clan that need to support themselves and maintained their autonomous states/ power by shaking down the population through fear and reprisal later transpired into the community of the new Vietnamese government.

Confucianism in Vietnam

South Vietnam leader’s personality traits were compounded by the Confucian political tradition of Vietnam. Unlike democratic theory which views truth as emerging from a clash of ideas, Confucianism maintains the truth is objective and can only be discerned by assiduous study and education of which only a rare few are thought to be capable. Its quest for truth does not treat conflicting ideas as having equal merit, the way democratic theory does. Since there is only one truth, that which is not true can have no standing or be enhanced through competition. Confucianism is essentially hierarchical and elitist, emphasizing loyalty to family, institutions, and authority. None of the societies it has influenced has yet produced a functioning pluralistic system (with Taiwan in the 1990s coming to the closest).

In 1954, there was little foundation in South Vietnam for nationhood and even less for democracy. Yet neither America’s strategic assessment nor its belief that South Vietnam had to be saved by democratic reform took account of these realities. With the enthusiasm of the innocent, the Eisenhower Administration hurled itself headlong into the defence of South Vietnam against communist aggression and the task of nation building in the name of enabling a society whose culture was vastly different from America’s to maintain its newfound independence and to practice freedom in the American sense.

Ngo Dinh Diem

Ngo Dinh Diem, the new South Vietnamese leader was formerly the son of an official at the imperial court of Hue. Educated in Catholic schools and had for a few years served as an official in the colonial administration in Hanoi later resigned when the French refused to implement some of his proposed reforms. Diem spent the next two decades as a scholar in Vietnam or in exile abroad mostly in America which saw him rejecting offers from the Japanese, the communists, and the French supported Vietnamese leaders to participate in their various respective governments.

After the 1954 Geneva Accords, the United States discovered that Ngo Dinh Diem is the leader which they thought they could support. Diem had an immaculate record as a nationalist but unfortunately a devotion to democracy proved not to be his aim. According to Henry Kissinger, leaders of so called freedom movements are typically not democratic personalities. They sustain themselves through years of exile and prison with visions of the transformation they will bring about once they seize power. Humility is rarely one of their attributes and if it were, they would not be revolutionaries. Installing a government that makes its leaders dispensable is what the United States were thinking of doing which according to their beliefs were the essence of democracy which they later found as a contradiction in terms especially in Vietnam.

[10]John Foster Dulles had urged backing Ngo Dinh Diem on the ground that he was the only option available for democracy in South Vietnam. Against all expectation and with massive American intelligence support, Diem later suppressed the secret societies, stabilized the economy, and managed to established central control which considered by the American politician in the states as an astonishing achievements in shorter period of implementation. The future looks bright for democracy in Vietnam at the beginning of the American intervention.

Events soon revealed that the United States had been celebrating its success prematurely. America’s assumption that its own unique brand of democracy was readily exportable turned out to be misleading. In the Western world, political pluralism had thrived among cohesive societies where a strong social consensus had been in place long enough to permit tolerance for the opposition without threatening the survival of the state. But where a nation has yet to be created and as such in Vietnam at its inception, opposition for the government in power tend to appear as a threat to national existence, especially when there is no civil society to provide a safety net. In these conditions, the temptation is strong, often overwhelming, to equate opposition with treason and no one else could do it better then Diem in Vietnam.

By 1960, some [11]2,500 South Vietnamese officials were being assassinated every year. Only a small number of the most highly motivated and a much larger percentage of the most corrupt would run such risks. In the contest between nation building and chaos, between democracy and repression, the guerrilla enjoyed a huge advantage. Even if Diem had been a reformer on the American model, it is questionable whether he could have won the unequal race between the time scale needed for reform and the time scale sufficient to bring about chaos.

To be sure, even if his country had not been entangled in a guerrilla war, Diem would not have proven to be a significantly more democratic leader. Diem believes that as a model the Confucian ruler governing by virtue and not by consensus, he strived for legitimacy through the mandate of heaven and by success. Diem shunned any political opposition considering them as a threat to Vietnam and democracy, as have all Chinese style leaders from Beijing to Singapore and nearly all of the leaders of Southeast Asia facing much less severe domestic difficulties.

In the early 1960s, Diem’s achievements in a nation building obscured the lagging pace of democratic reform. However, as security within South Vietnam deteriorated, the latent conflicts between American values and South Vietnamese traditions were bound to deepen.

The final break point with Ngo Dinh Diem government was provoked by a conflict between the South Vietnamese Buddhists and Diem in 1963. Diem government had issued an edict prohibiting the flying of flags by sects, religious groups, or political parties. The Buddhist, who was as authoritarian as Diem in Vietnam, refused to state any terms with Diem. Ultimately, the issue was not democracy so much as power. Later, American had no other choice but to encourage a military coup launched by Diem army generals. By encouraging Diem’s overthrow, America cast its involvement in Vietnam in clear cut and in a concrete. Later, America understands that in every revolutionary war, it is all about governmental legitimacy and the guerrillas’ principal aim would try in every effort to undermining it.

Diem’s overthrow handed that objective to North Vietnam for free. As consequences of Diem’s feudal style of government, his removal affected every tier of civil administration down to the lowest rung - village level. Authority now had to be rebuilt from the bottom up. And history teaches this iron law of revolutions: the more the extensive the eradication of existing authority, the more its successors must rely on naked power to establish themselves. For in the end, legitimacy involves an acceptance of authority without coercion; its absence turns every contest into a test of strength. Prior to the Diem assassination, there had always existed at least a chance that American can still recoiled from an all out war - directly involved in military operations, much as Eisenhower had done when he pulled back from the brink over Dien Bien Phu nearly a decade earlier. Since the coup had been justified to facilitate a more effective prosecution of the war, withdrawal disappeared as a policy option.

Diem’s removal did not unify the people behind the military administration. The underpinning of pluralistic society is consensus on underlying values, which implicitly sets a limit to the claims of competing individuals or groups. In Vietnam, that consensus had been weak to begin with. The assassination of Diem government destroyed the structure that had been built up over a decade, leaving in its place a group of competing generals without political experience or political following – an exact experience of the past warlord clan in Southern China.

Guerrilla’s war

All of these tendencies later were magnified in a guerrilla war. For the guerrillas’ strategy is to undermine systematically whatever cohesion the governing institutions have managed to install. In Vietnam, guerrilla activity had never ceased and in 1959 it moved into a high gear. The guerrillas’ initial goal is to prevent the consolidation of stable and legitimate institutions. Their favourite’s targets are the worst and the best of government officials. They attack the worst in order to win popular sympathies by punishing corrupt or oppressive officials and they attack the best because it is the most effective way of preventing the government from achieving legitimacy and of discouraging an effective national service.

America went about the business of creating a Vietnamese army as a copy of their own. The American armed forces were geared to combat in Europe and their only experiences in the developing world had been in Korea, where their task had been to fight a conventional army crossing an internationally recognized border line amidst a generally supportive population. This situation were very similar to what military planners had anticipated would happen in Europe. But in Vietnam, the war lacked well-defined front lines; the enemy, supplied from Hanoi, defended nothing and attacked indiscriminately; they were at once everywhere and nowhere.

From the moment the American military strategist arrived in Vietnam, they began applying Americans familiar method of warfare – the war of attrition which relies heavily on firepower, mechanization, and mobility. All these methods were inapplicable to Vietnam conflict. The American trained South Vietnam army soon found itself in the same trap as France’s expeditionary force a decade earlier. Attrition works best against an adversary who has no choice except to defend a vital objective. But guerrillas rarely have an objective that they must defend. Mechanization and organization into divisions caused the Vietnamese army to become nearly irrelevant to the struggle for its own country.

If political reform was the chip that they lay to defeat guerrillas, their growing power mean that American recommendations were not being correctly applied, or that these recommendations were simply not relevant, at least at the stage of the struggle? And if Vietnam was indeed as important to the global balance as nearly all of America’s leaders were asserting, did it not mean that geopolitical necessities would, in the end, override all others and oblige America directly involve in an all out war in Vietnam – far away from the American cities.

Laos and Cambodia

Not until the very end of the Eisenhower Administration did Hanoi engaged the guerrilla war into high gear, and it would still be some time before the North Vietnamese were able to set up a logistics system for supplying a major guerrilla war. In order to accomplish this, they invaded a landlocked Laos, a small and neutral nation, through which they constructed what later became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Eisenhower considered the significance of Laos to repulse the Domino Theory that he was prepared to engage the communist with or without allies. Defending Laos was to be the most specific recommendation period prior to January 1961. Hanoi concluded that infiltration into South Vietnam via neutral Laos and Cambodia would involve fewer international penalties than an overt thrust across the 17th Parallel.

Even though the neutrality of Laos and Cambodia had been guaranteed by the Geneva Accords of 1954 and reaffirmed by the SEATO Treaty, Hanoi was militarily active in Laos’s jungle. In effect, it annexed the panhandle of sovereign Laos and established base areas both there and in Cambodia without significant opposition from the world community. Laos had provided the North Vietnamese with access routes under a jungle canopy of some 650 miles along the entire border of South Vietnam with Laos and Cambodia. Over [12]6,000 North Vietnamese troops moved into Laos in 1959 with the ostensible mission of supporting the communist Pathet Lao - since the Geneva Accords of 1954, had been imposed by Hanoi in the north-eastern provinces along the Vietnamese borders.

Eisenhower apparently told Kennedy during the transition that he was prepared to intervene in Laos, if necessary unilaterally. Kennedy’s first statements on Laos were consistent with Eisenhower’s recommendations. In April 1961, shaken by the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy decided against intervention, choosing instead to rely on negotiations to buttress Laotian neutrality. Once the threat of American intervention was removed, negotiations on neutrality were certain to confirm Hanoi’s strangle hold. As a matter of fact, it was the second time that Hanoi was selling Laotian neutrality, having already undertaken to respect it at the Geneva Conference in 1954.

As Eisenhower were passing the baton of administration to Kennedy, the level and the nature of America’s involvement in Indochina were not yet of a scale that staked America’s global credibility beyond the point of repair. The American effort still bore some relation to regional security objectives; and it was not yet of a magnitude that the act of vindicating it would provide its own justification. The real issues posed by Vietnam were not whether communism should be resisted in Asia, but whether the 17th Parallel was the right place to draw the line; not what would happen in Indochina if the South Vietnamese domino fell, but whether another defence line could be drawn, perhaps, at the borders of Malaya.

While developing the logistics network which later dubbed the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese stalled any negotiations with the United States for a year. Finally, in May 1962, Kennedy sent Marines to neighbouring Thailand. This act brought a rapid conclusion to the negotiations with the North Vietnamese. All foreign troops and advisers were required to be withdrawn from Laos through international checkpoints. Every Thai and American adviser left as scheduled; of the over [13]6,000 North Vietnamese military personnel who had moved into Laos, exactly only [14]40 personnel departed through international checkpoints. As for the remainder, Hanoi brazenly denied they were even there.

Even though Laos was a remote and landlocked county, the North Vietnamese, as feared and hated foreigners, could not have waged a guerrilla war on its soil. America could have fought there the sort of conventional war for which its army had been trained, and Thai troops would almost certainly have supported American efforts in Laos. Faced with such prospects, Hanoi might well have pulled back to wait a more propitious moment for full scale war. So cold blooded a strategic analysis, however was deemed inappropriate for a conflict still perceived largely in ideological terms. For a decade, American leaders had been making a case for defending Vietnam because it represented a key element in an Asian defence concept; to revise that strategy by suddenly designating a remote and backward mountain kingdom as the linchpin of the Domino Theory might have disrupted the domestic consensus. For all the reasons, in April 1961 Kennedy and his advisers stick to a conclusion that Indochina had to be defended in South Vietnam.

For not only did the supply routes through Laos lie open, but Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia acquiesced in the establishment of communist base areas all along Cambodia’s border with South Vietnam. This act by the Cambodian prince had promised a vital food supply for the North Vietnamese Army fighting a guerrilla war in South Vietnam.


The nightmare of Vietnam was not the way in which America entered the war, but why it did so without a more careful assessment of the likely costs and potential outcomes. A nation should not be engaged in an all out war in a 12,000 miles country from America or stake its international standing and domestic cohesion unless they can describe their political goals and offer a realistic strategy to achieve it.

They should have asked two basic questions; (1) is it possible to establish democracy and achieve military victory more or less simultaneously? And even more crucial; (2) Will the benefits justify the costs? The presidents or presidential advisers who committed America to ground combat in Vietnam took an affirmative answer for granted.

The successful conduct of a guerrilla war requires the subtle blending of military, administrative and political strategies. American military leaders however have been comfortable with gearing its vast military to political objectives Throughout the Vietnam War, the means were insufficient for the stated objectives, and objectives were only achievable – if at all – by risks which Americans at home was not prepared to take.

In Vietnam, America was to learn that there are limits to even the most sacred beliefs, and was forced to come to terms with the gap which can arise between power and principle. Precisely because America was reluctant to accept lessons so contrary to its historical experience, it also found cutting its losses extraordinarily difficult. Thus the pain associated with both these frustrations was the result of its best not its worst qualities. America’s rejection of national interest as the basis of foreign policy had cast the country adrift on a sea of undifferentiated moralism.


1. Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. 1994;

2. Lt. Col (R) Mohd Azzam Mohd Hanif Ghows, The Malayan Emergency – Revisited 1948 – 1960: AMR Holding Sdn. Bhd. 2006;

3. Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965 – 2000: HarperCollins. 2000;

4. Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life – John F. Kennedy: 1917 – 1963: Little, Brown and Company. 2004; and

5. Time 1968: War Abroad, Riots at Home, Fallen Leaders and Lunar Dreams - The Year that Changed the World: Time. 2008.

[1] Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965 – 2000: HarperCollins. 2000

[2] Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life – John F. Kennedy: 1917 – 1963: Little, Brown and Company. 2004

[3] Time 1968: War Abroad, Riots at Home, Fallen Leaders and Lunar Dreams - The Year that Changed the World: Time. 2008

[4] Ibid iix.

[5] Ibid

[6] Lt. Col (R) Mohd Azzam Mohd Hanif Ghows, The Malayan Emergency – Revisited 1948 – 1960: AMR Holding Sdn. Bhd. 2006

[7] Ibid 378.

[8] Ibid 378.

[9] Ibid 378.

[10] John Foster Dulles served as U.S. Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1959.

[11] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 1994. page 639.

[12] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 1994. page 646.

[13] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 1994. page 647.

[14] Ibid.


hassan amir said...

the war in Vietnam and the experiences of the US and the French, to me, seems more like the failure of a war strategy than the failure of US diplomacy...it was very clear that the neither the US nor the French were experienced in the art of counter insurgency, and they adopted conventional tactics to defeat an enemy which was all the while, fighting an unconventional battle.

diplomatic exchanges and understandings took place between France and the US, as well as the other members of SEATO, through which US sought to contain communism in the region, and indirectly had an effect on the course of the Vietnam war.

Tun Teddy said...

I was once thought that way before until I read Henry Kissinger - Diplomacy where I understand that the American involvement in the war actually started at Dien Bien Phu.

From the failure to understand the nature of Vietnam people, the sending of 1600 technician to help rebuilt vietnam - in the American mould by Kennedy to the sending of 525,000 military personnel... it all due to the failure to understand Vietnam and its people.

American actually do not lost the war... the won every battle but with high casualties rate which Americans at home were shunned to endured. thus makes them left the war and South Vietnam to Domino effect.

I personally think, if they understood Vietnam at the beginning which is at 1954, they can still turn the game around by letting the South Vietnamese fought for Capitalism instead of Americans fight the uncertainties of Asin peoples.

They should venture into Laos instead to ensure the South Vietnamese were ready for the war. Foward position. I guess Nixon understand Vietnam better than anyone else and I hate to say this... Nixon understand Vietnam better than Kennedy.

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