The Light That Failed 4

The Elysee Agreement with Bao Dai aroused little enthusiasm among U.S. officials, and the disappointed French intensified their lobbying. Robert Schuman, the Christian Democratic prime minister, personally begged Acheson for help, emphasizing that France was spending nearly $500 million a year, half its total military budget, to “hold the line” against Communism in Asia. Maurice Couve de Mur- ville of the French foreign ministry warned that France might be unable to “hang on alone,” while others, largely to alarm Washington, fore¬cast the possibility of “abandoning Indochina to Moscow.”
For a brief moment in early 1950, American experts suddenly won¬dered whether Ho Chi Minh might not after all be a Soviet surrogate, since he requested and obtained recognition of his regime from Mar¬shal Tito of Yugoslavia, one of Moscow’s principal enemies. But they never explored the mystery further—as they never had in the past, nor would in the future. In June 1948, for example, CIA officials had rejected a proposal to contact Ho covertly because “a white man would be very conspicuous. … In order to have an effective intelligence officer, he would have to have a little brown blood. Then, we wouldn’t be able to trust him.”
Acheson had briefly entertained the “theoretical possibility” that Ho might be another Tito, a renegade Communist nationalist. But he dropped the conjecture, concluding that the presence of Mao’s legions on the Vietnamese border put the Vietminh under the thumb of “Chi Commie hatchet men and armed forces.” However, Acheson was doubtful of Bao Dai’s chances, which he described as “fairly fragile.”
By late 1949, Acheson and other senior figures in the Truman administration were weighing tangible help for the French in Indo¬china through a foreign military aid program then being presented to Congress. Most of the aid was earmarked for Western Europe, but the idea arose to provide the president with a “slush fund” of $75 million to spend at his discretion in Asia, mainly for clandestine actions against the Communists in China. A portion might be reserved for the French war against the Vietminh.
Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, worried aloud about authorizing the president “solely, in his option, to give arms to any country,” which would make him the “warlord number one on earth.” The influential columnist Walter Lippmann dismissed the project as preposterous, since the promise to contain Communism in Asia for so paltry a sum was tantamount to an offer to sell “the Brooklyn Bridge to widows and orphans for a down payment of $2.75.” But Congress approved the appropriation, and on March 9, 1950, Acheson advised Truman to allocate $15 million to France for Indochina. Six months later, by no coincidence, the “Voice of America” added propaganda programs in the Vietnamese language to its broadcast schedule.
Truman did not actually sign the military aid legislation until July 26, 1950. But on June 28, three days after the Korean war broke out, Acheson persuaded him to order an “acceleration” of assistance to the French. A day after that, and four weeks before the military aid bill became law, eight C-47 cargo aircraft flew across the Pacific to In¬dochina—not the only time that the United States was to act illegally in Vietnam. During the next four years, the United States was to spend nearly $3 billion to finance the French in Indochina.
The United States recognized the Bao Dai government in early 1950, but only over the objections of several American officials. Charlton Ogburn, then in the State Department’s Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs, excoriated the emperor as “a figure deserving of the ridicule and con¬tempt with which he is generally regarded by the Vietnamese, and any supposition that he could succeed or that a French army in In¬dochina could possibly be an asset to us could be entertained only by one totally ignorant of Asian realities.” Another State Department expert, Raymond B. Fosdick, delivered an even more passionate dia¬tribe in a memorandum that portrayed the Bao Dai regime as “doomed,” and went on to foretell the future with remarkable pres¬cience: This shabby business . . . probably represents an improvement over the brutal colonialism of earlier years, but it is now too late in the history of the world to settle for the price of this cheap substitute. . . .
Ho Chi Minh as an alternative is decidedly unpleasant, but . . . there may be unpredictable and unseen factors in this situation that in the end will be more favorable to us than now seems probable. The fundamental antipathy of the Indochinese to China is one of the factors. Faced with a dilemma like this, the best possible course is to wait for the breaks. Certainly we should not play our cards in such a way that once again, as in China, we seem to be allied with reaction.
Whether the French like it or not, independence is coming to Indochina. Why, therefore, do we tie ourselves to the tail of their battered kite?
Soon it was clear, however, that support for the French might undermine the global containment of Communism. For one thing, the French were becoming too bogged down in Indochina to meet their military obligations in Western Europe. And the growing burden vexed both soldiers and civilians in the Pentagon. John Ohley, a senior Defense Department official, alerted Acheson in November 1950 to the “urgent necessity for an immediate, thorough and realistic re¬examination” of the policy, warning that it “may, without achieving its intended purpose, make impossible the fulfillment of mutual de¬fense objectives elsewhere in the world.”
French casualties since 1945 had exceeded fifty thousand, Ohley said, pointing out that “officers are being lost … at a faster rate than they are being graduated from officer schools in France.” The French had pledged to assign twenty-seven divisions to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by 1954, but “every officer and non¬commissioned officer diverted to Indochina materially reduces the prospect that the French can even approximate the present objec¬tive.” Moreover, France’s soaring requirements “cannot be met with¬out a substantial impact” on America’s ability to supply its other Western European partners. So, he counseled, the United States ought to consider abandoning the French in Indochina if other goals “of even greater value and importance are to be attained.” As it was, “we are gradually increasing our stake in the outcome of the struggle . . . [and] we are dangerously close to the point of being so deeply com¬mitted that we may find ourselves completely committed even to direct intervention. These situations, unfortunately, have a way of snowballing.”

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