The Light That Failed 5

But new policies, like huge airplanes hurtling down a runway, do not reverse themselves. Acheson’s copilot was now Dean Rusk, who had been appointed assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs. He was to be involved in shaping Vietnam policy through three admin¬istrations, longer than any major American official, and his views remained extraordinarily consistent for nearly two decades.
In contrast to Acheson, who had attended Groton, Yale and Harvard despite his family’s genteel poverty, Rusk was sheer Horatio Alger stuff. He had grown up barefoot, the son of a tenant farmer in Geor¬gia’s Cherokee county, and had worked his way through Davidson, an obscure North Carolina college. Then came the moment that trans¬formed his life and his thinking. He won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. More important, his exposure to Europe in the early 1930s, as the Nazis consolidated their power in Germany, scarred his mind, leading him to share Acheson’s hostility to appeasement in any form anywhere. In 1981, as a law professor at the University of Georgia, he recalled to me:
I was a senior in college the year that the Japanese seized Manchuria, and I have the picture still etched in my mind from the newsreel of the Chinese ambassador standing before the League of Nations, pleading for help against the Japanese attack. I myself was present in the Oxford Union on that night in 1933, when they passed the motion that “this house will not fight for king and country. …” So one cannot live through those years and not have some pretty strong feelings . . . that it was the failure of the governments of the wcjrld to prevent aggression that made the catastrophe of World War II inevitable.
Rusk saw the French effort in Indochina as a stand against Soviet expansion, and he argued in favor of U.S. aid to France in almost the same language he would later use to explain American intervention in Vietnam. In June 1950, addressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he spoke in measured cadence, the faint trace of a southern accent softening his persuasive tone: “This is a civil war that has been in effect captured by the [Soviet] Politburo and, besides, has been turned into a tool of the Politburo. So it isn’t a civil war in the usual sense. It is part of an international war. . . . We have to look at it in terms of which side we are on in this particular kind of strug¬gle. . . . Because Ho Chi Minh is tied in with the Politburo, our policy is to support Bao Dai and the French in Indochina until we have time to help them establish a going concern.”
With the recognition of Bao Dai’s regime, the United States estab¬lished a full-fledged embassy in Saigon headed by Donald Heath, a veteran diplomat entranced by the French cause. Nevertheless, the French resented any intrusion into their affairs. They forbade U.S. military advisers to supervise the use of American equipment, and they barred them from planning sessions. They either refused them intelligence or fed them misleading information, and they reacted fiercely to suggestions that they accord more latitude to Vietnamese nationalists. Top French officials even suspected that America’s real aim was not to help them but to supplant France politically and eco¬nomically.
Nor did the French, despite their “solemn pledges,” yield more than a thin veneer of independence to Bao Dai’s government. Though they trained a few Vietnamese officers, they kept control of the army. They retained their grip on shipping, mines, plantations, banks, brew¬eries and factories as well as imports and exports. They also devised a financial arrangement under which piasters, the Vietnamese cur¬rency, could be exchanged for French francs at a ridiculously favorable rate, and those with licenses made fortunes. One well-placed figure implicated in the traffic was the son of Vincent Auriol, the president of France.
Not that granting power to Bao Dai at this stage mattered. He spent most of his time at his lodge in Dalat, having delegated his nominal power to a new prime minister, Tran Van Huu, a rich landowner and naturalized French citizen. But the authority in his entourage belonged to Nguyen Van Tam, his security director, a gnarled creature known as the Tiger of Cailay, his native village in the Mekong Delta, where he had served the French by crushing Communist-led peasant upris¬ings. The Vietminh had killed two of his sons in retaliation, and his specialty in Saigon was tracking down real and innocuous enemies of the French, whom he liquidated brutally. In 1952, when Tam took over as Bao Dai’s prime minister, he formed a cabinet described by the U.S. consul in Hanoi as composed of “opportunists, nonentities, extreme reactionaries, assassins, hirelings and, finally, men of faded mental powers.” The minister of youth and sports, Vo Hong Khanh, had been responsible for the murder by garroting of no fewer than ten Frenchmen some years earlier. Not only would the cabinet serve the Vietminh as an indirect “propaganda tool,” the consul concluded, but it was “a poor return for French blood and American money.”
A huge slice of the American aid went to Bao Dai as a personal allowance. By 1952, according to a secret U.S. report, he was receiving an official stipend of more than $4 million a year. He was not a big spender—his four private airplanes were his major expense—and his wife and children lived in relative modesty on the Cote d’Azur, while his own residence in Dalat was no more lavish than a house in an affluent New York suburb. But he was transferring enormous sums to French and Swiss banks and investing extravagantly in real estate in France and Morocco—plainly to cushion himself should he one day be forced into exile. The annual payment consumed about 5 percent of the regime’s total revenues—four times more than the appropriation for the land reform program. Even so, Bao Dai was chronically strapped for funds, and he relied heavily on Bay Vien, the boss of the Binh Xuyen gang, to supplement his finances handsomely.

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