The Light That Failed

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces surged across the thirty-eighth parallel and four days later captured Seoul, South Korea’s capital. Six months earlier, Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist legions had reached the frontiers of Vietnam after conquering all of mainland China. The Soviet Union and China both recognized Ho Chi Minh’s regime, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. President Truman now added a new dimension to American foreign policy: the “containment” of Communism, until then focused on Europe, would be extended to Asia.
Almost overnight, the United States amended its approach to France’s war in Indochina against Ho Chi Minh. Dean Rusk, deputy under secretary of state at the time, heralded the change in his char-acteristically bland style. In late 1949, he announced that “the resources of the United States” would henceforth “be deployed to reserve In¬dochina and Southeast Asia from further Communist encroachment.” Official American spokesmen had already conceived the “domino theory,” warning that if Indochina fell to Communism, so would the other countries of Southeast Asia. But while the French repeated that theme, they were primarily fighting in Indochina to preserve a colonial possession, and their goal was comparatively narrow. The United States, playing for global stakes, therefore became more determined than France to persevere in Indochina. And thus America’s view of Indochina as an international cockpit gave the French enormous “le¬verage,” the polite term for blackmail. They repeatedly rejected U.S. attempts to persuade them to conduct the war more effectively, spurned proposals for promoting credible Vietnamese nationalists who might have countered the Communists, and threatened to undermine American military programs in Western Europe unless the United States fulfilled their requests for help in Indochina.
In Washington, right-wing demagogues like Senator Joseph McCarthy meanwhile fueled a febrile atmosphere of anti- Communism, driving normally rational U.S. officials to excessive lengths to prove their devotion to the defeat of the “Red menace.” By 1954, consequently, American aid accounted for nearly 80 percent of French expenditures on the conflict, and the compulsion to win created the illusion of imminent success. Admiral Arthur Radford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, assured a congressional committee on the eve of France’s defeat at Dienbienphu that France had arrived at “a favorable turn in the war.” Georges Bidault, the French foreign minister, asserted during the battle: “Ho Chi Minh is about to capit¬ulate. We are going to beat him.”
Specialists on Indochina were considerably less optimistic during the early days of the Truman administration. However, their discussions were colored by U.S. policies toward the Soviet Union. A foremost advocate of firmness was Dean Acheson, the under secretary of state, who overshadowed his boss, General George C. Marshall, the august secretary of state. Eloquent and elegant, with his crisp mustache and custom-made suits, Acheson personified the Eastern establishment liberal who had urged American intervention in World War II. His memory of the abortive attempts to appease Hitler had ingrained in him a belief that power, rather than negotiations, checked potential aggression, and this conviction guided his attitude toward Russian truculence after the war. So, when the Soviet government appeared to be subverting the postwar regimes in Greece and Turkey, he warned that the Communists would contaminate Western Europe and the Middle East just as “bad apples in a barrel” infect the good ones. Spurred by him and others, the president appealed to Congress on March 12, 1947, for funds to “support free peoples who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
With this major U.S. initiative—the Truman Doctrine—the cold war between the Soviet Union and America intensified. Later in 1947, the United States launched the Marshall Plan, a colossal economic aid plan for Western Europe largely contrived to curb Communist inroads in France and Italy. The Central Intelligence Agency, recently formed, covertly intervened to block Communist advances in the Italian elec¬tions. The Russians staged a Communist coup d’etat in Czechoslo¬vakia, then barred Western access to Berlin, moving the United States to begin shaping the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a shield against Moscow. And the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs published an article entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” by “X,” who was in fact George Kennan, then chief of the State Department’s policy planning staft and one of America’s leading Kremlinologists.
Kennan described Moscow’s strategic behavior as a “fluid stream” that has “filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power” but that would accommodate to “unassailable barriers in its path.” He suggested that Soviet designs be “contained” by the “adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” In various shapes, “con¬tainment” was to remain a pillar of U.S. foreign policy for decades afterward—though, a quarter century later, Kennan would reflect that his concept had been distorted into a strictly military approach.
To the extent that the Truman administration contemplated Asia at all, its attention was drawn to China, where Mao’s Communists were chewing up Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in the final phase of a civil war. General Marshall, who had gone therein 1946 in an attempt to mediate, recommended that the United States refrain from inter¬vening, since “peace and stability must … be achieved by the efforts of the Chinese themselves.” Soon afterward, as secretary of state, he took a similar view of the situation in Vietnam. “We have fully rec¬ognized France’s sovereign position in that area, ” he advised the Amer¬ican ambassador in Paris, but concluded that it was a matter for the French and the Vietminh “to work out for themselves.”
Ho Chi Minh’s Communist record was no secret, yet it aroused little alarm among American officials in those days. In 1948, surveying Soviet influence in Southeast Asia, the State Department’s specialists estimated that “the Vietnamese Communists are not subservient” to Kremlin directives and, if anything, “it is rather the French colonial press that has been strongly anti-American … to the point of ap¬proximating the official Moscow position.” America’s options were therefore restricted, as another State Department analysis of the period tortuously concluded.

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