America is the only country to use nuclear weapons against another nation. During the Vietnam debacle, it almost recklessly returned to the war chest, writes Ryle Dwyer.
DONALD Trump’s recent renunciation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union seems incongruous, as the US is the only country that ever used nuclear weapons in a conflict.
US president Harry Truman had atom bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the Second World War in August 1945. Max Hastings notes in his new book, Vietnam, that the Americans also talked recklessly about using nuclear weapons during the Vietnam conflict.
France lost her colonies in Indochina to Japan. After the fall of Japan, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnam independence in September 1945, but the French returned three weeks later to reclaim control of Vietnam and the rest of Indochina.
The Vietnamese tried to negotiate, but France refused, so Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh forces initiated a war of independence in December 1946.
As the French were virtually bankrupt, the US funded their war in an effort to stop the spread of communism. Truman provided a virtual blank cheque, as did Dwight Eisenhower on becoming president in 1953.
The conflict dragged on for seven years, coming to a head when French forces were besieged at Dienbienphu in 1954. France threatened to quit the fight unless American troops supported them.
Eisenhower declined, but not before his secretary of state, Foster Dulles, alarmed the French and British by suggesting the use of nuclear weapons to save Dien Bien Phu. How nuclear weapons could have been used to rescue those French troops was anybody’s guess.
A peace agreement was brokered in Geneva in July 1954. The Viet Minh would move north of a military demarcation line at the 17th parallel in Vietnam, while the French would go south, pending their complete withdrawal from Vietnam within two years.
This did not partition Vietnam. The conference specifically declared: “The military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary.”
Following the complete withdrawal of the French, the unity of all of Vietnam was to be guaranteed by a democratic general election that would be held by July 20, 1956.
During the siege of Dien Bien Phu, Bao Dai, the French puppet head of state, had invited Ngo Dinh Diem to be his prime minister in Saigon.
Diem, a Roman Catholic, had fled Vietnam in 1950, and spent two years living in a seminary in New York, where he befriended Cardinal Francis Spellman. The latter introduced him to a number of prominent people, including future president John F Kennedy and intelligence chief general William J Donovan.
In July 1956, Diem blocked the agreed nationwide election, because the communists would obviously win. Eisenhower backed the Diem regime, as he believed Ho Chi Minh would win 80% of the Vietnamese vote. The Americans thereby subverted democracy in Vietnam.
Diem staged a rigged local ballot in October 1963 to oust Bao Dai and install himself as head of state. The American people were then bombarded with propaganda highlighting communist atrocities in Vietnam.
There were wrongs on all sides. Hastings notes that selected US reporting highlighted “atrocity stories” fabricated by the American conservative hero, Dr Tom Dooley, author of a mendacious best-selling memoir, Deliver Us from Evil.
That 1961 book contained horrific details of communist brutality against Catholic priests, whom Dooley described as “by far the most common objects of Communist terror”.
Elsewhere, the Buddhist community had complaints against the Catholics running South Vietnam.
In June 1963, an elderly Buddhist monk attracted worldwide attention by immolating himself with petrol at busy Saigon intersection in protest against forces under the command of Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu.
“No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one,” noted Kennedy, then president.
When other monks followed suit, Nhu’s wife ridiculed the incidents as barbecues. “Let them burn,” she said, “and we shall clap our hands.”
As the first Catholic US president, Kennedy was clearly embarrassed. He authorised a coup to oust Diem, who was assassinated on November 1, 1963, three weeks before Kennedy’s own murder.
Kennedy had already told US Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield that he personally favoured quitting Vietnam. In October, he announced that 1,000 of the 16,000 US troops in Vietnam would be withdrawn on December 1, 1963, but Lyndon Johnson rescinded this order on coming to power.
Johnson ran for election as president as a peace candidate in 1964, promising not to send American boys to do the fighting of Asian boys in Vietnam.
His Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, on the other hand, promised to bomb North Vietnam into “a mud puddle.”
After a landslide win, Johnson began a massive bombing campaign over North Vietnam — Operation Rolling Thunder.
The Americans dropped four times more explosives on North Vietnam during this operation than on Japan during the Second World War. Johnson also increased the number of American troops in Vietnam from 16,000 to 459,500.
In betraying his elections promises and implementing the rejected policies of Goldwater, Johnson undermined his own credibility. China and the Soviet Union responded by dramatically increasing their aid to North Vietnam, and the Vietnamese people rallied behind their government, just as the British rallied behind Winston Churchill during the German blitz.
AS JOHNSON had shamelessly exploited the 1964 presidential election, the Vietnamese took no chances with the 1968 election. In January 1968, they launched the Tet Offensive, with massive attacks in areas of South Vietnam, including the US embassy in Saigon.
Johnson mentioned the possible use of nuclear weapons. He did rule this out, but the British were alarmed, which was hardly surprising in view of his reversals after the previous presidential election.
Although the communists suffered massive losses, the Tet Offensive precipitated the collapse of Johnson’s presidency, along with the American people’s will to win in Vietnam.
Johnson announced that he would not stand for re-election, and then made concerted efforts to negotiate a way out of the quagmire. But his efforts were undermined by Richard Nixon, the Republican presidential candidate.
The Americans abandoned any hope of victory after 1968. They were just battling to save face. “They know they’ve got us by the balls,” Nixon admitted privately.
The Americans engaged in talks with North Vietnam, but when nothing came of those by 1972, the communists launched another offensive. Nixon retaliated with the heaviest bombing of the war over North Vietnam during May and June 1972.
The Nixon administration quietly offered to pay North Vietnam $10bn in reparations once the fighting stopped. A peace was concluded to end the war in 1974, but nobody doubted the US had lost.
This became blatantly obvious in April 1975, when the communists seized all of Vietnam, and the world witnessed the panic-stricken evacuation from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon.
More than 58,000 American troops were killed in Vietnam, along with as many as 3m Vietnamese. Should anybody have been surprised by the Nixon administration’s contempt for democracy?
He won re-election as president in 1972 with the largest majority in US history, but his team had flouted the rules of democracy and the law of the land. As a result Nixon was forced to resign in 1974.
But nobody was ever held responsible for all the deaths in what had been a despicable American attempt to subvert the democracy of the Vietnamese people. It was politics at its worst.
Max Hastings, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975, was recently published by William Collins at £16.99.