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The Demystified Zone: A Global Game of Dominoes

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  • Dr. Roger Pauly
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Dr. Roger Pauly, Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Arkansas provides an introduction to the complex history of the Vietnam War for audiences ranging from those who are unfamiliar with the events of the era to those who are seeking an insightful refresher course in anticipation of the broadcast of the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary series "The Vietnam War." From the Indochinese War to the Vietnam War's portrayal in popular films, "The Demystified Zone" series covers the Vietnam War in a way to make historical events understandable for novices and enthusiasts alike.

As mentioned in "A Will of Light," while helping the U.S. fight the Japanese, the leader of the Viet Minh, Ho Chi Minh, had been hoping that the Americans would later come to recognize an independent Vietnamese nation. Unfortunately, larger events on the international stage frustrated this goal.

The Soviet Union and the United States of America had been uneasy allies through World War II but, with the defeat of their common enemies, they quickly became mistrustful of each other. The Russians and Americans had grown over the course of the war into "Superpowers" and their rivalry would dominate global affairs for the next four decades. This tense situation became known as the Cold War because the two states never directly went to war with each other even though they maintained a high level of military preparedness. Their competition instead spilled over into dozens of "proxy wars" involving smaller client states. In a few cases such as Korea, Vietnam or Afghanistan, one or the other of the superpowers became directly involved in the fighting. Our concern, of course, is with the second example.

This tense situation between the United States and USSR became known as the Cold War because the two states never directly went to war with each other. Instead they maintained a high level of military preparedness and competition spilled over into proxy wars.

Before we get to that, however, we need to understand what each side thought was at stake a little more clearly. Stoking the intensity of their rivalry was a basic difference in economic and political ideology.

Communist Manifest(o) Destiny

As a communist nation, the Soviets believed that almost all power should lay in the hands of a centralized state that (in theory) would ensure the equal distribution of resources to its populace. Democratic representation was of minimal importance. Communist regimes gave lip service to democratic principles but almost inevitably operated as authoritarian dictatorships.

To the Soviets, the Cold War confrontation was framed as one between the emerging communist world against the dying capitalist one.

It is also important to know that the communist movement defined itself as a worldwide revolutionary phenomenon that would spread from nation to nation. To the Soviets, the Cold War confrontation was framed as one between the emerging communist world against the dying capitalist one. As such, the Soviets and Chinese communists naturally backed their long-time friend, Ho Chi Minh, and his Viet Minh in their struggle against the French.

The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

The United States embraced a more free market (also known as capitalist) approach to economics. In its vision, equality of economic opportunity was more important than a balanced distribution of goods and services. Just as freedom of choice in the marketplace was seen as crucial, the U.S., likewise, had a strong tradition allowing its citizens the freedom to choose their own rulers. Thus, democracy was critically important.

To the Americans, the Cold War was defined not so much as communism versus capitalism, but rather communism versus democracy.

To the Americans, the Cold War was defined not so much as communism versus capitalism, but rather communism versus democracy. For the most part, France fell in step with other capitalist, democratic nations that followed U.S. leadership. As a result, the French enjoyed American support in their struggle in Indochina including weapons, equipment and military advisors from the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG).

The Demystified Zone Smith and Solon

Adam Smith and Solon, key intellectual founders of capitalism and democracy

Containing the Dominoes

The U.S. and its close allies believed that the secret to fighting world-wide communism was a policy of "containment." The premise behind this strategy was that communism had to grow from state to state in order to stay alive. If you block that expansion, international communism would shrivel and die on the vine. During the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower offered vocal support for the French saying, "You have a row of dominoes set up, and you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly." This was the first articulation of the "Domino Theory." The idea here was that if the democratic world failed in its containment policy, nation after nation would fall to communism like dominoes.

The premise behind the containment strategy was that communism had to grow from state to state in order to stay alive. If you block that expansion, international communism would shrivel and die on the vine.

It seems clear in hindsight that U.S. foreign policy experts vastly exaggerated the threat of the supposed domino process. Paranoia and fear of communism created a "Red Scare" in the United States that influenced issues as far flung as filmmaking and public drinking water.*

The Cold War had the unfortunate side effect of transforming the U.S. perception of the war in Indochina into seeing it as a fight between communism and democracy, not as a struggle for independence.

The Cold War, thus, had the unfortunate side effect of transforming the U.S. perception of the war in Indochina, not as a struggle for independence, but rather as a fight between communism and democracy. Hence, once France was on the verge of giving up, the United States was willing to step in.

The Geneva Conference and Partition

A "Far Eastern Conference" attended by a various nations was already in session at Geneva when word of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu circulated around the world. Literally the day after the battle ended, on May 8, 1954, diplomats began discussing the future of Vietnam. Because the Soviets and Americans were at loggerheads, China and France wound up doing most of the negotiations and managed to hammer out a basic agreement by July 21.

The Geneva Conference created an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north with its capital in Hanoi and the State of Vietnam in the south with its capital in Saigon.

The Geneva Conference (as it is now know) created an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north with its capital in Hanoi. The south would become an independent nation known as the State of Vietnam with its capital in Saigon. Within two years, a referendum was supposed to be held to decide, first, if the country would reunify into one nation and, if so, under whose leadership would it unite.

Eisenhower later admitted that he thought if the referendum had been held in 1954, the country would have voted to unify under Ho Chi Minh. Although, to be fair, not all Vietnamese were Ho fans. Over the next few years, some 900,000 Vietnamese fled from North Vietnam to the south in an effort to escape communism. Theoretically, though, the referendum would decide matters peacefully, once and for all.

Over the next few years, some 900,000 Vietnamese fled from North Vietnam to the south in an effort to escape communism.

As a foreshadowing of the future, the U.S. delegation and the representatives of the State of Vietnam refused to accept a deadline for the referendum and did not sign the agreement.

For further reading, consider these sources:

  • Corfield, Justin. The History of Vietnam. Westport: Greenwood, 2008.
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War, A New History. Peguin, 2005.
  • Randle, Robert. Geneva 1954. Princeton UP, 1969.

*The far right in America initially thought fluoridating water was a communist plot. Paradoxically, most opponents of fluoridation today come from the far left and believe greedy corporations are pushing it. A lot of folks on the political fringes have sunk their teeth into this issue.

LEARN MORE:

The Demystified Zone: Making the Vietnam War Understandable

TUNE IN:

"The Vietnam War," directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, airing Sept. 17-21 and Sept. 24-28 at 7 each night.