Fine: ‘Vietnam one of the great tragedies of American history’

By Mary Jo Frank

The Vietnam War was a “presidents’ war,” history Prof. Sidney Fine told his students Sept. 18.

The class—several hundred alumni and friends on campus for the Campaign for Michigan kickoff—included many of Fine’s former students who came up before and after the presentation to shake hands and express their appreciation to one of the U-M’s best known teachers for the past four decades.

Fine, the Andrew Dickson White Professor of History, offered insights into the war that he described as the “nation’s most misunderstood war, and one that keeps haunting us.”

Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon all made fateful errors in handling affairs in Indochina, missing several opportunities that could have prevented or halted U.S. involvement, Fine said.

Roosevelt, who held an anti-imperialist position in World War II and originally opposed letting the French resume their colonial rule in Indochina, favored placing Indochina under an international trusteeship in preparation for independence. The British and the State Department opposed this, and Roosevelt backed off.

Eisenhower is the “most inaccurately praised president for his alleged restraint in dealing with Vietnam,” according to Fine. Almost as soon as he took office, Eisenhower gave South Vietnam its first U.S. military support. He sent 200 Air Force mechanics to service U.S. bombers. By 1954 the United States was paying 80 percent of the cost of the war.

Eisenhower made two critical errors, Fine said. The 1954 Geneva Conference provided for a truce in which the military forces of the two sides would regroup, with the 17th parallel separating them. Elections were to be held in 1956 to establish an all-Vietnamese government, and it was assumed that Vietnamese national leader Ho Chi Minh would win.

“The United States could probably have walked away from Vietnam at that time,” Fine said. Instead, Eisenhower decided to support the South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, who was later assassinated in a military coup.

Eisenhower’s second critical error came in 1957, when he rejected a Soviet Union suggestion that North and South Vietnam join the United Nations.

The U.S. buildup in Vietnam began under Kennedy. The number of advisers there grew from 692 when Eisenhower left office to 15,500, making it much harder for Johnson to get out of Vietnam. Also, since the Kennedy administration had connived in the coup that overthrew Diem, the United States government was left with some responsibility regarding the successor regimes in the South.

“Full scale Americanization of the war,” Fine said, began under Johnson. His major concern was “that if South Vietnam fell, he would be blamed and his real love, the Great Society, would go down the tubes.”

When Nixon took office, he introduced “Vietnamization”—the gradual removal of our troops accompanied with massive aid to build up the South Vietnamese army so it could hold its own for a “decent interval” after the U.S. withdrawal.

However, the South Vietnamese army was not a real military force. It was a political force that could prop up a regime, not an army that could really fight a war, Fine explained.

In January 1973 Nixon accepted peace terms in Paris that ensured South Vietnam’s defeat: the United States would withdraw all of its troops from South Vietnam but the North Vietnamese could keep its troops there.

Under President Gerald R. Ford, the North Vietnamese launched a full scale conventional attack on South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese army collapsed.

“Vietnam was one of the great tragedies of American history,” Fine said, citing loss of life, increased problems for the U.S. military, division in the country as a whole, and the 1.5 million refugees who fled Vietnam.

“Yes, the war was a tragedy. We wreaked terrible destruction on Vietnam, on Laos, and on Cambodia, and we inflicted serious damage on ourselves.”


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