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Dean Rusk: Vietnam

Served as U.S. Secretary of State (1961-1968) and member of the Georgia Law faculty (1970-1984)
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Vietnam, 1941-1973

1940s - The United States, through the Office of Strategic Services, supported Ho Chi Minh* during World War II in his fight against the Japanese. Despite his politics, he was seen as an ally. Post World War II other international problems and weak French governments meant the U.S. paid little attention to Indochina. Rusk believed those countries would inevitably emerge as independent nations and he watched with trepidation as Chinese support for Ho increased in the early 1950s. (Rusk, 421)

By the early 1950s I had become convinced of the strategic, political and economic importance of Southeast Asia not only to the United States but to other countries in the western Pacific, and I argued for continuing American economic and military assistance to the region. (Rusk, 424)

1954 - Geneva Conference on Indochina (April 26 – July 20) produced the Geneva Accords which split Vietnam into two zones. The north was to be ruled by the Viet Minh, Communist nationalists. The agreement was not accepted by the U.S. delegates. 

September 1954 - Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, or Manila Pact signed on February 19, 1955. The treaty created the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). The goal of the organization was to create anti-Communist bilateral and collective defense treaties. The U.S. dissatisfaction with the Geneva Accords was a factor in joining and supporting SEATO.

Rusk actually opposed the SEATO Treaty. He did not think it had been thoroughly debated in the Senate nor had there been much public discussion. There was little thought given to what an American commitment to collective security on the Asian mainland might mean. In Rusk's view there was no doubt that the Senators voting for ratification (82-1) understood that the U.S. was obligating itself to take action in response to an armed attack by the regime of Ho Chi Minh. (Rusk, 427)

1960s - The U.S. publicly supports the Diem government in South Vietnam and sends a small number of military advisers to advise the South Vietnamese on the use of American equipment supplied under a military assistance program. At the same time Ho Chi Minh began infiltrating men to the south to undermine the Diem government.

Upon assuming the presidency, Kennedy characterized Southeast Asia as "the worst mess the Eisenhower administration left me." Eisenhower had advised putting troops in Laos. The conventional wisdom was that Laos, which bordered on four non-Communist countries was the first line of defense against Communist domination in Asia. (Schoenbaum, 384)

November 1, 1961 - Rusk emphasized caution in sending troops to Vietnam as recommended by General Maxwell Taylor, White House military adviser who had traveled to Vietnam to assess the situation.

I cabled President Kennedy, stressing that the decision to put U.S. military forces in Vietnam was a portentous decision, that the road ahead was exceptionally difficult, and that we should not make such a commitment unless we were prepared to see it through. (Rusk, 432)

President Kennedy hoped that economic aid and advisory support would enable the South Vietnamese to handle North Vietnamese aggression themselves, without the direct involvement of American combat troops. He did not want to Americanize the war or send large numbers of U.S. forces to help South Vietnam deal with what was then a relatively low level of infiltration from North Vietnam. When this infiltration increased and conditions in South Vietnam continued to deteriorate, we still hoped to limit our role to an advisory nature. Throughout the Kennedy years and the first year of the Johnson administration, we tried to help the South Vietnamese do this job themselves. This approach had worked in combating Communist guerrillas in Greece. (Rusk, 435)

November 1963 - Coup d'etat by South Vietnamese military officers overthrows President Diem. General Duong Van Minh, a popular national hero for his resistance to the Japanese occupation during World War II, takes control. Support of the Diem government had been difficult as the regime became more oppressive, prohibited political opposition, and launched military attacks on Buddhist opposition. South Vietnam endures numerous changes of leadership.

August 10, 1964 - Gulf of Tonkin resolution enacted, Pub.L. 88–408, 78 Stat. 384. Congress declared its support for the United States' willingness to come to the aid of those protected by the SEATO Treaty, including the use of armed force as determined by the President.

There was overwhelming Congressional support, 88-2 in the Senate and 416-0 in the House. As American involvement in Vietnam escalated some Senators later tried to distance themselves by arguing that the resolution had been presented by the White House in a less than clear manner. Rusk dismissed that characterization. The resolution was simply worded and there was no question about its meaning during the floor debates.

After the 1964 elections North Vietnam began sending units of its regular army into South Vietnam. Perhaps in the belief that Johnson, who had opposed wider American involvement during the campaign, would not counter the escalation. While Johnson had hoped to avoid increasing American involvement in Vietnam he was also clear on the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam. (Rusk, 446)

Rusk's position was usually first one of caution, exhaust diplomatic means, but once committed to a course of action there could be no hesitation or turning back, all available tools were used.

The beginning of all my thinking ..., and indeed throughout the Vietnam decision making, was that the United States must help the South Vietnamese repel aggression from the North. I never thought that we should cut and run or that we should renege on our pledged word to assist those covered by the SEATO Treaty if they were subject to attack. For me, that was fundamental. (Rusk,448)

He supported the bombing of North Vietnam but was skeptical about any effects on fighting in the south. The North Vietnamese needed a relatively small amount of supplies and the U.S. was never able to completely interdict their resupply efforts. The bombing targets were selected to minimize civilian casualties.

By March 1965 America was truly at war. The rules of engagement for U.S. ground troops had changed. They were no longer just advisers but the mission now was to "advise and assist" the South Vietnamese in combat operations. Two battalions of Marines had been deployed at Da Nang despite Department of Defense denials that any American troops were being sent to Vietnam. (Schoenbaum, 435)

Later in 1965 it was clear that gradual response and support of the South Vietnamese efforts to fend off North Vietnamese incursion were not working. The South Vietnamese highlands were likely to come under North Vietnamese control and split the South.

July 1, 1965 - In response to General Westmoreland's request for 200,000 men, Rusk advised sending one hundred thousand men. "I argued that the integrity of the U.S. commitment was the principal pillar of peace in the world, that the Communist world might draw the wrong conclusions that could lead to world war if we reneged on our commitments, and that as long as the South Vietnamese were prepared to fight for themselves, we had to help them." President Johnson agreed. (Rusk, 450)

The criticism of the military for how they chose to fight the war was unfair. The U.S. military carried out the missions assigned to them by constitutional officers. "Five American presidents, with the advice of their secretaries of state and defense, committed the United States to the defense of South Vietnam. Our military cannot be faulted for this." (Rusk, 452)

It was a deliberate decision by the administration to keep the war as limited as possible and "not build up a war fever in the United States." Unlike World War II, there were no parades or Hollywood stars selling war bonds. Rusk later concluded this may have been a mistake, asking the country to support a war "in cold blood." The gradual response may have encouraged the North Vietnamese to speculate we did not intend to stay the course but the gradual response did help limit the war to Vietnam. China and the Soviet Union did not become actively involved. (Rusk, 456)

January 31, 1968 - Start of the Tet offensive

On January 31, while the siege of Khe Sanh continued, about seventy thousand North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops attacked over a hundred cities, villages, towns, and military bases throughout South Vietnam. In Saigon alone over four thousand North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops invaded the Cholon district, Saigon's Chinatown, and a Vietcong suicide squad attacked the U.S. Embassy. (Rusk, 476)

Rusk characterized this as the turning point of American involvement. While eventually a military victory for the allied forces, it proved to be a political loss.

March 31, 1968 - President Johnson announced the limitation of bombing in the north and his decision not to run for reelection. Five days later the North Vietnamese announced they would send representatives to begin peace talks.

Throughout 1968, although physically present at the table in Paris, the North Vietnamese made no substantive contribution toward a negotiated settlement. They remained adamant in formal talks, as with all those private contacts throughout the Johnson years. Through the summer of 1968 and into the fall there was never any sign that Hanoi wanted peace in Southeast Asia on any terms other than its own: an unconditional halt to the bombing, the withdrawal of all American forces, and a North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. (Rusk, 486-7)

January 27, 1973 - Paris Peace Accords signed

The Paris peace agreements of 1973 were in effect a surrender. Any agreement that left North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam meant the eventual takeover of South Vietnam. We knew this from North Vietnam's failure to comply with past agreements.

Decisions made by Kennedy and Johnson were right at the time. "I have not apologized for my role in Vietnam, for the simple reason that I believed in the principles that underlay our commitment to South Vietnam and why we fought that war." (Rusk, 491)

Rusk believed our commitment to the South Vietnamese was the right decision. He never wavered in his belief in the concept of collective security and the importance of treaties supported by the integrity of the U.S. Treaty responsibilities are serious and should not be entered into without full recognition of their consequences but once the commitment is made it must fulfilled. 

Decisions like those of Vietnam have within them dozens of secondary questions. Out of that profusion of elements, a president must find the decisive factors. In Vietnam the decisive issue was the fidelity of the United States to collective security and its treaty commitments and the implications of that fidelity for world peace. (Rusk, 495)

He was an advocate of U.S. military strength and our commitment to various alliances as a deterrent to war. "One must be prepared to make war in order to avoid war." (Schoenbaum, 266)

Rusk admitted to two mistakes as Secretary of State with regard to Vietnam, first, overestimating the patience of the American people to continue with the war, and two, underestimating the tenacity of the North Vietnamese. As a nation they suffered tremendous losses. Had the United States suffered equivalent losses there would have been ten million American casualties.


 * A Vietnamese communist revolutionary leader who was prime minister (1945–1955) and president (1945–1969) of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam).
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