The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, January 05, 2006
 

VN: The Willard Hotel shindig


The more I read, the more I'm led to think that Uncle Sam's goose was cooked - burnt to a crisp, in fact - way before Saint Jack raised his standard high.

My impression - I've only picked at elements of the Indochina wars story to date - is that the CW story arc that characterises US Indochina policy in the period between the end of the implemention Geneva [1] and the formation of the National Liberation Front in 1960 was essentially vamping till ready - the DRV had its work cut out recovering from the French war, with military action in the South on the back-burner - until old Ike and his quiet-lifers gave way to the best and brightest.

All the while, however, the American Friends of Vietnam, aided and abetted by a media supine where it was not deliriously enthusiastic, worked to close off debate amongst policymakers, and leave Diem, the Miracle Man, as the only man conceivable as leader of SVN.

This was - so far as I can tell - a Swift Boating aimed largely at the political class.

Seth Jacobs (p241) gives an example:

Except for Diem's tour of the United States in 1957, the AFV's greatest propaganda masterstroke was a conference titled "America's Stake in Vietnam" held at the Willard Hotel in Washington in June 1956". [Leading AFV member Joseph] Buttinger volunteered to set a "top-level" agenda. Over the next few weeks, according to his reports, he courted "representatives from leading national civic, public, veterans, and foreign-affairs organizations; ...representatives of the diplomatic corps in Washington; [and] the press."

The response was overwhelmingly positive. State Department officer Paul Kattenburg met with AFV coordinator Gilbert Jonas to advise him that the department looked "quite favorably" upon the conference and would permit [ASS for Far Eastern Affairs] Walter Robertson to be a featured speaker.

Robertson was eager to participate, calling the conference "an excellent opportunity to focus public attention on the excellent progress the Republic of Vietnam has been making." Equally keen to speak at the conference was Senator Kennedy, who was contacted at the eleventh hour when his more prominent colleague Mike Mansfield became indisposed. The late substitute Kennedy would deliver the conference's most oft-quoted address.

The purpose of "America's Stake in Vietnam," according to the AFV's press release, was "to focus American attention on the nature of the current threat posed by communist demands for holding all-Vietnamese elections." This seemed a timely concern, given that less than a month after the conference was held, Saigon and Hanoi were to confer under the Geneva Accords to arrange unification. No US policymaker gave Diem a chance against Ho Chi Minh in a nationwide election. Diem, however, had declared he had no intention of abiding by the accords, and Ambassador Reinhardt counseled Secretary of State Dulles that it was "unwise...to focus attention" on the election issue. Reinhardt urge the State Department to persuade the AFV to "concentrate instead on means of expanding US-Vietnamese relationships." Young met privately with O'Daniel and convinced the general that the focus of the conference should be changed.

Lack of a unifying theme did not prevent "American's Stake in Vietnam" from being a public relations tour de force. The Willard Hotel had rarely seen a more star-studded panel. Luminaries from a variety of professions and organizations lent their voices to Diem's cause; from the military, O'Daniel; from academe, Professor Hans Morgenthau of the University of Chicago; from the Catholic Church, Monsignor Joseph Harnett; from the medical profession, Doctor Tom Dooley; from Capitol Hill, Senator Kennedy; and from the State Department, Assistant Secretary Robertson. The roughly two hundred people who attended the conference came from an equally broad spectrum: representatives of business firms, church groups, and labor and educational associations rubbed shoulders with academics, diplomats and military officers.

O'Daniel's welcome sounded the note that would echo throughout the conference. "from the very beginning, first as premier and then as president of South Vietnam," the general declared, "Ngo Dinh Diem has shown great courage and determination...This conference has been called to emphasize the progress made by President Diem and his people, Progress which inspires admiration and respect." Kennedy then praised Diem in extravagant terms, citing his "amazing success in meeting firmly and with determination the major political and economic crises which had heretofore continually plagued Vietnam." The senator strung together a sequence of metaphors that would become famous, appearing in most treatments of the Vietnam War: "Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone in the arch, the finger in the dike." In an expression of staggering paternalism, Kennedy asserted, "If we are not the parents of little Vietnam, then surely we are the godparents. We presided at its birth, we gave assistance to its life, we have helped to shape its future...This is our offspring. We cannot abandon it." Assistant Secretary Robertson also lauded Diem's accomplishments. "The free world owes President Diem a debt of gratitude," Robertson declared. "In him, his country has found a truly worthy leader." There was "no more dramatic example" of Diem's "moral fortitude," Robertson attested, than his "battle against the parasitic politico-religious sects in the spring of 1955."

There's evidently more, but that's all GB is poneying up right now.

(I find a longer extract from Kennedy's speech here.)

After Tulipmania came Diem-mania. Kennedy, whose shtick, as I recall, included a claim to be some kind of foreign policy expert - in the striking role of anticolonialist cold-warrior - seemed intent on boosting Diem into the stratosphere. Such a paragon was never seen on earth, let alone in mid-century Indochina!

Did he feel he needed any research to back up his claims? Had he ever been advised on SVN affairs by any Vietnamese not within the Diem orbit, I wonder?

This, I suppose, must be the American innocence of which I've heard spoken...

JFK is a guy whose sagacity and judgement have had some boosting of their own, notably on the speculation about his decision (if there was one) to withdraw from VN after reelection.

Does one conclude that he grew up between 1956 and 1961? Did the crush on Diem evident in his Willard ravings affect his judgement in dealing with VN as President?

Who, in 1956, was taking a public stand against the Diem love-in? Anyone?

  1. To the extend the Accords were ever implemented, that is.

MORE

There are, it turns out, further particulars to be found at the Virtual Vietnam Archive. A book containing an edited version of proceedings at the "America's Stake in Vietnam" meeting [1], plus much correspondence, memos and like material.

The VVA is full of good stuff, of course; but the search sensation tends to be that of opening a cupboard, and having its contents fall on top of you!

  1. Search on "America's Stake in Vietnam" and "book on vietnam".


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