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Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam

Mark Atwood Lawrence
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 370
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  • Book Info
    Assuming the Burden
    Book Description:

    This beautifully crafted and solidly researched book explains why and how the United States made its first commitment to Vietnam in the late 1940s. Mark Atwood Lawrence deftly explores the process by which the Western powers set aside their fierce disagreements over colonialism and extended the Cold War fight into the Third World. Drawing on an unprecedented array of sources from three countries, Lawrence illuminates the background of the U.S. government's decision in 1950 to send military equipment and economic aid to bolster France in its war against revolutionaries. That decision, he argues, marked America's first definitive step toward embroilment in Indochina, the start of a long series of moves that would lead the Johnson administration to commit U.S. combat forces a decade and a half later. Offering a bold new interpretation, the author contends that the U.S. decision can be understood only as the result of complex transatlantic deliberations about colonialism in Southeast Asia in the years between 1944 and 1950. During this time, the book argues, sharp divisions opened within the U.S., French, and British governments over Vietnam and the issue of colonialism more generally. While many liberals wished to accommodate nationalist demands for self-government, others backed the return of French authority in Vietnam. Only after successfully recasting Vietnam as a Cold War conflict between the democratic West and international communism-a lengthy process involving intense international interplay-could the three governments overcome these divisions and join forces to wage war in Vietnam. One of the first scholars to mine the diplomatic materials housed in European archives, Lawrence offers a nuanced triangulation of foreign policy as it developed among French, British, and U.S. diplomats and policymakers. He also brings out the calculations of Vietnamese nationalists who fought bitterly first against the Japanese and then against the French as they sought their nation's independence.Assuming the Burdenis an eloquent illustration of how elites, operating outside public scrutiny, make decisions with enormous repercussions for decades to come.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94085-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Cold War tensions weighed heavily on U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson as he wearily climbed aboard the presidential planeIndependenceon May 6, 1950. Recent months had brought little but bad news. In August 1949 the Soviet Union had shattered the nuclear monopoly enjoyed by the United States by detonating an atomic device. Two months later Mao Zedong’s armies swept to final victory in China, pushing the world’s most populous country into the communist orbit. Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to build a robust anti-Soviet front among West European nations lay in doubt as old animosities between France and Germany threatened...

  5. PART ONE Contesting Vietnam

    • CHAPTER 1 Visions of Indochina and the World
      (pp. 17-58)

      The Second World War ended one epoch of Vietnamese history and launched another. For half a century France had dominated the territory collectively known as Indochina—the Vietnamese provinces of Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin, plus neighboring Cambodia and Laos. Vietnamese nationalists had periodically challenged colonial rule, but French authorities had squelched demands for change in every case, reaffirming their nation’s supremacy through a mix of armed repression, economic subjugation, and cultural domination that had characterized colonial rule in Indochina since its beginnings in the nineteenth century. Nationalist agitation aggravated the colonial administration but did not threaten its control. Nor was...

    • CHAPTER 2 U.S. Assistance and Its Limits
      (pp. 59-101)

      By the start of 1945, General Yūichi Tsuchihashi, commander of Japanese troops in Indochina, faced severe problems. Indochina remained as important as ever to Tokyo’s war effort—no longer as an avenue of expansion but now as a corridor of escape for 700,000 Japanese troops facing defeat in Indonesia, Burma, Malaya, and other parts of Southeast Asia. From every direction threats abounded. The U.S. Navy had destroyed most of Japan’s biggest warships in fall 1944, leaving Indochina vulnerable to Allied assault. Although no invasion came, U.S. aircraft devastated Japanese shipping in the port of Saigon and in the South China...

    • CHAPTER 3 Illusions of Autonomy
      (pp. 102-144)

      Officials in the French ministries responsible for Indochina looked optimistically to Great Britain for the help that Washington refused to provide as the Pacific war came to an end. Undeniably, London had sometimes held back from close cooperation. Observers in Paris noted that the British government had occasionally wavered on colonial questions, cultivating a distressing “reform liberalism” to mollify the United States. But French personnel were confident that the March 24 declaration and other promises of reform in Indochina had eased British reservations. Best of all, the arrival of British occupation forces seemed to herald the beginning of a concrete...

  6. PART TWO Constructing Vietnam

    • CHAPTER 4 Crisis Renewed
      (pp. 147-189)

      In the late fall of 1946, the effort to reach a negotiated settlement in Vietnam came to an abrupt and violent end. The talks had snagged over the summer on a variety of issues, especially the all-important question of Vietnamese unity. Only a “modus vivendi” reached on September 15—a halfhearted effort to patch up the dispute through vague compromises—kept the negotiations alive for a few more uninspired weeks. By mid-November both sides were readying for war. In Hanoi Ho Chi Minh gave in to mounting pressure from militants and accepted the need for military preparations. On the French...

    • CHAPTER 5 Domestic Divides, Foreign Solutions
      (pp. 190-232)

      In Bao Dai the French government selected a man ill suited to the task of rallying his nation. Born in 1913, Bao Dai (“Keeper of Greatness”), became the thirteenth emperor of Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty in 1926. As so often over the course of his life, Bao Dai ruled in name only. The French administration appointed a regent to supervise court affairs while Bao Dai completed his education in France. After returning to Vietnam in 1932, the emperor, imbued with European ideas and tastes, worked to modernize the monarchy and to implement Westernizing reforms—evidence of a genuine desire to serve...

    • CHAPTER 6 Closing the Circle
      (pp. 233-275)

      The months between mid-1948 and mid-1949 brought a dramatic transformation in the geopolitical situation in Southeast Asia. The eruption of insurgencies in Malaya and Burma, as well as the advance of Mao Zedong’s armies in China, posed a major challenge to Western governments, which inevitably viewed these events through the lens of worsening tensions in Europe. Under the circumstances, Indochina was bound to attract greater U.S. and British attention. Policymakers in Washington, London, and Paris increasingly accepted the need for a coordinated, multilateral approach to the Vietnam problem. But a major question remained: how could the three powers overcome their...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 276-288)

    On the last day of June 1950, eight American C-47 transport aircraft carrying a cargo of spare parts and maintenance equipment lumbered to a halt at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airfield. U.S. aid had at last arrived. French officials, still fearful that U.S. help would amount to too little, too late, complained throughout the summer about the slow pace of U.S. deliveries and maintained steady pressure on Washington for greater and faster assistance. But there was little reason for worry. The decision to support the French war effort marked a major turn in U.S. policy. By early summer the U.S....

  8. Notes
    (pp. 289-332)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 333-346)
  10. Index
    (pp. 347-358)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 359-359)