Date: June 30, 1965

SUBJECT: France in Vietnam, 1954, and the U.S. in Vietnam, 1965 -- A Useful Analogy?

It has been suggested is some quarter that the United States today finds itself in a position in Vietnam similar to that of the French in 1954. One implication is that we must expect an outcome to our present policy similar to that which befell the French in the their defeat and withdrawal of that year. The actual content and applicability of this analogy are discussed in the paragraphs that follow:

1. Vietnam in 1954

A. The Political Scene

The central fact of French involvement in Vietnam was the persistent seven-year effort re-establish French colonial rule. French forces were pitted against a communist-led revolution for national independence; at no point did France offer Vietnam the alternatives of non-Communist independence. The former Emperor Bao Dai served as the political facade for France's effort to maintain control through a Mandarin elite. Saigon cabinets came and went, while vested interests among Vietnamese and Frenchmen jockeyed for power; but little progress was made toward forming a government capable of rallying Vietnamese nationalist allegiance.

B. The Military Scene

By early 1953, Viet Minh forces comprised seven regular infantry divisions, with independent regiments equal in strength to two additional divisions -- a total of nine divisions. In numbers, the Viet Minh had about 125,000 regulars, 75,000 full-time regional and provincial troops, and 150,000 part-time guerillas -- a total of 350,000 men.

To combat these forces, the French has committed 175,000 regulars (54,000 of whom were native Frenchmen, the rest Legionnaires, Africans, etc.) and 55,000 auxiliaries, plus a naval contingent of 5,000, an Air Force contingent of 10,000 and 225,000 local forces of three Indo-China states -- a total of 470,000 men.

By 1952, eight percent of France's national budget was annually allocated to the Indochina war; in 1952-53 nearly 6,000 French and Legionnaires troops were killed, as well as 7,730 of their Vietnamese allies.

These impressive statistics imply heavy conventional engagements. In early 1950 the Viet Minh had shifted from guerilla to conventional warfare, and for the next four years large-scale assaults -- ranging upward to 14-battalion strikes -- were not uncommon. In 1952 a three-division assault in one province forced the withdrawal of over 20,000 French troops.

By 1953 the French were generally engaged in a holding action; the brunt of their forces were tied to defensive duties, and the prospects for a military victory were nil. The had largely retreated to the Red River Delta in the North, some key towns in the Center, and the region around Saigon in the South. Only the equivalent of three divisions were actually available for offensive operations.

By 1954 the war's unpopularity at home had brought mounting pressure for negotiation. The Geneva Conference was already under way by the time of France's spectacular tactical defeat at Dien Bien Phu May 7, 1954.

2. Vietnam in 1965

A. The Political Scene

The two central facts of the South Vietnam situation today are the Viet Cong/Viet Minh struggle for the control and the process of non-Communist social and political revolution. U.S. forces are present in rapidly growing numbers to help resist the Communists at the request of successive Saigon governments.

Since Diem's fall, power in the urban South has been passing from the predominantly Catholic and French-educated elite to a more "Vietnamese" militantly nationalistic and potentially xenophobic group of which the political bronzes, students, and certain young generals are prime examples. While the Communists are seeking to exploit this revolutionary ferment, it remains something quite apart from the Viet Cong insurgency. Those who aspire to lead the revolution claim that unless it is successful, the Viet Cong insurgency cannot be defeated.

The shift in the alignment of fundamental forces is responsible for much of the political turbulence of the urban scene. It is a process that involves the striking of new power balance in the midst of a war and in the absence of parliamentary traditions or institutions for the channeling of political conflict. Despite their deep antagonisms, neither the Buddhists nor Catholics have acquired political dominance, with the result that each can check but not cancel the power of the other. The same is true of the myriad of other political factions pressing their own interests.

While frequent changes in governments have had a debilitating effect on political and administrative stability, as well as on government efforts to create a national consciousness for support of the war effort, there remains an impressive resiliency among the Vietnamese people and their traditional way of life which is little affected by the cabinet changes in Saigon.

Nevertheless, the most significant element of stability and strength, insofar as the struggle against Communist insurgency is concerned, remains the external factor of U.S. military economic and political support. Without it, the country would quickly succumb to Communist domination.

B. The Military Scene

The Viet Cong probably controls somewhat more than 3 million Vietnamese in half the total rural area of the country. The GVN continues to control rural areas inhabited by an estimated 4.4 million. The remaining rural inhabitants, some 5.4 million, are subject to various stages of governmental pacification, or else not controlled by either side.

Viet Cong regulars, now estimated at 64,600 , are full-time, professional soldiers organized in identified units of up to regimental strength. They are for the most part well trained and equipped. The regulars are distinct from an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 irregular Viet Cong who operate as guerillas and self-defense militia troops. Another 30,000 armed political personnel staff the Viet Cong's party and administrative apparatus. The military activist figure may therefore be as high as 194,000.

The Viet Cong regular force has the capability of mounting large-scale actions well above present levels of activity. Such actions could theoretically involve as many as nine simultaneous attacks in regimental strength; even a series of coordinated, widespread attacks of lesser magnitude could seriously tax South Vietnamese ability to respond with the limited general reserve battalions available.

But the Viet Cong regular battalions vary widely in their combat effectiveness. Some are battle-tested veterans,while others are known to include relatively poor trained young recruits or recently infiltrated North Vietnamese Draftees with minimal training and little or no combat experience.

It is not clear whether the Viet Cong will sustain their currently stepped-up pace, whether present activity is the forerunner of a major offensive, or whether Viet Cong plans have been set back by increased U. S. activity and troop support. The concentration of Viet Cong forces in northern South Vietnam suggests Kontum, Pleiku, or their GVN interior strongholds as their likely targets for a major victory, possibly accompanied by an attempt to drive to the coast from their own inland strongholds, thereby cutting South Vietnam in two.

Arrayed against the Viet Cong is the South Vietnamese Army, numbering approximately 220,000 out of the total armed forces of roughly 250,000 men. The ARVN is capable of maintaining internal security in the major population centers, in some outlying areas, and along selected lines of communications. While its combat capabilities are affected by frequent command changes at top echelons, insufficient numbers of aggressive leaders and poor but improving logistics, the ARVN is well supplied with U. S. arms and equipment and has become gradually more effective in guerrilla operations. The ARVN, with continuing U. S. military support, has the capacity to prevent a Viet Cong military victory.

In alliance with the ARVN are the U. S. forces in Vietnam which now approach 70,000 -- a combined US/GVN total of 320,000.

Remaining in the background throughout the present conflict is the seasoned regular army of North Vietnam, numbering over 300,000 men.

3. France in 1954

Two key aspects of France's relation to the Indochina war in 1954 were the war's acute unpopularity and French political instability.

France was never united or consistent in her prosecution of the war in Indochina. The war was not popular in France itself, was actively opposed as many on the left, and was cynically used by others for domestic political ends.

The Viet Minh paid care attention to, drew considerable comfort and encouragement from, not infrequently made good use of the French domestic political factors. (Ho Chi Min's political and negotiating tactics during the 1945-46 period, in fact, were heavily influenced by his belief that the communists would soon come to power in France.

For a long time, Paris tried to pretend that the war was not a war but a "police action." Not until July 1952 was the legal status of "veteran" given to Frenchmen who had served in Indochina, and the National Assembly never did permit conscripts to be posted to the Indochina theater.

The ambiguous legal status of the conflict enabled French Communists to carry their opposition to the point of sabotage without incurring the legal charge of treason. Successive French governments had to contend concerted and organized domestic opposition; resolutions favoring negotiating and early withdrawal were frequently proposed and occasionally passed by non-Communist parties. Leak and counter leak was an accepted domestic political tactic, and, as a result, even highly classified reports or orders pertaining to the war were often published verbatim in the pages of political journals.

Pressures for negotiation and settlement mounted steadily in 1953, with a number of prominent politicians -- especially Pierre Mendes-France -- pushing such themes with vigor. The January 1954 Berlin conference gave new impetus to this pressure, and by February 18 it was decided that a conference should be held in Geneva in April to consider both Korea and Indochina.

Dien Bien Phu fell on the day before the opening of the Indochina phase of the Geneva Conference. Had parties had the will to continue the fight, replacements for the battle's losses could have been sent from France, and the Indochina war might have continued for months if not years.

Paris lacked the will, however, and the defeat at Dien Bien Phu made the French Government anxious to disengage as soon as possible. The fall of the Laniel cabinet on June 12 and the advent of Mendes-France as Premier on June 18 hastened the conclusion of a settlement.

4. The United States in 1965

The central themes of U. S. opinion regarding Vietnam appear to be considerable concern (over U. S. casualties, U. S. involvement, Saigon's political and instability, the risks of general war, the use of air strikes and napalm, etc.) but general support for the Administration.

In general, the public appears unenthusiastic but reconciled to our role in this conflict. While there is widespread questioning and uneasiness about the way in which we may be playing that role, the public as a whole seems to realize that the role must be played. Furthermore, open skepticism as to our tactics subsides at times of sharp crisis in the situation.

The most articulate critics of our present policy in Vietnam have been elements within the academic community and church organizations. Although usually a minority within their own groups, they have stimulated extensive worry and inquiry in the nation as a whole. With the end of the academic year, this protest movement has temporarily subsided.

Meanwhile, the Government's negotiatory posture since April 7th and the apparent intransigence of the Communists, has made it more difficult to advocate persuasive alternatives to Washington's current track. Criticism continues to be focused on the air strikes, however, and on the U. S. Government's apparent refusal to consider negotiations with NLF.

The latest Harris Poll (June 28) shows that 62% of the public expresses overall approval of the President's handling of the Vietnam crisis. Well over 70% of the people believe that Southeast Asia will go Communist if we do not stand firm in Vietnam, and they approve the President's call for unconditional negotiations. Twenty-three percent are not sure about bombings in the North or the sending of more troops during the monsoon season. However, of those with an opinion,
almost 80 percent approve of the bombing and over 60 percent believe we should send more troops. Skepticism as to the future of the conflict and our rights to be involved in it are expressed by the fact that 35 percent of the people believe that China has the right to ask us out of an area so close to her borders and 32 percent believe we might be involved in a land war we can't win.

The latest Gallup Poll (June 9) showed that the percentage of people who believed that we should continue our present course of action climbed from 13 to 20 percent in the last month. Those who believe that we should increase military action dropped from 23 to 21 percent and those who believed we should stop military action stayed virtually the same with only one point rise to 26 percent. The number of those expressing no opinion dropped from 35 to 28 percent.

With some exceptions, most editorials and columnists support the President in his determination to keep Vietnam independent. This support for the broad objective is tempered by a noticeable strain of criticism over a "lack of frankness" on the part of the Administration is discussing the depth of our commitment. Such criticism was most discernible after the seeming contradiction between the Department of State and the White House over the combat role of U. S. troops and after the Government's handling of the B-52 affair.

Those who oppose the Government in the press also seem to be presently concentrating on the demand that the U. S. negotiate directly with the Viet Cong and, to a lesser extent, that the bombing should be stopped again. In general, however, most newspapers appear convinced that the Administration is sincere in its desire to settle this conflict by negotiations and that the intransigence in on the Communists' side.

The most vocal current comment on the Vietnam situation is coming from the Congress. Senators Morse and Gruening remain convinced the we must pull out. There is another group, somewhat larger, which could be termed "reluctant realists" whose viscera says get out but whose heads tell them the present policy is unavoidable. Senators Mansfield, Church and Fulbright seem to fall in this category. Once again, the problem is one of offering a plausible alternative that would assure the
existence of a non-Communist South Vietnam.

The most recent Congressional development is the attack spearheaded by Representative Melvin Laird who states that unless we go for total victory we shouldn't commit U. S. ground troops. He threatens withdrawal of Republican support in the House. It is too early to judge the appeal of this maneuver.

Despite obvious Congressional disquiet, Congressional support has been demonstrated in the 512 -2 vote last August on the Southeast Asia Resolution and in the votes approving the President's request for a supplemental Vietnam appropriation (408-7 and 88-3)

5. Conclusion

I would seem clear from the foregoing analysis that despite superficial similarities, the situation faced by France in Vietnam in 1954 in not fundamentally analogous to that faced by the U. S. in Vietnam in 1965.

France in 1954 was a colonial power seeking to reimpose its overseas rule, out of tune with Vietnamese nationalism, deeply divided in terms of French domestic opinion, politically unstable at home, the victim of seven years of warfare -- the last four of them marked by military engagements on a scale far greater than anything yet encountered by the U. S. and the GVN.

The U. S. in 1965 is responding to the call of a people under Communist assault, a people undergoing a non-Communist national revolution; neither our power nor that of our adversaries has been fully engaged as yet. At home we remain politically strong and, in general, politically united. Options, both military and political, remain to us that were no longer available to the French.

McGeorge Bundy

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