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Roosevelt And Indochina

July 2024
2min read

Playing the game of what might have been holds a gloomy fascination for most of us, and historians are no exception. It can be a particularly heartbreaking pastime when it shows us lost alternatives to current woes. Now, as our unhappy involvement in Vietnam creeps toward the end of its first decade, Gary R. Hess, an associate professor of history at Bowling Green State University, writes about how the whole conflict might have been avoided. In his article “Franklin Roosevelt and Indochina,” which appeared in a recent issue of The Journal of American History , Professor Hess tells of Roosevelt’s postwar plans for Southeast Asia.

During the Second World War the President, hoping to prevent the resumption of French rule in Indochina, formulated a plan to establish an international trusteeship that would lead to eventual independence for that area. Although the French were reluctant to give up their former colony, Roosevelt had gained support for his plan from two of America’s major allies, Russia and China. But, writes Professor Hess:
The Indochina trusteeship died with Roosevelt. President Harry Truman declined to interfere in French plans. … Finally, at the Potsdam Conference, the Americans and British agreed that the liberation of Indochina should be accomplished by the British south of the sixteenth parallel and by the Chinese north of that line. This proved to be vital because it made certain the French return in the south.
Roosevelt’s plan held much potential for the United States and for the peoples of Indochina. An international trusteeship arrangement might have prevented the clash between the French and nationalists that triggered the long and bitter struggle which culminated in Dienbienphu. It also would have helped elevate the Allied cause among the colonial peoples because it would have shown that the war’s goal was not to reestablish the European empires. The Allied ambivalence on colonialism after the war produced disillusionment among the peoples of South and Southeast Asia.
… When the Japanese control abruptly collapsed in August, the Viet Minh moved into a political vacuum. But while the Viet Minh gained the political ascendancy, it did not exercise full and effective political control when the British and Chinese forces began arriving. Had the Allies been committed to a trusteeship plan, it is possible that such an arrangement could have been the formula for a transitional political settlement. If the willingness of Ho Chi Minh, in his dealings with the French in 19451946 to accept intermediary measures short of immediate independence can serve as a guide, it is likely that he would have accepted the trusteeship arrangement.
The trusteeship, moreover, could have built upon the favored position of the United States within Indochina. … everyone anticipated a Japanese defeat would result in independence under American guidance. Most important, the United States had become identified with the Viet Minh, having aided it during the war through the Office of Strategic Services, and the American officers who had contact with Ho and his followers had manifested enthusiastic support for the Viet Minh’s claims against a resumption of French control. Ho cultivated the friendship of the OSS officers and, through them, conveyed to Washington his sympathy for the United States and the ideals of the Atlantic Charter. When United States policy shifted to tacit support of the French, the American position understandably suffered. … Looking back over the twenty-five years of bloodshed in Indochina since the end of World War n, a scholar can conclude that the trusteeship plan deserved more thoughtful consideration by the Allies and more vigorous advocacy by Roosevelt than it received.

Since there was no trusteeship, the French got their colony back, paid a steep price for it, and eventually lost it forever. Now it appears that the United States is in the unenviable position of being the last great Western power to wage an expensive and indecisive war in the old French territory. It may seem needlessly painful to taunt ourselves with images of what the last decade could have been like without Vietnam, but it is necessary nonetheless. If we can work all the might-havebeens into one creditable might-be, perhaps we can avoid future Vietnams; and then those tarnished years will not have been entirely wasted.

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