FOREIGN OFFICE FILES: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Series Two: Vietnam, 1959-1975
Part 1: Vietnam, 1959-1963
Professor Lawrence Freedman
Department of War Studies
King’s College, London
Although Britain was not directly involved in the Vietnam War she did have substantial interests in South East Asia, and was anxious to monitor the situation closely. And whilst Britain regarded the United States as her principal ally, she was not uncritical of American diplomacy and military initiatives. The finely honed reporting skills of the Foreign Office were brought to bear on the situation and their testimony forms a useful complement to the evidence given in US State Department Files.
We may not agree with the comment of H A F Hohler (the British Ambassador to Vietnam) that “we who are much less closely engaged in the day-to-day conduct of the war, are able to see things more clearly”, but Britain’s experience in Malaya in the 1940s and 1950s and her involvement in India, Burma, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong gave her an important, alternative perspective.
Scholars interested in the implications of the war from a Pacific Rim viewpoint will also find important evidence in these files concerning the attitudes of Australia, New Zealand and other Commonwealth nations towards the war.
The first four parts of this project cover all of the relevant FO 371 Files for the period 1959-1963, taken from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, SEATO, and South East Asia General sections.
Part 1 covers the complete run of FO 371 Files for Vietnam for 1959-1963, the period that witnessed the start of the armed struggle in the South by the communists to unite the country under their control; and the United States’ efforts to secure the survival of an independent non-communist South Vietnam. The period ends with the overthrow and execution of President Diem, and a considerable and growing American presence in South Vietnam. By the late 1950s the nature of the Vietnam conflict had changed from a nationalist struggle against colonialism, to a war of world wide significance. The Americans in particular, during this period became increasingly drawn into the conflict as the prospect of a unified communist Vietnam loomed ever larger and the weaknesses of the regime in the South was exposed. Investing massive amounts of military and civil resources in the South to bolster the regime, the United States laid the foundations for their later role in the war when American forces would take on active combat duties and the full weight of the United States’ military might would be brought to bear against the Viet Cong and their Northern patrons.
The documents in Part 1 of the Series contains material covering the momentous developments of this crucial early period of the Vietnam conflict, with specific files giving the British view on:
The internal political situation in North and South Vietnam
The leading personalities involved
Vietnam’s political and commercial relations with other countries
The International Commission for Supervision and Control in Vietnam
The economic and financial situation in Vietnam
Vietnamese labour and trade unions,
US military assistance to South Vietnam
Repatriation of Vietnamese refugees
The Geneva Conference
The coups against Diem and his final overthrow and murder
The British Advisory Mission in Saigon and the Strategic Hamlet Programme
Buddhism and the conflict with the Diem Government
There is also a great deal of material covering Anglo-American discussions, dispatches from the British Embassy and reports on visits to the area by British politicians and diplomats. Much interest is also shown in military affairs with weekly reports on the operations against the Viet Cong, giving detailed analysis of the situation and statistics.
The following extracts, taken from documents in the collection, give an idea of the kind of material to be found in Part 1. The first extract, from the Annual Report for 1958 on North and South Vietnam [FO 371/144387], highlights British concerns about the increasingly repressive nature of the South Vietnamese government and fears that it could alienate important sections of the population:
“...If M. Diem’s régime has thus done fairly well over providing bread it has been less successful with its circuses. A policy of concentrating on a few limited if massive objectives and postponing everything else, including progress towards greater political freedom, as luxuries which the country cannot afford at present, has obvious drawbacks. Those sections of the population not directly involved in the tasks in hand, and this includes a large proportion of the educated, professional and business classes in the larger towns, become increasingly frustrated. It may be unfair, though certainly not surprising, but the impression has grown during the year that M. Diem’s régime is moving toward greater intolerance and increasing despotism. The constant problem of internal security obviously postulates a strong executive, and armed communist subversion has to be countered by strong arm methods. Again M. Diem’s agrarian reform, which involves a major redistribution and resettlement of population, cannot be carried through without a measure of arbitrary authority. The Government are thus largely the prisoners of circumstances and could hardly, even if they wished, move very far towards genuine democracy. Nor, during the year, has there been any sign of an effectively organised opposition emerging to urge them in this direction. But their critics increased both in number and in outspokenness...”
The next extract, part of a secret telegram from Washington to the Foreign Office dated March 1961 and taken from a file on the Internal Political Situation of Vietnam [FO 371/160110], illustrates how Britain’s experiences in Malaya were regarded as valuable in relation to advising on the Vietnamese situation, and how those same experiences made British diplomats far less sanguine about developments than their American counterparts. Concerns about the poor reputation that Diem’s government enjoyed, this time in the West, are again expressed:
“...the American side, in reviewing the situation in Vietnam said that they were conscious of the need for liberalization of the Diem regime. The American Ambassador had made repeated suggestions to the Vietnamese on this point. There was some indication of responsiveness on President Diem’s part. It was felt, however, that certain Western observers, especially newspaper-men, tend to overemphasise the shortcomings of the regime.
The Americans believe the main problem continues to be that of the communist threat. A plan had recently been put forward to the Vietnamese Government, intended through certain changes in the government and an increase in the armed forces by 20,000 men, to increase efficiency in dealing with communists. This plan is under study by President Diem.
The Americans believe that, in terms of Diem’s security an improvement in relations with Prince Sihanouk is essential. Both sides agree that British, American and French Ambassadors in Saigon and possibly Phnom Penh might help in this regard. The British expressed an interest in the counter-insurgency plan and suggested that, with benefit of their Malayan experience, they might be of help. It was agreed that more information on the plan would be made available to the British. The British appreciation of the overall situation in Vietnam, is in general, more pessimistic than that of the Department of State. They are inclined to agree, however, that President Diem does not seem to be taking realistic steps to meet his problem.”
The final extract, from FO 371/ 170092, gives an indication of how Britain, though not ostensibly involved in events, did have an important behind the scenes role in shaping political events in Vietnam:
“Visit of the Vietnamese Ambassador August 22, 1963
Monsieur Luyen’s object is doubtless to justify the declaration of martial law by his brother, President Diem, yesterday morning, and the government raids of the previous night on all the main Buddhist pagodas....
We think the President and his family have been suicidally foolish in their harsh handling of the Buddhists and are largely responsible for growing Buddhist intransigence.
We have suggested to the State Department that Mr Etherington-Smith might be instructed to give Diem a jolt, by telling him that, unless he mends his ways, we shall no longer be able to defend him vis-à-vis the Soviet Co-Chairman. We have not yet received a reply from Washington and are meanwhile withholding comment, despite the fact that the State Department have issued a forthright condemnation. In view of the United States involvement in South Vietnam, they have to speak more openly about Vietnamese internal affairs than we should.”
Parts 2-4 of this Series will complete the project for the period 1959-1963 by taking a broader geographical and political view. Parts 2 and 3 will bring together all the FO 371 South East Asia Department files for Laos and Cambodia; with Part 4 covering Thailand, SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organisation), and all relevant South East Asia General files. Together all four parts provide a comprehensive British overview of the Vietnam war and its repercussions during this period, not only in Vietnam itself, but throughout South East Asia and beyond.
Further sets will continue the theme up to 1975.
Associate Professor of History,
Ohio State University