Marine Corps (South Vietnam)

Republic of Vietnam (Viet Nam Cong Hoa)

Many of the difficulties confronting the government in South Vietnam could be traced to complications caused by the country's sudden change from the status of a colony to that of a sovereign state burdened with disadvantages incident to limited resources in leadership and to a society composed of widely varied, often disparate, ethnic, religious, political and social elements. From its beginning, or during the course of some two dozen years, the state had to build. Its basic governmental structure, virtually under war conditions imposed by powerful and aggressive subversive forces, directed and liberally supported by Communist North Vietnam.

The entire country lay below the Tropic of Cancer, between the 8th and 17th parallels. The climate is generally hot and humid the year round. In winter the country lies under a high pressure system that causes a dry season in the south. In the summer, however, rains fall heavily, varying from torrential downpours to steady mists. The northern region of South Vietnam has the most rain, averaging 128 inches, while the Saigon region averages 80 inches. In the northern region and the Central Highlands, where most of the fighting by U.S. troops during the war occurred, dense fog and low clouds often grounded all aircraft. About ten times a year, usually between July and November, typhoons blow in from the South China Sea, soaking South Vietnam with heavy rains and lashing it with fierce winds.

Approximately 85 per cent of South Vietnam's population of about 15 million people was ethnic Vietnamese, whose predecessors inched their way down the coastal lowlands from the Red River Delta in the North. The process spanned 600 years and was capped by an enormous emigration after the Geneva partition of 1954, involving nearly a million northerners.

South Vietnam in the 1960s could be classified as an insurgent's paradise and a counterinsurgentJs nightmare. All of the elements for successful insurgency -- a cause, a weak counterinsurgent, favorable geographic conditions, and adequate outside support -- were fulfilled in the situation in the South.

An ill-led army and a sclerotic bureaucracy, both still practicing the authoritarian style of their decayed dynastic and colonial predecessors, presided over a body politic divided along religious, ethnic, and class lines. Tension persisted between a Buddhist majority and the heavily Catholic government, and also between Buddhist and Catholic factions in the military officer corps. Among members of the political and military elites, mutual hostility continued between native Southerners and people from, the North. Mutual antipathy also divided ethnic Vietnamese from minorities such as the ethnic Cambodians and the mountain tribes. Finally, a rigid social structure and -- espeeially in the Mekong Delta - a regressive land tenure system impeded vertical social mobility for the peasantry, leaving the Viet Cong as the main channel for the satisfaction of political goals or personal ambition.

In February, 1950 Great Britain and the United States recognized the State of Vietnam, headed by Emperor Bao Dai, as the legitimate governnent. When France concluded agreements with Laos and Can1bodia similar to the one with Vietnam, the three countries became the Associated States of Indo-China and were accorded diplomatic recognition by more than thirty other nations. In 1954 with the Geneva Conference nearing a conclusion, Bao Dai [vho was living in Paris] appointed as Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem, a longtime nationalist and member of a family influential in Vietnam for two centuries. Despite much subsequent hindsight, Diem's appointment was well received by both the Vietnamese people and foreign observers.

With the decision in 1954 to support Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States was undertaking not only to establish a leader but to create a country. In the territory south of the 17th parallel, which Americans at first called Free Vietnam, there existed neither a sense of nationhood nor an indigenous administration. Cochin China, comprised of Saigon and the Mekong Delta, had had only a tenuous connection with the imperial authority in Hue before becoming a French colony. Annam, in the center, was now cut in half. Free Vietnam lacked not only an administrative apparatus but also a cadre of indigenous politicians accustomed to the exercise of power.

The US decision to replace the French as the guarantor of a non-Communist Vietnam represented the end of a tortuous path that first ran in the opposite direction. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's generic hostility to, European colonialism and specific antipathy for Charles de Gaulle led him, during early planning for the postwar period, to suggest a United Nations trusteeship for Indochina. He later retreated from this, partly to avoid further demoralizing an already prostrate France. Although President Harry S Truman was not so personally hostile to French aims in Indochina as Roosevelt had been, opposition to the restoration of the colonial regime also fed on the perception of the State Department's Southeast Asian experts that the French would inevitably come to grief on the rocks of Vietnamese nationalism.

The gradual intensification of the Cold War eroded earlier American impressions of Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist leader who might be encouraged or manipulated into becoming an "Asian Tito". The final Communist victory in China in 1949 and Pyongyang's invasion of South Korea in 1950 reinforced the American view of Communism as an implacably expansionist monolith. Indochina came to be seen as critical to the defense of the Asian littoral. In Europe, first priority was the construction of NATO, and the United States was ready to pay the French a substantial price for their agreement to the rearming of West Germany.

After the partition of Vietnam with the Geneva Agreements of 1954, the Eisenhower administration began to directly support the government in the South headed by Ngo Dinh Diem. President Eisenhower, in a letter to Diem, promised to help Diem maintain a "strong, viable state capable of resisting outside aggression." Armed with this support, in July 1954, Diem rejected the reunification elections provided for in the Geneva Agreements and declared South Vietnam a republic with himself as president.

An apocalyptic but widely accepted version of the domino theory held that the loss of Indochina would invite Communist advances along the entire line from Japan to the Suez Canal. Indochina was the focus of the first of the domino image, at a press conference heldby President Eisenhower on 7 April 1954. Domestic political considerations also intensified the pressure to act. The "who lost China?" debate and its exploitation by Senator Joseph McCarthy inhibited consideration of the possibility that the job could not be done, or at least not at an acceptable cost. The famous Army-McCarthy hearings were going on as the battle of Dien Bien Phu came to a close.