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Chapter 5 excerpt

Vietnam: Reconstruction after communist revolution

Liberty's Surest Guardian bookcover


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This chapter analyzes the failures of American nation-building in Vietnam during the Cold War. Above all, American policies suffered from the absence of effective and legitimate PARTNERS.

Franklin Roosevelt was a war leader who valued flexibility and elusiveness, often to a fault. His closest advisors could rarely get him to take a firm position on divisive strategic issues, like the opening of the Second Front against Hitler, postwar control of Eastern Europe, and future cooperation with Stalinist Russia. Unlike many of his successors in the White House, Roosevelt avoided the temptation to articulate categorical positions on controversial issues with no easy point of resolution.

On the future of Southeast Asia, however, the president departed from this pattern. Although he had little personal knowledge or interest in Indochina, Roosevelt committed the United States to the postwar removal of French colonialism from the region. He consistently pushed for "national independence" in what became Vietnam, despite strong British urgings to the contrary.

Roosevelt warned Churchill that all inherited European empires in Asia were sources of instability and violence, as they had been in the Western Hemisphere a century earlier. They offended moral claims to freedom, retarded economic development, and, most dangerous of all, encouraged extremist politics—fascist and communist. These were the lessons Roosevelt had learned from his observations of the 20th-century world. These were very American assumptions about the evils of empire. Roosevelt was firm and consistent in his anticolonialism.

Before the Second World War, Americans were already accustomed to dismantling what they perceived as degenerate and inhumane empires. These included the British North American imperium of the late 18th century, the slave aristocracy of the 1860s, and the Spanish empire at the end of the 19th century. In each of these cases, American had acted to destroy established political power and replace it with a more open, representative, and "modern" alternative.

The United States substituted American-style nation-building for inherited empire. Roosevelt perceived French Indochina in precisely these terms. Paris was the degenerate colonizer of Southeast Asia. The French Empire had contributed to violence, poverty, and chaos, according to the president. Americans would replace empire with nation-states for the sake of peace, stability, and development in the region.

Roosevelt's hatred of French imperial rule influenced his war strategy. Until early 1945 he resisted British suggestions to work with French figures against Japanese forces in Southeast Asia. Instead, the president favored collaboration with Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist (Guomindang) Chinese forces.

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Ho Chi Minh1 Ngo Dinh Diem2 Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger3 Ho Chi Minh speech4 Franklin Delano Roosevelt5 Ho Chi Minh and Georges Bidault6 Thanh Hoa elections7 Ho Chih Minh Congress8 1966 SV Congress9 Premier Pham van Dong10 North Vietnamese school11 North Vietnam elections12 youths join army13 North Vietamese soldiers14 School children15 Child check-up16 Tet and soldiers17 Women at SV workshop18



Photos for North Vietnam and Corresponding Caption Numbers: 1966 Collection: 11 Congress Collection: 1, 2, and 4 Election Collection: 1, 5, and 7 Heroic Collection: 6 Khe San Collection: 6 Children Collection: 6, 7, 10, 13 Spring Collection: 4 Three Responsibilities: 6, 10