The Pentagon Papers – A Detailed Summary of the First Three Volumes

Hi. I wanted to share some of the key statements from the first three volumes of the Pentagon Papers. This will give you a strong foundation when discussing the Vietnam War.

DATE: 15 January 1969
SUBJECT: Final Report, OSD Vietnam Task Force

On June 17, 1967, Secretary Robert S. McNamara directed that a Task Force be formed to study the history of United States involvement in Vietnam from World W II to the present. Mr. McNamara’s guidance was simply to do studies that were “encyclopedic and objective.” With six full-time professionals assigned to the Task Force, we were to complete our work in three months. A year and a half later, and with the involvement of six times six professionals, we are finally done to the tune of thirty-seven studies and fifteen collections of documents contained in forty-three volumes.

U.S. POLICY, 1940-1950

Significant misunderstanding has developed concerning U.S. policy towards Indochina in the decade of World War II and its aftermath.

On the one hand, the U.S. repeatedly reassured the French that its colonial possessions would be returned to it after the war. On the other hand, the U.S. broadly committed itself in the Atlantic Charter to support national self-determination, and President Roosevelt personally and vehemently advocated independence for Indochina.

F.D.R. regarded Indochina as a flagrant example of onerous colonialism which should be turned over to a trusteeship rather than returned to France. The President discussed this proposal with the Allies at the Cairo, Teheran, and Yalta Conferences and received the endorsement of Chiang Kai-shek and Stalin; Prime Minister Churchill demurred.

Ultimately, U.S. policy was governed neither by the principles of the Atlantic Charter, nor by the President’s anti-colonialism, but by the dictates of military strategy, and by British intransigence on the colonial issue.

Pressed by both the British and the French for clarification of U.S. intentions regarding the political status of Indochina, F.D.R. maintained that “it is a matter for postwar.”

The President’s trusteeship concept foundered as early as March 1943, when the U.S. discovered that the British…proved to be unwilling to join in any declaration on trusteeships, and indeed any statement endorsing national independence which went beyond the Atlantic Charter’s vague “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”

Despite his lip service to trusteeship and anti-colonialism, F.D.R. in fact assigned to Indochina a status correlative to Burma, Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia: free territory to be reconquered and returned to its former owners.

Shortly following President Truman’s entry into office, the U.S. assured France that it had never questioned, “even by implication, French sovereignty over Indo-China.” These guidelines, established by June, 1945 — before the end of the war — remained fundamental to U.S. policy.

Through the fall and winter of 1945-1946, the U.S. received a series of requests from Ho Chi Minh for intervention in Vietnam; these were, on the record, unanswered.

In late 1946, the Franco-Viet Minh War began in earnest.

At no point was the U.S. prepared to adopt an openly interventionist course. To have done so would have clashed with the expressed British view that Indochina Has an exclusively French concern, and played into the hands of France’s extremist political parties of both the Right and the Left.

Moreover, in 1946 and 1947, France and Britain were moving toward an anti Soviet alliance in Europe, and the U.S. was reluctant to press a potentially divisive policy. The U.S. considered the fate of Vietnamese nationalism relatively insignificant compared with European economic recovery and collective security from communist domination.

In February, 1947, early in the war, the U.S. Ambassador in Paris was instructed to reassure Premier Ramadier of the “very friendliest feelings” of the U.S. toward France and its interest in supporting France in recovering its economic, political and military strength:

…we have fully recognized France’s sovereign position in that area and we do not wish to have it appear that we are in any way endeavoring undermine that position, and French should know it is our desire to be helpful and we stand ready assist any appropriate way we can to find solution for Indochinese’ problem….do not lose sight fact that Ho Chi Minh has direct Communist connections and it should be obvious that we are not interested in seeing colonial empire administrations supplanted by philosophy and political organizations emanating from and controlled by Kremlin.

As of 1948, however, the U.S. remained uncertain that Ho and the Viet Minh were in league with the Kremlin. A State Department appraisal of Ho Chi Minh in July 1948, indicated that:

Dept has no evidence of direct link between Ho and Moscow, but assumes it exists, nor is it able evaluate amount pressure or guidance Moscow exerting. Furthermore, Ho seems quite capable of retaining and even strengthening his grip on Indochina with no outside assistance

In the fall of 1948, the Office of Intelligence Research in the Department of State conducted a survey of communist influence in Southeast Asia. Evidence of Kremlin-directed conspiracy was found in virtually all countries except Vietnam:

To date the Vietnam press and radio have not adopted an anti-American position. It is rather the French colonial press that has been strongly anti-American and has freely accused the U.S. of imperialism in Indochina to the point of approximating the official Moscow position. Although the Vietnam radio has been closely watched for a new position toward the U.S., no change has appeared so far.

The collapse of the Chinese Nationalist government in 1949 sharpened American apprehensions over communist expansion in the Far East, and hastened U.S. measures to counter the threat posed by Maols China.

January and February, 1950, were pivotal months. The French took the first concrete steps toward transferring public administration to Bao Dai’s State of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh denied the legitimacy of the latter, proclaiming the DRV as the “only legal government of the Vietnam people,” and was formally recognized by Peking and Moscow. On February 1, 1950, Secretary of State Acheson made the following public statement:

The recognition by the Kremlin of Ho Chi Minh’s communist movement in Indochina comes as a surprise. The Soviet acknowledgement of this movement should remove any illusions as to the ‘nationalist’ nature of Ho Chi Minhts aims and reveals Ho in his true colors as the mortal enemy of native independence in Indochina.

French requests for aid in Indochina followed within a few weeks. On May 8, 1950, the Secretary of State announced that:

The United States Government convinced that neither national independence nor democratic evolution exist in any area dominated by Soviet imperialism, considers the situation to be such as to warrant its according economic aid and military equipment to the Associated States of Indochina and to France in order to assist them in restoring stability and permitting these states to pursue their peaceful and democratic development.

The U. S. thereafter was deeply involved in the developing war.

U.S. Involvement in the Franco-Viet Minh War, 1950-1954

It has been argued that even as the U.S. began supporting the French in Indochina, the U.S. missed opportunities to bring peace, stability and independence to Vietnam.

The Bao Dai regime was neither popular nor efficient, and its army,
dependent on French leadership, was powerless.

(1) Washington wanted France to fight the anti-communist war and win, preferably with U.S. guidance and advice; and (2) Washington expected the French, when battlefield victory was assured, to magnanimously withdraw from Indochina.

Even though by 1954, the U.S. was financing 78% of the costs of the war, the French retained full control of the dispensation of military assistance and of the intelligence and planning aspects of the military struggle.

American thinking and policy-making was dominated by the tendency to view communism in monolithic terms. The Viet Minh was, therefore, seen as part of the Southeast Asia manifestation of the world-wide communist expansionary movement. French resistance to Ho Chi Minh, in turn, was thought to be a crucial link in the containment of communism. This strategic perception of the communist threat was supported by the espousal of the domino principle: the loss of a single nation in Southeast Asia to communism would inexorably lead to the other nations of the area falling under communist control. The domino principle, which probably had its origin at the time of the Nationalist withdraw from mainland China, was at the root of U.S. policy. Although elements of a domino-like theory could be found in NSC papers before the start of the Korean War, the Chinese intervention in Korea was thought to be an ominous confirmation of its validity. The possibility of a large scale Chinese intervention in Indochina, similar to that in Korea, was feared, especially after the armistice in Korea.

The Eisenhower Administration followed the basic policy of its predecessor, but also deepened the American commitment to containment in Asia. Secretary Dulles pursued a forthright, anti-communist policy and made it clear that he would not permit the “loss” of Indochina, in the manner the Democrats had allegedly allowed the “loss” of China. Dulles warned China not to intervene, and urged the French to drive toward a military victory. Dulles was opposed to a cease-fire and tried to dissuade the French from negotiations with the Viet Minh until they had markedly improved their bargaining position through action on the battlefield.

The Geneva Accord 1954

It is charged that the U.S. tried to sabotage the Geneva Conference, first by maneuvering to prevent the conference from taking place, then by attempting to subvert a settlement, and finally, by refusing to guarantee the resulting agreements of the conference.

U.S. efforts were directed at preventing a French collapse in Vietnam prior to a settlement at Geneva. If the conference were to take place, the U. S. believed that any settlement likely to result would be contrary to U.S. interests. The U.S. aim was, therefore, to take the emphasis off the conference and put it back onto the battlefield.

Even as the French-Vietnamese military position continued to deteriorate on the battlefield, the U.S. became more convinced than ever of the need for decisive military victory.

Moreover, the U.S. threatened to “disassociate” itself from the conference if the results were not favorable to the West.

France, unwilling to accept the prerequisites for U.S. intervention , and under domestic pressure , decided to pursue a political settlement at the conference table rather than united military action.

The implied threat of U.S. intervention , however, was allowed to remain.

Yet, even as we urged our desires on France, we made clear that we would
not be able to sign, guarantee, or associate ourselves with any accord. The U.S. role ‘was t o be passive’ and formal and firmly against co-signing any document with the communists.

Compelled to go along with Anglo-French preference for negotiating with the communists, the U.S. nevertheless did not shake its pessimism over the probable results. Our position remained that nothing short of military victory could settle the Indochina War in a manner favorable to Free World interests. The rationale behind this unequivocal perspective on negotiations was first set out fully by the JCS in March 1954, when the Chiefs examined the alternatives to military victory and found them all infeasible or unacceptable to the U.S.

The Chiefs also commented at some length on the difficult question of elections. They took the position that even if elections in Vietnam could be carried out along democratic lines (which they doubted), a communist victory would almost certainly result because of communist territorial control, popular support , and superior tactics:

Such factors as the prevalence of illiteracy, the lack of suitable educational media, and the absence of adequate communications in the outlying areas would render the holding of a truly representative plebiscite of doubtful feasibility. The Communists, by virtue of their superior capability in the field of propaganda, could readily pervert the issue as being a choice between national independence and French Colonial rule. Furthermore, it would be militarily infeasible to prevent widespread intimidation of voters by Communist partisans . While it is obviously impossible to make a dependable forecast as to the outcome of a free election, current intelligence leads the Joint Chiefs to the belief that a settlement based upon free elections would be attended by almost certain loss of the Associated States to Communist control.

At the time the Conference began, the State of Vietnam was concerned and  suspicious about the possibilities of a partitioning of the country. Mindful of past instances of partition in Korea and Germany, and deeply in doubt of French willingness to stand firm against Viet Minh territorial claims, the GVN [Government of (South) Viet Nam] urged the French government to give written assurance that Paris would not seek a division of Vietnam.

In their talks with the Viet Minh, however, the French found their adversary as stubborn at the bargaining table as on the battlefield. The negotiations during most of May made insignificant progress; but toward the end of the month, the Viet Minh made their first major concession when they strongly hinted that, given the right conditions, they might lift their demand for a united Vietnam. This, it can be speculated, was seen by Paris as a way of getting itself off the hook. While it may have been unacceptable to negotiate all of Vietnam away, half of Vietnam could be sold to the U.S. as a realistic compromise.

Thus, quite contrary to French and Vietnames expectations, the Viet Minh had opened the way toward partition and appeared willing to contemplate the creation, albeit temporary, of separate zones of political control.

The GVN could not now accept partition “without betraying its own people”:

With reference to Vietnam, the Vietnam delegation wished to warn the conference against any measures tending to divide the national territory. If a division of Vietnam were to be sanctioned, the result would not be peace but only a pause before fresh hostilities … Partition would therefore mean sooner or later — probably sooner — a renewal of war.

The French finally agreed to Vietnam-wide elections within two years. As in the partition agreements, the GVN was not able to influence that decision to any appreciable degree. In the larger sense, GVN aspirations were sacrificed to the position of France versus its Communist antagonist. Each side was determined not to allow all of Vietnam to fall into the hands of the other. France agreed to elections, knowing — as the USSR and China also knew — that elections might never be held.

The French moved swiftly after Geneva, under American urging, to relinquish to the GVN the full trappings of the sovereignty granted in June, 1954. By mid-September, the turning over of the civil service, police, and other public administration in South Vietnam was formally completed. By February, 1955, the Vietnamese Army was placed under the command of Vietnamese leaders and the French accepted American primacy in advising, training, and equipping GVN armed forces.

It has been charged that Ho Chi Minh was robbed at the conference table of what he had won on the battlefield,

Viet Minh ambitions were thwarted, not so much by Western resistance or treachery, as by Sino-Soviet pressures on them to compromise. If the Viet Minh were to look for villains at the Geneva Conference in honesty they would have to admit that their interests were compromised by their own communist allies, not the West.

While the exact motives of the Soviet Union and Communist China must remain a matter of speculation, the most acceptable explanation for their behavior is that both sought to achieve their objectives in Southeast Asia without triggering U.S. intervention “Peaceful co-existence” was the hallmark of their diplomacy. The Chinese, in particular, were interested in border security, buffers, preventing the formation of a U.S. alliance system with bases in the region, and reconstruction at home. The two big communist powers did not hesitate in asserting the paramountcy of their interests over those of the Viet Minh.

The DRV, by the end of the conference, had moved a long way from its initial position on every important consideration. The ceasefire was considered ahead of the political decisions. The country was partitioned, giving the GVN about half the total territory, which was probably much more than it deserved on the basis of France-GVN military strength. Elections were put off for two years instead of being held immediately, and control of the elections was to be international rather than local.

Ho commented much later on his personal feelings about the results of the Geneva Conference, and from these comments comes an indication of his feelings on later situations:

We thought we had achieved something with the French by compromising and it turned out to be shaky. Only through full and unconditional independence can we achieve stability … We are determined to continue to fight until we achieve total victory, that is, military and political.

Thanks for reading,


The Complete Pentagon Papers:

2 responses to “The Pentagon Papers – A Detailed Summary of the First Three Volumes”

  1. […] The Pentagon Papers – A Detailed Summary of the First Three Volumes:… […]

Leave a Reply