Tag Archives: 80%

The 1956 Vietnam Unification Elections

This past week the University of Texas at Austin held the Vietnam War Summit.  It was another disappointing attempt to analyze the war without the input of Vietnamese participants (other than the communist ambassador from Vietnam) and without views opposing the accepted wisdom of the anti-war scholars who dominate Vietnam War “scholarship”.

Particularly irritating was a session that included the inputs of communist sympathizers Tom Hayden and Marilyn Young without so much as a single opposing view.  Our own Dr. Robert Turner could have added much to the discussion, since he was personally involved in debating anti-war activists during the conflict.

The conference was discussed on Twitter under the hashtag #VietnamWarSummit, and that resurfaced some of the enduring myths of the war.

This is an old canard repeated by opponents of the Vietnam War to “prove” that Ngo Dinh Diem was never a popular leader.  Here’s the quote:

I am convinced that the French could not win the war because the internal political situation in Vietnam, weak and confused, badly weakened their military position. I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than Chief of State Bao Dai. Indeed, the lack of leadership and drive on the part of Bao Dai was a factor in the feeling prevalent among Vietnamese that they had nothing to fight for. As one Frenchman said to me, “What Vietnam needs is another Syngman Rhee, regardless of all the difficulties the presence of such a personality would entail.”

Those who use the quote often elide the fact that Eisenhower referred to Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai and not South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem.  They also ignore the fact that the quote dates to 1954 before the Geneva Accords were signed and referred to “the time of the fighting” rather than the brief peace that followed.

The claim is often tied to a related one.

The elections referred to are the ones recorded in a supplement to the Geneva Accords that was not signed by any state and would have taken place in 1956.  Neither the US nor South Vietnam were signatories to the accords and therefore neither agreed nor disagreed regarding elections at that time (although South Vietnam protested the talks since they were excluded).

While it is true that the US opposed the 1956 elections (as did Diem), the reason for doing so had nothing to do with Ho winning an election.  The objection was due to the Russian refusal to allow elections monitored by the UN.  By 1956 Ho was struggling with the disastrous results of his land reform program that killed tens of thousands of North Vietnamese landowners for the “crime” of being landowners.  At the same time Diem was being hailed as a “miracle worker” by the New York Times.

Rather than oppose elections, the US supported them until they realized that Diem was adamantly opposed unless they could be made free.

The U.S. did not–as is often alleged–connive with Diem to ignore the elections. U.S. State Department records indicate that Diem’s refusal to be bound by the Geneva Accords and his opposition to pre-election consultations were at his own initiative. However, the U.S., which had expected elections to be held, and up until May 1955 had fully supported them, shifted its position in the face of Diem’s opposition, and of the evidence then accumulated about the oppressive nature of the regime in North Vietnam.

In the US Secretary Dulles explained the US position and indicated that there was no fear of a Ho election victory if free elections were held:

Neither the United States Government nor the Government of Viet-Nam is, of course, a party to the Geneva armistice agreements. We did not sign them, and the Government of Viet-Nam did not sign them and, indeed, protested against them. On the other hand, the United States believes, broadly speaking, in the unification of countries which have a historic unity, where the people are akin. We also believe that, if there are conditions of really free elections, there is no serious risk that the Communists would win…..

However, opponents of the war continue to insist that not only was Eisenhower admitting that Ho would have defeated Diem in an election but that the US actively worked to prevent the elections from occurring.  Neither claim is even remotely supportable by the evidence.