Truman and the Specter of Communist China

The signing of the "Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance" on February 14, 1950. Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong are standing in the background. Zhou Enlai is shown seated, signing the treaty, followed by Soviet Minister of Foregin Affairs Andrey Vyshinsky.

On October 1, 1949, standing proudly in Beijing’s Gate of Heavenly Peace, Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of China. President Harry S. Truman was confronted with a firestorm of criticism from Republicans in Congress, who howled that the Democratic administration had "lost" China. Critics of the Truman administration redoubled their attacks after February 14, 1950, when the USSR and China signed a Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, magnifying the specter of a hostile, global, monolithic Communist confederacy.

The Observations of W. Averell Harriman

Serving as a special envoy for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Averell Harriman attended many of the landmark international conferences between the allied powers of the Second World War. In 1948 he was put in charge of the Marshall Plan by President Truman. On January 29, 1979, he was interviewed on public television station WGBH-TV and spoke about the French return to Indochina following the surrender of Japan.

Postwar concerns over the spread of the Soviet sphere of influence in Europe surely affected U.S. policy in Indochina. Harriman had been made aware that France was diverting American economic aid to their war effort in Indochina. He tried to convince U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson to pressure France to scale down in Indochina and was rebuffed, the reason being that Acheson was at the moment trying to get France to accept German entry into the defense of Western Europe.

This explains why the U.S. didn't tell France to leave Indochina, but we still haven't explained what motivated the U.S to provide support for the French effort to maintain their colonies in present-day Vietnam.

The Korean War and Containment of “Red China”

After the People's Liberation Army captured Hainan Island from Nationalist forces at the beginning of May 1950, Truman approved an allocation of $10 million in military supplies for French forces in Indochina. This decision was first announced publicly by Truman on June 27 in a press release, two days after North Korea opened its offensive against the Republic of Korea. In his statement, in which Truman detailed plans to prevent further Communist aggression, he "directed acceleration in the furnishing of military assistance to the forces of France …".

At dawn on June 25, 1950, the Korean People's Army poured across the 38th parallel into South Korea. In the WGBH interview, Harriman recounted the Truman administration's initial reaction to that development. At first, Truman didn't know who was backing the North Korean invasion and suspected the People's Republic of China. The U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet was dispatched to Taiwan to protect it from a potential Communist Chinese invasion, and also to prevent Chiang Kai-shek's government from continuing its attacks on the mainland.

On July 15, a joint State Department / Defense Department survey mission arrived in Saigon to determine what role the United States might play. Harriman explains that the administration wanted to prevent the Chinese from becoming involved, adding that it had nothing to do with Indochina, it had to do with a problem that the war we were having in Korea.

By 1954, 80 percent of the French war effort in Indochina was being funded by the U.S., which provided France with more than $2.6 billion in military aid between 1950 and 1954.

The Pentagon Papers

The following excerpt from The Pentagon Papers, Evolution of the War. Aid for France in Indochina, 1950-54 demonstrates that the motivating factor in the U.S. provision of support for France in Indochina was the 1949 victory of Communist forces in China.

The United States decision to provide military assistance to France and the Associated States of Indochina was reached informally in February/March 1950, funded by the President on May 1, 1950, and was announced on May 8 of that year. The decision was taken in spite of the U.S. desire to avoid direct involvement in a colonial war, and in spite of a sensing that France's political-military situation in Indochina was bad and was deteriorating. Moreover, predictions that U.S. aid would achieve a marked difference in the course of the Indochina War were heavily qualified.

The situation in which the decision was made was completely dominated by the take-over of and consolidation of power in China by the communists. Nationalist Chinese forces had been withdrawn from mainland China and Communist Chinese troops had arrived on the border of Indochina in late 1949. This period was the high water mark of U.S. fears of direct Chinese Communist intervention in Indochina. NIE 5 of 29 December 1950 stated: "Direct intervention by Chinese Communist troops may occur at any time . . . it is almost certain to occur in strength whenever there is danger either that the Viet Minh will fail to maintain its military objective of driving the French out of Indochina, or that the Bao Dai Government [South Vietnam] is succeeding in undermining the support of the Viet Minh."