Prior to WWII Vietnam had been a French colony, and as a consequence of rebuilding Europe after the war, the French exerted control over Vietnam again with the support of the United States. Vietnamese resistance grew to this occupation and a wider war ensued culminating in the famous battle at Dien Bien Fu. Despite U.S. support of nearly 70% of the war, the French were defeated by a resistance group of nationalist soldiers known as the Viet Minh. Their leader, Ho Chi Minh, attempted for years to win the support of the United States by sending letters to each President asking for their support of Vietnamese independence, but his correspondence was never returned.
Following the end of French colonization, a peace settlement was reached at the Geneva conference in 1954. The country was temporarily divided along the 17th parallel, with the idea that an election would be held in two years to reunify the country. It was understood that Ho Chi Minh was above all, a nationalist leader, but Minh’s communist inclinations and calls for independence threatened powerful political and economic interests in the United States. Devised as the foundation for continued U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, the “Domino Theory” proved justification enough as President Eisenhower described the communist influence as resembling a row of dominoes, insisting that, “if you knock over the first one… you could have the beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.” (7)
Considering the possibility of a Ho Chi Minh victory in the 1956 election, the U.S. chose to install its own candidate in the south, a Catholic mandarin named Ngo Dinh Diem. The Geneva mandated elections were quickly undermined by a national referendum, in which Diem “won a reported 98.2%” of the vote. (8) While making himself the President of the newly created [South] Vietnamese government, Diem created the Personalist Labor Party, described as an “interlocking maze of clandestine cells present in the military, the police and security services, the government and private enterprise.” (9) Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, would later be seen as a liability by the leadership of the U.S., and they were both killed in a CIA backed coup just weeks before the assassination of John F. Kennedy.