Before World War II, France controlled the Southeast Asian nation of Vietnam. When that war started, Japanese troops occupied the country. A revolutionary movement arose among the Vietnamese people, led by a Communist named Ho Chi Minh, to fight the Japanese. At the end of the war, the revolutionaries celebrated in Hanoi, a city in northern Vietnam. A million people filled the streets, rejoicing that their country was free of foreign control at last.
But the Western powers were already taking away that freedom. Before long, England and the United States saw to it that France regained control of Vietnam. Revolutionaries in the north resisted, and in 1946 the French started bombing them. It was the beginning of an eight-year war against the Communist movement, called the Vietminh. Before it was over, the United States gave a billion dollars in military aid, along with hundreds of thousands of weapons, to the French to use in Vietnam.
Why did the United States help France? The official reason was to stop the rise of communism in Asia. Communist governments had already come to power in China and North Korea. It was the height of the Cold War, when communism was seen as the greatest danger to America. But could there have been other reasons as well?
A secret U.S. government memo from 1952 talked about Southeast Asia's resources. Its rubber, tin, and oil were important to the United States. If a government that was hostile to the United States came to power in Vietnam, it might get in the way of the United States' influence and interests. In 1954, a memo in the U.S. State Department said, "If the French actually decided to withdraw [from Vietnam], the U.S. would have to consider most seriously whether to take over in this area."
That same year, the French did withdraw from northern Vietnam. Under the peace agreement, the Vietminh agreed to remain in the north. The northern and southern parts of Vietnam were supposed to be unified after two years, and the people would be allowed to elect their own government. It seemed likely that they would choose Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh.