Why America Lost Vietnam (It Was All Imperial Japan’s Fault?)

Why America Lost Vietnam (It Was All Imperial Japan’s Fault?)

Michael Peck

Security, Asia

Should America have been there in the first place? Some historical perspective is in order. 

Key point: History is a chain of related events.

In March of 1945, and just five months before surrendering to the Allies, Japan did something with profound consequences: it conquered Vietnam—and ultimately embroiled the United States in its first lost war.

To be accurate, Japan did not seize Vietnam as we conceive of Vietnam today. It seized French Indochina, that region of Southeast Asia comprising Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, which France had conquered in the name of the French Empire.

The story really begins in the summer of 1940, after France surrendered to Germany. But while metropolitan France lay prostrate under the Nazi jackboot, France’s empire in Africa and Asia remained intact under the Vichy French collaborationist government, shielded from Hitler by the oceans and the British Royal Navy that patrolled them.

Nonetheless, France had another enemy: the Japanese Empire. Just days after the French surrender, Indochina’s colonial government received a demand from Japan: shut down the rail line running from the port of Haiphong to southern China, over which American supplies flowed to the Chinese armies battling Japanese invaders.

With just seventy thousand troops, fifteen modern fighter planes and a handful of tanks, French Indochina was in no position to refuse. But with a resolve that would have better employed fighting the Germans, the French refused to comply. Japan responded with a quick but violent amphibious invasion, backed by warships and aircraft that cost the French army a thousand dead. By the end of September, France had agreed to allow Japan station several thousand troops and deploy aircraft on Indochinese airfields (it was from these airfields that Japanese torpedo bombers sunk the British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse on December 10, 1941).

In July 1941, Japan occupied the rest of Indochina, a fatal mistake that precipitated the U.S. oil embargo, which led to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. What ensued was an ironic case of imperialists ruling imperialists, as the Japanese effectively controlled Indochina while allowing the French authorities to control the Vietnamese.

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