Where the Domino Fell
A chronology, a glossary, and a bibliography all serve as helpful reference points for students
James S. Olson is Distinguished Professor of History at Sam Houston State University. He is the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of more than thirty books, including Bathsheba's Breast: Women, Cancer, and History (2002) which was nominated by The Johns Hopkins University Press for the Pulitzer Prize in History, won the History of Science Category Award from the Association of American Publishers, and was recognized by the Los Angeles Times as one of the best non-fiction books in America for 2002. Randy W. Roberts is Professor of History at Purdue University and specializes in recent U.S. history, U.S. sports history, and the history of popular culture. He is the author of Charles A. Lindbergh: The Power and Peril of Celebrity 1927-1941 (with David Welky, Blackwell, 2003), Hollywood's America: United States History Through Its Films, Third Edition (with Steven Mintz, Blackwell, 2001), A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory (with James S. Olson, 2001), My Lai: A Brief History with Documents (with James S. Olson, 1998), and John Wayne American (with James S. Olson, 1996).
Where the Domino Fell
The First Indochina War, 1945 - 1954
In war, a great disaster always indicates a great culprit.
- Napoleon, 1813
As artillery shells burst relentlessly on the base at Dienbienphu, Colonel Charles Piroth, the French artillery commander, sank into a deep depression. He had lost his left arm to German shrapnel during World War II, but his commitment to soldiering was so intense that his superiors allowed him to continue in the military. For months Piroth bragged that the end was near for the Vietminh, that they would not be able to go toe to toe with his "big guns" But on March 15, 1954, Piroth realized the truth. He apologized to his comrades, claiming that "it is all my fault," lay down on the cot, held a grenade with his hand, and pulled the pin with his teeth.
Ten years earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt could have predicted a Dienbienphu of some sort. He believed World War II would destroy European colonialism. In March 1943 Roosevelt suggested to the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, that when the war was over Indochina should be placed under international trusteeship. In a private conversation with Secretary of State Cordell Hull in 1944, the president remarked, "France has had the country - thirty million inhabitants - for nearly one hundred years, and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning . . . . The people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that" Eventually, Roosevelt backed down, primarily because of intense British and French opposition.
Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, and the new president did not share his concern. Southeast Asia was another world to Harry Truman. Born and reared in Missouri, Truman had the traditional strengths - and a few of the weaknesses - of the Midwest. Decent, honest, hard working, he took a man at his word and the world as he found it.
Harry's father, who had a speculator's optimism, had been prone to economic failures, and by the time Truman graduated from high school there was no money for college. He worked in a bank for a while, then he farmed a full section of land. When President Woodrow Wilson asked for a declaration of war against Germany in 1917, Truman left the plow and picked up a rifle. The war took him to France, where as a captain he successfully commanded troops in battle.
Peace returned Truman to his childhood love, and the newlyweds moved to Kansas City, where he opened a haberdashery. The store went bankrupt in 1922, and for the next twenty years - almost to the time he became president - Truman was strapped for money. And so he turned to politics. There he discovered his métier. Equipped with valuable political assets - honesty, dedication, and a likeable personality - Truman rose through the Kansas City political machine. In 1934 he won a seat in the United States Senate, where he was a loyal if undistinguished party man. In 1944 the Democratic party turned to the well-liked but obscure Truman for the vice-presidential nomination; he seemed the candidate least likely to hurt FDR in the election. The American electorate responded with an amazed "Who's Truman?" Even John Bricker, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, remarked in a press conference, "Truman - that's his name, isn't it? I never can remember that name" On April 12, 1945, people started remembering the name.
Grave matters greeted the new president. Germany was in flames but not yet defeated. Japan was losing the war but refused to entertain the fact. There were troubles in Palestine, a meeting was scheduled with Joseph Stalin, and, of course, there was the entire question of the bomb. Truman faced difficult and momentous decisions. Indochina was not one of them. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, the Allied governments quick