When in 1940, France was defeated by Hitler, the French surrendered Vietnam to the Japanese who asked them to continue to administer the land in their place. A French puppet, Bao Dai who had already ruled the country during the previous twenty years, did so.
Bao Dai however, came face to face almost at once with a vigorous nationalism. This became belligerently concrete and took the form of an increasing effective guerrilla warfare. It's ultimate goals were two: riddance of French and Japanese rule, and total independence. The freedom fighters known as the Viet-Minhs, were supported by the general population with the result that they became identified at once with the national aspirations of all the Vietnamese.
At Japan's defeat in August, 1945, the Vietnamese were in control of most of Vietnam. In September of that same year, the freedom fighters declared Vietnam's independence. The French-Japanese puppet, Bao Dai, resigned. After more than a century, Vietnam was once more free, or so it seemed. The Vietnamese, although dominated by communists, realized that a solid minority of the country were Catholics. Recognizing that most of the Catholics had supported their fight against both the French and the Japanese, they elicited their support by appointing several prominent Catholics to their new government.
Ho Chi Minh, their leader, nominated a Catholic as his economic minister, indeed he even had a Roman Catholic Vicar Apostolic. Furthermore, to prove how, although a Marxist, he was not biased against the Church, he adopted the first Sunday of each September as the official day of Vietnamese Independence. This because it coincided with the National Catholic Day.
Religious liberty was assured to all. The achievements of the Viet-Minhs were so popular that in September 40,000 Catholics demonstrated in support of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi itself. Indeed four Catholic bishops even appealed directly to the Vatican asking it to support the new independent Vietnam under its new rulers.
It appeared as if a new chapter had been initiated, not only for Vietnam, but also for the Catholics, who until then, although protected by the French, nevertheless had increasingly resented French colonialism.
While the new Vietnamese government in Hanoi was working for the establishment of a democratic republic in North Vietnam, the British, knowing of the surrender of Japan, handed back South Vietnam to the French. The French, smarting under their defeat in Europe, imposed a most drastic colonial administration, with the objective of extending their dominion over the rest of the country. The Vietnamese, affronted, organized guerrilla warfare to prevent the reimposition of French rule.
In February, 1950, the U.S. recognized the Bao Dai government. Almost simultaneously France asked for military help. In March, two U.S. warships entered Saigon to support Bao Dai. Soon afterward, in May, Washington announced aid for the French, with a $10,000,000 grant. The U.S. had agreed to let France deal with Vietnam while the U.S. was engaged in a war in Korea. In June, President Truman announced the U.S. was going to finance the French army to fight the government of North Vietnam. By November, 1952, the U.S. had sent 200 shiploads of material, 222 war planes, 225 naval vessels, 1,300 trucks, paying one third of the war bill in Vietnam.
When Eisenhower succeeded Truman in July, 1953, an armistice was signed with Korea, but by 1953 the U.S. financial support had already reached 400 millions a year. In October the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, declared that the U.S. help for France's colonial rule had been "his brightest achievement of the year."
By 1954, the U.S. was already paying 80% of the total. The French government itself stated that the U.S. had spent a total of $1.785 billion for their war. But the end of that same year, the U.S. in fact had paid $2 billion to keep French colonialism in power.
The Vietnamese, however, determined to rid themselves once and for all of the French, fought with a ferocity which astonished friends and foes alike. On the brink of defeat in Dienbienphu, France asked for U.S. help. John Foster Dulles demanded U.S. intervention (to defend Indo-China from Communism). Then, he announced a plan, the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). In April he called a secret meeting of congressional leaders. The objective: to give Eisenhower power to use U.S. air and naval forces to help the French in Vietnam. The plan was called appropriately "Operation Vulture." Lyndon Johnson, later president, objected to committing American troops and most of the congressional leaders agreed with him. By November, however, (that is from 1950 to 1954) the U.S. had already sent 340 planes and 350 warships.
In May, 1954 the French surrendered Dienbienphu. The following July, the Geneva Agreement was signed. The 17th parallel was indicated to be the provisional demarcation line between the Vietnam Republic of the North and the French in the South. On July 21 at a "Final Declaration," nine countries endorsed the agreement with the exception of the Bao Dai government and the U.S.
The Declaration pointed out that the north-south division of Vietnam was only a "military" division, to end the military conflict, and not a territorial or political boundary. This meant that the French had been made the trustees for South Vietnam for a two year period, that is until a general election took place and the people could choose the kind of government they wanted.
In certain quarters, the Geneva Agreement created fear that if the elections were permitted, the Viet-Minhs, being so popular throughout Vietnam, would take over also in the South.
The military and above all the Catholic lobbies in Washington set to work, determined to persuade the U.S. government to prevent the election. Pope Pius XII gave full support to their efforts. Cardinal Spellman, the Washington-Vatican go-between, was the principal spokesman for both. The policy of Pope Pius XII and John Foster Dulles eventually was accepted, and implemented, notwithstanding widespread misgivings in the U.S. and in Europe.
President Eisenhower, himself, before and after the fatal decision, admitted in a moment of political candor that "had the elections been held, possibly 80% of the population would have voted for communist Ho Chi Minh, rather than Chief of State, Bao Dai." President Eisenhower had stated the truth about the political reality of the situation in Vietnam at that momentous period.