Eisenhower's Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia in the 1950s

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower entered office during a peak period of the Cold War. Learn about Eisenhower's goals in Southeast Asia, including his use of Containment, collective security and concealed tactics.

The New Look Policy in Southeast Asia

President Dwight D. Eisenhower entered office at a peak period of Cold War tension between the United States and nations in Southeast Asia. Eisenhower successfully guided an armistice to end the Korean War through the international community, yet the battle against communist aggression had spread beyond the borders of Korea. Laos and Indochina had become hotspots of communist activity during President Harry Truman's tenure. Between 1950 and 1953, the United States attempted to assist France in battling communism by creating the Military Assistance Advisory Group - Indochina (MAAG), funding roughly 30% of the French military budget and supporting the anti-communist State of Vietnam.

Eisenhower, however, raised the stakes in Southeast Asia when he issued his New Look foreign policy. One major aspect of the program was continuing the policy of containment in Indochina and Laos. To gain renewed support for containment in Southeast Asia, Eisenhower publicized the 'domino theory' in 1954. The theory stated that each nation, Indochina and Laos for instance, was representative of a domino. If one domino fell to communism in the region, the rest would ultimately fall. China was lost to communism in 1949; South Korea nearly succumbed to the North Korean communists during the Korean War. Eisenhower was not willing to risk the loss of Laos and Indochina. These two nations were to be bulwarks against Soviet and Chinese communist aggression. The United States strategic interests rested in the balance.

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  • 1:35 Containment in Indochina
  • 4:54 Containment in Laos
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Containment in Indochina

France had resumed control of a portion of Indochina in 1946, but the communist-nationalist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, engaged the French in a large-scale conflict known as the First Indochina War. Eisenhower only experienced the final two years of the war, but he made a valiant effort to defend the nation from a communist takeover. In 1953, Eisenhower transferred American war planes, technical advisors and maintenance personnel to Indochina in order to assist the French in the war. French forces, however, were unable to take advantage of the conflict with the newly acquired resources.

On March 13, 1954, the Viet Minh launched a major offensive against the exhausted French forces entrenched in the village of Dien Bien Phu. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, as it came to be known, witnessed vicious aerial and ground attacks from Viet Minh forces. The United States became extremely concerned with the grave situation in Indochina. John Foster Dulles, United States Secretary of State, campaigned for 'United Action' against the Viet Minh forces. The United Action plan called for a multilateral international effort - led by the United States - to assist the French and stem the communist tide. Dulles' plan never materialized. Eisenhower then considered the use of the United States Air Force to assist the French at Dien Bien Phu. Operation Vulture would have launched an air strike against the Viet Minh and provided a way out of the village for the French. However, similar to the United Action plan, Operation Vulture was never implemented.

The French forces surrendered to the Viet Minh on May 7; the Vietnamese had the advantage at the negotiating table in Geneva, Switzerland. The Geneva Conference of 1954 began on May 8. While the Vietnamese and French representatives negotiated a resolution, the United States refused to acknowledge the agreements. Instead, Eisenhower placed his support behind the staunchly anti-communist politician Ngo Dinh Diem and helped him create the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), or South Vietnam. He also called for the creation of a collective defense pact in Southeast Asia.

On September 8, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), or the Manila Pact, was formed, and included the United States, New Zealand, France, Great Britain, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand. The main goal of SEATO was to bring security from communism to nations such as the RVN, Laos and Cambodia. The underlying goal was to give Eisenhower the power to neutralize Congressional dissent to actions in the region by promising collective security. SEATO was never invoked; rather, the collective security agreement symbolically threatened communist nations such as China, the Soviet Union and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, also known as the DRV, or North Vietnam.

Returning to Diem, Eisenhower expected the polarizing leader to assist in battling communist North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Eisenhower supplied Diem with American advisors, material aid and helicopters. He authorized the Commercial Import Program (CIP), which funneled American money into South Vietnam to stabilize manufacturing (although this failed miserably). Eisenhower even approved of operational plans, such as the Temporary Equipment Recovery Program, to inject American forces into the region to assist the South Vietnamese in objectives such as training the newly formed Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN. Eisenhower backed Diem and South Vietnam throughout the entirety of his presidency.

Containment in Laos

Laos had a similar historical timeline to Indochina in that it was a French colonial possession until the end of the Second World War, gained a brief independence and then witnessed the return of France to power. In 1950, Prince Souphanouvong, a Laotian communist, organized the Free Laos Front, which became the notorious Pathet Lao. His brother, Prince Souvanna Phouma, became the prime minister of Laos in 1951. The prime minister pleaded with his brother to join the conservative Laotian nationalist movement in Laos. Prince Souphanouvong rejected the repeated offers. Instead, he assisted the Viet Minh during the First Indochina War, and pledged support to the communist Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.

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