May 20

This Day in History

Vietnam War

May 20, 1953:

French see "light at the end of the tunnel" in Vietnam

Using a phrase that will haunt Americans in later years--"Now we can see [success in Vietnam] clearly, like light at the end of a tunnel"--Gen. Henri Navarre assumes command of French Union Forces in Vietnam. The French had been fighting a bloody war against communist insurgents in Vietnam since 1946. The insurgents, the Viet Minh, were fighting for independence and the French were trying to reassert their colonial rule in Indochina.

Upon assumption of command, Navarre addressed himself to the grave deterioration of the French military position, particularly in the North, by advancing a plan for a build up of French forces preparatory to a massive attack against the Viet Minh. He received more support from U.S. Secretary of State John F. Dulles in Washington than he did from Paris, but his operations during the summer only underscored the inadequacy of French military means and French inability to deal with Viet Minh tactics. Ultimately, the French were decisively defeated by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954.

When the Americans took over the role of stopping communism in South Vietnam, they ran into the same kind of military problems that had plagued the French. Nevertheless, there was a widespread feeling that the United States would not make the same mistakes that the French had. In late 1967, Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, used similar language to Navarre's when he asserted that the U.S. "had turned the corner in the war." His credibility was seriously damaged on January 29, 1968, when the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched a massive attack that became known as the Tet Offensive. Conditioned by Westmoreland's overly optimistic assessments of the war's progress, many Americans were stunned that the communists could launch such a ferocious attack. In the end, the communists were defeated on the battlefield, but achieved a great psychological victory that caused many in America to question the wisdom of continuing U.S. involvement in the war.

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