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WANT TO PLACE BLAME FOR VIETNAM? START WITH EISENHOWER

Edward Cuddy is chairperson of the history and government department at Daemen College.

Nearly three decades after resigning from office, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara seems like a penitent in search of absolution for his role in the Vietnam War. "We were wrong, terribly wrong," he confessed in his 1995 memoir, "In Retrospect."

Last June, he journeyed to Hanoi to parley with former Vietnamese enemies. At this soul-cleansing conference, both sides would candidly admit their mistakes, McNamara hoped, and their history lessons might persuade future leaders not "to behave the way we did."

His hosts readily discussed American blunders. But to his dismay, they were in no mood for a joint chest-thumping session of mea culpas.

Ironically, the more McNamara dredges up Vietnam, the more he revives public memories blaming himself and his boss, President Lyndon Johnson, as the two top "villains" responsible for the disaster.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, by contrast, has fared much better in history.

"One of Ike's greatest accomplishments," declared historian Stephen Ambrose in 1981, "was staying out of Vietnam in the face of intense pressure." Eisenhower's glowing image -- a five-star general too smart to blunder into Vietnam like his successors, Presidents Johnson and John F. Kennedy -- was further burnished recently by the release of White House tapes recording his refusal to send troops to Vietnam when France was defeated in 1954.

But this view of history is a distortion. In our national soul-searching about Vietnam, we have over-blamed Johnson (and McNamara) and under-blamed Eisenhower.

At the Hanoi parley last June, McNamara wanted to focus on 1961 to 1968. The Vietnamese, however, insisted on going back to the 1950s. The Vietnamese had it right.

Eisenhower played a major role -- arguably the most critical of all -- in America's long slide into Vietnam.

In 1969, incoming President Richard Nixon inherited the Vietnam "mess" from Johnson. Johnson, in turn, had been trapped by Kennedy's decisions, as Kennedy was by Eisenhower's. But, the buck stops with Ike.

Eisenhower had inherited Harry Truman's folly of supporting French colonialism as vital to containing communism in Vietnam. But that commitment ended in 1954, when Ho Chi Minh's forces shattered French power at Dien Bien Phu and peacemakers in Geneva outlined their blueprint for peace: an independent, self-ruled Vietnam. The "Geneva Accords" divided the country temporarily into northern and southern zones -- not separate nations -- to be reunited through general elections in 1956.

Ike could have had a clean break from past mistakes. But he blew it. After publicly endorsing the Accords, he proceeded to trash them, swayed by reports that Ho Chi Minh -- Vietnam's popular revolutionary hero but also a communist -- would easily win the 1956 elections.

Ike took a fatal turn, setting America on course for disaster. His administration forged the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), committing the United States to protect a South Vietnam that was not even supposed to exist. Ike boosted Ngo Dinh Diem into power, backed his refusal to hold the 1956 elections and then pumped massive aid into building a new nation around him.

Defending these actions with his doctrinaire anti-communism, Eisenhower reinforced the fatal illusions luring the nation toward calamity. Ho, fiercely nationalistic and distrustful of both Chinese and Russians, was falsely portrayed as their puppet in the communist conspiracy to conquer the rest of Asia. And while Ike was touting Diem's "statesmanship" as guardian of freedom against communist expansion, it was Diem's despotism in the South, not Ho's aggression from the North, that started the conflict.

Paranoid and power-hungry, Diem tried to crush all opponents, unleashing waves of terror which, by 1957, were ripening into open rebellion -- years before Ho's northern forces entered the battle.

America's ideological fog obscuring Vietnam realities thickened considerably with the notorious "purge" of the State Department on Ike's watch. Caving in to the McCarthy craze, his secretary of state expelled hundreds of loyal officers deemed too "soft on communism."

The result was a devastating loss of talented Asian specialists -- those most inclined to challenge our blind anti-communism, as former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara observed in his memoir lamenting his own role in the Vietnam debacle. Without their "sophisticated, nuanced insights," he acknowledged, "we. . . badly misread China's objectives" and "totally underestimated" Ho Chi Minh's nationalism.

Ike's Vietnam diplomacy was a loser from the start. He identified our cause with a bungling tyrant, a society racked by ethnic and religious feuds, and an incompetent "rabble" of an army. He drew his line in the jungle against guerrilla forces highly skilled in jungle warfare and against a brilliant leader widely supported as the symbol of Vietnamese patriotism.

Had it scouted the world, declares historian George Herring, "the United States could not have chosen a less promising place for an experiment in nation-building."

Eisenhower's Vietnam legacy -- SEATO, Diem, a simplistic anti-communism, a crippled State Department -- was a time bomb set to go off a decade later. With Saigon losing badly by 1965, President Johnson had to confront two grim choices: either send American forces to take over the fighting or withdraw in defeat.

But Johnson, feeling like a catfish that had "grabbed a big juicy worm with a right sharp hook in the middle of it," had little freedom to pull out. For 10 years, Vietnam had been ballyhooed as the spot where America had taken its stand against communism, where our credibility as leader of the "free world" had been staked on its fidelity to the "promises of 1954."

Historians can never whitewash Johnson's tragic plunge into full-scale war. But we can reallocate degrees of responsibility for the disaster.

Had Eisenhower lived up to his promise to honor the Geneva Accords, probably Ho Chi Minh would have been elected and Vietnam united under a communist regime -- one opposed to all foreign control, communist or non-communist.

Tragically, Ike chose a different path, one which would meander for years through the blood-soaked jungles of Vietnam -- only to reach the same result: a Vietnam united under a communist regime.