By Dr. Kaylene Hughes, AMCOM HistorianMarch 20, 2017
In the 1950s, two concurrent yet separate developments that would transform U.S. Army Aviation gained momentum and ultimately converged in the following decade.
The first influence was the series of foreign policy decisions implemented initially by the Truman administration then modified and continued by President Eisenhower during his eight years in the White House. The second sequence of events was introduced by a group of Army Aviation innovators who believed strongly in the untapped and still unproven potential of coordinating armed helicopters with ground troops in combat.
American political visions of the best way to halt the spread of communism in Southeast Asia (SEA) first drew the nation into an intensifying role in the sustainment of the French in Indochina and then into shoring up the authoritarian, unstable native government of South Vietnam after France's withdrawal from the area in 1954. The ongoing dispatch of American money, materiel and finally military advisors between 1949 and 1960 paved the way for the escalating deployment of Army and other service assets to the region, starting in 1961. In the process, the war in Vietnam changed forever the place of helicopters in Army organization, doctrine, strategy and tactics.
Early Cold War U.S. Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia
As part of their deliberations at Potsdam, the last of the "Big Three" meetings of World War II held near Berlin from Jul. 17 to Aug. 2, 1945, the Allied powers made plans for the postwar fate of Indochina. Formerly a French colony controlled by the Japanese during war, the Allies paid lip service to but never really allowed self-determination for the native inhabitants, instead upholding French imperial claims in the region. Ultimately the deadliest of the provisions to which the Allies agreed was the partitioning of Vietnam into north and south sectors at the 17th parallel.
The subsequent postwar attempt by France to reassert its authority in Indochina soon led to hostilities with the native Viet Minh, whose leader, Ho Chi Minh, was an ardent nationalist and communist. France's unsuccessful attempt to defeat the North Vietnamese is known as the First Indochina War, which was fought between 1946 and 1954. By the time the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu fell to Ho's forces in 1954, almost 76,000 French soldiers had died and $3 billion had been poured into the conflict.
Prior to the end of French control of Indochina, however, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations committed significant resources to the nation's growing involvement along this "front" of the intensifying Cold War. Prompted by the descent of the "Iron Curtain" in Europe after 1945, the communist takeover of China in 1949, and the growth of virulent anticommunist sentiment in McCarthy-era America, the U.S. government made the first in a series of foreign policy decisions about Indochina that eventually led to the Army's deployment of rotary-wing aircraft to Southeast Asia.
By 1950, senior military and civilian leaders were convinced "the war in Indochina was among the most critical and immediate concerns to the United States." On Mar. 10 of that year, President Harry S Truman approved Joint Chiefs of Staff advice that $15 million be programmed specifically for military aid to anticommunist forces in Indochina. Drawn from funds set aside by Congress in Section 303 of the 1949 Mutual Defense Assistance Act, it was the first appropriation in a long account of U.S. expenditures between 1950 and 1965 for which no exact amount has ever been determined.
U.S. efforts to thwart the continued spread of communism in Asia became more assertive under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Although he like Truman adhered to the nation's traditional anticolonial principles, Eisenhower accepted that support to France that helped to resist communism also furthered Gallic imperial designs in Indochina, but the president viewed the latter outcome as the lesser of two evils. How to fight communism in Southeast Asia without being tarred by the Vietnamese anti-French brush, however, remained an issue. The president believed the solution to protecting U.S. interests in Indochina without deploying American troops to the region was to train the Vietnamese to fight for their own freedom.
On Jun. 23, 1953, Lt. Gen. John W. O'Daniel, commander of the U.S. Army, Pacific arrived in Saigon at the head of a military mission originally designed to work closely with French authorities and their native associates in Indochina. Less than a year later, in Mar. 1954, Eisenhower's Special Committee on Indochina decided to expand the American presence in Vietnam by sending twenty-two B-26 medium bombers, along with technicians and mechanics, to be used by the French against the Viet Minh. However, the French Chiefs of Staff opposed the committee's plan to enlarge the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) to assist the French military with training their Vietnamese allies as well as to free French officers for combat.
Such objections became moot on Jul. 24, 1954 with the signing of the Geneva Accords, which ended French control of Indochina, granted independence to Laos and Cambodia, and continued the 17th parallel as the line of demarcation between North and South Vietnam until free elections to be held in Jul. 1956 could unify the two areas. Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson urged the president to end the nation's involvement in Vietnam once U.S. support for the French ceased on Dec. 31, 1954. Instead Eisenhower opted to continue his original plan of attacking communism in Southeast Asia by switching U.S. support to the struggling Diem regime that had come to power in South Vietnam.
The dispatch of a new military advisor in Nov. 1954, the increase of the MAAG to 300 personnel by May 1957 and to 700 men by Jan. 1961, as well as the infusion between 1955 and 1961 of $1 billion in economic and military aid to so-called "Free Vietnam" was not enough to stabilize the inept, corrupt, authoritarian rule of the Diem government. However, Eisenhower made clear his primary rationale for his continued commitment to the unsatisfactory Diem regime in a speech he gave at Gettysburg College in Apr. 1959, in which he reaffirmed his belief in the reality of the "Domino Theory" in Southeast Asia.
In hindsight, events by 1959 were clearly snowballing toward the increasing likelihood of the American use of deadly force in Vietnam. Yet no one in the United States could have anticipated in the summer of 1959 that the first two U.S. Army advisors to be killed in a guerilla ambush at Bien Hoa--Maj. Dale R. Buis and M/Sgt. Chester M. Ovnand--would one day be represented by the first two names to be inscribed on a later memorial wall bearing the names of the 58,307 American military personnel who died of wounds sustained in Vietnam between 1959 and 1975.
Against this backdrop of foreign policies implemented by the government which the nation's armed forces were sworn to uphold and protect, the U.S. Army undertook an independent progression of aviation innovations in the 1950s that would transform it to successfully meet the challenges of the upcoming decade. It was during the Vietnam War that the first American use of armed helicopters in large-scale combat operations occurred.