Quotations: From World War II to US involvement

This selection of Vietnam War quotations spans the period between World War II and growing US involvement in Vietnam to 1963. It contains statements and remarks about the Vietnam conflict by notable political figures, military commanders, contemporaries and historians. These quotations have been researched, selected and compiled by Alpha History authors. If you would like to suggest a quotation for this collection, please contact us.

“Comrades! The fascist Japanese continue to despoil us! They have just seized rice paddies belonging to the villages in Phuc Yen. Tens of thousands of peasants have been evicted from their villages and their homes… Thousands of families are without homes and wander about aimlessly… It is the Japanese who are responsible for all these disasters. There is only one way for us to save our lives – to chase out the Japanese birds of prey!”
Viet Minh propaganda, urging anti-Japanese resistance, March 1945

“I have a government that is organised and ready to go. Your statesmen make eloquent speeches about helping those with self-determination. We are self-determined. Why not help us? Am I any different from Nehru, Quezon… or even your George Washington? I too want my people to be free.”
Ho Chi Minh to American agents, 1945

“All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
From the United States Declaration of Independence, July 1776, and the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, September 1945

“A people who have courageously opposed French domination for more than 80 years; a people who have fought side by side with the Allies against the Fascists during these last years; such a people must be free and independent.”
The Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, September 1945

“You can kill 10 of my men for every one of yours I kill, but even at those odds you will lose.”
Ho Chi Minh to the French, 1946

“Men and women, old and young, regardless of creeds, political parties or nationalities, all Vietnamese must stand up to fight the French colonialists to save the fatherland. Those who have rifles will use their rifles. Those who have swords will use their swords. Those who have no swords will use spades, hoes or sticks. Everyone must endeavour to oppose the colonialists and save our country… The hour for national salvation has struck. We must sacrifice even our last drop of blood to safeguard our country.”
Ho Chi Minh, an appeal to the people, December 1946

“The enemy is fat and sluggish, like the elephant. Our army is like the tiger: swift, resourceful, deadly and unpredictable. If the tiger confronts the elephant, he will be crushed. If the tiger attacks the elephant when it leasts expects it, then bites on the elephant’s legs bore running away, the elephant will eventually weaken. This is how we defeat the French colonialists.”
Truong Chinh, Vietnamese communist leader, 1947

“To achieve solidarity and unity of views with the people… they must realise that the people are like water and the army are like fish… The army must do good work and help the people in production, literacy, sanitation and disease prevention. The army must train the people in guerrilla tactics. The people must be made conscious of their duty to support the army in all fields so that it may defeat the invaders. Of course, this support must be in conformity with the policies of the Communist Party.”
Truong Chinh, 1947

“[Communism] is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed on the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections and the suppression of personal freedoms… It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.”
Harry Truman, US president, March 1947

“Our long-term objectives are… to see installed [in Vietnam] a self-governing nationalist state that will be friendly to the US… We have an immediate interest in maintaining in power a friendly French government, to assist in the furtherance of our aims in Europe.”
US Department of State document, September 1948

“[The US] recognises that the threat of communist aggression against Indochina is only one phase of anticipated communist plans to seize all of Southeast Asia… A decision to contain communist expansion at the border of Indochina must be considered as a part of a wider study to prevent communist aggression into other parts of south-east Asia.”
US National Security Council report, February 1950

“The Viet Minh were everywhere and nowhere. It was impossible to pin them down.”
Henry Ainley, French Foreign Legion soldier, writing in 1955

“It is not surprising that the French Expeditionary Force failed to achieve decisive results. Its efforts were fruitless. The French had no overall strategy based on a firm policy, no plan of operations, and no cause worthy of the struggle… By sowing more and more ruin and hatred, and by constantly increasing the burden of the war upon the people, such actions turned the peasant masses against the French and greatly simplified the… tasks of the People’s Army [Viet Minh].”
Philippe Devillers and Jean Lacouture, French historians, writing in 1969

“The artillery never stopped at night. It was like the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Every day we saw their trench lines coming closer and closer. We could not shoot them because they were below ground level. All we saw was soil flying into the air. This condition made strong men weak; the weak simply broke down. We knew they were coming and would be on top of us in maybe two weeks or less.”
Jean Claude Casta, French sergeant, writing about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu

“I cannot conceive of a greater tragedy for America than to get heavily involved now in an all-out war in any of those regions.”
US president Dwight D. Eisenhower, speaking on Indochina, February 1954

“You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what will happen is that the last one will go over very quickly.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 1954

“Several times in the past I have had to refuse to take office, in spite of the friendly urging of His Majesty, Bao Dai. This time I accept. This is the hour of decision. I face a grave military situation which is in urgent need of correction… The Vietnamese people, long deceived, are seeking a new path which will lead to their ardently desired ideals. I am firmly determined to lead the way to this path, overcoming any and all obstacles.”
Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnamese prime minister, June 1954

“Democracy is not a group of texts and laws, to be read and applied. It is essentially a state of mind, a way of living with the utmost respect toward every human being, ourselves as well as our neighbours. It requires constant self-education, careful practice, flexible and patient attention… Democracy demands from each of us more effort, understand and goodwill than any other form of government.”
Ngo Dinh Diem on the formation of the Republic, October 1955

“The pace with which we have organised democracy in our country demonstrates at the same time the determination of our people and the heroic character of our destiny. It also indicates what is left to us to achieve in order to perfect the historical mission which has devolved upon our generation.”
Ngo Dinh Diem, October 1956

“Better kill ten innocent people than let one enemy escape.”
Communist slogan, 1956

“I realise the Party’s combat policy is consistent with Marxism and Leninism, which means that we have to struggle for the proletarian classes and eliminate all regimes which exploit the masses. All land in the south must be returned to the farmers… I pledge that I will commit myself to fight until the end, under the Party flag… I only wish to serve the Party and never think of my own concerns.”
Application for membership to the Lao Dong, 1960s

“We executed too many honest people… and seeing enemies everywhere, resorted to terror, which became far too widespread… Worse still, torture came to be regarded as normal practice.”
Vo Nguyen Giap on North Vietnam’s land reforms of the 1950s

“I wondered what kind of regime this was, that had no other method than to repress and annihilate its people. It took them to ‘People’s Courts’ then shot them on the scene, without a fair trial, without any evidence. The land reform campaign was a crime of genocide.”
Tran Manh Hao, former communist, on North Vietnam in the 1960s

“The shooting war started with the formation of the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. This was, in my opinion, the most sinister enemy we had to fight in Vietnam, for it was a shadowy opponent within our own country, a ghostly army that lived underground, emerging to fight only at night, but impossible to bring to battle like regular troops. It was a political force that fought us for the minds of the people.”
Nguyen Cao Ky, South Vietnamese Army general and political leader

“Before and after 1953, events have demonstrated that our nuclear retaliatory power is not enough. It cannot deter communist aggression which is too limited to justify atomic war. It cannot protect uncommitted nations against a communist takeover using local or guerrilla forces. It cannot be used in so-called brush fire peripheral wars. In short, it cannot prevent the communists from gradually nibbling at the fringe of the free world’s territory and strength, until our security has been steadily eroded in piecemeal fashion – each Red advance being too small to justify massive retaliation, with all its risks.”
Senator John F. Kennedy, February 1960

“The real question is what should be done about the harsh facts that China is a powerful and aggressive nation. The dangerous situation now existing can be remedied only by a strong and successful India, a strong and successful Japan, and some kind of regional group over south-east Asia which gives these smaller countries the feeling that, in spite of their distaste for a military alliance, they will not be left to be picked off one by one at the whim of the [Beijing] regime.”
John F. Kennedy, September 1960

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
John F. Kennedy, US president, January 1961

“Anyone wanting to commit American ground forces to the mainland of Asia should have his head examined.”
Douglas MacArthur, retired US general, 1961

“The great battleground for the defence and expansion of freedom today is the whole southern half of the globe – Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East – the lands of the rising peoples. Their revolution is the greatest in human history. They seek an end to injustice, tyranny, and exploitation. More than an end, they seek a beginning. And theirs is a revolution which we would support regardless of the Cold War, and regardless of which political or economic route they should choose to freedom.”
John F. Kennedy, May 1961

“Now we have a problem in trying to make our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place.”
John F. Kennedy, June 1961

“They [the military] want a force of American troops… The troops will march in, the bands will play, the crowds will cheer – and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It’s like taking a drink. The effect wears off and you have to take another.”
John F. Kennedy, November 1961

“Diem had little time or patience for the press or critical political figures at home or abroad, considering them prejudiced and too shallow to comprehend the transformation of Vietnam into a modern nation… Diem’s style was that of the traditional mandarin, assuming the legitimacy of his position to be beyond challenge and manipulating his patrons in Washington to ensure their continued support.”
William Colby, Central Intelligence Agency director, writing in 1989

“Diem talked but never listened. He looked but never saw. Diem talked monotonously and repetitively, rambling from one subject to another and never talking a problem through. He could not be questioned. Diem and the State were clearly one and the same thing in his mind.”
Denis Warner, Australian journalist, 1963

“Diem had his ideals and was at heart an honest man, but he became a dupe for others. Toward the end, Diem felt he was a man of God sent down to save Vietnam, that he could leave everything to his advisors.”
Nguyen Cao Ky, South Vietnamese general, writing in 1976

“Though Diem had been an honest man who passed a law recommending the death penalty for corruption, he was too out of touch to see what was going on. Nepotism is a form of corruption and his relatives were everywhere, and they were unscrupulous… Inevitably the slime of corruption oozed into every crevice of our lives, often without the country’s leaders realising its extent.”
Nguyen Cao Ky

“All of my brothers joined the Republic of Vietnam Army (ARVN) at various times under President Diem and remained in it until 1975. We believed in Diem, that he was a good man, a good leader. But the regime became corrupt because of his family ties; it was a family gang. I believe he was an honest man but he was surrounded by too many corrupt officials.”
Vo Dai Ton, ARVN colonel, reflecting on the Diem regime

“If the Buddhists wish to have another barbecue, I’ll gladly supply the gasoline and a match… Let them burn and we shall clap our hands.”
Madame Nhu (Tran Le Xuan) on Buddhist self immolations, 1963

“I may shock some by saying ‘I would beat such provocateurs ten times more if they wore monks robes’ and ‘I would clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show’, for one cannot be responsible for the madness of others.”
Madame Nhu (Tran Le Xuan) on Buddhist self immolations, 1963

“The actions of the [Diem government] and the Nhus have eroded [our] purpose inside Vietnam and internationally and they have also eroded our capacity to provide political leadership in the US necessary to support the effort in Vietnam… Diem must make a systematic effort to improve his international position and a demonstration to the American people that we are not asking Americans to be killed to support Madame Nhu’s desire to barbecue bonzes.”
Dean Rusk to Henry Cabot Lodge, August 1963

“I don’t think that unless a greater effort is made by the [South Vietnamese] government to win popular support that the war can be won… In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam.”
John F. Kennedy, September 1963

“There are serious political tensions in Saigon and throughout most of South Vietnam. The Diem-Nhu government is becoming increasingly unpopular. Viet Cong propaganda has exploited this issue. Many military officers are hostile to the government.”
General Maxwell Taylor and Defence Secretary Robert McNamara’s report on South Vietnam, October 1963

“I am not opposed to a change in government. I am not a Diem man pr se. I certainly see the faults in his character. I’m here to help the South Vietnamese fight against communism. I would suggest we not try to change horses too quickly… In my contacts here I have seen no one with the strength of character of Diem, at least in fighting communists. There are no ARVN generals qualified to take over, in my opinion.”
Paul Harkins, US general in Vietnam, October 1963

“My instructions were to inform General Minh that the United States government would not thwart their coup. And I conveyed this… It was quite obvious that if at any point US involvement was revealed then the whole thing would blow up and be an extreme embarrassment.”
Lucien Conein on the anti-Diem coup of 1963

“I believe all the devils in hell are against us but we will triumph eventually because we have the Devil on our side.”
Tran Le Xuan (Madame Nhu) after the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, November 1963

“Whoever has the Americans as allies does not need any enemies.”
Tran Le Xuan (Madame Nhu) after the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, November 1963

“I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the President who saw south-east Asia go the way China went.”
Lyndon Johnson, shortly after becoming US president, November 1963