In the 1950s, the Americans became involved in a conflict in which two million Vietnamese were killed, three million wounded and twelve million Indochinese people forced to become refugees. In this same war, the United States counted fifty seven thousand six hundred and eighty five troops killed. They saw one hundred and fifty three thousand, three hundred and three injured. Yet, these figures still leave two thousand five hundred men unaccounted for. These are horrific totals.
Why did the U. S. become involved in this conflict and why did they prolong their involvement in a war in which they lost so much and yet were still unable to win?
To answer this question we must first look at American involvement in the worldwide battle with communism. After World War II tensions had mounted between Russia and America and the Cold War had begun. One aspect of a “cold war” were fringe wars. America believed that Russia was trying to expand communism into world domination the Americans felt they had to make a stand against communism and sometimes this took the form of the Truman Doctrine, a policy of containment. There was anti communist hysteria in the United States and this was the background of the beginnings of the Vietnam War.
Vietnam fits into the American idea of containment. North Vietnam had become communist after the Geneva conference and the Americans feeling that South Vietnam would soon follow decided to step in. This theory was known as the Domino Theory if one country toppled the others would soon follow.
Vietnam had been a French colony as part of French Indo-China since 1883 and although Americans did not believe in empires they felt it was preferable that Vietnam remain part of the French empire rather than become communist. This was important as after World War II in September 1945 Ho Chi Minh, who in 1930 had founded the indo-chinese Communist Party, declared Vietnam’s independence. This took place in the country’s capital Hanoi. The Vietminh (Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh i.e. the League for the Independence of Vietnam) arose throughout Vietnam, France was unwilling to acknowledge independence. France did not wish to relinquish Vietnam, as it was rich in minerals etc. Vietnam was a valuable asset to her empire. The Vietnamese people, however, had no wish to remain as part of the French Empire. Both sides sought a negotiated solution this proved impossible. As a result the French reoccupied and in December 1946 the French Indo-Chinese War broke out. This stage in the conflict in Vietnam lasted almost eight years ending in French defeat.
In July 1949, Bao Dai set up the state of Vietnam known as South Vietnam with French support. The French were still suffering from the after effects of World War II and therefore could not and did not send enough troops. In contrast to this, the new communist government in China was supplying the Vietminh with weapons and equipment. Although America did not support France from a colonial point of view, she still resolved to involve herself by giving financial support to them. America’s global policy had been one of “open world” and they did not believe in empires or spheres of influence. However, when France was no longer seen as fighting nationalists but communists the Americans gave their assistance. At the centre of America’s actions, there was their belief in the “Domino Theory”. In 1950 America formally recognised the new administration in Saigon under Bao Dai, and the President, Harry Truman, dispatched military advisors to Vietnam to train the South Vietnamese army in the use of American weapons. At first money was the only serious U.S. involvement in Vietnam this was particularly important to the Americans as China, a communist state, was giving aid to the Vietminh. By 1952 ninety thousand soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured and hundreds of millions of francs had been spent on the conflict with the Vietminh. America saw her involvement at this point as part of the international war against communism. The U.S. moved in Vietnam as an example for the world that the United States would move at any time necessary to stop the spread of communism. By 1954, America was covering 80% of French costs. At first the Vietnam conflict had its roots in a colonial war, American involvement was still limited.
In April of that year, President Eisenhower was asked at a press conference why the United States had become involved in Vietnam. In his answer Eisenhower referred to the “Domino Theory”, i.e. that if one country was lost to communism another would also be lost to communism. Eisenhower stressed the point and made it very clear that the central reason for American involvement in Vietnam was to prevent countries other than Vietnam falling to communism. The Americans had always fought very hard to prevent the spread of communism in the pacific and were prepared to involve themselves in conflict if that was what was necessary to stop the spread of communism close to home. In the 1950’s, paranoia about communism was becoming ever increasing with McCarthyism and the “red scare”.
However, despite financial aid from the U.S. in June 1954 a war-weary France agreed to negotiate an end to the conflict. At the Geneva Conference in June 1954, the two sides decided to accept an interim compromise and they divided Vietnam down the 17th parallel. This was intended to be a temporary measure and the country was to be united two years after the conference. In the meantime, the Vietminh would stay in the North and the French and their Vietnamese supporters would reside in the south. After the partition the Vietminh in Hanoi ceased armed conflict and began to build a communist society in the north.
Free elections were now supposed to be held in Vietnam but these did not happen. The Southern capital meanwhile began a new regime as the old leader Emperor Bao Dai, the last of the Nyguyen Dynasty; stepped aside and the firm anti-Communist president Ngo Dinh Diem assumed power. So instead of a government being elected properly, rigged elections saw this new, corrupt government under Diem come to power, this all took place with American support. There were hundreds of U.S. military advisors and millions of dollars backing Diem and his attempt to destroy the communist influence in the south. In fact from 1954 until 1961 the U.S.A. had given one billion dollars to South Vietnam, most of which had been spent on the military.
The United States saw they were supporting a corrupt government; but they felt the important thing was to destroy communism. Therefore, the Americans felt a corrupt government was preferable to a communist administration. Consequently, the military advisors sent to South Vietnam by the U.S. began to help with “preparation” for the elections in 1956.
Diem was an unpopular leader, his government was dictatorial and corrupt, and by 1959 he was in serious trouble. He was unwilling to recognise opposition within Vietnam, he showed favouritism to Roman Catholics (Who made up only 7% of the population compared to the from coursework.info 55% of the Buddhist population) and the social and economic programs he had instigated had failed to work. All this contributed to growing unrest and alienated several important groups in the South Vietnamese society. Diem’s corrupt rule had meant socialists, communists; journalists, trade unionists and religious leaders were thrown into jail. Therefore, the communists decided to resume their revolutionary war.
Supported by the North, the communist guerrilla fighters the National Liberation Front, later known as the Vietcong, decided to fight against the corrupt government of South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh the leader in North Vietnam promised to unite Vietnam again, promote land reform, promote economic reform and represent all classes and religions. The corrupt government of Diem had never attempted all these kinds of policies offered by Ho Chi Minh to the people of South Vietnam.
In 1960, John F Kennedy was elected president in America. He had lost prestige over the “Bay of Pigs” in the Cuban missile crisis and therefore wanted to be tough on communism, however at the same time the new president did not want to be seen supporting a corrupt administration. Kennedy was staunch in his belief in the “Domino Theory” and he convinced many Americans of the necessity of opposing communism. Kennedy therefore wanted to increase American influence in Vietnam as well as convincing Diem to introduce domestic reforms. By the time of Kennedy’s assassination, sixteen thousand military advisors were training the South Vietnamese army and at the same time sixteen thousand people were now fighting for the Vietcong.
In Vietnam in 1963, there was severe political disorder after Diem fell. He had been campaigning against Buddhists (About fifty five percent of the population were Buddhist) as he and his colleagues were Roman Catholics. The Buddhists gained much publicity in their discontent by burning themselves to death in the streets. At the height of this crisis, Kennedy froze all loans to South Vietnam, threatened to withdraw military aid and in the end supported the coup of November 1963 by giving Diem no assistance. Diem was overthrown and killed in a coup launched by his own generals in November 1963. The Communists were within reach of victory as the security situation continued to deteriorate due to the chaos in politics. In July of this year, President Kennedy had repeated the domino theory, “In my opinion for us to withdraw from the effort would mean a collapse, not only of Vietnam, but of South East Asia. So we are going to stay there.” The Americans therefore were still determined to ensure that communism was contained and so they remained in Vietnam. Not only that but they increased American presence in South Vietnam. By October, there were twenty five thousand “advisors” in Vietnam. They were claiming to be in Vietnam only to train South Vietnamese troops but in reality they took part in combat just like soldiers.
Lyndon Johnson was Kennedy’s successor as President of the U.S.A. he believed in the “Domino Theory” however he was reluctant to keep pouring money into South Vietnam. Although advised to send in combat troops to fight the Vietcong and bomb North Vietnam preventing supplies getting to the Vietcong, Johnston was unsure that he could rely on congressional and public support.
Open United States operations did not begin until 1964 when the situation changed. In the Gulf of Tonkin, in August 1964, North Vietnamese gunboats attacked USS Maddox, an American surveillance ship; and allegedly, it was attacked again two days later. Johnston mislead congress saying that these attacks were “unprovoked”, therefore congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution giving Johnson the power to increase American involvement in South Vietnam.
Then in early 1965 Lyndon Johnson approved the regular and intensive bombing of North Vietnam and the dispatch of further American soldiers to South Vietnam. This regular and intensive bombing of North Vietnam was known as Operation Rolling Thunder and it began in February 1965. This bombing campaign was to last for three and a half years and by 1967 the American airforce had dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than the Allies did on Germany in the whole Second World War. The first combat troops arrived in Vietnam on the 8th of March 1965 these were three and a half thousand US marines. The Americans believed that with their superior technology they could win against the Vietcong who had no aircraft, tanks or artillery. However despite using their sophisticated weaponry and using chemicals like “Agent Orange”, “Agent Blue” and napalm the Americans could still not win. It was now a matter of proving that the technology of the Americans could prevail as a matter of pride. Johnson’s reasons for continued U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the intensifying of the campaign were very clear: he was a firm believer in the Truman doctrine as well as the Domino Theory and he hated communism. Also it was important that the billions of dollars poured into Vietnam and the many Americans who had died in the conflict had not done so in vain. It seemed clear to him that there were other good reasons for America to continue in conflict with Vietnam. To Johnson it seemed that America’s worldwide reputation as the great military power and defender of democracy was at stake and this meant no backing down. The United States was the “policeman of the world” and wished to maintain that level of respect The American nation had to continue to make the globe safe for democracy’s continued existence. Over the history of the United States this had not been such a problem. Before the First World War was an isolationist nation, it did not want to be involved in foreign affairs. After World War II, this was impossible the United States was now the opposite of what it was before, it was now the protector of the world. America needed other nations to trade and saw communism as a threat to this trade as well as democracy.
Johnson could not back down. He did not want to be accused of being soft on communism as Truman had been, Johnson had to live up to Kennedy. Every President in office during this war did not wish to be the president that lost this war, they wanted history to be kind. In these latter stages of the war the nation’s reputation as well as each individual president’s reputation became ever more relevant.
In conclusion, I think that it must be said that there were a number of different reasons for the United States continued involvement in Vietnam.
Initially this was part of the worldwide battle against communism; however, there were other factors involved especially as the Vietnam War progressed. There are different reasons for American involvement at different stages in the conflict. World reputation and a presidents personal feeling later became very important. The U.S. did not wish it to seem that the money and men given to Vietnam in this conflict had been wasted. This war was self-perpetuating; once the U.S. forces were involved they could not pull out and appear to be wasting hundreds of men’s lives and billions of dollars. It was like a mire or a slippery slope.