In chapters 3 and 4 of Robert McMahon’s Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, there are a number of reasons given for the increased American involvement in Vietnam from the late 1940s to the mid 1950s. McMahon includes several documents in these chapters that point to three main reasons used to justify our role in Vietnam.
One underlying reason for the early American presence in Vietnam is given in chapter 3, where in McMahon’s first essay Cold War Strategy and U. S. Intervention he states that, “…the initial U. S. commitment to provide military assistance to the French in the context of broader American Cold War priorities” (McMahon 58). I think this means that we were justified in starting a limited war with the Vietnamese to prevent a war with a superpower such as China or Russia. The Truman administration was “convinced that Moscow and Beijing had become even more dangerously opportunistic foes…” (McMahon 67).
Vietnam was uniquely placed not far from these Communist countries and with our presence there we could strategically have a military presence closer to that of China and Russia than the United States is. In the Statement of U. S. Policy Toward Indochina, the State Department reviewed that, “This hatred of the Vietnamese people toward the French is keeping alive anti-western feeling among oriental peoples, to the advantage of the USSR and the detriment of the US” (McMahon 51).
Our geographical position in Vietnam and subsequent relationships forged during the Vietnam War with Southeast Asian countries was a major contribution to our victory in the Cold War. The second reason justifying US presence stems from Vietnam’s weak position to fight off potential invading countries. The State Department concluded, “The countries and areas of Southeast Asia are not at present in a position to form a regional organization for self-defense nor are they capable of defending themselves against military aggressive, without the aid of the great powers” (McMahon 54).
The United States had proven its military supremacy in World War II on a global scale. We had won the war and become a superpower overnight. The US was the first country to develop operational nuclear weapons and the only country to have demonstrated their use in war. We soon became the center of helping rebuild the destroyed countries by being a source of funding. All these contributed to the world power position of the United States, and now we were in a position to help countries in need.
With that being said, “The State of Vietnam had a small army of 150,000 led by an inexperienced officer corps that…had never been allowed to have any command or staff authority. Industry had been virtually nonexistent…and the agricultural base of rice and rubber…had been wrecked by explosive landlords who had impoverished much of the peasantry” (McMahon 99). Since Vietnam was not in a state to fight without help, the United States offered our support. The third and most talked about reason discussed in the chapters is our attempt to prevent Communism spreading anywhere else.
To start, document 4 conclusions state, “The whole of Southeast Asia is in danger of falling under Communist domination” (McMahon 54). It had become clear in 1954 that the French were failing to re-colonize Vietnam and without control, it would fall to Communism. The State Department concluded, “It is important to the United States security interests that all practical measures be taken to prevent further communist expansion of Southeast Asia. Indochina is a key area of Southeast Asia and is under immediate threat” (McMahon 56).
In chapter 4, we learn of the domino theory as President Eisenhower explained it in 1954 and this became the most public reason shown in the media for our presence in Vietnam. It describes the fragility of Communism growing throughout the world, especially in Southeast Asia. The analogy explains dominoes set up next to each other and if one falls, the rest will quickly fall as well. This was the position of the United States that if Vietnam fell to Communism, the rest of Southeast Asia and other countries would soon follow including Burma, Thailand, the Peninsula, and Indonesia.
In conclusion, the support to enhance our presence in Vietnam was one that was greatly supported in the beginning. The American people at home were afraid of Communism spreading throughout the world which would cause a bigger threat to a domestic attack. In light of the Cold War, Communism was something we were afraid of, and we did what we thought would be an intuitive move to thwart bigger ones from the USSR or China. Since we were in a position to help Vietnam, this was justification for American involvement.