The Vietnam War- one of the bloodiest, grimmest, and most trying times of the Cold War. A war that many believed was fought in vain and without purpose and that “…produced no famous victories, no national heroes and no patriotic songs…” A war that threw the USA into public disdain for intervening where intervention was not needed; for causing bloodshed when none was called for- and all in the name of a failed policy of Containment and the miscalculated Domino Theory.
However, in order to explain why the USA became increasingly involved in Vietnam, it is necessary to go into background detail as to why it became involved in Vietnam in the first place. Before the Second World War, Vietnam had been a French colony along with Laos and Cambodia, collectively known as French Indochina; French rule was unchallenged until 1940, when France was defeated in the war by German forces. This led to a take-over by Germany’s ally, Japan, which took over most of Vietnam’s resources.
During the war, a strong anti-Japanese movement, known as the Viet-Minh and led by Communist Ho Chi Minh, rose up and encouraged the Vietnamese to fight for an independent Vietnam; following the end of the war, the Viet Minh fought the Japanese and took control of the North of Vietnam, determined to take control of the South as well. They entered Hanoi in 1945 and declared independence. The problem arose when the French returned after WW2 ended to reclaim Vietnam as their colony. Viet Minh had not fought the Japanese only to hand power back to the French.
He stoutly refused and this led to a brutal war breaking out between the two in 1946 that lasted until 1954. Viet Minh, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that he was Communist, remained quiet. He knew the democratic USA would sympathize with his cause if he was portrayed as a victim struggling against colonial rule; less than five years later however, the USA switched sides abruptly and began aiding the French feverishly, pouring nearly $500 million a year into the French War effort. Why did the USA cease sympathizing with Viet Minh so quickly? To understand this, a look into pre-war relations must be taken.
Following the end of the Second World War, the USA had maintained a frosty relationship with the communist USSR. Americans hated communism and saw it as an eternal evil. The only way to control it would be to maintain a foreign policy of Containment- a strategy aimed at preventing Communism to spread further than the USSR. The USA had adopted this strategy in the Korean War and would attempt it later in the Cuban Missile Crisis; when, in 1949, neighboring China turned Communist and began supplying the Viet Minh with supplies and aid, the USA decided to apply Containment as well.
They had begun to worry- they feared that Vietnam could fall prey to the Communist regime that they believed was preparing to sweep over Asia. They believed that Communism was planning to take over the world, as proven by the Communist takeover in China, the Korean War and the Communist victory over the French in Vietnam. The USA, fearing a future Communist world, decided it was necessary to intervene: by aiding the South Vietnamese government against the Communist North, the USA was helping to contain Communism and prevent it from spreading across the world.
This reason- the threat of potential Communist expansion- is one of the main reasons why the USA decided to become involved in Vietnam. The USA immediately began helping the French set up their own non-Communist government in South Vietnam, in an attempt to control Viet Minh and retaliate. Money, military equipment and advisors were sent along to support the new government. A guerilla war took place for eight years, in which both sides fought furiously against each other, ending with a crushing French defeat in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu.
Furthermore, this resulted in the 1954 peace conference in Geneva where Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam and future elections were put in place to decide its fate. This defeat was a blow in many ways to the Americans: firstly, the French had lost thousands in battle and secondly, a small Asian state had managed to gain the upper hand over a modern, well equipped, rich European state. Fearing that Communists would win in the upcoming elections, the USA intervened and prevented the elections taking place.
This was a result of a newly adopted policy of determination and ignorance, headed by a theory known as the Domino theory. Simply put, Eisenhower, the American president, and his secretary of state JF Dulles, thought that should Vietnam fall to Communism, it would result in the countries around it- Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma and India- eventually falling to Communism, just like a row of dominoes- and a Communist South Asia was not an option for the USA. The USA was determined to fight against Communism because it would mean dire consequences for it, were it to expand.
A Communist South Asia would lead to a series of problems in the USA. Its economy would be ruined, firstly, because it would not be able to trade with Communist countries. This would lead to a weaker military and then a weaker political stance with the USSR coming out on top as the major world power. Furthermore, Vietnam lay in a critical position- right next to China, which meant that should the USA be able to align itself with it, it would find itself in a very good position to install arms against the new Communist China and close by to the USSR.
By becoming involved in Vietnam and managing to remove Communism from it, the USA would then be able to fix its economic, social and militant position as a superpower and increase its defense against the USSR. So, to increase this stability and prevent the take-over of Communism, the USA prevented the elections taking place by firstly reinstating a new government in the South known as the Republic of South Vietnam. It was led by Ngo Dinh Diem, a bitterly anti-Communist, brutal leader with a knack of imprisoning and exiling his opponents.
He was cruel, with a corrupt regime and treated most of the peasantry with contempt, showing little respect for their culture and their Buddhist religion- unlike the more sympathetic Viet Minh. The USA continued to back him however, realizing that having an anti-Communist, ruthless Vietnam was better than having a Communist Vietnam and so supported his regime with $1. 6 billion; this was clearly seen when Diem was overthrown in 1963 and the USA continued to support the corrupt, but anti-Communist governments that followed him.
The USA’s resolve was tested again when the National Liberation front (the NLF) was set up in South Vietnam in late 1963. It was almost like a subsidy of the Viet Minh (it was known as the Viet Cong) and was intent on overthrowing Diem’s regime, removing the American forces and reuniting North and South Vietnam. The problem was that it was set up in ‘American’ territory and was seen as a threat to American forces, especially when the Viet Cong began a guerilla war against the South Vietnamese government.
The war was total failure for American and South Vietnamese forces the Americans did not known the terrain and played easily into the hands of the more able and better skilled guerilla fighters. The fact that the NLF was attacking American bases and air forces caused the USA to become increasingly involved in Vietnam just to fight against the damage that the Viet Cong was causing. After President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Lyndon Johnson took hold and viewed the Domino Theory in a much more aggressive way.
He believed that the South Vietnamese forces would not be ble to keep out the North Vietnamese for long- they would need major help in the form of a much more aggressive war (this was due to South Vietnamese peasants warming up to communism after harsh treatment by Diem’s regime). This led to him planning a bombing of North Vietnam in 1964 which was preceded by the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in July 1964 where two American ships were attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats in international waters. In retaliation, Johnson made the USA more involved in the war by sending a further 150,000 troops to fight against the North Vietnamese.
In conclusion, the USA became increasingly involved in Vietnam due to a mix of ignorance and the unwavering belief that Communism was set on expansion and needed to be controlled. The USA thought that by involving itself in Vietnam, it would be able to contain Communism and prevent it from spreading further than China and the USSR to South-East Asia and by doing so, would be securing its own national interest at home. Vietnam was the only way to maintain a prospering economy and to prove to the world that the USA was neither weak nor a pushover- that it could, and would, be able to halt the expansion of Communism.
Courtney from Study Moose