US Vietnam Policy: From Containment to Moral Commitment

Every American president basically regarded the enemy in Vietnam, whether the Vietminh, the National Liberation Front in the 60s and the government of Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam, as agents of global communism (Rotter 1999, p 1). US policymakers and most Americans conceived of communism as the opposite of what they stood for. Communists opposed democracy, violated human rights, conducted military attacks and formed closed-state economies, which did not trade with capitalist countries. They loathed communism like a contagious disease.

When the Communist Party rose to power in China in 1949, the US government in Washington feared that Vietnam would fall into the hands of communists.

This was the reason why the administration of US President Harry Truman decided to send aid to the French who were then fighting the Vietminh in 1950 (Smitha 2005, p 2). Earlier in May, 1945, the Truman administration approved the resumption of France’s colonial authority in Indochina in the hope that France would fight communism in Vietnam.

The Viet Minh, a movement led by Ho Chi Minh, a veteran communist, resisted the French regime in Vietnam.

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At the end of the war, the Viet Minh announced Vietnam’s independence of foreign rule. But the Truman administration and the Allied powers did not want the Vietnamese to be independent. The war between the French and the Viet Minh then began in December 1946. The US sided with the French in Vietnam for the sake of fighting communism in Europe and Indochina and sent financial and material support to the French to overthrow Ho Chi Minh’s government in Vietnam (Rotter p 5, Smitha pp 16-17).

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President Truman supported the French also in the hope of helping them build and reinforce non-Communist nations whose fate depended to a large extent on the preservation of Vietnam (Rotter 2005, Smitha 1999). He saw that a free world in the region would open markets for Japan, The involvement of the US in Vietnam likewise assured the British of the revival of the rubber and tin industries in Malaya, a neighbor of Vietnam. With US help, the French could move on with efforts at economic recovery at home and ultimately retrieve their military forces from Indochina to oversee the rearmament of West Germany.

These were the perceived deep-seated motivations of US involvement in Vietnam (Rotter, Smitha). After the invasion of South Korea by North Korea in 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson convinced President Truman to increase US assistance to the French (Smitha 2005). The US also recognized France’s puppet king, Bao Dai, in Vietnam, only to be replaced later (Smitha, p 9). Step by step, the US entered into the conflict for these goals, which gradually waned and were forgotten. What later developed was a tendency against withdrawing from Vietnam itself (Smitha, p 10).

When the Vietnamese Nationalist Vietminh army won over the French at Dienbienphu in 1954, the French were forced to accept the creation of a Communist Vietnam north of the 17th parallel and leaving a non-Communist side in the south (Rotter 1999, p 2). Then US President Dwight Eisenhower rejected the arrangement. Instead, he endeavored to set up a government there to wrestle control from the French, sent military advisers to train a South Vietnamese army, and operate the Central Intelligence Agency to stage a psychological warfare against North Vietnam (Rotter).

In his address at the Gettysburg College, Eisenhower pointed to Vietnam as a free but poor and underdeveloped country with a weak economy where the average individual income was less than $200 a year (1959, pp 96-97). The northern part of Vietnam was taken over by communists. He stressed that South Vietnam needed assistance in self-defense and economic growth. The people of Vietnam wanted to thrive and to become self-sufficient. For Vietnam to expand economically, it would need to acquire capital and for this to happen, it should be freed from outside hostility and private investments should be established to infuse capital.

Otherwise, it should be given outside loans and grants from more fortunate countries. He emphasized that Vietnam’s freedom should first be insured and then its economic problem would be solved. In addition, the military forces in Vietnam also needed support without affecting or destroying the economy of Vietnam. He justified the continued existence of US military forces in Vietnam because of the closeness of Communist military forces in the north. He also said that while Communist guerrillas had been substantially contained, the remaining ones continued to disrupt the overall conditions of the nation.

He emphasized the need to equally provide sufficient moral support to the troops so that they would continue to have the hope, confidence and pride needed to ward off the threats of aggressions from within and without the borders Upon his assumption as President in 1952, US aid to the French in Vietnam increased and reached 80% in two years’ time (Smitha 2005). In 1954, Bao Dai was replaced by Ngo Dinh Diem. But the French disliked Diem, a nationalist who stood aside during the struggle for independence from the French.

He was a courageous, honest and persistent, but he was also inept and he was not popular with ordinary people. He was surrounded by relatives and friends and did not establish close relationships with local leaders and groups in the South. His forces in the rural areas were feared and hated. His strategic hamlet program relocated peasants into communities, surrounded by barbed wire to separate them from the guerillas. They did not like their new hamlets (Smitha, p 14). At a news conference on the steel crisis during his term, US President John F.

Kennedy contrasted those Americans fighting for freedom in Vietnam with executives who pursued private power and profits beyond a sense of public responsibility (Bostdorff and Goldzwig 1994). While recognizing the importance of the steel controversy, he re-emphasized the value of the US mission in Vietnam. Whenever he had the chance, he restated the nation’s moral commitment. His morally-grounded idealistic rhetoric gained him definite advantages. His arguments made him sound tough and pleased those with an equally hard-line position against communism in Southeast Asia.

He could also use these arguments to justify and support his policies, such as when Congress threatened to reduce foreign aid. He insisted that foreign aid was an all-or-nothing proposition because principles were at stake. He pressed that Congress could provide all the aid he believed should be given or Congress must assume the responsibility and culpability in the event of a victory of Communism and the defeat of freedom in those nations at risk. He maintained that representatives and senators must make policy decision in the light of the larger moral consequences to which these policies would inevitably lead.

At the Economic Club of New York in 1962, he commented that Vietnam would instantaneously collapse if the US did not assist it. He consistently presented and idealistically argued that Vietnam as the conflict or a battle of principles and urged all citizens to commit themselves to an all-out support to that commitment. If they did not, they would then have to prepare for a communist victory, which would negate and destroy the cause of freedom all over the world (Bostdorff and Goldzwig).

France’s Charles de Gaulle warned President Kennedy that the US would sink into a “bottomless quagmire” in Vietnam, no matter how much money was spent on it and how many men were sent to it (Smitha 2005, p 10). The President increased the number of advisors to help the Diem regime in 1961, until he realized that the battle had to be won by the Vietnamese themselves, not by Americans. He was aware of Diem’s unpopularity and that Diem would fail to rally in the South in the fight against the communists.The time came when it decided to find an alternative to Diem and connived with his generals to overthrow him (Smitha, pp 13-15). #


  1. Bostdorff, Denise and , Steven. Idealism and Pragmatism in American Foreign Policy. New York: Presidential Studies Quarterly. Vol 24 Issue 3, 1994
  2.  Rotter, Andrew J. The Causes of the Vietnam War. The Oxford Companion to American Military History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. http://www. english. uuc. edu/maps/vietnam/causes. htm
  3. Smitha, Frank E. The United States and Vietnam. Macrohistory, 2005. http://www. smitha. com/h2/ch26. htm
Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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US Vietnam Policy: From Containment to Moral Commitment. (2017, Feb 20). Retrieved from

US Vietnam Policy: From Containment to Moral Commitment essay
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