Vietnam: How and Why the United States Got Involved
The conflict in Vietnam which is also called the Ten Thousand-Day War was an ongoing battle from 1945 to 1975. In the 30 years of fighting, the United States would lose over 57,000 men while Vietnamese dead numbered two million (Maclear 2). The Vietnam War is very interesting because many people have wondered how and why the United States got involved in a war that really didn’t seem to concern them.
American involvement officially began in 1950 when the US government recognized the Bao Dai government and began sending the French aid to fight off the communist backed Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh (Scheer 10). The French lost the war because it was not fully committed to a “win” policy (Scheer 10). The Bao Dai, anti-Communist nationalist alternative, whom the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations had backed, had failed to undercut the appeal of the Viet Minh (Scheer 11). The price of peace involved the surrendering of some portion of the country to the Communists, and the United States could not oppose since it had not become deeply involved (Scheer 12). The United States instead placed its hopes on a “new anti-Communist nationalist alternative” and his name was Ngo Dinh Diem.
Diem accepted the offer and on July 7, 1954 his government was formally organized. This started a new phase of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Senator John F. Kennedy recommended, in order to prevent the further spread of communism in Southeast Asia, that the French grant independence to South Vietnam, support the government’s army, and “whenever necessary…make some commitment of our manpower” (Scheer 15). The settlement at Geneva in July, 1954, did three things: 1) it ended the war; 2) divided Vietnam in half “temporarily”; and 3) called for peace and reunification of the country (Scheer 16).
Diem’s government believed in tight central control to divert the nationalist revolution from Communist objectives (Scheer 21). During the first year of the new government, Diem crushed all sources of opposition left over from the Viet Minh (Scheer 21). By 1959, in the North, the Viet Minh had written off the possibility of the elections that they were supposed to get and turned to military means. This ended the illusory stability of the Diem regime (Scheer 46).
Diem was aware that his government could not survive without the massive aid from the United States so he based his whole appeal on anti-communism (Scheer 56). But then, with the “Communist danger” the basis for assuring continued American aid, the “secure” countryside suddenly was overrun with “Communist terrorists” (Scheer 56).
At the end of April 1960, eighteen Vietnamese nobles petitioned Diem to liberalize his regime. The petition said continual arrests had filled prisons to overflowing and asserted that a swollen Government bureaucracy was corrupt and inefficient (Scheer 59). In 1961 Edward Landsdale was sent to Vietnam to make an over-all study of the situation. He reported that the situation was near total collapse and that if the policies of the Diem government and its advisers continued to be pursued the country would soon be lost (Scheer 60). It was then decided to increase the Vietnamese Army from 150,000 to 250,000, which was a direct violation of the Geneva Accords, to concentrate its training on counter-insurgency (Scheer 62).
The final incidents that led to the coup were a train of abuses, no single one of which was necessarily more important than any other, even though the dramatic Buddhist crisis is frequently cited as the final straw; it was one straw, a dramatic on. On November 1, the generals staged a coup and in the end Diem was killed (Trager 179).
In the spring of 1961, the magazine press began to revise its picture of Diem’s government (Scheer 66). Jerry Rose, who was an expert on Vietnam, accepted the containment policy after Diem’s removal and supported the overriding necessity for stopping the spread of communism in Vietnam. He says:
To sum up: one solution now for the U.S. appears to be a show of power in South Vietnam which would pave the way toward a compromising settlement. But is the risk of a power-play warranted? Southeast Asia has been likened to “a set of dominos.” If South Vietnam falls; the rest of the blocks go, too. It would seem, therefore, that it is in the high interest of the U.S., as a leader and a system of government, to risk much in stabilizing that tottering block (Scheer 76-77).
After Diem’s government was ousted, President Johnson had to decide afresh the new ways in which the U.S. could help Vietnam. The United States continued the policy of supplying, training, and advising the Army of the Republic of Vietnam on an increasing scale (Trager 179). On August 2 and 4, North Vietnamese boats attacked the warships U.S.S. Maddox and U.S.S. C. Turner Joy in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. Johnson ordered an immediate reply, and on August 4, United States aircraft began bombing Vietnam. This operation became known as Rolling Thunder (Trager 180).
North Vietnam had deliberately made war on the South, though it had bound itself to refrain from war. The United States had become an ally of the South at the time when no further war between the two states had been expected (Trager 182). Eventually, after this unprovoked war had begun, the United States recognized its obligation to its ally and slowly, and with many misgivings, assumed a responsible role in this alliance, a role which was defined, until as late as February, 1965, as one of assistance and advice only (Trager 183). This is when the United States finally entered combat troops into the Vietnam conflict.
On April 7, 1965 President Johnson explained the United States role in Vietnam. In his speech he defined the United States’ purpose:
There are those who wonder why we have a responsibility there. We have it for the same reason we have a responsibility for the defense of freedom in Europe. World War II was fought in both Europe and Asia, and when it ended we found ourselves with continued responsibility for the defense of freedom. Our objective is the independence of South Vietnam, and its freedom from attack. We want nothing for ourselves, only that the people of South Vietnam be allowed to guide their own country in their own way (Trager 190).
The United States involvement in Vietnam was based on keeping Southeast Asia from falling to the communists. We think that our ideas of democracy to be universally applicable. In Vietnam: first the French were dominant, and the Communists out of power were interested in violating the rules that assured French domination. By 1954, the Communists had won, and at Geneva they were able to write a new set of rules. But the United States, interested in reasserting its ideology, broke those rules and succeeded in establishing Diem in power. At that point the rebel reappeared, this time in the form of the Viet Cong (Scheer 78). The United States became involved militarily to show the world that their ideas could not be conquered.
Maclear, Michael. The Ten Thousand-Day War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.
Scheer, Robert. How the United States Got Involved in Vietnam. Santa Barbara, CA: Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, 1970.
Trager, Frank N. Why Vietnam?. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1968.