Causes of the USA - Vietnam Warby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
How did the USA become engaged in Vietnam and what were the results of that effort?
From the late 1950s to 1975, the United States fought in its only war that did not end in a U.S. victory. During this war, the actions that fulfilled the policies of the United States changed often over the course of four presidents and about eighteen years. How did the USA become engaged in Vietnam and what were the results of that effort?
Vietnam was a French colony from 1887 until World War II. The independence of Vietnam only became possible after the shake-up of power that occurred when Japan conquered a large portion of Asia, including Vietnam. The Japanese occupation, along with the events of the war in Europe, left the French hold on Vietnam considerably weaker than before WWII.
In 1941, in an effort to counter the Japanese presence in Vietnam, the US sent members of the OSS to ally with the communist Ho Chi Minh. These OSS members helped the Vietnamese harass the Japanese troops and rescue downed American pilots. In March of 1945, when threatened by an American invasion, the Japanese booted the independent French government out of Vietnam and set up Bao Dai as a puppet emperor. With the end of WWII, the Japanese abdicated, the British took the area south of the 16th parallel, the Chinese took the area north of the 16th parallel, and the French were able to get their colonies back. Then, in the fall of 1945, Lt. Col. A. Peter Dewy became the first American casualty in Vietnam when Viet Minh guerillas took him for a French officer. Dewy filed a report before he died voicing his opinion against American involvement in Vietnam: “[we] ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.” [1 – whole paragraph]
Ho Chi Minh
Much to the dismay of Vietnamese Nationalists, the victors of WWII supported
a return to the status quo of French rule. The new containment policy dictated
that the Vietminh must not take control of Vietnam, since that would establish
a new communistic government. In response to this threat, the U.S. began shipping
money and supplies to the French in Vietnam.
The communistic Vietminh used the defeat of Japan to declare independence which started the First Indochina War. France was ultimately defeated, and Vietnam split into the North and South halves. The impact the French defeat set the stage for the Second Indochina War, more commonly known as the Vietnam War.
USSR and Chinese Communism
China became Communist in 1949 after USSR backed Maoist forces defeated the
US backed Nationalist regime of Chaing Kai Shek. The humiliation of that event
added fuel to the US cause of containing communism.
Even following the retreat of the French from Vietnam, the United States had not sent any combat troops to Vietnam.
Communist North Korea invades South Korea
The aggressions of Chinese backed north Korea to unite the Korean peninsula under communism would be viewed as proof to the domino theory. This set the context for valid USA concerns in Vietnam.
Dwight D. Eisenhower and Dominos
America started to slide down a slippery slope of military involvement – it launched the MAAG: Military Assistance Advisory Group. Then, in 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower was inaugurated as President. As he sends more and more monetary aid to the French, he coined the phrase “domino effect.” Simply put, the domino effect stated that if one Southeast Asian country fell to communism, then all of Southeast Asia would fall.  And to that end, Eisenhower said, “…The possible consequences of the loss [of free countries in Southeast Asia] are just incalculable to the free world.”  Many succeeding presidents used this term to justify their increasing involvement in Southeast Asia.
The domino effect is not without any truth. George Kennan, in his “X Article”, first set it forth. This theory influenced virtually all of the Cold War, starting with the Truman Doctrine. This document cast the Soviets into an expansionistic light, and promoted a strategy of containment. However, Reagan, who strove to dissolve USSR, rather than contain them, vaporized this containment strategy. An example of the domino theory is the Eastern Bloc. After the Soviets obtained tight control over East Germany, they then mentored the rapid rise to power of totalitarian Communist regimes in Bulgaria, Czechloslovokia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia. A totalitarian Communist regime also arose in Albania under Envar Hoxha, but without explicit Soviet aid. 
Only after the National Liberation Front, also known as the Viet Cong, began a guerilla war with South Vietnam did the United States begin to send personnel to Vietnam. Under the period of escalation, U.S. began with the deployment of non-combatant military advisors to the South Vietnamese army, to use of special forces for commando-style operations, to introduction of regular troops whose purpose was to be defensive only, to using regular troops in offensive combat.
What made the policy of escalation so dangerous was its deceptiveness. On May 26, 1954, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a statement that included, "Indochina is devoid of decisive military objectives and the allocation of more than token US armed forces in Indochina would be a serious diversion of limited US capabilities." Despite these strong words, the United States committed over 500,000 troops to Vietnam over the course of the war. The situation kept requiring more soldiers, and America kept sending them. Not until Lyndon B. Johnson suggested a troop increase of about 150,000 in 1968 did the public fully realize what had happened. When they did, it ended the policy of escalation and greatly reduced support for the war. It remains a mystery whether the whole policy was consciously carried out over the course of eleven years by three Presidents, or just an unwitting committal of more and more troops to a war that was not recommended.
President Kennedy (1961 – 1963)
When the fledgling Kennedy administration was elected, JFK pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to insure the survival and the success of liberty.”  As Eisenhower left the White House; he advised Kennedy that he might have to send troops to Southeast Asia.  On the word of an aid, Maxwell Taylor, who said that “If Vietnam goes, it will be exceedingly difficult to hold Southeast Asia,"  he sent Green Berets, monetary aid, and pledged support to Vietnam’s independence. And that was just the start of American involvement.
The Cuban Missle Crisis provides another context to the situation of Vietnam. The USSR had sent nuclear weapons to a missle base in Cuba. This futher proved the aggressive nature of Communism.
Two policies gave the United States a disadvantage from the beginning of the war. First, under the leadership Kennedy's Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, along with civilian planners recruited from the academic community, the United States waged a limited war to force a political settlement. However, the U.S. was opposed by an enemy dedicated to total military victory, "...whatever the sacrifices, however long the struggle...until Vietnam is fully independent and reunified," as stated by Ho Chi Minh. This crippled U.S. and South Vietnamese Army's operations in Vietnam, and allowed the enemy to maintain the offensive throughout most of the war.
Second, the United States and South Vietnam were fighting an enemy that refused to meet them in a full-scale battle. The Viet Cong guerrillas used more subtle warfare to gain control of most of the countryside. For example, the Viet Cong would attack farms and small towns, each attack biting into the economy of South Vietnam, reducing the amount of food and supplies produced. In response, South Vietnam's President Diem uprooted his civilians from their ancestral homes and herded them into small, fortified villages. However, many of these villages were then infiltrated by the Viet Cong, rather than attacked outright. Strategies such as this put South Vietnam at a disadvantage very quickly.
President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rolling Thunder
After JFK was assassinated, Lyndon B. Johnson took office. One week after he was inaugurated, he reached a “fork in the road.” In a memo the President, Defense Secretary McNamara stated that the US was not making any progress in Vietnam, and that we must either withdraw or escalate. 
After sending 44 battalions (125,000 men), Johnson began Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965. This operation consisted of the Navy and Air Force running a frequently interrupted bombing campaign designed to show Ho Chi Minh the power of the US. Johnson and his advisors thought that this would warn Minh that if he did not stop trying to conquer South Vietnam, the violence would escalate. However, Johnson and his advisors shot themselves in the foot by strictly limiting the targets to destroy industrial bases and air defenses (SAMs). Six times during this campaign, America paused and attempted to get the North Vietnamese to the peace table; but instead, the NV used the breathing room to re-supply and re-strengthen men and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Bad weather made bombing raids impossible six months out of a year. North Vietnam already had a strong air defense network in place, which, with help from the USSR and China, they made stronger as the bombings continued. Basically, Johnson was attempting to punish North Korea without offending China or the USSR – major adversaries of the US, both of whom could do major damage. Basically, the US, with one hand behind its back, was fighting a deadly opponent who was willing to fight to the very end. 
Throughout Lyndon B. Johnson's years as President, the bombings of Rolling Thunder continued. On the ground, the U.S. resorted to search-and-destroy tactics, mostly due to the fact that they could not meet North Vietnamese or Viet Cong troops in full scale battle because of enemy strategy and the jungle terrain. The war basically remains a stalemate. By this time, the American public has turned well against the war, with constant anti-war rallies and protests and a dropping poll rating. Johnson eventually dropped out of the presidential race in 1969 and Richard Nixon became the next president. In response to the still-growing anti-war protests, Nixon begins a policy now known as "Vietnamization."
President Nixon: Vietnamization
The stated goal of Vietnamization was to enable the South Vietnamese army to hold its own against the NLF and the North Vietnamese Army. The unstated goal of Vietnamization was that the primary burden of combat would be returned to South Vietnam troops and thereby lessen domestic opposition to the war in the U.S. The U.S. began a gradual removal of troops from Vietnam, much as troops had gradually entered the Asian country. To cover this retreat, Nixon ordered an increase in bombing, lessening the need for ground incursions. On the political scene, Nixon managed to negotiate a decrease in the aid sent by the USSR and China to North Vietnam. In fact, the U.S. accomplished more victories during the years they were removing troops from Vietnam than when U.S. troops were at the height of involvement.
While the policy of Vietnamization did successfully bring U.S. troops out of the war, it did not prepare the South Vietnamese army to stand alone against the NVA and the Viet Cong. By 1973, only about 30,000 U.S. troops remained in Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords officially ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but it did not end the war. After the U.S. withdrew, the USSR and China stepped up their aid to North Vietnam again. South Vietnam's end came quickly with the next offensive, and by the middle of 1975 North Vietnam had become the only Vietnam.
Defeat of South Vietnam
American soldiers, without a cause to fight for, started losing moral. Casualties began to rise, mostly due to the micromanagement of the combat operations taking place. And when America finally got Vietnam to the peace table, combat operations took place more delicately; America was afraid of upsetting the Vietnamese away from the peace talks. And so, with the skills of Henry Kissinger, America, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Viet Cong sign the Paris Peace Accords. America withdraws its troops, and attains what Nixon called “peace with honor.” On March 27, 1973, America ended its longest war – and also the first war America ever lost. [Above from reference 8]
Perhaps the single greatest problem with American policy and strategy in Vietnam was the failure to ever commit to the offensive. Beyond Operation Rolling Thunder, the United States never organized an all-out assault. The old saying "the best defense is a good offense" rang true. North Vietnam was able to absorb the heavy bombing because they kept on the offensive. In addition, the United States stalled too often, trying to focus on peace instead of winning the war. Most likely, fear of a war with the USSR sparked these two problems.
If the United States had conquered North Vietnam, it probably would have led to war with neighboring China, which would have led to armed involvement by the USSR. The Vietnam War was the first in which the United States did not achieve victory, yet one must shudder to think about what could have happened if the United States had won. Combat with China and the USSR? Almost certainly. Nuclear war? World War III? We will never know how far the fighting could have gone.
This is not to justify the loss of Vietnam to communism, nor to say that the defeat of the United States in Vietnam was a "good thing." In retrospect, it would have been wise to not supporting French colonialism. Had China’s Nationalist Party not been corrupted by the influences of Chaing Kai Shek, then Communism might not have been such a palatable option to China, and the USA would not have felt threatened by Maoist Communism as the big domino pushing on South East Asia.
Multiple Choice Questions:
1) What was the United States’ most famous policy of the Cold War?
a. Spreading its Sphere of Influence
b. Containment (correct)
c. Aggression on all fronts
2) Attacks on what U.S. destroyer caused the United States to respond with
the start of a bombing raid campaign that would last through the whole war?
a. U.S.S. Washington
b. U.S.S. Phoenix
c. U.S.S Maddox
d. U.S.S. Mad Ox
3) What was the name of that bombing raid campaign?
a. The Tet Offensive
b. Operation Mad Ox
c. Operation Lightening
d. Operation Rolling Thunder
4) What was the stated goal of Vietnamization?
a. To enable the South Vietnamese army to hold its own against aggressors.
b. To return the primary burden of combat to the South Vietnam troops.
c. To lessen domestic opposition to the war in the U.S
d. To assimilate all the world into a Vietnam way of life.
1. Wikipedia.com http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War
2. Quoted in Marc Fisher, "Reopening the Wounds of Vietnam," Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 1-7 May 1995, p. 10.
3. The History Place - The Vietnam War http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/vietnam/index-1961.html
1. The History Place. http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/vietnam/index-1945.html World History. 5 May 2005.
2. Domino Effect. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domino_effect World History. 5 May 2005.
3. Domino Theory. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domino_theory World History. 5 May 2005.
4. Domino Theory Principle, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954. http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/domino.html World History. 5 May 2005.
5. Troop Levels In Vietnam. http://occawlonline.pearsoned.com/bookbind/pubbooks/martin_awl/medialib/download/MARTFIG291.gif World History. 6 May 2005.
6. The History Place. http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/vietnam/index-1961.html World History. 6 May 2005.
7. The History Place. http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/vietnam/index-1965.html World History. 6 May 2005.
8. The History Place. http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/vietnam/index-1969.html World History. 7 May 2005.
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