In the first part of 1965 President Lyndon Johnson made an important decision and brought the United States to an expensive, troublesome, and unsuccessful war that lasted for more then 8 years. The decision to start war with Vietnam was not an inevitable choice. Several Johnson’s foreign policy advisers proposed alternative actions, however, the President decided to Americanize the war and brought a large number of the U.S. ground forces to a conflict on the other side of the world in Vietnam.
The United States were directly involved in the conflict starting from 1954, but only in a limited way. The States were sending military advisers to help the government of South Vietnam in their fight against North and the communist guerrillas in the south. This was the situation when Johnson became President in 1963. In 1964 Johnson obtained congressional approval to launch the war. After two U.S. vessels in the waters off the North Vietnamese coast reported being fired upon, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed in order to “repel any armed attacks against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.”
In the end of 1964 it seemed that South Vietnam, America’s ally might loose the war. In the beginning of the next year, President’s assistant, McGeorge Bundy was set to South Vietnam to review the situation and make recommendations. At this time, the United States Army was attacked and 9 people killed. After his return to the United States, Bundy reported to the President that “The situation in Vietnam is deteriorating, and without new U.S. action defeat appears inevitable.” As a result, U.S. conducted a bombing campaign in Northern Vietnam. Soon afterwards first American ground forces entered Vietnam. At the end of February, marines were also sent to Vietnam.
It was later revealed that one of the attacks that led to the increase of American involvement was questionable. “The Gulf of Tonkin incident,” writes Louise Gerdes, “is an oft-cited example of the way in which Johnson misled the American people to gain support for his foreign policy in Vietnam.” Maybe Johnson and his advisors did not knowingly lie about the events in Vietnam, but they definitely chose those that were convenient for them.
Since this moment the war became more American then Vietnamese. Horace Busby, Johnson’s political adviser, wrote, “This is no longer South Vietnam’s war. We are no longer advisers. The stakes are no longer South Vietnam’s. The war is ours.” This war was the longest and most divisive in the history of the United States. It took lives of more then 58, 000 people. After Americans left Vietnam in 1973, two years later the country fell to communists.
War in Vietnam was a part of the Cold War America led against the spread of communism in the world. The Truman doctrine stated that America would assist governments resisting communism. By the late 1950’s the Americans developed the “Domino Theory” as a justification for the involvement. This theory stated, “If South Vietnam falls to the Communist, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, India and Pakistan would also fall like dominos. The Pacific Islands and even Australia could be at risk”.
After the French were defeated in Vietnam in 1954, the country was divided in two parts- the north was Communist, led by Ho Chi Minh, and the south was Capitalist under Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem’s regime received very significant material support from the US, but remained quite unpopular with most Vietnamese population.
Johnson wanted to show to Soviet Union and China that the U.S. had enough power to defeat the communist countries. Communism was viewed in this time as a vast worldwide conspiracy that radiated from Moscow. It seemed to Johnson that Vietnam is very easy to defeat and thus prove American power to the rest of the world. The war in Vietnam was highly unpopular, even though most Americans believed that to fight against communism in the name of freedom was justified at any cost. Johnson closely watched the public opinion polls. His goal was not to adjust his policies to follow opinion, but rather to adjust opinion to support his policies.
The decision to take part in the war indirectly was first made by John F. Kennedy. At his death, there were 16,000 American military advisors in Vietnam. In his inaugural address, Kennedy made the ambitious pledge to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” In June 1961, John F. Kennedy bitterly disagreed with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev when they met in Vienna over key U.S.-Soviet issues. Cold war strategists concluded Southeast Asia would be one of the testing ground where Soviet forces would test the USA’s power. It was Johnson who began America’s direct involvement in the ground war in Vietnam and continued what his predecessor has started.
In summary, there were four main reasons for Americanizing the war in Vietnam. The most important of them, from the governmental point of view was to protect the free world from communism. The logic behind this was that if Vietnam were to fall then the domino effect would lead to a flush of communist regimes in South East Asia. To some extent it was also believed that if a French colony were to become communist, then communism would have an entrance to Europe through a destabilized France. In practice, this was never a possible theory, since any European communist revolution would need a wide-ranging support from the general population that was not present. Indeed many attempted revolutions had failed miserably, such as revolution in Munich in the 1920s.
The next reason for intervention was a self-serving one: to emphasize American military might and global significance. By becoming militarily involved in Vietnam, America hoped that it would soon be able to defeat the revolution and reaffirm its own global value. It was for this reason that the American administration were unperturbed by the lack of European aid as this would lead to greater glory for the successful government and would also serve the purely political aim of ensuring voter popularity. From a political point of view, therefore, the conflict needed to be short and decisively won and the necessity for victory encouraged America into throwing more and more resources into an already lost cause.
Any war has also economic reasons. Both Eisenhower and Nixon put great value on the economic justification for war: the important resources of South-East Asia would be lost through the domino effect with the instigation of a communist regime in Vietnam. Malaya, in particular, with its vast reserves of copper, tin and rubber would have had an economic impact on America through its loss, but even this would not have been great and the utility of the Asian rice crop to America was minimal.
The reason for intervention stated in military propaganda was rather different, however, revolving as it did around the need to protect the freedom of the Vietnamese. The major problem with this reasoning was the fact it was impossible to convince the Vietnamese that their French oppressors and the largely racist Americans who followed them were the way to their freedom while their own compatriots who opposed the established authority were trying to enslave them. This meant that American intervention on this front was predetermined to be lost from the start.
Hunt, Michael H. (1996). Lyndon Johnson’s War: America’s Cold War Crusade in Vietnam, 1945-1968. New York: Hill and Wang.
Logevall, Fredrik. (1999). Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Rotter, Andrew Jon. (1987). The Path to Vietnam: Origins of the American Commitment to Southeast Asia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
VanDeMark, Brian. (1991) Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press.
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