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How can we explain America’s involvement in the Vietnam War?To what extent did America get it “wrong, terribly wrong”?
America’sofficial explanation for its involvement in the Vietnam War was the containmentof communism and the liberation of the Vietnamese people. As is usually thecase when nations involve themselves in war, the reasons for it are not assimple as are made out. In this essay I will argue that the allied victory inWorld War 2, the Cold War, and the national image, all played a part in America’sinvolvement in Vietnam. Robert McNamara, the then Secretary of Defence, wrotetwenty years after the war “We were wrong, terribly wrong.”So how did they get it wrong? The blanket answer is their failure to see thatvictory was highly unlikely and victory without massive cost was impossible.Repeated advice to that effect from their own military experts and others wentunheeded. The history of the Vietnamese response to centuries of attack byother nations, the extent of their desire for independence and justice, and thegrass-root support for the iconic Ho Chi Minh and his motivated resistancemovement were not taken into account. I will show that these factors togetherwith civil unrest at home and an unwillingness to lose face are why America gotit terribly wrong.
World War 2ended in victory for allied forces with America emerging as a superpower. A newconfidence after pre-war recession found it extending its interests around theworld, with the aim of opening up global markets. At the same time, it wascommitted to protecting those interests against the spread of Communism,predominantly from Russia and China, which might threaten their Capitalistaspirations. Buzzanco (1999, p.16) summarises the U.S. post war agenda:
TheUnited states had interests [I]n Europe, Americans hoped to rebuild Britain,Germany, France, Italy, and other countries along Capitalist lines while alsousing those areas to prevent the Soviet Union from spreading Communism beyondEastern Europe, and in Asia, the Japanese, with American direction andaid, were being transformed into the foundation for Capitalist expansion andanti-Communism in Asia.
Asself-proclaimed liberators of nations from poverty, and leading protagonists inthe Cold War conflict between Capitalism and Communism, the stage was set forAmerican intervention that would see military action for many years to come.The inevitability of this was seen by certain observers, who realised that therewas but a short step between this containment policy and an indiscriminateglobalism that could compel the United States to intervene militarily on behalfof weak puppet states in remote areas of the world – places, that is, likeVietnam. (Logevall, 1999, p.385).
In the early1950’s, the French occupation of Vietnamwas meeting fierce resistance from the Viet Minh,In response America began sending limited financial and military aid to theFrench occupying forces. By 1954, the occupation was virtually broken and theFrench hold on Vietnam was in dire straits. Conditions in Asia were seen ascritical by the U.S. leadership. France was requesting urgent Americanassistance, and the Chinese Communist Party was gaining increasing power inopposition to the U.S. friendly Chinese government of Jiang Jieshi. The Frenchsituation and the prospect of an independent Vietnam posed two major problemsfor America. Firstly, to withhold assistance from the French would be to risklosing a major ally in the Cold War. Secondly, an independent Vietnam left anopen door for the expansion of Chinese communism into Vietnam and a significantbarrier to U.S. economic development in Asia. In order to confront theseproblems, America began to increase financial aid to massive proportions, aswell as military hardware and advisors. At the same time an agreement inGenevaresulted in the partition of Vietnam into the North and South sectors, to becontrolled by the Viet Minh and a nominal ‘moderate’ power, respectively. Thisarrangement was to exist pending a re-unification election for Vietnam withintwo years.
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By 1955, America,unhappy with the status quo in Vietnam had installed a pro-Americananti-communistas governor of the Southern sector. Diem subsequently proclaimed his sector asthe Republic of Vietnam. The South now became the central focus for the U.S.and with the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as U.S. President in 1961, cameincreased involvement. Kennedy, reluctant to commit to all out war in Vietnamsaid:
Wewill continue to assist [Diem regime] them, but I don’t think that thewar can be won unless the people support the effort
However, Kennedywas dealing with other problems, and his solutions often went against the grainof more hawkish elements in Washington, which led to pressure on him. Hisdealings with the Russians and Cubaresulted in critics strongly advising that a stand needed to be taken withwhich to assert the image of superpower and that the stand should be made inVietnam. Buzzanco (1999, p.65) writes:
oneof his closest advisors, suggested that clean-cut success in Vietnam coulderase the stain of the Bay of Pigs. In Saigon General Lionel McGarr, likewisenoted the White House’s strong determination to stop the deterioration of USprestige
By the time ofKennedy’s death in 1963, over 16,000 U.S. military ‘advisors’ were deployed inSouth Vietnam, against increasing strikes by the Viet Minh from within SouthVietnam and from the North.
Linden Johnson took over the presidency from Kennedy in1963, and vowed to continue the policy of involvement in Vietnam. In the sameyear resistance in South Vietnam increased significantly so that by 1964 thepossibility of the overthrow of the U.S. installed regime loomed large. Johnsonresponded with an escalation in U.S. involvement. By 1965, sustained, intensivebombing campaigns were being carried out on North Vietnam, and the number ofAmerican troops deployed in the South had risen to over 184,000, leavingthousands of American troops dead along with thousands of Vietnamese troops andcivilians. This was despite the misgivings of leading senators who were agreedthat:
insofaras Vietnam is concerned we are deeply enmeshed in a place where we ought not tobe; that the situation is rapidly going out of control and every effort shouldbe made to extricate ourselves (Siff, 1999, p.40)
The militaryalso were against escalation. The Commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, GeneralWestmoreland expressed strong reservations:
Westmorelandwas likewise reluctant to fight in Vietnam. In September 1964, the commanderdid not contemplate putting US troops into combat; that would be amistake, because it is the Vietnamese’s wara purely military solution isnot possible (Buzzanco, p.74)
By the end of1967, the number of U.S. troops deployed in Vietnam had reached half a million.Despite this, there was no sign of an American victory, and despite increasingconviction among the military, senators, financial institutions and largeportions of the American public, there was no movement by its leadership toextricate the nation from a seemingly losing battle. The fear of Communism andlosing face in the eyes of the world left America locked into a no-winnightmare.
The VietnameseNationalist forces, although sustaining heavy casualties throughout the war,constantly gained the upper hand and were always able to replace their losses.A major figure behind the success of their campaign for independence was Ho ChiMinh. Minh was inspired by the historic resistance of the Vietnamese peoplethroughout centuries of invasion by other nations. The Mongols, Chinese andFrench had all encountered fanatical opposition to occupation. Even if it tookyears, the Vietnamese fought doggedly to victory, and when World War 2 broughtanother occupation, this time by the Japanese, Ho Chi Minh:
Ledan underground, communist-led resistance movement called the Viet Minh (theLeague for Vietnamese Independence) against the Japanese invaders Well-organised but under-funded the Viet Minh carried out a campaign ofterrorism and intelligence-gathering (Elliot, 1996, p.22).
The Japanesesurrendered to allied troops in 1944 and the prospect of an independent Vietnamlooked possible. It was not to be though. The French re-established controlwith the help of the British and once again the Vietnamese found themselvesfighting for freedom. Over the next thirty years the Viet Minh (came to beknown as the Viet Cong in the South) proved to consist of soldiers andsupporters with high discipline, motivation and confidence in their quest forliberation from first the French and then the U.S. and its puppet regime.Those qualities and the advantage of fighting in their own land and on theirown terrain were factors in their eventual ejection of America. In Ho Chi Minhand the Viet Minh, the Americans:
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Wouldface a leader and organisation that seemed dedicated to their defeat and whocarefully and effectively used the images of rebellion that resonated deep inthe Vietnamese past (Edmonds, 1998, p.33).
The Americanforces contrasted sharply with that of their enemy. Apart from having to fighta guerrilla war, for which they were not trained or experienced, on unknownterrain, civil unrest at home impacted deeply on morale and discipline. At theheight of the Vietnam War, America was seeing violent protest and massdemonstrations on civil rights issues. Martin Luther King was openly condemningthe Vietnam War along with other civil rights campaigners. A member of the StudentNonviolent Coordinating Committee:
Warnedblacks that when LBJ talks all that garbage about he’s sending boys over thereto fight for the rights of coloured people, you ought to know that’s a lie.’Cause we live here with them, and they don’t ever do a thing for us. Hewent on to describe the war as white people sending black people to makewar on yellow people to defend the land they stole from red people.(Buzzanco,p.206)
The messageresonated with the thousands of black soldiers in Vietnam and contributed toracial division, often resulting in ghetto environments in which ethnic groupsswore allegiance only to themselves and rejected others. Further, a lack ofleadership conviction in the war caused by deep rifts in policy making and thedirection it should take, inevitably filtered down through the chain of commandto the white soldiers on the ground. Disillusionment in the cause for war, andexposure to the brutalities caused by it, hit morale hard, and drugs andalcohol use became rife among troops. Capps (1991, p.34) writes:
Whatwas experienced was the harshness of war: brutality, death, and atrocitywithout a comprehensive rationale to seal over the reality. The Vietnam Warprovided no transcendent meaning by which the national purpose could beinterpreted
American unwillingness to accept the prospect of defeatand loss of face continued after Johnson and throughout the Nixon presidency,keeping its troops in Vietnam until 1975.
I have argued that the emergence of America from World War2, as a superpower with aspirations of global expansion and a dedication tooppose Communism wherever it deemed fit, led to its involvement in Vietnam. Arefusal to withdraw in the face of defeat, in order to maintain its image as asuperpower in the eyes of the world, and in fear of the Communist threat, meantan involvement that lasted over two decades. The last thirteen years of it cost58,000 American and at least 1.5 million Vietnamese lives, as well as thedestruction of millions of acres of land. By misjudging the resources of theVietnamese people, and disregarding the voice of its own people, the cost paidfailed to achieve the aims for America’s involvement and resulted in themgetting it Wrong, terribly wrong.
Buzzanco, R. (1999) Vietnam and the Transformation ofAmerican Life Oxford, Blackwell.
Capps, W. (1991) The Vietnam Reader New York,Routledge.
Edmonds, A. (1998) The War in Vietnam U.S.A.,Greenwood Press.
Elliott, P. (1996) Vietnam Conflict and ControversyNew York, Arms & Armour Press.
Kissinger, H. (2003) Ending the Vietnam War NewYork, Simon & Schuster.
Logevall, F. (1999) Choosing WarCalifornia, University of California Press.
Prados, J. (1995) The Hidden History of the Vietnam WarU.S.A., Ivan R. Dee.
Siff, E. (1999) Why the Senate Slept U.S.A.,Praeger Publishers.
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