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To what extent was the Vietnam War “unwinnable” before direct American involvement began?
This investigation will focus on the question: To what extent was the Vietnam War “unwinnable” before direct American involvement began? The years leading up to direct American involvement will be the focus of this investigation, to allow an in-depth and pertinent analysis of the causes and factors that help support the focus question. The first source that will be evaluated is “The causes of the Vietnam War”, an article written by Andrew J. Rotter, from english.illinois.edu, the English department of the University of Illinois.” http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/vietnam/causes.htm. From this source I am able to obtain valuable information pertaining to the causes of the Vietnam War and factors leading up to it, that way I can create a analysis as to how the war could be considered “unwinnable”. The source is a short research article with relevant information produced by a student at the University of Illinois, written for others for research purposes and informative reading. A rather short article with a lot of information, but does not cover all of the leading events. My next source to be analysed is “It was an unwinnable war”, written by an unknown author from the Association of Diplomatic Studies, a non-profit organization established in 1986 which chronicles the history of American foreign policy and practice. https://adst.org/oral-history/fascinating-figures/it-was-an-unwinnable-war/. This is a research article consisting of a Q&A Section and quotes from the former Under Secretary of State for Economic and Agricultural Affairs, George Ball. There is information from primary sources in this article, and a lot of relevant information as well. The extensive information and analysis provided by the article is useful for students who are researching the background of the Vietnam War. Although a lot of pertinent information is included, most of the information comes from the perspective of one man, making the information one sided. The information provided by both sources are both relevant to the research question presented and applicable as well. An original analysis and research will be able to be conducted with the extensive information provided by the above two sources, along with other sources that are to be used in the future.
Due to the heavily disputed date in which the Vietnam War actually began for the United States, it is hard to say when we are able to begin measuring the factors that contributed to the war being unwinnable before it “started” per se. Although, for the sake of this essay, I would like to set the start for the Vietnam War as 1965, which was the year when direct American involvement began. By this I mean when active ground troops were sent to Vietnam for the sole purpose of combat. American involvement started gradually throughout the mid 1950s to 1965, and slowly and surely the United States would be involved in some form of war. Once the slow climb up the hill of involvement began, it was hard to backtrack, and all they could do from then on was to push forward. The United States had become involved in the war for many different reasons and factors, and these factors evolved and changed throughout the time. Much of the American public compared communism to that of a disease, one that would spread unless some form of prevention was implemented. Communists opposed what the United States stood for, such as democracy. Along with that, they violated human rights, pursued aggression through military, and created closed economies in which they did not trade with Capitalist nations. (http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/vietnam/causes.htm) As Andrew J. Rotter writes in his article about causes of the Vietnam War, “In 1949, when the Communist Party came to power in China, Washington feared that Vietnam would become the next Asian domino.”. This was of course in reference to the domino theory, a theory proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower which described how if a single nation fell to the grasps of communism, neighboring nations would become succumbed to communism as well and eventually turn to communism.
One of the main reasons why the Vietnam War could be considered unwinnable before the war even started is due to the history of the state of Vietnam. Throughout history, Vietnam has always been under the control of another country. Whether that be the Tang Dynasty during the 10th century, or French colonialism in the early 1900s to 1950s, or Japanese control of Vietnam during WW2, Vietnam had always been under the shadow of another much larger country. As Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson write in their article of French Colonialism in Vietnam, “French colonialism in Vietnam lasted more than six decades. By the late 1880s, the French controlled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which were collectively referred to asIndochine Français”. This shows just how long the French were in control of Vietnam, which would only have motivated the Vietnamese to want to pursue an independent nation even more. https://alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/french-colonialism-in-vietnam/. Vietnamese independence was always something that the Vietnamese people seeked throughout the years, and even though they gained independence after the collapse of the Tang dynasty in the 10th century, they eventually became under the control of another much more powerful nation. A hope for seeking independence has always been an important of Vietnamese identity or culture, and this idea of having an independent nation was something that they regularly pursued. Due to the timing of American involvement in Vietnam, the Vietnamese had just gotten out of a bloody war with the French, what was known as the First Indochina War. The Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, who would later become the leader of the North Vietnamese, engaged in a bloody war with the French, where the French were finally defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. As American involvement typically began in 1955, and increased throughout the years, this was very bad timing as the Vietnamese had just gained their own independence. This search for an independent nation was something that they had always looked for, and they were for sure not willing to become trapped under the shadow of one of the worlds largest powers once more.
This mindset was what contributed to what I believe is a main reason as to why the Vietnam War was unwinnable before American involvement began, due to the strong nationalist feelings from the Vietnamese and a pursuit for an independent nation. This would heavily motivate the Vietnamese during the war, and be a very important contributing factor as to why the United States did not understand the history of Vietnam well before involvement began. Although it could be argued that the United States had no other choice but to become involved because of their own policy of containment. If the United States wanted to be consistent through their policy of containment and believed in the domino theory, then there would be no other way except for the United States to become involved in Vietnam. This policy and the opposing temperament of the Vietnamese would contrast each other greatly, as both had their own self interests.
Another contributing factor as to why the Vietnam War was unwinnable before direct American involvement began would be due to the poor leadership in South Vietnam, and large resentment from many Vietnamese towards the South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem. In a quote from the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, quoted by George Ball, who was the Secretary of State for Economic and Agricultural Affairs under the Kennedy and Johnson administration, “Ball submitted a memo to President Johnson titled “A Compromise Solution for South Vietnam.” It began bluntly: “The South Vietnamese are losing the war to the Viet Cong. No one can assure you that we can beat the Viet Cong, or even force them to the conference table on our terms, no matter how many hundred thousand white, foreign US troops we deploy.” This proves to show how even American politicians did not believe that the United States should become involved in Vietnam due to very small support for the South Vietnamese regime, and how many South Vietnamese were already turning to the Viet Cong instead of staying loyal to the Diem regime. When questioned about the Gulf of Tonkin resolution during 1964, which allowed for President Johnson to take any measures to that would help to keep peace and security in Vietnam, George Ball said “I don’t think so. “Let’s go get this authority.” It didn’t seem to me that implied in this was much more than that. “Let’s get some authority from Congress,” rather than act entirely–again, this was perhaps a lawyer’s instinct–on the basis of the implied powers of the President, war powers of the President.” https://adst.org/oral-history/fascinating-figures/it-was-an-unwinnable-war/ This was in reference to if anyone opposed to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, in which Ball responded as many agreed with the resolution. This shows to as how the United States was still questioning their authority in Vietnam, even though almost everyone agreed with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Even though George Ball described the reasoning behind this as a show of power and for many other reasons that could be heavily disputed, the overall consensus on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was that of agreeance. With that being said, the South Vietnamese government was already losing a lot of support from the people of South Vietnam, as President Ngo Dinh Diem openly persecuted those that opposed with his regime, and imprisoning and executing political opponents. Along with that, he also persecuted Buddhists, which was a large population of Vietnam. This caused a lot of protests in Vietnam, such as the famous photo taken by an American photographer which depicted a Buddhist monk practicing self immolation as he engulfed himself in flames in protest to the Diem regime. Overall, with very small support for the South Vietnamese government from its own citizens, and even from the United States, who supported a coup in South Vietnam during 1963, many questioned if involvement should have even begun if the United States would be backing up such an unpopular government.
Overall, we were able to explore many possibilities that would provide support as to why the Vietnam War was unwinnable before American involvement began. With the complicated history of Vietnam, and the policy of containment from the side of the United States, these were conflicting views from both sides that would never overlap in coexistence. A strong sense of nationalism and a mindset that would not allow the Vietnamese pursuit of self independence was great motivation for the Vietnamese to continue to fight foreign aggression, something that they would easily die for. They did not want to be under the control of another foreign power for another time, and unfortunately for the United States, this time the Vietnamese would be putting their foot down and would not stand down from their pursuit of an independent nation.
With conflicting views of increasing American involvement throughout the early 1960s, decisions were questionable at best and many were opposed to these policies, even though the general consensus for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was that of agreeance. Many Americans were already in disbelief before American involvement began in Vietnam, and this disbelief would help to contribute to many anti war protests throughout the Vietnam War back in the United States.
Many of the methods that historians used to come to conclusions about this topic would be through that of deductive reasoning, which is something that I implemented into this essay. With the use of multiple reasons throughout my essay, I was able to come up with a conclusive statement which is that of: “The Vietnam War was unwinnable before direct American Involvement began.” Along with support and quotes from multiple sources, especially with quotes from George Ball, a former politician who was close with the presidential administration during the time, I believe that my support and reasoning is valid throughout my essay and they are all able to create a strong conclusion. With that being said, the job of a historian is to analyze past events as accurately and unbiased as possible, and I believe that throughout this essay these elements and principles were upheld consistently throughout to the greatest extent of my own willpower.
- Rotter, Andrew J. “The Causes of the Vietnam War.” On “Spring and All”, www.english.illinois.edu/maps/vietnam/causes.htm.
- “‘It Was an Unwinnable War.’” Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, 1998, adst.org/oral-history/fascinating-figures/it-was-an-unwinnable-war/.
- Llewellyn, Jennifer. French Colonialism in Vietnam. 18 June 2018, alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/french-colonialism-in-vietnam/.
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