Idealism, Self-Interest and the Vietnam War

Hannah Walker, Dickson College, 2010

Hannah Walker wrote this essay in the 'America Ascendant' unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2010. It was a response to the question; 'Why did the United States militarily intervene in Vietnam?"

The United States had many reasons for going to war in Vietnam, not all of them at first apparent. The reason which was placed at the forefront of the rhetoric was the preservation of freedom and democracy across the world. Apart from idealism, they also protected their own self interest in attempting to stop the spread of communism in Asia, but the war was also started because of strong domestic anti-communist sentiment. The United States military intervention in Vietnam happened for many reasons, but none of these fully took into account a proper understanding of the region.

The events leading up to the Vietnam War held the world’s attention. In 1954, the Geneva Accord split Vietnam in two; with the North controlled by the communist Vietminh and the South controlled by Ngo Dinh Diem, a U.S. ally. The understanding in the accord was that nationwide elections would be held in 1956 to enable the Vietnamese to democratically elect their own government (Karnow, 1983, p.14). However, this election never occurred, because both Diem and the United States knew that any election would likely be won by the North Vietnamese communists. This showed an ability to be pragmatic, behind their façade of idealism.

One of the reasons for the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam was their belief in spreading freedom and democracy internationally. Certainly, this was a front put on America’s intervention. Kennedy promised that America would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, and oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.” (Karnow, 1983, p.14). Kennedy argued that the U.S. needed to assert its moral authority to aid the Vietnamese in their struggle against communism. This belief had been represented years earlier by President Truman, when he outlined his doctrine of intervention. In effect, Kennedy’s rhetoric was a commitment of adherence to this policy. This concept of America’s duty to the rest of the world was an ongoing theme in U.S. politics, with many subscribing to Luce’s ‘American Century.’[1] However this reasoning took into account little of the actual situation in Asia at that time.

The American crusade, propelled as it was by the ‘domino theory’ and the naïve assumption that the entire region would collapse to the communists if they won in Vietnam, disregarded the complex nationalistic diversity of Southeast Asia (ibid).

The President’s fervent assurances that the war was a promotion of democracy did not necessarily take into account the real state of affairs. This belief in the international need for American values does not explain why in 1956, the U.S. government encouraged Diem not to take part in the nationwide elections that they had agreed to two years before in the Geneva Accord (ibid). Eisenhower’s understanding that Ho Chi Minh would have won any free election was a completely different situation to that in Eastern Europe. In Soviet influenced states, the communist intervention curtailed the self determination of the people, but in Vietnam, where Ho was overwhelmingly popular, the United States was not protecting the Vietnamese people, rather it was preventing them from determining their own democratic future. Not only did the U.S. have no qualms about preventing the Vietnamese from taking part in elections, even Vietnamese civilians proved expendable. During the course of the war, civilian casualties were treated as collateral. Because the North-Vietnamese forces were peasants, just like the civilians, they were very difficult to tell apart. There are recorded cases of entire villages of being massacred because of suspicion of the concealment of Viet Minh forces (Maclear, 1981, p.125). America’s idealistic rhetoric was not as pure as face value would have it, and the Vietnam War served many others of their interests.

Another reason the U.S. militarily intervened in Vietnam was to stop the geographical spread of communism. The Vietnam War began in 1965, right in the middle of the Cold War. In 1949, the communist party in China had come to power. This couple with the USSR’s influence over Eastern Europe certainly gave the impression of their expanding influence. The U.S. predicted a scenario that saw communism spreading down through Asia to Australia, and then across Europe. “…the United States Cold War policy was to contain communism, fearing that one state would fall after another if communism was allowed to spread unchecked. This was known as the Domino Theory” (Evans et al, p.104). The so called ‘domino theory’ depicts exactly that, as each state fell to communism, it would tip others nearby, and they too would fall. This was perceived by America to be disadvantageous; it would severely weaken their own global power, and strengthen that of the USSR. As well as discouraging the spread of communism, the United States wanted to demonstrate to Russia that it was willing to engage in combat over the issue. The Vietnam War came to serve America’s interests as a proxy war that enabled it to exhibit its military strength to the USSR. But it did not achieve this aim. The loss of the Vietnam War affected America’s foreign power greatly. Henry Kissinger said,

Vietnam is still with us. It has created doubts about American judgment, about American credibility, about American power – not only at home, but throughout the world. (Karnow, 1983, p.21).

This loss of international influence was what was feared by American politicians, but the war itself did demonstrate clearly to the USSR that the U.S. was willing to use any means required to stop the spread of communism.

Whilst fighting the war, U.S. politicians also had to keep in mind the strong anti-communist domestic sentiments. At the time leading up to the Vietnam War, Senator Joseph McCarthy was leading his anti-communist witch hunts, creating a general public opinion that would not look well on any perceived weaknesses in regards to stopping the threat of Communism. Karnow writes,

Johnson especially feared that right-wing adversaries would prevail over him should South Vietnam fall to Communism, just as Harry Truman had been hounded by Senator Joseph McCarthy and other demagogues… (Karnow, 1983, p.320).

With public sentiment so clearly against any appearance of tolerance for communism, the war provided a perfect scapegoat. The small but vocal anti-war minority felt this opinion too. Even whilst public opinion turned against the war itself, Johnson was severely beaten by Nixon in the 1968 election. Nixon’s slogan was ‘Peace with Honour’ – claiming him the anti-war and anti-communist political territories (Maclear, 1981, p.224). Public sentiment was against the war, but it was very clearly anti communist. In this way, the Vietnam War served America’s interests at home, as well as abroad.

America’s military intervention in Vietnam happened for three main reasons. The first, idealism, was the reason used very early on. This was coupled with their wish to keep communism from spreading to other South East Asian countries. Most pragmatically, politicians in the U.S. were very aware of the anti-communist sentiment they faced at home. The United States militarily intervened in Vietnam because they saw themselves as international power-brokers with the right to interfere in the political affairs of Asia in order to protect their interests domestically as well as abroad.



Karnow, S. Vietnam, A History. 1983. Penguin Books, Great Britain.
This is a comprehensive history of the Vietnam War. The book is very detailed, referring to elements of American politics and culture as well as military that influenced the war.

Maclear, M. Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War. 1981. Eyre Methuen Ltd., Great Britain.
This book was more general than Karnow’s, it did provide useful information on main timeline events, less the domestic circumstances surrounding them.


Chomsky, N. The Pentagon Papers and U.S. Imperialism in South-East Asia. Accessed 22 June 2010 at
Chomsky’s essay provides an in depth discussion surrounding the Vietnam War, and the leaks of the Pentagon Papers. His political bias lies somewhat left-of-centre.

Chomsky, N. After Pinkville. Accessed 22 June 2010 at
This essay examines the domestic ramifications of the war in Vietnam. Chomsky’s writing is more suited to scholarly reading, as it is dense and detailed.

Zinn, H. A People’s History of the United States. Accessed 22 June 2010
This website is really a book on the internet. Zinn’s political views are much the same as Chomsky’s, but he does provide useful information on the personal effects of the Vietnam War on both the American GIs and the Vietnamese civilians.


  1. ^ Henry Luce published his essay The American Century on the eve of World War II. It outlined his belief in America’s role as a world power, and became influential to idealistic thinking of the century.