US Intervention in Vietnam

Ursula Cliff, Dickson College, 2010

Ursula Cliff wrote this essay as part of the 'America Ascendant' unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2010, in response to the question: 'Why did the United States militarily intervene in Vietnam?' Ursula has also contributed Slavery in Ancient Greece and The Roman Theatre to Clio.

On the fifth of August, 1964, United States President Lyndon B. Johnson reported to Congress on the attack on United States ships, allegedly by North Vietnamese forces, in the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam. Two days later, Congress gave permission for Johnson’s administration to use whatever means necessary to protect any nation covered by the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty from threats to its freedom. This incident is regarded by many as the step which launched American military involvement in Vietnam. In reality, America had been involved in Vietnam militarily since the first Indochina War (1945–1954), as allies of the French (providing $15 million in aid, as well as military advisors and strategies). America’s intervention in Vietnam can be seen as a conglomeration of factors, the majority of which served to further United States domestic and foreign policy and interests. Military intervention in Vietnam was used by America as a means by which to continue their international foreign policies, and the alliances and adversaries therein. Through military intervention in Vietnam, the American government also strengthened its economic hold over Southeast Asia. The War also served to benefit the domestic and foreign objectives of individual politicians and political parties. Finally, military intervention in Vietnam served to augment and establish America’s self-image as a super-power and champion of the weak and oppressed, and of democracy, and as an opponent of communist expansion.

Military intervention in Vietnam served in the continuance of America’s foreign policies, both within the region, and on a broader spectrum. Vietnam was essentially a stage from which America could act out its own dramas, strengthening allegiances, and furthering aggression against adversaries, such as China and the Soviet Union. America first deployed funds and military aid to Vietnam when it was still colonised by France, in the first Indochina War (1945–1954) (Wittner 1974, p. 81). America allied with the French in unsuccessfully attempting to deter the overthrow of French rule by the Vietnamese people (Ibid.). This benefited the U.S. because France agreed with America’s policy of anti-communism. Both nations were a part of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, an international organisation with aims to contain the spread of communism within Europe (Mills 1984, p. 200). In Europe, France acted as a barrier against Soviet aggression, and in Indochina, France’s colonialist rule helped to ensure the continuance of western ideologies and interests and prevent the spread of communism through Southeast Asia (Wittner 1974, p. 81).

Although the Vietnam War was a war which both the North and the South saw separately as a war for the independence of the Vietnamese people, America fought it, at least partially, as a proxy war of the Cold War which they were waging with the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) (LaFeber 1976, p. 177). The Vietnam War was a means for America to continue its policy of anti-communism, without bringing the conflict into their own geographical area, and avoiding the potentially devastating deployment of nuclear warfare. As Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas G. Brinkley, authors of Rise to Globalism write:

One of the greatest appeals of counterinsurgency... was that it avoided direct confrontation with the Soviet Union. The risks of escalation to nuclear war were small (1997, p. 191).

President Lyndon B. Johnson was particularly apprehensive of the effects of direct confrontation with the Soviet Union (Ambrose and Brinkley 1997, p. 191). America supported the nationalist dictatorial government of South Vietnam, led by Ngo Dinh Diem, opposing the communist party of Ho Chi Minh in the north, which sought to unify the country as a communist state (Mills 1984, p. 204). This policy connects to the ‘domino theory’ proposed by President Eisenhower, in which it is supposed that the ‘fall’ of one nation to communist rule would lead to the submission and fall of surrounding nations, resulting in the rapid and complete spread of communism across a region (LaFeber 1976, p. 37). In a document entitled ‘Report by the National Security Council on the Position of the United States with Respect to Indochina’, dated February 1950, this theory is contextualised and the proposed actions given:

A decision to contain communist expansion at the border of Indochina must be considered as a part of a wider study to prevent communist aggression into other parts of Southeast Asia… It is important to United States security interests that all practicable measures be taken to prevent further communist expansion in Southeast Asia… The neighboring countries of Thailand and Burma could be expected to fall under Communist domination if Indochina were controlled by a Communist-dominated government. The balance of Southeast Asia would then be in grave hazard (1950, reproduced in ‘The Pentagon Papers’, vol. 1, pp 361-362).

President John F. Kennedy continued Eisenhower’s policy, summarising U.S. aims in Vietnam in 1963:

It is our hope… to convince the Soviet Union that she, too, should let each nation choose its own future, so long as that choice does not interfere with the choice of others. The communist drive to impose their political and economic system on others is the primary cause of world tension today… if all nations could refrain from interfering in the self-determination of others, the peace would be much more assured (Kennedy 1963, reproduced in Heffner 1965, p. 327).

(It might also be seen that this viewpoint, however, ironically expresses the imposition of American views on other nations). If Vietnam fell to communist forces, in the minds of the U.S. government, it would become part of the ‘communist bloc’, the monolithic power led by the Soviet Union and China (Lens 1971, p. 421). Of acute concern to the U.S. government was the example of Laos. Communist insurgency had led to the collapse of the pro-western government in Laos in 1959, eventually culminating in an independent and neutral Laos in 1961 (Maclear 1981, p. 78). America wished to avoid the loss of western influence in the remaining areas of Southeast Asia. This was also evident in the creation and implementation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), which aimed, like its Trans-Atlantic counterpart, NATO, to, as President Johnson stated: ‘act to meet the common danger of aggression in Southeast Asia’ (Johnson 1967, reproduced in O’Keefe 1984, p. 88). Through military intervention, America hoped to continue its policy of containment, and ensure the deployment of its domestic and foreign policies — its ideals of freedom and democracy, the flourishing of capitalism, and the economic flow of international trade (Ambrose and Brinkley 1997, p. 130). It could be said that America implemented its own policies in a situation where they were not appropriate, blinded as it was by its anti-communist stand (Ibid., p193).

As well as the continuance of international policies, military intervention in Vietnam served to further America’s economic policies and growth. Although this may seem paradoxical, considering the amount America spent on the war over the ensuing years, at the outset, perhaps when America felt more assured of a swift military victory, the potential wealth of the resources in the Southeast Asia region encouraged intervention (Lens 1971, p. 421). President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated in 1953: ‘If Indochina goes, the tin and tungsten that we so greatly value from that area would cease coming’ (Eisenhower 1953, reproduced in Lens 1971, p. 421). Similarly, in 1965, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., U.S. ambassador to Vietnam (1963-1967), observed:

He who holds or has influence in Vietnam can affect the future of the Philippines and Formosa to the east, Thailand and Burma with their huge rice surpluses to the west, and Malaysia and Indonesia with their rubber, ore, and tin to the south (Lodge 1965, reproduced in Lens 1971, p. 422).

Military intervention, on the victorious side, could potentially give America the monopoly, or at least influence, over the rich natural resources of the region, making America wealthy, and subsequently, more powerful. Moreover, a politically stable, non-communist Vietnam would be more attractive to foreign investors such as America (Lens 1971, p. 421).

American military intervention in Vietnam can also be seen as a result of the circumstances of American domestic politics, and as a continuance of the furthering of the interests of some key politicians, policy-makers and institutions. President Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, and his vice-president, Lyndon B. Johnson took office. Kennedy, at least overtly, was a great advocate of peace and neutrality in the war, and may have even been considering the withdrawal of U.S. military advisors (Maclear 1981 p. 95). Johnson, however, took a different stance. Under his leadership, America was more overtly prepared to launch itself into Vietnam (Ibid.). Barbara Tuchman, author of The March of Folly argues that Johnson had a personal agenda. In this, she claims that psychologically he felt in the shadow of Kennedy, and had an ‘instant and personal’ reaction to the war (Tuchman 1986, p. 388), being quoted as saying: “I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way that China went” (Johnson 1963, reproduced in Tuchman 1986, p. 388). There was also increasing momentum for military intervention coming from the U.S. military (Maclear 1981, p. 84).

America’s intervention in Vietnam can also be seen as a result of several qualitative reasons. Contradictorily, these can be classified as both idealistic and imperialistic. There are several examples of the implementation of these idealistic policies. The amount of aid given to the ‘defending’ of South Vietnam (by 1968, there were 500,000 American troops in Vietnam, as well as substantial financial aid) (Mills 1984, p. 216) indicates the extent and amount of resources America was willing to give in order to prevent further communist expansion, ostensibly providing for the freedom of the south Vietnamese people. U.S. idealistic policy can also be interpreted through the example of the ‘strategic hamlet’ system. Strategic hamlets were small, defended communities, providing shelter for the South Vietnamese civilians. This initiative overtly aimed to ‘protect’ South Vietnamese civilians from danger and physical harm from the conflict (Maclear 1981, p. 76). However, it also served American purposes — by isolating the civilian population from the Viet Cong, the guerillas lost the advantage of accessing local aid and knowledge (Ibid., p78). Kennedy outlined the idealistic policy in his inaugural address in 1961:

To those peoples…struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required – not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right (Kennedy 1963, reproduced in Heffner 1965).

The continuance of America’s idealist policy served to better America’s image in the world as an altruistic, benevolent nation. This had a dual purpose — firstly, it reiterated that communist nations were the ‘enemy’, and secondly, it allowed America more influence in developing nations, and thus allowed it to establish, or extend itself, as a world power. Vietnam was the ideal place for this intervention because: ‘There [Kennedy] could... demonstrate conclusively that America lived up to her commitments…’ (Ambrose and Brinkley 1997, p. 192). America’s increased involvement in Vietnam can also been seen as a growing imperialist movement. Through exerting influence and power in Vietnam, through military intervention, and also through supporting political figures such as Diem, and policies such as the strategic hamlet scheme, America asserted itself as a ‘key player’ within international politics (Ibid.). Retaining this policy augmented America’s self-image, and power, within the region. These policies are outlined as early as 1950, in a memo from General Omar Bradley to the Secretary of Defence, recommending:

That United States military aid not be granted unconditionally; rather, that it be carefully controlled and that the aid program be integrated with political and economic programs (1950, reproduced in ‘The Pentagon papers, vol. 1, pp 363-366).

It can be argued that America perhaps did not always best help the Vietnamese people ‘help themselves’, but rather imposed its own ideologies on the population. This is seen in the aborted elections in 1956. The American-supported leader of South Vietnam, Diem, refused to hold the elections, believing they would most likely end in communist victory, and the reunification of the country (Maclear 1981, p. 71). In supporting Diem in this, instead of being prepared to listen to the will of the majority of the South Vietnamese population, America allowed its own interests to come before those of the Vietnamese people.

American forces withdrew, defeated, from the Vietnam War in January, 1973. In 1975, communist forces swept into Saigon, renaming the capital ‘Ho Chi Minh City’ after the man who had started the communist revolution within Indochina (Mills 1984, p. 216). America’s military intervention in Vietnam can largely be seen as a stratagem through which the U.S. could best ensure the continuance of their foreign and domestic policies and the furthering of their own interests. The policies deployed in Vietnam conformed with, and furthered, America’s international policies, particularly toward the containment of communism. The war served as a proxy war of the Cold War it was waging with the Soviet Union in Europe, and showed solidarity with its European anti-communist ally, France. Military intervention in Vietnam helped to protect America’s economic interests, both within Vietnam itself, and in the surrounding region. The propulsion of the United States into the Vietnam War also proved beneficial to the interests of various U.S. politicians and policy-makers. Finally, military intervention in Vietnam allowed the United States to assert itself as a dominant world superpower, standing strong against oppressors, and serving as a friend to the oppressed — an image it still seeks to retain to this day.

Annotated Bibliography

Printed Sources

Ambrose, Stephen E. and Brinkley, Douglas G. 1997, Rise to Globalism (eighth edn.), Penguin books, New York.
This text, in its eighth edition, provides an extensive analysis of American foreign policy since 1938. Written in easy to understand language, the authors provide historical and cultural background context to the events and decisions of American policy-makers, as well as critical analysis of the policies themselves.

Guenter, Lewy 1978, America in Vietnam, Oxford University Press, New York.
Guenter’s text was dense and academic, however he did separate his work into segments characterised by the events which took place, making it easy to research a particular period of time. Helpfully, his work also includes tables of statistics.

Heffner, Richard D. 1965, A Documentary History of the United States, The New American Library, Inc., New York.
Heffner provides a rich and detailed, though solely American, overview of American history through his careful selection of documents. Of particular note were his reproductions of Kennedy’s speeches, ‘The Inaugural Address’, and ‘Strategy of Peace’.

LaFeber, Walter 1976, America, Russia and the Cold War 1945 – 1975 (third edn.), John Wiley and Sons, Inc., Canada.
LaFeber’s text offers a detailed explanation of the events of the Cold War. Although there is only a brief section no the Vietnam War, the text was useful in gaining an understanding of the background and context of the events in Vietnam, and the ideas behind the policy-making.

Lens, Sidney 1971, The Forging of the American Empire, Pluto Press, London.
Lens’s text gives a comprehensive account of the events of the Vietnam War up until 1971, including excerpts from politicians, academics and economists, helping to provide a strong understanding for the reasons of U.S. intervention.

Maclear, Michael 1981, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War, Thames Metheun Ltd., London.
Written in easily understandable language, Maclear provides a very detailed account of the entire scope of the Vietnam War. He provides excerpts of interviews with experts and contemporaries of the events described, as well as speeches. Though mostly American sourced, Maclear critically analyses each viewpoint, giving a broader understanding of the events.

Mills, Harry 1984, Twentieth Century World History in Focus, Macmillan Education, London.
Mill’s work, although brief, provided a strong overview of America’s relations and actions during the Cold War, and Vietnam. A good basis for further research, or simple information.

O’Keefe, John (ed.) 1984, America 1870 – 1975, Longman Group UK Limited, America. O’Keefe’s work was easy to understand, set out in a textbook style. Of particular use was his reproduction of President Johnson’s speech to Congress, with which O’Keefe provided a brief but helpful introduction of the events of the time, as well as questions to resolve understanding of the document.

Tuchman, Barbara 1986, The March of Folly, Abacus, London.
Tuchman’s work critically analyses the reasons behind America’s military involvement in Vietnam. She presents a strong and credible argument, backed by excerpts from speeches, though mostly pursues a single idea.

Wittner, Lawrence S. 1974, Cold War America: from Hiroshima to Watergate, Praeger Publishers, Inc., New York.
Wittner provides a detailed account of America during the Cold War, including the context for military intervention in Vietnam. He provides strong background to the events, which help to create a clearer picture of the events, though quite American-biased.

Electronic Sources

Ferraro, Vincent (n.d.), Documents relating to the Vietnam War, date accessed 30 May 2010, <>
Ferraro contributes a very comprehensive and highly researched collection of both primary and secondary sources. These were mostly American dominant, however some were from Southeast Asia as well. Of particular use was the reproduction of the Gravel Edition of ‘The Pentagon Papers’.

Nelson, Cary (n.d.), Vietnam War Timeline, date accessed 30 May 2010, <>
Cary provides a detailed account of all the events leading up to and during the Vietnam War. The source also offers a brief explanation on some events listed, making it easy to perform further research into the area of interest.