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A Fatal Mistake The Vietnam War Essay

, Research Paper

Robert S. McNamara, appointed by John F. Kennedy to the position of U.S. Secretary of Defense in 1961, said about the Vietnam War, It is important to recognize it s a South Vietnamese war. It will be won or lost depending upon what they do. We can advise and help, but they are responsible for the final results, and it remains to be seen how they will continue to conduct that war, (McNamara 72). Despite these guidelines for assisting in the war, the U.S. would end up doing much more than just advising. The Vietnam War was supposed to be a demonstration of how willing the U.S. was to battle communism, but ended up a personal vendetta against the North Vietnamese as the U.S. escalated its commitment in Vietnam infinitely greater than it had ever intended. After World War II, France returned to Vietnam to reclaim their Indochinese colonies after the Ho Chi Minh had declared Vietnamese independence in 1945 (Goldstein 3). The U.S. had just ended a war started by German conquest in Europe, and now was being asked to help France conquer the colonies it lost control of during the war. The Vietnam Nationalists, the same ones who had supported the U.S. in the war against the Japanese not more than a year previous, sought only to peacefully gain their independence from France (Chant 25). In January of 1950, the Viet Minh gained recognition by the governments of the USSR and China, who supplied weapons and places to train (Chant 25). Because the two Communist superpowers recognized the Viet Minh, the Vietnam war became to the U.S. a struggle between capitalism and communism, especially since the Viet Minh were openly communist themselves. By aiding the French, the U.S. thought they were helping their free-trade ally France fight communism, the Communist Party was very strong in France (Goldstein 3). The U.S. feared that Vietnam would fall to communism, and set-off the domino effect for other communist satellites in Indochina (McNamara 76). With weapons and training from Russia and China, the Viet Minh forced France to request help from the U.S. Fearing the spread of communism under Ho Chi Minh s regime, the U.S. was glad to offer France assistance, but even after the French humiliation at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the U.S. continued their involvement in Vietnam (Encarta Vietnam War ). The Vietnam situation became another indirect way to confront communism, which was a perfect excuse to implement Kennedy s very aggressive policy of Flexible Response in the early 1960 s, when the U.S. was eager to get into battle (Chant 9). After the French conceded defeat and were forced to withdraw by the Geneva Accords, the U.S. decided to escalate its involvement, believing the South Vietnamese wanted assistance in driving out communism. The U.S. knew of South Vietnam s weak military condition, and became more and more involved despite an uncooperative government. Suggestions the U.S. made were ignored, and the army avoided combat (Chant 38). Without complete involvement and a true desire to win, the guerrilla warfare of the Vietcong was too effective to face in a jungle setting, especially when most Vietcong soldiers were recruited in the South and had much support from the local civilians. Despite all of these problems, the U.S. remained in Vietnam, without any clear goals or objectives, or even a clear strategy for defeating a guerrilla operation.

For almost a century, Vietnam was the colonial property of France, however, it had a taste of independence during World War II when France was unable to maintain control . During World War II, the Viet Minh established itself as the organizational body for the resistance of French control, and went on to assist the U.S. in combat with the Japanese. On September 2, 1945, following the Japanese surrender, the leader of the Viet Minh, Ho Chi Minh, declared the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, France, however, refused to recognize any independence (Chant 25). Ho Chi Minh was a known communist at this time, and President Truman refused to recognize any independence from France (Encarta Vietnam War ). Instead, he offered France assistance in containing the communist rebellion, (Chant 22). By October of the same year, the French had returned and regained control in South Vietnam, but the Viet Minh already held strong positions throughout the North Vietnamese jungle (Chant 25). During the first French campaignsto regain control of the country, they captured most major cities, but had no control in the wilderness surrounding them (Encarta Vietnam War ). The French quickly lost all popular support from local Vietnamese, and Viet Minh recruitment skyrocketed (Encarta Vietnam War ). With hundreds of thousands of army irregulars assisting in guerrilla attacks, the Viet Minh rivaled France s well trained and better equipped army(Encarta Vietnam War ). By March 6 of 1946, Vietnam s independence was finally recognized by the Indochinese Federation and French Union, which included Laos and Cambodia (Chant 25). That same day, however, the French launch a swift offensive campaign through North Vietnam, after landing in North Vietnam s largest port city, Haiphong (Chant 25). In a few months, France had reacquired much of the country. Until 1951, control over North Vietnam fluctuated between France and the Viet Minh, but the Viet Minh turned its focus to guerrilla warfare. Attacks on garrisoned towns and cities under French occupation became more frequent, and subsequently, more costly for the French (Chant 25). France was losing its foothold in the North, but the slow French defeat was the catalyst for the slow escalation of U.S. involvement. The USSR and China had announced their official recognition of the Viet Minh in January of 1950, thus beginning the introduction of Soviet weaponry and Chinese military training techniques into the Viet Minh army (Chant 25). The French were being trapped inside garrisoned towns and villages, and no longer had the means for victory against their strengthened opponent. Thus, they made a plea to the U.S. to increase their assistance against the Communists (Chant 25). Increased aid started in March of 1953, with increased allocations for economic aid and more military equipment and supplies, but not any U.S. troops or aircraft (Chant 25). By October of 1953, though, the Viet Minh had plenty of preparation to launch a major offensive which would finally end the next May at Dien Bien Phu. Dien Bien Phu was France s last stand in Vietnam (Chant 25). Of the fifteen-thousand French troops defeated there, five-thousand were killed and the other ten were captured by the Viet Minh, who themselves lost over twentyfive-thousand men (Chant 25). The French were humiliated, and back home, French citizens demanded peace (Encarta Vietnam War ). Involved in this peace would be France, Vietnam, the U.S., the USSR, China, Laos, and Cambodia, whose representatives came together at the Geneva Conference of 1954, beginning a two-month peace process (Encarta Vietnam War ). The peace agreement allowed for the safe evacuation of all French troops in Indochina, and therefore, the French were forced to concede defeat (Chant 25). In the Geneva Accords, a cease-fire was signed, and a temporary DMZ (de-militarized zone) was established at the seventeenth parallel, with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to the north and below it, the Republic of South Vietnam (Chant 26). The Viet Minh agreed to return to North Vietnam, or the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, where Ho Chi Minh would maintain power (Encarta Vietnam War ). In the South, Emperor Bao Dai was given full control of the government, until elections were held in 1956 (Encarta Vietnam War ). These elections would be held in both North and South Vietnam, allowing citizens to decide what type of government to reunite the country under (Encarta Vietnam War ). The Accords were signed, but the U.S. was fearful that the Communists had too much influence in both North and South Vietnam, and therefore opposed the elections and refused to sign the accords (Encarta Vietnam War ). Fearing an overwhelming Communist victory, the U.S. established the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in 1955 (Encarta Vietnam War ). SEATO, as it was called, included South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, plus many other U.S. allies, creating an economic and defensive collaboration against the Communist Subversion (Encarta Vietnam War ). With SEATO as its justification, the U.S. continued to support South Vietnam, and later, it was justification for the involvement of U.S. troops (Encarta Vietnam War ). Also in 1955, the U.S. removed Bao Dai from power, and he chose Ngo Dinh Diem to replace him as Premier. After his official election, Diem declared the Republic of Vietnam s independence, as advised by the U.S., and this entire affair was seen as an effort by the U.S. to interfere with the independence promised at Geneva by Vietnamese Nationalists, both communist and non-communist (Encarta Vietnam War ). Now the reunification elections were to be held in 1956, but Diem feared Ho Chi Minh would win, and with U.S. support, decided not to hold the elections (Encarta Vietnam War ).

Following World War II, President Truman saw the growing Communist threat to the free world. The idea of Containment was first addressed in the Truman Doctrine, which was at first meant to help anti-Communist forces in Greece and Turkey. Containment was the perfect justification for U.S. involvement in Vietnam, or any other country the U.S. felt was threatened by communism. At the time that France began requesting U.S. aid, the Cold War was just escalating to a nuclear standoff, and the U.S. wanted to show its superiority over the communist USSR, but the use of nuclear arsenals meant devastation to both countries. Cold War tensions intensified immensely as the U.S. used its nuclear superiority to keep the USSR in check (Chant 8). Keeping the Soviets in check was part of the U.S. policy of containment, (Hunt 2). The threat of a massive retaliation was the first U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, created under Eisenhower s administration, which quickly became obsolete. In the 1960 s, Kennedy was demanding that the U.S. have the ability to make quick responses, which could mean the difference between victory and defeat in the numerous military situations the USSR could create in which nuclear weaponry was not an option (Chant 9). Vietnam was one of these situations, although it had not been created directly by the USSR. The Flexible Response policy prepared the U.S. with specific countermeasures for distinct confrontations. The army became the new focus of military expansion and advancement, with increased funding and recruitment (Chant 9). By 1964, the U.S. had begun surveillance of the North Vietnamese coast, and was supporting South Vietnam s commando missions, destroying bridges, railroads, and coastal installations, throughout North Vietnam (Encarta Vietnam War ). After Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the Viet Cong began recruiting and organizing and army to face a full-scale U.S. military intervention (Encarta Vietnam War ). Just like in Korea, Vietnam became the newest stage for a competition in military superiority with the Communist world. With the U.S. supporting South Vietnam, and the USSR supporting North Vietnam, the chess-match was set for an indirect Cold War confrontation. The Communist powers were simply maintaining the Viet Cong s efforts by supplying weapons and tactics, but saw little value in Vietnam s independence. Despite the fact that Vietnam was never a true Cold War confrontation, the U.S. pushed South Vietnam to battle communism to show its own willingness to battle communism in any form.

Now the U.S. was at war, with an insignificant nation struggling for autonomy, the same way the original thirteen colonies had struggled against Britain two hundred years previous. If the U.S. won, it would achieve very little, but the goal did not seem to be to reunite the country under a specially crafted democratic government, and there would be nothing to gain from victory. Most American soldiers had no idea why they were fighting, while Viet Cong and Vietnam nationalists were fighting to be free. The U.S. based its decisions on assumptions and underestimates, and lacked the necessary understanding of the region s history (McNamara 219). The U.S. never established any clear goals, besides crushing communism, an oversight that led to military confusion, ambiguous efforts, and poor distribution of troops and supplies (McNamara 219). By 1961, President Kennedy saw South Vietnam s weakened condition as a sign pointing to escalated involvement (Chant 31). Up until that point, U.S. involvement of military personnel had been limited to advisors. The total of eleven thousand was more than two-thirds American (Chant 31). In October of that year, Kennedy sent General Maxwell D. Taylor to Vietnam to assess the situation, and Special Forces to provide tactical training to the Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (Chant 31). The first true military engagement the U.S. experienced came on August 2, 1964 (Encarta Vietnam War ). The Maddox, a U.S. destroyer, was accused of violating North Vietnamese waters, and was consequently fired on by Viet Cong gunboats (Encarta Vietnam War ). This confrontation was the excuse to go to war the U.S. was waiting for, and President Johnson immediately ordered the first air strikes on North Vietnam following a second attack on the USS TurnerJoy (Encarta Vietnam War ). These attacks on U.S. ships were seen as acts of war, and President Johnson was given full war-making powers by Congress (Encarta Vietnam War ). Following the two confrontations, a bombing operation began in North Vietnam (Encarta Vietnam War ). Upon the insertion of U.S. aircraft into the Vietnam conflict, Robert S. McNamara foresaw further involvement. He then wrote in a memo to President Johnson on November 7th of 1965, there are three fronts to a long-run effort to contain China (realizing that the USSR contains China on the north and northwest):

(a) the Japan-Korea front;

(b) the India-Pakistan front;

(c) the Southeast Asia front.

Any decision to continue the program of bombing North Vietnam and any decision to deploy Phase II forces involving as they do substantial loss of American lives, risks of further escalation, and greater investments of U.S. prestige must be predicated on these premises as to our long-run interests in Asia, (McNamara 218-219). This was a true example of how greatly the USSR and the Chinese threat, although hindered by the Cultural Revolution, were underestimated by U.S. military advisors, whom believed religiously that containment was a truly obtainable goal (McNamara 219). Most U.S. military leaders believed any aid the Viet Cong might receive from its communist supporters would be insignificant in helping them maintain a stand against the U.S. (McNamara 220). The North Vietnam nationalists were the enemy, but even in that definition of the enemy lay numerous branches (McNamara 240). There were four different branches of the North Vietnamese army. Because of this fact, underestimated figures were made purposely to conceal the support the North received in the South (McNamara 240). By the time the U.S. was fully involved in a ground war with the Viet Cong, all the pompous mistakes that had been made could not be taken back, and a great nation s dignity was at stake. Even in the face of defeat the U.S. had no clear goals, and was stuck on three choices. They could increase troop commitments from 275 thousand to 350 thousand, hoping to overwhelm their enemy, but even those numbers would need to be more than doubled (Dougan 48). A second option was to encourage negotiations, but there was a decision to be made in how to encourage them (Dougan 48). The U.S. could halt its bombing programs or intensify them with Rolling Thunder strikes (Dougan 48). The final option was to just negotiate, at the expense of the nation s honor, but that was still unlikely to succeed, knowing what both sides of the table were after (Dougan 48).

A stage for battling communism was set, but how many actors were necessary to convey the message that the U.S. was willing to do everything in its power to stop any spread of communism, even in its least significant form? France was only looking to maintain its standing as a colonial power, and its goals and rewards were obvious. While France was still involved, the U.S. could share the same goals, but what could a country without colonial interests gain by fighting to put down a colonial independence movement? England had lost its American colonies because it was unfocused in exactly how to go about regaining control, and for the same reason, the France and the U.S. were unable to crush the nationalistic Vietnamese freedom fighters.

Works Cited

Chant, Christopher.

The Military History of the United States: The Vietnam War, the Early Days, Marshall Cavendish, New York, 1992: 9, 22, 25, 38.

Dougan, Clark.

A Nation Divided, Boston Publishing Company, Boston, 1984: 48.


Encarta Encyclopedia, Microsoft Corporation, 1998, Vietnam War.

Goldstein, Donald M.

The Vietnam War: The Story & Photographs, Brassey s, Washington, 1997: 3.

McNamara, Robert S.

In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Times Books, New York, 1995: 72, 76, 218, 219, 220, 240.