The Causes Of The Vietnam War Essay

, Research Paper

Andrew J. Rotter


American wars have obvious starting points or precipitating causes: the Battles of

Lexington and Concord in 1775, the capture of Fort Sumter in 1861, the attack on Pearl

Harbor in 1941, and the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950, for example.

But there was no fixed beginning for the U.S. war in Vietnam. The United States entered

that war incrementally, in a series of steps between 1950 and 1965. In May 1950, President

Harry S. Truman authorized a modest program of economic and military aid to the French,

who were fighting to retain control of their Indochina colony, including Laos and Cambodia

as well as Vietnam. When the Vietnamese Nationalist (and Communist-led) Vietminh army

defeated French forces at Dienbienphu in 1954, the French were compelled to accede to the

creation of a Communist Vietnam north of the 17th parallel while leaving a non-Communist

entity south of that line. The United States refused to accept the arrangement. The

administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower undertook instead to build a nation from

the spurious political entity that was South Vietnam by fabricating a government there,

taking over control from the French, dispatching military advisers to train a South

Vietnamese army, and unleashing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to conduct

psychological warfare against the North.

President John F. Kennedy rounded another turning point in early 1961, when he secretly

sent 400 Special Operations Forces-trained (Green Beret) soldiers to teach the South

Vietnamese how to fight what was called counterinsurgency war against Communist

guerrillas in South Vietnam. When Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, there were

more than 16,000 U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam, and more than 100 Americans had

been killed. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, committed the United States most

fully to the war. In August 1964, he secured from Congress a functional (not actual)

declaration of war: the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Then, in February and March 1965, Johnson

authorized the sustained bombing, by U.S. aircraft, of targets north of the 17th parallel,

and on 8 March dispatched 3,500 Marines to South Vietnam. Legal declaration or no, the

United States was now at war.

The multiple starting dates for the war complicate efforts to describe the causes of

U.S. entry. The United States became involved in the war for a number of reasons, and

these evolved and shifted over time. Primarily, every American president regarded the

enemy in Vietnam–the Vietminh; its 1960s successor, the National Liberation Front (NLF);

and the government of North Vietnam, led by *Ho Chi Minh–as agents of global communism.

U.S. policymakers, and most Americans, regarded communism as the antithesis of all they

held dear. Communists scorned democracy, violated human rights, pursued military

aggression, and created closed state economies that barely traded with capitalist

countries. Americans compared communism to a contagious disease. If it took hold in one

nation, U.S. policymakers expected contiguous nations to fall to communism, too, as if

nations were dominoes lined up on end. In 1949, when the Communist Party came to power in

China, Washington feared that Vietnam would become the next Asian domino. That was one

reason for Truman’s 1950 decision to give aid to the French who were fighting the


Truman also hoped that assisting the French in Vietnam would help to shore up the

developed, non-Communist nations, whose fates were in surprising ways tied to the

preservation of Vietnam and, given the domino theory, all of Southeast Asia. Free world

dominion over the region would provide markets for Japan, rebuilding with American help

after the Pacific War. U.S. involvement in Vietnam reassured the British, who linked their

postwar recovery to the revival of the rubber and tin industries in their colony of

Malaya, one of Vietnam’s neighbors. And with U.S. aid, the French could concentrate on

economic recovery at home, and could hope ultimately to recall their Indochina officer

corps to oversee the rearmament of West Germany, a Cold War measure deemed essential by

the Americans. These ambitions formed a second set of reasons why the United States became

involved in Vietnam.

As presidents committed the United States to conflict bit by bit, many of these

ambitions were forgotten. Instead, inertia developed against withdrawing from Vietnam.

Washington believed that U.S. withdrawal would result in a Communist victory–Eisenhower

acknowledged that, had elections been held as scheduled in Vietnam in 1956, "Ho Chi

Minh would have won 80% of the vote"–and no U.S. president wanted to lose a country

to communism. Democrats in particular, like Kennedy and Johnson, feared a right-wing

backlash should they give up the fight; they remembered vividly the accusatory tone of the

Republicans’ 1950 question, "Who lost China?" The commitment to Vietnam itself,

passed from administration to administration, took on validity aside from any rational

basis it might once have had. Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy all gave their word that the

United States would stand by its South Vietnamese allies. If the United States abandoned

the South Vietnamese, its word would be regarded as unreliable by other governments,

friendly or not. So U.S. credibility seemed at stake.

Along with the larger structural and ideological causes of the war in Vietnam, the

experience, personality, and temperament of each president played a role in deepening the

U.S. commitment. Dwight Eisenhower restrained U.S. involvement because, having commanded

troops in battle, he doubted the United States could fight a land war in Southeast Asia.

The youthful John Kennedy, on the other hand, felt he had to prove his resolve to the

American people and his Communist adversaries, especially in the aftermath of several

foreign policy blunders early in his administration. Lyndon Johnson saw the Vietnam War as

a test of his mettle, as a Southerner and as a man. He exhorted his soldiers to "nail

the coonskin to the wall" in Vietnam, likening victory to a successful hunting


When Johnson began bombing North Vietnam and sent the Marines to South Vietnam in early

1965, he had every intention of fighting a limited war. He and his advisers worried that

too lavish a use of U.S. firepower might prompt the Chinese to enter the conflict. It was

not expected that the North Vietnamese and the NLF would hold out long against the

American military. And yet U.S. policymakers never managed to fit military strategy to

U.S. goals in Vietnam. Massive bombing had little effect against a decentralized economy

like North Vietnam’s. Kennedy had favored counterinsurgency warfare in the South

Vietnamese countryside, and Johnson endorsed this strategy, but the political side of

counterinsurgeny–the effort to win the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese

peasantry– was at best underdeveloped and probably doomed. Presidents proved reluctant to

mobilize American society to the extent the generals thought necessary to defeat the


As the United States went to war in 1965, a few voices were raised in dissent. Within

the Johnson administration, Undersecretary of State George Ball warned that the South

Vietnamese government was a functional nonentity and simply could not be sustained by the

United States, even with a major effort. Antiwar protest groups formed on many of the

nation’s campuses; in June, the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society

decided to make the war its principal target. But major dissent would not begin until 1966

or later. By and large in 1965, Americans supported the administration’s claim that it was

fighting to stop communism in Southeast Asia, or people simply shrugged and went about

their daily lives, unaware that this gradually escalating war would tear American society


From The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Ed. John Whiteclay

Chambers II. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Copyright ? 1999 by Oxford UP.


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