Why America became involved in Vietnam



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Vietnam itself
Vietnam is a tropical country in Southeast Asia. It is a long narrow country that extends from China in the north in an S-shaped curve. The first Vietnamese people lived in what is now the north of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and what was until April 30, 1975 called by many North Vietnam. China ruled the area that is now the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from 111 B.C. until A.D. 939 when Vietnam became an independent state. Over the next 900 years the Vietnamese expanded their state until it covered roughly the area covered by present-day Vietnam. In the 1600s French missionaries began arriving in Vietnam; by 1883 the Vietnamese ruler was forced to sign a treaty that gave France control of all of Vietnam. The French also controlled areas which are now Cambodia and Laos. The whole area was called French Indochina.

Why America became involved in Vietnam
In June 1940 the French were defeated by the Germans, and Germany’s ally Japan took control of French Indochina. The French were allowed to continue ruling until March 1945 when the Japanese arrested all French officials. In August 1945 the Japanese were defeated, and the French, even though they were in no condition to do so, wanted to regain their former colonies. Even if France had had the money and strength to fight a war in Indochina, the times had changed. All over the world former European colonies were becoming independent; in part because of the devastating effects of World War II on the European nations and, more importantly, because the various peoples who had been colonized no longer tolerated being ruled by others. It is virtually impossible to control a country, even with the greatest army in world, if that country does not want to be controlled. The French would learn this lesson in Algeria and in Vietnam. The Americans might have learned this lesson from the French, but did not.
Before 1954, when the French were defeated by the nationalist movement lead by Ho Chi Minh, America had supplied war-ravaged France with money and weapons to fight her colonial war in Vietnam. In earlier times the United States probably would not have supported the efforts of one country to colonize another, but the Cold War made things different. First, the United States needed French support for her plans in Europe against the Soviet Union. Second, the French could say that the nationalist movement of Ho Chi Minh was just another manifestation of the international communist conspiracy. Americans felt that the Soviet Union was testing the United States all over the world. Just as the United States had to fight against communism in Korea, so it had to fight in Vietnam.
In April 1945 representatives of the French-backed Vietnamese government, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, Cambodia, Laos, China, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States met in Geneva, Switzerland to arrange a peace settlement in Vietnam. In May of that year the French forces in Vietnam were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. Therefore the representatives of the Geneva Conference decided to divide Vietnam into two parts. This division was to last until 1956 when nation-wide elections would be held. When the time came to hold the elections, it was obvious that the communists would
win, the elections were never held, and America became committed to what was to become South Vietnam.

The most common justification for the United States involvement in Indochina after the French had left was the so-called Domino Theory. The idea was that if one country in Southeast Asia fell to communism, all the others would fall – just like a row of dominoes. This ‘theory’ and the fear of being the president responsible for losing another country to the communists (it is to be remembered that Truman and the Democrats were accused of losing China to the communists) kept four Presidents – Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon – involved in Vietnam.




America enters the war
It was President Kennedy who first developed an American policy in Vietnam. He sent teams of soldiers, called the Green Berets, who were specialized in guerrilla warfare, terrorism and sabotage to Vietnam to help support the South Vietnamese government; military advisers trained South Vietnamese troops, and American missions supplied money to the South Vietnamese army. By 1962 it was admitted that the ‘advisers’ were firing back ‘in self-defence’. By the end of 1963, there were nearly 16.000 American soldiers in Vietnam; United States military program had begun (large areas were sprayed with certain chemicals that killed plants and trees so that the enemy would have no place to hide); this was also the period in which the ‘strategic hamlet’ (a hamlet is a small village, most people in Vietnam lived in small hamlets) programme began, which meant that thousands of poor farmers were moved from their homes.
Lyndon Johnson became President in his own right in 1964; he had run as the peace candidate against the Republican Barry Goldwater who was openly militaristic. But Johnson had to face the same decision that the French, Eisenhower and Kennedy had to face: The South Vietnamese will lose if we don’t help them. Should we help them? Johnson’s answer was yes because as he said, ‘I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went’. So Johnson sent more help. The ‘domino theory‘ was used as a justification again: it was said that the legitimate government of South Vietnam was being attacked by a ‘foreign power’. It is hard to classify what was a civil war as the invasion of a foreign power, and, particularly after the murder of President Diem during a military coup d’état, it was hard to define South Vietnam as more legitimate than North Vietnam. In any case there were many people in South Vietnam who were fighting against the South Vietnamese government of Diem and later against the military junta that replaced it. Some of these fighters, the Viet Cong, had been fighting foreign invaders for over 20 years – first the Japanese, then the French and finally the Americans.
During the summer of 1965, it was reported that the North Vietnamese had, without provocation, attacked and sunk American boats in the Tonkin Gulf. This, as was later discovered, was not the truth, but it was enough for Johnson to have Congress pass the Tonkin gulf Resolution, which gave the President the power ‘to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the Unites States and to prevent further aggression’. Johnson now ordered large-scale bombing in North Vietnam, which destroyed military and civilian targets without discrimination. The CIA informed Johnson that indiscriminate bombing was not effective, but Johnson chose to follow the advice of his Nation Security Council. In 1965 Johnson sent in marine combat units. He said that he did not ‘seek a wider war’, but it was then that ‘free fire zones’ were created, which meant that there were large areas of South Vietnam in which American military planes could shoot at anything at all – soldier and civilian alike. An Assistant Secretary of Defence said that the United States was ‘proceeding on the assumption that the way to eradicate the Viet cong is to destroy all the village structures, defoliate the jungle and then cover the entire surface of South Vietnam with asphalt’. This was no exaggeration. By the end of the war in Vietnam, America had dropped three times as many bombs as had been dropped in all of World War II. At the end of the war, the United States army had defoliated an area equal to the area of Massachusetts (about 21.400 square kilometres).
By 1968 president Johnson was facing opposition to his war policy at home. Thousands and thousands of people marched for peace. Thousands of young men refused to go to fight a war that seemed ridiculous at best. It is to be remembered that the Vietnam War was the first televised war in history. Cameramen followed the American soldiers on their missions; the horrors and stupidities of war could be seen in every house in America. The influence of television was so great that when the famous television news anchorman Walter Cronkite said that it ‘seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate’, Johnson remarked that if he had lost the support of Walter Cronkite, he had lost the support of the nation.
1968 was also the year of the so-called ‘Tet Offensive’ (Tet is the Buddhist holiday on which this attack began). The Tet Offensive was a large-scale attack by the North Vietnamese in South Vietnam. The Americans and South Vietnamese drove them back only after 77 days. Even though the Tet Offensive was not militarily successful, the mere fact that the North Vietnamese could stage such an attack proved that the American policy in Vietnam was a failure. Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for president a second time.
President Nixon, who followed Johnson, changed very little in substance. He continued the indiscriminate bombing of North Vietnam and began bombing in Cambodia. He began a program called ‘Vietnamization’, which meant that America would continue bombing as usual but the South Vietnamese army would do most of the fighting on the land. In 1972 the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive defeated the South Vietnamese forces. Nixon ordered more bombing and continued building up the South Vietnamese army. In the end, as a result of the Vietnamization Program, South Vietnam had one of the biggest navies in the world, the sixth largest air force and the fourth largest army, but still could not survive without direct American help.
Finally, North and South Vietnam signed peace accords in 1973, which provided for the withdrawal of American troops. America continued to supply South Vietnam with guns and money, but the end came quickly. On April 30, 1975, the North Vietnamese conquered Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam.
The cost of this war was enormous. It is estimated that nearly 1.500.000 Vietnamese soldiers were killed or wounded during the war. About 55.000 American soldiers were killed and 350.000 were wounded. $ 160 billion had been wasted. The effect on Vietnam was disastrous. The huge amount of money sent to the country only caused confusion: millions of Vietnamese came to the cities to work in the newly developed industries so quickly as to destroy in the space of a few years much of the traditional farming culture of the country. American money caused high inflation, which helped destroy what middle class there was in Vietnam. The war itself obviously caused most of the damage. The defoliation, mentioned above, caused erosion of large areas of the country. Vietnam, which had been a rice-exporting country, became a rice-importing country.

The effect on the United States was also great. It is enough to think that the efforts Lyndon Johnson had made to produce what he called the ‘Great Society’ were blocked and then destroyed by the war in Vietnam. The idea of the ‘Great Society’ was to improve productivity so that there would be more money to help the poor. Johnson said that ‘By working shoulder to shoulder, together we can increase the bounty of all’. Clearly, whatever success such a plan might have had was not possible after the government had spent $ 160 billion on war. Johnson would be the last President, except for the short and unsuccessful presidency of Jimmy Carter, to try and continue the tradition of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Nixon, Ford and then Reagan, as we shall see, made their battle for national security military in nature.







Exercises


  • Say whether the following statements are TRUE or FALSE.




  1. The French warned the United States not to become involved T F

in Vietnam.


  1. After World War II many European colonies became independent T F

and Vietnam was one of these colonies.


  1. The United States helped France fight her war in Vietnam because T F

it needed France’s help against the Soviet Union.


  1. President Truman did not want to be accused of losing another T F

country to the communists so he helped the French in Vietnam.
5.) The Viet Cong needed America’s help to fight the communists. T F


  • Choose the right synonym or definition for the following
    words.

1.) a stalemate: a. old bread

b. an old friend

c. a situation in which no one can win

d. an easy victory
2.) to spray: a. to scatter liquid in small drops

b. to eliminate

c. to build

d. to impede


3.) to eradicate a. to plant

b. to send money to poor people

c. to save

d to destroy completely, to purge


4.) bounty a. a kind of boat

b. a kind of bank

c. abundance, wealth

d. poverty


5.) to repel a. to accept willingly

b. to refuse help

c. to repulse

d. to lose a battle or game


6.) to face a. to look at, to stare at intently

b. to meet or oppose firmly and not try to avoid

c. to run away from, to avoid

d. to destroy


7.) domino a. rule, government

b. kind of instrument used to measure the depth of lakes, rivers, ct.

c. a kind of knife used to clean fish and other seafood.

d. a small rectangular block, the face of which is divided into halves. Each half is marked by one to six dots.




  • The Vietnam War is one of the most controversial events in recent American history.
    It is obvious, therefore, that different historians interpret the facts in different ways.


Below are two descriptions of the Geneva Accords of 1954 by two respected historians. Read the descriptions and try to see

how they differ, then answer the questions that follow.


First description

Soon after the accords dividing Vietnam in two had been concluded in Geneva (1954), the Communists in the south began to subvert existing authority. By a policy of selective terror directed against government supporters, they gradually established a shadow government in the provinces. Saigon [the capital of South Vietnam], aware that under these conditions any elections would work to its disadvantage, refused to abide by the terms of the Geneva accord calling for a vote. (It may be noted that, of course, no elections were either promised or held in the north). The United States observed these developments anxiously: it feared that a Communist takeover in South Vietnam would lead to the fall of neighbouring countries (Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Thailand) and in time place all of southeast Asia in Communist hands. An abortive pro-Chinese coup in Indonesia in 1965 suggested how real the danger was.



Second description

The Geneva agreement of 1954 had drawn a line across the middle of that war-torn country, leaving the North to Communism and the South to whatever non-Communist government was able to survive. The North Vietnamese agreed to free elections in 1956. Their cadres [small organized groups] to the South, the Vietcong, as they would be called, were instructed to undertake a ”political struggle” with the South Vietnam government of President Ngo Dinh Diem, which would culminate in the 1956 election which the North expected to win. The election itself never came. Buddhist-Catholic conflict, economic discontent, a corrupt and incompetent government, and the growing strength of local Communist political forces prompted both Saigon and Washington to conclude that the Communists would indeed be victorious at the polls [the voting places] and that the election should therefore be postponed. Although the United States could have accepted the mounting turbulence in south Vietnam as part of the growing pains of a new nation, the national security bureaucracy that controlled American foreign policy embraced the “domino” theory – that if one country in Southeast Asia fell to the Communists, all others would topple [fall] over like so many dominoes. So reasoned four successive presidents–Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. And each responded to his own fears with increasing intransigence.

1.) Are any of the facts in the two descriptions of the Geneva accords and the elections different or contradictory? Which ones? Does either of the two descriptions give in-

formation that the other one does not give?


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2.) Why were elections not held according to the first description? Does the historian think South Vietnam was justified in not holding elections? Explain.
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3.) Why were the elections not held according to the second description? Do you think that this historian thinks South Vietnam was justified in not holding elections?

Explain.


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4.) The second historian mentions the domino theory. What do you think this historian thought of it? Why?
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5.) The first historian referred to the domino theory, but not by name. What do you think this historian thought about it? Why do you think he does not refer to the domino theory by name?
………………………………………………………………………………………… ………………………………………………………………………………………… …………………………………………………………………………………………
6.) If you have seen a film about Vietnam, say what you think the point of view of the director was with regard to the war.
………………………………………………………………………………………… ………………………………………………………………………………………… …………………………………………………………………………………………

Source: Kenneth Brody: History of the United States



Gräßl Stefan

HTL Villach


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