The War In Vietnam


The War In Vietnam Essay, Research Paper

The War in Vietnam

Direct U.S. military participation in The Vietnam War, the nation’s

longest, cost fifty-eight thousand American lives. Only the Civil War and the

two world wars were deadlier for Americans. During the decade of Vietnam

beginning in 1964, the U.S Treasury spent over $140 billion on the war, enough

money to fund urban renewal projects in every major American city. Despite

these enormous costs and their accompanying public and private trauma for the

American people, the United States failed, for the first time in its history, to

achieve its stated war aims. The goal was to preserve a separate, independent,

noncommunist government in South Vietnam, but after April 1975, the communist

Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) ruled the entire nation.

The initial reasons for U.S. involvement in Vietnam seemed logical and

compelling to American leaders. Following its success in World War II, the

United States faced the future with a sense of moral rectitude and material

confidence. From Washington’s perspective, the principal threat to U.S.

security and world peace was monolithic, dictatorial communism emanating from he

Soviet Union. Any communist anywhere, at home or abroad, was, by definition,

and enemy of the United States. Drawing an analogy with the unsuccessful

appeasement of fascist dictators before World War II, the Truman administration

believed that any sign of communist aggression must be met quickly and

forcefully by the United States and its allies. This reactive policy was known

as containment.

In Vietnam the target of containment was Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh

front he had created in 1941. Ho and his chief lieutenants were communists with

long-standing connections to the Soviet Union. They were also ardent Vietnamese

nationalists who fought first to rid their country of the Japanese and then,

after 1945, to prevent France from reestablishing its former colonial mastery

over Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. Harry S. Truman and other American

leaders, having no sympathy for French colonialism, favored Vietnamese

independence. But expanding communist control of Eastern Europe and the triumph

of the communists in China’s civil was made France’s war against Ho seem an

anticommunist rather than a colonialist effort. When France agreed to a quansi-

independent Vietnam under Emperor Bao Dai as an alternative to Ho’s DRV, the

United States decided to support the French position.

The American conception of Vietnam as a cold war battleground largely

ignored the struggle for social justice and national sovereignty occurring

within the country. American attention focused primarily on Europe and on Asia

beyond Vietnam. Aid to France in Indochina was a quid pro quo for French

cooperation with America’s plans for the defense of Europe through the North

Atlantic Treaty Organization. After China became a communist state in 1949, the

stability of Japan became of paramount importance to Washington, and Japanese

development required access to the markets and raw materials of Southeast Asia.

The outbreak of war in Korea in 1950 served primarily to confirm Washington’s

belief that communist aggression posed a great danger to Asia . Subsequent

charges that Truman had “lost” China and had settled for a stalemate in Korea

caused succeeding presidents to fear the domestic political consequences if they

“lost” Vietnam. This apprehension, an overestimation of American power, and an

underestimation of Vietnamese communist strength locked all administrations from

1950 through the 1960s into a firm anticommunist stand in Vietnam.

Because American policy makers failed to appreciate the amount of effort

that would be required to exert influence on Vietnam’s political and social

structure, the course of American policy led to a steady escalation of U.S.

involvement. President Dwight D. Eisenhower increased the level of aide to the

French but continued to avoid military intervention, even when the French

experienced a devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu in the spring of 1954.

Following that battle, an international conference at Geneva, Switzerland,

arranged a cease-fire and provided for a North-South partition of Vietnam until

elections could be held. The United States was not a party to the Geneva

Agreements and began to foster the creation of a Vietnamese regime in South

Vietnam’s autocratic president Ngo Dinh Diem, who deposed Bao Dai in October

1955, resisted holding an election on the reunification of Vietnam. Despite

over $1 billion of U.S. aid between 1955 and 1961, the South Vietnamese economy

languished and internal security deteriorated. Nation building was failing the

South, and, in 1960, communist cadres created the National Liberation Front

(NLG) or Vietcong as its enemies called it, to challenge the Diem regime.

President John F. Kennedy concurred with his predecessor’s domino theory

and also believed that the credibility of U.S. anticommunist commitments around

the world was imperiled in 1961. Consequently, by 1963 he had tripled American

aid to South Vietnam and expanded the number of military advisers there from

less than seven hundred to more than sixteen thousand. But the Diem government

still failed to show economic or political progress. Buddhist priests,

spiritual leaders of the majority of Vietnamese, staged dramatic protests,

including self-immolation, against the dictatorship of the Catholic Diem. Ngo

Dinh Nhu, Diem’s brother, led a brutal suppression of the Buddhist resistance.

Finally, after receiving assurances of noninterference from U.S. officials South

Vietnamese military officers conducted a coup that ended with the murders of

Diem and Nhu. Whether these gruesome developments would have led Kennedy to

redirect or decrease U.S. involvement in Vietnam is unknown, since Kennedy

himself was assassinated three weeks later.

Diem’s death left a leadership vacuum in South Vietnam, and the survival

of the Saigon regime was in jeopardy. With a presidential election approaching,

Lyndon B. Johnson did not want to be saddled with the charge of having lost

Vietnam. On the other hand, an expansion of U.S. responsibility for the war

against the Vietcong and North Vietnam would divert resources from Johnson’s

ambitious and expensive domestic program, the Great Society. A larger in

Vietnam also raised the risk of a military clash with China. Using as a

provocation alleged North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. Navy vessels in the Gulf of

Tonkin in August 1964, Johnson authorized limited bombing raids on North Vietnam

and secured a resolution from Congress allowing him to use military forces in

Vietnam. These actions helped Johnson win the November election, but they did

not dissuade the Vietcong from its relentless pressure against the Saigon


By July 1965, Johnson faced the choice of being the first president to

lose a great war or of converting the Vietnamese War into a massive, U.S.

directed military effort. He chose a middle course that vastly escalated U.S.

involvement but that stopped short of an all-out application of American power.

Troop levels immediately jumped beyond 300,000 and by 1968 the number exceeded

500,000. Supporting these ground troops was a tremendous air bombardment of

North Vietnam that by 1967 surpassed the total tonnage dropped on Germany, Italy,

and Japan in World War II.

Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, pursued an

attrition strategy designed to inflict such heavy losses on the enemy that its

will to continue will be broken. By late 1967, his headquarters was claiming

that the crossover point had been reached and that enemy strength was being

destroyed faster than it could be replenished. But the communists’ Tet

offensive launched in January 1968 quickly extinguished the “light at the end of

the tunnel”. The Vietcong struck throughout South Vietnam, including a

penetration of the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon. American and South

Vietnamese forces eventually repulsed the offensive and inflicted heavy losses

on the Vietcong, but the fighting had exposed the reality that a quick end of

the war was not in sight.

Following the Tet offensive, the American leaders began a slow and

agonizing reduction of U.S. involvement. Johnson limited the bombing, began

peace talks with Hanoi and the NLF, and withdrew as a candidate for reelection.

His successor, Richard M. Nixon, announced a program of Vietnamization, which

basically represented a return to the Eisenhower and Kennedy policies of helping

Vietnamese forces fight the war, Nixon gradually reduced U.S. ground troops in

Vietnam, but he increased the bombing; the tonnage dropped after 1969 exceeded

the already prodigious levels reached by Johnson. Nixon expanded air and ground

operations into Cambodia and Laos in attempts to block enemy supply routes along

Vietnam’s borders. He traveled to Moscow and Beijing for talks and sent his

aide Henry A. Kissinger to Paris for secret negotiations with the North

Vietnamese. In January 1973, the United States and North Vietnam signed the

Paris Peace Agreement, which provided for the withdrawal of all remaining U.S.

forces from Vietnam, the return of U.S. prisoners of war, and a cease-fire.

The American troops and POWs came home, but the war continued. Nixon termed it

peace with honor,” since a separate government remained in Saigon, but

Kissinger acknowledged that the arrangement provided primarily for a “decent

interval” between U.S. withdrawal and the collapse of the South. In April 1975,

North Vietnamese troops and tanks converged on Saigon, and the war was over.

Why did the United States lose the war? Some postmortems singled out

media criticism of the war and antiwar activism in America as undermining the

will of the U.S. government to continue fighting. Others cited the restrictions

placed by civilian politicians on the military’s operations or, conversely,

blamed U.S. military chiefs for not providing civilian leaders with a sound

strategy for victory. These so-called win arguments assume that victory was

possible, but they overlook the flawed reasons for U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Washington had sought to contain international communism, but this global

strategic concern masked the reality that the appeal of the communists in

Vietnam derived from local economic, social, and historical conditions. The U.S.

response to the Vietnamese communism was essentially to apply a military

solution to an internal political problem. America’s infliction of enormous

destruction on Vietnam served only to discredit politically the Vietnamese that

the United States sought to assist. Furthermore, U.S. leaders underestimated

the tenacity of the enemy. For the Vietnamese communists, the struggle was a

total war for their own and their cause’s survival. For the United States, it

was a limited wa

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