The War in 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
Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) ruled the entire nation.
The initial reasons for U.S. involvement in Vietnam seemed logical and
confidence. From Washington’s perspective, the principal threat to U.S.
Soviet Union. Any communist anywhere, at home or abroad, was, by definition,
forcefully by the United States and its allies. This reactive policy was known
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
nationalists who fought first to rid their country of the Japanese and then,
over Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. Harry S. Truman and other American
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.
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
development required access to the markets and raw materials of Southeast Asia.
charges that Truman had “lost” China and had settled for a stalemate in Korea
underestimation of Vietnamese communist strength locked all administrations from
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.
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
over $1 billion of U.S. aid between 1955 and 1961, the South Vietnamese economy
(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
spiritual leaders of the majority of Vietnamese, staged dramatic protests,
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.
of the Saigon regime was in jeopardy. With a presidential election approaching,
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
basically represented a return to the Eisenhower and Kennedy policies of helping
Vietnam, but he increased the bombing; the tonnage dropped after 1969 exceeded
the already prodigious levels reached by Johnson. Nixon expanded air and ground
Vietnamese. In January 1973, the United States and North Vietnam signed the
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
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
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