The Vietnam War is truly one of the most unique wars ever fought by the Unites States or by any country. It was never officially declared a war. It had no official beginning or an official end. It was fought over 10,000 miles away in a virtually unknown country. It is a classic story of good guys versus bad, communism versus freedom, and a constant struggle for stability.
Americas attempt to aid the cause of freedom was a valid one, but one that ended up with South Vietnam being dependent upon us for its very life as a nation, the expiration of Johnsons presidency and his Great Society, and an insurgent antiwar movement that practically forced the United States out of Vietnam. 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 Washingtons perspective, the principal threat to U. S. security and world peace was monolithic, dictatorial communism emanating from the Soviet Union (Herring 5). Any communist anywhere, at home or abroad, was, by definition, and enemy of the United States (Herring 5). 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 Viet-minh 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 (Logerall 23). But expanding communist control of Eastern Europe and the triumph of the communists in Chinas civil war made Frances 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 Hos 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 (Turner 127). Aid to France in Indochina was a quid pro quo for French cooperation with Americas 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 Washingtons 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 Vietnams 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 in favor for Geneva Agreements and began to foster the creation of a Vietnamese regime and South Vietnams 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, to challenge the Diem regime.
President John F. Kennedy concurred with his predecessors 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. The coup conducted by South Vietnamese military officers ended with the murders of Diem and Nhu, which put the survival of the Saigon regime in jeopardy.
After the unfortunate assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, his successor, vice-president, Lyndon Baines Johnson was forced to take the plunge into presidency at a crucial time (Kaiser 223). And with a presidential election approaching, Johnson did not want to be saddled with the charge of having lost Vietnam (Gardner 101). On the other hand, an expansion of U. S. responsibility for the war against the Vietcong and North Vietnam would divert resources from Johnsons ambitious and expensive domestic program, the Great Society, and also increase 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, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. These actions helped Johnson win the November election, but they did not deter the Vietcong from its relentless pressure against the Saigon government. 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 (Schandler 252).
He chose a middle course that vastly escalated U. S. involvement but that stopped short of an all-out application of American power, and an official declaration of war. 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 (Gardner 352). 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” (Gardner 411). 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 within reach.
Due to the torrential protest at home and the outcome of the War, the American leaders began a slow reduction of U. S. involvement. Johnson limited the bombing, began peace talks with Hanoi and the NLF, and withdrew as a candidate for reelection. The antiwar movement against Vietnam in the US from 1965-1971 was the most significant movement of its kind in the nation’s history, this had a great impact on policy and practically forced the US out of Vietnam (Turner 91). Starting with teach-ins during the spring of 1965, the massive antiwar efforts centered on the colleges, with the students playing leading roles.
These teach-ins were mass public demonstrations, usually held in the spring and fall seasons. By 1968, protesters numbered almost seven million with more than half being white youths in the college. The teach-in movement was at first, a gentle approach to the antiwar activity. Although, it faded when the college students went home during the summer of 1965, other types of protest that grew through 1971 soon replaced it. All of these movements captured the attention of the White House, especially when 25,000 people marched on Washington Avenue.
And at times these movements attracted the interest of all the big decision-makers and their advisors. The teach-ins began at the University of Michigan on March 24, 1965, and spread to other campuses, including Wisconsin on April 1. These protests at some of America’s finest universities captured public attention. The Demonstrations were one form of attempting to go beyond mere words and research and reason, and to put direct pressure on those who were conducting policy in apparent disdain for the will expressed by the voters (Turner 94).
Within the US government, some saw these teach-ins as an important development that might slow down on further escalation in Vietnam. Although several hundred colleges experienced teach-ins, most campuses were untouched by this circumstance. Nevertheless, the teach-ins did concern the administration and contributed to President Johnson’s decision to present a major Vietnam address at Johns Hopkins University on April 7, 1965. The address tried to respond to the teach-ins campus protest activity.
The Johns Hopkins speech was the first major example of the impact of antiwar. Johnson was trying to stabilize public opinion while the campuses were bothering the government. The antiwar movement would have emerged alone by the bombings, and the growing cost of American lives coming home in body bags only intensified public opposition to the war. This movement against the North Vietnam bombings, and domestic critics in general, played a role in the decision to announce a bombing pause from May 12 to the 17, of 1965 (Gardner 432).
Antiwar activists carried on through the pause with their own programs, and the scattered teach-ins had become more of a problem for President Johnson when their organizers joined in an unofficial group, the Inter-University Committee for a Public Hearing on Vietnam. This new committee began planning a nationwide teach-in to be conducted on television and radio, of which would be a debate between protesters and administrators of the government. This well-publicized debate made the antiwar effort more respectable.
The antiwar movement also spread directly among the combat troops in Vietnam, who began to wear peace symbols and flash peace signs and movement salutes. Some units even organized their own demonstrations to link up with the movement at home. For example, to join the November 1969 antiwar Mobilization, a unit boycotted its Thanksgiving Day dinner. One problem of the antiwar movement was the difficulty of finding ways to move beyond protest and symbolic acts to deeds that would actually impede the war. Unlike college students and other civilians, the troops in Vietnam were able to stage large-scale resistance.