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Vietnam War: Key Debates

Read all about some of the important debates surrounding the Vietnam War, and have a look at some of the example essays!

Why did America become involved in Vietnam?

US intervention in Vietnam must be understood in the context of the Cold War. Their opposition to Ho Chi Minh did not stem from his nationalism but instead from his communism, which was considered a threat to American values and to their economic system of free trade and open markets. The defeat of Japan left a power vacuum in Asia in 1945 and although the American government had misgivings about European colonial powers re-establishing their empires, this was preferable to communists like Ho facilitating the spread of communist ideas, which the US perceived as monolithic. Ho was therefore mistakenly viewed as a Soviet puppet. It would have been preferable for the French to have defeated the Vietminh, and this explains Eisenhower’s willingness to bankroll their efforts in the 1st Vietnam War. Once this possibility had been removed, the Geneva Accords exacerbated the problem as it was evident that Diem’s regime could be too weak to retain control, raising the possibility of communism spreading from the North after 1954.

Domestically, the ‘loss’ of China to communism in 1949 and the anti-communist hysteria whipped up by the McCarthy trials of the early 1950s also served as triggers for US involvement, as Vietnam became an arena in which victory could compensate for earlier losses. The American presidents were all under pressure to be seen as having the upper hand in the struggle against the Soviet Union; as a result, public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of involvement and escalation until the late 1960s and the government would certainly have been influenced by this as well as by ideological concerns.

Which US President was most responsible for the escalation of the Vietnam War?

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the United States became increasingly embroiled in the Vietnam War, with little concrete proof of progress. All presidents from Truman to Nixon can be seen as responsible for escalation, but there is also a compelling argument that alleviates them from individual blame; the war became a ‘commitment trap’ with successive presidents forced to go to greater lengths than their predecessor in an attempt to achieve a positive result that would satisfy the US public and justify the investment and sacrifice that had already been made. This ‘quagmire theory’ relies on the recognition that there was ultimately no long-term chance of success in Vietnam because of the strength of the Vietminh and the unpopularity of the South Vietnamese regime.

However, it also puts Harry Truman in the spotlight, as the president who initiated involvement. His belief that the French were invaluable allies against communism in Indochina as well as in Europe and his refusal to negotiate with Ho Chi Minh led to over $2billion having been given to the French by 1954, along with military equipment and aircraft. Yet, Eisenhower could have chosen to scale-down assistance after French defeat but instead extended it, making him partly culpable. Spending rose to $7billion and espionage and open support was used to bolster Diem’s unpopular regime throughout the 1950s.

Yet, it was ultimately under Johnson that intervention peaked, with ground troops and bombings transforming the conflict into a full-scale war for America, before Nixon went even further and attacked Laos and Cambodia in addition to Vietnam. However, to some extent Johnson felt compelled to take more drastic action because Kennedy had been so committed to a result in Vietnam, having escalated involvement himself through the use of chemical weapons and the deployment of the Green Beret, as well as further increases in spending and advisors.

Why did the US withdraw from Vietnam in 1973?

An explanation of US withdrawal should not automatically consider the removal of US troops as a sign of failure. Nixon’s policy of ‘Vietnamisation’ was deliberate and gradual and after the Paris Peace Accords, he claimed to have achieved ‘peace with honour’ by securing the safety of the South. However, both Nixon and Kissinger must have doubted the ability of the ARVN, as well as their commitment to resisting communist insurgence. This suggests that by 1973, the need to bring troops home was more pressing than achieving long-lasting success in Vietnam. It also implies that the Nixon administration was privately prepared to admit what predecessors did not; that US efforts in Vietnam had failed to deliver a lasting solution to the communist threat in Indochina. The reasons for this are complex and require a clear understanding of the nature of the conflict itself.

Whilst US forces had much greater financial and technological resources at their disposal, this counted for little because General Giap avoided large set-piece battles and relied on guerrilla tactics that made knowledge of the terrain and support from civilians invaluable. US troops, many of whom had been drafted, found the alien conditions of the Vietnamese jungle and the constant threat from an intangible enemy psychologically damaging and morale was therefore low. Many of the responses to guerrilla warfare ultimately harmed the civilian population more than the Vietcong fighters, and this made it very difficult for America to win over the hearts and minds of the population. This was compounded by the corruption and brutality of successive South Vietnamese regime and the popularity of ‘Uncle Ho’, gained through land redistribution policies and his vehement nationalism.

By the 1970s, the US public itself was questioning the morality of the war in Vietnam and although Nixon was correct to argue that a ‘silent majority’ remained in favour, opposition was vocal and increasingly attracted attention, particularly after the government reacted violently, such as at Kent State University in May 1970 (where four people were killed during a protest).