Assess the reasons why American military intervention in Vietnam increased from 1954
Assess the reasons why American military intervention in Vietnam increased from 1954.
Following the withdrawal of France from Indochina in 1954, the United States took on the mantle of preserving defending Western interests in Vietnam against the encroachment of communism. Successive American Presidents took escalating steps towards a military solution to Vietnam’s problems, by the time of Lyndon Johnson the US had a significant military presence in the air and on the ground but still failed to resolve the challenge from North Korea and the Vietcong.
After the French, who were supported with US funds, had been defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 by the forces of the Vietminh, the Geneva Agreements led to the withdrawal of France and the division of Indochina into Laos, Cambodia and a North and South Vietnam divided by the 17 Parallel. It was assumed that elections would be held after two years leading to the reunification of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader of North Vietnam was confident that he could take all of Vietnam. The United States were not present at Geneva and did not accept the terms presented, though there was little they could do except give support to the South and ignore the issue of the forthcoming elections. The USA were aware that Bao Dai, the Vietnamese Emperor ruling the South, would be incapable of presenting a valid alternative to Ho and encouraged the accession of Ngo Dinh Diem to lead the South. In many respects, the US failed to understand the local context, the war against French colonialism was inspired by nationalist zeal and much of the later conflict was more motivated by removing foreign (i.e. US) influence as much as it was by communism.
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The first stage of intervention was financial rather than military, Eisenhower sought to provide assistance to Diem’s regime in order to enable South Vietnam to resist communist rebels and establish a model of Western order and prosperity from Saigon. Between 1953 and 1957 over $1 billion of US economic and military aid poured into South Vietnam but Diem failed to achieve the hoped for stability. Much of the problem rested with Diem himself, a vain and corrupt leader whose rule was characterised by nepotism, persecution of religious sects, bribery, corruption and a lack of reform. The image of South Vietnam to the rest of the World was that of burning Buddhist monks protesting against the policies of the Catholic and pro-American Diem. The US were seeming to back the wrong leader and, when the South Vietnamese military overthrew him in a coup in October 1963, it was with the tacit approval of the White House.
As Diem’s unpopularity soared, then opposition within South Vietnam grew. In 1960 the National Liberation Front was established to focus dissent and to stir for reform and orchestrate guerrilla action against South Vietnamese targets. Diem labelled all opponents Vietcong (communist) which helped to clarify the US position in support of Diem. The VC appealed to the mass of the Vietnamese population with their promises of land reform and unification, their respectful treatment and persuasion of the peasants enabled them to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people. As support for the VC grew then South Vietnam needed greater assistance from the United States in dealing with the insurgency. President Kennedy introduced military advisers including the Green Berets, but 16,000 Americans could not effectively deal with the scale of the task, especially with the continued supply of equipment coming from Hanoi. Tactics such as Strategic Hamlets also failed by increasing the antagonism felt towards the Saigon regime and played into the hands of the VC. By 1964, a third of South Vietnam was in VC hands.
Under Johnson, superior military technology was seen to be the only means to prevent the communist takeover of South Vietnam. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident in August 1964 was used as the pretext for the Tonkin Resolution which gave the US President a ‘blank cheque’ to conduct the war against the VC and the North. By 1968 Johnson had committed over half a million ground troops to the war effort. In many respects Johnson was looking to fulfil the legacy of JFK in preventing the South falling into communist hands, but it was only after he was elected in his own right in 1964 that he developed the confidence to extend the previous policy. Johnson was influenced by advisers, like Robert McNamara and General Westmoreland, were determined to see a strong military commitment to resolve the conflict.
The US was so concerned with Vietnam as part of the ongoing rivalry with the Soviet Union. The US was concerned about its perception of losing the Cold War and escalation needs to be considered in the context of wider events. Following the fall of China and the failure of ‘rollback’ in Korea, the US were concerned about losing Asia to communism. The ‘domino theory’ argued that if Vietnam would fall then neighbouring countries like Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaya and Indonesia could also follow. The commitment to South Vietnam was therefore seen as a vital dam to prevent takeover by communist forces. US Presidents were also determined to present an image of being tough on communism, the quagmire theory suggests that successive Presidents had to continue escalating as none of them wanted to accept the fall of Vietnam to communism on their watch, but also did not want to fully commit troops which could be unpopular.
American intervention was primarily determined by the context of the Cold War, the US could not sanction the loss of Vietnam to communism and the further the US got embroiled in sustaining the unsustainable in South Vietnam, the harder it became to pull out. Continued US involvement in turn inspired nationalist as well as communist resistance which resulted in an even more difficult situation to resolve. Johnson’s strong military intervention came as a result of years of piecemeal support to a corrupt regime which failed to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Vietnamese people, when Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam could offer unity and independence, the US presence could, realistically, offer only continued conflict.