Author’s note: Human life losses during the Vietnam War were astronomical and under reported. According to Major General Jan Sejna,1205 living Americans were never repatriated from Russian custody and in the early 1990s Congress considered placing a second monument for approx. 50,000 Vietnam war dead not included in the wall. These figures included, but were not limited to, wounded who died out of country, some of whom never showed up in any casualty figure of any kind, anywhere. The majority were suicides. During the 1990s the department of Navy lists Marine casualties had exceeded the total of Marine dead or wounded in WWII/ Casualty rate of 400% compared to WWII. By 2005, the US department of defense listed survivors of 773,000 based on their figure of 2.45 million actually having served in country. Current figures of in country service site is at about 2.9 million, a figure unrealistically exploded with junkets, short TDY assignments, and service in adjacent waters. The figures of and in excess of one million dead from Agent Orange alone, is likely an American scandal more serious than the hidden files of 911 or the Kennedy assassination. Before rolling up and classifying this data, which happened in the waning years of the Bush 43 administration, an estimate of a life expectancy of a Vietnam veteran reached 47 years. It was believed that the issue of Gulf War Syndrome, a war that began with 100 combat deaths, that now count well over 65,000 – cause unknown cause unacknowledged was hoped by some to keep alive the issue of the real cost of war.
The United States’ involvement in Vietnam was the product of several reasons and most of these reasons seemed quite plausible in the era they were addressed. These motives appeared necessary for the security of the United States. American involvement in Vietnam started many years before President Lyndon Johnson sent troops in using the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
The United States had previously supported Ho Chi Minh’s army against the Japanese. His army, the Viet Minh, supplied the United States with intelligence information during World War II in exchange for American assistance. Ho looked to American support against the French when he formed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The United States backed the French in their attempt to maintain French colonialism in Vietnam, making an enemy of Ho.
In a way, the United States was forming an Asian policy after defeating the Japanese in World War II. The threat of Communism seemed probable in Asia due to the proximity of China and the Soviet Union to the area, so America made the decision to support South Vietnam which could become the first domino to fall to Communism in Indochina.
President Harry Truman was convinced that the proper thing to do would be for France to give up its colonies in Asia. After the Japanese surrendered, the French said that the only way they would assist communist suppression in Europe would be if they were allowed to keep their colony in Indochina. France needed to retain the colonial holdings in Vietnam or her other colonies might get the idea that they too could become independent. To Truman the situation in Europe was more important than that in Asia so France was allowed to maintain its holdings in Indochina.
When this undeclared war was finished the United States had suffered its first military defeat. This conflict created an uproar within the citizenship of this country, caused the eventual distrust of the American military and government, and most importantly the deaths of over 58,000 United States service men and women during the actual waging of war and the countless thousands more who have succumbed to the effects of Agent Orange, wounds, injuries, and diseases contracted while there, post traumatic stress disorders, and other post war causes.
While Vietnam did not have a significant importance to the United States at the end of World War II, it would become important during the terms of every president from Truman and ending with Nixon. In 1949, the Communists were coming into power in China and Communism was giving some support to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh. In order to encourage France to support the allies in Europe in the partnership for the containment of Communism, the United States was willing to start supporting the French and the Bao Dai government.
The United States saw Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist movement as being supported by Communism and his movement was viewed as an extension of Communist Imperialism. Ho eventually came to view America as the enemy when he felt that the United States would take Vietnam over for itself. The United States was getting involved in the Korean War and the threat of Communism take over loomed ominously on the horizon. The United States had begun to develop a fear of Communism and what its spread would mean to the free world.
Indochina would be a foot hold in a path that could lead to the eventual claiming of the Philippines, Malaya, Thailand, Japan, and eventually all the way to Australia and New Zealand. Japan would have no one to trade with and might turn to communism (Eisenhower as cited in Kimball, 31). Eisenhower’s “domino theory” became common rhetoric. If Vietnam fell to communism then the whole of the Far East would surely come under the rule of the communist regime. The United States along with Thailand, Philippines, Pakistan, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand formed Southeast Asia Treaty Organization to prevent communist aggression.
In order for the stand against communism to be implemented, the United States furnished economic and military aid in the form of advisors to the South Vietnamese government. America had long had the “missionary” mentality of believing that they know what was right for poor, not as developed nations. This belief that they know what a country needs, and notwithstanding having the means to furnish this assistance, was a factor in the United States’ involvement in South Vietnam.
The United States thought they knew what these smaller countries needed and were willing to give them what they needed whether they wanted it or not. …The attitude above all others which I feel sure is no longer valid is arrogance of power, the tendency of great nations to equate power with virtue and major responsibilities with a universal mission (Fulbright as cited in Kimball, 108).
Castro came to power in Cuba and embraced Communism. This presented the United States with facing the dreaded Communists just a few miles from America’s continental shores. The Communist threat had always been in distant countries and now it was at the back door.
The Cold War fueled the anti-Communist fires. Third world countries were developing and American government felt that these poor, backward nations would turn to Communism as a way to survive. These areas were wide spread and the perceived threat of Communism was mushrooming. The failure of the Bay of Pigs mission only added fuel to the smoldering fire.
When Lyndon Johnson became president his agenda on Vietnam was to continue to provide American presence and assistance to South Vietnam because we had promises to keep. Three Presidents—President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, and our present President—over 11 years have committed themselves and have promised to help defend this small and valiant country (Johnson as sited in Kimball, 43). He vocalized that we must strengthen world order, if we backed down now we would more than likely be forced to prepare for turmoil somewhere else. The United States fights for freedom from attack, values, principles, and not for any increase to our territories (Johnson as sited in Kimball, 43).
Economics would be another reason for American involvement in Vietnam. Henry Cabot Lodge, Senator McGee, and President Eisenhower all have been quoted as stating this was the reason for our involvement. McGee stated, “That empire in Southeast Asia is the last major resource area outside the control of any one of the major powers on the globe” (Kimball, 271).
President Eisenhower further noted, “One of Japan’s greatest opportunities for increased trade lies in a free and developing Southeast Asia (Kimball, 271). Bluntly, they suggest the U.S. is fighting to defend an economic empire—fighting to control the markets and the resources of a wealthy corner of the globe. ….The U.S. is, indeed, fighting to defend freedom:freedom for U.S. economic penetration of Asia (Pax Americana Economicus as sited in Kimball, 272). Surely economic reasons were major concerns for France to insist on maintaining their colonial hold over South Vietnam.
Americans have for over two hundred years held freedom dear. The United States’ Constitution was based on freedoms that all should enjoy. America has maintained since its own independence from England that all must have the right to choose between democracy and other forms of government. Vietnam was a region where freedom to choose was in danger of becoming extinct with the spread of Communism into the area. First, the potential value of a region is believed to be great; second, defense of the “free world” empire requires the suppression of revolution everywhere…regions(Pax Americana Economicus as sited in Kimball, 277).
Politics became an integral part of American presence in Vietnam. The Democrats took up the Republican cause of the domino theory and both parties were afraid to back away from any disregard for the spread of Communism. Both political parties played on the Communist phobia what was prevalent at the time. During this time citizen groups were chasing supposed Communists and /or Communist sympathizers who had the audacity to be within the borders of the United States.
To turn American backs on the South Vietnamese would appear to be running away from dealing with the Communist control issue. As LBJ said, the first reality is that North Vietnam has attacked the independent nation of South Vietnam. When describing Communist aggression he further stated: Its object is total conquest….Let no one think for a moment that retreat from Vietnam would bring an end to the conflict. The battle would just be renewed in one country or another (Johnson as sited in Kimball, 89).
Eventually President Johnson was faced with the fact that if he let Communism take over South Vietnam there would be a debate that would shatter his presidency, kill his administration, damage America’s democracy. Johnson was trying to launch his Great Society but, was faced with making important decisions about sending fighting United States troops into Vietnam (Halberstram as sited in Kimball, 200). He wanted to get the disturbance over in that little country so far away in order to get funding for his political aims. If I don’t go in now and they show later I should have gone, then they’ll be all over me in Congress. They won’t be talking about my civil rights bill, or education, or beautification (Johnson as sited in Kimball, 201). What has started out as a continuation of JFK’s policies seemed to become a rather large bother standing in the way of Johnson’s political motives.
In retrospect, it is a shame that the United States did not support Ho when he asked for recognition for his initial quest of a free nation. He quite probably would have not turned to Communism, which was the part of him that the United States could not support. Only after being ignored by the Americans did he turn to the French Socialist party and then to the ideology of Lenin (Hess, 15).
He very possibly would have been the best choice of a leader for the entire part of land that became North and South Vietnam. Ho was the popular choice of the peoples of Vietnam. He has been drawn to ask for assistance from the United States by Woodrow Wilson’s call for the “self-determination” of peoples (Hess, 15). No boundaries would have been made; no polarization would have been necessary. On the other hand if the threat of Communism had not existed the United States very well may have not become concerned with this small nation at all.
The toll of American lives that were lost and dramatically changed seems to color the support we gave South Vietnam in a poor light to use a mild term. Many of the official reasons for United States involvement seemed quite legitimate at the outset. Perhaps the worst mistake America made was in supporting a South Vietnamese leader who was not in tune with the majority of his people.
Diem’s actions of bringing various religious factions under control with brutal means and his refusal to participate in the elections set forth in the Geneva Agreement were the opposite of American principles. Diem had no feel for the peasantry which made up the great portion of South Vietnam and his push of Catholicism as the religion of choice has a very detrimental effect on the 80 percent of the population that were Buddhists.
Everyone should have had the same agenda and the United States’ government should have made sure that it was supporting a just regime when it started to commit American lives. Political and economic aid is one thing, but human lives are something totally different.
The United States’ involvement in respect to the domino theory and the desire to stand against Communist aggression had good merits especially when viewed during the Cold War era. The support of France, so it would support NATO, seemed necessary as matters regarding Communism in Europe were in the forefront. France’s agenda in Vietnam was never concerned with creating an independent, self-sufficient, democratic country.
The United States was looking at the total world picture, but France was looking at its own interests. As each succeeding presidential administration came to office, the incoming president supported the previous rhetoric in order to maintain political control. Johnson viewed the expected support as a means to get on to his political agenda for the United States.
When the South Vietnamese government proved to have no integrity, the United States should have ceased the economic contributions to a government that it did not in principle believe in. The Diem government in no way matched America’s criteria for what is necessary for a democracy. Diem’s persecution of Buddhists was only one of his infractions that should have sent up a red flare to a country, which was originally founded on the principle of religious freedom.
The United States went into this issue with intentions of halting Communism from spreading throughout Asia but by the end of the Johnson years, had gotten into a struggle that was at least partially of its own making. Supporting a corrupt, inept government was not the way to insure freedom and independence for the South Vietnamese people.
In the end, many reasons can be viewed as causes for America’s involvement in Vietnam. The rationales for assistance to this small country involved belief in the domino theory and fear of spread of communism as well as concern with Japanese economy becoming shut off from the free world. The United States’ missionary mentality and the belief that all countries should have the choice of self-government, if they so wished, and freedom from aggression while implementing those beliefs were based on sound American ideals.
The desire to keep commitments made by previous presidents and support of France so it would give its support to anticommunist measures in Europe at the end of World War II became strong reasons for involvement. The United States, and more specifically President Johnson, did not want to lose face with the rest of the world if this cause was abandoned.
It became apparent long before its conclusion that the United States should have swallowed its national pride early in this debacle and left when the South Vietnamese government would or could not be salvaged. At the end of the Vietnam-American War the United States seemed to have more at stake security wise than it did at the beginning. The Communist North Vietnam was not going to attack American shores with nuclear bombs, but the integrity, honor and reputation of the United States was in jeopardy.
- Hess, Gary R. Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War.
- Kimball, Jeffrey P. Nixon’s Vietnam War.
- Prados, John. Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975.