The Vietnam War : An Interpretation

by Sophie Thomas
copyright 2004

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foes, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.  This much we pledge – and more.”
To what extent can Kennedy’s pledge in his 1961 inaugural address speech be considered representative of American foreign policy regarding the Vietnam War?

Of all American foreign policy post-Second World War, few events have been more highly criticised than American involvement in the Vietnam War.  Involvement began in the late 1940s under President Truman, was gradually enlarged under Eisenhower and Kennedy, before Johnson took the fateful step of committing to a massive air and ground war in 1965; American troops were present right through to 1973.  The Vietnam War was responsible for the deaths of over 50,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.  The entire infrastructure of the country was destroyed, its people were napalmed and herded into concentration camps .  Between 1962 and 1972 over 1m pounds of toxic chemicals such as Agent Orange were dropped over South Vietnam, destroying more than half the country’s forests  and leaving behind a legacy of births of physically and mentally impaired children.  More bombs had been dropped on this small South East Asian country by 1970 than have fallen on all targets in the whole of human history .
Therefore, few questions would seem more pertinent than: For what?  Why did America get involved in the conflict in Vietnam, more than 10,000 miles from its shores?  In the familiar rhetoric of Kennedy’s 1961 pledge, as he began his term as US President, successive Cold War administrations claimed a legitimate involvement on the grounds of the protection and promotion of democratic values and freedoms; but what other reasons did America have for fighting in Vietnam?  How much can their involvement really be considered a selfless act to aid others in the face of repression?  This essay will examine the extent to which America’s Vietnam campaign can really be seen as a quest for the protection of the ‘Free’ followed, by a consideration of other possible reasons for American involvement in Vietnam.

Following the end of WWII, the United States government promoted the ideals of liberty and freedom, advocating and supporting the end of colonialism for countries in the developing world.  Between 1945 and 1946, Ho Chi Minh, who had led the resistance against the Japanese during the war in North Vietnam, appealed to the US for their help and support in their fight for independence from the French.  His only worry being that President Truman and the State Department would consider Vietnam too small and too insignificant to help, he sent eight letters.  He received no reply.  The concerns of the administration were, in fact, more occupied with the threat perceived by the rising powers of Communism.  Rather than support Ho, America went to Vietnam, to the aid of the French colonialists, supplying them with funding and armaments in their attempt to retain power in Indochina in the face of the independence movement.   To the American administration, Ho and the Vietnamese Revolutionary League (Vietminh) were to be considered Communist and, hence, little more than a subdivision of what they considered to be an ‘international network’ directed from Moscow or Peking.  This course of action was taken despite the fact that Ho Chi Minh and his followers had worked closely with the American OSS during the War, while the French had collaborated with the Japanese .  Characterising the Communists as the aggressors, trying to take over the country, the US government claimed they were involved in Vietnam for the selfless purpose of helping the people of South Vietnam to deter the “aggression” from the North Vietnamese and to preserve their right to select their own political leadership .  As President Truman said in 1947: “I believe it must be the policy of the US to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”  In treating Vietnam as not one, but two countries, the independence movement of the North was thus the side which the US government characterised as the outside aggressor and, somewhat ironically, not the French.

Communism was considered to represent an oppressor, an imposition of the will of a minority on the majority.  Through methods of terror and control over freedom of speech and expression, the Communist system exercised the suppression of personal freedoms.  The United States claimed to represent the opposite of this, an alternative way of life that the US government intended to promote around the world.  In Vietnam, as Kennedy expressed, America claimed to be fighting in the name of freedom, which was under the “most severe attack it had ever known” .  It could be saved only by the US.  And if the US failed, “then freedom fails”.  But, not only were they fighting for the Vietnamese; they were fighting for the freedom of the whole of South East Asia.  In what Eisenhower described in 1953 as the “Domino Theory”, all of South East Asia was “like a row of dominos”.  If one was knocked over, then the rest would follow quickly, and the whole region would become communist.  By the 1960s, Vietnam was considered not only the key to the South East Asian region, but to the ‘protection’ of the entire underdeveloped world.

The protection of freedom and liberty in Vietnam, and in fact for the whole world, was the rhetoric, and indeed the deep convictions of the greater part of the American governing body.  A deep fear of communism perpetuating the country throughout the Cold War, the sincerity of the belief in the fight against communism should not be denied.  However, there are nonetheless clearly also other reasons that were perhaps not always so heavily stressed in the countless addresses to the nation persuading the American people why they were fighting a war in Vietnam in the first place.

At the end of WWII, the US economy was very strong.  She was producing 45% of the world’s arms and 50% of the world’s goods.  With a capacity for mass production, excess capital and a monopoly of the atomic bomb, the US was undoubtedly the most powerful country in the world, a position America wished to retain.  In the decades that followed, the Soviet Union and Communism represented not only an alternative way of life but also a threat, both economic and military, to America’s position as world hegemon; a threat which the US government believed should be met in countries throughout the Third World, including, in Vietnam.

First, we may consider the economic aspect of this theme.  Unlike the colonialism of the 18th and 19th centuries, American imperialism concentrated on the power to control not through the direct administration of a particular nation, but through the economy.  Although they advocated an end to Western dominance in the developing world as colonialists, developing nations would still be controlled by the developed world, specifically the US, through an ‘open door policy’ and the domination of the markets.  As Gabriel Kolko explains, the American objective was “to restructure the world so that American business could trade, operate and profit without restrictions everywhere”   One aspect of this policy was to ensure the existence of conservative, subservient political regimes throughout the world.  American business wished to maintain an extractive economy and their commercial interests in the Third World.  The travel agencies, hotels and large corporations such as Ford Cars, recently established in Vietnam, and the raw materials such as tin and tungsten it provided, would all be lost if Vietnam turned Communist .  In order to trade freely and retain their position as hegemon in the economic sense, America needed worldwide stability and capitalist systems permitting free trade.  Throughout the developing World, this thus often meant the preservation of the status quo in the face of change  and hence the support of an unpopular and corrupt regime, and, as was the case in Vietnam, a war to prevent it from turning communist.

Militarily, too, America’s desires of world domination can also explain their involvement in Vietnam.  In the face of the rising military power and newly acquired nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union and China, Vietnam was of strategic importance to the American position.  As both these communist nations increased their military capacities, the American strategy was one of ‘containment’.  Incapable of destroying Russia or one of her allies without taking on unacceptable risks to herself, the crusade against communism took the form of containment of the enemy rather than attack.  This meant not only the building up of an enormous military strength, but also a need to retain bases around China and Russia.  Vietnam was one such location.  And it also meant standing up to the Russians wherever they applied pressure. Attempting to prevent South Vietnam turning Communist was just one aspect of this approach, orientated to ensuring the retention of American military domination.

But the consideration of North Vietnam as just another part of what the Soviet Union represented was undoubtedly an overly simplistic approach to the world situation.  Indeed this limited, bi-polar view of the world as divided into two camps, of good versus evil, may also be considered to pose an explanation for American involvement in the Vietnam War.  As were evoked by John Foster Dulles’ policies of Brinkmanship under the Eisenhower administration for example, it was believed that all major decisions for the ‘Free World’ were the responsibility of the US, while Russia would make all major decisions for the Communists .  By their arrogant self-assumption of the role of world protector of the ‘Free World’ they therefore felt it necessary to get involved on the side of the South Vietnamese, in what would have otherwise been a civil war.  American foreign policy refused to accept or even recognise the diversity of the world and the opinions and motivations within it; as Truman expressed in 1947: “Nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life.”  Ho was labelled an agent of Peking and Moscow, and the war was characterised as the result of just another example of Communist ‘aggression’.

The sentiments and passions of the Vietnamese people for a united, independent country were ignored, American foreign policy, concerned entirely with thinking about ways to stop anything that might embody communism.  And it is precisely this ignorance and lack of understanding of Vietnam and its people that may be considered another reason for their participation.  Not only was it their rationale for involvement that was flawed but, furthermore, their simplifications and ignorance also led to some significant misjudgements that led to their embroilment in the conflict; namely, their underestimation of the enemy, in the face of an overestimation of their own power.

On the one hand, the American approach underestimated the very real appeal and support communism had in the developing world.  For the developing countries, the Russian example of how a nation could build its economy through the control of production and consumption was a very attractive alternative, as opposed to relying on the profits of free enterprise for a slow accumulation of capital .  Added to this, unlike the Americans, the Russians were not looked upon by the Third World as white exploiters and colonialists.  Furthermore, their habit of defining all social change as a form of Communist “aggression” was innately flawed.  Ho and his followers may have been Communist, but, by ignoring the strength of will for independence in Vietnam, concerned only with a desire to quell the spread of Communism in its own right, the American rationale for involvement undoubtedly underestimated their opposition.  In the words of V. K. Krishna Menon of India in 1960: “if you reject to revolutionary governments, then you simply argue against the whole of progress” .  The American administration’s stance also evoked an ‘inherent sense of racial superiority, not far different from concepts of “mission civilatrice.”’   The words of Senator John F. Kennedy, in a 1956 speech, would seem to accurately sum up the derisory American attitude: “If we are not the parents of little Viet Nam, then surely we are the god-parents.  We presided at its birth, we gave assistance to its life, we have helped to shape its future.”

Parallel to this underestimation of the Vietnamese, both on racial and motivational counts, the Americans vastly overestimated their own power.  Post WWII, the US built up the biggest armed force the world had ever known, but American foreign policy ignored the fact that their military power still had its limits, as Vietnam would surely prove.  In a democracy, the mood on the domestic scene is an important limitation and certainly affected the American capacity to fight the war in Vietnam.  There was pressure to limit expenditure, especially under the Eisenhower administration, where conservative views favoured the prioritisation of a balanced budget.  There was also pressure to limit the loss of American lives throughout the period of involvement.  Both had the effect of significantly reducing the US military power potential.  Furthermore, never before had a nation relied so completely on material superiority to wage a war.   For the American armed forces, the war in Vietnam was a high tech war, but, as opposition, they fought against guerrillas.  The opposition relied on the likes of old men on bicycles who could fade away into the countryside and blend with the civilians as quickly as they appeared.  The American military approach, clearly misunderstood, or simply ignored, the realities of guerrilla warfare, and it did not work.  Being, ‘cocky, overconfident, sure of themselves, (and) certain they could win at a bearable cost’ , American entry and conduct in the Vietnam War was clearly founded upon a severe misjudgement, and overestimation of their own power.  By 1968 President Johnson had clearly been forced to learn the lesson that ‘the power to destroy is not the power to control’ .  In March of that year, he called a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam and withdrew from the 1968 Presidential race.

Thus it can be seen that although American involvement in Vietnam was certainly motivated by a desire to stop the rise of Communism, the reasons for this line of policy were multiple.  Despite the rhetoric of successive US administrations, it can be concluded that American involvement in Vietnam was, in reality, not to a great extent due to selfless concerns regarding the protection of the freedoms of other peoples, but rather, that it could be explained by a variety of other concerns.  In line with a Realist interpretation of international relations, it seems that involvement in Vietnam was moreover due to entirely self-motivated incentives.  With a desire for world hegemony, both in an economic and in a military sense, it was in the interest of those in power in America to prevent the rise of Communism to the best of their means, wherever it appeared throughout the world.  Furthermore, owing to an oversimplified, bi-polar view of the world, the American government would appear to have overlooked or misunderstood the true nature of the conflict in Vietnam and the strength of the convictions and determination of those they were fighting.  Owing to both an underestimation of the enemy and an overestimation of their own capabilities, America undertook a deepening involvement in Vietnam, and ended up fighting a war which ultimately they found they were unable to win.  America’s current position, involved in another potentially protracted conflict, in Iraq, has certainly drawn parallels to Vietnam.  It thus becomes all the more clear that it is always imperative to assess and understand the reasons for foreign involvement anywhere.  Given the present situation of continued fighting and conflict, it would appear that this is an assessment that, despite past experiences, current administrations still find difficult to make.

Sources :
Ambrose, S. E. & Brinkley, D. G. (1997) Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy since 1938, New York: Penguin Books

Blum, W. (1995) Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA interventions since World War II, Monroe: Common Courage Press, pp. 122 - 132

Davis, P. (Dir.) (1974) Hearts and Minds, colour film, USA

Documents provided in class by Prof. Feeley, ‘Chapter 9: Vietnam and the Crisis of American Empire’

Khanh, H. K. (1969) ‘The War in Vietnam: The U.S. Official Line’, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Spring), pp. 58 – 67

Kolko, G. (1995) Century of War, New Press, pp. 337 - 484

Lorence, J. J. (1990) Enduring Voices, vol. 2, D. C. Heath & Company, pp. 412 - 423

Schaller, M., Scharff, V. & Schulzinger, R. (1996) Present Tense: The U.S. since 1945, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, chapter 7

Trager, F. N. (1966) Why Vietnam? New York: Praeger