In an effort to get my mind around why America got involved in the Vietnam War the way it did, I have written a short essay outlining the principle factors. Hopefully the following text demonstrates the connection between Cold War policies and gradual American involvement in Vietnam.
The United States got involved in the Vietnam War over a number of issues. Both American political and military circles feared the global spread of communism. With the disintegration of relations with the Soviet Union in 1946, America perceived communism as being monolithic, with Moscow controlling all communists worldwide. Because the Soviet Union became synonymous with communism, America believed that all communists took their orders from Moscow. To stop the spread of communism, President Harry Truman devised a doctrine that would ensure US support for all free people from internal and external threats of communist revolution and invasion. Furthermore, the US advocated the Domino Theory, arguing that the fall of one nation to communism would result in the communist take over of neighboring states. Together, the Truman Doctrine and the Domino Theory lead to NATO fighting proxy wars against communists in places like Greece, Korea, and Vietnam. These policies ensured US backing for nations confronting communism and ultimately lead to American troops fighting North Vietnamese forces.
During the Vienna Summit of 1961 heated discussions between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev led Kennedy to conclude that the US needed to confront the USSR. Kennedy chose Vietnam as the perfect location to start challenging Soviet influence. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, while furthering Kennedy’s desire to challenge the Soviets, demonstrated how quickly the two superpowers could be within moments of World War Three. Consequently, Gradual Escalation became the method of communication between Washington D.C. and Moscow. The US would voice displeasure at Soviet actions by sending clear signals to the USSR. The signals were rational in that the US might move a carrier fleet within striking distance of a Soviet ally, thus using the display of force to communicate with Moscow. Besides the show of force, the US might fight a proxy war against a communist state rather than fight a direct war against Soviet forces. Because the USSR understood these signals, the US relied on Gradual Escalation in all interactions with communist states.
Between 1945 and 1946, French forces returned to Vietnam to reestablish colonial rule. Vietnamese nationalists lead by Ho Chi Minh, while initially working with the French to oust Chinese forces, ultimately argued for a free and independent Vietnam. After an unsuccessful visit to France, Ho Chi Minh promised a protracted war in which the Vietnamese will triumph. Within months fighting breaks out between Ho Chi Minh’s forces and French troops. However, by October 1947, French paratroopers destroyed 1/3 of Vietnam’s 60,000 strong military. During the next three years, the French spent millions of dollars to fight a low level counterinsurgency campaign against Ho Chi Minh’s forces. By 1949 the USSR added the atomic bomb to its arsenal and China fell to communist rule. Almost over night the US found itself without a clear military advantage and a new enemy in Asia. With a communist China, the US placed greater emphasis on preventing Vietnam from gaining independence from France.
With a communist neighbor, Ho Chi Minh acquired arms and training for his fledgling army. To counter this development, the French military built forts to interdict Chinese supplies entering Vietnam. Under the leadership of Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnamese forces devised strategies to bleed the French military dry. Thanks to being too spread out, Giap’s forces quickly isolated and destroyed these French garrisons. French reinforcements, too, were ambushed in their attempts to relieve their besieged forts. Consequently, the US sought to help the French by contributing war material and advisement. By 1950, the US began the road to military involvement in Vietnam with the deployment of the Military Advisors and Assistance Group (MAAG). Frustratingly, MAAG could only advise, not order, the French. While the US became increasingly skeptical of the French conduct of the war in Vietnam, America became locked in the conflict or else risk showing the failure of Containment.
With the destruction of 1/3 of Giap’s forces during attacks against heavily fortified French troops at Hanoi, the French military hastened to end the war with a clear military victory. To obtain this victory, in 1954 French forces under General Henri Navarre constructed a series of forts at Dien Bien Phu to draw out and annihilate Giap’s forces. A lack of adequate fire support, limitations of airpower, inability to control the high ground, and the ability of Giap to organize a massive army of troops and artillery contributed to a French defeat of epic proportions. Stemming from their victory at Dien Bien Phu on the eve of the Geneva Peace Conference, Vietnam felt confident in obtaining independence. Because of its policy of Containment, the US sent signals to the USSR, resulting in Moscow and Beijing backing the US. Because the USSR and China failed to support their fellow communists in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh felt betrayed and henceforth operated without Soviet approval. Thus when the US would send signals to the Soviets over events occurring in Vietnam, there was little Moscow could to do control Ho Chi Minh. Accordingly, Gradual Escalation insured that events in Vietnam would get worse, not better.
From the Geneva Peace Conference, Vietnam was meant to be temporarily divided into two separate states until UN monitored elections could be carried out. Never did the Vietminh nor the US want elections for fear of the possible results. To prevent the spread of communism across Southeast Asia, the US decided to establish South Vietnam; ironically a nation that never asked to be created. To lead this new nation, the US selected former emperor Bao Dai, with Ngo Dinh Diem serving as Prime Minister. The US viewed Diem favorably because while being a nationalist, Diem was anticommunist and had lived in the US. In 1955, the CIA supported Diem in his bid to defeat all opposing political elements in South Vietnam.
For the US, the existence of South Vietnam rested with the creation of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). Modeled after the US military, the ARVN found itself equipped and trained for the wrong war. Because it was created in the image of US Army, the ARVN was too lavish and technology dependent to be supported by South Vietnam without US assistance. Underscoring the issues plaguing the ARVN, the Battle of Ap Bac pitted 5,000 South Vietnamese troops against a Vietcong unit of 300 men. Despite a clear numerical advantage as well as using mechanized and airborne infantry, ARVN forces were mauled by deeply entrenched VC units. America journalists reporting on the battle wrote the ARVN demonstrated incompetence and that South Vietnam would not survive. Such reports caused the Kennedy administration to send Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor to assess state of affairs in South Vietnam. While McNamara and Taylor voiced their support of Diem, US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge threw his support behind the coup against Diem. Following the assassination of Diem, and the merry-go-round of subsequent military dictators, the US had to step in and physically support South Vietnam.
Fearing the spread of communism, the US embarked on a stringent Cold War policy of Containment. Efforts to physically combat communism relied heavily upon American allies. In Vietnam, the US initially relied on the French; however, growing frustration and the eventual defeat of French forces in Vietnam, forced the US to realized it could not rely on other nations to fight communism. Instead, the US had to be proactive and thus would have to get physically involved in Vietnam. Consequently, the US created a democratic South Vietnam and the ARVN to oppose the spread of communism out of North Vietnam. Nevertheless, such measures were pockmarked with an unstable South Vietnamese government and a military too dependent on American support. Thus the US had created a situation where American soldiers would have to fight and die in order to prove the viability of Containment.