Many people wonder how the Americans managed to become involved in a war 10,000 miles away from their native continent, but the initial reasons for U.S. involvement in Vietnam seemed logical and compelling to American leaders. Following its success in World War II, the United States faced the future with confidence. From George Washington’s perspective, the threat to U.S. security and world peace was communism emanating from the Soviet Union. Any communist anywhere, at home or abroad was, by definition, and enemy of the United States. With the unsuccessful appeasement of fascist dictators before World War II, the Truman administration believed that the United States and its allies must meet any sign of communist aggression quickly and forcefully. This was known as containment. In Vietnam the target of containment was Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh front he had created in 1941. Ho Chi Minh was a communist with long-standing connections to the Soviet Union. He was also a Vietnamese nationalist who fought first to rid their country of the Japanese and then, after 1945, to stop France from establishing its former leadership of Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. Truman and other American leaders, having no sympathy for colonialism, favoured Vietnamese independence. But expanding communist control of Eastern Europe and the triumph of the communists in China made France’s war against Ho Chi Minh seem anticommunist. When France agreed to an independent Vietnam under Bao Dai as an alternative to Ho’s DRV, the United States decided to support the French position.
In 1949, China became a communist state, and the stability of Japan became prime importance to Washington. The outbreak of war in Korea in 1950 served primarily to confirm Washington’s belief that communist aggression posed a great danger to Asia. Truman having “lost” China and settling for a stalemate in Korea caused succeeding presidents to fear the domestic political consequences if they “lost” Vietnam. This apprehension (an overestimation of American power, and also an underestimation of Vietnamese communist strength) locked America into a firm anticommunist stand in Vietnam.
Because America failed to appreciate the effort that would be required to exert influence on Vietnam’s structure, the course of American policy led to an escalation of U.S. involvement. President Eisenhower increased the level of aid to the French but continued to avoid military conflict, even when the French experienced defeat at Dien Bien Phu in early 1954. Afterwards, an international conference at Geneva arranged a cease-fire and a North-South partition of Vietnam to be made at the 17th parallel until elections could be held. The United States was not happy with the Geneva Agreements and began to side with South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem, who resisted holding an election on the reunification of Vietnam in October 1955. Over $1 billion of U.S. aid was given between 1955 and 1961, but the South Vietnamese economy deteriorated. Nation building was failing, and in 1960 communists in North Vietnam created the National Liberation Front (NLG) or Vietcong as its enemies called it, to challenge the Diem regime. America introduced the ‘Strategic hamlet programme, moving South Vietnamese peasants from their homes to build guarded camps to be protected from the NLF. This strategy failed, as the South Vietnamese found themselves being forced to build camps against the NLF who did not threaten them.
President John F. Kennedy, along with his predecessor’s, believed in the domino theory and also that the U.S. anticommunist commitment around the world was (in 1961) in danger. To counter this he had tripled American aid to South Vietnam by 1963, giving money to recruit 20,000 more troops in S. Vietnam and expanding the number of military advisers to over 12,000. Diem government still failed to show any progress (economic or political). Buddhists, spiritual leaders of the majority of Vietnamese, staged dramatic protests, including self-immolation (to sacrifice ones self) against the dictatorship of Diem. Finally, after receiving an assurance of non-interference from the U.S. officials, South Vietnamese military officers conducted an operation that murdered Diem and his brother also. Whether these developments would have led Kennedy to alter U.S. involvement in Vietnam is unknown, since Kennedy himself was assassinated three weeks later.
Diem’s death left a hole in South Vietnams leadership. With a presidential election approaching, President Johnson did not want to be saddled with the charge of having lost Vietnam. On the other hand, an increase in the U.S. responsibility for the war against the Vietcong and North Vietnam would slow resources from Johnson’s ambitious and domestic program. A larger presence in Vietnam would increase risk of a military conflict with China. Soon, America alleged that North Vietnamese boats had conducted attacks on U.S. Navy vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin in mid 1964. This prompted Johnson to authorise small scale bombing raids on North Vietnamese targets. He also got support from Congress allowing him to use military force in Vietnam. These actions helped Johnson win the presidential election, but they did not stop the Vietcong from its pressure against the government in South Vietnam.
By July 1965, Johnson chose a course that vastly escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnams affairs but stopped short of an all-out application of American power. By 1968 the number of American troops in Vietnam exceeded 500,000. Also a tremendous air campaign against North Vietnam was started.
Suddenly, the American forces had found themselves in “a bottomless military and political swamp” as President de Gaulle of France had warned years earlier.