The Vietnam War was the first war that the US could not possibly claim to have won. It was the culmination and rebuttal of the Cold War domino theory, and created a lasting distrust of government among Americans, which may have contributed to increasing conservatism and voter apathy.
Like its Korean predecessor, the Vietnam War grew directly out of the aftermath of WWII. The Vietnamese nationalist movement, led by Ho Chi Minh, had fought against the Japanese occupation during the war in addition to the French colonial government.1 The Vietminh had strong socialist and communist leanings, leading the Truman administration to send aid and recognition to the French puppet government in the South, in order to counteract Communist China’s influence in the region. After the disaster of the Korean War, General Matthew Ridgway determined that the US should avoid further land wars in Asia, and President Eisenhower agreed.2 Even so, the US was covering 75% of the cost of the war by the time of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.3 The Geneva Accords established two Vietnams, a North Vietnam under Vietminh control, and a South Vietnam with no clear party line apart from “not communist”, headed by Ngo Dinh Diem, who had been appointed Prime Minister by the French puppet emperor Bao Dai in 1954. Eisenhower supported Diem’s refusal to hold elections after Bao Dai’s abdication, due to fears of a communist victory should they occur. A strict Catholic who sought to extend his own religious mores over a largely Buddhist and tribal population, Diem and his administration were seen corrupt and unpopular, which spurred Vietminh-sponsored guerrilla attacks against the South Vietnamese government. The general US response was to provide more support, to the tune of $800 million between 1955 and 1961, and a significant number of Americans as military advisors.4 This mode of action became firmly entrenched after the election of John F Kennedy, and a 1961 pronouncement by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev supporting and encouraging wars of national liberation. This pronouncement was primarily for the benefit of China, the USSR’s more local competition, but it was a very short step for the US government to see it as supporting anti-colonialist movements that would interfere with the business of US corporations and spread the communist threat.5 At the advice of General Maxwell Taylor, Kennedy advocated for greater military interventions across the board, citing the domino theory in Central and South America in addition to various parts of Asia, with the intent of demonstrating the dangers to colonial populations intending to follow Khrushchev’s pronouncement.6
Kennedy’s assassination on November 22nd, 1963 came just as the president was escalating the American involvement in Vietnam to include ground troops and special counterinsurgency forces, along with a build up of nuclear weapons. Lyndon B. Johnson followed precedent by continuing Kennedy’s course of action in order to forestall Republican accusations of being weak on communism, although he privately did not think Vietnam was worth fighting for. The international community and a fair number of US advisers and politicians agreed, recognizing that the violence in South Vietnam was an internal civil war rather a nation defending itself against foreign aggression.7 Uncertain as to how to avoid further involvement without losing the credibility he needed to pursue his far-reaching domestic policy, Johnson continued to send a steady supply of weapons, economic aid, and military advisors until August 1964, when two US destroyers on a spying mission along the North Vietnamese coast reported having been fired upon by North Vietnamese gunboats. Johnson quickly took the initiative, answering the attack with airstrikes and gained the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from Congress, allowing him to make further attacks to protect American forces and interests. Johnson took full advantage of this during his election campaign that same year, showing himself to be tough on communism while still insisting that he was “not going to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” However, North Vietnam’s peace concessions were American withdrawal and for the two countries to be unified under the Vietminh. Unable to allow for a unified communist Vietnam, Johnson authorized a gradually increasing bombing campaign along with the commitment of ground troops in offensive operations.8 An anti-war song of the period summarized Operation Rolling Thunder and the Americanization of the war as follows:
Lyndon Johnson tells the nation
“Have no fear of escalation
I am trying everyone to please”
Although it’s not really war
We’re sending 50,000 more
To go save Vietnam from the Vietnamese
Indeed, Operation Rolling Thunder seemed to do an excellent job of alienating the population of South Vietnam by destroying villages and fields, while the North Vietnamese compensated for the destruction of infrastructure by moving supplies through the jungle by bicycle, and enjoyed plenty of support from the civilian population.9 American support for the war was increasingly interspersed with anti-war protests composed of everyone from working class mothers to civil rights activists, to scientists, clergy, and business people.10 Martin Luther King Jr himself spoke out against the war, calling the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” in 1967.11 The Johnson administration responded by falsifying reports, hiding evidence of atrocities such as the My Lai Massacre, and sowing dissent among anti-war groups.12
The Tet Offensive in late January of 1968 made it clear to most that there was no possible way for the US to win in Vietnam, and the only remaining question was how to leave. Johnson announced his decision not to run for reelection along with the new policy of de-escalation, with the intent of turning the war over to the South Vietnamese to avoid American casualties.13 Peace negotiations were attempted in May, but were inconclusive due to American refusal to entertain any of North Vietnam’s demands, and as the fighting continued, so too did the protests against it. Richard Nixon won his presidential campaign on vague promises of an honourable end to the war, along with appeals to the mainstream consumerist white Christian middle class who had felt themselves alienated by Johnson’s Great Society domestic policies and frightened and threatened by the various countercultural movements of the era.14 “Vietnamization” under Nixon meant continuing Johnson’s plan to replace American troops with South Vietnamese troops armed with American weapons and technology, and both retained and escalated the policies of falsification and misdirection as Nixon secretly broadened the war to include airstrikes against Cambodia and Laos, both of which had been turning a blind eye to Vietcong activities along shared borders in an attempt to keep internal political balance.15 In Cambodia, this was to be the catalyst for a coup followed by a formal uprising against the right-wing government, resulting in four years of civil war and the genocidal regime of Pol Pot.16
Corfield, Justin J. Khmers Stand Up!: a history of the Cambodian government 1970-1974. Clayton, Australia: Monash University, 1994.
Roark, James L., Michael P. Johnson, Patricia Cline Cohen, Sarah Stage, and Susan M. Hartmann. The American Promise: A History of the United States. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012.
1James L. Roark, et al., The American Promise (Boston: Bedford/St Martins, 2012) 903.
2Roark, et al., The American Promise, 891.
3Roark, et al., The American Promise, 904.
4Roark, et al., The American Promise, 904.
5Roark, et al., The American Promise, 972.
6Roark, et al., The American Promise, 976.
7Roark, et al., The American Promise, 978.
8Roark, et al., The American Promise, 979.
9Roark, et al., The American Promise, 980.
10Roark, et al., The American Promise, 983.
11Roark, et al., The American Promise, 982.
12Roark, et al., The American Promise, 984.
13Roark, et al., The American Promise, 987.
14Roark, et al., The American Promise, 988.
15Roark, et al., The American Promise, 989.
16Justin J. Corfield, Khmers Stand Up!: a history of the Cambodian government 1970-1975 (Clayton, Australia: Monash University, 1994) 47-48.