Each generation faces a major political or social upheaval that forever shapes their view of the world. For baby boomers, that event was the Vietnam War. How did we get involved in that mess?
America’s involvement in Vietnam started after World War II, as the Cold War began. Vietnamese nationalists, like Ho Chi Minh, helped the Allies defeat the Japanese occupation in the expectation that Vietnam would become independent. They were wrong.
At the 1945 Potsdam Conference, Russia and the western Allies cut a deal that split Vietnam in half. France immediately occupied the southern half of Vietnam with the intention of reinstating it as a colony. The Vietnamese communists resisted and the ensuing war cost France over 50,000 casualties by 1950. (The U.S. eventually incurred 58,220 military casualties in Vietnam.)
France needed support to continue fighting. In 1950, it was surprisingly easy to convince the U.S. that supporting French imperialism in Vietnam would help contain the spread of communism. The Cold War had turned hot in Korea and America didn’t want to take any chances with Vietnamese communists, however nationalist they might be. President Truman agreed to underwrite the French war in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, in 1954 the French suffered a devastating and humiliating defeat at Dienbienphu. The battle was planned by Giap, the same general who planned the 1968 Tet Offensive against the Americans. Everyone traipsed off to Geneva for another conference to sort out the mess. Once again, the Vietnamese were sidelined.
The Chinese communists, led by Zhou Enlai, wanted to limit the U.S. military presence in the Far East. So, China engineered a deal that split Vietnam into two zones with the Vietnamese communists controlling the north and France controlling the south. The deal also called for a nationwide election in 1956.
The North Vietnamese communists were infuriated by China’s betrayal fearing that partition would become permanent. The South Vietnamese leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, rejected the call for an election knowing he would lose a free and fair vote. With no election, the Vietcong (communists) fought a war of murder, torture and scorched earth in South Vietnam with the goal of unifying the country.
The Americans supported Diem politically and militarily, but constantly urged him to reform his corrupt and incompetent government. Diem ignored the American demands knowing that he could defy the Americans as long as he waved the flag of anti-communism.
In 1960, John Kennedy became president. He believed that leaving Vietnam meant losing the fight against communism in Asia and thus a loss of prestige for the U.S. Kennedy wouldn’t allow that to happen. He increased the number of American advisors and military aid sent to South Vietnam. By 1962, Americans were flying UH 1-B (Huey) helicopter gunships in support of the South Vietnamese Army.
In 1963, the Americans finally lost patience with Diem and tacitly supported a military coup in which he was murdered. There was no public inquiry, most likely because Kennedy was assassinated three weeks later. South Vietnam remained corrupt and unstable politically until defeat in 1975.
Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) inherited the mess. He quickly realized that American commitments to South Vietnam were too big to walk away from, but too small to guarantee success. LBJ struggled to find a solution that wouldn’t hurt American prestige. Meanwhile, in 1964, Lt. Everett Alvarez Jr. became the first American prisoner of war (POW) in Hanoi. In March 1965, U.S. Marines landed near Danang. The war dragged on until 1975.
How did we get into that mess? Competing national interests and political ideologies blended with jingoistic patriotism, individual egos and political expediency to create each step along the path to war. That’s how it always happens.
For an overview, see Vietnam: A History, by Stanley Karnow (1983). This book was a companion piece to the 1983 PBS series Vietnam: A Television History. More recently in 2017 PBS broadcast the Ken Burns & Lynn Novick series, The Vietnam War. For a revisionist view arguing that we could have avoided the mess, see Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945 – 1975, by John Prados (2009).
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