It is July 1965, and President Lyndon B. Johnson has made the decision to send troops into Vietnam. U.S. strategy in Vietnam demands a necessary escalation of force. American policy, stemming from Cold War doctrine, and events in Vietnam since at least 1954 have gone unchecked for too long.
Yet, U.S. policy is destined to buckle under a misaligned political elite and an angry and disenfranchised public.
In the present, we often reflect on the Vietnam War, through a lens that reveals the entire war. Armed with a point of view that leans on the fall of Saigon and the South Vietnamese government to the Việt Cộng – National Liberation Front (NLF) forces. We frequently look back and Monday morning quarterback how the United States was unable to prevent the collapse of South Vietnam and easily identify the key turning points in the conflict. Comfortably, we sit removed from the uninformed, yet critical decision points, and blind curves to reflect on the impact a decade of war had on American society.
Regardless, the U.S. at first forceful and then misguided, attempted to maintain its commitment to South Vietnam, even after the war became a stalemate, and many top officials concluded that it could not be won with reasonable costs.
We Started with a Commitment
Initial support for President Johnson in his decision to send military ground troops to aid South Vietnam was not popular but it was accepted. America had adopted a strong stance against Communism and understood the need to respect and support President Johnson’s decision. Not doing so was counterintuitive to the America desire for the free progression of a democratic world.
America learned many valuable lessons from World War Two – primarily that delay is not a sound strategy when dealing with a determined aggressor. For Vietnam, it was seen as a very naive and foolish strategy to ignore Communist aggression in Vietnam. America was not going to simply stand by and hope that the situation would happen to sort itself out. The Cold War policy of containment demanded that we step up and backup stated America policy, to support freedom and democracy across the globe.
Yet, support was not total, and many argued that countering aggression with aggression is futile. Albeit, by not countering Communist action in Southeast Asia, and Vietnam specifically, America ran the risk of not responding to a wider pattern of political, social, and economic aggression from both the Soviet Union as well as the Republic of China. In contrast, had America adopted a non-aggressive stance against Hitler, we would have watched as the whole of Europe and Africa was swallowed by the socialist engine of fascist Germany. To think that Hitler and the Axis Powers would have been content to stop with Europe and Africa is both foolish and misguided. By taking action when America did; American planning idealized to fight one battle, in an effort to prevent future conflicts on a wider scale.
The plan for Vietnam was whimsical, in that America was offering support to South Vietnam, and in-so-much as an effort and sign of good faith for all American allies in Asia and NATO -stopping a possible Communist juggernaut from expanding. Albeit, the nature of the conflict in Vietnam appeared so simplistic and straight forward from American shores, but it was not so simply put in practice on the ground in Vietnam.
Without referencing a map, or realistically testing the cultural climate of Vietnam. America reflected on lessons brought forth from the Doctrine of President Truman, who maintained a monolithic presence on the difficult geopolitics at that time. Enclosed within the Truman Doctrine were the difficult lessons learned throughout the post-World War Two era, through which the playbook for American and NATO courses of action was developed against Communism and Russia.
The establishment of the containment policy, wherein President Truman aimed to protect current and future generations of Americans from the growing threat of Communism. Under the Truman Doctrine, which was an active part of American foreign policy at that time, guided a brash but good-will gesture, and is best summarized in the words of President Harry S. Truman,
It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
If America were to ignore the aggressive, yet subversive actions of China and Russia through their proxy in North Vietnam, we were turning away from our own established doctrine, and when the free people of South Vietnam needed us most. America ran on doctrine; not games and theory, nor studies, or current demographics, localized political understanding and sampled strategic analysis.
American support of South Vietnam was not a new undertaking; President Johnson was simply continuing a rich tradition that was inspired by President Truman, which was enacted in Vietnam by President Eisenhower, then continued and escalated by President Kennedy – American support in Vietnam. An engagement with a danger that first commenced with the indirect effort to back France as they desperately clung to their Southeast Asian colony in the Indochina War. Following France’s withdraw after a devastating defeat at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ, America remained committed and stood in the debris of the newly divided Republic of Vietnam.
For the South, represented by the United States and Southern Vietnamese leadership who unilaterally rejected and refused to sign the Geneva Accords which recognized the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or the lead-in to aspects of North Vietnam. A nation first recognized in 1950 by the American adversarial Communist governments of China and the Russia.
As France left, America stepped in and continued to escalate, block, and fix the growing spread and threat of Communism throughout the region. Following the Geneva Agreements in 1954, America pledged full support towards the establishment of a free and democratic state in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, strong support for a Communist government in Vietnam from China ensured that free elections would not take place. The 17th parallel was established, and South Vietnam moved forward towards a non-communist government with American support.
However, after the 1963 assassination of Ngô Đình Diệm political chaos erupted in the South, which necessitated increased American support and more direct involvement to maintain regional stability and defend the burgeoning yet confused Republic of South Vietnam. Then, in 1964, North Vietnam made their intentions clear by firing upon the DEHAVEN Special Operations off
Then, in 1964, North Vietnam made their intentions clear by firing upon the DEHAVEN Special Operations off TsingtaO (DESOTO) patrol ship, USS Maddox. The war was set by these actions on August, 2nd in the Gulf of Tonkin; the alleged August 4th attack on the USS Maddox remains entirely speculative.
However, in response the both attacks, President Johnson enacted the Southeast Asia Resolution, which was constructed to end further aggression by Communist forces and sought to defend the people of South Vietnam. The Việt Cộng responded to the resolution with increasing attacks on U.S. and South Vietnamese military installations and strategic targets of opportunity. In South Vietnam, a mounting number of American and Vietnamese civilian and military personnel were wounded or killed as the war was set for escalation.
Thinking back and with only the information of what was happening at that time, support for President Johnson’s decision seemed like the right thing to do. America, the strongest nation in the world, had a responsibility, and a duty to defend Southeast Asia in the same manner that the large and powerful have a moral responsibility to defend the weak and helpless. America needed to support its friends in South Vietnam with the same vigor and focus that was offered to, advertised, and provided, to American allies in Europe. America is not a nation of cowards and was not apt to become one, simply because the situation was distant and precarious.
In Retrospective – Hindsight is 20/20
Despite years of concerted effort and support by the United States, the South Vietnamese government succumbed to National Liberation Front forces. Saigon fell, along with it all hope for a free and democratic Vietnam collapsed. U.S. foreign policy suffered a massive defeat and the goal of nearly four administrations was seen as having failed irrevocably. In the end, the objective of the North Vietnamese to forge a unified Communist Vietnam was stronger than the will of South Vietnam to remain free and independent. However, it could be argued that U.S. policy was doomed to failure from the start as it was based on the creation of an artificial state in South Vietnam in 1954, which ignored the underlying cultural and political issues in the region which had plagued France for decades.
In order to understand how ten years of increasing military support and expenditure failed to result in victory, we first need to understand the environment that shaped American involvement. The Truman Doctrine, long used to support a progressively aggressive stance in the region and the globe, was built upon a rather simplistic archetype of Communism as an ever-encroaching shadow; a force powerful enough to topple countries likened to pieces of a domino game. American envisioned a single threat, a single enemy, and its name was “Communism”. This view ignored the complexities and intricacies which governed the politics of the time and the region. Vietnam was never about “us vs. them”; it was merely the stage in which many different dramas played out, all with a theme of devastation and destruction.
Vietnam along the 17th parallel became a symbolic border. Following the Korean War, America was staunchly adamant that Communism must be stopped; it needed to be contained. In 1965, following nearly a decade of financial and limited tactical assets to support and defend the Southern democratic movement in Vietnam. President Johnson pulled the trigger and made the decision to directly and overtly commit American military forces to Vietnam in a full-scale military action, which steadily escalated over the following seven years, before folding after a three-year draw-down in 1975.
The ensuing Vietnam War took place in an environment which was foreign to the American military with its humid subtropical climate, deltas, jungles, rugged highlands, and plateaus. Vietnamese issues were misunderstood by American forces, which often involved long-standing political and cultural differences. At the same time, the societal concerns of Vietnam were often glossed over as the distraction of a highly tumultuous time period in American culture and politics continued throughout the war.
So why did America continue to push for success, despite a challenging environment, crippling costs, and lack of public support?
America was guided and governed by a generation of policy makers who viewed Communism as the world’s greatest threat. Many of them personally experienced the horrors of World War Two and wanted to prevent a similar occurrence by any means necessary. In particular, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was fully convinced that America could succeed in Vietnam. Though his influences resulted in many ruinous policies that drove continued military support, which rested on ground troop presence, as well as systematic bombing runs and woefully ineffective air strikes on North Vietnam.
A key turning point in the conflict for America was forced by the Tet Offensive in January of 1968. In which North Vietnamese military and Communist guerrillas forces attacked cities and military targets throughout South Vietnam during the Tet holiday festival. American forces were caught off-guard and it took nearly a month of intense combat before control was regained in the urban areas.
The American reaction to the Tet Offensive was three years of progressively increased military escalation, all the while North Vietnam still had the power to attack and seriously harm both South Vietnamese and American forces. In America, social unrest and the draft were taking its toll on support for the war.
The Tet Offensive exhibited the weaknesses of the South Vietnamese government and in doing so, further weakened the support offered by the American people. However, following the U.S.-Vietnam surge, it took an additional four years for U.S. troops to fully withdraw from Vietnam.
The U.S. was ultimately unable to prevent the fall of Saigon because it did not fully understand the war it was fighting. The South Vietnamese state was an artificial creation of the Eisenhower administration and not a natural evolution of the desire of the Southern Vietnamese people to have a free and democratic state. Unlike the previous conflict in Europe, where the threat of Hitler was very real and tangible, the known and tangible villain – in Vietnam, “Communism” was harder to address. Perhaps and more importantly, the U.S. refused to recognize the truly guerrilla nature of the conflict. Unlike in previous conflicts where the enemy, for the most part, was clearly identifiable through language and/or uniform; the North Vietnamese were indistinguishable from the South Vietnamese – to most American forces.
The Việt Cộng freely mingled with the South Vietmenase as they foiled the advanced, but regionally ineffective U.S. military strategies, tactics, and techniques through the use of infiltrators, landmines, traps, and ambushes. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese were supported by their own foreign influencers, provided with advisory, clandestine, logistic, indirect action, and intelligence by their ideological Communist allies, Russia, and China who used neighboring countries to funnel supplies to the North Vietnam. Russia especially relished the opportunity to test their equipment and tactics against Americans in the field. The U.S. was caught in an awkward geopolitical gambit and could not attack these supply routes without running the risk of escalating the conflict by attacking “neutral” countries.
American involvement in the Vietnam conflict, and then war spanned four administrations, in earnest – Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon – and took place during an era in America that was rife with cultural and social unrest.
Vietnam was a hard sell to the American people as a protracted war, in which America was not defending against a generally tangible threat and America was not attacked. Instead, Americans were fighting and dying in an ideological conflict in a foreign and hostile environment. Spending nearly a decade at war – especially in a war as unrewarding as Vietnam with so many prolonged casualties – that it forever changed the American perspective. and identity.
The war damned itself as well, events such as the My Lai Massacre resulted in the general public losing faith and trust in the military and its efforts in Vietnam. Amplified by the widely divergent socioeconomics of the time, which meant that wealthier men of privilege, usually Caucasian, could find ways to avoid the draft while those of a lower socioeconomic class, particularly minorities, could not. This divergence resulted in widespread protests against the war, which piggybacked on civil rights issues and were demonstrated by leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
The final incredible cost of the conflict, both financially and in terms of lives lost, drained American coffers at a time when American society was undergoing rapid and unprecedented changes – the civil rights movement, counterculture, feminism, social unrest, and inflation – resulted in the cancellation of President Johnson’s Great Society Program of Reform and many other progressive efforts at the time. The war and the new American public identity that manifested via counter-culture became America and an internal divide.
The Vietnam War has forever changed the entire relationship between the U.S. military and the American public. Along with the Korean War, which marked the shift in policy from going to war in response to an attack on America or an Ally, to going to war to “defend” against a projected ideological threat.
Featured Image – Operation “Oregon,” a search and destroy mission conducted by an infantry platoon of Troop B, 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, 9th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), three kilometers west of Duc Pho, Quang Ngai Province. An infantryman is lowered into a tunnel by members of the reconnaissance platoon. Image courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.