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This essay is based on a presentation at the Butcher History Institute for Teachers on Why Does America Go To War?, March 25-26, 2017, sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the First Division Museum at Cantigny, and Carthage College.
Why did the U.S. go to war in Vietnam? This is a question historians continue to debate. One of the main reasons it remains a source of argument is that it is difficult to say when the U.S. war actually began. Should we trace it back to the 1940s when President Harry Truman authorized U.S. financial support of the French war in Indochina? Did it begin in the 1950s when the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam in two and President Dwight Eisenhower offered U.S. aid to help establish a non-communist nation in the southern half to counter the communist north? Eisenhower’s “domino theory,” the idea that if one country in Southeast Asia fell to the communists, the entire region would fall, and the ripple effects would be felt throughout the Asia-Pacific world, informed not only his thinking about U.S. relations with the region but the policymaking of his successors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Kennedy asserted that Americans would “pay any price, bear any burden” to support democratic nation building as a way to counter communist advances in Asia. During Johnson’s presidency, the U.S. escalated its war in Vietnam, starting with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in which Congress authorized Johnson to use military force without declaring war. In March 1965, U.S. Marines landed at Danang.
Rather than identifying one starting point, it is more accurate to understand U.S. intervention in Vietnam as a gradual process. It involved economic aid, political and military advisors, and boots on the ground. All of the key moments in the process emerged from different contexts and the thinking of various players, but there were three threads that unified them: communism, the Cold War, and credibility. Understanding the role of communism requires placing Vietnam in a regional context and examining Southeast Asian concerns about communism. A regional approach to the Vietnam War is important because U.S.-Vietnam relations and the Vietnam War did not occur in a vacuum. The global context is also important because Cold War tensions between the U.S., the Soviet Union, and China also shaped events related to the Vietnam War. At the same time that we must investigate Vietnamese and Southeast Asian agency regarding the conflict, we also must acknowledge the significance of Cold War superpower rivalries and decision making to how the war played out. Concerns about credibility motivated U.S. policymakers to commit advisors, money, materiel, and troops to Vietnam, lest allies lose faith in American resolve to build a global democratic bulwark against communism and adversaries hear threats ring hollow.
The context of decolonization helps explain regional Southeast Asian perspectives on communism. As local activists and political leaders established newly independent countries out of Europe’s former colonial empires, the U.S., the Soviet Union, and China saw these new nations as potential allies and hoped to draw as many as possible into their respective orbits. It mattered whether the new countries established communist or non-communist governments. Vietnam’s history offers a case study of decolonization in action. A colony of France since the mid-nineteenth century, Vietnam fell under Japanese control in 1940 after France surrendered to Germany during World War II. In September 1945, Ho Chi Minh, a nationalist who was also an internationally connected communist who helped establish the French Communist Party and spent time in China and Russia in the 1920s, declared the country’s independence in the wake of Japan’s defeat and the war’s end. France soon sought to reclaim its former colony and went to war with Ho and the Viet Minh, Vietnam’s independence movement. After the Viet Minh won a decisive victory at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, France surrendered, and the Geneva Accords that summer called for dividing Vietnam in half at the seventeenth parallel.
Other Southeast Asian nations also transitioned from colonial to independent status in the years after World War II, and tensions and conflicts between communist and non-communist movements existed not just in Vietnam but also in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Regional non-communist governments supported the Republic of Vietnam, the southern half of the divided country, believing its existence was a crucial bulwark against the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. In 1954, Chiang Kai-shek of Taiwan and South Korea’s Syngman Rhee founded the Asian People’s Anticommunist League (APACL) as part of their efforts to resist communist insurgencies. Beginning in 1964, the central subject of the organization’s annual meetings was South Vietnam and how members of the APACL could offer political and military assistance. At the 1964 annual meeting in Taipei, delegates decided to open a special APACL office in Saigon to demonstrate support for the Saigon government. Newspapers in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Manila published editorials supporting South Vietnam. An APACL youth conference featured attendees from the U.S., including Tom Charles Huston and David Keene representing Young Americans for Freedom.<1>