Example History Essay Vietnam War Dates

The Causes of the Vietnam War


Andrew J. Rotter

Most American wars have obvious starting points or precipitating causes: the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the capture of Fort Sumter in 1861, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950, for example. But there was no fixed beginning for the U.S. war in Vietnam. The United States entered that war incrementally, in a series of steps between 1950 and 1965. In May 1950, President Harry S. Truman authorized a modest program of economic and military aid to the French, who were fighting to retain control of their Indochina colony, including Laos and Cambodia as well as Vietnam. When the Vietnamese Nationalist (and Communist-led) Vietminh army defeated French forces at Dienbienphu in 1954, the French were compelled to accede to the creation of a Communist Vietnam north of the 17th parallel while leaving a non-Communist entity south of that line. The United States refused to accept the arrangement. The administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower undertook instead to build a nation from the spurious political entity that was South Vietnam by fabricating a government there, taking over control from the French, dispatching military advisers to train a South Vietnamese army, and unleashing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to conduct psychological warfare against the North.

President John F. Kennedy rounded another turning point in early 1961, when he secretly sent 400 Special Operations Forces-trained (Green Beret) soldiers to teach the South Vietnamese how to fight what was called counterinsurgency war against Communist guerrillas in South Vietnam. When Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, there were more than 16,000 U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam, and more than 100 Americans had been killed. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, committed the United States most fully to the war. In August 1964, he secured from Congress a functional (not actual) declaration of war: the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Then, in February and March 1965, Johnson authorized the sustained bombing, by U.S. aircraft, of targets north of the 17th parallel, and on 8 March dispatched 3,500 Marines to South Vietnam. Legal declaration or no, the United States was now at war.

The multiple starting dates for the war complicate efforts to describe the causes of U.S. entry. The United States became involved in the war for a number of reasons, and these evolved and shifted over time. Primarily, every American president regarded the enemy in Vietnam--the Vietminh; its 1960s successor, the National Liberation Front (NLF); and the government of North Vietnam, led by *Ho Chi Minh--as agents of global communism. U.S. policymakers, and most Americans, regarded communism as the antithesis of all they held dear. Communists scorned democracy, violated human rights, pursued military aggression, and created closed state economies that barely traded with capitalist countries. Americans compared communism to a contagious disease. If it took hold in one nation, U.S. policymakers expected contiguous nations to fall to communism, too, as if nations were dominoes lined up on end. In 1949, when the Communist Party came to power in China, Washington feared that Vietnam would become the next Asian domino. That was one reason for Truman's 1950 decision to give aid to the French who were fighting the Vietminh,

Truman also hoped that assisting the French in Vietnam would help to shore up the developed, non-Communist nations, whose fates were in surprising ways tied to the preservation of Vietnam and, given the domino theory, all of Southeast Asia. Free world dominion over the region would provide markets for Japan, rebuilding with American help after the Pacific War. U.S. involvement in Vietnam reassured the British, who linked their postwar recovery to the revival of the rubber and tin industries in their colony of Malaya, one of Vietnam's neighbors. And with U.S. aid, the French could concentrate on economic recovery at home, and could hope ultimately to recall their Indochina officer corps to oversee the rearmament of West Germany, a Cold War measure deemed essential by the Americans. These ambitions formed a second set of reasons why the United States became involved in Vietnam.

As presidents committed the United States to conflict bit by bit, many of these ambitions were forgotten. Instead, inertia developed against withdrawing from Vietnam. Washington believed that U.S. withdrawal would result in a Communist victory--Eisenhower acknowledged that, had elections been held as scheduled in Vietnam in 1956, "Ho Chi Minh would have won 80% of the vote"--and no U.S. president wanted to lose a country to communism. Democrats in particular, like Kennedy and Johnson, feared a right-wing backlash should they give up the fight; they remembered vividly the accusatory tone of the Republicans' 1950 question, "Who lost China?" The commitment to Vietnam itself, passed from administration to administration, took on validity aside from any rational basis it might once have had. Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy all gave their word that the United States would stand by its South Vietnamese allies. If the United States abandoned the South Vietnamese, its word would be regarded as unreliable by other governments, friendly or not. So U.S. credibility seemed at stake.

Along with the larger structural and ideological causes of the war in Vietnam, the experience, personality, and temperament of each president played a role in deepening the U.S. commitment. Dwight Eisenhower restrained U.S. involvement because, having commanded troops in battle, he doubted the United States could fight a land war in Southeast Asia. The youthful John Kennedy, on the other hand, felt he had to prove his resolve to the American people and his Communist adversaries, especially in the aftermath of several foreign policy blunders early in his administration. Lyndon Johnson saw the Vietnam War as a test of his mettle, as a Southerner and as a man. He exhorted his soldiers to "nail the coonskin to the wall" in Vietnam, likening victory to a successful hunting expedition.

When Johnson began bombing North Vietnam and sent the Marines to South Vietnam in early 1965, he had every intention of fighting a limited war. He and his advisers worried that too lavish a use of U.S. firepower might prompt the Chinese to enter the conflict. It was not expected that the North Vietnamese and the NLF would hold out long against the American military. And yet U.S. policymakers never managed to fit military strategy to U.S. goals in Vietnam. Massive bombing had little effect against a decentralized economy like North Vietnam's. Kennedy had favored counterinsurgency warfare in the South Vietnamese countryside, and Johnson endorsed this strategy, but the political side of counterinsurgeny--the effort to win the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese peasantry-- was at best underdeveloped and probably doomed. Presidents proved reluctant to mobilize American society to the extent the generals thought necessary to defeat the enemy.

As the United States went to war in 1965, a few voices were raised in dissent. Within the Johnson administration, Undersecretary of State George Ball warned that the South Vietnamese government was a functional nonentity and simply could not be sustained by the United States, even with a major effort. Antiwar protest groups formed on many of the nation's campuses; in June, the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society decided to make the war its principal target. But major dissent would not begin until 1966 or later. By and large in 1965, Americans supported the administration's claim that it was fighting to stop communism in Southeast Asia, or people simply shrugged and went about their daily lives, unaware that this gradually escalating war would tear American society apart.

From The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Copyright � 1999 by Oxford UP.


Return to About the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War greatly changed America forever. It was the longest war fought in America’s history, lasting from 1955 to 1973. The Vietnam War tarnished America’s self image by becoming the first time in history the United States failed to accomplish its stated war aims, to preserve a separate, independent, noncommunist government. The war also had great effects on the American people. It was the first war ever broadcast on television. The public was able to see what happened on the battlefield. One of the chief effects of the war was the division it caused among the people. Not since the Civil War had America been so divided. This war would have lasting affects on the United States.

The Vietnam conflict began long before the U.S. became directly involved. Indochina, which includes Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, was under French colonial rule. The Vietnam communist-nationalist, also known as the Vietminh, fought for their freedom from the French. The French were being slaughtered, and were doing little to keep the communist North Vietnamese out of South Vietnam. The U.S. sent financial aid to France to help them eliminate the communist threat. At the Geneva Conference in 1954, the major powers tried to come to an agreement on Indochina. There would be a temporary division on the 17th parallel in Vietnam. The Vietminh would control North Vietnam, and South Vietnam would be ruled under the emperor Bao Dai. There was to be an election held in two years to set up the permanent government. The U.S. did not agree to these terms. After the conference, the U.S. moved to create the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization to protect Indochina from communist aggression. The U.S. supported the new leader Ngo Dinh Diem when he took power in South Vietnam. The National Liberation Front, also known as Vietcong, was a guerilla group who supported the communist North Vietnamese and opposed to the Diem rule. At first the United States attention was diverted from Vietnam to other foreign affairs, but with the threat of communist taking over all of Indochina, the U.S. gradually was pulled into the conflict.

President Eisenhower had been sending aid to South Vietnam and helped them to create the Army Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). This would hopefully help stop the communist North Vietnamese from taking over. Despite American financial aid, South Vietnam was still being defeated and needed serious intervention from the U.S. With the Cold War, the United States had vowed to keep communism from spreading. President Truman stated that any nation challenged by Communism would receive aid from the United States. The Truman Doctrine, initially for Europe and the Middle East, was adopted by the future presidents and applied to the Vietnam conflict. They feared that if one of the Southeast Asian nations fell to communism, that all the others would eventually follow. This was known as the domino theory. To the U.S. communism anywhere was a threat.

When John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, Vietnam was not a major issue. There were more pressing situations to be taken care of, such as the Cold War. The Vietnam conflict became more of an issue when civil war broke out in Laos. Vice President Johnson was sent to Vietnam, and when he returned he greatly urged President Kennedy to become more involved in the conflict. John F. Kennedy decided to send military advisors and special forces (Green Berets) to work with and train the ARVN troops instead of sending combat troops. Aerial spraying of herbicides like Agent Orange were used to try and deprive the Vietcong of their food and their jungle cover. Kennedy’s advisors secretly reported to him that the ARVN was weak and the situation was becoming more serious. The president wasn’t ready to send troops, but increased economic aid and sent more advisors, increasing the number from 900-15,000.

The leader of Vietnam at the time was Ngo Dinh Diem. He was a Catholic, which caused much dispute because the majority of Vietnam was Buddhist. He was blamed for the worsening situation in Vietnam. Many South Vietnamese united against Diem, and in October 1963, a military coup aided by CIA and the United States ambassador overthrew and murdered Diem. On November 22,1963 President John F. Kennedy was riding through the streets of Dallas, Texas, when he was killed by an assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
After the death of the president, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was appointed president of the United States. Johnson felt that the U.S. should stay involved in Vietnam to prove the U.S. kept its commitments and could stop communism aggression. August 2, 1964 the USS Maddox was off the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, when in was fired upon by North Vietnam coastal gunboats. On August 4 the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy both reported attacks from North Vietnam forces. Johnson decided to escalate the war. He ordered bombing of different North Vietnam targets. Congress soon authorized the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the president authority “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Johnson came up with a strategy to take control of Vietnam called Operation Rolling Thunder. The operation would consist of bombing of North Vietnam, more air power, and increase the number of ground troops. In June 1965, U.S. advisors were sent into combat. This would shift the U.S. “from helping the Vietnam people help themselves, to fighting a full-scale war on and over the land mass of Asia.”

In September 1967, Nguyen Van Thieu was elected president of South Vietnam. The U.S. now had a total of about 650,000 ground troops in Vietnam. Johnson tried for peace talks, but nothing was agreed upon. In January of 1968, the Vietcong and North Vietnam prepared for a major attack. Tet is the lunar New Year, and is Vietnam’s biggest holiday. They planned a surprise attack, hoping the ARVN and U.S. would have let their guard down. Every important city in South Vietnam was attacked, including the capital Saigon. The fighting lasted for about a month. America was able to witness much of this footage on the news. The outcome was a major military victory for South Vietnam, but it was a great political victory for North Vietnam. It proved that the war was nowhere close to being over, and proved how determined the Vietcong was. It also demonstrated how costly the war would be. This was a major turning point in America’s public opinion on the war. It made people begin to loose hope in winning the war, and to question the president’s tactics for the war. When the Pentagon announced the number of U.S. casualties since the beginning of war, the number reached 15,058 killed, 109,572 wounded, and about $25 billions dollars spent each year. President Johnson knew his popularity was lost and decided not to run for reelection.

On January 20, 1969 Richard Nixon was inaugurated. A few months later he announced the removal of 25,000 United States troops by August of 1969 and another 65,000 to be sent home by the end of the year. His planned was called “Vietnamization” which would bring “peace with honor.” It was designed to turn over the responsibility of war to South Vietnam. The U.S. would strengthen the South Vietnam army so they could fight without direct help from the U.S. This would allow American troops to gradually come home. Vietnamization would also set up a self sufficient South Vietnam government.

The Communist soon agreed on a peace plan, but it fell through when they claimed the U.S. wasn’t going along as agreed. The same year Nixon ordered secret bombing of Cambodia to try and wipe out the Vietcong and North Vietnam base camps. On April 30, 1970, President Nixon informed the American people that troops would be sent to Cambodia. This outraged people even more. Nixon had promised peace, but was now bringing on more war. Many more young students became worried that they would be drafted. On May 1, 1970 Kent State University became grounds for anti-war rallies. About fifteen thousand dollars worth of damage was inflicted on downtown Kent. On May 2 protestors burned down the campus ROTC building. The Governor decided to call in the National Guard. On May 4 rallies started again on campus, and the National Guard used tear gas as a means to try and disperse the crowd. The crowd had become very rowdy and all of a sudden shots were fired. No one is certain as to why the shooting started, but 4 people were shot dead, and 9 were wounded. Two of those that died were innocent students switching classes. This tragic news caused much uproar across the nation. A great deal of respect for authority was lost by many citizens. The tragedy made many people realize that protest can go too far, and law enforcement can also go too far in trying to maintain the law.

In 1971, Congress repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as to limit the power of the president with the war. In January 1973, a cease-fire was negotiated. On January 25, 1973, The Paris Peace Accords were signed ending the fighting between North Vietnam and the United States. U.S. troops would be withdrawn, American POWs would be returned home, and the South Vietnam regime would remain in power. This didn’t end the war, but got the U.S. and our 27,000 remaining troops and 540 POWs out of Vietnam. Soon after the United States left, fighting resumed between North Vietnam and South Vietnam’s weak army. May of 1975, two years after Nixon pulled out of the war, South Vietnam surrendered. Vietnam was reunified under a communist Vietnam regime. By the end of the war the United States suffered 57,000 casualties and 153,303 soldiers were wounded.
There are many things people blame America’s defeat on. For one thing the North Vietnam and Vietcong armies were much stronger than anyone anticipated. Their guerilla warfare tactics was something the U.S. soldiers were not used to. The fact that there were no clear combat zones also made fighting confusing. The Vietcong also would dress as peasants to trick the soldiers before they would attack. This made it hard for soldiers to distinguish between the enemy and friendly civilians. The Vietcong was also fighting for a cause they were willing to fight to the death for. They had heroic determination and fighting spirit. The American soldiers on the other hand didn’t always have confidence in their goals, and some felt the war was unwinable. There was no direct threat to their own country and there was no support from the general population. The soldiers were also angered by the government lies they had to witness. Those who returned from war joined the forefront of the antiwar movements. They began wearing peace symbols and other signs of their digression. The African Americans were especially opposed to fighting “a racist war, in a racist army, for a racist government.” Military discipline broke down, and “fragging” began. Fragging was when soldiers would attack their officers, usually by tossing fragments of grenades into the officers sleeping quarters. Some soldiers also openly refused their orders. The military also experienced financial corruption, theft, murder, and suicide. All these factors seriously hurt the U.S. army.

At first many people volunteered to fight. When the draft came into affect many questioned its fairness. Until 1969 local boards had selected those for the draft, and most of those selected were usually minorities and poor working class youths. In 1965, 20,000 men per month were drafted, by 1968, 40,000 were drafted per month, and served 12-13 months. Some people tried to avoid the draft. People moved to Canada, burned draft cards, and went to college. Others served prison sentences, like Muhammad Ali, or avoided the war on moral grounds and instead served a set term of community service. The working-class communities were also another area where resistance was strong because these were the people usually drafted. People began to see the body bags return home and video clippings from the fighting. These factors greatly worried the American people.

The anti-war movement is also blamed as to why the Untied States lost the war. The war was popular in the beginning, and most of the American public supported the war. The success of World War II kept people optimistic about the outcome of U.S. involvement and kept them from objecting. Americans wanted to preserve their way of life and stop the threat of Communism. Some people even benefited from the war at first, such as aircraft manufacturers, but this didn’t last for long. When involvement of the U.S. was escalated in 1965, America supported this decision and was positive that the U.S. would come out victorious. When this escalation failed to produce the results that were expected, people started to become doubtful. America had been told that they were winning the war, but as the number of deaths and injuries increased the people realized that this war did have its costs. Just because it was fought thousands of miles away, didn’t mean that it didn’t affect the people at home.

The Media caused major changes in America. The media brought all the horrors of the war to life. For the first time, people were able to see the action everyday on the news. Death and destruction caused by the bombing were shown, and the nightly news even counted the dead. This greatly affected America’s opinions on the war. The media itself also experienced changes. Before the war the media focused on the positive aspects of wars. It showed U.S. action in a positive way and focused on what people wanted and needed to hear. Money wasn’t a factor for journalist, and they didn’t need to compete. Their job was to help the public stay optimistic and keep them from panicking. Many people from the television, magazines, and newspapers were able to travel to Vietnam to gain information to write more informative stories. Most reporters supported the war initially, but after being in Vietnam for long periods of time they grew skeptical and formed biased opinions. They lost enthusiasm and started to give offensive and biased reports. In 1971 the Pentagon Papers were published by the New York Times. They were a copy of the Defense Department’s history of involvement in Vietnam, and were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg. This revealed that Kennedy and Johnson had misled the public about the intentions in Vietnam. America would no longer fully trust the government. Journalist criticized the army’s methods and revealed the true horrors of war. The media became an endless competition to earn money, fame, and success.

As citizens realized the seriousness of the war many people started to revolt and publicly display their opposition to the war. When Johnson approved the Operation Rolling Thunder and began the massive bombings of Vietnam, the anti-war movement grew to enormous proportions. The citizens of the nation really began questioning America’s presence in Vietnam. They asked how a small country like Vietnam could cause the world to fall to communism. They used national images in a distorted way to get their opinions across. Demonstrations, rallies, sit-ins, and other anti-war movements became regular occurrences on the college campuses. Teach-ins became popular in classrooms. This was where the teacher and students would discuss the war openly in class. The protest really intensified in 1965 to 1970. On November 15,1969, 300,000 people gathered in Washington D.C. for the largest antiwar demonstration ever. Priest and other religious leaders even joined in the rallies. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Tet offensive were both events that caused much uproar. Civil rights leaders even became active in the antiwar movements. Martin Luther King became a vocal antiwar activist and expressed his opinions about the racial discrimination occurring in the draft and army. The My Lai Massacre, the killing of 200 civilians by the U.S. soldiers who couldn’t distinguish the civilians from enemy forces fueled more protest. People even started calling the soldiers “baby killers.” In previous wars, soldiers had been seen as heroic, but in the Vietnam War it was just the opposite. Soldiers were embarrassed to wear their uniform when coming home. To be a soldier was no longer something to be proud of.

There were two extremist groups present during the war, the hawks and the doves. The hawks were nationalist who wanted to escalate the war. They saw the conflict as part of the struggle against Communism. They felt the war could be won. The doves in contrast opposed to the war on moral grounds. They wanted peace at all costs. Norman Morrison a strong activist burned himself to death in front of the Pentagon. Even people in congress were willing to speak out against the war, like Senator J. William Fullbright. Many celebrities and musicians became strong activist. Their speeches and music reflected the views the Americans had towards the war, their anger and feelings that the war was a hopeless cause. Woodstock held in August 1969, was a gathering of many folk and rock artist singing anti-war songs and voicing the same opinions on the war raging in Vietnam. Thousands of people attended this anti-war rally.
The war also had effects on the economy. In the beginning the war spending increased the economy, but soon the cost of war caught up to the United States. The budget had to be expanded. The cost of living rose greatly between the years of 1965 to 1975. The spending of the war was about 150 billion dollars in all. Prices of goods had increased 16% by 1970. Inflation occurred wiping out almost all economic gains, and wages were lowered, leading to many strikes. President Johnson finally asked Congress for extra taxes to help pay for the war. Congress agreed as long as he cut domestic spending. By 1961, 25 billion dollars per year were being spent on the war effort. Business leaders thought it best to end the war than to cause more civil rights movements, strikes, and youth movements against the government.

The war also had devastating results in Vietnam. Many civilians were killed and many children were born with birth defects. Their largest crops were destroyed because of the herbicides used. 800,000 children were orphaned in South Vietnam and at least 10 million people were homeless.

The transition for the soldiers back into public life was a hard one. They only received about half the benefits the veterans from other wars received. Some even faced psychological problems, drug addiction, and employment troubles. Their homecoming wasn’t such a celebration as it had been in the years before. They didn’t receive anywhere near the recognition they deserved.

Since the war America’s views have changed greatly. The soldier are no longer looked down upon, but are honored. Today there is a national memorial in Washington D.C. in their honor. It was built in 1982 and commemorates all the U.S. Military personnel who died or were declared missing in action in Vietnam. The wall is 493 feet long and in 1984 a bronze statue called Three Servicemen was added to the site. In 1993 a bronze sculpture of 3 nurses and a wounded soldier was also added to honor those women who served. Since the war there have been many movies, documentaries, books, and poems that remember the war and honor the veterans.

The Vietnam War had many cost. Not only the billions of dollars spent, but also the thousands of American lives taken, and the effects it had on American society. The war cost Lyndon Johnson his presidency. Many programs promised to the American people were never fulfilled because of the demands from the war. The President’s power in waging war was limited. The war also permanently changed the way the media functions. It changed the public view of the government and its leaders permanently. Serious questions were raised about the U.S. getting involved militarily in many future situations, and the U.S. stayed out of other countries affairs for many years. The war in all, damaged America’s image and taught the U.S. about its limits of power. The war did have its positive affects. Communist pressure was kept out of Indonesia and other areas in the pacific. This enabled them to remain non-communist since most of the communists’ focus was on Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War is one that will never be forgotten, and its affects on America have changed the way Americans will look at all future conflicts.

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