Why did the US commit ground troops to Vietnam in 1965? — February 16, 2012

Why did the US commit ground troops to Vietnam in 1965?

A couple of people have asked me to post this, so here it is! (A small presentation I’m giving tomorrow!)


Why did the US commit ground troops to Vietnam in 1965?

The Vietnam War was a proxy war during the Cold War, which lasted almost 20 years. There were several, complicated, reasons why the US committed ground troops to Vietnam. I will briefly outline a handful of these, including; US spending during the First Indo-China War; the involvement of US “advisors”; the Gulf of Tonkin incident and of course the policy of Containment.

The First Indo-China War, fought between the French colonialists and the Vietnamese liberation front. The Vietnamese people wanted independence from their French overlords after the end of the Second World War. Throughout the Second World War they had fought off the oppressive, invading forces of the Japanese, side by side with the Allied forces, primarily in the name of freedom and self-determination. The people of Vietnam unsurprisingly expected independence after World War II. Independence was spreading across the globe, but the French had other ideas. Left decimated and facing the crippling reality of six years of Total Warfare the French could be expected to have allowed Vietnam to go it alone, but they wanted to assert their authority in the emerging Far-East. The War began in 1946 and lasted until 1954. The US originally remained neutral as because it opposed imperialism (a stance they had made clear to the UK) but began financing the French’s efforts through the Mutual Assistance Programme in 1949 (similar to the Marshall Plan). They supplied not only finance, but weaponry, fighter planes, and naval air-carriers. (By 1967 over $30bn had been given to nations through the MAP.)

The Geneva Peace Convention in 1954 secured a temporary separation of Vietnam along the 17th parallel. Ho Chi Minh controlled 2/3rds of Vietnam at the time, but accepted this division along with the promise that free and open elections were held across the nation to reunite the country in 1956. At this point the US had already financed a long campaign against Communism, it seemed highly unlikely that they would spend so much money and then abandon their objectives.

When the election date came and went, supporters of the Communist Party in the South began an insurgency against President Diem. President Eisenhower had noted that had the Geneva Accords been held, “possibly 80 percent of the population would have voted for Communist Ho Chi Minh” and the government quickly became more repressive and unpopular, insurgency came as no real surprise to anybody. It has been commonly accepted that the original insurgency came from within the South and that Ho Chi Minh had no great role in the rebellion. But by 1959 this had changed, it was widely acknowledged that Ho Chi Minh had broken the Geneva Convention’s conditions and was funding the rebels in the South. Civil War had hit Vietnam!

President JFK in his inauguration speech made the ambitious pledge to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty” a comment primarily aimed at America’s Communist rivals. JFK sent 16,000 American “advisors” to South Vietnam, up dramatically from the 900 the Eisenhower had sent before him. The advisors’ role quickly became blurred when it became apparent that they were leading skirmishes against the Vietcong. The US had become actively involved in Vietnam by 1963.

In November 1963 JFK was assassinated and replaced by his VP Linden B. Johnson. LBJ’s focus was on his “Great Society” which aimed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. His knowledge of US foreign policy, especially in Vietnam was insignificant in comparison.  Presidential aide Jack Valenti recalls, “Vietnam at the time was no bigger than a man’s fist on the horizon. We hardly discussed it because it was not worth discussing.” LBJ took a hard-line to Vietnam and there is no doubt that the introduction of LBJ to the Vietnamese War had a drastic effect.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident was a pre-text for escalation for significant intervention by the US. In 2005, an internal National Security Agency historical study was declassified; it concluded that the Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese Navy on August 2, but that there were no North Vietnamese Naval vessels present during the incident of August 4. The US public and Congress were sold the line that the US Navy was attacked by the North Vietnamese, when in reality the US launched the first attack, and the second incident was a salvage mission. LBJ gave a speech dramatising Ho Chi Minh’s forces as the aggressor and declaring the US would continue its fight for the people of the South Johnson misled the American people to gain support for his foreign policy in Vietnam. The War escalated from this point and Army numbers peaked at over 500,000 by late 1968.

Whilst the Gulf of Tonkin may have been the tipping point for a huge scale US involvement, the real reason had much deeper roots. The logical progression of the US’ policy of containment led them to Vietnam. The US was worried about the idea of the “Domino Effect”. Eisenhower put the theory into words in April 1954. “Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the “falling domino” principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.” The credibility of such a theory had been hotly debated, but regardless it was a highly influential idea that the US and allied governments bought into.

Despite such a monumental effort in Vietnam, the US were ultimately unsuccessful in their attempts to overthrow Ho Chi Minh, and in 1975, 19 years after the War began Vietnam was unified under the man the US had fought so hard to remove.


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