The Vietnam War (1959-1973) was a physically, economically and emotionally draining experience for the United States. It began with the entry of the United States and this was due to a number of reasons that evolved and shifted over time. It can be said that the United States entered that war gradually in a series of steps between 1950 and 1965 though the root causes of the Vietnam War lay in the politics of the Cold War. During World War II, the United States followed the policy of supporting national liberation movements in many countries in South Asia including the Philippines that received independence in 1946, but declined to support the regime of Ho Chi Minh in French Indochina mainly because he was a communist (Symonds and Clipson, 206).
Primarily, every American president regarded the enemy in Vietnam as agents of global communism. It was the Vietminh in the post World War period, the National Liberation Front in the 1960s and the government of North Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh later. Communism was viewed by the U.S. policy makers as the antithesis of democracy and a threat to human rights. This was the reason why President Truman felt that communist influence in Vietnam must be prevented even if it meant helping the French in Vietnam. In the statement issued by the White House in 3 November 1954, President Lyndon indirectly refers to the communist regime of Ho Chi Minh as “dangerous forces threatening its independence and security”. Moreover, it was felt that control over the region would provide new markets for Japan that was rebuilding with American help after the Pacific War (Rotter, 1). Both England and France supported the involvement of US in Vietnam. For the British, this mean the rubber and tin industries in the neighboring colony of Malaya could be stabilized and for the French, it meant that they could recall their officers in Indochina and focus on economic recovery at home (Rotter, 1). These ambitions also contributed towards the reasons why United States became involved in Vietnam.
In May 1950, President Harry S. Truman provided economic and military aid to the French fighting in Indochina colony that included Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh initiated a war for Vietnamese independence with his “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” pitted against the French puppet government of Emperor Bao Dai (Symonds and Clipson, 206), As a result of the conflict, it was decided t o divide Vietnam temporarily near the seventeenth parallel creating N. Vietnam with its capital at Hanoi and South Vietnam with its capital at Saigon. Ngo Dinh Diem who emerged as president of South Vietnam was unwilling to conduct a nationwide election against Ho Chi Minh and maintained an anticommunist though not democratic government for most of a decade while fighting continued communist insurgency supported by North Vietnam. John Kennedy in 1961, took interest in Vietnam in his eagerness to reverse American defeat since Korea and because of his own interest in counterinsurgency warfare.
During his period, Kennedy sent more than 23 thousand U.S. advisers to South Vietnam. Following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Lyndon Johnson who became president continued Kennedy’s policy in Vietnam. The US government began directing the South Vietnamese Navy in a series of covert sabotage operations code named 34A against North Vietnam (Symonds and Clipson, 206). To support these operations, U.S. Navy destroyers conducted intelligence gathering operations in the Gulf of Tonkin off the North Vietnamese coast. The first such patrol, by the destroyer John R. Craig went off smoothly but the second by the destroyer Maddox ran into problems. It faced attack from three PT boats and apart from directly attacking the boats, Captain John Herrick of the Maddox had to request air support in order to escape the attack. The requested support aircraft soon arrived and Maddox was rescued and it continued its patrol with the help of the destroyer Turner Joy. Later, both of these American destroyer ships were attacked once again by North Korean PT boats. In August 1964, Johnson secured from Congress a functional declaration of war: the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
The resolution granted President Johnson broad powers to take retaliatory measures against North Vietnam. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution 1964 makes clear the intentions of US in getting involved in the Vietnam War. The main aim according to this document is to maintain international peace and security in Southeast Asia. But the document also mentions the attack on the United States naval vessels, the “systematic campaign of aggression that the communist regime in North Vietnam has been waging against its neighbors” and the freedom of the peoples of Southeast Asia. Thus, according to the United States, the official reasons for the Vietnam War were to safeguard international peace, protect its own vessels in the sea, to prevent the spread of communism and ensure democracy in Southeast Asia (Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, 384). However, Ho Chi Minh, in a letter to President Lyndon Johnson has said that the true intentions of the United States in the Vietnam War are to “prolong the partition of Vietnam” and to turn “South Vietnam into a neocolony and a military base of the United States”. In February and March 1965, Johnson authorized the sustained bombing of targets in North Vietnam and on 8 March he deputed 3,500 Marines to South Vietnam. This marked the beginning of official American involvement in the war.
Thus some of the key turning points of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War were: the fear of the spread of communism by the U.S. policy makers; economic and military aid provided to the French fighters in Indochina; President Kennedy’s interest in counterinsurgency warfare and decision to support South Korea; attack on the Maddox and President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to bomb Vietnam. It is fair to draw parallels between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War when one sees that there are many similarities between them. Both wars fought by the United States on foreign soil on the pretext of helping the people of the region and in both cases the United States seems to have entered the war with no exit strategy in hand and as a result the U.S. has been trapped in the region for a longer time than planned resulting in huge economical and manpower costs for the U.S.
According to Ronald Bruce St John, analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, there are many strategic and tactical similarities between the two wars (Bruce, 1). In Iraq, the American troops are fighting guerilla war in a region where the terrain is difficult and where the enemies are more familiar with the land than the Americans. This is similar to the situation in Vietnam where the American troops had to fight an unconventional war against an enemy who is willing to die for his beliefs. The U.S. military in Iraq seems to depend more on firepower than on winning the hearts of the people. As a result there is no accountability for the civilian causalities in Iraq and this resembles Vietnam where also there were huge civilian casualties for which the American troops took no responsibility. The atrocities committed by the United States in Vietnam have been deeply lamented by Arthur Hope in his article “To Root Against your country” where he says clearly that he hates the war because of “the massacres, the body counts, the free fire zones, the napalming of civilians, the poisoning of rice crops”. (Hoppe, 1)
In the Vietnam War, very often Vietnamese nationalists were labeled communists and misinterpreted by the American officials (Bruce, 1). In Iraq, the Bush administration has labeled the insurgents as “dead-enders,” “fanatics,” “thugs,” “militants,” “terrorists,” or “outsiders” though there is increasing proof that the local Iraqi people support them. In both Iraq and Vietnam, Americans have failed to try to understand and empathize with local cultures. There is no exit strategy in Iraq as there was none in Vietnam. Vietnam and Iraq were both wars of choice and both of them involved deceit and misrepresentation by the U.S. government. President Bush took United States into war with Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to al Qaeda. But there have been no weapons of mass destruction nor has there been any links to al Qaeda. Likewise, the troops that marched into Vietnam had no clear ideas about why they were there and what they were supposed to do. Thus, there are many similarities between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War.
Bruce,Ronald St. John (2004). Sorry, Mr. President, but Iraq looks a lot like Vietnam. Foreign Policy in Focus, Web.
Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964). United States Statutes at Large, p. 384.
Hoppe, Arthur (1967). “To Root against Your Country”. San Francisco Chronicle, Web.
Letter from Ho Chi Minh to Lyndon Johnson. 1967.
Letter from President Johnson to Ho Chi Minh. 1967.
Mission of the Special United States Representative in Viet-Nam: Statement Issued by the White House, November 3, 1954.
Rotter, J. Andrew (2009). The Causes of the Vietnam War. Excerpted from The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Oxford University Press: New York, Web.
Symonds, L. Craig and Clipson, J. William (2001). The Naval Institute Historical Atlas of the U. S. Navy. Naval Institute Press, 2001.