What were the historical events that led to the United States involvement in the Vietnam War?
by Kevin Kaufmann
The United States got involved with the conflict in Vietnam for one major reason, to stop the spread of global communism. This overarching goal was the driving force of American diplomacy immediately after World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. The concern over communism began well before World War II and it was this long standing fear that made combating it such a priority throughout the twentieth century.
Communism finds its roots in the middle of the nineteenth century in the works of Karl Marx, especially the Communist Manifesto, co-written with Friedrich Engels. A reaction to the worst abuses of the Industrial Revolution, the Manifesto called for a complete restructuring of the economy, with the workers, or proletariat, receiving a far greater portion of the wealth and power than was currently afforded to them. It called for an overthrow of the current system, violently if necessary, to achieve this goal. As communist thought grew and adapted throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the appeal to peoples in particularly dire circumstances found the message of communism to be encouraging. In addition nations that were part of Western European colonial empires in particular found the philosophy to particularly poignant.
One such nation was Vietnam, or as it was referred to as a colony, French Indochina. The French had been coming to the region for close to two hundred years, but officially made it a colony of France in 1887, with the aforementioned name. Local authorities were recognized but did not hold any real power.
World War I, Indochina and Ho Chi Minh
The war between 1914-1918 ravaged Europe like no other war. It was said to be the “war to end of all wars.” History teaches us this was not to be. When World War I reached an armistice in November of 1918, the hope during the the peace talks in 1919 held in Versailles, France was to establish a lasting peace. The principal actors in forging that peace were Great Britain, France and the new comer to such gatherings, the United States.
Many other nations were present at the peace talks with varying degrees of access to the negotiations. A young student, Ho Chi Minh, from French Indochina was there to plead the case of his country, especially to the United States delegation. The American delegation, which included President Woodrow Wilson, was seen by much of the world as the great hope for democracy. Wilson even included colonial peoples concerns in his Fourteen Points, his plan for peace.
The concerns of many of the nations were barely discussed or totally ignored. Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese were one of these groups. Like the Irish Republic, the people of Indochina were never officially recognized and summarily ignored. Instead of a restructuring and rethinking of colonial relationships around the globe, the British and the French actually gained colonial territory in Africa and the Middle East, from German holdings and the Ottoman Empire respectively.
Ho Chi Minh was quite disillusioned by the complete rebuff by the western powers. While he did not fight for the Allies, many of his countrymen did. Minh saw this as a great sign of disrespect, not only to himself and those in Asia, but to people everywhere. He found solace and inspiration from events in another country not represented at Versailles, Russia. Minh saw the revolution in that country as inspiration. He along with other similar thinkers help to found the French Communist Party. Minh was proud of his participation in France, but was ultimately drawn to his home country and leading a drive for independence there.
World War II and Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh was not able to enter Indochina because of his political activities. He lived just north of the Vietnam border in China among other Vietnamese nationalists. Together they organized the Vietnamese Revolutionary League, intent on gaining independence from France. For his part, Minh also believed the best alternative to French colonialism was communism.
The rise of fascism in Western Europe and Asia was of great concern to liberal democracies and communist countries. The aggressiveness of Germany and Japan brought the world to the edge of uncertainty. All questions in Asia were answered when the Empire of Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. With the Korean peninsula already under Japanese rule, those like Ho Chi Minh realized that resistance to Japan was paramount.
As the Japanese pressed their invasion of China, the empire constantly looked for ways to cut the Republic of China off from outside support. A major initiative of this strategy was to take control of French Indochina. In 1940 as the Japanese moved southward toward the Vietnamese border, the French might have offered some resistance if they came through the Ải Nam Quan pass linking China to Vietnam.
Unfortunately for the people of Vietnam, the French were in no position to hold off an attack from Japanese forces. With the German invasion and conquest of France in June 1940, French colonial holdings were on their own. The Vichy Government (the French government sympathetic to Germany) appointed colonial governors, but the Japanese quickly had control of the coastal territory.
Ho Chi Minh and other Vietnamese nationalists saw opportunity and the danger of a take over by the Japanese. Politics make strange bedfellows, but so does warfare. Ho Chi Minh and other nationalists created the Vietminh, a group dedicated to an independent Vietnam. The first objective of the group was hamper and destabilize Japanese rule in Vietnam. The Vietminh were dominated by communist party members and the Soviet Union funded and supplied the Vietminh. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States also contributed to the Vietminh efforts. Those efforts largely included guerilla tactics against the Japanese. It was not a major theatre of the war, but it did cause a drain on war materiele for the Japanese that would have been used throughout the South Pacific.
Post War Vietnam and Conflict With France
As World War II came to a close, first with the fall of Vichy France, then the defeat of Japan, Ho Chi Minh quickly declared the independence of Vietnam by establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The French government and her allies did not recognize the new state and looked to re-establish their previous colonial reign. Instead of having strong and wealthy allies, Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh were on their own in the fight against France. The Soviet Union, while sympathetic to the cause, was too devastated by the war to offer much help. The United States was willing to help when a common enemy was present, but at the end of the war, the containment of communism became the driving force of US policy.
The Vietminh engaged in a similar guerilla war against the French as they did previously against the Japanese. The French may have been able to quell the revolution if Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China did not win their civil war. With the communists in control of China, the Vietminh had a safe place to retreat to and organize their attacks. The French were reluctant to invade China and perhaps cause and even greater international incident.
The guerilla conflict continued for the next five years, with China aiding the Vietminh and Great Britain, The United States and Japan aiding the French. The Vietnamese held the northern part of the country, while French colonial forces held sway in the south. The goal of the French military was to establish dominance over the entire country so they move a large force to the northern city of Dien Bien Phu. The idea was that by strengthening their presence in the north, the French could exert greater control and sway the population to their rule.
It was a disastrous decision. The people of the north were firmly committed to the cause of an independent Vietnam. Further the city of Dien Bien Phu was a poor choice to make as a stronghold, surrounded by mountains, it afforded any attacker the geographic advantage, which is precisely what the VietMinh did.
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was the deciding contest of French rule in Vietnam. On March 13, 1954 the Vietminh bombarded the city, including the airfield that was being used to resupply the troops in the town. Eventually the bombing made the airstrip unlandable for planes and the French were virtually cut off. The battle is better described as a siege as the Vietminh moved in slowly, encircling the French position. Eventually an all out assault on May 1st, followed up by similar assaults on May 6th and May 7th led to the French surrender and the complete end of French rule in Vietnam.
As part of the treaty that ended the conflict, the territory was to be divided into two. The north was led by Ho Chi Minh, called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The south was established as the State of Vietnam led by Ngo Dình Diem. It was assumed that the south would still favor the French, but instead Diem looked toward the United States for aid and support. As the Korean conflict came to a close, securing a division of that country and containing communism, the United States was committed to doing the same in Vietnam.
The French completely left Vietnam in 1956, leaving a void in the power structure of South Vietnam. The United States increased their presence in the country after the evacuation of the French, but strictly as an advisory force. Americans, under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency, were present at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. However a greater US presence was in the country by 1955, reaching 1500 military advisors by the end of the decade.
It was this gradual build up in the 1950s that set the stage for greater US involvement in the 1960s, eventually leading to an all out war by the middle of the decade. The post-World War II commitment to the containment of communism led the United States to various conflicts, especially in South Asia. Other areas of conflict, like Germany, were decidedly on the cold side of the greater global war, but the conflict in Vietnam was a hot zone of the battle between the United States and global communism.
David L. Anderson, John Ernst. The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War. University Press of Kentucky,Lexington, KY, 2007.
A. Short. The Origins of the Vietnam War. Routledge Press, New York, 2014.