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Vietnams Significance
The Vietnam War grew directly from the policies of the Cold War, and the consequences of the U.S. role in Vietnam are still being felt today. The youth culture of the 1960s was forced to consider a distant struggle that was the antithesis of what many thought America stood for. The war pitted generations against each other. led to world fears of American imperialism that reverberate even now and call into question Americas role in the world. crippled LBJs war on poverty and ultimately led to his demise. led to the exposure of political leadership in a web of lies and deception, crippling American faith in politics. contributed to a significant decline in American idealism. killed roughly 58,000 American GIs and up to 5 million Vietnamese.

The Starting Point

1940s Cold War Context:
Climate of anticommunism. Climate of American moralism. Climate of superpower rivalry. Climate of (male) machismo among U.S. leadership.

1950s Cold War Context:

The Korean War: containment via confrontation. The domino theory. The U.S. as a nation builder.

Click on the map for a larger view of the U.S. domino theory perspective in 1950.

While the North did invade the South, Truman mistakenly assumed that the Soviets were responsible for the Korean War. He viewed it as a test of U.S. resolve to fight communism.
In reality it was a civil war over a nation that had been divided into two halves by the politics of the Cold War. This is significant to the Vietnam experience.

The Korean War (195053)

Aside from Korea, Truman and other U.S. presidents lumped many Third World nationalist liberation movements as Soviet-run communist take-overs. This mistaken assumption would lead to numerous U.S. foreign policy blunders during the 1940s-1970s.
In fact, many insurrections were essentially nationalist movements intended to bring sovereignty to former colonies of Western empires.

U.S. artillery, Korea. In this war, unlike Vietnam, the U.S. had the support of the United Nations.

1. The American failure to understand the effects of Western colonialism in the Third World. 2. Due to American Cold War fears, Americans misinterpreted post-1945 Third World liberation movements (nationalism) as Soviet-led communism. 3. The domino theory did not hold up if insurrections were nationalist-inspired more than communist-inspired, yet the U.S. clung to the domino theory, partly because it sold well.

Key American Cold War Errors 1. The American failure to

This is a photo of the Shah of Iran, placed in power by the U.S. in 1953. In 1953-54, just as the Korean War was ending, the U.S. thwarted democracy in Iran and Guatemala and installed right-wing dictatorships friendly to American multinational corporations. In both cases, the CIA-sponsored coups were directed against legitimately elected leaders who had dared to speak of nationalizing some of their countrys resources (oil fields, 5

It represented a decisive moment in U.S. foreign policy by establishing precedents that shaped subsequent policy: 1. The central belief that military containment works. 2. A willingness to support capitalist right-wing dictatorships in the name of anti-communism. 3. The feeling that increased brutality was necessary during times of war. 4. The idea that Asia was a key battleground in the Cold War. 5. The use of executive lies and public deception as necessary for national security. 6. The President could by-pass Congress in making war.

The Korean War Set Precedents

This is a photo of American GIs torturing a Vietnamese captive. The technique is called water-boarding, where the victim has water poured through their nose to stimulate the sensation of drowning. Such techniques were part of the Korean War lessons that brutality was necessary in war. The communists 6

Vietnam was an extension of the Korean involvement. Truman supported the French colonialists during the Indochina War (1946-1954). The Indochina War was a conflict between the French imperialists, who sought to return Vietnam as a colony of France, versus the Vietnamese nationalists (most of whom were also communists) who sought sovereignty for Vietnam. The U.S. supported the French, while China and the USSR supported the nationalist communists. The Indochina War was largely funded and partly supplied by the U.S. in exchange for French support for the American-desired NATO. The French and Americans sought to carve out the southern region of Vietnam and turn it into South Vietnam in a nation-building experiment. South Vietnam would be a pro-U.S. capitalist friend.


Richard Nixon visits Vietnam, 1953.

Vietnam has a long history of invasion and colonization by outsiders

Vietnamese History

China occupied Vietnam for 1200 years and was finally repelled in 939 AD. Vietnam would be largely independent until the 19th century. th In the 19 century, France invaded and occupied Southeast Asia (including the southern region of Vietnam) and for 100 years it was a French colony. While Buddhism is Vietnams dominant religion, the French preferred Christianity. Japan invaded and occupied Vietnam during WWII. France, devastated by WWII, tried to re-occupy Vietnam (with U.S. support) from 1945-54 but was driven out. The U.S. stepped in to occupy South Vietnam in 1954 and was driven out by 1975. The U.S. never won over the hearts and minds of the indigenous population of the region. They were outsiders, just as the French and Japanese were.

Japanese officer surrenders to an Indian officer in Saigon, 1945. The Vietnamese hoped they had finally won their independence, but the French, with American support, reoccupied Vietnam immediately after WWII. This re-occupation 8 provoked the First

Leader of the Vietnamese nationalist movement to bring sovereignty to the region.

His most important characteristic is that he was a nationalist. This is what made him appealing to the Vietnamese. He was beloved.

Ho Chi Minh

A hero during the Japanese occupation who, with British and American support, helped drive them out. Grateful to the American liberators and an admirer of the American Revolution, as is apparent in the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence. A Marxist with a proletariat background. Advocate of guerilla warfare tactics against foreign occupiers/imperialists. Not a puppet of the USSR or China. Unfortunately, Truman and others lumped him as a puppet of the Soviets.

The First Indochina War 1946-1954 In 1945, Vietnam was liberated from
Japanese occupation. Ho Chi Minh celebrated the Americans as liberators and sends a letter to Truman begging him to honor the Atlantic Charter principles established by FDR. However, FDR caved in to French and British demands to return Vietnam as a colony of France. FDR felt he needed the French and British as allies in the emerging superpower rivalry with the Soviets. Truman carried out this policy by supporting the French in the Indochina War of 1946-1954.. By 1954, the French lost a last stand battle (Dien Bien Phu) and signed the Geneva Accord of 1954.

Medical attention is given to a French soldier during the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.


Geneva Accords, 1954

1. Established the sovereignty of all of Vietnam. 2. Allowed for the temporary division of Vietnam into two regions (North and South), which were to be unified by a national referendum in 1956.
This democratic referendum would decide what kind of leadership would guide all of Vietnam.

3. Signed by the French and the Vietnamese, but the U.S. did not participate in the signing.
This gave the U.S. a surface excuse when they ultimately refused to obey this accord.

The Geneva Convention of 1954 dealt with the problems of Southeast Asia and established the sovereignty of Vietnam, which was a major goal of the Vietnamese nationalists. While the French and Vietnamese signed the Accord, the Americans 11

The U.S. had no intention of allowing the unification of Vietnam.

The U.S. Agenda

The national referendum of 1956 would certainly have led to Ho Chi Minhs election as leader of all of Vietnam, and he was a Marxist. By the mid-1950s, the CIA and other U.S. security agencies were trying to destabilize the Vietminh (the communist nationalists). The U.S. decided to enter into the region more directly to try to prop up South Vietnam as a noncommunist state. The U.S. quickly installed a dictator in South Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem. He was expected to be a U.S. puppet. The U.S. set up advisors in South Vietnam, and proceeded to install the infrastructure necessary for stability. South Vietnam became a virtual puppet state of the American empire in what the Americans labeled nation building.

The U.S. helped oust the former emperor, Bao Dai , and installed Diem in 1954 as Prime Minister, just after the Geneva 12

To the U.S. policy makers, Vietnam was just another Third World country with internal dissent and with communism threatening to take over.

U.S. Nation Building

There was not a great deal of debate over what to do in the Truman/Eisenhower administrations. In Iran and Guatemala the U.S. set up puppet dictators relatively easily at this same time.

The U.S. was convinced it could avoid the errors of the French.
The French were colonialists, but the U.S. had no intention of creating a European-style colony. They wanted South Vietnam to ultimately stand on its own as a friendly-to-U.S. capitalist state. To the American leaders, the French did not know how to fight. World War II showed that the Americans knew how to fight.

John Foster Dulles, one of the architects of the U.S. foreign policy that installed Diem, was celebrated in 1954 by Time Magazine as Man of the Year. 13

Ngo Dinh Diem an Unlikely Unifier Installed as Prime Minister of South

Vietnam by the U.S. in 1954-5. In 1955 he became President of the new republic in a fraudulent election guided by the U.S.. In effect, he was a right wing dictator.

He was selected largely because he was educated in America and not connected to the hated French colonial aristocracy. He was fresh at a time when it was hard to find someone who was not connected to the French regime. Upper class, in a culture of peasants (proletariats). An Asian Catholic (in a Buddhist region). An anti-communist. A nationalist. A reluctant puppet of the Americans. Stubborn, aloof, and elitist.


Diem was given unlimited support by the U.S. to buy off his opponents. With the support of the Americans, Diem proceeded to subvert the 1954 Geneva Accords which promised to impose unity on the divided nation by 1956.
Diem refused to permit the election.


Diem proceeded to legitimize his own authority and held a rigged referendum in South Vietnam. He received 600,000 votes in Saigon, a city of 400,000.

This is a photo of Diem in 1957 when he visited the U.S.. President Eisenhower stands next to him. Foster Dulles stands behind Eisenhower.


In the 1950s, the military side of the equation always came first. John Foster Dulles (Sec. of State) thought that the primary requirement for South Vietnam nationhood was the creation of a strong military. During the 1950s, virtually all of Americas military energy was devoted to building a conventional army (the ARVN Army Republic of Vietnam), with little effort to develop anti-guerrilla tactics. The results
1. The rural country, which was most of Vietnam, was never controlled. 2. The military build-up reinforced the image of the U.S. as yet another colonial power.

Nation Building

The primary architects of nation-building, Eisenhower and Dulles, meet in 1956. Dulles had an almost religious fever against communism. He felt if South Vietnam was made into a right-wing dictatorship it would be better for U.S. interests than if it was to become communist, 16 even if Ho Chi Minh was open to

Nevertheless, most Americans believed they were being successful.

Nation Building

The ARVN was getting bigger. Diem had entrenched his power. Western goods flowed into Saigon. The U.S. corporate media routinely echoed political and military authority without question.

The mainstream American media did not challenge the basic assumptions behind U.S. nationbuilding. Americans were deeply concerned about the spread of 17

Diem Most Americans were a bit nave. In fact,

Diem was no hero. The CIA knew he was hated by the Vietnamese people and advised Diem to break up the huge land estates of the corrupt aristocracy land reform was essential. Yet Diem resisted this advice. In 1961 Diem and his American advisors initiated a highly unpopular peasant relocation program, the Strategic Hamlet Program. What property Diem did redistribute went from local Buddhists to Catholics migrating down from the north. Diems brother jailed and murdered thousands of political dissenters in Diems repressive and authoritarian regime. The result was that the Vietnamese people felt alienated from Diem and his South Vietnamese system. This provided fertile soil for dissent.

The Strategic Hamlet program, begun in 1961, uprooted peasants from their traditional farming and ancestor areas and placed them in compounds protected by spiked fences and armed guards. This program was so unpopular it drove many peasants to side with the 18

The Vietminh Mobilize

By 1957, the Vietminh mobilized a campaign of discontent against Diem in the South. They encountered very receptive peasants. By 1959, with very little resource support from the north, the Vietminh succeeded in galvanizing support against Diems corrupt government.
A similar event was happening in Cuba as Castro was over-throwing the U.S.-backed right-wing dictator, Batista.

In late 1959, North Vietnam began a campaign of arming the rebels in the south, and they found that local rebels were already in control of the rural infrastructure.
The rebels were now ready for full-scale attacks on the ARVN. The ARVN consisted of reluctant draftees who had little loyalty to the Diem regime. Unlike the Vietminh, they were not motivated fighters. It was largely a puppet army.

ARVN soldiers were typically Vietnamese conscripts who were trained in conventional warfare. Generally they were a poor army, but there 19 were some

Ironically, by 1959 Eisenhower was showcasing South Vietnam as a model of communist containment. In effect, the U.S. had made itself hostage to the Diem regime, and by 1960 the U.S. had repeated most of the French errors that it had confidently stated it would avoid. Yet most Americans believed what they were told that South Vietnam was a model for nation building and successful containment. Americas Cold War assumptions had blinded it to the reality of the situation. Imperialism in the service of Cold War containment was unpopular among the Vietnamese, especially given the postWWII rush by former colonies of Europe toward sovereignty.

Which way does the wind blow?

President Diem watches an honor guard ceremony in Saigon. Diem was aloof from the peasants.


American Imperialism

In the name of communist containment, the U.S. had subverted

The sovereignty rights of the southern Vietnamese. Democracy in the region, as promoted by the Geneva Accords. No truly free elections were permitted in South Vietnam under American policy. After all, how would the peasants likely have voted if they had been given an opportunity to participate in the Geneva Accord referendum slated for 1956? Freedom. South Vietnam was not a free society under the American system. To American policy makers, a right-wing dictatorship was preferable and even desirable over a free, truly democratic, and sovereign South Vietnam. American leaders did hope that maybe someday in the future after the peasants came around democracy and freedom could be considered.


To the U.S., the primary motivation for getting involved in Vietnam was to contain communism. But there was another, lesser motivation to open up new markets for capitalist expansion.
This latter motivation is entirely selfinterested.

U.S. Motivations in Vietnam

By the late 19th century, American foreign policy blurred these motivations together because of the influence of powerful multinational corporations and the military industrial complex on U.S. foreign policy.
As an empire, the U.S. declares certain regions of the world of strategic interest to its survival, and this includes both political and economic considerations. At this time Southeast Asia was of strategic interest, especially in a political sense and to a lesser extent in an economic sense.

Even President Eisenhower, whose cabinet consisted of one corporate executive after another, warned Americans as he left office about the dangerously 22 growing influence of the military

The Reaction at Home

Americans were socialized to believe that their country stood for sovereignty, freedom and democracy. Americans were also socialized to be fairly moralistic we learned to view people and policies as good or evil. Students were socialized to view America as a sort of holy land of freedom, while communism (tyranny) was evil. When college students examined Vietnam closely many were morally outraged that U.S. policy subverted these basic American values in favor of a right-wing dictatorship. Similarly for Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, and other regions. Students became angry. They had been lied to. American foreign policy was not living up to its ideals, and it appeared to many by the early 1960s that American domestic policy did not live up to its ideals either, given the legacy of racism.


John Kennedy
By the time Kennedy took office, the Vietminh had already turned to reunifying Vietnam via the countryside. Their campaign was not noble. Assassination was common. Both sides employed despicable tactics, including murder and torture. Diem appointed his puppets as village mayors. The Vietminh targeted these puppets who were unpopular - for assassination. By October, 1961, most of the South Vietnamese countryside was under the control of the Vietminh. In 1961, Kennedy believed that America could and should shape the structure of developing nations. JFK believed that political/economic instability was one of the sources of communist appeal among peasants. He believed the U.S. could help the Third World modernize and thus bring stability. This help could be economic or military.

Vietminh peasants in South Vietnam, near the DMZ, with rifles stacked to be used against the ARVN.


Kennedy realized the mistake of building up the ARVN a conventional army to fight a guerilla army, so he proposed a counterinsurgency force of guerillas called the Green Berets. However, like Eisenhower, JFK refused to see the Vietminh as nationalist fighters legitimately fighting for sovereignty. And like Eisenhower, JFKs administration had its share of ethnocentric arrogance: North Vietnam cant beat us. They cant even make ice cubes. Only one of JFKs key advisors opposed the war: George Ball (Under Sec. of State for Economic Affairs). Ball knew about Vietnamese history and their drive for sovereignty. He said that if the U.S. maintained the fiction of South Vietnam it would blow up into a military war.


Undersecretary of State, George Ball. One of the few Kennedy advisors who opposed American war policy in Vietnam.


Kennedy initially escalates the war

In May, 1961, Kennedy sent 500 advisors to Vietnam, bringing the total to 1400. The military wanted a force of 13,000 and put great pressure on Kennedy. He wavered at first, but began to escalate U.S. involvement over the next year. By the end of 1962, there were 11,300 advisors in Vietnam and napalm was being used on rural villages. Increasingly, hawks portrayed Vietnam in terms of American machismo. Doves were sissies and cowards. Kennedy and most other politicians played to the hawks, but Kennedy was also determined not to make Vietnam a full blown war. He would not bomb the North. This photo, taken around He would not send troops to South Vietnam. 1970, depicts Americans

consulting a map as they help the ARVN. In the JFK era, the President was not authorized to have troops in Vietnam. Hence, advisors 26 were sent to train and

Strategic Hamlet Program

Rural areas were increasingly controlled by the Vietminh (now called Viet Cong cong means communist). To prevent this, the U.S. initiated the Strategic Hamlet program between 1961-63. This was a program of forced removal of civilians away from their ancestral region to new villages controlled by the ARVN. A stockade was built around the village and patrolled by soldiers sort of like a concentration camp only it was to protect the villagers. The program was ultimately run by Nhu Diem, the unpopular brother of the President. This strategy failed and actually led to an increase in peasants joining the Viet Cong. As was pointed out: "Peasants resented working without pay to dig moats, implant bamboo stakes, and erect fences against an enemy that did not threaten them but directed its sights against government officials."

Americans inspect punji stakes at a Vietnamese hamlet constructed under the Strategic Hamlet Program.


The Situation Deteriorates Despite the failure of American

policies, the military elite reported that the war was fast being won and some predicted victory by 1965.
The American corporate press echoed this spin, and the average American was not well informed about Vietnam.

In reality, the war was being won by the Viet Cong all along. The Strategic Hamlet program, the U.S. use of napalm, and the U.S. bombing of southern villages had turned most peasants against the U.S..
Many were joining the Viet Cong cause of liberation.

This photo depicts a napalm attack on a South Vietnam village. Napalm is usually gasoline based. When it has contact with skin it burns it off. 28 The American military continues

Kennedy tries to deescalate By 1963 the situation was even worse.

There were now 16,500 advisors in Vietnam. Diem had refused to implement land reform for the peasants and his policies were not popular. Kennedy knew that Diem was a disaster and searched for alternative policies. JFK, determined not to let Vietnam blow up into an all out war, decided by the Fall of 1963 to begin the withdrawal of the U.S. advisors. About 1000 of the 16,500 advisors had been removed by the time he was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.
Had he lived, some say it is likely the rest would have been pulled out, leaving only a force large enough to guard the U.S. embassy. That is one view, at least. The National Security Action Memorandum No. 263 suggests he intended the U.S. to remain in Vietnam, but cautiously.


Events of 1963
In the summer of 1963, the CIA approved the assassination of Diem, with Kennedys tacit approval. Diem was killed in a coup detat on Nov. 2, 1963. Meanwhile, Kennedy lacked a clear policy to pursue in Vietnam. JFK felt, at least during the early part of his administration, that the U.S. could not show weakness, lest the communists exploit it.

These South Vietnamese generals were behind the coup that assassinated Diem. It is believed they were paid with


Chafe: Four Interrelated Themes in JFKs Cold War Vietnam Policy 1. JFK believed that communism was a monolithic

conspiracy spearheaded by Russia and China to take over the world. Vietnam was a domino in this plan. 2. Khruschev seemed to endorse communist expansion. 3. Due to a series of reversals elsewhere (Cuba and Laos), JFK felt he needed to take a strong stand somewhere. U.S. credibility was at stake. 4. Vietnam was a laboratory to test the U.S. strategy of flexible response the Green Berets.

Chafe argues that for these reasons, Kennedy was responsible for escalating the Vietnam conflict, just as Eisenhower had done when he committed the U.S. to nation-building in Vietnam in 1954. 31

Prepared by : s.sourya sarthak reddy XB