Week 4 (belated): In which we struggle over the first assignment…

…which takes an approximate 48 hours to compose and another 5 hours to edit and footnote. Here is my copy, and here goes nothing:


Professor Atul Kohli

Assignment 1: A Realist Understanding of the Reasons for US Intervention in Vietnam

The situation in Viet Nam poses serious moral problems which are not merely diplomatic or tactical. Our nation is possessed of an immense power. To permit its utilization for unreasonable and barbarous purposes endangers the very foundation of American influence”.

 (Excerpt from a declaration signed by one thousand professors and lecturers of American universities and published in the New York Times of May 13, 1965)[1]

In the beginning, the United States of America was founded on the principles of democracy, independence and the American dream of self-determination. In 1941, abandoning its policy of isolationism to help the Allies fend off the imperialist advances of Germany and Japan during World War II, America’s military strength, its commitment to an unconditional surrender by Germany, and its nuclear bombing of Japan propelled America to the status of the world’s largest superpower, capable of wielding nuclear weapons to uphold democracy.

But the end of the war did not mean the end of American intervention, particularly in Vietnam. In 1950, shortly after the end of World War Two, following requests from the French for support to hold onto the colonies in Indochina that France had lost to Japan during the war, America sent aid in the form of money and troops, which quickly escalated as it became clear that Vietnam was a greater challenge to overcome than the French had foreseen[2]. By the last year of the war in 1954, of the $751 billion spent that year on the French effort to reclaim Vietnam, 73.9% was composed of US aid[3]; over the next 27 years, America would continue to escalate the war in Vietnam, even as the French left, defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. By the end of the war, America would drop a total of approximately 14 billion tonnes of bombs, a figure greater even than the US had dropped in World War Two.[4]

Today, the Vietnam War remains a hugely contentious part of American history. Dubbed in Vietnam as the War of Resistance Against American Imperialism, the Vietnam War is one that continues to polarise America. Advocates of the war argue that the Vietnam War was a fight against the spread of Communism that begun with the best of motives; in contrast, critics of the war argue that America had no place in Vietnam, with the anti-war movement united together over the belief that the American war in Vietnam needed to end, whether that was because of the lack of a clear justification of why the war was being fought, the belief that American intervention in Vietnam was simply another form of imperialism or the high domestic costs of the war, among other reasons.

Given the continued contention over America’s intervention in Vietnam, this paper looks to explore whether American intervention in Vietnam was justified by looking at the reasons of why the US intervened. Today, the question of ‘why Vietnam’ has become increasingly important; while American foreign intervention in the Middle East is often justified under the name of fighting for freedom and justice, the Vietnam experience has challenged much of these underlying principles. As Marilyn B. Young states in her analysis of the impact of the Vietnam War on American public opinion, “many Americans born during the decade of the war grew up not believing anything their government told them”[5]. As such, understanding the motives of successive American policymakers in carrying out foreign policy in Vietnam is crucial to understanding America’s role as a global power today.

By looking at scholarly literature available over the course of the Eisenhower, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon presidencies, this paper seeks to explore the main changing rationales for US intervention in Vietnam. Through analysing arguments provided by authors Marilyn B. Young in “The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990” and Michael H. Hunt in “A Vietnam War Reader”, this paper will argue from a realist perspective that in the post-World War II and Cold War climate, the US intervened and continued to intervene in Vietnam not purely to uphold democracy, but for reasons pertaining to a misguided sense of Vietnam’s importance in maintaining America’s national security and a global world order, and a belief that Vietnam had symbolic importance in upholding the credibility of American commitment militarily to both US citizens and other countries, as America emerged as one of the world’s greatest powers in the aftermath of World War II.

But why approach the question of American causes for intervention from a realist perspective, and what is realism in terms of foreign policy? Realism takes as an underlying principle that the state of the world is anarchic, and under this assumption, argues that the primary goal of states is security and pursuing their own self-interests, whether that be territorial, economic or otherwise. While some scholars argue that realism as a theory is flawed as it cannot define the interests of a country categorically, within the context of the Vietnam War, realism is useful as it allows ­analysis of America’s motives for intervention against the backdrop of the Cold War and the lessons learned from World War II, without introducing concepts of morals and principles that liberalism would include, such as those of self-determination and social justice, which alone cannot be used to understand American policymakers’ decisions to both make and continue the war in Vietnam.

Reasons for the rejection of the pure application of liberal theories to understand the Vietnam War are made clear when looking at the context in which America operated in the 1950s onwards. While World War II had propelled America and the Soviet Union onto the world stage as the two most powerful states, it had simultaneously torn previously dominant countries such as Germany, Japan, France and Britain apart, leaving behind a power vacuum in both Europe and Asia. In its place stood two competing ideologies: firstly, democracy and secondly, Communism.

As such, in the face of weakened allies in Europe and the spread of Communism, the Truman administration was no longer in the position to prioritise the policies of self-determination it had lauded in World War II. Unlike Roosevelt, who had been able to argue for self-determination for all nations during World War II, the prospect of growing Soviet strength had changed the priorities of the Truman administration from maintaining principles of democracy to upholding global security. Instead American foreign policy became focussed on containment of Communism while developing good relations with countries who could support the US, such as France. Thus, it is clear that while liberalism brings forth important concepts of self-determination and principles in policymaking, the post-World War II climate had shifted America away from liberal values and towards protecting the self-interests of the state.

As such, despite the fact that the American administration knew almost for certain that Ho Chi Minh was no stooge of Communism, and was probably the “strongest and perhaps the ablest figure in Indochina”[6] according to the State Department in 1948, American policymakers refused to relinquish Vietnam and grant it independence. Repeated appeals from Ho Chi Minh to the Truman administration did nothing to change the stance of policymakers, who believed that that appeasing the French and helping to rebuild their economy by supporting their efforts to reacquire Vietnam would be necessary to secure their own sense of security against growing Communist threats. France would provide a useful ally for the US against the Soviet Union; granting Vietnam independence, though ideologically appealing, would do little for America’s state security and potentially even pave the way for Communism to gain a foothold in Indochina.

Therefore, from a realist perspective, it can be surmised that post-World War II, the US had two priorities, neither of which involved granting Vietnam independence: firstly, rebuilding a war-torn Europe in a way that would prevent further conflict happening, and secondly, preventing the spread of Communism, a goal that became more imperative following the beginning of the Korean War.

However, while rebuilding a war-torn Europe by supporting France’s claim to Vietnam in order to prevent the spread of Communism provides an explanation for why the US intervened against the Viet Minh movement, it does not explain why the US decided to continue to intervene once the French left, after a peace treaty was made in Geneva. Although America had not signed the 1954 Geneva Accords in the way that every other country that had attended the conference had, the American representative at Geneva, Walter Bedell Smith had stated that the US would take note of the agreements and “refrain from the threat or the use of force” to disturb the provisions made. [7] Yet, in a flagrant defiance of the Geneva Accords almost directly after it had been signed, the American administration supported the rise of Ngo Dinh Diem as President of South Vietnam and installed him as the puppet of America. By October 1954, only three months after the US administration had recognised the Accords, there would be 342 US military personnel in South Vietnam for the sole purpose of training the South Vietnamese armed forces against rebels in the South.[8]

Sources show again and again that this was a key point where America had the potential to pull out of the war. The Geneva Accords had not only provided the Americans with an excuse to pull troops and aid out of Vietnam, but also the opportunity to enforce free and fair elections nationwide in 1956. As aforementioned, America knew that Ho Chi Minh was no stooge of Communism and Ho Chi Minh was repeatedly described as a leader who, as Young put it, while “certainly [being] a Communist”, “put Nationalism first, had no known direct ties to the Soviet Union, but was relentless in his pursuit of direct ties to the United States”.[9] Together, Ho Chi Minh and the US administration had the potential to find a common ground on the principle of self-determination; why, then, did this not happen?

Again, a realist perspective of the US prioritising self-interests and state security that is grounded in the realities of the historical context of American intervention provides an answer. In 1954, in a personal correspondence to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Eisenhower stated, “. . . [W]e failed to halt Hirohito, Mussolini and Hitler by not acting in unity and in time. That marked the beginning of many years of stark tragedy and desperate peril. May it not be that our nations have learned something from that lesson?”[10] It seemed that while self-interest directed American policymakers towards making decisions that would protect their state on a global scale, appeasement, or ‘giving up’ in the face of another country’s victory was not an option in the decision-making process. Given the failure of appeasement as a policy to prevent war prior to World War II, the lessons that had been learned from World War II was that aggression from foreign states was to be met with a display of American strength, and the sharp rise of fascism meant that even Vietnamese nationalism was something to be feared. If a global world order were to be created, and future conflicts avoided, American strength and a credibility of commitment needed to be displayed.

Moreover, to American policymakers, this need to display American strength and a credibility of commitment seemed common sense given the challenges that Communism posed globally to world peace. The North Korean aggression created a fear that without America, other countries that were vulnerable could fall under the Communist sphere of influence. As Eisenhower stated at the Conference of State governors in 1953:

‘Suppose we lost Indochina. If that happened, tin and tungsten, to which we attach such a high price, would cease coming. That is why when the United States decides to give an aid of 400 million dollars to this war, it does not make a gratuitous offer. In reality, we have chosen the least costly means to prevent one of the most terrible things for the United States for its security, its strength and its possibility to obtain what it needs among the riches in Indochina and South – East Asia’.[11]

Eisenhower’s outlook towards Vietnam soon became known as the ‘domino theory’, and to American policymakers, cast Vietnam as a symbol of American strength and a stronghold for democracy. If Vietnam were to fall and succumb to Communism, then so too would the rest of Indochina, including Thailand, Burma and Indonesia. The domino theory argued that Vietnam was a key location within Indochina, and that the consequences of Communism spreading there would be as far-reaching as Australia and New Zealand. To America, who was concerned with protecting her national security, the domino theory espoused that Vietnam was integral to upholding world order.

Yet, to what extent did the domino theory hold with regard to Vietnam? Did policy makers truly believe that the fall of Vietnam would lead to the fall of Indochina? How much of it was an excuse for acts of American imperialism?

Sources show that certainly, during the early years of American intervention under Truman and Eisenhower in Vietnam, there was a legitimate fear within American policymakers of Communism, and a true belief that the fall of Vietnam would lead to a domino effect and the fall of other countries. In April 1950, the National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68) stated grimly that, “The issues that face us are momentous, involving the fulfilment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilisation itself”[12]. Compounded with intelligence officials calling for policies of aggressive containment in order to retract the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, the formation of the Communist People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the weakness of Europe signalled to policymakers that the need to maintain a stronghold in Asia grew; thus, under the ideals espoused under the domino theory, American policymakers began to believe that their national security and self-interests rested on protecting Vietnam from falling to Communism, and committed as many resources as possible to prevent Vietnamese independence and maintain an anti-Communist state within Vietnam without provoking Chinese intervention.

However by 1961, the American rationale for being in Vietnam seemed less justified. In Kennedy’s private comments to his senior advisors, which included the pro-war Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, and the National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, among others, it is noted that:

“[Kennedy] questioned the wisdom of involvement in Viet Nam since the basis thereof is not clear. By comparison, he noted that Korea was a case of clear aggression which was opposed by the United States and other members of the U.N.” [13]

Unlike North Korea, North Vietnam had kept to the agreements written into the Geneva Accords; instead of attempting to reunify militarily with the South, the North turned instead to strengthening its economy and gaining political support through a series of land reform programmes. While American intervention had prevented the South from reunifying with the North by ensuring that Diem’s refusal to hold nationwide elections in the South in defiance of the Geneva Accords was upheld, the lack of American intervention in the North had not lead to a collapse of North Vietnam to Communism. In contrast, Young notes that Khrushchev, who had been hoped to loosen the tension between the Soviet Union and the US, had even suggested that the states could be permanently divided as early as 1957.[14] Thus, while key advisors McNamara, Rusk and Bundy remained positive in the face of these statements that the creation and stabilisation of an anti-Communist state in South Vietnam was still possible, it was clear that the domino theory no longer applied and that there was little real justification for America to be intervening for an anti-Communist state in Vietnam.

Yet, even as the US administration realised that the domino theory held little plausibility with regard to Vietnam, the rhetoric remained the same. Following inquiries into the stability of Diem’s US-backed regime in the South, in 1963, Kennedy stated in a press conference that “We want to see a stable government [in South Vietnam], carrying on a struggle to maintain its national independence… We are not going to withdraw from that effort. In my opinion, for us to withdraw… would mean a collapse not only of South Viet-Nam, but Southeast Asia.”[15] Given the growing belief that America had no right to be in Vietnam, why did America continue to escalate the conflict, even as policymakers slowly came to the realisation that the domino theory did not apply? What self-interests could have possibly motivated America to continue a war that was not only costly at home, but went against the very principles of self-determination that America had been founded upon?

Even without the domino theory, the American need for world order and a space to exhibit the credibility of American commitment existed. As Bundy had stated to President Johnson:

We want to keep before Hanoi the carrot of our desisting as well as the stick of continued pressure… A reprisal policy – to the extent that it demonstrates US willingness to employ this new norm in counter-insurgency – will set a higher price for the future upon all adventures of guerrilla warfare, and it should therefore somewhat increase our ability to deter such adventures. We must recognise, however, that that ability will be gravely weakened if there is failure for any reason in Vietnam.[16]

Thus, while the Americans believed that they could still ‘win the war’ against the Southern guerrilla movement and establish an anti-Communist, US-backed regime in the South like they had done in South Korea, the goal of American policymakers remained unchanged, even as their one real justification (the domino theory) for intervention in Vietnam faded away.

In this way, successive American policymakers began to view the American commitment in Vietnam solely as a symbol to the world of American commitment to policy and democracy; commitment of which was renewed in each successive presidency by the belief of each president that whereas the previous president had failed to suppress the North, this time, America would win. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech at John Hopkins University directly addressed the question of ‘why Vietnam’, stating three reasons:

We are there because we have a promise to keep
We are also there to strengthen world order
We are also there because there are great stakes in the balance[17]

While sources show that it is clear that Johnson never wanted to fight the war in Vietnam and give up his domestic plans to form the Great Society, which he once referred to as “the women [he] really loved”[18], Johnson felt bound to the commitments that future presidencies had made. While there was still a chance that America might win the Vietnam war and squeeze the North into a surrender under America’s War of Attrition strategy, Johnson felt that to give up would be “being responsible for America’s losing a war to the Communists.”[19] Thus pride, a sense of commitment to seeing through a war that had been started by previous administrations and a mistaken belief by American policymakers that national security lay in displaying strength of commitment led to protracted warfare in Vietnam even as the presidency passed onto the Nixon administration.

It was only when it became crystal clear that the war could not be won that negotiations for peace were made. Since the summer of 1965, the anti-war movement at home had been gaining momentum and by 1967, speeches of prominent activists such as Martin Luther King denouncing American intervention compounded onto the pressures that the US faced. By the time the 1968 Tet Offensive happened, it became overwhelmingly clear that America did not have everything under control. Even as a ‘peace’ candidate, Nixon had attempted to suppress domestic anti-war demonstrations, had covertly bombed North Vietnam and encouraged the Vietnamisation of troops; it was only once it became clear that Vietnam could not be a place for Americans to display their strength, and that further commitment to Vietnam would only induce further humiliating defeats and a growing domestic anti-war movement, did American policymakers decide to withdraw from Vietnam. Finally, American policymakers had realised that there was no way for the Americans to win the war in Vietnam. American interest in using Vietnam as a means to display its credibility and power had finally come to an end; the only thing left to do was rewrite history to paint America in a better light. As President Reagan would later state, Americans in Vietnam had stood for freedom, “as Americans have always stood – and still do[20].

To conclude, the exploration of the main rationales behind American intervention in Vietnam provide interesting takeaways for the uses of realism in the study of state intervention in countries around the world today, and provide a critical lens from which to view American foreign policy. Scholars often argue that America’s rise to power as a hegemony began with the Spanish American War and peaked in the twentieth century, ending with America’s failed foreign policy in Vietnam. The Vietnam War disillusioned not only American citizens, but people around the world as to the role of world powers in foreign intervention. The Vietnam war proved that in their haste to strengthen their own state security, American policymakers had never really tried to gain an understanding of the deep nationalist sentiment that drove so many of the Vietnamese forces to mobilise against foreign intervention. Instead, American policymakers had touted the domino theory as a form of rhetoric to justify intervention as a quest for a greater good. The failed policy in Vietnam was a result of American self-interest and a lack of empathy for other nations. Today, as America continues to intervene in the Middle East in the name of democracy and justice, the Vietnam War remains a part of America’s history that serves to remind both citizens and policymakers alike what fighting in the name of justice can be.

[1] War Remnants Museum Exhibit, 2016

[2] Hunt, Michael, ‘A Vietnam War Reader’, 1st Ed, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pg. 22

[3] War Remnants Museum Exhibit, 2016

[4] War Remnants Museum Exhibit, 2016

[5] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 314

[6] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 23

[7] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 42

[8] Hunt, Michael, ‘A Vietnam War Reader’, 1st Ed, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pg. 34

[9] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 22

[10] Hunt, Michael, ‘A Vietnam War Reader’, 1st Ed, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pg. 27

[11] War Remnants Museum, 2016

[12] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 25

[13] Hunt, Michael, ‘A Vietnam War Reader’, 1st Ed, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pg. 48

[14] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 53

[15] Hunt, Michael, ‘A Vietnam War Reader’, 1st Ed, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pg. 51

[16] Hunt, Michael, ‘A Vietnam War Reader’, 1st Ed, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pg. 68

[17] Hunt, Michael, ‘A Vietnam War Reader’, 1st Ed, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pg. 70

[18] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 106

[19] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 106

[20] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 329