The War in Vietnam


Direct U.S. military participation in The Vietnam War, the nation\'s
longest, cost fifty-eight thousand American lives. Only the Civil War and the
two world wars were deadlier for Americans. During the decade of Vietnam
beginning in 1964, the U.S Treasury spent over $140 billion on the war, enough
money to fund urban renewal projects in every major American city. Despite
these enormous costs and their accompanying public and private trauma for the
American people, the United States failed, for the first time in its history, to
achieve its stated war aims. The goal was to preserve a separate, independent,
noncommunist government in South Vietnam, but after April 1975, the communist
Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) ruled the entire nation.
The initial reasons for U.S. involvement in Vietnam seemed logical and
compelling to American leaders. Following its success in World War II, the
United States faced the future with a sense of moral rectitude and material
confidence. From Washington\'s perspective, the principal threat to U.S.
security and world peace was monolithic, dictatorial communism emanating from he
Soviet Union. Any communist anywhere, at home or abroad, was, by definition,
and enemy of the United States. Drawing an analogy with the unsuccessful
appeasement of fascist dictators before World War II, the Truman administration
believed that any sign of communist aggression must be met quickly and
forcefully by the United States and its allies. This reactive policy was known
as containment.
In Vietnam the target of containment was Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh
front he had created in 1941. Ho and his chief lieutenants were communists with
long-standing connections to the Soviet Union. They were also ardent Vietnamese
nationalists who fought first to rid their country of the Japanese and then,
after 1945, to prevent France from reestablishing its former colonial mastery
over Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. Harry S. Truman and other American
leaders, having no sympathy for French colonialism, favored Vietnamese
independence. But expanding communist control of Eastern Europe and the triumph
of the communists in China\'s civil was made France\'s war against Ho seem an
anticommunist rather than a colonialist effort. When France agreed to a quansi-
independent Vietnam under Emperor Bao Dai as an alternative to Ho\'s DRV, the
United States decided to support the French position.
The American conception of Vietnam as a cold war battleground largely
ignored the struggle for social justice and national sovereignty occurring
within the country. American attention focused primarily on Europe and on Asia
beyond Vietnam. Aid to France in Indochina was a quid pro quo for French
cooperation with America\'s plans for the defense of Europe through the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization. After China became a communist state in 1949, the
stability of Japan became of paramount importance to Washington, and Japanese
development required access to the markets and raw materials of Southeast Asia.
The outbreak of war in Korea in 1950 served primarily to confirm Washington\'s
belief that communist aggression posed a great danger to Asia . Subsequent
charges that Truman had "lost" China and had settled for a stalemate in Korea
caused succeeding presidents to fear the domestic political consequences if they
"lost" Vietnam. This apprehension, an overestimation of American power, and an
underestimation of Vietnamese communist strength locked all administrations from
1950 through the 1960s into a firm anticommunist stand in Vietnam.
Because American policy makers failed to appreciate the amount of effort
that would be required to exert influence on Vietnam\'s political and social
structure, the course of American policy led to a steady escalation of U.S.
involvement. President Dwight D. Eisenhower increased the level of aide to the
French but continued to avoid military intervention, even when the French
experienced a devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu in the spring of 1954.
Following that battle, an international conference at Geneva, Switzerland,
arranged a cease-fire and provided for a North-South partition of Vietnam until
elections could be held. The United States was not a party to the Geneva
Agreements and began to foster the creation of a Vietnamese regime in South
Vietnam\'s autocratic president Ngo Dinh Diem, who deposed Bao Dai in October
1955, resisted holding an election on the reunification of Vietnam. Despite
over $1 billion of U.S. aid between 1955 and 1961, the South Vietnamese economy
languished and internal security deteriorated. Nation building was failing the
South, and, in 1960, communist cadres created the National Liberation Front
(NLG) or Vietcong as its enemies called it, to challenge the Diem regime.
President John F. Kennedy concurred with his predecessor\'s domino theory
and also believed that the credibility of U.S. anticommunist commitments around
the world was imperiled in 1961. Consequently, by 1963 he