After the Cold War, the United States (US) and Soviet Union remained the top two superpowers. As the Cold War progressed, the ideological battle was often fought in countries that held little physical strategic value (except for the purpose of containment). One such country was Vietnam, an Indochina region that was historically under French control. During the 1960’s and 70’s, however, there was also influence by China over Vietnam. The Soviet Union attempted to gain control within third world countries as well. Consequently, since the US adopted a protectionist attitude toward the world, they had no choice but to intervene as well.
While this relatively insignificant location was an obscure location for the US to attack, this sample history paper by Ultius explains how it fit perfectly into the context of the cold war. As an ideological battle for supremacy, the US felt that it was integral to offer relentless support to the anti-communist forces in an effort to undermine the influence of both China and the Soviet Union. Similarly, the Communist presence in the third world was also important to the Soviets throughout the cold war. Despite facing domestic problems and a resilient Northern Vietnamese opponent, the United States and Lyndon b. Johnson persisted in fighting a war of attrition mainly due to strong international political pressure to support democracy and eliminate communism.
The Vietnam War in a Broader Context
Did ideological flexibility cause the war?
In his book titled “The Vietnam War: A Concise International History,” Mark Lawrence proposed that the broader international context of the cold war along with the openness to influence of Vietnam allowed the war to take place in the first place. The overall openness to influence stems from Vietnam’s transition from their colonial past with France to the rise of international communism and the problems inherited from it. As the Soviet Union was actively spreading their philosophy onto smaller third world nations, the US took a vigorous role in attempting to defend and support democracy simultaneously. The fact that ideology played a driving force in policymaking epitomizes the notion that Vietnam had more to do with the international context of the cold war than it did the country itself. The symbolism of losing a country to communist rulers via military dictatorship was a paradigm of failure to the US. Therefore, it was important for the US to quickly intervene in Vietnam’s affairs.
The critical importance of Vietnam was present because of its relative ideological flexibility and the fact that the superpowers were aggressively policing and spreading their ideologies. As when under colonization control by the French, “Vietnam’s political development owed much to … shift[s] in the larger geopolitical environment” (Lawrence, 9). One such shift in the larger geopolitical environment was the cold war. The Soviet Union was aggressively pursuing their policies of aiding and spreading socialist ideals while simultaneously the US was implementing containment. In essence, the US was trying to stop the overall spread of Communism. One clear example was the Marshal Plan in rebuilding Europe. The funding was only offered to nations who embraced a democratic government. Such a clear bias blatantly outlined the polarized viewpoints held by the opposing governments. As it happened, Vietnam became “a vital front in the global confrontation between democratic capitalism and international communism” (28). The larger ideological struggle among the superpowers was a much more relevant reason for why Vietnam was a war zone during the late 1960’s up through the mid 1970’s. (Read more about the events of the Vietnam War.)
A reputation at stake
A primary reason for US intervention was the fact that America’s reputation was largely at stake. Early on, efforts to unify the country under one regime was seen by “policymakers… as a result of Northern aggression against the South” (Lawrence, 65). As Vietnam was struggling for unity among the southerners and northerners, the US saw it as a prime opportunity to make a stand for democracy. However, the reason for US intervention was not as pure as the quest for democracy. Instead, there was the accountability and overall reputation of the US to make a strong stand in Vietnam, especially after its stale-mate intervention during the Korean War (Lawrence, 71). The political pressure to not look weak and take action for their international plans prompted the US to quickly take action in making Vietnam a democracy. Simultaneously, Leonid Brezhnev, a prominent Soviet leader, also intervened on behalf of Vietnam simply because “failure to do so would cede Southeast Asia to Chinese domination and weaken Soviet claims to leadership throughout the Third World” (Lawrence, 95). Therefore, we see this issue of reputation and accountability for third world countries present for not only the US, but for the Soviet Union as well. The general theme of international democratic and/or communist hegemony was largely at stake for both sides.
The fight for democracy
In fighting the Vietnam War, the US pursued a strategy of attrition to promote their reputation of relentless support for the sake of democracy. Lawrence remarked that “the Joint Chiefs pursued a strategy of attrition” in fighting the Vietnam war (Lawrence, 102). The risk of losing a country to the spread of international communism was well worth the risk of casualties and a stale mate to US policy makers. As the war progressed and a stale mate evolved, both US citizens and Southern Vietnamese ones became tired of war. However, since the US felt that it was very critical to the international context of democracy to police the world, the war of attrition persisted. Lawrence remarked that a primary reason the US didn’t effect from the war was because of the implications it would have on the reputation of the US promise to enforce democracy (Lawrence, 138). This would have spread throughout the globe and some nations on the tipping point of socialism may have been enticed to convert as well. This is a major part of the reason that Nixon and his advisors sought to “isolate North Vietnam diplomatically” (Lawrence, 139). Clearly, this emphasizes the notion that broad ideological goals such as democracy were the driving force behind the US initiative to not only engage in war in Vietnam, but to continuously support it even after extensive American lives were lost and domestic support had severely declined.
Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam, and the threat of Communism
As a presidential response, Lyndon Johnson took a similar approach as previous presidents did. Essentially, Johnson benchmarked the events of the 1930’s and concluded that communist expansion threatened the delicate balance of world order (Rosenberg, 741). Consequently, Johnson fully utilized the Gulf of Tonkin Resolutions in order to fully control military power without necessarily consulting or gaining approval from the senate beforehand. In doing so, Johnson was simply trying to stop a dictator [Vietnam] before he gained full control of the nation and disrupted world order and democracy (Rosenberg, 742). Moreover, using his aggressive approach in combating communism, Johnson applied the notion of relentless fighting and attrition, despite US casualties and domestic unrest. Indeed, polls showed that Johnson did receive limited approval from the US following 1966. Nonetheless, as Lawrence and Rosenberg remarked, the risk of looking weak on an international stage was extremely dangerous considering that the Soviet Union had gained so much ground with their expansion of communism over the course of twenty years after WWII had ended. (Curious about WWII? Learn more.)
The implications of such a relentless position were also very clear. The even matched nature of the war proved to be disastrous for the US in terms of quickly eliminating the threat. One such reason was because the US had a difficult time mobilizing the southern Vietnamese people in a joined effort to combat the north (Lawrence, 136). That is, the southerners were tired of war and the US was left to fight a majority of the battle. Moreover, “new administration ran up against old problems. Though badly damaged, communist forces refused to buckle. Though apparently stable, the South Vietnamese government failed to gain support among its people. Though relieved by declining U.S. casualties, the American public and Congress continue to sour on the war” (Lawrence, 137). Essentially, on all fronts, the US effort to quickly eliminate the communist threat because of domestic Vietnamese issues resulted in a juxtaposition. Indeed, the US was caught in a quagmire situation. By leaving the war effort early, they risked looking weak in an international context while simultaneously allowing the Soviet ideology to take supremacy over democracy.
Additional Reading: How do presidential beliefs affect foreign policy decision-making?
What Vietnam symbolized for America
To summarize, the US felt very strongly that they needed to both support democracy and suppress communism in order to maintain hegemony over the world stage. In failing to do so, the US and it’s foreign policy of intervention would appear weak and a domino effect would most likely happen (according to Johnson). Moreover, the Vietnamese situation of a declining French colonial experience to one dominated by Chinese and Communist influences enticed the US to intervene quickly on behalf of Southern Vietnam. Also, in choosing to defend democracy on a world stage, the reputation that the US had inherited in the post-WWII era needed to be supported. In doing so, the US further emphasized the critical importance of democratic governments. President Johnson also took this approach of aggressiveness and containment very seriously, despite lowering domestic support and a difficult war time experience. The relative stalemate among the US and Vietnam forces even further supported the notion that the US was willing to sacrifice a lot for a strategically insignificant country for the sole reason that it held more symbolic and ideological value. Finally, the war resulted in political turmoil that would last over the next forty years until President Obama lifted the Vietnam embargo.
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Lawrence, Mark. The Vietnam War: A Concise International History. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Rosenberg, Philipp. “Presidential Beliefs and Foreign Policy Decision-Making: Continuity during the Cold War Era” 7(4). Political Psychology, 1986. 733-751. Web. JSTOR.
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