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About this book

The Vietnam War endured for thirty years, cost billions of dollars, and resulted in thousands of Vietnamese, French, and American deaths. Massive American military intervention in Vietnam embroiled America in protests, placed enormous strains on the western alliance, and altered U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and China. David L. Anderson's concise overview critiques U.S. errors in magnifying the strategic importance of South-east Asia in the Cold War and in underestimating the strength of the Vietnamese communist movement.

Table of Contents

1. Causes: Colonialism and Containment

Abstract
For centuries the Vietnamese people resisted domination by their powerful Chinese neighbors and struggled to unify their country as an independent state. They ultimately freed themselves from China’s claims of political authority and achieved national unity only to fall victim to French imperialism. France ruled Vietnam and the neighboring kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia as colonies from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth century, until the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia during the Second World War set the stage for the Vietminh war against the French beginning in l945. Because the charismatic leader of the Vietminh movement, Ho Chi Minh, was a communist closely associated with the Soviet and Chinese Communist Parties, his challenge to France was also a Cold War issue. After the Second World War the United States emerged as the powerful leader of the coalition of Western democracies opposed to any political or military expansion of communism. US policy makers did not condone French colonialism, but they believed that US global security could not allow an ally of Moscow and Beijing to be successful in Southeast Asia against France, an ally of the United States. By the end of the administration of President Harry Truman in 1953, the United States was providing much of the financing for the French War because Paris was losing the political will to continue the conflict that critics termed the ‘dirty war.’ Geopolitical strategy, economics, domestic US politics, and cultural arrogance shaped the growing American involvement in Vietnam.
David L. Anderson

2. Commitments: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Ngo Dinh Diem

Abstract
Over the decade from 1953 to 1963, US policy toward Vietnam moved from a measured containment approach to an avowed commitment to the survival of the Republic of Vietnam in the south as a global strategic imperative. The colonial origins of the French war, doubts about Paris’s ability to prevail, and the historically marginal nature of US interests in Southeast Asia initially restrained the American involvement. The Truman administration wanted no American war in Vietnam, but was willing to aid France in Indochina for reasons of keeping good relations with a NATO ally and because of regional security concerns in Asia. In January 1953 Dwight D. Eisenhower became president, and US policy continued to concentrate on aid to France’s war effort. After little more than a year, however, Paris decided to end its almost eight-year quest to subdue the Vietminh by force. Unwilling to concede the region to communist-led political regimes, Washington chose to seek a strategic outpost in South Vietnam and provided US aid directly to Vietnamese opponents of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The Eisenhower administration identified Ngo Dinh Diem as the best available leader of this effort. By 1961 when John F. Kennedy entered the White House, Diem’s American-backed government in Saigon remained extremely insecure. The new administration increased the US commitment to its ally. The level of US economic and military aid and the number of American military personnel grew significantly. At the time Kennedy and Diem fell victim to assassination in November 1963, the United States remained firmly committed to preventing unification of Vietnam under the DRV.
David L. Anderson

3. Credibility: Lyndon Johnson’s War

Abstract
On 22 November 1963, Lyndon Baines Johnson came suddenly and unexpectedly into the presidency of the United States. In the two years that followed, he made a series of decisions that escalated US involvement in Vietnam into a major war with the DRV, and then he continued to expand the size of that American military intervention for two more years. The Vietnam War became the American war in Vietnam, and it became Lyndon Johnson’s war. Both ambitious and visionary, Johnson had always pursued political power, but he had never wanted to be a war president. His public passion was the domestic reform agenda of the liberal Democrats begun in the days of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. His dream was to create a ‘Great Society’ in America that would ensure a basic level of well-being for all citizens. During the Second World War he also shared Roosevelt’s internationalism, and after the war as a leader in Congress he supported the role of the United States as the champion of the global fight against tyranny and communism. He had a powerful faith in American ability at home and abroad to improve the condition of mankind. After he entered the White House, he told his national security adviser McGeorge Bundy: ‘What I really think our role in the world is is … to have enough power to prevent weak people from being gobbled up and then sharing what we have to prevent people from dying at forty with disease and starving to death and growing up in ignorance.… I am trying to do it at home. I would like to do it abroad.’1
David L. Anderson

4. Contention: Antiwar Protests, the Tet Offensive, and a Tumultuous Election

Abstract
The US war in Vietnam reached a turning point in 1968. As the level of fighting and the human and financial costs escalated from 1965 to 1968, public opinion in the United States, which at first supported the war, began to change, and a significant and highly vocal protest movement appeared. Organized resistance to the war expanded as the US involvement grew. Lyndon Johnson’s efforts in late 1967 to assure the public of progress in the war effort were a direct response to the outspoken criticism of American policy in Vietnam. Only a month after General William Westmoreland, at Johnson’s urging, had reported that the end of the war was coming into sight, the military forces of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) launched a surprise offensive throughout South Vietnam. This Tet Offensive, named for the Vietnamese lunar new year celebration, had a dramatic impact on American public opinion and challenged the credibility of the administration’s optimistic forecasts. Although US and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces reversed the military thrust of the Tet Offensive, the intense fighting began a chain of events that represented a halt in the escalation of the American war.
David L. Anderson

5. Consequences: Richard Nixon’s War

Abstract
During the 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon had pledged to bring the war to a ‘successful conclusion.’1 However ‘success’ might be defined by the end of 1968, for most Americans it meant in one way or another to get US ground forces out of Vietnam. Despite that understanding, President Nixon continued the US military involvement for four more years as he searched for an honorable exit that would preserve his own and the nation’s credibility. Upon taking office, Nixon and his chief national security aide Henry Kissinger knew that the voters expected them to end US military intervention in Vietnam. They interpreted that mandate, however, as requiring them to find a way to maintain US credibility. In their estimation, simply to pull out would have far-ranging domestic and international consequences. Nixon himself had been part of the conservative Republican chorus that had heaped partisan condemnation on Harry Truman for supposedly ‘losing China’ without a fight in 1949. To abandon the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) to an overt takeover by the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) would have a ‘terrible’ political impact and ‘destroy’ his administration in his view.2 Similarly, Nixon and Kissinger believed that America’s friends and enemies abroad would be closely watching how the United States extricated itself from the war. Kissinger maintained resolutely that the ‘peace of the world’ and the stability of ‘international order’ depended on the ability of the United States to end the war with its honor and credibility as a world power intact.3
David L. Anderson

6. Conclusions: Peace at Last and Lasting Legacies

Abstract
Richard Nixon’s compromise peace finally ended the futile quest of over 25 years to find an American solution for Vietnam’s post-colonial political and social structure. The departure of the last American troops left the outcome to be decided by the Vietnamese themselves. Nixon maintained that the 1973 accord was peace with honor, because US forces departed with the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) government still in place and well-stocked with US arms. Although Kissinger claimed to support Nixon’s assessment, he made other comments suggesting more cynically that the diplomatic settlement provided a decent interval between the end of US operations and the final political resolution. During that interval Nixon resigned the presidency in the face of impeachment charges connected to the cover-up of Watergate-related crimes. For US policy in Vietnam, the end came on 30 April 1975 when US helicopters lifted the last remaining US personnel from the roof of the American embassy as the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) occupied the RVN government buildings in Saigon.1
David L. Anderson
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