A War To Change the World

A paper on the Vietnam War that explores the events that led to its outbreak as well as the effect it had on world politics after its conclusion.

The Vietnam War is an interesting war to study. The official war lasted from 1965 to 1975, but before the fighting started in 1965, the US had already been involved in Vietnam since after WWII. When Japan took over Vietnam during its quest to control Asia, the US decided to ally with Ho Chi Minh and loosen Japan’s control over the nation. When that was achieved and the Japanese were defeated, control of Vietnam went back to their colonizer: France. The Vietnamese weren’t happy about that and fought for independence. Though Minh wished to have the help of the US in their fight for self-government, America didn’t agree. Instead, they declined his proposal as President Wilson needed France to get the League of Nations approved. When Minh turned communist, the US’s side was chosen. That being said, having just finished WWII, they didn’t want to fight another war and so they had a proxy war- they sent aid and weapons so that France would fight the war for them. For the next 20 years, all America did was send aid to France to help stop the growth of Communist Vietnam. As time went on though and the French began to weaken, US involvement began to increase. They feared the ‘domino theory’ would occur- that once Vietnam fell to communism, the rest of Asia would as well. This idea is what made the conquest of Vietnam important to the rest of the world. Due to this, the US increased their aid to the French to 80% of the total amount. 

Soon, France couldn’t fight anymore, leading to the Geneva Accord. Refusing to sign, the US began to push the French out of South Vietnam in order to create their own government there. They placed Ngo Dinh Diem as the leader and moved to destabilize North Vietnam’s government. Alongside SEATO(Southeast Asia Treaty Organization), the US pledged to work together to stop the ‘common danger’ in Southeast Asia. But, despite their animosity against the Communist Vietnam government, Diem himself was a very controversial figure- a Catholic who forced his views on the Buddhist majority. The US government tried to keep such things quiet from the American people, though, not wanting to risk losing support for the South Vietnamese government. Upon the public suicide by fire of a Buddhist monk in South Vietnam though, the US government moved to overthrow Diem. This led to Diem and Nhu’s eventual assassination(though Kennedy would deny the US’s involvement in the coup, up until his own assassination three weeks later).

The proxy war soon ended as the North Vietnamese attacked a US destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin(there was a second attack cited, but that was soon proven to be non-existent), leading Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This allowed President Johnson to use whatever means he wished to stop attacks against US forces from North Vietnamese aggression. He followed this by sending troops to Vietnam on March 8, 1965 and starting the official war. During the war, the US relied heavily on bombing to defeat the North Vietnamese; they bombed the Ho Chi Minh trail and even ‘free fire zones’ in South Vietnam. They sprayed defoliants such as Agent Orange, killing trees to expose communist hideouts and kill crops- ultimately destroying half of Vietnam’s forests and creating lasting health problems for American pilots and the Vietnamese. They went on Search-and-Destroy missions to reduce villages suspected of aiding Vietcong’s. Unlike other wars where winning was based on gained territory, US soldiers in Vietnam measured victory by the amount of enemies killed in the hopes that, when fighters could no longer be replaced, the Vietcong would surrender. This strategy led to many hard fought battles and large death tolls on both sides.

As for the response at home, due to the fact that this was the first televised war, support was quick to drop as people saw the brutal events that occurred in Vietnam- from this, a Peace Movement grew. It was in 1967 that support for the war truly started to plummet as nearly 19,000 soldiers had already died while each month 30,000 more joined the war effort. They saw the war occurring and the death toll that it brought and began to question the reason for the war; if it was worth it. They all wanted the war to end, but had no exact idea on how to achieve that. Due to this, President Johnson chose not to be reelected and instead moved towards peace in Vietnam. His efforts were futile though and soon a new president was voted in: Nixon. He pushed for Vietnamization(turning fighting over to the South Vietnamese) so that, by 1971, the US’ presence had drastically diminished(though bombings did continue). Through this, the South Vietnamese Army became one of the largest and best-equipped military forces in the world. He invaded Cambodia and Laos, though, which ended in disaster and a loss of support. After this, he moved to improve relations with China and Russia- pushing the idea that policy could contain communism rather than war. Following Mao’s advice, North Vietnam finally turned to negotiation as both sides saw the war as too costly. The final 1973 peace treaty called for US withdrawal, allowed North Vietnamese soldiers to remain in the South, and left the existing South Vietnamese government in place.

As for its legacy, the Vietnam War led many to turn against war, seeing it as a brutal and irrational way to achieve peace. Many did not want to make the mistake of getting into another ‘Vietnam War’, one that brought no pride to the American people. It changed America’s view of communism as peace and negotiations were made with China, Russia, and North Vietnam- that it was better to talk about policy and change events through words than through force; the idea of using policy to fight against communism rather than physical action. Many Americans realized the complexity of the different communist countries and the cold war started to slow down and lose animosity. New health concerns were raised due the effect the chemicals used during the war had on soldiers and civilians and such weapons were forbidden from being used in war again. Nowadays, the effect of the Vietnam war is easily seen; it is a war that still harbors in the minds of all Americans and affects their choices in battle to this day.

Works Cited

Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States.

Keene, Visions of America; 2nd edition, vol. 3.

Paul Johnson, A History of the American People.

Shi & Mayer, For the Record, A documentary History of America, 5th edition.