Cold War: How and why America got into Vietnam Return to the gallery menu
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Did President Johnson make the right decision to send forces to Vietnam in 1965?
Vietnam map

Background
The roots of the Vietnam conflict went back a long way. The whole area of Indochina (see map) had been ruled by France before the Second World War. During the war Japan took control of the area. Vietnamese Nationalists (who wanted an independent Vietnam run by Vietnamese people), led by Ho Chi Minh, fought the Japanese invaders. They used guerrilla tactics - ambushes, hit and run raids etc.

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When the Japanese pulled out of Indochina in 1945 Ho declared Vietnam to be an independent republic. However, the French did not accept this and tried to re-establish their control. Ho Chi Minh's forces (Viet Minh) then used the same tactics against the French, eventually defeating them in 1954. Peace talks followed, and in 1954 the country was divided into

  • North Vietnam ruled by Ho Chi Minh
  • South Vietnam, hostile to Ho and supported by the USA.
The USA and Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh defeated the French even though the USA had provided massive support in money and equipment.

They did this because Ho Chi Minh was a Communist. America saw this as another example of Communism trying to spread its influence. Ho Chi Minh saw the conflict as a struggle to get foreigners out of his country, but the USA did not accept his viewpoint.

Throughout the 1950s American thinking was based on the Domino Theory. This meant that if one Asian state fell to Communism the rest would follow. So, the USA had to stop the process. In 1954 the USA and numerous allies formed SEATO - an Asian equivalent of NATO. From 1954 onwards they poured money and resources into South Vietnam, determined that it would not become a Communist state.

South Vietnam was not an easy state to support. The South Vietnam government was corrupt and unpopular. As a result, anti-government forces called the National Liberation Front (also called Viet Cong) gained support among ordinary Vietnamese. Ho Chi Minh supported these rebels and soon South Vietnam was a state under siege.

In the early 1960s President Kennedy sent increasing numbers of US military 'advisers' to help South Vietnam to fight the Viet Cong. US forces in the region grew steadily, but the South Vietnamese were unable to defeat the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong attacked government targets and officials, and soon began to attack US targets and personnel as well.

In 1964 North Vietnamese boats attacked US warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Johnson got the approval of the US Congress to take any necessary action. It was the first step to war. In 1965 Johnson ordered US Marines ashore at Da Nang and the Vietnam War officially began.

Your Task
With hindsight, we know that America's decision to get involved in Vietnam was disastrous. Critics of the US government's actions in Vietnam raised a number of points:

  • US policy was based on the Domino Theory, and there was no proof that the Domino Theory was actually correct.
  • US policies were not clear - Johnson and Kennedy were not sure what they were trying to achieve in Vietnam
  • South Vietnam was not a good ally. It was a corrupt state which did not have the support of its own people.
  • The US forces were overconfident that their manpower and firepower would defeat the Viet Cong.
  • America's allies and even her own people had doubts about US policy.

Use the sources in this Case Study to decide

  • whether you feel that these criticisms are correct
  • whether they could only be seen with hindsight or whether US leaders should have seen the problems at the time.

The worksheet will help you to organise your work.