The Causes of the Vietnam War Essay

The Vietnam War, as it unfolded and drew to a bloody end with the emergence of detente, was one of the most important wars that the world has ever seen. Although it is small in regard to the limited geographic involvement and the force used, there lies the fact that over two million Vietnamese and 58, 219 Americans lost their lives. This number is staggering in itself for a war that primarily involved three countries. In addition, the consequence of the war and its result over the political development in the region and further conflicts made it the most significant conflict in the twentieth century. 

After World War II, Ho Chi Minh launched a guerilla movement in Indochina to counter the reestablishment of the French imperial control. This independence movement was unique in comparison with its counterparts in Southeast Asia primarily because Ho, the leader of the nationalists, was a Communist. Because of this factor, the Indochina War and the ensuing conflict in Vietnam – culminating in the Vietnam War – became entangled with the larger battle between the Soviet Union and the United States, the Cold War. 

After the French defeat in Indochina, the region was divided into three separate and independent states – Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. This took effect under the agreement on the Geneva Accords through an international conference in Switzerland in 1954. The agreement also mandated a temporary division of North and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel and that the two political divisions would be united after an election scheduled for 1956. Through this election, the system of government would be voted upon by the people. The South Vietnamese leadership refused to adhere to part of the agreement mandating the holding of an election in 1956 and Ngo Dinh Diem proclaimed a separate Republic of Vietnam. As a result of the breach in the accord, North Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh launched the Vietnam War.

The aftermath of the Vietnam War – with the defeat of South Vietnam – brought about grim repercussions particularly in the neighbor country, Laos. The Communist success in Vietnam and, eventually, Cambodia encouraged Pathet Lao, also a Communist fighter, to seize power. This development caused the massacre of a hundred thousand Hmongs, the ethnic minority group that was strongly against the communists. It is no wonder that majority of the analysis and scholarly materials about this conflict has been focused on the war itself – the way it was waged – and the consequences it brought about around the world.  

This paper will explore in detail the various factors that led to the Vietnam War. The previous outline of the developments that led to the upheaval was just a generalized events, each of which have their underlying variables that collectively culminated one of the most important wars of the twentieth century. Specifically, this paper will cover the factors starting from the French colonization and management of Indochina, the Ho Chi Minh independence movement, the American intervention and the role played by the Soviet Union and China.

French Roots

Above all, the seeds of the French colonization of Indochina led to the Vietnam War – a stage in the larger struggle for independence launched by Vietnamese nationalists.

A brief background on this aspect would lead us to the French missionaries who were the first to set foot in Indochina back in the 17th century. As their influence increased, many were expelled and executed. Because of this development, the French government decided to intervene. The noble action of protecting its citizens also became an excuse to colonize the region. By 1883, Vietnam was already a French dominion that was divided into three political territories: Tonkin in the north, Annam in the center, and Cochin China in the far south. 

The colonization of Indochina proved to be costly for France. Setting up infrastructure, and the administration and military control of the colony required huge financial contributions that deeply burdened the French state. To cover the rising expenses, the French heavily taxed Vietnamese villagers and large customs were imposed on traded goods. In addition, the Vietnamese were forced to contribute labor to plantations and mines. According to Lisa Roman (1998), it seemed like France did benefit from Indochina in the beginning, but that the colony later became more of an economic burden. Nonetheless, the French rule was deeply resented by the Vietnamese and that this gave rise to the birth of the independence efforts in the country and the rise of Ho Chi Minh.

By the 1930s, the Vietnamese nationalist movement grew strong when France’s ability to control its colony was weakened by its defeat by Germany in 1940. As Japan invaded Indochina, resistance movements grew even stronger. By the time the Japanese occupation ended, the Vietnamese nationalists were ready to seize power. The first Indochina War erupted, ending decades of French colonization. This stage in Vietnam’s history would be the foundation of the pivotal factors that would be examined by this paper – all of which would contribute to the second Vietnam War. 

The American Factor

The American involvement in Vietnam started when President Harry Truman agreed to provide assistance to France in its efforts to continue its control over Indochina. This move is part of the foreign policy that assumed for the US the responsibility of maintaining order in the world, a policy that could continue in the policies of the successive American administrations. 

The period saw the Cold War to be escalating: The Soviet, in an apparent show of force, tested their first atomic bomb in 1949, the year when Communist forces seized control in China; the US and Soviet became engaged in an indirect war as the Korean War was fought. The US policymakers apparently saw Vietnam as some form of centerpiece in the struggle against global communism. Virginia Schomp (2003) elaborated on this policy:

If Vietnam fell to the Communists… the other nations of Southeast Asia would follow. Such a disastrous loss could tip the balance of power against Western Europe and the United States.

In 1950, a classified report to President Harry Truman, called the “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security” or more popularly called as NSC 68 suggested several propositions that would outline the US foreign policy for the next fifty years, covering the Vietnam conflict, starting from the French assistance and culminating towards the Vietnam War. The NSC 68, advocated a massive military buildup, govern its relationship with the Soviet Union and China, its policy towards Communism, and would outline the rationale behind the policy of the United States as a “global policeman.” This classified document has been made public, being published in the Naval War College Review in 1975.

The assistance extended to the French figured in the American policy of containment of Communism in Southeast Asia as the nationalist leader, Ho Chi Minh, in Indochina is a rabid Communist. As it was, the rationale behind the involvement is that the US would support France because it would check the emergence of communist Vietnam, which was widely perceived to become Chinese communist satellite once the Communists prevailed. 

The perceived vital importance of the American assistance to France was expressed explicitly by Charles de Gaulle, who summoned the American ambassador to Paris and warned him with these words:

If the public here comes to realize that you are against us in Indochina there will be terrific disappointment and nobody knows to what that will lead. We do not want to become Communist; we do not want to fall into the Russian orbit, but I hope that will not push us into it. 

Consequently, the Truman administration finally relented and stopped staying neutral and started directly sending massive amounts of aid to the French forces in Vietnam but only reluctantly. His successor, President Dwight Eisenhower, increased this assistance, with the US providing $2.4 billion in military aid and military supplies over a dozen fiscal years. Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson, wrote in his Semiannual Report of the administration’s first term that:

In September 1953, $385 million were allocated to the direct support of the French Union Forces and added to the $400 million previously appropriated for this purpose in the budget for fiscal year 1954. These amounts were in addition to the regular Indochinese military assistance program for weapons and equipment, the delivery of which maintain in operational order the major weapons and equipment supplied by the United States.

Eisenhower feared the so-called “domino-effect” on the brink of the French defeat in Indochina. In a explanation in a press conference, he defined this foundation of the American policy in the next twenty years: “You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you have the most profound influences.” Then he went to persuade the doubting Winston Churchill, “If Indochina passes into the hands of the Communists, the ultimate effect on our and your global strategic position… could be disastrous… We failed to halt Hirohito, Mussolini and Hitler by not acting in unity and in time.”

In a transcript of an interview with Robert Richards, Eisenhower would further justify the US incursion in Vietnam by citing the loss of some 450 million people and the economic effects under the communist encroachment in Indochina and Southeast Asia:

The loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following, now you begin to talk about areas that not only multiply the disadvantages that you would suffer through loss of materials, sources of materials, but now you are talking about millions and millions of people…It takes away in its economic aspects, that region that Japan must have as a trading area or Japan, in turn, will have only one place in the world to go – that is toward the Communist in order to live. So the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the free world. 

The intervention, however, was not in the form of whole-hearted assistance to France as the America began pursuing its own strategy to secure its hold in the country. The American intervention in Vietnam stem from the idea that country could become a test case of American power, wherein the United States could demonstrate to ideological adversaries and worried allies that it could marshal the resources and the knowledge to determine the future of an underdeveloped country. 

Marilyn Young and Robert Buzzanco explained that Vietnam, for the American leadership, became a high-stakes laboratory in which social scientific theories of modernization, nation-building, and “internal war” might be developed and deployed and that “fighting a guerilla struggle in Vietnam, they believed, required studying the economics of national growth, the psychology of the revolutionary, and the politics of nationalism. 

The United States did not heed the French plea for help during the Battle of Dien-Bien-Phu using the British disapproval as an excuse. As a result, the French defense was breached and the Viet Minh took control. This attitude towards the French occupation, the US commitment to check the spread of communism and its own imperial ambitions – would plunge the United States into the protracted and most controversial war in this American history. Eisenhower combined both Roosevelt’s aim of terminating the French foothold in Indochina and Truman’s policy of Communist containment. Eisenhower fused this two policies into a new one, hoping to replace France in Indochina. In the book, The tragedy of the Vietnam War, Van Nguyen Duong, emphasized that with this policy, “Eisenhower was hoping to transform the rest of Southeast Asia into democratic dominoes for the region, especially setting up an efficient South Vietnamese regime to face the communist North Vietnam.”

In retrospect, General Henri Navarre, the seventh commander of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps during the First Indochina War and the in charge of the overall command during the decisive French defeat in Dien Bien Phu, claimed that the United States should not have abandoned Dien-Bien-Phu because had it intervened, it later would not have had to become involved in the war in Vietnam and that it would not have to face the political dilemma of Vietnam, which went unsolved in the next two decades.

When the French was driven out, Indochina was divided and Vietnam was temporarily split into two. America, fearing a communist domination when the Geneva Accord-mandated election was held, supported the South’s declaration of separation under the leadership of its ally, Diem.

The Rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh

In 1890, Ho Chi Minh was born with the name Nguyen Sing Cung – a son of a local court official. He worked for a French steamship after leaving college in favor of travelling in order to see the world. He was able to visit several countries including the United States and this sparked in Ho a desire to seek independence for his country. This experience was important for Ho as a person. To borrow Nguyen’s (2003) words: 

The modern nationalism of the twentieth century was largely fed by contacts with overseas intellectuals and often led by members of a diaspora of Vietnamese living in other Asian countries. The influential Dong Du movement (meaning “study in the east,” i.e. in Japan) and the Vietnamese Communist Party leadership based in China until World War II are two examples of how travel and migration – the movement of people, goods and ideas – were at the root of Vietnam’s most successful nationalist movements.

True enough, he became one of the leaders of the Vietnamese nationalist movement. Under the name Nguyen Ai Quoc – one of his several aliases – he cooperated with the United States during World War II through the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA.

OSS operatives knew that Ho was a Communist but they proceeded on helping him because he was first and foremost a nationalist who was dedicated to freeing his country from all foreign control. This suited the United States best because Ho would be, in effect, launching a resistance force that undermined the Japanese domination in the region.

Ho along with the other nationalist Vo Nguyen Giap founded the Viet Minh, short name for the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh or the Vietnamese League for Independence. While fighting against the Japanese, Ho and Giap was able to further strengthen Viet Minh and slowly extend its political control over North Vietnam. This is the time when the political seeds of the Vietnam War would take root. Ho and Giap anticipated a power vacuum – both political and military – once the Japanese forces were defeated and the French return to reestablish its foothold in Indochina. True enough, there ensued an international turbulence leading to a power vacuum in Vietnam after Japan surrendered. This helped to set the stage for Ho’s revolution. 

Indeed, after the War, the Viet Minh seized the northern city of Hanoi and established a government under the name of Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in September 2, 1945. This bold move gained support only in North Vietnam. Also, Emperor Bao Dai – the last member of the Nguyen dynasty, who had cooperated with both the French and Japanese – abdicated in favor of Ho Chi Minh, thus granting the Viet Minh government legitimacy in the eyes of the Vietnamese people. But Ho’s war with France lasted nine years until the Geneva Accords were signed in 1954 temporarily solving the conflict.

The Chinese and Soviet Roles

Indirectly, China contributed to the Vietnam War by influencing the nationalistic sentiments of Ho Chi Minh, then a young patriot who became a communist protégée to the likes of high-ranking Chinese Communist Party members such as Liu Shaoqui, Zhou Enlai and Ye Jianying. There is a bit of difficulty in unearthing the field of Ho Chi Minh’s studies in China because up until now, very little has been released in China about the nature of that relationship. However, the fact remains that Ho Chi Minh maintained close relations with the Chinese Communist leaders and that China became the most important supporter and military supplier of the Hanoi regime and its cause.

This is also true in the case of the Soviet Union. According to Young and Buzzanco:

It was in the visit to Moscow that Ho Chi Minh began to exhibit the independent approach toward strategy and tactics that would characterize his later career as a revolutionary in Asia. For instance, in letters he wrote to colleagues, including the speeches that he delivered to meetings of the Peasant International, emphasized the importance of the colonial question and the vital role of the peasantry in the Asian revolutionary process. 

Ho Chi Minh’s objectives in his revolutionary efforts has traces of the Leninist two-stage approach for revolutionary strategy, beginning with a broad-based united front of the urban and rural masses to destroy the power of imperialist authority, to be followed by a second stage led by the working class that would begin the transformation to socialism. After Lenin’s death, most Communists around the world abandoned this perspective, but Ho was steadfast in his Communist principles. 

Ho’s Viet Minh, for instance, organized peasants during the Japanese occupations and would help them as they suffered two levels of oppression during World War II. This relationship with the peasants and the masses strengthened Viet Minh, preparing it to take power in the political vacuum left by the Japanese surrender in Indochina. 

Needless to say, Ho’s experiences in China and the Soviet Union became the foundation for his Communist movement in Indochina and certainly, his attitude to foreign intervention, which was, first and foremost the spark of the Vietnam War.

The Geneva Accord

The negotiations to end hostilities in Vietnam were participated in by those with active interest in the conflict: the United States, France, China, the Soviet Union, and the factions from Vietnam itself. The agreement mandated a complete armistice in Indochina and the temporary partition of Vietnam. This was under the basic agreements of the Geneva Accords. The specific lines that defined the Vietnamese partition states:

The military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as consisting of a political or territorial boundary.” 

The Geneva Accords also stipulated the holding of an election for the Vietnamese people to decide on what kind of government the country would assume. The United States rejected this and did not sign the agreement. It reserved the right to take whatever action was necessary in the event that the agreement is breached. The foreign minister of the Republic State of Vietnam, South Vietnam government’s representative also refused to sign. As the events would unfold, this detail would become the basis for the South Vietnamese declaration of independence supported by the United States. The mandated election was never held. The South Vietnamese government declared itself as The Republic of Vietnam, an independent state. Naturally, North Vietnam did not agree. Then, because of this, the Vietnam War began. First, between the two countries; then, finally, the United States entered the fray.

Starting in the 1950s, South Vietnam was able to obtain humungous financial aid as well as military assistance from the United States. By the 1960s military intervention accelerated as the possibility of North Vietnamese take-over became very real. 

In regard to the Geneva Accord, an interesting insight would be that, this agreement could have prevented the Vietnam War had it permanently resolved the conflict, particularly in regard to the division and unification of the two Vietnams. The Northern government was still more pliant and susceptible to pressure and so would have agreed to more concessions than what it was willing to give on the eve of the renewed hostilities. This school of thought brings us back to the role of the United States in the whole circumstance. Had it agreed to hold the elections, then the war could have been averted. Here, it appears that there is some rigidity to the position taken by the US. It also highlighted the inability of the American allies to voice their opposition on the American policies, particularly when they were conceived of differently. 



The causes of the Vietnam War tell several tales in terms of political, military, and international issues that characterized the twentieth century conflicts. First and foremost, it demonstrated the weakening of the once mighty imperialists. In this regard, we have the case of France that was so weakened by Germany that it could barely sustain its administration of Indochina. Along with this aspect comes the rise of nationalist sentiments in the colonies. The Vietnam War is one of the latest conflicts that came out of the desire for the colonized to seek freedom from external control. 

Then, there is the aspect about the way modern wars are waged. We have seen this in the strategic objectives and purpose that the three-party war was based upon. For the North Vietnamese, the war was one of total political purpose, requiring the complete resources of the people. Here, the North had the political advantage. It was able to claim the rallying cry of unification because the South Vietnamese government cannot muster a political support for it, the South is mainly concerned about its survival. In regard to the American political strategy, one sees that the objectives were limited. Hence, it is apparent that war was asymmetrical in purpose. 

Then, there was the Cold War issue. The Vietnam conflict served as one of the battlefields of the Soviet Union and the United States in their own race to undermine each other, constantly competing for spheres of influence across the globe. These two countries avoided direct confrontation and sought to check and contain the power of each other by undermining each of their spheres of influence in other countries. The Vietnam War is the bloodiest of this larger conflict. The United States supported South Vietnam because it served its interests. This is the same in the relation of Soviet Union and North Vietnam. 

One could say that the Vietnam War, was partially, a consequence of the foreign policy of the United States and to a smaller extent, the Soviet Union’s. While this factor could not entirely claim sole responsibility, it certainly contributed to the beginning of the conflict as well as in its escalation.  Specifically, it is easy to conclude that the role of individual actors –especially the Presidents of the United States during the conflict, such as Truman, Eisenhower and Johnson – is pivotal in determining the course of major events in the war. 


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