Vietnam War: An American Design or Mistake Essay

From Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Johnson to Nixon’s time, Vietnam War continued as an extended attempt to pursue United States’ foreign policy of containment of Communism in favor of establishing liberal institutions and enabling expansion of democratic regimes not only in Europe but also in Middle East, Asia and East Asia. The Vietnam War is often divided into four phases (The History Place, 1999):

Seeds of Conflict 1945-1960

America Commits 1961-1964

The Jungle War 1965-1968

The Bitter End 1969-1975

Even at the Post-World War-II Yalta Conference, Vietnam was one minor item of the Agenda. During the first phase of the Vietnam War, the French ultimately regained their control over North Vietnam with men and material support form United States (US). Then this rigmarole of American involvement in the Vietnam War kept on deepening and widening till 1968. Then their began the drama of “blow hot blow cold” American three fold responses – one of withdrawing troops, secondly of continuing the presence of US forces in Vietnam despite the official stand of ending the war and thirdly US Presidential declarations about the American readiness for entering into unconditional negotiations with Chinese and North Vietnamese for ending the crisis. In reality, it is mainly the Vietnam context that was responsible for the fall of President Nixon and his ‘Watergate’ scandal.

Was the Vietnam War a design politique of the US Government? Was it really a mistake on the part of US? Was it a ‘design’ and ‘mistake’ both? These are the questions we must consider. It will be interesting to quote noted political scientist and the author of Politics Among Nations Hans J. Morgenthau from his article in New York Times Magazine and web publication here:

The address President Johnson delivered on April 7, 1965 at Johns Hopkins University is important for two reasons. On the one hand, the President has shown for the first time a way out of the impasse in which we find ourselves in Vietnam. By agreeing to negotiations without preconditions he has opened the door to negotiations which those preconditions had made impossible from the outset.

By proposing a project for the economic development of Southeast Asia—with North Vietnam a beneficiary and the Soviet Union a supporter—he has implicitly recognized the variety of national interests in the communist world and the need for varied American responses tailored to those interests. By asking “that the people of South Vietnam be allowed to guide their own country in their own way.” he has left all possibilities open for future evolution of relations between North and South Vietnam.

On the other hand, the President reiterated the intellectual assumptions and policy proposals which brought us to an impasse and which make it impossible to extricate ourselves. The President has linked our involvement in Vietnam with our war of independence and has proclaimed the freedom of all nations as the goal of our foreign policy. He has started from the assumption that there are two Vietnamese nations, one of which has attacked the other, and he sees that attack as an integral part of unlimited Chinese aggression. Consistent with this assumption, the President is willing to negotiate with China and North Vietnam but not with the Viet Cong.

Yet we cannot have it both ways. We cannot at the same time embrace these false assumptions and pursue new sound policies. Thus we are faced with a real dilemma. This dilemma is by no means of the President’s making.

We are militarily engaged in Vietnam by virtue of a basic principle of our foreign policy that was implicit in the Truman Doctrine of 1947 and was put into practice by John Foster Dulles from 1954 onward. This principle is the military containment of Communism. Containment had its origins in Europe; Dulles applied it to the Middle East and Asia through a series of bilateral and multilateral alliances. Yet what was an outstanding success in Europe turned out to be a dismal failure elsewhere (Morgenthau, 1965).

United States appeared to have been sandwiched between four stale loafs of bread slices in the context of Vietnam War! Americans could not but eat them and with all the inherent infections and self-destroying bacteria. Foreign policy principles and the so-called erstwhile isolationism combined with the American outlook of national security ethos in view of changing international compulsions after the Pearl Harbor bombing; and anti-war movements during the Vietnam War involvement of US alongside the public pressure including the condition of the American Vietnam War Veterans – all lead to a piquant and catch 22 situations. A fish bone in the throat that could be neither swallowed nor spewed out.

Both The War at Home and Witness to War convey to a new generation how deeply felt were the protests against the war and how the Vietnam experience extended into the 1980s.Pretests and post-tests on factual information are increasingly popular in education as a means of verifying “value added” through schoolwork. Courses on Vietnam that allow students to compare the “scratches on their minds” at the beginning and end of the semester are an educational way to look at value change. Using such comparisons helps students to see themselves increasingly as people who can understand complex issues, decide their own position, and choose how to act on intellectual commitments they have learned to make. All of postwar Vietnam’s woes have been publicized as proof that the U.S. government was correct in having become involved in opposing communist totalitarianism. The plight of the boat people and the existence of the killing fields in Cambodia are used as further evidence that the antiwar protesters were both naïve and deranged. A flood of writings supports the hawkish revisionist view that the war could have been won if it had been fought harder. And many of those who have reached middle or higher levels in government believe the war had been won militarily when the cowardice of the politicians led to limiting the use of American force and then premature retreat from the battlefield. This belief justifies ongoing intervention throughout the world and covert operations which amount to a secret foreign policy. Commentators who do not resent losing the war commonly refer to it as a tragedy for which no one is responsible, or a mistake that arose from the best of intentions coupled with the worst of misinformation. (Adams, 1989, 160).

Despite above mentioned dilemmas of American decision makers, their consistent commitment to basic principles of foreign policy must be appreciated. They have committed blunders in Vietnam War and their nearly thirty years’ involvement in this prolonged faux pas has bestowed upon them and upon American public the bad omen of millions of precious lives lost and killed mercilessly due to decisions of those who were otherwise thought to be professionals never making a mistake. Vietnam has, indeed, been the most disgusting and inhuman experience of the Americans but for their devotion to the philosophy of spread of democracy and containment of totalitarian communism in the world.

The thirty years’ active American involvement cannot be a momentary plunging into the Vietnam debacle. It certainly was a design of the decision makers. Yet, it was a dastardly and atrocious design. 

American citizens are known to be free thinkers, highly democratic, freedom loving, caring for human values of equality and humanitarianism and their love for justice. One wonders what happens to them when some among them come to C. P. Snow’s ‘corridors of power’!

United States involvement was also a great blunder politically, economically, socially and ethically.

However, initially, the Americans got involved in the Vietnam fiasco mainly due to their role and commitment for establishing peace in the world after the Second World War as leaders of the Allied forces. 

In international politics and in the realms of foreign policy, American decision makers have mostly been making fallacious decisions but for their latest vow of ‘War against Terror’. Their approach to foreign policy matters is primarily of dominating other smaller nations – much away from the fundamentals of democracy and humanitarian perspectives of global security. This attitude must change. It seems, even in this world of mutual interdependence, return of President Munro’s ‘isolationism’ is necessary for American foreign policy – at least anent human and ethical contexts of international dealings because only Morgenthau’s realism would not do much today.



Hans J. Morgenthau (1965), “We Are Deluding Ourselves in Vietnam,” New York Times Magazine, 18 April, New York. See also

Nina Adams (1989), “Teaching About the Vietnam War: Bringing It All Back Home to the Classroom”, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. Volume 21, Issues 2-4, pp. 156-160., 1999.