What caused the Vietnam War (1964-1973)? Essay


The Vietnam War is considered to be the one of the most significant conflicts of the twentieth century and certainly one of the most controversial wars that the United States has ever faced. This war was, in many ways, small as it involved a limited degree of action by a world superpower. In fact, during the nine years of official American involvement in the Vietnam War, just over two million Vietnamese and 58,219 Americans lost their lives. While this figure was a tragedy, it pales in comparison to the lives lost during Second World War. But this does not entirely make up the reason why the Vietnam War is so important.

Historians gauge the impact of the Vietnam conflict not only on casualty figure and geographic coverage but also on its length, intensity and global repercussions. For instance, the war in Vietnam played a great importance in the geopolitical sense since it became a flashpoint in the Cold War. Furthermore, the war took place in a turbulent period of human history and became intertwined with other social upheavals which almost brought down the American body politic.

The aim of this paper is to analyze the roots and the underlying factors that led to the US intervention in the Vietnam conflict. In the process, it is hoped that this would shed light to the phenomenon which marked significant failures specifically in US international policies and the end-result of the nine-year conflict.


Looking back at history, one will find that the US interest in Vietnam did not start with the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower. It started with the American policy of containment in the aftermath of the Second World War against the spread of communism and the growing power of the USSR. Andrew Wiest (2002) explored this aspect in his book, The Vietnam War:

In each case the scale of the threats precluded the use of massive force, so avoiding the buildup to a nuclear exchange. The US chose to adopt a policy of limited war, hoping to avoid a superpower showdown and in many ways the war in Vietnam became the main example of the US limited war policy.

After the fall of imperial Japan, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Democratic Republic of Vietnam and drafted a constitution along with a form of government based on the American model, hoping for a continued American support. He sought the help of the United States in establishing a new Vietnam but he was ignored. The American supported France’s attempt at regaining its colonies in Indochina, hence the war between the French forces and Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh Movement erupted. The American attitude in this development is reflected in William Kellog’s (2003) analysis:

Ho Chi Minh had studied in Moscow, and, in the context of the Cold War, the United States saw the Vietminh as another manifestation of the devil, the Communists, who were slowly taking over Asia. The Communists under Mao Zedong had just gained control of mainland China, and the Korean War began in June 1950. Following the containment policy, Truman determined to block the Vietminh from gaining control of Indochina and sent military aid… to support the French in their war. 

Also, there are those who argue that although opposition to communism was a major factor in the Vietnam War, Truman’s European priorities also took part in the US policy towards Vietnam. France is a key component in the US plans to build a Western European shield against Soviet military power and the US was naturally alarmed with the weakness of the French war-shattered economy and the possibility that the French Communist Party would take advantage of the situation and grab power. An examination of this aspect by Elizabeth Jane Errington and B.J.C. McKercher (1990) tells us that, “a denial of US support to French efforts to subdue a Vietnamese challenge would provoke a sufficiently hostile reaction in France to jeopardize its cooperation with US plans for building a military alliance against the threat of Soviet power in Europe.” 

Thus, the United States threw its support behind the French campaign and when it failed, it aided the democratic government, which was established by Ngo Dinh Diem to check the communist influence in the North. When the French army was gone in 1955, it became the sole task of the US to train a Vietnamese armed forces in its bid to deter the dominance of North Vietnam’s unification ambition. 

It was the Geneva Accord, which divided the country into the North and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel, with a North Vietnam ruled by Ho Chi Minh and a South Vietnam by Ngo Dinh Diem. The tension between the North and South Vietnam escalated when Diem began his crackdown in the South on those who questioned his authority and the North began sending aid to oppositionists and terrorists, particularly the Viet Cong which was organized to attack the Diem government. 

In four and a half years, henceforth – from the John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in January 1961 to Lyndon Johnson’s press conference speech of July 1965 – American involvement had grown from a simple military aid to a full-scale ground war. Initially, there were less than 1,000 American advisers in 1961 but by 1965 the number of American military personnel was to increase a hundred fold and the deployment of troops would further increase in order to counter the also swelling number of Viet Congs that has grown into a military force of over 100,000. With these figures, I underscore that earlier, the strategy was towards pacification, but by 1965 the strategy was already built on the firepower of helicopter gunships, napalm, and the B-53 bomber.

A geostrategic doctrine of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) emphasized that the loss of South Vietnam presaged the loss of Southeast Asia. Hence, as the situation in South Vietnam got worse, it was increasingly inevitable and apparent for the policymakers in Washington to recommend strong military actions in order to prevent catastrophe. In January 22, 1964, a JCS memorandum suggested aggressive measures to intimidate North Vietnam which included ground operations, air raids and direct commitment of the US combat forces. And with this, the war has officially begun.

US Role

James Gaston (1994) summarized the entire US role in the Vietnam conflict with these words:

With the US rhetoric unhinged from the realities of the war… Vietnam in part became a U.S. war fought for U.S. concerns, rather than a Vietnamese war fought with US assistance for South Vietnamese goals. 

Indeed, the previous Truman administration’s decision to begin military aid for Indochina was taken in more or less instinctive support of the US umbrella policy of containment everywhere in the world without much regard for merits of each case and, in this instance, with little knowledge of the Indochina situation.

Specifically, we highlight the US army involvement in the Vietnam War through five distinct phases: the combined French-US advisory phase (1950-1955); the US advisory phase (1955-1964); force buildup and combat phase (1965-1967); large-unit offensive combat operations (1967-1969); and the Vietnamization (1969-1973). Here we can see that the US role started in strictly advisory capacity but over the years assumed a more involved role in the armed conflict.

Since 1954, after the Geneva Accord, the Truman administration imposed a client regime on Vietnam. This regime – supported by the US – resorted to large-scale terror in order to control the population which finally elicited resistance which it could not control. The war officially broke out in the administration of Kennedy when the client regime faced imminent collapse due to lack of popular support in the country. Kennedy escalated the war in 1961-1962 by overthrowing its client regime and installing a military junta which it thought could better serve its objectives in Vietnam. This coup happened in November 1, 1963 and unfortunately led to further disintegration and the dissolution of the bureaucratic structure of the previous regime. 

The policy of the Kennedy administration was an American withdrawal only in the event of a military victory. This precipitated full-scale war in 1964 which began in the Tonkin crisis of August in that year. The incident involved the mobilization of the American state and the American society that had begun subtly over the previous months and culminated a period of psychological and institutional reorganization that began after the death of Kennedy and the end of his administration. As Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency, his administration followed the same degree of commitment in terms of the policy of containment and the policy of military victory in Vietnam. However, the difference in the Kennedy and Johnson’s administration perspective on the US role in the conflict was emphasized in what Schwab wrote:

the new President [Johnson] would determine the near-term path of the enormous resources under his control… With respect to Vietnam, the moderate cadre… all of whom were averse to a conventional war in Indochina were removed from influential positions. Indeed, a significant transition was made from the quintessential Wilsonian Kennedy White House to a Johnsonian administration that gave more power to the Pentagon and the possibilities for the use of force in Southeast Asia. 

The succeeding administration of Richard Nixon finally saw the Vietnamization phase in Indochina wherein foreign policy leaned towards American withdrawal from the war. This new policy is spearheaded by Nixon’s top diplomat, Henry Kissinger who introduced détente in the US foreign policy. Here in this policy, the common need to avoid nuclear war was seen as a basis for partnership for a stable world order. Thus, détente, to be fully enacted, required the gradual end of the US involvement in the Vietnam War. This culminated in the Vietnam War peace treaty signed 1973.

The Role of the Vietnamese Political Leadership

The Vietnamese leadership, which emerged in the aftermath of the French colonialism and the imperialism of Japan, played a major contribution in the Vietnam conflict. The agreement reached in Geneva in 1954 divided Vietnam into two political halves – the communist North and the democratic South. Central to this is the role played by Ho Chi Minh and the leadership mantle of the North Vietnamese nationalism in contrast to the weakness of the civilian leadership in the South.

When the Americans started to deploy themselves in the Vietnamese countryside, the communists were able to portray themselves as the protectors of Vietnamese traditions in the fight against a new invader. While, one could say that the Americans have very different goals from the French before them, the average Vietnamese simply saw more heavily armed white men who spoke an even more obscure foreign language with almost the same flag as the previous oppressor – red, white and blue. 

Ho Chi Minh and his followers capitulated on the Vietnamese nationalism, infusing it in North Vietnam’s political leadership for the country’s struggle for independence since the 1930s. National independence, from the North Vietnamese perspective, required the US expulsion and the reunification of the country. As Joseph Fry put it, “the North Vietnamese leadership was devoted to both nationalism and communism, and as both this war and international developments over the remainder of the century would demonstrate, nationalism was the stronger of these two ideologies. This explains the fervor that the North Vietnamese troops and its people defended their principles and objective of driving the invaders out.

The civilian leadership in the post-colonial South Vietnam, on the other hand, was plagued by instability and ineffectual political leadership. Douglas Borer (1999) has this to say in this regard:

The leadership cadre of the South Vietnamese had very poor credentials for laying claim to the Mandate of Heaven. The pre-eminent leaders of the North, Ho Chi Minh and Nguyen Giap (the military mastermind of the communist forces) had successfully fought against both the Japanese and the French. Ngo Dinh Diem, the first US choice to lead the South, had very limited personal history of anti-French nationalism, and his successors Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thie both had served in the French armed forces, which further enhanced the credibility of the communist claims to legitimacy. 

In analyzing, thus, the roles played by both Vietnamese governments’ political leaderships in the Vietnam War, it is easy to understand that even though communism is not in consonance with the Vietnamese tradition, the communist government did a better job in drawing support to its cause. 

The Russian Factor

The USSR is the main cause of the US involvement in Vietnam in the backdrop of the growing intensity of the Cold War. The collapse of the USSR in the 1990s made it possible to access volumes of literature pertaining to the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War through its archives which were now opened for historians and scholars to study and analyze. The number of literature found herein yield one significant fact which detailed the relations of Moscow and Hanoi during the escalation of conflict in Vietnam after the Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964 and the February 1965 attack by armed units of the National Front for Liberation of South Vietnam on the base of American military advisers in Pleiku which eventually triggered the US aerial bombardment of North Vietnam. During this period, the relations between the two countries were cooling in the wake of the growing differences between the USSR and China – two of North Vietnam’s patrons. However, the ouster of Khruschev in October 1964 marked a turning point in the Soviet-North Vietnamese relations. For reasons which remain still unclear up to this day, the USSR made a complete turnaround in its attitude towards Vietnam and the growing American aggression. Some historians think that perhaps Leonid Brezhnev and his entourage feared a loss of Soviet influence in the region, particularly amid the mounting differences between Beijing and Moscow which then threatened to develop into an open conflict. A research on this incident recounted:

The consolidation of China’s position in Southeast Asia at the USSR’s expense posed a potential threat to the Soviet authority in the world communist movement. Furthermore, the assassination of the US President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 and advent to power of Lyndon Johnson (whose election as president in 1964 was regarded in the USSR as an indicator of greater right-wing influence in American politics) dimmed the hopes of improvement in the Soviet-American relations that had arisen in the last year of Kennedy’s life. 

Eventually, the events that transpired in the period before the Vietnam War commenced offered a certain freedom of action to Moscow’s new leadership, which had reverted to the policy of confrontation. This attitude, as a matter of fact, was facilitated by Johnsonian Vietnamese policies and the American policy of containment in general.

And so, as history put it, the Soviet involvement in the Vietnamese War evolved into a pursuit of several goals including but not limited to an emphasis on moral and political support to what is described as the Vietnamese people’s  war against American aggression; and, the expansion of material assistance to the North Vietnamese armed forces. According to the estimates of the Soviet embassy in Hanoi, by 1968 the total value of the Soviet assistance accounted for 50 percent of all aid to North Vietnam and that as of January 1968 the total value of the assistance over the entire period was in excess of 1.8 billion rubles, with military supplies accounting for 60 percent.

The China Factor

Interestingly, China had no direct participation in the escalation of the Vietnam War except in the area of advisory in military and economic areas. Its role in the conflict in the perspective of the US was mainly as a pressure point in terms of the growing communist encroachment in Asia since the Chinese leadership mainly pursued a policy of peaceful coexistence with America. Even China’s policy in the war was limited to the country’s crisis management strategy during this period. It played no significant role in terms of causing or aggravating the Vietnam conflict having recently emerged from taxing internal war itself. 

In terms of support for national liberation movements the Chinese leadership emphasized restraint, mindful of China’s own economic problems and limitations in resources. A chronicle of the Cold War International History Project recounted China’s position in a letter by Wang Jiaxiang, Director of the CCP Foreign Liaison Department, sent to Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and Chen Yi (the three PRC officials directly in charge of foreign policy) that would shape the Chinese policy at the start of the Vietnam conflict:

On the issue of Vietnam, he asked to guard against a Korea-style war created by American imperialists, and warned of the danger of Krushchev and his associates dragging us into the trap of war. Wang proposed that in order to adjust and restore the economy and win time to tide over difficulties, China should adopt a policy of peace and conciliation in foreign affairs.

The Chinese involvement in the Vietnam War came only after the United States escalated its war efforts. Even within the period where US bombers pounded North Vietnam’s military installations, China exercised restraint. Through the Pakistani President Ayub Khan, Zhou Enlai relayed a message to President Johnson in April 2 stating that China will not take the initiative to provoke war with the United States and that China is prepared should the United States provoke a war. Here it is highlighted how the behavior of China figured in the entire conflict. Even in terms of dispatching support, the Chinese government went on as far as emphasizing that help will come not on its own initiative but when it was asked for. For instance, the desperate North Vietnam government sent emissaries to Beijing in early 1995 asking for help and that when the Chinese heeded this plea it was through a formal announcement that said:

Our principle is, we will do our best to provide you with whatever you need and whatever we have. If you do not invite us, we will not go to your place. We will send whatever part [of our troops] that you request. You have the complete initiative. (emphasis mine)

US Domestic Situation

Joseph Fry is one of the many historians who argued that the Vietnam War had not been lost by the US because of fierce Vietnamese resistance or mistaken diplomatic or military policies but because of American questions about the nation’s involvement. At first, there was an overwhelming support for US involvement in the Vietnam War since it came under the umbrella of the US containment of communism worldwide. Back in the home front Americans are sympathetic to anti-communist policies initiated by the US especially as public relations efforts played up the alarmist strategy warning of the Soviet threat. 

History tells us that presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were initially reluctant to bring the US in the Vietnamese quagmire and that popular sentiment including those from the US Congress favored an aggressive pursuit of containment in the US foreign policy. Public criticisms of the US involvement in Vietnam only came as American casualties mounted in the latter part of the 1960s. And what aggravated the public outcry against the war being fought from a distant battlefield was the social upheavals in the American society. As mentioned elsewhere in this paper, the Vietnam War became intertwined with the volatile mixture of Vietnam, the counter culture, and the Civil Rights Movement that in 1968 many observers thought that the United States was on the brink of a second American Revolution. 


The causes of the Vietnamese-American conflict go far beyond the presidents and presidential advisers that encouraged and implemented a policy of Vietnamese intervention. The true agents of American intervention existed not in the White House or the Pentagon, but at higher levels of analysis, namely, in society and in the international system. To borrow Orrin Schwab’s words, “it was the Cold War and the strategic, economic, and political expansion into East Asia of the American state as an agent of American internationalism that created the basis of the Vietnam War.” (p. 205) The Vietnam War sought to contain two phenomena, namely, communism and the emergence of the Third World as the United States represented the American society and the West in its encounter with these. The conflict coincided and certainly was a cause of the Cold War and the failure of its orthodoxy, which entailed the simultaneous emergence of the anti-technocratic intellectual and social movements of the 1960s through the 1970s. 

Also, I believe that it is very difficult to understand how the United States was drawn into Vietnam without an appreciation of the French attitude towards the Vietnamese place in its vast imperial dominion. For the French policymakers, Vietnam, although of relatively minor economic or geographic importance, is significant in its status as a global power. This figured prominently in Washington’s policy towards the direction of the French domestic politics. The French leaders were clever enough to exploit this aspect in its relationship with the United States. Charles de Gaulle (1945) for one was quick to admonish the US with these words:

If the public here comes to realize that you are against us in Indochina, there will be a 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 you will not push us into it.

Fear in communism in France and not in Vietnam initially haunted the United States. It supported the French determination to suppress Vietnamese nationalism lest it infect the entire empire aggravating economic, political, and social distress at home, Washington consciously facilitated French return in Indochina, even pressuring the Nationalist Chinese to gain Vietminh in acquiescence.

And so, while it is true that Eurocentric considerations into Vietnam no longer hold as much influence in the course of the Vietnam War, there was a major political as well as physical impact especially in the United States policy of containment and the US as perceived by the mainstream Vietnamese nationalism. 


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