John F. Kennedy briefs the press about the situation in Vietnam, 1961.
US involvement in Vietnam was slow coming but increased significantly in the early 1950s. The United States had only a moderate interest in Asia until 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and Washington reciprocated by declaring war on Tokyo. The Viet Minh was formed the same year, as an underground movement to resist both the French and Japanese. By 1944, American agents of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA) were operating in southern China and northern Vietnam. The OSS men struck up a working alliance with the Viet Minh, who assisted with the safeguarding and repatriation of American pilots downed over Vietnamese territory. In return, Ho Chi Minh’s men were supplied with weapons and equipment by the OSS. This arrangement was based on expedience rather than political similarities – still, Ho Chi Minh nurtured some hope that Washington might back the Viet Minh to govern an independent Vietnam. When Ho declared independence in September 1945, he drew heavily on the United States’ Declaration of Independence, citing its Enlightenment values of nationalism, popular sovereignty and self-determination. The Viet Minh leader hoped to show the US that his own political values were not far removed from their own, and that he was not to be feared.
American involvement in Vietnam from late 1945 was shaped by the Cold War. The prevailing view of the US government was that communism must be contained, in both Europe and Asia. If this did not occur, according to the Domino Theory – which was accepted with little question in Washington – then communism would jump from one nation to others. The Domino Theory was particularly relevant to Asia, with its poorly controlled borders, weak governments and low capacity for resisting communist infiltration. Having spread from China to Korea, American planners believed that communism would spread further south to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Malaya and Indonesia. If all south-east Asia fell to communism, its exponents would rule more than one-quarter of the globe, from East Germany across to the fringes of Japan, the Philippines and Australia.
Washington backs France
This view was espoused by vice-president Richard Nixon, speaking in December 1953:
“Let us turn now to another area of the world: Indochina. And many of you ask this question: Why is the United States spending hundreds of millions of dollars supporting the forces of the French Union in the fight against communism in Indochina? If Indochina falls, Thailand is put in an almost impossible position. The same is true of Malaya, with its rubber and tin. The same is true of Indonesia. If this whole part of south-east Asia goes under communist domination or communist influence, Japan, who trade and must trade with this area in order to exist, must inevitably be oriented towards the communist regime. That indicates to you and to all of us why it is vitally important that Indochina not go behind the Iron Curtain.”
The US, determined to prevent this, backed the return of the French in Vietnam. This rankled with some American leaders, who despised colonialism and believed that Asian nations should be free to govern themselves. But to many in Washington, the revival of French colonialism in Indochina was a lesser evil than a communist-ruled Vietnam. France, after all, was a democratic capitalist state and an important Cold War ally. It could be relied on to secure Indochina from communist infiltration. The Viet Minh, on the other hand, was riddled with communists and could not be trusted. The US considered Ho Chi Minh to be unreliable and possibly deceitful. He mouthed the slogans of a nationalist but Washington deemed him a communist. There was significant evidence to support this view, such as Ho’s work within the Soviet Union, the Comintern and the Chinese Communist Party.
American support for the French in Vietnam was offered gradually. In late 1945 Washington’s formal position was one of neutrality, but by early 1947 the US was tacitly supporting France. Later that year, president Harry Truman authorised a moderate amount of funding ($160 million) to assist the French war effort. US administrators also turned a blind eye when Paris diverted some Marshall Plan funds to supply the war in Indochina. By 1951 US aid to the French had tripled to $450 million; by 1953 it was up to $785 million. French forces in Vietnam were using ships and aircraft on loan from the US. CIA agents were conducting covert operations in Vietnam, in support of the French, like carrying out 700 supply drops to CEFEO troops trapped at Dien Bien Phu (1954). By the time French forces surrendered to the Viet Minh in mid-1954, Washington had invested almost $3 billion in ‘saving’ Indochina from the spectre of communism.
Deeper into the mire
The US government became involved in Vietnam slowly. Each step of the way, for more than 20 years, policy-makers debated options, considered alternatives, and ultimately chose deeper involvement. By mid-1965, a series of incremental steps led to US ground troops facing combat in Vietnam. By 1968 the war had become a quagmire with no clear road to victory. Only in 1973, after laying waste to Vietnam and suffering massive casualties, would the United States ingloriously pull out the last of its troops. America’s longest war tore the nation apart.
David R. Farber
The French surrender and withdrawal triggered greater US involvement in Vietnam. American delegates attended the Geneva conference of April-July 1954, though they did not fully participate or sign the final agreement. Washington by then had decided to create a nationalist, democratic South Vietnamese state. With American aid and backing, the South should be capable of resisting the communists in the North. The temporary division decided at Geneva would become more permanent, if the Americans had their way, containing the communists to North Vietnam. Washington began the search for an indigenous Vietnamese leader with pro-Western and anti-communist values. They did not have to look far: Ngo Dinh Diem had been living in North America since 1951. Politicians and policy makers of every colour took a shine to Diem; he seemed exactly the kind of person needed to shore up South Vietnam and construct a bulwark against communism. In 1954 the US parachuted Diem into power, persuading Bao Dai to appoint him prime minister. Diem was provided with massive American support: recognition, aid money, military equipment and training, trade deals and advice.
America’s mission in Vietnam now hinged on two things: Diem becoming an effective leader and Ho Chi Minh accepting the north-south division of Vietnam. By the early 1960s, it was clear that neither had occurred. The US government’s state-building had not succeeded – South Vietnam was largely a failed state, ruled by brutal nepotists and propped up by American aid. The South Vietnamese military, by and large, was incapable of defending the new nation. Meanwhile, in Hanoi, the Lao Dong government was plotting to achieve reunification by stealth. War was imminent and when it came, it would draw the Americans even deeper into the strategic problem that was Vietnam.
1. The US had little interest in Vietnam until World War II, when American agents worked with the Viet Minh against Japanese occupiers.
2. Ho Chi Minh hoped the US would back Vietnamese independence but it supported the return of the French.
3. US foreign policy was based on the Domino Theory of Asian nations ‘toppling’ and succumbing to communism.
4. The US pumped aid and supplies to the French during their war with the Viet Minh, investing almost $3 billion in the years prior to 1954.
5. The French withdrawal led to direct US involvement, including continued aid and the formation of a South Vietnam government under Diem.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “US involvement in Vietnam”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/vietnam/us-involvement-in-vietnam/.