On 12 March 1947, President Harry Truman addressed Congress, hoping to promote U.S. aid to anti-Communist governments in the Middle East and Asia. "At the present moment in world history," President Harry S. Truman proclaimed, "nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life." On the one hand, he explained, the choice is life "based upon the will of the majority," and "distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression." Truman painted the other option—communism—as life in which the will of a few is forcibly inflicted upon the majority. "It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedom."37
With the end of World War II, the United States and its one-time ally, the Soviet Union, clashed over the reorganization of the postwar world. Each perceived the other as a significant threat to its national security, its institutions, and its influence over the globe. To the United States, the USSR was intent on spreading communism by any means necessary. And with each move made by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to spread his sphere of influence in order to secure his nation's borders, the U.S. found its fears confirmed.
President Truman, then, thought it vital that the U.S. find ways to strengthen its alliances abroad. The United States must embrace a new, global role, Truman urged, whereby it would befriend nations hostile to the USSR and orchestrate the battle against the growing Communist threat. Congress agreed that the Communist menace must be contained and that American foreign policy should be based on the preservation of those regimes prepared to fight it. Thus, it approved the "Truman Doctrine," authorizing millions of dollars in military aid, grants to train foreign armies, and the allocation of U.S. military advisors to countries such as Greece, Turkey, and later Vietnam.
By the late 1940s, a Vietnamese revolutionary movement led by communist leader Ho Chi Minh had successfully expelled Japanese occupying forces and kept France from reclaiming Vietnam as its colony. Minh, who had been seeking independence for his homeland since World War I, declared his nation free at last. In his declaration of independence, the self-proclaimed Chairman of Vietnam appealed to other freedom-loving nations for support: "We are convinced that the Allied nations, which at Teheran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Viet-Nam."38
But the United States—along with two other Allied powers, Great Britain and France—did in fact refuse to recognize Ho Chi Minh's government, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Truman's administration was suspicious of Minh's success and concluded that only a great and menacing power—like the Soviet Union—could have masterminded such a victorious revolution. The U.S. could not afford to assume, the State Department concluded, "that Ho is anything but Moscow-directed.39" Truman heeded the warning, rebuffed Minh's petition for support, and began funneling money, ammunition, ships, aircraft, military vehicles, and other supplies into a growing French war—a war to regain its Vietnamese colony. By the end of President Truman's final term in office, the United States—a nation born of a war for independence—was paying for nearly 40% of all military expenses in France's colonial conflict.
But even with millions of dollars in aid, the French were losing, and losing badly.
What had gone wrong? Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican candidate for president in 1952, concluded that Truman and the Democrats had failed to do enough to whip the French into shape. As a former Allied Army commander, Eisenhower promised the American people he would wage a more vigorous Cold War campaign by—as one American military advisor phrased it—putting "the squeeze on the French to get them off their fannies."40
Despite increased economic and military aid in 1953, a French defeat appeared inevitable. But the U.S. refused to abandon the European power. "Destiny," the president-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower pronounced to the nation, "has laid upon our country the responsibility of the free world's leadership."41 Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles agreed that U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam would have dangerous global consequences and would certainly lead to the worldwide spread of communism. Describing communism in Vietnam, Eisenhower explained to the American people, "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 could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences."42
But how far would Eisenhower be willing to go to plug what he called the "leaky dike" in Indochina? Should he send American troops? If so, how many? If the U.S. were to intervene directly, and perhaps to declare its own war against the Viet Minh, would America win where the French had failed? Could the U.S., with its new role as "leader of the free world," afford to be defeated by a communist enemy, or would such a loss have worldwide repercussions? By early 1954, that leak began to gush, and for the first time the U.S. government considered the option of sending American troops to Vietnam, a decision that all leading officials hoped to avoid. Eisenhower's administration may have been tempted to step in, but in the end voted against direct military action. The stakes were far too high.
Just one month after President Eisenhower delivered his foreboding "domino theory" statement, Indochina fell; without American firepower the French army surrendered and Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh declared victory.
The U.S. was not at all pleased with the peace agreement. It refused to endorse the Geneva Peace Accords, arguing that they afforded too much power to communist leadership in Vietnam. Much to the U.S. government's dismay, France and the Viet Minh agreed to divide the region nearly in half, with Ho Chi Minh controlling the North and France maintaining its influence over the South. Furthermore, according to the terms of the Accords, national elections would be held in two years in an effort to reunify the country. The U.S. predicted that if the elections took place, Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Party of Vietnam would be certain to win. Thus, the concessions in the peace agreement, U.S. Secretary of State Dulles reported, would have disastrous consequences; it's all "something we would have to gag about," he remarked.43
South Vietnam's new reigning leader, President Ngo Dinh Diem, was just as concerned about the Geneva Accords, and sought to find a way around them. Diem understood that he stood to lose the 1956 elections, likely by a wide margin. He was exceedingly unpopular; he represented the wealthy landlord class in a country of peasants and tenant farmers, and he favored Vietnamese Catholics in a largely Buddhist state (only about 15% of the country was Catholic).44 Stubborn, ruthless, and—perhaps justifiably—paranoid, he refused to allow political opposition; he persecuted his enemies, expelling, imprisoning, or executing those who opposed his regime. Diem abolished all local elections and appointed all political and military officials himself, reserving these positions for men most loyal to him and his family. Furthermore, to create the illusion of a statewide mandate, he rigged a referendum vote on his presidency in October 1955, and won an astounding—and dubious—98% approval rating. (For instance, out of a total of 450,000 registered voters in Saigon, an astronomical 605,025 voted in favor of Diem!)45 Diem proclaimed that the referendum negated the need for national elections in 1956, so the date established by the Geneva Accords for Vietnam-wide free elections came and went.
For all intents and purposes, the United States, by financing and encouraging the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, supported an autocrat. Senator John F. Kennedy expressed grave concern about this moral paradox. The U.S. had helped to create Diem, Kennedy and his colleagues admitted, and that may have been a mistake. But by violating the Geneva Accords and allowing Diem to cancel national elections, the U.S. had become accountable not only for the growing unpopularity of the regime, but also for the rising tide of resistance in South Vietnam. "This is our offspring," Senator Kennedy said in 1956, "and if it falls victim to any of the perils that threaten its existence—Communism, political anarchy, poverty and the rest—then the United States, with some justification, will be held responsible."46
Four years later, John F. Kennedy was poised to confront the repercussions of this alliance. At first, he and his closest advisers underestimated the will of the North Vietnamese and knew little about the growing anti-Diem insurgency in the South. Maintaining an independent South Vietnam, Kennedy surmised, would require political maneuvering and the aid of military advisors, but hopefully no combat soldiers or any significant armed aggression. Kennedy's administration had other, more pressing matters to attend to; in Cuba, Communist leader Fidel Castro cooperated with the Soviet Union in establishing Russian missile bases on the island. The tense crisis of brinkmanship that followed ended in negotiations that favored the United States. So it seemed that the lesson to be learned from Cuba was that the U.S. need only to effectively resist Communist aggression—and, perhaps, Soviet aggression—in Vietnam. If Kennedy could succeed against the North Vietnamese the way he had against the Communist alliance in Cuba, then disaster would be averted.
But Vietnam was not at all like Cuba, and the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the growing unrest, the unrelenting violence, and the escalating dissent in South Vietnam. By May 1963, amidst a series of tumultuous demonstrations in Saigon, it had become clear to Kennedy's administration that Ngo Dinh Diem had to go. On 2 November 1963, the South Vietnamese military—with the encouragement of the United States government—executed Diem and seized control of the government. "Nobody in Washington had said, 'Shoot Diem.' You don't do an assassination that way," a member of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff remarked. "The way people are assassinated is by taking away the power that had been created to keep them there."47 Three weeks later, in Dallas, Texas, President Kennedy died from an assassin's bullet.
"We must be strong enough to win any war, and we must be wise enough to prevent one," Lyndon B. Johnson declared in his first presidential State of the Union address in January 1964. Hinting at recent conflicts in Korea and Cuba, and the turmoil in Vietnam, he continued, "We shall neither act as aggressors nor tolerate acts of aggression," he continued. "We intend to bury no one, and we do not intend to be buried. We can fight, if we must, as we have fought before, but we pray that we will never have to fight again."48
If Americans were not yet skeptical of Johnson's idealistic declarations, or confused by such bold juxtapositions, it would only be a matter of time before popular trust in the executive would wear thin. Just as President Kennedy had expanded—however reluctantly—America's military and political commitment in Southeast Asia, so too did Johnson choose increased mobilization to solve a growing foreign policy dilemma.
Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy hadn't officially intervened in hostilities in Southeast Asia, but they had laid the groundwork for such action. Johnson's administration was poised to expand the war in Vietnam in order to force an increasingly belligerent North Vietnam to surrender. But the president hoped to avoid committing men, money, and munitions unnecessarily. No president before him had declared war in Vietnam, and he was determined not to be the first. War, he knew, would deprive his administration of the support required for reelection, as well as the vital resources necessary for the success of his Great Society legislation. Perhaps most significantly, the recent memory of World War II—the bloodiest war of the twentieth century—continued to influence the public's outlook on all future conflicts.
By seeking approval from Congress on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Johnson hoped to avoid becoming fully embroiled in the civil war in Vietnam. Without requesting an official declaration of war, Johnson obtained the authority to bomb select military targets in North Vietnam. Such "restrained" action, he and his advisors hoped, would coerce leaders in Hanoi to submit to American and South Vietnamese demands.
But what Johnson and his advisors did not acknowledge to Congress or to the American people was that the United States had been entangled in the Vietnamese conflict—and in many ways had exacerbated and even provoked the crisis—since the 1950s. American policies hadn't changed; only the stakes had been altered. President Johnson feared that failure in Vietnam—even in the form of retreat—held alarming implications. "If I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam," Johnson reflected years later in an interview, "then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser, and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe."49 To lose in Vietnam was to lose everywhere.
During the 1964 presidential campaign, Johnson vowed that his administration would not send American ground troops to Vietnam. But the promise, however genuine, could not be kept. Just months after winning the election, Johnson chose to follow advice from the National Security Council to deploy U.S. combat soldiers to South Vietnam. Without an official declaration, the United States waged an ever-widening war.
By 1968, the number of American G.I.s in Vietnam had exceeded 500,000 and the U.S. had dropped more tons of bombs in Southeast Asia than all those used in World War II. In addition, U.S. fighter pilots spread chemicals that destroyed forests and crops, and released napalm, a thick form of gasoline that seared the skin of all those exposed to it. Johnson authorized the Army to pursue Viet Cong guerrilla soldiers in "search and destroy" operations in the jungles of South Vietnam. These operations were often unorganized, chaotic missions that resulted in the deaths of many civilians. "Body counts"—weekly reports of enemy losses—mattered most to the White House and assured some officials that progress was being made. But the will of the enemy could not be broken, and the United States would not allow the South Vietnamese government to fight on its own.
On 31 March 1968, President Lyndon Johnson addressed the nation. He announced his plan to pursue negotiations with North Vietnamese leaders in order to bring an end to the war in Vietnam, but then, as if he distrusted his own words, his tone turned solemn. "With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office." Johnson concluded, "Accordingly, I shall not seek...another term as your President."50
As Republican Dwight Eisenhower's vice president, Richard Nixon had suggested that the U.S. intervene in Indochina to help the French maintain control. He supported the hawkish policies of Democrats Kennedy and Johnson, though he concluded that their military campaigns could have been more aggressive. In his bid for the presidency in 1968, however, Nixon avoided speaking of an expanded war and instead pandered to the majority of voters who had grown leery of American policies in Indochina. Throughout his campaign, he touted a "secret plan" to swiftly end the war in Vietnam and to succeed where three presidents had failed.
Under "Vietnamization," as Nixon explained upon winning the election, he planned to withdraw thousands of soldiers from the warfront, gradually transferring the burden of the war (and the bulk of the casualties) to the South Vietnamese Army. American hostilities, despite President Nixon's pledge, did not cease. Vietnamization, though presented as a method for ending the American campaign, did not immediately end—or even reduce—warfare, but instead broadened the territory upon which the U.S. fought. Nixon, hoping to crush the NLF, cripple Viet Cong communication networks, and eradicate supply lines along the border, increased bombing in the North. Plus, in one of the most controversial moves made by the White House during the war, the president authorized secret and illegal aerial assaults and ground invasions in Cambodia—a neutral nation on the western border of Vietnam—in order to "search and destroy" enemy sanctuaries in late April of 1970. The Cambodian bombing nearly formed the basis for one of the articles of impeachment against Nixon in 1974.51
After nearly a decade of mixed messages, false optimism, and broken promises, many Americans were fed up with their leaders. Anti-war demonstrations grew in strength, erupting on college campuses and government sites throughout the country and threatening to undermine Nixon's administration. Thorough media coverage of events abroad, publication of proceedings in the My Lai courts-martial, and the release of the Pentagon Papers—top-secret government documents revealing the truth about American military operations in Vietnam—could have proved disastrous for Nixon.
Still, President Nixon remained confident that most Americans—the "great silent majority"—stood behind his every move. And, at least among the voting demographic, he was right. A Gallup poll administered in late 1971 revealed that 77% of Americans surveyed supported Nixon's Vietnamization proposals and believed the plan would lead to an "honorable" end to the war.52 In the presidential election one year later, Nixon defeated his anti-war opponent, Democrat George McGovern, winning 49 of 50 states and attaining a 23% margin of victory in the popular vote, the second largest such margin in any presidential election in American history.
By January 1973, Nixon achieved a settlement in Vietnam, one that enabled him to pull out all U.S. combat soldiers. The president promised leaders in Saigon that he would authorize continued air assaults if necessary. But as the Watergate scandal unfolded and Nixon found himself indicted for serious crimes, including conspiracy, burglary, and perjury, he was unable to fulfill his promise. Deprived of American support, the South Vietnamese government—a disjointed and corrupt administration—quickly collapsed. In 1975, North Vietnamese tanks rolled across Saigon, seized command, and declared victory at last.
Though five American presidents had grappled with problems in Vietnam and had attempted to achieve victory against the Communists—or, at the very least, "peace with honor,"—it was ultimately the Vietnamese who decided the fate of their country.