Vietnam and the Unravelling of American Society
27 March 2013
I. Origins of U.S. Involvement in Vietnam
Vietnam initially part of French colony of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and
1880s control, and by 1900s already an anti-colonial movement.
Leads to a young Ho Chi Min (then Nguyan Ai Quoc) seeking audience with Woodrow
Upset by American non-action, he stays in France and becomes involved in French
socialist party. Interested in the „end of colonialism‟ as the beginning of communism.
Works in Soviet Union. Spends time working for Chinese Communist Party.
By 1930, returns to Vietnam, becoming founding member of the Indochinese Communist
Party. Willing to work with non-communists to work for Vietnamese independence.
By 1941, Ho Chi Min founds the League for Independence of Vietnam, nicknamed the
Vietminh. Communists alongside non-communists.
Japanese effectively took over from France in context of World War II. Received aid
from US against Japanese.
As of 1945, declares independence of Vietnam, declaring it the Democratic Republic of
Vietnam (DRV). Directly quotes US Declaration of Independence.
Signalling to United States that, while his nation is communist, it is not a threat to the
French seek to re-establish control, not accepting its independence. Establish the
„associated state of Vietnam‟. Essentially a puppet state.
French essentially trying to gain control, Ho Chi Min stating Vietnam as an independent
Divided into two. DRV declares independence. AS rejects this independence.
Negotiations unwilling. Leads to the First Indochina War, from 1946 to 1954.
America supports the French attempt to re-establish colonial control, on the basis of the
Cold War - needs France‟s support in establishing West German nation. French reluctant
to revive German state. Manoeuvred it into American assistance in Vietnam.
1949, Soviets exploded bomb, and China now Communist. Huge chunk of Asia „gone
red‟. Assume Ho Chi Min is a puppet of either Moscow or Beijing. In reality, just a
Americans begin extensively funding French efforts. By 1952, 1/3 of the war in
Indochina is funded by America.
In 1954, the last French stronghold of Dien Bien Phu (a valley) is attacked by Vietnamese
guerrillas. Request an airstrike. Eisenhower considers it. Unable to do so: congressional
leaders refuse (Korea mess), and British refuse.
French are defeated.
Geneva Accords, 1954. Calls for ceasefire in Indochina. Establishes a demilitarised zone
at the 17 parallel. Decided that there is freedom of movement between north and south.
Fate of Vietnam according to Geneva Accords should be decided by an election in 1956. Ho Chi Min signs Geneva Accords, confident that he will gain support. Soviets, Chinese,
French, and Vietnamese sign the accords. French Associated State of Vietnam and US do
Elections never happen. US supports new French-based leader in the south.
Americans could have walked away in 1954. Do not, and become further entrenched.
Ngo Dinh Diem is the man the US supports, and he takes control of South Vietnam under
rigged elections. Money from Eisenhower administration. „Free people resisting
By 1959, South Vietnam is the recipient of US aid, second to NATO in size. Saigon
embassy is largest US diplomatic presence in the world.
National Liberation Front. Southern Vietnamese people. Engaged against Diem, because
Ho Chi Min has been supportive of Vietnam, Diem just another US puppet.
II. Kennedy and Vietnam
Kennedy determined not to let south Asia fall to communism.
Vietnam a „finger in the dike‟ - domino theory. „America‟s child‟.
Khrushchev announced support for third world power.
Kennedy attacks Truman for losing China.
Concerns over 1964 election - would lose public support if failed in Vietnam.
In the wake of Bay of Pigs, is a chance to do right.
Diem government was massively unpopular, disorganised and corrupt.
Announces support - the „Middle‟ course, or limited partnership with Diem regime.
Does not want Vietnam to collapse, but will not put American troops on the ground aside
from special forces units.
900 military advisors increase to 1,600 by the end of 1961.
US money kept by Diem. Alienated peasants.
Comes to a head in fall 1963. Buddhists demand religious freedom - destruction of
Waves of protests culminating in self-immolations. Problematic for United States.
Elements of South Vietnamese army suggest overthrowing Diem, US states that they will
US tacitly green lights coup against Diem government. Culminates in his murder and his
Fate of Vietnam if Kennedy had survived - unknown. Died 21 days after Diem.
o US withdrawal - on tape - but -
o Only if efforts made stable state.
o Only if he won the 1964 election.
III. LBJ and “That Bitch of a War”
Problematic. Increasingly coming to the forefront of US foreign policy considerations.
Vietcong embark on political and military offensive in 1963-1964, successfully.
No popular support or successful warfare, proved difficult for LBJ. LBJ was complex. Adroit politician. Foreign policy - insecure.
Viewed Vietnam as a test of strength for American hegemony.
Events in South Vietnam provoke US action, therefore: Gulf of Tonkin incites action.
South Vietnamese torpedoes against North Vietnamese ships. N. Vietnamese assume US
ship along coast is protecting S. Vietnamese ships. Fire a warning shot.
„Fired at‟ - USS Maddox. Ordered back out, along with C. Turner Joy.
Shot at again. Captain of Turner Joy - we were not attacked, could have been a log -
LBJ decides to take the opportunity to authorise the President to prevent further
In front of Congress, says the attacks are blatant aggression. House votes unanimously.
Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed.
By late fall 1964, admins assumed it necessary to escalate.
Sustained bombing campaign - targeting strongholds and North Vietnam.
Pleiku. 8 US military advisors killed. 126 wounded. LBJ initiates massive bombing
campaign, known as Operation Rolling Thunder.
Decision to engage and escalate led to parallel course of escalation on the ground.
American pilots had to have ground protection.
Front this point onwards: troops go up. Rapid escalation between 1965 and end of 1968
(over half a million troops).
ORT 25,000 bombing sorties in 1965
ORT 75,000 bombing sorties in 1966
ORT 110,000 bom