How different were the different phases of US involvement in Vietnam between 1953 and 1975?

After World War Two there was a messy transition from the former Imperial powers to a new world divided between Superpowers but based on Nation-states. The UN grew from 56 members in 1945 to over 100 by 1960. Each of these new nations was under pressure to ally with either superpower or to declare itself non-aligned, at the elite level. Access to resources and markets was affected by the choice that governments made. In addition, many ‘new’ populations were divided ethnically, and united by aspirations which attracted them to whichever system of power, US or USSR, seemed to offer the prospect of material benefits for their children. Because Imperialists had tended to colonise productive and resource-rich areas, where they drew ‘messy’ boundaries, the possibility arose that, when an Imperial power withdrew or was chased out of a new country, the country’s resources would fall to one of the rival Superpower blocs or into secession. In East Asia, this fear gave rise to the theory of the ‘domino effect’ which motivated President Eisenhower’s view of Vietnam and which was widely held in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. As Eisenhower noted in 1953, the loss of Vietnam could mean the advance of the sino-soviet bloc not just throughout Indo-China but also to the resource-rich areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. This would then pressurise Japan and the Philippines to trade with China, and leave the US isolated from land bases in Asia. Tungsten, oil, and other minerals might be denied to the USA. In combination with the Congo crisis from 1962, this scenario placed huge pressure on the US to ‘guarantee’ South Vietnam and not to allow another ‘loss of China’.

The attitude of the Kennedy administration over the short period of its existence to this problem was complex and complicated. This is because President Kennedy, like all Cold War presidents, was part of a national security and economic regime which contained conflicting and separately operating elements. Unlike Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, however, he does not seem to have established strong personal control over the system. After 1947, it was difficult for any President to transform US policy because of the institutionalisation of the Cold War by the creation of the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, and the Central Intelligence Agency. During the early 1960s, the CIA, for instance, had strong ties to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and a large field office in Saigon. No study of Kennedy’s policy in 1963 can deny that Lodge—who had run as the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 1960—was not wholly subordinate to Kennedy administration aims or orders. This is why there was confusion over the Diem coup that removed the South Vietnam leadership in 1963. In addition, Kennedy was concerned to pursue a wider diplomatic strategy after the Cuban missile crisis in which the USA and USSR could move closer at the leadership level in a way that might quarantine the Vietnam problem. Kennedy was also receptive to advice from leaders of the NATO Alliance, such as De Gaulle and Macmillan, that land wars in Asia were a bad idea.

In the face of these conflicting pressures, it is not surprising that the policy of the USA in Vietnam in 1963 can be characterised as ‘Eisenhower plus’. Kennedy between 1961 and 63, as a first term president elected by half of one per cent who was inclined to be tough on communism, supported a large extension of ‘advisers’ and financial support for the Saigon regime. He also sponsored the creation of a behind-the-lines covert force known as the Green Berets, who would be trained in counter-insurgency. However, by late 1963, Kennedy, as both General Giap and Robert MacNamara have acknowledged, was keen to withdraw at least 1,000 advisers as a signal that he did not wish to escalate what he saw a nationalist conflict. In the Senate in the 1950s, Kennedy had been sympathetic to nationalist movements in Algeria, and in any event, by 1963, the test-ban treaty and a warmer relationship with Khruschev was threatening to de-couple Vietnam from the wider Cold War. Many historians have posited that Kennedy would not have escalated the war, that he did not pre-approve the murderous aspects of the CIA coup against the Diem brothers in November 1963, and that he was planning to dismiss Lodge on November 25 1963 at the first scheduled meeting after his projected return from Dallas. Kennedy had also learned from the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis not to wholly trust the military and CIA leadership, and had already changed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs from a hardliner to a less-hardliner. This would have made him less dependent on CIA and DoD optimism about the outcome of the war than LBJ became. On November 21 1963, US involvement in Vietnam was limited and conflicting, in the sense that some could see escalation since Eisenhower and others could see de-escalation since the summer of that year.

Lyndon Johnson changed American involvement on the pretext of the Gulf of Tonkin crisis to all-out (but undeclared) War in 1964. At the time, the US escalation was presented as a response to an attack on US gunships, but subsequent historical evidence has shown that the troops manning gunboats and radar stations did not believe that they were under attack. LBJ used the Gulf of Tonkin as the basis for war. There were several reasons. Firstly, Johnson was much more consonant with the CIA and US Military when it came to the deployment of American force than Kennedy had been, as he had already demonstrated in the invasion of the Dominican Republic. He was also much more marked as a politician by his reaction to the 1949 ‘Loss of China’, and much more of an anticommunist. Whereas Kennedy in the fifties had sympathised with third world nationalists, Johnson had been the face of the anti-Sputnik Senate Space Committee, and had associated closely with J.Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy. The ‘Missile Gap’ pressure often associated with JFK’s 1960 campaign had in fact begun with LBJ. Johnson was also initially keen to force social change at home and to win reeelection in 1968, and was therefore concerned not to ‘lose’ against Communists. He was a man with little military experience and almost no interest in foreign affairs, and not therefore interested in any arguments for ‘taking on’ the establishment and de-escalating. One final political pressure on him was that, ironically, the Kennedy men whose support he needed in 1964, such as Robert Kennedy and Secretary of Defense MacNamara, were the most keen to escalate in Vietnam.

LBJ swiftly got authorisation from Congress for a ‘blank cheque’ in Vietnam which resulted in a massive expenditure of US gold and further inflationary pressure on the US economy. This essentially locked Johnson into a forward strategy in Vietnam, since confusion would reveal that the US could not sustain the dollar and cause a run on the international economic system of the sort that precisely happened in 1967 and 1971. Critically, Johnson appointed William Westmoreland to the Land Command, which proved disastrous since Westmoreland wanted to fight a conventional war with large numbers of troops and was both inflexible and racist. Some authors have contended that a more flexible, anti-insurgent commander prepared to learn from British actions in Malaysia might have been more difficult for General Giap and Ho Chi Minh to defeat. Johnson coupled over-dependence on Westmoreland and a corrupt South Vietnam leadership with micromanagement of ground affairs, and a massive campaign of aerial bombing called ‘Rolling Thunder’. This meant that he had 180000 troops in 1965 and 540000 by 1967 doing the wrong thing, with Westmoreland realising that he needed 200000 more and the gold reserves disallowing it by the later year, and global horror at the bombing. There is also little evidence that bombing the jungle, dropping napalm and Agent orange, and deploying helicopters and unreliable M-15 machine guns manufactured in a substandard way did any good at all. By March 1968, such was the conflation of global outrage and domestic division with economic crisis, the Tet Offensive—actually a defeat for the Viet Cong—could be presented as a defeat for the USA.

It would be easy to write that Johnson effectively ‘lost’ the Vietnam war. However, by 1968, the Paris peace talks were going well. The opposition of middle-class Americans to the draft, which coincided with minority and left-wing opposition, was dependent on the possibility of being asked to fight, and had Johnson followed the bombing halt of that year with successful peace talks, Vietnam might have been remembered as a Korean-style checkmate for the Sino-Soviet bloc rather than a failed war. America would certainly have been a far less divided society by 1975. In 1968, Johnson was moving to ‘vietnamisation’ anyway. What undermined American chances of success appears to have been tacit collusion between President Thieu, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon to hold off peace efforts until the 1968 elections, which Johnson’s candidate almost won despite the odds.

President Nixon’s approach to Vietnam was almost wholly but not perfectly cynical. Nixon had both regional and global strategies, and was a Cold Warrior of the Old School. That meant that his primary moral focus, if such a term is appropriate, was on avoiding any appearance of weakness so great as to encourage Soviet pressure on Berlin. Nixon also seems to have realised as early as 1967-8 (judging by a prescient article he authored for Foreign Affairs magazine) that the Sino-Soviet split was real, and not a Cold War feint. His regional strategy therefore evolved through four stages. Before his election, Nixon claimed to have a ‘secret plan’ to end the war and was principally concerned with winning the electoral college in 1968. This meant that wanted to avoid a peace in which he did not participate, give anticommunists the hope that he would be tougher than Humphrey and Wallace, and look moderate enough not to lose the centre to the perception that the ‘New Nixon’ was a sham. On moving into office, Nixon, judging that the time was not right to reach out to China, sought to expand the Vietnam war to the region. This strategy, which involved the covert and then overt bombing of Cambodia and Laos, was meshed with an evolving third phase policy of ‘Vietnamisation’ in which South Vietnam would be expected, alongside Asian allies such as Korea, to do most of the fighting. This policy, which emerged in the early 1970s, was of a piece with the more general Cold War strategy of installing and strengthening pro-American anti-communist dictators in South Korea, Chile, Paraguay, the Philippines, Brazil, Argentina, and Indonesia so that future South-Vietnam style imbroglios might be foreclosed. The final piece in the jigsaw, which meshed policies together, was to gain an ‘opening’ to the People’s Republic of China. With this, Nixon hoped to isolate the Vietnam problem, whilst forcing the PRC and USSR to compete for American interest.

America had therefore moved from a position predicated upon Vietnam’s regional influence and the provision of support and advice, to massive escalation, and back again over the course of thirteen years. However, Nixon was not to see his final plan to isolate or neutralise an independent South Vietnam come to pass. This was one of the consequences of the Watergate crisis. When Gerald Ford took over in August 1974, he found it easier to allow the collapse of South Vietnam and then to demonstrate American strength by firing on North Korean hostage takers in the Mayaguez incident than to continue the war. The American people would not, in any event, have supported such a course of action, and had been traumatised by the war, which many linked to the social turmoil of the 1960s. Vietnam had become the watershed for American commitment and economic power, and a sump of its moral authority after 1945.