Vietnam and the Crisis of American Hegemony

Vietnam and the Crisis of American Hegemony


I. US involvement in Vietnam started with an effort to prop up the weak French position in Indo China. 

A. The region comprising what is now Vietnam and Cambodia had been a French colonial possession for some time. It had been taken by the Japanese in WWII, and after the war, the French sought to reclaim it.         

B. After WWII, in part because of the US campaign to dismantle the European colonial system, a powerful resistance movement developed, led by Ho Chi Minh.  

1. Though Ho Chi Minh began as a moderate and advocated a constitutional system modeled after the US system, the US was wary of him and believed him to have secret allegiance to either the Chinese or Soviet Communists. (This was occurring at the same time as the Korean War, so it is easy to understand why the US was so squirrelly). As a result, in the case of Vietnam, the US took the position that a little European colonialism there might not be such a bad thing. 

2. The US supplied the French in Indo China with weapons. 

C. The French, much weakened by WWII, were unable to put up a strong fight against the nationalists. Ho Chi Minh was well organized and a popular leader. 

3. Ho Chi Minh trapped and defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. A subsequent conference in Geneva resulted in the Geneva Accords (July 1954), which split Vietnam into two parts—North and South. Ho Chi Minh would rule in the north while the South would have a pro-western government. 

a. Although the US was not a party to the Geneva negotiations, they effectively put an end to French involvement in the region. The US began working to put in place a pro-American government in the South. 

b. The agreement was to be temporary—a nationwide election was to be held in 1956 in which a single government would be elected. 

C. As 1956 approached, it became increasingly clear that Ho Chi Minh would easily win any election—so the US blocked it from happening and attempted to make the split a permanent one.  

1. The US backed Ngo Dinh Diem as the leader of South Vietnam—he was aristocratic, autocratic, and corrupt and widely hated by his fellow citizens. A civil war erupted in South Vietnam in 1958. In 1960, following the organization of the NLF (National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam) by the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese communist guerillas), the rebels began to receive increasing amounts of aid from the North. 

2. With the growing power of the opposition, Diem begged for help from the US. Eisenhower gave him lots of weapons and ammunition and sent a small number of US military personnel (650) to help train Diem’s forces.  

3. As Diem’s position deteriorated, Kennedy took over the Presidency from Eisenhower. Kennedy was much more determined to fight communism in emerging areas, and he quickly raised the number of US troops assisting the Diem forces to 15,500. These soldiers were still not actively participating in the war itself but were there as trainers. 

4. Diem began to lose credibility among the Vietnamese military, and in 1963, with the tacit approval of Kennedy, he was overthrown and executed in a military coup. Before he could react, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.                            

II. By the time Lyndon Johnson took over the presidency the US was seriously involved in Vietnam. During his first 2 years in office, he expanded the US commitment into a full-scale war—with the approval of the American public. 

A. The major impetus for an enhanced US commitment came in early August 1964. Johnson, deliberately misleading the nation, told Congress that the USS Maddox, a US destroyer operating in international waters near Vietnam had been attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats (later investigations would prove that attack, on ships conducting espionage on North Vietnam’s coastal defense systems, never happened). 

1. The Congress went on a war footing and passed the “Gulf of Tonkin” Resolution, which authorized the president to use all necessary measures to prevent further aggression and protect American forces in SE Asia. It was a blank check for the president to do anything he wanted. 

2.  Over the next few months, Johnson dramatically expanded the US presence on the ground in Vietnam. During the presidential campaign of 1964, Johnson criticized his opponent for proposing to send “American boys” to Vietnam. By March 1965 there were over 100,000 American troops in Vietnam. 

3. This period of escalation continued over the next two years so that by 1967, 500,000 soldiers were serving in Vietnam. 

III. Vietnam proved to be a quagmire for the US. It was a war that US military leaders could not understand—they were fighting a conventional war against a non-conventional foe. Despite the fact that the US was killing far more Viet Cong than the Viet Cong were, there seemed to be no end of them. 

A. This is partly because of the determination of Ho Chi Minh and partly because the majority of towns and villages in South Vietnam were controlled by the Viet Cong. 

1. Johnson strengthened two programs devised under Kennedy designed to make the war more manageable-- a “pacification” program—the idea was that by providing the Vietnamese with social welfare programs in conjunction with the military effort, the US would be able to win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese-- but it failed hopelessly in this.  

2. He then embarked on the “strategic hamlet” program—uprooting entire villages and re-locating them to strategic  (defendable) places, then destroying the original villages—including the surrounding cropland and forest. The Viet Cong would simply move to new locations. 

B. It became clear that the US would either have to take significantly more drastic measures or would be stuck in a stalemate—Johnson believed that pulling out of Vietnam would destroy US credibility in the world. Indeed, Johnson had put the US in a lose-lose situation—stay in Vietnam and you lose people and goodwill around the world; pull out of Vietnam and you lose credibility in the fight against communism. 

C. As this fact became more and more clear to the American public, despite claims of progress that continued to be espoused by military leaders, an increasing number of Americans began to question the war. 

1. Serious doubts about the war began to emerge as early as 1965—starting with university professors (historians, political scientists, Asia experts) and spreading quickly to their students. “Teach-ins” were held across the country on university campuses and many of the veterans of the civil rights movement added anti-war to their list of causes. By the end of 1967, peace marches and protests spread across the nation. 

2. Politicians and journalists began to question the war—first in a trickle, then in a roaring stream. Even members of Johnson’s administration began to argue against continuing the effort. McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara—two people who had, under Kennedy, played key roles in getting the US involved in Vietnam— were eased out of the Johnson administration in 1967 1968 as Johnson prepared to run for re-election. 

3. Besides the anti-war groups, others came to question the wisdom of the war because of its economic impact—Johnson had to increase taxes to pay for the war, which forced him to scale back progress he wanted to make in the war against poverty and to live up to the promises of his civil rights reforms. Inflation began to concern Americans and Europeans alike (recall that all the major world currencies were tied to the dollar). 

IV. Then, in 1968, a series of events came to make American’s think that the sky was falling. 

A. The year began with the Tet Offensive—a massive push by the North Vietnamese that began of the Chinese new year. It demonstrated clearly that they Viet Cong were capable of conventional attacks that US military leaders had assured the public they were not. A series of major cities fell—the Viet Cong were able to penetrate the American Embassy in Saigon. Large numbers of middle-class Americans came to see that the war in Vietnam was not being won. 

B. On 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. The nation was shocked, and major race riots broke out in more that 60 cities across the nation. It was the greats manifestation of racial unrest in American history. 

C. In June, Robert F. Kennedy, who had entered the Presidential race as a candidate for peace, and who had just won the all-important California primary, was assassinated in Los Angeles. 

D. In August, at the Democratic convention in Chicago, anti-war protesters flooded into Chicago and set up camps in city parks. On the third night of the convention they attempted to rush the convention and a riot broke out that was suppress brutally by the Chicago police—national television reporters covered all of it. 

E. The nation was in turmoil and it seemed a revolutionary change was underway—but the reality was that the majority of the country wanted not revolution, but order. Richard Nixon, former communist hunter and vice-president, was elected as president on a campaign promise of “peace with honor” in Vietnam and the restoration of order at home.  

V. Peace with Honor 

A. With the assistance of Henry Kissinger, Nixon altered US policy in Vietnam in a vague program to extricate the US from the situation. 

1. The first step of the new policy was called Vietnamization—this meant simply that the US would gradually turn over more and more of the responsibility for fight the war to the South Vietnamese army. 

a. In the fall of 1969, Nixon announced the withdrawal of 60,000 US troops from Vietnam—the first withdrawal since the war began. He continued withdrawing troops until by 1972 there were only around 60,000 remaining (from a peak of 540,000). 

b.. Peace talks had begun in Paris in 1968. Yet as he was withdrawing US troops, Nixon was actually escalating the war. US bombing of North Vietnam increased, and Nixon started offensives in Cambodia as well. 

i. The invasion of Cambodia re-invigorated the peace movement. It had almost died as Nixon withdrew hundreds of thousands of US troops, but invading another country breathed new life into it. The reaction of the US public rose to new levels when, on May 4 1970, four students at Kent State University were killed by National Guardsmen during an anti-war rally.                            

c. The Nixon-Kissinger strategy was strict behavioralism—if the progress was made in the peace talks, Nixon would slow down or stop the bombing—but when the North Vietnamese proved difficult, he would order more raids. 

d. Then, in June 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a former Johnson administration Defense Department official, gave some reporters a report—the Pentagon Papers-- on the war effort which confirmed what protesters had believed all along—that military leaders had been consistently lying about progress in the war effort and that the war was being fought simply to preserve the US reputation in the world. 

e. Confronted with an increasingly wary public and by the fast approaching presidential election of 1972, Nixon withdrew his demand at the Paris talks that the North Vietnamese had to withdraw completely from the South before the US would pull out. Just days before the election, Kissinger announced from Paris,  “Peace is at hand.” It was enough to hand Nixon the election, but the talks would continue until January 1973. 

f. The agreement allowed the US to withdraw and to repatriate its prisoners of war. The South Vietnamese would have to defend themselves, with some continued assistance from US bombers. 

g. In the year following the withdrawal, Vietnamese armies suffered more losses than the Americans had in ten years of fighting. The US continued bombing Cambodia until August 1973. In early 1975, the North launched a full-scale invasion of the South, taking Saigon in April 1975. 

h. For America, the war in Vietnam was over. For the Vietnamese, Lao, and especially the Cambodians, many more years of hell were to follow.