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Justifications for the Vietnam War (hist essay)

Posted on June 11, 2010 at 8:35 PM

DISCLAIMER: The following essay does not necessarily reflect the views of the author or site. It is simply an exercise in persuasive argument.


In 1954 the Geneva Peace Accords divided the nation of Vietnam into two separate states. This division was only meant to be temporary, and the country would be reunified in 1956 with nationwide elections. However, the elections were delayed indefinitely, and Vietnam essentially remained two separate sovereign states for almost 20 years. Now, the common misconception that underlies much of the opposition to the Vietnam War is that it was America’s ally Ngo Dinh Diem who broke the peace accords by boycotting the elections. However, this boycott was only enacted in response to the North Vietnamese government’s failure to allow those of its citizens not wishing to live under the new communist regime to peaceably depart to the south. It was their president Ho Chi Minh who violated the accords. Therefore, the US-sanctioned failure to observe direct elections for South Vietnam agreed at Geneva is legitimate – the accord had already broken down. Many of those that would have made up the electorate were being killed, tortured or at least prevented from leaving the North – so what kind of election would it have been, anyway?

Factions of the South, known as the Viet Cong, or Vietnamese Communists, began to rebel. Now, another popular misconception of the western media is that this was a spontaneous revolt against misgovernment by the Diem regime. In actuality, the rebels were part of a National Liberation Front formed at Hanoi’s order and controlled by them from the beginning to the end. While it is true that the majority of the VC were native South Vietnamese in the beginning, from 1968 onwards most were infiltrators from the North. Once it became apparent that the VC insurgency would not topple the South Vietnamese government, it became largely the fight of the North Vietnamese Army, through conventional invasion, such as the Tet Offensive. This further legitimises America’s decision to stay and defend South Vietnam. As well as persecuting its own people, a communist regime was attempting to overthrow the government of a separate democratic state and replace it with their own, through covert guerrilla insurgency as well as mass assault. Should we have stood by and let such brutal annexation occur? The answer was the same for Iraqi’s in 1990, the North Koreans in 1950, and the Nazi’s in 1939 – “no we shouldn’t”. It may not have been popular, but it was right.

Now, during the Cold War, communism was spreading rapidly throughout the world, both as an ideology and a new form of government. One by one it claimed almost every European country east of the Berlin wall. A new branch known as Maoism had developed and established itself over all of China. This alarming movement was outlined by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954, and described as the Domino Theory – if one nation succumbs to the threat of communism, so too will its surrounding regions; like a row of domino’s, each one crippled by its fellow’s demise. As Eisenhower explains, “you could have the beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences”. The domino theory was another key factor in America’s decision to go to war. They had managed to prevent the Soviet’s from venturing out any further than Germany, as well as neutralizing the communist threat of North Korea almost 15 year earlier, but Vietnam, situated in Indochina, represented a far more potent threat to Asia’s political landscape. Vietnam would add its strength and material to the very forces opposed to the West and democracy, and become a threat to its neighbours – in this case, the unstable regimes of Indochina and South-east Asia. If South Vietnam was allowed to be conquered, communism would spread throughout these countries, to Indonesia, from whence it would threaten Australia. America had to oppose this, not just for the sake of the Vietnamese people, but also for their own interests. This communist expansion would eventually come to threaten the USA itself, by which time it might be too late to act; either confront the problem here and now or wait for it to grow and fester, until one day you wake up and your enemy is all around you. In the grand scheme of things, America felt as though it was acting in self-defence – self-defence and self-preservation. In either event, their involvement was again justified. The North Vietnamese were armed, trained, and financed by nations in the communist block. The Chinese had hundreds of thousands of troops in North Vietnam to assist with logistics and war related civil works projects. The Soviet Union had “advisors” there as well. Some of the NVA soldiers even manned Soviet supplied aircraft and anti-aircraft weaponry. As well as this, China had secretly assured North Vietnam that they would come to their aide with direct military intervention should the US invade North Vietnam (as they had done for North Korea in the Korean War). America had a similar understanding with South Vietnam, and since it chose a defensive war: things played out the way it did.

By 1961, the Viet Cong were strong enough to threaten Diem's government, and U.S. President John F. Kennedy increased American economic and military aid to South Vietnam. By 1963, there were over 16,000 U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam. By 1964, North Vietnamese army units were operating in the south, and the Viet Cong controlled up to 75 per cent of South Vietnam's population. Now in August of that year two U.S. destroyers were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam. In retaliation for this act of aggression, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered U.S. air strikes against North Vietnam. This action also acted as a deterrent of further interference with legitimate US operations. The following March the first of the US marines were sent to Vietnam. Over the next four years the fighting would intensify and the number of U.S. soldiers rose to over 500,000. They were joined by 800,000 South Vietnamese troops, and about 69,000 men from Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. “What were they fighting for? What were they dying for?” The anti-war protesters chanted in the streets of Washington and Sydney and Aukland.

Ronald Reagon put it best in 1964, “We are at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars, and it has been said if we lose that war, and in so doing lose this way of freedom of ours, history will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening.” As Britain did in the Falklands, the USA acted in Vietnam not only to protect those directly involved but also to send a message to those opposed to the West and to democracy that the guardians of liberal values were not weak. Again, this gave pause to the expansionist desires of Soviet and other forces and thus helped to avoid more direct and bloody conflict such as invasion of Western Europe.

Perhaps the greatest myth of the Vietnam War is that America and its allies were defeated. Renowned Vietnam War expert and University of California professor had this to say: “The American military did not lose a battle of any consequence. From a military standpoint, it was almost an unprecedented performance.” Unfortunately, the war was fatally undermined by those at home – by anti-war journalists and protestors; this has little to do with the successes of US forces in the field, which were actually much more impressive than the modern-day impression would have it. Viet Cong veterans now admit to the effectiveness of the Operation Phoenix teams, who carried out large numbers of targeted assassinations on VC cell leaders. In his book Triumph Forsaken, historian and professor at the Marine Corps University, Mark Moyar rigorously argues that, had this strong attack on the infrastructure of the VC been stepped up, and coupled with a “hearts and minds” campaign that really did yield some concrete results, and with a stronger approach earlier in the campaign (such as the mining of Haiphong harbour and the destruction of the Ho Chi Minh trail in the 1960s rather than the 1970s), the war could have been won. The fact that the USA didn’t do these things when it should have doesn’t mean it couldn’t have. So the USA didn’t pull out because it was losing – it pulled out because of political pressure on the home front. Even after that, South Vietnam could have won on its own had the USA honoured Nixon’s promises to Saigon to bomb North Vietnam if it violated its treaty obligations, as it did by invading again in 1973. Such promises were again broken for political reasons, this time the Watergate Scandal. Moran declares bitterly that, “the war wasn’t lost militarily – it was only lost politically.”

It is true that Communist Vietnam posed no significant threat to its region post-unification: but would this have been true, if the North had not had to engage its forces and strength in years of bloody conflict, merely to achieve unification in the first place? Delay allowed Indochina’s non-Communist nations time to strengthen their defences. The war gave Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines a breathing space so that they could not be overrun, as Cambodia was. It gave them time to stabilize themselves sufficiently and to prevent Communist insurgents from being established. At least in part, they owe their existence as vibrant, free, capitalist nations to the USA’s stand in Vietnam. As global relations swung to and fro, China and Russia exerted pressure on all their client states not to ‘play up’.

It’s a shame that the Vietnam War has been demonized the way it has. There is a real lack of understanding in the public mind about what actually went on, and it is difficult to really know the fear the West felt as it witnessed the communist movement wash over every facet of the old world. There is also a lot of misinformation lingering, but North Vietnam was indeed the aggressor in this conflict and South Vietnamese were suffering; it would have been wrong for the West to turn a blind eye to such injustices. It took a stand, but was unfairly cut down, not by it’s enemy, but by it’s own people. Seven years before his death, former President Richard Nixon lamented that, “no event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now.”

Categories: ESSAYS, History

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