Vietnam War

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Reasons for US involvement

During the 1950s the USA became far more involved in Vietnam as part of its policy of containment to stop the spread of Communism. The fundamental reason was the domino theory. The USA was convinced that if Vietnam fell to Communism it would be followed by its neighbouring states, especially Laos and Cambodia. American involvement increased in the years 1954-64.

During the elections of 1956 the USA was determined to prop up the government in South Vietnam and prevent any reunification with the Communist-controlled north. Indeed, the USA prevented the elections taking place realising that the Communists would win. South Vietnam was ruled by Diem. He was a corrupt and unpopular ruler whose government was propped up the USA which sent military advisers to train the  South Vietnamese army. In 1959, Ho Chi Minh issued orders to the Vietminh (which became known as the Vietcong) to begin a terror campaign against the South.

In November 1963, Diem was overthrown and replaced by a series of short-lived and weak governments. The Vietcong became more popular in the South. Under Kennedy, the USA tried to reduce Communist influence through the Strategic Hamlet policy. This involved moving peasants into fortified village, guarded by troops. It did not stop the Communists and was very unpopular with the peasants.

In 1964, President Johnson wanted more directly military involvement in Vietnam but needed an excuse. On 2 August 1964, the US destroyer Maddox was fired at by North Vietnam patrol boasts in the Gulf of Tonkin. Two days later there was a second alleged attack. Evidence later showed that this attack did not happen. Johnson was able to use these attacks to persuade Congress to support greater US involvement. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that gave Johnson the power to take any military measures he thought necessary to defend South Vietnam. Some people suggest that the administration engineered the Gulf of Tonkin Crisis as an excuse for much greater military involvement in Vietnam. At the time, 85% of people supported this policy and no one in the House of Representatives and only two members of the Senate opposed the Resolution.

Reasons for US defeat

The USA was eventually defeated to the strengths of the Communists and their own weaknesses.

The strengths of the Communists:

  • One of the greatest strengths of the North Vietnam and the Vietcong was that they were fighting for a cause - Communism and the reunification of Vietnam. They would not surrender, refused to give in to US bombing, and was prepared to accept very heavy casualties. In addition, there was an army in North Vietnam that played a significant role in the Tet Offensive of 1968.
  • The Vietcong fought a 'low-tech' war using very successful guerrilla tactics which, for the most part, avoided pitched battles and reduced the effectiveness of the 'high-tech' methods and superior weaponry of the USA. These methods were ideally suited to the jungle terrain of South Vietnam.
  • The Vietcong feared US bombing

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