We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you’re on board with our cookie policy

Why did the United States get involved in the Vietnam War?

The whole doc is available only for registered users

A limited time offer! Get a custom sample essay written according to your requirements urgent 3h delivery guaranteed

Order Now

Why did the United States get involved in the Vietnam War? Explain what factors led American policymakers down the path towards war, and cite specific examples of critical events that reflected these factors.

There was no specific factor that led the united states into getting involved in the Vietnam war, but rather a gradual series of events and decisions which would lead them down such a path. The initial reasons for U.S. involvement in Vietnam seemed logical and compelling to American leaders. From Washington’s perspective, by the end of World War II the principal threat to U.S. security and world peace was Stalin’s dictatorship and the influence and spread of communism which was emanating from the Soviet Union. Any communist anywhere, in the United States or anywhere else, was, by definition, an enemy of the United States. Drawing an analogy with the unsuccessful appeasement of fascist dictators before World War II, the Truman administration believed that any sign of communist aggression must be met quickly and forcefully by the United States and its allies. This reactive policy was known as containment.

Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh front that he had created in 1941, had become the target of containment in Vietnam. Ho was a communist, as were his chief lieutenants and they had long-standing connections to the Soviet Union. They were also passionate Vietnamese nationalists who fought to rid their country, first of the Japanese and then, after World War II ended in 1945, to prevent France from re-gaining its former colonial status over Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. Harry S Truman and other American leaders, having no sympathy for French colonialism, favoured Vietnamese independence. However, in eastern Europe, expanding communist control and the victory of the communists in China’s civil war made France’s war against Ho Chi Minh seem an effort to stop the spread of communism rather than a colonialist effort. The United States decided to support the French position in Vietnam when France agreed to a partially-independent Vietnam under Emperor Bao Dai as an alternative to Ho Chi Minh. This began a long steady rise in American involvement which would see the united states get more directly involved in the years to come.

The United States saw Vietnam as a Cold War battleground. They largely ignored the struggle for social justice and national sovereignty occurring within Vietnam. American attention focused primarily on Europe at the time. Aid to France in Indochina was offered in return for French cooperation with America’s plans for the defence of Europe through the NATO. In 1949 China became a communist state. Japan became a huge importance to Washington, and Japanese development required access to the markets and raw materials of Southeast Asia. The outbreak of war in Korea in 1950 served primarily to confirm Washington’s belief that communist aggression posed a great danger to Asia. Truman was accused that he had “lost” China and had settled for a stalemate in Korea. This caused succeeding presidents to fear what the reaction both publicly and politically would be if they had “lost” Vietnam. This apprehension, an overestimation of American power, and an underestimation of Vietnamese communist strength locked all administrations from 1950 through the 1960s into a firm anticommunist stand in Vietnam.

However American policymakers failed to appreciate the amount of effort that would be required to exert influence over Vietnam’s political and social structure. This course that the American policymakers took led to a steady escalation of U.S. involvement. President Dwight D. Eisenhower increased the level of aide to the French but continued to avoid military intervention, even when the French experienced a devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu in the spring of 1954. Following that battle, an international conference was called and held at Geneva, Switzerland. A cease-fire was arranged. Also as part of the agreement, a provisional demarcation line was drawn at the 17th parallel which would divide Vietnam until nationwide elections could be held in 1956. The United States however did not accept the agreement, neither did the government of Bao Dai. The United States could not oppose since it had not become deeply involved. In 1956 the French left Vietnam.

The United States had not been involved in the Geneva Agreements. Soon afterwards it began to foster the creation of a Vietnamese regime in South Vietnam under president Ngo Dinh Diem, who defeated Bao Dai in October 1955 in rigged elections. Diem received funding and help from the United States in order to create a state which could survive against the communists of the north. Despite over $1 billion of U.S. aid between 1955 and 1961, the South Vietnamese economy languished and internal security deteriorated. During the first year of the new government, Diem crushed all sources of opposition left over from the Viet Minh. In North Vietnam by 1959, the Viet Minh had written off the possibility of the elections that they were supposed to get and they had turned to military means.

This ended the illusion of stability that the Diem regime had been running on. Diem was aware that his government could not survive without the massive aid from the United States so he based his whole appeal on anti-communism. But then, with the “Communist danger” the basis for assuring continued American aid, the “secure” countryside suddenly was overrun with “Communist terrorists”. At the end of April 1960, eighteen Vietnamese nobles petitioned Diem to liberalize his regime. The petition had said that continual arrests had filled prisons to the level that they were overflowing and also asserted that the Government bureaucracy was corrupt and inefficient. in 1960, communist cadres created the National Liberation Front (NLG) or Vietcong as its enemies called it, to challenge the Diem regime.

After the defeat of the French by the Vietminh at Dien bien phu, President Eisenhower responded by outlining his Domino Theory: “You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.”#. President John F. Kennedy agreed with his predecessor’s domino theory and also believed that the credibility of U.S. anticommunist commitments around the world was imperilled in 1961.

In 1961, France’s Charles de Gaulle told President John F. Kennedy that in Vietnam the U.S. would sink “step by step into a bottomless quagmire,” however much it spent “in men and money.”#. President Kennedy had begun sending more advisors to Vietnam to help the Diem regime, increasing their number to 800 in 1961. Kennedy allowed U.S. pilots to fly combat missions while pretending to be instructors, and he supported counter-insurgency to overthrow the communists in the North. Consequently, by 1963 he had tripled American aid to South Vietnam and expanded the number of military advisers there from less than seven hundred to more than sixteen thousand. “In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our advisors, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam, against the communists.”#

In 1961 Edward Landsdale was sent to Vietnam to make an over-all study of the situation. He reported that the situation was near total collapse and that if the policies of the Diem government and its advisers continued to be pursued the country would soon be lost. It was then decided to increase the Vietnamese Army from 150,000 to 250,000, which was a direct violation of the Geneva Accords, to concentrate its training on counter-insurgency#.

Kennedy watched as Diem’s reign became more hated by people in the southern half of Vietnam. The Diem regime had come into conflict with the Buddhists of South Vietnam. The Buddhists formed a large segment of the population of South Vietnam. In the city of Hué, Catholics had been permitted to fly the papal banner, but the Buddhists had been prohibited from raising their flag. In May 1963 thousands of Buddhists in Hué; staged a protest demonstration. The Diem regime sent troops in armoured vehicles against them, and nine of the Buddhists were killed. Diem accused the Buddhists of being communist sympathizers, and in the weeks to come clashes took place between Diem’s troops and anti-Diem Buddhists. Buddhist clerics began setting themselves afire, creating a sensation around the world, while Diem’s sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, described the burnings as a “Buddhist barbecue”#. Then, in August, Diem ordered troops loyal to him to attack Buddhist temples in Hué, Saigon and other cities in the south.

The Kennedy administration was aware of Diem’s lack of popularity. He saw that Diem would remain unable to rally the South in the fight against the communists. The Kennedy administration hoped to find an alternative to Diem, and, with U.S. connivance, the Diem regime was overthrown by his generals. Diem was assassinated, and in the South people erupted in joy, people in Saigon bedecking army tanks with flowers and parading joyously through the streets#.

The regimes in Saigon that followed Diem were many, and they were led by military men. An attempt was made at elections, but none of the generals were able to rule democratically. Their regimes had some civilian supporters, but none represented the feelings of a broad segment of the population of South Vietnam. These were regimes that would owe their existence to U.S. money, material support, and increasingly to U.S. military power. These regimes would have their followers, but not enough public support in fighting against communist forces. The guerrilla forces in South Vietnam, meanwhile, were thriving because they had support from local populations.

Soon after Diem was assassinated, President Kennedy befell the same fate. And soon after that, the new U.S. president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was handed a report by the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. It stated that the U.S. had a hard choice to make. President Johnson had two choices; either dramatically increase U.S. involvement in the war or see a communist victory there. That such a choice had to be made was a sign of failed policy for the U.S., a policy built on the failed assumption that with U.S. help the anti-communist regime in Saigon would be popular enough to win against Ho Chi Minh and the communists. Johnson’s response to the report from the ambassador to South Vietnam was personal and political. He said that he was not going to be the first U.S. president to lose a war, and also Johnson was afraid of hardline anti-communists in Congress whose help he wanted in getting civil rights legislation passed.

The United States meanwhile, had been supporting South Vietnamese incursions into the North. U.S. destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf because of this, thought they were being attacked in the dark of night by North Vietnamese torpedo boats, but they were unable to confirm that an actual attack had taken place. President Johnson used the report of an attack as an opportunity to begin sending U.S. troops to Vietnam. He managed to push through Congress the “Tonkin Gulf Resolution,” characterized as a response to communist aggression. The swell of public opinion in support of a tough response against communism was overwhelming, with only two U.S. senators, Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, voting against it. Retaliation air attacks began on August 3rd. Their aim was to destroy North Vietnam’s gunboat capability. As two more United States destroyers were supposedly sunk, more air and sea forces were sent. Up until now, the U.S. had refrained from direct combat. This is when the United States formally entered the Vietnam War.

In his 1964 run for the presidency, Johnson had said that he would not be sending Americans to do the fighting that the Vietnamese should be doing, but in 1965 he believed he had good reason for doing so. He characterized his policy as liberating South Vietnam from communism, and he said nothing about the nationalist element against which the U.S. was pitting itself. He and the American people were unwilling to resort to the kind of all out war as the United States had fought against Japan and Germany, but the U.S. would try to use American ground forces and air power to bomb the communists into submission. General Curtis LeMay, who retired in 1965, claimed the U.S. should “bomb Vietnam back to the Stone age”.

As Congress was about to vote whether or not to allow the combat to move into North Vietnam, the North Vietnamese attacked a major U.S. airbase at Bein Hoa. On February 7th, 1965, Johnson ordered retaliation bombing on North Vietnam. Rolling Thunder was the name of this operation. It’s purpose was to put pressure on Hanoi and convince them that “Communism could not and would not win”#. At the end of 1965, one hundred and eighty thousand Americans were in South Vietnam under General William S. Westmoreland. The United States were now fully involved in the Vietnam War.

It was not a single incident but rather a number of reasons and factors for why or how the United States got involved in the Vietnam War. Initially it was their fear of the spread of communism after World War II and the influence it could have on surrounding Asian countries. It was the determination of the American policymakers to stop the spread of communism at all costs. However as the involvement of the united states in Vietnam deepened throughout the 50s and the 60s, for the presidents in office at those times, it became a case of not wanting to be known as an American President who lost a war.


1. President Eisenhower. Robert J Mac Mahon; Major problems in the history of the Vietnam War. Toronto 1990. P 40

2. Charles De Gaulle. Peter Lowe; The Vietnam War. Manchester 1998. P 38

3. John F Kennedy. Robert J Mac Mahon; Major problems in the history of the Vietnam War. Toronto 1990. p187

4. Thompson, W Scott; Frizzel Donaldson D. The Lessons Of Vietnam. (London 1977.) p 78

5. Wallace J Thies; When Governments Collide. (London 1980). p 102

6. Wallace J Thies; When Governments Collide. (London 1980). p178

7. General Curtis LeMay. Robert J Mac Mahon; Major problems in the history of the Vietnam War. (Toronto 1990) p 98


1. Mc mahon, Robert j; Major problems in the history of the Vietnam War. Toronto 1990.

2. Lowe, peter; The Vietnam War. Manchester 1998.

3. Dunn, Peter M; The First Vietnam War. London 19??.

4. Thompson, W Scott; Frizzel Donaldson D. The Lessons Of Vietnam. London 1977.

5. Small, Melvin; Johnson, Nixon And The Doves. New Jersey 1988.

6. Thies, Wallace J; When Governments Collide. London 1980.

7. Smith, R. B; An International History Of The Vietnam War. Hong Kong 1983.

8. Pike, Douglas; Viet Cong. Massachusetts 1966.

9. McGarvey, Patrick J. Visions Of Victory. Stanford University 1969.

10. Gardiner, Lloyd C; Approaching Vietnam: From World War II Through Dienbienphu. Ontario 1988.

Related Topics

We can write a custom essay

According to Your Specific Requirements

Order an essay
Materials Daily
100,000+ Subjects
2000+ Topics
Free Plagiarism
All Materials
are Cataloged Well

Sorry, but copying text is forbidden on this website. If you need this or any other sample, we can send it to you via email.

By clicking "SEND", you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We'll occasionally send you account related and promo emails.
Sorry, but only registered users have full access

How about getting this access

Your Answer Is Very Helpful For Us
Thank You A Lot!


Emma Taylor


Hi there!
Would you like to get such a paper?
How about getting a customized one?

Can't find What you were Looking for?

Get access to our huge, continuously updated knowledge base

The next update will be in:
14 : 59 : 59