Keys to American Involvement in the Vietnam War

By James M. Griffiths 

As a teacher of United States History I have developed a framework to explain the logic of American involvement in the Vietnam War. This logic revolves around the evolution of American foreign policy doctrines that paved the way for military action in Vietnam. The policies, while not necessarily all inclusive, that I will explain in a series of essays include: Containment and the Truman Doctrine, the Domino Theory, SEATO, and the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Resolution. These policies and actions will be published in Thunder Run and posted on the Education Section of the webpage of the 11th  ACVVC. (Please encourage your children and grandchildren to visit the Education Section of our website to receive a more balanced view of the Vietnam War than they will receive in the mainstream media).

I. Containment and the Truman Doctrine


     The post World War II world was a vastly different place than it had been in any other time in history. Two superpowers emerged after the war, the United States and the Soviet Union, that embraced diametrically opposed ideologies. The Soviets advocated totalitarian communism while the United States represented democracy and capitalism.

Both of these superpowers envisioned a world that would embrace its respective ideology and the world became a theater for a struggle between these two superpowers referred to as the Cold War.

During the latter stages of WWII the United States and Britain had received pledges from Premier Stalin of the Soviet Union that the nations of Eastern Europe that were liberated by the Soviets from German domination would be allowed to determine their future governments by way of free elections. As time passed, it became more apparent that Stalin was not going to live up to this pledge as each of these nations were turned into satellites and puppet nations of the Soviet Union. America began to view the Soviets as an aggressive, expansionist power bent on world domination. American foreign policy began to formulate doctrines to counter this threat.

The doctrine of containment was enunciated by George Kennan and became a general policy of the administration of President Harry S. Truman and many succeeding presidential administrations. The policy of containment was to build situations of strength around the periphery of the Soviet Union to keep communist power within existing boundaries. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Central Treaty Organization (Cento), the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and a variety of other treaties were made by the U.S. and other nations to encircle the Soviet Union and later Communist China to stop the outward spread of communism.

Hand in hand with the development of containment was the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine. This doctrine basically stated that the U.S. would help any free people or nation resist internal or external subjugation by another country or non-democratic ideology. Translated this meant that the U.S. would resist communist takeovers in other countries. The Truman Doctrine and containment were first tested in Greece and Turkey as communist insurgents (believed to be under the direction of the Soviets) tried to take over these countries. American military aid flowed to these countries and the insurgents were defeated. America saw this as the first success and victory for the policies of containment and the Truman Doctrine.

At the end of WWII Korea had been divided into two zones of occupation, a Soviet zone in the north and an American zone in the south. Eventually two countries emerged, a communist country in the north and a non-communist country in the south. The dividing line between the two was the 38th parallel. On June 25, 1950 the communist north invaded the non-communist south in an attempt to take it over. The U.S. under the auspices of the United Nations went to the defense of South Korea. American perception of the war was that the North Korea effort was directed by the Soviet Union. Communist Chinese entrance into the war on the North Korean side in 1951 further convinced the U.S. that this was monolithic international communism on the march directed by the Soviets and assisted by the Chinese. The war lasted until a cease-fire in1953 and was stalemated at about the 38th parallel. The U.S. felt that containment and the Truman Doctrine had also succeeded in Korea as communist expansion was stopped in its tracks.

Containment and the Truman Doctrine had worked in Greece and Turkey and had worked in Korea also. In Western Europe borders remained frozen where they had been in the late 1940s and West Berlin, which was located in the middle of a communist East Germany, had remained free and linked to democratic West Germany. By all measures communist advance had been effectively halted by containment and the Truman Doctrine and it was felt that these policies would be effective wherever the free world was tested by communist aggression.  That test came in an area of the world known as Indochina.

France had successfully placed Indochina (Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia) under colonial rule by the 1890s. During WWII Indochina became part of the Japanese Empire, as French power was defeated in that area of Southeast Asia. After WWII and the defeat of the Japanese Empire, France desired to reimpose colonial control over Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. The Vietnamese immediately began armed resistance against the French and formed the Vietminh as the resistance party.  The U.S. was initially hostile to the idea of helping France restore colonial power. In the overall context of the Cold War, including the fact that China had gone communist by 1949, France was able to convince the U.S. that Vietminh resistance to colonial rule was communist inspired and part of the overall Soviet and Chinese master plan for communism to rule the world. America decided to support the French and assist them with military aid.

American aid or not the French were decisively defeated by the Vietminh at a place called Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and lost colonial control over Vietnam. A conference was called in Geneva and it was decided to temporarily divide Vietnam into two parts, communist north and non-communist south at the 17th parallel. It was agreed at Geneva that reunification elections for Vietnam were to be held in 1956. The U.S. and South Vietnam never agreed to these elections and the elections were never held. It was the position of the U.S. that truly free elections could not be held unless the United Nations was there to supervise these elections. The North Vietnamese rejected the idea of U.N. supervised elections and the U.S. then took the position that Vietnam was to remain permanently divided into two countries, communist North and non communist South. America pledged itself to the survival and military defense of South Vietnam.

 By the early1960s the southern communist Viet Cong began a military campaign to overthrow the government of the South. By the mid 60s it was clear to the U.S. that this insurgency was sponsored and aided by North Vietnam who in turn was aided and supported by Communist China and the Soviet Union. By 1965 the North Vietnamese had actively joined the Viet Cong in a military attempt to take over South Vietnam.

Given the fact that the U.S. had developed the policy of containment to halt the spread of communism and adopted the Truman Doctrine to help free peoples resist subjugation by others, it became logical to commit American troops to the defense of South Vietnam, as was done massively beginning in 1965. North Vietnam and the Viet Cong militarily moving against the government of South Vietnam were viewed as contrary to the policy of containment and the Truman Doctrine.  America viewed this attack as another attempt to spread international communism sponsored by the Soviet Union and Communist China. American past successes with containment and the Truman Doctrine made its military commitment to the defense of South Vietnam a logical step given American foreign policy as it had evolved in the post WWII world.                                                                  


Suggestions for further reading: Containment: Documents on American Policy and Strategy 1945-1950 by Thomas H. Etzold and John L. Gaddis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978); Vietnam Insights by James M. Griffiths (New York: Vantage Press 2000); The Sources of Soviet Conduct, by George F. Kennan,  Foreign Affairs #25 (July 1947);  American in Vietnam, a Documentary History by W. Williams, T. McCormick, L. Gardner, and W. Lefeber (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1985);   Vietnam War Alamanac by Harry G. Summers ( New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985).