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America and Vietnam: A War for Freedom Ends in Failure

Updated on September 25, 2011
Scottmonster profile image

Scott is a graduate student and historian who is interested in politics, social movements, education, and religion

How We Got There

In the early twentieth century Americans were viewed with pseudo reverence by the Vietnamese. Though it might be surprising to think about now, many of the Vietnamese people were quit knowledgeable and fond of America. The Vietnamese knew well, that America was once a colony, and that independence was possible no matter how high the odds were stacked. They also knew that America was planning on granting independence to the Philippines, and most of its other worldly possessions. For a time, it seemed natural for America to defy its European allies, and support the nationalist movement of the Viet minh (not the same as the Viet Cong). Of course this was not to be.

The United States has declared war five times; the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War One and World War Two. In between these major conflicts however, the government has often deemed it prudent to deploy troops abroad without a formal declaration of war. While these deployments have sometimes lasted as short as several weeks, they also have come to represent struggles which in every way represent global conflicts.

While the impact of any war is felt by those who serve, and their families, few times in American history has an undeclared conflict cost so much in lives and hope as the Vietnam War. Even today,Vietnam is a house hold name understood to be more than just a nation, but a symbol of a generation. Where World War Two has come to fill Americans with a sense of pride, the Vietnam years have come to represent the absolute worst in democratic culture. How did this happen? When did the Vietnam War go so bad, was it ever good? In 1965 roughly half of the population supported the war, and even by the end of 1971 many still did. In many ways the Vietnam Syndrome which still grips the nation today, began to develop as early as the late 1940s. The war itself, the lives and deaths of prominent Americans, the credibility gap, and a changing culture all would lead to the eventual horror that has come to symbolize the Vietnam War.

In World War Two America had a stated goal of achieving “self determination for all peoples.” Yet in August 1945, the United States Merchant Marines, who had been given the duty of ferrying victorious soldiers home from European theaters of war, were given new orders. They were now to transport 15,000 French combat troops to an Asian colony named Vietnam. Few had ever heard the name before and even fewer knew where the colony was. As early as 1945 these American sailors let their frustrations and objections be known. One sailor stated the general feelings of the fleet, when he described his frustration with “carrying foreign combat troops to foreign soil for the purpose of engaging in hostilities to further the imperialist policies of foreign governments when there are American soldiers waiting to come home.”[i]

The basis to the United States government’s justification of the war in Vietnam is fairly straight forward, but to understand it, one must consider the climate of the 1950s. Americans had watched as China fell to communism, only to see Korea starting too as well. Politics had changed. Now, any American president who lost a country to communism would lose his next election. Here lies the theory of containment; without military force, countries would fall to communism like dominos. While Americans fought the Korean War to contain communism, the Soviets fought to spread it. Ultimately, years of fighting in Korea left the nation split into two, a Northern communist government and a Southern democracy. It seems as though the “success” of the Korean War became a major source of justification to the Vietnam War. As Congressman Morris K. Udall later recalled, the war was a product of “an America that had never lost a war… Support the President; he knows more than we do.”[ii] For some it was that simple. If the President said that losing Vietnam to the communists threatened the United States then that’s the way it is.

The government contended that Vietnam was an opportunity to spread democracy, and improve the lives of many who would otherwise become victims of communist aggression. Many, including future President Richard Nixon, thought that a communist victory would lead to large-scale human suffering in Vietnam as the communists established their authoritarian regime.[iii] As one soldier attached to the 7th Regiment of the 1st Marine Division put it, “We are here because we think this is where we must fight to stop a communist threat…. If this makes us the policemen of the world, then so be it.”[iv] This soldier was killed only three months after writing this letter home in November of 1966.

Origins of Dissent

From the very beginning many did not see a war which ultimately cost the lives of millions as so simple to justify. While only two Senators had voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which basically escalated the Vietnam conflict into the full scale war it became, many students nation-wide had protested heavily from 1965 on. University campuses became a rallying point for the anti-war movement. At Berkeley, students were even involved in attempting to block troop trains from reaching their embarkment point in Oakland.[v] Likewise, there were many in the general population who also saw any armed conflict as an unnecessary step in a conflict which could be solved through diplomacy. There were some as well, who did not see the controversy at all. After all, in 1945 Ho Chi Minh had declared Vietnam independent using the very words of the Declaration of Independence. Was this an enemy America so urgently had to fight, or perhaps a potential ally, and a first step towards ending the cold war? While few openly endorsed this hope for fear of reprisal, it was a hope of Ho Chi Minh’s. In his speech for independence he said, “... that the allied nations which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principle of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.”[vi]

By 1965 it was clear that Ho was wrong. While the impact of domestic protesting would eventually come to force Congress into cutting funds to the war, in 1965 it was more symbolic of peoples’ feelings then effective as a tool for stopping the war. Obviously the war had not yet even reached its peek years in terms of casualties, troop numbers, or violence.

The Vietnamese

The Vietnamese themselves must also be considered in their feelings towards America. Of course if the Vietnamese had so desperately sought American aid, as President Johnson had claimed, it would be hard for war protestors to justify turning their back on people in need. Likewise, if the protestors could show that the Vietnamese were adversely affected by American presence, it would be hard for the government to maintain a troop presence. Ultimately however, both the government’s claim and the peoples’ claim were correct and wrong. American aid created schools, government buildings, bridges, and helped with the country’s general welfare. However the use of napalm, artillery, constant bombardment from the sky, and thousands of foreign soldiers also took its toll on the Vietnamese. The social structure and culture of Vietnam never fully allowed the aide America sent to be utilized in the manor it was intended to be. Local leaders rewarded loyalty, not competence, and Vietnam had a huge black market containing what was supposed to be going to the needy. Most Vietnamese living in the country side recognized their village councils to be the government. For most, it was the only government they ever knew. The aide that was supposed to be reaching them was instead being leached off with each ring of the social hierarchy until there was nothing left.[vii]

The Vietnamese were also receiving benefits from the communists as well, which counter acted American attempts to win the “hearts and minds” campaign. President Diem was also a figure who made it nearly impossible for Americans to see any progress in Vietnam. Diem was elected to office having won 98.2% of the vote. In Saigon he had won just over 600,000 votes, an amazing feet considering there were only 450,000 registered voters in the district. Needless to say, Diem was a highly corrupt man whose sole goal as the President of South Vietnam was to retain his power. His land reform plans designed to improve life for the peasantry were ill planned and not generally followed through upon, his own brother was the head of a secrete police force, and his military commanders were selected purely on the basis of loyalty rather than talent. It took Diem years just to gain adequate control of his own cities, while he never was able to actually control the countryside.[viii]

Johnson's Approach

In 1967, President Johnson launched a campaign to prove to the people that America was winning the war. Everyone from General Westmoreland, to various other experts, testified to American success in the war. The result was very clear, from July 1967 to December 1967, the percentage of people who believed Americans were making progress improved from 34% to more than 50%. Likewise, the number of people who thought America was at a stalemate or losing ground, dropped dramatically.The 1968 Tet Offensive changed this perception of the war dramatically and permanently. Until 1968, protests were fairly common but also ineffective. After 1968, the American people would never again take government reports at face value. With each successive year of the war from sixty-eight on, opposition grew steadily.Possibly the biggest reason for the immense momentum the anti-war movement received was the growing credibility gap. More and more the Vietnam War was being aired on television, and reporters had unprecedented access to the fighting. Quickly enough, journalists realized that while an army report might officially read of an ARVN (Army of the Republic of South Vietnam) victory, the picture on the ground was often far to the contrary.The growing “credibility gap” developed out of the government’s desire to only inform the public of good news. When there was no good news on the front, good news was invented.

The use of the draft to meet the military’s request for greater manpower did not help pacify demonstrators by any means. The draft was a very touchy subject for the government. In the early 1960s President Kennedy had seriously considered pulling troops out of Vietnam. However after his death, Johnson merely escalated the war to its highest extent. The military demanded more men, but the war was already so unpopular. Clearly the government had two competing interests, to which they chose the military. While in the early years one could avoid the draft for reasons of college or “family hardship” or “critical occupational skills,” more and more the exemptions would disappear.[ix]

With the new soldiers came new problems. An army volunteer in the early sixties might not have fully accepted the government’s reasoning for fighting in Asia, but generally that did not stop him from serving with honor as best he could. This is certainly true of many, if not most of all soldiers drafted or volunteers. However, by the late sixties, more and more instances of uncertainty and individual doubts were becoming open insubordination. Indeed, instances of enlisted men “fragging” their officers became more prevalent as the war went on. It is also widely believed that the drug trade ran rampantly through the American ranks. American soldiers also began to feel the weight of knowing that the war was unpopular at home. They began to hear and see people burning the flag they were laying their lives down for. As one soldier put it,

“It hurts so much sometimes to see the paper full of demonstrators, especially people burning the flag. Display the flag, Mom and Dad, please everyday. And tell your friends to do the same. It means so much to us to know we’re supported, to know not everyone feels we’re making a mistake being here.”[x]

Certainly no soldier wants to die for a cause they or the rest of the country don’t believe in and by the close of the 1960s not many still believed. Many soldiers also didn’t see the protestors as doing them any favors either. As one put it, “How in the hell do you thing we in Vietnam feel when we read of the dissention and unrest in our country caused by young, worthless radicals and the foremost runner of them all: the vile and disease ridden SDS (Students for Democratic Society).”[xi]While the 1960s had started with the popular John Kennedy and his youthful, if not idealistic Presidency, America was left with an almost unanimously despised Johnson administration. Knowing full well that his presidency might shatter the Democratic Party, Johnson opted not to run for reelection. Indeed after finding out that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, family and friends had urged him to take the lead of the Democrats, to which Johnson stated, “No this is the end, the end, the end.”[xii]

Nixon and the end

At the end of 1969, Richard Nixon would pick up from where Johnson had left off. Although his campaign to the Presidency was about “Peace with Honor” Nixon would not end the war until 1973, rather unusual considering that the United States was offered a nearly identical peace proposal in 1969. The Nixon years marked a shift in the war, starting with the “Vietnamization policy.” More and more the U.S.was to turn the war over to the ARVN. Americans would be primarily used to train South Vietnamese soldiers and provide massive air defense.[xiii] While the American army, under newly appointed Abrams, started to get the strategy straight and was more successful in its work, it was simply too late. Too much grief had already been caused by the fighting. The assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, who represented peace and vigor, combined with the Martin Luther King assassination, had left a joyless, hopeless society that could not stand the war for any longer. Nixon’s expansion of the bombing of North Vietnam, the mining of Haiphong Harbor, and the invasion of Cambodia, all seemed to point to a situation that was getting worse by the day. By 1973 President Nixon was forced to withdraw American soldiers after agreeing to a peace. Two years later Saigon fell to the communists. South Vietnamese troops could not hold their own lacking American air power. While many were happy that the G.I.s were finally coming home, others felt that this had been America’s greatest defeat. Nixon himself was furious at Congress for forcing him to end the war because he felt that America was turning its back on a friend that it had sworn to defend. Lacking aid and force Saigon fell only to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

The Vast polarization of American society did not disappear overnight, as many G.I.s returned home to either be called “baby-killers,” or praised for serving their country. As these physically or mentally wounded soldiers came home to try to re-assimilate into society,America was faced with the faces of the war. Mostly very young men, these soldiers would spend years reeling from sickness, or the horrors they had seen. Many came home as well claiming that there were American P.O.W.s still left in Vietnam. While the government denies this, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that there were still American prisoners in Vietnam following American withdrawal in 1973. The country would heal, but there are still scars of the Vietnam War, still felt today. With Vietnam being the staple of how to not conduct a war, the critics of the current war on terrorism are often quick to site the “lessons of Vietnam.” Current antiwar activists are seen as being just a cliché of the sixties nothing else more. The distrust of the government during the sixties still remains to a degree today. It seems that the honor of the presidency and the President’s relationship with the people changed forever. It is clear though that Vietnam still has an extremely profound effect on society and popular culture. Even today when one considers the multitude of Vietnam movies, most of them portray a heavily drug ridden, unpopular war, in which the soldiers didn’t know what they were fighting for. This type of constant film portrayal is completely unique to Vietnam. While World War Two is also heavily used in movies and media, the message is usually one of honor and brotherhood.

Vietnam produced a social depression that lasted for many years. But the message still is not clear. It seems that these mixed messages are also major contributors to the Vietnam Syndrome. In later years Richard Nixon would write, “In Vietnam we tried and failed in a just cause. No More Vietnams can mean we will not try again. It should mean we will not fail again.”[xiv] Clearly there are those who still saw the war as a good, moral fight. Many in the military would come to resent their “losing” of the war, and would claim that they were stabbed in the back by the American people. They didn’t see the war has being lost in the field but rather as being lost on the home front. This too, is part of the Vietnam Syndrome.

[i]Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990 (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 2. [ii]Clark Dougan and Stephen Weiss, The American Experience in Vietnam (New York: Boston Publishing Company, 1988), 44.[iii] Richard Nixon, NoMoreVietnams (New York: Arbor House, 1985), 46.[iv] Bernard Edelman, ed., DearAmerica: LettersHomeFromVietnam (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985), 206.[v] Dougan and Weiss, The American Experience in Vietnam, 196.[vi] Young, TheVietnamWars1945-1990, 11.[vii] Jeffrey Race,WarComestoLongAn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 9.[viii] Young,TheVietnamWars1945-1990, 53.[ix] Dougan and Weiss, TheAmericanExperienceinVietnam, 198.[x]Edelman, ed., DearAmerica: LettersHomeFromVietnam, 220. [xi] Edelman, ed.,DearAmerica: Letters Home FromVietnam, 226.[xii] James Hepburn, FarewellAmerica:ThePlottoKill JFK (New York: Penmarin Books, 2002), 360.[xiii] Young, TheVietnam Wars1945-1990, 241.[xiv] Nixon, No More Vietnams


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    • AlexDrinkH2O profile image


      5 years ago from Southern New England, USA

      Your analysis is pretty fair and even-handed although I don't agree with everything you say. I served there and I still think it was a noble effort and I still have a grudge against those anti-war demonstrators, but that's all in the past now. By the way, when Congress essentially ended the war by stopping the funding, Gerry Ford was president, not Nixon. All in all, you did a decent job of describing the Vietnam years.


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