French soldiers at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Courtesy of Thinkquest.org
I know, I know. Vietnam again. But we hadn’t finished the story, and my thoughts about my thesis are still completely garbled. So here we go.
In order to understand how the men and women who enlisted in the military between 1963 and 1972 felt about their war, and how they internalized it, we first need to go back to the beginning. The beginning of what, you might ask? The beginning of the war in Viet Nam, but not the American war. In order to understand why Vietnam occurred, and to understand how it impacted our soldiers, we need to look at the roots of the conflict, and at the political culture of the Cold War, as it manifested itself through the words of the early Cold War presidents.
As we already discussed in the introduction, the twentieth century in America was one marked by a special sense of American mission and identity. People, political and otherwise, felt that the country had a special task to make the world a better place; in a nutshell, American Exceptionalism. As a result, people began to equate all military interventions with this sense of messianic foreign policy; if America went to war, it went to war for all the right reasons, a belief made especially compelling in the immediate aftermath of World War II. America would be the leader of a new, free world, and ought to act accordingly each time it ventured forth.
Ultimately, this meant that America came to be associated, at least in the mind of its people, with all that was good in the world. Anything, be it nation or man, that opposed American ideology must therefore be corrupt, evil, and terribly dangerous.
So let’s say we’re sitting there, drinking our tea, at the end of WWII. It’s fall 1945, and the scariest thing we can think of, now that both Germany and Japan are defeated, is the Soviet Union. Stalin went from being our (somewhat dubious) friend and ally to someone we’re starting to think might just be a little bit evil. So now we’re faced with a dilemma. What do we do about the USSR and communism? We’ve got half of Berlin, and they’ve got the other half, trapped in what seems like an undemocratic vise. So we declare communism evil, the absolute antithesis to democratic America. The culture of American Exceptionalism lends itself nicely to this mindset, and gradually, this culture of anti-communism gets incorporated into the pre-existing notion of an exemplar, exceptional America, made all the more powerful by its victory in WWII.
It is this culture which, year by year, policy by policy, resulted in the Vietnam War, that political and military travesty that first forced America to look at itself in the mirror (imagining Lady Liberty, rather than Uncle Sam, makes this more palatable to me!). Each Cold War president, from Truman to Johnson, made policy decisions within that cultural framework, and justified his actions in Viet Nam based on revisited traditions of exemplarism and messianic foreign policy. In effect, although each president may have faced unique situations in relation to Viet Nam, they all responded in ways that were consistent with the Cold War culture, and which provided a traceable, linear path to war in 1965.
So now that we’ve got ourselves a Cold War culture of anti-communism and American Exceptionalism, let’s take a look at the presidents themselves and see the baby steps that actually resulted in the 1965 invasion.
Harry Truman became president in 1945 with the sudden death of FDR (coincidentally, my favorite president. All American historians have one. We’re just snazzy like that). In my own “brilliant” words (to be fair, I did include “sinister synergy” as an actual phrase in my thesis, so I’m not always even remotely close to eloquent), Truman personified the anti-communist warrior. He took two important, and rather oversimplified lessons from WWII. 1. That appeasement (what happened when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gave Hitler what he wanted in an effort to prevent war: a huge war) was never a good idea, because it just bred more and more aggression and 2. That communism was at its root evil, and most terrifying because it attacked both from within a nation, and from without. So he decided to be proactive, saving himself from ever having to appease, and to try and prevent the conditions in which communism might thrive. He actually compared communism to a virus, and the United States to a medic, trying to root out a disease. In his inaugural address, he cited four pillars of combatting communism: NATO, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, and extensive technical assistance to the developing world. More simplified, these four pillars became the first of the Cold War’s weapons to combat communism. NATO, the UN, and technical assistance fell under what became known as the Truman Doctrine; the United States must always intervene, whether militarily, diplomatically, or through humanitarian agencies, to prevent the spread of communism. The second weapon was that of containment; George Kennan seemed to posit that the best way to prevent the spread was simply to contain communism where it already was by intervening wherever and whenever it might pop up (although actually, he was misunderstood; he did say that containment was the best option, but he also argued that only certain countries and areas were worth fighting in. Viet Nam was certainly not on that list). In effect, in order to stop communism, that evil ideology, America would have to exercise its global might and intervene anywhere, at any moment.
This led the Truman administration into Viet Nam. Although we have only outlined Truman’s policies with the absolute broadest of brush strokes, we can begin to see how Truman’s policies might lead to an intervention in Viet Nam. Although at the time still a French colony, the French were rapidly losing control to a group calling themselves the Viet Minh, who wanted freedom from colonialism, and chose communism as their ideology (in a huge knot of irony, Ho Chi Minh, the group’s leader, had actually worked for the Americans during the war, and wanted American help to gain independence; he believed in democracy, and wanted to use the Declaration of Independence as a model. We rejected him, and sent him right into China and Russia’s waiting arms). So with Communism sprouting up in Viet Nam, Truman authorized a fair amount of support to the beleaguered French, and our involvement in Viet Nam began, circa 1950.
Dwight Eisenhower, that iconic WWII general, and president from 1952 until 1960, continued with the policies of containment, and in fact expanded them. From Truman’s infant doctrines, Eisenhower made institutions. Militant anti-communism became a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and he in fact extended that policy towards neutral nations, or those who had not actively picked the U.S. or the USSR as benefactor.
Perhaps Eisenhower’s most critical contribution to the Cold War political ideology, however, was the domino theory. Probably the most memorable policy of the Cold War besides MAD (mutually assured destruction), it’s pretty much what it sounds like: communist states were seen like dominoes. If one “fell,” then others automatically followed. It was this theory that pushed Eisenhower even further into Viet Nam. Seeing the French struggle so, Eisenhower pledged considerably more American support, and stated that if the French couldn’t hold it, America would. The fear, in his mind, at least, was that if Viet Nam fell, then Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Thailand… all the Southeast Asian countries would fall, too. In effect, protecting Vietnam became synonymous with protecting the entire region from the communist threat. When the French lost at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Americans stepped in and began the task of propping up the nationalist government in Saigon, under one Ngo Dinh Diem, and began drawing up military plans in the event the communists could not be stopped without force.
Elected in 1960, John F. Kennedy is perhaps the anomalous piece to this puzzle. Although he inherited Truman and Eisenhower’s policies, his legacy is far more convoluted, probably because he was assassinated in 1963, dead before he could finish carrying out any plans regarding Viet Nam. Therefore, we can really only speculate as to what he would have done, and how he would have handled the situation.
Less a military man than Eisenhower, and less fearful than Truman, it seems that Kennedy was more interested in humanitarian and technical aid than in military intervention, although he did make sweeping anti-communist statements in many of his speeches. Although still calling for freedom and democracy throughout the world, Kennedy at first glance seems to have been calling for a more flexible, humanitarian approach. Famously, he said, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, and let us never fear to negotiate.”¹
Despite the change in rhetoric, the emphasis on flexibility and diversity, Kennedy’s actions ultimately spoke louder than his words. He did contribute to the military build-up in Viet Nam, and laid the foundations for his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to start the war. In fact, the theme of his 1960 presidential campaign had been “America under siege,” suggesting a military aspect to the communist threat, which he in fact applied to the concrete problem of Viet Nam. In many of his statements to Congress throughout 1961, ’62, and ’63, he repeatedly emphasized the military threat of China and the USSR to defenseless, peace-loving nations like Viet Nam, and that their freedom was ultimately linked to the freedom of the entire Western world. I know, it’s a little bit tenuous, but people truly began to believe that actions undertaken in Asia were really in the defense of the United States.
So Kennedy sent America to Viet Nam. Slowly at first, but he took the first direct actions, and spoke the first true justifications. Selling the actions as a “test case” for anti-communism, he argued that the Vietnamese were a peace-loving, freedom-loving people who needed to be saved from a brutal tyrant. Because he pulled so much of the language from America’s own revolutionary period, it struck a chord with many Americans.
But before he could actually undertake much in the way of military action, Kennedy was assassinated, leaving Lyndon B. Johnson to fill his shoes, and try to interpret what Kennedy had intended to do.
Many historians have argued that because Johnson was relatively inexperienced in foreign affairs, he left a lot of the decision-making to Kennedy’s advisors, and became, in effect, a puppet president, at least where the war was concerned. I, however, choose to take a slightly different view. I contend that, being of the same generation of men, WWII veterans and believers in American Exceptionalism, Johnson felt he had to fight the Vietnam War, regardless of whether he actually believed it was right. He inherited a specific situation from the previous Cold War warriors, and believed it his duty to keep going.
So let’s take a look.
Like Truman, Johnson believed that too weak a policy surrounding communism would result in the appeasement, and therefore escalation of the threat. He also very strongly espoused the tenets of American Exceptionalism, and in America’s seemingly divine mission to protect the world. Luckily for us, Johnson made a documentary, “Why Vietnam,” which allows us a nice insight into how Johnson wanted the world to think about Vietnam. Above all else, American Exceptionalism and containment bleed through. Johnson repeatedly called the Vietnamese the victims of oppression, tyranny, and brutality. He cited America’s duty to protect freedom, and he stated that stopping communism was the same as protecting American freedom and security. Publicly, at least, Johnson wanted Americans to believe that intervention against communism supported the messianic sense of American importance, and also protected the lives of American children.
Never doubting in the Cold War mission and tensions, Johnson was also afraid to be the first American president to back away from a war, and to lose one. Above all, he wanted to honor American principles and ideologies. Using the language of the American revolution, Johnson tried to evoke support from the American people for the escalation of his war. Unless America acted, he claimed, the Vietnamese would be subject to brutal oppression. Like the American colonists, they too just wanted the opportunity to thrive. For these reasons, escalation in Vie Nam was acceptable.
In conclusion, the ideologies that emerged from nearly two decades of Cold War foreign policies and commitments to Vietnam was both particular to the time and representative of the larger culture of militarism that had existed within the United States since its establishment. All four Cold War presidents, although unique in many of their policies, contributed to the formation of overarching trends that ultimately formed the basis of a distinct Cold War “ideology.” The first, and perhaps most blatant of these trends was that of anti-communism. Each of the four presidents explicitly committed the United States to combating communism wherever it manifested itself throughout the globe. The presidents’ translated anti-communist sentiments into the direct threat of communism against the United States and its people, the world’s people, and the very notion of liberty itself. This fed into the idea of American Exceptionalism, creating a special role for the United States in its quest to defeat communism. Styling itself the defender of liberty, a role the United States seems particularly comfortable with, America sought to first contain, and then extinguish communism, that ultimate threat to liberty. A corollary to these two overarching trends of anti-communism and American Exceptionalism dealt with the relationship between the United States and the developing world; it posited that it was an American duty to protect others from tyranny and privation. The overarching ideology that emerged, the product of four separate presidents spread over two decades, was remarkably consistent. It was within this cultural framework that the Vietnam War occurred.
Atwood, Paul L. War and Empire: The American Way of Life. New York: Pluto Press, 2010.
Barnet, Richard J. Intervention and Revolution: The United States in the Third World. New
York: Times Mirror, 1972.
Combs, Jerald A. The History of American Foreign Policy. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. Armonk, NY: M.E.
Combs, Jerald A. The History of American Foreign Policy. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. Armonk, NY: M.E.
Cornell, Saul. “Bill of Rights.” In A Companion to American Thought, edited by Richard
Wightman Fox and James T. Kloppenberg. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers
Gardner, Lloyd C. A Covenant with Power: America and World Order from Wilson to Reagan.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Holbrooke, Richard. “Presidents, Bureaucrats, and Something In-Between.” In The Vietnam
Legacy, edited by Anthony Lake. New York: New York University Press, 1976.
Kaiser, David. American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War.
Cambridge, MA: Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.
Kaplan, Amy. “Imperialism and Anti-imperialism.” In A Companion to American Thought,
edited by Richard Wightman Fox and James T. Kloppenberg. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell
Publishers, Ltd., 1995.
Kloppenberg, James T. “Democracy.” In A Companion to American Thought, edited by Richard
Wightman Fox and James T. Kloppenberg. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd.,
Kristol, Irving. “Consensus and Dissent in U.S. Foreign Policy.” In The Vietnam Legacy.
edited by Anthony Lake. New York: New York University Press, 1976.
LaFeber, Walter. “Liberty and Power: U.S. Diplomatic History, 1750-1945.” In The New
American History, edited by Eric Foner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.
LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion 1860-1898.
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1963.
Lake, Anthony. Introduction to The Vietnam Legacy, ed. by Anthony Lake. New York: New
York University Press, 1976.
Longley, Kyle. The American Combat Soldier in Vietnam. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2008.
McCain, John. Introduction to Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, ed. by Bernard
Edelman. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2002.
McKenna, George. The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism. New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 2007.
Mead, Walter Russell. Special Providence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
Peceny, Mark. Democracy at the Point of Bayonets. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State
University Press, 1999.
Peterson, Mark A. “John Winthrop.” In A Companion to American Thought, edited by Richard
Wightman Fox and James T. Kloppenberg. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd.,
Ross, Dorothy. “American Exceptionalism.” In A Companion to American Thought, edited by
Richard Wightman Fox and James T. Kloppenberg. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell
Publishers Ltd., 1995.
Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York:
Random House, 1988.
Tindall, George Brown and David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History 6th ed. Vol. 2. New
York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.
Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. New York: W.W. Norton &
Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.