Motivations for US Involvement




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Thank you to the following reviewers of the curriculum: Andrew Demko, Rainier Junior/Senior High School; George Herring, University of Kentucky; Mark Lawrence, University of Texas at Austin; Ed Moise, Clemson University; Susan Tomlinson, Franklin Central High School. 


What would you say are valid reasons for getting involved in a war? What factors do you think should determine a nation’s withdrawal from a war? These are questions that presidents and their advisors struggle with on a regular basis.

From the mid 1800’s to World War II, France occupied Vietnam (as well as Cambodia and Laos) as a colonial state. During World War II, the Japanese marginalized the French and occupied Vietnam. In 1945, Viet Minh (Vietnam Independence League) leader Ho Chi Minh organized a revolution against the France as it sought to reestablish colonial rule with the defeat of the Japanese. This precipitated what is generally known as the First Indochina War, which continued from 1946 until 1954, when the French were defeated by the Viet Minh at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The subsequent signing of the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel, with the Viet Minh administering the northern region and the government under Emperor Bao Dai, who had been installed by the French in 1949, governing the southern region. The accords specified that an election was to take place in 1956 to unify the country according to popular vote.

In 1947, President Harry Truman put forth his Truman Doctrine, which established a precedent for US military assistance to non-communist nations under threat. This so-called “containment” doctrine suggested that if the US did not provide support to the governments of Greece and Turkey, those nations might lose the struggle against communism; US intervention was thus necessary to contain the spread of communism.  This line of thinking influenced US foreign policy for years to come, with the idea that US intervention in foreign conflicts could be warranted if it seemed that communist forces threatened to expand in a particular region or sub-region—for example, when China came under communist leadership in 1949, fear of a possible communist bloc in the region arose. Listen to the audio clip included on slide 1, which is an excerpt from President Truman’s address to Congress regarding the Truman Doctrine. What language in the clip sets a precedent for future US involvement in Vietnam? Three years later, President Truman followed through on his policy and authorized $15 million in aid to the French to support their military efforts in Indochina.

In 1954, the French were defeated in Indochina and a conference in Geneva was assembled to determine a means of restoring peace and order to the region. At this conference the Geneva Accords were signed, the result of which was a temporarily divided Vietnam with the Viet Minh occupying the northern region and Emperor Bao Dai installed by the French as leader of the southern region. By this time, Eisenhower had been elected president and his policy toward Vietnam (and in the Indochina region more broadly) continued to give strong consideration to the strategic importance of the region to US allies, with respect to both politics (a desire to prevent a communist bloc from forming in the region with China at the helm- commonly known as the “domino theory”) as well as economics (a desire to keep the region open for trade and extraction of resources). Read the excerpt on slide 2 from President Eisenhower’s press conference held in April 1954. Do you find the President’s arguments for US intervention in Vietnam convincing/valid?  Why might Americans in 1954 have found Eisenhower’s logic reasonable?

In 1955, Emperor Bao Dai was ousted in favor of Ngo Dinh Diem, a Western-educated Catholic favored by the US, who would serve as the first president of South Vietnam (see slide 3). Diem’s rule saw the cancellation of the planned 1956 elections to reunify Vietnam, with the contention that South Vietnam had not been a signing party of the Geneva Accords, and thus it was not bound to its terms. In reality, Diem, and the US, feared that Ho Chi Minh’s popularity would translate to sure loss in any election. The Diem regime repressed suspected communists and the Buddhist majority, practices which contributed to the rise of the National Liberation Front, founded in 1960 in South Vietnam with the intention to overthrow the Diem government and reunite Vietnam (see slide 4).  By the late 1950s, a new insurgency, this time directed against Diem’s regime, was gaining strength in South Vietnam, imperiling the regime and American policy in the region.  This rising insurgency was a critical factor in spurring further American involvement in Vietnam.

President Kennedy was wary of further involvement in Vietnam, but ultimately he continued to escalate US involvement. In late 1961, President Kennedy began increasing the number of military advisers in Vietnam to help train the South Vietnamese army. Despite previous backing of the US, Diem’s regime was seen as increasingly untenable and US officials in fact supported a coup against Diem, which ultimately led to his assassination in 1963 and the rise of a military junta under South Vietnamese General Duong Van Minh. Watch the clip of a September 1963 Walter Cronkite interview with President Kennedy included on slide 5. What are the major points of Kennedy’s remarks? Based on this clip alone, would you expect the US to become further involved in Vietnam, or less involved? Why?  Why do you think Kennedy continued to escalate US involvement in Vietnam even when he had his doubts about the possibility of US success in the country?

With President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Vice President Lyndon Johnson became president and took decisive steps toward waging full-fledged war in Vietnam. On August  2 and 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson received reports of attacks by North Vietnamese forces on the USS Maddox in the Vietnamese Gulf of Tonkin. Many have suggested that the incident, the details of which have come under dispute, merely served as an excuse to advance President Johnson’s policy toward Vietnam, an inclination toward proactive military action that would communicate that the US would stand up to any kind of aggression. Listen to the recording of President Johnson’s August 3 conversation with Secretary McNamara regarding a course of action in response to attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin, included on slide 6. What language stands out as Johnson’s primary reasoning for pursuing action? Does this recording indicate that Johnson gave any direct consideration to the threat of communism?

Watch the clip from a 1965 press conference with President Johnson included on slide 7, starting at around the 2:00 minute mark and ending around the 4:00 minute mark. How would you characterize the motivation for continued US involvement in Vietnam, based on Johnson’s words? Rather than strictly strategic concerns, concerns of credibility and steadfastness began to weigh more heavily in policymaking regarding Vietnam. By the end of 1967, the American death toll in Vietnam reached over 15,000.

Facing increasing public dissent regarding US involvement in Vietnam, Johnson decided not to seek reelection in 1968, and in 1969 President Nixon was elected president and took office. Nixon campaigned on a need to change policy with respect to Vietnam (watch video in slide 8), with a promise for “honorable withdrawal.”  Two years earlier, Nixon had claimed that “if the credibility of the United States is destroyed in Vietnam, it will be destroyed in Europe as well,” (see New York Times article in slide 9). Despite announcing a plan of “Vietnamization” in 1969, which would equip and train South Vietnam’s troops to take the place of US troops for phased withdrawal, President Nixon expanded US involvement in the region by then authorizing an invasion into Cambodia in 1970. Watch Nixon’s address to the nation regarding the Cambodian invasion from April 1970 included on slide 10, particularly starting at the 12:30 minute mark and ending at the 14:00 minute mark. How would you characterize the tone of Nixon’s words?  How does he explain his reasoning for launching an invasion of another country at a time when he was trying to wind down the war in Vietnam? 

From 1947 until the end of the war by the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, varying factors motivated US involvement, including (but not limited to): strategic concerns over the spread of communism; political concerns about impact of instability in the region for allies; desire for reelection and the broader protection of political interests; concerns about maintaining the credibility of the US and avoiding defeat.

The complex motivations that guided US involvement in Vietnam over the course of over two decades continue to guide decisions regarding involvement in foreign conflict today. Ask students to observe the political cartoon included on slide 11, from the Buffalo News. What motivation for the Iraq war is the author suggesting through this cartoon? What do you understand as having been the primary motivation for the initiation of that war? What possible motivations for entering into conflict, if any, would be valid and justified?

Because it is always a significant decision to commit forces to conflict, it is important to understand and evaluate political decisions associated with past conflicts.