American history is often punctuated by many wars. Even at the global front, war was the order of the day in the past five decades. Without delving much on history, perhaps the only relevant wars to mention are the First and the Second World Wars. This is because they preceded the War in Vietnam and may have informed the latter. Fought between 1939 and 1945, World War II may have set the ground for Vietnam. Having realized the effects of war, nations came together to form the United Nations Organization, a platform that would henceforth provide frameworks for the international co-operation and peace. However, since the reasons that caused the previous wars had not been solved, the initial years of the UN were not effective in achieving peace and international cooperation. As a result, Vietnam War was fought. This essay seeks to explore the possible causes of Vietnam War, how the war was fought or what actually happened during the war and the outcomes of the war. From the onset, it will be mentioned that Vietnam War was one of the worst forms of imperialism.
As the name suggests, Vietnam War was fought in Vietnam. It happened for a period of 20 years 1955 through 1975. The name originates from different sources including the local Vietnamese view of ‘American War’ or the ‘Resistance War against America’. It has also been referred to as the Vietnam Conflict or the Indochina War II. This war was fought in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Causes of Vietnam War
The Two Views
There are many explanations to the causes of war in Vietnam. Moreover, these explanations many be clustered into two broad categories. These are literally the insider and the outsider views of the war. The first one is the Vietnamese view that considered it as a political war. In this case, U.S. was considered as having come to propagate what France had earlier delved on in 1850s. This explained why the North Vietnam People’s Army was involved: for the liberation struggles. However, this view considers the war as part of the U.S. Cold War and its strategy of containment. In this strategy, the U.S. was countering the effect of the USSR spread of communism. The U.S. particularly responded because USSR had managed to influence the North Vietnam. Therefore, to prevent the spread of communism, the U.S influenced the South Vietnam and aided it in fighting against the North, especially on air.
One of the major causes of war, or at least motivations for U.S. to go to fight in Vietnam, was the misconception that Vietnamese were weak and thus easy to defeat. The U.S. entered Vietnam with the imperialist view conceived during the 1622 Indian War. There was the feeling that the U.S. should be actively involved in spreading democracy and the ‘right’ economic ideologies, such as capitalism to the third world countries. In addition, the U.S. viewed Vietnam as a key nation in SE Asia that should not be influenced by communists at all costs. American people at the moment believed that the problem didn’t lack a solution; of course drawing experiences from Second World War. Other than the American influence, the British were actively helping France to re-colonize Vietnam. Additionally, the manufacturers of arms would make money and profits out of the war. Another motivation was the fact that if Vietnam was to be controlled by the communists, both the sea and the air routes to the Middle East and Australia would be cut off. The U.S. was concerned that such a control would lead to the impairment of most economies, where its interests were vested.
Although the one of the major reasons of the Vietnam War was to stop the spread of communism, the war could also be understood from an historical perspective. From a historical lens, it could be argued that Vietnam has been a fighting nation. It began in the first century, when the Chinese dynasty conquered the country, which is today the Northern Vietnam. By the end of the first millennium, the Vietnamese had managed to defeat the Chinese. By mid-15th century, all the Chinese war lords were eliminated from Vietnam. The Vietnamese people, who were in the north, began to migrate to the south. As a result, by the 19th and 20th centuries, the Mekong River delta became over populated. In the mid-19th century, the French, Portuguese and the Dutch invaded Vietnam. Perhaps, the most significant rule was the French rule, in which the Vietnamese were made to work in plantations and pay heavy taxes. It was during the Second World War that the French shared their rule of Vietnam with Japan. The early signs of Vietnamese resistance began in 1941, when Ho Chi Minh formed the League for Vietnamese Independence. In this regard, it could be said that the cause of war in Vietnam was a result of many historical injustices that were continually subjected to the Vietnamese.
Although Minh declared Vietnam a free and independent country in 1945, the British and the Chinese were instrumental in helping France regain control over Vietnam. At this point, the U.S did nothing to stop the re-colonization of Vietnam. This led to the second category of reasons that in turn led to the start of the real war that was fought since 1950. Perhaps, there was no reason to make the U.S. be involved in stopping the French rule until the post-World War II, when they became afraid of the spread of communism. As a result, the U.S. funded the French up to 75% of their operations. This is what historians have come to refer to as the ‘domino theory’ that was literally a strategic spread of communism, especially in the Asian region. The U.S. would support any nation that was ready to resist communism or that would be devoted to stop the spread of communism in other nations. In other words, the U.S. was a major reason as to why the Vietnam War was fought.
Nature of the French Rule
In explaining the intensity and momentum of the Vietnam War, historians mainly cite the harshness of the French rule. The French colonialists used very cruel methods to exert control over their subjects. Specifically, the Vietnamese were not allowed to produce or do business in salt and alcohol, which were the essential aspects of life in any population. In addition, although the Vietnamese worked as slaves in rice plantations for the French, all the rice produced was exported to France, leaving the Vietnamese people with nothing to feed on. They continued to suffer in spite of their hard work. In spite of their suffering, the Vietnamese were not expected to leave their work. In fact, the workers in mines were jailed if they left their work stations. Further, taxation was doubled and made heavier in a bid to exploit the people of Vietnam. According to White, these dehumanizing activities were also intensified, when the French people shared the control of Vietnam with Japan, who also had their own way of punishment, exploitation and fighting (1). It thus appears that the cause of war also was partly based on economic deprivation of the local people. As a result, they had to fight back in order to win back not only their freedom but also their livelihoods.
What Happened during the War
The advancement of the Vietnam War has two components. The first one was an offshoot of the Indochina wars, whose tensions continued for over three decades. Secondly, it marked the overlapping of the Cold War origins from the Second World War (Dudziak 17). Preceding the 1940’s, Vietnamese opposition of French occupation, there was already a fertile ground for fighting of war. However, when in 1940 the French were defeated by the Germans, much occupation was controlled by Japan. Although the Germans defeated the French, the Vietnamese movements continued to be opposed to the winners, who also included the Japanese. Therefore, the U.S. supported Viet Minh, a rebel movement, to fight the communist ideals. By 1945, the Japanese were defeated and in September 1945, the Vietnam leader declared the country as independent by citing the U.S. independence declaration. This pronouncement exacerbated war because the USSR and the UK felt that Vietnam belonged to France.
This resulted in the Chinese entry and occupation of the North, which was later followed by a treaty, signed in 1946 to substitute the Chinese control with the French control. As a result, the Vietnamese movement renewed its attacks of the French. They Vietnamese movements were made stronger in 1949, when the Chinese Communists won the Chinese Civil War and began to supply them with arms, their major disadvantage.
The Role of the U.S.
The actual war is said to have started in the early 1950’s, when the U.S. intensified its support. For instance, through the U.S. influence, the South Vietnam did not hold their elections in 1956. This was during the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem. In order to counter this, the Vietnam people continued to renew their fighting advocacy. Therefore, in 1960, communists in South Vietnam formed the ‘Viet Cong’ or the National Liberation Front. The latter was to fight against the decision of the Southern leader, who refused to hold elections. Lack of elections meant continued suffering on the part of the Vietnamese. To counter this further, the U.S. had to send more helicopters to assist the Southern leader, Diem. This happened during the reign of JF Kennedy. Diem’s harsh rule made him more unpopular. On the contrary, according to Ruane, the U.S. wanted somebody they could trust but Diem was already unpopular (435). On May, 1961, President Kennedy was compelled to send about 400 Special Advisors to South Vietnamese leader, Diem, to train South Vietnamese soldiers on methods on counter insurgency. This was to help in defeating the northern Viet Cong. In spite of all the assistance, the Viet Cong continued to bear the Southern Army. The United States thus became paranoid towards Diem, the President. In fact, by 1963, Buddhist Monks would burn themselves to death since they did not like his regime. Having lost confidence in him, the U.S. organized for Diem’s death in an army coup.
Through the Jungle War
By 1964, the war was already intensified. Indeed, the U.S. Congress gave the president the power to go to war. In addition, the cost of U.S. in maintaining the South Vietnamese soldiers rose to $2 million per day. It is clear that the war in Vietnam had become a national issue. The U.S. had to continually protect its interests and simultaneously advance its agenda. The years of 1965-1968 have been referred to as the Jungle War, characterized by non-traditional ways of engagement but pursuit of the enemies or rebels. In 1965, the U.S. had already started bombing the Northern part of Vietnam. By this time, American troops were about 184,000, all fighting in Vietnam. Since the Viet Cong were well familiar with the territories and were more conversant with guerilla attacks, the U.S. military, with their sophisticated technology, found it difficult to defeat them. The U.S. military was good only in air but not on land, which would become one of the major lessons learnt by the U.S. after the war. Following this difficulty, the U.S. had to device another method of dealing with the Vietnamese fighters in the North. The new way, termed as ‘search and destroy’, meant to eliminate the people, who were actually involved in the planning of guerillas. However, the U.S. forces appeared to use unnecessarily many resources to get just one such a person. In January 1965, the U.S. had begun to contemplate the possibility of withdrawing from Vietnam. However, there were opposing views and the military had to stay for longer. This was partly because there were increasing protests at home demanding that the government withdraws from Vietnam.
The war continued to intensify even towards the end of 1960’s. During the 1968, the ‘Tet’ festival took place, that is the guerillas made a surprise attack in several South Vietnamese towns. The U.S. military was thus confused. As a result, more forces were deployed from the north, where they were attacking, to the south, where they would protect the territory. Therefore, there was less bombing in the north, which further gave the Viet Cong guerillas time to do more planning and attacks. Change in guerilla strategies led to the reduction of U.S. troops from over 500,000 to less than 200,000. The South Vietnamese army is the one that was more involved in the war. Since they lacked expertise in relation to the American military, more casualties were recorded. This trend led to the U.S. withdrawing from Vietnam. Significantly, the Paris ceasefire talks led to signing of deals, which would see decrease and ultimate withdrawal of U.S. troops. This was also partly attributed to pressure from home; the civil rights movements were holding more and more demonstrations and protests. The last combat was in March 1973. However, as the U.S. troops decreased, the Soviet and Chinese troops increased. Consequently, while the U.S. financial aid decreased, that of China and the Soviet increased significantly. In fact, in 1975 January, the North attacked the South. Moreover, this was the last of the attacks since April, the North and the South became united and formed a single nation. Although the war had come to an end, its effects and outcomes cannot be underestimated.
The Outcomes of the War
Vietnam War was one of the darkest events in the history of wars. This is because of the various outcomes it led to. These include loss of life, disintegration of democracies, economic impacts, destruction of peace, and loss of property among others. These effects and outcomes were not only felt in Vietnam and the U.S. but also across all other countries that were directly or indirectly involved in the war. Powers that were directly involved suffered effects almost similar to the ones suffered by the U.S., while those, who were indirectly involved or not involved at all, suffered different kinds of outcomes. The outcomes of the war in Vietnam were also punctuated with many lessons to all the nations that participated in it. Since all outcomes cannot be enumerated, this section seeks to outline and enlist only the most significant and major outcomes of the war.
The Effect of not Understanding the Enemy
The Vietnam War was a major lesson for the U.S. that proper planning and understanding of the enemy were the keys to success. Having had succeeded in the Korea War, the U.S. Military thought that Vietnam would have been an easy-to-defeat country. However, the northerners had had over thirty years of fighting experience against the French. This resulted in immense economic and policy costs for the U.S. At the international scene, U.S was seen as a diving the country further thus polarizing its foreign relations with the eastern block. Over $100 billion had been used in a span of ten years ending in 1975. In addition, about 60,000 soldiers were killed and 150,000 wounded. Most of those, who were killed, were young soldiers thus affecting their families as well as the demographic scale. Due to this war, about 125,000 Americans fled to Canada. From the perspective of the Canadian government, the U.S. policy on war was misplaced as seen in the massive American immigrations to Canada. At home, there were massive protests from different civil rights movements and organizations. As a result, there was an increased unrest at home and tension at the international scene.
The Vietnam War had major economic outcomes or impacts. However, different sources present different figures on how much was exactly spent during the war. It is estimated that a total of $150 billion was used to fund the war. According to Mishra, this led major economic problems in the U.S. just as the civil rights movements and student movements had warned. For instance, the post-war U.S. per capita income was reduced to $100. However, when the war ended, it rose to $376 in a span of less than 25 years. Therefore, it means that if the war was not fought, the per capita income would have continued to increase to greater figures. In order to make reparations for the economic damages brought about by war, Vietnam came up with a reconstruction program that would see taking off of its economy. This was to be done through giving incentives, foreign investments, promotion of tourism, technology establishment and development of infrastructure and restoration of financial management. The countries, who participated in the war, did not also have much or anything at all to show for their fight: lives were either the same or worse.
Loss of Life and Disruption of Social Life
The other major outcome of Vietnam War was loss of lots of human life. Conservative estimations of these numbers are placed at 58,000 lives lost. Although figure may portray more Vietnamese to have died than Americans, it cannot be denied that a huge number of Americans died as well. Moreover, due to lack of the advanced technologies, the Vietnamese suffered a lot. In Cambodia, a neighboring country, thousands of lives were lost and millions of people displaced from their homes. The numbers of refugees increased exponentially. The country faced starvation as well as totalitarian leadership, which was seen as an excess of the Vietnam ideological and political struggles. It is reported that Vietnam suffered three times of bombs dropped during the Second World War. Connected to loss of lives, there was also a disruption of social live. For instance, about 1.5 million Vietnamese fled from their country to seek refuge in more peaceful places. Most of them finally settled in the U.S. Above all, the French rule was very exploitative, oppressive and demeaning. Although the war came to halt in the 1975, tensions continued to ensue regarding migrations. A major outcome was the diplomatic enmity between Vietnam and most of the neighboring countries. Interestingly, the Soviet remained to be allies throughout the post-war period. This leads to the other aspect of how the war affected diplomatic relations. For instance, Australia and New Zealand differed over the War in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War was a great shaper of U.S.-China relations. Although the two powers did not stand for the same economic and political ideology, China became easier to deal with than Vietnam. This came about when there were calls for U.S.-Vietnam reconciliation. Following the economic relationship between U.S. and China, America could not make peace or reconcile with China’s enemy (Vogel). In addition, following lessons learnt in Vietnam, Powell Doctrine was agreed upon. It simply stipulated that the U.S military should only be committed to international or cross-border wars as a last resort. This was initiated during the Reagan’s rule of the 1980’s. Informed by the experiences of Vietnam War, President Bush Sr. would not support the Gulf War. He expressly stated that America would not be forced into war with ‘one hand tied behind their back’ as was the case in Vietnam. It is clear that the two-decade war in Vietnam has continued to remind the later U.S. presidents of the costly affair of War. Recalling that the U.S army was not very endowed with ground as opposed to air strategies, President Clinton was somewhat fearful of the Kosovo War. The same experiences led to Clinton’s visit to Vietnam in 2000 with the message that the name Vietnam referred to a country but not a type of war. Clinton was the first U.S. president in a span of 30 years to visit the country since the 1969, when President Nixon visited.
The past four decades or so have been the most dramatic one at the world scene in terms of international wars. Other then the civil wars or the battles of the past, the last century was punctuated with what could be termed as conventional war. Beginning with the World War I, nations could pass legislation approving their participation in war against other nations. Moreover, while looking at it keenly, it becomes apparent that these wars were merely ways of exerting domination and protection of economic and political interests. Moreover, although war brings about immense losses, nations seem to have learnt over time that war is not the best option for a country. However, for the U.S.-Soviet duel, this lesson was not clear after the Second World War. This is why the Vietnam War was fought. Moreover, after the war, the U.S. had its lessons to learn. The same applies to other countries that were directly involved, indirectly involved or not involved at all. The purpose of this essay was to outline the causes of Vietnam War, what happened during the war and the outcomes of the war.
To achieve the above objective, the causes of Vietnam War were viewed from two perspectives. The first view took a historical approach in delineating the historical injustices that have been subjected to Vietnamese since the first century. Having been a land of war, oppression, slavery and dictatorial leadership, Vietnamese were justified to fight even after the Second World War that proved to be an expensive affair. The second view was more of a political and economic outlook of the War. The main explanation was that the war has been intensified when the U.S. sought to counter the Soviet’s ‘domino theory’ that sought to spread communism across the world. Therefore, for U.S., Vietnam War was a containment strategy of the Soviet’s economic and political ideology; which the U.S. was opposed to. During the war, the main strategy for the U.S. military was to drop bombs from the air. However, the northern Vietnamese army used guerrilla attacks. Although the U.S. adopted another strategy dubbed ‘search and destroy’, the Viet Cong made entry into Southern Vietnam. The Japan rule also made the war difficult for the Viet Cong. Moreover, due to economic implications and pressure from home, the U.S. had to back off. Nevertheless, the outcomes of the war, including loss of lives and diplomatic relationships taught all parties valuable lessons.
Finally, the participants as well as other nations learnt a myriad of lessons. First of all, one should not underestimate their enemy. Perhaps, the U.S. is not all that powerful anyway. It was also made clear that the U.S. was in war because it did not want to lose instead of fighting to win (Vogel). In addition, it was realized that the citizens of a country have limits, up to which they can withstand economic excesses brought about by the participation of their military in war abroad. This was well illustrated by the protests at home, such as the student movements. Furthermore, it is not in order to apply past war experiences to a different situation. The U.S. used the World War II experiences to fight in Vietnam but did not get it right. It was also valuable for nations like France to learn that it is not advisable to go alone in war; it requires alliances and support. Most importantly, the U.S. learnt that its army would be defeated if it fights on the ground in Asia.