America’s Rationale for Going to War with Vietnam

Photo: Sgt Amanda Campbell

With the-ongoing bluster from the Trump Administration threatening both North Korea and Iran, I thought that it would be prudent to look back at the reasoning behind one of America’s biggest war projects; the Vietnam war, and gain a better understanding of why the United States took over from France in what was clearly an unwinnable Cold War proxy state battle.  We’ll start this posting with a brief look at the history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the high human cost of the war and then focus on the Department of Defense’s rationale for going to war.

The United States involvement in Vietnam began in the Truman Administration in early 1945 when the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, offered assistance to Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh liberation fighters to gain independence from the Japanese who had taken over Vietnam in a coup-d’etat in March 1945, just months before Japan surrendered.  In fact, the first U.S. casualty in Vietnam took place on September 26, 1945 when Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, nephew of presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, who had been sent to command an OSS team and oversee intelligence gathering in Saigon, was ambushed and killed on his way to the Saigon airport as he was leaving Vietnam, largely because the British who controlled South Vietnam believed that he was working with the Viet Minh.

Let’s look at how the United States involvement in the Vietnam war escalated over the three decades after the end of World War II.  During the later 1940s, the French became increasingly involved in Vietnam starting with the October 1945 arrival of 35,000 French soldiers who sought to restore French rule in their former colony.  French forces were increasingly bogged down in an eight year long struggle known as the First Indochina war as Ho Chi Minh and his guerrilla forces, the Viet Minh, took actions to push the French back out of Vietnam and establish an independent and unified Vietnam.  In January 1950, both the newly formed People’s Republic of China and the United Soviet Socialist Republic formally recognized Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam and in February 1950, the United States and Britain recognized the French-controlled government of South Vietnam.  On July 26, 1950, President Harry Truman authorized $15 million in aid to the French government who was fighting against the Communist Viet Minh.  By 1954, the U.S. government had spent $3 billion on the French war and was providing 80 percent of the materiel used by French forces.   Under the Eisenhower Administration, assistance to the French in Vietnam continued, a move undertaken solely to prevent a Communist victory; this involvement was justified using the “Domino Theory” which expressed the perception that a Communist victory in Vietnam would result in other surrounding nations falling into the hands of Communist leadership like a “falling row of dominos”.  In January 1955, the first direct shipment of U.S. military aid to Saigon had arrived and the United States had offered to train South Vietnam’s fledgling armed forces. In March 1959, Ho Chi Minh declared a People’s War to reunite all of Vietnam under his leadership, marking the beginning of the Second Indochina War aka the Vietnam War.  On July 8, 1959, two U.S. military advisors were killed by Viet Minh guerrillas at Bien Hoa in South Vietnam, America’s first losses in the Vietnam War.

As we learned over the following half decade, the Vietnam War became an anathema to both the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.  During the early 1960s, the Viet Cong took control over most of rural South Vietnam and the American-supported Diem government controlled urban areas.  By December 1961, the United States was spending a million dollars a day to manage the growing conflict, even though the Kennedy Administration rejected the request for combat troops.  By the time of John Kennedy’s death in November 1963, there were 16,300 military advisors in South Vietnam which had received $500 million in U.S. aid during 1963.  

History shows how, what started out as small steps to assist a nation at risk of being controlled by Communists became a self-perpetuating war machine. On March 8, 1965, the first 3500 American combat troops arrived on China Beach to defend the American air base at Da Nang.  On July 28, 1965, President Johnson announced that he was increasing the American presence to 125,000 combat troops and doubling the monthly draft call to 35,000.  At year’s end in 1965, there were 184,300 U.S. troops in Vietnam, rising to 385,300 at year’s end in 1966, 485,600 at year’s end in 1967 and 536,100 at years end in 1968 with over 1000 American troops killed every month during 1968.  Here are two graphs which show the key statistics for the period:

Let’s look at the human cost of the Vietnam War:

Total Dead

1.) 58,220 American troops in all nations involved in the conflict

2.) around 1 million Viet Cong and NVA troops

3.) around 2 million civilians in both nations

According to the Congressional Research Service, in current year dollars, the Vietnam war cost $111 billion between 1965 and 1975, the equivalent of $738 billion in 2011 dollars, costing a peak of 2.3 percent of GDP in 1968.

With that ample background, let’s look at an interesting document from 1965 showing the justification for entering the Vietnam War.  The memo dated March 24, 1965 was written by Assistant Secretary of State John McNaughton and sent to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.  The subject of the memo was to outline a proposed course of action for Vietnam, given that the situation in the country was “bad and deteriorating”.  As you may recall from the earlier part of this posting, the first 3500 American boots were put on the ground in Vietnam on March 8, 1965, only two weeks prior to this memo:

The key part of the memo is found in the Annex – Plan of Action for South Vietnam section, a brief look at the justification for the United States to commit to entering the Vietnam civil war:

“70% –To avoid a humiliating US defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor).

20%–To keep SVN (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands.

10%–To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life.

ALSO–To emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used.

NOT–To “help a friend,” although it would be hard to stay in if asked out.”

Note how a major part of the reasoning behind entering the Vietnam War was to avoid a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Communist Viet Congress, not to help out the people of South Vietnam who were barely part of the equation.  This provides us with a fascinating glimpse into the mindset that is Washington. 

When American politicians beat the war drums, we all need to consider their motivations for declaring war against a so-called enemy state.  While their public pronouncements may appeal to our sense of safety and our sense of duty, the Department of Defense memorandum from 1965 shows us the real reasons for the war in Vietnam, a conflict that cost the lives of nearly 60,000 young Americans and wounded 304,000 more shows us that Washington’s motives for going to war are far from honourable and have little to do with saving anyone or any nation.

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