The United States became involved in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s, starting out as a minor supporter of an independent South Vietnam resisting takeover by communist North Vietnam, to a full-fledged combatant in a major ground war. U.S. military involvement began with a small number of military advisers and grew gradually to include an army of more than 500,000 men supplemented by major air and maritime forces.
A critical turning point was reached in 1963, when relations between President John Kennedy and South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem deteriorated rapidly. The United States had about 16,000 non-combat military advisers in the country at that point, but efforts to suppress the communist insurgency were not succeeding. American officials blamed the failure on incompetence and corruption in the Diem government and sought to replace him in a military coup. On Nov. 2, 1963 South Vietnamese military officers backed by the United States seized the government and murdered Diem.
With the death of Diem, the South Vietnamese government ceased to operate independently of the United States and became essentially a puppet government. Local officials readily agreed when President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 began increasing U.S. troop levels and ordering American soldiers into combat. At about this time, the United States began employing warships and air forces in support of the ground troops.
Escalation began in earnest in 1965 and the United States had about 200,000 in the country by the end of the year. That doubled to 400,000 in 1966 and peaked at around 500,000 in 1968. The aerial bombing of North Vietnam kept pace with the ground escalation, and by the end of 1968 the tonnage of American bombs dropped on Vietnam exceeded the total dropped on the enemy during World War II.
The peak year of 1968 was also a presidential election year in America and the war had become so unpopular that the candidates for both major political parties promised to end the war quickly. The victor in the election campaign, Richard Nixon, began a slow draw down of troops while negotiating a peace treaty with the North Vietnamese starting in 1969. The Paris Peace Accords were finally signed in 1973 and the final U.S. combat troops left the country the next year.
Without the active support of the U.S. military, the South Vietnamese government was unable to resist communist invasion and North Vietnam achieved final victory over the South in 1975.
The Vietnam War is usually depicted as a tragedy of U.S. foreign and military policy because America’s war objective of defeating communist expansion was not met, despite a massive loss of life. Trillions of dollars were spent, most of which is now regarded as a waste of money. U.S. domestic politics were deeply affected, creating divisions and enmity that lasted for a generation, and that still resonate today.
The paradox of this view is that American post-World War II Cold War policy is often regarded as a success. Heavy military spending by the United States during the Cold War, including massive expenditures on the Vietnam War, forced the Soviet Union to respond in kind, creating unbearable pressure on the Soviet economy. The Soviet Communist Party collapsed entirely in 1991, representing a U.S. victory in the Cold War despite temporary setbacks such as the communist military victory in Vietnam in 1975.
So, the Cold War policy of fighting communist expansion in Vietnam failed, while the larger Cold War objective of eliminating the threat of the Soviet Union succeeded. This has led to some re-evaluation of the American experience in Vietnam, suggesting that although the war was a short-term failure, it should be regarded as an integral part of the larger success of crippling the Soviet Union and allowing the United States to emerge as the single global superpower.
- Herring, G.C. (1992). America and Vietnam: The unending war. Foreign Affairs, 70(5), pp. 104-119. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/vietnam/1991-12-01/america-and-vietnam-unending-war
- Karnow, S. (1997). Vietnam: A History (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Penguin Books.
- Zinn, H. (2005). A People’s History of the United States. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.