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How did Eisenhower’s theory about dominoes lead to one of the most infamous wars in US history? Why was there so much resistance against the Vietnam War? And why was the US involved in it, anyway?
Lasting for over twenty years, the Vietnam War was one of the deadliest battles of the Cold War.
In this article, we will present both the causes and consequences of the Vietnam War and provide a summary of it.
The Vietnam War was a long, expensive, and deadly conflict between North and South Vietnam that started around 1954 and lasted until 1975. Whilst other countries were involved, there were essentially two forces:
Forces in the Vietnam War
The Viet Minh
(Communist government of the North)
The Viet Cong
(Communist guerrilla force in South)
The Government of South Vietnam
(The Republic of Vietnam)
The United States
(South Vietnam’s principal ally)
Fundamentally, the conflict was about the North Vietnamese government’s desire to unify the whole country under a single communist regime and the South Vietnamese government’s resistance to this. The South’s leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, wanted to preserve a Vietnam that was more closely aligned with the West. The US intervened as they feared communism would spread throughout Southeast Asia.
The efforts by the South Vietnamese government and the US ultimately failed in preventing a communist takeover; in 1976, Vietnam was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The Vietnam War was part of a larger regional conflict referred to as the Indochina Wars, which involved Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. These wars are often split into the First and Second Indochina Wars, known as the French Indochina War (1946–54) and the Vietnam War (1954–75). To understand the causes of the Vietnam War, we need to look at the Indochina War that preceded it.
France conquered Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in the latter part of the nineteenth century. They founded the French colony Indochina in 1877, which consisted of:
Tonkin (northern Vietnam).
Annam (central Vietnam).
Cochinchina (southern Vietnam).
Laos (from 1899).
Guangzhouwan (Chinese territory, from 1898–1945).
(Here) A country or area is politically controlled by another country and occupied by settlers from that country.
The colonists’ desire for independence grew throughout the 1900s, and the Vietnamese Nationalist Party was formed in 1927. After some success in assassinating French officials, a failed mutiny in 1930 heavily weakened the Party. It was superseded by the Indochinese Communist Party, which Ho Chi Minh formed in Hong Kong in 1930.
In 1941, Ho Chi Minh founded the nationalist and communist Viet Minh (Vietnam Independence League) in Southern China (the Vietnamese often fled to China to escape the French colonial state). He led its members against the Japanese who occupied Vietnam during World War Two.
In late 1943, the Viet Minh launched guerrilla operations in Vietnam under General Vo Nguyen Giap. They liberated large parts of northern Vietnam and seized control of the capital Hanoi after the Japanese surrendered to the Allies.
They proclaimed the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945 but the French resisted it, which led to the beginning of the First Indochina War in 1946 between the French in the South and the Viet Minh in the North. However, pro-Viet Minh guerilla forces emerged in South Vietnam too (later known as the Viet Cong). The French attempt to regain support by establishing their independent state in the South in 1949, led by the former Emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai, was largely unsuccessful.
Type of warfare fought by irregular military forces that fight in small-scale conflicts against traditional military forces.
In 1954, the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu, where more than 2200 French soldiers were killed, resulted in the French exiting Indochina. This left a power vacuum in Vietnam, which led to the involvement of the US and the Soviet Union, who were fighting for global influence during the Cold War.
A situation when a government has no clear central authority. Thus, another group or party has open space to be filled.
At the 1954 Geneva Conference, which marked the end of French rule in Southeast Asia, a peace agreement resulted in the partition of Vietnam into North and South at the 17th parallel. This partition was temporary and ended in unified elections in 1956. However, this never happened due to two distinct states emerging:
The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the North, led by Ho Chi Minh. This state was communist and supported by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.
The Republic of Vietnam (RVN) in the South, led by Ngo Dinh Diem. This state was aligned with the West and supported by the United States.
Fights for independence did not cease, and the Viet Cong continued to engage in guerrilla warfare in the South. Ngo Dinh Diem was an unpopular ruler who became increasingly dictatorial, fuelling attempts in the South to overthrow the government and unite Vietnam under communism. This led to the Second Indochina War, which began in 1954, and with much heavier US involvement, otherwise known as the Vietnam War.
A circle of latitude that is 17 degrees north of the Earth’s equatorial plane formed the provisional border between North and South Vietnam.
The US was involved in Vietnam long before their direct intervention in the Vietnam War in 1965. President Eisenhower had given aid to the French during the First Indochina War. After the division of Vietnam, the US offered political, economic, and military support to Ngo Dinh Diem’s Southern government. Their commitment only increased throughout the war, but what made the US get involved in a civil war on the other side of the world?
As the Cold War developed and the world started to become divided between the East and West, the US began to see the benefit in supporting the French against a nationalist army with communist influences.
The Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China had joined together to formally recognise Ho Chi Minh’s communist government in 1950 and actively supported the Viet Minh. The US support for the French resulted in a proxy war between the superpowers.
An armed conflict fought between countries or non-state actors on behalf of other powers not directly involved.
Domino theory is one of the most cited reasons for US involvement in the Vietnam War.
On 7 April 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower coined one of the phrases that would define US foreign policy for years to come: ‘the falling domino principle’. He suggested that the fall of French Indochina could lead to a domino effect in Southeast Asia where all the surrounding countries would fall, like dominos, to communism. This idea can be seen in the image below.
However, the Domino theory was not new. In 1949 and 1952, the theory (without the metaphor) was included in a National Security Council report on Indochina. Domino theory also echoed the beliefs expressed in the Truman Doctrine of 1947, in which President Harry S. Truman argued that the US must contain communist expansionism.
The formation of the communist Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea in 1948 and its consolidation after the Korean War (1950–53) and China’s ‘fall to communism’ in 1949 demonstrated the expansion of communism in Asia. The continued expansion would give the USSR and China more control in the region, undermine the US, and threaten US supplies of Asian materials, such as tin and tungsten.
The US was also concerned about losing Japan to communism, as, due to US rebuilding, it had the infrastructure and trading capabilities to be used as a military force. If China or the USSR gained control of Japan, it could potentially shift the balance of world power to the disadvantage of the US. Furthermore, the allies Australia and New Zealand could be at risk if communism spread southward.
In response to the threat of Asian states falling to communism like dominoes, Eisenhower and Dulles had created SEATO, an Asian defence organisation similar to NATO. The treaty was signed on 8 September 1954 by Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the US. Although Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam were not members of the treaty, they were offered protection. This gave the US the legal basis for their intervention in the Vietnam war.
President Eisenhower and later Kennedy backed the anti-communist government in South Vietnam led by the dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. They provided financial support and sent military advisors to help his government fight the Viet Cong. However, Ngo Dinh Diem’s unpopularity and alienation of many of the South Vietnamese people started to cause problems for the US.
In summer 1963, Buddhist monks protested their persecution by the South Vietnamese government. Buddhist self-immolations caught the eyes of the national and international press, and a photograph of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc burning at a busy Saigon intersection spread across the world. Ngo Dinh Diem’s brutal oppression of these protests alienated him further and led the US to decide he needed to go.
Willingly setting oneself on fire, particularly as a form of protest.
In 1963, after encouragement from American officials, South Vietnamese forces assassinated Ngo Dinh Diem and overthrew his government. His death led to celebrations in South Vietnam but also political chaos. The US became more involved to stabilise the government, worried that the Viet Cong might use the instability to their advantage.
However, direct military intervention only occurred after what is described as the major turning point in US military involvement in Vietnam: the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
In August 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats allegedly attacked two American naval vessels (the destroyers U.S.S Maddox and U.S.S Turner Joy). Both were stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin (East Vietnam Sea) and were conducting reconnaissance and intercepting North Vietnamese communications to support South Vietnamese raids on the coast.
The process of obtaining information about enemy forces or positions by sending out planes, naval vessels, small groups of soldiers, etc.
Both reported unprovoked attacks against them by North Vietnamese boats, but the validity of these claims has been disputed. At the time, the US believed that North Vietnam was targeting its intelligence-gathering missions.
This allowed the US to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964, which authorised President Lyndon Johnson to...
[...] take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the United States forces and prevent further aggression.¹
This marked the beginning of increased US military involvement in Vietnam.
21 July 1954
Following the Geneva Conference, Vietnam was split at the seventeenth parallel between North and South, and two governments were established: The Democratic Republic of Vietnam and The Republic of Vietnam.
20 January 1961 – 22 November 1963
John F Kennedy’s presidency
Kennedy’s presidency marked a new era for the Vietnam War. He increased the number of military advisors and aid sent to Vietnam and reduced pressures on Diem to reform his government.
Strategic Hamlet Program
The Viet Cong often used sympathetic southern villagers to help them hide in the countryside, making it difficult to distinguish between them and the peasants. The US forced peasants from villages into strategic hamlets (small villages) to stop this. The involuntary removal of people from their homes created opposition towards the South and the USA.
Operation Ranch Hand/ Trail Dust
The USA used chemicals to destroy food crops and jungle foliage in Vietnam. The Viet Cong often used the jungles to their advantage, and the US aimed to deprive them of food and tree cover.
Agent Orange and Agent Blue herbicides were used to clear the land and destroyed the countryside and peasants’ livelihoods. The toxicity of these herbicides resulted in thousands of babies with birth defects. As news of this spread worldwide, opposition increased in the US too (particularly amongst the public and humanitarian, scientific, and environmental groups).
The most deadly weapon that the US used was napalm, a combination of gelling agents and petroleum. This was dropped from the air to attack large soldiers, but civilians were often hit. Its contact with the skin caused burns, and breathing it in caused choking.
US riverboat using napalm in Vietnam, US Navy
22 November 1963 – 20 January 1969
Lyndon B Johnson’s presidency
Lyndon B Johnson took a more direct approach to the Vietnam War and authorised US intervention. He became synonymous with the war effort.
8 March 1965
US combat troops enter Vietnam
US troops first entered Vietnam under the direct order of President Johnson.
Operation Rolling Thunder
After the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the US air force began a mass bombing campaign to destroy military and industrial targets. This resulted in mass casualties and increased opposition against the US. Many more people volunteered to join the Viet Cong to fight against US forces. The Operation was ineffective in destroying enemy infrastructure because most of it was underground or in caves.
31 January– 24 February 1968
During the Vietnamese New Year, known as Tet, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong launched surprise assaults on US-held areas of South Vietnam. They took control of Saigon and blew a hole in the US Embassy.
Ultimately the Tet Offensive constituted a failure for the Viet Cong as they did not hold onto any of the territories they gained, but in the long-term, it was beneficial. The brutality against civilians and the number of American soldiers’ lives lost represented a turning point in the war. Opposition to the war at home in the US rose exponentially.
Johnson agreed to stop bombing North Vietnam in return for peace talks in Paris.
16 March 1968
My Lai Massacre
One of the most brutal events of the Vietnam War was the My Lai Massacre. US troops from the Charlie Company (a military unit) entered Vietnamese villages to search for the Viet Cong. They encountered no resistance as they entered the hamlet of My Lai but killed indiscriminately anyway.
News spread of brutal US soldiers under narcotics and severe stress massacring innocent villagers. They killed women, children, and elderly men at close range and committed numerous rapes. After this massacre, the US gained even more opposition both in Vietnam and at home.
20 January 1969 – 9 August 1974
Richard Nixon’s presidency
Nixon’s campaign rested on ending the Vietnam War. However, some of his actions enflamed the fighting.
15 November 1969
Washington Peace Protest
Held in Washington, around 250,000 people turned up to protest the war.
A new policy, which was brought in by President Richard Nixon, to end US involvement in the Vietnam War by reducing the number of US combat troops and assigning South Vietnamese troops an increasing combat role.
4 May 1970
Kent State Shootings
In another demonstration (after the US invaded Cambodia) at Kent State University in Ohio, four students were shot dead, and the National Guard injured nine others.
29 April– 22 July 1970
The Cambodian Campaign
After failed attempts to bomb the bases of the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) in Cambodia Nixon sanctioned the US troops to enter. This was both unpopular in the US and Cambodia, where the communist Khmer Rouge group gained popularity as a result.
8 February– 25 March 1971
Operation Lam Son 719
South Vietnamese troops, with US support, invaded Laos relatively unsuccessfully. The invasion whipped up more popularity for the communist Pathet Lao group.
27 January 1973
Paris Peace Accords
President Nixon ended direct US involvement in the Vietnam War by signing the Paris Peace Accords. The North Vietnamese accepted a ceasefire but continued plotting to overtake South Vietnam.
The Fall of Saigon and Unification
Communist forces captured Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, forcing the government to surrender. In July 1975, North and South Vietnam were formally unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under communist rule.
The average age of a US soldier was 19.
Tensions within US troops led to fragging – deliberately killing a fellow soldier, often a senior officer, usually with a hand grenade.
Muhammad Ali refused the Vietnam War Draft and had his boxing title revoked, making him an icon for resistance to the war in the US.
The US dropped over 7.5 million tons of explosives on Vietnam, over double the amount it used during World War Two.
The majority of US soldiers were volunteers rather than drafted.
Radical historians, such as Gabriel Kolko and Marilyn Young, regard Vietnam as the first major defeat of the American empire. Whilst the US left Vietnam on the grounds of a peace agreement, the subsequent unification of the country under a communist rule meant their intervention had failed. What factors contributed to the global superpower’s failure?
US troops were young and inexperienced, unlike the experienced Viet Cong fighters. 43% of soldiers died in their first three months, and around 503,000 soldiers deserted between 1966 and 1973. This led to disillusionment and traumatisation, which many used narcotics to treat.
The Viet Cong had the help and support of South Vietnamese villagers, who offered them hiding places and supplies.
US troops were not well-suited to fighting in the jungle, unlike the Viet Cong, who had intricate knowledge of the terrain. The Viet Cong set up tunnel systems and booby traps, using the jungle cover to their advantage.
The corruption and oppression of Diem’s government made it hard for the US to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the South Vietnamese, as they had aimed to do. Many in the South joined the Viet Cong instead.
The US lacked international support. Their allies Britain and France were highly critical of Operation Rolling Thunder and were home to protest movements against the war.
Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and the Philippines provided troops to fight in Vietnam but in small numbers, with the other members of SEATO not contributing.
Resistance to the Vietnam War in the US was high, which we will look at more below.
Opposition at home was a contributing factor to the US losing the war. Public outrage pressured Johnson to sign a peace agreement. The media fuelled the public outrage; the Vietnam War was the first major war to be televised, and images of dead or wounded American soldiers, children covered in napalm, and burn victims, disgusted American viewers. The My Lai Massacre proved particularly shocking to the US public and led to growing opposition and resistance.
US involvement in the war was also expensive, costing $20 million per year during Johnson’s administration. This meant that domestic reforms Johnson had promised could not be delivered due to the unavailability of funds.
Several different protest groups were key in the fight against the war back home:
Civil Rights campaigners fighting against social injustice and racial discrimination in the US also campaigned against the war. Conscription was far higher among African-Americans than whites, and campaigners argued that those being persecuted in the USA should not be forced to fight for the ‘freedom’ of the Vietnamese.
The Draft Resistance Movement was established to fight conscription in the US, which many felt was unfair and led to the unnecessary deaths of young men. People would avoid conscription through filing for conscientious objector status, not reporting for induction, claiming disability, or going AWOL (absent without leave) and fleeing to Canada. Over 250,000 men avoided the draft through advice from the organisation, which meant the US struggled with soldier shortages.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War Movement began when six Vietnam veteran soldiers marched together in a peace demonstration in 1967. Their organisation grew as more veterans returned disillusioned and traumatised. The organisation declared that the Vietnam War was simply not worth sacrificing American lives.
Environmental groups protested the Vietnam War due to the use of defoliants (toxic chemicals) to destroy the Vietnamese jungle. These defoliants destroyed food crops, increased water contamination, and endangered freshwater and marine life.
Mandatory enlistment for state service, typically into the armed forces.
Conscientious objector status
Given to individuals who claim the right to refuse to perform military service on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion.
The War in Vietnam had long-lasting consequences for Vietnam, the US, and international relations. It changed the face of the Cold War and destroyed America’s propaganda reputation as the ‘saviour’ against communist regimes.
Vietnam suffered profound consequences of the war that impacted the country long-term.
The death toll was staggering. Around 2 million Vietnamese civilians were estimated to have been killed, and around 1.1 million North Vietnamese and 200,000 South Vietnamese troops.
America’s bombing campaign had lasting consequences for Vietnam and Laos. Many failed to explode on impact, so the threat of unexploded bombs existed long after the war had finished. Unexploded bombs have killed around 20,000 people since the end of the war, many children.
The US sprayed Agent Blue on crops to deprive the North of its food supply, causing long-lasting agricultural impact. For example, many paddy fields (fields where rice is grown) were destroyed.
Agent Orange also caused severe birth defects in unborn babies, leading to children with physical deformities. It also has been linked to cancer, psychological and neurological problems, and Parkinson’s Disease. Many veterans in both Vietnam and the US have reported these conditions.
After the Vietnam War, the US policy of containment was seen to have completely failed. The US had wasted lives, money, and time pursuing this policy in Vietnam and was ultimately unsuccessful. The propaganda campaign of the US moral crusade to prevent the evils of communism was falling apart; the atrocities of the war were, for many, unjustifiable.
The Domino theory was also discredited, as Vietnam’s unification into a communist state did not cause the rest of Southeast Asia to topple to communist regimes. Only Laos and Cambodia became communist, arguably due to US actions. The US could no longer use Containment or Domino theory to justify intervention in foreign wars.
Pressure from the US public led President Richard Nixon to establish better relations with China and the USSR. He visited China in 1972 and later dropped the US objection to China joining the United Nations. The Soviet Union was then keen to improve relations with the US, as they were anxious about the potential power shift an alliance between the US and China might bring.
This easing of relations marked the beginning of the period of détente, where tensions eased between the Cold War powers.
1. Text of Joint Resolution, 7 August, Department of State Bulletin, 24 August 1964
The Vietnam War began in the 1950s. Some historians marked the beginning of the conflict in 1954 when North and South Vietnam were officially divided at the Geneva Accords. However, conflict had been ongoing in the country against French colonial rule since the 1800s. US involvement in the Vietnam War ended with a peace treaty in 1973. However, the conflict ended in 1975 when North and South Vietnam were formally unified under communist rule as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Though a peace treaty was signed in 1973, communist forces captured Saigon in 1975 and unified North and South Vietnam as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in July of that year. Ultimately this meant that the Viet Minh and Viet Cong had emerged victorious from the war, and US efforts to prevent communist control in the country were unsuccessful.
Essentially the Vietnam War was a war between the communist Viet Minh (alongside communist guerilla groups in the South) and the South Vietnamese government (alongside their ally, the US). The Viet Minh and Viet Cong wanted to unite North and South Vietnam under communist rule, whereas South Vietnam and the US wanted to keep the South as a separate non-communist state.
The Vietnam War was deadly and resulted in millions of deaths. Around 2 million Vietnamese civilians were estimated to have been killed, 1.1 million North Vietnamese and 200,000 South Vietnamese troops. The US military reported 58,220 American casualties from the war. High estimates suggest that over 3 million people died during the war.
The consequences of the war have resulted in thousands of deaths too, from unexploded bombs to the environmental impacts of the defoliants used.
France, the US, China, the Soviet Union, Laos, Cambodia, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and New Zealand sent troops to fight in the conflict. The war was essentially a civil war between North and South Vietnamese, but alliances and treaties brought other countries into the conflict.
Who were the Viet Minh fighting against in the Vietnam War? (Choose two)
The Viet Cong.
Why did the Viet Minh form in 1940?
They formed to fight against foreign imperialist powers in Vietnam (the Japanese and French).
What does the name Viet Cong refer to?
The pro-Viet Minh guerilla forces in the South of Vietnam were referred to as the Viet Cong. They fought in the South of the country and corroborated with the Viet Minh.
To what extent did the Geneva Conference of 1954 establish peace in Vietnam?
We could argue that the Geneva Conference did very little to establish peace in the country as another war broke out immediately after against the two states. US involvement in this fighting led to even more violence and death and very little peace until the unification in 1975.
Who came up with the Domino theory and when?
Dwight D. Eisenhower coined the term ‘the falling domino principle’ in 1954, but the theory had been referred to previously in National Security Council reports on Indochina in 1949 and 1952.
Which of these materials were produced in Asia? (Choose two)
Which two US allies could have been at risk if communism spread throughout Asia? (Choose two)
To what extent was Eisenhower responsible for US involvement in the Vietnam War?
Model answer (as long as you can argue your point, you can write your answer):
Eisenhower coined the term ‘Domino theory’ to justify US intervention, and he supported financial aid to the French forces. Hence, he was somewhat responsible. However, Domino Theory was a development of containment policy proposed by Truman. One could argue that Eisenhower was echoing existing policy but lending it a memorable metaphor. Furthermore, US intervention in Vietnam did not occur until after Eisenhower’s presidency, characterised by avoiding waging war. Hence, one could argue that Eisenhower was not wholly responsible for US involvement in the Vietnam War but certainly contributed towards French efforts and inspired later leaders such as Kennedy and Johnson.
What were the reasons for Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination? (Choose three)
He was deeply unpopular with the South Vietnamese.
How was the naval destroyer U.S.S Maddox related to America’s active intervention in the Vietnam War?
The alleged unprovoked attack against it and the U.S.S Turney Joy by North Vietnamese boats was used to justify the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, which authorised Lyndon Johnson to take all necessary measures to repel against armed attacks against the armed forces. This essentially allowed the US to justify sending troops in and authorising a full-blown bombing operation of the country.
Which of these chemical weapons the US used in the Vietnam War? (Choose three)
Why were US soldiers cited as a factor for the US losing the Vietnam War?
You could include any of the following: Many of the troops were inexperienced and young; many died or deserted, and the soldiers fighting often suffered from disillusionment and trauma that they used narcotics to treat; Tensions between troops resulted in more troops being killed; They were ill-prepared for the jungle of Vietnam and the terrain; The sheer amount of deaths of US soldiers led to opposition back home; Civil rights groups protested against African Americans being forced to fight when they faced injustice at home too.
Which of these groups were significant in protesting the Vietnam War? (Choose three)
Civil Rights Campaigners.
Why did the Vietnam War discredit the Domino Theory?
The Vietnam War discredited the Domino Theory as the US defeat and Vietnam’s communist takeover did not have a ripple effect across Asia. With the exception of Cambodia and Laos, none of the other Asian countries fell to communism.
Which period of Cold War relations followed the Vietnam War?
Détente, a period of eased tensions between the US, China and USSR.
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