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Vietnam Essay, Research Paper
By the late 1960s, the conflict in Vietnam had escalated to a limited war involving approximately half a
million military personnel and billions of dollars a year. The American presence in Indochina had steadily
increased from the Truman administration to Kennedy’s decision to initiate greater American involvement in 1961.
The peak of 543,000 American forces was achieved in 1969 and was the culmination of US aid to the nation of
South Vietnam. The US policy since the beginning of the Cold War had been containment of Communist
aggression and advances. US intentions of ensuring democracy throughout the world had not changed, however
the US did not support the right of self-determination in Vietnam in scheduled elections in 1956. Rather an
incorrect analysis of the Vietnam situation: inaccurately identifying it with the previous Korean quagmire and the
overall attitudes of indiscriminate fear of any communist movement, regardless of circumstances, prevailed over
American foreign policy and helped begin an ill-advised escalation of American involvement into the Vietnamese
The brief excerpts from The Arrogance of Power address these sentiments. J. William Fulbright discusses the
reasons for American involvement in Vietnam as stemming significantly from previous American experiences,
namely Korea and McCarthyism. Both factors created an environment where all communist movements were
viewed with fear and hostility. More forthright American involvement was initiated in these prejudiced times, with
indirect military assistance to the French in Indochina in 1950, disregarding important considerations of
nationalism and anti-colonialism. America’s involvement in Vietnam violated the terms of the Geneva Agreement
of 1954 and American intervention was also justified by the American recognition of the demarcation line
between North and South Vietnam as a valid political boundary, contrary to the Geneva Agreements specific
statement that the line was strictly provisional. To find a solution, Fulbright declares that we must recognize that
nationalism is the strongest political force in the world and we must therefore adjust our priorities accordingly, to
accommodate the possibility of a communist influenced nationalist movement. We must allow a communist
influence in the government instead of attempting to repress a genuinely nationalist revolution, which is the case
in Vietnam. In conclusion, Fulbright states that the Vietnam War drains valuable resources, which could be better
spent on improving the general status of our country.
Because American policy prioritized anti-communism over sympathy for nationalism, this created a dangerously
erroneous view that the conflict was simply another incident of communist aggression that had to be contained at
all costs, like Korea. Furthermore, the US violated the scheduled elections in 1956 by supporting “President Ngo
Dinh Diem in his refusal to hold the elections provided for in the Geneva Accords, presumably because he feared
that the communists would win . . .” This not only showed a fundamental problem with US policy, but also the
rejection of self-determination, which contrarily Johnson had stated as one of the reasons for US involvement in
Indochina. According to Johnson, the US was in Vietnam, sacrificing lives to support “a world where each people
may choose its own path to change.” Yet, the US simply violated the Geneva Accords with increased American
support and intervention.
Although the US military intervention had bolstered Diem’s government, it did not solve the
fundamental problem of establishing a viable and stable nation in South Vietnam. In addition, US strategy
proceeded not only in ignorance of the local circumstances, but apparently didn’t even have a clear plan to
establish a lasting government or to effectively defeat the communists. This was compounded by the fact that the
US would not tolerate an unfavorable outcome of national elections, particularly a communist victory, and
self-determination as a right appeared all but non-existent.
The US was in a complex situation with no clear-cut path to victory; however Fulbright suggests that
we must recognize the fundamental problem with our foreign policy. He says that we must accept a government
elected and supported by the people, even if it is communist because “American interests are better served by
supporting nationalism than by opposing communism.” Basically, the US needs to rethink their foreign policy in
general and formulate a response in Vietnam and elsewhere according to all the factors of the local situation,
such as recognition of the power of nationalism and the recognition that not all revolutionary movements are
solely communist oriented.
This is not the only instance where US intervention was justified on the basis of defending freedom
against communist movements. Intervention in the Dominican Republic in April 1965 and as recently as the
American invasion in 1983 of Grenada were just a few examples of American suppression of self-determination
and support of repressive, undemocratic regimes, strikingly similar to US support of Diem and the other regimes
that followed in South Vietnam. The US needs to seriously reevaluate its stance on foreign policy and to stop
wasting money on anymore “open-ended” wars.
Fulbright, J. William, The Arrogance of Power. (1966)
Johnson, Lyndon B. “Our Duty in Southeast Asia” (1965)
William A. Link et al., American Epoch: A History of the United States since 1900 Affluence and Anxiety 1940-1992,
Volume II (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993)
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