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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

civil war.

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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