The Controversy of Vietnam
The Vietnam War has been regarded as one of the most controversial issues the United States has involved itself with, as nearly every aspect of the war is still examined and debated today. Like the great World Wars, this was an outside affair that caused the U.S. no direct harm; instead, the perceived threat was the spread of communism to surrounding nations in Asia. Common thought during this era promoted the notion that one nation succumbing to communist rule would lead to others in the vicinity to follow suit. Upon this basis, the United States entered the affair. The war itself was simply a prolonged struggle of northern Vietnamese Nationalist forces and their sympathizers in the south known as the Vietcong, at odds against the intervening United States and the aid of the South Vietnamese. In order to increase the number of forces to support the war effort in the Asian nation, the U.S. reinstated a military draft in 1969. This, along with prolonged warfare, public exposure depletion of resources, and a rising economic bill caused the war to become quite unpopular in the states and many riots began to stir. Soldier morale was low and it became increasingly ambiguous as to what America’s role in the conflict was. It is debatable whether victory was even sought. Furthermore, the United States was not well suited to fight in such a terrain. The jungle habitat of Vietnam endorsed unorthodox combat for Americans as this guerilla warfare proved too arduous to overcome. These factors are the primary causes for said controversy and concern. The U.S. would withdraw from the war in 1973 largely unsuccessful as North Vietnam would soon overtake Saigon and eventually the entire nation.
Vietnam’s history in the 20th century had seen occupation by France and Japan before communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Mihn established the Viet Minh. This group was aimed at ridding foreign rule from its borders. An independent Vietnam was announced under Mihn after World War II, but France, backed by the U.S. through military aid, quickly fought back to regain the territory. The Geneva Peace Conference was held after the French suffered a huge defeat at Dien Bien Phu, which led to their withdrawal from Vietnam. The conference essentially established a cease fire and created a border along the 17th parallel splitting the country into a communist north and anti-communist south. An election supported by the U.S. made Ngo Dihn Diem the leader in the southern region, but he proved ill-suited to lead; so much, in fact, that a group of northern Vietnamese sympathizers in South Vietnam sprang up, known as the Vietcong. Fighting would continue between the southern Vietnamese and the Viet Cong.
United States direct involvement in the Vietnam War came via the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. The U.S. had been sending advisors to South Vietnam and in early August, 1964 the Northern Vietnamese fired upon two U.S. ships in international waters. This directly led to the Tonkin Resolution which, according to Edwin Moise, author of Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, “[was] of historical significance because it gave U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson authorization, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, for the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia. Specifically, the resolution authorized the President to do whatever necessary in order to assist ‘any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty’.” Thus, the U.S. would be involved in a war nearly 10,000 miles away from home; a war that Johnson had the authority to engage in without support from Congress.
As alluded to, like the World Wars, this would become another international affair that the U.S. involved itself with. George Washington firmly warned against these ventures in his farewell address given in 1796. He argued that America should focus on itself and let other nations worry about themselves. He was mostly referring to European affairs, but we can attribute this to those of the Asian continent also as the basis remains the same; there was no direct result that would affect America. As this epiphany manifested after the body count of American forces shot up and war dragged on, citizens and soldiers alike began to question U.S. involvement in Vietnam. “What are we fighting for…” became a very common question asked around the country, and anti-war protests began to sprout up, particularly on college campuses. The most notorious of these occurred on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970 when four protesting students were shot upon and killed by the National Guard which was called in to oversee the protests. At this point the U.S. was torn domestically, and the soldiers overseas also felt lack of motivation and often resorted to drugs while counting down their days until their assignments were over. Fervor against the war grew as the overseas conflict wore on year after year with no victory in sight. Ironically, upon U.S. entry into the war, victory was never on the agenda.
According to historian Jen Rosenberg, “President Johnson’s goal for U.S. involvement in Vietnam was not for the U.S. to win the war, but for U.S. troops to bolster South Vietnam’s defenses until South Vietnam could take over.” Although a juvenile analogy to make, in sport, if a team or player does not play for victory, he/she or they are setting themselves up for an inevitable defeat. Mindset is a colossal influence and there is no wonder why soldiers were questioning their raison d’être on the battlefield. Rosenberg continues, “By entering the Vietnam War without a goal to win, Johnson set the stage for future public and troop disappointment when the U.S. found themselves in a stalemate with the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong.” Vietnam veteran Donald Whitfield claims that given the authority for full scale warfare, the U.S. would have claimed victory. He states, “I feel cheated about Vietnam, I sure do. Political restrictions- we won every (explicative) battle we was [sic] in, but didn’t win the whole (explicative) little country…” His bitterness is not uncommon among veterans, as it is generally accepted now that the U.S. did not “commit itself to a total victory,” as James Henretta states. A total victory would mean full scale warfare that may have prompted China to come to the aid of their communist Northern Vietnamese neighbors, something that the U.S. utterly tried to avoid. Again, this led to U.S. involvement being unclear in a war that proved more difficult to fight due to unfamiliar surroundings.
The Americans were not prepared to keep losing high numbers of soldiers for such limited progress in a difficult jungle war; a war which they were not fit for. According to Ivan Eland, a specialist on national security at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, “Guerilla warfare is the most underrated and most successful form of warfare in human history.” In this type of situation, the invaded are at a supreme advantage over the invader. If the guerillas do not lose, they simply will win by waiting out the opponent until they retire. In this war, the Vietcong would constantly ambush and attack the Americans, then escape through their complex underground tunnel system causing the U.S. to become increasingly frustrated with their lack of progress in quartering the enemy. Although the U.S. dropped more tonnage of explosives than they did in all of World War II, they could not stop the movement of troops or supplies to the South along the strategic trails and tunnel systems that the North had access to. It seemed clear that American troops were out of place and not nearly as resourceful as the North were. Instead, a draft was reinstated to increase numbers being sent to fight overseas.
Conscription has long been a controversial issue in the United States. Called into question is the sacrifice of freedom that the draft wavers upon, while filling its ranks with potentially unwilling soldiers. Before Vietnam, the draft was accepted and helped America win both World Wars on the side of the Allies. During Vietnam, however, the draft took a different face and was largely looked down upon. Protests and riots rallied by students continued to emerge upon college campuses. Others publicly burned their draft cards, joined resistance movements, or simply fled the country while estimates suggest that upwards of 100,000 people could have gone abroad to flee from the threat of the draft boards, according to author Bernard Rostker. The United States Constitution, ratified in 1787, does not clearly state whether or not conscription lies within its means of rightful law. On one hand it gives Congress the power to raise and support armies while on the other it prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. The draft, as we have seen to be a controversial issue by now, having been reinstated to promote an already controversial war, caused America to be arguably the most divided it has been in its history sans the Civil War.
No other war had been this widely publicized in the U.S. before. It was deemed a ‘living room war’, as it was the first to be televised and watched throughout the nation. America was following this war closely. Propaganda and erroneous information led Americans to believe they were winning the war when in fact they were in a truly dire situation. When Richard Nixon took over the presidency, he made a promise of ‘Vietnamization’ which would train and arm the Southern Vietnamese to fight the war on their own. This was to be the U.S. escape route out of the war. In 1970, however, Laos and Cambodia were invaded, clearly showing that the U.S. had no immediate plans of evacuating Asia. Nixon cited “increased enemy activity in Laos, (and) in Cambodia.” Then in 1971, the ‘Pentagon Reports’ were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg which claimed that the Tonkin Incident was faked to gain entry into the war, and that the war itself was being fought for economic reasons. These two revelations to the American public greatly reduced an already low level of support for the war. At this point it was clear that backing for the war among citizens was at an all-time low.
To make matters worse, the war proved to be a costly financial conundrum that expanded as the years of the war went on. It should be noted that the Vietnam War was, until this point, the longest war that America had been involved in. According to Henretta, “The Vietnam War cost the taxpayers $27 billion in 1967, pushing the deficit from $9.8 billion to $23 billion.” Inflation skyrocketed. According to history-world.org, the total cost of the Vietnam War for the U.S. was over $150 billion. The Multimedia History Company states:
The funds were going overseas, which contributed to an imbalance in the balance of payments and a weak dollar, since no corresponding funds were returning to the country. In addition, military expenditures, combined with domestic social spending, created budget deficits which fueled inflation. Anti-war sentiments and dissatisfaction with government further eroded consumer confidence. Interest rates rose, restricting the amount of capital available for businesses and consumers. Despite the success of many Kennedy and Johnson economic policies, the Vietnam War was an important factor in bringing down the American economy from the growth and affluence of the early 1960s to the economic crises of the 1970s.
The economic effects of an already controversial war only further perpetuated the disdain for U.S. involvement. This was simply yet another aspect that added to the drama of the Vietnam War.
We have examined the provocative issues surrounding U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The war itself is largely considered a blemish in the span of American history. Its controversial nature divided Americans and has been rumored to have scarred returning veterans back from battle. It must be questioned though—would reflective investigation differ today had the U.S. been successful? Would we look down upon Vietnam if America was able to successfully rid communism and the Northern Vietnamese threat from the region? This war was a risk. Progress always involves risk. But was the evacuation of communism halfway across the world a risk that, even if successful, would be worth the reward given all that was thrown into the war? Public opinion said no, but this was only after it was revealed that Vietnam was a losing effort. When America was deemed as winning the war, public support seemed favorable. Perhaps the issue at hand here is lack of victory rather than nature of war. Either way, we cannot be sure, and that is a topic for a different analysis. To hypothesize what could have been is null for purposes of this essay and the fact remains that the Vietnam War was perhaps the most controversial event in United States history.
About.com Online. 20th Century History. The Vietnam War. Jennifer Rosenberg. http://history1900s.about.com/od/vietnamwar/a/vietnamwar.htm
Fernlund, Kevin J., America’s History Volume Two (Boston: Bedford, 2008).
Henretta, James A. and David Brody, America A Concise History (Boston: Bedford, 2010).
Knickerbocker, Brad. Classic Guerilla War Forming in Iraq. Christian Science Monitor. 20 Sep. 2004. http://www.ufppc.org/us-a-world-news-mainmenu-35/1390-analysis-10-years-to-win-this-guerrilla-war-in-iraq-say-experts-if-winning-is-even-possible-csm.html
Moïse, Edwin E. Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1996.
Rostker, Bernard. I Want You: The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2006.
“The Vietnam War.” Digital History. Web. 30 Apr. 2011. <http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/modules/vietnam/index.cfm>.
“Vietnam War and the American Economy.” American History and World History at Historycentral.com the Largest and Most Complete History Site on the Web. Web. 30 Apr. 2011. <http://www.historycentral.com/sixty/Economics/Vietnam.html>.
 Edwin Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 1996) 78.
 James A. Henretta and David Brody, America A Concise History (Boston: Bedford, 2010) 838.
 Bernard Rostker, I Want You: The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force, (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2006). 170
 Kevin Fernlund, America’s History Volume Two (Boston: Bedford, 2008) 407.