The Vietnam War (1955-1975), was a significant conflict in American history. When reflected upon today, it often instills a sense of regret. An immensely costly war in terms of casualties, displacement and destruction, the conflict is often perceived as one fought for nothing more than ideological motivations. But what was the Vietnam War and how did it impact the USA?
In the immediate years following the end of the Second World War, two ideologically opposite superpowers emerged – the USSR and US. While Britain’s power waned, the industrial and military might of the American and Soviet states had expanded massively as the war had progressed and the post-war decades would see the two nations vying for supremacy of political influence worldwide. The two nations could not enter into a direct conflict with one another, as they each possessed weapon arsenals large enough to assure mutual destruction. This led to the period known as the Cold War (1947-1991), in which the nations sought to compete indirectly with one another for worldwide dominance.
The two superpowers instead found success in influencing smaller nations in the form of military and economic aid. The region of Southeast Asia was considered a key fighting ground in America’s quest for global supremacy of capitalism. Agitation in Vietnam in the 1950s saw the country poised between communist sympathisers, supported by the Soviets in the North, and the relatively new Republic of Vietnam in the South. Since 1947, America had adhered to the “Truman doctrine” of foreign policy – to intervene and contain the threat of communist expansion wherever possible. The threat of communism growing within Vietnam had ramifications beyond Vietnam itself. President Eisenhower alluded to the domino theory in speeches, detailing how the fall of Vietnam to communism would see neighboring countries fall in order.
US intervention in Vietnam was built up over time – there was no formal declaration of war. First came supplies to support the South’s pro-American leader Diem, then military advisors. A further 12,000 soldiers were deployed by 1962. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident saw a US warship engaged by North Vietnamese torpedo boats, allowing President Johnson to pass a resolution that permitted the full deployment of the US military in Southeast Asia in place of the previously limited presence. By 1968, over half a million troops had been deployed to bolster South Vietnamese military operations.
Tactical differences were significant. Whereas the US fought a conventional war, mobilising infantry units and relying on air superiority, the North Vietnamese utilised guerrilla tactics to effect ambushes. This had a demoralising effect on both the American forces and the public at home. There had been support for the war when morale was high and the belief that the US were helping liberate the Vietnamese while the threat of communism persisted. However, as the war dragged on and casulties rose – nearly 60,000 KIA by the war’s end and 150,000 wounded, public appetite for the war faded.
The Tet offensive was a watershed moment. An anti-war movement grew over time. Numerous controversies fueled opposition to war such as the use of chemical agents orange and napalm, which destroyed swathes of the Vietnamese countryside and injured and killed thousands of civilians.
As public opposition grew and the futility of the conflict became greater realised, the US government scaled back military involvement in the early 1970s, with the last American troops withdrawn in 1973. The conflict ended in 1975 as North Vietnamese forces swept through the Southern capital. Despite the scale of US military intervention, the US suffered defeat.
The war had lasting consequences. The US economy dipped in the 1970s as war expenditure and an unsteady global market hurt domestic consumers. America’s stature as a global power took a hit while Cold War tensions persisted. The Vietnam War remains a significant event in American cultural history with numerous films centered on the conflict. The policy of US interventionism died down somewhat, although returned in 1990 during the Gulf War and later conflicts in the Middle East. Were lessons learnt? Despite the great cost in American lives lost, US foreign policy has continued to pursue interventionism abroad, believing the cost necessary to maintaining America’s belief in capitalism and freedom.