Origins of the Vietnam War
- Jessica M. ChapmanJessica M. ChapmanDepartment of History, Williams College
The origins of the Vietnam War can be traced to France’s colonization of Indochina in the late 1880s. The Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, emerged as the dominant anti-colonial movement by the end of World War II, though Viet Minh leaders encountered difficulties as they tried to consolidate their power on the eve of the First Indochina War against France. While that war was, initially, a war of decolonization, it became a central battleground of the Cold War by 1950. The lines of future conflict were drawn that year when the Peoples Republic of China and the Soviet Union recognized and provided aid to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi, followed almost immediately by Washington’s recognition of the State of Vietnam in Saigon. From that point on, American involvement in Vietnam was most often explained in terms of the Domino Theory, articulated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the eve of the Geneva Conference of 1954. The Franco-Viet Minh ceasefire reached at Geneva divided Vietnam in two at the 17th parallel, with countrywide reunification elections slated for the summer of 1956. However, the United States and its client, Ngo Dinh Diem, refused to participate in talks preparatory to those elections, preferring instead to build South Vietnam as a non-communist bastion. While the Vietnamese communist party, known as the Vietnam Worker’s Party in Hanoi, initially hoped to reunify the country by peaceful means, it reached the conclusion by 1959 that violent revolution would be necessary to bring down the “American imperialists and their lackeys.” In 1960, the party formed the National Liberation Front for Vietnam and, following Diem’s assassination in 1963, passed a resolution to wage all-out war in the south in an effort to claim victory before the United States committed combat troops. After President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he responded to deteriorating conditions in South Vietnam by militarizing the American commitment, though he stopped short of introducing dedicated ground troops. After Diem and Kennedy were assassinated in quick succession in November 1963, Lyndon Baines Johnson took office determined to avoid defeat in Vietnam, but hoping to prevent the issue from interfering with his domestic political agenda. As the situation in South Vietnam became more dire, LBJ found himself unable to maintain the middle-of-the-road approach that Kennedy had pursued. Forced to choose between escalation and withdrawal, he chose the former in March 1965 by launching a sustained campaign of aerial bombardment, coupled with the introduction of the first officially designated U.S. combat forces to Vietnam.