The Vietnam War pitted America against communism and was a classic example of Cold War conflict. The western allies had been victorious in Berlin, but communism had taken root in China. Eastern Europeremained under Russian control and in Vietnam the American feared threat of the spread communism seemed to be real.
During the 1950’s, America had developed her Domino Theory. This was the creation of John Foster Dulles, America’s Secretary of State. He believed that if one country was allowed to fall to communism, the country next to it would be the next to tumble just as when one domino falls the rest go with it if they are connected. In view of the fear in America of communism spreading throughout the world, the thought of Vietnam starting this process of turning to communism and then it spreading was unacceptable.
It quickly became apparent that the government of Ngo Dinh Diem was going to receive support from the Americans in an effort to avoid at all costs the further expansion of communism in Asia. Sure enough, after the Geneva Agreement of 1954, America swiftly gave military support to South Vietnam (strictly the Republic of Vietnam) through the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) led by Lieutenant General John O’Daniel.
In 1955 the US also began sending in “special advisors” to South Vietnam (Note: By 1961, there were 1,500 special advisors in the country. These were men from America’s Special Forces who were there to train the South Vietnamese Army in how to fight the Viet Cong. By 1963, there were 16,000 special advisors in South Vietnam).
One of the most pressing problems facing Diem was how to govern a country that had so many diverse religious and political groups within it. There was a genuine fear that a civil war might break out and one of MAAG’s first tasks was to create a national army for the South that would give some kind of national cohesion against the ‘natural’ enemy – the North. O’Daniel had about 300 to 400 personnel working on this task. In a relatively short space of time, the South had an army of 150,000 men financed by the US and trained by their men. These men were detailed to guard the demilitarised zone set up between the North and South after the Geneva Agreement. They were trained to fight a conventional war as opposed to a guerrilla one.
Though America supported Diem at military and financial levels, they were faced with a problem that they themselves could do little about in the late 1950’s. Diem had also created his own personal army of about 150,000 men that were answerable to him. This paramilitary force was used to act as a counter-balance to the South Vietnamese Army whose senior officers were known by Diem to have political ambitions. With one being played off against the other by Diem, America faced the problem of neither being able to fully focus their attention to what America assumed was the common enemy.
By the time of Kennedy’s presidency, it was clear in Washington DC that if there was to be a successful campaign against the North, Diem had to go as he was too much of a divisive leader. In September 1963, Kennedy stated that Diem’s government had to make more of an effort to win over those people in South Vietnam who were neither from his background nor Roman Catholic. Kennedy also stated that he thought, “the repressions against the Buddhists in the country were very unwise.”
There was criticism in America itself where the corruption of Diem was well known. By 1963, the US had spent $400,000,000 supporting South Vietnam but had seen little in return for their investment. The money had been meant to modernise the South Vietnamese Army but large sums had been pocketed by Diem, members of his family and his friends. It came as no surprise to the US when senior officers in the South’s army assassinated Diem and his brother. In fact, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had maintained contact with the generals involved in the plot for weeks leading up to Diem’s assassination. That they did nothing to stop it is indicative of their desire and support for any attempt to remove Diem from power. However, America’s support of Diem over eight years coincided with the time when the North made great inroads into gaining the support and trust of peasants in large areas in the South. Kennedy himself admitted that over 20% of all villages supported the NLF despite ‘Operation Strategic Hamlet’.
Regardless of their presence and attempts by the west to demonise the Viet Cong, it is probable that by 1962, over 75% of all south Vietnamese peasants supported the Viet Cong as they were seen as liberators from the unacceptable government of Diem. To “save” the peasants from the Viet Cong, Diem organised a system whereby whole villages were moved into defended camps – known as fortified villages. This policy backfired as the peasants did not want to be removed from their land and as such the policy played into the hands of the Viet Cong who were promising the peasants more land once communism have taken root in the south.
Diem’s unpopularity was so great that in November 1963, the South Vietnamese Army overthrew and killed him. The confusion at a political level in South Vietnam and the abuse of peasants rights within the agricultural community were two reasons for the spread of communism within the south. Such a development alarmed the American president, Lyndon Johnson, who had asked his military chiefs to formulate plans should a full-scale war break out. The one proviso the chiefs-of-staff had was that America had to be seen as the victim rather than the aggressor.
In August 1964, the Tongking Incident occurred when two American destroyers were attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats while they were in international waters. In response to this, the American Senate gave Johnson the power to give armed support to assist any country requesting help in defence of its freedom. In March 1965, the first American ground troops landed in South Vietnam and by December 1965, there were 150,000 stationed in the country. The bombing of North Vietnam had already started in February 1965.