America’s involvement in Vietnam, that was to lead to a full-scale military attack on North Vietnam, was all part of the Cold War scenario that had enveloped world politics. In the 1950’s, John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State, had formulated the Domino Theory. This stated that if one country fell to communism, then its neighbour would and then the neighbour to this country. Such an expansion of communist influence in Southeast Asia was unacceptable to America – even if, as President Eisenhower had pointed out, 80% of those in South Vietnam supported Ho Chi Minh and the Communists in the North.
The stalemate in the Korean War had shown America that their military might could not guarantee success. 142,000 US troops had been lost in the Korean War and Eisenhower knew that he could not sell to the American people the thought of sending US troops back into Southeast Asia – albeit this time to South Vietnam – so soon after the Korean War. He therefore sent to South Vietnam ‘military advisors’ to South Vietnam. At first, this was a very small-scale operation. In June 1954 a 12-man team led by Colonel Edward Lansdale was sent to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). They were mainly intelligence officers. Their primary task was persuade people in South Vietnam not to support communism. This was a strange task given that the President had stated that 80% of those in South Vietnam would be sympathetic to communism. Lansdale and his team did try however, and used ‘dirty’ propaganda tactics to push home their case. Villages in South Vietnam were given documents that ‘proved’ that the North Vietnamese were murdering political opponents in the North and entering South Vietnam and killing innocent people. These documents were forged. Lansdale also used mercenaries from the Philippines to sabotage targets in the North. This was not successful and most were captured and made to stand trial in Hanoi. Another task Lansdale and his team had was to promote the success of the government of Diem. Figures were produced that proved South Vietnam, under the leadership of Diem, was undergoing an economic miracle. The exercise ignored the fact that $250 million a year was being injected into the South Vietnamese economy by America.
Lansdale’s team also trained the South Vietnam Army (ARVN). Ho Chi Minh’s army had gained valuable fighting experience during World War Two fighting the Japanese. After the war, the same was true in their campaign against the French. Compared to this army, the ARVN had little experience that would counter the North’s military strength. An American input was clearly needed.
The military advisors were sold to the US public as just that – advisors. As more arrived in South Vietnam, their non-combatant status was questioned. In 1959, this questioning became more vocal when the first advisors were killed.
In 1961, President J F Kennedy increased the number of military advisors in South Vietnam by 100 men. This escalation was not made known to the American public at the time. Kennedy also publicly announced that he was funding an increase in the ARVN so that an extra 20,000 could join it.
Aware of the influence of the NLF on the peasant community of South Vietnam, America, with the support of Diem, started the ‘Strategic Hamlet’ programme. This moved villagers into new villages that were surrounded by stockades and patrolled by armed guards. The policy was a dismal failure. Very many villagers resented being uprooted from a village they may have lived in for years and being forcibly moved to another area. They also had nothing to fear from the NLF, whereas the South Vietnamese army did. It also seems likely that if peasants in these villages were not totally sympathetic to the NLF before, they were after ‘Strategic Hamlet’. Many objected to having to leave their villages because the government said so. Many also objected to leaving their village for religious reasons – their dead relatives were buried there and they believed that they had to live with the spirits of their ancestors.
It has been estimated that ‘Strategic Hamlet’ led to a 300% growth in the membership of the NLF and that by 1964 there were 17,000 people in it and that they controlled 20% of all the villages in South Vietnam.
Kennedy continued to send ‘advisors’ into South Vietnam so that by the end of 1962 there were 12,000 based there – essentially a small army. Kennedy also supplied 300 helicopters to the South Vietnamese though they required US pilots to fly them. By the time of Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, America had a sizeable military presence in South Vietnam.