The causes of the Vietnam War were derived from the symptoms, components and consequences of the Cold War. The causes of the Vietnam War revolve around the simple belief held by America that communism was threatening to expand all over south-east Asia.
Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States could risk an all-out war against each other, such was the nuclear military might of both. However, when it suited both, they had client states that could carry on the fight for them. In Vietnam, the Americans actually fought – therefore in the Cold War ‘game’, the USSR could not. However, to support the Communist cause, the Soviet Union armed its fellow Communist state, China, who would, in turn, arm and equip the North Vietnamese who fought the Americans.
In October 1946, the French announced their intention of reclaiming the north which meant that the Viet Minh would have to fight for it. The war started in November 1946, when the French bombarded the port of Haiphong and killed 6,000 people. The French tried to win over the people of the north by offering them ‘independence’. However, the people would not be allowed to do anything without French permission! A new leader of the country was appointed called Bao Dai. The Russians and Eastern Europe refused to recognise his rule. They claimed that Ho Chi Minh was the real ruler of Vietnam.
The French had got themselves into a difficult military position. Despite huge American help, the French could not cope with the Viet Minh’s guerrilla tactics. The Viet Minh were by now receiving help from Communist China – Mao Zedong had taken power of China in 1949. The fact that two opposing sides had developed was classic Cold War history. The country was meant to be ruled by Bao Dai who was supported by the west. Ho Chi Minh was supported by the Russians, Chinese and Eastern Europe – all communist.
In November 1953, the French sent men from their crack Parachute Regiment to Vietnam. It was naturally assumed by the French that this unit would defeat the untrained Viet Minh guerrillas. They were sent to DienBien Phu in the north. In May 1954, the regiment was attacked by the North Vietnamese and surrendered, which came as a terrible blow to the French people. The French pulled out of Vietnam in the same month.
In April 1954, the world’s powers had met at Geneva to discuss Vietnam. In July 1954, it was decided to divide the country in two at the 17th parallel. Bao Dai was to lead the south and Ho Chi Minh the north. The meeting also decided that in 1956, there would be an election in both the north and south to decide who would rule the whole country. The election would be supervised by neutral countries. This election did not take place and the split had become permanent by 1956.
South Vietnam also had a population of 16 million. Its first proper leader was Ngo Dinh Diem who was a fanatical catholic. As communism hated religion, Diem hated all that communism stood for. This is why he got America’s support – he had a poor record on human rights but his rule was in the era of the “Domino Theory” and anybody who was anti-communist in the Far East was likely to receive American backing – regardless of their less than savoury background. Ngo ruled as a dictator along with his brother – Nhu. Their government was corrupt and brutal but it was also backed by America.
Also see: America and Vietnam (to 1965)