The Vietnam War was a rational choice.
The Vietnam War—and the counterculture it inspired—was responsible for framing much of the modern debate on American foreign military involvement. More than forty years after the end of the war, the conflict is still contentiously discussed: Was the deployment of American troops a catastrophic blunder or a strategic necessity?
The mistake made in most contemporary assessments of the conflict is that they evaluate the war through the lens of hindsight. This article will aim to explain the rationale behind American escalation in Vietnam and justify the sequence of decisions that culminated in ten years of military ground intervention.
There is an important distinction to be made between justifying the Vietnam War and justifying the decision to take part in it. This article deals solely with the latter. The United States had very clear objectives in mind when it became embroiled in the Indochina region, thus, supporting the Western-sympathizing South Vietnam was the logical option.
The power-bipolarity of the Cold War resulted in an antipathy for communism that pervaded the consciousness of the majority, meaning that the USA’s involvement in Vietnam was logically—if not ethically—sound.
The core of the United States’ involvement lay in “The Domino Theory.” According to the theory, allowing the communist Viet Cong to unify Vietnam would result in Laos, Cambodia and the rest of South-East Asia adopting this ideology as well. The premise was that while a successful communist revolution in one country may not provide material aid to another uprising, it would contribute significantly to morale and rhetoric. This concept was nothing but an extension of the Truman doctrine—a policy devised to curb the growth of Soviet influence during the Cold War. It had been a tenet of American foreign policy for most of the post-World War II era, and so using it to consider a decision to intervene in a country wracked by communist guerilla groups was perfectly reasonable.
Today, however, the point of discussion is whether the Domino Theory was legitimate or not. Cold War era USA viewed the communist movement as a monolithic idea and posited that each successful revolution would contribute to global Soviet influence. Modern consensus is that communism was adopted by different regions for discrete reasons and that, in time, these nations would come into conflict with each other rather than consolidate their power.
Indeed, in the aftermath of US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, Laos and Cambodia eventually did become communist-majority nations. If not for the free-market, trade-liberalizing impact of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), many believe that Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand (along with other countries) would have followed suit.
Parallels can be drawn to the Korean War only a few years earlier. Like in the Korean Peninsula, the objective was never to consolidate the entirety of Vietnam under the South Vietnamese banner. Beijing and Moscow made clear at the onset of the conflict that an all-out US-led invasion would be met with retaliation, and so early American involvement was in the form of aid and military advice. However, the situation quickly devolved into a weak, corrupt South Vietnam government that heavily depended on foreign support. The United States could neither ramp up troop numbers in an attempt to decisively end the conflict, nor could it withdraw from the region without costing its Southern allies.
Ultimately, Nixon’s administration chose the latter and South Vietnam fell in the following two years. This demonstrates clearly that US support was vital if the South were to have a chance at winning the war. However, it was a conclusive failure on the United States’ part when it came to its on-ground operations. The guerilla warfare of the Viet Cong demonstrated how effective asymmetric warfare could be.
That being said, the guerilla warfare’s efficacy did not make it even comparable to the strength of the American military. The Viet Cong’s knowledge of the terrain was compensated for in terms of sheer firepower and it was impossible for officials to anticipate the scale on which North Vietnam would be able to wage war. The US military would have reasonably assumed that they would have the upper hand.
The Vietnam War cast a long shadow. It continues to serve as a lens for the evaluation of all armed conflict involving the United States and has led to a decisive shift in American foreign policy. The post-World War II aversion to “appeasement” and the global mission of protecting “freedom and liberty” was curbed harshly and was replaced by a more domestic-focused sentiment for years to come.
When the war came to a close, casualties numbered in the tens of thousands and an anti-war movement developed that would redefine American foreign policy for years to come. In hindsight, perhaps the war cost the USA more than benefited it. Fighting and funding someone else’s war for twenty years may have led to little material gain, but the USA’s priorities were very clear from the outset. The majority of the Indochina region saw periods of great economic growth and communist presence remains negligible even today. The years of oppression by the Viet Cong in the war’s wake were deplorable, but could not have been anticipated by policymakers. In the end, while the decision to enter the Vietnam War may have been unconscionable, it was undeniably rational.
Parthav Shergill lives in Bangalore, India and writes about Indian politics and economics.