Academic journal article History Review

Turning Points in the Vietnam War: Viv Sanders Takes Issue with Some All Too Common Assumptions

Academic journal article History Review

Turning Points in the Vietnam War: Viv Sanders Takes Issue with Some All Too Common Assumptions

Article excerpt

There are two major issues concerning turning points in the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War, both involving chronology. First, when and how did the US become irrevocably committed to large-scale intervention? Second, when did it become obvious that the US would have to de-escalate?

In the ever-growing US involvement in Vietnam from 1950 until 1968, the turning point is usually considered to be 1965, when President Johnson sent in American ground combat troops. However, it will be argued in this article that decisions taken by the Eisenhower administration during 1954-56 constituted a far more important change.

There is less controversy over the main turning point in the US decision to de-escalate. Most historians agree that it was the Tet Offensive in 1967. However, it will be argued here that the Tet Offensive was not a turning point but a clarification of issues that had been evident since 1954-56 and had led to the resignation of Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara in late 1967. It was with McNamara's resignation, rather than with Tet, that it became obvious that the US had to deescalate.

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US Involvement in Vietnam: the first turning point

Owing to the fact that it was Johnson who sent in the ground troops in 1965, the Vietnam War became known as 'Johnson's war'. The dubious nature of that attribution is implicitly acknowledged by historians who favour the 'commitment trap' thesis. According to this interpretation, Johnson of necessity honoured and then built upon a commitment bequeathed to him by three former presidents, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. An exit from that commitment would have damaged US credibility as an anti-Communist superpower.

Was there any point at which any of Johnson's three predecessors could reasonably have ended US involvement in Vietnam?

Harry Truman initiated the US involvement. From 1950 to 1953, he gave financial aid to the French colonialists as they struggled to re-establish control of Indochina in the face of opposition from Vietnamese Communists and nationalists. It could be argued that, up to 1953, the United States' commitment was simply a financial commitment to its French ally. On the other hand, as early as November 1950, a Defence Department official warned,

   we are gradually increasing our
   stake in the outcome of the
   struggle ... we are dangerously
   close to the point of being so
   deeply committed that we may
   find ourselves completely committed
   even to direct intervention.
   These situations, unfortunately,
   have a way of snowballing.

In the early months of his presidency, Eisenhower continued Truman's policy of helping the French, but after the Geneva Conference of 1954, the great turning point in the US commitment occurred. Prior to 1954, US involvement in Vietnam had consisted of giving materials and monetary aid to the French. During 1954 the Eisenhower administration switched from a policy of aid to France to an experiment in state-building in what became known as South Vietnam.

By 1954 the war in Vietnam had become increasingly unpopular in France. The defeat of French troops by Communist forces at Dienbienphu left France exhausted, exasperated and keen to withdraw. At the international conference convened to discuss French Indochina at Geneva in May 1954, the French exit was formalised. Vietnam was temporarily divided, with Ho Chi Minh in control of the north and the Emperor Bao Dai in control of the south. The Geneva Accords declared that there were to be nationwide elections leading to reunification of Vietnam in 1956. However, US intervention ensured that this 'temporary division' was to last for more than 20 years.

The United States refused to sign the Geneva Accords and moved to defy them within weeks. Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, organised allies such as Britain in the South-east Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO). …

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