A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

Part 5
THE VIETNAM WAR

The war in Vietnam was America’s longest and most agonizing war. More than anything else, it was the wedge that divided the nation in two during the turbulent years of the sixties.

In many ways, the growing U.S. involvement in Vietnam illustrates the logic of the Cold War doctrine of containment. In the years following World War II, despite U.S. wartime promises to end colonialism in Southeast Asia, President Truman chose to support French colonial power in Indochina rather than the nationalist independence movement there led by Vietnamese insurgent and, significantly, communist, Ho Chi Minh. Truman believed it was crucial to secure European support for the United States in its growing conflict with the Soviet Union, and this was an attempt to mollify France. But the implications of this action would be enormous. When Ho Chi Minh and his followers defeated the French colonial power in 1954, the United States stepped into the breach, creating a divided Vietnam and setting up a puppet government friendly to the United States in South Vietnam.

As the Cold War escalated, President John F. Kennedy promised the world in his inaugural address that Americans were prepared to “pay any price” and “bear any burden” to contain the threat of communism. In the logic of this Cold War world view, Vietnam (like Korea and even the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba) was a hot battle in the Cold War. Relying on the belief that the struggles in Vietnam might prove the “domino” that began the fall of Southeast Asia to communism, John Kennedy sent increasing numbers of military “advisors” to Vietnam, launched programs of counterinsurgency, and greatly increased programs of financial and military aid to South Vietnam.

America’s growing involvement in Vietnam may also be seen as a byproduct of the “politics of affluence” discussed in Part 2. In creating a divided Vietnam, the United States launched an experiment in

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