America's Policy on the Vietnam War

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“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

With these defiant words, John F. Kennedy seemed to be spelling out his position on American policy toward the Vietnam War during his inaugural address on 20 January 1961. However, it is questionable whether or not he maintained this conviction throughout his brief stint as this nation’s leader. Throughout Kennedy’s term in office, evidence points to the fact that he initially felt strongly about staying the course with the policies handed down to him by the Eisenhower Administration; yet later he began to indicate his desire to pull away from total American support of this continued involvement in Vietnam. However, before he could take final action on whatever his decisions were, John F. Kennedy was killed; and Lyndon B. Johnson became president, thus placing the war policy in his hands. Rather than pulling back American forces from Vietnam as it seemed the Kennedy Administration may have intended, Johnson escalated the American commitment to this war transforming it from an internal Vietnamese civil war to America’s fight against communism. Perhaps, however, the Kennedy Administration intended to secure South Vietnam’s status as a democratic state. If America had backed out of Vietnam, then it would have demonstrated to its allies that it only cared about its own internal affairs and that preserving worldwide democracy was not the priority that Kennedy alluded to as he took office. It is hard to say if things would have been different had Kennedy not been assassinated and remained in charge of America’s foreign policy. His reaction to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which was a major cause for the war’s escalation, can only be assumed as he never had to face the dilemma. Although the Johnson Administration took the Vietnam War to a new and higher level, given the manner in which Kennedy immediately increased the size and strength of the Armed Forces to numbers not seen since America was engaged in a full-scale war once he assumed office and given his continued expansion of the military throughout his term in office, it is clear that Johnson was merely continuing the policy that Kennedy had established towards Vietnam. To understand both Kennedy’s and Johnson’s policies towards Vietnam, it is important to first understand the history behind America’s involvement in this conflict and the policies of the administrations that preceded these two presidents. Up until 1954, Vietnam was a French colony that was divided into two territories – the North and the South – following the withdrawal of French forces. The North formed a communist state while the South intended to establish an anti-communist one. Under Ngo Dinh Diem’s leadership, the South, however, was somewhat divided in its allegiances; and therefore, Diem asked for America’s aid as advisor and support to his army. America obliged Diem due to its concern with the potential for the proliferation of communism throughout Southeast Asia. The larger concern was if one nation fell to communism, the others around it would soon suffer the same fate. This “Domino Theory” was elaborated on by President Eisenhower when he stated during a news conference on 07 April 1954: "Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the 'falling domino' principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”

This concern on the part of the U.S. Administration led to an increased involvement in the actions in the ensuing battles with the Viet Cong (communist guerilla forces that were formed by insurgents of the Diem regime) and...
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