Direct U.S. military participation in The Vietnam War, the nation's longest, cost fifty-eight thousand American lives. Only the Civil War and the two world wars were deadlier for Americans. During the decade of Vietnam beginning in 1964, the U.S Treasury spent over $140 billion on the war, enough money to fund urban renewal projects in every major American city. Despite these enormous costs and their accompanying public and private trauma for the American people, the United States failed, for the first time in its history, to achieve its stated war aims. The goal was to preserve a separate, independent, noncommunist government in South Vietnam, but after April 1975, the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) ruled the entire nation.
The initial reasons for U.S. involvement in Vietnam seemed logical and compelling to American leaders. Following its success in World War II, the United States faced the future with a sense of moral rectitude and material confidence. From Washington's perspective, the principal threat to U.S. security and world peace was monolithic, dictatorial communism emanating from he Soviet Union. Any communist anywhere, at home or abroad, was, by definition, and enemy of the United States. Drawing an analogy with the unsuccessful appeasement of fascist dictators before World War II, the Truman administration believed that any sign of communist aggression must be met quickly and forcefully by the United States and its allies. This reactive policy was known as containment.
In Vietnam the target of containment was Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh front he had created in 1941. Ho and his chief lieutenants were communists with long-standing connections to the Soviet Union. They were also ardent Vietnamese nationalists who fought first to rid their country of the Japanese and then, after 1945, to prevent France from reestablishing its former colonial mastery over Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. Harry S. Truman and other American leaders, having no sympathy for French colonialism, favored Vietnamese independence. But expanding communist control of Eastern Europe and the triumph of the communists in China's civil was made France's war against Ho seem an anticommunist rather than a colonialist effort. When France agreed to a quansi- independent Vietnam under Emperor Bao Dai as an alternative to Ho's DRV, the United States decided to support the French position.
The American conception of Vietnam as a cold war battleground largely ignored the struggle for social justice and national sovereignty occurring within the country. American attention focused primarily on Europe and on Asia beyond Vietnam. Aid to France in Indochina was a quid pro quo for French cooperation with America's plans for the defense of Europe through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. After China became a communist state in 1949, the stability of Japan became of paramount importance to Washington, and Japanese development required access to the markets and raw materials of Southeast Asia. The outbreak of war in Korea in 1950 served primarily to confirm Washington's belief that communist aggression posed a great danger to Asia . Subsequent charges that Truman had "lost" China and had settled for a stalemate in Korea caused succeeding presidents to fear the domestic political consequences if they "lost" Vietnam. This apprehension, an overestimation of American power, and an underestimation of Vietnamese communist strength locked all administrations from 1950 through the 1960s into a firm anticommunist stand in Vietnam.
Because American policy makers failed to appreciate the amount of effort that would be required to exert influence on Vietnam's political and social structure, the course of American policy led to a steady escalation of U.S. involvement. President Dwight D. Eisenhower increased the level of aide to the French but continued to avoid military intervention, even when...