The war in Vietnam was a conflict that started in the 1950s and ended in the early 1970s. During this time period, the United States became increasingly involved in Vietnamese political, economic and military affairs. There were a combination of reasons as to why the United States became more involved, the most important of which in my opinion were the Domino Theory and the growing influence of the National Liberation Front (NFL).
The most important reason as to why the United States became involved in Vietnam was the long term cause of the Domino Theory. The Domino Theory was the belief that once one country had fallen to communism, its neighbours would do the same. It was devised by John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State, during the 1950s. The Domino Theory would be a an obstacle for the Americans if they were to win the Cold War, as they had to keep as few countries from going communist as possible. If South Vietnam were to fall communist, its neighbours in South East Asia may do the same- including India, a country with a billion inhabitants and around 90% of its people living in poverty. Communism may look an attractive prospect to South East Asia’s poor, which increases the likelihood of the Domino Theory, and would have a dire effect for American economic interests in the region. American companies would be nationalised by the state under communism, and trade would be badly affected because Americans would not be able to sell commodities in communist countries. This would not only harm America’s economy, but also its military- it would not be able to sustain a well trained, well equipped army without the money to do so. Eventually, this would also have dire political effects for America- its President would look weak, and the Soviet Union would be the dominant global power, due to the United States’ inferior military, economy and financial system. Moreover, if the Domino Theory proved correct, and South East Asia was to turn communist upon South Vietnam’s transition to communism, the American lives lost in the Korean War- a bloody conflict resulting in 142,000 US casualties that also involved communist North Korea fighting the capitalist, US backed South Korea in a bid to ‘contain’ communism- would be in vain. This would be because their efforts to contain the spread of communism in Asia would be rendered almost useless if South East Asia were to become communist ten years after the Korean war. The ideas of a damaged US economy and military and the consequences this would bring for the Cold War, plus the lives given in vain in Korea were part of the worries of the Domino Theory, and were extremely important reasons as to why the United States became increasingly involved in the war in Vietnam.
Another important long term reason as to why the United States became increasingly involved in the war in Vietnam was the economic and military reason of the strategic importance of Vietnam. Vietnam bordered southern China, a communist and nuclear armed foe of the United States. Having an ally like South Vietnam would be of paramount importance if nuclear war broke out and the United States had nuclear warheads installed mere hundreds of miles below China and within range of south eastern Russia. Moreover, South Vietnam would be a good military ally to have if conventional warfare broke out- ships and planes from US installed naval and air bases would be able to navigate to China with relative ease due to the two countries’ proximity. The economic importance of Vietnam was also vital to US interests. Without Vietnamese co-operation in the South China Sea, the United States would lose access to vital shipping lanes that allowed the import and export of goods from the United States to South East Asia, India and the Middle East. If America were to lose Vietnam, it would have to consider alternative trade routes, which may prove too costly in terms of money, fuel and time. It was not just Vietnam’s strategic importance that determined US involvement in Vietnam, but also the strategic importance of South East Asia as a whole, which the Americans thought they would lose to communism if Vietnam turned communist (due to the Domino Theory). The military and economic strategic importance of Vietnam (and South East Asia as a whole) is therefore an important long term reason as to why the United States became increasingly involved in the war in Vietnam.
An important short term reason as to why the United States became increasingly involved in Vietnam was the increasing danger and support of the National Liberation Front (NLF). The NLF, often referred to as the ‘Vietcong’ by their American counterparts, were a communist guerrilla organization that used non-conventional tactics to attack Diem’s capitalist government and the United States in South Vietnam. They were an armed group to counter the unpopularity of the South Vietnamese dictator, President Diem and aimed to reunify Vietnam under a communist government. Frustrated by the reforms that Catholic Diem was implementing in South Vietnam- persecution of the Buddhist majority, imprisonment of adult and children opponents to Diem’s rule, little money on social reform- the NLF decided to terrorise the South Vietnamese government. The Americans responded by providing the South Vietnamese with military and economic help so that the South Vietnamese themselves could deal with the NLF. Eventually, however, a coup overthrew the President, who was succeeded by ten weak capitalist governments over a period of two years who could not could not govern effectively. This forced the Americans to send in their own military to combat the North Vietnamese and NLF (justified by the controversial ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ incident). However, American troops proved unpopular with the peasant villages due to their tactics of using napalm on innocent civilians and the US ‘zippo raids’, where the Americans would burn down entire villages suspected of being affiliated with the NLF. This improved support, and subsequently the strength of the NLF, as they had the co-operation and recruitment of an increasing number of locals with regard to hiding NLF supplies. Because of the inexperience of the Americans in guerrilla combat, the NLF were also using booby traps and snipers to inflict heavy US casualties, whilst also receiving effective weapons from the USSR and China. The NLF also had a superior knowledge of the terrain to the Americans. This made it all the more painful and humiliating for the Americans to loose, so troop numbers increased. The NLF therefore became more effective in their efforts to defeat the Americans, and launched the partially successful Tet Offensive in 1968 against the US in South Vietnamese cities, including the capital, Saigon. The NLF guerrilla warfare campaign, which threatened to humiliate America in their beliefs of the Domino Theory and the belief that America may lose the Cold War, plus the heavy casualties inflicted on the Americans, are therefore an important reason as to why the Americans became increasingly involved in the war in Vietnam. The final important reason as to why the United States became increasingly involved in the war in Vietnam was the political ego of President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was preceded by Kennedy and Eisenhower, two great American war heroes, and needed to prove to the US public that he was just as strong as his forerunners. Johnson saw Vietnam as a chance to demonstrate his strength, whilst also containing the spread of communism in Vietnam and South East Asia due to his belief in the Domino Theory. Moreover, getting increasingly involved in Vietnam may secure US economic and military interests in the region, due to its strategic importance, and could eventually lead to US victory in the Cold War. Johnson wanted to win the war as soon as possible, in order to keep it popular with the US public by ensuring as few lives were lost as possible, whilst also sending a message of intolerance of communism to the USSR to demonstrate US strength and therefore consistently increased troop numbers in Vietnam. However, due to the increased support and strength of the NLF by the Vietnamese people, the Americans suffered far more casualties than Johnson anticipated. Johnson retaliated by increasing troop numbers in an effort to show just how strong a leader he was, and how powerful America was. The desire for Johnson to and prove he was a strong President in control of the Cold War is therefore an important reason why the US became more involved in Vietnam.
In conclusion, the United States increased its involvement in Vietnam for numerous reasons. The first and foremost reason was the Domino Theory and the US fear of communism and its effects on US economic and military interests in the Cold War. Secondly, the US saw Vietnam as an important military and financial ally to have in terms of strategic importance in the Cold War. Thirdly was the NFL and the increasing casualty toll the Americans were suffering which threatened to humiliate America in the Cold War, and fourthly was the political and psychological advantage Johnson saw in winning the Vietnam war as quickly as possible and thereby halting the Domino Theory.