January 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of American withdrawal from the Vietnam War. The U.S. exit closed nearly a decade of active fighting in the divided country, and almost a quarter-century of foreign policy involvement there. This anniversary is a good time to take a look at the foreign policies and attitudes that put the United States in the middle of the Indochina war.
World War II
As it did so many elements of the Cold War, World War II heavily influenced American involvement in Vietnam.
Before World War II, Vietnam was a French colonial holding. Germany, of course, overran France in 1940, and Vietnam soon fell to Japan. Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, who had traveled out of the country for 30 years, returned to Vietnam and founded the revolutionary Vietminh to fight Japanese occupiers. Communist factions in China aided the Vietminh, as did elements of the U.S. intelligence and military operations (albeit secretly).
The Truman Doctrine
American involvement in Vietnam gets a push from events half a world away. Hang on, it takes a minute.
In 1947, Great Britain informed the U.S. that it could no longer afford to help Greece fight a local war against Communist aggressors. In response, U.S. President Harry Truman issued the Truman Doctrine, pledging to help Greece.
When Truman said, "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures," he was talking about the U.S. helping fragile democracies fight post-war communist incursions.
To be sure, Truman was talking primarily about sending monetary aid to help Greece -- and nearby Turkey -- fight communism. But he didn't specifically rule out military help, and he didn't limit U.S. aid to the Mediterranean. "The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms," he said.
When Japan formally surrendered, ending World War II on September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh believed that Vietnam was free from imperialism. He was wrong.
France wanted to return to the country and restart its empire. Truman's administration acquiesced because, even though Ho liked the U.S., he also had strong Communist ties and wanted to fashion a government along Leninist and Maoist lines. When Ho Chi Minh and his Vietminh forces began an incursion, Truman extended the tenets of the Truman Doctrine to France.
The Domino Priniciple
Truman's successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, continued financial aid to France, but he stopped short of extending it military aid. When Ho's forces besieged French legionnaires at the northern Vietnam base of Dienbienphu, Eisenhower suggested it was time for France to leave Vietnam.
The Geneva Accords that finalized France's withdrawal called for a temporary north/south division of Vietnam, with Ho's Communists holding the north and an American surrogate, Ngo Dien Diem, presiding over a southern democracy. The accords called for an election in 1956 to let Vietnamese across the country decide their political fate.
Convinced that Communists would win a popular election, Eisenhower's administration refused to allow the election.
As early as 1954, when he was asked about the importance of a free Indochina to the rest of the world, Eisenhower described what became known as the Domino Principle (or Domino Theory). "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," said Eisenhower.
Eisenhower said the loss of Indochina, Burma, Thailand, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia would necessarily also mean the loss of , "materials, sources of materials, [and] millions and millions and millions of people."
Truman had also hinted at the Domino Principle in the Truman Doctrine when he said that, if Greece and Turkey were to fall to Communism, "confusion and disorder might well spread throughout the entire Middle East."
The Vietminh were in the midst of a continued insurgency against the U.S.-backed Diem presidency when John F. Kennedy took his oath of office on January 20, 1961. A careful reading of his inaugural address reveals that Kennedy was as much of a cold warrior as Truman and Eisenhower.
He pledged "that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty." He backed up that famous line by specifically naming Communist revolutionary countries. "To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required -- not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich," he said.
Of course, Kennedy aimed his rhetoric at the higher goals of democracy. Like Truman and Eisenhower, he did not specifically mention American military muscle in combatting Communism. Neither did he rule it out. It was Kennedy who authorized the U.S. Army's Green Berets as a special force to train South Vietnamese soldiers in the type of asymmetrical, "guerrilla" warfare Ho's Vietminh were fighting.
One of the great "what if" games of history is to question whether Kennedy would have escalated American combat involvement in Vietnam the same way Lyndon B. Johnson did in early 1965. While historians and Kennedy administration insiders have tried answer that, no one will ever know.
What is clear is that Kennedy and his predecessors established an ideological, philosophical framework regarding regional fights against Communism. Johnson stepped into that framework, which makes his Vietnam policies not surprising in the least.