I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here

Cold War Case Study: Vietnam

Gary R. Hess, “From the Streets to the Books: The Origins of an Enduring Debate” in Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2009).

George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1996).

James Carter, Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Melvin Small and William D. Hoover, Give Peace a Chance: Exploring the Vietnam Antiwar Movement (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1992).

From its beginning to the present the Vietnam War has caused division among government officials, the public, and even among historians and other academics, Gary R. Hess argues in the first chapter of Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War, “From the Streets to the Books: The Origins of an Enduring Debate. The battle has historically been between what Hess calls the “doves” and the “hawks”—antiwar and pro-war factions respectively. Before Vietnam, the United States, as George Kennan pointed out, had developed a sense of power that relied on moral superiority. The use of American military force was acceptable as long as it was fighting against those forces that threatened democracy and progress in the rest of the world and at home. For the doves, Hess argues, the Vietnam War was the first American military engagement that did not demonstrate a clear link between power and morality. The hawks, on the other hand, stubbornly stuck to the claims that United States involvement in Vietnam had a firm, moral basis. After the war ended, the debate between these two factions did not end, but only intensified particularly in the academic arena. Scholars split into two schools: the revisionist and the orthodox. The revisionist school based its arguments on the idea that the war had been winnable, but that President Lyndon Johnson’s poor decision making had led to defeat. Hess, who seems quite skeptical of this group, likens the pondering of “what-ifs” to those made by other generations after similar defeats. The revisionist school gained popularity with the rise of conservatism in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. The Vietnam War, according to the revisionists, had been necessary and victory had been possible at the onset, but was undermined by poor leadership and lack of commitment to the cause at home. The Orthodox school, on the other hand, asserts that the Vietnam War was never winnable, that Nixon’s “peace with honor” strategy was unrealistic, and that the entire war was the culmination of years of defective containment policy.

George C. Herring and his book, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, is an example of this kind of Orthodox interpretation. The Vietnam War, according to Herring, was the direct and logical conclusion of America’s global containment policy, not the result of a few errors in judgment on the part of a select number of individuals. It was assumed from the beginning of United States involvement in Vietnam in the 1940s and 1950s that it was in America’s best interest to ensure that communism did not gain power in Vietnam. If Vietnam fell, as the domino theory suggested, then it was believed that all of Southeast Asia would be more than likely to fall into communist hands as well. Using information from secondary works, Pentagon Papers, memoirs, and recently declassified documents, Herring pieces together the story of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, with special emphasis on the most turbulent years of 1963-1973. Increased United States involvement in Vietnam corresponded directly to the enlargement of containment policy as a whole, Herring contends. As containment lost its currency so too did the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was flawed and disastrous because the policy it was based on, containment, was also faulty and based on unsound principles, Herring concludes.

American support of French governance in Vietnam during the First Indochina War, Herring states, is one of the most ironic occurrences in American history because the United States supported a power that actively worked to suppress Vietnamese self-determination. Vietnamese resistance, led initially by Ho Chi Minh, of French imperialism is completely understandable according to Herring; the Vietnamese wished to be able to rule themselves and did not want any imperialist power, whether they were French, American, or Chinese, directing the development of their homeland. In the early days of World War II, the United States did not support French rule of Indochina, but by 1947, under the leadership of Harry S. Truman, the United States changed its viewpoint towards the region. The United States, who viewed alliance with South East Asia as strategic to American needs, were afraid of the growing revolutionary and nationalistic tendencies, as Michael Hunt and Richard Fried note was typical of the United States, of the region, and believed French rule was necessary for squelching these movements and bringing the region under the controlling wings of the United States and other western powers. The United States ignored offers of political and economic allegiance from Ho Chi Minh because they believed that an independent Vietnamese state would be too weak to fend off the expansionary tentacles of communism. As William Appleman Williams would point out, Herring also notes that United States interest in Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia also had a strong economic basis. The United States did not want to lose access to Southeast Asian markets. The defeat of the French in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu and the subsequent Geneva Accords increased American involvement in the region. The division of Vietnam on the seventeenth parallel was not preferable, but enabled the United States a chance at developing a strong, non-communist country in the south.

In 1954, the United States committed itself to building a nation alongside South Vietnam’s first president, Ngo Dinh Diem. As James Carter discusses in detail, the United States began a program of massive economic and infrastructural development. However, instead of making the South Vietnamese autonomous, this aid just barely kept them afloat and encouraged dependency, Herring asserts. Meanwhile, Diem’s repressive tendencies spawned a new era of revolution within South Vietnam, although, at the time, these revolutionary actions were blamed on northern, communist infiltration, which in reality Herring points out, did lend a sneaky hand. Inner angst and expansive, communist pressure at their northern border created a disastrous mélange in South Vietnam. One of America’s greatest failures during this time period according to Herring is that they did believed they could make a nation out of a region that had very little sense of nationhood on which to build. In the early 1960s, under the direction of John F. Kennedy, the United States sent aid and advisors to Vietnam to help with the struggle in South Vietnam. The Kennedy administration was the first to deceive the public on the level of American involvement in Vietnam. With the deaths of Kennedy and Diem, Lyndon B. Johnson greatly escalated American involvement between the years of 1963-1965. At first Johnson hoped that continuing and increasing Kennedy’s non-combat techniques and aid would help end the war, but by 1965, Johnson made the decision to send troops and begin a sustained air offensive, the quintessential embodiment of which was Operation Rolling Thunder.

Operation Rolling Thunder and other techniques used by the United States military illustrate the very problem with American strategy during the Vietnam War, Herring argues. “The United States,” he writes, “never developed a strategy appropriate for the war it was fighting in part because it assumed that the mere application of its vast military power would be sufficient.” (159) Additionally, Herring adds, the optimism that accompanied this assumption at the outset led to the enhanced level of frustration and disappointment experienced at the end of the war. The administration also never instructed the military properly for the unique situation in Vietnam, and thus the military exacted a traditional attack that was not suited for the war’s distinctive conditions. Like other Orthodox Vietnam historians, Herring views the TET Offensive as a turning point in the war because it awoke the United States to the realities of their situation, the war could not be won in an acceptable amount of time or by using acceptable strategies, and led them to begin to slacken American involvement and re-Vietnamize the war as well as push for pacification on both sides of the border. TET, Herring concludes, represented the apex of American hegemony after World War II and caused Americans to reevaluate their role abroad. Richard Nixon’s Administration’s “peace with honor” strategy was basically a hoax and cover for the continued drive for the unrealistic goal of an independent, non-communist South Vietnam, Herring argues. The culmination of which was the United States invasion of Cambodia. The peace agreements of January 1973, Herring writes, “merely established a framework for continuing the war without direct American participation.” (288) The South and North continued to squabble and Nixon and other U.S. officials continued to support the South. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States, Herring writes, was not a gracious or generous loser. However, the United States did learn two major lessons. Firstly, it learned that local forces in international conflicts were important. Secondly, the United States was slightly humbled by the realization that there are limits to power.

Herring touches upon the topic of United States economic development in South Vietnam, but does not go into the great detail that James Carter does in Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building. Using a vast number of oral histories and personal accounts from individuals involved in the state-building activities, government documents, newspaper articles, and secondary sources, Carter presents a unique assessment of the American presence in South Vietnam during the war era. Historians, Carter asserts have not analyzed thoroughly enough the connection between the failure of state-building initiatives and the inception and course of the war. “During the period of direct American involvement beginning in 1954,” Carter states, “the U.S. mission in Vietnam designed and implemented a range of far-reaching economic, political, and eventually military development projects in one of the most thorough and ambitious state-building efforts in the postwar period.” (6) These projects ranged from installing a president and his government to dredging canals to building schools and hospitals. Between 1954 and 1960, the United States spent about $1.5 billion on these state-building programs. In the 1960s, as these programs began to show signs of failing and the South Vietnamese themselves began showing signs of discord, the United States used military and police force to protect its regime and bring attention away from the region’s troubles, rather than to determine and fix the problems with their endeavor.

One of the most substantial problems with the United States effort to build a modern Southern Vietnam, Carter argues, is that the concept of a “South Vietnam” in and of itself was fatally flawed. “South Vietnam” was and is a convenient myth used by historical figures and contemporary historians, a fiction that “perpetuated the powerful and politically successful idea that the effort in Vietnam was about combating aggression and that the problem stemmed from the North Vietnamese aggression against a putatively independent South Vietnam.” (7) Carter partially agrees with Herring, the myth of South Vietnam and the war that resulted from this myth were to a degree caused by containment or at least the excuse that containment provided. The war, Carter argues, was not the result of Northern aggression, however, but the result of the United States failure to build a modern infrastructure in the south.

In addition to creating a nation, American policymakers and developers also used their imaginations in order to believe that the southern portion of Vietnam was a completely blank slate on which it was both their duty and destiny to create a modern civilization, which would conveniently benefit the United States economically and politically. The overall mission in Vietnam contained two components, Carter argues: military preparedness and the physical processes of state building. These two components continuously battled for resources. In the early years, physical infrastructure and communication development won the majority of resources, but as the resistance movement developed and the United States became more worried about security, military preparedness was given first dibs, often causing the destruction of the initial infrastructure projects. The process of inventing and reinventing the South Vietnamese state dominated American involvement in the area from 1954 on, disrupting Vietnamese society and often, ironically, blocking the region from gaining the economic and political stability that the initial American projects were supposed to provide. The later “heavy emphasis on security and military preparedness, justifiable or not, also undermined the development of an independent, modern, democratic, and liberal state, the supposed objective of the early state-building program,” (13) Carter writes. Vietnam was a paradox between construction and destruction.

The types of changes that the Vietnamese experienced in their state structure and system corresponded directly to the agenda of the presidential administration in office. The programs supported at any one time often represent the ways in which each president viewed Vietnam and the situation there. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson all agreed, however, that an independent, non-communist state existed south of the seventeenth parallel, and all implemented an assortment of policy objectives in Vietnam that were designed to modernize the country, at one point spending $1 million dollars a day in the region. Yet, these policies and American efforts to legitimize the Saigon regime incessantly failed. These failings were often covered up by official accounts of the situation, which led to a division between reality and representation that eventually led to anger and protestation at home in the United States. Denial or recognition of reasons for these failings also enabled the United States to continue to increase military involvement in the region, which resulted in the devolution of the state-building attempt into a desperate fight to fend off a piece of real estate.

This failure and devolution of the state-building endeavor into full-blown military chaos caused a great deal of disturbance at home. In Give Peace a Chance: Exploring the Vietnam Antiwar Movement, the authors attempt to grapple with the immense complexity of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam era. Each article in the collection attempts to look closely at a specific organization or demographic facet of the movement using newly available archival documents and the personal accounts and papers of those that participated in the movement. In “You Don’t need a Weatherman but a Postman Can Be Helpful: Thought on the History of SDS and the Antiwar Movement,” Maurice Isserman asserts that most historical accounts of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) have focused too much on the leaders at the top, largely due to the accessibility of official SDS documents, and not on the thousands of students who were attracted to the movement. When one seeks out and looks at less-official documentation, one finds that the documents support two major conclusions, Isserman argues. Firstly, going beyond the accepted assumption that the Civil Rights Movement affected the antiwar activists of the New Left, Isserman believes that the movement provided two conflicting messages: the need for long-term organization and the potential benefits of dramatic confrontation. Secondly, Isserman asserts that when one delves into the undergrowth of the movement, one finds that the SDS contained a much more politically diverse group of people than originally assumed. The failure of more moderate members to quell the actions of the group’s extremists led to the extreme measures taken by SDS later and its demise in 1969. “The standard of political effectiveness used to measure and justify the campus anti-war movement’s embrace of more militant tactics increasingly became the sense of gratification and commitment they provided to participants,” Isserman concludes.

In “’May Day’ 1971: Civil Disobedience and the Vietnam Antiwar Movement,” George W. Hopkins looks at one of the quintessential events of the antiwar movement when, on May 3, 1971, 15,000 antiwar activists, calling themselves the May Day Tribe, protested in Washington with the hopes of shutting down government operations. May Day, which Hopkins states also drew its inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement, differed from other protests, Hopkins argues, not only because of its size, but because mass, civil disobedience was its most important goal. These individuals wished to “raise the social cost of the war to a level unacceptable to America’s rulers,” Hopkins writes. However, the Nixon administration gained wind of the event and was prepared to fight back, the police using violence against nonviolence and arresting thousands of people. While the administration gloated over its victory, during which Hopkins argues they chose expedience and punitive action over law, it caused much controversy throughout the country, inciting legal and political crises. May Day was an experiment in large-scale, decentralized protest and ended up being one of the last events of the antiwar movement. Another earlier and major protest event occurred on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970, as Kenneth J. Heinemann discusses in “Look Out Kid, You’re Gonna Get Hit!:” Kent State and the Vietnam Antiwar Movement.” Heinemann focuses on the fact that Kent State was not the typical academic atmosphere for antiwar insurrection. Instead of it being an atmosphere of privilege, white students directed by antiwar faculty, the antiwar movement at Kent State was led by a ideologically diverse group of students and opposed by faculty of a largely conservative base. “Through its hostility to peace activists and unwillingness to prosecute hawkish student vigilantes, the university administration had created an environment conducive to the escalation of violence,” Anderson concludes.

Citizens at home in the United States were not the only ones to protest the war, as Terry H. Anderson demonstrates in “The GI Movement and the Response from the Brass.” To the annoyance of their commanding officers, a large number of GIs protested the war by disrupting military discipline, refusing combat orders, and sometimes even deserting. This story has been told partially, but Anderson argues that historians have not focused on the ways in which these GIs challenged the armed forces and, most importantly, how their commanders, which he refers to as the brass, reacted to these actions. Though a minority, the GI movement was able to gain a great deal of influence in both society and the military by working on a platform of moral superiority. Similar to the ways in which officers had to adjust their treatment of homosexuals during World War II, as Allen Berube discusses, the brass’ treatment of dissidents during the Vietnam War also evolved. At the beginning of the war, the commanders acted in a traditional manner, court-martialling and incarcerating offenders. However, as antiwar sentiment grew on the outside and inside, the brass became increasingly unsure of how to deal with the situation. Their prisons began to overflow and cases of desertion rose exponentially. As a result, the commanders began to become more lenient, accepting religious and moral beliefs as reasons for dissenting, become more flexible concerning discharges, and respecting the constitutional rights of their soldiers. By easing their reactions to antiwar sentiments in their ranks, the commanders, Anderson argues, were reacting to the general, growing disapproval surrounding the war.

Even those soldiers that had not been part of the GI movement, and even detested the movement, felt compelled to testify against some of the actions taken by the military in Vietnam, particularly surrounding the My Lai Massacre, as Elliot L. Meyrowitz and Kenneth J. Campbell demonstrate in “Vietnam Veterans and War Crimes Hearings.” The hearings, they argue, are an exceedingly important part of Vietnam War history, but have been virtually ignored and forgotten. The trials have been relegated to the back burner because of the extremely disconcerting questions they bring up about American involvement in the war, Meyrowitz and Campbell assert. The trials are important, nonetheless, though because the war as a whole cannot be properly understood without dealing with the war crimes issue. The official representation of the My Lai massacre treated it as an anomaly that did not represent U.S. involvement as a whole. The war crimes trials were started by a group of soldiers that challenged this official account and suggested that this kind of brutality was not peculiar to this incident, but rather the norm. Conservatives, the last vestiges of support for the war, could not ignore these soldiers as easily as the rest of the antiwar movement. The hearings’ greatest significance was that they brought into question the entire moral and legal basis for American involvement in Vietnam and shook the insinuated nobility of America’s presence in the region.

While most accounts of antiwar protest focus on male participants and almost seem to marginalize them, women were also a part of the movement. However, those women that identified themselves with the women’s liberation movement, had an uneasy relationship with the antiwar movement, Alice Echols argues in “’Women Power’ and Women’s Liberation: Exploring the Relationship between the Antiwar Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement.” This uneasiness was based mainly on the women’s personal experiences in the movement and their perception of a steep divide between the movement’s rhetoric of equality and their own experiences of subordination, which led women to break away into their own groups. However, the undercurrents that fed the antiwar movement also contributed to the awakening of the radical feminist conscious. The break with the antiwar movement enabled radical feminism to develop a high degree of autonomy and originality, but also let it to distance itself too far from its male counterparts.

Feature Photo:

  • Title: [Senator Wayne Morse (right) seated with Senator William Fulbright in front of microphones during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara testified about the progress of the Vietnam War] / WKL.
  • Creator(s): Leffler, Warren K., photographer
  • Date Created/Published: [11 May 1966]


Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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