History 17B Lecture 21 The Era of Reform Page 3


D.  Cold War Context:  Eisenhower and Vietnam

ike.jpg (29289 bytes) Yet under Eisenhower, the U.S. would neither sign nor recognize the Geneva Accords of 1954.  The United States, he said, "would not be a party to a treaty that makes anyone a slave."  To understand our involvement in Vietnam, we must return to the policy of containment and its implementation by America when dealing with the Third World.  U.S. officials interpreted all forms of communism - whether nationalistic or Soviet backed - as detrimental to U.S. economic and security interests and sought to contain it from spreading into the Third World - a Cold War battleground.

According to Eisenhower's domino theory, it was important to stop further Communist expansion into Asia at Vietnam or else all of Asia would eventually fall.  Almost immediately after the French withdrew, Eisenhower installed a puppet government under Ngo Dinh Diem in the South and provided him with $200 million a year in aid.  National elections to unify the country were postponed indefinitely because it was clear that Ho Chi Minh would win 80% of the vote in a free election. ike_diem.jpg (31375 bytes)
Diem with Ike and Dulles.

budhists.jpg (54758 bytes) Despite U.S. assistance, Diem's popularity shrank by the day as he alienated peasants through a land reform program that benefited the elite in society and uprooted them from their villages into strategic hamlets where they could be "protected" from communist rebels.  Buddhists were also opposed to this Catholic leader and Buddhist monks showed their discontent by publicly burning themselves on crowded streets corners.

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Even intellectuals and some in the middle-class who favored a democratic Vietnam were disillusioned by Diem's repressive regime.  In December 1960, the National Liberation Front - also known as the Viet Cong - was formed under North Vietnamese Communist guidance in an effort to liberate South Vietnam from "American imperialism."


E.  Kennedy

When Kennedy entered office in 1961, he inherited an unstable, non-democratic government in South Vietnam.  Yet he was determined to win the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people by sending them economic aid.  To bolster Diem's fight against the VC, Kennedy increased the number of American military advisors to 16,000 by the time of his death in late 1963.  The President hoped that he would be able to buy time for the Diem government - to build a "national will" among the South Vietnamese people.  

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Diem_assass.JPG (36190 bytes) Yet nothing seemed to work.  In 1963, Kennedy gave his approval to a South Vietnamese military coup against Diem who was assassinated on November 1, 1963.  Less than a month later, Kennedy himself was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson ascended to the Presidency.


III.  Johnson's War

A.  Introduction of American Combat Troops

Like the Presidents before him, Johnson was determined to preserve a non-communist government in South Vietnam - yet he soon realized that this could only be done with American combat troops.  Under the pretense of an "unprovoked attack" by North Vietnamese torpedo boats against American destroyers, Johnson secured passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964 - a blank check allowing him to conduct a war without any further consultations with Congress.  Within two years, 380,000 American soldiers were stationed in Vietnam; by 1968, there were 536,000.

B.  Johnson's Stubbornness

Like Eisenhower, Johnson subscribed to the Domino Theory, arguing in response to the supposed Gulf of Tonkin attack:

"If you let a bully come into your front yard one day, the next day he will be up on your porch and the day after that he will rape your wife in your own bed.  We must decide whether to help these countries to the best of our ability, or throw in the towel in the area and pull back our defenses to San Francisco."

How American forces would be driven from the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii, Johnson never explained.

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There were dissenting opinions, of course, but Johnson was uninterested in hearing them and instead surrounded himself with "yes" men, once declaring:

"I don't want loyalty.  I want loyalty.  I want him to kiss my ass in Macy's window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses.  I want his pecker in my pocket."

Those who disagreed with his policies, such as or Undersecretary of State George Ball, both of whom opposed escalation of the war, were banished from administration councils for months.  Even Defense Secretary Robert McNamara decided to resign in 1966 when he came to the conclusion that continued escalation of the war would have little effect.

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Sec. of Def. Robert McNamara


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