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Phantom Dominoes: Vietnam and Containment in the 1960s PO 326: American Foreign Policy
Vietnam: The Periphery Takes Center Stage • Between 1961 and 1973, the United States fought a losing “limited” war against North Vietnam that was intended to forcibly stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia • Most controversial war in US history; even the three presidents that fought it largely believed that a real victory was unattainable, and yet did not pull out of the growing “quagmire.” Why? • The answer lies in: • The view that conflicts on the periphery in which communists were involved were not nationalist civil conflicts, but tests of containment • The perceived domestic and international political costs of retreat • Resulted in a fracturing of the Cold War foreign policy consensus and diminished confidence in the skill and honesty of US foreign policy leaders
Vietnam: The Periphery Takes Center Stage • Beginning with the withdrawal of the French in 1954, the civil struggle involving communist elements in Vietnam became a focus for US foreign policy • Kennedy, who had viewed Vietnam as important before becoming president, saw its loss to communism as disastrous to the global policy of containment (domino) • Communist uprising in South Vietnam intensifies by early 1960s • Popular Vietnamese opposition to oppressive Diem regime increases; terrorist and guerilla violence escalate (Viet Cong, Ho’s backing) • 10,000 US troops/advisors in Vietnam to lend assistance by 1963, but victory seems increasingly difficult as anti-Diem forces gain momentum • Diem deposed by US-led coup; pro-US military junta installed, and is still defied by insurgents • Kennedy seriously considered pulling out after reelection (domestic political reasons), but is assassinated
Americanizing the War • Through 1964, the governmental situation in South Vietnam was unstable • LBJ makes the defense of this unstable government a primary US goal in Vietnam • Involved increasing covert military action (bombing in N.V. and Laos, naval ops in Gulf of Tonkin) • Most accounts indicate that LBJ intended to escalate the war (if necessary) from the very beginning • Must avoid perceptions of international weakness at all costs • LBJ sought to avoid criticisms of the conduct of the war from the right, effectively counter Goldwater in 1964 election
Americanizing the War: Tonkin, Pleiku, and “Boots on the Ground” • North Vietnamese “attacks” on covert US ops in Tonkin Gulf (August 1964) • LBJ responds with overt airstrikes on North; asks and receives from Congress permission to intensify overt operations at his discretion • Also secretly bombs infiltration routes in Laos • Does not halt decline in South • Viet Cong attacks US installation in Pleiku (February 1965) • LBJ initiates Operation Rolling Thunder (massive bombardment of N.V.), ignoring N.V. peace overtures • South Vietnamese government still on verge of collapse; LBJ’s options seem limited to intensification or withdrawal • LBJ orders 20,000 troop increase, “active use” of existing US troops (April 1965) • US fully involved in overt military ops for first time
Full American Involvement • US troop commitment rises very rapidly beginning in 1965, but there are divisions within the Administration • LBJ advances “search and destroy” strategy against VC to protect S.V. government, necessitating massive numbers • Despite superiority on battlefield, little progress made toward this goal • By 1967, McNamara and others come to see goal as unattainable, wish to increase bombing rather than vastly increasing troops; this is opposed by JCS, and LBJ eventually compromises by setting troop limit near 500,000 and vastly increasing bombing (bureaucratic politics) • Deprived Westmoreland of the force numbers he felt were necessary to win, but greatly increased prospect of US casualties at the same time • Negotiations predicated upon N.V. admitting that they were the cause of the war and their retreat from the South • Thus, from the beginning, the US tied its willingness to negotiate to Ho’s willingness to do things that the US, S.V. could not force him to do on the battlefield
Problems on the Home Front and the Battlefield • Given mounting casualties without real battlefield progress, a substantial portion of the populace begins to turn against US policy in Vietnam • Opposition to the draft begins in 1966 • Outright opposition to the war (popular and congressional) gathers momentum in 1967 • LBJ, focused on the war, is forced to divert resources and attention from “Great Society” program, alienating additional supporters • Tet Offensive (January 1968) • Massive VC/N.V. attacks throughout S.V. • Though not a battlefield success for Ho, but costly counteroffensive had to be undertaken • The fact that such a large attack could be mounted evaporated much of the remaining confidence in US capacity to win • Faced with general outrage at US performance and policy, LBJ decides not to run again in 1968
Nixon and the Vietnam Question • Nixon elected in 1968, in part, on the basis of a “secret plan” to end the war • Sought “peace with honor” • Generally lowered requirements for negotiation • Ironically, Nixon’s plan for bringing about peace involved intransigence and increased hostility, and the war would last an additional four years • Allowed Paris Peace negotiations to stalemate (beginning in 1969) • Sought to use increased force to bring N.V. to the bargaining table, while cutting the number of US troops • Massive bombing of North, Hanoi (Linebacker I) • Massive (secret) bombing of Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia – destroyed country
Nixon and the Vietnam Question • In 1971, Nixon and Kissinger seemed willing to make new concessions to N.V., but run into problems • Offered deadline for withdrawal in exchange for prisoner release – N.V. refuses (wants Thieu removed) • Secretly offered new elections with communist representation, which seems acceptable to N.V. – Nixon later makes this public (undermining relationship with Thieu, and survival of his regime becomes sticking point), but does not portray it as acceptable to N.V. • In the end, Nixon is prepared to sacrifice the Thieu regime, but refrains from accepting the settlement unless it can create the domestic and international perception that its military actions forced N.V. to the bargaining table • Linebacker II (spring 1972) • In reality, N.V.’s position was not changed by bombing; was willing to make deal months before • Negotiations concluded, US troops begin full withdraw in January 1973, leaving Thieu regime in the lurch (falls in 1975)
What Happened, and Why? • Why would three consecutive US administrations remain in Vietnam when it was always most likely that victory could not be achieved? • 1. Containment • Communist uprising seen as resulting from global communist conspiracy (PRC, USSR), even though there was little evidence of monolithic effort; for the first time, the official failure to recognize that some wars were simply fought for nationalist reasons – and not in the context of global communism/capitalism – hurts US • Each administration thus saw a loss in Vietnam as drastically weakening US prestige amongst allies, even when it became clear that this was unlikely
What Happened, and Why? • 2. Domestic Politics • Vietnam was also propagated and extended out of concerns for the health of administrations – Gelb’s “domestic domino” • Both Kennedy and Johnson escalated the conflict to avoid being vilified by the Republican right for being soft on communism (history – FDR and Truman in Europe, China, Korea) • Even Nixon showed signs of being concerned with the Republican foreign policy right that he helped to create, and was obviously affected by popular/liberal criticism • Force usage increase while diminishing number of troops
Vietnam in the Larger Context • Vietnam is first war clearly lost by the US; however, the loss did not (as predicted by most in the foreign policy community) result in a complete catastrophe for containment • Soviets, Chinese are not made bolder by American failure; if anything, they seem more receptive to negotiation • American people still seem to understand general communist threat and the need to address it, but are much more wary of the solutions proposed by politicians (ESPECIALLY limited war on the periphery) • Nixon sets about redefining American relations with the largest communist countries