Explain the US decision to send advisers and

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Explain the US decision to intervene in Vietnam in the period between 1954
and 1968.
There were a number of reasons why the United States intervened in Vietnam between 1954 and
1968. These included fear of communist expansion, fear that the US might look weak if it did not
defend the South, the belief that victory could be secured through a series of small escalations,
and fear of a domestic political backlash in the event of defeat.
South Vietnam was created by the Eisenhower Administration with the sole intention of
preventing Ho Chi Minh from seizing all of Vietnam. At that time, world politics were seen in the
context of the Cold War – the struggle between the capitalist and communist worlds. As such, Ho
was seen as an instrument of Soviet aggression, rather than a nationalist leader with domestic
support. The US was convinced that a Vietminh victory would unleash a wave of communist
revolutions across Asia – a view known as the Domino Theory.
Given this fear, the US gave support to South Vietnam. However, this proved ineffective; the
Viet Cong grew in strength, and by 1961 were close to toppling the regime. President Kennedy
was reluctant to accept defeat, fearing it might reduce America’s ability to defend its interests in
more vital parts of the world. This so-called ‘demonstration effect’ explains why he sent 16,000
advisers to South Vietnam, despite having reservations about the wisdom of the move.
President Johnson faced a similar dilemma when he assumed office in 1963. The US advisers
had failed to stabilise the South; the new government there was no better than Diem’s. The
situation continued to deteriorate until August 1964, when North Vietnamese gunboats fired on
the USS Maddox, in retaliation against US raids on North Vietnam. Johnson condemned the
attack, and had Congress pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving him the power to retaliate.
Johnson too had doubts about the importance of defending South Vietnam. However, he was
very concerned that America might look weak if it failed to back its ally. He was also concerned
that his Republican opponents might portray him as weak in the face of communist aggression. He
therefore decided to silence them by initiating a bombing campaign against the North. This helped
secure him the election in 1964, but it did not secure the South. In January 1965, Johnson’s
advisers recommended a round-the-clock bombing campaign against the North – Operation
Rolling Thunder – as a means of persuading Ho to end his support for the Viet Cong. If anything,
though, this had the opposite effect. Guerrilla attacks on US airfields increased, forcing Johnson
to deploy Marines to defend the bases. The first detachment arrived at Da Nang in March 1965.
These troops now found themselves under attack, and were soon given permission to conduct
offensive operations against the Viet Cong. Of course, their numbers were insufficient for the new
role they were assigned, and the ARVN was unable to offer meaningful support. The generals
now informed Johnson that American ground troops would be needed.
The president now faced an invidious choice of retreating from Vietnam completely or sending
in ground troops. Given the investment America had already made in South Vietnam, Johnson
could not stomach the former course, though his political instincts suggested it might be right. In
July 1965, 82,000 more troops were dispatched to Vietnam. Almost immediately, the US
commander there requested more. By the end of the year, the number had grown to 120,000.
Johnson now found himself trapped, with the military demanding more and more troops. By mid
1966, there were 300,000 in Vietnam. By 1967, the number was half a million. It was as if
America were on a slippery slope, falling deeper and deeper into war without any serious way out.
Hence, the decision by successive presidents to intervene in Vietnam can be explained by both
international and domestic considerations. America’s leaders feared that if Vietnam fell to
Communism, the Domino Theory might come into play. This would threaten American interests
in the region and be a blow to the nation’s credibility. They also feared that it might affect their
political careers, leaving them with the blame for America’s first defeat in war.
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