Before the Vietnam War, it is well known that most American people couldn’t point out the country of Vietnam on a map. Afterwards, many see it as ultimately one of the United States’ greatest failures. The war is widely remembered for how it lost support of the American populace over time, and how the US government also lost the trust of its people; however, what ended up turning into a decade of violence and chaos began with the US being faced with the decision of which of its fundamental enemies it would choose to oppose: tyranny or communism. It was a series of ironies and misunderstandings that led America into Vietnam.
Since 1887, the region that is now known as Vietnam was part of the French Indochinese colony. The French had imposed their own culture on the Vietnamese people, and ruled them for their own economic and political benefit. After years of living under French occupation, Vietnamese nationalists began to emerge, seeking revolution and freedom from French rule. One of these revolutionaries is most famously known as Ho Chi Minh. Minh was raised in a Vietnamese village was exiled for his participation in a revolt, and eventually made his way into Paris after finding work at sea for a few years. There, he became an involved member of the communist party, and was inspired to return to his homeland one day and spark a communist revolution, similar to the one seen in Russia at the end of World War I. At the peace conferences following the war, Minh attempted to gain the US as an ally to oppose the unfair treatment of the Vietnamese people, but he was not taken seriously. Nevertheless, Minh was seen as a hero by other Vietnamese nationalists for his efforts.
During the Second World War, France was overrun by Nazi Germany, and many of the French colonies were taken under control of the Japanese. The United States was one of France’s key allies in gaining liberty from the Nazi’s. Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh was able to slip back into Vietnam from China, with the French being gone. It was there that he formed the Viet Minh, a communist, nationalist organization. The first thing the Viet Minh did was to partner with the United States OSS, a predecessor of the CIA. Their shared goal was to push the Japanese out of Vietnam. Eventually, both of these operations that the US was involved with ended in success. While France celebrated its liberation from Nazi Germany, the Viet Minh was quick to declare Vietnam as an independent nation. The problem arose when France began to try to retake control of its Pacific colonies. The French invaded Vietnam in the south began fighting to regain territory. United States OSS agents remained in Vietnam while the chaos ensued, but remained neutral, merely mediating the battle between its two World War Two allies.
Ho Chi Minh greatly desired the US to intervene in the French conquest of his nation. He urged president Harry Truman to set aside the fact that the Viet Minh was a communist force, and to see that the values of freedom and human rights were under attack by the French. Many Americans agreed that the US should take the side of Vietnam or that Western powers should withdraw from Southeast Asia altogether. However, there were other factors at play around the world that would influence Truman’s decision on the matter. The Soviet Union had taken over much of Eastern Europe under communist rule, and countries like China had taken on their own communist dictatorships. If the spread of communism in itself wasn’t enough to intimidate the president, the French warned him that if the US forced them to withdraw from Southeast Asia, it would soon be forced to fall under the influence of the Soviet Union. It was the US’s rivalry and fear of the USSR that ultimately caused it to side with the French in Vietnam.
The US would go on to support the French and eventually South Vietnam in the battle against communism. The US thought that keeping Vietnam was vital in maintaining an influence in Asia, which explains why they continued to spend billions of dollars and lose thousands of American soldiers in Vietnam throughout the entirety of the 1960’s.