US Policy of Containment – How successful Was It In The Vietnam War
The 1960s will be best remembered for the anti-war sit-ins and marches organized by the anti-war demonstrators who opposed the Vietnam War that was taking place half a world away. Most ordinary Americans were confused about this war. It was not easy to understand why and how the US had got so deeply entrenched in the affairs of this diminutive country. A whole generation was being air lifted to the horrible jungles where they fought a faceless enemy; often the young soldiers came back in body bags.
Vietnam is a centuries old nation that had been repeatedly attacked and conquered for much of its history. In the late 19th century, it had been colonized by the French. During the Second World War, the Japanese had defeated the French and taken over large tracts of land. The Vietnamese fought side by side with the Americans to drive away the Japanese towards the end of the WWII. Even before the WWII, the people of Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh, a communist, had struggled for freedom from the French rule. France’s defeat at the hands of Germany during the Second World War had badly dented its imperial pride and it wanted to regain its control over Vietnam. Many countries in Asia were being granted freedom by their colonizers and Vietnam too aspired to be free. They hoped that US, which preached democracy, would support them. But the flaw in this plan, according to US was that Vietnam was under the sway of communism and likely to be part of the Soviet Bloc.
Though Ho Chi Minh had repeatedly announced that Vietnam did not wish to be part of the Soviet Bloc though it was a Communist nation, such thinking was anathema to the US which did not recognize the concept of being “non-aligned”. From the late 1940s, the doctrine that governed US foreign policy was the Policy of Containment. It was put forth by George Keenan in his essay “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”. This theory propounded that Soviet Union was fanatic in its desire to bring more and more countries under its influence and it was the duty of the US to prevent that and “contain” communism.
US actively rewarded countries that resisted the lure of communism. Very often these countries were ruled by degenerate despots but the US helped these dictators put down the sporadic uprisings for freedom with an iron hand. These actions of the US brought it open to the accusation of double standards. While it bragged about human rights at home, it sided with tyrants abroad. US was so blinded by its hatred for communism that containment was made the cornerstone of its foreign policy.
When France tried to regain control of Vietnam after the Second World War, Vietnam saw to its dismay that the US sided with France and helped it with money and weapons. Though France was highly industrialized and Vietnam dirt poor, with its soldiers fighting bare back and bare feet, it defeated France in 1952. Ho Chi Minh was the hero of that battle. He was popular all over Vietnam but his main support base was in the rural northern parts of Vietnam.
In 1954, the Geneva Accord was signed with the signatories agreeing that Vietnam would be divided into north and south territories till elections were held in 1956 which would decide its future ruler. But US reneged on this accord and a puppet government was installed in the South with US providing money and advisors. This was America’s idea of containing communism. The Domino theory had been by now floated as an adjunct to the policy of containment. This theory propounded that like dominoes, once one country succumbed to communism, all its neighbours too would fall. There was no intellectual basis for this theory nevertheless, it had many takers in the State Department.
In 1964, US got actively involved in the Vietnam War committing at one time nearly 500,000 soldiers. The American public was fed a pack of lies by their many Presidents who did not want the citizens to know that the world’s most powerful nation was not winning this war against one of the poorest nations in the world. The Viet Minh knew their country well and perfected their battle tactics to suit the land. They knew that they were no match for America’s fire power but they believed in their struggle and were ready to die.
Within the American society too there were tensions. College students escaped the draft so the rich and famous dodged Vietnam. The poor whites and the blacks, just 19 years old, were conscripted and shipped off to Vietnam, a land they had not even heard of till then. The war itself was frustrating and wound on for fifteen years. Though President after President spoke of the light at the end of the tunnel, none was visible to the soldiers at the front or the families of the dead servicemen. There were also incidents like the My Lai where nearly 300 unarmed villagers were shot dead by American soldiers for no apparent reason. The army did its best to keep this incident under wraps but eventually it burst into the open.
By the time the incumbent President realized US would never win the war, 140 billion dollars had been spent and 58,000 servicemen had lost their lives. The South Vietnamese government lasted only for days after the American pull-out. The whole of the country was taken over by the North Vietnam government. The country continues to have a communist government which means the policy of containment failed ignominiously. There was no domino effect; no country, which was not communist to begin with, embraced that mode of government during the course of the war or afterwards.
The war was a demoralizing one for the soldiers. They had not reached the age of intellectual maturity but had been thrown into a sphere of war that was particularly nasty. On the other hand, the Viet Minh were fighting to throw the Americans out of their country and shape their own fate. That placed them on the side of the morally right. The mistake US and its Presidents made at the beginning was doubting Ho Chi Minh’s motives when he requested for US support. In America’s narrow view, Ho Chi Minh was a Soviet acolyte simply because he was a communist. And in order to contain communism, they had to fight him.