Digital History

Vietnam War

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Digital History ID 3462



Numerous factors contributed to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam: the Cold War fears of communist domination of Indochina; a mistaken belief that North Vietnam was a pawn of Moscow; overconfidence in the ability of U.S. troops to prevent the communist takeover of an ally; and anxiety that withdrawal from Vietnam would result in domestic political criticism. So, too, did a series of events in 1961, including the disastrous attack on Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, the erection of the Berlin Wall, and the threat made by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to sponsor national liberation movements around the world.

The architects of the Vietnam War overestimated the political costs of allowing South Vietnam to fall to communism. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson feared that losing South Vietnam would damage their chances for re-election, weaken support for domestic social programs, and make Democrats vulnerable to the charge of being soft on communism. The North Vietnamese strategy was to drag out the war and make it increasingly costly to the United States.

American leaders also grossly underestimated the tenacity of their North Vietnamese and Viet Cong foes. Misunderstanding the commitment of our adversaries, U.S. General William C. Westmoreland said that Asians "don't think about death the way we do." In fact, the Vietnamese Communists and Nationalists were willing to sustain extraordinarily high casualties in order to overthrow the South Vietnamese government. The United States intervened in Vietnam without appreciating the fact that the Vietnamese people had a strong nationalistic spirit rooted in centuries of resisting colonial powers. In a predominantly Buddhist country, the French-speaking Catholic leaders of South Vietnam were generally viewed as representatives of France, the former colonial power. Communists were able to capitalize on nationalistic, anti-Western sentiment.

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