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american history

the domino theory

*by 1893, vietnam, laos, and cambodia were all part of french indo-china.  wealthy french families and a few vietnamese who worked with them, controlled most of the businesses in indo-china (mostly rice and rubber plantations).  they also tried to convert the local people from buddhism to catholicism.


*many indochinese wanted independence, and in 1918, ho chi minh went to versailles to ask for independence and for america’s support.  when wilson supported france’s plans to keep indo-china, ho began to consider communism (although he was always a nationalist first).


*during world war ii, the japanese occupied indo-china, and ho chi minh and the viet minh (with american support) fought the japanese.  when the war ended, he declared vietnam’s independence from france.


*under truman and eisenhower the us decided to support france as part of the policy of containment and the fear of the domino theory—the idea that if one country fell to communism its neighbours would too.  both of them sent money to the french.


*although the french did well at first, in 1954, a major french force was surrounded by viet minh forces and had to surrender at dien bien phu. 


*afterwards, vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel, with the communists controlling north vietnam and the anti-communist republic of vietnam in the south.  laos and cambodia also received their independence (both as constitutional monarchies).


*there were supposed to be elections to choose a leader for a united vietnam, but they were never held because the united states was afraid ho chi minh would win.  instead, ngo dinh diem became president of south vietnam, and eisenhower and kennedy sent him money and kennedy sent military advisors as well.


*ngo dinh diem was unpopular.  he was a catholic and had worked with the french, and he did not have much sympathy for poor farmers.  many south vietnamese opposed him by joining the viet-cong, a communist guerrilla group.


*it was hard to fight the viet-cong, as they looked like any other farmer during the day.  to try to deal with this, the government rounded farmers up in ‘strategic hamlets’ where they could farm under armed guard.  unfortunately, this angered farmers forced from their homes and, because they mixed with v-c in these hamlets, many bitter farmers joined the v-c.


*in june 1963 a buddhist monk protested ngo’s regime by pouring gasoline on himself and immolating himself on a street in saigon.  soon other monks followed his example, and newspapers the world over reported it.  in viet-nam, news reporters and cameramen had almost total access to major events and transmitted shocking news, pictures, and film back home.


*opposition to ngo in viet-nam and america led kennedy to permit a coup d’etat by several arvn officers.  ngo, his wife, and a younger brother were all murdered on 1 november 1963.  three weeks later, kennedy was assassinated, and lbj became president.


*the arvn generals who took over from ngo dinh diem governed the country poorly, did not run the arvn well, and 1964 saw a rise in viet cong activity in rvn.  often former viet minh, these guerrillas sabotaged the rvn at night and looked like peaceful peasants during the day.


*3 august 1964, some us navy destroyers patrolling the gulf of tonkin were attacked by nvn torpedo boats.  the damage was minimal (one bullet struck uss maddox), but the next day radar reports showed many more boats approaching and launching torpedoes, and the navy fired upon them.  this attack allowed johnson to ask congress for the power to send troops to viet-nam, because congress, not the president, deploys and pays troops.  7 august 1964, congress responded with the gulf of tonkin resolution, which allowed the president to do whatever he felt was necessary as long as he said there was an emergency.  it was later discovered that the second wave of attacks detected by radar were actually thunder clouds.


*in february 1965, the viet cong attacked an american airbase at pleiku.  lbj ordered the escalation of american activities in viet-nam.  general westmoreland received 184,000 troops by the end of the year (eventually 3.5 million americans served in vietnam, of whom over 58,000 died).  also in 1965, the air force began operation rolling thunder, bombing military targets throughout north viet-nam (except those that might hit a soviet advisor, like hanoi, haiphong, the chinese border, or north vietnamese airbases).  like many aerial bombardments, however, this one only strengthened the will of the enemy, especially as they quickly discovered what places were safe.


*the war in viet-nam was not like any war americans had fought.  used to living in the jungle, the vc were undetectable in most cases, but they killed and wounded many soldiers and terrified more, and it was almost impossible to hit them back.  civilians might throw a bomb or try to poison soldiers.  soldiers faced booby traps such as pits with punji sticks, land mines on paths, grenades hooked to tripwires, and an enemy working out of vast underground tunnel systems that were dangerous to clear out.

*the nva and the vc had other advantages besides their invisibility and relative popularity.  the us army had a number of rules of engagement it followed to keep from offending the vietnamese people or neighbouring countries.  the
us would not bomb cemeteries, so the vc hid in them.  the us would not invade or bomb laos or cambodia, so the nva and vc built roads and carried supplies through those countries.  these were called the ho chi minh trail.  the us conducted bombing raids on north viet-nam and on suspected vc outposts, but not nearly as many as they could have, because johnson was afraid of accidentally hitting a soviet advisor and sparking wwiii.

*the army could call in the air force to help them fight enemy positions.  in these attacks the usaf used fragmentation bombs, which exploded into many little pieces, sending shrapnel everywhere to kill the enemy.  they also used napalm, jellied gasoline that set the jungle on fire and stuck to anyone it hit.

us also used agent orange, a defoliant that killed the jungle vegetation so soldiers could find hiding vc, but it also caused health problems in many vietnamese people and livestock and, it was later discovered, in many us soldiers as well.


*because the vietcong did not fight in traditional battles, westmoreland ordered a strategy of search and destroy, looking for v-c, killing them, and destroying their villages.  the only way to measure success was through a body count, but it was hard to tell what was a legitimate kill and who was an innocent bystander.  furthermore, officers often exaggerated body counts.


*the war damaged america’s economy.  military spending required johnson to raise taxes, and it also raised prices as more money flowed into the economy.  this led to inflation.  military spending also took money and energy away from johnson’s plans for a great society.


*by 1968, johnson’s popularity was in danger, but he still assured americans that we were winning the war, and most americans believed him.  however, events in january, 1968, changed many americans minds forever.



this page last updated 17 november, 2009.
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