Choosing Quagmire: The Essential Context of Vietnam

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Choosing Quagmire: The Essential Context of Vietnam

It is reasonable to speculate that because of internal contradictions in the U.S.'s position and its inability to reconcile them with its own people, before the Vietnam War was even begun, it was already lost.

Vietnam war

"Because the War pushed so many of the hot buttons of the Cold War, it proved impossible for the U.S. to stay out," writes Freeman, while noting "it also proved impossible for the U.S. to ever win." (Photo: Doan Cong Tinh/manhhai/Flickr/cc)

The Vietnam War was not an Immaculate Conception. It was an archetypal battle of the Cold War, the 45-year conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that began at the end of World War II. It involved a complex mixture of colonialism, nationalism, anti-communism, and a domestic civil war.  

Because the War pushed so many of the hot buttons of the Cold War, it proved impossible for the U.S. to stay out.  But for reasons we’ll see later, it also proved impossible for the U.S. to ever win. This was the source of the quagmire and, ultimately, the tragedy of Vietnam: the U.S. couldn't manage to stay out; but it could never manage to win.   

From the late 1940s to the early 1990s, the world was ensnared in the Cold War. For various reasons, some innocent, but some quite self-serving, the U.S. had convinced itself at the beginning of the Cold War that it was already losing the War. There were lots of scare stories it told itself.  

It was the Soviet Union, after all, that had done the bulk of the fighting to defeat Hitler. It lost 70 men for every one the U.S. lost in World War II. The U.S. military knew this, though it managed to airbrush that fact out of the American mythology of the War. 

And in the process of pushing Hitler's army back from Stalingrad to Berlin, the Soviets ended up with control of more than 150,000 square miles of Eastern Europe—Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria.  

Even more sobering was that it was the Soviet system that had won World War II. It wasn't the Americans' free enterprise system. It was the Soviets' centralized, top-down, command-and-control system—used by both the Soviets and the Americans—that directed and won the greatest industrial enterprise in the history of the world:  World War II.  

More ominously still, in the Great Depression which had immediately preceded World War II, the capitalist system suffered a catastrophic global collapse from which it could not recover.  World War II had masked the symptoms of collapse by employing millions of workers and soldiers, but nobody knew what would happen once the War was over.    

When the assembly lines stopped pumping out the tanks and ships and airplanes, and when three million soldiers came home, looking for jobs, would the economy simply fall back into another Depression? Nobody could say, but the fears were real. 

Those fears were compounded in that while the capitalist world was in Depression, the Soviet economy had boomed.  The U.S. economy grew a sluggish 27 percent over the decade of the 1930s.  Over the same period, the Soviet economy grew 373 percent, more than 14 times as much.  

In fact, in just 40 years, from the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917 to the Soviet's launch of Sputnik—the first ever satellite in space, in 1957—the Soviet Union carried out the most rapid, large scale industrialization of any economy in the history of the world.  

Indeed, if there was a highpoint of American hysteria about the Soviets and communism it was probably that Sputnik moment in 1957.  The Soviets had apparently not only caught up with, but had seemed to surpass the U.S. in scientific and military achievement.  

In other words, in light of its military record, its basic organizing system, its economic accomplishments, and even its scientific achievements, the Soviet aura of power and prestige at the end of World War II was at an all-time high. If the Cold War was to be a contest of rival systems, it was not at all clear at the outset that the U.S. and its system would prevail.  

Now, much of this was overblown, essentially self-serving, self-induced paranoia. The U.S. was the only major combatant in World War II that had not been physically devastated by the fighting. Its industrial systems were enormously boosted by wartime production. It enjoyed the protection of two vast oceans. Its economy was by far the largest and most dynamic in the world. It had the world's largest air force and navy and held a monopoly on the atomic bomb, not to mention a demonstrated willingness to use it.   

In fact, at the end of World War II, the U.S. was more disproportionately powerful relative to all other nations than was any country in the history of the world. Still, the managers of the emerging American empire managed to convince themselves, or at least their people, that they were at risk, and they responded accordingly.  A major reason was the global movement of anti-colonialism that began at the end of World War II. This is where Vietnam came in.  

For centuries, European powers had colonized the developing world. The U.S. itself had been a colony of Britain before its Revolutionary War. At the end of World War II, however, much of the world still remained as colonies under the domination of capitalist European states.   

These colonies had produced fabulous wealth for the European countries that controlled them and the Europeans did not want to give them up.  But, like the U.S., these colonies demanded independence and they were going to have it, just as the Americans had.  

Between 1945 and 1965, more than 100 new nations came into existence through this national independence process. It's easy to see why. The Europeans had bankrupted themselves, both morally and financially, by starting not one but two World Wars within just 30 years. They could not plausibly retain their imperial domination of the developing world any more.   

So, developing world countries which made up most of the world were now in play. Would they be picked up by the Americans or would they go to the Soviets? It was literally going to be the greatest land grab in the history of the world.  From the beginning, however, it looked to be going badly for the U.S. 

India gained independence from Britain in 1947. It immediately declared itself socialist and put itself into the Soviet camp.  In 1949 when the communists won the civil war in China, American fear turned to panic.

The Soviet Union, India, and now China, together representing 4/5ths of the land mass of Asia and more than half of all humans on the planet, had thrown in with the Soviet side. It really looked to the U.S. like it was losing the Cold War. This was the impetus for McCarthyism in the 1950s. But worse was still to come.  

First, in the Korean War, the U.S. could only fight the Soviet-backed North to a draw. The mightiest military on the planet could not win. Then, when the European imperial states would not give their colonies independence, the colonies began to go to war to achieve it, just as the Americans had, in 1776.  

Indonesia fought a bloody war to secure national independence from the Dutch. Kenya fought an eight-year war with England to gain its independence. Angola fought the Portuguese for 13 years to win its freedom. And so on throughout much of the developing world.  

And when they did go to war, since the capitalist European states would not give them their freedom, the colonial states sometimes turned to the Soviet Union for help.  This is what happened in Cuba.  The U.S. refused to recognize the revolution that overthrew the grotesquely corrupt Fulgencio Bautista so Castro turned to the Soviets for help.  

Vietnam was an even more threatening instance of a developing world country turning to the Soviets for help to achieve national independence. That is why it assumed such life-and-death importance for the Americans.   

Vietnam had been a colony of the French since the 1860s.  At the end of World War II, it declared its independence, just as the Americans had in 1776. The French, however, said no. They were not going to give up control of Vietnam.   

So, in February 1946, the president of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, approached U.S. president Harry Truman, asking for American help in evicting the French, much as the French, ironically, had helped the Americans evict the British 170 years earlier. But Ho Chi Minh was a communist, and the U.S. was engaged in the larger, life-and-death planetary war against communism. So, Truman turned Ho down, and helped the French instead.   

And so, with nowhere else to go, Ho turned to the Soviets for help, to fight not only the French but, eventually, the Americans as well. This was the "original sin" that poisoned the U.S. position in the eyes of the Vietnamese people. It is what made it impossible for the U.S. to ever "win the hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people. 

It also made the U.S., or at least its people, all-but-schizophrenic over the matter. Would it honor its own history, its own founding values and ideals? After all, hadn't it once been that small, colonial outpost at the edge of civilization, seeking independence from the greatest power on earth? 

Or would the U.S. betray those values and ideals, and respond to its own partially self-induced, self-serving paranoia with power and force? The U.S. chose the latter but it could never reconcile its self-betrayal. But it wasn't an accident. It wasn't an oversight. It wasn't a blunder.  It was a choice.  

This was the context that, from the very beginning, colored the entire course of the Vietnam War.  It is what made it such a vexing dilemma for the United States. It is what made it impossible to sustain the will of its own people to fight the War in a way that its generals insisted was necessary to win the War. It is what ultimately made the War impossible for the U.S. to ever win.   

In fact, it is reasonable to speculate—and, to be sure, it is only speculation—that because of these internal contradictions in the U.S.'s position and its inability to reconcile them with its own people, before the War was even begun, the War was already lost.

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman writes about economics and education. He is the author of The Best One-Hour History series which includes World War I, The Vietnam War, The Cold War, and other titles.

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