The Vietnam War was one of the most controversial events in American history. Long after American involvement ended in 1973, the debate continued: Was it a “noble cause” as asserted by President Ronald Reagan, was it a genocidal exercise in imperialism as argued by the most vehement critics, or was it just a “quagmire of mistakes” by misguided policy makers? (Franklin, The Vietnam War in American Stories, Songs, and Poems, p. 1)
Prior to World War II, France was a colonial power with colonies in Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). With its defeat by the Germans and the success of the Japanese armies in Indochina, France’s continued control over Indochina after the war was in question. France wanted to return to the status quo ante, but the local peoples, especially the Vietnamese, wanted self-determination.
Ho Chi Minh, known as “Uncle Ho,” long an advocate of Vietnamese nationalism, was educated in France, where he adopted socialist, perhaps communist, leanings. He returned to Vietnam in 1941 and began an anti-colonial movement aimed at establishing self-government for the Vietnamese. Japan was the enemy at the time, so he aligned with the anti-Japanese forces, Britain and the United States.
After World War II, the U.S. and other western nations lost an opportunity to have influence in Indochina when the Truman administration, motivated by fear that Ho Chi Minh was part of the international communist movement, support the French in their efforts to re-assert its colonial rule over Indochina. The U.S. gave military aid to the French forces in the French-Indochina war against Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist forces, the “Viet Minh.” To the American policy makers, the dispute was not an anti-colonial conflict, but was a war against international communism. (Tuchman, March of Folly, pp. 234-282.)
Tellingly, Dean Rusk, assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern Affairs at the time, and later a cabinet level official in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, characterized the Viet Minh as “tools of the [Soviet] Politburo.” (Tuchman, March of Folly, p. 251.) Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas, who visited five areas of Indochina in 1953, concluded “each front is indeed an overt act of Communist conspiracy to expand the Russian empire…. The fall of Vietnam today would imperil all of Southeast Asia.” (Id. at p. 259.) The American failure to see the situation for what it was—a war for national independence that would not lightly be abandoned by the nationalists—laid the seeds for a two-decade disastrous involvement. (Id. at pp. 234-282; Hakim, pp. 345-348.)
Despite American aid, the Viet Minh inflicted a disastrous defeat against the French at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, which led to a peace conference and “The Geneva Accord.” The Geneva Accord provided for a cease fire and a temporary division of Vietnam into northern and southern sectors, with North Vietnam controlled by Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces and South Vietnam controlled by the anti-communist faction led by Ngo Dinh Diem. The Geneva Accord called for the North and South to be unified, with elections determining the leaders. The South Vietnamese and Diem reneged on that plan, fearing a Ho electoral victory. What had been a colonial war between the French and the Vietnamese nationalists then became a Vietnamese Civil War: a fight between the South Vietnamese regulars (ARVN for Army of the Republic of Vietnam) supported by the United States, and, the National Liberation Front (NLF) also known as the “Viet Cong” (or the Viet rebels), who were supported by the Northern Vietnamese. (Tuchman, pp. 275-280.)