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Essay About Vietnam Country Map

The Causes of the Vietnam War

Andrew J. Rotter

Most American wars have obvious starting points or precipitating causes: the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the capture of Fort Sumter in 1861, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950, for example. But there was no fixed beginning for the U.S. war in Vietnam. The United States entered that war incrementally, in a series of steps between 1950 and 1965. In May 1950, President Harry S. Truman authorized a modest program of economic and military aid to the French, who were fighting to retain control of their Indochina colony, including Laos and Cambodia as well as Vietnam. When the Vietnamese Nationalist (and Communist-led) Vietminh army defeated French forces at Dienbienphu in 1954, the French were compelled to accede to the creation of a Communist Vietnam north of the 17th parallel while leaving a non-Communist entity south of that line. The United States refused to accept the arrangement. The administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower undertook instead to build a nation from the spurious political entity that was South Vietnam by fabricating a government there, taking over control from the French, dispatching military advisers to train a South Vietnamese army, and unleashing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to conduct psychological warfare against the North.

President John F. Kennedy rounded another turning point in early 1961, when he secretly sent 400 Special Operations Forces-trained (Green Beret) soldiers to teach the South Vietnamese how to fight what was called counterinsurgency war against Communist guerrillas in South Vietnam. When Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, there were more than 16,000 U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam, and more than 100 Americans had been killed. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, committed the United States most fully to the war. In August 1964, he secured from Congress a functional (not actual) declaration of war: the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Then, in February and March 1965, Johnson authorized the sustained bombing, by U.S. aircraft, of targets north of the 17th parallel, and on 8 March dispatched 3,500 Marines to South Vietnam. Legal declaration or no, the United States was now at war.

The multiple starting dates for the war complicate efforts to describe the causes of U.S. entry. The United States became involved in the war for a number of reasons, and these evolved and shifted over time. Primarily, every American president regarded the enemy in Vietnam--the Vietminh; its 1960s successor, the National Liberation Front (NLF); and the government of North Vietnam, led by *Ho Chi Minh--as agents of global communism. U.S. policymakers, and most Americans, regarded communism as the antithesis of all they held dear. Communists scorned democracy, violated human rights, pursued military aggression, and created closed state economies that barely traded with capitalist countries. Americans compared communism to a contagious disease. If it took hold in one nation, U.S. policymakers expected contiguous nations to fall to communism, too, as if nations were dominoes lined up on end. In 1949, when the Communist Party came to power in China, Washington feared that Vietnam would become the next Asian domino. That was one reason for Truman's 1950 decision to give aid to the French who were fighting the Vietminh,

Truman also hoped that assisting the French in Vietnam would help to shore up the developed, non-Communist nations, whose fates were in surprising ways tied to the preservation of Vietnam and, given the domino theory, all of Southeast Asia. Free world dominion over the region would provide markets for Japan, rebuilding with American help after the Pacific War. U.S. involvement in Vietnam reassured the British, who linked their postwar recovery to the revival of the rubber and tin industries in their colony of Malaya, one of Vietnam's neighbors. And with U.S. aid, the French could concentrate on economic recovery at home, and could hope ultimately to recall their Indochina officer corps to oversee the rearmament of West Germany, a Cold War measure deemed essential by the Americans. These ambitions formed a second set of reasons why the United States became involved in Vietnam.

As presidents committed the United States to conflict bit by bit, many of these ambitions were forgotten. Instead, inertia developed against withdrawing from Vietnam. Washington believed that U.S. withdrawal would result in a Communist victory--Eisenhower acknowledged that, had elections been held as scheduled in Vietnam in 1956, "Ho Chi Minh would have won 80% of the vote"--and no U.S. president wanted to lose a country to communism. Democrats in particular, like Kennedy and Johnson, feared a right-wing backlash should they give up the fight; they remembered vividly the accusatory tone of the Republicans' 1950 question, "Who lost China?" The commitment to Vietnam itself, passed from administration to administration, took on validity aside from any rational basis it might once have had. Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy all gave their word that the United States would stand by its South Vietnamese allies. If the United States abandoned the South Vietnamese, its word would be regarded as unreliable by other governments, friendly or not. So U.S. credibility seemed at stake.

Along with the larger structural and ideological causes of the war in Vietnam, the experience, personality, and temperament of each president played a role in deepening the U.S. commitment. Dwight Eisenhower restrained U.S. involvement because, having commanded troops in battle, he doubted the United States could fight a land war in Southeast Asia. The youthful John Kennedy, on the other hand, felt he had to prove his resolve to the American people and his Communist adversaries, especially in the aftermath of several foreign policy blunders early in his administration. Lyndon Johnson saw the Vietnam War as a test of his mettle, as a Southerner and as a man. He exhorted his soldiers to "nail the coonskin to the wall" in Vietnam, likening victory to a successful hunting expedition.

When Johnson began bombing North Vietnam and sent the Marines to South Vietnam in early 1965, he had every intention of fighting a limited war. He and his advisers worried that too lavish a use of U.S. firepower might prompt the Chinese to enter the conflict. It was not expected that the North Vietnamese and the NLF would hold out long against the American military. And yet U.S. policymakers never managed to fit military strategy to U.S. goals in Vietnam. Massive bombing had little effect against a decentralized economy like North Vietnam's. Kennedy had favored counterinsurgency warfare in the South Vietnamese countryside, and Johnson endorsed this strategy, but the political side of counterinsurgeny--the effort to win the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese peasantry-- was at best underdeveloped and probably doomed. Presidents proved reluctant to mobilize American society to the extent the generals thought necessary to defeat the enemy.

As the United States went to war in 1965, a few voices were raised in dissent. Within the Johnson administration, Undersecretary of State George Ball warned that the South Vietnamese government was a functional nonentity and simply could not be sustained by the United States, even with a major effort. Antiwar protest groups formed on many of the nation's campuses; in June, the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society decided to make the war its principal target. But major dissent would not begin until 1966 or later. By and large in 1965, Americans supported the administration's claim that it was fighting to stop communism in Southeast Asia, or people simply shrugged and went about their daily lives, unaware that this gradually escalating war would tear American society apart.

From The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Copyright � 1999 by Oxford UP.

Return to About the Vietnam War

Target audience:

Secondary students (grades 9-12) and college students

Curriculum areas:

American History, American Culture, Asian Studies

Lesson Objectives:

  • To look at the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective
  • To understand the history of Vietnam both during and after the war
  • To explore the effects of the war on both Vietnam and the United States

Pre-viewing discussion and quiz:

Before watching the program, write the following quote on the blackboard:

Invite students raise their hands and say what they know about Vietnam, not including the Vietnam War. This is a difficult question, even for adults! If students are unable to come up with historical or cultural facts, guide them towards contributing basic information (i.e. "It's in Southeast Asia," or "President Clinton visited Vietnam in 2000"). The purpose of this exercise is to highlight how little most Americans know about Vietnam after the last U.S. soldier was evacuated in 1975. Class discussion should follow on basic history of the Vietnam War, including why the United States got involved and the final outcome of the conflict. Talk about different effects the Vietnam War had on America, and encourage the students to brainstorm on how they think the war might have affected Vietnam.

Another method for introducing the topic of post-war Vietnam is to have students take the following quiz. Again, they are not expected to perform well on the quiz should serve to highlight the necessity of learning more about Vietnam and attempting to look at the war from a Vietnamese perspective:


ANSWERS: 1.) C, 2.) C, 3.) False. The last camp didn't close until the early 1990s., 4.) A, 5.) True

Post-viewing discussion:

After watching the program, encourage a class discussion about the effects of the war on Vietnam and the lives of ordinary Vietnamese people using discussion points below. Students can also take the quiz again to determine how much they learned about Vietnam today from paying attention to the film.

  1. Each of the six main character had one "Big Choice" they made which affected the rest of their life (i.e. Tao, joining the Viet Cong; Trung, bombing the palace, etc.) Identify what those choices were and what the consequences were for each person. Can ask the students if they would have made different choices if they had been in the character's shoes.
  2. The turning point in the film comes on April 30, 1975. Ask students to pretend that they are an American reporter like David Lamb in Saigon to cover the end of the war. Have them write three headlines for the next morning's paper. After some of the best suggestions are written on the blackboard, read some real headlines from 1975.  How do the headlines differ in tone? In fact? Why do the students think this is?
  3. In the film, LA Times reporter David Lamb talks about being nervous about returning to Vietnam until a taxi driver says to him: "We fought the Chinese for a thousand years, we fought the French for a hundred years. You were here for ten years. You were just a blip in the history of a proud nation." Discuss.

Oral history project:

Have students tape record interviews with a parent, neighbour, or friend who is old enough to remember the Vietnam War for an oral history project. If at all possible, ensure that interview subjects chosen by the class include all three of the following:

After a lesson in how to conduct an oral history interview and a briefing on why this is a hot-button topic that must be approached sensitively, have students conduct interviews. Questions should include:

  • What is your first memory of the Vietnam War?
  • How did you feel about the war while it was going on?
  • How do you think the war changed your life? How do you think it changed America?
  • How do you feel about the war 25 years after it ended? Do feel differently than you did in 1975?
  • What do you know about Vietnam today?

Students should then transcribe the tapes of their interview, leaving out the questions they asked and leaving just the answers, woven together in paragraphs to form a story. The oral histories can then be compiled into a book (one copy for each student, one for each interview participant, plus a copy for the school library).

Objective: Allow students to hear the stories of those who lived through the war, in their own words.


Oral reports:

Have each member of the class choose one specific facet of Vietnamese life (Art, Music, Literature, Politics, Business, Public Health, Tourism, Architecture, etc.) and research the history of this field since 1975. Give an overview of developments, trends and milestones, in the form of a five-minute oral report using visual aids. The report should also include a closer look at the effects of the war on the chosen field, and predictions for what direction the field will move towards in the future. (This project can also be done as written research papers.)

Objective: Give the class a broader exposure to Vietnamese culture and the chance to learn about the country since the end of the war.

Geography project:

After a brief presentation on geography of Vietnam (for information, see LINKS), have each student in the class choose a city from the list below (more than one student may choose each city, but make sure all the cities on the list is represented). The assignment: make a posterboard of images and information about the city, including:

Cities: Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho, Vung Tau, Cu Chi, Phan Thiet, Buon Ma Thuot, Nha Trang, Pleiku, Danang, Hue, Vinh, Hanoi, Lang Son, Haiphong.

The posterboards should be exhibited in the classroom so all students can learn about each city. Each student could also be required to make a brief oral report on his or her city. For help in gathering information, see the "References" section of the Links page.

Objective: Learn more about the country of Vietnam today by breaking it down into more approachable units to facilitate a closer look at the effects of war on a specific population.

Class debate:

Arizona Senator John McCain, a Vietnam veteran and former POW, has long been one of the leading advocates for better relations between Vietnam and the United States. However, during a visit to Vietnam in 2000, he angered many in the country by telling a reporter he believed that "the wrong side won the war." Organize a class debate on the topic (Resolved: The wrong side won the Vietnam War), reminding students to use both contemporary research and examples from "Vietnam Passage" and the lives of the characters featured.

Objective: To promote thoughtful discussion and encourage students to look at both sides of a complicated and emotional topic.

Essay topics:

  1. "Vietnam Passage" shows scenes of massive anti-war protests both in Vietnam and in the United States. All of America's wars have been protested by its citizens, but the war in Vietnam created the largest and most publicized protests. Why do you think that was so? Compare the situation in the 1960s to the current public reaction to the War on Terror following September 11. How is public dialogue different now. Can you see a development in the current war that would once again prompt protest?
  2. After the fall of Saigon, one American observer noted that "There were no winners, only victims." However, a North Vietnamese officer declared, "The war has ended today. All Vietnamese are victors." Explain these two views of the end of the war. Which speaker was right? Could both of them be right?
  3. Say that the South Vietnamese had defeated the Communists and won the Vietnam War. How would the lives of each of the six Vietnamese characters in "Vietnam Passage" have been different? For each character, write a brief essay imagining how his or her life would have proceeded after 1975 (or choose one character and write a more in-depth essay).
  4. When asked about the massive casualties suffered by North Vietnam during the war, U.S. General William Westmoreland once said, " Oh yes, but you must understand that they are Asians, and they don't really think about death the way we do. They accept it very fatalistically." Do you see this kind of rhetoric occurring in the current War on Terror? If not, what has changed? Discuss the dangers of understanding no culture but your own.

Objective: Get students to "think outside the box" on the topic of Vietnam and the war. Encourage the use of imagination and persuasive writing on historical subjects.

Research paper topics:

  1. The end of the "American War" on April 30, 1975 was not the beginning of a lasting peace in VN. Prepare a research paper on either the 1978 Chinese invasion of northern Vietnam or the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Papers should include information on the historical reasons behind the invasions, the role or reaction of the United States to the conflicts, and how the wars affected the Vietnamese people.
  2. Why did it take 16 years for Ann Tran to find her sons? The main reason she mentions in "Vietnam Passage" is that the U.S.-sponsored trade embargo cut off all communications between Vietnam and America. Prepare a research paper on the effects of the embargo, including:
    • General information about how the embargo affected the country (economics and politics); and
    • Specific information on how the embargo affected the daily lives of the Vietnamese people, using Ann Tran as an example. What effect did the trade ban have on how she earned money, how the family lived, and how she searched for her sons? If you were Ann, how would you have tried to find Tony and Tim (taking the communications problems into consideration)? How would you go about finding them today?
  3. Nguyen Duy Binh is one of over one million refugees who fled Vietnam during the 1970s and early 1980s. Prepare a research paper of your choice on the "boat people" and their lives in their new home countries. Topics could include the following:
    • America wasn't the only country to accept refugees. Compare the resettlement process in the United States and Australia (another main destination for boat people). What assistance was available to them upon their arrival in their new country? How well have Vietnamese immigrants have adjusted to their new lives in each place? How do other Americans or Australians view Vietnamese immigrants today? Are there problems with racism? What are the greatest challenges faced by these communities?
    • Prepare a biography of a Vietnamese-American who fled Vietnam in the 1970s or 1980s. Discuss the circumstances behind why s/he left Vietnam, how s/he adapted and how s/he left Vietnam, his or her achievements, and how s/he feels about Vietnam today. This research paper can focus on the life of a Vietnamese-American from your community (based on interviews) or a prominent Vietnamese-American. Possible subjects include author Le Ly Hayslip, journalist Andrew Lam, memoirist Andrew X. Pham, actor Dustin Nguyen, or pro football player Dat Nguyen (for more ideas see the New Horizon project website www.vietnewhorizon.org/htm/Nomination/nomination_list.htm).

Objective: To promote in-depth, independent study of issues surrounding Vietnam during and after the war.

For more information on the Vietnam War and the history of Vietnam since 1975, here are a list of recommended books and films to get you started. Make sure to visit the extensive Websites provided under Links.


Chanda, Nayan. Brother Enemy: The War after the War.
New York: Collier Books, Macmillan, 1986.

Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh
New York: Hyperion, 2000

Faast, Horst and Tim Page, eds. Requiem: By the Photographers who Died in Vietnam and Indochina. New York: Random House, 1997.

Hiebert, Murray. Chasing the Tigers; A Portrait of the New Vietnam
New York: Kodansha Internatonal, 1996.

FitzGerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake
New York: Vintage Books, 1989 (reissue)

Jamieson, Neil L. Understanding Vietnam
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Kamm, Henry. Dragon Ascending
New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History
New York: Viking Press, 1983.

Lamb, David. Vietnam Now; A Reporter's Return
New York: Public Affairs, 2002

Pham, Andrew X. Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam. New York: Picador USA, 2000.


The Fall of Saigon, producer/director Mike Dutfield for PBS

Hitchhiking Vietnam, A production of Karin Muller in association with Story Street Productions.

Pete Peterson: Assignment Hanoi, Produced and Directed by Sandy Northrop .

Return with Honor, Produced and Directed by Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders;
An Ocean release of a Playtone presentation

Regret to Inform, Produced by Barbara Sonneborn

Three Seasons, a feature film directed and written by Tony Bui, released by October Films

Vietnam: A Televison War (a thirteen-part series) A co-production of WGBH Boston, Central Independent Television UK and Antenne-2, France and in association with LRE Productions.

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