M4 Discussion 12: Reflection

the purpose of this discussion is to reflect on and share the things you have learned in this module.

Instructions

  1. Identify something that made you go “wow” in this module – what surprised or impressed or shocked you?
  2. Describe why this thing stood out to you.  Use quotes from your readings and research to support your observations. Don’t forget to include your primary sources!
  3. Include an illustration from the period and make sure you caption the illustration.
  4. Share two or three new words you’ve learned from this module, and the definitions.
  5. Your Wow statement should be at least 100-150 words, not including the citations.

The American Yawp : Vietnam

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I. Introduction
Coming so soon after World War II and ending without clear victory, Korea became for many Americans
a “forgotten war.” Decades later, though, the nation’s other major intervention in Asia would be anything
but forgotten. The Vietnam War had deep roots in the Cold War world. Vietnam had been colonized by
France and seized by Japan during World War II. The nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh had been backed by
the United States during his anti-Japanese insurgency and, following Japan’s surrender in 1945, Viet
Minh nationalists, quoting the American Declaration of Independence, created the independent
Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Yet France moved to reassert authority over its former colony in
Indochina, and the United States sacri�ced Vietnamese self-determination for France’s colonial
imperatives. Ho Chi Minh turned to the Soviet Union for assistance in waging war against the French
colonizers in a protracted war.

After French troops were defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, U.S. of�cials helped
broker a temporary settlement that partitioned Vietnam in two, with a Soviet/Chinese-backed state in
the north and an American-backed state in the south. To sti�e communist expansion southward, the
United States would send arms, offer military advisors, prop up corrupt politicians, stop elections, and,
eventually, send over �ve hundred thousand troops, of whom nearly sixty thousand would be lost before
the communists �nally reuni�ed the country.

II. Decolonization and the Global Reach of the ‘American Century’

In an in�uential 1941 Life magazine editorial titled “The American Century,” publishing magnate Henry
Luce outlined his “vision of America as the principal guarantor of freedom of the seas” and “the dynamic
leader of world trade.” In his embrace of an American-led international system, the conservative Luce
was joined by liberals including historian Arthur Schlesinger, who in his 1949 Cold War tome The Vital
Center proclaimed that a “world destiny” had been “thrust” upon the United States, with perhaps no
other nation becoming “a more reluctant great power.” Emerging from the war as the world’s preeminent
military and economic force, the United States was perhaps destined to compete with the Soviet Union
for in�uence in the Third World, where a power vacuum had been created by the demise of European
imperialism. As France and Britain in particular struggled in vain to control colonies in Asia, the Middle
East, and North Africa, the United States assumed responsibility for maintaining order and producing a
kind of “pax-Americana.” Little of the postwar world, however, would be so peaceful.1

Based on the logic of militarized containment established by NSC-68 and American Cold War strategy,
interventions in Korea and Vietnam were seen as appropriate American responses to the ascent of
communism in China. Unless Soviet power in Asia was halted, Chinese in�uence would ripple across the
continent, and one country after another would fall to communism. Easily transposed onto any region of
the world, the Domino Theory became a standard basis for the justi�cation of U.S. interventions abroad.
Cuba was seen as a communist beachhead that imperiled Latin America, the Caribbean, and perhaps
eventually the United States. Like Ho Chi Minh, Cuban leader Fidel Castro was a revolutionary
nationalist whose career as a communist began in earnest after he was rebuffed by the United States,
and American interventions targeted nations that never espoused of�cial communist positions. Many
interventions in Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere were driven by factors that were shaped by but also
transcended anticommunist ideology.

The Cuban revolution seemed to confirm the fears of many Americans that the
spread of communism could not be stopped. In this photograph, Castro and fellow
revolutionary Che Guevara march in a memorial for those killed in the explosion of
a ship unloading munitions in Havana in March 1960. The U.S. government had
been active in undermining Castro’s regime, and although there was no evidence in
this instance, Castro publicly blamed the United States for the explosion

The Cuban revolution seemed to con�rm the fears of many Americans that the spread of communism could not be stopped. In this photograph, Castro and

fellow revolutionary Che Guevara march in a memorial for those killed in the explosion of a ship unloading munitions in Havana in March 1960. The U.S.

government had been active in undermining Castro’s regime, and although there was no evidence in this instance, Castro publicly blamed the United States

for the explosion. [Public Domain via Wikimedia]

Instead of the United States dismantling its military after World War II, as it had after every major
con�ict, the Cold War facilitated a new permanent defense establishment. Federal investments in
national defense affected the entire country. Different regions housed various sectors of what
sociologist C. Wright Mills, in 1956, called the “permanent war economy.” The aerospace industry was
concentrated in areas like Southern California and Long Island, New York; Massachusetts was home to
several universities that received major defense contracts; the Midwest became home base for
intercontinental ballistic missiles pointed at the Soviet Union; many of the largest defense companies
and military installations were concentrated in the South, so much so that in 1956 author William
Faulkner, who was born in Mississippi, remarked, “Our economy is the Federal Government.”2

A radical critic of U.S. policy, Mills was one of the �rst thinkers to question the effects of massive defense
spending, which, he said, corrupted the ruling class, or “power elite,” who now had the potential to take
the country into war for the sake of corporate pro�ts. Yet perhaps the most famous critique of the
entrenched war economy came from an unlikely source. During his farewell address to the nation in
January 1961, President Eisenhower cautioned Americans against the “unwarranted in�uence” of a
“permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” that could threaten “liberties” and “democratic
processes.” While the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” was
a fairly recent development, this “military-industrial complex” had cultivated a “total in�uence,” which
was “economic, political, even spiritual . . . felt in every city . . . Statehouse . . . [and] of�ce of the Federal
government.” There was, he said, great danger in failing to “comprehend its grave implications.”3

In Eisenhower’s formulation, the “military-industrial complex” referred speci�cally to domestic
connections between arms manufacturers, members of Congress, and the Department of Defense. Yet
the new alliance between corporations, politicians, and the military was dependent on having an actual
con�ict to wage, without which there could be no ultimate �nancial gain. To critics, military-industrial
partnerships at home were now linked to U.S. interests abroad. Suddenly, American foreign policy had to
secure foreign markets and protect favorable terms for American trade all across the globe. Seen in such
a way, the Cold War was just a by-product of America’s new role as the remaining Western superpower.
Regardless, the postwar rise of U.S. power correlated with what many historians describe as a “national
security consensus” that has dominated American policy since World War II. And so the United States
was now more intimately involved in world affairs than ever before.

Ideological con�icts and independence movements erupted across the postwar world. More than eighty
countries achieved independence, primarily from European control. As it took center stage in the realm
of global affairs, the United States played a complicated and often contradictory role in this process of
“decolonization.” The sweeping scope of post-1945 U.S. military expansion was unique in the country’s
history. Critics believed that the advent of a “standing army,” so feared by many of the founding fathers,
set a disturbing precedent. But in the postwar world, American leaders eagerly set about maintaining a
new permanent military juggernaut and creating viable international institutions.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CheLaCoubreMarch

But what of independence movements around the world? Roosevelt had spoken for many in his remark
to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in 1941, that it was hard to imagine “�ght[ing] a war against
fascist slavery, and at the same time not work to free people all over the world from a backward colonial
policy.”4 American postwar foreign policy leaders therefore struggled to balance support for
decolonization against the reality that national independence movements often posed a threat to
America’s global interests.

American strategy became consumed with thwarting Russian power and the concomitant global spread
of communism. Foreign policy of�cials increasingly opposed all insurgencies or independence
movements that could in any way be linked to international communism. The Soviet Union, too, was
attempting to sway the world. Stalin and his successors pushed an agenda that included not only the
creation of Soviet client states in Eastern and Central Europe, but also a tendency to support leftwing
liberation movements everywhere, particularly when they espoused anti-American sentiment. As a
result, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) engaged in numerous proxy
wars in the Third World.

American planners felt that successful decolonization could demonstrate the superiority of democracy
and capitalism against competing Soviet models. Their goal was in essence to develop an informal system
of world power based as much as possible on consent (hegemony) rather than coercion (empire). But
European powers still defended colonization and American of�cials feared that anticolonial resistance
would breed revolution and push nationalists into the Soviet sphere. And when faced with such
movements, American policy dictated alliances with colonial regimes, alienating nationalist leaders in
Asia and Africa.

The architects of American power needed to sway the citizens of decolonizing nations toward the
United States. In 1948, Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Act to “promote a better understanding of the
United States in other countries.” The legislation established cultural exchanges with various nations,
including even the USSR, in order to showcase American values through American artists and
entertainers. The Soviets did the same, through what they called an international peace offensive, which
by most accounts was more successful than the American campaign. Although U.S. of�cials made strides
through the initiation of various overt and covert programs, they still perceived that they were lagging
behind the Soviet Union in the “war for hearts and minds.” But as unrest festered in much of the Third
World, American of�cials faced dif�cult choices.5

III. The Origins of the Vietnam War

American involvement in the Vietnam War began during the postwar period of decolonization. The
Soviet Union backed many nationalist movements across the globe, but the United States feared the
expansion of communist in�uence and pledged to confront any revolutions aligned against Western
capitalism. The Domino Theory—the idea that if a country fell to communism, then neighboring states
would soon follow—governed American foreign policy. After the communist takeover of China in 1949,
the United States �nancially supported the French military’s effort to retain control over its colonies in
Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Between 1946 and 1954, France fought a counterinsurgency campaign against the nationalist Viet Minh
forces led by Ho Chi Minh. The United States assisted the French war effort with funds, arms, and
advisors, but it was not enough. On the eve of the Geneva Peace Conference in 1954, Viet Minh forces
defeated the French army at Dien Bien Phu. The conference temporarily divided Vietnam into two
separate states until UN-monitored elections occurred. But the United States feared a communist
electoral victory and blocked the elections. The temporary partition became permanent. The United

States established the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam, with the U.S.-backed Ngo Dinh Diem as
prime minister. Diem, who had lived in the United States, was a committed anticommunist.

Diem’s government, however, and its Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) could not contain the
communist insurgency seeking the reuni�cation of Vietnam. The Americans provided weapons and
support, but despite a clear numerical and technological advantage, South Vietnam stumbled before
insurgent Vietcong (VC) units. Diem, a corrupt leader propped up by the American government with
little domestic support, was assassinated in 1963. A merry-go-round of military dictators followed as the
situation in South Vietnam continued to deteriorate. The American public, though, remained largely
unaware of Vietnam in the early 1960s, even as President John F. Kennedy deployed some sixteen
thousand military advisors to help South Vietnam suppress a domestic communist insurgency.6

This all changed in 1964. On August 2, the USS Maddox reported incoming �re from North Vietnamese
ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Although the details of the incident are controversial, the Johnson
administration exploited the event to provide a pretext for escalating American involvement in Vietnam.
Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, granting President Johnson the authority to deploy the
American military to defend South Vietnam. U.S. Marines landed in Vietnam in March 1965, and the
American ground war began.

American forces under General William Westmoreland were tasked with defending South Vietnam
against the insurgent VC and the regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA). But no matter how many
troops the Americans sent or how many bombs they dropped, they could not win. This was a different
kind of war. Progress was not measured by cities won or territory taken but by body counts and kill
ratios. Although American of�cials like Westmoreland and secretary of defense Robert McNamara
claimed a communist defeat was on the horizon, by 1968 half a million American troops were stationed
in Vietnam, nearly twenty thousand had been killed, and the war was still no closer to being won.
Protests, which would provide the backdrop for the American counterculture, erupted across the
country.

III. The Strain of the Vietnam War

Vietnam War protestors carry signs denouncing the war at the March on the
Pentagon.

Frank Wolfe, Vietnam War protestors at the March on the Pentagon. Lyndon B. Johnson Library via Wikimedia.

Perhaps no single issue contributed more to public disillusionment than the Vietnam War. As the war
deteriorated, the Johnson administration escalated American involvement by deploying hundreds of
thousands of troops to prevent the communist takeover of the south. Stalemates, body counts, hazy war
aims, and the draft catalyzed an antiwar movement and triggered protests throughout the United States
and Europe. With no end in sight, protesters burned draft cards, refused to pay income taxes, occupied
government buildings, and delayed trains loaded with war materials. By 1967, antiwar demonstrations
were drawing hundreds of thousands. In one protest, hundreds were arrested after surrounding the
Pentagon.7

Vietnam was the �rst “living room war.”8 Television, print media, and open access to the battle�eld
provided unprecedented coverage of the con�ict’s brutality. Americans confronted grisly images of
casualties and atrocities. In 1965, CBS Evening News aired a segment in which U.S. Marines burned the
South Vietnamese village of Cam Ne with little apparent regard for the lives of its occupants, who had

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vietnam_War_protestors_at_the_March_on_the_Pentagon

been accused of aiding Vietcong guerrillas. President Johnson berated the head of CBS, yelling over the
phone, “Your boys just shat on the American �ag.”9

While the U.S. government imposed no formal censorship on the press during Vietnam, the White House
and military nevertheless used press brie�ngs and interviews to paint a deceptive image of the war. The
United States was winning the war, of�cials claimed. They cited numbers of enemies killed, villages
secured, and South Vietnamese troops trained. However, American journalists in Vietnam quickly
realized the hollowness of such claims (the press referred to afternoon press brie�ngs in Saigon as “the
Five o’Clock Follies”).10 Editors frequently toned down their reporters’ pessimism, often citing
con�icting information received from their own sources, who were typically government of�cials. But
the evidence of a stalemate mounted.

Stories like CBS’s Cam Ne piece exposed a credibility gap, the yawning chasm between the claims of
of�cial sources and the increasingly evident reality on the ground in Vietnam.11 Nothing did more to
expose this gap than the 1968 Tet Offensive. In January, communist forces attacked more than one
hundred American and South Vietnamese sites throughout South Vietnam, including the American
embassy in Saigon. While U.S. forces repulsed the attack and in�icted heavy casualties on the Vietcong,
Tet demonstrated that despite the repeated claims of administration of�cials, the enemy could still strike
at will anywhere in the country, even after years of war. Subsequent stories and images eroded public
trust even further. In 1969, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh revealed that U.S. troops had raped
and/or massacred hundreds of civilians in the village of My Lai.12 Three years later, Americans cringed at
Nick Ut’s wrenching photograph of a naked Vietnamese child �eeing an American napalm attack. More
and more American voices came out against the war.

Reeling from the war’s growing unpopularity, on March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced on
national television that he would not seek reelection.13 Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy
unsuccessfully battled against Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, for the Democratic Party
nomination (Kennedy was assassinated in June). At the Democratic Party’s national convention in
Chicago, local police brutally assaulted protesters on national television.

For many Americans, the violent clashes outside the convention hall reinforced their belief that civil
society was unraveling. Republican challenger Richard Nixon played on these fears, running on a
platform of “law and order” and a vague plan to end the war. Well aware of domestic pressure to wind
down the war, Nixon sought, on the one hand, to appease antiwar sentiment by promising to phase out
the draft, train South Vietnamese forces to assume more responsibility for the war effort, and gradually
withdraw American troops. Nixon and his advisors called it “Vietnamization.”14 At the same time, Nixon
appealed to the so-called silent majority of Americans who still supported the war (and opposed the
antiwar movement) by calling for an “honorable” end to U.S. involvement—what he later called “peace
with honor.”15 He narrowly edged out Humphrey in the fall’s election.

Public assurances of American withdrawal, however, masked a dramatic escalation of con�ict. Looking to
incentivize peace talks, Nixon pursued a “madman strategy” of attacking communist supply lines across
Laos and Cambodia, hoping to convince the North Vietnamese that he would do anything to stop the
war.16 Conducted without public knowledge or congressional approval, the bombings failed to spur the
peace process, and talks stalled before the American-imposed November 1969 deadline. News of the
attacks renewed antiwar demonstrations. Police and National Guard troops killed six students in
separate protests at Jackson State University in Mississippi, and, more famously, Kent State University in
Ohio in 1970.

Another three years passed—and another twenty thousand American troops died—before an agreement
was reached.17 After Nixon threatened to withdraw all aid and guaranteed to enforce a treaty militarily,

the North and South Vietnamese governments signed the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, marking
the of�cial end of U.S. force commitment to the Vietnam War. Peace was tenuous, and when war
resumed North Vietnamese troops quickly overwhelmed southern forces. By 1975, despite nearly a
decade of direct American military engagement, Vietnam was united under a communist government.

The Vietnam War profoundly in�uenced domestic politics. Moreover, it poisoned many Americans’
perceptions of their government and its role in the world. And yet, while the antiwar demonstrations
attracted considerable media attention and stand today as a hallmark of the sixties counterculture, many
Americans nevertheless continued to regard the war as just. Wary of the rapid social changes that
reshaped American society in the 1960s and worried that antiwar protests threatened an already
tenuous civil order, a growing number of Americans turned to conservatism.

IV. Reference Materials

Notes

1. Henry R. Luce, “The American Century,” Life (February 17, 1941), 61–65.
2. Bruce J. Schulman, From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the

Transformation of the South, 1938–1980 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 135.
3. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Public Papers of the Presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960, 1035–1040.
4. Fredrick Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s

Vietnam (New York: Random House, 2012), 48.
5. Frank Ninkovich, The Diplomacy of Ideas: U.S. Foreign Policy and Cultural Relations, 1938–

1950 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
6. Michael P. Sullivan, The Vietnam War: A Study in the Making of American Foreign

Policy (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985), 58.
7. Jeff Leen, “The Vietnam Protests: When Worlds Collided,” Washington Post, September 27, 1999,

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/2000/vietnam092799.htm.
8. Michael J. Arlen, Living-Room War (New York: Viking, 1969).
9. Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a

Generation, rev. ed. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 190.
10. Mitchel P. Roth, Historical Dictionary of War Journalism (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997), 105.
11. David L. Anderson, The Columbia Guide to the Vietnam War (New York: Columbia University

Press, 2002), 109.
12. Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 325–326.
13. Lyndon B. Johnson, “Address to the Nation Announcing Steps to Limit the War in Vietnam and

Reporting His Decision Not to Seek Reelection,” March 31, 1968, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library,
http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/speeches.hom/680331.asp.

14. Lewy, America in Vietnam, 164–169; Henry Kissinger, Ending the Vietnam War: A History of
America’s Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War (New York: Simon and Schuster,
2003), 81–82.

15. Richard Nixon, “Address to the Nation Announcing Conclusion of an Agreement on Ending the War
and Restoring Peace in Vietnam,” January 23, 1973, American Presidency Project,
http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=3808.

16. Richard Nixon, quoted in Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster,
2005), 163–164.

17. Geneva Jussi Hanhimaki, The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 257.

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