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The Events Leading up to the Escalation of the Vietnam War

On July 21, 1954, the Geneva Agreements were signed ending hostilities in Indochina. The agreement prohibited foreign troops and arms in Vietnam. It also forbade foreign governments to have military bases in the military regrouping zones. The military demarcation line was declared provisional and not a territorial or political boundary with the hope that a political settlement in Vietnam will take place in the near future. General elections were to be held in 1956 in order for the people of Vietnam to determine their countries future. The French had agreed to withdraw its troops from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. With the French defeated the United States was poised to intervene politically in Southern Vietnam in support of a non-Communist government led by Ngo Dinh Diem. The Eisenhower administration hoped to be able to stop the North Vietnamese Communists from taking over the south and to establish a free democratic and united Vietnam.

America believed that communism was growing around the world and China wanted to expand its boarders. Losing China to communism had hurt there administration. Dulles believed that without the experienced democratic United States helping Vietnam the nationalistic movement would look towards the Communists for support. With the colonial powers gone it was the United States’ turn to take over in keeping the Communists out of Indochina. Eisenhower and Dulles became very concerned after China was taken over by the Communist party and did not want to see the same thing happen in Southern Vietnam. They believed that the successes they achieved in Greece, Iran, Guatemala, and the Philippines could be accomplished in Vietnam. Their goal was to intervene politically to better solve the problem in Vietnam while protecting America’s vital interests.

After the Geneva Agreements the United States formulated a new policy that went against the agreements. The United States and some of its allies entered into a defense alliance recognizing the 17th parallel as the political and military boundary and to provide protection for the southern buffer zone. The United States also took over Frances’ role in backing the South Vietnamese politically as well as militarily by sending advisors. The defense pact, called the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), objective was to prevent hostilities. The United States let it be known that it would only get militarily involved in a fight against communist aggression. The SEATO treaty was seen by the Eisenhower administration as the approval, by both Congress and the international community, to use the United States military in Indochina. Neither intended the treaty to give the administration a blank check in Vietnam. Prior to the Gulf of Tonkin incident the administration used the treaty to justify its actions.

The Geneva Agreements had thrown a major obstacle towards the formation of a anti-Communist Southern Vietnam. The Geneva Agreements had stipulated that national elections were to be held in 1956 to determine who should lead the country. South Vietnam’s Prime Minister, Diem, was opposed to these elections. The United States Central Intelligence Agency had done research and knew that if elections were held Diem would lose and the North Vietnamese Communists would take control of the entire country. The United States did not want to risk losing the South in the elections and encouraged Diem to cancel the elections. The administration already knew that if elections were not held the Democratic Republic of Vietnam would re-start its fight against the South. The National Security Council planning board assured Diem that if hostilities begun the United States would opposes the North Vietnamese “with U.S. armed forces if necessary and feasible - consulting Congress in advance if the emergency permits - preferable in concert with the Manila Pact allies of the U.S., but if necessary alone.” (Griffin pg. 433) The United States had already drawn up contingency plans for Vietnam in order to be prepared for the outcome of Diem’s refusal to hold elections.

With the United States backing him, Diem stated that since his government did not actually sign the Geneva Agreements he was not bound to them. He also said that free elections could not be held in the Communist North. The DRV was not prepared for Diem’s refusal to hold elections. They had assumed that the French, who wanted the elections, would remain in the South until after the elections were held. But with the French gone and the United States standing behind Diem, Ho Chi Minh appealed to Britain, China and the Soviets to pressure the South into holding elections. China and the Soviets did not want to harm their relationship with the United States and did not intervene. The Soviet Union, China, Britain and France were willing to let Vietnam stay divided. The Eisenhower administration was now sure that it could establish a South Vietnam separate from the North.

In 1958 Civil War broke out against Diem. Two years later the Communists in South Vietnam organized the National Liberation Front and guerrilla war was taking place throughout Southern Vietnam. After an attempted military coup, Diem asked Washington for assistance.

When Kennedy was elected there were 675 military advisors in South Vietnam helping Diem’s government. Kennedy was committed to helping South Vietnam and had said many times that “the cold war would be determined in the newly emerging areas, and Washington officials saw Vietnam as the key to the Asian struggle.” (LeFeber pg. 422) The United States was set on building South Vietnam into a nation able to sustain and protect itself even though the South Vietnamese citizens did not support Diem as president. Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, believed the Vietnam would test if Communism could be contained in Asia. Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara enlarged the armed forces so that they would be prepared to contain the Communist threat in Asia. During 1961 and 1962 Kennedy sent 10,000 soldiers to Vietnam, most of them were Special Forces, to increase counter insurgency.

Diem was not listening to the advise from the United States and was losing the support of the South Vietnamese people. The Communist movement in Vietnam was very nationalistic. The nationalists were set on riding all of Vietnam of foreigners including the Chinese. Even with Washington’s help, Diem’s army was losing their fight. The Kennedy administration had put up with Diem’s complacent attitude for a long time and in 1963 his actions against the Buddhists demonstrators was the final straw. During the celebration of Buddha’s birthday, Diem had prohibited flags and religious demonstrations. He ordered soldiers to shot at them and people protesting with them. A few Buddhists set themselves on fire, committing suicide. Kennedy was outraged at Diem’s actions and let it be known the United States would not object if the military overthrew Diem. The administration had not know that the South Vietnamese military was planning to assassinate Diem, but they had encouraged the overthrow and were now committed to the new government.

In August of 1964, President Johnson announced that American warships had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. He turned to Congress which in turn passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In a unanimous decision the resolution gave Johnson the authority to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” (LeFeber pg. 464) It was not until 1968 that the truth about the incident was revealed. The United States Navy was in fact accompanying South Vietnamese gunboats and commandos on a raiding missing in North Vietnam.

In February of 1965, the Communist killed seven Americans and Johnson ordered the bombing of the North to cut off supplies flowing into the south. In March Johnson sent in Marine Battalions to engage the Communists. This was the beginning of the massive build up in South Vietnam that would eventually end with over 58,000 American soldiers dead.

In most of the literature I have read about Vietnam, the war is mostly attributed to Johnson’s administration. Yes, Johnson was the one who escalated the war by sending in large numbers of ground troops, but he would have never had to if the Eisenhower administration did not encourage Diem to not allow national elections in the South. Eisenhower’s push to contain Communism in Asia was the driving force for the war in Vietnam.