The United States Opposes Communism in South East Asia
By Christina Franzese
The Vietnamese Conflict, also known as the Second Indochina War, was the longest and most controversial war in American history (Marrin 1). The armed forces of the United States and of the South Vietnamese government fought against those of North Vietnam and the South Vietnamese Communists, known as the Viet Cong. The Communist forces received military and political support from the Soviet Union and Communist China as well. The North Vietnamese sought to unite northern and southern Vietnam under a single Communist government and the United States fought to prevent the spread of communism. American involvement in the conflict began in 1957 when President Eisenhower sent military advisers to Vietnam. After fifteen years of fighting, the United States military withdrew from the war and signed the Paris Peace Accords. Soon afterwards, the North Vietnamese were able to militarily defeat the South Vietnamese and win the war. Despite their different ideologies and motivations, both sides used propaganda to draw support for the war from their citizens and from the rest of the world. The Second Vietnam War was as much a war of propaganda and politics as it was a military struggle.
The First Indochina War, fought between Vietnamese revolutionaries and French colonial troops, ended in 1954 with the signing of the Treaty of Geneva. Although the Vietnamese had gained autonomy from France, the Treaty only temporarily ended the conflict. The Treaty of Geneva partitioned the former French colony into a northern communist region and a southern democratic region with the stipulation that free elections would be held within two years to decide on the reunification of Vietnam. The election of 1956 would determine essentially which ideology would govern all of Vietnam. As the year of the election approached, the South Vietnamese and the United States grew restless because they knew the Northern communist leader Ho Chi Minh would win. After his exposure to the communist revolutionary Vladimir Ilich Lenin’s “Thesis on the National and Colonial Question,” Ho Chi Minh was convinced that communism was the answer to Vietnam’s problems and that only the communist party “knew what was good for the nation. Those who opposed it were fools or criminals and would be treated accordingly” (Marrin 55). The Second Indochina war began when the South refused to participate in elections because they wanted to remain independent. In reaction to their refusal, the South Vietnamese Communists or Viet Cong, with the support of North Vietnam, began to rebel against the democratic government of the South.
The political theory of communism is credited to the German political philosopher Karl Marx. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx details his theory which centers on the “absolute goal of a classless society where the dialectic no longer operates” (Carr 89). According to Marx, a society transitions through two phases until it reaches the final phase in which there is a state of pure communism without a government. First, a revolution must occur in which the poor overthrow the unjust government, such as a capitalist democracy. Then the vanguard or upper classes assume leadership of the new socialist state. Eventually, the vanguard is supposed to relinquish its control over the nation so that the society can transcend into communism. Despite Marx’s intentions, no nation has ever succeeded in achieving pure communism. Carr quotes Professor Laski who once said, “communism has made its way by its idealism, and not by its realism, by its spiritual promise, not by its materialistic prospects” (Carr 90). In every instance of revolution by the people, such as in North Vietnam, a dictator assumes control permanently and never relinquishes his power to the people. Communism is viewed as the enemy of democracy because, in a democracy, government action is a product of deliberation and collective decision.
The Cold War, a clear example of symmetric warfare, paired the United States, a democratic, capitalist nation, against the Soviet Union, a communist nation. The Cold War, which began after the Second World War, consisted of various military and political engagements, or proxy wars, in which the USSR supported the development and rise of communism in several nations and the US fought to prevent it and ensure democracy in these countries. The United States and its allies saw the post World War II world as being divided into two sections. British political leader Winston Churchill compared communism to an “iron curtain”. He declared that: "An iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe […] in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow" (Roberts 27).Churchill's solution to the “Soviet influence” was straightforward: only through strength and cooperation could the United States, Britain, and the rest of the free world act as a counterbalance to Soviet ambitions. The United States’ role in the Vietnamese Conflict in essence was a continuation of its containment policy towards communism.
In South East Asia, the United States supported the independence of the Republic of Vietnam in the south while the USSR and Communist China aided the communist government of the northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s efforts to invade it. President Lyndon Johnson said, “the challenge that we face in South East Asia today is the same challenge that we have faced with courage and that we have met strength in Greece and Turkey, in Berlin and Korea, in Lebanon and in Cuba” (Oglesby 23). The United States’ fight against communism in Vietnam was only one of a number of similar wars and struggles across the globe.
The United States feared that if it failed to act and effectively contain communism in Vietnam, communism would surely spread throughout Asia and many other democratic nations would fall to the power and will of a communist dictator. In a 1954 speech, President Eisenhower presented his Domino Theory in which Vietnam was seen as the “first domino in a row that contained all the nations of Southeast Asia. If the communists won in Vietnam […] the other nations would topple” (Marrin 53). It was generally believed that “[if the United States failed] to contain them [in Vietnam], [the United States would] have to contain them somewhere else.” (Oglesby 13). Therefore, the United States entered into the Vietnamese Conflict in order to prevent the spread of communism to southern Vietnam and to the rest of Southeast Asia.
The United States and North Vietnam both recognized the importance of public and world opinion and implemented propaganda as an instrument of policy during the Vietnamese Conflict. The Vietnamese Conflict was as much a struggle for opinion and support both at home and abroad as it was a military battle. It was generally believed that the country who could win the war of opinion would ultimately win the conflict. According to Edward Hallett Carr, the author of an introduction to the study of international relations, a government’s power over the opinion of its people is “not less essential for political purposes than military or economic power […] The art of persuasion has always been a necessary part of the equipment of a political leader” (Carr 132). Propaganda is articulated thought employed to persuasively discredit an enemy and to justify oneself in the minds of the masses. Tactics of propaganda are expressions of power because, as stated by the political theorist Robert Dahl, “A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do what he would not otherwise do” (Dahl 10). By using propaganda, governments intend to alter public opinion in such a way that it favors the affairs of the state. At times, propaganda can be crucial because public opinion is very important to the success of governments and their wars. Karr notes that although “there remains a solid substratum of difference between the attitude of democracies and totalitarian states towards mass opinion, […] both agree in recognizing its paramount importance”(Carr 134). Therefore, although North Vietnam was run by a totalitarian, communist government, it recognized the importance of public opinion and through propaganda it actively worked to ensure its people supported the military effort just as the United States did with the American public.
In North Vietnam, “all means of expression were kept under tight control. The idea was to shape people’s thoughts by controlling the information they received. Newspapers and magazines printed only what the party considered the truth” (Marrin 56). The Communist Party of North Vietnam, through its control over the media, intended to persuade the people to loathe and distrust the United States’ presence in Vietnam. North Vietnam produced numerous leaflets with highly loaded messages such as: "Friends, quickly rise up to side with the people and the National Liberation Front to smash the people-betraying, country-harming regime of Saigon. Let's kick the U.S. imperialists out of South Vietnam, win back sovereignty and Independence for our country, and freedom for our people" (Horton 21). Through speeches and leaflets, the North Vietnamese government informed the Vietnamese people that the United States’ support of South Vietnam was an example of American imperialism. Ho Chi Minh told his people that the United States intended to colonize Vietnam like France had before the First Indochina War. Also, he called the government officers of South Vietnam “stooges” and “lackeys” of American imperialism. This criticism was very effective because the South Vietnamese government was never able to gain full support for their affairs from their own people. According to the communist leader, the United States was a powerful, rich Western nation interfering with the local disputes of small Asian countries. Further, he accused the United States of violating the Treaty of Geneva by interfering with the sanctioned election. Ho Chi Minh’s persuasive, anti-American speeches and leaflets effectively maintained the support of the North Vietnamese public against the United States’ presence in the war. While not all South Vietnamese were opposed to the United States military and the South Vietnamese government, North Vietnam was able to gain enough support in the South to at least give the appearance of a substantial rebellion.
Like North Vietnam, the United States’ government utilized the media to draw support for American involvement in the war. The CBS documentary titled “The Selling of the Pentagon,” details how the United States’ Military “annually spent millions of dollars on campaigns to persuade citizens to support military budgets and militarist solutions to international problems” (Horton 20). The United States’ government depicted the Vietnamese Conflict as that of an independent country fighting international communist aggression. Following World War II, the United States, as a whole, exhibited extreme distrust, suspicion, and fear of communism. International communism led by the Soviet Union and Communist China was seen as the arch enemy of democracy and freedom. In the NSC-68, a top secret report to President Harry S. Truman in 1950, it was written that the Soviet Union and other communist nations call “[f]or the complete subversion or forcible destruction of the machinery of government and structure of society in the countries of the non-Soviet world and their replacement by an apparatus and structure subservient to and controlled by communist governments” (“NSC-68” 51).
The American public was persuaded to regard communism as a threat to its freedom. In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy, drawing on this association, stated that it was the United States’ duty to “oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty” (Marrin 75). Further, the government referred to the military’s presence in South East Asia as being a positive example of “nation building.” The American media featured clips and photos of American soldiers constructing buildings and schools in South Vietnam in order to justify America’s role in the conflicts of South East Asia. Also, the United States implemented propaganda tactics to draw support from the South Vietnamese as well. According to Richard J. Schaefer, “[d]uring a seven-year period, the U.S. Information Agency ‘bombed’ North and South Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia with nearly 50 billion leaflets”(Schaefer 50). Overall, the United States wanted the Communists to be viewed as cruel and oppressive while the United States would be seen as a friend of the South Vietnamese people.
Despite the propaganda employed by the United States’ government, the Vietnamese Conflict became very unpopular with the American public. The American public was willing to support the war up until 1968. Over time, the Vietnamese Conflict created the largest anti-war movement in history (Marrin 1). According to a study done by John P. Robinson and Solomon G. Jacobson on the distribution of opinions about Vietnam, in November 1964, approximately 11% of the people polled wanted the military to pull out and about 39% wanted the military to take a stronger stand. However, by January 1968 public opinion of the war had changed dramatically. Now, 41% of the people polled wanted the military to pull out and only 9% wanted the military to take a stronger stand (Robinson 72). Although the American public was originally persuaded by the propaganda in support of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, it could not tolerate war and war-like conditions “for indefinite periods with little progress” (Robinson 79). Because the Vietnamese Conflict began to be seen more and more as a war without end and without victory, the anti-war groups in the United States gained support and grew in effectiveness. According to James Max Fendrich, “The antiwar movement mobilized millions of citizens to public protest […] and activated third parties to question and demand an end to war policies” (Fendrich 338). The Vietnamese Conflict was the first war to be covered extensively by the United States and world medias. For the first time, the American public was able to literally see the horrors of war live. Often, the images of war that the American public saw contradicted the message that the government was giving about the war’s progress. This contradiction helped enable the North Vietnamese to turn public opinion in the United States against the war. Due to the fact that the United States’ involvement in the Vietnamese Conflict generated such a negative response from the American people, the United States government was eventually compelled to pull out American military forces without a definitive resolution to the war. The South Vietnamese were left to fight the North Vietnamese without American soldiers and with minimal US support. This decision ultimately led to the military defeat of the South Vietnamese and their surrender to the communist forces from the North.
In conclusion, the United States became involved with the affairs of Southeast Asia as an extension of its containment policy against world communism while North Vietnam fought with the intention and motivation to unite both Vietnams under its communist rule. Despite the different ideologies of the United States and North Vietnam, both nations acknowledged the importance of public opinion and sought to discredit their enemies, justify their own actions, and rally their people to support their war efforts. North Vietnam was able to successfully implement propaganda and marshaled the support of its people to oppose the United States’ involvement in the war. However, the United States was not able to sustain support for the war from its citizens. Although the United States was winning the war in Vietnam by some standards, most Americans ultimately came to have the impression that the war was futile and not worth the cost in money and lives. Ironically, the American military won the vast majority of the war’s individual military battles but was not able to win the psychological battle for public opinion in Vietnam, the United States, and the world.
© Christina Franzese