The Vietnam War exemplifies the escalation of a civil war to an international war, as an effect of Cold War politics, marked by insecurity and distrust. As Vietnam turned into a quagmire, intellectuals and bureaucrats were forced to revaluate their ideology and policy. The Vietnamese conflict comprised the final assault on international stability. It is ironical then, that the warring sides claimed to be fighting to preserve stability and security.
The conflict in Vietnam spanned twenty-nine years and three stages: the First Indochina War (1946-54), the Second Indochina War (1959-75) and the Vietnam War (1965-73), what the Vietnamese call the Anti-U.S. War of Resistance and National Salvation.
The Vietnam War initiated a public debate and several theories have been offered to explain the war and it’s prolonging. In general, the debate on the Vietnam War sees two sides, the “hawks” (those who support military action) and the “doves” (those against military action). Ideological differences can be used to explain the war at two levels. On one hand, ideas of independence versus unification fermented the initial outbreak of the conflict. On the other hand, the divide between communism and capitalism prompted overt or covert involvement of states.
In July 1954, the Geneva Conference on Indochina resulted in a ceasefire with “the temporary partitioning of Vietnam, the withdrawal of French forces, and national unification elections to be held in 1956”. The premier of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) Ngo Dinh Diem, who had the support of U.S. President Eisenhower, refused to participate in national unification elections. His unpopular policies prompted his opponents to begin a limited guerrilla warfare campaign against him, starting January 1959. As the intensity of the guerrilla warfare increased, U.S. economic and military support strengthened as well.
While the United States was explicit in its support to South Vietnam, North Vietnam and even the erstwhile Soviet Union were not so eloquent about their support to the Viet Cong and its activities in South Vietnam. It was initially believed that the insurgency in South Vietnam was the direct result of “the repressiveness of the Diem regime in the years 1956-59”. However North Vietnam’s own admissions off late, have proven otherwise.
The dynamics are further complicated when seen in the light of the Cold War that saw the division of the world into two blocs- the U.S. led western or the capitalist bloc, and the Soviet led eastern or Communist bloc. Both blocs saw each other with suspicion and attempted to bandwagon smaller powers in their respective blocs.
The Munich Syndrome was a result of the “over-remembrance of the lessons of the 1930s”. The unsatisfactory results of the Munich Conference of 1938, led to the belief amongst American policymakers that if “aggression by an inveterate aggressor were not nipped in the bud, the aggressor would be encouraged to act”. Then U.S. President, Harry S. Truman, believed that the North Vietnamese aggression against South Vietnam, should be dealt with severely at once.
The anti-Communist bandwagon amongst the western bloc provided further motivation for the conflict. Eisenhower, in particular, ascribed to the falling domino theory, as an explanation for continued involvement in the war. President Eisenhower said in a press conference, “You have a row of dominos set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly, Asia, after all, has already lost some 450 million of its peoples to the Communist dictatorship, and we simply can’t afford greater losses”.
Many political scientists, thus argued, that although Vietnam in itself was not important to the global community, but its role in preventing a communist dominion was very important. If Vietnam fell to the communists, Laos, Cambodia and even the whole of Southeast Asia might fall. The Communists may have believed in a similar principle of falling dynamos, for they recognized the importance of North Vietnam unifying South Vietnam under its domination.
These factors point to how the struggle in Vietnam, was in reality a struggle between ideologically opposed forces to maintain an ideological balance of power. The ideological balance of power was not to be based on an equal distribution of the number of countries with communist and capitalist regimes; instead, each side tried to promote and thus strengthen, its ideological force.