American involvement in Vietnam began quite early in the Cold War when, in 1950, the Truman Administration began financing the French effort to retain Indochina against the communist-nationalist “Vietminh” guerrillas led by Ho Chi Minh and based in Hanoi. But U.S. interest came very late in the Indochina game, which began long before anybody had ever heard of the Cold War. Ho Chi Minh was present at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, where he petitioned Woodrow Wilson for Vietnamese independence based upon the Fourteen Points. Ironically, Ho would later use American history, including the Declaration of Independence and the Atlantic Charter, as supporting statements for his own cause. For the U.S., support for French colonialism contradicted the genesis of American purpose in the world from the inception, but was ignored for the global cause against communism.
From the start, American involvement in Vietnam reversed both ideology and geopolitics from any historic or strategic logic.
The battle of Dien Bien Phu, March-May 1954, was a turning point in world history, not only removing France from Indochina but also introducing the United States to the anti-communist cause of South Vietnam, which was left independent against the new communist regime in Hanoi. Dien Bien Phu, a historic French defeat, was covertly supported by the Eisenhower Administration, where American bombers flew over 600 sorties against the Vietminh. Two American pilots died, the first of nearly 58,000 Americans to die before the final retreat in 1975. From that point forward, Vietnam symbolized the global American crusade against communism, regardless of where or when it appeared on the map.
The geopolitical structure of the world defined such an interpretation of “life or death” policies. For over a thousand years Europe had been the epicenter of world politics, with all other members of global society either under direct domination or totally removed from any strategic interest in either global war or peace. But all that changed after World War II with Europe destitute and dependent upon outside resources just to survive. From a historic European “balance of power” consisting of ten or more “multipolar” interactive states in continuous territorial or dynastic struggles, the world, overnight, lapsed into a global contest between two continental behemoths in a “bipolar” contest for total world dominion. This, moreover, was an ideological struggle over “hearts and minds” more than it was strictly geopolitical.
In such an arena, relatively small and unimportant areas outside of Europe, i.e. Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, took on an importance that mirrored the larger “cold” war between the giants. The contest became “zero sum,” insofar as the loss of one seemed to amount to an equal gain for the other. Bipolarity allowed for little maneuver. As the U.S. Secretary of State said later in a memorable comment regarding the Soviet Union over Cuba: “we were eyeball to eyeball, and nobody blinked.”
That was the context of America’s obsession with Vietnam. The fall of China, one billion people apparently going over to the other side, without any serious American military involvement, provided the legend that China was “lost” because of the opinions of a handful of U.S. Foreign Service Officers in the field. The backlash was so severe that American officials could not possibly witness another similar debacle. Thus, in a reversal of all geopolitical logic, Vietnam, occupying a peninsula abutting southern China with only 30 million people, became host to over two million American military personnel in a decades-long fight to the finish. True to President Eisenhower’s “domino” theory, Vietnam was seen as the key to victory or defeat in the Cold War, but it wasn’t geopolitics.
As the Kennedy Administration began its entry into Southeast Asia in 1961, Premier Khrushchev of the Soviet Union introduced his own definition of ideological war into the equation. Based upon a speech on January 6, Khrushchev called for a global assault via “wars of national liberation,” like the guerrilla campaigns waged by Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro, against western strongholds in the vast “Third World” areas of the globe.
This circular seemed to U.S. leaders to confirm the importance of Vietnam and other insurgencies in Africa and Asia in what was universally interpreted as a Soviet attempt to surround the West without the use of nuclear weapons. This encouraged U.S. leaders to dig even deeper inside Vietnam as the classic test case. As Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told a Senate Committee in 1965, “The stakes in South Vietnam are far greater than the loss of one small country to communism. … Its loss would … greatly complicate the task of preventing the further spread of militant Asian communism.”
Echoes of that past are frequent today against the “spread” of “militant Islam.” A generation ago, they led to millions of American troops inside a small outpost of Eurasia and the worst strategic defeat in American history. The false prophesies of the domino theory and the misplaced geopolitical theories of both sides are long since forgotten, but can still serve as powerful reminders that “ideas have consequences” and that warfare, at bottom, remains a clash of competing ideas.