America’s Dubious “Rationale” for the Vietnam War

This week (March 29) in 1973, the United States withdrew its last remaining combat troops from Vietnam, ending its military involvement in the Vietnam War.

It also ended what had been the United States’ professed rationale for fighting in Vietnam.  As President Lyndon Johnson put it at the time, America’s objective was to preserve the independence and “self determination” of the South Vietnamese government and people.

Yet it’s highly debatable whether the U.S. government, in particular the Johnson administration, truly considered it an objective to preserve the independence and “self determination” of South Vietnam.  After all, from 1961 to 1965 — that crucial period before the United States sent in combat troops and therefore ended any realistic chance of peacefully negotiating a settlement between the North and South on terms acceptable to both — not only did South Vietnam think such negotiations were possible, so did North Vietnam and its two patrons, the Soviet Union and China.  The only nation opposed to North-South negotiations was the United States

To that end, from 1961 to 1965 the U.S. government strongly pressured the various South Vietnamese governments with which it was allied not to enter into negotiations.  Those governments included one headed by South Vietnam’s first president, Ngo Dinh Diem, who had gained power in 1955 thanks to U.S. support.  Yet in 1963, when Diem began talking of negotiating with the North and asking America to leave his country, he was replaced in a U.S.-supported coup by General Duong Van Minh.

By 1964 Minh also realized that negotiating a peaceful settlement with the North looked preferable to continuing to fight it.  For his troubles he was replaced in a U.S.-supported coup by General Nguyen Khanh, who, by the end of 1964, also began hinting of a negotiated settlement with the North.  As a result, in February of 1965, again with support from the United States, Nguyen Cao Ky overthrew Khanh.

Which begs the question:  Would a North-South negotiated agreement have led to a unified Vietnam under Communist rule, as the Johnson administration greatly feared?  Without question, but 58,000 dead Americans later it went Communist anyway, mostly because, given the corruption, inefficiency and poor morale of the South Vietnamese army and government, defeating the North militarily was all but impossible.  That is why the aforementioned South Vietnamese governments all wanted to negotiate a political settlement with the North.  They would have gotten better terms and avoided a lot of wasted blood and treasure.

In that sense, had the United States allowed a South Vietnamese government any real “self determination,” it is virtually certain that, at least between 1961 and 1965, negotiations with the North would have taken place.  The fact is they never did.