The United States and Soviet Union emerged from World War II as the world’s two most powerful nation states. Yet, the United States far surpassed the Soviet Union in economic and military might. For instance, four years after the conclusion of the war, it was estimated that the United States possessed a Gross National Product (GNP) of 250 billion dollars compared to the U.S.S.R.’s 65 billion [May, Interpreting NSC-68, 36]. The larger, diversified U.S. economy translated into an impressive standard of living for its citizens. The American people experienced an unprecedented material abundance. No other society in world history had ever been so wealthy. Nor had any other country developed such high levels of efficiencies in manufacturing and agricultural production. U.S. economic strength underpinned the U.S.’s military might.
In the closing days of the Second World War, the U.S. Army Air Force, the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force, had in its inventory 63,715 aircraft of all types, including the long-range B-29 strategic bomber [Army Air Forces Statistical Digest, World War II, Table 84]. It was this air force that made possible the daily carpet-bombing of German and Japanese cities from mid-1943 to August 1945. And it was the B-29 that carried the atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the Army Air Force ruled the skies, the U.S. Navy dominated the world’s oceans with its 6,768 ships, including 28 full-sized aircraft carriers, 71 smaller escort carriers, 23 heavily armored battleships such as the U.S.S. Iowa, and 377 destroyers. No other navy even came close to the American Navy in number of vessels and global reach [www.history.navy.mil/branches/org9-4.htm]
A total of 16.1 million men and women served in uniform during World War II [www.va.gov]. In 1945, the U.S. military consisted of 12,055,884 soldiers, sailors, and marines. [www.infoplease.com] The Army alone had over 8 million members. American troops had at their disposal incredible amounts of weaponry, ammunition, and equipment, gratis of the U.S. industrial sector. In the end, it wasn’t the fighting quality of the GIs that defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. As a matter of fact, the soldiers of the Wehrmacht and the Japanese Imperial Army tended to fight more tenaciously than the Americans. Rather, it was the millions of machines made by America’s factory workers that won the war. America overwhelmed the Axis powers with the sheer mass of its gadgetry and firepower.
After the detonation of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, the U.S. was in a category of its own in terms of military strength. No other nation possessed the A-Bomb. And in that eventful summer of 1945, no one knew when the U.S.’s sole competitor for global dominance, the U.S.S.R., would develop its own bomb. Following the test at Alamogordo, the United States truly became a superpower. It was the only nation on earth with the military capability to utterly lay waste to an enemy’s urban centers and industrial base.
Yet, interestingly, just as the U.S. reached the pinnacle of its military and economic preeminence, its political leadership expressed a palpable insecurity. President Harry S Truman and members of the State Department viewed the Soviet Union, and the global communist movement supported by the Kremlin, as a serious threat to the United States and its overseas empire. The Soviets posed two primarily challenges to the United States. The first threat stemmed from the Soviet military machine and the 9.8 million-man Red Army – the largest land army on the globe [Armed Force of the Russian Federation Land Force, Agency Voeninform of the Defence Ministry of the RF (2007), 14]. American leaders rightly considered the Red Army a juggernaut. That army had just smashed the vaunted Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Its battle-hardened soldiers now stood face-to-face with the Americans in central Germany. The Red Army possessed the troops, tanks, and artillery to push the American Army aside and march across Western Europe to the English Channel. Only U.S. airpower and the A-Bomb seemed to deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.
U.S. leaders perceived Communist ideology as the second main threat posed by the Soviet Union. Communism, with its advocacy of egalitarianism, economic and social justice, atheism, worker’s rights, and overturning the West’s social, economic, and political model, directly challenged Western civilization and its stoutest defender – the United States.
In the immediate post-war years, with large swaths of Western Europe in ruins, Truman worried that the continent’s downtrodden would flock to the communist banner as a means of alleviating their plight. The possibility existed of a communist takeover of Western Europe through non-military means, through revolution, staged coups, or even democratic elections. Truman did not need to look too hard to see examples of Soviet expansionism through subterfuge, subversion, and the democratic process. In 1947, A Soviet-supported coup deposed the King of Romania. In France and Italy, the communists made strong showings in national elections. In Greece and Turkey, armed communist rebels challenged U.S. backed regimes.
In order to check communist expansionism, the U.S. relied on a variety of tools. U.S. air power and the A-Bomb deterred any Soviet conventional invasion. But American officials considered the other forms of communist expansionism more difficult to check. The Truman administration tried a combination of economic aid, military assistance, and covert operations to halt the spread of communism in Western Europe, Greece, and Turkey.
Initially, Truman’s foreign policy team responded to the communist initiatives in Europe on an ad hoc basis. The administration utilized covert political operations to stop the communists in Italy, economic aid to Western Europe, and military assistance to the royalist Greek government. The various programs succeeded in turning back the Reds, but the president, and the executive departments involved in foreign affairs, desperately needed a long-term, consistent, effective policy toward the communist bloc. U.S. officials also needed the means of framing the struggle with communism within a larger historical and geographical context. Creating a reliable policy vis a vis the U.S.S.R. and communism would help stabilize the international scene, foster predictability in U.S. relations with the U.S.S.R., and most importantly, avert a general war between the superpowers. An intellectual and policy vacuum existed in U.S.-Soviet relations between 1945 and 1947. Into that vacuum stepped a man who would have the largest influence on U.S. foreign policy in the twentieth century.
George F. Kennan served in the U.S. embassy in Moscow in the middle 1930s. During that decade, the Soviets wooed Western diplomats, journalists and artists with examples of industrial and agricultural success. To many on the Left at the time, the U.S.S.R. provided a stellar example of communist achievements. But Kennan never fell for Soviet propaganda. He knew that Soviet achievements had come at a great cost to the people of the Soviet Union. He remained a cool-eyed realist who viewed the country and its leaders with a healthy dose of skepticism. Although he readily admitted the sincerity and dedication of junior-grade communist officials, he also recognized the brutality of the Stalin regime and its murderous secret police – the NKVD [Sources of Soviet Conduct, Foreign Affairs, 567]. Kennan had no love for the top Soviet leadership. He observed that Stalin and his immediate subordinates acted in a manner similar to a cabal of thugs. They maintained their positions of authority through violence and fear rather than popular appeal. He wrote, “…the men in the Kremlin have continued to be predominantly absorbed with the struggle to secure and make absolute the power which they seized in November 1917.” [Sources of Soviet Conduct, Foreign Affairs, 569].
Kennan believed Russian leaders were horribly insecure because of an underlying uncertainty that pervaded the Soviet system. Their insecurity stemmed from a number of factors, including the absence of an institutionalized succession process. Since there existed no legal means of attaining the top position in the country, leaders were unsure as to their own status within the Soviet hierarchy. They were forever jockeying for position. The succession process became a free-for-all, pitting members of the Politburo against one another, and fostering a sense of perpetual uneasiness amongst its members. Kennan stated, “Meanwhile, a great uncertainty hangs over the political life of the Soviet Union. That is the uncertainty involved in the transfer of power from one individual or group of individuals to others. This is, of course, outstandingly the problem of the personal position of Stalin. We must remember that his succession to Lenin’s [position]…took 12 years to consolidate. It cost the lives of millions of people and shook the state to its foundations.” [Sources of Soviet Conduct, Foreign Affairs, 578].
In July 1947, Kennan wrote an article in the journal “Foreign Affairs” titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Kennan used the pseudonym “X” because he feared a negative response to him from the Soviets if they learned he had authored the piece. The “X” article asserted that Soviet communism behaved in a manner similar to water, it would move to areas of least resistance, taking advantage of human misery and hopelessness. He penned, “Its [communism’s] political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power. But if it finds unassailable barriers in its path, it accepts these philosophically and accommodates itself to them.” [Sources of Soviet Conduct, Foreign Affairs, 575].
Kennen argued that the Soviets, or their proxies, if left to their own devices, would find recruits in regions beset by poverty, war, and political repression. To counter the spread of communism, especially in areas around the periphery of the Soviet Union, he favored a program of containment. He remarked, “In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies”[Sources of Soviet Conduct, Foreign Affairs, 575].
Kennan favored all practical methods of containment, but he believed economic containment should take priority over military containment. He wanted the U.S. to provide economic aid to the pro-Western countries along the borders of the U.S.S.R., as well as in Western Europe, and northern Asia. U.S. economic assistance would bolster the economies of those regions, raising the standard of living of their residents, and stabilizing their institutions. With prosperity and material well-being, people would resist the advance of Soviet communism. He believed that over time, the vibrant economies of the West, and those situated along the edges of the Soviet Union, would undermine the U.S.S.R. and its communist ideology. Capitalism and democracy would be shown to meet the needs and aspirations of humanity more effectively than totalitarian communism. At some future date, the Soviet leadership would recognize the superiority and steadfastness of the Western economic and political model and mollify their aggressive behavior. The visible success of the Western model might even convince the people of the communist bloc to overthrow their repressive governments, bringing about the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Officials in the Truman administration read Kennan’s article. The president himself understood that Kennan’s article provided a blueprint for U.S. relations with the communist bloc. Less than a year after the publication of the “X” article, the Truman administration initiated the European Recovery Program, also known as the Marshall Plan. During the life of the Marshall Plan, the U.S. provided a total of $13 billion in economic aid to 16 European nations. The three largest recipients of aid included Germany at $1.44 billion, France at $2.29 billion, and Great Britain at $3.29 billion. The administration also carried out a Japanese equivalent of the Marshall Plan, which directed approximately $2.5 billion to assist in Japan’s industrial recovery [www.marshallfoundation.org]. Although the western Europeans and Japanese were largely responsible for the recovery of their own economies, the billions of U.S. dollars pumped into the war-ravaged areas of Asia and Europe hastened the recovery. U.S. aid rebuilt industrial facilities and infrastructure. Most importantly, U.S. aid turned former enemies into allies. It also made the Japanese and the Germans into strong proponents of democratic capitalism.
Kennan’s economic containment policy appealed to U.S. leaders for a variety of reasons. First, it played on U.S. strengths in the industrial arena. In 1945, the United States possessed roughly 50% of the world’s economic output, or gross national product. American manufacturers required markets for the goods streaming out of U.S. factories. If Western Europe and Japan remained economically stagnate, the U.S. would lack necessary trading partners. A policy of reviving the economic standing of Western Europe and Japan meant the reestablishment of markets for U.S. manufacturers. The reconstructed economies of Europe and Asia could complement the U.S. economic system in another way. Those economies could sell the low-value-added manufactured products and raw materials demanded by the more sophisticated U.S. economy. Essentially, through U.S. foreign aid, the Truman administration would create an economic system in which the core area (the United States) sold high value, manufactured products to the periphery. Peripheral areas in turn would supply cheap labor, raw materials, and lower value manufactured products to the core. It was a classic imperial arrangement, much like the British imperial system in the 19th century.
President Truman found economic containment attractive because its application would check Soviet influence, and possibly lead to the implosion of the Soviet Union itself, without war. The U.S. would be able to dismantle the Soviet empire peacefully, rather than through a potentially catastrophic Third World War. Such a war would likely cost the U.S. untold billions of dollars, countless lives, and leave Western Europe and the Soviet Union in ruins. Even worse, the ideology that prompted the establishment of the Soviet Union might still remain intact after World War III, with the Soviets finding more followers in the rubble left behind by the conflict. As the State Department’s Paul Nitze would later write, “Military victory alone would only partially and perhaps only temporarily affect the fundamental conflict [over beliefs and values], for although the ability of the Kremlin to threaten our security might be for a time destroyed, the resurgence of totalitarian forces and the re-establishment of the Soviet system or its equivalent would not be long delayed….” [May, Interpreting NSC 68, 32] Economic containment would bring about the peaceful demise of the Soviet Union. But even more importantly it would lead to the extirpation of communist ideology.
Additionally, with economic containment, the U.S. would not have to maintain a large military establishment to bring about the downfall of the Soviet Union. A small, nuclear-armed military, which would act as a deterrent to Soviet aggression, would do the job. In Truman’s mind, a smaller U.S. military guaranteed a freer society at home. There would be no need for high taxes to keep a large standing army equipped, fed, and housed. Consequently, the American people would have more disposable income for the purchase of automobiles, houses, and labor-saving appliances. They would also have money to spend on leisure travel. In America, money equaled freedom. Reining in the size of the defense budget would ensure greater freedoms for the American people.
Limiting the military’s role at home and abroad would also lessen the impact of the draft. In 1943, during the height of World War II, the Selective Service inducted 3.3 million men into the U.S. Armed Forces. By 1947, that number had dropped to zero [www.ss.gov]. If economic containment succeeded, the need for the draft would no longer exist, or if it did remain necessary, the number required for the military would be less than if the U.S. had to engage in a massive military build-up to counter the Soviet Union. The draft was inherently undemocratic because it inducted individuals into the service without their consent. The social and economic penalties for dodging the draft were so severe that few men chose to avoid the draft. Without the need for large draft calls, more men would be able to pursue their own interests without government interference in their lives.
Eisenhower was not the first president to worry about the growth of the military-industrial complex. Since the nineteenth century, presidents have expressed concern about war profiteers. Truman believed a permanent, sizable military-industrial complex could undermine America’s democratic institutions. He understood that war profiteers, and their great wealth, could corrupt politics, Wealthy industrialists would bribe politicians, or fund their election campaigns, to ensure continued government contracts. Corrupt politicians, and their supporters in the business community, would be more apt to encourage an aggressive U.S. foreign policy to ensure continued profits from government military contracts.
The mere presence of a large, ready, permanent military would encourage a president to use it. The very existence of a muscle-bound U.S. military, rather than serve as a means of discouraging war, might actually induce a president to jump into a war more quickly than he otherwise would if a force had to first be mobilized and trained for war.
The military was, and remains, an undemocratic institution. It indoctrinated its recruits to obey orders without question, it taught them to respect hierarchy and institutional status, and it sent many of them to their deaths without their consent. Soldiers did not democratically elect their leaders, nor could they opt out of the service if they chose to do so. The U.S. military was a totalitarian, undemocratic, coercive institution in a country that professed to be the most democratic nation in the world. Its very existence represented one of the great contradictions in a society rife with contradictions. Truman did not want a large military establishment. Thus, Kennan’s ideas on economic containment coincided with Truman’s own goals for the United States and the role of the military in American society. Truman’s adoption of Kennan’s ideas on economic containment in 1947 marked a watershed moment in U.S. foreign policy. Kennan’s ideas would shape U.S. foreign affairs from the 1940s to the present day.
And yet, by 1949, economic containment did not appear to be enough to halt the advance of communism. In the late summer and early fall of that year, the U.S. suffered a series of foreign policy setbacks. On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb at a test site in what is today northeastern Kazakhstan. The successful test ended the U.S. atomic monopoly. A little over a month after the Soviet nuclear test, Mao Zedong’s communist army pushed Chiang Khe Shek’s Nationalist Army off the Chinese mainland. The defeated remnants of the Nationalist army crossed the Taiwan Strait to the island of Formosa, where Chiang Khe Shek, who was once referred to derisively as “The Peanut” by his top American advisor, established the Republic of China. On the mainland, the triumphant Mao declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the United States, the Republican Party, including its most rabid anti-communists, Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) and Richard M. Nixon (R-CA), blamed Truman and the Democrats for the “loss of China.” But China had never been the U.S.’s to lose. Revolutionary forces existed in China in the 1940s that no American president or American policy could have kept in check. Mao’s victory had tremendous import for the U.S. position in Asia. China was the most populous Asian country and its geographical position put it in the center of Asia – with the ability to influence a number of countries on southern and western border, such as India, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam.
The communist triumph in China meant the global communist movement now controlled the world’s largest country by land area (the Soviet Union) and the world’s largest country by population (China). With the recent communist acquisition of the atomic bomb, it appeared to U.S. officials, including the president, that communism had gained the initiative in its struggle with West [May, Interpreting NSC 68, 36, 65]. A question on everyone’s mind in Washington in the fall of 1949 was whether the United States could stop the communists. Could communism in fact be contained through economic means and U.S. threats of nuclear annihilation?
Although Kennan’s vision of containment gained wide acceptance within U.S. government circles, there were those who believed it alone would not contain the Soviet Union or one of its proxy states. Paul Nitze, who headed the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, doubted the effectiveness of economic containment. Nitze agreed with Kennan that economic containment would foster the creation of strong, capitalist nation states; yet, he also believed that conventional communist military forces might quickly overrun those prosperous, pro-Western societies. A vibrant capitalist economy would not protect an American ally from an invading Soviet army or the conventional forces of a Soviet satellite state. Nitze noted that unless the U.S. wanted to destroy invading communist armies with nuclear weapons, the U.S. needed to alter its defense strategy. More specifically, he argued that the United States should rebuild its conventional military capabilities. Economic development within the American sphere of influence could only go forward with the protection offered by a strong military shield. He stated in National Security Memorandum number 68, dated April 7, 1950, the following, “The frustration of the Kremlin design requires the free world to develop a successfully functioning political and economic system and a vigorous political offensive against the Soviet Union. These, in turn, require an adequate military shield under which they can develop [May, Interpreting NSC 68, 71]. In NSC 68, Nitze proposed the military containment of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc.
NSC-68 made a number of far-reaching policy recommendations. Nitze urged the permanent mobilization of the U.S. military. Because as he stated, “a question which may be of decisive importance in the event of war is the question whether there will be time to mobilize our superior human and material resources for a war effort” [May, Interpreting NSC 68, 45]. Modern mechanized warfare meant an invading army could conquer another nation state in a matter of days. Consequently, according to Nitze, the U.S. had to keep its military forces in a constant state of readiness, prepared to respond to communist aggression on short notice. If the U.S. demobilized its military forces, as it had done at the end of all previous wars, it would not have the forces on hand to repel communist aggression. It would be left with two unpalatable choices, either accept the results of the aggression, or rapidly escalate the conflict to nuclear war.
Nitze believed the U.S. military would have to possess the air assets and sealift capability to respond to communist aggression anywhere in the world, in places as environmentally diverse and distant as the Central Plains of Europe and the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East. Nitze urged the president to seek the creation of a military force capable of fighting 2 ½ wars simultaneously. Such a force would be able to fight a World War II-style conflict; that is, it would fight and win a big war in Europe, a second major war in Asia, and a ½ war, or low intensity conflict, in a peripheral area of the globe. Nitze’s idea of military containment entailed the establishment of military bases, supply depots, and staging areas in likely theaters of operation, particularly in the U.S.’s far western Pacific island chain and within West Germany. He wanted supply depots with prepositioned weapons, equipment, vehicles, and ammunition. Those depots would accelerate the deployment of U.S. forces to any trouble spot. Rather than being required to send their gear to an active war front on slow-moving oceanic vessels, American troops would have their supplies waiting for them near the scene of the conflict. Arriving U.S. troops would deplane or disembark from vessels, immediately go to their stored equipment, and rapidly depart for the front [May, Interpreting NSC 68, 50, 66, 72]. This rapid deployment capability would be especially important for the defense of Western Europe, where the Soviet Red Army, positioned in East Germany, sat poised to quickly overrun the European continent.
Adoption of NSC-68 would remake the military establishment into a large, permanent, pervasive fixture in American society. When the document first came across Truman’s desk in the spring of 1950, the president rejected its recommendations for the same reasons he favored economic containment. Truman considered the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal sufficient to deter communist military aggression, while economic containment would remain the cornerstone of the U.S.’s effort to stem the communist tide.
Months before the submission of NSC-68, on January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech to the National Press Club. In his address, he examined the U.S.’s foreign policy in Asia. He noted the strategic importance to the U.S.’s containment policy in Asia of the off-shore islands stretching from Alaska to the Philippines. He said, “The [U.S.] defensive perimeter runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus. We hold important defense positions in the Ryukyu Islands, and those we will continue to hold…The defensive perimeter runs from the Ryukus to the Philippine Islands…So far as the military security of other areas of the Pacific is concerned, it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military attack. But it must also be clear that such a guarantee is hardly sensible or necessary within the realm of practical relationship.” [Acheson to National Press Club, “Speech on the Far East, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library.
Surprisingly, Acheson did not include South Korea within the U.S.’s Asian sphere of influence. Acheson’s public comments to the press club may have influenced North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s decision to invade South Korea. It is conceivable that Sung interpreted Acheson’s exclusion of South Korea from the U.S.’s Asian defense system as an indication that the U.S. would not defend South Korea in the event of an invasion from the North. Acheson’s comment that the U.S. could not “guarantee” the security of areas beyond the island chain likely reinforced Sung’s belief that the U.S. would stand aside while he marched on the South. Yet, it is important to recognize that Sung had sought for years to reunite Korea under his rule. The Acheson speech likely served as just one more justification to invade South Korea, rather than the sole reason.
In July 1945, at the Potsdam conference, President Truman and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin agreed to establish two zones of military occupation on the Korean peninsula. The 38th parallel acted as the dividing line between the two zones. The Soviet Red Army occupied the zone north of the 38th parallel, while the American army occupied the zone south of that line. The division of Korea at Potsdam, and the subsequent formation of separate regimes at Pyongyang and Seoul, temporarily stymied Kim Il Sung’s dream of a unified communist Korea. But in the winter and spring of 1950, Sung prepared for a war against South Korea that would forcibly reunite the country. On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army struck across the 38th parallel in a blitzkrieg operation. The speed and violence of the North Korean offensive caused the rapid collapse of South Korean defenses. Within days, NKPA troopers marched through the South Korean capital. But the North Koreans did not stop there. Their army drove on toward the south, hoping to push the South Korean army, and its American advisors, into the Sea of Japan. Recognizing the gravity of the situation in South Korea, and the very real prospect of the country’s complete seizure by the communists, President Truman wasted no time in committing U.S. ground forces to the Korean peninsula. Their job was to stop the NKPA and preserve South Korea as a Western outpost on the Asian mainland.
The North Korean invasion of South Korea brought home to the Truman administration the failure of nuclear deterrence. America’s nuclear arsenal did not dissuade the communists from launching a conventional invasion against an American ally. Unwilling to deploy nuclear weapons to stop the NKPD, Truman’s only other means of containing communism in Korea involved the deployment of conventional U.S. forces.
By October 1950, the U.S. had shoved the NKPA back above the 38th parallel. But rather than stop at the former dividing line, Truman authorized the advance of U.S. forces to the Yalu River, which served as the border between North Korea and the People’s Republic of China. By sending U.S. units to the Yalu, the president abandoned containment for a new policy of Rollback. Rollback entailed the rolling back of communist territory and its liberation by the forces of the West. Rollback represented an offensive strategy vis a vis global communism, instead of the previous defensive strategy of containment.
As U.S. units marched northward, Chinese foreign minister Chou En Lai issued repeated warnings thru third-country intermediaries to the Truman administration to keep American troops away from the Yalu River or risk Chinese intervention in Korea. The Chinese wanted a geographical buffer between themselves and the American Army. Mao and Chou had concluded that an American expeditionary force on China’s border posed too much of a threat to the regime in Beijing. But Truman and his military chiefs dismissed the Chinese warnings. Some in the administration actually hoped the Chinese would come into the war, so that the U.S. would then have an excuse to militarily punish the Chinese communists, who were referred to derisively as “Chicoms,” for their supposedly bellicose attitudes.
By early November, American troops peered across the wide, sandy Yalu into communist China. Only days later, the Chinese entered the war. At first, small Chinese units crossed the Yalu to confront the Americans. In all likelihood, these Chinese forces were to act as a further warning to the Americans to back away from the Yalu. But the Americans did not heed these warnings either. Instead, U.S. troops continued to stream north toward the Yalu. Eventually, the Chinese decided to forcibly push the Americans away from the banks of the Yalu. In late November and December 1950, Mao ordered hundreds of thousands of “volunteers” to cross the Yalu and smash the American expeditionary force. Outnumbered American units quickly fell back. In what turned out to be one of the greatest debacles in U.S. military history, one American unit after another caught what was referred to at the time as “Bug Out Fever,” which involved a pell-mell dash to the south. By early 1951, U.S. forces had retreated south of the 38th parallel. Seoul once again fell to the communists. Not until the summer of 1951 did the U.S. stabilize the front line at the former dividing line at the 38th parallel.
After the disaster that befell the American military in Korea in the winter of 1950-1951, Truman decided to return to a containment strategy on the peninsula. From then on, U.S. forces would attempt to hold the line at the 38th parallel. Rollback had proven too costly for the United States. Not only had it resulted in the deaths of thousands of troops, it had increased the likelihood of a global war with the Soviet Union. Plus, Rollback had made the prospect of a favorable end to the Korean War more remote. China, with its inexhaustible manpower pool, would be a far more difficult adversary to defeat than the North Koreans. Rollback had been one of Truman’s greatest foreign policy blunders, on a par with his decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even though U.S. intelligence predicted the imminent collapse of the Japanese war effort without the necessity of an American invasion of the home islands or the deployment of atomic weapons. Although he would not publicly admit that he had made a mistake in agreeing to Rollback, Truman knew it had been a disastrous decision. This is why in early 1951 he tried to rectify the mistake by insisting on a limited war strategy. Not coincidentally, Truman’s decision to fire the overly aggressive General Douglas MacArthur in April 1951 signaled the president’s new, limited approach to the conflict. The U.S. would never again go north of the 38th parallel and it would not again practice a Rollback strategy until the administration of the Ronald Reagan.
In the fall of 1950, with the conflict in Korea weighing on his mind, Truman adopted the recommendations of NSC-68. He believed that Korea had proven the need for a remilitarization program. The U.S. defense budget rose from $127.8 billion in 1949 to $437 billion by 1953 (1996 dollars) [www.academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu]. Part of the increase funded the war in Korea. But billions of additional dollars went into other programs, including the modernization of the Air Force and Army.
During the 1950s, economic and military containment became the philosophical foundation of U.S. foreign policy. Containment policy shaped war planning, the location of overseas bases, troop deployments, and appropriations. It determined the modalities of mutual defense pacts, such as NATO and SEATO. It influenced the contents of foreign economic aid packages. It shaped which nations received U.S. aid. The U.S. overseas empire rested on containment. From the American point of view, world order depended on containment and communist acceptance of it.
To force communist compliance with containment, successive U.S. administrations threatened the Soviet Union, China, and their communist allies with military action. For example, in 1953, the Eisenhower administration threatened China with nuclear annihilation unless it ended the war in Korea and accepted the 38th parallel as the demarcation line. JFK risked war with the Soviet Union in order to maintain the U.S. position in Berlin, Germany. In 1962, JFK threatened war in Laos in order to check Russian influence in that small country.
Containment policy sought to stabilize the international order by freezing the geographic systems of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. American leaders wanted to keep the geography of the two empires inflexible because they feared that without static, stable borders between the two superpowers, there existed the potential for conflict as one side or other vied for influence in a contested zone. In American foreign policy circles, geographical stasis equaled international security. Without stasis, the two superpowers risked war. In the nuclear age, war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. would almost certainly end with Armageddon.
The U.S. had to have a large military force to ensure communist compliance with containment. Without an imposing deterrent force, conventional and nuclear, the communists, so thought the Americans, would seek to undermine containment and the U.S. imperial system, leading to confrontations over territory and then to nuclear war. U.S. officials saw themselves as repeatedly having to convince the communists to comply with containment. This explains why U.S. officials believed the communists were intent on world instability. They equated containment with security and efforts to undermine it as dangerous and brazen. American leaders saw the communists as aggressive, purveyors of disorder, and untrustworthy. Conversely, U.S. leaders perceived themselves as the guarantors of peace and order. They viewed containment policy as the primary means of preventing World War III and the destruction of the globe.
South Vietnam’s land, resources, and population were not vital to U.S. national security, but the country became central to the U.S.’s foreign policy as a symbol of the viability of the containment policy. Every president from Ike through Nixon believed that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, containment would no longer serve as a credible policy. Successive U.S. presidents also believed that in the absence of communist compliance with containment, the Soviets and the Americans were more likely to confront one another in a global war, because the Soviets or one of their proxies would be emboldened to challenge the U.S. elsewhere. General Maxwell Taylor, who served as a key advisor to two presidents on Vietnam and who’s thoughts reflect the mindset of top officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, summed up this line of reasoning, “The Sino-Soviet bloc is watching attentively the course of events in South Vietnam to see whether subversive insurgency is indeed the form which the “wave of the future” will take. Failure in Southeast Asia will destroy U.S. influence throughout Asia and severely damage our standing elsewhere throughout the world. It would be the prelude to the loss or neutralization of all of Southeast Asia and the absorption of that area into the Chinese empire [Kinnard, The War Managers, 19, Beschloss, Taking Charge, 266, 394]. South Vietnam had to be held or the repercussions for world peace were huge.
In 1954, soon after the Geneva Conference, Eisenhower spoke to the American press on the situation in Indochina. He stated that the recently partitioned Vietnam resembled other areas of the world divided by the Cold War. He compared southern Vietnam to West Germany and South Korea. In making that comparison, Eisenhower signaled his intention to contain communism at the 17th parallel. His news conference warned Hanoi, Beijing, and Moscow to keep their hands off South Vietnam or risk war with the United States.
In order to contain the Vietnamese communists at the 17th parallel, the United States Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Saigon trained and armed a conventional South Vietnamese army. Its primary task, like that of the American armies in West Germany and South Korea, was to halt a conventional communist invasion. It was an army designed for a defensive containment strategy. U.S. war plans involving Indochina called for a combined U.S.-South Vietnamese defense of South Vietnam against either a PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam, also known to U.S. officialdom as the North Vietnamese Army) conventional force or a combined Chinese/PAVN conventional army. At the time, U.S. officials had little reason to believe the DRV (Democratic Republic of Vietnam, also known as North Vietnam) would attempt to conquer South Vietnam through an insurgency. The available intelligence data pointed to a conventional invasion across the 17th parallel.
In the final stages of the war against the French, the Viet Minh had progressed from a guerrilla army to a main force army. Their main force army, employing standard siege tactics, defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. At the end of the 1st Indochina War, the majority of guerrillas south of the 17th parallel regrouped to the DRV. Once back in the North, those guerrillas were integrated into the DRV’s conventional force structure. Although several thousand communist guerrilla cadre stayed behind in the South, a large communist guerrilla army did not exist in the South in the 1950s.
In the wake of the Geneva Accords, the DRV expanded the ranks of its conventional army. It included regular companies, battalions, regiments, and divisions. These units were armed with Russian and Chinese weapons. The North’s force structure, weapons, and tactical doctrine indicated that if the North attempted to take South Vietnam it would do so with a conventional invasion. Consequently, the U.S. trained and equipped the ARVN to meet that perceived threat.
In 1959, Ho Chi Minh and his cohorts on the Politburo decided to wage war against the Saigon regime and its American backers. But rather than carry out a conventional cross-border invasion of South Vietnam, the communist leadership opted for a strategy of protracted guerrilla war against the South. The Saigon regime would be toppled, and the country reunited, through the use of hit-and-run operations, selective terrorism, political agitation, and propaganda.
It is not surprising that the communist leaders in Hanoi rejected a conventional war strategy against the South. South Vietnam’s environment does not lend itself to an overland invasion from the north. In central and northern South Vietnam, a series of east-flowing rivers, along with a number of high mountain ridgelines (which run from west to east) act as major physical obstacles to the southward advance of an invading army. A PAVN conventional force, attempting to cross South Vietnam’s rivers would be slowed down or completely halted while it prepared for the cumbersome task of conducting a river crossing. The resultant delays in the invading army’s southward advance would make it possible for U.S. air power to congregate in the skies above the communist force. That airpower would in-turn decimate communist units. Moreover, while communist forces waited to cross South Vietnam’s rivers, U.S. ground forces could launch destructive counterattacks. South Vietnam’s high mountain passes would have an effect on an invading army much like South Vietnam’s rivers. A communist army would be slowed or stopped altogether as it attempted to traverse the passes. Again, any delay in the southward march of the communist force would make it vulnerable to U.S. airstrikes. What was even worse from the communist perspective was the fact that the passes would concentrate communist troops along narrow, highly visible highways, ensuring easy targets for U.S. aircraft. For example, the winding highway that overtopped Hai Van Pass north of Da Nang would slow a communist mechanized army to a crawl, while the U.S. naval forces in Da Nang harbor and the U.S. airplanes at the Da Nang airbase mobilized to hit the communist troops bunched up on the slopes of Hai Van. Finally, an invading communist army, moving down the narrow coastal plain, would be subject to withering gunfire from not only U.S. warships cruising in the waters just offshore but also from carrier-based aircraft patrolling the skies. The communists recognized that American naval and air forces would likely destroy their conventional army long before it ever reached Saigon.
Ho Chi Minh, Le Duan, and Nyugen Giap learned a number of lessons from the war in Korea. One of the biggest lessons of that earlier war related to logistics and lines of communication. From 1950 to 1953, American airpower took a heavy toll on North Korean and Chinese supply lines. The successful interdiction of southbound supplies on the Korean peninsula hindered the offensive capabilities of the communist armies facing the Americans. The Vietnamese communists decided that supplies for military operations needed to be pre-positioned, placed out in front of the troops before the battle, rather than moved up to the troops from the rear during the battle. Creating a “logistical nose” rather than a “logistical tail” offered a greater measure of insurance against air interdiction by the Americans. Thus, front-line troops would have the supplies necessary to carry out the battle or campaign rather than having the battle derailed because of American air interdiction.
The Hanoi regime was also acutely aware of the potential for a U.S. Inchon-type landing behind the lines of an invading PAVN force. If the PAVN invaded down South Vietnam’s coastal plain, U.S. amphibious forces could land behind the advancing communist army, cutting it off from its sources of supply and from its reinforcements in the North. If that occurred, the invading army would wither and die in the South, just as the NKPA did at Pusan, South Korea, after MacArthur landed the U.S. Marines at Inchon in September 1950. A conventional invasion down the coastal plain played to U.S. advantages. It invited communist defeat.
The only other invasion route into South Vietnam lay through Laos. Communist units could pass from the DRV into Laos via the Mu Ghia and Ben Karai passes, skirt the western border of South Vietnam, and then turn east from Laos into South Vietnam, entering it through the highlands. This invasion route avoided U.S. naval power, eliminated the threat of an Inchon-like landing behind communist lines, and had the added advantage of limiting the effectiveness of U.S. airpower, since the weather, terrain, and vegetation in the highlands would afford communist troops both cover and concealment from patrolling American aircraft. In 1959, the Politburo rejected a conventional invasion of South Vietnam through Laos because neither a well-developed road network, nor a logistical base capable of supporting a conventional army, yet existed in the Laotian Panhandle.
Another reason the Politburo voted against any type of conventional invasion of South Vietnam, either through Laos or down the coastal plain, related to world opinion and the threat of U.S. intervention. The DRV wanted world public opinion on its side in its struggle against the Diem regime and its American supporters. A conventional invasion of the South would have been perceived by many not as an attempt to liberate the southern populace from a repressive regime, but as an act of blatant aggression. It would have earned the DRV the western world’s condemnation, as had the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950. Such an invasion might even persuade otherwise disinterested states, such as Great Britain, to join the U.S. in the defense of South Vietnam. The DRV wanted to isolate the U.S. in Vietnam, rather than take actions that garnered it allies. An insurgency, made up predominately of southerners, would be perceived on the world stage as a more legitimate expression of popular discontent against the American-backed Saigon regime. The choice to pursue an insurgency in the South was as much a public relations strategy as it was a military strategy. A war of national liberation in the South would win the DRV allies, while a conventional invasion would win the U.S. allies.
The Korean War showed that the United States would respond massively to a conventional communist cross-border invasion of an American ally. The DRV wanted to avoid direct U.S. intervention in Vietnam. The communists hoped that a protracted guerrilla war would keep the U.S. out of Vietnam. Such a war would be harder for the Americans to label as an invasion. A southern insurgency would also be harder to peg as a war instigated from the outside. A southern insurgency would conceal the DRV’s role in the South. It would be difficult for the Americans to brand an insurgency as communist aggression if most of the insurgency’s material support and manpower came from sources within South Vietnam. Additionally, Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues understood that the high-tech, equipment-bound Americans would have more difficulty defeating an insurgency than a conventional army. The Politburo hoped that the insurgency’s indigenous, popular character might dissuade the U.S. from committing its own ground troops to the suppression of the popular will of the South Vietnamese people. It was one thing for the Americans to defeat an invading communist army, but it was something altogether different, and morally ambiguous, for the democratically-inclined Americans to defeat an insurgency that reflected widespread popular support.
Article 11 of the 1954 Geneva Accords referred to Vietnam as one country, not two. All the great powers agreed to this geographical interpretation. Only the U.S. refused to accept it. Later, the organization charged with supervising the provisions of the Accords, the International Control Commission (ICC), denoted the areas north and south of the division line at the 17th parallel as re-groupment zones, rather than as North or South Vietnam [Gettleman, American and Vietnam, 69]. The ICC viewed the re-groupment zones as temporary expedients. The zones served as a means of physically separating the belligerents, of ending combat, and of allowing for the peaceful withdrawal of the French expeditionary corps from Vietnam. Article 6 of the Geneva Accords made it clear that “…the military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary” [Williams, America in Vietnam, 169].
The zones were slated to exist only until July 1956. At that time, national elections would be held throughout Vietnam. Those elections would establish a new government with the authority to rule over a re-united Vietnam. In 1954, neither the Vietnamese in the southern re-groupment zone nor those living in the northern zone considered Vietnam to be two distinct nation states. Ngo Dinh Diem, the American appointed head of the southern zone stated, “We [the South Vietnamese] are not bound in any way by these Agreements [Geneva Accords], signed against the will of the Vietnamese people. Our policy is a policy of peace, but nothing will lead us astray from our goal: the unity of our country – a unity in freedom and not in slavery” [Gettleman, Vietnam and America, 104] To all nationalistic Vietnamese, both communist and non-communist, the country remained indivisible, regardless of the partition at the 17th parallel. Both the Viet Minh and the pro-western Vietnamese in the South (who were mostly Catholic) feared the 1954 partition would be made permanent.
Immediately after the signing of the Geneva Accords, the Eisenhower administration worked to undermine the idea of Vietnamese national unity. It did this by first installing a separate regime in Saigon under the leadership of the monkish Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem came to power without any popular mandate whatsoever. He was not elected to office. His power base rested not on popular support, but on American economic and military aid. At the same time, the U.S. began calling the southern zone the Republic of Vietnam, which was a ploy to enhance the legitimacy of the southern government. It was a stretch to consider the southern area a republic. Its barely functioning government was really a dictatorship propped up by a foreign power. In 1955 and 1956, the Eisenhower administration encouraged Diem to reject talks with Ho Chi Minh on a series of issues, including the 1956 elections, inter-zonal travel across the demarcation line at the 17th parallel, and economic cooperation. Ike and Dulles urged Diem to scuttle the national elections scheduled for July 1956. The Americans knew that genuine national elections would lead to the election of a communist government in Vietnam, with Ho Chi Minh as the reunited country’s first president.
By the time of the Kennedy administration, the State Department referred to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as North Vietnam and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) as South Vietnam. This was a simple, and effective, means of distinguishing the Vietnamese in the north from their southern brethren. U.S. officials even declared the citizens of the DRV as North Vietnamese and those of the RVN as South Vietnamese, as if there existed two separate peoples in Vietnam. There had always been regional, cultural, and linguistic differences in Vietnam, but never had the people north of the 17th Parallel been considered distinct from those in the South. There had always been only one Vietnamese people. Yet, the Americans now insisted on two. The Americans needed such distinctions in order to frame the intensifying war in the South as an act of aggression by one nation against another, by North Vietnam against South Vietnam, rather than as a Vietnamese struggle against a foreign power (which is how the communists framed the war).
To JFK and his hawkish Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, it did not matter that the Vietnamese communists did not consider their war in the South an act of aggression. The Americans were unwilling to accept the communist view that the southern insurgency was a war of national liberation against an invading foreign power and its Saigon puppets. As the Vietnamese communists saw it, the presence of communist forces in the South could not be an act of aggression by one nation against another, since Vietnam remained one country. South Vietnam was entirely an American creation and without the American presence, it would cease to exist. Thus, the communists defined the struggle in the South as a war of liberation against an outside force, the United States.
Throughout the early and middle 1960s, the U.S. made every effort to portray the PAVN fighting in the South as an invading army, or as in the case of the Viet Cong, an army supported by an outside power. Leonard Unger, the American Deputy Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs in the State Department, summarized the U.S. perspective on the war in the South. On April 19, 1965, he told the Detroit Economic Club, “After the Communists’ open aggression failed in Korea, they had to look for a more effective strategy of conquest. They chose to concentrate on ‘wars of national liberation’ – the label they use to describe aggression directed and supplied from outside a nation but cloaked in nationalist guise so that it could be made to appear an indigenous insurrection…[yet] The simple issue is that military personnel and arms have been sent across an international demarcation line [the 17th parallel] (just as valid a border as Korea or Germany) contrary to international agreements and law to destroy the freedom of a neighboring people [Pentagon Papers, Volume III, 731-733]. But the communists never accepted how the U.S. framed the struggle in the South nor did they ever accept the imposition of the U.S.’s containment policy upon Vietnam’s geography.
At its most basic, the United States wanted the communists to accept the following: the existence of two separate Vietnamese governments, the legitimacy of the unelected, dictatorial Diem regime, a permanent division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and the applicability of the U.S.’s containment policy to Vietnam. It almost goes without saying that the Americans were asking a lot from the communists. But successive U.S. administrations believed that the U.S., as the most powerful nation on earth, could impose its containment policy, and the geographical manifestations of that policy, on small countries such as the DRV. But what would surprise the Americans, and cause them consternation for over a decade, was that the Vietnamese communists never accepted the American geographical system. In short, the communists considered the American insistence on the division of Vietnam as arrogant, tyrannical, and a manifestation of neo-colonialism. The division of the country ignored the will of the majority of the Vietnamese people.
In 1959, to mark its defiance of the U.S. geographical system, Hanoi launched its war of national liberation in the South, which sought to reunify the country under communist rule. Unable to reunify the country peacefully through the provisions of the Geneva Accords and the electoral process, the communists decided to achieve reunification through violence. The U.S. defined this war as an act of aggression directed by the North against the South. The Eisenhower and JFK administrations considered the war of national liberation as a threat to its creation – South Vietnam. But it was even more than that. The war challenged the validity of the containment policy, the U.S.’s conception of world order, and the U.S.’s standing as the most powerful nation on earth. American leaders feared that if the communists successfully defied the U.S. in South Vietnam, U.S. national security would be compromised across the globe. JFK stated on April 20, 1961, “…we face a relentless struggle in every corner of the globe that goes far beyond the clash of armies or even nuclear armaments. The armies are there, and in large number. The nuclear armaments are there. But they serve primarily as the shield behind which subversion, infiltration, and a host of other tactics steadily advance…We dare not fail to see the insidious nature of this new and deeper struggle. We dare not fail to grasp the new concepts, the new tools, the new sense of urgency we well need to combat it – whether in Cuba or South Viet-Nam” [Williams, America in Vietnam, 190] Kennedy warned that if the U.S. did not stand up to this new form of communist aggression, the U.S. would face a dire future – with its very survival at stake.
Successive U.S. administrations came to view the communist insurgency in the South as a movement directed from Hanoi, Beijing, and Moscow. U.S. officials purposely downplayed the indigenous character of the insurgency. Throughout his tenure as Secretary of State, Dean Rusk emphasized the role of the DRV in the war in the South. For example, on May 18, 1967, Rusk stated, “I hear it said that Viet-Nam is just a civil war, therefore we should forget about it, that it is only a family affair among Vietnamese. Well it’s quite true that among the Viet Cong and the National Liberation Front there is a large component of authentic Southerners who are in rebellion against the several authorities who have been organized in Saigon.” And in a statement that stretched the truth he claimed, “But those are not the people who explain the presence of American combat forces in South Viet-Nam…It was what the North is doing to the South that caused us to send combat forces there….” If Rusk is to be believed, the U.S. went into South Vietnam to stop the DRV rather than the Viet Cong [Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, 671].
Rusk repeatedly argued that without the DRV’s material support and its provision of trained cadres to the war in the South, the insurgency would wither and die. He even made the absurd assertion that if the North ceased its efforts in the South, the war “could be resolved peacefully, literally in a matter of hours” [Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, 671]. How peace would be achieved with so many Southerners still under arms against the Saigon regime was anyone’s guess. The Secretary of State went further by making the unfounded assertion that “There is no evidence that the Viet Cong has any significant popular following in South Viet-Nam. It relies heavily on terror. Most of its reinforcements in recent months have been North Vietnamese from the North Vietnamese army” [Pentagon Papers, Volume III, 735]
Contrary to Rusk’s assertions, a National Security Council working group on Vietnam noted only a few months earlier that the Viet Cong drew the bulk of its political and military influence from its supporters in the South. The working group reported that “The basic elements of Communist strength in South Vietnam remain indigenous: [these are] South Vietnamese grievances, war-weariness, defeatism, and political disarray; VC terror, arms capture, disciplined organization, highly developed intelligence systems, and ability to recruit locally; and the fact that the VC enjoys some status as a nationalist movement. The high VC morale is sustained by successes to date and by the receipt of outside guidance and support” [Pentagon Papers, Volume III, 653.
McNamara admitted in the spring 1965 that most of the Viet Cong were southern born. Even more damning to Rusk’s claims, the majority of arms for the insurgency came from captured ARVN stocks. In mid-1966, CIA National Intelligence Estimate 14.3-66 put the total communist military force in South Vietnam at between 260,000 and 280,000. Of that total, 38,000 were North Vietnamese troops. Thus, North Vietnamese made up between 13.6% and 14.7% of the total southern force. As these figures indicate, the insurgents in the South were mostly indigenous [Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, 325]. Because the insurgency drew its strength from the South’s people and natural resources, the Viet Cong could have continued the war without Hanoi’s material and manpower.
The DRV could have exerted pressure on the Viet Cong, but may not have been able to stop the insurgency, even if it had wanted to. Had Hanoi tried to end the insurgency, it risked losing its southern supporters. It would have also lost legitimacy amongst the northern populace. The communists claimed they were the only true nationalist voice within Vietnam. Their insistence on reunification was central to their nationalist credentials. Had the Hanoi regime abandoned the struggle to reunite the country, one of the primary reasons for its popularity would have vanished overnight. To accept partition would have threatened the stability of the communist regime. Thus, the U.S. insistence that the North accept partition, and end its support of the war in the South, was viewed in Hanoi as the equivalent of the DRV’s unconditional surrender. To accept partition may have meant the destruction of the Hanoi government.
By 1963, the U.S. had provided the Diem regime approximately $2 billion in aid. Without that aid, South Vietnam would have never existed as a state. The bulk of the aid went into the South Vietnamese military. It was the South Vietnamese armed forces that kept the Diem regime in power and ensured a government presence in the countryside. Ike, JFK, and later LBJ concluded that the destruction of South Vietnam, and the U.S. investment it represented, would have grave repercussions for the U.S.’s overseas standing. The collapse of South Vietnam would make a mockery of the U.S.’s efforts to establish a non-communist nation on China’s southern fringe. South Vietnam’s loss would raise doubts about America’s effectiveness in stemming the communist tide in Asia. If the U.S. could not stop communism after such a major military and economic commitment to South Vietnam, would the U.S. be able to stop it elsewhere? Vietnam became, as the investment increased incrementally, a symbol of U.S. power and prestige.
South Vietnam also became so important because of the competition between the U.S. and Soviet Union in the developing world, or what the hierarchy-loving Americans called the Third World. The U.S. had a stake in seeing South Vietnam succeed as an emerging state. Democratic-capitalism, as a model for the developing nations of the Third World, was on trial in South Vietnam. If South Vietnam fell to the communists, Third World countries would be more apt to turn to communism as a means of pursuing development.
But it was the communist war of national liberation that was perceived as the biggest threat to U.S. national interests. Since 1947, the U.S. had constructed its global security system around economic and military containment. The U.S. overseas empire rested on containment. Since the 1940s, the U.S. had upheld containment repeatedly against communist efforts to undermine it. In Korea, the U.S. had succeeded in checking communist expansionism with conventional military power. But in South Vietnam, the communists did not respect the U.S.-imposed border at the 17th parallel. Instead, they sought to expand communism into South Vietnam in a new, and to U.S. policymakers – dangerous way – through infiltration, subversion, terrorism, and political agitation.
Kennedy noted the danger that wars of national liberation, like the one being waged in South Vietnam, posed to the U.S., “This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origins – war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him…It requires in those situations where we must counter it…a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force….” [Krepinevich, Army and Vietnam, 30]. “New York Times” reporter David Halberstam, who opposed the conduct of the war but not the reasons for U.S. intervention in it, summarized the Kennedy administration’s thinking with regard to the war of national liberation being fought in South Vietnam and its relevance to U.S. national security. Halberstam wrote, “…withdrawal [from South Vietnam] means that throughout the world the enemies of the West will be encouraged to try insurgencies like the one in Vietnam. Just as our commitment in Korea in 1950 has served to discourage overt Communist border crossings ever since, an anti-Communist victory in Vietnam would serve to discourage so-called wars of liberation.” [Halberstam, Quagmire, 202]
The Viet Cong’s war of national liberation threatened to undermine the entire U.S. overseas security system. Secretary of State Rusk was the strongest proponent of this line of reasoning. On July 11, 1965, in an interview on ABC Television’s program “Issues and Answers,” Rusk stated that wars of national liberation, like the one in South Vietnam, threatened both the international order and world peace. He remarked, “Now this is utterly fundamental in maintaining the peace of the world, utterly fundamental. South Viet-Nam is important in itself, but Hanoi moved tens of thousands of people in there in the face of an American commitment of 10 years’ standing. Now, this is something that we cannot ignore because this begins to roll things up all over the world if we are not careful here.” ABC TV’s John Scali responds, “Is the converse not also true – if we stop the Communists in South Viet-Nam that it will make it considerably easier to achieve an enduring peace elsewhere?” Rusk replied, “Well, I think that one can say with reasonable confidence that both sides recognize that a nuclear exchange is not a rational instrument of policy and that mass divisions moving across national frontiers is far too dangerous to use as an easy instrument of policy, but now we have this problem of ‘wars of liberation’ and we must find a complete answer to that, and the other side must realize that the use of militancy, of men and arms across frontiers in pursuit of what they call ‘wars of liberation’ also is too dangerous” [Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, 632]. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara shared Rusk’s fears for world peace and the U.S.’s global order if South Vietnam fell to the communists as a result of the war of national liberation. In a hearing before the Senate on August 4, 1965, McNamara asserted, “Thus the stakes in South Viet-Nam are far greater than the loss of one small country to communism. Its [South Vietnam’s] loss would be a most serious setback to the cause of freedom and would greatly complicate the task of preventing the further spread of militant Asian communism. And, if that spread is not halted, our strategic position in the world will be weakened and our national security directly endangered” [Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, 634].
U.S. policymakers believed that if the war of national liberation succeeded in South Vietnam, it would be used elsewhere to undermine the U.S.’s containment policy. If that occurred, the destruction of containment as a policy would result in the downfall of the American constructed global order. The Americans feared that wars of national liberation would break out all over the globe. The communists would be emboldened by the failure of containment in Vietnam. If the U.S. could not halt the communists with containment, it would be forced to resort to extreme military measures to check future communist aggression, including the use of nuclear weapons, which would increase the likelihood of a general war between the United States and the Soviet Union and/or China. And so the U.S. had to stop the war of national liberation in South Vietnam. The communists had to be bludgeoned once more into accepting containment policy.
Another reason to uphold containment policy in Vietnam related to the American perception of U.S. power and the U.S.’s position in the hierarchy of nations. In the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. leaders viewed the United States as the top nation within the world’s hierarchy of nations. Since World War II, the U.S. had largely ordered the world. It had exerted its foreign policy influence partly because all the other nations of the world accepted U.S. leadership. That leadership rested on U.S. military and economic might. U.S. officials viewed the DRV as a small, insignificant country within the hierarchy nations. Its unwillingness to accept U.S. dictates was considered a clear challenge to U.S. global dominance and the U.S.’s status as the number one power. If a country of 17 million could defy the U.S. superpower, and get away with it, without punishment, respect for U.S. power would diminish and the U.S. would have trouble enforcing its dictates in the future. Vietnamese Professor Nguyen Khac Vien remarked that, “It [the Viet Cong and PAVN war of national liberation in South Vietnam] had to be crushed to serve as an example and to test all the various weapons, tactics and forms of military activity. It was necessary to suppress Vietnam so that fear of the U.S. could be maintained all over the world.” [Emerson, Winners and Losers, 111]. Simply put, the DRV’s defiance of the U.S. could not be allowed to stand. Because if the Vietnamese communists were successful in the South, their example would lead to future challenges to U.S. power.
Because the DRV did not voluntarily accept the U.S.’s containment policy, the U.S. decided to force it to accept it. DoD’s John McNaughton made an interesting statement on the need to punish the DRV for its defiance of U.S. dictates. McNaughton stated that the U.S. might ultimately lose in South Vietnam and be unable to contain the communists there, but if it did lose, it must be certain to make the communists pay an excessively high price for defying the will of the U.S. The U.S. must also ensure that other nations – both communist and non-communist – do not draw any lessons from the war in South Vietnam that might have an adverse effect on the U.S.’s global standing. McNaughton wrote on October 13, 1964, “It is essential – however badly SEA [Southeast Asia] may go over the next 2-4 years – that US emerge as a “good doctor.” We must have kept promises, been tough, taken risks, gotten bloodied, and hurt the enemy very badly. We must avoid appearances which will affect judgments by, and provide pretexts to, other nations regarding US power, resolve and competence, and regarding how the US will behave in future cases of particular interest to those nations” [Pentagon Papers, Volume III, 582]. He continued, “It follows that care should be taken to attribute any set-backs [in South Vietnam] to factors: a. Which cannot be generalized beyond South Vietnam (i.e. weak government, religious dissention, uncontrollable borders, mess left by the French, unfavorable terrain, distance from US, etc.) [Pentagon Papers, Volume, 583]. McNaughton wanted to make certain that any U.S. defeat in Vietnam would not encourage the defiance of other communist nations to the U.S.’s containment policy. To McNaughton, containment might be weakened by a U.S. loss in Vietnam, but a defeat in Vietnam did not have to spell the end of the policy. If the U.S. rained destruction down on the communists for challenging the policy, that destruction might discourage others from attempting to undermine containment. Thus, the policy would continue as an effective means of ordering the world. Maxwell Taylor shared McNaughton’s views. On November 27, 1964, he wrote that the U.S. can “Never let the DRV gain a victory in South Vietnam without having paid a disproportionate price” [Pentagon Papers, Volume III, 672. President Johnson – and later Nixon – followed the advice of McNaughton and Taylor. From 1965 to 1973, the U.S. pulverized North and South Vietnam with artillery and bombs, making the communists pay dearly for their defiance of the U.S.’s containment policy.