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The causes of the Vietnam War The Containment theory

Thecauses of the Vietnam War: The Containment theory

Throughoutcold war nothing shaped United States foreign policy than theperceived ‘movements’ which posed threat to the American securityand its economic pursuit in the international sphere. The Americanwrath especially at the start of cold war in 1945 was driven by thesheer rise of communist and communism ideologies. ‘Containmentpolicies’ were adopted by various American administrations in theprime of cold war. Vietnam War became the pawn through which strugglefor American interest and its distaste for communist expansionismtook place. The United States was prepared by all means to curtailSoviet Union expansionist influence and as such, the ‘containmentstrategy’ triggered and fuelled the exacerbation of Vietnam War.

Thecauses of Vietnam War derive from components, symptoms and effects ofcold war. The American administration was worried that communism wasexpanding fast in the South East Asia. The United States and theSoviet Union were in ‘cold war’ and the risk of attacking eachother with their nuclear might preempt greater disaster. In effectcold war was fought through proxy and client States. In Vietnam War,the United States fought directly but the USSR did so though armingits ally communist States like China who in turn supplied militaryweapons to the North Vietnamese to fight Americans.Trouble in Vietnam began before World War II when French and Chinesefought against the North and Southern Vietnams territories. TheFrench and the Americans were supporting the South Vietnams whileRussian and the eastern Europeans supported the North Vietnam whichdeveloped a classic cold war.

However,various United States Presidents failed to rally public aroundcommitment to Vietnam War which led to growth of antiwar movements.There were mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, electoralpolitics, petioning and countless collective and individual forms ofprotests. This antiwar movement dramatically influenced Americanpolicy locally and internationally in regard to Vietnam War.Nonetheless, American administrations feared communism more thanAmerican local protest and therefore, the ‘containment policy’was adapted to counter Soviet Union communism influence in the Asian,Eastern Europe, China, Korea, Africa, and Vietnam. It represented amedian position adopted by the United States between rollback andappeasement to USSR (Buzzanco 2006, pg 15).

‘Containment’strategy was first adopted in the 1917 after the Russian communismrevolution which led the western leaders call for isolation of theBolshevik administration for fear of worldwide revolution. In March1919, a call for ‘cordon sanitaire’ was made by non communiststates group to isolate USSR. President Woodrow Wilson referred thisact as ‘quarantine’ to Soviet Union communism ‘contagiousdisease’. The subsequent attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese was aresult of U.S. efforts to contain Japan expansion to Asia in(1937-41).

‘Containmenttheory’ was first used by President Harry Truman in (1945-53)policies in the establishment of Mutual Defense pact and the NorthAtlantic Organization (NATO). It is also associated with PresidentDwight Eisenhower (1953-61) whose doctrine refused to intervene inthe Hungarian war, President Lyndon Johnson 1963-69, justified hispolicies on Vietnam War under containment theory (James &amp James,1989, pg 287).

UnderHenry Kissinger advice, President Nixon (1969-74) adopted the‘détente’ policy to relax tensions with the Soviet Union onnuclear arms. The policy sought to enhance strategic Arms Limitationtalks and promote more cultural and trade ties between the tworivalry nations. In 1977-81, the United States under President JimmyCater, dropped his stance on human rights and returned toanticommunism containment when the USSR attacked Afghanistan in the1979. President Reagan 1981-89, escalated the cold war tension bydenouncing USSR as an ‘Evil empire’ promoting a roll back in theNicaragua and Afghanistan invasion. Throughout the cold war, the NATOand the nuclear deterrence programs were established mainly under thepremise of containment theory adopted by the Americans as deterrenceto future unwarranted expansionism by USSR and maintain balance ofpower (George et l, 1987, pg 275).


Theanimated communist expansion by the Soviet Union worried the UnitedStates that, USSR would impose its authority to the rest of theworld. New communist governments were increasingly merging with theSoviet Empire. Under the doctrine of containment the United Stateswanted to limit and erode the presence of non aligned nations whichwere considered neutral and possible target to the USSR impedingcommunism expansion. Therefore, U.S felt threatened by this empireconsidering the nuclear capability of the Soviet Union. In numerousoccasions the USSR, had showed open enmity to the United States. Forinstance, in 1959, the Soviet Premier Khrushchev, had openly declaredto the United States President Nixon that USSR would ‘bury’ United States. As such undermining the Soviet expansionism was follyand containment was the only strategy to limit its influence (James &ampJames, 1989, pg 267).

Thedominion theory this theory argued that if a nation (Vietnam) fellto Communists other neighboring nations would fall to the communistslike dominos. After WW II, Ho Chi Mihn became the leader of the NorthVietnam and established cordial allies with the United Statesespecially in fighting the Japanese expansion. In addition Ho’s hadcordial communist relations and this raised growing concern to theUnited States. President Truman feared that political charges fromextreme anti communist proponent would rise against hisadministration for ‘soft’ stance on communist allies (James &ampJames, 1989, pg 277).

Furthermore,French wanted to restore its colonial empire in the Vietnam, theFrench at that time had a strong communist party and this increasedfear to United States that communist would gain more power throughFrance. In this respect, the United States stood to its containmentdoctrine that did not recognize connection to communist states. Afterthe Geneva Convention, in 1954, Vietnam had been divided into twonations where the treaty specified free elections to decide thecountries fate. However before election, the South Vietnamesedeclared its pro American stand and refused to hold election insupport of Ho Chi Minh and declared themselves anti communist. Thiswas aimed to get American aid and support in retaliation foraggressions from North. America backed the Southern Vietnamese anddiplomatically recognized the nation (George et l, 1987, pg 245).

America’scontainment response to the Vietnam War developed out of need forEuropean security and Japanese recovery. Fear of emerging communistparties and trade unions in Western Europe especially in France leadthe United States to acquiesce France control of Vietnam. The majorpowers saw Vietnam as a country where they would promote theirinterests and those of allies. After the World War II, the UnitedSates saw it as its prerogative to reconstruct its former allies likeJapan and Germany along its capitalist ideals. Its efforts were tocreate a world of liberal order and smaller countries in the regionlike Vietnam became of significant interest in its efforts. As suchdeveloping Vietnam along anti communist lines would help countrieslike France and Japan recreate along capitalistic line (Buzzanco2006, pg 25).

Economicand capitalismafterword war II, the United State emerged as the strongest economy and assuch it focused its efforts on rebuilding European and Asian allies.This was important as recovery of these nations meant more trademarkets for its goods as well as fixing the dollar gap for theEuropeans. Vietnam was therefore important to the United States fordual reasons providing raw materials and a source of dollar to theFrench, secondly communism directly touched Vietnam in the Asianpart. There had been two communist insurgents after World War IIwhich were directed at European colonial powers the Malaya againstthe British and the Vietnamese against the French. In thiscontestation, the United States sought to contain these nationalistcommunist movements in order to develop capitalist markets.

TheU.S. foreign policy on communist containment was based on the need tocontain Soviet Union hostility towards western democracies. In orderto lower the influence of the

SovietsUnion and its communism expansion the United States and its alliesneeded to adopt a policy of firm containment against the expansion ofcommunism and this required the use of military might if necessary.The USSR had only one political party which had never facilitatedlegitimate transfer of power people were not allowed to participatein government or elect own leaders. Soviet Union was thereforepragmatically and politically diverse from the American democraticideals. Based on this, the U.S. picked its allies in regard to itsnew containment policy especially at the onset on communism. Thisexplains why in the Vietnamese war, in a rush to contain communism,promoting freedom, liberty, and democracy U.S. propped up a dictatorin South Vietnam without free elections and other essentials of ademocracy. Nothing was at stake for the U.S. government in stoppingthe spread of communism (James &amp James, 1989, pg 269).

TheUnited States under NSC-68 had mandate to protect NATO allies fromthe Soviet threat. Therefore, the Western democracies attempted tostop Soviet expansionism to third world countries through containmentstrategy. In particular, the United States used economic sanctionsagainst the Soviet Union and its communist allies as an economicinstrument of power containment doctrine. Nations used diplomatic,military and economic mighty as instruments of power against eachother during the Cold War. United States was ideally opposed tocommunism ideals and communist expansionism (Buzzanco 2006, pg 45).

However,the critical instrument used by both sides to influence theirpolitical objectives was a massive buildup of nuclear weapons anddeterrence was the strategy used during the cold war. They supportedthird world nations in fighting unlimited conflicts like in theVietnam War. The scope of Cold War was not aimed to move beyondEurope, but it did largely due to the Western leader’s belief inthe ‘Domino Theory’ which had much relation with containmenttheory. Falling of one nation to the communist was therefore seen bythe United States as danger to its security (James &amp James, 1989,pg 234).


TheVietnam War was largely as a result of containment policies adoptedby the various American administrations to contain Soviet Unioninfluence. Vietnam War was the battle field where the two hegemonicpowers fought their ideological wars at the expense of Vietnam’snational interests. The United States containment policy caused andexacerbated Vietnam War due to perception that the animatedcommunist expansion by the Soviet Union would lead to the Communistpower imposing its authority worldwide, the dominion fear held byAmericans, America’s containment response to the Vietnam War andthe need for European security and Japanese recovery (Buzzanco 2006,pg 56).

Furthermore,French wanted to restore its colonial empire in the Vietnam, theFrench at that time had a strong communist party and this increasedfear to United States that communist would gain more power throughFrance. The United States economic interests in the Eastern Europeand Asia required containing Soviet Union communist ideologies, itshostility towards western democracies and protecting NATO allies(James &amp James, 1989, pg 267).

Howeverin the Vietnam War, the United States failed to realize that the RedTide of communism were not similar as perceived it to be. Forinstance the communist government in Russia was not similar to thecommunist government of Mao in China. The Vietnamese did not have anyinterest in communism or capitalism, their interest was struggletowards independence. The war in Vietnam should have been seen as anationalistic movement and not as a continuation of the communistspreading across Asia and this maybe explains why the United Stateslost while the Vietnams worn and embraced communist ideologies(Jeffrey, 1966, pg 123).


BuzzancoRobert, ‘The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1968 Capitalism,Communism and Containment, (2006) Retrieved on, March 31st2014, fromhttps://ohiostatepress.org/Books/Complete%20PDFs/Hahn%20Empire/06.pdf

GeorgeOsborn, Asa Clark, Daniel Kaufman, and Douglas Lute, ‘Democracy,Strategy,

andVietnam Implications for American Policymaking’,1987, p218-255, Toronto: Lexington Books.

JamesNathan and James Oliver, ‘UnitedStates Foreign Policy and World Order’,1989, p55-283

Universityof Delaware, Delaware Harper Collins Publishers.

JeffreyA. Belanger, ‘Causes of the Vietnam War: An Academic Look atWilsonism and Cold War Effects, AU/ACSC/99-1966/ 1999-011, Retrievedon, March 31st2014, from http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a395216.pdf