What role did domestic politics play in the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy?

Updated: Feb 27

By Aleysha Shergill - History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford

 

Historiography on the Vietnam War has come a long way from an initial focus on the necessity of American intervention in Vietnam to stop the global spread of communism. A move away from a sole focus on the politics of the Cold War has allowed for a corresponding analysis of the role of domestic politics and its impact on the outcome of the Vietnam War.


Firstly, it is important to acknowledge the geopolitical context of the Cold War. Some historians have interpreted American foreign policy and military intervention in Vietnam as an imperial project, as America sought to uphold its global dominance amidst concerns that communism might become the world’s dominant ideology. Even before the escalation of the Vietnam war, President Eisenhower espoused his belief in domino theory, which saw Vietnam as a gateway country that would lead to the spread of communism in neighbouring countries, including Laos, Cambodia, and Burma. This explains Eisenhower’s decision to support the Diem regime in the newly created state of South Vietnam, sending 16,000 American advisors to help organise the South Vietnamese army.


Historians such as R.B. Smith have also stressed the importance of growing Chinese and Soviet interest in Vietnam. According to this view, President Johnson’s decision to Americanise the war in Vietnam was the result of a global power struggle. Johnson was motivated by a core belief that the conflict in Vietnam remained vital to contain communism, and the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 provided the event needed to legitimise an increase in the number of marine and combat troops sent to Vietnam.


THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT ON US SOIL


However, it is also important that historians focus on the role played by the anti-war movement, which picked up momentum in 1967 and became a critical factor in developing the US approach to Vietnam. After the start of Operation Rolling Thunder, college campuses became the locus of the anti-war movement. Supported by the Students for a Democratic Society organisation, campus demonstrations spread quickly across the country.


The military was also the locus of widespread anti-war activity, and many men and women in the army spoke out against the war in GI anti-war newspapers. This included the publication of black soldiers’ experiences of racism in all branches of military service and an analysis of the relationship between the war they were being asked to fight and their own struggles for liberation at home. The GI anti-war movement also made connections with the civilian movements and worked closely with college campuses. In 1969, a fresh influx of members also led the group ‘Vietnam Veterans Against the War’.


Significantly, Vietnam was the first war covered extensively on US television. The impact of increasingly negative media portrayals of the war was also reflected in the polls. They revealed that by August 1967, only one-third of the US public supported Johnson’s handling of the war. A turning point in the conflict was the 1968 January Tet Offensive, which shattered illusions of progress. Together the anti-war protests and television coverage forced Johnson’s hand, and on 31st March he announced a partial halt in the bombing of North Vietnam, called for negotiations, and declared that he would not seek another term as president.


This shift in public opinion also influenced Nixon’s presidential campaign and Nixon announced his plan for American withdrawal through ‘Vietnamisation’: an American-funded increase of the Army of South Vietnam to over a million men and the provision of large quantities of new equipment. Nixon also oversaw a withdrawal of 50,000 troops to deescalate the war on the ground. However, the limits of domestic politics' influence on foreign policy are shown through Nixon’s decision to escalate the air war. He also moved the air and ground war to Cambodia after South Vietnamese insurgents launched a spring offensive in February 1969. His response was to order the secret bombing of enemy enclaves in Cambodia.


Nixon’s actions led to the resurgence of the peace movement, including the march on Washington in November 1969. Rattled by these protests, Nixon announced his intention to have all troops out of Cambodia by the end of June 1970. Combined with the Winter Soldier hearings of 1970 and the release of the ‘Pentagon papers’ in June 1971, the administration decided to drop in the initial demand that all North Vietnamese forces be withdrawn from South Vietnam and negotiations were resumed in July 1972.


Therefore, the involvement of the US in the Vietnam War was initially driven by the wider geopolitical context of the Cold War. However, the anti-war movement also had its part to play in Johnson’s decision to deescalate the war, and Nixon’s pledge to bring the ground war in Vietnam to a close. Public opinion on the Vietnam war decisively shifted after 1967, forcing the hand of the federal government.



Further reading:


1. Carl Hess ‘The unending debate: historians and the Vietnam War,’ Diplomatic History 18 (Spring 1994)

2. Daniel Lucks, ‘African American soldiers and the Vietnam War: no more Vietnams’ The Sixties 10: 2 (2017): 196-220

3. David Kaiser American tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the origins of the Vietnam War (2000)

4. John Dumbrell Vietnam: American Involvement at Home and Abroad (1992)

5. Marilyn Blatt Young and Robert Buzzanco, A Companion to the Vietnam War (2002)

6. Robert McMahon, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War (2003)