The single most important factor in understanding the United States involvement in Vietnam is fear. In the years leading to the Vietnam Conflict the United States was immersed in paranoia toward Communist Russia and the communist movement as a whole.
This paranoia has its roots in the depression of the nineteen thirties and was fueled by the exploits of men like MacCarthy and other politicians who saw this as an opportunity to further their careers or push policies. This paranoia was the most important factor in the entrance of the US into the conflict in Southeast Asia. During the years proceeding World War II the United States found itself one of the two most powerful nations in the world. This position placed Americans at odds with their rival country, the Soviet Union, on almost all fronts. These two countries now found themselves locked into a passive conflict not only of military might, but of social and ideological values.
There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans….Each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.
Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835The rise of these two nations as leaders and rivals was seen as early as Tocqueville, but was this vision was not realized until the end of WWII where the two nations developed as ideological opposites. Now because of these ideological and cultural differences, and the growing equality of the military might of the tow nations, the American people began to fear the Soviets as a threat the American culture and our way of life.The American mistrust of the Soviet Union starts during the last days of the march on Berlin during the war.
In a letter to Stalin from President Roosevelt on February 6, 1945 he wrote:You must believe me when I tell you that our people at home look with a critical eye on what they consider a disagreement between us at this vital stage of the war. They in effect say that if we cannot get a meeting of minds now when our armies are converging on the common enemy, how can we get an understanding on even more vital things in the future.It was the growing mistrust of this relatively new communist nation that led to the eventual fear of a global conflict between the two ideologies. This fear that was beginning to grip the American public was not only due the increasing military threat of the Soviet Union but also for fear of another internal economic crisis. The majority of the American population during this period directly experienced the great depression of the nineteen thirties the prosperity that proceeded it.
Now America was in a state of postwar prosperity again and the standard of living had dramatically increased for the majority of the American public over the past twenty years. This rising middle class now saw their improved economic independence being threatened not only from a domestic economic disaster but also from a new outside force, Communism. Communism to the American people was a threat to the American dream, the American way of life, and most important to the basic freedoms and values that this country was founded upon.
This new force made its presence felt both at home and abroad, manifesting itself in the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party.Communism was now seen as a threat to our national security but to the American way of life. This fear was then played upon by politicians, and solidified by the USSRs arms build up and consolidation of new soviet-bloc nations, as well as propaganda portraying the soviets as Goddless Commies that are seeking to rule the world and rid it of freedom and religion. Politicians at home played upon this fear with rhetoric and speeches such as the 1950 Republican Party Slogan Liberty vs. Socialism. This kind of political exploitation of the publics fears is not uncommon among and democratic nation, but in this particular case it became much more than that.The use of the fears of the people in this case became a serious matter.
The height of this paranoia came when Senator MacCarthy began hearings on communism and he systematically hunted down those who he felt were communists living and working in the US in government and in the private sector. In his famous speech he stated:I have here in my hand a list of 205 — a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.”nSenator Joseph R.
McCarthy, Feb. 9, 1950, Wheeling, W. Va.
This marked the beginning of what democrats of the time called MacCarthyism. These investigations and trials ruined the reputation of many and even destroyed the careers of some innocent civilians in. Ethan Bronner of the New York Times writes:It is one of the most infamous speeches in American politics. Delivered just months after the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device — a replica of the American bomb right down to the bolts — and months before the Communist North invaded South Korea and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were charged with selling nuclear secrets to Moscow, Senator McCarthy’s words set off a period of political hysteria. It would be some time before the nation grasped that he not only had no scruples but that he also had no list. By then, many honorable Americans whose sentiments leaned to the left — among them, teachers and actors, journalists and Government functionaries — had lost their jobs in a witch hunt. This shows the seriousness with witch this scare was taken.
The fear that gripped the American public now had influenced government to the point where innocent people were being deprived of jobs and having their reputations ruined. It was at this time in American history that just the suspicion of leftist views could lose you your job. If one were merely accused of having associated with known or suspected communist then, that would be enough in some cases to spark an investigation.
This extreme action on the part of the federal government reflected the attitudes of the majority of the American public. This is will not be the last time that the government will use fear to sway public opinion.This fear of communism spreading and destroying the American way of life manifested itself in things such as the Domino Theory. This theory holds that if one country falls to communism then the others will follow like dominoes. This theory was a creation of the paranoia that pervaded the times.
To many the Korean War and the rise of communist China were reinforcements to the Red Scare and the Domino theory. It was during the height of this political frenzy and national hysterical over the growing fear of communism and the threat of a full scale nuclear war, that a revolution was staged in a little sliver of southeast Asian jungle. This small country was known as Vietnam. This revolution was waged against a failing French colonial government that was unable to provide for its people. The leader of this revolution was a man by the name of Ho Chi Min, a man with great respect and admiration for the west. Min openly asked for the support and recognition of the United States and the entire western world. The Constitution of the new republic proposed by Min was modeled after the US Declaration of Independence, and held to most of the ideal and values of the west.
This revolution could have been seen as a way to stop or disprove the domino theory, and gain an ally in the heart of what was becoming a communist portion of the globe. Instead the people of the United States in their paranoid frenzy and with a government only to happy to placate this fear, saw this as an attack on a friendly power (France). And Promised aid to the French in an attempt to recapture the country. Ho Chi Min who wanted to make the US and ally now finds himself their enemy.
He then declares his country a communist nation in order to solicit support for his cause and government in the Soviet Union and now communist China. This now small dispute becomes a global conflict where the United States ends up having to pull out without reaching the desired military goals, all because the people of the US were to afraid of losing what they had fought and worked so hard to achieve, that they turned what could have been a huge success of US foreign policy into one of the greatest blemishes on the united states government in over a century.The time that directly proceed the second world war was one of prosperity and growth for the people of the United States as well as for the country as a whole. The experience of the depression combined with the now looming threat of the Communist Soviet Union and the possibility of full-scale nuclear warfare, caused a mass panic in the hearts of the American people. By the nineteen fifties this began to manifest itself in government and the American foreign policy. It was this foreign policy created by the American paranoia of some impending doom, whether in the form of domestic economic disaster, foreign infiltration of our culture, or the onslaught of war, that caused the United States entrance into the Vietnam War.Rethinking MacCarthyism, not MacCarthy Bibliography:www.cc.columbia.edu/acis/bartley/inaugrual/press59.htmlhttp://cwihp.si.edu/cwihplib.nsf/la925f8256689006fl9d0?gopher://wiretap.spies.com/00/Gov/US-History/Vietnam/shite-paper.txtThe New York Times, Ethan Bronner