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date: 22 August 2017

Origins of the Vietnam War

Summary and Keywords

The origins of the Vietnam War can be traced to France’s colonization of Indochina in the late 1880s. The Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, emerged as the dominant anti-colonial movement by the end of World War II, though Viet Minh leaders encountered difficulties as they tried to consolidate their power on the eve of the First Indochina War against France. While that war was, initially, a war of decolonization, it became a central battleground of the Cold War by 1950. The lines of future conflict were drawn that year when the Peoples Republic of China and the Soviet Union recognized and provided aid to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi, followed almost immediately by Washington’s recognition of the State of Vietnam in Saigon. From that point on, American involvement in Vietnam was most often explained in terms of the Domino Theory, articulated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the eve of the Geneva Conference of 1954. The Franco-Viet Minh ceasefire reached at Geneva divided Vietnam in two at the 17th parallel, with countrywide reunification elections slated for the summer of 1956. However, the United States and its client, Ngo Dinh Diem, refused to participate in talks preparatory to those elections, preferring instead to build South Vietnam as a non-communist bastion. While the Vietnamese communist party, known as the Vietnam Worker’s Party in Hanoi, initially hoped to reunify the country by peaceful means, it reached the conclusion by 1959 that violent revolution would be necessary to bring down the “American imperialists and their lackeys.” In 1960, the party formed the National Liberation Front for Vietnam and, following Diem’s assassination in 1963, passed a resolution to wage all-out war in the south in an effort to claim victory before the United States committed combat troops. After President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he responded to deteriorating conditions in South Vietnam by militarizing the American commitment, though he stopped short of introducing dedicated ground troops. After Diem and Kennedy were assassinated in quick succession in November 1963, Lyndon Baines Johnson took office determined to avoid defeat in Vietnam, but hoping to prevent the issue from interfering with his domestic political agenda. As the situation in South Vietnam became more dire, LBJ found himself unable to maintain the middle-of-the-road approach that Kennedy had pursued. Forced to choose between escalation and withdrawal, he chose the former in March 1965 by launching a sustained campaign of aerial bombardment, coupled with the introduction of the first officially designated U.S. combat forces to Vietnam.

Keywords: Vietnam, France, United States, Ho Chi Minh, Viet Minh, domino theory, Le Duan, National Liberation Front, Gulf of Tonkin

America’s war in Vietnam lasted nearly eight years, from 1965 to 1973. It cost the United States over $150 billion and more than 58,000 lives. The number of Vietnamese lives lost is hotly debated, but estimates range from one to three million, including a staggering number of civilians. The conflict, waged by the United States and its South Vietnamese ally to prevent communist expansion in Southeast Asia, and by North Vietnam for national reunification and the advancement of international socialism, was a transformative event in world history. North Vietnam’s eventual victory left a lasting mark on U.S. foreign and domestic policy, altered the trajectory of the Cold War, established an appealing model for national liberation movements the world over, and left the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam diplomatically isolated as it struggled to establish workable peacetime domestic policies. This essay examines the origins of America’s Vietnam War, with particular attention to how a local postcolonial struggle for independence became one of the central battlegrounds of the Cold War.

Colonization to Independence

Between 1789 and 1802, Vietnam expelled its traditional Chinese enemy, and the Nguyen dynasty unified for the country for the first time within its modern-day borders. Civil strife beset the Nguyen dynasty from the outset, and by 1850 France had begun to colonize the country, a process completed by 1884. In 1893, it established the French Indochinese Union, comprising the protectorates of Cambodia, Laos, Tonkin (northern Vietnam), Annam (central Vietnam), and the colony of Cochinchina (southern Vietnam). This division into separate administrative units served France’s divide and rule strategy and had a significant impact on the development of Vietnamese nationalism and the course of the Vietnam War.

French rule was weakest in Tonkin and Annam, both poor in natural resources and of little value to the empire, and strongest in fertile Cochinchina, where France ruled directly and pursued extensive economic exploitation and cultural transformation. Of the 40,000 to 50,000 French to settle Indochina, the majority came to the south, as did most of the metropole ’s capital investment. Settlers flocked to Saigon, the “Paris of the Orient,” to establish rubber plantations along the Cambodian border and coffee plantations in the highlands. The French presence in Cochinchina led to the emergence of an affluent, French-educated Vietnamese bourgeoisie in Saigon that would provide the base of a moderate, non-violent reform movement seeking greater autonomy for Vietnam within the French Union.

France claimed to pursue a civilizing mission (mission civilisatrice) in Indochina, but contradictions quickly emerged between that publicly avowed goal and the more pragmatic objective of exploiting the resources of colonial territories for the benefit of the home country. French colonial policies proved profoundly disruptive to Vietnamese social and political organization at all levels. Colonial administrators replaced the Confucian based imperial system of governance with French control, leaving little room for Vietnamese people to occupy anything other than the lowest levels of bureaucracy. They refused to allow Indochinese peoples to develop their own political institutions, which might lead to the restoration of independence, and they devalued the Confucian learning that was so central to Vietnamese culture in favor of Western education. The French quickly moved to commercialize the economy while discouraging the development of an indigenous industrial and commercial sector that could compete with French imports. They created a huge rice industry in the Mekong Delta, operated large rubber and coffee plantations in the south, and mined for coal and minerals in the North. This commercialization of the economy disrupted traditional patterns of trade, forcing peasants and landlords to use cash rather than barter, which led many landless peasants into dependent tenancy and forced small land owners into staggering debt. This served not only to stratify rural land ownership, but also drove many peasants to volunteer for the types of forced labor described in Tran Tu Binh’s classic memoir, The Red Earth. The stark abuses that took place on French plantations, coupled with the cultural dislocation occasioned by French control, inspired a vibrant anticolonial movement.1

Resistance to French colonial rule emerged almost immediately among Vietnamese elites. The Can Vuong (Save the King) movement in the 1880s proved no match for French firepower and was almost immediately replaced by a second generation of anti-colonial reformers in the first decade of the 20th century. Patriotic nationalists strove to understand Vietnam’s humiliating subordination and turned to social Darwinism as they searched for ways to strengthen Vietnamese society as a means of reclaiming national honor and independence. Phan Chu Trinh, one of the leaders of Vietnam’s reform movement, saw reform and independence as a long process of social and cultural transformation. His contemporary, the more radical Phan Boi Chau, advocated a much quicker and more violent path to independence. Both of these men ended up in prison for their anti-French activities, and their fates helped inspire the next generation of radical political thinkers, most of whom were educated in French schools.2

By far the most influential of these radical nationalists to emerge in the 1920s was Ho Chi Minh. Ho, born around 1890, left Vietnam in his early twenties for an exile that would end up lasting nearly thirty years. During WWI he became a leading anti-colonial nationalist in Paris and was a founding member of the French Communist Party. He soon moved to Moscow and then to southern China to begin organizing a Vietnamese uprising against the French. In 1925, he formed the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League, which served as the forerunner of Vietnamese communism. Ho founded the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1930 and changed the name to the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) eight months later, at Moscow’s insistence.

French administrators cracked down heavily on nationalist politics in 1930, in response to a series of popular uprisings backed by both the ICP and the VNQDD (Vietnamese Nationalist Party). French capture and execution of party leaders irreparably weakened the VNQDD, and the ICP remained fragmentary and diffused throughout most of the decade, especially in the south where its roots were weakest. The ICP experienced a brief period of relief from the French security apparatus during the Popular Front years (1936–1939), but the conclusion of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact prompted French officials to outlaw the party, forcing its leaders into hiding. In 1941, several leading Vietnamese communists gathered in a cave in the village of Pac Bo, near the Chinese border, for the Eighth Plenum of the ICP, to discuss the situation in Vietnam and plot strategy. While Ho and his colleagues sought both national liberation and major social transformation, they prioritized the former when they created the Viet Minh, a revolutionary organization designed to be as broad-based as possible to attract the full range of Vietnamese nationalists.

Amid the Second World War, the Viet Minh faced international conditions favorable to revolutionary plotting. Following France’s capitulation to Nazi Germany, Japanese forces entered Indochina. They allowed French officials to retain nominal power in Vietnam, but the swift defeat of French forces discredited French power in the eyes of many Vietnamese, and Japan’s moves to dismantle some of the French security apparatus made anticolonial organizing easier. The aloof policies of the Japanese and their French puppets, coupled with a devastating famine in northern and central Vietnam during the winter of 1944–1945, fueled popular discontent and drove people into Viet Minh arms. While the Japanese and French stood by as nearly 20 percent of the population starved to death, the Viet Minh stepped in as the only effective force to address the crisis, winning the allegiance of many a desperate peasant. By 1945, Ho and his compatriot, Vo Nguyen Giap, amassed an army of 5,000.3

On March 9, 1945, the Japanese abruptly seized control of the Indochinese government, ending their nearly five-year collaboration with the French. The Viet Minh immediately stepped up its activities against the new colonial master, but Japanese control ended almost before it began. Japan capitulated following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, leaving a vacuum in Vietnam that the Viet Minh were poised to fill. As Japanese troops retreated, Viet Minh forces seized control of Hanoi on August 17, followed shortly thereafter by dozens of district and provincial capitals throughout the country. The Viet Minh formed a national government called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) on August 29, and on September 2, Ho Chi Minh stood before a crowd of more than 400,000 in Ba Dinh Square to deliver his declaration of independence. In an appeal for France and the United States to uphold their own ideals and respect Vietnam’s independence, the speech borrowed heavily from both the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” and the American “Declaration of Independence.”

Ho’s hope for support from the United States was not without reason. Towards the end of the war, his Viet Minh had collaborated with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, to oppose Japanese forces. He knew that Franklin Roosevelt, in the early years of WWII, supported Indochina’s independence from what the U.S. president considered to be France’s exploitative and irresponsible rule. Yet FDR envisioned a long period of international trusteeship for Vietnam before it would be prepared for self-rule, and in the final months of his life, he tabled the thorny Indochina issue altogether. By the time Ho delivered his independence address, Washington was already preparing for France to return to Vietnam. Harry Truman did not share his predecessor’s hostility to colonialism in general or his particular interest in Southeast Asia. He was much more concerned about France’s future as a great power, worried about the strength of the communist party there, and determined to secure Paris’s cooperation with Washington’s plans for postwar Europe.

First Indochina War

China and Great Britain, the two powers designated to oversee Japan’s surrender in Indochina, both facilitated the return of the French Expeditionary Corps to Vietnam. In spring 1946, with little diplomatic support from the Soviet Union, Ho decided to offer concessions to the French, allowing them to enter the north and agreeing to affiliate the DRV with the French Union, a loose collection of states linked to France. French negotiator Jean Sainteny responded by pledging to hold a national referendum to determine whether Cochinchina would rejoin Tonkin and Annam as part of a reunited, independent Vietnam, or remain a separate French territory. That summer, French and Vietnamese delegates met at Fountainbleau to continue negotiations, with catastrophic results. The two sides deadlocked as France made clear its refusal to grant full independence to Vietnam, and Ho’s delegation dug in its heels refusing to accept anything less. An agreement, signed by both sides on September 1946, solved nothing and paved the way for the war that broke out by the end of the year. Following a spate of armed clashes between French and Vietnamese forces, France seized the northern port of Haiphong in late November. The general attack on the city resulted in thousands of civilian casualties, leading historian Stein Tonnesson to conclude, “It seems reasonable to call this a massacre.”4 Relations between France and the DRV deteriorated over the ensuing month, as Ho and his compatriots moved steadily away from negotiations and towards planning for an offensive that finally took place in Hanoi on December 19, marking the beginning of the First Indochina War.

Southern Vietnam had been in a state of low-grade civil war for months leading up to the outbreak of hostilities with France. The Viet Minh never had the same strength or organization in Cochinchina as it did in Tonkin and Annam. Instead, a number of regional groups, like the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai politico-religious organizations and the politicized Binh Xuyen crime syndicate, emerged from WWII with much greater power than the Viet Minh and with grand ambitions to exploit it in the new era of independence. After the August Revolution, Viet Minh efforts to subordinate these organizations and their armies under a single banner caused friction and, eventually, overt hostility. By 1947, the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai signed conventions with the French Army in exchange for military subventions, and the Binh Xuyen followed in 1948. This complicated Hanoi’s political and military strategies in the south and contributed to the stalemate that soon emerged on the battlefield. By 1948, a pattern emerged that held for most of the war: the French Army controlled cities and a few fortified posts, while Viet Minh forces controlled the countryside in between.

France developed a two-pronged approach to breaking this deadlock. The first goal was to draw popular support away from the DRV. The French announced that they would no longer negotiate with Ho Chi Minh and, in 1949, installed the former emperor Bao Dai as the titular head of an alternative Vietnamese government headquartered in Saigon. France gradually granted a modicum of independence to the State of Vietnam as one of the Associated States within the French Union, a solution designed to gratify Vietnamese nationalism and to allow Paris to portray the war not as a colonial conflict but as part of the Cold War struggle against communism. This was critical to France’s second objective, attracting international support for the new Vietnamese government and, by extension, the French war effort.

Paris was particularly concerned with winning support from the United States, which up to that point had disparaged France for its colonial practices while implicitly supporting its war effort.5 The victory of Mao Zedong’s Communists in the Chinese Civil War, and the increased Chinese aid to the DRV that ensued, helped convince Washington to upgrade its tacit support to direct aid to the French war effort. In January 1950, the People’s Republic of China became the first power to grant diplomatic recognition to the DRV, followed days later by the Soviet Union. This evidence of communist encroachment in Southeast Asia persuaded the Truman administration to table its grave reservations about Bao Dai’s weak, unpopular government. On February 7, 1950, the Truman administration formally opened relations with the Associated State of Vietnam, and several of its allies followed suit the next day. The floodgates of American aid to France opened. By 1952, the United States bore more than one third of the cost of the war, and by 1954, it would foot over three quarters of the bill.

The Viet Minh, with substantial material aid and advisory support from the PRC, proved more than able to respond to the military initiatives France undertook with the aid flowing from Washington. As the war dragged on and prospects for French victory diminished, Indochina proved a drain on France’s economy, exacerbated social tensions, and prevented the country from pursuing its priorities in Europe and its other colonies. In mid-1953, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, increasingly concerned about growing Viet Minh military strength and a waning commitment to the war in France, threw American support behind a bold new military strategy devised by General Henri Navarre, newly appointed commander of French forces in Indochina. The plan called for sending ten additional French battalions to Indochina and bolstering native forces in preparation for a major offensive to drive the Viet Minh out of their strongholds in the Red River Delta. Contrary to American aspirations, Navarre did not expect to achieve military victory, but he hoped to score significant battlefield gains that would secure for France a better negotiating position.

Navarre made a grave strategic error in spring 1954 by trying to lure Vietminh forces into battle at Dien Bien Phu, a remote outpost in northern Vietnam along the border with Laos. The Viet Minh, led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, quickly turned the tables, surrounding and besieging French troops using Chinese heavy artillery. France, in desperation, appealed to the United States for direct military intervention to save France from total collapse. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Admiral Arthur Radford, was initially enthusiastic about VULTURE, a plan to bomb Viet Minh supply lines and entrenchments around Dien Bien Phu, but the scheme gained little support in Washington. Most high-ranking military advisors opposed U.S. intervention at Dien Bien Phu. Dulles saw military involvement as a last resort, and preferred to coordinate any such action as part of an international coalition. Yet Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, both of whom regarded Vietnam as a critical Cold War outpost, decided to seek congressional support for possible military intervention. In an April 5, 1954 press conference, Eisenhower articulated what would become known as the “Domino Theory” speech, claiming that one country falling to communism in Southeast Asia would set off a cascade of red dominos that could not be stopped.6 This would become one of the most frequently cited explanations for U.S. intervention in Vietnam in years to come. But it was not enough to convince American lawmakers at the time, who refused to consider direct intervention unless Britain would also participate, while also insisting that France move swiftly to grant Vietnam’s independence. Britain, for its part, refused to go along on the grounds that intervention might provoke a major war with China, and perhaps the Soviet Union as well.

With little international support, French forces at Dien Bien Phu finally surrendered on May 7, 1954. The next day, delegates at an international conference in Geneva, convened to deal with problems in both Korea and Indochina, began to discuss the basis for a ceasefire in Indochina. The Geneva Accords, signed in July 1954, called for a temporary partition of Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel, with a demilitarized zone between the two, with Laos and Cambodia established as separate nations (see Figure 1). Viet Minh forces were to regroup to the north and French forces to the south. General elections to reunify the country were to be held by July 1956. In the meantime, the accords forbade troop reinforcements, rearmament, military bases, and foreign military alliances undertaken by the administrations of either zone. An International Control Commission comprised of Canadian, Indian, and Polish representatives was appointed to supervise the terms of the accords and investigate any complaints.

Origins of the Vietnam WarClick to view larger

Figure 1. Vietnam demarcation line and demilitarized zone. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, G8021.F7 1966.U5.

Although the Viet Minh held a dominant military position across most of the country, the final settlement did not reflect that superiority. Indeed, Ho settled for half of the country, largely because the major powers at Geneva left him with little choice. The American delegation played a shrewd diplomatic game, issuing a series of thinly veiled threats of military intervention if it was not satisfied with the terms of the final agreement. The Soviet Union and China, both wary of war with the United States, leaned hard on the Viet Minh to accept the terms described above. While pressure from its allies was critical, Hanoi had its own reasons for accepting the agreement. Facing a war weary population at home, Ho and his government in Hanoi were also averse to U.S. intervention and expected that national reunification could be achieved by peaceful means under the terms of the Geneva Accords.7 Thus, the DRV, along with Britain, France, China, and the USSR, signed the Geneva Accords. The United States, realizing that it had probably achieved the best result possible, but still not satisfied that the agreement could stem the tide of communism in Vietnam, refused to sign the agreement, as did its ally, the State of Vietnam. Instead, Washington issued a separate statement agreeing to the general principles of the agreement and promising not to disturb them by the threat or use of force. Eisenhower, looking to preserve Washington’s freedom of action, declared that the U.S. “had not itself been party to or bound by the decisions taken at the conference.”8

Vietnam Divided

Motivated by the Domino Theory, Washington was determined to prevent South Vietnam from falling into communist hands. In September 1954, the United States orchestrated the creation of a regional defense system, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), aimed at preventing the spread of communism to South Vietnam and neighboring countries. Signatories included the United States, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, and only three Asian countries—Thailand, the Philippines, and Pakistan. The loose pact required little of its members. More than anything, the United States would use SEATO to justify its unilateral intervention in Vietnam in the coming years.

The most important aspect of Washington’s commitment to South Vietnam was its support for Ngo Dinh Diem. Chief-of-state Bao Dai appointed Diem prime minister during the Geneva conference, partly in response to Washington’s clear preference for the virulently anticommunist, Catholic figure, and partly due to a series of political machinations Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu had taken to position him for leadership. While the prime minister was once seen largely as an American puppet, recent works cast him as an autonomous figure driven to implement a nationalist program for Vietnam based on the arcane philosophy of personalism, which purported to offer a middle ground between democracy and communism.9 Diem was notoriously moralistic, inflexible, and distrustful of anyone outside his family. He had a long history of nationalist political engagement, and had spent several years prior to his appointment in the United States building relationships with powerful politicians and Catholic figures, while his brother Nhu remained at home to play a major role in southern Vietnam’s budding non-communist nationalist scene. From the outset, American officials gave Diem high praise for his character, lauding his “unquestioned integrity” and “sincerity,” as well as his “nationalism and honesty.”10 At the same time, many expressed deep skepticism about his ability to lead. One American official described him as “too unworldly and unsophisticated to be able to cope with the grave problems and unscrupulous people he will find in Saigon.”11 Despite such reservations, Eisenhower’s administration deemed Diem the best hope for preventing the spread of communism to South Vietnam (Figure 2). The imperative of stopping communism in its tracks outweighed any concerns the United States had about Diem’s prospects for success.

Origins of the Vietnam WarClick to view larger

Figure 2. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (from left) greet South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem at Washington National Airport. May 8, 1957. National Archives, ID: 542189.

Upon taking office, Diem faced the nearly impossible task of unifying and pacifying a deeply divided, almost anarchic, South Vietnam. The country was nothing more than a weakly defined political entity that lacked the institutions and organization required to run an effective government. By summer 1954, the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Binh Xuyen controlled approximately one third of the territory and population below the seventeenth parallel. The Binh Xuyen had a monopoly over Saigon-Cholon vice industries as well as control over the police, while the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao exercised unchecked political and military control in their autonomous zones. Moreover, the national army came under the control of the notoriously impetuous General Nguyen Van Hinh, whose allegiance to Diem was far from guaranteed.

Diem’s approach to consolidating power prioritized dividing and conquering his opponents, stifling all dissent, and building a national army capable of enforcing his rule. In fall 1954, he succeeded in thwarting a coup attempt coordinated by General Hinh. And in spring 1955, he emerged victorious over a coalition of Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Binh Xuyen challengers in the “sect crisis”; a crisis so grave that Dulles was on the verge of rescinding the State Department’s support for Diem just as the national army unexpectedly rallied behind him to pull out an unexpected victory in late April. The prime minister followed up this achievement with a referendum, in October 1955, to depose Bao Dai as chief-of-state and establish himself as the president of a new Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Diem, who used the campaign as an opportunity to propagandize about his vision for a particular brand of Vietnamese democracy, claimed over 98 percent of the vote in an electoral process that was clearly rigged. The United States, eager to embrace his success, overlooked the skewed result to celebrate his triumph. These events ushered in a high point in Diem’s leadership and in the U.S.-South Vietnamese relationship, capped by his celebratory 1957 trip to the United Sates. For a short time, Washington hailed him as a “miracle man” as it sharply increased U.S. aid to Saigon.12

The U.S.-South Vietnamese relationship quickly ran into trouble. Diem and his American patrons had markedly divergent views on how to modernize Vietnam, making for what one historian has termed a “misalliance.”13 While the United States insisted upon political reforms, Diem was obsessed with first strengthening his security apparatus. This, on top of his nepotistic practices, glaring favoritism towards Catholics, and an inability to compromise, alienated many of his constituents and encouraged the very dissent RVN policies were intended to suppress. The Denounce the Communists Campaign, launched in 1955, was aimed at rooting out, killing, and punishing all who opposed Diem’s government, regardless of political affiliation. In 1956, his administration followed this up with additional anti-treason laws that facilitated government harassment of political opposition. Ordinance 6 called for the arrest and detention of all persons deemed dangerous to the state and provided legal justification for creating political prison camps and suspending habeas corpus laws. Ordinance 47 established that being a communist—according to Diem’s broad definition—or working for them were capital crimes. In 1959, facing a growing antigovernment insurgency that was, in fact, fueled by resistance to this brutally repressive security regime, the Saigon government promulgated law 10/59. This law charged enforcement of Ordinance 47 to a special military tribunal whose decision could not be appealed. The government used this new law to dramatically intensify its crack down on anti-government activity.

To support these security measures and combat the rise of violence in the countryside, Diem put in place a system of agrovilles, intended to neutralize the influence of communist agents in the South. The goal of the program was to relocate the peasantry into areas free of guerrilla terror and propaganda, providing schools, medical facilities, electricity, and army protection. However, peasants resented being forcibly removed from ancestral lands, a fact that was compounded by the government’s failure to provide sufficient stipends to purchase the land they were intended to cultivate. Moreover, they were forced to work on community projects without pay. Agrovilles provoked widespread discontent with the government in rural areas and were often infiltrated by underground communist agents poised to capitalize on that discontent. The program was eventually abandoned and replaced in 1962 with a system of Strategic Hamlets, modeled on a program that had been successful in Malaya. But Strategic Hamlets turned out to be equally flawed, also failing to win over the peasantry, and falling short of providing any real improvements in security.

After 1954, Hanoi took a conservative position on revolution in the South. Until Diem refused to participate in talks preparatory to the mandated national elections slated for July 1956, Vietnam Workers Party (VWP) leaders remained confident that reunification could be achieved peacefully under the terms of the Geneva agreement. Party moderates promoted a “North-first” policy that prioritized building a socialist society in the North and allowed only for “political struggle” in the South. In 1956, southern revolutionary Le Duan penned “The Path to Revolution in the South” in an effort to persuade Hanoi to support a violent revolution to liberate the south from what he considered to be an imperialist puppet government. Yet he was unable to convince his northern comrades to sanction armed struggle. Hanoi was consumed with domestic political challenges above the seventeenth parallel and, without support from China and the Soviet Union for the forceful reunification of Vietnam, moderates within the VWP had little enthusiasm for a resumed fight. The key turning point came in January 1959, when the Party’s Central Committee in Hanoi issued Resolution 15, authorizing a resumption of armed struggle in the South. This was a cautious move, giving official permission for the use of force in self-defense, but encouraging southern cadres to continue relying on political methods whenever possible. But southern radicals continued to gain ground in party debates, leading Hanoi steadily in the direction of preparing for war.

In December 1960, the VWP formed the National Liberation Front (NLF), an insurgent organization intended to be a broad-based alliance of “all the patriots from all social strata, political parties, religions, and nationalities” in the South.14 Subsequently, Hanoi’s leaders sent many Viet Minh back to the south to agitate and established a task force to create the Ho Chi Minh Trail, by which they would transport men and supplies through Cambodia and Laos throughout the war. Within a year, the NLF had as many as 200,000 southern supporters and, by some estimates, the insurgency would come to control one half of the population of South Vietnam by 1963.15

Choosing War

In January 1961, John F. Kennedy replaced Eisenhower in the Oval Office. He brought with him a new foreign policy team, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. These advisors, deemed the “best and the brightest” for their shining records in academia and industry, would be central to U.S. decision making in Vietnam before and after Kennedy’s death. Kennedy’s team was motivated not by the geographic domino theory that dominated Eisenhower administration thinking on Vietnam, but by a “doctrine of credibility.” Kennedy considered it necessary to demonstrate the credibility of Washington’s commitments in order to convince both adversaries and allies alike of American strength, determination, and dependability.16 Following this premise, it became all the more important for the United States to hold the line in Vietnam after the humiliating Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961 and Kennedy’s acceptance of a neutralization agreement for Laos in 1962. After two defeats, the president believed it would be politically devastating to lose ground to communism in Vietnam.17 This was especially pressing in light of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s rhetoric and actions that suggested a bold—perhaps even reckless—new determination to exploit the global instability stemming from decolonization.

By fall 1961, Diem’s regime was facing serious troubles that would force Kennedy’s hand. As the NLF stepped up its recruitment and intensified its operations against the RVN, Diem encountered dissension from within his own ranks. In 1960, he faced scathing public criticism from the “Caravelle Group,” a collection of notable non-communist figures including several of his own former government ministers, and he staved off a coup attempt by dissident generals in his own army. Meanwhile, the military situation deteriorated as the NLF seized control of villages throughout South Vietnam. Amidst this tumult, Diem urgently requested additional economic assistance from the United States.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council at this point called for a sizeable introduction of U.S. combat forces in Vietnam, but Kennedy remained circumspect. In October 1961, he sent a team headed by General Maxwell D. Taylor and Walt Rostow to evaluate the situation in South Vietnam and consider U.S. options. During their two-week tour, Rostow and Taylor witnessed desperate political and military conditions and made a series of recommendations aimed at preventing further deterioration. Their most important proposal was to send an 8,000-man contingent of U.S. combat troops. McNamara and the JCS rejected Taylor’s proposal as inadequate and urged Kennedy to deploy six U.S. divisions, or 200,000 men. On the other side of the spectrum, the dovish undersecretary of state George Ball warned that such a move would have catastrophic results, leading to an open ended military commitment, and urged JFK to negotiate a peace settlement. Kennedy opted for a middle-of-the-road approach. He refused to negotiate on Vietnam but also rejected proposals to send U.S. combat forces to Vietnam. Instead, he continued to increase U.S. aid for South Vietnam and to send additional military advisors, many of whom were, by that time, actually accompanying and leading South Vietnamese troops into combat. Kennedy steadily ramped up the U.S. military presence in Vietnam, in violation of the Geneva agreements. By the time he was assassinated in November 1963, U.S. military advisors in Vietnam would number more than 16,000.

Washington’s stepped up aid and support to Diem’s government brought some temporary results. In the first half of 1962, American officials were optimistic that the war was being won, while fearing that public support for protracted involvement in Vietnam was waning. In July, Kennedy asked McNamara to draw up plans for a phased withdrawal of U.S. advisors from Vietnam, a fact that is often cited as evidence that Kennedy planned to withdraw from Vietnam rather than get drawn into war. However, the plan proposed that summer called for phased withdrawals only in the event that the war was going well. By late 1962, it was clear that such was not the case.

While the war went relatively well from a military perspective throughout 1962, the NLF was making rapid advances in the political war for “hearts and minds.” The South Vietnamese Army’s (ARVN) initiative on the battlefield turned out to be futile, partly because NLF bases remained almost impossible to locate. Guerilla forces would often wait in the wings until ARVN forces left and then reestablish their positions. The Strategic Hamlet program, an enhanced iteration of Diem’s agrovilles, only further antagonized peasants and failed to weaken NLF recruitment. In January 1963, the Battle of Ap Bac clearly demonstrated the insurgency’s dominant position. Despite outnumbering enemy forces ten to one, the ARVN would not take the initiative and refused to leave the protection of armored personnel carriers. The battle ended ingloriously, with ARVN forces firing on one another while guerilla forces slipped away. Ap Bac gave a huge boost to NLF confidence, while leading members of the American media to scrutinize the U.S. commitment to Vietnam.

In spring and summer 1963, a crisis developed in South Vietnam that could have given Kennedy a reasonable pretext for withdrawal. Throughout his tenure, Diem regarded Catholics who had fled the North in 1954 as his core constituency, while denying the majority Buddhist population equal access to government services and employment opportunities. Buddhist agitation against governmental religious intolerance had steadily increased in 1962 and 1963, and erupted into a full-fledged Buddhist Crisis on May 8 1963. On that date, Diem’s troops fired into a crowd waving religious flags in celebration of Buddha’s birthday, in violation of a government ordinance banning the display of any banner other than the RVN flag. In the weeks that followed, students took to the streets in cities across South Vietnam to protest religious discrimination. Diem’s brother Nhu launched a crackdown on protesters, including raids on pagodas, martial law, and mass arrests, which only provoked new rounds of protests and self-immolations. As this cycle continued, American officials grew increasingly frustrated with Diem’s apparent acquiescence in Nhu’s actions. This was exacerbated by outrageous public comments by Nhu’s wife, “Madame Nhu,” offering to supply more matches to fuel the “barbeques” of self-immolating monks.

The United States was reaching the end of its rope with Diem in summer 1963, not only because of this political catastrophe but also due to rumors that Diem and Nhu were contemplating a deal with the Hanoi government. Kennedy’s administration, however, opted to continue its commitment to South Vietnam rather than use the Buddhist Crisis and the public outrage it occasioned as a pretext to get out. Having given up on Diem after he refused to break ties with Nhu, Washington sought new leaders who would be more willing to follow U.S. direction in prosecuting the war against the NLF. The new ambassador to Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge, threw in his lot with dissident ARVN officers. The Kennedy administration gave its quiet but clear endorsement of a coup against Diem and Nhu on November 1. The Ngo brothers were assassinated the next day, just three weeks before Kennedy succumbed to an assassin’s bullet in Dallas on November 22. While some historians suggest that Kennedy would have withdrawn from Vietnam rather than escalate the U.S. military involvement as LBJ did, his administration’s steady expansion of the American commitment, and its refusal to get out when presented with opportunities, call such counterfactual arguments into doubt.

In December 1963, the Ninth Plenum of the VWP’s Central Committee met in Hanoi to discuss the way forward. Buoyed by the results at Ap Bac, and by the putsch in Saigon, the Party adopted a measure known as Resolution 9, which authorized a dramatic escalation of the war below the seventeenth parallel aimed at dealing the Americans and their local allies a quick defeat. The Central Committee was, at the time, confident that it could bolster the southern insurgency sufficiently to achieve victory before the United States introduced its own combat forces. This decision for war marked the ascendance of party militants led by Le Duan over Ho Chi Minh’s moderate faction, a political shift that would guarantee Hanoi’s militant and uncompromising approach to the war in coming years.18

Lyndon Baines Johnson faced deteriorating military and political conditions in South Vietnam almost immediately upon taking his oath of office in November 1963. Kennedy’s successor was a staunch anti-communist who had long supported the effort to create a non-communist bastion in South Vietnam. Furthermore, as a Democrat, he grasped the importance of taking a strong foreign policy stand against communism if he was to have any hope of enacting his Great Society legislation at home. He retained Kennedy’s foreign policy team, which urged him to hold the line in Vietnam. But it was Johnson who set the tone of his administration’s Vietnam policy and ensured that voices calling for escalation won out over those urging negotiation or withdrawal.

LBJ struggled to keep Vietnam on the backburner during his first months in office in order to focus on the upcoming presidential election. As conditions in Vietnam continued to deteriorate, influential voices in the United States, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair J. William Fulbright (D) encouraged him to seek a negotiated settlement. International support for U.S. policy in Vietnam was also diminishing. The State Department’s “More Flags” campaign, launched in April 1964, failed to drum up significant allied support for the war. Allies in NATO, SEATO, and Canada all refused to make substantial commitments of money or manpower, leaving Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines as the only countries willing to join the American military effort to save South Vietnam.

Despite this international isolation, Johnson was determined to bolster the embattled Republic of Vietnam. In early August 1964, two alleged torpedo attacks off the coast of North Vietnam provided the pretext for him to introduce the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Some details of the Gulf of Tonkin crisis remain a mystery, especially regarding whether or not the U.S. deliberately provoked a North Vietnamese attack to justify retaliation. Most historians agree, however, that Johnson significantly distorted the facts at the time, claiming with certainty that North Vietnam had launched attacks on two American ships when the evidence was far from clear. A National Security Agency study, declassified in 2005, confirms that an engagement between the North Vietnamese Navy and the USS Maddux did occur on August 2, 1964. However, it concludes that the alleged attack against the USS Turner Joy on August 4 never took place. Scanty evidence regarding these events did little to deter LBJ from launching limited retaliatory attacks against North Vietnamese naval bases and introducing a congressional authorization on the use of force. On the contrary, Johnson’s administration, having already determined that something must be done to stave off South Vietnam’s collapse, had been waiting for an opportune moment to step up the pressure on North Vietnam. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was based on an authorization that his administration had drawn up and tabled months earlier.

The resolution, passed by a joint session of Congress on August 7, after almost no debate and with only two dissenting votes, granted LBJ the authority to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” in Vietnam.19 It supplanted a declaration of war and gave LBJ a blank check to escalate America’s military involvement in Vietnam without further congressional authorization. This opportunistic show of strength removed Vietnam as a campaign issue in Johnson’s tough reelection battle against hawkish Republican Barry Goldwater. At the same time, the president was able to satisfy his dovish constituents with promises that he would not send American troops halfway around the world to fight Vietnam’s battles.

Meanwhile, with renewed support from China and the Soviet Union, Hanoi significantly stepped up its support for the southern insurgency. Despite domestic and international skepticism about the drift of U.S. policy, LBJ’s administration perceived escalation as the only viable response to the rapid collapse of South Vietnam’s stability. To pull out of Vietnam would have meant going against long-established policies of defending South Vietnam against communist infiltration—policies rooted in the Domino Theory and reinforced by concerns about American credibility. Most of Johnson’s key policy advisors had been personally involved with creating those policies and were reluctant to change course. Historians have debated the extent to which Johnson acted out of fears that domestic political backlash against the abandonment of South Vietnam could imperil his domestic reform agenda known as the Great Society. While McGeorge Bundy has argued in retrospect that the Great Society factored little into Johnson’s decisions, the president’s former advisor, Francis Bator, has claimed just the opposite.20 Perhaps most convincing is Fredrik Logevall’s argument that LBJ was motivated broadly by concerns about credibility and prestige on three levels: his personal prestige, that of the Democratic Party, and that of the United States on the World stage.21

In late 1964 and early 1965, Johnson made key decisions to initiate the regular bombing of North Vietnam and to send the first U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam, en route to Americanizing the war. The president and his advisors hoped that both of these moves would increase pressure on North Vietnam and persuade it to abandon the southern insurgency. By late January 1965, following a series of coups in South Vietnam, Johnson and his advisors agreed that they could wait no longer to bomb the North. The provocation they were waiting for came on February 7, 1965, when NLF units attacked a U.S. Army installation at Pleiku, killing nine Americans, injuring 126 others, and destroying several aircraft. The administration responded first with reprisal airstrikes that soon morphed into a sustained program of gradually intensified air attacks against North Vietnam known as ROLLING THUNDER. The initial goal of those strikes was to deter North Vietnam from intervening in the South, but the expanded air war provided the pretext for the United States to further escalate its commitment by introducing U.S. combat forces into Vietnam.

Origins of the Vietnam WarClick to view larger

Figure 3. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara pointing to a map of Vietnam at a press conference. April 26, 1965. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-134155.

In late February 1965, anticipating retaliation for the air strikes, General William Westmoreland requested two marine landing teams to protect the air base at Da Nang. Johnson deliberated very little before approving the introduction of ground troops, apparently with little consideration for the long-range consequences of the move. By March, Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were calling for the introduction of two U.S. army divisions to prevent disaster in Vietnam (Figure 3). In a manner characteristic of his handling of the war, Johnson responded by expanding the American ground commitment, but not at the level his military advisors requested. Historians have identified this as the crossover point to major war in Vietnam, after which point the level of violence increased dramatically, and the prospects for a negotiated settlement plummeted. By the end of 1965, there were 180,000 U.S. ground troops in Vietnam, a number that would continue to grow until peaking in 1968 at over half-a-million (Figure 4).

Origins of the Vietnam WarClick to view larger

Figure 4. President Lyndon B. Johnson greets American troops in Vietnam, 1966. National Archives, ID: 542077.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholarship on the Vietnam War is voluminous, tracing back to works produced in the early days of U.S. intervention. Until recently, this literature has been overwhelmingly focused on U.S. policies and experiences, as American historians have sought to determine how the country’s involvement with Vietnam went so awry. Traditional interpretations of the war, which constitute a significant majority of volumes published, regard the war as either a mistake, based on flawed strategic assumptions, or a crime, predicated on a neo-imperial quest to control Vietnam and its resources. In either case, historians in this camp agree that the war was unwinnable. Traditional works range from David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest; Neil Sheehan’s John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam; and Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam to Robert Schulzinger’s A Time for War: The United States in Vietnam, 1941–1975; John Prados’s Vietnam: the History of an Unwinnable War; Fredrick Logevall’s Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam; Marilyn Young’s The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990; and James Carter’s Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building, 1954–1968. A smaller cohort of revisionist historians, on the other hand, argue that the war was winnable and, in many cases, necessary and noble. These historians tend to blame the U.S. defeat in Vietnam on failures of leadership, lack of political will, and a press corps that poisoned the American public against the war effort at critical turning points. Revisionist works include Colonel Harry G. Summers’s On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War; Lewis Sorley’s A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam; Michael Lind’s Vietnam: The Necessary War: A Reexamination of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict; and Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War 1954–1965.22

In recent years, a number of scholars have begun to pay greater attention to the international dimensions of the Vietnam War. This project has been facilitated by the opening of archival records in Western countries and across the former communist bloc. Among the most notable works examining the Franco-American relationship over Vietnam are Kathryn Statler’s Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam and Mark Atwood Lawrence’s Assuming the Burden; Europe and the American Commitment to Vietnam. Contributions detailing China and the Soviet Union’s complicated roles in the Vietnam War include Qiang Zhai’s China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950–1975 and Ilya V. Gaiduk’s two volumes, The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War and Confronting Vietnam: Soviet Policy toward the Indochina Conflict, 1954–1963.23

Recently, the most prominent and important trend amongst historians of the Vietnam War has been the acquisition of Vietnamese language skills to do research in Vietnamese archives. The first works to use Vietnamese sources to illuminate Vietnamese decision making include Carlyle Thayer’s War by Other Means: National Liberation and Revolution in Vietnam; Robert K. Brigham’s Guerilla Diplomacy: The NLF’s Foreign Relations and the Viet Nam War; and Mark P. Bradley’s Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919–1950. More recent works have shed light on Hanoi’s policymaking process, including Pierre Asselin’s Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954–1965 and Lien-Hang T. Nguyen’s Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam. The following publications examine Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime in the south and its relationship with the United States: Jessica M. Chapman’s Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam and Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam. These studies constitute just the beginning of a wave of scholarship rooted in Vietnamese sources currently being produced by doctoral students and junior faculty throughout the United States.24

Primary Sources

Primary sources pertaining to the origins of the U.S. war in Vietnam can be found in national archives around the world. In the United States, key holdings at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) II in College Park, Maryland include the records of the Department of State Central Files (RG 59), the Records of the National Security Council (RG 273), the Records of the Joints Chiefs of Staff (RG 218), the Records of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (RG 263), the Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (RG 330), the United States Information Agency (RG 306), and the CIA Records Search Tool (CREST). Scholars should also consult holdings at the presidential libraries of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. The National Security Archive in Washington D.C. and the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University also hold extensive materials related to all aspects of the American experience in Vietnam.

Published records of the American war in Vietnam abound as well. Volumes of the Foreign Relations of the United States series may be found in print and online. The Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States contain transcripts of presidents’ speeches about the war. Students may also wish to consult the Pentagon Papers, officially titled “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force” commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967 and leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971. Published documentary collections include Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin’s Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War, Gareth Porter’s Vietnam: A History in Documents, and William Appleman Williams’s Vietnam: A Documentary History.25

A number of British and French archives also hold important collections pertaining to the origins of the Vietnam War. In Britain, scholars should start at the National Archives, in Kew, and the India Office Records and Private Papers, in London. In France, critical records can be found at Archives Nationales (National Archives) in Paris, Depot des Archives d’Outre Mer (Archives of Overseas Colonies) in Aix-en-Provence, Archives du Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres (Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) in Paris, and Service Historique de l’Armee de Terre (Army Archives) in Chauteau de Vincennes, Paris. Key Vietnamese archives include the Trung Tam Luu Tru Quoc Gia 2 (National Archives 2) in Ho Chi Minh City, Trung Tam Luu Tru Quoc Gia 3 (National Archives 3) in Hanoi, and the Luu Tru Bo Ngoai Giao (Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) in Hanoi.

Further Reading

Anderson, David L.Trapped by Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953–1961. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Asselin, Pierre. Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954–1965. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Bradley, Mark. Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Bradley, Mark. Vietnam at War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Chapman, Jessica M.Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Fitzgerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.Find this resource:

Gaiduk, Ilya V.Confronting Vietnam: Soviet Policy toward the Indochina Conflict, 1954–1963. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Jacobs, Seth. America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Lawrence, Mark Atwood. Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Lawrence, Mark Atwood. The Vietnam War: A Concise International History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Logevall, Fredrik. The Origins of the Vietnam War. New York: Pearson Education Limited, 2001.Find this resource:

Logevall, Fredrik. Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. New York: Random House, 2012.Find this resource:

Miller, Edward. Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Moyar, Mark. Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1963. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Nguyen, Lien-Hang T.Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam. Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Statler, Kathryn C.Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007.Find this resource:

Young, Marilyn. The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.Find this resource:

Zhai, Qiang. China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950–1975. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.Find this resource:


(1.) Tran Tu Binh, John Spragens Jr., trans., and David Marr, ed., The Red Earth: A Vietnamese Memoir of Life on a Colonial Rubber Plantation (Athens, GA: Ohio University Press, 1985).

(2.) Mark Bradley, Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 10–44.

(3.) For more on Vietnam at the end of WWII, see David G. Marr, Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

(4.) Stein Tonnesson, Vietnam 1946: How the War Began (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 135.

(5.) Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 34–35.

(6.) President Eisenhower’s News Conference, April 7, 1954, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1958), 381–390.

(7.) Pierre Asselin, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 13–15.

(8.) President Eisenhower’s News Conference, July 21, 1954, Public Papers of the Presidents, 1954, 642.

(9.) Edward Garvey Miller, “Vision, Power, and Agency: The Ascent of Ngo Dinh Diem, 1945–1954,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 3.35 (October 2004): 433–458.

(10.) Jessica M. Chapman, Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), 71.

(11.) Chapman, Cauldron of Resistance, 73–74.

(12.) Seth Jacobs, America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

(13.) Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

(14.) Quoted in Asselin, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 88.

(15.) Mark Bradley, Vietnam at War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 96.

(16.) Fredrik Logevall, The Origins of the Vietnam War (New York: Pearson Education Limited, 2001), 45–46.

(17.) Seth Jacobs, The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).

(18.) Asselin, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 145–173.

(19.) Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, August 1964 in Logevall, The Origins of the Vietnam War, 120–121.

(20.) Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 391; and Francis Bator, “No Good Choices: LBJ and the Vietnam/Great Society Connection,” Diplomatic History 32 (2008): 309–340.

(21.) Logevall, Choosing War.

(22.) David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York: Random House, 1972); Neil Sheehan, A Bright and Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988); Frances FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972); Robert Schulzinger, A Time for War: The United States in Vietnam, 1941–197 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); John Prados, Vietnam: the History of an Unwinnable War (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2009); Fredrick Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990 (New York: HarperCollins, 1991); and James Carter, Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building, 1954–1968 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Among revisionist works are Harry G. Summers, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1982); Lewis Sorley, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999); Michael Lind, Vietnam: The Necessary War: A Reexamination of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999); and Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War 1954–1965 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

(23.) Kathryn Statler, Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 2007); Mark Atwood Lawrence, Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California, 2005); Qiang Zhai, China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950–1975 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Ilya V. Gaiduk, The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War (Lanham, MD: I. R. Dee, 1996); and I. V. Gaiduk, Confronting Vietnam: Soviet Policy toward the Indochina Conflict, 1954–1963 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).

(24.) Vietnamese sources: Carlyle Thayer, War by Other Means: National Liberation and Revolution in Vietnam (Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1989); Robert K. Brigham, Guerilla Diplomacy: The NLF’s Foreign Relations and the Viet Nam War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999); and Mark P. Bradley, Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919–1950 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Hanoi’s policymaking process: Pierre Asselin, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); and Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012). On the Ngo Dinh Diem regime: Jessica M. Chapman, Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013); and Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

(25.) Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin, eds., Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War (New York: Grove Press, 1995); Gareth Porter, Vietnam: A History in Documents (New York: New American Library, 1981); and William Appleman Williams, Thomas McCormick, Lloyd Gardner, and Walter LaFeber, eds., America in Vietnam: A Documentary History (New York: Norton, 1985).