Why did the Americans become increasingly involved in Vietnam?

America had been supporting French efforts to regain Vietnam, and to prevent the spread of communism from China to the rest of South Asia via Vietnam. Since 1949 this had been costing the USA $500 million per year.

The French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The ceasefire allowed for elections to be held to reunite the two halves of Vietnam – the communist North held by Ho Chi Minh, and the South. The USA prevented the election from taking place as they thought that Ho would probably win.

In 1955 the USA helped Ngo Dinh Diem to establish the Republic of South Vietnam. They did this because he was anti-communist. There were many reasons why Vietnamese peasants did not like Ngo’s regime:

  • He was prepared to imprison or exile communists.
  • He belonged to the landlord class, which exploited the poor peasants. (1960 45% of land owned by 2% of pop.)
  • He treated the Vietnamese peasants with contempt.
  • He was Christian and showed little respect for the Buddhist Vietnamese peasants.

– Buddhist faced persecution – Illegal to fly Buddhist flag on Buddha’s birthday.

  • He was very corrupt, withholding elections to appoint family members to positions of power.

Ngo was so disliked that he was overthrown by his own army leaders in 1963. The USA supported the equally corrupt regime that followed however. The USA gave huge amounts of money to support both regimes.

Why did the Americans choose to support Ngo, and the subsequent regime?   – “We knew of no-one better” – Dulles US Secretary of State

The Viet Cong (The Communist-led National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam) included South Vietnamese opponents of the government, as well as large numbers of communist North Vietnamese taking orders from Ho Chi Minh. Peasants not supporting the Viet Cong faced intimidation and violence from them.

The Viet Cong started a guerrilla war against the South Vietnamese government, using the Ho Chi Minh trail. The Viet Cong used the Ho Chi Minh trail to supply the guerrilla fighters with supplies. These fighters attacked the South Vietnamese forces, buildings, officials – soon the countryside was unsafe for government forces. They also attacked US air force and supply bases.

1962 – Kennedy was sending ‘advisers’ (military personnel) to South Vietnam to fight the Viet Cong – 16,500 ‘advisers’ in Vietnam.

1963 – Escalation in tensions between North and South Vietnam. Kennedy assassinated, unrelated to Vietnam. – $375 million spent on Vietnam in 1963 alone.

1964August the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, US destroyer ship attacked by N.Vietnamese ships led to increased US involvement. Congress gave Johnson (LBJ) power to take ‘all necessary measures’. (23,000 US ‘advisers’ in Vietnam).

1965March 3500 US marines and troops landed in Vietnam. July Johnson agreed to send 180,000 troops to Vietnam. The war had begun.

  • By 1968 there were over ½ million US troops in Vietnam.
Source A

“We seek an independent, non-communist South Vietnam. Unless we can achieve this objective in South Vietnam, almost all of South-East Asia will probably fall under Communist dominance.”

Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defence, March 1964


Source B

“For Hanoi (Capital of North Vietnam), the immediate object is limited: conquest of the South and national unification.     For Peking (capital of China), however, Hanoi’s victory would only be a first step towards eventual Chinese dominance of the two Vietnams and South-East Asia.”

Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defence, 1964


How did guerrilla tactics help Charlie

(US name for the Viet Cong)?


  • Viet Cong = Communist-led National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam.
  • VC included South Vietnamese opponents of the government.
  • VC also included large numbers of North Vietnamese taking order from Ho.
  • VC fought against US and South Vietnamese forces with the aim of uniting Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh.
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