The Vietnam War was a long and costly struggle that ensued between communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam between 1955 and 1975. At the core of the conflict was the desire of North Vietnam to unite with South Vietnam under a regime inspired by the communist systems of China and the Soviet Union. South Vietnam did not share the same interests with its northern counterpart and found it necessary to fight for a system that was more aligned with the West. Thus, the two rivals fought against each other on the basis of their communistic and capitalistic differences, with the North receiving support from communist allies like china and the Soviet Union and the South from capitalistic nations such as the United States, Australia, South Korea, and Thailand. This clash between the Eastern and the Western Blocs made the war to qualify as a cold-war-era proxy war (Lind, 1999). Indeed, the conflict represented a war of capitalism against communism whereby the government of North Vietnam along with a handful of people from the south wanted Vietnam to be run under the principles of communism whereas the south wanted the nation to be governed in the same manner as it is today.
The participation of countries from the Eastern Bloc signified efforts to reinforce the foothold and spread of communism to other parts of the world (Duiker, 1981). The US and other anti-communist countries, on the other hand believed in the Domino Theory; that if communism was allowed to take hold of one country, in this case South Vietnam, then the surrounding countries would follow suit. America’s role in the war has been particularly highlighted in history owing to the fact that the country’s involvement in South Vietnam had sprung from two decades of political and economic action in which the Western Bloc sought to end communist domination in Vietnam. Hence, in consideration of the participants in both sides of the struggle, the Vietnam War was largely driven by polarities of social organization in conjunction with clashing aspects of imperialism, economic ties, and international order.
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The Pre-War Period
Before the onset of the Second World War, Vietnam was a French colony. However, during the war, it was invaded by the Japanese who soon withdrew after defeat. The retreat gave the Vietnamese a chance to initiate their own regime, led by Ho Chi Minh. Even so, allies handed over South Vietnam back to the French after the war, which led to a political divide between the north and the south. While the south remained under French rule, the North was governed by non-communist Chinese. By then, the nationalist Chinese were treating North Vietnamese harshly and Ho Chi Minh’s popularity and support was growing fast. In 1946, the Chinese recoiled from North Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh’s party “the Viet Minh” took control (Duncanson, 1968). In October, the same year, the French announced their plan to reclaim the north. This meant that the Viet Minh would engage in a struggle with the French if it was going to retain control of the north. The war began after one month when the French launched an assault on Haiphong port and killed approximately 6000 people.
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Initially, the French tried to cajole North Vietnamese residents with ‘independence,’ under the condition that the people would not be allowed to participate in any activity without authorization from the French. The next step for the French was the appointment of Bao Dai as the leader. Even so, his legitimacy was disdained by Eastern Europe and the Russia (McNamara et al., 1999). The two powers maintained that Ho Chi Minh was the genuine ruler of Vietnam. This disagreement posed a serious military threat to the French and was later worsened by Viet Minh’s superior guerrilla tactics. Despite the help they received from the US, the French did not record any success. At the time, the Viet Minh were also receiving military help from China since Mao Zedong had just taken control of China in 1949. The situation resulted in a cold-war-era conflict in which Bao Dai was recognized as the legitimate leader by the Western Bloc whereas Ho Chi Minh was considered the real ruler by China, Russia, and Eastern Europe (McNamara et al., 1999). In November 1953, the French decided to subvert Vietnam using their highly skilled crack Parachute Regimen. They had assumed that the well trained unit would overpower the Viet Minh guerillas and, as such, sent it to DienBien Phu. The affair would later lead to the popular Battle of DienBien Phu in which the French lost to North Vietnam and retreated from the territory.
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In 1954, the condition in Vietnam was the subject of discussion at the Geneva Convention. The world powers in attendance agreed to divide Vietnam at the 17th parallel with Bao Dai as the Southern leader and Ho Chi Minh the northern head (Quiang, 1992). Additionally, the meeting concluded that elections would be held in both territories in 1956 to determine the next leaders. Although the split became permanent in 1956, the elections did not take place. By then, North Vietnam was an agricultural economy with a population of 16 million. In support of communism, the nation decided to train Viet Minh guerrillas who were later sent to the south to spread communistic ideals (Duiker, 1981). To the surprise of the Southern residents, the Viet Minh did not attack but rather offered help with farm work. On the other hand, South Vietnamese leadership found communism insufferable, especially because communists did not uphold religion, and received assistance from the US to wage war against the communists.
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After 1956, the Viet Minh ‘army’- now called the “Viet Cong” – employed guerilla tactics, which were formerly utilized by communist Chinese in their war against the Nationalist Chinese, to attack select targets in the south. As many as 40,000 communist soldiers are said to have infiltrated the south in early 1960s. In retaliation, the US started to provide military support to South Vietnam as backing for the anti-communistic quest. By 1969, it had stationed more than 500,000 American military personnel in Vietnam. Meanwhile, China and the Soviet Union began to ship supplies, weapons, and military advisers to North Vietnam. The casualties and costs of the ensuing war proved too much for the US to bear that it withdrew all its combat units by 1973. As a result, South Vietnam government was overthrown in 1975 after a full-scale invasion by its Northern counterpart.
Explanations for the War
Perhaps the most profound factor that triggered the Vietnam War was bipolarity. Notably, the Vietnam War was sparked by the cold war era in which two states, the US and the Soviet Union, held majority of military, economic, and cultural influence internationally and regionally. A majority of the capitalist states fell under the influence of the US while most communist states were largely influenced by the Soviet Union (Zagoria, 1967). As a communist state, North Vietnam received support from communist nations among which included the Soviet Union and China, the largest communist powers in the world by then (Zagoria, 1967). The two allies provided military and political support to the Viet Minh in form of weapons, supplies, and advice. Both Moscow and Beijing hoped to spread communism to the entire Asian hemisphere with a view that a communist Asia would help tip the balance against the Western Bloc and work in favor of soviet and Chinese interests. Indeed, none of the two disclosed the true nature of support they gave North Vietnam in the Vietnam War. Today speculations dominate debates concerning the war with some delivering as to which among them gave what.
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On the other hand, the Western Bloc, led by the US condemned North Vietnam by labelling it as a puppet state and marking its leader Ho Chi Minh a slave to the Soviet Union and China. Although Ho’s communism is open for debate, there were undeniable links between his government and the Soviets most of which related to soviet support for Vietnamese war efforts. The North Vietnamese government specifically benefited from technical advice, information, and moral support, although the level of aid was limited by Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev who preferred to restrict Soviet involvement in the war to avoid trouble. He was later demoted from power in October 1964 after the incident at Gulf of Tonkin where the US directly participated in the war by engaging in combat with North Vietnamese boats. The next leader, Aleksei Kosygin, provided more backing for North Vietnam, making the Soviet Union a major benefactor of the communist side.
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America’s direct involvement in the war spanned for two and half decades between 1950 during when it began to back the French mission to suppress the Viet Minh and 1975 during the fall and defeat of Saigon. The primary cause of involvement was the communist containment policy which had been created at the beginning of the cold war against Russia. Markedly, Europe had been divided into two ideological regions, one being communist and the other capitalist (Zagoria, 1967). Communists were directly opposed to capitalists. The American government was unwilling to give any allowances to the communist powers and neither did Soviet leader Stalin want to release his grip on the lands the Soviet Union had acquired with its communistic ideals. Therefore, a fierce exhibition of power was demonstrated and a bipolar balance of power achieved. With a view that a full-scale war could be to the detriment of both, the US and the Soviet Union held their views with almost religious conviction, with both sides vying for dominance and exploiting all opportunities for growth. In fact, these communist and capitalist differences contributed directly to the rivalry between the US and Russia even after the end of the Vietnam War.
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The second profound factor was economic ties. It is important to note that the capitalists engaged in the Vietnam War to protect their ideology and for the fear that the spread of communism would lead to the fall of the western capitalists. The fact that the community would own much of what rich people owned in a communist system threatened the rich and those who had worked hard to build their own industries and businesses. It also put western capitalistic ideals in jeopardy. Before the Vietnam War, Vietnamese communistic identity had remained a native movement at large. It had begun to energize in the course of the World War II resistance era, before the Chinese communists obtained their victory. Although communism had lost support because of its economic austerity measures and the repression of political freedoms, it did provide a preferable alternative for an indefinite majority in the north and many in the south. In the meantime, the US and its allies were promoting the development of agriculture and heavy industries through economic policy. This resulted to an ideological clash in which the US saw its future of commerce threatened. Economic reasons have led to the cause of other conflicts especially in countries with precious resources.
Imperialism was also contributory to the Vietnam War. French colonialism in the Vietnam region had continued for six decades before the War. Along with Vietnam, the French controlled Cambodia and Laos, a region known as the French Indochina (David & Ineich, 2009). The region had become one of the most lucrative colonial possessions of the French from which they obtained cheap labor, resources, and raw materials. By 1940, they were in control of 23 million Vietnamese along with 40,000 Vietnamese soldiers and a powerful police force known as the Surete. In the subsequent years, a group of communist-led Viet Minh insurgents emerged with a goal of liberating the Vietnamese from the colonial rule of the French (David & Ineich, 2009). Although the infiltration of the Japanese in the World War years reduced French influence and assisted the Viet Minh to a degree, the Vietnamese were apprehensive of their Japanese counterparts. In reality, the US provided aid to the Viet Minh in order to facilitate the defeat of the Japanese in the region. Nevertheless, the French showed their interest to regain their domination in Indochina, which prompted an even more pronounced insurgency against their soldiers (David & Ineich, 2009). Later, the US switched sides and started to support the French with the fear that a communist Vietnam posed a threat of spreading communism to the neighboring borders.
The imperialist system had dominated the pre-war period and had resulted to other wars. In essence, imperialism involves the control and exploitation of one or more colonies by a powerful nation. Before the World War I, powerful European nations like Britain and Germany established control over colonies in Africa and Asia through coercion tactics such as annexation, political power, infiltration, and war. In many cases, imperialistic acts of the master countries led to uprisings and war as subjects in the colonies were not willing to give up their liberty without a struggle. While the colonial masters maintained military presence in the colonies, their aim was not to rule but rather to profit and enrich their imperial powers. In the context of Vietnam, colonialism by the French inspired resistance from the Vietnamese, which further led to the Vietnam War after the American involvement.
Further, by evaluating the events of the Vietnam War, there emerges evidence of a security dilemma. Referred as the core assumption of defensive realism, a security dilemma inspires countries to respond to acts by other countries via similar measures. Such acts may involve the realization of new alliances, increase in military strength, or commitment to use weapons. In the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union and Communist China responded by providing military support to North Vietnam on noticing that the US was doing the same with South Vietnam (Gaddis, 2005). Aside from protecting their protecting their ideals, survival was the main motivation for both sides. Security dilemmas are common in scenarios where one or more states become distrustful of other state’s intention. Although the US knew the intentions of communist regimes in terms of the spread of communistic ideals, it did not comprehend the ultimate reason why the Soviet Union and China wanted to spread communism throughout the world (Gaddis, 2005). One would argue that it was because it would led to the destruction of capitalism, yet it was unclear to the US as to the exact reason why the communists were pushing their agenda. The significance of the security dilemma in war was more profoundly illustrated in the cold war during which the rivals, the US and Soviet Union, exhibited alliances and an arms race.
Finally, the international order played a role in the initiation of the Vietnam War. Since 1945, the Soviet Union and United States have pursued global interests by creating international institutions, maintaining alliances, founding security organizations, and promoting certain political norms (Falk, 2017). These alliances were instrumental during the escalation of the Vietnam War and particularly indicated the American position against that of the Soviets. With regard to the definition, significance, and drivers at the Vietnam War period, the international order referred to a body or norms, rules and institutions that dictated relations between the two major powers in the international environment at the time. The creation of international order remains a common goal for both the US and Russia today. On America’s part, the goal is to extend freedom and democracy in the society.
Soon after the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam in 1973, there were no relations between America and Vietnam. In fact, US politicians were furious when North Vietnam launched a dull-scale assault on South Vietnam. Just five days before the defeat of Saigon, the US closed its Vietnamese embassy without any hope of reestablishing diplomatic relations with the nation. In addition, the US did not recognize the North Vietnamese regimes as legitimate (McNamara et al., 1999). The two countries did not conduct any trade amongst themselves in the next two decades, something that led to the crippling of the Vietnamese economy especially as relates to food supply. As a refusal strategy against economic intimidation by the west, Vietnam failed to submit to international demands and instead launched communist-style food quotas and land partitioning in an attempt to control the situation. In 1978, Vietnamese further damaged its relations with the US after invading its neighbor, Cambodia (Menétrey, 2006). The invasion and the ensuing 10-year-long occupation by Vietnamese military was largely perceived as unlawful and the US refused to establish its relations with the Vietnam until a conditional withdrawal of forces was fulfilled. The western power also demanded Vietnam to return all missing American personnel to American Shores.
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Although Vietnam did not act in accordance with the ultimatum, internal politics during the 1980s gave rise to the opportunity for cooperation between the two former rivals. Vietnam began to ease its restriction on capitalism by allowing the establishment and development of small businesses. This was seen a way of transforming the Vietnamese economy into a market-oriented one. What is more, Vietnam complied with international requests to retreat from Cambodia by withdrawing all its military personnel in 1989 (Menétrey, 2006). This signified the beginning of a new era in which the US and Vietnam would reengage through international relations. In 1994, the US finally lifted its trade restriction on Vietnam and opened a new era of trade between the two countries. In 2000, they singed a Bilateral Trade agreement (BTA) that would later serve as a foundation for Vietnam’s consideration in the World Trade Organization (WTO) (Manyin, 2010). The agreement also gave Vietnam the privilege of preferential access to the American market through the reduction of tariff rates on Vietnam’s exports to the largest economy in the world (Menétrey, 2006). Meanwhile, Vietnam’s membership in the WTO facilitated entry into global markets. The US is continually considering Vietnam as a better business partner as compared to China because Vietnam has younger and cheaper labor.
After two decades since the normalization of relations between the two nations, they have made remarkable progress as far as economic partnerships are concerned. During the Obama administration, the Republican-led Senate passed a policy that granted the president the power to fast track negotiations processes of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The partnership would benefit both economies and function as a balancing strategy against China. Furthermore, increasing Vietnamese textile exports to the US will render the garment industry of the superpower less reliant on China’s products. With regard to security, China’s military development technology-wise could pose a serious threat to both the US and Vietnam, especially the latter owing to geographical proximity. Since the two share common interests against China’s coercive resolutions to the Southern-China disputes, they have cooperated to maintain a stronghold for the west.
In conclusion, the Vietnam was largely driven by polarities of social organization in conjunction with clashing aspects of imperialism, economic ties, and international order. The most profound factor was bipolarity. Notably, the Vietnam War was sparked by the cold war era in which two states, the US and the Soviet Union, held majority of military, economic, and cultural influence internationally and regionally. A majority of the capitalist states fell under the influence of the US while most communist states were largely influenced by the Soviet Union. Secondly, economic ties played a role in the war. The capitalists engaged in the Vietnam War to protect their ideology and for the fear that the spread of communism would lead to the fall of the western capitalists (Duiker, 1981). The fact that the community would own much of what rich people owned in a communist system threatened the rich and those who had worked hard to build their own industries and businesses. It also put western capitalistic ideals in jeopardy. Thirdly, imperialism was contributory to the Vietnam War. French colonialism in the Vietnam region had continued for six decades before the War. Along with Vietnam, the French controlled Cambodia and Laos, a region known as the French Indochina. Fourthly, a security dilemma was significant in the development of the war. The dilemma inspired countries to respond to acts by other countries via similar measures. Finally, the international order played a role in the initiation of the Vietnam War. Since 1945, the Soviet Union and United States pursued global interests by creating international institutions, maintaining alliances, founding security organizations, and promoting certain political norms some of which led to extreme rivalry, such as in the case of Vietnam.
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