The causes of the Vietnam War trace their roots back to the end of World War II. A French colony, Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, & Cambodia) had been occupied by the Japanese during the war. In 1941, a Vietnamese nationalist movement, the Viet Minh, was formed by Ho Chi Minh to resist the occupiers. A communist, Ho Chi Minh waged a guerilla war against the Japanese with the support of the United States. Near the end of the war, the Japanese began to promote Vietnamese nationalism and ultimately granted the country nominal independence.
Following the Japanese defeat, the French returned to take possession of their colony. Their entrance into Vietnam was only permitted by the Viet Minh after assurances had been given that the country would gain independence as part of the French Union. Discussions broke down between the two parties and in December 1946, the French shelled the city of Haiphong and forcibly reentered the capital, Hanoi.
These actions began a conflict between the French and the Viet Minh known as the First Indochina War. Fought mainly in North Vietnam, this conflict ended when the French were decisively defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The war was ultimately settled by the Geneva Accords of 1954, which temporarily partitioned the country at the 17th parallel, with the Viet Minh in control of the north and a non-communist state to be formed in the south under Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. This division was to last until 1956, when national elections would be held to decide the future of the nation.
The Politics of American Involvement
Initially, the United States had little interest in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, however as it became clear that the post-World War II world would be dominated by the US and its allies and the Soviet Union and theirs, isolating communist movements took an increased importance. These concerns were ultimately formed into the doctrine of containment and domino theory. First spelled out 1947, containment identified that the goal of Communism was to spread to capitalist states and that the only way to stop it was to “contain” it within its present borders. Springing from containment was the concept of domino theory which stated that if one state in a region were to fall to Communism, then the surrounding states would inevitably fall as well. These concepts were to dominate and guide US foreign policy for much of the Cold War.
In 1950, to combat the spread of Communism, the United States began supplying the French military in Vietnam with advisors and funding its efforts against the “red” Viet Minh. These efforts continued in 1956, when advisors were provided to train the army of the new Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Despite their best efforts, the quality of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was to remain consistently poor throughout its existence.