By: Tomas Penfold Perez
In his annual message to Congress at the State of the Union Address in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed: “I believe we [Americans] can continue the Great Society while we fight in Vietnam.” A year prior, America’s assertion of the Vietnam War was seemingly different from the war we are reminded of today. With approval ratings at nearly 70% in 1965, President Johnson, along with millions of Americans around the country, believed that combating communism was a necessity and an essential foreign policy objective. With proxy-wars in Latin America (Cuba, Panama, Dominican Republic), U.S. intervention to fight Communism seemed to be an understanding among world powers, a prerequisite in international policy due to the Cold War fears embedded in the minds of the great American public.
In 1967, after ordering nearly 500,000 troops to Vietnam and with approval ratings at a dismal 36%, President Johnson grumbled to his most trusted companion, Lady Bird Johnson: “I can’t get out. I can’t finish it with what I have got. So what the hell do I do?”
Conflict Brewing in Vietnam
In 1954, democratic leader Ngo Dinh Diem defeated Emperor Bao Dai in a national referendum with 98.2% of the vote counseling a new regime that was recognized immediately by France, the United States and Great Britain, among others. President Dwight. D. Eisenhower and his successors (Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) promised direct assistance to South Vietnam, viewing it as an opportunity to support the democratic transition of South Vietnam while imperiling the transgression of communist ideals in the North.
Throughout three different administrations, the United States took a firm military and economic stance toward mobilizing capital and troops in South Vietnam in order to prevail over communism. The “Domino Effect”, which premised that all communist nations would subside when one was defeated, was in many ways the thesis to the American administration’s policy in combating communism.
President Johnson’s pledge to directly assist Diem’s government, in addition to the actions taken by the following administrations, opened the floodgates of the deployment of thousands of American troops in the following 17 years.
U.S. Deployment by the Numbers
Having fought in traditional trench-warfare during WWI , Northern Vietnam’s guerrilla warfare tactic caused an insurmountable amount of U.S. casualties, which of course led to more reinforcements. Growing at a pace of roughly 100,000 deployments per year, the United States military forces in Vietnam continued to escalate dramatically. In 1964, there were 23,300 U.S. military forces. In 1967, a year before its pinnacle of 536,100, the number reached 485,000 before dropping to 234,600 in 1970 and eventually 24,200 two years later.
U.S. military battle deaths followed a similar pattern, increasing roughly 4,000 deaths per year before plunging at the same rate after 1968. In 1966 the United States military battle deaths totaled 5,008. In 1968, 14,589 men lost their lives until eventually falling to 1,381 men in 1971. Additionally, it is estimated that nearly 70,000 to 300,000 Vietnam Veterans committed suicide and roughly 700,000 veterans suffered psychological trauma.
Among all the wars fought in the history of the United States, Vietnam is ranked 4th in casualties behind the Civil War and both World Wars.
A Bittersweet Anniversary
In January 1973, in large due to historic mobilization of American anti-war protesters and in response to what seemed to be a never-ending war, President Richard Nixon signed a peace accord with North Vietnam. The Vietnam war continues to be lingering dark cloudin U.S. history; one that proves that unrestrained capital and military influence can in fact come short when partaking in an international warfare based on ideals. Two months later, the last U.S. combat troops left South Vietnam.
March 29 marks the anniversary of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, a war that fueled controversy both domestically and internationally. While we celebrate the sacrifices that thousands of American citizens made in fighting for our freedom and liberty, it is imperative to underscore the failure of the operation in attempting to intervene in a civil war between North and South Vietnam; a decision that cost the United States roughly 168 billion USD and more than 50,000 lives.
The war does, however, grant us the opportunity to learn about our mistakes in order to make wiser decisions regarding international warfare.
Tomas Penfold Perez is a communications intern for the EastWest Institute. He is a Fordham University graduate who majored in International Political Economy and Communications & Media Industries.