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Autumn 2009, History 279 (The Vietnam War) - Second essay


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Autumn 2009, History 279 (The Vietnam War) - Second essay

  1. 1. History 279: The Viet Nam War (Autumn 2009) Professor Robert Brigham Stephen Cheng Second essay The Dilemma of Winning “Hearts and Minds” President Lyndon B. Johnson's decisions in early 1965 to wage an air war and to deploy ground forces in Viet Nam meant that the United States government’s role in the Viet Nam War drastically changed. McGeorge Bundy, in a February 7, 1965 memo to Johnson, favored a policy of “sustained reprisal” through “air and naval action” and General William C. Westmoreland, who commanded the US war effort, intended on a strategy of attrition which would bleed out the NLF and DRV's armed forces through two interconnected phases: the establishment of 1) a primary base from which to 2) stage “search and destroy” missions (Turley, 98-99). In doing so, the US could hope to win the war in Viet Nam yet minimize the casualties and the length of time of the conflict. Although the original intention of the US government and military may have been to fight a limited war, growing involvement meant that such a limited war could turn into a total war by the US on behalf of the South Viet Namese state despite Westmoreland's intention and plan of attrition that were only suitable for a limited war (Turley, 100). A proper descriptive term for this kind of war would be "Americanization." The “Americanization” of the war thus meant that the US could no longer fight a war at arm's length, that is, a limited war. Instead, the US would have to treat the Viet Nam War as a conflict requiring complete involvement. This kind of involvement was not unlike how the US came to have key roles in the Korean War and the First and Second World Wars. Such a transformation of the US government’s role meant that its military effectively replaced the South Viet Namese forces in fighting the National Liberation Front and the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam. But by “Americanizing” the war, the US could have taken the ideal of winning "hearts and minds" seriously. Furthermore, the realization of this idea would require a nation-building project in South Viet Nam. This project would also entail a social revolution beneath the seventeenth parallel under non-Communist auspices. Although the possibility of such a policy being enacted alongside 1
  2. 2. the “Americanization” of the war was not high, it was at least likelier than an even more ideal policy: the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of US forces from South Viet Nam. Nonetheless, a nation-building effort that could resemble Johnson's Great Society dream transplanted in South Viet Nam was possible and could promote a process of social transformation if only to co-opt the programs and policies of the NLF and DRV. According to a memorandum from Acting Secretary of State George Ball to Johnson, the political program for the US war effort in South Viet Nam included clauses such as "Our joint and sole aim is to secure and maintain the political independence and territorial integrity of South Viet-Nam so as to permit it to develop its institutions and live in peace with its neighbors free from outside interference" and "South Vietnamese independence, which is the birthright of every nation, large and small, should be internationally guaranteed" (document 13). These clauses point to nation-building in South Viet Nam. Yet a nation-building project would require substantial US involvement precisely so that South Viet Nam will no longer need such support. The future prospect of a strengthened, sovereign South Viet Nam would justify an immediate heavy US presence since it could aid an “Americanization” process that would be temporary so that the US military would not have to maintain a permanent or long-term deployment. This meant that an expanded war could hopefully be a shortened one as well. Yet such total involvement could not only have a military component. It would also need a civilian component. Hence the relevance of nation- building to US military operations in South Viet Nam. Winning "hearts and minds," furthermore, would entail taking into account social issues around which DRV and NLF cadres were able to successfully organize. One example of a social issue would be land distribution and ownership. A serious attempt at accomplishing land reform, for instance, could have won the US and the Republic of Viet Nam popular support among tenant farmers in South Viet Nam. But according to William S. Turley, "In fact embassy officials opposed radical land reform on the grounds that this would antagonize the government's main social base" (116). Yet this main social base was no doubt smaller than the social base that the NLF and DRV was trying to appeal to for grassroots support. Ultimately, had the US and the RVN been serious 2
  3. 3. about winning the war, they had to do more than to militarily defeat NLF and DRV forces; they would also have to attain the sympathy of people who could otherwise join their enemies. For instance, the director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) wrote in a February 27, 1965 memorandum to Johnson that USIA researchers “conclude[d] that the [Viet Namese] population is largely apathetic and is primarily interested in ending the twenty years of war; they care less as to which side will win, although there appears to be a substantial degree of approval of the Viet Cong” (document 172). Furthermore, also on February 27, 1965, the Department of State published a report titled “Aggression From the North: The Record of North Viet-Nam's Effort to Conquer South Viet-Nam” which detailed the North Viet Namese military intervention in South Viet Nam (document 171). This report was a follow-up to an older paper released on December 8, 1961 titled “A Threat to the Peace: North Viet-Nam's Effort to Conquer South Viet-Nam,” which cited captured North Viet Namese documents that expounded on the need to promote a “people's war” in South Viet Nam. As the term implies, a “people's war” meant a war waged with an indigenous, popular, and grassroots base. Since the North Viet Namese government could have encouraged this kind of conflict between 1961 and 1965 with a war-weary population that had some sympathy for the NLF, the US and RVN would have to make the effort, however difficult the task may be, to develop such a grassroots foundation as well. References Turley, William S. The Second Indochina War: A Concise Political and Military History (second edition). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009. 3
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