The Causes of the Vietnam Conflict

At three o’clock in the morning on January 31, 1968, 85,000 communist guerrillas attacked the five largest cities and 100 municipalities throughout South Vietnam. In most of the cities, the communists were repelled quickly and easily, but others took weeks to get back into United States control. The American embassy in Saigon, supposedly the safest, most impenetrable place in all of Vietnam was taken over and held for eight hours, and the rest of Saigon took two weeks for American and South Vietnamese forces to regain control. These attacks were called the Tet Offensive. Militarily, “the United States was the victor of the Tet Offensive for the Communists did not succeed in maintaining control over any part of South Vietnam” (, but military victory wasn’t the only aim of the communist leaders, they were aimed at the American public. Americans had been told that we were winning the war, and that the North Vietnamese could not sustain the casualties that the United States forces were inflicting. The massive show of force on Tet, led many Americans to question why we went to Vietnam, or why we were still there. Many Americans now believe that we did not belong there, but in reality, America had both a political and moral obligation to fight in Vietnam. Our obligations were due to the Truman Doctrine which stated that America would stop the spread of communism at all costs, the attack of South Vietnam by the communist north, and because of the failure of the French in the first Indochinese war.  

On March 12, 1947 President Harry S Truman addressed Congress about a deteriorating situation in Greece.

"The seeds of totalitarian regimes are nurtured by misery and want. They spread and grow in the      evil soil of poverty and strife. They reach their full growth when the hope of a people for a better life has died. We must keep that hope alive. The free peoples of the world look  to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world – and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation" (

His speech promised assistance and leadership to all peoples that feel that they are having their freedoms infringed upon. At the time of the speech, Greece had a deteriorating economy and this lead to “the rise of the Communist-led insurgency known as the National Liberation Front” ( Great Britain had been supplying financial support to both Greece and Turkey, but in early 1947, they had withdrawn their support. The responsibility of protecting the free world had been thrust upon the United States. Truman called upon congress to support Greece in their effort “to survive as a free nation”. In Vietnam, the south had invaders infringing on their rights as well. Truman said “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” ( This was the case in South Vietnam. The armed minority was the Vietcong guerillas that were attacking from the rural areas, and the North Vietnamese army, which was waging a more conventional war. The South Vietnamese resisted to the best of their abilities these outside pressures, but they didn’t have the capabilities to adequately defend themselves. The Truman Doctrine promised the world, South Vietnam included, the support and leadership of the United States in their struggles against such things as the South Vietnamese were encountering, and the South Vietnamese government had no choice but to utilize this promise by the United States to secure the freedom of their country and of their population.

            To use the Truman Doctrine as a cause for war, there has to be credible dangers to the safety and freedom of the nation that America is at war to protect. In South Vietnam, there were many dangers that warranted U.S. intervention. In 1957, communist insurgents supported by North Vietnamese officials began strategic, planned assassinations of South Vietnamese government officials; however, the violence didn’t stop there. School teachers, health workers, and agricultural officials became targets for communist sponsored violence. In 1957 alone, four hundred government officials were assassinated. “One estimate says that by 1958, 20 percent of South Vietnam’s village chiefs had been murdered by the insurgents” ( As a country sworn to protect innocence and freedom, America had to react to the rampant violence in Vietnam. The South Vietnamese were stripped of their freedom to believe in their own form of government, and those that opposed were killed. Killing a group of individuals based on their political beliefs is genocide. America could not ignore the slaughtering of innocent civilians due to their political beliefs. The Vietcong guerrillas could not be allowed to run through the countryside, killing innocent people indiscriminately. They used terror as a tactic, to procure food and support in the local population. The Vietcong regularly killed civilians in order to scare the population into submission. They killed 252 civilians in December of 1967 using flamethrowers. 48 civilians were killed when they bombed a restaurant in Saigon. In the months and years following the Tet offensive, mass graves were found in Hue city. Thousands of innocent civilians were found dead, many had been tortured, and some were buried alive. The Vietcong sent an assassin to a South Vietnamese Commander’s house when he wasn’t there. The objective of the assassin was to kill his wife and his five small children ( The North Vietnamese government sponsored these ruthless killings, and was backed by both China and the Soviet Union. The weak South Vietnamese government needed assistance and America was the only country that was ready to help them fight off the invasion of the communists from the north.

            Late in the nineteenth century Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were conquered by the French. In 1887, the French consolidated Vietnam and Cambodia into French Indochina. Soon after, nationalist movements in Vietnam struggled to gain their independence from French rule. In 1930, Ho Chi Minh founded the Indochinese Communist Party, the most effective of these nationalist movements. During World War II, Japan seized control of the region, and the Indochinese Communist Party used the struggle between the Japanese and French to create the Viet Minh, a group that’s goal was the independence of Vietnam after the war. After the war, the Viet Minh created the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, and the French in the south threatened to invade. An agreement was made between the French and Viet Minh, but that soon failed, and the Viet Minh attacked French installations in North Vietnam. During the war, the French tried to get America involved by established a pro-western government in South Vietnam and soon after, the U.S. began sending military equipment to Vietnam. After years of fighting in 1954, France agreed to start peace talks in Geneva Switzerland. The Viet Minh then attacked a French military outpost at Dien Bien Phu. The French suffered a humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu, which lead to the withdrawal of French troops from Vietnam ( The final peace document divided the country into a communist north and pro-west south, and elections were set to take place in 1956 to unify the country, however, neither the United States nor the South Vietnamese government signed the agreement ( Had the French not taken advantage of the Vietnamese people, and granted their independence, two very costly wars could have been avoided. Instead, they chose to fight, yet relied on American support. After all of the years of fighting, 30,000 French dead, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese dead, the country was still unstable. The French should have used the opportunity to set up a stable government, one that both North and South Vietnam and the American government, who had been supporting their war, agreed on. Instead, the French left the area with no stable government in place, leaving that to the Americans. With the French failure in their war against the communists in Vietnam, and their need for American military assistance, they dragged the U.S. into their fight, which eventually lead to U.S. involvement in the Second Indochinese War, or as most Americans know it, the Vietnam War.   

People have always been concerned with the causes, justifications, and the need for wars, so much so that a test known as the jus ad bellum was created. According to Michael J. Butler in The Journal of Conflict Resolution, there are “five main principles delineating a just war in accordance with the jus ad bellum test”. These principles are the presence of just cause, presence of competent authority to act, right intention in action, reasonable hope of success, and overall proportionality of good (232). In my opinion, each one of these principles is met by the United States involvement in Vietnam. America’s just cause was evident in the attack of the south and the slaughtering and torturing of innocent civilians by the North Vietnamese. The presence of competent authority to act was thrust upon America by the French and their failure to control their own colonies. When entering Vietnam, America had the intention of stopping communism from invading a country that didn’t want it, and helping innocent people from suffering from indiscriminate violence, which I believe is more than enough to satisfy the right intention principle. America had a reasonable chance of success; however, this was disrupted by the strategies of the American general William Westmoreland, whose strategy of attrition was the main reason for the loss of the war. These four principles all combine in the last, the overall proportionality of good. America’s goal was to preserve the freedom of a peoples that needed our countries help. The Truman Doctrine promised the South Vietnamese and all other free countries help and protection from outside influences attempting to take away their freedom. When the North Vietnamese government started sponsoring guerilla warfare in the south and officially declared an armed struggle against the government of South Vietnam, America had to act. Finally, French exploitation and inability to maintain peace and order in their own colonies, and the withdrawal of their support for the government that they created left the United States the responsibility of creating a stable country. Though the war wasn’t fought correctly, American involvement was more than warranted by the Truman Doctrine, the attack of the south, and the failure of the French.   [831][832][833][834][835]