Vietnam and the United States are on opposite sides of the world and, until the last half of the twentieth century, the two nations had few political, cultural, or economic ties. Still, the United States became deeply involved in Vietnam’s military struggles. The war in Vietnam divided American public opinion. Its images became part of American popular mythology. It changed the way Americans think about foreign intervention. It even changed the composition of the American population by creating a large Vietnamese American population. Robert Mann’s goal, in this massive but readable history, is to explain the chain of political decisions that put the United States in Vietnam and made it difficult for the superpower to extricate itself.
Washington, D.C., not Vietnam, is the primary setting for Mann’s book. U.S. presidents and the senators who came to oppose the war are the book’s primary characters. While this does limit the book’s perspective, giving relatively little attention to events on the ground in Vietnam or to the popular movement against the war in the United States, it also gives readers a clear vision of the domestic political debates and pressures behind the war. This is an angle that may be unfamiliar to many general readers. In addition, although scholarly specialists will find few new facts or hypotheses in the book, Mann’s work offers a comprehensive narrative of the reasons and actions of U.S. political leaders.
Mann’s story begins in 1949, with the Communist victory in China. The claim that Democratic president Harry S. Truman had lost China to the Communists became a rallying cry for conservative Republicans such as Senator Robert Taft. It also gave ammunition to the anti-Communist senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers. With the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950, the defense of Asian countries from Communism became a major theme in American political life. Democrats had to protect themselves against accusations that they were weak on Communism in that part of the world and Republicans could use those same accusations as political weapons. Mann points out that, ironically, many of the same Republican leaders, such as Taft, who demanded intervention in Asia also argued that the United States was too deeply involved in Europe.
Truman provided aid to French troops attempting to reestablish themselves in their former colony of Vietnam in order to protect himself against the attacks of his opponents in Congress and to support France, as a non-Communist nation in a Europe that seemed threatened by Soviet domination. In the atmosphere of the Cold War, opposition to Communism came quickly to dominate debates over policy. During the administration of Truman’s successor, Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower, opposition to Communism became even more rigid. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles faced a world in which two of the largest nations, the Soviet Union and China, were both Communist. Moreover, the Soviet Union dominated most of Eastern Europe and both the Chinese and the Soviets seemed to be promoting Communist expansion throughout Asia.
Eisenhower and Dulles adopted a policy of containment. The Communist nations would be kept from expanding further. In addition, the example of Eastern Europe led American policy makers to see people living under Communism as living in a state of captivity. From this perspective, the government of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, who was a former Communist agent and had lived in both Russia and China, looked like a puppet of the Communist powers. The French colonialists, on the other hand, seemed like agents of the free world. The Eisenhower administration therefore persuaded the United States Congress that financial support for the French war effort in Vietnam was essential to American national security.
When the French were defeated by Communist-dominated Vietnamese forces, the Eisenhower-Dulles policy of containing Communism led the American leadership to support the South Vietnamese government that the French had created. Without direct French domination, this South Vietnamese government, led by Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, looked even more like a threatened representative of the free world to American eyes. This image may have made more sense in the 1950’s than it does in retrospect, and more description of Vietnam’s complicated internal situation would have been helpful. For example, Mann mentions Diem’s devout Catholicism and Diem’s lack of widespread popular support in South Vietnam, but the author does not sufficiently stress the connection...
(The entire section is 1876 words.)