The Vietnam War

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Compare and contrast Nixon's, Kennedy's and Johnson's policies on Vietnam.

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Kennedy was probably the biggest believer in America's involvement in Vietnam. He largely carried over the strategy from President Eisenhower, who involved the US in Vietnam through supplies and intelligence to the French during their war with Vietnamese communists.

Kennedy saw the shift towards Southeast Asia as part of a broader strategy of containing communist revolutions throughout the region. It is generally overlooked that Vietnam was not the only country involved in this strategy; countries throughout Southeast Asia received support in their struggles with insurgencies. However, given his short presidency, there is no way to know how Kennedy would have continued with US involvement.

Johnson was reluctant to pour more troops and money into a conflict that was growing unpopular, but he was responsible for truly making the war a conflict that the US could not walk away from. His policies can be viewed as an attempt to snuff out the war as quickly as possible. But he was also very cognizant of how it would look to the rest of the world if the US left Vietnam, as it would make communist movements (sponsored by the USSR and China) look like viable options. 

When Nixon took office he was determined to bring the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table. The US and South Vietnam had been offering the North a negotiated settlement for years, similar to the situation between North and South Korea. However, the North Vietnamese refused. Nixon stepped up the war, made South Vietnam take over more of the war effort and began a campaign to break North Vietnam's will to fight. This included large-scale bombings of its factories and war-making industries, as well as the mining of its harbors. Nixon then launched the massive Christmas bombings of Hanoi in 1972. North Vietnam quickly agreed to a ceasefire.

Despite the war's unpopularity, the strategies pursued by all three men accomplished many of their objectives. The US and South Vietnam defeated the North and its proxy, the National Liberation Front (NLF or commonly called the Viet Cong), at every turn. The US was never defeated in a major engagement, and following the communists' failed Tet Offensive of 1968, the NLF was all but destroyed as a fighting force. North Vietnam, then, was decimated by the war. Its infrastructure was in ruins and it agreed to a ceasefire, largely because it could not continue fighting.

It should be remembered that North Vietnam re-invaded South Vietnam in 1975, two years after the Paris Peace Accords and exit of American troops. Therefore, we need to focus on each president's strategy during their time in office and not after the events of 1975. By that measure, while each man pursued a different strategy (and those strategies were at times incoherent), they largely accomplished their main objectives of keeping the North out of the South, as well as also pacifying the NLF. 

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To be fair, Kennedy did not really get time to act on Vietnam. He was cut down in the beginning of the conflict, when we were still in the feeling out stage. Johnson inherited the presidency and the war, and had enough on his plate. He wanted to appear strong, so he decided to take on the war. Nixon inherited the war at its worst, when it was unpopular and we were floundering. Getting out was the only feasible option.
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There are many points that could be made here, but for the sake of keeping it short, I will look at the main aspects of each man's policies.

  • Kennedy's policy was to advise and guide South Vietnam.  Under JFK, the US was not very directly involved in the war.
  • Under Johnson, the US became much more deeply involved and was trying to win the war on its own.  It was under LBJ that US troop levels reached their peak.  His only goal was to win the war at any cost.
  • Nixon was trying to get out of the war.  He gave us "Vietnamization" and the search for "peace with honor."  By the time he came to office, Nixon pretty much thought the war could not be won and was not worth it.  Most of his actions were aimed at trying to get a decent peace treaty.

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