McCarthyism was a period in the late 1940s when the United States faced the fear of the spread of communism. During that period, many American citizens were accused of supporting this ideology that was being supported by its enemies, including Vietnam. The rivalry had been growing for decades due to a series of major events that had ensued, including the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union nuclear program, as well as the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The name McCarthyism is associated with Joseph McCarthy, a U.S senator who was an ardent supporter of the anti-communist movement. The senator's accusation seeded high-level of suspicion in the U.S, consequently leading to the questioning of the loyalty of some of the American citizens. However, some historians have opposed the ideology that the war against Vietnam was due to McCarthyism. Consequently, the contentious issue has seeded the debate on what exactly made the U.S fight against Vietnam. Although it remains a topic of argument among scholars, McCarthyism was the overarching cause of the U.S involvement with Vietnam.
To understand how communism played a central role during the invasion of Vietnam by the Americans, it is paramount to first understand the relationship between Vietnam and Southeast Asian countries. It is important to analyze the global context since the events took place at a time when there was tension due to the Cold War, particularly between the Soviet Union, the U.S, and China. Notably, as superpower countries, they all wanted to make alliances with Vietnam yet there existed great rivalry that influenced how the war played out. Indeed, McCarthyism was at the centre stage of the war between Vietnam and the United States.
The issue of decolonization after World War II helps explain how Southeast Asia countries perceived the ideology of communism. As political leaders and local activists established new governments, the U.S, China, and the Soviet Union seized the opportunity to make allies with newly independent countries. However, the issue of whether a country was a communist or a non-communist played a pivotal role in determining whether a country could be an ally of a superpower nation. Vietnam, in particular, was initially colonized by France.
"You all have known that French imperialism entered Indochina half a century ago. In its selfish interests, it conquered our country with bayonets. Since then we have not only been oppressed and exploited shamelessly but also tortured and poisoned pitilessly."
The excerpts above clearly show how France oppressed the Vietnamese during the colonial period. However, after France was defeated by Germany during the Second World War, the republic of Vietnam was under the control of Japanese. Ho Chi Minh, a celebrated nationalist led the war against Japan in 1945 and Vietnam triumphed.
After Vietnam was declared an independent country, the French sought to reclaim it again. However, they were defeated in 1954 by the Vietminh. In the same year, a peace meeting was held in Geneva, and France consented to leave Vietnam. However, the country would be divided into two until the time when elections would be held. However, no elections were held and the country continued to remain divided; North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The former republic embraced communism and was under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. On the other hand, the latter was a capitalistic republic. However, war broke after many people in South Vietnam started to revolt against their leader. They wanted to unite Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh, who supported communism. There were increasing attacks in the south by the communist who lived in South Vietnam, and this led to a movement called the National Liberation Front.
The United States was afraid that South Vietnamese would also start embracing communism, and this would spread to the larger Southeast Asia. This was popularly referred to as the Domino theory and it posited that if a nation came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would also get influenced. Markedly, the region was so precious in the minds of the American policymakers. In 1945, the U.S along with its allies formed the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). The primary objective of forming this organization was to combat the spread of communism in Southeast Asia region. However, South Vietnam could not be part of the alliance since the Geneva Accords barred them from joining any transnational military alliance in the world although it was listed as being a member of the SEATO protectorate. Indeed, this clause provided assurance to the United States strategy of getting involved in South Vietnam since SEATO members had agreed to combat the issue of communism in Southeast Asia.
Similar to the way regional concerns regarding the issue of communism aided in seeking support for South Vietnam, the subject of Vietnam conflict between the South and North also influenced the Cold War rivalries between the superpower countries. As China, the Soviet Union, and the U.S contested for alliances with new independent colonies, Vietnam was approached by all three countries, and each wanted to make its mark. The United States offered military and economic support, while the other two gave similar aid to North Vietnam. The two Vietnamese leaders were cognizant of the fact that they were walking a tight rope between their rival benefactors. Although leaders from both sides of Vietnam tried to resist control by the superpowers, the power struggle pitting the U.S versus China and the Soviet Union continued, and it was instrumental in influencing the Vietnam War.
President John F. Kennedy convinced American citizens that the United States had the obligation to help governments that counterattacked communist revolts, as was the case in South Vietnam. The debate on the strategy that Kennedy would have espoused had he lived longer than 1963 with respect to the Vietnam War continues up to date. Whilst some observe that he would have escalated the war as was the case with President Lyndon B. Johnson, others have argued that Kennedy considered Vietnam as an irrelevant country and thus, he would not have intensified the war on them.
In conclusion, McCarthyism played a central role in the U.S decision to fight Vietnam. The power struggle between China, the U.S and the Soviet Union set the stage for the Vietnam War. The United States, being a capitalist society, felt the need to contain communism that was fast spreading in South Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia. China and the Soviet Union had become communist and they became allies with North Vietnam, a situation that seeded the Cold War during the 1950s. The U.S desire to prove that it was committed to preventing the spread of communism formed the basis of the United States approach to Vietnam. Indeed, McCarthyism was the overarching cause of the U.S involvement with Vietnam.
Carruthers, Susan L. "' The Manchurian Candidate'(1962) and the Cold War Brainwashing Scare." Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 18, no. 1 (1998): 75-94.
Gaiduk, Ilia V. The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War. Ivan R Dee, 1996.
McMahon, Robert J., ed. Major problems in the history of the Vietnam War: documents and essays. DC Heath, 1990.
Schuessler, John M. Deceit on the road to war: Presidents, politics, and American democracy. Cornell University Press, 2015.
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