Background to the Vietnam conflict

A map of North Vietnam and South Vietnam divided by the 17th Parallel

Vietnam had been a French colony before it was occupied by the Japanese during World War Two. After World War Two it was returned to French control, but many Vietnamese people wanted independence. As a result, in the 1950s the French found themselves fighting a war against the Viet Minh - an organisation dedicated to removing foreign imperialist powers from Vietnam.

Worried about the spread of communism in South East Asia, the USA began to bankroll the French war effort in Vietnam. President Truman had said in 1947 that he was committed to halting the spread of communism. This idea formed part of his Truman Doctrine which shaped American politics during the early days of the Cold War.

In 1954, the French were finally defeated by the Viet Minh at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The French had tried to block a communist supply line and set up a defensive system at an army base in Dien Bien Phu. However, the communist Viet Minh forces trapped the soldiers inside the garrison for 56 days. The resulting media attention proved very embarrassing for the defeated French.

The outcome of this defeat was formalised in the Geneva Agreement of July 1954 and temporarily separated Vietnam into two zones: a northern zone to be governed by the Viet Minh, and a southern zone to be governed by an anti-communist government led by Ngo Dinh Diem. The Geneva Agreement spelt the end of French control of Vietnam, and the start of a major headache for the USA.

Why did this the worry the USA?

  1. Vietnam was divided into North and South at the 17th Parallel, with the Viet Minh in control of North Vietnam, and a non-communist government in control of South Vietnam.
  2. The Viet Minh had fallen under the control of the Vietnamese Communist Party, led by Ho Chi Minh, so victory for the Viet Minh was a victory for communism.
  3. America was operating a policy of containment and feared if Vietnam fell to communism, other countries in South East Asia would fall too (domino theory). They were mindful that the Korean War (1950-1953) had resulted in North Korea becoming communist.

Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969)

Photo of Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh

  • President of North Vietnam from 1954 until his death.
  • Also known as Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot).
  • His family had resisted the French authorities and been punished for it.
  • Minh travelled to London and Paris, and became a communist (he even helped found the French Communist Party in December 1920).
  • Set up the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1930 and League for Independence of Vietnam in 1941, but had to live in China to avoid being arrested.

Remember, at this point America was operating a policy of containment so decided to give its support to the non-communist government of South Vietnam, led by Ngo Dinh Diem.

A look at Ngo Dinh Diem

Portrait of Ngo Dinh Diem

If you were going to pick a political leader to support, you probably wouldn’t pick Ngo Dinh Diem! As the leader of South Vietnam he was helped by America, and proved an unpopular choice with the Vietnamese people.

  • He had removed the previous leader in a fraudulent election, in which he had won 600,000 votes in a country with only 450,000 people eligible to vote!
  • He was a rich landowner in a country of poor peasant farmers.
  • He was a Catholic and openly discriminated against Buddhists (the majority religion in Vietnam at the time). Some Buddhists, for example the Buddhist monk Quang Duc, burnt themselves to death in protest at Diem’s government.
  • He was a staunch anti-communist and the USA was operating a strategy of containment.