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How the Vietnam War Ratcheted Up Under 5 U.S. Presidents

March 14, 2019 in History

By Jesse Greenspan

Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all deepened U.S. involvement in the decades-long conflict.

At the end of World War II, the United States was broadly popular in Vietnam for having repelled the Japanese occupiers. Even Ho Chi Minh, the nationalist and communist revolutionary, started off pro-American. But, through the terms of five U.S. presidents, that relationship deteriorated and the United States and Vietnam found themselves at war.

Initially, many Vietnamese appreciated the anti-colonial views of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who opposed the return of the French colonizers and who asserted in a charter that all people had a right “to choose the form of government under which they will live.” During World War II, Ho Chi Minh received arms from the CIA’s predecessor, helped locate downed American pilots and gathered intelligence on Japanese military positions.

Then, on September 2, 1945, the day of Japan’s official surrender, Ho quoted from the U.S. Declaration of Independence as part of a speech in which he implored the Allies to recognize Vietnam’s independence. He later made multiple additional attempts to get the United States on his side.

The increasing alarm over the spread of communist rule, however, would throw the U.S.-Vietnam relationship off track and eventually into war. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon oversaw the conflict, which ratcheted up in intensity as the years passed by. Though each president expressed doubts in private about American involvement, none wanted to be blamed for losing Vietnam to the communists.

The war would eventually claim the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and some 3 million Vietnamese.

President Harry Truman meets with Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, French military commander in the the first Indochina War, and Henri Bonnet, French ambassador to the United Sates from 1944-1954.

Harry Truman

State Department officials in Asia warned Harry Truman, who became president in 1945 upon Roosevelt’s death, that French rule of Vietnam would lead to “bloodshed and unrest.” But Truman did not share his predecessor’s anti-colonialism and ultimately acquiesced to the reestablishment of France’s prewar empire, which he hoped would shore up France’s economy and national pride.

No sooner did the French arrive back in Vietnam, with the guns of World War II barely gone cold, than fighting broke out against Ho’s Viet Minh forces. At first, the United States remained officially neutral, even as it avoided any contact with Ho. …read more


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