Seminar Report: Why was Eisenhower the most to blame for increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam?

This seminar report achieved a mid-2:1 in the second year of my undergraduate.

Vietnam Seminar Report – Why was Eisenhower the most to blame for increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam?

The question of which U.S. president was the most responsible for increased involvement in Vietnam is a widely debated one, and recently there has been a development of the theory that Eisenhower and not Johnson was most to blame. Cuddy is perhaps the best example of this,[1] although Kaiser also supports some of the same arguments,[2] with Short[3] expanding on them.

Both Kaiser and Cuddy point to the general policies of Eisenhower, and how they pertained to south-east Asia after 1954. The combination of Eisenhower’s support of ‘nation-building,’ and his determination to combat Communism in the more remote areas of world meant that his administration saw a remarkable increase in American involvement in Third World countries.[4] These general policies involved a more specific strengthening of pro-American regimes throughout the world, which is why there was such unwavering support for Diem, even after the cancellation of the 1956 elections, and the brutal anti-Communism campaigns from 1955 onwards made him very unpopular.[5] The support of course meant that both the North Vietnamese, and the South Vietnamese rebels associated Diem’s oppression with the Americans, something which the respected World War Two General J. Lawton Collins warned against.[6] Anderson in particular argues that the U.S. support of Diem ultimately caused the war, and the continual financial and military aid eventually led to ‘a commitment to the survival of America’s own counterfeit creation.’[7] As well as this, Eisenhower’s policies with regards to the Laotian elections, and the somewhat capricious political situation in the country showed a certain determination to be involved in south-east Asia.[8] Cuddy also mentions the drawing of the slightly artificial Containment line right through the jungle, against skilled, jungle guerrilla fighters, which was very likely to cause friction in the long term,[9] especially with the signing of SEATO and the later U.S. exemption which meant there was far more scope for increased involvement, despite key military figures objecting strongly.[10]

The development of a certain ideology during the Eisenhower administration also contributed heavily to the increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam. During the years of his presidency, Cuddy argues that Eisenhower promoted both the definition of South Vietnamese survival as being a major American security interest, and the importance of defining the North Vietnamese as the aggressors.[11] Kaiser points to the U.S. handling of Laos prior to the crisis in 1960, which potentially led to a new viewpoint of the American interests in the area.[12] Such beliefs were obviously dangerous, as they led to widespread misconceptions about south-east Asia in general and Vietnam more specifically. It was especially perilous, as it included a collection of ideas completely bereft of historical reality.[13] Indeed, these dangers were recognised by contemporaries, including Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defence during both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, who blames the lack of knowledge of Vietnamese history, and the crippling removal of Asian experts during the McCarthy hysteria.[14]

While it may have been Johnson and not Eisenhower who increased the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, it seems clear that Eisenhower’s actions forced the issue. The ideology developed under Eisenhower, coupled with the lack of Asian experts to dispel the inaccuracies meant that involvement in Vietnam was unavoidable, and Johnson only happened to be in office when the North Vietnamese reactions to Eisenhower’s policies in the 1950s occurred.[15]

[1] E. Cuddy, ‘Vietnam: Mr. Johnson’s War. Or Mr. Eisenhower’s?’ The Review of Politics, 65 (Autumn 2003), pp.351-74.

[2] D. Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (USA, 2000)

[3] A. Short, The Origins of the Vietnam War (London, 1989)

[4] E. Cuddy, ‘Vietnam: Mr. Johnson’s War. Or Mr. Eisenhower’s?’ p.355, D. Kaiser, American Tragedy, p.19.

[5] E. Cuddy, ‘Vietnam: Mr. Johnson’s War. Or Mr. Eisenhower’s?’ pp.355-6.

[6] E. Cuddy, ‘Vietnam: Mr. Johnson’s War. Or Mr. Eisenhower’s?’ p.359

[7] D. L. Anderson, Trapped by Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953-1961 (New York, 1991)

[8] D. Kaiser, American Tragedy, pp.22-3

[9] E. Cuddy, ‘Vietnam: Mr. Johnson’s War. Or Mr. Eisenhower’s?’ p.358

[10] See J. R. Arnold in E. Cuddy, ‘Vietnam: Mr. Johnson’s War. Or Mr. Eisenhower’s?’ p.358

[11] E. Cuddy, ‘Vietnam: Mr. Johnson’s War. Or Mr. Eisenhower’s?’ p.355

[12] D. Kaiser, American Tragedy, p.12

[13] E. Cuddy, ‘Vietnam: Mr. Johnson’s War. Or Mr. Eisenhower’s?’ p.357, p.373

[14] E. Cuddy, ‘Vietnam: Mr. Johnson’s War. Or Mr. Eisenhower’s?’ p.357

[15] E. Cuddy, ‘Vietnam: Mr. Johnson’s War. Or Mr. Eisenhower’s?’ pp.373-4

Bibliography

Anderson, D. L., Trapped by Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953-1961 (New York, 1991)

Cuddy, E., ‘Vietnam: Mr. Johnson’s War. Or Eisenhower’s?’ The Review of Politics, 65 (Autumn 2003), pp.351-74

Kaiser, D., American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (USA, 2000)

Short, A., The Origins of the Vietnam War (London, 1989)

Feedback:

65%

All the following feedback is rated on the following scale: Outstanding-Excellent-Good-Competent-Pass-Fail.

Understanding and insight: Good

Critical approach to historiography: Good

Breadth and depth of reading: Good

Use of evidence and examples: Good

Sources cited correctly: Good-Competent

Fluent and correct English: Good

Relevance: Good

General Comments: The historiographical element of your report displays that you have a relatively broad understanding of the Eisenhower administration’s actions in South-East Asia and the president’s responsibility  for US engagement in the conflict. Your arguments are well supported by references to historians’ perspectives. You show a relatively good breadth of reading but, more significantly, you utilize the reading that you have engaged in fully. In particular, you provide a strong analysis of the Eisenhower administration’s perceptions of their security interests and the ways in which this influenced increasing engagement in the conflict.

Whilst your arguments are generally well-focused and consistent, your conclusion would benefit from greater clarity. The statements that Johnson might bear responsibility for increased involvement but that involvement was unavoidable given the legacy he inherited are somewhat contradictory and it is necessary to address or explain this further. In particular the statement that Johnson ‘only happened to be in office’ when the North Vietnamese reacted to policies established in the 1950s is questionable and does not address Johnson’s agency in the escalation of the conflict.

Whilst the references given in your bibliography and footnotes are cited accurately, ensure that you place the footnotes at the end of the relevant sentence and after all punctuation rather than in the middle or after a comma. Overall, however, your account displays a broad understanding of the historiography relating to the Eisenhower administration’s actions in Southeast Asia and of the impact of ideology on presidential decision making.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s