What strategic value did Vietnam have to be worth a significant effort to defend it?

So ignoring the other faults of the Vietnam war : poor tactical and strategic planning, failure to deal with the enemy on a strategic level, the unfairness and cruelty of the draft : why fight over the territory at all?

As I understand it, Vietnam was mostly an agrarianism society of subsistence farmers, with some modest level of development in the major cities. It doesn’t have any strategic resources of note, nor did it have a notable GDP. As an ally to the United States in future conflicts, at the time it was worthless and it still is to this day.

So, why was Vietnam the “hill to die on” for the Pentagon? Fighting over Germany or Japan or even Taiwan or Israel : understandable. All are, both then and now, valuable advanced societies with the capability to be strong allies. In the case of Taiwan or Israel, they are substantially more powerful than their population or land mass dictates.

In fact, wouldn’t letting the Soviets have Vietnam have simply saddled their empire with another liability, similar to allowing them to occupy Afghanistan?

Domino Theory

The odd thing about the Cold War was that all the instability was on the periphery. Because the consequences of conflict were so high (the nuclear destruction of the planet), the main arena of conflict was actually incredibly stable, while smaller conflicts on the edge were where most of the fighting took place. So central Europe, with all the missiles and armored divisions, became incredibly stable for decades, while the real fighting took place on the edges of the cookie in places like Vietnam. It is precisely because Vietnam wasn’t all that strategically important, that the US was willing to participate in a real shooting war there.

pretty much every conflict between 1946 and 1992 was a proxy war with the Soviet Union.

Basically, the military was still looking at WWII. The wisdom of the time said you always stood up to tyrants or you get Hitler. They were unable to see differences: in the situation, and felt you had to stop communism everywhere or they would become enboldened.

Interesting cuz we covered this in my 8th grade history class, someone asked the teacher why we even bothered defending a country that so few even recognized before the war. And the teacher exclaimed that the U.S. thinks is the defender of the world (on the lines of domino effect) and that if we could kick butt in Korean War then we could do the same in Vietnam.

Which was an outgrowth of Containment.

As I understand it, it was mainly to prevent China from taking over all of SE Asia. Had they done their homework, they would have known that the Vietnamese would have fought tooth and nail to prevent being taken over by China. My conjecture–and it purely a conjecture without evidence–is that McCarthy had scared the state department into getting rid of all the SE Asia hands who might have understood the situation because they had been responsible for “losing” China. The ones who remained didn’t want to be accused of “losing” the rest of east Asia.

Eisenhower called it the “Military Industrial Complex”.

WW2 and Korea were over. American munitions manufacturers needed a reason to keep pumping out arms. Today its a 51 Billion Dollar industry that supports the never ending wars in Afganistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

(Did you notice what happened to JFK when he started making an effort to back away from the conflict in Vietnam?)


My Grandparents were called to identify the bodies of their students who had been BBQ’d by the communists in Korea, so that the parents didn’t have to see what had been done to their kids.

My own country, AUS, hadn’t fully recovered from the reaction to the advance of Japan down the Malayan peninsula, through British Singapore into Australia. (The Papuan territory of Australia.) Had no wish to see a communist occupation of Australia, and strongly lobbied for American intervention in Vietnam.

Mao executed landowners. Korean communists killed members of the anti-Japanese resistance and anybody educated. Pol Pot killed off about 1/4 of the population of Cambodia. This wasn’t just random violence: communist theory was that the ruling class could only be overthrown by violence, and would respond by regaining control unless they were shot first.

For these and other reasons, America felt a need to rescue Vietnam from the communists, as they had rescued Europe from Hitler, and as (in their own imagination) they had rescued Europe from the Kaiser.

America was unable to rescue Poland or East Germany, but they felt bad about that too.

the op should read the best and the brightest by David Halberstam

its how china falling and the Korean war led to Vietnam Hari and Melbourne comes close

it explains everything discussed here in detail ….

The domino theory was true. After the US left Vietnam, they went communist. So did Laos and Cambodia. Thailand almost did, but they held it off.

Do you mean his assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald? Oswald was a somewhat mentally unstable person, of pronounced far left-wing tendencies (he had defected to the Soviet Union for several years, but found it was not the “workers’ paradise” of his imagination; they let him leave, and we let him back in*). To the extent Oswald knew of or understood anything about JFK “making an effort to back away from the conflict in Vietnam”, he would undoubtedly have supported such a hypothetical de-escalation of the American participation in a war against a Communist-led and avowedly anti-colonialist insurgency.
*I’m imagining Lee Harvey Oswald being picked last in the Cold War:
“You can have him.”
“No, no; he defected to you guys, you have to keep him.”
“Well…maybe he could bat for both sides; that would be fair, nyet?”

The US could not possibly defend Vietnam in any case, because the US was the invader. Vietnam could only be “worth defending” (or not) from the point of view of the Vietnamese.

It’s perfectly valid to ask (from the American point of view) whether and why Vietnam was worth invading, or worth attacking - it’s just better to be honest that the US forces were the foreign invaders with nothing to defend.

I can tell you that whatever one may think of the domino theory, Thailand subscribed to it. They saw these countries falling and that they were the next in the line. They tend to credit US involvement in Vietnam as slowing down the momentum long enough for Thailand to get itself in better order. This is one reason Americans are well liked there.

The Northeast is traditionally the poorest region of Thailand and borders Laos and Cambodia. Ho Chi Minh lived there for a spell c. 1930. Even into the 1980s, there were areas it was not safe for Thai authorities to enter due to communists being in control. IIRC, that held true in 1988 too, when I first arrived. But government initiatives to improve the lives of the locals somewhat such as rural electrification and health care saw the end of the communist movement by the 1990s. I recall the guerrillas coming in from the jungle.

It seems like raising the standards of living of the people is one of the best ways to reduce the appeal of communism. If people are healthy, educated and employed then communism becomes much less appealing.

I have no idea if the US tried to make that a policy in its fight against communism though.

I think it’s worth noting that the communists were only able to succeed in the former French colonies. The communists managed to present themselves as defenders of local nationalism and opponents of Western imperialism.

This was a good tactic to build up support in an imperial colony but it made it difficult to export revolutionary success. Once you left your home country, you were no longer a freedom fighter seeking independence - instead you became just another a foreign invader for the local freedom fighters to oppose.

And national independence didn’t offer a lot to Thailand. They had always been an independent country and didn’t need to throw off any imperial power.

It’s been a major element in American opposition to communism. There was the Marshall Plan as a well-known example. And there were huge amounts of foreign aid given to South Vietnam.

Not really. Laos and Cambodia were not the “dominoes” that anyone really had in mind with respect to the Domino Theory. They were of even less economic and strategic value than Vietnam itself. And they were sucked into the Vietnam War by the principals themselves, North Vietnam and the US. Of course once that happened their fate would be contingent on whatever happened to Vietnam.

Vietnam itself had effectively “gone Communist” before the US ever entered the conflict. Ho Chi Minh was the acknowledged leader of the independence struggle against the French throughout Vietnam. The Geneva Accords in 1954 called for elections to settle the final status of Vietnam. These elections were rejected by South Vietnam and the US largely because it was evident that they would be won by Ho Chi Minh.

The “dominos” that people were really concerned about were Malaysia and Indonesia, because they had strategic resources like oil (especially), rubber, and tin, and controlled one of the choke points of world commerce, the Straits of Malacca. Malaya had mostly beaten back their Communist insurgency by 1960. Sukarno largely eradicated the Communists in Indonesia in 1965-1966 at the cost of an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Indonesian lives, instituting a brutal right-wing dictatorship. So by the time of the escalation in Vietnam the most significant “dominos” were not really in play. The fact that no other countries outside of the former French Indochina fell to Communism after South Vietnam refutes the Domino Theory in the form it was most frequently invoked.

Odd that your teacher defined the Korean War as “kick butt,” since the U.S. fought for three years, lost 37,000 troops, the two Koreas ended up with pretty much the same territory they started with, and there’s never been a formal peace treaty.