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The above question is arguably key in understanding of the Vietnam War, along with its side-effects in neighboring Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Indonesia. These cases may help one familiarize themselves with the broader theme of the Cold War and its impact on the world. Furthermore, this investigative pursuit should help in examining a key question regarding these events, with the Vietnam War as a point of focus: how successful was the United States in contain South-East Asian communism?
Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s (1958-1964) aims of expanding the USSR’s sphere of influence are reflective in the usage of such terminology. He claims that the world was edging towards socialism and that this could be achieved with “wars of liberation”. Adding to this, his words put forward impending Soviet support for groups attempting to overthrow the capitalist governments that they were living under. This confirmed the suspicions of the west as well as President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who saw this as the USSR simply attempting to expand their interests. In fact, it was interpreted as a declaration of war on capitalist nations.
Put briefly, attempts were made by President John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) and the White House to convince the general American public of the threat represented by communist forces in South-East Asia. JFK’s attempts were aimed at balancing idealistic principles with considerations of long term practicalities, when it came to the Vietnam War. In other words, the ideological fight against communism is what helped JFK push for American involvement in Vietnam, and wherever that was not enough, potential military and strategic gains were emphasized.
But in the end, President JFK failed in his attempt to win over the long term support of the American people. On top of this, the president and the White House were unable to lay down a strong and pragmatic foundation for achieving American goals in Vietnam. Even after America committed so many resources towards fighting Vietnamese communists, the former still achieved nothing in the end.
The above point is vitally important in bridging the gap between Dwight D Eisenhower’s presidency and Lyndon B Johnson’s. It helps one understand the war’s overall escalation under Kennedy.
A huge part of America’s defeat in Vietnam stemmed from two things. On one hand, secrecy within both the White House and Pentagon resulted in errors of indecisiveness. But on the other hand, the setbacks caused by the corruption and sheer incompetence of the Diem regime (as well as the governments of South Vietnam that followed).
An example of the first point (White House/Pentagon indecisiveness) would be that while the US military recommended a fast and sharp air-bombing, McGeorge Bundy (National Security Advisor from 1961 to 1966) and John McNaughton (Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1964 to 1967) argued for bombing raids that grew progressively. A lack of agreement of this sort inevitably led to American failures. The second point, the incompetence/corruption of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime of South Vietnam (1955-1963) can be viewed as an accelerating factor behind the first point. While the US focused on helping South Vietnam weed out communists, the former didn’t take into consideration the political instability of the latter. To quote:
“Beneath the outward success of the Diem regime, however, lay fatal problems… many local officials and police engaged in extortion, bribery, and theft of government property… many of these officials were, like Diem himself, northerners and Roman Catholics further alienated them from the local people.”
All of this resulted in the addition of more American enemies to the containment effort, including communist guerrilla groups (the Viet Cong) and even non-communists in South Vietnam.
The cartoon below efficiently portrays how overwhelmed would be from Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 onwards.
With the Vietnam War sparking containment policies from the US, the next step is to analyze how it affected neighboring South-East Asian states.
The aftermath of the Vietnam War allowed the Cambodian communist group, the Khmer Rouge to take power in Cambodia: made possible by the destruction caused along the border shared with Vietnam. Furthermore, Cambodia also experienced problems such as war refugees and the problem of army bases built by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) inside Cambodia itself. Thus, the Khmer Rouge were able to overthrow a weakened government and seize control of the country.
In order to stop the flow of communist resurgents between Vietnam and the neighboring nation of Laos, the American military was willing to air-bomb along these nations’ borders on a massive scale. Some have in fact claimed that American military and CIA efforts in Laos exceeded those in Vietnam:
“For the Laotians who cowered in caves to escape what is considered the heaviest bombardment in history, the campaign was certainly not a secret… Hitting the Pathet Lao in the north and on the Ho Chi Minh trail in the south, the American air force unleashed an average of one attack every eight minutes for nearly ten years.”
In a virtually identical manner, American military actions in Vietnam (as well as along the Cambodian borders) weakened the government of neighboring Laos, making it easy for the Pathet Lao to rise to power in the latter.
Taking the above into account, it is easy to surmise that American attempts at containing communism in South-East Asia ironically caused the exact domino-effect the former feared. In trying to end a communist take-over in Vietnam, they caused the rise to power of communist governments in both Cambodia and Laos.
Although US failures in containment during the 1960’s are evident in this investigation thus far, arguable successes are ideal to mention: starting with Indonesia.
American commitment (perhaps paranoia) to countering the threat of communism is reflective of CIA willingness to turn a blind eye to crimes committed against humanity by non-communist South-East Asian governments. In Indonesia, the mass killings of 1965-66 of suspected communists at the hands of the Indonesian military and Muslim militias are a brutal and effective example of this.
“A December 1965 cable from the US consulate in Medan, Indonesia, reported that preachers in Muhammadiyah mosques were telling congregations that all who joined the communist party must be killed, saying they are the “lowest order of infidel, the shedding of whose blood is comparable to killing chicken”.
In nearby Philippines, the rise of the Hukbalahap (HUK) rebellion in 1967 sharply drew the attention of the CIA. Soon, harsh measures were taken to crush the communist HUK, by both the American and Philippine governments. Dogged American commitment to stopping the formation of a communist government in the Philippines has become growingly evident via declassified CIA documents.
The US might have succeeded containing communism in Indonesia and the Philippines, the atrocities committed in order to achieve it bring the American fight against communism into question.
With the chaos caused by policies of containment in South-East Asia from 1960 to 1970 investigated, the emergence of left-leaning and communist groups outside of South-East Asia can be seen as a backdrop created by the ripple effect of the former. Groups against western and American imperialism were making themselves heard in a few First World Countries, including the United States itself. As much as the phenomenon may be a side-note from the central point of this investigation, it is still worth mentioning in regards to containment in light of the Cold War as a whole.
In conclusion and summation, the United States of America failed in containing communism to Vietnam and in their failures of the Vietnam war, unintentionally and somewhat indirectly spread communism to states like Cambodia and Laos.
The USA may have succeeded in containing communism in Indonesia and the Philippines, but at the price of millions of lives lost through genocide
American attempts at containment and the paranoia created by the ‘Domino Theory’ not only created new enemies in South-East Asia, but may have created a few more in the rest of the world.
This specific area of history interested me as, for the first the USA’s strategy of containment truly started to display its flaws. It furthermore changed the world’s general perspective of the USA from being the saviour or rescuer of WW2 to being the oppressor and attempting to force their ideas and ideologies onto other countries. I chose the specific area of South-Vietnam as this is where a large part of the proxy conflicts occurred.
This investigation has taught me to successfully gather information and sources and to critically evaluate the information through a historical; evaluating exactly what is relevant to my topic.
One of the challenges I encountered with this project encountered during my investigation was linked to the research component. While I had a number of possible sources to evaluate, many in details of the specific incidents I had set to explore and investigate.
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