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The Vietnam War started in 1954 as a war between the government of South Vietnam and the communist government of North Vietnam. The latter was aided by communist forces in South Vietnam, known as the Viet Cong. The war was initially a purely internal conflict, but between 1961 and 1965, the U.S. gradually joined on the side of South Vietnam. This was part of the U.S.’s participation in the Cold War, in which it attempted to “contain” communism by preventing the creation of new communist countries allied with the Soviet Union.
However, the “costs and casualties” of the war increased until the U.S. finally withdrew in 1973, not long before North Vietnam defeated South Vietnam in 1975.1 The war had a very destructive legacy in Vietnam, and was very controversial in the U.S. International relations theorists seek to explain events in international politics using different paradigms, which are consistent theories about how states and other entities interact with each other, and what motivates them in these interactions.
The usefulness of a paradigm is judged by its power to explain the events that are seen in the world. Therefore, it is a worthwhile question to ask which paradigm can best explain the Vietnam War. The paradigm of constructivism posits that a state’s goals are based on the ideas and values of its leaders, and that the actions of a state depend on the context and social conditions of the moment. The United States’ role in the Vietnam War can best be explained by constructivism, because American leaders’ values, beliefs about the situation, and understanding of the war’s context motivated them to enter and stay in the war.
In constructivism, the ideas and beliefs that leaders have about international situations affect their actions, whether or not these beliefs are correct. The United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War was encouraged by certain beliefs on the part of American leaders. One of these was the belief that the “so-called communist bloc” was “a monolith”, and that therefore a new communist country was necessarily a close ally of the enemy Soviet Union and a danger to the U.S. In reality, the communist bloc was “torn by nationalist divisions” and was not as united as American leaders believed.
Another idea that motivated the U.S.’s entry into the war was the idea that the U.S. had the power to accomplish any goal and would inevitably win the war. Robert Johnson, a member of the U.S. State Department during the time of the Vietnam War, later wrote that “senior policymakers… were naïve in… failing to perceive the limits of American power”. It was this failure, Johnson believed, that caused the policymakers to incorrectly predict the results of U.S. escalation in Vietnam, and to think that it would lead to a favorable outcome for the U.S. Other sources corroborate this.
John Murnane says that policymakers “had an exaggerated view of America’s capabilities”4; Robert Schulzinger says that “U.S. participation in the war originated from ignorance and excessive optimism”.5 The fact that leaders’ ideas had a major influence on the course of events – regardless of whether they reflected reality – fits with constructivism.
The values and ideals held by leaders are also important in a constructivist framework, and values certainly played an important role in the Vietnam War. In the ideology of American leaders, communism could not be allowed to spread in the world, not only because it posed a threat to the U.S. but also because it was seen as an evil system. Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, was an important figure in the U.S.’s entry into the Vietnam War.
Later in life, he expressed regret for the decision. In his 1995 book, he wrote “[w]e of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values”. Another important figure was Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor to President Richard Nixon, who was very involved in the end of the war. In 1999, he expressed that he and other leaders were invested in the outcome of the war partly out of concern for the South Vietnamese people: “[w]e would not… leave the country… by turning over to communist rule tens of millions who had staked their lives on our word”.
Leaders believed that the U.S. had a responsibility to promote democratic capitalism worldwide. According to Murnane, U.S. involvement in the war was based on such “beliefs about America’s mission to reshape the world” and “good intentions as the ‘defender of the free world’”.4 Values also motivated the other side. North Vietnamese Leader “Ho [Chi Minh] and his top associates were communists, deeply committed to establishing in Vietnam at the first opportunity a state based on Marxist-Leninist dogma”.
To the communists, a North Vietnamese victory was desirable because it would unite and (in their view) liberate Vietnam. An important assumption of constructivism – that leaders’ values play a large role in determining a state’s actions – clearly holds true in the case of the Vietnam War.
In a conflict, an important part of a state’s values is how it views its adversary, so this can also be influential in constructivism. American leaders had a very unsympathetic attitude towards North Vietnam, and this prevented them from having too many reservations about entering and escalating in the Vietnam War. This lack of sympathy existed partly because “[t]here was no correspondence or personal connection between American and North Vietnamese leaders”
Murnane contrasts this with the relationship between John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who, despite their competing interests and ideologies, communicated often – sometimes in a cooperative way. In fact, this communication was vital in averting disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. When the Vietnam War is contrasted with the Cuban Missile Crisis, it seems likely that American leaders’ lack of constructive communication with North Vietnamese leaders was one factor behind their decision to intervene in the war in an aggressive, militaristic way.
According to Joseph Nye and David Welch, constructivism is unique in that it “not[es] the importance of social and cultural context”. One reason for the U.S. entry into the Vietnam War was that the U.S. saw the war in a very different context from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. To the U.S., the Vietnam War was very much part of the Cold War and the U.S.’s own conflict with the Soviet Union. U.S. officials believed that the communist leaders in Vietnam were “instruments of the Soviet drive for world domination, directed and controlled by the Kremlin”.
Some American leaders held a view of Vietnam that was less about the country in reality and more about the meaning they attributed to it: “the world was truly divided between “us” and “them,” between the “free world” and the Communist bloc. Vietnam had become a Cold War abstraction”4. This view prevented American leaders from seeing the war as a civil war in the context of Vietnam’s own history, which was how most Vietnamese people – including the U.S.’s communist adversaries – saw it. According to Murnane, “Washington policymakers were focused entirely on the rivalry with the Soviet Union; they had very little understanding of the Communist movement in the Third World, let alone Vietnamese history and culture”.
Vietnam had a long history of being dominated by outside powers, such as China and colonial France, and the communists in Vietnam saw the war as a struggle to finally establish an independent, united Vietnam. This made them very determined to win the war. According to Murnane, “[h]ad they known more about the history of the Vietnamese struggle, McNamara and his circle would have expected that the Vietnamese would never stop fighting”. With this knowledge, these officials might not have believed that the U.S. could be victorious as a participant in the Vietnam War, and therefore they might not have entered the war.
Thus, a difference in contextual understanding was part of what caused the U.S. to enter the war and eventually withdraw in defeat. The fact that understandings like this play a major role in determining international events is quite consistent with constructivism.
Some might argue that the Vietnam War can best be explained not by constructivism, but by realism. Realism is a paradigm in which states are motivated by their concrete self-interest, rather than by values. In realism, states are thought to prioritize power or security (or both) first and foremost. It is true that the U.S. had some concrete interests at stake in the Vietnam War, and thus that realism could provide some explanation for the U.S.’s entry into the war.
The “communist bloc” of countries was of course considered a threat to the U.S. during the Cold War, and its expansion could reasonably be expected to increase that threat. American leaders felt that intervening in Vietnam could help protect them from later confrontations with the Soviet Union: a firm stand” in Vietnam “would discourage a return to adventurism and reinforce the trend toward détente” with the Soviet Union.
American leaders were concerned about the threat posed by China as well, as it “appeared to be more militant and aggressive than the Soviet Union” in the 1960s, and they wanted to prevent China from expanding its influence. It was believed that if the U.S. did not deter its rivals by showing strength in Vietnam, they might “be tempted to take steps that might ultimately leave no option but nuclear war”.
Actions based on calculations of how to maximize security are indeed considered typical in realism. American leaders also believed that they had economic and military interests at stake in the Vietnam War: “[i]f [Vietnam] fell, all of Southeast Asia might be lost, denying the United States access to important raw materials and strategic waterways”. These types of interests are also accounted for in realism.
However, the fact that there were some concrete U.S. interests involved does not prove that realism is a better paradigm for the subject than constructivism. Nye and Welch explain that constructivist and realist explanations are not necessarily incompatible, which means that the latter do not disprove the former. Also, there are several ways in which realism cannot explain the Vietnam War. For example, internal factors are generally ignored in realism, in which states are seen as single entities.
However, domestic politics in the U.S. did affect the course of events in the Vietnam War. For example, one event that was used to justify the escalation of the Vietnam War was the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964, in which North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked a U.S. ship off the coast of North Vietnam. Fujimoto Hiroshi asserts that the choice to increase military action in response to this was motivated by Lyndon Johnson’s desire for domestic political approval: “the presidential election campaign of 1964 was in a crucial stage, for Johnson was opposing the hawkish Republican candidate Barry Goldwater.
Johnson swiftly decided to retaliate against [North Vietnam] to show the public his toughness and to portray his opponent as weak”.8 Also, although it is often forgotten, the U.S. got smaller forces from a few other countries – Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand – to assist its effort in the Vietnam War. According to Jonathan Colman and J. J. Widén, this aspect of the war was also motivated by domestic politics: “[Johnson] and his colleagues sought military help less for practical reasons than for political ones as a way of legitimizing the war both domestically and abroad”.
Also, according to the aforementioned Robert Johnson, policymakers in 1964 were unwilling to negotiate with North Vietnam and allow a communist takeover partly because “officials feared a McCarthy-like reaction at home”.3 The involvement of domestic politics can be better explained by constructivism, in which leaders’ need for public approval can be seen as one of the social conditions that shapes international events.
Also, in realism, the determining factor in international interactions is always a state’s interests. Nye and Welch associate realism with the statement that “states have no permanent friends or permanent enemies, merely permanent interests”. However, it seems that the U.S. did consider communist states “permanent enemies” during the Cold War, simply by their nature. If interests were truly the only relevant factor, the U.S. might have considered allowing Vietnam to become communist, then trying to negotiate with it to build a relationship that was more positive and favorable to U.S. interests.
However, the U.S. did not consider this; the social context meant that a communist Vietnam would necessarily be considered an enemy, simply because it was communist and allied with the Soviet Union. The realist view assumes that states’ interests are inherent and objective, and are the starting point for international interactions. By contrast, in constructivism, states’ interests are considered neither inherent nor the starting point.
Alexander Wendt, one of the political scientists who first developed the paradigm of constructivism, described it as a theory “in which identities and interests are the dependent variable”: interests themselves are shaped by social circumstances such as ideas and values.10 American leaders believed that Vietnam was important to their interests not because they had any clear evidence that it was, but because their previously-held ideas about the Cold War led them to arrive at this conclusion.
According to Herring, “[t]he United States most probably exaggerated the consequences of nonintervention”. Its leaders were invested in the war partly because they had “proclaim[ed] Vietnam a test case of credibility”, with “credibility” meaning their strategy of showing strength in the Cold War. Robert Johnson said that officials “had convinced themselves that Vietnam was important to the United States”. He did not think that the reasons for the war were important enough to justify the large scale of the U.S.’s war effort: “[t]here was a terrible lack of proportionality between the importance of the goals America sought and the means used to reach them”.
American leaders’ ideas about the necessity of intervention against communism were ultimately just ideas; they were not evidence that it was in the U.S.’s interest to intervene. These ideas were not objective and infallible; Robert McNamara himself, “[i]n the final years of his life… began to question many of the underlying assumptions of the Cold War”. Basically, the Vietnam War mattered to the U.S. partly because American leaders decided that it mattered, and constructivism is the paradigm that allows this to be possible, far more than realism.
Basically, the paradigm of constructivism is particularly useful for understanding the U.S.’s actions in the Vietnam War. American leaders’ beliefs, such as those about the nature of North Vietnam and about the U.S.’s own capabilities, played a role in the war. So did American leaders’ values, which motivated them to oppose communism and to believe that the U.S. had a responsibility to create a more democratic and capitalist world. U.S. and North Vietnamese leaders placed the war in different contexts, and this difference can help to explain the outcome of the war.
Domestic political factors also had a role in determining the U.S.’s actions in the war. The U.S. did seem to have some concrete interests at stake in the Vietnam War, but the amount of importance that American leaders attached to Vietnam reflects subjective judgments that were based on the assumptions of the time period. Therefore, constructivism remains a better paradigm than realism for explaining the war.
It is important to understand and learn from the Vietnam War, as it is a relatively recent historical event that caused a great deal of death and suffering, and constructivism can be helpful in developing an understanding of it. This is also evidence of the strength of constructivism, which is a unique paradigm in that it recognizes human agency and accounts for the complexity of human nature and society.
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While the writer has made a commendable effort, there are certain improvements that can further improve the quality of the essay. For example, the writer should start the first paragraph with a hook sentence that generally alludes to the thesis statement such as the nature of conflict. The writer has ... adequately introduced the Vietnam war which provides context to the thesis statement. The thesis statement is concisely and informatively stated. It reflects critical analysis and a thorough understanding of the Vietnam war and American participation in the event. The evidence presented is extensive and supports the thesis statement well. Word choice is appropriate and the writer’s expression is clear. There are no major problems in sentence construction except for tense issues at a few instances and readability is high. Moreover, the organization of the essay may be improved. This can be done by adding subheadings and by ensuring that each paragraph elaborates on only one point.
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