The USA were involved in South East Asia between the years 1950 to 1963 mainly because of the growing threat of communism spreading through Indo-China (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Malaya, Thailand). This thirteen-year period saw two changes in Presidency and increased military involvement in Southern Vietnam. The ‘Domino Theory’ was a speculation many presumed would occur in Eastern Europe and South East Asia; Harry S. Truman was a particular believer in this and was prepared to stop it at any cost. In 1950, Indo-China saw the first U. S supplies sent to the French in Vietnam; France was fighting for its colony after loosing their share of South East Asia to the Japanese.
Despite U. S ideology being against colonialism, Truman believed that helping France with their fight was the ‘the lesser of two evils’ compared to loosing Vietnam to the Communist Vietminh under control by Ho Chi Minh. The U. S were supplying more and more as the French were desperate after the situation that left them almost penniless after WW2. This increased interest from the U. S sparked confusion and question as of their role in the British Empire and how their reluctance to assist in the need of colonialism was high on their beliefs. 1952 saw the start of the Eisenhower administration, and as a Republican, on the surface they were more anti-communist than the Democrats. Eisenhower’s approach to policy was very similar to that of his predecessor, Truman. He was determined to continue the policy of ‘containing’ communism but this did not involve launching a crusade to roll back communism.
In 1953, John Foster Dulles was appointed as secretary of state, he was a devout Christian and firm hater of communism. The humiliating defeat of the French at Diem Bien Phu in 1954 saw the occurrence of the Geneva Conference and Accords. The USA was not to get everything it desired. Half of Vietnam was to be lost to communism and in the aftermath of the French defeat it looked as though the Vietminh would sweep all before it. The USA lacked the troops or the will for direct intervention. In September the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) was set up to give $2 billion in aid to South Vietnam from the USA.
In a direct response to the Geneva Accords, the U. S increased their involvement in Vietnam. The answer to Ho’s power in the North was to simply build up the South, free from the French and the taint of colonialism. The U. S called upon Ngo Din Diem as a suitable strong man to control the South, he was backed by the CIA and had powerful friends in Washington. USA were faced with a poorly officered native force in which to work with, and continued their aim to extend massive aid to the government of South Vietnam through the agency MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group).
The failure of the 1956 elections for the reunification of Vietnam began to establish the USA as a dictatorship under cover of the Cold War. The failure also allowed the USA to pursue against Ho’s Communist North with their current Diem controlled government. By 1960, the last year of the Eisenhower presidency, containment in South East Asia seemed under renewed challenge. The native Communist force in Laos, heavily supported by the North Vietnamese, appeared to be on the point of dominating the whole country. Another ‘Domino’ was surely a worry to the threat of U. S involvement in South East Asia.
Another growing problem for the U. S was the unpopularity of the Diem regime; in reality he was stubborn, arrogant, distrustful and very nepotistic. November 1960 saw the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and within that same month, two colonels in the army of the republic of Vietnam (ARVN) attacked the presidential palace with a group of soldiers. Diem was lucky to survive. The revolt only increased his distrust of all but his closest associates and made him less likely to take any U. S advice. The Kennedy administration in 1960 was a return to presidency for the Democrats.
Kennedy had played up his own anti-communism credentials in the campaign and accused the Eisenhower administration of neglecting certain key aspects of defence. Kennedy was determined not to be labelled as ‘soft’; defence spending was increased from $40 billion a year to $56 billion, and the number of nuclear delivery vehicles was massively increased. The policy of surreptitious intervention was stepped up in March 1961 when U. S planes were ordered to destroy any hostile aircraft over South Vietnam. American policy under Kennedy was set out in a National Security Action Memorandum in May 1961 (NSAM 52).
It committed the U. S ‘to prevent communist domination … and to initiate, on an accelerated basis, a series of mutually supporting actions of a military, political, economic, psychological and covert character’. Later that year, U. S military aid rose from $220 million to $262 million, and many advisors pressed and urged Kennedy for the deployment of U. S troops. Kennedy reluctantly agreed to the pressure but refused to include ground combat troops, nevertheless, the number of trainers was to increase dramatically and helicopters and air support would be provided, flown by U. S personnel. 1963 saw the weakness of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) glaringly displayed in what was known as the Battle of Ap; they were outnumbered four to one.
This caused a growing sense of frustration from the U. S embassy. USA’s outlined weakness was struck again in the year of 1963 as the Diem regime’s confrontation with the Buddhist majority resulted in the inevitable death of Diem; some of the South Vietnamese army planned a coup against their leader which was to take place in November, the U. S authorities refused to warn Diem thus allowing his murder and that of his younger brother. Kennedy died that same month in the event of an assassination. The role of the USA in South East Asia dramatically increased throughout these years; from president Eisenhower to the Kennedy administration, the U. S constantly stepped up their game in pursuit to eliminate communist threat.