The Vietnam conflict began in 1950 and lasted until 1975. The main reason for US involvement was the fear of the domino theory devised by John Foster Dulles and launched by Eisenhower in 1954 which was the idea that once South Vietnam fell to communism, other countries would follow like a row of dominoes. The extent of us involvement changed under Kennedy and Johnson due to political and physical factors such as Ngo Dinh Diem’s unpopularity in Vietnam and the support of Kennedy and Johnson presidency by the us public. The Domino Theory stated that if one country fell to communism, then other countries nearby would fall too, just like a row of dominoes. This theory was created by President Eisenhower, who was worried about the spread of communism. Kennedy inherited the desire to contain it based on events of the cold war where the US were threatened by communist Soviet Union with nuclear weaponry.
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The cold War was only a justification for the policy of containment also, in order to maintain a positive image after World War 2, America felt it was their moral duty to ease the threat of communism globally. Kennedy also knew that in order to win the ‘ hearts and minds’ of the us public and the Vietnamese, he would have to stop coming across as ‘ soft’ on communism, which had already exposed him to criticism from political rivals and the media and decreased his popularity when he first became president by a small majority of votes. In 1962, to prove his strength, more ‘ advisors’ were sent into South Vietnam to aid the military, additionally America financed an increase in the size of the ARVN from 150, 000 to 170, 000, claiming physical involvement in Vietnam from US.
Through the continuance of the policy of containment, Kennedy escalated the war by bringing US troops into South Vietnam to help their army, changing the way in which Eisenhower approached the war physically and militarily by large numbers and ignoring the US casualties in 1959. A significant political, social and religious reason as to why US involvement changed under Kennedy was the unpopularity of Diem who was the leader of South Vietnam from 1955-63. Diem, despite being anti-communist, he was a catholic whereas the majority of the south was made up of Buddhists and therefore he introduced policies that only favoured specific groups whilst targeting the Buddhists. In June 1963, as protests were being carried out against Diem’s policies, a Buddhist monk burned himself to death on a busy road in Saigon, capturing global attention and gaining Ho Chi Minh and the NLF more support.
As a result Kennedy realised that Diem’s religious beliefs were far more important to him than erasing communism, this was also shown where the US tried to advise Diem on new reforms but were ignored, so he was forced to give support to a coup d’état in which Diem and his family were murdered. Kennedy’s decision to support the overthrow of Diem’s government was different to that of Eisenhower’s advancement In Vietnam as he created the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization which he used to try to build a new nation. Kennedy, however, gained more overall control of Vietnam politically as well as militarily. The gulf of Tonkin incident occurred in 1964 and politically, was a great success for Johnson as it sought to be the record of his highest approval rating, 79%. Through the incident Johnson was able to pass the gulf of Tonkin resolution by congress which was a turning point allowing him to carry out all of the ‘ necessary measures’ to prevent US soldiers from future threats and aid the ARVN against the VC, this involved introducing further physical involvement in the war. Consequentially, the gulf of Tonkin resolution pushed the US so far into the conflict that it became difficult to withdraw troops from Vietnam.
In conclusion it is clear that Kennedy and Johnson further escalated their involvement in Vietnam due to domestic policy in America. Kennedy was more of a political force than Johnson who acted physically; kennedy having been the President to first get involved with Vietnamese politics and Johnson supporting the military decision to bring more American troops into Vietnam.