Was US intervention in Vietnam justified?


On December 21, 1965, the United Nations passed a resolution declaring that no state has the right to intervene in the affairs of another state and condemning armed intervention. This declared, "Every state has an inalienable right to choose its political, economic, social and cultural systems, without interference in any form by another state." Yet, at the same time the USA was embroiled in some of the bloodiest political fighting that the world has ever seen. This paradoxical intervention arose out of the American belief that to fight against communism in the name of freedom was justified at any cost. The intervention of the United States in Vietnam is the most important single embodiment of the power and purposes of American foreign policy since the Second World War, and no other crisis reveals so much of the basic motivating forces and objectives - and weaknesses - of American global politics.

Vietnam illustrates, as well, the nature of the American internal political process and decision-making structure when it opposes the views of a major sector of the people, for no other event of our generation has turned such a large proportion of the nation against its government’s policy or so profoundly alienated its youth. And at no time has the government conceded so little to democratic sentiment, pursuing as it has a policy of escalation that reveals that its policy is formulated not with an eye to democratic sanctions and compromises but rather the attainment of specific interests and goals scarcely shared by the vast majority of the nation.

Much of the reasoning that led America to its ultimately disastrous intervention in Vietnam was a direct result of the jockeying for position that was such an integral part of the Cold War and a desire to punish the French for their collaboration during the Second World War. This culminated in the Truman Doctrine, which set forth a policy that was applied directly to Vietnam and was presented at roughly the same time as the scale of conflict in Vietnam was escalating. American involvement in Vietnam began in the late 1940s, long before the 1965 military intervention as a result of the timing and the message of the Truman Doctrine.


In 1947, Harry Truman gave a speech before Congress, which contained a clear although not explicitly stated message. Truman referred to a society "based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority ... terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms." Calling for an anti-communist foreign policy, Truman said, "One of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion." The Truman Doctrine, in essence, said three things. Communism was seen as a threat to freedom. A threat to freedom anywhere represented a threat to freedom everywhere and therefore the United States had to protect freedom and halt the spread of communism.

Vietnam along with Laos and Cambodia was part of the French colony of Indochina. Although U.S. involvement in Vietnam is largely seen as having taken place during the 1960s, America had in fact been diplomatically involved in Vietnam since Roosevelt's presidency when a trusteeship was suggested for Indochina. This idea was, however, rejected because America felt that a trusteeship should only occur with French permission and with the creation of similar trusteeships in British and Dutch colonies in Asia.

In the late 1940s, the situation in Vietnam became increasingly complicated as the Vietnamese people rallied around Ho Chi Minh’s populist communism. The growing conflict therefore revolved around the twin issues of independence and communism. France, especially early on, was determined to keep Vietnam. For France, "any kind of non-Communist government was desirable, a complete French withdrawal was unrealistic, and no French government, ... could survive the granting of complete Vietnamese independence." However, this view was in opposition to the populace only 15% of whom supported military intervention.

The communist threat in Vietnam invoked the Truman Doctrine, and this brought the domino theory into play. For the United States, the greatest fear was not of Vietnam becoming communist, but that it would cause other nations to fall to communism, a hypothesis that determined much of American policy regarding Vietnam.

In 1950, the U.S. considered its role in Vietnam in a statement of U.S. policy in Indochina. Years before the American military were involved, it was felt that "the U.S. should use its influence, wherever appropriate, to promote close relations and firm understandings, in political, military and economic fields." Therefore, involvement was a natural decision for the superpower of the Western world. The defeat of communism and the flouting of the domino effect could not be accomplished without Western assistance.

The risks, in both financial and populist terms, were readily apparent, but they were outweighed by American fear of communism. For the U.S. the ultimate goal was the defeat of communism, and therefore America made the decision to become involved in Vietnam for the glory of defeating communism and through the perceived necessity for this defeat.

Looking back, it seems apparent that involvement in Vietnam was a mistake. However, the involvement began with the simple ideas of the Truman Doctrine. At the time, American views on communism forced involvement with Vietnam; it was the only logical action. The Vietnam War was largely seen as a war against communism, which it was. From the very beginning, U.S. involvement in Vietnam was centred around anti-communism. For this reason, it can accurately be said that early U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the Truman Doctrine were inextricably linked.


In summary, there were four main reasons for American intervention in Vietnam. The most important of these, from the governmental point of view was to protect the free world from communism. The reasoning behind this was that if Vietnam were to fall then the domino effect would lead to a flush of communist regimes in South East Asia. To a lesser extent is was also believed that if a French colony were to become communist, then communism would have an entry to Europe through a weakened France. In practice, this was never a viable theory, since any European communist revolution would need a wide-ranging support from the populace that was not present. Indeed many attempted revolutions had failed miserably, such as that in Munich in the 1920s.

The next reason for intervention was a self-serving one: to emphasise American military might and global importance. By becoming militarily involved in Vietnam, America hoped that it would soon be able to crush the revolution and reaffirm its own global importance. It was for this reason that the American administration were unperturbed by the lack of European aid as this would lead to greater glory for the successful government and would also serve the purely political aim of ensuring voter popularity. From a political point of view, therefore, the conflict needed to be short and decisively won and the necessity for victory encouraged America into throwing more and more resources into an already lost cause.

Both Eisenhower and Nixon put great value on the economic justification for war: the important resources of South-East Asia would be lost through the domino effect with the instigation of a communist regime in Vietnam. Malaya, in particular, with its vast reserves of copper, tin and rubber would have had an economic impact on America through its loss, but even this would not have been great and the utility of the Asian rice crop to America was minimal.

The reason for intervention stated in military propaganda was rather different, however, revolving as it did around the need to protect the freedom of the Vietnamese. The major problem with this reasoning was the fact it was impossible to convince the Vietnamese that their French oppressors and the largely racist Americans who followed them were the key to their freedom while their own compatriots who opposed the established authority were attempting to enslave them. This meant that American intervention on this front was a lost cause from the start


The question of justification is more complicated than just the political reasons. A theory has been put forward which recognises seven principles of a just war and each of these should be considered in turn.

  • A war can only be defined as just if it is waged as a last resort, all non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified. Although the US did enter into negotiations initially, later presidents such as Nixon came into power on the back of a Vietnam intervention ticket. I consider that insufficient consideration was given to non-violent options and so the war cannot be justified in this way.
  • A just war can only be entered into by a recognised and legitimate authority, which the American government certainly was.
  • A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong and must have the righting of the wrong as its objective. The American intervention in Vietnam had the opposition of communism, as detailed in the Truman Doctrine, as its objective but this cannot be classified as the righting of a wrong only the implementation of a prejudice and so cannot justify the intervention.
  • A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable. Shortly after the beginning of the conflict it was obvious that there was no way in which the US would be able to win against the guerilla tactics of the Viet Cong and thus the government had a moral obligation to withdraw which they did not do until the mid 1970s.
  • The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought. Although US wartime propaganda would have claimed that democracy is inherently preferable to communism they ignored the fact that the majority of the North Vietnamese population were either in favour of a communist government or were uninterested in whichever governmental system they had.
  • The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are must not use unnecessary force in order to attain the limited objective of redressing the injury suffered. Since the US never suffered any direct injury and even the threat of communisation only existed ‘in potentio’, it is difficult to justify the fact that force was used at all and especially atrocities such as the My Lai massacre.
  • The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target. The indiscriminate use of napalm by the US military during the later stages of the war was a deliberate policy that killed many civilians in order to turn the populace against the Viet Cong.


    The reasons for the American intervention are, from an objective point of view, completely inadequate for the justification of war in a country in which America had only minimal involvement. The Vietnam War was ultimately instigated by politicians terrified of communism, which in the end would pose no significant threat. These men expended an enormous number of resources and sent hundreds of thousands of young soldiers to their deaths, even in the face of massive public protest at the pointlessness of the war and the use of napalm, in a vain attempt to enhance American world influence only withdrawing when they realised that the war was impossible to win. The war cannot be justified for any humanitarian, economic, moral or political reasons and thus must be seen to be unjustified.


    Accommodation and Resistance - The French Left, Indochina and the Cold War, 1944-1954 - Edward Rice-Maximin (Greenwood Press, 1986)

    Vietnam: The Definitive Documentation of Human Decisions - Draft Statement of U.S. Policy on Indochina for National Security Council Consideration, October 11, 1950, (Earl M Coleman Enterprises, 1979)

    Age of Extremes – Eric Hobsbawm (Abacus, 1998)

    http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pol116/justwar.htm – Principles of a just war