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In 1952, many Republicans had denounced war, government spending, and appeasement. Some had promised. in contrast peace, economy, and a rollback of world communism. The difficulties of this commitment were made greater by a change of tactics of the opponent. Stalin died in March, 1953. Khrushchev proclaimed relaxation of the Soviet police state and a foreign policy of peaceful competition with capitalism, a competition aimed at underdeveloped countries. Dulles, Secretary of State, distrusted the Russians and believed that the US could defeat the USSR in a war. The Eisenhower administration adopted a policy of brinkmanship (going to the brink of war on the assumption that the Soviet would back down) and massive retaliation (the policy that any nuclear attack on the US would result in a nuclear counterattack that would destroy the Soviet Union). So the US reduced the number of its ground troops and relied on airplanes and nuclear weapons.
This policy scared many Americans and foreigners. President Dwight Eisenhower, in 1954, declared that war was unthinkable in modern world and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
The new military-diplomatic policies were tested in Far East. With peace in Korea, attention shifted to Indochina where French, since 1945, had been fighting a bloody and unsuccessful war against the Vietminh independence movement, now under Communist leadership. At first, the US had been skeptical about colonialism but since Korean War, the US had been supporting the French more and more with money and materiel. In March 1954, it suddenly became clear that northern Indochina could no longer be held without the US committing at least its air power. Both Dulles and Eisenhower, proclaimed that the loss of Indochina would lead to Communist domination of all South Asia. Dulles unsuccessfully explored the possibility of joint US-British intervention. There was some talk by military leaders about using small nuclear weapons.
US intervention in Indochina was a dubious prospect. Sending troops to the jungle so soon after the unpopular Korean war would contradict administration pronouncements. Air power would be difficult to use, for the new military doctrine meant that the US would have to attack Peking and Moscow. Eisenhower decided against even local assistance to the French. Dulles and Vice President Richard Nixon were unhappy with the decision but abided by it, of course. In May, 1954, the French fortress of Dienbeinphu fell. In the subsequent Geneva Conference--the Soviet Union, China, Britain, France and Indochina participated. The US did not, partly because it refused to recognize the Chinese government, but accepted the results. The Geneva Conference recognized the independence of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel. In 1956, internationally-supervised elections were to be held throughout Vietnam to vote on such issues as reunification. In the meantime, military forces were to be regrouped and populations exchanged. Military bases of any country, the introduction of new military forces, and adherence to military alliances was forbidden to both sides. An International Commission of India, Poland, and Canada to supervise truce. The truce line became permanent. The Saigon government refused to carry out the election.
The Republicans had promised to "unleash" Chiang Kai-shek so he could attack the mainland and drive the Communists out of power. The Eisenhower lived up to the campaign promise and the Taiwanese forces were told that the US would not interfere. The US 7th fleet was told not to interfere with attack on China. In 1954, the Chinese began proclaiming the intention of raking Formosa back. The Chinese shelled Quemoy and Matsu, small islands between China and Taiwan. The US changed its policy. In a new treaty with Formosa, the US promised that it would defend Formosa and the islands but Chiang would not invade the mainland without US permission. The US was not going to war with China and, possibly, the Soviet Union. In 1954, the US created the South East Asia treaty Organization(SEATO) with the US, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines. Pakistan, and Thailand as a counterweight to Chinese ambitions. SEATO was eventually extended to southeast Asia.
The most important international fact of the 1960s was the deterioration of the two great alliances formed by the US on the one hand and the USSR on the other. Soviet control of its satellites weakening. The moves towards European unification was halted by French nationalism; the French vetoed British entry into the Common Market. Moreover, they pulled out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). US military power increased, however. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara shifted from the policy of massive retaliation to the balanced ability to respond.
The brief Kennedy administration had limited success in foreign policy. The East Germans, with the backing of USSR, built the Berlin Wall to prevent its citizens from escaping to the West. The Eisenhower administration had planned an invasion of Cuba in 1961 using Cuban exiles and US pilots and Kennedy agreed to let it go forward. The Bay of Pigs invasion was a disaster. Emboldened by this failure, Fidel Castro accepted intermediate range missiles from the USSR. When the US discovered them, it forced the USSR to withdraw them. In the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the war came close to war. Successes included the creation of the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress.
In Laos, Kennedy abandoned the Eisenhower policy of supporting the right wing faction and supported a tripartite coalition. Eisenhower had given military and diplomatic support to vigorous but unpopular and dictatorial government of Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem's support came mainly from Catholic landlords and refugees from the north. In 1960, the NLF (Viet Cong) was formed and the North Vietnam announced its support. Kennedy military aid to Diem. By 1962, pro-government officials were being assassinated, guerrillas were being infiltrated from North Viet Nam, and helicopters manned by US advisers were shooting at the Viet Cong. Following a rebellion by the large and militant Buddhist faction, US withdrew its support. In November, Diem was assassinated, giving way to a series of governments no more popular than his. On November 22, 1963, JFK was assassinated.
US foreign policy faced a number of difficulties in the mid-60s. France has withdrawn from NATO. China had become a nuclear power but was torn by the Cultural Revolution. The USSR and the US signed a consular treaty and a new nuclear test ban treaty. The Alliance for Progress did not solve Latin American problems. In the Dominican Republic LBJ violated the 1933 pledge not to intervene militarily in Latin America and sent troops in 1965.
The US-backed regime in Viet Nam was losing the guerrilla war against the Viet Cong and its ally, the North Vietnamese. President Lyndon B. Johnson had two choices either increase the US effort or accept the defeat of the South Vietnamese government. The latter would be a loss of face for the US.
In August, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution allowing the President to determine responses to North Vietnam and Viet Cong attacks. In later years, it would be revealed that Johnson had lied about what happened at the Gulf of Tonkin. In February, 1965, the attack on US barracks in South Viet Nam created a counterattack in the form of a US aerial offensive. Over the next few years, the air raids were increased and became broader in target selection. The number of US ground troops increased until, by 1968 , there were half a million there, trying to force the North Vietnam to negotiate. As early as 1967, it was clear to impartial observers that the effort was not working. At home, the anti-War campaign stepped up, partly driven by the belief that the war was unjust, partly because many young men did not want to be drafted. Johnson announced in early 1968 that he would not seek re-election because he feared that he would be an obstacle to a negotiated peace.
Richard Nixon, Republican, who narrowly beat Johnson's vice-president Hubert Humphrey, and US policy changed. In Guam in July 1969, the US said that it would not try to solve all the problems of all world. This presumed retreat from overseas activity reflected the national mood for US citizens were tired of the Vietnam War and feared that the country was trying to do too much. By 1971, however, Nixon was warning of the danger" of "under involvement" and emphasized that the Nixon Doctrine did not mean the precipitate shrinking of the US role in the world. The Nixon doctrine seemed to apply primarily to Asia. In other places, Nixon's policy moved in generally conservative directions. New friendship was expressed for the military dictatorship in Greece and for right-wing regimes in Spain and Portugal. He was a strong supporter of the white governments in Africa. He supported the quasi-fascist military dictatorship in Brazil.
In November, 1968, North Vietnam had responded to the start of negotiations in Paris by withdrawing 22 of 25 regiments from the northern 2 provinces of South Vietnam. President Johnson kept up the bombing pressure, and the withdrawals ceased. Thieu of South Vietnam stalled at sending delegates; he was afraid the South would lose. When his delegates finally arrived, they stalled for five more weeks by arguing over the shape of the table. Nixon replaced Averill Harriman with Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge quit having the private meetings with the Viet Cong.
Nixon had campaigned that he had a "secret plan" to end the war. Wits said that he should reveal the secret immediately so as to save lives but, of course, he waited until he took office in 1969. It turned out that he was going to reduce US casualties by having the South Vietnamese assume the responsibility of fighting their own civil war. Nixon proposed to "wind down" the war through this Vietnamization. US ground troops declined from a high of 543,400 (April 1969) to a low of 60,000 (September, 1972). This move resulted in lower US casualties and fewer draftees in Vietnam; thus sharply diminishing the domestic political impact.
Nixon widened the war, however. He defined victory as the preservation of a non-Communist government in Saigon. To achieve victory, he adopted measures long advocated by the military but rejected by Johnson. In March, 1970, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia was overthrown, probably by the CIA and the right-wing General Lon Nol took his place. North Vietnamese troops poured into interior Cambodia. On April 30, 1970 Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia. Although the US had been secretly fighting there, this invasion was a widening of the war.
The Cambodian invasion sparked serious protests. The anti-war movement had been quiet for most of 1969, giving the new president a honeymoon as he began implementing his "secret plan." In October, 1969, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee brought 500,000 to Washington, DC to protest the war and encourage Nixon to end it. The Nixon administration condemned the protest meeting. It indicated that anti-war sentiment had grown substantially. Nixon became even more anxious to win the war. When Cambodia was invaded in April and May, 1970 one and one-half million students protested on 1200 campuses. On May 4th, four students, on their way to class, were murdered by National Guard troops who had been called into action by the governor because of the anti-war demonstrations on the Kent State campus. On May 14th, two Jackson State students were murdered by Mississippi Highway Patrol officers who fired on a dormitory when students there protested the war and racism. Many Americans were outraged while many others believed that the students had asked for it. These incidents were further evidence of how the war was tearing the nation apart. Congress began raising questions about the constitutionality of the invasion and repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, one of the few legal props for the war.
The Cambodian invasion failed to cut off North Vietnamese and Viet Cong progress and Congress refused to fund Nixon's planned invasion of Laos. In February, 1971, Nixon used US air power to support a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. This, too, failed.
As US troops were being withdrawn, Nixon stepped up the use of US air and naval power. From 1969 to the end of 1971, the US had dropped 3.3 million tons of bombs on South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, more than Johnson had dropped in five years and more than the US had dropped on Europe and the Pacific in World War II. Nixon was trying to bomb the enemy into submission but it did not work. In the Spring of 1972, North Vietnamese forces launched an offensive which pushed back South Vietnamese forces. Nixon widened the bombing of North Vietnam and mined its harbors but the war was lost.
The Nixon administration had been engaging in secret negotiations between 1969 and 1971 as Henry Kissinger made thirteen trips to France to meet with North Vietnamese diplomats. The US proposed a cease fire in advance of any political settlement and the preservation of the Thieu regime. Nixon had asserted that Thieu was one of the four or five greatest political leaders of the world, and supported Thieu in the 1971 presidential election, one so fraudulent that all of his opponents withdrew. But in 1972, shortly before the US presidential election, Nixon announced progress towards a cease fire. The war ended in 1973. Nixon resigned in 1974 so he did not preside over the rout of the South Vietnamese in 1975 when the North Vietnamese armies took over the entire country.The war was costly. One and one-half million died in Indochina of whom 58,000 were Americans. Millions more were maimed. Some 500,000 people became refugees. From 1965-1971, the US spent $120 billion dollars directly on the war but other costs raised this amount to $400 billion. Costly, too, was its effect on the US military which thought itself invincible and had difficulty accepting the fact that it was not. Of course, the War of 1812 was a draw, at best, but Americans only paid attention to recent events. It was a long war but not as long as the War on Drugs or the perpetual war that the War on Terrorism promises to be. It left open wounds on the US psyche.