Ngo Dinh Diem

Committed to the logic of the domino theory, U.S. leaders sought to forestall the elections in Vietnam. The United States thus threw its support behind the politician Ngo Dinh Diem, a Vietnamese nationalist and Catholic who emphasized Confucian values of loyalty and tradition and opposed the overthrow of old Vietnamese social structures—a move that the revolutionary Vietnamese Communists advocated.

The Republic of Vietnam

In 1955, with U.S. support, Diem rejected the prospect of Vietnam-wide elections as specified by the Geneva Accords and instead held a referendum limited to the southern half of the country. Using fraud and intimidation, Diem won over 98 percent of the vote, removed the feeble Bao Dai from power, and proclaimed South Vietnam to be the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). A CIA operative working in Saigon, Edward Lansdale, was installed as an advisor to Diem. The United States then helped Diem organize the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to control his new state.

Assessing U.S. Involvement

The United States’ involvement in Vietnam can be understood only within the context of the larger Cold War against the Soviet Union. After formulating the policy of containment and the domino theory in a response to the USSR, the United States would become more and more involved in checking Communism’s spread in Vietnam. Americans and others around the world had watched as Britain and France appeased Adolf Hitler and the expansionist Nazi Germany prior to World War II—an approach that had quickly brought disaster. As a result, rather than appease the USSR, the United States vowed to stop aggression before it happened. Whether or not this new tactic would work, or was even appropriate, was not yet clear. Policy makers today claim to have learned the “lessons of Vietnam,” but the American tragedy in Vietnam was itself largely built on “lessons of World War II.”

Popular pages: The Vietnam War (1945–1975)