Table of Contents Introduction 2 The Just War Theory 2 America and the Vietnam War 6 Analysis of America’s Involvement in the Vietnam War 22 Works Cited 27 Introduction

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Ethics of Development in a Global Environment

Professor Lusignan

The Vietnam War: Just or Unjust?


Gene Hu

Table of Contents
Introduction 2

The Just War Theory 2

America and the Vietnam War 6

Analysis of America’s Involvement in the Vietnam War 22

Works Cited 27

“No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War.” (Richard M. Nixon, 1985) Despite almost half a century of retrospect, numerous studies, and the declassification of military documents, former President Nixon’s assertion still holds truth. Of all the wars that the United States has fought in, the Vietnam War has compelled the most Americans to question what we were fighting for and why. Was the Vietnam War a just war?

The Just War Theory

The Just War Theory has been shaped over the centuries by historians and philosophers. However, the most systematic account of the Just War Theory was formulated by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologicae. According to the Just War Theory, the moral reality of war is divided into two parts. Wars are judged twice, first with reference to the reasons nations have for fighting and secondly, with reference to the means they adopt in the actual fighting. (Walzer, 21) The first judgment is referred to as jus ad bellum, or justice of war. The second judgment is referred to as jus in bello, or justice in war. Jus ad bellum provides guidelines for assessing whether a war is just or unjust while jus in bello outlines proper conduct in war. Jus ad bellum does not imply jus in bello. Likewise, jus in bello does not necessitate jus ad bellum. It is possible for a just war to be fought unjustly just as it is possible for an unjust war to be fought justly.

The principles of jus ad bellum are having a just cause, being declared by a proper authority, possessing the right intention, and having a reasonable chance of success. A war must meet all of these requirements to be regarded as a just war. The first and most important condition of jus ad bellum is having a just cause. This condition relies on what Saint Thomas Aquinas calls the Theory of Aggression. The Theory of Aggression can be summed up in six propositions:

  1. There exists an international society of independent states.

  2. This international society has a law that establishes the rights of its members—above all, the rights of territorial integrity and political sovereignty.

  3. Any use of force or imminent threat of force by one state against the political sovereignty or territorial integrity of another constitutes aggression and is a criminal act.

  4. Aggression justifies two kinds of violent response: a war of self-defense by the victim and a war of law enforcement by the victim and any other member of international society.

  5. Nothing but aggression can justify war.

  6. Once the aggressor state has been militarily repulsed, it can also be punished. (Walzer, 61)

From the Theory of Aggression it is clear that wars cannot be justly declared for political or religious beliefs, self interest, or aggrandizement. Only aggression towards the political sovereignty or territorial integrity of a nation can justify war. However, the tenet of self-defense can be interpreted to include preemptive strikes and cases of intervention. In the case of a preeminent strike, there must be sufficient threat for a nation to attack first. Walzer defines sufficient threat as “a manifest intent to injure, a degree of active preparation that makes that intent a positive danger, and a general situation in which waiting, or doing anything other than fighting, greatly magnifies the risk.” (Walzer, 81) The cases for intervention include:

  1. When a particular set of boundaries clearly contains two or more political communities, one of which is already engaged in a large scale military struggle for independence; that is, when what is at issue is secession or “national liberation”

  2. When the boundaries have already been crossed by the armies of a foreign power, even if the crossing has been called for by one of the parties in a civil war, that is, when what is at issue is counter-intervention

  3. When the violation of human rights within a set of boundaries is so terrible that it makes talk of community or self-determination or “arduous struggle” seem cynical and irrelevant, that is, in cases of enslavement or massacre. (Walzer, 90)

The second condition of jus ad bellum is that the war must be declared by the proper authority. This authority resides in the sovereign power of a nation. The third provision asserts that a nation going to war must possess the right intention. The nation engaging in a just war should be waging war for the sake of justice and not out of self-interest. War should be waged to counter aggression. The fourth and final condition stipulates that a nation waging a just war must have a reasonable chance of success. These four tenets compose jus ad bellum, or justice of war. A war can only be deemed just if it meets all four tenets of jus ad bellum.

America and the Vietnam War

In early 1950, the Truman administration decided to provide financial aid to the French military effort in Indochina in the hopes of containing the spread of communism throughout the world. Nationalist China had fallen and Communist China mobilized its troops on the Indochina border the pervious winter. Moreover, both the Soviet Union and Communist China acknowledged the Ho chi Minh regime as the presiding government of Vietnam. China also began to train and supply military weapons to the Viet Minh (Revolutionary League for the Independence of Vietnam), which was, at the time, developing into a major communist hotbed. Top U.S. officials informed the president that they would either have to support the legal government in Indochina or face the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.

Ho Chi Minh, founder and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, was a fervent revolutionary whose ultimate goal was independence for his country.

American officials were cognizant of the fact that only the complete decolonization of Indochina could establish a stable noncommunist force in the lands surrounding China. However, the American position to fulfill this objective was inadequate. The French were historically ill disposed to allowing Americans to meddle in their internal affairs. Furthermore, the French were paranoid that the United States had the intention to usurp their economic and political power in Indochina. Because of its apprehension about the Soviet danger to destitute post-World War II Western Europe, America was concerned with obtaining France’s support for the creation of a European Defense Community (EDC). Therefore, the European Defense Community was extremely important to the United States. Consequently, the U.S., out of fear of alienating France from its cause, had very little leverage in persuading the French to grant authority over South Vietnam to the formally independent Government of Vietnam (GVN).

The inception of the Korean War on June 25, 1950 substantiated U.S. officials’ suspicions that the conflict in Vietnam was more than just a colonial war. The Korean War reflected a general trend towards the spread of communism in the areas surrounding the Soviet Union and Communist China. It was now undeniable that the French resistance to the Viet Minh and its Communist China benefactor was a crucial element in the containment of global communism. Furthermore, it was evident that the communist Ho Chi Minh regime’s effort to drive out French forces was a part of a larger, worldwide communist goal. President Truman stated, “The attack on Korea makes it plain beyond all doubt that Communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war.” (Herring, 373) In reaction to these events, President Truman sent troops to the aid of South Korea, the Philippines, and the French in Indochina.

The Korean War began with a surprise attack on June 25, 1950 when the North Korean People’s Army invaded across the 38th parallel and attacked the Republic of Korea.

The Indochinese and Korean conflicts embodied one unified threat towards the United States. Both wars were being supplied by Communist China in an effort to increase communist power. American officials recognized that assisting the French would effectively weaken Communist China’s power in those two regions of the world. Thus, the U.S. began sending both military supplies and military advisors to aid the French resistance. Unfortunately, Ho Chi Minh’s forces strengthened while the French forces dwindled. As a result, American aid increased from $10 million in 1950 to $1.063 billion in 1954. This accounted for an astonishing 78% of the French war burden. It was clear that American involvement in this war was becoming more pronounced.

American society began to question why the U.S. government was spending such exorbitant amounts of money in such a remote part of the world. U.S. officials responded with a plethora of political explanatory rhetoric. They claimed that the loss of any counties in Southeast Asia to the Communists would result in devastating political and economic effects for America. If Indochina and Vietnam were to fall under the control of the Communists, much of Southeast Asia would follow also. Such an extension of the Communists’ power would endanger the stability and security of Europe and challenge America’s wellbeing in the Far East. Therefore, it was of the utmost importance that the Viet Minh did not prevail in Indochina. A Viet Minh victory in Indochina would dispute the security of the free world.

While the U.S. and the French were set upon aiding the native Vietnamese in fighting the Viet Minh, American officials realized early on that a victory in Indochina would not come from importing masses of supplies and military tacticians. On the contrary, the long term security of Indochina against communism was dependent on a strong native government that would be effective in the control of its citizens and army. Such a government would relieve the French of their position as the guardian of Vietnam. However, the native governments continued to fail and the French did not actively seek to aid Indochina in independence. Nevertheless, American assistance continued to intensify. Historians of American foreign policy in regards to the Vietnam War state, “The U.S. became virtually a prisoner of its own policy. Containment of communism, concern for the French in relation to the postwar Europe of NATO, EDC, and the Soviet threat in the West all compelled the U.S. to continue aid.” (Herring, 203)

Although they provided the French with money, weapons, and supplies in its effort to quell communism spreading throughout Indochina, the U.S. initially did not participate in any actual fighting. The burden of sending men off to war in a foreign land was left to France alone and there were no clear signs that the fighting would end. French officials, weary of the hardships of war included the Indochina conflict on the agenda of an international conference in Geneva which was to be held to discuss the resolution of the Korean War. In reaction to this conference, the Viet Minh forces launched a major offensive attack on the French stronghold of Dien Bien Phu. General Henri Navarre, the French commander of the fortress, was fully confident that his superior firepower would ensure his forces a victory. However, the Viet Minh forces were now supplemented with more advanced technology such as radar and artillery provided by Communist China. The Viet Minh forces dominated the early stages of the battle and consequently, the French implored U.S. officials for direct military support. After much deliberation, President Eisenhower was obliged to deny the French’s appeal without the military support of Great Britain. Without the support of its allies the French forces stood little chance against an enemy with superior numbers and weaponry. On May 7, 1954 the Dien Bien Phu fortification fell to the Viet Minh army and the French military resistance in Indochina had come to and end.

The Geneva Conference was held on May 8, 1954 and subsequent talks of the Indochina problem followed. With the victory of Dien Bien Phu as evidence of their military strength and organization, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam mandated the withdrawal of all foreign troops within Vietnam and the organization of free elections. However, the Soviet Union and Communist China were able to persuade Ho Chi Minh to agree on the partition along the 17th parallel and elections to be held in two years. At the same time, the Soviet Union and Communist China were also attracting fledging nations of Asia and Africa to join their communist plight with the promise of peaceful coexistence and support for their anticolonial ambitions. The communists feared that a prolonged war would inevitably bring the United States into the conflict and establish America as a dominant military power in Asia.

The Geneva Conference divided North and South Vietnam along the 17th parallel.


The Geneva Conference ultimately resulted in agreements that were devoid of any concrete meaning or binding. The Geneva Accords were comprised of six unilateral declarations, three cease-fire agreements, and an unsigned final declaration. The free elections were to be held in July of 1956. Until then, the Vietnamese were free to choose on which side of the partition they wished to live in. However, no one truly took the notion of being able to unify a country through free elections sincerely. It was foolish to have millions of citizens move from one part of a country to another part only to have a unification within less than 2 years. Professor Hans J. Morgenthau wrote, “the provision for free elections which would solve ultimately the problem of Vietnam was a device to hide the incompatibility of the Communist and Western positions, neither of which can admit the domination of all of Vietnam by the other side. It was a device to disguise the fact that the line of military demarcation was bound to be a line of political division as well.” (Morgenthau, 69)

By July of 1955, after the grace period for the Vietnamese to move their residency from one side of the 17th parallel to the other, over one million people left the communist regime and moved to the South while 90,000 Viet Minh troops and cohorts moved to the North. In an effort to create strong ties with the other side of the partition, many of the Viet Minh soldiers married women in the South. Later in the war these men were sent back to the South as the first troops of the insurgency. The Communists also left behind many of their best troops in the South and also had stockpiles of military weapons hidden in the southern countryside. These troops and weapons would soon serve as the basis of the Liberation Army. The Communists never believed that the elections would be held or accepted if held, and planned from early on a strategy to reunify the two sides of the country.

The U.S. claimed that it would not use military force in Vietnam, but would view any rekindling of aggression or violence in the country as a threat to international security. The French did not want to renounce their power in South Vietnam. However, the U.S. was able to have the French withdraw from Vietnam in an effort to gain the support of the local South Vietnamese. In effect, this relinquished all French power in Vietnam and made the U.S. the sole source of military and economic power to Diem.

With the aid of the U.S., Diem was able to consolidate all of South Vietnam by 1955. The small armies threatening his people had been disarmed and his country had reached a level of prosperity and stability. In June of 1956 Senator John F. Kennedy gave a speech addressing America’s stake in Vietnam. Senator Kennedy stated:

“Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike. Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the red tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam. Secondly, Vietnam represents a proving ground for democracy in Asia. However we may choose to ignore or deprecate it, the rising prestige and influence of Communist China in Asia are unchallengeable facts. Vietnam presents the alternative to Communist dictatorship. If this democratic experience fails, if some one million refugees have fled the totalitarianism of the North only to find neither freedom nor security in the South, then weakness, not strength, will characterize the meaning of democracy in the minds of still more Asians. The United States is directly responsible for this experiment—it is playing an important role in the laboratory where it is being conducted. We cannot afford to permit that experiment to fail.

Third and in somewhat similar fashion, Vietnam represents a test of American responsibility and determination in Asia. If we are not the parents of little Vietnam, then surely we are the godparents. We presided at its birth, we gave assistance to its life, we have helped to shape its future… This is our offspring—we cannot abandon it, we cannot ignore its needs. And if it falls victim to any of the perils that threaten its existence—Communism, political anarchy, poverty and the rest—then the United States, with some justification, will be held responsible; and our prestige in Asia will sink to a new low.

Fourth and Finally, America’s stake in Vietnam, in her strength and in her security, is a very selfish one—for it can be measured, in the last analysis, in terms of American lives and American dollars… Military weakness, political instability or economic failure in the new state of Vietnam could change almost overnight that apparent security which has increasingly characterized that area under the leadership of President Diem. And the key position of Vietnam, in Southeast Asia, as already discussed, makes inevitable involvement of this nation’s security in any new outbreak of trouble.” (Fishel, 142)

Senator Kennedy also opposed the elections described in the Geneva Agreement. He contended that neither the United States nor Free Vietnam had agreed to the elections. Furthermore, he also pleaded for more support for President Diem whose government was the first step towards establishing democracy in Southeast Asia. Ngo Dihn Diem was a man of immense ability and honesty. With his stern policies, Diem was able to reform much of his ravished country. However, Diem’s authoritarian methods disaffected many of his citizens. “Diem lost ground in the countryside by replacing elected village chiefs and councils with his own appointees, who were unresponsive to the interests of the peasantry and often corrupt. A program of land reform, begun in 1956 with American support and advice, three years later was virtually inoperative. By that time, only 10 percent of the tenant farmers had received any land at all and for many of them the reform meant merely that they had to pay for land the Viet Minh had distributed to them earlier from the holdings of absentee owners.” (Lewy, 14) On the other hand, the Viet Minh gathered large amounts of support by endorsing the appeals of the peasants. Some historians contend that it was the unrestrained crusade of forceful suppression of the Viet Minh that caused the southern insurgency. However, current evidence claims that this is not true. According to several defectors, “the decision to begin the armed struggle in the South was made by the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Workers’ (Lao Dong) party (VWP), the communist party of Vietnam, in Hanoi in 1959.” (Lewy, 15)

President Diem’s anticommunist efforts led to severe losses in power of the VWP in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, the potential for a revolution was steadily increasing. The southern branch of the VWP demanded changes in policy, and as a result the resolution to create an armed force in the South was made during the Fifteenth Conference of the Central Committee. In July of 1959 there was a large movement of military personnel into South Vietnam; more than 4,000 communists who had ties to the South moved back to South Vietnam between 1959 and 1960. General Giap stated, “The North has become a large rear echelon of our army. The North is the revolutionary base for the whole country.” (Pike, 78)

Ngo Dinh Diem, President of South Vietnam, was able to effectively reform his country. However, he also disaffected many of his citizens with his harsh, authoritarian rule.

When John f. Kennedy became President in 1961, the anticommunist efforts in Vietnam was succumbing to an ever increasingly powerful North Vietnam. The Vietnamese Communists, or Viet Cong (VC), controlled most of the country and commanded the loyalty of many of its civilians. President Kennedy knew that suppression of communism in Vietnam was of the utmost importance to U.S. foreign policy. His confidence in the importance of Indochina and Southeast Asia had origins stretching as far back as 1954. His belief that the U.S. had to support these areas of the world was bolstered by Nikita Khrushchev’s promise to support wars of national liberation in the developing world, which included Vietnam. Furthermore, the authority of the United States was questioned after its failure in invading Cuba in April of 1961. Vietnam would serve as a proving ground for American international power. Also, by exerting power in an area of the world that clearly challenged U.S. resolve against communist efforts, namely Southeast Asia, would prove to the Soviet Union, Communist China, and the rest of the world President Kennedy’s strength and resolution.

Throughout his first few months of presidency, President Kennedy debated over the proper course of action in Vietnam. After numerous talks with his advisors, the notion of sending American troops into direct combat in Vietnam was posed but never agreed upon as a concrete plan. For the time being, the U.S. still only supplied its ally with supplies, advisors, and several Special Forces units to train their native army. After gathering information on the state of the military effort in Vietnam, General Maxwell D. Taylor, President Kennedy’s military advisor, recommended the deployment of 7,000 soldiers and military strategists to raise South Vietnamese morale and to operationally run the war. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara supported Taylor’s proposal and that the U.S. should ensure that South Vietnam would not fall to hands of the Communists. In their join memorandum, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stated:

“The basic means for accomplishing this objective must be to put the Government of South Vietnam into a position to win its own war against the guerillas. We must insist that the Government itself take the measures necessary for that purpose in exchange for large-scale United States assistance in the military, economic and political fields. At the same time we must recognize that it will probably not be possible for the GVN to win this war as long as the flow of men and supplies from North Vietnam continues unchecked and the guerillas enjoy a safe sanctuary in neighboring territory. We should be prepared to introduce United States combat forces if that should become necessary for success. Dependent upon the circumstances, it may also be necessary for United States forces to strike at the source of the aggression in North Vietnam.” (Herring, 111)

President Kennedy agreed to Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s recommendations for emergency planning. But, he rejected General Taylor’s proposal for a logistical task force to be deployed in Vietnam. At this time, American soldiers were still not engaged in active combat in Vietnam; however, American advisers were allowed participate in combat missions as well as command two helicopter companies. Under the issued rules of engagement, the U.S. helicopters were sanctioned to engage in combat as a training exercise for North Vietnamese soldiers.

Up until 1961, U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese war had abided by the rules outlined by Geneva Convention. However, during 1961 U.S. officials started to question whether or not the America should renounce the accord and candidly support the GVN with military aid. Thus, U.S. officials started searching for reasons to nullify the Geneva Conference so that they could openly send American troops into Vietnam. Thus, in December of 1961 the United States published a report that documented numerous violations of the Geneva Conference by the DRV. Because international states that a breach of agreement by one party in an accord allows the other party to discount the violated contract, American officials now believed that they were justified in sending U.S. soldiers into Vietnam. Consequently, the number of U.S. personnel deployed in Vietnam increased by 22,000 men from 1960 to 1964.

The initial deployment of additional U.S. troops in Vietnam had a positive effect on the South Vietnam war effort. U.S. soldiers boosted morale and the use of helicopters alarmed the Viet Cong. However, by 1963, the situation took a turn for the worse. The U.S. was now more than $2 billion in debt from financing to Vietnam. Furthermore, over 16,000 troops were deployed in a foreign land. These soldiers were not intended to fight, yet more than 50 of them had died in combat. And, despite all of America’s anticommunist efforts, the Viet Cong continued to increase its military power and popularity among the peasants.

By 1963, America had deployed over 16,000 troops into Vietnam.

In November of 1963, both President Diem of South Vietnam and President John F. Kennedy of the United States were assassinated. Kennedy was succeeded by President Lyndon b. Johnson who took on the burden of Vietnam. By the time Johnson became president, the pressure from the Vietnam War was overwhelming. U.S. officials had not known how distressing the situation in Vietnam was because they had relied on ambiguous, overly optimistic Vietnamese reports. The reality of the situation was that the Viet Cong had amassed a substantial fighting army, commanded the loyalty of much of the country’s people and that the South Vietnamese government was indecisive and ineffectual. The victory of the Communists over Free Vietnam was impending.

As American control over Vietnam deteriorated, talks of increased military force against the Viet Cong intensified. Many of President Johnson’s advisors now proposed the use of air power. At the time, the U.S. had a large underutilized air force that was thought to have the potential to turn the war in favor of the South Vietnamese. North Vietnam was extremely vulnerable to air strikes which could effectively destroy their under protected lines of communication, oil reserves, and military bases. Furthermore, top U.S. military officials claimed that the use of air power would revive the dying morale of the South Vietnamese troops.

At first, President Johnson was hesitant to draw U.S. troops further into the war. He claimed that American soldiers should not be fighting a war in Asia that belonged to Asian soldiers. “That is the course we are following. So we are not going north and drop bombs at this stage of the game, and we are not going south and run out and leave it for the Communists to take over.” (Johnson, 1964) However, President Johnson’s stance changed on February 6th when the Viet Cong attacked an American base in Pleiku. In response to the attack, America launched an initial bombing against sensitive military establishments in North Vietnam. Subsequent Viet Cong attacks against American troops provoked further U.S. bombings. By March, regular bombings of Vietnam, codenamed ROLLING THUNDER, wreaked havoc on both military personnel and innocent civilians. The U.S. justified these bombings as a response to overt North Vietnamese hostility towards American troops. The U.S. was now officially an active aggressor in the war.

U.S. bombings devastated the Vietnamese countryside.

Initially, several U.S. officials truly believed that bombing North Vietnam would convince the leaders in Hanoi to cease their aggression in the south. However, this hope was naïve and when it proved wrong, the U.S. chose the only option other than to withdraw its troops and let the Communists control Vietnam. On March 8, 1965, the first U.S. ground combat troops landed on the shores of Vietnam. Unknowingly, America had just entered into what was to be its longest war.
Analysis of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War

As evidenced by the preceding delineation of the events leading up to the deployment of U.S. ground forces in Vietnam, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was indisputably unjust. According to the Just War Theory, and in particular the principles of jus ad bellum, a war can be considered just if and only if it conforms to all of the following: the war must have just cause, be declared by a proper authority, possess the right intention, and have a reasonable chance of success. While it can be argued that the U.S. properly declared the war and had a reasonable chance of success, despite its loss of the war, it is irrefutable that the U.S. did not go to war for a just cause or with morally correct intentions.

The Just War Theory states that only retaliations of aggression, preemptive strikes, and specific interventions qualify as just causes for war. The U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War did not qualify for any of these cases. The U.S. was lured into the Vietnam War by its political efforts to contain the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia. American officials believed a Communist victory in Vietnam would ultimately lead to further Communist victories throughout the world. The Just War Theory specifically states that wars fought for political interests are unjust. The Vietnam War was a conflict between North and South Vietnam. It was not until the U.S. became directly involved in the war that North Vietnam showed aggressive behavior towards America. In fact, it was America who first engaged in combat with the Vietnamese. It can be argued that the Viet Cong’s attacks were in actuality responses to American aggression.

Moreover, the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War did not qualify as a preemptive strike. While U.S. officials at the time may have argued that the spread of communism would inevitably threaten the U.S., the communist party in Vietnam never presented sufficient threat to the territorial integrity or political sovereignty of the United States. According to war theorist Michael Walzer, sufficient threat is defined as “a manifest intent to injure, a degree of active preparation that makes that intent a positive danger, and a general situation in which waiting, or doing anything other than fighting, greatly magnifies the risk.” (Walzer, 81) None of these criteria applied directly to the United States. Whether or not Vietnam adopted communism as its form of government did not directly threaten the safety or liberty of America. Thus, the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War could not possibly be justified as a preemptive strike.

Lastly, the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War also did not qualify as one of the cases for just intervention. According to the Just War Theory, cases of justifiable intervention include:

  1. When a particular set of boundaries clearly contains two or more political communities, one of which is already engaged in a large scale military struggle for independence; that is, when what is at issue is secession or “national liberation”

  2. When the boundaries have already been crossed by the armies of a foreign power, even if the crossing has been called for by one of the parties in a civil war, that is, when what is at issue is counter-intervention

  3. When the violation of human rights within a set of boundaries is so terrible that it makes talk of community or self-determination or “arduous struggle” seem cynical and irrelevant, that is, in cases of enslavement or massacre. (Walzer, 90)

The Vietnam War was not an instance of national liberation. The North and South of Vietnam were clearly partitioned along the 17th parallel as outlined by the Geneva Conference. Furthermore, the Vietnam War was not an instance human rights violation, despite the many war atrocities that U.S. soldiers committed during its military involvement in the conflict.

Some Americans have claimed in the defense of the U.S. that the Vietnam War was an instance of civil war in which America’s actions were counter-interventionist in nature. This defense “concedes the existence of a civil war and describes the U.S. role, first, as assistance to a legitimate government, and secondly, as counter-intervention, a response to covert military moves by the North Vietnamese regime.” (Walzer, 98) The important terms here are legitimate and response. The word legitimate implies that the government the U.S. aided had a local status, a political presence independent of the U.S., and thus could feasibly win the civil war if no external force was brought to bear. The word Response suggests that the U.S. military actions were imposed to balance the aid of another power. (Walzer, 98) Both of these statements are false.

The Geneva Agreement of 1954 created a division along the 17th parallel between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Furthermore, the agreement also scheduled elections for 1956. When the South Vietnam government refused to sanction the elections it lost whatever legitimacy was conferred by the agreements. (Walzer, 98) However, this is not the main reason the South Vietnam government represented an illegitimate regime. The legitimacy of a government depends on its support from the people. War theorist Michael Walzer states, “The test, for governments as insurgents, is self-help. That doesn’t mean that foreign states cannot provide assistance. One assumes the legitimacy of new regimes; there is, so to speak, a period of grace, a time to build support. But that time was ill-used in South Vietnam, and the continuing dependence of the new regime on the U.S. is damning evidence against it.” (Walzer, 98)

A government that cannot rule its people effectively, despite substantial economic and military aid from foreign states, clearly is not a legitimate government. Without the support of foreign states, this type of government surely would not be able to subsist on its own. Thus, as the situation in Vietnam worsened, American aid steadily increased. This fact damns the American defense of counter-intervention for counter-intervention is only permitted on the behalf of a legitimate government. Furthermore, the goal of counter-intervention is not to win the war. Rather, counter-intervention aims to restore the balance of power to a civil war that was disturbed by the introduction of a foreign state. In the case of the Vietnam War, America did not attempt to restore any balance of power. Quite the opposite, America became an open belligerent in the war. In view of this evidence, the American defense of going to war in Vietnam with the motive of counter-intervention clearly does not hold.

Ultimately, the actions of the United States in the Vietnam War were unjust according to the Just War Theory. America failed to meet the requirements of both jus ad bellum, justice of war, and jus in bello, justice in war. The U.S. did not have just cause for entering the Vietnam War. Vietnam had shown no aggression towards the United States. Furthermore, the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War does not meet the requirements for a preemptive strike or a just intervention. Moreover, the U.S. also did not conduct itself wholly in accordance to the doctrine of jus in bello. The casualties of civilians and war atrocities such as the My Lai Massacre clearly violated proper conduct in war. Such events coupled with the American officials’ political reasons for going to war have resulted in the most misunderstood war in the history of the United States. Even today, after number studies and declassification of military documents, Americans do not understand why American soldiers died in Vietnam in an unjust war. Hopefully, the U.S. government has learned from the conflict in Vietnam and will, in the future, endanger the lives of American men only for a just cause.

Works Cited

Elliott, David. The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta.

Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2003.
Fishel, R. Wesley. Vietnam: Anatomy of a Conflict.

Itasca: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Guenter, Lewy. America in Vietnam.

New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Herring, C. George. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam.

New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979.

Herring, C. George. The Pentagon Papers: the Defense Department History of United

States Decision Making on Vietnam. Boston: John Wiley & Sons, 1971.
Morgenthau, J. Hans. America’s Stake in Vietnam.

New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Pike, Douglas. Viet Cong: The Organization and Techniques of the National Liberation

Front of South Vietnam. Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1966.
Podhoretz, Norman. Why We Were in Vietnam.

New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Sullivan, P. Michael. The Vietnam War: A Study in the Making of American Policy.

Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1985.

Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars.

New York: Basic Books, 1977.

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