“If Vietnam goes, Cambodia goes, Thailand goes, Malaysia goes, Indonesia goes, the Philippines go …” – Sen. Gale McGee
This week (June 9) in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson announced that the first U.S. combat troops were being sent to Vietnam.
For years, American civil servants, engineers and technical and military experts had been there in an “advisory capacity,” but this crossed a new threshold.
And, of all the reasons given for sending troops there, the most often cited was the most incorrect: That if Vietnam fell to the Communists, there would be a “domino effect,” as President Eisenhower originally put it (he later changed his mind and kept American troops out of Vietnam) in which, like dominoes falling one-by-one, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow.
Yet, if that was true one would expect the other Southeast Asian countries to support America’s involvement in Vietnam to keep the Communists at bay. In reality, countries such as Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines dreaded America’s involvement.
First, none of them thought the United States and South Vietnam could win the war. South Vietnam’s ever-
changing government had little to no support among its citizens. The South Vietnamese army was becoming increasingly ineffective and corrupt, and suffered growing desertion rates.
That being the case, these countries thought, why antagonize the North Vietnamese, the almost certain victors of the war, and why antagonize North Vietnam’s two powerful patrons, China and the Soviet Union?
Also, the likelihood of a Southeast Asian nation going Communist had much less to do with neighboring countries going Communist and more to do with factors indigenous to every nation — the strength of its government, the confidence of the people in that government, their morale, the vitality of the economy and so on.
To that end, as it is around the world and throughout history, nationalism, not Communism, was the predominant “ism” in Southeast Asia. So to the extent that Southeast Asian nations did go Communist — and many of them had quasi-Communist governments and powerful Communist parties — it was self-imposed (North Vietnam being the perfect example) and largely for indigenous, nationalistic reasons.
Meaning America’s fears that Southeast Asia would become part of an “international Communist movement” led by China and the Soviet Union were greatly exaggerated because the Soviets and Chinese were also guided more by indigenous, nationalistic interests than by their shared Communism.
So, Communist ideology aside, for selfish, nationalistic reasons, sole hegemony over Southeast Asia by one of them would have been strenuously opposed by the other, and a hegemonic partnership was highly unlikely.
In sum, America’s main rationale for being in Vietnam was a fallacy, and more than 58,000 Americans died because of it.