Clockwise, from top left: U.S. combat operations in Ia Drang, ARVN Rangers defending Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive, two A-4C Skyhawks after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, ARVN recapture Quảng Trị during the 1972 Easter Offensive, civilians fleeing the 1972 Battle of Quảng Trị, and burial of 300 victims of the 1968 Huế Massacre. Source: Wikipedia at https://tinyurl.com/y984pbqc.
This module was developed and utilized in an introductory technical college U.S. history course but can be utilized in standard or honors-level high school history courses. It is the second module of a two-part series with the same title and can be used separately or in conjunction with all or a portion of Understanding the Complexities of War in American History: Select Case Studies, Part 1.
Estimated module length: Approximately three hours (excluding homework/ enrichment/supplemental activities)
Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants the legislative branch the expressed power to declare war. Over the last 75 years, since the congressional declaration of war against Japan propelled the United States into World War II (although presidents in their capacity as commander and chief of the U.S. military informed Congress of their decisions to use military force and, at times, sought and obtained congressional approval for use of military force), the original constitutional process has not been followed. The U.S. has not formally declared war against an adversary since World War II, specifically June 4, 1942, against the Axis powers of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Three post-Korean War case studies that relate to U.S. initiation of military force—the Vietnam War, the 1973 War Powers Congressional Resolution, and the 1991 First Gulf War—are included in the module. The purpose of the module is not to influence students to either favor or oppose strict adherence to Article 1, Section 8 but to give them the basic knowledge to think more reflectively about both changes in the processes American presidents and Congress employ to use military force, as well as gain a better sense of the politics, diplomacy, and military considerations that have been prominent in more recent U.S. armed conflicts.
Understand the Cold War Domino Theory and its relationship to the origins of the American war with Vietnam.
Understand the Tonkin Gulf Incident and subsequent congressional decisions to allow increased presidential power to use force.
Learn the context that led to President George H. W. Bush’s successful request to Congress for the use of force against Iraq in the 1991 first Gulf War.
Analyze the War Powers Act of 1973. Understand the rationale behind the act, the unintended consequences of the legislation, and that debates still occur in Congress today about the legislation’s ramifications for the U.S.
Discuss and debate the costs and benefits associated with increased executive power to commit U.S. troops to combat without seeking a formal declaration of war from Congress.
Systematically study the interrelationships between diplomacy, armed conflicts, and utilization of the military.
Basic understanding of historical documents that influenced the development of the present Constitution is assumed, since this content is taught earlier in U.S. history courses. If students are not specifically familiar with Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, they should be assigned the introduction in Understanding the Complexities of War in American History, Part 1. Those instructors who are teaching post-World War II U.S. history might consider using sections three (Key Cold War Policies) and four (The Korean Conflict) either in class or for homework so that students might have a more comprehensive understanding of historical events relating to use of military force in the years after 1945.
Module Introduction: Who Has the Power to Declare War? (estimated time fifteen minutes)
If resources and activities from the first Complexities of War module are not utilized, provide students with a didactic, concise introduction that includes relevant constitutional statutes on the declaration of war.
Have students answer the following questions orally or in writing:
How does the congressional power to declare war work with or against the presidential responsibility as commander in chief?
(If applicable at this point, ask) Did the United States officially declare war against North Vietnam?
Have students share their answers and conjectures regarding the final listed questions.
Instructors should make students aware that Article 1, Section 8 has not been the process for American use of military force since 1945.
In order to provide context for the remainder of the content in this module, instructors should make sure students understand that Article 2 (or II), Section 2 of the Constitution designates the president as the commander in chief of the nation’s military).
Section One: Context for U.S. in Vietnam: Domino Theory (estimated time twenty minutes)
Introduce the Domino Theory to students by informing them that although there is some dispute over who first used the term “Domino Theory,” President Dwight Eisenhower used a variant of the term in a famous 1954 news conference in reference to the international advancement of Communism:
“Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences" (Eisenhower, 1954, p. 23).
Have students view the following four-minute, fifty-second basic introductory video clip, A Brief History of the Domino Theory, which explains the concept of the Domino Theory through exposition of the theory and illustrative summaries of how adherence to the theory among policymakers is an important explanation of U.S. policy actions in the Cold War, including Vietnam: http://youtu.be/zUn39VzSBms
Immediately after they view the short video, have students in two to three sentences define Domino Theory and indicate how they think the concept influenced U.S. strategy in the Cold War in general and Vietnam in particular.
This introductory question provides instructors with the chance to clarify basic student understanding of the concept and the two historical events.
The U.S. in Vietnam (estimated time thirty minutes)
What follows are options for introducing students to the war and, more specifically the run-up to the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—when Congress granted President Lyndon Johnson administration permission to use substantial additional force (the American military was already providing assistance to the South Vietnamese government) in not only Vietnam but Southeast Asia to prevent Communist aggression.
Instructors can assign the following 2014 lecture as homework: National Security Strategy: The Vietnam War 1954–1975, by University of California–San Diego Professor Branislev Slantchev, The reading focuses on the U.S. in Vietnam, has the narrative power of a published article, and is a comprehensive overview complete with color maps and a timeline: https://pages.ucsd.edu/~bslantchev/courses/nss/lectures/vietnam-war.pdf.
Some highlights from the Slantchev reading, organized chronologically, include:
The 1954 Geneva Accords formulated by nine nations and polities, after Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh had defeated the French who in the late 19th century colonized the territory that is now Vietnam. The Geneva conferees that included France, the U.S. The USSR, and two separate Vietnamese governments (one Communist, and the territory containing the remaining French forces) divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel. With the division of the country, Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Government, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam controlled North Vietnam and Emperor Bao Dai declared the southern portion of the country as the State of Vietnam. The 17th parallel division stipulated by the Geneva Conference was only meant as a temporary measure as national elections were to be held in 1956.
The U.S. and South Vietnam ignored 1954 agreements (no nations signed the Final Declaration-Encyclopedia Britannica) and the U.S Government worked to support a non-Communist government in South Vietnam through installing the Catholic anti-Communist Ngo Dinh Diem in the South. Diem took control of what was to become the Republic of Vietnam in a referendum vote in 1955.
Late in 1955, President Eisenhower deployed the Military Assistance Advisory Group to train South Vietnamese soldiers. U.S. involvement continued through the Eisenhower administration with Diem asking for increased U.S. support to fight Communist forces in the Republic of Vietnam.
In May 1961 President Kennedy sent 400 Special Forces to Vietnam to increase special operations training of South Vietnamese soldiers. In October 1962 the U.S. begins defoliation efforts (Operation Ranch Hand using Agent Orange) to deprive communist guerrilla fighters (Viet Cong) both food and cover.
Diem's harsh style of governing and favoritism of Catholic to Buddhist Vietnamese, along with the growth of political opposition to his regime undermined U.S. support. The Kennedy administration, aware of a potential coup, did not inform Diem. In November 1963, a military coup ousted Diem, who was assassinated. Just prior to his own death three weeks later, Kennedy increased U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam to 16,000. In the ensuing power struggles following the coup, Nguyen Van Thieu became president of South Vietnam in 1965.
The decisions to support various South Vietnamese leaders and increase U.S. troop strength were based on overall U.S. policy in the region. Slantchev describes early U.S. policy and rationale in Vietnam (p.7):
"Vietnam had become vital to US interests. Support of the South Vietnamese government was meant to defend against Communist expansion and reflected the concept of the domino theory."
American foreign policy analysts believed that the USSR was chastened by the Cuban crisis and thus would not directly intervene in Vietnam. China was believed to have withdrawn from the border with India due to the arrival of a US carrier force and American experts incorrectly concluded that China backed down because of the US threat/show of force.
“These conclusions dragged the US further into the Vietnamese conflict.” (Slantchev p. 7).
Discussion question: In what ways does the convergence of the Cold War, the Domino Theory, and the precedent of undeclared, presidential war in Korea affect U.S. involvement in Vietnam?
Define “Vital National Interest” (estimated time ten minutes)
Review the concept of "vital national interest" with students.
National interest is defined as a “nation's perceived needs and aspirations in relation to its international environment. U.S. national interests determine our involvement in the rest of the world” (Yarger & Barber, 1997, p. 1).
Vital interest is defined as something that “if unfulfilled, will have immediate consequence for critical national interests” (Yarger & Barber, 1997, p. 2).
Have students discuss the meaning of vital national interest—what might be considered a vital national interest and how they understand/interpret the term. Put key points on board.
Ask students if they believe U.S. vital national interest was at stake in World War II and provide position rationales.
Ask students if they believe U.S. vital national interest was at stake in Vietnam. Summarize student answers before moving to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Instructors might want to ask the same question about Afghanistan if time permits.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident (estimated time twenty-five minutes)