The Vietnam War wasn’t merely a conflict— it was an era. Despite how controversial American involvement in the Vietnam War became during the mid-20th century, President Lyndon B. Johnson attempted to assure the public that U.S. intervention was a necessary measure. When he first inserted U.S. troops into the war in 1965, the Vietnam War suddenly became the phenomena that the United States’ politics revolved around for years. However, some historians argue that American involvement in Vietnam could’ve ended far sooner than it did…or been avoided in the first place.

The beginning of America’s involvement

To understand the interpreted errors of leaders during Vietnam, it’s important to know this: Why did the United States send troops into Vietnam at the beginning? It was sparked by a shared theory of paranoia passed down throughout previous decades: the Domino Theory. Introduced during the Red Scare and exacerbated during WWII and Hitler’s era, the Domino Theory promoted the concept that if one location fell to the political influence of one country, others would certainly follow suit. In the book Historians and the Vietnam War, Historian George W. Hopkins highlighted the thinking errors of U.S. politicians at the time, stating, “Thus, fear of severe conservative criticism at home as well as opposition to the spread of communism abroad gave JFK and LBJ little political room to maneuver.” Frightened by the spread of communism, the U.S. found itself tied up in conflicts infringing on the democracies worldwide, and Vietnam happened to be the perfect target to troubleshoot.

The pre-American involvement Vietnam War began in the 1950s, following two, significant events: the Soviet Union’s first atom bomb explosion and the fall of China to communism. These scenarios rattled the political figures representing America to their core, as they were already in a deeply paranoia-fueled cold war with Russia. Unfortunately, U.S. leaders’ concerns came to a peak when both the Soviet Union and China began to support communists in Vietnam, resulting in a bitter, 15-year-long period of a communistic uprising in North Vietnam and a struggle to maintain democracy and freedom in South Vietnam.

The U.S. soon found their own soldiers tied up in the military conflict, with a handful of American deaths occurring in war-afflicted areas. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and Johnson became president, he passed what would become a gateway into the war: the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This gave the president the power to use armed force to defend against military aggressors. This seems reasonable, right? However, as Johnson plunged the U.S. into a foreign conflict, he began to receive extreme criticism…and some believed that his efforts were doomed from the start.

The outpour of criticism

All at once, the U.S. went from discussing the Domino Theory to sending thousands of U.S. men into battle against a country that many Americans knew nothing about. After the Viet Cong attacked U.S. bases in war-torn areas, Johnson ordered a three-year series of bombings on North Vietnam…leading to the introduction of tens of thousands of armed troops into the Vietnam War from 1965 onward. Although U.S. troops fought with noble intentions for the South Vietnamese people, an insurmountable number of American lives were lost. The outrage across America was potent. Between peaceful protests, violent displays of disapproval, and outroar from the American public, citizens spent months urging for Johnson (and eventually Nixon) to withdraw their men’s involvement in the brutal foreign affairs. Even though Nixon, who entered office in 1969, eventually introduced Vietnamization, which slowly withdrew troops from combat, he also eagerly pushed for the war at the beginning of his presidency.

The Office of the Historian said that Nixon’s original offensive military actions were “a signal of his willingness to further escalate the war.” Nixon reintroduced the draft for the first time since the second world-war, terrifying men across the nation who were watching their fellow man die overseas in battle. Still, despite the casualties and outrage, troops remained in Vietnam for years, ultimately losing the larger war. So, why did the two presidents keep their troops across the pond for as long as they did? Could they have brought the American men home sooner? And did the initial American intervention make the scenario worse than it already was?

The debate of an era

While these questions are up for debate, historians and political figures have certainly voiced their thoughts on the progress made by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. There are some who believe that seeing the war all the way through was necessary, even in light of the high U.S. casualties. However, many historians believe that both Johnson and Nixon could’ve brought an end to U.S. involvement in the war far sooner than they did, or perhaps have avoided conflict altogether. Critical essayist Louis Menand told the New Yorker, “Political and military leaders misunderstood the enemy’s motives; they misread conditions on the ground; they tried to beat unconventional fighters with conventional tactics; they massacred civilians. They pursued strategies that seemed designed to produce neither a victory nor a settlement, only what Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers but once a passionate supporter of American intervention, called “the stalemate machine.”

In “the stalemate machine,” was U.S./South Korean victory a reality? Some historians believe not. George W. Hopkins expressed the opinion that America’s involvement was doomed from the start, sharing, “Radical scholars argue that Vietnam was the American Empire’s first major defeat. Moreover, this defeat was inevitable because America’s overreaching efforts at global economic and political hegemony were bound to meet disaster somewhere—and Vietnam was the place.” This bold statement asserts that America’s involvement was reckless from the start.

However, even for those that acknowledge the importance of American intervention, some believe that the seeming need for the U.S. to maintain it’s political pride and national honor may have kept troops oversea for longer the necessary. Of Nixon, the Office of the Historian said, “He knew that ending this war honorably was essential to his success in the presidency.” This not-so-subtle statement suggests that the former president may have had politics at the forefront of his mind, concerning himself with American honor more than a brisk end to a conflict which America helped elongate.

This begs the question: Should the U.S. have gotten involved in the war in the first place? That may be the biggest debate of all. A handful of historians and veterans alike have voiced their opinion that the U.S. intervention was too heavily dependant on hypotheticals fueled by the Domino Theory. Additionally, some have noted that South Vietnam, which had a weaker political culture than the North, was bound to fall to the North at the end of the conflict, with or without U.S. intervention.

Although U.S. soldiers may have saved countless lived in South Vietnam, the prolonged conflict that resulted from American troops pushing back against the Viet Cong also elongated the time frame for war-related casualties. However, it’s difficult to argue that any specific historian is right or wrong, especially after the war has been so long concluded. American foreign relations expert Gaddis Smith said it best: “There is no way of proving a might-have-been. Independence for Vietnam in 1945 might still have led to local conflict within Southeast Asia, but it would have prevented the wounds that the United States inflicted on itself by going to war in Vietnam.”