The Vietnam War, the nation's longest, cost fifty-eight thousand American lives. Only the Civil War and the two world wars were deadlier for Americans. During the decade of direct U.S. military participation in Vietnam beginning in 1964, the U.S Treasury spent over $140 billion on the war, enough money to fund urban renewal projects in every major American city. Despite these enormous costs and their accompanying public and private trauma for the American people, the United States failed, for the first time in its history, to achieve its stated war aims. The goal was to preserve a separate, independent, noncommunist government in South Vietnam, but after April 1975, the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) ruled the entire nation.
The initial reasons for U.S. involvement in Vietnam seemed logical and compelling to American leaders. Following its success in World War II, the United States faced the future with a sense of moral rectitude and material confidence.
From Washington's perspective, the principal threat to U.S. security and world peace was monolithic, dictatorial communism emanating from he Soviet Union. Any communist anywhere, at home or abroad, was, by definition, and enemy of the United States. Drawing an analogy with the unsuccessful appeasement of fascist dictators before World War II, the Truman administration believed that any sign of communist aggression must be met quickly and forcefully by the United States and its allies. This reactive policy was known as containment.
In Vietnam the target of containment was Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh front he had created in 1941. Ho and his chief lieutenants were communists with long-standing connections to the Soviet Union. They were also ardent Vietnamese nationalists who fought first to rid their country of the Japanese and then, after 1945, to prevent France from reestablishing its former colonial mastery over...