End of Colonialism

The end of WWII brought about the end of a century at least of exploitation and domination of colonies for the benefit of Empire. Western Europe really began to look at things. England and others are not sure what to do with the Jewish population dislocated by the Germans. They carve out Israel to house them. Even before the end of the war, there were signs that things were changing and imperialism, at least blatant imperialism, was nearing its end. The first piece of evidence to this effect would be the Atlantic Charter. This agreement signed between the US and England in August 1941 spelled the end of imperialism. Below is a brief summary of the agreement.

The Atlantic Charter, August 14, 1941

In brief, the eight points were:

1. no territorial gains sought by the United States or the United Kingdom;

2. territorial adjustments must be in accord with wishes of the people;

3. the right to self-determination of peoples;

4. trade barriers lowered;

5. global economic cooperation and advancement of social welfare;

6. freedom from want and fear;

7. freedom of the seas;

8. disarmament of aggressor nations, postwar common disarmament

All through Southeast Asia, countries are pulling out. The US pulled out of the Philippines in 1946, the same year the British pulled out of Malaya. The Federation of Malaya was a federation of 11 states formed in 1948 from the nine Malay states and the British settlements of Penang and Malacca. Independent India, formed on August 15, 1947. Indonesia’s war for independence lasted from 1945 until 27 December 1949 when, under heavy international pressure, especially from the United States, which threatened to cut off Marshall Plan funds, the Netherlands acknowledged the independence of Indonesia as a Federation of autonomous states. The French didn’t want to let go. In all, as these countries became independent, they would need to create new governments and new economic systems. All of which occurred during the Cold War.

Vichy French (French collaborators with Germany) had helped the Japanese during World War II, but then the Japanese turned on them. Vietnam was under effective Imperial Japanese control, as well as de facto Japanese administrative control, although the Vichy French continued to serve as the official administrators until 1944. In that year, the Japanese overthrew the French and humiliated the colonial officials of the state in front of the Vietnamese population. The Japanese then began to encourage nationalist activity among the Vietnamese. Late in the war, Japan granted Vietnam nominal independence. After the Japanese surrender, Vietnamese nationalists expect to take control of the country and organize a socialist dictatorship. The Japanese army in Indochina attempted to assist the Viet Minh in their goal by keeping French soldiers imprisoned and handing over public buildings to Vietnamese nationalist groups. After the war, the victorious countries faced the task of getting Japanese soldiers back to Japan. The Chinese were in charge of this in the North and the British in the South. The British let the French move back in from the South. For the US, this caused a major problem. The French wanted to reestablish their colony. The US still held that colonialism was bad, even while holding the Philippines. Now after the Atlantic Charter had been signed, they had to decide to support an independent but communist Vietnam or support French colonialism. They supported the French.

On September 2, 1945, Hồ Chí Minh spoke at a ceremony heralding an independent Vietnam. In his speech he cited the US Declaration of Independence and a band played “The Star Spangled Banner.” Ho had hoped that the United States would be an ally of a Vietnamese socialist independence movement based on speeches by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt against the continuation of European imperialism after World War II. However, the death of Roosevelt, the development of the Cold War, and Ho’s authoritarian Communist beliefs led to U.S. support being given to the French.

In the meantime, a government was created in the south. Indochina was granted independence, including Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. However, Vietnam was partitioned at the 17th parallel, above which the former Viet Minh established a Communist state and below which a non-communist state was established under the Emperor Bảo Đại. As dictated in the Geneva Accords of 1954 the division was meant to be temporary pending free elections for national leadership. But such elections were not held as Diem who came to power and who had not signed the Geneva Accords, refused to hold them and did not believe that fair elections could be held in the north. The United States, fearing a Communist takeover of the region, supported Ngô Đình Diệm, who had ousted Bảo ĐạI (he went back to France), as leader of South Vietnam while Hồ Chí Minh became leader of the North. The U.S. supported this move to maintain its Southern ally, also claiming that Ho had no intention of holding free elections. A part of the Vietnamese population were angered that the scheduled elections for the unification of the country never took place. Those from Hanoi began moving supplies and intelligence via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The Brief French Intrusion Back into Vietnam
The Battle of Điện Biên Phủ (Chiến dịch Điện Biên Phủ) was the final battle in the First Indochina War between France and Vietnamese revolutionary forces called the Viet Minh ( short for Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi or the League for the Independence of Vietnam). These forces were part of what is referred to as the People’s Army of Vietnam. The battle occurred between March and May, 1954, and ended in a massive French defeat that effectively ended the war. The result of a series of blunders in the French decision making process was that the French undertook to create an air-supplied base, at Điện Biên Phủ, deep in the hills of Vietnam. Its purpose was to cut off Viet Minh supply lines into Laos. Instead, the Viet Minh, were able to surround and besiege the French, who were ignorant of the Viet Minh’s possession of heavy artillery and their ability to move such weapons to the mountain crests overlooking the French encampment. Tenacious fighting on the ground ensued, including the use of trench warfare by the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh occupied the highlands around Điện Biên Phủ, and were able to fire down accurately onto French positions. The French repeatedly repulsed Viet Minh assaults on their positions, occasionally air-dropping reinforcements in. Ultimately, however, the Viet Minh were able to overrun the base and force the French to surrender. Following the battle, the war ended with the 1954 Geneva accords. The accords partitioned the country in two; however, the interbellum peace that followed was short-lived. Essentially the French had been arguing for money and supplies from the US to fight communism in Vietnam. Now that they sustained such a loss, they had to leave and the task then fell on the US.

US Commitments: Truman to Nixon

1950 – After the outbreak of the Korean War, Truman authorized an expenditure of $15 million and sent 123 non-combat troops to help with supplies to fight against the communist Viet Minh. In 1951 Truman authorized $150 million in French support.


November 1, 1955 – Eisenhower deploys Military Assistance Advisory Group to train the South Vietnam Army. This marks the official beginning American involvement in the war as recognized by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. By April 1956, the last French troops leave Vietnam. In July 8, 1959 Charles Ovnand and Dale R. Buis become the first Americans killed in action in Vietnam according to the Memorial timeline where they are listed 1 and 2.


In 1961 Kennedy sends 400 American Green Beret “Special Advisors” to South Vietnam to train South Vietnamese soldiers following a visit to the country by Lyndon Johnson. June 1961 – Kennedy and Khrushchev meet at Vienna. Kennedy protests North Vietnam’s attacks on Laos and points out that the U.S. was supporting the neutrality of Laos. Both leaders agree to pursue a policy of creating a neutral Laos. October 1961 – Following successful Viet Cong attacks, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recommends sending six divisions (200,000) men to Vietnam, Kennedy sends 16,000 before the end of his Presidency in 1963. August 1, 1962 – Kennedy signs the Foreign Assistance Act of 1962 which provides “…military assistance to countries which are on the rim of the Communist world and under direct attack.” This last statement is interesting given the number of JFK advisors that later argue Kennedy would have spared the US our involvement in Vietnam had he lived.

In May 1963 – Buddhists riot in South Vietnam after a conflict over the display of religious flags during the celebration of Buddha’s birthday. Some Buddhists urge Kennedy to end support of Ngo Dinh Diem who is Catholic. Nov 1 there was a coup against Diem, and on Nov 2 he’s dead. There is evidence the US was aware of the attack and asked if we would support someone other than Diem. We agreed to not realizing the plan was to kill Diem. The death of Diệm made the South much more unstable. The new military rulers were politically inexperienced and unable to provide the strong central authority of Diệm’s rule and a period of coups and countercoups followed. The overthrow of Diem also created a situation where the military leaders were not willing to stand up to the U.S. as Diem had done. It also created rival centers of power within the Vietnamese government that worked at cross-purposes to each other.


Seven different governments rose to power in South Vietnam during 1964, three during the weeks of August 16 to September 3 alone. This was the struggle within the civil war, which itself was not abating. The communists, meanwhile, stepped up their efforts to exploit the vacuum. Johnson appointed William Westmoreland to be in charge of the Army in Vietnam in June 1964 when he succeeded Paul D. Harkins. Troop strength under Westmoreland was to rise from 16,000 in 1964 to more than 500,000 when he left following the Tet Offensive in 1968. The massive escalation of the war from 1964 to 1968 was justified on the basis of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident on August 2-4, 1964 in which the Johnson Administration claimed U.S. ships were attacked by the North Vietnamese. The accuracy of that claim is still hotly debated. Basically there are a couple of dents in the ship that was 8 miles off shore in northern parts of Vietnam. This is significant because the Tonkin Resolution, passed by Congress gave Johnson the approval to get much more heavily involved. By the end of 1965, the US had 184,000 troops there, mostly lower income younger men. In February 1965 the U.S. base at Pleiku was attacked twice, killing over a dozen U.S. military. We began Operation Rolling Thunder that saw 429,000 Troops by August 1966. The large increase of troop numbers enabled Westmoreland to carry out numerous search and destroy operations in accordance with his attrition strategy. The American people were told over and over that we were winning.

Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive occurred on Vietnamese New Year. The Viet Cong (Southern Vietnamese supporters of the Ho Chi Minh), launched the Tet Offensive (named after Tết Nguyên Ðán, the lunar new year festival which is the most important Vietnamese holiday) in South Vietnam attacking nearly every major city in South Vietnam with small groups of well armed soldiers . The goal of the attacks was to take over all important offices of the government in order to paralyze the South Vietnam government and its army and also ignite an uprising among the Vietnamese people. To the contrary, no such uprising occurred and it drove some previously apathetic Vietnamese to fight with the Republic South Vietnam government. Attacks everywhere were shortly repulsed except in Saigon where the fighting lasted for three days and in Huế for a month. In the short term, the offensive did not achieve its goals, but in the long term, it swayed US popular opinion and made people concerned we were not being told the entire truth by our government. One of the major consequences of our involvement in Vietnam was a real erosion of society’s confidence in its leaders.


Nixon ran for president promising to pull the US out of Vietnam. In July 1969 he issued the Nixon Doctrine, saying we’ll send anything but men to fight communism. We gave the South Vietnamese machines and bombed strategic spots in neutral Cambodia. Then we the invaded in April 30, 1970.

People were angry and felt lied to again. College students began protesting even more. At Kent State 4 students died during a protest. Also our involvement in Cambodia aided the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

He did begin to pull men out of Vietnam and by 1972 only 90,000 men left there. After we left in the mid 1970s, south Vietnam was invaded by the north and the country reunified.

The Home Front
Initally men going away are seen as heroes. They were the defenders against communism. However, things began to change as reports started coming back about the death toll, and some of our actions in Vietnam. Especially as more and more go over there. There was a rise in popular opinion against the war. Returning vets after about 1965 receive a serious backlash. They were not treated well when they come home. This had a lasting effect on veterans. Not everyone experienced the same treatment, but it could be really bad depending on where one returned. On top of fighting a gruesome war that sometimes involved women and children, they were released from the military with little to no medical or psychological support.

Our involvement in Vietnam still sparks controversy today. In particular, our actions in My Lai. My Lai was a village that had supported Viet Cong groups. Some of our Marines had been attacked shortly before this. Those that had lost friends and had been fighting in these conditions for months or years, were angry. The commander ordered his men to fire and kill everyone in the village when they went in. As they captured the people of the village, they only found old men, women, and children. They were ordered to kill them all. One man shot himself in the foot to avoid doing this and one pilot intervened to stop the bloodshed, but word spread back to the US about what had happened. A reporter in Vietnam heard the same story from different men in different places and investigated. He then shared the story in the press. Americans were outraged and took their anger out on the returning soldiers. What happened in My Lai may have occurred more than once, but we know that not every soldier participated in such actions.

The last issue regarding Vietnam that also continues into today, is Agent Orange. In order to hunt down the enemy in the jungles, the US dropped Agent Orange, a chemical that kills plant life. Unfortunately we dropped it in areas where we had soldiers fighting. Many men came back with respiratory problems, now today diagnosed as Agent Orange. It has taken years, but the US finally has support for our veterans and treatment options available for them.

Vietnam: Discussion Question
Since our involvement in Vietnam, the US has become involved in areas in the Middle East and potentially now in northern East Asia. Do you think there are any lessons we can learn from our involvement in Vietnam that can help us as a country or a society today? In Vietnam we essentially did not trust the people of Vietnam to choose what we considered the “right” path? Do we still do this as a country today?

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