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The quagmire theory explains the cause of the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. The quagmire theory suggests that American leaders had unintentionally and mistakenly led the country into the Vietnam War. The theory is categorized as an "orthodox" interpretation of the Vietnam War.[1]


The quagmire theory comes from David Halberstam’s account of the U.S. military policy in Vietnam, The Making of a Quagmire.[2] Halberstam, a New York Times reporter who was stationed in Vietnam during the war, worked closely with a secret North Vietnamese agent, Phạm Xuân Ẩn. Halberstam left Vietnam in 1964 and won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting that year. The journalists covering the war in Vietnam were crucial because the only other reporting the American people got was from the government. Halberstam and the other reporters who spent time in Vietnam during the war saw things with their own eyes and were able to recount these events to the American people, changing the view of the war for some.

The theory was more deeply developed by Arthur Schlesinger in his book The Bitter Heritage.[3] Schlesinger, a U.S. historian who served a special assistant and court historian to President John F. Kennedy. According to the quagmire theory as described by Schlesinger, the quagmire metaphor represented the one-step-at-a-time process that the U.S. inadvertently became entrapped in the military and diplomatic swamp of Vietnam. Schlesinger detailed the process of American involvement in a war that was not really in the American interest and as a result of inadvertent decision making and false hope.

In retrospect, Vietnam is a triumph of the politics of inadvertence. We have achieved our present entanglement, not after due and deliberate consideration, but through a series of small decisions. It is not only idle, but unfair to seek out guilty men. Each step in the deepening of American commitment was reasonably regarded at the time as the last that would be necessary. Yet, in retrospect, each step led only to the next, until we find ourselves entrapped today in that nightmare of American strategists, a land war in Asia--a war which no president . . . desired or intended.[4]

Schlesinger believed the war to be a "tragedy without villains" and identified nationalism rather than communism as the most influential factor driving US involvement in Vietnam.[5] The U.S. estimation of the economic and security risks that Vietnam could cause was exaggerated.[6] The incorrect assessment of the situation in Vietnam led the U.S. leadership into a series of bad decisions that resulted in the Vietnam War, according to the quagmire theory.

Vietnam and U.S. History[edit]

The Vietnam saga started with the colonization of the country by the French in 1887.  In 1941, Japan tried to expand their empire by invading Vietnam. The Vietminh, a communist guerilla group, formed in order to successfully drive off the Japanese. After World War II, Harry S. Truman, instituted the foreign policy of containment. First presented in 1946, the goal was to try to contain communism and keep it from spreading around the world.[7] In the same year, the First Indochina war commences.  This war between the Vietminh and the French, concluded with the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, a decisive victory by the Vietminh. From the First Indochina War, two states emerged, the Communist ruled north and the south, split by the 17th parallel-agreed upon at the Geneva Convention in 1954.  Soon after, in 1955, war breaks out between the north and south. The domino theory was a well-accepted theory during this time period, introduced by Dwight D. Eisenhower, states that if one country falls to communism, then the rest of southeast Asia will fall to communism.[8]

The U.S involvement did not come without warning. Charles de Gaulle, the French president, and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier, warned John F. Kennedy that Vietnam was a “bottomless and political swamp”.[9] In 1963, with the approval of the CIA, South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem is overthrown and killed. This sparks a tumultuous period in south Vietnamese politics with many leaders taking over and then quickly losing power. This allows the north to establish strong ideological strongholds in the south.  

In October 1963, President Kennedy asked the publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, to remove Halberstam from Vietnam.[10] The White House also suggested that reporters take short trips to Saigon instead of long trips where they could develop their own sources and not rely on government sources for information. Citing the need for secrecy, some things must be kept secret to protect vital information that could benefit enemies. However, this suggestion did not have the desired effect, putting more of a spotlight on the issue. The U.S. were accused by reporters in Vietnam of trying to fight too many battles at one time. Were they fighting the Vietcong, communism and or North Vietnamese all at once? All while trying to advise and train the South Vietnamese troops and failing to bring them substantial victories on the battlefield.

In 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin incident sparks the beginning of major U.S involvement.[11] While off the coast of North Vietnam, the U.S.S Maddox got into a gunfight with three North Vietnamese boats. The U.S.S Maddox is reported to have fired warning shots at the boats telling them to stay away. The boats then attacked the Maddox, opening up with machine gun fire and sending torpedoes. The Maddox retaliated, hitting all three boats. From this incident comes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, allowing the U.S. to assist southeast Asian countries fearful of communist aggression. By the next year, U.S troop involvement increased to 200,000. By 1969, the troop level increased up to its height, 549,000.

In 1973 the Paris Peace Accords are agreed to, officially ending U.S involvement in Vietnam. The final troops leave Vietnam in 1973.


  1. ^ McMahon, Robert J. "Changing Interpretations of the Vietnam War" The University of Illinois. Retrieved on 20 April 2014.
  2. ^ Halberstam,David (1965). "The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era". Rowman and Littlefield, 2008. ISBN 0742560082.
  3. ^ Schlesinger, Arthur (1966). "The Bitter Heritage". Houghton Mifflin Co. ISBN 0395081564.
  4. ^ Schlesinger, Arthur (1966). "The Bitter Heritage". Houghton Mifflin Co. ISBN 0395081564. Pg. 37.
  5. ^ Wilson, Mary (1995). "Incomplete and Profoundly Confused: A Bibliographic Essay on the Vietnam War". Vanguard University, 1995.
  6. ^ Record, Jeffrey. "The Wrong War. Why We Lost in Vietnam". 
  7. ^ "Containment foreign policy". 
  8. ^ Tanenhaus, Sam (22 March 2003). "The World: From Vietnam to Iraq; The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Domino Theory". New York Times. 
  9. ^ Simkin, John. "John F. Kennedy". Spartacus Educational. 
  10. ^ Sullivan, George (2007). Journalists at Risk: Reporting America's Wars. Twenty-First Century Books. ISBN 0761327452. 
  11. ^ Greenspan, Jesse (1 August 2014). "The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 50 Years Ago". 


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