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Difference Between Cold War and Vietnam War

Difference Between Cold War and Vietnam War

The aftermath of World War II was marked by global tensions and complex diplomatic relations among major powers, notably between the United States and the Soviet Union.

During WWII, U.S. and Russia had fought alongside against the Axis powers; yet, the relationship between the two countries was tense. The United States was alarmed by the strengthening of the Soviet Communist Party, while the USSR resented the American refusal to consider the Soviet Union as legitimate member of the international community. Moreover, the U.S. delay in entering WWII had provoked thousands of (avoidable) Russian casualties.

Mounting tensions between the two superpowers led to the outburst of two among the most famous and debated conflicts:

Both wars unfolded during the second half of the 20th century, but, despite the common background, they could not be more different.

Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was a long and dramatically costly conflict that saw the opposition of the communist regime of North Vietnam – backed by its southern allies, the Viet Cong – and South Vietnam – backed by the United States. From 1954 to 1975, the bloody war caused a political, economic and social turmoil in the country: in Vietnam, more than 3 million people lost their lives (half were Vietnamese civilians).


During WWII, Vietnam – which had been under French rule since late 19th century – was occupied by Japan. In response to the invasion, and inspired by Soviet Communism, Ho Chi Min created and organized the “League for the Independence of Vietnam” (or Viet Minh), which opposed both Japan and France, and declared a Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the North, with capital in Hanoi. The Japanese forces withdrew in 1945, but Emperor Bao Dai took control of the Southern part of the country, and the state of Vietnam, with capital in Saigon, was established in 1949. In 1955, the anti-communist candidate Ngo Dinh Diem replaced Bao, and became president of the Government of the Republic of Vietnam (GVN).

Despite diplomatic attempts, the country was not reunified, and the Geneva talks officially divided Vietnam along the 17th parallel.

U.S. Intervention[1]

With the tension between the Western and the Eastern blocks intensifying, the American involvement in South East Asia grew.

  1. President Dweight D. Eisenhower: strongly supporting the anti-communist policies, President Eisenhower pledged support to South Vietnam, and provided training and equipment to Diem’s forces;
  2. President John F. Kennedy: the 35th President of the United States feared a domino effect among Asian countries. According to the “domino theory”, communism could have easily spread among Southeast Asian countries – thus triggering a dangerous propagation of anti-Western ideals. By the beginning of the 1960s, the U.S had deployed over 9000 troops in Vietnam;
  3. President Lyndon B. Johnson: with the “Operation Rolling Thunder”, the U.S. initiated regular bombing raids, and by mid-1966, 82,000 American troops were present in Vietnam. President Johnson – backed by large popular support – authorized the deployment of other 100,000 troops in July 1965, and 100,000 in 1996. Following the massive deployment, violence and brutality escalated quickly:
  • South Vietnam turned into a bloody battlefield, and large portions of territory were designed as “free-fire zones”;
  • Civilians were strained by land and aerial attacks;
  • Civilian-inhabited areas were not adequately and timely evacuated;
  • By the end of 1967, the U.S. had deployed around 500,000 troops in Vietnam: 15,000 American soldiers had been killed and 109,000 wounded;
  • Americans – horrified by the images of the war and by the growing number of casualties – began to protest, and demanded immediate withdrawal; and
  • In response to the protests, President Johnson halted aerial bombings on North Vietnam, and promised to engage in peaceful talks with his counterparts;
  1. President Richard Nixon: despite the growing protests, President Nixon continued the American campaign in Vietnam. He reduced the number of troops deployed on the ground, but intensified aerial raids against the North – including the widely condemned “Christmas bombings” in 1972. The increasing number of protests and the frustration of American soldiers led to the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops in 1973.

The Vietnam War ended in 1975, as the communist forces seized control of Saigon – the Southern capital. The country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976.


The Vietnam War is remembered as one of the deadliest conflicts of the last decades, and has casted serious doubts over the invincibility (and over the morals) of the United States.

  • 2 million Vietnamese died (mostly civilians);
  • 3 million Vietnamese were wounded;
  • 12 million Vietnamese became refugees;
  • In Vietnam, infrastructures were completely destroyed, and the economic development of the country suffered a major setback;
  • Spillover effects of the conflict lasted over 15 years after 1975;
  • The U.S. spent over $120 billion on the conflict;
  • 58,200 American soldiers were killed and/or missing during the war;
  • Veterans suffered from grave Post Traumatic Stress disorders; and
  • The American population was sharply divided after the war.

Cold War

After the end of World War II, worried about the possible expansion of the Soviet Union and of the communist ideology, U.S. President Henry Truman announced that America was determined to contain Russian expansionism. The so-called “containment policy” was justified by the desire of supporting “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation…by outside pressure”[3].

The Cold War was fought in two main arenas:

  • The field of nuclear armament; and
  • The space

The Nuclear Race

World War II ended after the two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing a humanitarian catastrophe. However, despite the detrimental impact of atomic weapons on human lives and environment, American officers encouraged the development of arms of mass destruction, and President Truman authorized the realization of the “Hydrogen bomb” (or “Superbomb”). In 1949, the Soviet Union tested another atom bomb, and the “arms race” skyrocketed, causing fear and uncertainty among the populations.

The Space

The launch of Soviet R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile Sputnik did not please the Americans. The U.S. replied with the launch of satellite Explorer I, and President Eisenhower ordered the creation of a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In April 1961, the Soviets sent the first man into space, and the Americans replicated one month later. The “space race” was definitely won by the U.S. when, in 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

At home and abroad

During the 20th century, communism continued to spread all over the world, including within the United States where the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) fostered the emergence of communist subversive movements.

Even if the two superpowers never clashed directly, they backed opposing sides in several international conflicts. For instance, the Soviet Union supported North Korea during the invasion of the Pro-Western South. Clearly, the U.S. assisted the South. Similarly, during the Vietnam War, the United States supported South Vietnam – led by the nationalist Diem – while the Soviet Union backed the communist North – headed by Ho Chi Min.

End of the Cold War

U.S. President Richard Nixon engaged in diplomatic efforts in order to achieve peaceful settlements with the Soviet counterpart and to soothe tensions. He encouraged the international community to recognize the Chinese and the Soviet governments. He also travelled to Beijing, and promoted a policy of “relaxation” toward Russia. However, his successor, President Reagan, refueled the cold conflict and provided extensive financial, military and operational support to anti-communist governments and insurgent groups all over the world. By 1989, most Eastern European countries had non-communist governments, and, in 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated under economic and political pressure – thus definitely ending the Cold War.


The Cold War and the Vietnam War, indeed, occurred in the same historic moment, and have a common background. Namely, we could argue that the Vietnam War is a product of the tense climate caused by the Cold War, which was characterized by:

  • Opposition between East and West;
  • Opposition between communism and democratic values;
  • American campaigns against the spread of communism; and
  • Desire of the U.S. and the Soviet Union to show their supremacy at a global level.

However, while the Cold War – considered in its broad sense – rarely provoked casualties (civilians or military), the Vietnam War resulted in a dramatic bloodshed and caused a grave political, social, and economic turmoil in South East Asia. Moreover, while the United States is generally considered the overall winner of the Cold War, it is undeniable that the Vietnam War was one of the U.S. worst defeats.

The end of World War II brought countries together, and led to the creation of the United Nations. However, it failed to solve the main fracture between East and West, and the cold tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had grave repercussions. In fact, their fight for supremacy affected the whole world, and Vietnam happened to be one of the worst and deadliest manifestations of such race to the top.

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References :

[0][1] Vietnam War, HistoryNet, available at http://www.historynet.com/vietnam-war

[1][2] Vietnam War History, History, http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-history

[2][3] Cold War History, History, http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cold-war-history


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