A proxy war is a conflict instigated by opposing powers who do not fight against each other directly. Instead, they uses third parties to do the fighting for them.
Opposing powers are usually core countries who have conflicting ideologies and interests with each other. However, a direct large-scale war between them would cause enormous damage to all belligerent powers. Therefore, they rather conduct proxy wars in developing countries in order to avoid loss and achieve some certain interests at the same time.
Third-parties can be local governments built or supported by opposing powers or armed forces, mercenaries and terrorist groups who could strike an opponent without leading to full-scale war.
Although the first recorded proxy war happened as early as in 1529, it was not common until the Cold War set off by the ideological and political differences between the two victors of the World War II. During the Cold War, the two nuclear-armed superpowers did not wish to exchange blows directly since that would have led to a devastating nuclear war. Instead, both the U.S. and particularly the Soviet Union sought to spread their own spheres of influence all over the world, leading to many proxy wars such as one in Greek, Korea, Afghanistan and notably Vietnam.
Vietnam War is a typical proxy war during the Cold War under the influence of the U.S., Soviet Union and, to a large extent, China.
American involvement in Vietnam began the same way as most proxy wars do with U.S. President Truman and then Eisenhower sending military and economic aid to the French and South Vietnamese respectively in their wars against the North communists.
More aid and military advisers were poured into South Vietnam under President Kennedy who thought Vietnam was the place to restore U.S. “credibility”. Eventually U.S. troops were dispatched to Vietnam under President Johnson who escalated the war further to North Vietnam with a massive air bombardment. However, the bombing campaign turned out to be ineffective due to some restrictions imposed on the U.S. and its allies as well as the assistance of the Soviet Union and China for North Vietnam.
Although the Soviet Union and China actively supplied North Vietnam with financial aid, military training, materiel and logistics, unlike the United States and their allies, they fought the war through their proxies and did not enter the conflict directly.
For the first time in the Cold War, public opinions had affected proxy war policy. The Vietnam War had become so unpopular in the U.S. that Richard Nixon managed to get elected with the promise that he could end the war in Vietnam “honorably”. He then came up with the so-called “Vietnamization” in contrast to “Americanization” policy under President Johnson. His “peace with honor” plan ended with the signing of Paris Peace Accords in 1973. The U.S. was now able to get out of the costly battlefield of Vietnam but their ally South Vietnam eventually fell into the hands of the North communists in 1975.
It is interesting to note that the U.S. policy during the Vietnam War went through an arch. It began with pure military aid and non-combat role then evolved to front-line engagement and finally de-escalated back to support role.
While there are distinct differences in how proxy wars are conducted nowadays, the Cold War in general and the Vietnam War in particular still inform U.S. proxy war policies in modern world. The U.S. is now more likely to provide aid and assistance rather than sending ground forces to “proxies” as historically this policy has not worked out well. In fact, the most successful proxy wars that the U.S. has involved are those where only assistance was provided as in Greece and Afghanistan as opposed to direct involvement on the ground as in Korea and Vietnam. This is illustrated by the U.S. reluctance to send troops to Syria in during its Civil War started since 2011.
Although the political situation has changed, it is important for U.S. policymakers to take the Cold War into account when handling modern-day proxy wars.