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Vietnam War, military struggle fought in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975, involving the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF) in conflict with United States forces and the South Vietnamese army. From 1946 until 1954, the Vietnamese had struggled for their independence from France during the First Indochina War. At the end of this war, the country was temporarily divided into North and South Vietnam. North Vietnam came under the control of the Vietnamese Communists who had opposed France and who aimed for a unified Vietnam under Communist rule. The South was controlled by Vietnamese who had collaborated with the French.
The United States became involved in Vietnam because it believed that if all of the country fell under a Communist government, Communism would spread throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. This belief was known as the “domino theory.” The U.S. government, therefore, supported the South Vietnamese government. This government’s repressive policies led to rebellion in the South, and the NLF was formed as an opposition group with close ties to North Vietnam.
In 1965 the United States sent in troops to prevent the South Vietnamese government from collapsing. Ultimately, however, the United States failed to achieve its goal, and in 1975 Vietnam was reunified under Communist control; in 1976 it officially became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. During the conflict, approximately 3 to 4 million Vietnamese on both sides were killed, in addition to another 1.5 to 2 million Lao and Cambodians who were drawn into the war. More than 58,000 Americans lost their lives.
From the 1880s until World War II (1939-1945), France governed Vietnam as part of French Indochina, which also included Cambodia and Laos. The country was under the nominal control of an emperor, Bao Dai. In 1940 Japanese troops invaded and occupied French Indochina. In December of that year, Vietnamese nationalists established the League for the Independence of Vietnam, or Viet Minh, seeing the turmoil of the war as an opportunity for resistance to French colonial rule.
The United States demanded that Japan leave Indochina, warning of military action. The Viet Minh began guerrilla warfare against Japan and entered an effective alliance with the United States. Viet Minh troops rescued downed U.S. pilots, located Japanese prison camps, helped U.S. prisoners to escape, and provided valuable intelligence to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Ho Chi Minh, the principal leader of the Viet Minh, was even made a special OSS agent.
When the Japanese signed their formal surrender on September 2, 1945, Ho used the occasion to declare the independence of Vietnam, which he called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Emperor Bao Dai had abdicated the throne a week earlier. The French, however, refused to acknowledge Vietnam’s independence, and later that year drove the Viet Minh into the north of the country.
Ho wrote eight letters to U.S. president Harry Truman, imploring him to recognize Vietnam’s independence. Many OSS agents informed the U.S. administration that despite being a Communist, Ho Chi Minh was not a puppet of the Communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and that he could potentially become a valued ally in Asia. Tensions between the United States and the USSR had mounted after World War II, resulting in the Cold War.
The foreign policy of the United States during the Cold War was driven by a fear of the spread of Communism. Eastern Europe had fallen under the domination of the Communist USSR, and China was ruled by Communists. United States policymakers felt they could not afford to lose Southeast Asia as well to the Communists. The United States therefore condemned Ho Chi Minh as an agent of international Communism and offered to assist the French in recapturing Vietnam.
In 1946 United States warships ferried elite French troops to Vietnam where they quickly regained control of the major cities, including Hanoi, Haiphong, + Nang, Hue, and Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), while the Viet Minh controlled the countryside. The Viet Minh had only 2000 troops at the time Vietnam’s independence was declared, but recruiting increased after the arrival of French troops. By the late 1940s, the Viet Minh had hundreds of thousands of soldiers and were fighting the French to a draw. In 1949 the French set up a government to rival Ho Chi Minh’s, installing Bao Dai as head of state.
In May 1954 the Viet Minh mounted a massive assault on the French fortress at Dien Bien, in northwestern Vietnam. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu resulted in perhaps the most humiliating defeat in French military history. Already tired of the war, the French public forced their government to reach a peace agreement at the Geneva Conference.
France asked the other world powers to help draw up a plan for French withdrawal from the region and for the future of Vietnam. Meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, from May 8 to July 21, 1954, diplomats from France, the United Kingdom, the USSR, China, and the United States, as well as representatives from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, drafted a set of agreements called the Geneva Accords. These agreements provided for the withdrawal of French troops to the south of Vietnam until they could be safely removed from the country. Viet Minh forces moved into the north. Vietnam was temporarily divided at the 17th parallel to allow for a cooling-off period and for warring factions among the Vietnamese to return to their native regions. Ho Chi Minh maintained control of North Vietnam, or the DRV, while Emperor Bao Dai remained head of South Vietnam.
Elections were to be held in 1956 throughout the north and south and to be supervised by an International Control Commission that had been appointed at Geneva and was made up of representatives from Canada, Poland, and India. Following these elections, Vietnam was to be reunited under the government chosen by popular vote. The United States refused to sign the accords, because it did not want to allow the possibility of Communist control over Vietnam. The U.S. government moved to establish the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), a regional alliance that extended protection to South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in case of Communist “subversion.” SEATO, which came into force in 1955, became the mechanism by which Washington justified its support for South Vietnam; this support eventually became direct involvement of U.S. troops.
Also in 1955, the United States picked Ngo Dinh Diem to replace Bao Dai as head of the anti-Communist regime in South Vietnam. With U.S. encouragement, Diem refused to participate in the planned national elections, which Ho Chi Minh and the Lao Dong, or Workers’ Party, were favored to win. Instead, Diem held elections only in South Vietnam, an action that violated the Geneva Accords.
Diem won the elections with 98.2 percent of the vote, but many historians believe these elections were rigged, since 200,000 more people voted in Saigon than were registered. Diem then declared South Vietnam to be an independent nation called the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), with Saigon as its capital. Vietnamese Communists and many non-Communist Vietnamese nationalists saw the creation of the RVN as an effort by the United States to interfere with the independence promised at Geneva.
III. The Beginning of the War: 1959-1965
The repressive measures of the Diem government eventually led to increasingly organized opposition within South Vietnam. Diem’s government represented a minority of Vietnamese who were mostly businessmen, Roman Catholics, large landowners, and others who had fought with the French against the Viet Minh. The United States initially backed the South Vietnamese government with military advisers and financial assistance, but more involvement was needed to keep it from collapsing. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution eventually gave President Lyndon B. Johnson permission to escalate the war in Vietnam.
A. Rebellion in South Vietnam
When Vietnam was divided in 1954, many Viet Minh who had been born in the southern part of the country returned to their native villages to await the 1956 elections and the reunification of their nation. When the elections did not take place as planned, these Viet Minh immediately formed the core of opposition to Diem’s government and sought its overthrow. The Viet Minh were greatly aided in their efforts to organize resistance in the countryside by Diem’s own policies, which alienated many peasants.
Beginning in 1955, the United States created the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in South Vietnam. Using these troops, Diem took land away from peasants and returned it to former landlords, reversing the land redistribution program implemented by the Viet Minh. He also forcibly moved many villagers from their ancestral lands to controlled settlements in an attempt to prevent Communist activity, and he drafted their sons into the ARVN.
Diem sought to discredit the Viet Minh by contemptuously referring to them as “Viet Cong” (the Vietnamese equivalent of calling them “Commies”), yet their influence continued to grow. Most southern Viet Minh were members of the Lao Dong and were still committed to its program of national liberation, reunification of Vietnam, and reconstruction of society along socialist principles. By the late 1950s they were anxious to begin full-scale armed struggle against Diem but were held in check by the northern branch of the party, which feared that this would invite the entry of U.S. armed forces. By 1959, however, opposition to Diem was so widespread in rural areas that the southern Communists formed the National Liberation Front (NLF), and in 1960 the North Vietnamese government gave its formal sanction to the organization. The NLF began to train and equip guerrillas, known as the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF).
Diem’s support was concentrated mainly in the cities. Although he had been a nationalist opposed to French rule, he welcomed into his government those Vietnamese who had collaborated with the French, and many of these became ARVN officers. Catholics were a minority throughout Vietnam, amounting to no more than 10 percent of the population, but they predominated in government positions because Diem himself was Catholic. Between 1954 and 1955, operatives paid by the CIA spread rumors in northern Vietnam that Communists were going to launch a persecution of Catholics, which caused nearly 1 million Catholics to flee to the south. Their resettlement uprooted Buddhists who already deeply resented Diem’s rule because of his severe discrimination against them.
In May 1963 Buddhists began a series of demonstrations against Diem, and the demonstrators were fired on by police. At least seven Buddhist monks set themselves on fire to protest the repression. Diem dismissed these suicides as publicity stunts and promptly arrested 1400 monks. He then arrested thousands of high school and grade school students who were involved in protests against the government. After this, Diem was viewed as an embarrassment both by the United States and by many of his own generals.
The Saigon government’s war against the NLF was also going badly. In January 1963 an ARVN force of 2000 encountered a group of 350 NLF soldiers at Ap Bac, a village south of Saigon in the Mekong River Delta. The ARVN troops were equipped with jet fighters, helicopters, and armored personnel carriers, while the NLF forces had only small arms. Nonetheless, 61 ARVN soldiers were killed, as were three U.S. military advisers. By contrast, the NLF forces lost only 12 men. Some U.S. military advisers began to report that Saigon was losing the war, but the official military and embassy press officers reported Ap Bac as a significant ARVN victory. Despite this official account, a handful of U.S. journalists began to report pessimistically about the future of U.S. involvement in South Vietnam, which led to increasing public concern.
President John F. Kennedy still believed that the ARVN could become effective. Some of his advisers advocated the commitment of U.S. combat forces, but Kennedy decided to try to increase support for the ARVN among the people of Vietnam through counterinsurgency. United States Special Forces (Green Berets) would work with ARVN troops directly in the villages in an effort to match NLF political organizing and to win over the South Vietnamese people.
To support the U.S. effort, the Diem government developed a “strategic hamlet” program that was essentially an extension of Diem’s earlier relocation practices. Aimed at cutting the links between villagers and the NLF, the program removed peasants from their traditional villages, often at gunpoint, and resettled them in new hamlets fortified to keep the NLF out. Administration was left up to Diem’s brother Nhu, a corrupt official who charged villagers for building materials that had been donated by the United States. In many cases peasants were forbidden to leave the hamlets, but many of the young men quickly left anyway and joined the NLF. Young men who were drafted into the ARVN often also worked secretly for the NLF. The Kennedy administration concluded that Diem’s policies were alienating the peasantry and contributing significantly to NLF recruitment.
The number of U.S. advisers assigned to the ARVN rose steadily. In January 1961, when Kennedy took office, there were 800 U.S. advisers in Vietnam; by November 1963 there were 16,700. American air power was assigned to support ARVN operations; this included the aerial spraying of herbicides such as Agent Orange, which was intended to deprive the NLF of food and jungle cover. Despite these measures, the ARVN continued to lose ground.
As the military situation deteriorated in South Vietnam, the United States sought to blame it on Diem’s incompetence and hoped that changes in his administration would improve the situation. Nhu’s corruption became a principal focus, and Diem was urged to remove his brother. Many in Diem’s military were especially dissatisfied and hoped for increased U.S. aid. General Duong Van Minh informed the CIA and U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge of a plot to conduct a coup d’ tat against Diem. After much discussion, Kennedy approved support for the coup. He was reportedly dismayed, however, when the coup resulted in the murder of both Diem and Nhu on November 1, 1963. Far from stabilizing South Vietnam, the assassination of Diem ushered in ten successive governments within 18 months. Meanwhile, the CIA was forced to admit that the strength of the NLF was continuing to grow.
B. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
Succeeding to the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson felt he had to take a forceful stance on Vietnam so that other Communist countries would not think that the United States lacked resolve. Kennedy had begun to consider the possibility of withdrawal from Vietnam and had even ordered the removal of 1000 advisers shortly before he was assassinated, but Johnson increased the number of U.S. advisers to 27,000 by mid-1964. Even though intelligence reports clearly stated that most of the support for the NLF came from the south, Johnson, like his predecessors, continued to insist that North Vietnam was orchestrating the southern rebellion. He was determined that he would not be held responsible for allowing Vietnam to fall to the Communists.
Johnson believed that the key to success in the war in South Vietnam was to frighten North Vietnam’s leaders with the possibility of full-scale U.S. military intervention. In January 1964 he approved top-secret, covert attacks against North Vietnamese territory, including commando raids against bridges, railways, and coastal installations. Johnson also ordered the U.S. Navy to conduct surveillance missions along the North Vietnamese coast. He increased the secret bombing of territory in Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a growing network of paths and roads used by the NLF and the North Vietnamese to transport supplies into South Vietnam. Hanoi concluded that the United States was preparing to occupy South Vietnam and indicated that it, too, was preparing for full-scale war.
On August 2, 1964, North Vietnamese coastal gunboats fired on the destroyer USS Maddox, which had penetrated North Vietnam’s territorial boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin. Johnson ordered more ships to the area, and on August 4 both the Maddox and the USS Turner Joy reported that North Vietnamese patrol boats had fired on them. Johnson then ordered the first air strikes against North Vietnamese territory and went on television to seek approval from the U.S. public. (Subsequent congressional investigations would conclude that the August 4 attack almost certainly had never occurred.) The U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which effectively handed over war-making powers to Johnson until such time as “peace and security” had returned to Vietnam.
After the Gulf of Tonkin incident Johnson steadily escalated U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, which began to dispatch well-trained units of its People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) into the south. The NLF guerrillas coordinated their attacks with PAVN forces. Between February 7 and February 10, 1965, the NLF launched surprise attacks on the U.S. air base at Pleiku, killing 8 Americans, wounding 126, and destroying 10 aircraft; they struck again at Qui Nhon, killing 23 U.S. servicemen and wounding 21.
Johnson responded by bombing Hanoi at a time when Soviet premier Aleksey Kosygin was visiting, thus pushing the USSR closer to North Vietnam and ensuring future Soviet arms deliveries to Southeast Asia. Johnson’s advisers, chiefly Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, declared that a full-scale air war against North Vietnam would depress the morale of the NLF. The bombing did just the opposite, however. The inability of the ARVN to protect U.S. air bases led Johnson’s senior planners to the consensus that U.S. combat forces would be required. On March 8, 1965, 3500 U.S. Marines landed at + Nang. By the end of April, 56,000 other combat troops had joined them; by June the number had risen to 74,000.
IV. Escalated United States Involvement: 1965-1969
When some of the soldiers of the U.S. 9th Marine Regiment landed in + Nang in March 1965, their orders were to protect the U.S. air base, but the mission was quickly escalated to include search-and-destroy patrols of the area around the base. This corresponded in miniature to the larger strategy of General William Westmoreland. Westmoreland, who took over the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) in 1964, advocated establishing a large American force and then unleashing it in big sweeps. His strategy was that of attrition eliminating or wearing down the enemy by inflicting the highest death toll possible. There were 80,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam by the end of 1965; by 1969 a peak of 543,000 troops would be reached.
Having easily pushed aside the ARVN, both the North Vietnamese and the NLF had anticipated the U.S. escalation. With full-scale movement of U.S. troops onto South Vietnamese territory, the Communists claimed that the Saigon regime had become a puppet, not unlike the colonial collaborators with the French. Both the North Vietnamese and NLF appealed to the nationalism of the Vietnamese to rise up and drive this new foreign army from their land.
A. DRV and NLF Strategy
The strategy developed against the United States was the result of intense debate both within the Lao Dong in the north, and between the northerners and the NLF. Truong Chinh, the leading southern military figure, argued that the southern Vietnamese must liberate themselves; Le Duan, secretary general of the Lao Dong, insisted that Vietnam was one nation and therefore dependent on all Vietnamese for its independence and reunification. Ho Chi Minh, revered widely throughout Vietnam as the father of independence, successfully appealed for unity. The Central Committee Directorate for the South (also known as the Central Office for South Vietnam, or COSVN), which was composed of DRV and NLF representatives, was then able to coordinate a unified strategy.
After the United States initiated large-scale bombing against the DRV in 1964, in the wake of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Hanoi dispatched the first unit of northern-born regular soldiers to the south. Previously, southern-born Viet Minh, known as regroupees, had returned to their native regions and joined NLF guerrilla units. Now PAVN regulars, commanded by generals who had been born in the south, began to set up bases in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam in order to gain strategic position.
Unable to cross the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the 17th parallel separating North from South Vietnam, PAVN regulars moved into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia. In use since 1957, the trail was originally a series of footpaths; by the late 1960s it would become a network of paved highways that enabled the motor transport of people and equipment. The NLF guerrillas and North Vietnamese troops were poorly armed compared to the Americans, so once they were in South Vietnam they avoided open combat. Instead they developed hit-and-run tactics designed to cause steady casualties among the U.S. troops and to wear down popular support for the war in the United States.
B. United States Strategy
In June 1964 retired general Maxwell Taylor replaced Henry Cabot Lodge as ambassador to South Vietnam. A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military advisory group to the president, Taylor at first opposed the introduction of American combat troops, believing that this would make the ARVN quit fighting altogether. By 1965 he agreed to the request of General Westmoreland for combat forces. Taylor initially advocated an enclave strategy, where U.S. forces would seek to preserve areas already considered to be under Saigon’s control. This quickly proved impossible, since NLF strength was considerable virtually everywhere in South Vietnam.
In October 1965 the newly arrived 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army fought one of the largest battles of the Vietnam War in the Ia Drang Valley, inflicting a serious defeat on North Vietnamese forces. The North Vietnamese and NLF forces changed their tactics as a result of the battle. From then on both would fight at times of their choosing, hitting rapidly, with surprise if possible, and then withdrawing just as quickly to avoid the impact of American firepower. The success of the American campaign in the Ia Drang Valley convinced Westmoreland that his strategy of attrition was the key to U.S. victory. He ordered the largest search-and-destroy operations of the war in the “Iron Triangle,” the Communist stronghold northeast of Saigon. This operation was intended to find and destroy North Vietnam and NLF military headquarters, but the campaign failed to wipe out Communist forces from the area.
By 1967 the ground war had reached a stalemate, which led Johnson and McNamara to increase the ferocity of the air war. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had been pressing for this for some time, but there was already some indication that intensified bombing would not produce the desired results. In 1966 the bombing of North Vietnam’s oil facilities had destroyed 70 percent of their fuel reserves, but the DRV’s ability to wage the war had not been affected.
Planners wished to avoid populated areas, but when 150,000 sorties per year were being flown by U.S. warplanes, civilian casualties were inevitable. These casualties provoked revulsion both in the United States and internationally. In 1967 the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle Wheeler, declared that no more “major military targets” were left. Unable to widen the bombing to population centers for fear of Chinese and Soviet reactions in support of North Vietnam, the U.S. Department of Defense had to admit stalemate in the air war as well. The damage that had already been inflicted on Vietnam’s population was enormous.
C. The Tet Offensive and Beyond
In 1967 North Vietnam and the NLF decided the time had come to mount an all-out offensive aimed at inflicting serious losses on both the ARVN and U.S. forces. They planned the Tet Offensive with the hope that this would significantly affect the public mood in the United States. In December 1967 North Vietnamese troops attacked and surrounded the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh, placing it under siege. Westmoreland ordered the outpost held at all costs. To prevent the Communists from overrunning the base, about 50,000 U.S. Marines and Army troops were called into the area, thus weakening positions further south.
This concentration of American troops in one spot was exactly what the COSVN strategists had hoped would happen. The main thrust of the Tet Offensive then began on January 31, 1968, at the start of Tet, or the Vietnamese lunar new year celebration, when a lull in fighting traditionally took place. Most ARVN troops had gone home on leave, and U.S. troops were on stand-down in many areas. Over 85,000 NLF soldiers simultaneously struck at almost every major city and provincial capital across South Vietnam, sending their defenders reeling. The U.S. Embassy in Saigon, previously thought to be invulnerable, was taken over by the NLF, and held for eight hours before U.S. forces could retake the complex. It took three weeks for U.S. troops to dislodge 1000 NLF fighters from Saigon.
During the Tet Offensive, the imperial capital of Hue witnessed the bloodiest fighting of the entire war. South Vietnamese were assassinated by Communists for collaborating with Americans; then when the ARVN returned, NLF sympathizers were murdered. United States Marines and paratroopers were ordered to go from house to house to find North Vietnamese and NLF soldiers. Virtually indiscriminate shelling was what killed most civilians, however, and the architectural treasures of Hue were laid to waste. More than 100,000 residents of the city were left homeless.
The Tet Offensive as a whole lasted into the fall of 1968, and when it was over the North Vietnamese and the NLF had suffered acute losses. The U.S. Department of Defense estimated that a total of 45,000 North Vietnamese and NLF soldiers had been killed, most of them NLF fighters. Although it was covered up for more than a year, one horrifying event during the Tet Offensive would indelibly affect America’s psyche. In March 1968 elements of the U.S. Army’s Americal Division wiped out an entire hamlet called My Lai, killing 500 unarmed civilians, mostly women and children.
After Tet, Westmoreland said that the enemy was almost conquered and requested 206,000 more troops to finish the job. Told by succeeding administrations since 1955 that there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” that victory in Vietnam was near, the American public had reached a psychological breaking point. The success of the NLF in coordinating the Tet Offensive demonstrated both how deeply rooted the Communist resistance was and how costly it would be for the United States to remain in Vietnam. After Tet a majority of Americans wanted some closure to the war, with some favoring an immediate withdrawal while others held out for a negotiated peace. President Johnson rejected Westmoreland’s request for more troops and replaced him as the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam with Westmoreland’s deputy, General Creighton Abrams. Johnson himself decided not to seek reelection in 1968. Republican Richard Nixon ran for the presidency declaring that he would bring “peace with honor” if elected.
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