| It never changes|
|A view to kill|
“”If you want to, go ahead and fight in the jungles of Vietnam... Perhaps the Americans will be able to stick it out for a little longer [than the French], but eventually they will have to quit too.
|—Nikita Khrushchev's 1963 warning.|
“”Johnson: What do you think about this Vietnam thing? I’d like to hear you talk a little bit.
Russell: Well, frankly, Mr. President, it’s the damn worse mess that I ever saw, and I don’t like to brag and I never have been right many times in my life, but I knew that we were going to get into this sort of mess when we went in there.... I just don’t know what to do.
|—Lyndon B. Johnson telephone call with Senator Richard Russell|
The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, or the American War was an internationalized civil war between the two states set up at the Geneva Conference in 1954 to govern Vietnam following the French withdrawal from the area. One, the State of Vietnam and later the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) was backed mainly by the United States, while the other, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) was supported by Red China, Soviet Union, and communist rebels in South Vietnam known as the Viet Cong.
American involvement in the region had been constant since the First Indochina War, when President Truman sent military advisers to aid the French against Vietnamese rebels. However, successive US presidential administrations each took their turn in escalating that involvement until President Lyndon B. Johnson deployed combat units to the area for the first time and began the American phase of the war in earnest. US forces relied on their air superiority to launch bombing missions against Viet Cong, while both sides committed a plethora of war crimes. The high cost of the war combined with the controversy it caused at home in America convinced President Nixon to begin a slow withdrawal from the region that ended direct US involvement. South Vietnam fell shortly thereafter.
The war exacted a huge human cost, including an estimated 1-2 million North and South Vietnamese, 100,000 to 300,000 Cambodians and 30-50,000 Laotians. The "most comprehensive demographic survey" ever conducted on casualties during the war, as endorsed by the Associated Press, estimated that nearly one million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians were killed throughout the two decades of conflict. Meanwhile, there was a total of 58,220 fatal American casualties, including 382 suicides, 236 homicides, and 938 fatal illnesses.
- 1 Countdown to US invervention
- 2 The American Phase
- 3 The costs come home
- 4 Beginning of the end
- 5 Death throes
- 6 War crimes and atrocities
- 7 Post-mortem
- 8 Legacy
- 9 See also
- 10 External links
- 11 References
Countdown to US invervention
“”The US intervention in Vietnam was not inevitable. It evolved from the vacuum left by the collapse of Japan's Asian Empire, followed by the communists' victory in China, the Korean stalemate, and France's defeat in 1954. But it also grew out of the Cold War decisions of three US presidents: Truman's to move away from Roosevelt's anticolonialism and back the French, Eisenhower's to block the Vietnamese national elections in 1956 and prop up the Diệm regime, and Kennedy's to increase the number of US military advisers, Special Forces, and CIA agents in South Vietnam. All three intended to transform Vietnam into a 'proving ground for democracy in Asia'.
|—Carole C. Fink, US historian.|
The origin of the Vietnam War is ambiguous. The Vietnamese state's narrative is that it was the penultimate chapter in a two-millennium anti-colonial struggle for autonomy and national republicanism dating back to 111 BCE. Some historians date it back to the outbreak of the Guerre d'Indochine, or First Indochina War, in French Indochina in 1946 which was ended by the 1954 Geneva Accords (negotiated between the USSR, PRC, UK, USA, and France) which created the separate countries of Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. US involvement began under President Truman in 1946 with Marshall Aid, loans, and arms sales to France. Trainers and advisors were sent by John F. Kennedy, but large deployments and the bombing of North Vietnam were only initiated in 1965 under Lyndon B. Johnson, following the now known to be fabricated 'Gulf of Tonkin Incident' and Congressional Resolution authorising escalation in retaliation for the alleged North Vietnamese attack.
French colonial wars
France began colonialist trading in Indochina in the late 18th century, and after defeating the Qing Empire in the Second Opium War of 1856-60 (while they were busy fighting the 1850-64 Taiping Rebellion) sensed continued weakness. The Third Republic declared war unilaterally in 1884-5 with the aim of detaching coastal Vietnam from the Qing, and narrowly defeated modernized Qing ground forces in small engagements (fewer than 5000-a-side) and destroyed the entire Southern Fleet based out of Fuzhou. After steady expansion westward and inland in the following years which was met by eastward expansion by the British Raj, Paris and London were unable to agree on the final division of Thai territory and so left the rump kingdom as a buffer state. French rule in Indochina was met with heavy resistance (a warning of things yet to come), and it took them decades to stabilize their colonial state. French colonial exploitation of the region began immediately, and due to the French government's prioritization of profits, very little effort was put into actually developing Vietnam, leaving the people in horrible poverty.
After World War One, the 1919 Versailles Congress attendees ignored a petition by the Vietnamese revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh, asking for help in forming a Vietnamese government). This brings up a little-known fact about Ho Chi Minh's life: that he held a great admiration for the United States and its ideals and even lived in Boston and New York City for a time. Ho hoped that America would back the cause of Vietnamese liberation, and in this spirit he attempted to meet with Woodrow Wilson at Versailles. Wilson, being the massive racist he was, ignored him. This was especially galling since several new European nation-states were being created or officially recognized at the conference e.g. Czechoslovakia. Despite this insult, Ho went on to work with the United States during World War Two against the occupation by Japan. Ho was careful to stress to the Americans that he was a nationalist first and a communist second, and that he still hoped to work with them to gain freedom for his country. Mid-level American officials actually argued for embracing Ho and making him and Vietnam into American allies; this stance, however, never gained any traction in the White House. It was a missed opportunity to avoid massive bloodshed in the future.
Ho went to China and the USSR and became involved in the anti-colonial efforts in the Communist International. Dr. Paul Mus, however, who negotiated with Ho, made clear in interviews that Ho was less of a doctrinaire Leninist and more truly a Confucian in outlook, and his political and economic ideas merely were more complemented by Leninism because of the Vietnamese farming hamlet economy and social character.
On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared the "Democratic Republic of Vietnam's" independence with the words he borrowed from the American Declaration of Independence "All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Harry Truman refused to acknowledge Ho's 1945 declaration of Vietnamese independence; he instead sent military aid and advisers in the region with the aim of reestablishing French colonial rule. He reasoned that promoting colonialism would be less harmful than allowing a communist Vietnam to come into existence. The First Indochina War, as this colonial conflict is known, was a bloody stalemate between 1946 and 1950, but then the Vietnamese began making serious progress in driving the French out of their land.
In American political parlance, the 'loss' of China to the Commies was blamed on the State Department, the Democrats, and secret Red sleeper cells in Washington. The McCarthy era highlighted the idea of Vietnam's role in the domino theory. As such, both Democrats and Republicans foisted another Red Scare on the US, and many experts on Asia were purged from the State Department.
The Geneva Conference
The French loss in Indochina led to the Geneva Conference in 1954, which was intended to resolve outstanding issues in the region. Conference attendees were France, the Viet Minh, the USSR, the PRC, the US, the United Kingdom, and the future states being made from French Indochina. The Conference attendees agreed to split French Indochina into a number of states, among them being a north and south Vietnam. Importantly, the partition of Vietnam was intended to be temporary. Elections were supposed to be held in 1956 to peacefully reunite the country and end the violent struggle between Vietnamese communists and anti-communists. The Eisenhower administration viewed this result as a disaster, as it allowed for the possibility of a communist Vietnam.
Thus, the United States began a program of sabotage against North Vietnam and helped President Ngo Dinh Diem maintain power. Ngo, with the assistance of the CIA rigged the 1956 elections to ensure that he stayed in power and Vietnam stayed partitioned; his US assistants recommended he win by a modest 60-70%, but Ngo gave himself a ridiculous 98% of the vote. By the time President JFK assumed office, the US felt that it was heavily committed to the defense of South Vietnam. Meanwhile, it was later revealed by the Pentagon Papers leak that most of the decisions made by the Eisenhower administration regarding Vietnam at this point were made against the advise of the American intelligence community, who viewed the effort to prop up South Vietnam indefinitely as wasteful and foolhardy.
Kennedy escalates US involvement
The Kennedy administration was committed to the hardline anticommunism of Truman and Eisenhower. However, crises such as the construction of the Berlin Wall and the humiliating failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion led Kennedy to fear that the US was losing face globally. His solution to this was decisive action on Vietnam.
Kennedy dramatically increased the amount of US aid to South Vietnam and stepped up the number of non-combat military personnel. By the time Kennedy was assassinated, the number of Americans in Vietnam had increased from 900 to 16,000. This led to warnings from some of Kennedy's advisers that there was a "danger we shall replace the French as a colonial force in the area and bleed as the French did."
Luckily, Kennedy still had some semblance of sanity when it came to Vietnam. He was still determined that the US not put boots on the ground in Vietnam for combat purposes, likely fearing the bloody quagmire that caused the French to lose the region. He also rejected a proposal to send US combat operatives into the country disguised as flood relief personnel. Nonetheless, Kennedy's escalation of the war almost certainly made the later American bloodshed inevitable.
Assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem
“”For the military coup d'etat against Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S. must accept its full share of responsibility. Beginning in August of 1963 we variously authorized, sanctioned and encouraged the coup efforts of the Vietnamese generals and offered full support for a successor government.
|—Pentagon Papers, Vol.2 Ch. 4|
The president of South Vietnam was Ngo Dinh Diem, a firm Catholic and devoted anticommunist. The United States initially supported his rise to power and donated more than $40 million to support the modernization of his military. Ngo, however, began a program of repression against Vietnam's Buddhist majority in accordance with his hardline Catholic beliefs. (It is interesting to note that the Ngo family was so radically Catholic that they helped set up the Palmarian Catholic Church, a fanatical religious cult.) Some specific examples of Ngo's intolerance include a ban on celebrating Buddha's birthday, publicly dedicating South Vietnam to the Virgin Mary, and launching brutal massacres against peaceful Buddhist protestors. These discriminatory laws are what prompted Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức to die by self-immolation in Saigon as an act of protest.
Ngo's leadership resulted in widespread political instability, allowing the Viet Cong to exploit the situation to gain strength. The situation prompted some South Vietnamese officers to contact the US and inquire as to how President Kennedy would respond to a coup against Ngô. The United States, for its part, had little desire to upset the apple cart and tried to convince the Vietnamese president to reform his government and make nice with the Buddhists. As you can guess based on the section title, that didn't work out.
The (correct) idea that deposing Diệm would cause political chaos in Vietnam led to a larger bit of soul-searching inside the State Department. The Kennedy administration began to realize that if the war was unwinnable with Diệm, and the war would be unwinnable without Diệm, then perhaps the war itself was just completely unwinnable. At this point, the United States could have disengaged from Vietnam without too much of a loss. The Kennedy administration, however, chose to stay the course, unwilling to accept the bleak prospects for victory. Whoops.
The United States suspended aid to the Diệm government and finally greenlit the coup. South Vietnamese soldiers overthrew Diệm's regime and killed him along with his family, an event which caused celebrations to break out across South Vietnam. However, the fearful predictions of chaos in South Vietnam came true, and the US was forced to involve itself even more deeply in Vietnamese affairs in order to stabilize the country and keep it in the fight against communism.
Johnson escalates US involvement
“”...there would be Robert Kennedy out in front leading the fight against me, telling everyone that I had betrayed John Kennedy's commitment to South Vietnam. That I had let a democracy fall into the hands of the communists. That I was a coward. An unmanly man. A man without a spine. Oh, I could see it coming, all right.
|—Lyndon B. Johnson on prolonging the Vietnam War|
Kennedy's assassination tossed the war into LBJ's lap, and the new president was determined not to let the communists win. His administration became more aggressive in launching covert sabotage missions against North Vietnam and stepped up the aid it was delivering to the deteriorating South Vietnam. These US initiatives contributed to the US entry into the war (as they were supposed to); a confrontation between North Vietnamese and American ships came shortly after the South launched an attack on multiple radar and military installations. These attacks, and the US involvement in them, was known to the Pentagon as the "34-A Operations," a series of clandestine acts against North Vietnam that included U‐2 spy planes, kidnapping of North Vietnamese for interrogation, commando raids from the sea, and bombardment of coastal installations. 34-A was designed to pressure the North into abandoning its hostility towards the South, and of course that worked just about as well as you think it did.
Secretary of of Defense Robert McNamara went on a fact-finding mission to Vietnam and returned with the news that the entire war effort was falling apart; instead of advocating withdrawal, McNamara pushed for more American intervention. At this point, in early 1964, the Johnson administration essentially decided that it was going to send American troops to Vietnam. It then began planning how to gain the Congressional authorization needed to make this happen.
The Tonkin "incidents"
“”Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by MADDOX. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.
|—Captain Herrick of the Maddox, priority message to Honolulu, about three days before LBJ used this "attack" as justification to begin ground ops in Vietnam|
“”An urgent requirement exists for proof and evidence of second attack by DRV naval units . . . Material must be of type which will convince United Nations Organization that the attack did in fact occur.
|—Joint Chiefs of Staff, two days later.|
Official US involvement in the war was only legally authorized when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in response to two unprovoked attacks on US naval vessels. Allegedly, in 1964, torpedo boats belonging to North Vietnam launched two unprovoked attacks against two US Navy destroyers: the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy. This event, much like Pearl Harbor before it, created a furious wave of US patriotism that led America into war in Vietnam.
However, the Pentagon Papers revealed that the first attack was not unprovoked. They also reveal that the second attack never even happened.
Defense Secretary McNamara claimed before Congress (a lie) that the two ships were in Tonkin on a routine patrol. In reality, the Maddox had been instructed to enter North Vietnam's territorial waters in order to covertly intercept communications for the South.
After the attack on the Maddox, which caused no damage to the US ship, the US Navy dispatched the Turner Joy to send a "we won't back down" message. However, the next patrol was much different from the first. Storms had created adverse weather conditions, US intelligence believed that North Vietnamese vessels were seeking to finish the job they'd started, and the crews of both vessels were very tense over the events of the last patrol. The Maddox reported that she was tracking multiple unidentified vessels, and both US Navy ships began frantically maneuvering to avoid perceived enemy attacks, and their "counterattack" had spent more than 300 shells. Both captains had doubts over what was going on, suspecting that faulty equipment and jumpy sonarmen might actually be creating the illusion of an enemy force. It was later determined that the Turner Joy had not detected any enemy attacks, the Maddox crew was hearing her props bumping into her rudder during the sharp maneuvers, and that the guns had been experiencing difficulty locking onto targets because they had actually been shooting at waves on the ocean. The whole affair was a massive farce. Captain Herrick reviewed his crew to confirm that nothing actually happened and sent a message to the US Navy hoping to prevent a misunderstanding.
However, as the "attack" was ongoing, LBJ had given a dramatic midnight television address to announce the attack and also reveal that he had ordered a bombing raid in retaliation. Within three days, and with minimal debate in Congress, LBJ got his blank check to fight in Vietnam.
The American Phase
Ho Chi Minh and his government didn't just sit around with their thumbs up their asses following the Tonkin Resolution. They immediately began sending arms and manpower south in order to strengthen the Viet Cong in preparation for a ground war against the US. They also put effort into expanding the Ho Chi Minh trail, a secret supplies path leading through neighboring countries.
Deployment of US ground troops began in 1965, with numbers reaching 200,000 by December of that year. In this early phase of the war, most Americans supported the deployment and most rejected the idea that putting boots on the ground was a mistake.
The initial assignment of US troops was to assume a defensive position to prevent North Vietnamese incursions; this plan fell apart almost immediately when it became clear that the US army's post-WWII focus on offensive training left its officers psychologically incapable of effectively waging such a campaign. The situation was worsened by the constant guerrilla attacks taking place behind the front lines, courtesy of the Viet Cong, a kind of war the US had no real experience in fighting outside of several campaigns against the Japanese in World War Two.
From day one, the Americans were out-strategized by the North Vietnamese. The communists were fully aware that they could not force the US out of Vietnam by weight of arms; they instead realized that their best hope for victory was through two means: (1) undermine the US-South Vietnam alliance and (2) use attrition warfare to degrade US morale. The Viet Cong had wide support among the nation's rural population, a problem since that was about 90% of Vietnamese. The US had alienated the peasantry by aiding the colonialist French oppressors, and the government of South Vietnam had alienated the peasantry by corruptly ignoring their needs and concerns. Thus, Viet Cong insurgents were able to engage US forces behind the front lines in tens of thousands of small skirmishes, not all of which were American victories, and all of which the Americans had no idea how to handle.
“”We underestimated the willingness of these peasants to pay the price. We won every set piece battle. [General Westmoreland] believes that he never lost a battle. We had absolute military superiority, and they had absolute political superiority, which meant that we would kill 200 and they would replenish them the next day. We were fighting the birth rate of a nation.
|—David Halberstam, US historian and Pulitzer Prize journalist.|
In response to the new guerrilla threat, US ground forces implemented a strategy called "search and destroy." The idea was to send small units into the jungle near known Viet Cong hotspots, eliminate the Vietnamese they encountered, and withdraw again. This strategy cost the lives of thousands of US servicemen without making a damned bit of difference. This strategy also involved searching South Vietnamese villages, further pissing off the peasants, and often provoked many American atrocities such as the My Lai Massacre. Meanwhile, as the strategy called for rapid withdrawal from guerrilla hotspots, the Viet Cong would simply reclaim whatever territory US troops weren't immediately occupying. As the search and destroy missions became more aggressive, US forces became trapped in a vicious cycle: the harder they fought against the Viet Cong, the stronger the Viet Cong became.
The point of search and destroy was the same as the point of the Viet Cong: wearing the enemy down through attrition. However, the US' version of this plan is revealed to be idiotic as soon as one considers the recent history laid out near the top of this very article. The Vietnamese had already proven against the French they were willing to take whatever causalities for however long it was necessary to drive out the invaders. The Americans had to learn a lesson that was barely a decade old.
As a result of all of this, American strategy devolved into "let's kill as many people as possible and hope that the commies run out of men at some point." That is not a good strategy.
Clutching at straws
“”Well, we had all those planes sitting around and couldn't just let them stay there with nothing to do.
|— Montreagle Stearns, US Deputy Chief of Mission to Laos, regarding the decision to use bombers diverted from the cancelled Air Offensive against North Vietnam to Laos |
The US military lacked a clear strategy on how to win the war. Instead, faith was placed in the ability of a massive campaign of strategic bombing against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong to erode the enemy's will to resist. It was reasoned that if the assessment of the Strategic Bombing Survey, which the US Army Air Force and US Navy had conducted following World War Two, was correct about the Second World War being won by or in large part due to strategic bombing then dropping a similar amount of ordnance upon vastly less industrialised and populous countries would break the enemy's will to resist in an even shorter duration of time.
This could not have been less true. Operation Rolling Thunder, as the campaign was called, did little to shake Hanoi's control over its countryside, and it even strengthened the resolve of pro-communist hardliners. The bombing campaign proved unable to disrupt North Vietnam's or the Viet Cong's supply lines for any extended period of time, and once again Vietnamese morale proved resilient enough to withstand the Americans' best efforts. The problem was, it's extremely difficult to concentrate air power on any great number of insurgents because their tactics allow them to disappear into the countryside or the general population once the heat comes down. Airpower's greatest utility ended up being for defensive operations; this was seen in 1972 when US air strikes were able to disrupt North Vietnam's southern offensive.
Vietnam was not the only country to be on the wrong end of American bombs. Laos became the scene of a civil war between the monarchist government and a communist movement called the Pathet Lao, which was backed by North Vietnam. The US launched an aerial bombardment campaign against the Pathet Lao, which also had the goal of eliminating the Ho Chi Minh trail. Neither of these objectives came to pass, despite US planes dropping nearly as many bombs on Laos as they did during the entire European theatre of WWII, some two million tons, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history relative to population.
The costs come home
“” To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory, conclusion... [I]t is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.
|—Walter Cronkite, "Report from Vietnam," aired February 27, 1968.|
As inevitably happens with bloody stalemate wars, public opinion turned against the government. The Johnson administration reacted by adopting what it called a "policy of minimum candor" and instructed military officers to screen stories and only allow reporting on ones that showed American troops and efforts favorably. As a result, the media sought alternate sources of information on the war, and newspapers began to diverge from the Pentagon's official statements. This phenomenon became known as the "credibility gap," as the American public started to figure out that politicians were lying to them.
Things came to a head on February 27th, 1968. That was the day America's most famous newsman, Walter Cronkite, went on television to report on what he found when he personally visited the troops in Vietnam. Cronkite showed that the actual situation on the ground bore no resemblance to the Johnson administration's rosy imaginings. During Cronkite's visit, he reported, he saw helicopters fire on villages that were allegedly under American control and watched another helicopter lift off with a dozen dead Americans inside. He finished off his report by demanding that the government enter peace talks to end US involvement in the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile, news crews were able to get footage of the front lines, resulting in Vietnam becoming the first truly televised war.
The antiwar movement
“”Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end.
“”If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read "Vietnam."
|— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.|
Antiwar sentiments among some Americans had been present since the beginning of US involvement. However, the first real protests did not begin until late 1965 in response to the Johnson administration's increase of conscription rates to 33,000 men a month. Burning draft cards became a common method of protest, and Muhammad Ali became one of the most famous figures to do so.
Other public figures such as Dr. King also spoke out against the war. Indeed, African Americans were a vital part of the antiwar movement. Although black activism had been badly hurt by McCarthyism, the Vietnam War saw blacks speak up once again. Opposition to the Vietnam War became intrinsically tied to the Civil Rights Movement, as figures such as Dr. King, Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party saw that Johnson's draft was disproportionately hurting their communities and their civil rights. Poor and minority draftees found it impossible to avoid being sent overseas, unlike rich whites, and African Americans were 25% of American casualties between 1965 and 1966, more than twice their proportion of the US population.
Other minorities were generally opposed to the war as well. Women Strike for Peace held free draft advising centers to teach young men how best they should dodge the draft. Asian Americans were also broadly against the war, as they saw a connection between the anti-Asian war in Vietnam and the oppression Asians faced in America during the 1960's.
As stories about US soldiers committing war crimes emerged, antiwar protests gained a new dimension: not only was Johnson pointlessly sacrificing American boys, he was also sanctioning the horrible deaths of Vietnamese women and children. One of the most infamous protest slogans was, “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”
Beginning of the end
The Tet Offensive
“”You know, we get involved in these wars and we don't know a damn thing about those countries, the culture, the history, the politics, people on top and even down below. And, my heavens, these are not wars like World War II and World War I, where you have battalions fighting battalions. These are wars that depend on knowledge of who the people are, with the culture is like. And we jumped into them without knowing. That’s the damned essential message of the Pentagon Papers.
|—Les Gelb, senior Defense and State Department official.|
While the United States was suffering from the prolonged war, North Vietnam wasn't getting by much better. The Ho regime faced criticism from within regarding the fact that the war was a stalemate on their end as well. Therefore, the Hanoi government put together a plan on how to achieve a final victory. Their plan was called the "General Uprising," the Tet Mau Than, or the "Tet Offensive." Their reasoning was that a massive attack would destroy US morale and convince America's civilian and military leaders that the war in Vietnam could never be won.
The Tet Offensive began in early 1968, and about 85,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops attacked hundreds of cities throughout South Vietnam. The attack achieved full surprise against the US and South Vietnam, and it represented the worst failure of US military intelligence since Pearl Harbor because of the sheer scale of the preparation work the North Vietnamese had to do which somehow went unnoticed. The attack had a strong psychological effect on the American public once the media reported on it because North Vietnam was able to prove firsthand that it was nowhere near as weak or near defeat as the Johnson administration had repeatedly claimed. One of the most dramatic episodes came when North Vietnamese forces were able to breach the US Embassy in Saigon, killing five American soldiers. Saigon itself became the site of a ferocious battle that left the city in ruins.
Despite being a strategic victory, the Tet Offensive was a devastating military defeat for North Vietnam. Their forces suffered an estimated 500,000 casualties. By launching an open invasion of South Vietnam, Hanoi pitted itself against the US military's strengths. However, this Pyrrhic victory convinced President Johnson to slow down the ground war and dramatically turned US public opinion against the war.
In 1968, peace negotiations began between the belligerents, although the war itself would drag on for another five years.
1968 US presidential election
President Johnson wisely declined to run for reelection as his support numbers crumbled from 48% to a dismal 36%. This move was also prompted by an antiwar candidate gaining popularity and nearly besting him in the New Hampshire primary. The antiwar candidate, however, lost out in delegates, and the eventual Democratic nominee for some ungodly reason decided to continue Johnson's disastrously unpopular war policies. This resulted in massive protests outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago calling for an end to the war. What happened next was a horrifying police crackdown the likes of which are usually only seen in dictatorships, in which police used tear gas and batons to beat people on live television. The event would later be termed a "police riot".
The Nixon administration began a program to train, equip, and slowly transfer control of the war over to South Vietnam in order to effect a US withdrawal without allowing for a total North Vietnamese victory. This policy became known as "Vietnamization." Meanwhile, Nixon used diplomacy as a means to get out of Vietnam. His state visit to the People's Republic of China allowed him to strike a gambit with the Chinese leaders: in exchange for recognizing them as the true government of China rather than Taiwan, in exchange for the PRC making it easier for the US to withdraw from Indochina. He also ordered bombers loaded with nukes to buzz the Soviet border in order to convince them that Nixon was a "madman" willing to do whatever it took to get them to back down from Vietnam.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the public, revealing the sordid history of how multiple presidential administrations railroaded the country into the Vietnamese quagmire. US troop morale also totally collapsed during the Nixon administration, with desertions, draft dodging, and drug use reached unprecedented levels.
In response to Cambodia's monarch allowing the Viet Cong to use his territory as staging areas for attacks against allied forces, Nixon ordered a secret bombing campaign against communist strongholds in the country called Operation Menu, only informing five Congressional officials. The monarch was eventually deposed by his pro-American prime minister, but this move prompted North Vietnam to invade Cambodia on behalf of the Khmer Rouge.
In April 1970, Nixon ordered combat troops into Cambodia to forestall a communist victory. This decision was kept secret even among Nixon's staff, and high-ranking officials like Henry Kissinger only found out when Nixon went public two days later. Nixon delivered a televised address to defend the move, but it did nothing to prevent a fresh wave of furious protests. The most infamous episode resulting from this is the Kent State shooting, in which four people were murdered by members of the Ohio National Guard.
The Air Force continued to bomb Cambodia.
“” Nixon called it "peace with honor," although he surely knew that the Communists would take over, just the same as if we had never gotten involved over there in the first place- except of course for the hundreds of thousands of people who got hurt or killed. So you tell me why the whole thing was not a terrible, criminal waste. You tell me why Henry Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize, instead of being required- along with all the other "leaders" who kept sending Americans over there long after they knew the war was pointless- to get down on his knees and beg the forgiveness of the American veterans, and their families, and the Vietnamese people.
|—Dave Barry, US author.|
After facing a rough reelection campaign in 1972 against a Democratic opponent calling for immediate withdrawal, Nixon finally hurried it up and ended US involvement in the war. Complicating this was the Easter Offensive launched by North Vietnam, a full-scale invasion of the South which the US had to once again help them beat back. However, in 1973, all US combat activities were suspended, and Henry Kissinger signed the Paris Peace Accords. Although the peace agreement called for a ceasefire, Vietnamese elections or a political settlement, and US withdrawal, only the last part of the arrangement would be honored. All American personnel were out of Vietnam by March 1973.
South Vietnam collapses
In the leadup to the ceasefire which would allow US forces to exit Vietnam, both North and South Vietnam struggled to gain control of as much territory as possible before the agreement came into effect. Nixon threatened to intervene again should the North launch a full invasion of the South, but public reaction to this statement was so unfavorable that Congress amended a funding bill to forbid further US activity in Vietnam.
With US bombing ended, the Ho Chi Minh trail and other communist supply routes could be used without fear. Emboldened by this fact, the Hanoi government planned another offensive against the South, to begin in 1975. Things went from bad to worse for South Vietnam. After Nixon resigned in disgrace, Congress cut financial aid to the country by 30%. South Vietnam's economy collapsed, and the chaos caused by the rapid loss of US ground troops caused morale to plummet among their troops.
Fall of Saigon
In 1975, the Spring Offensive began; it was expected to be a two-year slog to get to Saigon. As it was, North Vietnamese troops were able to rapidly advance southward. Due to the speed of their successes, Hanoi abandoned their previous rule of meticulously planning their attacks, and they instead launched one final rapid push to Saigon. Facing the extraordinary military failure, the president of South Vietnam resigned, blaming the US for the fall of his government.
North Vietnamese troops encircled Saigon, and the new president, who had held the office for only two days, chose to surrender the city rather than engage in futile bloodshed. The minimal US presence still in the city was evacuated by chopper, along with thousands of Vietnamese refugees. Communist forces captured all parts of the city and declared the government of South Vietnam dissolved, ending the war at last.
War crimes and atrocities
United States and South Vietnam
“”It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.
|—Unnamed US major tries to explain the bombing of Ben Tre village, which killed hundreds of civilians.|
My Lai massacre
One of the most infamous episodes of the Vietnam War occurred when US forces killed between 350 and 500 Vietnamese civilians in the small hamlet of My Lai. US intelligence believed there to be a Viet Cong unit in the village, and commanders ordered their subordinates to treat any individuals in My Lai as either Viet Cong fighters or sympathizers. Under these orders, US troops were free to fire on anyone and anything. US troops were also ordered to destroy crops, buildings, and livestock.
Although there was an investigation, only 24 of the 200 participating soldiers were ever charged with any crimes, and only one of those men was convicted. The Peers
Omission Commission, which was tasked with investigating the incident actually covered up the fact that the overall commander of US forces in Vietnam, General Westmoreland despite the fact that the general directive to treat civilians as Viet Cong originated with him.
Other war crimes
Among the charges that the Pentagon investigated was the Son Thang massacre, in which US forces slaughtered five women and eleven children before reporting the dead as suspected Viet Cong. Indeed, the My Lai massacre was no isolated incident. War crimes were nearly ubiquitous during the American campaign due to the general disregard for Vietnamese civilians and the search-and-destroy tactics, although few incidents had such a high body count as My Lai. Documents declassified by the Pentagon in the early 2000's show that the US military itself was able to verify no less than 320 incidents of war crimes committed by US soldiers. The 9,000 page Pentagon report contain sworn statements, investigative reports, and situation reports to top brass that describe constant attacks on ordinary Vietnamese civilians: families in their homes, farmers in rice paddies, etc. Hundreds of soldiers, in interviews with investigators and letters to commanders, described a violent minority who murdered, raped and tortured with impunity. Rapes committed by US servicemen were depressingly common.
Among the substantiated cases in the Pentagon archive:
- Seven massacres from 1967 through 1971 in which at least 137 civilians died.
- 78 other attacks on noncombatants in which at least 57 were killed, 56 wounded and 15 sexually assaulted.
- 141 instances in which U.S. soldiers tortured civilian detainees or prisoners of war with fists, sticks, bats, water or electric shock.
Incidents were rarely prosecuted, and soldiers convicted would usually only serve a fraction of their prison sentence.
South Vietnam was, if anything, even worse. Their soldiers and government were responsible for many, many counter-guerrilla murders of civilians, numbering between 100,000 and 300,000. South Vietnamese soldiers frequently abused prisoners by torturing them, confining them in tiny cages, and denying them food. South Vietnamese torture programs were conducted with assistance from the CIA.
Another controversial and harmful US strategy was the use of chemical defoliants on large parts of the Vietnamese jungle. This was done in an attempt to deprive the Viet Cong of jungles in which to hide and launch guerrilla attacks. Companies like Dow Chemical and Monsanto were responsible for manufacturing the herbicides.
The chemical warfare program began under the Kennedy administration and quickly escalated to overt use of herbicides on rice plants in order to intentionally create a famine and starve the Viet Cong and North Vietnam. The unofficial motto of this program among the participating soldiers and pilots was "Only you can prevent a forest."
As US involvement in the war escalated, so too did the defoliant program; it hit its peak in 1967 with a million and a half acres sprayed that year. The program proved to be counterproductive, as the peasants whom the US hoped to win over to their cause tended to not be happy about the US destroying their crops and food supply. Oops.
The program successfully destroyed vast swathes of Vietnam's countryside, 5 million acres in total, 500,000 of which was cropland, and it's estimated it will take another century for the damage done to Vietnam's environment to heal. Meanwhile, the chemicals caused a horrific array of illnesses among the Vietnamese civilian population, the effects of which are still present to this day.
North Vietnam/Viet Cong
The brutality of the Viet Cong terrorist campaign (provided one defines terrorism as committed by non-state actors) is among the most lethal of the Twentieth Century with an estimated 18,000 civilians murdered between 1966 and 1969. The North Vietnamese advance southward was also marked by brutality towards the civilian population, as people were either massacred or kidnapped for slave labor. One of the worst instances was the Massacre at Hue during the Tet Offensive, in which between 3,000 and 6,000 noncombatants and POWs were slaughtered. Corpses of the victims were found bound, often tortured, often buried alive, and some were simply beaten to death.
Perhaps the most infamous of the communist atrocities during the Vietnam War is the infliction of torture on prisoners of war. The Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, formerly used by France's colonial garrison, became the primary location in which North Vietnam kept its American prisoners. Among those incarcerated in the "Hanoi Hilton" as it was dubbed was former US Senator John McCain. Prisoners endured years of solitary confinement, and that only if they weren't healthy enough to withstand repeated rounds of torture.
There are two principle arguments for the USA's grand strategy in Indochina. The first is "The System worked" Argument first advanced by Leslie H. Gelb in 1971, which is essentially that Vietnam was the intended product of US policy and the USA accomplished its essential objectives in Vietnam. Fighting Communism there was a way of demonstrating the intangible factor of 'Resolve' against the Communist menace, 'Commitment' to even the least valuable of the USA's allies (as in Korea), and making an 'Example' of Vietnam to show the world why you should let Uncle Sam mess with you. At the time this argument was controversial since it asserted that Truman and all subsequent US administrations never believed that a final victory over regular and irregular Communist forces in the region was possible. This argument is basically correct, but its weakness at the time and subsequently is that it sounds implausible to US citizens. This is because the US schooling system and media corporations give credence to government rhetoric, which stresses humanitarian values.
The second argument is the "Quagmire" one advanced by contemporary figures such as Henry Kissinger in 1979, which is that Vietnam was an accident and that the war in Vietnam was an ill-advised failure. It was not totally baseless. The Loss of China and domestic Red Scare did cause Indochina experts to self-censure to avoid sounding too critical of the French and later Diem governments in order to not indict themselves as Communists. For instance it was unwise to say that the Diem government was at best tolerated and often resented because it was trying to ram Catholicism down the Buddhist population's throats: obviously the population was only unhappy with Christian rule because ubiquitous (rare) Soviet (Vietnamese) propaganda (accurate reports) were deceiving the population. Moreover by the time that the French had lost the First Indochina War in 1954 and the USA therefore had to step up its presence in the region, actual experts realised that final victory was impossible and so avoided sticking out their necks to give accurate advice on how to prosecute the war efficiently: it would last forever and couldn't be definitively 'won', so why even try?
There are a further two arguments for why the USA decided to 'stay the course' and keep fighting in Vietnam once ignorance of the multi-decade nature of the commitment evaporated. The first is part of Gelb's "The System Worked" thesis, and the second was advanced by the Pentagon Papers' Daniel Ellsberg - the "Cycles of Optimism and Pessimism" thesis. Both agree that over time the rhetoric that was publicly used to justify the US presence in Vietnam ('Resolve', Commitment', Freedom', 'Fighting Aggression', 'No More Munich Agreements'), present commitments, and prior sacrifices made it increasingly unattractive for US leaders to withdraw. So instead they prolonged and escalated the conflict. The arguments differ in that Gelb asserted that each administration tended towards the minimum commitment necessary to keep the war going and so avoid losing it while they were in office, since they knew the war couldn't be won (in their lifetime) and never believed that it could: it was just that the 'minimum' necessary commitment escalated as the war did. Ellsberg believed that some senior leaders, at times, genuinely believed that the war might be won in the distant or even near future as a result of some short-term gains like the killing of X-many "enemies" or deportation of Y-many villages to monitored compounds.
“”I don't want these fucking medals, man! The Silver Star--the third highest medal in the country--it doesn't mean anything! Bob Smeal died for these medals; Lieutenant Panamaroff died so I got a medal; Sergeant Johns died so I got a medal; I got a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, Army Commendation medal, eight air medals, national defense, and the rest of this garbage--it doesn't mean a thing!
|—Ron Ferrizzi, former helicopter crew chief and member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), before hurling his medals onto the Capitol steps during a VVAW protest on April 23, 1971.|
The Vietnam War has continued to become an argument point in major political campaigns. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney were all tarred as some sort of draft-dodger, and the GOP-funded Swift Boat Veterans for Truth sank Purple Heart-awarded John Kerry's presidential bid in 2004 by accusing him of conduct unbecoming of a soldier. Even though there have been veterans, often even generals, from every major war but the Korean War — including George Washington (American Revolutionary War), Andrew Jackson (War of 1812), Zachary Taylor (Mexican-American War), Ulysses S. Grant (American Civil War), Theodore Roosevelt (Spanish-American War), Harry Truman (World War I), and Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy (World War II) who became President, there likely will not be one from Vietnam.
- Kent State
- Vietnam syndrome
- Pentagon Papers
- Pol Pot
- John McCain
- 26th Amendment
- Anti-war songs
- Korean War
- Spanish-American War
- The Lessons of Vietnam: Robert McNamara's View, Christian Science Monitor (Prescient, eh?)
- Would nukes have helped in Vietnam? - Debunking one of the most batty, and still prevalent, talking points by war hawks.
- Dien Bien Phu: 1954 battle changed Vietnam's history, CNN
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- Cold War: An International History (2017), p. 124
-  In 1967, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara commissioned RAND Corporation Analyst Dr. Daniel Ellsberg to write a study explaining to the State Department how they could win the war. By the time he completed it, he concluded that America was not "on the wrong side, we were the wrong side" and dropped a photocopy at the New York Times, in case they were interested. ;)
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- An era of the original anti-apartheid movement in South Africa's Communist Party as well.
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- Palmarian Bishops
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- Generations Divide Over Military Action in Iraq Pew Research Center. "Similar Age Gap in Persian Gulf, Vietnam". OCT 17, 2002
- McNamara, Robert S.; Blight, James G.; Brigham, Robert K.; Biersteker, Thomas J.; Schandler, Herbert (1999). Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy. New York: PublicAffairs. ISBN 978-1891620874. p. 349–51.
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- See the Wikipedia article on Search and destroy.
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- Stearns, Montreagle,testimony to US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, October 1969, printed in Branfman, Fred, Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War (Madison, 2013) p.36
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- See the Wikipedia article on Operation Menu.
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- See the Wikipedia article on Case-Church Amendment.
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- See the Wikipedia article on Vietnam War Crimes Working Group.
- See the Wikipedia article on Son Thang massacre.
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- 5 million acres of forests defoliated. 500,000 acres of cropland destroyed. And that was just the beginning.
- 20 Million Gallons over 10 Years.
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- Hoa Lo Prison Facts
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- Gelb, Leslie H., “How the System Worked” (1971), printed in Ed. by Kimball, Jeffrey P., To Reason Why: The Debate About the Causes of U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War (USA, 1990)
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- A Disrespectful Loyalty Erenow