The Vietnam War was one of the deadliest and most controversial wars in history. An entanglement of Cold War policies, misunderstandings, and over-confident presumptions, the war resulted in millions killed, wounded, or missing and more bombs dropped on the country of Vietnam than any country in history. For many of the Vietnamese people, it was a brutal civil war after a hundred years of colonization, with each side feeling they were fighting for independence. For Americans, it is considered one of the most divisive periods in the United States since the American Civil War. As Vietnamese novelist and former soldier Bao Ninh said, "In war, no one wins or loses. There is only destruction. Only those who have never fought talk about winning and losing".
The U.S. Department of Defense lists the dates of the Vietnam War as from November 1, 1955 to April 30, 1975. It was a civil war fought between communist North Vietnam, led by Hồ Chí Minh and his successor Le Duan, against the government of South Vietnam, led by a succession of presidents from Ngô Đình Diệm to Nguyễn Văn Thiệu.
The war was also considered a proxy war of the Cold War. North Vietnam was supported by communist countries: the People's Republic of China, led by Mao Zedong, and the Soviet Union, led by Nikita Krushchev. South Vietnam was supported by the United States under the leadership of 5 different presidents from both parties: Dwight D. Eisenhower until 1961, John F. Kennedy until 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson until 1969, Richard M. Nixon until 1974, and Gerald R. Ford who was president during the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Dwight Eisenhower first mentioned his reasoning for backing the South Vietnamese in a press conference on April 7, 1954. He said, "Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the 'falling domino' principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences." Eisenhower believed that if Vietnam fell to communism, then the rest of Southeast Asia would quickly follow suit like dominos falling. The Domino Theory became the basis of the United States' foreign policy during the Cold War and was used to justify America's military involvement around the world - to keep countries from falling to communist regimes.
Since 1954, every American president for the next twenty years made decisions that further escalated the United States' involvement in Vietnam as the strength of the communist government and army of the North Vietnamese grew. Over the course of the war, billions would be spent on military equipment and approximately 2,700,000 American men and women were sent overseas to serve in Vietnam. The Vietnam War was the first war that the United States was involved in where it failed to fulfill the goal it had promised - to keep South Vietnam from becoming communist. There was much controversy surrounding the war and the country was divided between those who supported the war and those who were against it. Many Americans felt disillusioned when they discovered the government was not being transparent. Others felt that the war itself was immoral. They saw reports of U.S. soldiers engaging in brutality and civilians needlessly killed. Still, others felt that the unjust racism and sexism that existed on the home front needed our attention rather than the war. Because of this, the Vietnam War was also the first time American veterans returned home to animosity and antagonism rather than being welcomed as heroes.
Vietnam is a beautiful country located in Southeast Asia, on the eastern coast of a peninsula that was called Indochina by the French, who had colonized it. It has a picturesque landscape of rich, fertile land, winding rivers such as the Mekong in the south and the Red in the north, marshy plains or deltas, tropical forests, massive green mountains, and a thousand mile coastline along the South China Sea to the east and south. Vietnam is long and narrow and shaped like the letter "S". China lies to the north of Vietnam, and Laos and Cambodia are to the west. Historically, most Vietnamese were farmers living in the countryside. The Vietnam war drove many people to the cities as their villages were destroyed. The Vietnamese have a rich history and culture that dates back 5,000 years. They were some of the first people to practice agriculture thousands of years ago. Many Vietnamese follow the "Three Teachings" of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Throughout the year, there are many colorful festivals such as Tet, the Lunar New Year, when families visit and gather to celebrate with delicious food and honoring their ancestors. Vietnam has a distinct, delicious, and healthy cuisine featuring rice, seafood, and fresh fruits and vegetables. The land is home to many rare animals such as Indochinese tigers, Saola antelopes, and Sumatran rhinos. The landscape and the people have endured unimaginable hardship through occupations and devastating wars, and yet, remain resilient.
Vietnam was victim to many occupations throughout its history. The French colonized Vietnam beginning in 1877. They called the region French Indochina, which included Tonkin, Annam, Cochin China, and Cambodia, and later, Laos. During colonization, the French built cities in the French style and exploited both natural resources and the Vietnamese peoples' labor. During World War II, the Japanese occupied Vietnam, ousting the French. When the Japanese were defeated in 1945, the leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Hồ Chí Minh, gave a speech to the Vietnamese people called the Declaration of Independence. Quoting the American Declaration of Independence, he called on Vietnam to become an independent nation, free from foreign control. He was met with cheers from his people. Hồ Chí Minh believed in the communist ideologies of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. He wanted to bring social justice and economic equality to the Vietnamese people who had suffered and been subordinate to foreign powers for so long. He believed that uniting the country under communism was the way to achieve that.
However, after World War II, the French wanted to take back control of their former colonies. They reasoned that they did not want Vietnam to become a repressive communist country under Hồ Chí Minh. The Cold War had begun with democratic countries like the United States pitted against communist countries like the Soviet Union and China. The French also desired to maintain the resources, wealth, and strategic influence that their former colonies provided. The French attempted for ten years to regain and maintain control of Vietnam. This was called the First Indochina War. The French were able to hold the South, but in the North they fought against Hồ Chí Minh and his communist party, the Viet Minh. The fighting ended in 1954 with the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu.
On May 7, 1954, the French-held Dien Bien Phu in North Vietnam fell to Hồ Chí Minh's communist army, led by General Võ Nguyên Giáp, after a long four month siege. In July 1954, a peace treaty was signed: the Geneva Agreement. The agreement was signed by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union, who had supported North Vietnam and France, and the United Kingdom, who desired that South Vietnam remain non-communist. According to the agreements, the French would withdraw their troops from North Vietnam and Vietnam would temporarily be divided into two halves along the 17th parallel: the communist North and the non-communist South. The Geneva Agreements stated that there would be elections held within two years for a president that would reunite the country, however that didn't happen.
After the Geneva Agreements officially divided Vietnam, the United States gave aid to South Vietnam to help prop up the non-communist government. In the South, there were many people who were against communism. Hồ Chí Minh had introduced repressive "land reforms" in North Vietnam from 1953-1956 that collectivized farmland and forced people to work on the farms in brutal conditions. Hundreds of thousands of people fled from North Vietnam to the South. However, in the South, there was also mistrust of the South Vietnamese government. The president of South Vietnam, Ngô Đình Diệm, had refused to offer free elections and was known to be corrupt. Diệm was Catholic and was not sympathetic to the Buddhist majority. The United States supported him anyway, in favor of him over the communists.
In 1957, a communist rebel force grew in South Vietnam. They called themselves the National Liberation Front (NLF) but the United States called them the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong were allied with the North and were bent on defeating the South Vietnamese government and turning the South over to communism. Fighting ensued between the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese Army or the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam). The United States supported the ARVN and sent in military equipment and advisors.
In March 1959, Hồ Chí Minh called on his citizens to rise up and declared a "People's War" to unite both the North and the South under communism. Then in September 1960, Hồ Chí Minh fell ill. He turned over most of his control to communist leader, Le Duan. Hồ Chí Minh would remain a powerful and inspirational figurehead to his people, but the strategy for the rest of the war was in Le Duan's hands.
In May 1961, President Kennedy sent the Green Berets, the elite U.S. Army Special Forces, to the Central Highlands of Vietnam to organize South Vietnamese to fight against the Viet Cong. The United States was now taking direct action in the war. In January 1962, President Kennedy authorized the spraying of Agent Orange and other herbicides and defoliants in South Vietnam for the purpose of killing crops and forests that would offer food and cover to the Viet Cong guerrilla forces. Agent Orange was later found to have horrific side effects. In addition to devastating the land, it caused disease and birth defects.
While the fighting between the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese Army continued, South Vietnamese President Diem was angering his citizens by mistreating Buddhists in favor of the Catholic minority. In an incident in May 1963, the South Vietnamese government fired upon a crowd of Buddhist protestors, killing 8 people including children. In June of the same year, a Buddhist monk protested the South Vietnamese government by lighting himself on fire; the images from the scene became famous and shocked the world. President Diem's sister-in-law, the arrogant and power hungry Madame Nhu, did little to help the strife. She is quoted as saying, “Let them burn and we shall clap our hands. If the Buddhists wish to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline and a match.”
The people of South Vietnam were desperate to rid themselves of the corrupt President Diem and his cruel family. In November of 1963, President Kennedy secretly approved the U.S. to aid a military coup to overthrow Diem. Kennedy was shocked, however, when President Diem was immediately assassinated after his surrender on November 2, 1963. Many South Vietnamese celebrated the end of Diem's repressive rule but the country became more destabilized. The United States increased its involvement to keep the communists from taking over during this period of chaos. Three weeks later, President Kennedy was tragically assassinated on November 22, 1963 while visiting Dallas, Texas.
After Kennedy's death, his Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, became president. Johnson was determined that South Vietnam not fall to communism. He said, “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” (November 24, 1963).
The United States continued to send advisors and equipment to South Vietnam. A turning point occurred in August 1964 with the controversial Gulf of Tonkin incident. The U.S, said that North Vietnamese patrol boats fired on two U.S. Navy destroyers. It was later found to be more complicated, as the U.S. destroyers had been on a mission against North Vietnam at the time. Because of this, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which stated that the United States may “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression”. This Resolution authorized military action in the region, which allowed Johnson to send in the US ground troops and for the first time since their involvement in the war. The United States was also going to bomb North Vietnam for the first time.
In turn, the Soviet Union and China increased their support of North Vietnam with weapons, engineering equipment, food, and medical supplies. In addition, North Vietnam began to send its regular soldiers, the NVA (North Vietnamese Army), down into South Vietnam to assist the Viet Cong.
In November 1964, Johnson won re-election and in March, 1965, the first official U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam. Secret memos later revealed that many in Washington knew that the situation in Vietnam was dire and that defeating the North Vietnamese would prove costly and possibly unachievable. Johnson reportedly said, "I feel like a jackass being caught in a Texas hailstorm. I can't run, I can't hide and I can't make it stop." Despite these private feelings, in July 1965, President Johnson called for more ground troops, increasing the draft to 35,000 each month. In 1966, the U.S. troop numbers in Vietnam rose to 400,000 and by 1967, there were 500,000.
In September 1967, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu was elected South Vietnam's new president. Many battles caused huge losses on both sides. However, the United States relayed to the public that it was confident that they were defeating the North Vietnamese. One of their measures of success was body count, or the number of enemy soldiers killed in an engagement or operation. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military felt they were successful as long as the number of North Vietnamese or Viet Cong soldiers killed exceeded their own.
Then, in January 1968, the North Vietnamese launched what is known as the Tet Offensive. 70,000 North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces launched a coordinated series of attacks on more than 100 cities and towns all across South Vietnam, including major cities of Hue and the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon. The U.S. Embassy was even invaded. The attacks shocked the United States and became a turning point in the war. It was the beginning of a major lack of confidence that the North Vietnamese could be defeated.
At this time, anti-war protests began to occur more frequently in the United States. Some Americans protested the deaths of civilians at the hands of American bombs and troops. Some protested sending their sons to war, not wanting them to risk their lives for a cause that they didn't believe in. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers were dying every week. While the Pentagon was looking at "body count" as a measure of success, many Americans felt that any number of U.S. casualties was too high a price. For the first time in history, news and images from the front lines were broadcast every night on the nightly news in graphic detail. On March 16, 1968, U.S. troops committed a horrific massacre at Mai Lai. More than 500 civilians were brutally murdered by U.S. troops, including women, children, and babies. The imagery and news reports from the front lines led some Americans to believe the war was either immoral or unwinnable or both. Some saw the Vietnam War as one with no end. In an address called "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution" on March 31, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind, and the best way to start is to put an end to war in Vietnam, because if it continues, we will inevitably come to the point of confronting China which could lead the whole world to nuclear annihilation. It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence." Martin Luther King, Jr. was tragically shot and killed days later on April 4, 1968.
President Johnson did not seek re-election, saying that his focus should be on his duties as president and not on campaigning. In November, 1968, Richard M. Nixon won the U.S. presidential election by promising to restore "law and order" in response to the many anti-war protests occurring across the nation. He also promised to end the draft that so many Americans had come to resent. In 1968 there were 540,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. In 1969, Nixon instituted a "draft lottery." He felt that this would make the draft system more equitable. At the same time, he began a slow withdrawal of U.S. troops in Vietnam, saying that there would be a gradual "Vietnamization" of the war. The plan was to help the Southern Vietnamese armies get strong enough to fight on their own without U.S. presence.
In September 1969, Hồ Chí Minh died of a heart attack in Hanoi, resulting in much mourning in North Vietnam of their idolized patriarch. However, Le Duan and others continued to lead the cause and the war continued. While preliminary peace talks between all the parties of the war had begun in 1968, they stalled and nothing was accomplished. In 1970, President Nixon sent his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, to negotiate a peace with Le Duc Tho of the Hanoi government. These talks did not include all parties and were meant to circumvent the process for a faster peace. While on one hand negotiating for peace, Nixon ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia where the U.S. suspected there were communist base camps and supply zones. These actions continued to aggravate anti-war sentiment at home. Increase in anti-war protests continued in the United States, one of which resulted in the tragic Kent State Shooting. On May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen fired on anti-war demonstrators at Ohio’s Kent State University. Four students were killed and nine were wounded. Many were shocked. Some blamed the protestors, others felt that the military was not only killing those in Vietnam but also their own at home.
The U.S. continued to steadily reduce its troops in Vietnam and by 1971 U.S. troops were reduced to 140,000. Peace talks also continued but all the while, battles raged. Then in June 1971, a metaphorical bomb was dropped at home. The New York Times published a series of articles describing leaked documents from the Department of Defense about the war. These were known as the Pentagon Papers. They demonstrated that the U.S. government had not been transparent about its actions in Vietnam and had steadily increased U.S. involvement while downplaying it to the public. Public trust in government fell to an all time low.
President Nixon continued to withdraw troops and by 1972 there were 69,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. However in March 1972, the North Vietnamese launched another major attack known as the Easter Offensive. In turn, in December 1972, President Nixon ordered an air offensive that dropped 20,000 tons of bombs on densely populated regions in North Vietnam around Hanoi and Haiphong. After these deadly attacks, in January 1973 a Peace Agreement was finally reached.
The Paris Peace Accords were an agreement between the U.S. and North Vietnam to end the Vietnam War. They were negotiated by Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. Both men were awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, but Le Duc Tho refused to accept it. The Accords were signed on January 27, 1973 by the governments of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, the U.S., and the Viet Cong. The Agreement would remove all remaining U.S. Forces in exchange for the return of POWs. There were 591 U.S. Prisoners of War, including future U.S. Senator, John McCain. Direct U.S. military intervention was ended, and fighting between the three remaining powers temporarily stopped (for less than a day).
While U.S. troops officially left Vietnam, Nixon made a promise to South Vietnamese President Thiệu that he would assist if the South's sovereignty was threatened by the North. However in August, 1974, President Nixon resigned as he faced impeachment due to the Watergate scandal. Vice President Gerald R. Ford became president and in January 1975, he declared that the U.S. military had ended its involvement in Vietnam.
After the Paris Peace Accords and the withdrawal of American troops, the North Vietnamese took advantage of the U.S. departure and began a campaign to take over all of South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese forces tried to hold them back but could not. When the United States did nothing to retaliate, the North Vietnamese continued to lay siege until they took the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon swiftly on April 30, 1975. While the U.S. helped to evacuate thousands, more than 120,000 people fled Vietnam after the North Vietnamese captured Saigon. Saigon radio played its final message: "This will be the final message from Saigon Station. It has been a long fight and we have lost ... Those who fail to learn from history are forced to repeat it.... Saigon signing off." By July 1975, North and South Vietnam were formally united under the communist government and renamed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The Vietnam War had devastating consequences. It is estimated that 2 million Vietnamese civilians on both sides were killed during the course of the war. Approximately 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers were killed. Around 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and 58,220 American soldiers lost their lives. Over 2 million men and women served in Vietnam and many who survived came home with injuries both mental and physical. Many were grieved to return to an atmosphere that didn't honor their sacrifices. The objective of keeping South Vietnam anti-communist had failed. The United States' actions during the war caused many to question America's morality and the transparency of its government. It called into question what it meant to be a patriot. John Kerry, Vietnam Veteran said, "I saw courage both in the Vietnam War and in the struggle to stop it. I learned that patriotism includes protest, not just military service." Former President Richard Nixon claimed, "No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now." It is important to teach today's students the facts, different perspectives, and all the nuances of the Vietnam War. There was death, destruction, and cruelty on all sides. There was also bravery and self-sacrifice on all sides. Today's students are the leaders of tomorrow and would do well to heed the lessons learned from those tumultuous twenty years.
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