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, ðà 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:
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.
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’état 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 ðà 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
When some of the soldiers of the U.S. 9th Marine Regiment landed in ðà 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.
FIRE SUPPORT BASE CROOK’S GROUND ATTACKS June 1969
V ENDING THE WAR: 1969-1975
Promising an end to the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon won a narrow victory in the election of 1968. Slightly more than 30,000 young Americans had been killed in the war when Nixon took office in January 1969. The new president retained his predecessor’s goal of a non-Communist South Vietnam, however, and this could not be ensured without continuing the war. Nixon’s most pressing problem was how to make peace and war at the same time. His answer was a policy called “Vietnamization.” Under this policy, he would withdraw American troops and the South Vietnamese army would take over the fighting.
A Nixon’s Vietnamization During his campaign for the presidency, Nixon announced that he had a secret plan to end the war. In July 1969, after he had become president, he issued what came to be known as the Nixon doctrine, which stated that U.S. troops would no longer be directly involved in Asian wars. He ordered the withdrawal of 25,000 troops, to be followed by more, and he lowered draft calls. On the other hand, Nixon also stepped up the Phoenix Program, a secret CIA operation that resulted in the assassination of 20,000 suspected NLF guerrillas, many of whom were innocent civilians. The operation increased funding for the ARVN and intensified the bombing of North Vietnam. Nixon reasoned that to keep the Communists at bay during the U.S. withdrawal, it was also necessary to bomb their sanctuaries in Cambodia and to increase air strikes against Laos.
The DRV leadership, however, remained committed to the expulsion of all U.S. troops from Vietnam and to the overthrow of the Saigon government. As U.S. troop strength diminished, Hanoi’s leaders planned their final offensive. While the ARVN had increased in size and was better armed than it had been in 1965, it could not hold its own without the help of heavy U.S. air power.
B Failed Peace Negotiations Johnson had initiated peace negotiations after the first phase of the Tet Offensive. Beginning in Paris on May 13, 1968, the talks rapidly broke down over disagreements about the status of the NLF, which the Saigon government refused to recognize. In October 1968, just before the U.S. presidential elections, candidate Hubert Humphrey called for a negotiated settlement, but Nixon secretly persuaded South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu to hold out for better terms under a Nixon administration. Stating that he would never negotiate with Communists, Thieu caused the Paris talks to collapse and contributed to Humphrey’s defeat as well.
Nixon thus inherited the Paris peace talks, but they continued to remain stalled as each faction refused to alter its position. Hanoi insisted on the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, the removal of the Saigon government, and its replacement through free elections that would include the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG), which the NLF created in June 1969 to take over its governmental role in the south and serve as a counterpart to the Saigon government. The United States, on the other hand, insisted that all North Vietnamese troops be withdrawn.
C Invasion of Cambodia
In March 1969 Nixon ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia. Intended to wipe out North Vietnamese and NLF base camps along the border with South Vietnam in order to provide time for the buildup of the ARVN, the campaign failed utterly. The secret bombing lasted four years and caused great destruction and upheaval in Cambodia, a land of farmers that had not known war in centuries. Code-named Operation Menu, the bombing was more intense than that carried out over Vietnam. An estimated 100,000 peasants died in the bombing, while 2 million people were left homeless.
In April 1970 Nixon ordered U.S. troops into Cambodia. He argued that this was necessary to protect the security of American units then in the process of withdrawing from Vietnam, but he also wanted to buy security for the Saigon regime. When Nixon announced the invasion, U.S. college campuses erupted in protest, and one-third of them shut down due to student walkouts. At Kent State University in Ohio four students were killed by panicky national guardsmen who had been called up to prevent rioting. Two days later, two students were killed at Jackson State College in Mississippi. Congress proceeded to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Congress also passed the Cooper-Church Amendment, which specifically forbade the use of U.S. troops outside South Vietnam. The measure did not expressly forbid bombing, however, so Nixon continued the air strikes on Cambodia until 1973.
Three months after committing U.S. forces, Nixon ordered them to withdraw from Cambodia. The combined effects of the bombing and the invasion, however, had completely disrupted Cambodian life, driving millions of peasants from their ancestral lands. The right-wing government then in power in Cambodia was supported by the United States, and the government was blamed for allowing the bombing to occur. Farmers who had never concerned themselves with politics now flooded to the Communist opposition group, the Khmer Rouge. After a gruesome civil war, the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and became one of the bloodiest regimes of the 20th century.
D Campaign in Laos The United States began conducting secret bombing of Laos in 1964, targeting both the North Vietnamese forces along sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Communist Pathet Lao guerrillas, who controlled the northern part of the country. Roughly 150,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the Plain of Jars in northern Laos between 1964 and 1969. By 1970 at least one-quarter of the entire population of Laos were refugees, and about 750,000 Lao had been killed.
Prohibited by the Cooper-Church Amendment from deploying U.S. troops and anxious to demonstrate the fighting prowess of the improved ARVN, Nixon took the advice of General Creighton Abrams and attempted to cut vital Communist supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. On February 8, 1971, 21,000 ARVN troops, supported by American B-52 bombers, invaded Laos. Intended to disrupt any North Vietnamese and NLF plans for offensives and to test the strength of the ARVN, this operation was as much a failure as the Cambodian invasion. Abrams claimed 14,000 North Vietnamese casualties, but over 9000 ARVN soldiers were killed or wounded, while the rest were routed and expelled from Laos.
The success of Vietnamization seemed highly doubtful, since the Communist forces showed that the new ARVN could be defeated. Instead of inhibiting the Communist Pathet Lao, the U.S. attacks on Laos promoted their rise. In 1958 the Pathet Lao had the support of one-third of the population; by 1973 a majority denied the legitimacy of the U.S.-supported Royal Lao Government. By 1975 a Communist government was established in Laos.
E Bombing of North Vietnam In the spring of 1972, with only 6000 U.S. combat troops remaining in South Vietnam, the DRV leadership decided the time had come to crush the ARVN. On March 30 over 30,000 North Vietnamese troops crossed the Demilitarized Zone, along with another 150,000 PRG fighters, and attacked Quang Trí Province, easily scattering ARVN defenders. The attack, known as the Easter Offensive, could not have come at a worse time for Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. A military defeat of the ARVN would leave the United States in a weak position at the Paris peace talks and would compromise its strategic position globally.
Risking the success of the upcoming Moscow summit, Nixon unleashed the first sustained bombing of North Vietnam since 1969 and moved quickly to mine the harbor of Haiphong. Between April and October 1972 the United States conducted 41,000 sorties over North Vietnam, especially targeting Quang Trí. North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive was crushed. At least 100,000 Communist troops were killed. The ailing Vo Nguyen Giap, founder of North Vietnam’s army, was forced into retirement and succeeded by Van Tien Dung, who counseled the renewal of negotiations with the United States.
Further negotiations were held in Paris between Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, who represented North Vietnam. Seeking an end to the war before the U.S. presidential elections in November, Kissinger made remarkable concessions. The United States would withdraw completely, while accepting the presence of 14 North Vietnamese divisions in South Vietnam and recognizing the political legitimacy of the PRG. Hanoi would drop its insistence on the resignation of Nguyen van Thieu, who had become president of South Vietnam in 1967. Kissinger announced on October 27 that “peace was at hand.” Thieu, however, accused the United States of selling him out and Nixon refused to sign the agreement.
After the 1972 elections, Kissinger attempted to revise the agreements he had already made. North Vietnam refused to consider these revisions, and Kissinger threatened to renew air assaults against North Vietnam unless the new conditions were met. Nixon then unleashed at Christmas the final and most intense bombing of the war over Hanoi and Haiphong.
F United States Withdrawal
While many U.S. officials were convinced that Hanoi was bombed back to the negotiating table, the final treaty changed nothing significant from what had already been agreed to by Kissinger and Tho in October. Nixon’s Christmas Bombing was intended to warn Hanoi that American air power remained a threat, and he secretly promised Thieu that the United States would punish North Vietnam should they violate the terms of the final settlement. Nixon’s political fortunes were about to decline, however. Although he had won reelection by a landslide in November 1972, he was suffering from revelations about the Watergate scandal. The president’s campaign officials had orchestrated a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, and Nixon had attempted to cover it up by lying to the American people about his role.
The president made new enemies when the secret bombing of Cambodia was revealed at last. Congress was threatening a bill of impeachment and in early January 1973 indicated it would cut off all funding for operations in Indochina once U.S. forces had withdrawn. In mid-January Nixon halted all military actions against North Vietnam.
On January 27, 1973, all four parties to the Vietnam conflict—the United States, South Vietnam, the PRG, and North Vietnam—signed the Treaty of Paris. The final terms provided for the release of all American prisoners of war from North Vietnam; the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from South Vietnam; the end of all foreign military operations in Laos and Cambodia; a cease-fire between North and South Vietnam; the formation of a National Council of Reconciliation to help South Vietnam form a new government; and continued U.S. military and economic aid to South Vietnam. In a secret addition to the treaty Nixon also promised $3.25 billion in reparations for the reconstruction of ravaged North Vietnam, an agreement that Congress ultimately refused to uphold.
G Cease-fire Aftermath On March 29, 1973, the last U.S. troops left Vietnam. Thieu quickly showed that he had no desire to honor the terms of the Paris peace treaty, which he had signed under duress. He issued an order to the ARVN: “If Communists come into your village, shoot them in the head.” Thieu immediately began offensives against PRG villages, in open violation of the treaty. Thieu believed the continued presence of North Vietnamese soldiers on South Vietnamese soil threatened South Vietnam’s existence.
North Vietnam and the PRG refrained from taking any action against the ARVN’s provocation, keeping carefully to the treaty terms (except for maintaining troops in Laos and Cambodia). They insisted that both Saigon and the United States also abide by the treaty. Not wishing to be caught unprepared by treaty violations, the Communists concentrated on logistics and infrastructure by building roads to accommodate the movement of troops.
Meanwhile, the withdrawal of U.S. personnel had resulted in a collapsing economy throughout South Vietnam. Millions had depended on the money spent by Americans in Vietnam. Thieu’s government was ill-equipped to treat the mass unemployment and deepening poverty that resulted from the U.S. withdrawal. The ARVN still received $700 million from the U.S. Congress and was twice the size of the Communist forces, but morale was collapsing. Over 200,000 ARVN soldiers deserted in 1974 in order to be with their families.
Having no faith that the Paris treaty would be implemented, the North Vietnamese set 1975 as the year to mount their final offensive. They believed it would take at least two years; the rapid collapse of the ARVN was therefore a surprise even to them. After the initial attack by the North Vietnamese in the Central Highlands northeast of Saigon on January 7, the ARVN immediately began to fall apart. On March 25 the ancient imperial city of Hue fell; then on March 29, ðà Nang, the former U.S. Marine headquarters, was overtaken. On April 20 Thieu resigned, accusing the United States of betrayal. His successor was Duong Van Minh, who had been among those who overthrew Diem in 1963. On April 30 Minh issued his unconditional surrender to the PRG. Almost 30 years after Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of independence, Vietnam was finally unified.
VI THE TROOPS
In the United States, military conscription, or the draft, had been in place virtually without interruption since the end of World War II, but volunteers generally predominated in combat units. When the first U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam in 1965 they were composed mainly of volunteers. The Air Force, Navy, and Marines were volunteer units. The escalating war, however, required more draftees. In 1965 about 20,000 men per month were inducted into the military, most into the Army; by 1968 about 40,000 young men were drafted each month to meet increased troop levels ordered for Vietnam. The conscript army was largely composed of teenagers; the average age of a U.S. soldier in Vietnam was 19.
Those conscripted were mostly youths from the poorer section of American society, who did not have access to the exemptions that were available to their more privileged fellow citizens. Of the numerous exemptions from military service that Congress had written into law, the most far-reaching were student deferments. The draft laws effectively enabled most upper- and middle-class youngsters to avoid military service. By 1968 it was increasingly evident that the draft system was deeply unfair and discriminatory. Responding to popular pressures, the Selective Service, the agency that administered the draft, instituted a lottery system, which might have produced an army more representative of society at large. Student deferments were kept by Nixon until 1971, however, so as not to alienate middle-class voters. By then his Vietnamization policy had lowered monthly draft calls, and physical exemptions were still easily obtained by the privileged, especially from draft boards in affluent communities.
Both North and South Vietnam also conscripted troops. Revolutionary nationalist ideology was quite strong in the north, and the DRV was able to create an army with well-disciplined, highly motivated troops. It became the fourth-largest army in the world and one of the most experienced. South Vietnam also drafted soldiers, beginning in 1955 when the ARVN was created. Most ARVN conscripts, however, had little personal motivation to fight other than a paycheck. In 1965, 113,000 deserted from the ARVN; by 1972, 20,000 per month were slipping away from the war.
Although equipped with high-tech weaponry that far exceeded the fire power available to its enemies, the ARVN was poorly led and failed most of the time to check its opponents’ actions. United States troops came to dislike and mistrust many ARVN units, accusing them of abandoning the battlefield. The ARVN also suffered from internal corruption. Numerous commanders would claim nonexistent troopers and then pocket the pay intended for those troopers; this practice made some units dangerously understaffed. Many ARVN soldiers were secretly working for the NLF, providing information that undermined the U.S. effort. At various times, battles verging on civil war broke out between troops within the ARVN. Internal disunity on this scale was never an issue among the North Vietnamese troops or the NLF guerrillas.
The armed forces of the United States serving in Vietnam began to suffer from internal dissension and low morale as well. Racism against the Vietnamese troubled many soldiers, particularly those who had experienced racism directed against themselves in the United States. In Vietnam, Americans routinely referred to all Vietnamese, both friend and foe, as “gooks.” This process of dehumanizing the Vietnamese led to many atrocities, including the massacre at My Lai, and it provoked profound misgivings among U.S. troops. The injustice of the Selective Service system also turned soldiers against the war. By 1968 coffeehouses run by soldiers had sprung up at 26 U.S. bases, serving as forums for antiwar activities. At least 250 underground antiwar newspapers were published by active-duty soldiers.
Soldiers sometimes took out their frustrations and resentments on those officers who put their lives at risk. The term “fragging” came to be used to describe soldiers attacking their officers, often tossing fragmentation grenades into the officers’ sleeping quarters. According to one official account, 382 such fragging incidents occurred between 1969 and 1971. Other sources estimate a higher number of fraggings, since many went unreported.
By 1971, as Vietnamization proceeded with U.S. troop withdrawals, no soldier wished to be the last one killed in Vietnam. Consequently, entire units refused to go out on combat patrols, disobeying direct orders. The desertion rate in the Army peaked at 73.5 per 1000 soldiers in 1971, noticeably higher than the peak desertion rates reached during the Korean War and World War II. Another half million men received less than honorable discharges. Vietnam Veterans Against the War was organized in the United States in 1967. By the 1970s the participation of Vietnam veterans in protests against the war in the United States had an important influence on the antiwar movement.
VII RESPONSE TO THE WAR IN THE UNITED STATES
Opposition to the war in the United States developed immediately after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, chiefly among traditional pacifists, such as the American Friends Service Committee and antinuclear activists. Early protests were organized around questions about the morality of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Virtually every key event of the war, including the Tet Offensive and the invasion of Cambodia, contributed to a steady rise in antiwar sentiment. The revelation of the My Lai Massacre in 1969 caused a dramatic turn against the war in national polls.
Students and professors began to organize “teach-ins” on the war in early 1965 at the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California at Berkeley. The teach-ins were large forums for discussion of the war between students and faculty members. Eventually, virtually no college or university was without an organized student movement, often spearheaded by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The first major student-led demonstration against the war was organized by SDS in April 1965 and stunned observers by mobilizing about 20,000 participants. Another important organization was the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which denounced the war as racist as early as 1965. Students also joined The Resistance, an organization that urged its student members to refuse to register for the draft, or if drafted to refuse to serve.
While law enforcement authorities usually blamed student radicals for the violence that took place on campuses, often it was police themselves who initiated bloodshed as they cleared out students occupying campus buildings during “sit-ins” or street demonstrations. As antiwar sentiment mounted in intensity from 1965 to 1970 so did violence, culminating in the killings of four students at Kent State in Ohio and of two at Jackson State College in Mississippi.
Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and other black leaders denounced the U.S. presence in Vietnam as evidence of American imperialism. Martin Luther King, Jr., had grown increasingly concerned about the racist nature of the war, toward both the Vietnamese and the disproportionately large numbers of young blacks who were sent to fight for the United States in Vietnam. In 1967 King delivered a major address at New York’s Riverside Church in which he condemned the war, calling the United States “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.”
On October 15, 1969, citizens across the United States participated in The Moratorium, the largest one-day demonstration against the war. Millions of people stayed home from work to mark their opposition to the war; college and high school students demonstrated on hundreds of campuses. A Baltimore judge even interrupted court proceedings for a moment of reflection on the war. In Vietnam, troops wore black armbands in honor of the home-front protest. Nixon claimed there was a “great silent majority” who supported the war and he called on them to back his policies. Polls showed, however, that at that time half of all Americans felt that the war was “morally indefensible,” while 60 percent admitted that it was a mistake. In November 1969 students from all over the country headed for Washington, D.C., for the Mobilization Against the War. Over 40,000 participated in a March Against Death from Arlington National Cemetery to the White House, each carrying a placard with the name of a young person killed in Vietnam.
Opposition existed even among conservatives and business leaders, for primarily economic reasons. The government was spending more than $2 billion per month on the war by 1967. Some U.S. corporations, ranging from beer distributors to manufacturers of jet aircraft, benefited greatly from this money initially, but the high expense of the war began to cause serious inflation and rising tax rates. Some corporate critics warned of future costs to care for the wounded. Labor unions were also becoming increasingly militant in opposition to the war, as they were forced to respond to the concerns of their members that the draft was imposing an unfair burden on working-class people.
Another factor that turned public opinion against the war was the publication of the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971, by the New York Times. Compiled secretly by the U.S. Department of Defense, the papers were a complete history of the involvement of numerous government agencies in the Vietnam War. They showed a clear pattern of deception toward the public. One of the senior analysts compiling this history, Daniel Ellsberg, secretly photocopied key documents and gave them to the New York Times. Subsequently, support for Nixon’s war policies plummeted, and polls showed that 60 percent of the public now considered the war “immoral,” while 70 percent demanded an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.
The Vietnam War cost the United States $130 billion directly, and at least that amount in indirect costs, such as veterans’ and widows’ benefits and the search for Americans Missing-in-Action (MIAs). The war also spurred serious inflation, contributing to a substantially increased cost of living in the United States between 1965 and 1975, with continued repercussions thereafter. More than 58,000 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam. Over 300,000 U.S. soldiers were wounded, half of them very seriously. No accurate accounting has ever been made of U.S civilians (U.S. government agents, religious missionaries, Red Cross nurses) killed throughout Indochina.
After returning from the war, many Vietnam veterans suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is characterized by persistent emotional problems including anxiety and depression. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 20,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide in the war’s aftermath. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, unemployment and rates of prison incarceration for Vietnam veterans, especially those having seen heavy combat, were significantly higher than in the general population.
Having felt ignored or disrespected both by the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) and by traditional organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, Vietnam veterans have formed their own self-help groups. Collectively, they forced the Veterans Administration to establish storefront counseling centers, staffed by veterans, in every major city. The national organization, Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), has become one of the most important service organizations lobbying in Washington, D.C.
Also in the capital, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1982 to commemorate the U.S. personnel who died or were declared missing in action in Vietnam. The memorial, which consists of a V-shaped black granite wall etched with more than 58,000 names, was at first a source of controversy because it does not glorify the military but invites somber reflection. The Asian ancestry of its prizewinning designer, Maya Lin, was also an issue for some veterans. In 1983 a bronze cast was added, depicting one white, one black, and one Hispanic American soldier. This led to additional controversy since some argued that the sculpture muted the original memorial’s solemn message. In 1993 a statue of three women cradling a wounded soldier was also added to the site to commemorate the service of the 11,000 military nurses who treated soldiers in Vietnam. Despite all of the controversies, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has become a site of pilgrimage for veterans and civilians alike.
While the United States has been involved in a number of armed interventions worldwide since it withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, defense planners have taken pains to persuade the public that goals were limited and troops would be committed only for a specified duration. The war in Vietnam created an ongoing debate about the right of the United States to intervene in the affairs of other nations.
VIII EFFECTS AND RECOVERY IN VIETNAM
Although South Vietnam was ostensibly the U.S. ally in the conflict, far more firepower was unleashed on South Vietnamese civilians than on northerners. About 10 percent of all bombs and shells went unexploded and continued to kill and maim throughout the region long after the war, as did buried land mines. Vietnam developed the highest rate of birth defects in the world, probably due to the use of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants. The defoliants used during the war also destroyed about 15 percent of South Vietnam’s valuable timber resources and contributed to a serious decline in rice and fish production, the major sources of food for Vietnam.
There were 800,000 orphans created in South Vietnam alone. At least 10 million people became homeless refugees in the south. Vietnam’s government punished those Vietnamese who had been allied with the United States by sending them to “re-education camps” and depriving their families of employment. These measures combined with economic hardships throughout Vietnam led to the exodus of about 1.5 million people, most of them to the United States as refugees. The children of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women, often called “AmerAsians,” were looked down upon by the Vietnamese, and many of them immigrated to the United States.
Nixon promised $3.25 billion in reconstruction aid to Vietnam, but the aid was never granted. Neither Gerald Ford, who became president after Nixon’s resignation, nor Congress would assume any responsibility for the devastation of Vietnam. Instead, in 1975 Ford extended the embargo already in effect against North Vietnam to all of newly unified Vietnam. In the Foreign Assistance Appropriation Act of 1976, Congress forbade any assistance for Vietnam or Cambodia.
President Jimmy Carter attempted to resume relations with Vietnam in 1977, declaring that “the destruction was mutual.” Talks broke down, however, over the issue of American MIAs and over the promised reparations, especially after the Vietnamese released a copy of Nixon’s secret letter of 1973, which promised aid “without any preconditions.” Fearing that reparations would amount to an admission of wrongdoing, Congress added amendments to trade bills that also cut Vietnam off from international lending agencies like the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Normalization was suspended, deepening the economic crisis facing Vietnam in the aftermath of the war’s destruction. The crisis was worsened by new wars with China and Cambodia in 1978 and 1979.
Cut off from all other sources of aid, the SRV turned to the Soviet Union for loans and technical advisers. The SRV reasoned that, faced with widespread hunger and enormous health problems, restoring agricultural production was paramount. The government therefore seized private property, collectivized plantations, and nationalized businesses. About 1 million civilians were forcibly moved from cities to new economic zones. Mismanagement and corruption became common, and popular disillusion with the regime grew. At the Sixth Party Congress in 1986, the SRV leadership declared Communism a failed experiment and vowed radical change. Calling the reforms doi moi (economic renovation), the SRV opened Vietnam to capitalism. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the SRV leadership was forced to move further in this direction.
Stepping up efforts to find American MIAs and cooperating with World Bank and IMF guidelines for economic reform, Vietnam worked to improve relations with the United States. In February 1994 President Bill Clinton lifted the trade embargo, and on July 11, 1995, the United States formally restored full diplomatic relations with Vietnam.