Background of the Vietnam War
Before World War II, Vietnam was a part of French Indochina, which also included Laos and Cambodia. During World War II, Japan occupied Indochina, but much of the area came under French control after the war. Ho Chi Minh, Communist leader of the League for the Independence of Vietnam became head of an independent government in northern Vietnam.
Trouble started as early as 1946, when the Vietminh revolted against the French. Fighting dragged on for seven and a half years, during which time Ho Chi Minh repeatedly asked for American and United Nations intervention against French colonialism. He even asked that President Truman give Vietnam the same status as the Philippines for a period of tutelage before independence. But because Ho Chi Minh had direct communist connections his appeals were not answered.
The French were defeated in May, 1954 despite generous American aid which did make many people uncomfortable. Such aid was questioned for by trying to help the French defeat communism, the U.S. in turn found themselves on the side of imperialism. President Eisenhower had agreed to American aid which paid for much of the French war effort, but refused to intervene militarily.
In April 1954, representatives of the DRV, the state of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, China, France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States met in Geneva, Switzerland to arrange a peace settlement for Vietnam. Vietnam was to be temporarily divided into two sections, North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The dividing line was the 17th parallel. Elections were to be held in two years for the purpose of uniting the north with the south. The territory south of the 17th parallel became the Republic of Vietnam after Emperor Bao Dai was deposed in 1955. President Ngo Dinh Diem then began to rule with the backing of the United States. Some officials in the U.S. were disappointed with the surrender of northern Vietnam to the Communists. Since direct military aid was not offered, there was little the U.S. could do except refuse to sign the Geneva accord. Other officials however, felt appeased that at least colonialism no longer existed. Even though they did not sign the accord, both the U.S. and South Vietnam announced their intention to abide by the agreement.
Upset by the Geneva accord and to allay the fears of South Vietnam of a Communist take-over, the Eisenhower Administration sponsored a new alliance, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. The purpose of this organization was to stop the spread of communism in that part of Asia. SEATO’s members agreed to act together if any country in the region was threatened by aggression.
Following the Geneva agreement, President Eisenhower pledged America support to South Vietnam. This support helped to rehabilitate the country. President Diem stayed in power largely because of U.S. support. American support was economic as well as military, including equipment and training of a South Vietnamese army.
President Diem became increasingly unpopular as he neglected the peasants and showed favoritism to his family, particularly his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. When Diem was supposed to hold elections according to the Geneva accord, he refused on the grounds that North Vietnam would not permit campaigning in its territory and Ho Chi Minh would gain control of a united Vietnam. He appointed his own village officials and ended all local elections. Popular feeling against him mounted.
History of the War
Viet Cong raids began as early as 1957. Guerillas began to attack farm villages, particularly in the Mekong Delta. The Viet Cong guerillas were under Communist control, but many of them were not Communist party members. They fought against the South Vietnamese government because of its repressive measures and its failure to provide the necessities of life. They won easy victories.
In 1961 when John Kennedy became President, Communist forces controlled much of the country. They virtually encircled the city of Saigon. The U.S. was forced to choose between the collapse of the South Vietnamese government and increasing its support. At that time the U.S. had about 750 advisors in South Vietnam. President Diem was constantly appealing for American combat troops and tactical air squadrons.
Kennedy like Eisenhower, believed that the U.S was engaged in a global conflict with communism. In his inaugural he had promised that “ . . . we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty . . . ” He felt that it was essential to prevent a Communist takeover of South Vietnam.
During his 34 months in office, he increased the American military advisors from 750 to roughly 16,000. This was accomplished so quietly that few Americans realized what was happening. A steady growing casualty list 14 Americans killed in 1961, 109 in 1962, 489 in 1963, finally alerted newsmen that at least some Americans were in combat situations. The White House insisted that they were attempting to help Vietnam to maintain its independence and not fall under the domination of the Communists.
If Kennedy had lived, would he have continued that course leading the U.S. into an all-out ground and air war that President Johnson pursued? There is no way of knowing.
In 1963 many Buddhists in South Vietnam were protesting treatment they were receiving under the rule of President Diem. They claimed that Diem, a Roman Catholic, was treating them unfairly because of their differences in religion. Some Buddhist monks even went so far as to burn themselves alive as a sign of their protest. Special forces under Diem’s brother Nhu raided and wrecked some Buddhist pagodas. When news of these events reached the U.S. Diem’s government was formally criticized and certain types of economic aid were suspended.
The South Vietnamese generals encouraged by the U.S. disapproval of Nhu’s actions, overthrew the Diem government on November 1, 1963. Diem and his brother were killed on November 2, 1963. A series of short lived regimes governed South Vietnam for the next two years. In June, 1965 Air Force Commander Nguyen Cao Ky headed a military committee that took power.
The shocking assassination of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, following a coup that Kennedy had known about in advance and tacitly approved could have been a turning point especially since political conditions actually worsened after Diem’s death. Before he left for Dallas in November 1963 Kennedy requested a plan for a total withdrawal of American forces by 1965. He had also requested in depth review of the entire Vietnam situation including whether the U.S. should be there at all.
Lyndon Johnson continued what Kennedy had started and that road led straight to the outright war that developed in 1965; for once the basic objectives had been set, Viet became mainly a military problem. A determination to achieve victory led to continued escalation. Controversy among government officials during these years centered around strategy and tactics, not over whether the U.S. should be in Vietnam at all.
The American people had virtually no control over these developments, although many were drafted to serve in the war. President Johnson did obtain a congressional “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.” On July 30, 1964 South Vietnamese naval crafts raided islands in the Gulf of Tonkin, north of the 17th parallel. Two U.S. destroyers were patrolling nearby. North Vietnamese PT boats, probably while pursuing the South Vietnamese attacked the destroyers. Two PT boats were sunk. U.S. planes then bombed the PT boat bases. This was the first U.S. attack on North Vietnamese territory. * After this incident Johnson asked Congress for powers “to take all necessary measures to repel an armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Congress granted these powers by an overwhelming vote. Johnson used this Gulf of Tonkin resolution as a chief legal basis of U.S. support for South Vietnam in the war.
The war gradually grew in intensity. In late 1964 South Vietnamese morale was very low and the United States began to consider bombing North Vietnam as a way of assisting. An attack on two U.S. camps at Pleiku in early 1965 triggered the decision for the bombing of infiltration routes and military installation in North Vietnam. In midspring of 1965, following the bombing of North Vietnam, large numbers of North Vietnamese troops began arriving in South Vietnam. In March, 1965, President Johnson ordered U.S. marines into South Vietnam with General William C. Westmoreland as commander of all U.S. troops.
In 1966 and 1967 the fighting in Vietnam increased. Meanwhile, South Vietnam tried to establish a representative government. In 1967, voters approved a new constitution and elected a President, Vice-President, and a legislature. General Nguyen jan Thieu was elected President and Ky became Vice-President.
In 1968, the Vietnam War became the longest war in which the United States had ever been involved. By March, 1969, more Americans had been killed in the Vietnam War than in the Korean War. More and more Americans became impatient for the war to end. In June, 1968 President Nixon announced the first of several withdrawals of U.S. forces from Vietnam. He said American troops would be replaced by South Vietnamese. This policy became known as Vietnamization.
* It has been suggested that few Congressmen realized that the U.S. had been mounting secret provocative attacks against North Vietnam for months and were looking for an incident to justify the bombing of North Vietnamese targets.
In April, 1970 U.S. and South Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia to attack the North Vietnamese supply depots there. Nixon said the action would save the lives of American troops in South Vietnam and shorten the war. By June, 1970 all U.S. troops were removed from Cambodia.
As U.S. troops were being withdrawn during 1970 the level of fighting fell sharply. However, little progress was being made at the Paris peace talks. In 1970, each side presented peace proposals, but each side refused to agree to the other.
Early in 1971 South Vietnamese troops invaded Laos in an effort to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. U.S. forces provided air and artillery support. The South Vietnamese destroyed many enemy supplies, but they suffered heavy casualties and were forced to withdraw. Many U.S. planes were shot down. During 1971 both the U.S. and the Viet Cong presented new peace proposals. Neither was acceptable. On March 30, 1972 North Vietnam launched a major offensive in South Vietnam. President Nixon then ordered the mining of North Vietnamese harbors to cut off war supplies from Russia and China. Bombing of rail and highway networks also took place. By August, 1972 the Communist offensive was halted.
U.S. troops continued withdrawal during 1972. Formal peace talks in Paris continued while secret negotiations between Kissinger and North Vietnamese officials were being conducted. However, when the talks broke down Nixon ordered the full scale bombing of the Hanoi-Haiphong area. The bombing ended after 12 days and the talks resumed again. Finally on January 27, 1973 a cease fire agreement was signed in Paris by the U.S., North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Viet Cong.
The cease fire was to be supervised by joint military commission of the signing parties and by the International commission of control and supervision. By the terms of the agreement all U.S. and allied forces were to be withdrawn and all prisoners were to be released, both within 60 days; the continued presence of North Vietnamese forces was tacitly agreed to; South Vietnam was assured that it was to have a government of its own choosing; and the U.S. guaranteed economic and military aid to South Vietnam. The first prisoners of war were released on March 2, 1973 and by March 29, 1973 the exchange of prisoners of war was supposedly complete and the last American troops left Vietnam. A 13 party conference in Paris endorsed the cease fire agreement which was signed by the foreign ministers of China, Russia, United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the Viet Cong.
However, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the Viet Cong violated the cease fire. The fighting in Southeast Asia continued and intensified as the Communist forces took the offensive in 1974. In Cambodia, during 1974 and 1975, Communist troops captured much of the country and surrendered the capitol of Phnom Penh. In April, 1975 the last remaining Americans were evacuated by helicopters and the victorious Communist armies took control of Cambodia.
Meanwhile in South Vietnam, resistance to the Communists was also crumbling. When the South Vietnamese government ordered a withdrawal of its troops from the north and central highlands in March, 1975, entire units abandoned their equipment and retreated southward before the advancing North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. In a last desperate attempt to prevent a complete collapse of South Vietnam, President Ford asked Congress to vote $772 million in emergency military aid. But Congress, convinced that the South Vietnamese cause was hopeless and fearing a renewal of American involvement, refused to support the President. At the end of April, with Saigon surrounded, American helicopters and ships lying off the coast withdrew the remaining Americans as well as 100,000 South Vietnamese. The Vietnamese refugees for the most part destitute, were temporarily housed on American military bases until they could be relocated in new homes throughout the United States. And so, with the Communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1976 three tragic decades of fighting in Vietnam came to an end. The war toll included the deaths of 57,000 U.S. troops (46,000 in combat) 303,700 wounded, and over 780 missing; the deaths of 254,300 South Vietnamese,and 1,027,100 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.