The Vietnam War


If there ever has been a costly and long war, it must have been the Vietnam War. North Vietnam's communist government was pitted against South Vietnam and the United States, its principal ally in this divisive conflict. With the ongoing Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, the conflict got intensified further. Around 58,000 Americans were included in the 3 million people killed in the Vietnam War. Vietnamese civilians amounted to more than half of the people who lost their lives. In 1973, despite the order given by President Richard Nixon, for withdrawal of the United States forces, the opposition to the war in the US divided the Americans bitterly. In 1975, Vietnam was seized by the communist forces after which the war ended. The following year, the country became unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, after communist forces seized control of South Vietnam and ended the war in 1975.

How Did The Vietnam War Start

Since the 19th century, the French colonials ruled a nation named Vietnam in South East Asia, located on the Indochinese Peninsula’s eastern edge. Vietnam was invaded by the Japanese forces during the World War II. The League for the Independence of Vietnam – Viet Minh was formed by Ho Chi Minh, the political leader who was inspired by Soviet and Chinese communism, with the main motive of fighting off the French colonial administration and the Japanese occupiers, both.

Forces from Vietnam were withdrawn by Japan after it faced defeat in 1945 in the World War II and the country was left in control of Bao Dai, the French-educated Emperor. Ho Viet Minh forces felt this was a great opportunity to seize control and rose up immediately. They took over the northern city of Hanoi and declared a DRV – Democratic Republic of Vietnam and made Ho, the President.

Emperor got the backing of France as they sought to control the region again. In July 1949, the state of Vietnam was set up and Saigon city was made its capital.

A unified Vietnam was one thing both the sides were looking for. While Bao and many others wanted a Vietnam having close cultural and economic ties to the West, Ho and his supporters were looking for a country modelled after other communist nations.

The Beginning Of The Vietnam War

Though for many decades conflict had simmered in the region, it was actually in 1954 that the Vietnam War and active involvement of the U.S. in the war began.

The communist forces of Ho Chi Minh took power in the northern area after which the conflict between the southern and northern armies continued. In May 1954, at Dien Bien Phu a decisive battle took place in which the northern Viet Minh forces emerged victorious. The French colonial rule in Indochina, which has lasted almost a century, ended with their loss in this battle.

In July 1954, a treaty was subsequently signed at the conference at Geneva. Vietnam was divided into two parts along the latitude (17 degrees north latitude) known as the 17th parallel with Bao in control of the South and Ho in control in the North. For the reunifications to be held in the year 1956, elections all over the country were also called for, as part of the treaty.

Emperor Bao was pushed aside in 1955 by Ngo Dinh Diem, the strong anti-communist politician. His purpose was to become the President of South Vietnam – which was referred to as the GVN – Government of the Republic of Vietnam.

The Vietnamese Communist (Viet Cong)

The United States began hardening polices against the Soviet Union allies, as the Cold War began intensifying across the globe. Dwight D. Eisenhower, President pledged his strong support to South Vietnam and Diem by the year 1955. Sympathizers of Viet Minh in the south also termed derisively as Vietnamese Communist – (Viet Cong) were put down by security forces of Ngo Dinh Diem. Over 100,000 people were arrested out of which many were executed or tortured brutally.

Diem’s regime, proved to be a very repressive one. With aggressive military action being taken on officials of the government and other targets, the Viet Cong and Diem’s other opponents began their fight back, in the year 1957. By the year 1959, the South Vietnamese army started engaging in the fire-fights.

The NLF – National Liberation Front was formed by opponents within South Vietnam including non-communist and the communist both, by December 1960, with the main aim of organizing a resistance to the regime. The NLF emphasised that many of its members were not communists and that it was autonomous but in Washington, U.S. many made assumptions that it was Hanoi’s puppet.

‘Domino Theory’

In an effort to assist Diem in confronting the threat of Viet Cong, in 1961, John F. Kennedy, the U.S. President sent a team to South Vietnam. The team was assigned the task of reporting conditions prevalent in South Vietnam. The advice provided by the team was to build up American technical, economic and military aid which in turn would prove helpful to Diem in confronting the Viet Cong threat.

In US, the administration was wary of the Domino Theory prevailing in Vietnam. As per the ‘Domino Theory’, if one nation fell to communism, other nations too would follow. Kennedy who was a proponent of the ‘Domino Theory’ increased the aid U.S. provided though military intervention on large scale was stopped short. Presence of U.S. military in South Vietnam in the year 1962, reached to an approximate 9000 troops. As compared to this, during the 1950s, less than 800 military troops were present in South Vietnam.

The Gulf Of Tonkin

Some of President Kennedy’s own generals in November 1963 made a coup, attained success and toppled and killed Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu, his brother. They planned this coup just 3 weeks before the assassination of Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.

In South Vietnam, political situation began to become unstable which persuaded Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s successor and Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defence, to increase the economic and U.S. military support to South Vietnam.

In the Gulf of Tonkin, two U.S. destroyers were attacked by DRV torpedo boats in August 1964. In retaliation, Johnson gave orders to bomb North Vietnam’s military targets. Johnson attained broad powers for war-making soon after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by the Congress. Bombing raids by U.S. planes started on a regular basis in the following year. Codename provided to the bombing raids was Operation Rolling Thunder.

Obtaining strong support from the public in America, Johnson, next made a decision in March 1965 to send U.S. combat forces into war in Vietnam. In Vietnam around 82,000 troops were put up by June 1965. However towards 1965 end, around 175,000 more combat troops were called by the military leaders in an effort to shore up the struggling army in South Vietnam. Some of Johnson’s advisors showed concern about entire effort amidst the growing anti-war movement as well as increasing the number of troops to Vietnam. Despite this, at the end of July 1965, around 100,000 troops were dispatched in a hurry. In 1966 he dispatched yet another 100,000 to Vietnam. Besides this, other countries including New Zealand, South Korea, Australia, Thailand also committed troops, though on a smaller scale, in South Vietnam.

The Role William Westmoreland Played

It was under General William Westmorland’s command that war in the south was fought in contrast to attacks on Northern Vietnam. General Westmorland ordered commands in coordination with General Nguyen Van Thieu’s government in Saigon.

Instead of making efforts to secure property, Westmoreland aimed at killing maximum number of enemy troops, thus pursuing a policy of attrition. In South Vietnam, huge areas were designated as ‘free-fire zones’ by 1966. ‘Free-fire zones’ meant the evacuation of innocent people, for only the enemy to remain and occupy the territory. These zones became uninhabitable due to constant shelling and heavy bombing by the B-52 aircrafts. At designated safe areas close to Saigon and other cities, camps were set up for refugees to pour in for safety.

Steady increase was seen in the death doll of the enemy at times exaggerated by South Vietnamese and the U.S. authorities. Feeling encouraged by the fact that lost territory could be reoccupied easily with supplies and manpower delivered through Laos and Cambodia via the Ho Minh Trail, both the Viet Cong and DRV troops refused to stop fighting. Their air defences also got further strengthened with aid received from North Vietnam, Soviet Union and China.

Protests Against The Vietnam War

In Vietnam, the number of American troops numbered 500,000 by November 1967. Besides this, the number of U.S. wounded casualties had reached 109,527 and those killed numbered 15,058. Washington repeatedly made claims about winning the war but the battle continued. Gradually soldiers began mistrusting the reasons the government put forth for retaining them in Vietnam and the victory claims Washington made.

American soldiers, both draftees and volunteers, began deteriorating both psychologically and physically, during the later years of the war. Attacks on non-commissioned officers and officers by soldiers, PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, drug use and mutinies, affected the soldiers badly. The Veterans Administration conducted a survey later which revealed that around 500,000 troops out of the 3 million troops serving Vietnam suffered from drug addiction, post-traumatic disorder, alcoholism, suicide and high rates of divorce.

More than 503,000 U.S. personnel in the military deserted between July 1966 and December 1973. Amongst the American forces, the anti-war movement became more robust than ever leading to killings, violent protests and mass incarcerations of U.S. and Vietnam based personnel.

U.S. televisions were bombarded by horrific images of the War. On the home front, Americans as well turned against the war. Outside the Pentagon, a massive protest against the Vietnam War was staged by around 35,000 demonstrators, in October 1967. Opponents of the Vietnam War were of the argument that primary victims of the war, were not the enemy combatants, but mainly the civilians and the corrupt dictatorship prevalent in Saigon was well supported by the United States.

Launching Of The Tet Offensive

The communist leadership under Hanoi began to grow impatient towards the end on 1967. With the aim of forcing the United States which was better-supplied, to give up hope of attaining success, the communist leadership decided striking a decisive blow. Under the leadership of General Vo Nguyen Giap, the ‘Tet Offensive’ (named for the lunar new year) was launched by around 70,000 DRV forces, on 31st January 1968. Fierce attacks in a well coordinated series were made on more than a hundred towns and cities in South Vietnam.

Though taken up by surprise both the South Vietnamese and U.S. forces managed to quickly strike back. The communists found it difficult to hold any of targets for not more than a day or two.

Public in the United States were stunned by the Tet Offensive reports. Hearing that Westmoreland made a request for more 200,000 troops, they felt more stunned than ever, despite assurances of imminent victory in the Vietnam War. A halt was called for by Johnson, as in an election year, his approval ratings had gradually dropped. Though bombings didn’t stop in South Vietnam, much of it came to a halt in North Vietnam. Johnson made a promise that rather than dedicating time for re-election, he would dedicate himself towards acquiring the much desired peace.

Hanoi responded positively in the new tack laid down by Johnson in his speech in March 1968. That very year in May 1968, peace talks between North Vietnam and the United States opened in Paris. The dialogue arrived at an impasse soon, despite inclusion of the NLF and the South Vietnamese, later. Marred by violence, the election season in 1968 turned bitter. The presidency was won by Richard M. Nixon, the Republican.

The Programme Called Vietnamization

An appeal was made by the Republican Richard M. Nixon, for a ‘silent majority’ of Americans, in an effort to get the anti-war movement deflated. He was of the belief that they were in support of the war effort. ‘Vietnamization’ a programme was announced by him to limit the number of American casualties. The programme would be helpful in increasing artillery and aerial bombardment, withdrawal of U.S. troops and provide South Vietnamese, the weapons and training necessary to control the ground war, much more effectively.

Besides this, Richard M. Nixon resumed with public peace talks in Paris, in addition to the policy, Vietnamization. In the beginning of 1968, spring season, he added secret talks at higher level conducted by Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State.

Unconditional and complete withdrawal was insisted upon continually by the North Vietnamese. Besides this the other condition for peace was to ouster Nguyen Van Thieu, the U.S. backed General. However this resulted in the stalling of the peace talks.

The Massacre at My Lai Village

More carnage resulted in the next few years. The horrifying revelations that in March 1968, in My Lai Village, more than 400 unarmed civilians were slaughtered mercilessly by the U.S. soldiers, shook the conscience of the nation.
As the conflict continued to wear on, the anti-war protests also continued after the My Lai Massacre. All through the country, there were gatherings and protests in hundreds, in 1968 and 1969.
In Washington D.C. the largest demonstration related to anti-war in the history of America took place on 15th November 1969. A peaceful gathering of more than 250,000 Americans took place in Washington D.C. to call for the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

For young Americans, the anti-war movement proved to be particularly strong especially because it had bitterly divided the Americans. Young Americans had begun resenting the war as it now had become a form of authority being unchecked. The other group of Americans considered that opposing the government meant being treasonous and unpatriotic.

Withdrawal of the first U.S. troops took place in early 70s. However increasing frustration and anger resulted in the remaining troops. Problems with leadership and morale exacerbated. For reasons of desertion, dishonorable discharges were levied on tens of thousands of soldiers. Besides this, in 1965-1973 more than 500,000 American men became ‘draft dodgers’ and in trying to evade conscription, fled to Canada. In 1972, draft calls were brought to an end by Nixon. The following year, an all-volunteer army was instituted by Nixon.

The Shooting At Kent State

Cambodia was invaded in a joint operation between the South Vietnamese-U.S. in 1970 with the hope of wiping out the DRV supply bases there. An invasion of Laos was led by the South Vietnamese which, North Vietnam pushed back.

Protests in a new wave sparked all across the American college campuses due to violation of the international law, caused by invasion of the 3 nations. Four students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen at the University of Ohio, at Kent State University, on 4th May 1970. The police killed 2 students in Mississippi at the Jackson State University, just 10 days later, in another protest.

Finally, Hanoi was ready to come to a compromise by the end of June 1972 after an offensive into South Vietnam failed. By the early fall, a peace agreement was drafted between representatives of Vietnam and Kissinger. However the Saigon leaders rejected the peace agreement. Many bombing raids were authorized against targets in Haiphong and Hanoi by Nixon, in December. The international community condemned these raids, which were also termed as Christmas, Bombings.

End Of The Vietnam War

Open hostilities between North Korea and the United States, after a final peace agreement, came to a conclusion in January 1973. However till 30th April 1975, the war between South Vietnam and North Vietnam continued, when Saigon was captured by the DRV forces. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1969, the very year that Ho died.

Vietnam was devastated with the population taking a direct hit due to the violent conflict that lasted for more than 2 decades. Approximately 2 million Vietnamese people became refuges, 3 million were wounded and 2 million were killed. Economy and infrastructure of Vietnam was demolished completely due to the war. Process of restructuring the economy and infrastructure too was slow.

Vietnam was unified as SRV – the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976. However, conflicts with the neighboring countries Cambodia and China continued over the next 15 years. The economy saw improvement in 1986 when the broad free market policy was put in place. Foreign capital influx and revenues from oil exports boosted the economy further. In the 1900s, diplomatic relations and trade between the United States and Vietnam resumed.

Even after the Vietnam War ended and long after the last troops came back home in the year 1973, its effects would linger in the United States. From 1965 to 1973, more than 120 billion dollars were spent by the United States on the conflict in Vietnam. Due to this not only did fuel prices sky rocket, but an oil crisis exacerbated in 1973 also leading to widespread inflation due to this massive spending on the war.

Effects of the Vietnam War ran deeper, psychologically. Due to the War, the United Nations got bitterly divided and the myth of invincibility of the Americans was pierced. Both the war opponents and supporters presented negative reactions to the veterans returning back to the U.N. The veterans were viewed as people who had taken the lives of innocent civilians. Those who supported the war saw the veterans as troops who had lost the war. Besides physical damage they underwent, they were also affected by exposure to Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide. United States had dumped millions of gallons of Agent Orange on the thick forests of Vietnam.

Unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was done in Washington, 1982. Inscribed on the memorial were names of the 57,939 American women and men who lost their lives or were found missing in the Vietnam War. Later on, more names were added to the list bringing up the total to 58,200.