Vietnam War


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Map of South Vietnam

The Vietnam War was a war fought between 1957 and 1975 on the ground in South Vietnam and bordering areas of Cambodia and Laos (See Secret War) and in bombing runs (Rolling Thunder) over North Vietnam. See also the timeline of the Vietnam War.

Fighting on one side was a coalition of forces including the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam or the "RVN"), the United States, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines. Participation by the South Korean military was financed by the United States, but Australia and New Zealand fully funded their own involvement. Other countries normally allied with the United States in the Cold War, including Britain and Canada, refused to participate in the coalition. Fighting on the other side was a coalition of forces including the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the National Liberation Front, a South Vietnamese opposition movement with a guerrilla militia known in the U.S. as the "Viet Cong". The USSR and People's Republic of China provided military and financial aid along with diplomatic support to the North Vietnamese and to the NLF.

Prosecution of the war by the United States transformed it into a larger regional conflict involving the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos, known as the Second Indochina War. In Vietnam, this conflict is known as the American War (Vietnamese Chiến Tranh Chống Mỹ Cứu Nước, literally War Against the Americans to Save the Nation). Many experts consider the war to be a battle in the then-ongoing Cold War.



The Vietnam War was in many ways a direct successor to the First Indochina War, (or French Indochina War) in which the French, with the financial and logistical support of the United States, fought to regain control of their former colony in Indochina.

France had gained control of Indochina in a series of colonial wars beginning in the 1840s and lasting until the 1880s. During World War II, Vichy France had collaborated with the occupying Imperial Japanese forces. Vietnam was under effective Imperial Japanese control, as well as de facto Japanese administrative control, although the Vichy French continued to serve as the official administrators. After the Japanese surrender, the French fought to retain control of their former colony against the Viet Minh independence movement, led by Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh. After the Viet Minh defeated the French colonial army at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French Withdrew, and the colony was granted independence.

File:Ho Chi Minh.JPG
North Vietnamese President and Communist Party Leader Ho Chi Minh.

According to the ensuing Geneva Conference, Vietnam was partitioned, ostensibly temporarily, into a Northern and a Southern zone of Viet-Nam. The former was to be ruled by Ho Chi Minh, while the latter would be under the control of Emperor Bao Dai. In 1955, the South Vietnamese monarchy was abolished and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem became President of a new South Vietnamese republic.

The Geneva Conference of 1954 specified that elections to unify the country would be scheduled to take place in July, 1956, but such elections were never held. In the context of the Cold War, the United States (under Eisenhower) had begun to view Southeast Asia as a potential key battleground in the greater Cold War, and American policymakers feared that democratic elections would simply lead to communist influence into the South Vietnam's government.

Diem's RVN government had gained the support of the US to circumvent the scheduled democratic elections, and under Diem's dictatorship, South Vietnam would be free of both a communist political influence, and a democratic process that threatened to install it. The North Vietnamese had been winning the public relations battle; it had implemented a massive agricultural reform program which distributed land to peasant farmers, and the people of the South took notice. President Eisenhower noted in his memoirs that if a nation-wide election had been held, the communists would have won. Also, it was said to have been unlikely that the Northern Communists would allow a free election in their half of Vietnam. In the end, neither the US nor the two Vietnams had signed the election clause in the accord. Initially, it appeared as if a partitioned Vietnam would become the norm, similar in nature to the partitioned Korea created years earlier.

The NLF led the popular insurgency against the South Vietnamese government. (The RVN and the US referred to the NLF as Viet Cong, short for Viet Nam Cong San (VN:Việt Nam Cộng Sản), or "Vietnamese Communist". The NLF itself never called itself by this name.)

In June 1961, John F. Kennedy met Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, where Khrushchev sought to bully the young American President into conceding to the Soviets certain key contests, notably Berlin, where large numbers of skilled workers had been escaping to the West. Kennedy left the meeting agitated, and quickly determined that Khrushchev's attitude towards him would make an armed conflict virtually unavoidable in the near future. Kennedy and his advisers soon decided that any such conflicts had better follow the Korea model, being confined to conventional weaponry, through proxy parties, as a way to mitigate the threat of direct nuclear war between the two superpowers. It was decided that the most likely theatre for such a conflict would be in Southeast Asia. It is unclear as to whether Kennedy had been influenced by other factors at the time (such as racism, oil reserves off of Vietnam's coast) but by the political calculations of his administration, the U.S. had to work quickly to create a "valve" to release any built-up political pressures.

The North, along with its Soviet backers knew well that the South was prepared to vote for a communist government. The U.S. cared little for Diem, but forged its alliance with his government out of fear that an easy communist victory would only bolster the perceived bravado that Khrushchev had shown to Kennedy at Vienna. The U.S. fatefully decided that an immediate stand against Soviet expansion was both prudent and necessary, regardless of the human cost.

In 1961, the United States began to clandestinely send military advisors, both to give temporary support the South's Diem RVN regime, and to engage in terrorism against both North and South Vietnam. Some of these bombing attacks were designed to inflame and exacerbate both the civil war in the South and to exacerbate the impression of a greater conflict with the North.

The local strategy was to create the impression that a "legitimate" government was being overrun by "hostile Communist forces," though this was while the "Communist forces" were limited to a rising insurgency among the South Vietnamese. At the time, this insurgency was mostly inspired, not directed, by the North, and as such the definition of an "enemy" by philosophical and political grounds would prove to be fateful for U.S. soldiers ordered to make life-and-death choices on the ground. To US planners, however, these distinctions were neither forseeable nor did they matter as much as the creation of a greater conflict itself. The "impossibile task" of defining who "the enemy" was would lead directly to the general quagmire and the human rights atrocities for which the Vietnam War is widely known.

The greater overall strategy was simple; to deliberately create a more desirable conventional conflict with the Soviet Union, through the two Vietnamese proxies, rather than to allow nuclear conflict to erupt in elsewhere, as was greatly feared at the time. Cuba, Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean Sea were known hotspots that were feared could get out of control, should there be no pressure valve. Because the majority of the South was sympathetic to the North's communist ideology, the U.S. strategy was designed to artificially exacerbate the divide between North and South, along lines which could be reported to the American people as ideological. The so-called ideological divide has little meaning among the Vietnamese, who well understand the beginnings of its civil conflict as being ethnic in origin; and for their own particular reasons, different outside parties took sides, and desired influence.

Backed by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, North Vietnam began supporting the NLF with arms and supplies, advisors, and regular units of the North Vietnamese Army, which were transported via an extensive network of trails and roads through the neutral nation of Laos, which became known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. The stage was set for the escalation to come, wherin a civil war between Vietnamese farmers seeking to overthrow a puppet despot would find themselves pawns in a larger proxy war between the competing expansionist systems of U.S. capitalism and Soviet communism.

Combatants in the War

In major combat there were, depending upon one's point of view, two to four major combatant organizations; the four being the United States Armed Forces; the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN—the South Vietnamese Army, pronounced Arvin); the NLF, a group of indigenous South Vietnamese guerilla fighters; and the People's Army of Viet Nam (PAVN—the North Vietnamese Army, pronounced Pahvin).

Arguments over which of these four were the actual combatants was a major political focus of the war. The U.S. sought to depict the war as one between ARVN defenders with U.S. help against PAVN forces, thus depicting the NLF a puppet or shadow army and the war as a South Vietnamese defense against North Vietnamese aggression.

The North Vietnamese portrayed the conflict as one between the indigenous South Vietnamese NLF and the United States, with the noncombat support of North Vietnam and its allies. This view held ARVN to be a puppet of the U.S.

These conflicting propaganda stances were later played out in early peace talks in which arguments were made over "the shape of the [negotiating] table" in which each side sought to depict itself as two distinct entities opposing a single entity, ignoring its "puppet".

Legal Status in the US: "War" or "Conflict"

Though almost universally described as the Vietnam War today, in the United States it was commonly referred to as the Vietnam Conflict contemporaneously. This reflected the concept that being undeclared, the war was an action of a lesser or different nature, continuing a post-World War II trend of casting war in a new context, as in the Korean War, described as a police action under the auspices of the United Nations.

The Law of Land Warfare, the compilation of treaties as expressed by tradition and practice, including the various Geneva Conventions and Hague Conventions, requires that hostilities must not commence without a Declaration of War.

The Contracting Powers recognize that hostilities between themselves must not commence without previous and explicit warning, in the form either of a reasoned declaration of war or of an ultimatum with conditional declaration of war. (Hague Convention III, article 1, October 18, 1907)

The United States Constitution specifies the power to declare war:

The Congress shall have power: [...] To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water[...] (Article 1, section 8)

No such declaration being either asked of or granted by the Congress, President Johnson relied on his power as Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as justification for escalation of the conflict.

Proponents of the war argued that the conflict was something less than a formal war, that the U.S. was assisting a properly engaged ally in defending itself and that the lack of a declaration was a formality. Opponents said that, in addition to other arguments, the lack of declaration made Vietnam an illegal war. The Supreme Court of the United States probably could have settled the issue, but no case was ever taken up by the Court.


U.S. involvement in the war was eventually called escalation, using the analogy of an escalator rising slowly but steadily to increase war pressure on the enemy, as opposed to the traditional declaration of war with the usual massive attack using all available means to secure victory.

Under escalation, U.S. involvement increased over a period of years, beginning with the deployment of non-combatant military advisors to the South Vietnamese army, to use of special forces for commando-style operations, to introduction of regular troops whose purpose was to be defensive only, to using regular troops in offensive combat. Once U.S. troops were engaged in active combat, escalation shifted to the addition of increasing numbers of U.S. troops.

The policy of escalation helped complicate the ambiguous legal status for the war. Since the U.S. had pre-existing treaty agreements with the Republic of Viet Nam, each escalation was presented as simply another step in helping an ally resist what the U.S. portrayed as a Communist invasion. The United States Congress continued to vote appropriations for war operations, and the Johnson Administration claimed these actions as a proxy, along with Tonkin, for the Constitutionally mandated requirement that Congress retain war power.

In U.S. political debate, the advantage of escalation to those who wanted to be engaged in the war was that no individual instance of escalation dramatically increased the level of U.S. involvement. The U.S. populace was led to believe that the most recent escalation would be sufficient to "win the war" and therefore would be the last. This theory, combined with ready availability of conscripted troops, reduced grassroots political opposition to the war until 1968, when the Johnson Administration proposed increasing the troop levels from approximately 550,000 in-country to about 700,000. This was the "straw" that broke the back of escalation and widespread U.S. support for the war. The troop increase was abandoned and by the end of 1969, under the new administration of Richard M. Nixon, U.S. troop levels had been reduced by 60,000 from their wartime peak.

Increasing US Involvement to 1964

NLF ("Viet Cong") casualties.

US involvement in the war was a gradual process, with combat personnel arriving in 1950. Its military involvement increased over the years under three U.S. presidents, both Democrat and Republican (successively Eisenhower-R, Kennedy-D and Johnson-D, and was sustained for additional years in the administration of Richard Nixon-R), despite warnings by the US military leadership against a major ground war in Asia. Though actions under the administrations of Eisenhower and Kennedy are considered to have cast the die for the future conflict, it was Johnson who expanded and transformed the engagement into a distinctly U.S. operation, a policy which eventually led to opposition within his own party that convinced him not to seek a second term in 1968 after internal polling showed the depth of public doubt and anger.

There was never a formal declaration of war but there were a series of presidential decisions that increased the number of "military advisors" and then active combatants in the region.

In the campaign for the presidency in 1960, the perceived Soviet threat and slippage in U.S. standing in the world was a prominent issue and Kennedy made erosion of the U.S. position in the world a major campaign issue. The Pentagon Papers (Chapter I, "The Kennedy Commitments and Programs, 1961,") elaborated on this point

A further element of the Soviet problem impinged directly on Vietnam. The new Administration, even before taking office, was inclined to believe that unconventional warfare was likely to be terrifically important in the 1960s. In January 1961, Khrushchev seconded that view with his speech pledging Soviet support to "wars of national liberation." Vietnam was where such a war was actually going on. Indeed, since the war in Laos had moved far beyond the insurgency stage, Vietnam was the only place in the world where the Administration faced a well-developed Communist effort to topple a pro-Western government with an externally-aided pro-communist insurgency.

The prominent anti-war critic Noam Chomsky claims that Kennedy ordered the US Air Force to start bombing South Vietnam as early as 1962, using South Vietnamese aircraft markings, to disguise US involvement. He also accuses Kennedy of authorizing the use of napalm, along with other crop destruction programs at this earlier date, rather than as a later part of the larger war. The traditional view claims that "actual increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War" didn't occur until 1964.

The program of covert GVN (South Vietnamese) operations was designed to impose "progressively escalating pressure" upon the North, and initiated on a small and essentially ineffective scale in February 1964, according to standard sources. The active U.S. role in the few covert operations that were carried out was limited essentially to planning, equipping, and training of the GVN forces involved, but U.S. responsibility for the launching and conduct of these activities was unequivocal and carried with it an implicit symbolic and psychological intensification of the U.S. commitment.

South Vietnam and Kennedy

The Kennedy administration efforts to contain North Vietnam occurred simultaneously with an effort to modernize the regime of the South. Kennedy strongly believed that if South Vietnam was a stable and democratic country, it would largely discredit the North and its Communist rhetoric. Aid to the South was often made on the condition that the government would undertake certain political reforms. Soon, US Government advisors were playing a prominent role in every level of South Vietnam's government. South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem had little time for these reforms, and was quite uncooperative. He would often go through the motions of these US-prescribed reforms, but in very superficial ways that ended up quite embarrassing for the US. For example, when he ran for election, only one opposition candidate was allowed, and there were widespread allegations of vote-rigging. Diem did not believe that US ideas of democracy were applicable to his government, since the country was still so young and unstable. Kennedy was accused of being overly naive and utopian in his belief that US values could be instantly imported into any country, no matter what their culture or history.

Eventually, the Kennedy administration grew increasingly frustrated with Diem. In an embarrassing incident that was widely reported in the US press, Diem's forces launched a violent crackdown on Buddhist monks. Since Vietnam was a predominantly Buddhist nation while Diem and much of the ruling structure of South Vietnam was Roman Catholic, this action was viewed as further proof that Diem was completely out of touch with his people. US messages were sent to South Vietnamese generals encouraging them to act against Diem's excesses. Though there is some debate as to whether or not this was Kennedy's intention, the South Vietnamese military interpreted these messages as a call to arms, and staged a violent [[coup d'�tat]], overthrowing and killing Diem on November 1, 1963.

Far from uniting the country under new leadership, the death of Diem made the South even more unstable. The new military rulers were very inexperienced in political matters, and were unable to provide the strong central authority of Diem's rule. Coups and counter-coups plagued the country, which in turn served as a great inspiration to the efforts of the North.

Three weeks after Diem's death, Kennedy himself was assassinated, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was suddenly thrust into the war's leadership role. Newly sworn-in President Johnson confirmed on November 24, 1963 that the United States intended to continue supporting South Vietnam militarily and economically.

Gulf of Tonkin and Johnson

Johnson raised the level of U.S. involvement on July 27, 1964 when 5,000 additional US military advisors were ordered sent to South Vietnam which brought the total number of US forces in Vietnam to 21,000.

On July 31, 1964, the American destroyer USS Maddox, continued a reconnaissance mission in the Gulf of Tonkin that had been suspended for six months. The purpose of the mission was to provoke a reaction from North Vietnamese coastal defense forces as a pretext for a wider war. Responding to a claimed attack, and with the help of air support from the nearby carrier USS Ticonderoga, the Maddox destroyed one North Vietnamese torpedo boat and damaged two others. The Maddox, suffering only superficial damage by a single 14.5-millimeter machine gun bullet, retired to South Vietnamese waters, where she was joined by the USS C. Turner Joy.

U.S. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

On August 3, GVN again attacked North Vietnam; the Rhon River estuary and the Vinh Sonh radar installation were bombarded under cover of darkness.

On August 4, a new DESOTO patrol to the North Vietnam coast was launched, with the Maddox and the C. Turner Joy. The latter got radar signals later claimed to be another attack by the North Vietnamese. For some two hours the ships fired on radar targets and maneuvered vigorously amid electronic and visual reports of torpedoes. Later, Captain John J. Herrick admitted that it was nothing more than an "overeager sonarman" who "was hearing ship's own propeller beat." This was not, however, clear at the time.

The U.S. Senate then approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, which gave broad support to President Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement in the war "as the President shall determine". In a televised address Johnson claimed that "the challenge that we face in South-East Asia today is the same challenge that we have faced with courage and that we have met with strength in Greece and Turkey, in Berlin and Korea, in Lebanon and in Cuba," a dangerous misreading of the politics of the Vietnamese conflict. National Security Council members, including Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and Maxwell Taylor agreed on November 28, 1964 to recommend that President Johnson adopt a plan for a two-stage escalation of bombing in North Vietnam.

On March 8, 1965, 3,500 United States Marines became the first American combat troops to land in South Vietnam, adding to the 25,000 US military advisers already in place. The air war escalated as well; on July 24, 1965, four F-4C Phantoms escorting a bombing raid at Kang Chi became the targets of antiaircraft missiles in the first such attack against American planes in the war. One plane was shot down and the other three sustained damage. Four days later Johnson announced another order that increased the number of US troops in Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000. The day after that, July 29, the first 4,000 101st Airborne Division paratroopers arrived in Vietnam, landing at Cam Ranh Bay.

Then on August 18, 1965, Operation Starlite began as the first major American ground battle of the war when 5,500 US Marines destroyed a NLF stronghold on the Van Tuong peninsula in Quang Ngai Province. The Marines were tipped-off by a NLF deserter who said that there was an attack planned against the US base at Chu Lai. The NVA learned from their defeat and tried to avoid fighting a US-style war from then on.

The Pentagon told President Johnson on November 27, 1965 that if planned major sweep operations needed to neutralize NLF forces during the next year were to succeed, the number of American troops in Vietnam needed to be increased from 120,000 to 400,000. By the end of 1965 184,000 US troops were in Vietnam. In February 1966 there was a meeting between the commander of the U.S. effort, head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam General William Westmoreland and Johnson in Honolulu. Westmoreland argued that the US presence had prevented a defeat but that more troops were needed to take the offensive, he claimed that an immediate increase could lead to the "cross-over point" in Vietcong and NVA casualties being reached in early 1967. Johnson authorised an increase in troop numbers to 429,000 by August 1966.

On October 12, 1967 US Secretary of State Dean Rusk stated during a news conference that proposals by the United States Congress for peace initiatives were futile because of North Vietnam's opposition. Johnson then held a secret meeting with a group of the nation's most prestigious leaders ("the Wise Men") on November 2 and asked them to suggest ways to unite the American people behind the war effort. They concluded that the American people should be given more optimistic reports on the progress of the war. Then based on reports he was given on November 13, Johnson told his nation on November 17 that, while much remained to be done, "We are inflicting greater losses than we're taking...We are making progress." Following up on this, General William Westmoreland on November 21 told news reporters: "I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing." Two months later the Tet Offensive made both men regret their words.

U.S forces bomb NLF positions in 1965.

Continued escalation of American military involvement came as the Johnson administration and Westmoreland repeatedly assured the American public that the next round of troop increases would bring victory. The American public's faith in the "light at the end of the tunnel" was shattered, however, on January 30, 1968, when the enemy, supposedly on the verge of collapse, mounted the Tet Offensive (named after Tet Nguyen Dan, the lunar new year festival which is the most important Vietnamese holiday) in South Vietnam, in which nearly every major city in South Vietnam was attacked. Although neither of these offensives accomplished any military objectives, the surprising capacity of an enemy that was supposedly on the verge of collapse to even launch such an offensive convinced many Americans that victory was impossible. There was an increasing sense among many people that the government was misleading the American people about a war without a clear beginning or end. When General Westmoreland called for still more troops to be sent to Vietnam, Clark Clifford, a member of Johnson's own cabinet, came out against the war.

Soon after Tet, Westmoreland was replaced by his deputy, General Creighton W. Abrams. Abrams pursued a very different approach to Westmoreland, favouring more openness with the media, less indiscriminate use of airstrikes and heavy artillery, elimination of bodycount as the key indicator of battlefield succss, and more meaningful co-operation with ARVN forces. His strategy, although yielding positive results, came too late to sway a domestic US public opinion that was already solidifying against the war.

Facing a troop shortage, on October 14, 1968 the United States Department of Defense announced that the United States Army and Marines would be sending about 24,000 troops back to Vietnam for involuntary second tours. Two weeks later on October 31, citing progress with the Paris peace talks, US President Lyndon B. Johnson announced to his nation that he had ordered a complete cessation of "all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam" effective November 1. Peace talks eventually broke down, however, and one year later, on November 3, 1969, then President Richard M. Nixon addressed the nation on television and radio asking the "silent majority" to join him in solidarity on the Vietnam War effort and to support his policies.

The credibility of the government suffered when the New York Times, and later the Washington Post and other newspapers, published the Pentagon Papers. It was a top-secret historical study, contracted by the Pentagon, about the war, that showed how the government was misleading the US public, in all stages of the war, including the secret support of the French in the first Vietnam War.

Opposition to the War

Children run down a road near Trang Bang after an ARVN napalm attack on villages suspected of harboring National Liberation Front fighters in this June, 1972 photo by Huynh Cong Ut, which became a symbol of the international movement against U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Small scale opposition to the war began in 1964 on college campuses. This was happening during a time of unprecedented leftist student activism, and of the arrival at college age of the demographically significant Baby Boomers. Growing opposition to the war is attributable in part to the much greater access to information about the war available to college age Americans compared with previous generations because of extensive television news coverage.

Thousands of young American men chose exile in Canada or Sweden rather than risk conscription. At that time, only a fraction of all men of draft age were actually conscripted; the Selective Service System office ("Draft Board") in each locality had broad discretion on whom to draft and whom to exempt where there was no clear guideline for exemption. The charges of unfairness led to the institution of a draft lottery for the year 1970 in which a young man's birthday determined his relative risk of being drafted (September 14 was the birthday at the top of the draft list for 1970; the following year July 9 held this distinction).

In order to gain an exemption or deferment many men obtained student deferments by attending college, though they would have to remain in college until their 26th birthday to be certain of avoiding the draft. Some got married, which remained an exemption throughout the war. Some men found sympathetic doctors who would claim a medical basis for applying for a 4F (medically unfit) exemption, though Army doctors could and did make their own judgments. Still others joined the National Guard or entered the Peace Corps as a way of avoiding Vietnam. All of these issues raised concerns about the fairness of who got selected for involuntary service, since it was often the poor or those without connections who were drafted. Ironically, in light of modern political issues, a certain exemption was a convincing claim of homosexuality, but very few men attempted this because of the stigma involved.

The draft itself also initiated protests when on October 15, 1965 the student-run National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam staged the first public burning of a draft card in the United States. The first draft lottery since World War II in the United States was held on December 1, 1969 and was met with large protests and a great deal of controversy; statistical analysis indicated that the methodology of the lotteries unintentionally disadvantaged men with late year birthdays. [1] This issue was treated at length in a January 4, 1970 New York Times article titled "Statisticians Charge Draft Lottery Was Not Random".

Even many of those who never received a deferment or exemption never served, simply because the pool of eligible men was so huge compared to the number required for service, that the draft boards never got around to drafting them when a new crop of men became available (until 1969) or because they had high lottery numbers (1970 and later).

The US people became polarized over the war. Many supporters of the war argued for what was known as the Domino Theory, which held that if the South fell to communist guerillas, other nations, primarily in Southeast Asia, would succumb in short succession, much like falling dominoes. Military critics of the war pointed out that the conflict was political and that the military mission lacked clear objectives. Civilian critics of the war argued that the government of South Vietnam lacked political legitimacy, or that support for the war was immoral. President Johnson's undersecretary of state, George Ball, was one of the lone voices in his administration advising against war in Vietnam.

Gruesome images of two anti-war activists that set themselves on fire in November 1965 provided iconic images of how strongly some people felt that the war was immoral. On November 2 32-year-old Quaker member Norman Morrison set himself on fire in front of The Pentagon and on November 9 22-year old Catholic Worker member Roger Allen LaPorte did the same thing in front of the United Nations building. Both protests were conscious imitations of earlier (and ongoing) Buddhist protests in South Vietnam itself.

The growing anti-war movement alarmed many in the US government. On August 16, 1966 the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigations of Americans who were suspected of aiding the NLF, with the intent to introduce legislation making these activities illegal. Anti-war demonstrators disrupted the meeting and 50 were arrested.

On February 1, 1968, a suspected NLF officer was summarily executed by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a South Vietnamese National Police Chief. Loan shot the suspect in the head on a public street in front of journalists. The execution was filmed and photographed and provided another iconic image that helped sway public opinion in the United States against the war.

South Vietnamese police Chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong Captain Nguyen Van Lem

On October 15, 1969, hundreds of thousands of people took part in National Moratorium antiwar demonstrations across the United States; the demonstrations prompted many workers to call in sick from their jobs and adolescents nationwide engaged in truancy from school - although the proportion of individuals doing either who actually participated in the demonstrations is in doubt. A second round of "Moratorium" demonstrations was held on November 15, but was less well-attended.

The U.S. realized that the South Vietnamese government needed a solid base of popular support if it was to survive the insurgency. In order to pursue this goal of "winning the hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people, units of the United States Army, referred to as "Civil Affairs" units, were extensively utilized for the first time for this purpose since World War II.

Civil Affairs units, while remaining armed and under direct military control, engaged in what came to be known as "nation building": constructing (or reconstructing) schools, public buildings, roads and other physical infrastructure; conducting medical programs for civilians who had no access to medical facilities; facilitating cooperation among local civilian leaders; conducting hygiene and other training for civilians; and similar activities.

This policy of attempting to win the "Hearts and Minds" of the Vietnamese people, however, often was at odds with other aspects of the war which served to antagonize many Vietnamese civilians. These policies included the emphasis on "body count" as a way of measuring military success on the battlefield, the bombing of villages (symbolized by journalist Peter Arnett's famous quote, "it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it"), and the killing of civilians in such incidents as the My Lai massacre. In 1974 the documentary "Hearts and Minds" sought to portray the devastation the war was causing to the South Vietnamese people, and won an Academy Award for best documentary amid considerable controversy. The South Vietnamese government also antagonized many of its citizens with its suppression of political opposition, through such measures as holding large numbers of political prisoners, torturing political opponents, and holding a one-man election for President in 1971.

Despite the increasingly depressing news on the war, many Americans continued to support President Johnson's endeavors. Aside from the domino theory mentioned above, there was a feeling that the goal of preventing a communist takeover of a pro-Western government in South Vietnam was a noble objective. Many Americans were also concerned about saving face in the event of disengaging from the war or, as President Richard M. Nixon later put it, "achieving Peace with Honor." In addition, instances of Viet Cong atrocities were widely reported, most notably in an article that appeared in Reader's Digest in 1968 entitled The Blood-Red Hands of Ho Chi Minh.

However, anti-war feelings also began to rise. Many Americans opposed the war on moral grounds, seeing it as a destructive war against Vietnamese independence, or as intervention in a foreign civil war; others opposed it because they felt it lacked clear objectives and appeared to be unwinnable. Some anti-war activists were themselves Vietnam Veterans, as evidenced by the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Some of the Americans opposed to the Vietnam War, as for instance Jane Fonda, stressed their support for ordinary Vietnamese civilians struck by a war beyond their influence. The anti-war sentiments gave reason to a perception among returning soldiers of being spat on.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson began his re-election campaign. A member of his own party, Eugene McCarthy, ran against him for the nomination on an antiwar platform. McCarthy did not win the first primary election in New Hampshire, but he did surprisingly well against an incumbent. The resulting blow to the Johnson campaign, taken together with other factors, led the President to make a surprise announcement in a March 31 televised speech that he was pulling out of the race. He also announced the initiation of the Paris Peace Talks with Vietnam in that speech. Then on August 4, 1969 US representative Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese representative Xuan Thuy began secret peace negotiations at the apartment of French intermediary Jean Sainteny in Paris. The negotiations eventually failed, however.

Seizing the opportunity caused by Johnson's departure from the race, Robert Kennedy then joined in and ran for the nomination on an antiwar platform. Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, also ran for the nomination, promising to continue to support the South Vietnamese government.

Kennedy was assassinated that summer, and Eugene McCarthy was unable to overcome Humphrey's support within the party elite. Humphrey won the nomination of his party, and ran against Richard Nixon in the general election. During the campaign, Nixon has been said to have claimed knowledge of a secret plan to end the war; this claim did not actually occur. It was thought to have occurred because at one point, his opponent for G.O.P. nomination, Gov. George Romney of Michigan, asked him "Where is your secret plan?"

Opposition to the Vietnam War in Australia followed along similar lines to the United States, particularly with opposition to conscription. While Australian disengagement began in 1970 under John Gorton, it was not until the election of Gough Whitlam in 1972 that conscription ended.

Anti-Vietnam war demonstration


Nixon was elected President and began his policy of slow disengagement from the war. The goal was to gradually build up the South Vietnamese Army so that it could fight the war on its own. This policy became the cornerstone of the so-called "Nixon Doctrine." As applied to Vietnam, the doctrine was called "Vietnamization." The stated goal of Vietnamization was to enable the South Vietnamese army to increasingly hold its own against the NLF and the North Vietnamese Army. The unstated goal of Vietnamization was that the primary burden of combat would be returned to ARVN troops and thereby lessen domestic opposition to the war in the U.S.

During this period, the United States conducted a gradual troop withdrawal from Vietnam. Nixon continued to use air power to bomb the enemy, and American soldiers continued to die in combat. Ultimately, more American soldiers died, and more bombs were dropped, under the Nixon Presidency than under Johnson's.

Many significant gains in the war were made under the Nixon administration, however. One particularly significant achievement was the weakening of support that the North Vietnamese army received from the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China. One of Nixon's main foreign policy goals had been the achievement of a "breakthrough" in relations between the two nations, in terms of creating a new spirit of cooperation. To a large extent this was achieved. China and the USSR had been the principal backers of the North Vietnamese army through large amounts of military and financial support. The eagerness of both nations to improve their own US relations in the face of a widening breakdown of the inter-Communist alliance led to the reduction of their aid to North Vietnam.

File:My Lai massacre.jpg
U.S. soldiers' massacre of Vietnamese villagers at My Lai.

The morality of US conduct of the war continued to be an issue under the Nixon Presidency. In 1969 it came to light that Lt. William Calley, a platoon leader in Vietnam, had led a massacre of several hundred Vietnamese civilians, including women, babies, and the elderly, at My Lai a year before. The massacre was only stopped after two American soldiers in a helicopter spotted the carnage and intervened to prevent their fellow Americans from killing any more civilians. Although many were appalled by the wholesale slaughter at My Lai, Calley was given a life sentence after his court-martial in 1970, and was later pardoned by President Nixon. Cover-ups or soft treatments of American war crimes also happened in other cases, e.g. as revealed by the Pulitzer Prize winning article series about the Tiger Force by the Toledo Blade in 2003.

In 1970, Nixon ordered a military incursion into Cambodia in order to destroy NLF sanctuaries bordering on South Vietnam. This action prompted even more protests on American college campuses. Several students were shot to death by National Guard troops during demonstrations at Kent State.

One effect of the incursion was to push communist forces deeper into Cambodia, which destabilized the country and in turn may have encouraged the rise of the Khmer Rouge, who seized power in 1975. The goal of the attacks, however, was to bring the North Vietnamese negotiators back to the table with some flexibility in their demands that the South Vietnamese government be overthrown as part of the agreement. It was also alleged that American and South Vietnamese casualty rates were reduced by the destruction of military supplies the communists had been storing in Cambodia.

In an effort to help assuage growing discontent over the war, Nixon announced on October 12, 1970 that the United States would withdraw 40,000 more troops before Christmas. Later that month on October 30, the worst monsoon to hit Vietnam in six years caused large floods, killed 293, left 200,000 homeless and virtually halted the war.

Backed by American air and artillery support, South Vietnamese troops invaded Laos on February 13, 1971. On August 18 of that year, Australia and New Zealand decided to withdraw their troops from Vietnam. The total number of American troops in Vietnam dropped to 196,700 on October 29, 1971, the lowest level since January 1966. On November 12, 1971 Nixon set a February 1, 1972 deadline to remove another 45,000 American troops from Vietnam.

In the 1972 election, the war was once again a major issue in the United States. An antiwar candidate, George McGovern, ran against President Nixon. Nixon's Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, declared that "Peace is at Hand" shortly before the voters went to the polls, dealing a death blow to McGovern's campaign, which had been facing an uphill battle. However, the peace agreement was not signed until the next year, leading many to conclude that Kissinger's announcement was just a political ploy. Kissinger's defenders assert that the North Vietnamese negotiators had made use of Kissinger's pronouncement as an opportunity to embarrass the Nixon Administration to weaken it at the negotiation table. White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler on November 30, 1972 told the press that there would be no more public announcements concerning American troop withdrawals from Vietnam due to the fact that troop levels were then down to 27,000. The US halted heavy bombing of North Vietnam on December 30, 1972.

A campaign to bomb Vietnam's dikes and thus threaten the North Vietnamese food supply was employed to pressure the North to concede, the details of which only began to surface much later.

The End of the War

South Vietnamese civilians scramble to board the last US helicopter leaving the country.
File:Boat People fleeing Vietnam.jpg
Vietnamese family fleeing Vietnam by boat following the Communist victory. Photo taken by Eddie Adams.

On January 15, 1973, citing progress in peace negotiations, President Nixon announced the suspension of offensive action in North Vietnam which was later followed by a unilateral withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords were later signed on January 27, 1973 which officially ended US involvement in the Vietnam conflict. This won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for Kissinger and North Vietnam's Prime Minister Le Duc Tho while fighting continued, leading songwriter Tom Lehrer to declare that irony had died.

The first American prisoners of war were released on February 11 and all US soldiers were ordered to leave by March 29. In a break with history, soldiers returning from the Vietnam War were generally not treated as heroes, and soldiers were sometimes even condemned for their participation in the war.

The peace agreement did not last.

Nixon had promised South Vietnam that he would provide military support to them in the event of a crumbling military situation. Nixon was fighting for his political life in the growing Watergate Scandal at the time. Economic aid continued, most of it was siphoned off by corrupt elements in the South Vietnamese government and little of it actually went to the war effort. At the same time aid to North Vietnam from the USSR and China began to increase, as with the Americans out, the two countries no longer saw the war as significant to their US relations. The balance of power had clearly shifted to the North.

In early 1975 the North invaded the South and quickly consolidated the country under its control. Saigon was captured on April 30, 1975. North Vietnam united both North and South Vietnam on July 2, 1976 to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Saigon was re-named Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the former president of North Vietnam. Hundreds of supporters of the South Vietnamese government were rounded up and executed, many more were imprisoned. Communist rule continues to this day.

On January 21, 1977 American President Jimmy Carter pardoned nearly all Vietnam War draft evaders.


Estimating the number killed in the conflict is extremely difficult. Official records from North Vietnam are hard to find or nonexistent and many of those killed were literally blasted to pieces by bombing. For many years the North Vietnamese suppressed the true number of their casualties for propaganda purposes. It is also difficult to say exactly what counts as a "Vietnam war casualty"; people are still being killed today by unexploded ordnance, particularly cluster bomblets. Environmental effects from chemical agents and the colossal social problems caused by a devastated country with so many dead surely caused many more lives to be shortened. In addition, the Khmer Rouge would probably not have come into power and committed their slaughters without the destabilization of the war, particularly of the American bombing campaigns to 'clear out the sanctuaries' in Cambodia.

The lowest casualty estimates, based on North Vietnamese statements which are now discounted by Vietnam, are around 1.5 million Vietnamese killed. Vietnam released figures on April 3, 1995 that a total of one million Vietnamese combatants and four million civilians were killed in the war. The accuracy of these figures has generally not been challenged. It is unclear how many Vietnamese were wounded in the war.

Of the Americans, 58,226 were killed in action or classified as missing in action. A further 153,303 Americans were wounded to give total casualties of 211,529. The United States Army took the majority of the casualties with 38,179 killed and 96,802 wounded; the Marine Corps lost 14,836 killed and 51,392 wounded; the Navy 2,556 and 4,178; with the Air Force suffering the lowest casualties both in numbers and percentage terms with 2,580 killed and 931 wounded.

American allies took casualties as well. South Korea provided the largest outside force and suffered something between 4400 and 5000 killed[2] full details including WIA and MIA appear difficult to find. Australia lost 501 dead and 3,131 wounded out of the 47,000 troops they had deployed to Vietnam. New Zealand had 38 dead and 187 wounded. Thailand had 351 casualties. were also at least in the hundreds but, like the Philippines, it is difficult to locate accurate figures for their losses. Although Canada was not involved in the war, thousands of Canadians joined the American armed forces and served in Vietnam. The American fatal casualties include at least 56 Canadian citizens. It is difficult to estimate the exact number because some Canadians crossed the border to volunteer for service under false pretenses whereas others were permanent residents living in the United States who either volunteered or were drafted.

In the aftermath of the war many Americans came to believe that some of the 2,300 American soldiers listed as Missing in Action had in fact been taken prisoner by the DRV and held indefinitely. While little credible evidence has been shown for this, fictional images of tortured, emaciated prisoners of war (notably in the sequel to Rambo) continue to evoke anger among many Americans. The Vietnamese list over 200,000 of their own soldiers Missing in Action, and bodies of MIA soldiers from World War I and II continue to be unearthed in Europe.

Both during and after the war, significant human rights violations occurred. Both North and South Vietnamese had large numbers of political prisoners, many of whom were killed or tortured. In 1970, two American congressmen visiting South Vietnam discovered the existence of "tiger cages", which were small prison cells used for torturing South Vietnamese political prisoners. After the war, actions taken by the victors in Vietnam, including firing squads, torture, concentration camps and "re-education," led to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. Many of these refugees fled by boat and thus gave rise to the phrase "boat people." They emigrated to Hong Kong, France, the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries, creating sizable expatriate communities, notably in the United States.

Among the many casualties of the war were the people of the neighboring state of Cambodia. Approximately 600,000 died as a result of US bombing campaigns. The bombing campaigns also drove many Cambodians into the arms of the nationalist and communist Khmer Rouge who took power and continued the slaughter of opponents or suspected opponents. About 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered or fell victim to starvation and disease before the regime was overthrown by Vietnamese forces in 1979.

Many effects of the animosity and ill will generated during the Vietnam War are still felt today among those who lived through this turbulent time in American and Indochinese history.

Analysis of effect on Indochina

[To be expanded upon creation of section on Indochina]

Analysis of effect on the United States

The Vietnam war had many long term repercussions for American society and foreign policy.

Politically, the war's poor planning and "blank check" legislation led to Congress reviewing the way that the United States waged war. Due to the Vietnam War buildup, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which curtailed the President's ability to commit troops to action without first obtaining Congressional approval.

The use of the defoliation agent known as Agent Orange, designed to destroy the hiding places of the Viet Cong, has caused many health maladies and birth defects to this day for people on both sides of the conflict.

From a social point of view, the war was a key time in the lives of many younger Americans, especially the so-called baby boom generation. For protester and soldier alike, the war created many strong opinions in regards to American foreign policy and the justness of war. As a result, the Vietnam War was also significant in showing the degree that the public can influence government policy through mobilization and protest.

The war and its aftermath led to a mass emigration from Vietnam, mostly to the United States. They included both Amerasians (the children of Vietnamese young women and US military personnel) and Vietnamese refugees, especially those who had served under South Vietnam, who fled soon after the Communist takeover. During the subsequent years over 1 million of these people arrived in the United States (see Vietnamese American)

In 1982, construction began on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (also known as 'The Wall'). It is located on the Washington DC mall adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial. The Three Soldiers statue was added later, in 1984.

Service in the war, though initially unpopular, soon became respected even though the war itself was not (many of the war's veterans, however, have experienced profound difficulties - including homelessness - since returning from Vietnam). Past service in Vietnam became important to the election of many future American politicians; for example, it was a factor in the election of John McCain, a former Vietnam POW, to the US Senate. The fact that Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had avoided military service in Vietnam were sources of controversy during their respective election campaigns - this issue becoming especially inflammatory in the latter's 2004 re-election bid, and placed into sharper relief by his decision to invade first Afghanistan and then Iraq in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. President Bush and many of his neoconservative allies have found themselves derisively characterized as "Chickenhawks" for advocating these military actions in light of their not having served in the armed forces during the Vietnam era.

America’s failure in the Vietnam War did not end its determination to fight Communism, rather its policy toward world Communism changed profoundly. Ronald Reagan took the Vietnam War into account when he directly applied political and diplomatic pressure on the Soviet Union while ignoring Vietnam and the rest of Asia. He applied the policies in a direct attempt to destroy Communism at its source of origin, instead of fighting Communism through proxy wars, with the notable exception of Afghanistan. In a sense American defeat in the Vietnam War helped lead to American victory in the Cold War. The Soviet collapse in 1991 left Vietnam without its main economic and political partner, and thus it began to seek closer ties with the West.

After taking office, Bill Clinton announced his desire to heal relations with Vietnam. His administration lifted economic sanctions on the country in 1994, and in May 1995 the two nations renewed diplomatic relations, with the US opening up an embassy on Vietnamese soil for the first time since 1975.


Major Military Operations of Vietnam War with launching dates

Major battles of Vietnam War

Major bombing campaigns of Vietnam War

Major figures of Vietnam War


North Vietnam

South Vietnam

United States

Common Military Medals of the Vietnam War

Republic of Vietnam Medals

Vietnamese Unit Citations

United States Vietnam Service

See also: Awards and decorations of the United States military

Related Articles

External links

Further reading

History Texts

  • Daniel Ellsberg. 2002. Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. New York: Viking Press.
  • Frances Fitzgerald. 1972. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and Americans in Vietnam. Boston: Little Brown and Company.
  • David Halberstam. 1969. The Best and the Brightest. New York. Ballantine Books.
  • Stanley Karnow. 1983. Vietnam, A History. New York: Viking Press.
  • Robert McNamara. 1995. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. (written with Brian VanDeMark) New York: Vintage Books.
  • Robert Mann. 2001. A Grand Delusion: America's Descent into Vietnam. New York: Basic Books.
  • James S. Olson (editor). 1988. Dictionary of the Vietnam War. New York: Greenwood Press, Inc.
  • Lewis Sorley. 1999. A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam New York: Harcourt.



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