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american history

the war in vietnam

*despite us escalation following the tonkin gulf resolution, the war in
vietnam was largely a stalemate.  in ambushes, the v-c had the advantage, although special us search-and-destroy missions killed some v-c.  in open battles the us killed the v-c and nva, but more just moved in.

*all this changed in 1968.  the
us expected some kind of attack, because we knew there was a major build-up of nva and v-c.  the north vietnamese had begun a siege to the marine base at khe sanh.  however, the vietnamese new year was coming up, and there was supposed to be a cease-fire in honour of this occasion, called tet, beginning on the night of 30/31 january in 1968. 

*on the night of 30/31 january, almost every major town in rvn was attacked by v-c forces.  in most places the v-c were beaten immediately.  only in khe sanh,
hue, and saigon itself did they have any success, where fighting continued for several weeks.

*during tet, the v-c killed anyone they considered an enemy, especially the educated classes.  doctors, teachers, minor government officials, military personnel, and many others were rounded up and executed—thousands in total.

*tet destroyed the v-c.  over 100,000 were killed, wounded, or captured, compared to 1,100 dead us and 2,800 dead arvn soldiers.  however, when images of tet got home, people were horrified.  on the news it looked like the
us was losing. 

*the tet offensive was a turning point in the war psychologically.  although a tactical victory for the us and arvn, it convinced americans watching at home that the v-c could attack anywhere at any time they wanted in massive numbers, and do well even against the us army (even though after tet that was largely untrue).  more and more people began to ask just what the unites states were doing in viet-nam, and believed there was a credibility gap between what the government was saying about
vietnam and what was actually happening there.


*anti-war demonstrations became more popular in the united states.  in 1965, perhaps 15% of americans favoured leaving viet-nam.  by 1970, a majority favoured withdrawal.  this was in part due to the effective work of the anti-war movement.  this began with ‘teach-ins’ at colleges, where professors and others spoke about the war, its causes, and its problems.  soon demonstrations against the draft began, as young men decided they did not want to go to war.  they burnt their draft cards and chanted ‘hell no, we won’t go,’ and accused the us army and lbj of war crimes, chanting ‘hey, hey, lbj, how many kids did you kill to-day?’


*of course, the draft was not a problem for everyone.  there were ways out of the draft.  some doctors would fake medical exams to say that their patients were not fit to serve.  students in college could get a deferment, meaning they did not have to go then (and usually never did go).  because this did not apply to dropouts and failures and, after 1966, students with bad grades, many professors, many of whom opposed the war, or at least did not want to see people they knew killed, made it easier and easier to get good grades, thus dumbing down the educational system.  many people, especially minorities, complained that the deferment was unfair because most college students were middle-class whites.  in 1971, the college deferment system ended, so now the wealthy white kids would have to go to viet-nam.  opposition to the war really increased then.


*many young men opposed the draft.  some refused to fight and were locked away in jail.  thousands ran away to canada, and stayed there for years.  it is thought that about 100,000 americans went to canada to avoid the war.


*the tet offensive hurt johnson’s credibility so much that he gave a televised national address stating that he would not seek re-election in 1968.  robert kennedy and eugene mccarthy (an anti-war candidate) then sought the nomination.


*robert f. kennedy was assassinated on 5 june, 1968, while campaigning in california.  however, many people did not like eugene mccarthy due to his ant-war stance.  when the democratic convention met in chicago, riots broke out in the streets which were brutally put down by the police.  which were brutally put down by>  for many americans, it seemed like the war had spread to american.  ultimately, the democrats chose hubert humphrey, johnson’s vice-president, who reluctantly endorsed the war.


*the republicans chose richard nixon, who successfully appealed to a ‘silent majority’ who supported the war and traditional values (because he associated the hippies and war protesters with the democrats).  he also used a southern strategy in the >  he won support from conservative southerners troubled by a rapidly-changing society, particularly kennedy and johnson’s civil rights> 


*nixon was also helped by george wallace’s run for president with the american independent party, an openly anti-civil rights group, who took many votes from democrats in the south.  ever since 1968, the south (which once voted solidly democratic) has tended to vote republican.


*although nixon appealed to people who supported the war, he also promised to win ‘peace with honor,’ partly through vietnamization—turning the war over the arvn (who turned out to be unable to fight well enough, partly because they had become dependent on american help, especially air support).


*even though nixon promised peace, he actually expanded the war in 1970 by bombing cambodia and laos, where local communists (khmer rouge and pathet lao) were helping the v-c transport supplies down the ho chi minh trail.


*this led to more war protests.  one such protest, in 1970, was at kent state in ohio, where national guard soldiers, threatened and abused by protesters, panicked and fired into the crowd and killing four people (not all of whom were even protesters).  this just led to more protests, particularly as the college deferment system ended the next year, sending more middle-class kids to war. 


*protests grew even worse in 1971 when lieutenant william calley was put on trial for the my lai massacre of 1968, when calley ordered his men to shoot unarmed civilians (none of them fighting-age men) and killed between 400 and 500 people.  some were also tortured and mutilated.  calley claimed he was just following orders to search and destroy as he understood them.  furthermore, his platoon had lost several men to viet cong attacks over the preceding months.  still he (although not his men) was found guilty of murder and given life in prison, although this sentence was later vastly reduced.


*also in 1971, daniel ellsberg leaked the pentagon papers, which revealed secret military plans that made it clear that the military and the government had not informed the public of all its involvement in vietnam, and had sometimes even deliberately misled the public ever since 1945.


*in october, 1972, the us and north vietnam agreed to peace, and in 1973, america withdrew our troops in vietnam.  in 1975, the north vietnamese army invaded and by 30 april, 1975, saigon had fallen and south vietnam ceased to exist.


*over 58,000 americans were killed, over 300,000 were wounded, and around two million vietnamese died during the war.


*america also lost respect around the world, as other countries (particularly france) questioned why america had spent so long fighting a failed war in southeast asia.


*many americans also came to distrust the government, and some also treated returning soldiers badly, calling them baby-killers and often ignoring their problems (including post-traumatic stress disorder, health problems caused by agent orange, and sometimes drug addiction).  this was a shocking contrast to the treatment of the heroes of world war i, especially world war ii, and even the ‘forgotten war’ in korea.


*in 1973, the war powers act reversed the tonkin gulf resolution severely limited the president’s power to make war.


*what about the domino theory?  after viet-nam, two more dominoes fell:  laos, and cambodia (where pol pot of the khmer rouge killed 1.7 million cambodians who he thought were too western—that is over 20% of the entire cambodian population).  vietnamese, cambodian, and laotian boat people also fled to the us.  however, no more countries in the region fell, perhaps because they never would have, and perhaps because the long struggle in viet-nam had limited the power of communism.

*today laos and vietnam are still communist countries, but cambodia, after five years of rule by pol pot and a decade under rule by vietnam (after the khmer rouge crossed the border too often), held free elections in 1993 and created a constitutional monarchy.


this page last updated 18 november, 2009.
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