UNITED STATES HISTORY
The War in Vietnam
*By 1893, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were all part of French
Indo-China. Wealthy French families and a few Vietnamese who
worked with them, controlled most of the businesses in Indo-China
(mostly rice and rubber plantations). They also tried to
convert the local people from Buddhism to Catholicism.
*Many Indochinese wanted independence, and in 1919, Ho Chi Minh
went to Versailles to ask for independence and for America’s
support. When Wilson supported France’s plans to keep
Indo-China, Ho began to consider Communism (although he was always
a nationalist first).
*During World War II, the Japanese occupied Indo-China, and Ho Chi
Minh and the Viet Minh (with American support) fought the
Japanese. When the war ended, he declared Vietnam’s
independence from France.
*Under Truman and Eisenhower the US decided to support France as
part of the policy of containment and the fear of the Domino
Theory—the idea that if one country fell to communism its
neighbours would too. Both of them sent money to the French.
*Although the French did well at first, in 1954, a major French
force was surrounded by Viet Minh forces and had to surrender at
Dien Bien Phu.
*Afterwards, Vietnam was divided at the 17th Parallel, with the
Communists controlling North Vietnam and the anti-Communist
Republic of Vietnam in the South. Laos and Cambodia also
received their independence (both as constitutional monarchies).
*There were supposed to be elections to choose a leader for a
united Vietnam, but they were never held because the United States
was afraid Ho Chi Minh would win. Instead, Ngo Dinh Diem
became president of South Vietnam, and Eisenhower and Kennedy sent
him money and Kennedy sent military advisors as well.
*Ngo Dinh Diem was unpopular. He was a Catholic and had
worked with the French, and he did not have much sympathy for poor
farmers. Many South Vietnamese opposed him by joining the
Viet-Cong, a Communist guerrilla group.
*It was hard to fight the Viet-Cong, as they looked like any other
farmers during the day. To try to deal with this, the
government rounded farmers up in ‘strategic hamlets’ where they
could farm under armed guard. Unfortunately, this angered
farmers forced from their homes and, because they mixed with V-C
in these hamlets, many bitter farmers joined the V-C.
*In May 1963 a Buddhist monk protested Ngo’s regime by pouring
gasoline on himself and immolating himself on a street in
Saigon. Soon other monks followed his example, and
newspapers the world over reported it. In Viet-Nam, news
reporters and cameramen had almost total access to major events
and transmitted shocking news, pictures, and film back home.
*Opposition to Ngo in Viet-Nam and America led Kennedy to permit a
coup d’etat by several ARVN officers. Ngo, his wife,
and a younger brother were all murdered on 1 November 1963.
Three weeks later, Kennedy was assassinated, and LBJ became
*The ARVN generals who took over from Ngo Dinh Diem governed the
country poorly, did not run the ARVN well, and 1964 saw a rise in
Viet Cong activity in RVN. Often former Viet Minh, these
guerrillas sabotaged the RVN at night and looked like peaceful
peasants during the day.
*3 August 1964, some US Navy destroyers patrolling the Gulf of
Tonkin were attacked by NVN torpedo boats. The damage was
minimal (one bullet struck USS Maddox), but the next day
radar reports showed many more boats approaching and launching
torpedoes, and the Navy fired upon them. This attack allowed
Johnson to ask Congress for the power to send troops to Viet-Nam,
because Congress, not the president, deploys and pays
troops. 7 August 1964, Congress responded with the Gulf of
Tonkin Resolution, which allowed the President to do whatever he
felt was necessary as long as he said there was an
emergency. It was later discovered that the second wave of
attacks detected by radar were actually thunder clouds.
*In February 1965, the Viet Cong attacked an American airbase at
Pleiku. LBJ ordered the escalation of American activities in
Viet-Nam. General Westmoreland received 184,000 troops by
the end of the year (eventually 3.5 million Americans served in
Vietnam, of whom over 58,000 died).
*Also in 1965, the Air Force began Operation ROLLING THUNDER,
bombing military targets throughout North Viet-Nam (except those
that might hit a Soviet advisor, like Hanoi, Haiphong, the Chinese
Border, or North Vietnamese airbases). Like many aerial
bombardments, however, these only strengthened the will of the
enemy, especially as they quickly discovered what places were
*The US Army had a number of rules of engagement it followed to
keep from offending the Vietnamese people or neighbouring
countries. The US would not bomb cemeteries, so the VC hid
in them. The US would not invade or bomb Laos or Cambodia,
so the NVA and VC built roads and carried supplies through those
countries called the Ho Chi Minh trail.
*The war in Viet-Nam was not like any war Americans had
fought. Used to living in the jungle, the VC were
undetectable in most cases, but they killed and wounded many
soldiers and terrified more, and it was almost impossible to hit
them back. Civilians might throw a bomb or try to poison
soldiers. Soldiers faced booby traps such as pits with punji
sticks, land mines on paths, grenades hooked to tripwires, and an
enemy working out of vast underground tunnel systems that were
dangerous to clear out.
*Because the Vietcong did not fight in traditional battles,
Westmoreland ordered a strategy of search and destroy, looking for
V-C, killing them, and destroying their villages. The only
way to measure success was through a body count, but it was hard
to tell what was a legitimate kill and who was an innocent
bystander. Furthermore, officers often exaggerated body
*The government American soldiers were helping to defend was
corrupt and unpopular, but the government of North Viet-Nam was
worse. In the mid-‘60s, Americans felt they had to be there
and that they were doing the right thing. In 1966 the #1
song was ‘Ballad of the Green Berets.’ However, they were
not trained to fight a guerrilla war and it showed. Soldiers
frustrated at being unable to find the enemy often killed
civilians, usually, but not always, by accident.
*The army could call in the Air Force to help them attack enemy
positions. In these attacks the USAF used fragmentation
bombs, which exploded into many little pieces, sending shrapnel
everywhere to kill the enemy. They also used napalm, jellied
gasoline that set the jungle on fire and stuck to anyone it hit.
*The US also used Agent Orange, a defoliant that killed the jungle
vegetation so soldiers could find hiding VC, but it also caused
health problems in many Vietnamese people and livestock and, it
was later discovered, in many US soldiers as well.
*The war damaged America’s economy. Military spending
required Johnson to raise taxes, and it also raised prices as more
money flowed into the economy. This led to inflation.
Military spending also took money and energy away from Johnson’s
plans for a Great Society.
*By 1968, Johnson’s popularity was in danger, but he still assured
Americans that we were winning the war, and most Americans
believed him. However, events in January, 1968, changed many
Americans minds forever.
*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
*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
*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.
*After the Tet Offensive, polls showed that the majority of
Americans opposed the war, whereas in 1965, perhaps 15% of
Americans favoured leaving Viet-Nam. McNamara had been
having second thoughts and had already advised Johnson to pull out
and been ignored. In February 1968, the most respected man
on television, Walter Cronkite, stated that he thought the war
would end in stalemate. Convinced he had failed in
prosecuting the war and that he could not be re-elected. Johnson
chose not to run for the presidency in 1968. Before leaving
office, he began the Paris peace talks with the North and the
*Anti-war demonstrations became more widespread in the United
States. 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
*Many young men opposed the draft, claiming to be conscientious
objectors. 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
(both anti-war candidates) 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, which many Americans
still viewed as unpatriotic and as soft on Communism. When
the Democratic Convention met in Chicago, riots broke out in the
streets which were brutally put down by the police. For many
Americans, it seemed like the war had spread to America.
Ultimately, the Democrats chose Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s
vice-president, who reluctantly endorsed the War.
*The Republicans chose Richard Nixon, who promised law and order
and 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 election of 1968. He won support from
conservative southerners troubled by a rapidly-changing society,
particularly Kennedy and Johnson’s Civil Rights legislation.
*George Wallace, governor of Alabama, also ran as an American
Independent. He was famous for opposing integration in the
South, but now he played to blue collar workers whose sons were
being drafted, telling them a vote for Wallace was a vote against
the hippies and intellectuals who were undermining society.
Although he lost by a large margin, he did win 5 Southern stats
and 45 electoral votes which otherwise would probably have gone to
the Democrats. He later sought the Democratic nomination in
1972 but was shot and paralysed while campaigning.
*In the election of 1968, the Democratic party’s traditional power
base in the Solid South was destroyed, at least as the
presidential level, and the victory of Richard Nixon can be seen
as the beginning of a Sixth Two-Party system in America (although
some would date its beginning even earlier, others would say
later). White southerners, unhappy about three Democratic
presidents’ support for civil rights, turned to third parties and
increasingly to the Republican Party for most presidential
elections, although Democrats still usually won state, local, and
Congressional offices in the South, and moderate Southern
presidential candidates like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were
still able to win Southern states later in the 20th Century.
However, even their victories were part of a larger shift in
political rhetoric from that of the Fifth Two-Party System with
the Democrats supporting liberal policies like the New Deal and
the Great Society and even the Republican Party mostly favouring
its less conservative wing and supporting projects like the
Interstate Highway system. Under Nixon, political rhetoric
took on a much more conservative slant, even if Nixon himself
actually supported a number of policies that today would be viewed
as moderate or even liberal. Both parties, for several
decades, would reject, or at least question, the power of the
Federal Government to improve society, and both would move in a
more conservative direction for the rest of the 20th
Century. Overall, the Sixth Two-Party system would be a
political and cultural backlash against the growth of government
power and government spending in the Fifth Two-Party System and
against the social changes of the 1960s, which it seemed that a
liberal Supreme Court had supported.
*While Nixon appealed to people who supported the War, he also
promised to win ‘peace with honor,’ partly through
Vietnamization--turning the war over to 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. Nixon felt that not only would this
help protect Americans, it would make America look strong and help
his National Security Advisor (and later Secretary of State) Henry
Kissinger get his way at the Paris peace talks.
*At home, Nixon’s law and order were needed badly. A group
of war protesters called the Weathermen abandoned non-violence,
attacked police, destroyed property, and hoped to start a
revolution in America in order to overthrow the government and
*Soon, members of the silent majority were so disgusted that they
ceased to be silent. Disgusted by the sex, drugs, and
rock-and-roll music of the hippies and anti-war protesters,
working-class people whose sons were being drafted while these
college students were safe at home began to protest against the
protesters, wearing hardhats and work clothes. These people
were called Hardhats, and matched violence with violence.
*In 1970, the invasion of Cambodia, leading the US into a wider
war at a time Nixon said he was withdrawing, led to more
protests. At Kent State University in Ohio, students
protested, burned down the ROTC building, and broke windows in the
town’s business district. The National Guard was sent in to
watch the campus. On 4 May 1970 a crowd of protesters began
to harass the National Guardsmen, yelling at them, cussing them,
spitting on them, and in some cases throwing rocks.
Somewhere a guardsman fired his gun, and the other guardsmen
thought it was the protesters shooting at them, so they fired over
and into the crowd. Four students (two protesters and two
bystanders) were killed and 9 wounded. In Jackson,
Mississippi, white police shot at students protesting at a black
college, killing 2 and wounding 11. Students protested at
other colleges around the country too, sometimes peacefully and
sometimes violently, even burning down ROTC buildings.
*In response to complaints that a man could be drafted at age 18
to fight in a war he could not vote on until the age of 21, the
XXVI Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971.
*In 1971, Nixon ended the college deferment system, so now wealthy
white kids would also have to go to Viet-Nam. Opposition to
the war increased even more.
*Protests grew even worse in 1971 when Lieutenant William Calley
was put on trial for the My Lai Massacre of 1968. Having
heard that the village of My Lai held 250 V-C who had recently
attacked his men, he and his unit went to check it out in March
1968. However, it only held women and children and old
men. Frustrated over this, and knowing that they were likely
harbouring and helping the V-C, Calley had the civilians rounded
up and shot, and in some cases tortured and raped. 347
Vietnamese died in the My Lai massacre, and more would have if a
US helicopter crew scouting the area had not seen the massacre,
landed between Calley’s men and the locals, and threatened to
shoot Calley’s men if they tried to continue.
*The Army tried to cover it up, but three years after the
Massacre, Calley was tried and sentenced to life, later commuted
to 20 years, and released for good behaviour after 3½ years of
house arrest. None of his men were punished.
*This was unusual (although not unique), and it was the worst
instance of such behaviour in Viet-Nam. However, Americans
were led by the media to assume such atrocities were
*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.
*Vietnamisation had been slow for Nixon, partly due to difficult
peace talks in Paris. When the 1972 election approached,
Nixon claimed the North Vietnamese would not deal with him.
In March, the NVA attacked RVN. This led Nixon to begin
Operation LINEBACKER, the heaviest bombing campaign of the war,
even attacking Hanoi. Nixon won the election easily, partly
due to popular disgust with the anti-war movement. He also
got credit for peace, which he said was ‘at hand.’ In fact,
it took LINEBACKER II, another round of heavy bombing, to get
North Viet-Nam back to the bargaining table.
*The Paris Peace Accords, signed January 1973, said that the US
would withdraw all forces within 60 days, all prisoners would be
released (something of a problem, as some NVA prisoners did not
want to go home), everyone would get out of Cambodia and Laos, and
the 17th Parallel would continue to divide North and South.
*In 1973, the War Powers Act reversed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution
severely limited the President’s power to make war.
*In 1973 the US withdrew from Viet-Nam but the NVA and ARVN fought
until 1975 when the NVA took over South Viet-Nam and American
helicopters lifted the last remaining Americans out of the
embassy, along with about 6,000 Viet-Namese on 29 April. On
30 April, the NVA held all of South Viet-Nam, and Viet-Nam was one
country, under communist rule. Saigon’s name was changed to
Ho Chi Minh City after the dead leader, gone since 1969.
*Over 58,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam, 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.
*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
*Today Laos and Vietnam are still communist countries, but
Cambodia, after five years of rule by Pol Pot and a decade of rule
by Vietnam (after the Khmer Rouge crossed the border too often),
held elections in 1993 and established a constitutional monarchy,
although one that has ended up electing the same prime minister
ever since, such that its commitment to democracy is
questionable. The US would not do business with Viet-Nam
until 1994 and would not send an ambassador until 1995, 20 years
after the fall of Saigon.
This page last updated 24 November, 2020.