ADVANCED PLACEMENT AMERICAN 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 May1963 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 president.

 

*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 safe.

 

*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 counts.

 

*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 Beret.’  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 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.

 

*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 Kronkite, 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 USSR.

 

*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 middle-class whites. 

 

*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 (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, 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.

 

*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.  Nixon felt that not only would this help protect Americans, it would make America look strong and help 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 remake society.

 

*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 3˝ 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 typical.  

 

*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.

 

*In 1973, the War Powers Act reversed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and 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 of rule by Vietnam (after the Khmer Rouge crossed the border too often), held free elections in 1993 and created a constitutional monarchy.  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 29 November, 2018.
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