*Introduce guest, if possible, and promise to tell what killed him later [Agent Orange], as we are going to look at some of the tactics of the war, as well as the incident that brought Americans into Viet-Nam in large numbers.

*The 1960s saw a major change in American military policy.  Kennedy and Johnson’s war policies were shaped by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.  He helped create a new overall outlook for the US military.  Under Eisenhower, the US had relied on deterrence, the power of the mighty atom, and the threat of mutual assured destruction, to prevent war.  This worked in the sense that the USSR did not invade the US or any other NATO country.  However, this did not let the US deal with threats too small to nuke but too big to ignore.  Consequently, the JFK administration developed flexible response, the ability to send different types and sizes of military units around the world.  Part of this was the creation of the US Special Forces as we know them to-day:  the Green Berets.  Although they were elite special forces fighters, they were also teachers and advisors, training Vietnamese and others in guerilla warfare to resist the communists.

*JFK and LBJ followed the policy of containment.  They wanted to keep communism from spreading and would fight it when it tried, just as the Truman Doctrine promised.  The great fear of the US was called the Domino Theory:  if one country in South-east Asia fell to communism, so would the rest, one after another.  Despite this policy and these fears, they did not want to get involved in a major war, so, at least through 1964, they, like Ike, only sent money and advisors to the RVN, although they sent more and more as they years went by.

*Things got worse early in the Johnson administration.  The ARVN generals who took over from Nho 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 guerillas sabotaged the RVN at night and looked like peaceful peasants during the day.

*Even though he wanted to concentrate on his Great Society projects, Johnson felt obligated to send more troops to Viet-Nam, raising the number to 21,000 by the end of July, 1964.  These were still just advisers, at least officially, but they were involved in spying operations in North Viet-Nam and the US Navy sometimes bombarded NVN coastal facilities.

è Distribute papers and lay out basic facts of 31 July-7 August 1964:
è 31 July:  Maddox begins patrolling Gulf of Tonkin
è 2 August:  Maddox attacked
è 3 August:  South Viet-Nam forces attack North Viet-Namese radar installation.
è 4 August:  Maddox and C. Turner Joy patrol Tonkin Gulf, report ships and torpedoes on the radar, fire and call for (and receive) air support
è 7 August:  US Congress passes a joint resolution giving the President very broad war powers
è What actually happened, how reliable are the quotes, and what was the mood of the country at the time?

*On 2 August 1964, some US Navy destroyers were patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin, possibly with the intent of provoking an attack (and thus a legitimate cause for war).  They were attacked by NVN torpedo boats.  The damage was minimal (only one bullet struck, hitting the USS Maddox).

*On 3 August, the US Navy continued to patrol the Gulf and to bombard bridges and other NVN targets.

*On 4 August, radar reports showed many more boats approaching the Maddox and other patrolling US ships 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.  On 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.  Johnson used it to respond with massive bombing campaigns and a build-up of troops.

*It has later been discovered that the second wave of attacks detected by radar were actually thunder clouds.  However, at the time, Johnson did not dare appear weak, especially in an election year, even though, afterwards, he expressed doubt over the authenticity of the radar reports.

*In February 1965, the Viet Cong, moving along the Ho Chi Minh trail, attack the RVN town of Pleiku, killing 8 Americans and wounding 126.  General Westmoreland calls for two battalions of Marines to defend the US air base at Da Nang.

*LBJ can now send all the troops he wants to Viet-Nam without a declaration of war by Congress and he does so in great numbers (184,000 are present by the end of 1965).  This is called escalation, and will ultimately send 3.5 million Americans overseas, sparking controversy between hawks & doves.

*The war in Viet-Nam was not like any war Americans had fought, except possibly the French and Indian War.  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 them.  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 infiltrate and clear out.

*The government they 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 NVA and the VC had other advantages besides their invisibility and relative popularity.  The US Army had 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 on the Ho Chi Minh trail.  The US conducted bombing raids on North Viet-Nam and on suspected VC outposts, but not nearly as many as they could have, and none on Hanoi or Haiphong, because Johnson was afraid of accidentally hitting a Soviet advisor and sparking WW III.

*The Viet-Nam War was a coordinated ground and air war despite limitations on both branches, or at least it was meant to be.  The US Army sent many soldiers into battle on helicopters, including the famous First Cavalry.  This was the first time US helicopters were used for significant troop transports in war.

*The army could call in the Air Force to help them fight enemy positions, although the USAF was known to hit its own people, too.  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.

*In the North, the USAF applied saturation bombing and carpet bombing when it dared, blasting entire regions flat with as much explosive power as the Hiroshima bomb several times over.  This began in 1965 under the codename Operation Rolling Thunder, and was intended to force the North to quit invading the South.  Beginning in 1966, this was carried out by the B-52.

*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.

*Despite increased US escalation, the war 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 they knew there was a major buildup of NVA and V-C around the Marine base at Khe San.  However, the Vietnamese New Year was coming up, and there was supposed to be a cease-fire in honour of this occasion, called Tet, and beginning on the night of 30/31 January in 1968.  A few days before Tet, the NVA attacked Khe San, drawing the world’s attention to the besieged Marine base.  On 29 January, a few V-C attacked towns in RVN, and on the night of 30/31 January, almost every major town in RVN was attacked by V-C forces.  Although the US was distracted by Khe San, in most places the V-C were beaten immediately.  Only in 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 governent officials, military personnel, and many others were rounded up and executed.  In Hue alone between 3,000 and 5,000 were killed and buried in mass graves.

*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.  Charlie would never do much again.  However, when images of Tet and the news of the apparent ease with which US forces were surprised got home, civilians were horrified.  On the news it looked like the US was losing.  Even when the US won, it looked bad, especially the famous image of an ARVN officer summarily executing a V-C POW on the street.  Americans began to oppose the war in increasing numbers.

*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).  The bloody images of Tet filled television screens in the US, and more and more people began to ask just what the Unites States were doing in Viet-Nam.


This page last updated 17 May, 2004.