THE WAR IN VIET-NAM
*The Viet-Nam war can be traced back to the Second World War and, indeed, to the 19th Century colonial empire of France. In 1884, the French occupied most of Viet-Nam, and soon made it part of a larger colony called Indo-China, encompassing Viet-Nam (which they French split into three colonies, Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin-China), Laos, and Cambodia. The term Indo-China can also include Siam and Burma, although these were never French.
*During WWII, the Vichy French government allowed the Japanese to move through parts of Indo-China to attack Chiang Kai-shek in China, and in 1945 the Japanese took over the whole colony.
*During this time, the USA’s OSI trained a number of native guerrillas to fight the Japanese. Among these was a young nationalist named Ho Chi Minh. He had long hoped for independence for Viet-Nam, even seeking a meeting with Woodrow Wilson at Versailles to discuss self-determination. Ho admired the Declaration of Independence and George Washington (and saw himself as his own country’s Washington). Wilson ignored him, and Ho soon turned to Moscow for help.
*The Japanese in Indo-China surrendered when the Emperor ended WWII in August 1945, and the French tried to regain control. Ho and many of his supporters, called Viet Minh, the League for the Independence of Viet-Nam, opposed this, as they had declared Viet-Nam independent from France in 1941. In 1946, Ho declared himself president of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam, but he was not recognised by anyone but his own followers, in part because most of Europe supported the French out of principle, and especially because Ho was a communist. Furthermore, although he used Communism in part to help the poor at the expense of the rich and the French, and because it got him help from the USSR, Ho was first and foremost a nationalist, not likely to be completely dominated by the Soviets, which is what the West feared most. That said, he was still a fairly monstrous figure, killing many of his enemies, even the poor of Viet-Nam. So, the US gave France money (c.f. Truman Doctrine).
*To combat Ho, the French created a Republic of Viet-Nam, to be led by the Emperor of Viet-Nam, Bao Dai. The French and the RVN fought against the Viet Minh for almost a decade. In 1953, the French were attacked at a small base called Na San, and the Viet Minh were beaten badly. The French decided to build a major fort, draw General Giap in, and destroy him at Dien Bien Phu.
*Initial French preparations went well, but it soon turned out there were far more Viet Minh than the French thought. They were also armed with the latest Soviet rockets and other arms. The Viet Minh laid siege to Dien Bien Phu and in April 1954 the French, in a bad position at the Geneva Conventions, gave up control of Viet Nam in the Geneva Accords, which in July divided Viet-Nam just south of the 17th Parallel, made Hanoi Ho’s capital of the North and Saigon Ngo Dinh Diem’s capital in the South. Elections were to be held in 1956 for a unified country and government. Ho Chi Minh was very popular for his work in getting the French out, and it was feared that he would win a popular election, so the South did not go along with this part of it and the US supported them in that. When an election between Ngo and Bao Dai was held, it was heavily rigged.
*Just as the US had sent money to France, Eisenhower also pledged to support the RVN, and sent money to Ngo. He also sent a few military advisors to help train the ARVN (675 by 1960).
*When Kennedy became president, he also pledged to support Ngo and the RVN. However, Ngo was not popular with many South Viet-Namese. He was Catholic (his older brother was Archbishop of Hue) and most Viet-Namese were Buddhist. He had also supported the old French-dominated regime of Bao Dai. He imprisoned those who disagreed with him.
*Many people wanted him to initiate land reform—that is, take land from the rich and give it to the poor—but he would not. Instead, he created ‘strategic hamlets,’ essentially large, government-run farms, where they could work, but where they would also be under close guard so they could not help the communists.
*In June 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 will have almost total access to major events and unprecedented means of transmitting news, pictures, and video back home.
*Opposition to Ngo in Viet-Nam and
now 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.
*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.
*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.
*3 August 1964, some US Navy destroyers patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin were attacked by NVN torpedo boats. The damage was minimal (only one bullet struck, hitting the 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 has later been discovered that the second wave of attacks detected by radar were actually thunder clouds.
*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. 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 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. These were called 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, because Johnson was afraid of accidentally hitting a Soviet advisor and sparking WWIII.
*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 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.
*Americans were also disturbed by the war when they learnt of the actions of Lieutenant William Calley, jr. 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 the Americans if they tried to continue.
*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 was typical. The Army tried to cover this up, but in 1971 Calley was tried and sentenced to life, later commuted to 20 years, and released for good behaviour after 3½ years of house arrest.
*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.
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This page last updated 7 December, 2003.