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Vietnam War

In 1861-1887, the French consolidated their colonial rule in Indochina. This was part of the general European imperialism of the 19th century. In Indochina (Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam), the French worked at converting the people to Roman Catholicism and made alliances with upper class converts who spoke French to help them run the colonies.

In 1940, Japanese troops occupied Indochina. During World War II, Ho Chi Minh led the Vietminh, a nationalist coalition headed by Communist, in a guerrilla war against the Japanese. It cooperated with the US's Office of Strategic Services to fight the Japanese. Ho Chi Minh admired the US and spoke of it as a revolutionary model for it, too, had to fight to gets it independence. In September, 1945, he declared the independence of Vietnam. He wrote to President Harry Truman asking for help. The Truman administration ignored him. The French returned to Indochina in an effort to res-establish colonial rule. Ho Chi Minh began fighting them.

The United States did not recognize the independence of Vietnam for several reasons. France was an ally and the US had been trying to bolster its fortunes after its defeat in WWII. The area seemed strategically vital to the defense of Japan and Philippines. Ho Ch Minh was a Communist and the US, during the Cold War, lumped all Communist together. This fear of Asian Communism increased in 1949, Mao Zedong led the Communist to victory in China, driving Chiang Kai-shek, whom the US favored, to the island of Taiwan. In 1950, the US recognized the French puppet government of Emperor Bao Dai. The US sent weapons, and ultimately, military advisors. From 1950 to 1954, the US pumped over $2 billion in aid.

In 1954, the French fortress at Dienbienphu (in the northern part of the nation) fell. The Eisenhower administration debated within itself about what to do. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Vice President Richard Nixon advised massive air strikes, including the use of small nuclear weapons if necessary. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles suggested getting help from the United Kingdom but the British did not want to get involved. Congress would not support a US effort unless the UK also was involved. Eisenhower and General Matthew Ridgeway were very wary of US involvement. They had seen the US fight to a draw in Korea. But the French wanted out.

The solution was the Geneva Conference in 1954. The Soviet Union, Taiwan, Britain, France, Laos, Cambodia, Bao Dai, and Ho Chi Minh and Indochina participated. The US did not, partly because it refused to recognize the Chinese government, but accepted the results. The Geneva Conference recognized the independence of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel. In 1956, internationally-supervised elections were to be held throughout Vietnam to vote on such issues as reunification. In the meantime, military forces were to be regrouped and populations exchanged. Military bases of any country, the introduction of new military forces, and adherence to military alliances was forbidden to both sides. An International Commission of India, Poland, and Canada to supervise truce.

The truce line became permanent. Those who had been close to the French colonial government or refused to be controlled by Ho Chi Minh moved south while others moved north.

The United States gave substantial support to South Vietnam. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sent a team into Vietnam to begin secret operations against the North, including commando raids. The US government backs government of Ngo Dinh Diem, a leader who was a member of the small aristocratic Roman Catholic minority which had been favored by the French when they ruled. He had opposed French occupation and rule by Ho Chi Minh. He was close to Emperor Bao Dai's and had become the leader of Vietnam in 1954. Diem staged an election which said it got 98% of the vote. In 1955, Diem, with US support, rejected the Geneva Accords because it is clear that Ho Chi Minh would win a democratic election. From 1955 to 1961, the US gave over one billion to Diem, trained the South Vietnamese army, trained its police, and gave agricultural aid. Diem abolished village elections for fear that democracy would mean he would lose support and appointed officials instead. Those who openly opposed him were jailed. Opposition newspapers were closed.

In response, in 1957, anti-Diem insurgents begin terrorist attacks. In 1959, North Vietnam began sending aid to the Communists in the South. In 1960, the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) is formed in the South. Pressure built on the US to decide how far it would go in supporting the undemocratic government in Vietnam.

President Kennedy decided tp stand behind Diem. He sent more military advisers and Special Forces to the country. And the economic support increased dramatically. By 1963, there were 16,700 advisers in South Vietnam. Although these advisers were not supposed to engage in combat but some did. The US and the South Vietnamese army adopted the strategic hamlet program, an effort to beat the guerrillas by destroying villages which supposedly harbored them. In addition, Diem attacked Buddhists who opposed his anti-Buddhist repression. Some responded by immolating themselves to draw world attention. The US began to think about withdrawing it support of Diem. There were indications that he might negotiate a peace with North Vietnam. When South Vietnamese generals began talking of overthrowing him, the US did not demur. He was overthrown and murdered in November, 1963. It wasn't long before the new government was also overthrown.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, who became President when Kennedy was murdered, increased support for South Vietnam, for he saw US honor at stake. In early 1964, the Vietcong controlled almost half of the country. The US began a secret bombing campaign in Laos in an effort to destroy Vietcong supply roots. On August 2, 1964, the warship the U.S.S. Maddox was attacked. Then on August 4th, the Maddox and another destroyer moved into North Vietnamese territorial waters in the gulf of Tonkin, a violation of international law and an act of war. They were fired on. Johnson, however, hid the truth and reported to Congress that the incident constituted an attack on the United States. Congress by a vote of 466-0 in the House and 88-2 in the Senate passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution on August 7th, gaining the President of the United States the right to respond to attacks as he saw fit. This was the legal basis for the Vietnam War. When Congress repealed the resolution in 1970, the US continued to fight the war.

In February, 1965, a Vietcong attack on the US military airfield at Pleiku brought a carrier attack on North Vietnam. The US launched Operation Rolling Thunder , bombing north of the 17th parallel in an effort to get them to quit aiding the Vietcong and/or fighting in South Vietnam. The US would drop more bombs on Indochina than it has dropped in World War II. Johnson increased the US ground troops. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) suffered great losses through desertions. By the end of 1965, there were 184,000 US troops there; then 385,000 at the end of 1966; and, finally, the peak number of 543,400 in 1969.

The war took a heavy toll on the military. It was losing to a pre-industrial for in spite of using high technology, many troops, and a massive bombing campaign as the US tried to "bomb them back to the Stone Age." Agent Orange and other defoliants bared a significant portion of the country. Because it was a small war which used young draftees (unlike World War II which saw 12 million Americans in uniform, 80% of whom were drafted, a figure that meant they draft had to include a broad range of ages), the average US soldier was 19 years old. The US adopted the policy that the soldier would only be in Vietnam for one year which meant that most soldiers began counting the days until they left and avoided risks so they would survive to go home. The racial tensions occurring at home had their counterparts in Vietnam but to a lesser extent. The use of illicit drugs was common with opium and heroin being easy to obtain. Although the chances of surviving a battlefield wound was very high because of the use of helicopters enabled the military to evacuate its wounded to hospitals rather quickly, the morale of the military began to deteriorate. There were no fixed fronts so it was difficult to tell whether one was winning or losing.

By early 1966, Senator J. William Fulbright (Democrat from Arkansas) began to hold hearings on the war. As they progressed and Fulbright found more of the truth of the matter, he became a vocal critic of the war and delivered a major address about "The Arrogance of Power.". Johnson realized that the US needed to negotiate an end and, by 1968, negotiations had begun with Averill Harriman leading the US effort. Johnson announced in early, 1968 that he would not seek re-election so that he would not be an obstacle to the peace talks.

In November, 1968, North Vietnam had responded to the start of negotiations in Paris by withdrawing 22 of 25 regiments from the northern 2 provinces of South Vietnam. President Johnson kept up the bombing pressure, and the withdrawals ceased. Thieu of South Vietnam stalled at sending delegates; he was afraid the South would lose. When his delegates finally arrived, they stalled for five more weeks by arguing over the shape of the table.

Richard Nixon, Republican, who narrowly beat Johnson's vice-president Hubert Humphrey, and US policy changed. In Guam in July 1969, the US said that it would not try to solve all the problems of all world. This presumed retreat from overseas activity reflected the national mood for US citizens were tired of the Vietnam War and feared that the country was trying to do too much. By 1971, however, Nixon was warning of the danger" of "under involvement" and emphasized that the Nixon Doctrine did not mean the precipitate shrinking of the US role in the world. The Nixon doctrine seemed to apply primarily to Asia.

Nixon had campaigned that he had a "secret plan" to end the war. Wits said that he should reveal the secret immediately so as to save lives but, of course, he waited until he took office in 1969. It turned out that he was going to reduce US casualties by having the South Vietnamese assume the responsibility of fighting their own civil war. Nixon proposed to "wind down" the war through this Vietnamization. US ground troops declined from a high of 543,400 (April 1969) to a low of 60,000 (September, 1972). This move resulted in lower US casualties and fewer draftees in Vietnam; thus sharply diminishing the domestic political impact.

Nixon widened the war, however. He defined victory as the preservation of a non-Communist government in Saigon. To achieve victory, he adopted measures long advocated by the military but rejected by Johnson. In March, 1970, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia was overthrown, probably by the CIA and the right-wing General Lon Nol took his place. North Vietnamese troops poured into interior Cambodia. On April 30, 1970 Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia. Although the US had been secretly fighting there, this invasion was a widening of the war. The Cambodian invasion sparked serious protests. The anti-war movement had been quiet for most of 1969, giving the new president a honeymoon as he began implementing his "secret plan." In October, 1969, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee brought 500,000 to Washington, DC to protest the war and encourage Nixon to end it. The Nixon administration condemned the protest meeting. It indicated that anti-war sentiment had grown substantially. Nixon became even more anxious to win the war. When Cambodia was invaded in April and May, 1970 one and one-half million students protested on 1200 campuses. On May 4th, four students, on their way to class, were murdered by National Guard troops who had been called into action by the governor because of the anti-war demonstrations on the Kent State campus. On May 14th, two Jackson State students were murdered by Mississippi Highway Patrol officers who fired on a dormitory when students there protested the war and racism. Many Americans were outraged while many others believed that the students had asked for it. These incidents were further evidence of how the war was tearing the nation apart. Congress began raising questions about the constitutionality of the invasion and repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, one of the few legal props for the war.

The Cambodian invasion failed to cut off North Vietnamese and Viet Cong progress and Congress refused to fund Nixon's planned invasion of Laos. In February, 1971, Nixon used US air power to support a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. This, too, failed.

As US troops were being withdrawn, Nixon stepped up the use of US air and naval power. From 1969 to the end of 1971, the US had dropped 3.3 million tons of bombs on South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, more than Johnson had dropped in five years and more than the US had dropped on Europe and the Pacific in World War II. Nixon was trying to bomb the enemy into submission but it did not work. In the Spring of 1972, North Vietnamese forces launched an offensive which pushed back South Vietnamese forces. Nixon widened the bombing of North Vietnam and mined its harbors but the war was lost. The Nixon administration had been engaging in secret negotiations between 1969 and 1971 as Henry Kissinger made thirteen trips to France to meet with North Vietnamese diplomats. The US proposed a cease fire in advance of any political settlement and the preservation of the Thieu regime. Nixon had asserted that Thieu was one of the four or five greatest political leaders of the world, and supported Thieu in the 1971 presidential election, one so fraudulent that all of his opponents withdrew. But in 1972, shortly before the US presidential election, Nixon announced progress towards a cease fire. The war ended in 1973. Nixon resigned in 1974 so he did not preside over the rout of the South Vietnamese in 1975 when the North Vietnamese armies took over the entire country.

The war was costly. One and one-half million died in Indochina of whom 58,000 were Americans. Millions more were maimed. Some 500,000 people became refugees. From 1965-1971, the US spent $120 billion dollars directly on the war but other costs raised this amount to $400 billion. Costly, too, was its effect on the US military which thought itself invincible and had difficulty accepting the fact that it was not. Of course, the War of 1812 was a draw, at best, but Americans only paid attention to recent events. It was a long war but not as long as the War on Drugs or the perpetual war that the War on Terrorism promises to be. It left open wounds on the US psyche.

Don Mabry
061903