America’s military involvement in Vietnam lasted more than twenty years (1954-1975). During those two decades, more than 8.7 million Americans served in the U.S. military, some 2 million of whom actually saw combat duty in Vietnam or operated offshore. American military personnel suffered 47,244 battle deaths, and another 300,000 were wounded in action. Casualty totals among the Vietnamese people were even higher: South Vietnam saw 300,000 of its civilians killed, 224,000 of its soldiers killed, and 570,000 of its soldiers wounded. North Vietnam saw 65,000 of its civilians killed, 660,000 of its soldiers killed, and an untold number of its soldiers wounded.
Indochina was a 19th-century French colony that was occupied by Japan in 1941. Three weeks after the Japanese surrender in World War II, Communist leader Ho Chi Minh staged a putsch deposing Bao Dai, the pro-French emperor of Vietnam. U.S. President Harry Truman deemed it advantageous to America to restore France as a viable ally against potential Russian expansion in Europe, and thus encouraged France to restore its authority over Indochina. In December 1946, with American approval, France drove Ho back into the jungle, restored Bao Dai, and set up three puppet nations – Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos – giving them independent status within the French Union in 1950. The USSR and China, however, supported Ho’s authority and began to arm his bid to regain power. America responded by giving military assistance to the French.
In May 1954 the French suffered a devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Two months later a ceasefire agreement was signed at Geneva, stipulating that Vietnam be divided along the 17th parallel – the northern portion belonging to the Communists, and the southern part to the West. The agreement further stipulated that Vietnam would be re-unified two years later by means of a national election.
Between 1955 and 1960 the North Vietnamese, with the assistance of the southern Communist guerrilla movement called the Vietcong, tried to take over the government in South Vietnam. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed that a Communist victory would “endanger” the “peace and security” of the Vietnamese people. Citing the “domino theory” (which held that if one nation such as Vietnam were to fall under Communist control, others would similarly fall in rapid succession), Eisenhower threw his support behind the new Prime Minister of the South, Ngo Dinh Diem.
American involvement in the Vietnam War grew most dramatically under the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. In 1964 the North Vietnamese (aided by China and Russia) began a massive drive to conquer the whole country. In July 1965 the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff asserted, “There seems to be no reason we cannot win if such is our will – and if that will is manifested in strategy and tactical operations” (emphasis in original). General Earl Wheeler of the Joint Chiefs told President Johnson that victory would require 700,000 to a million men and seven years to achieve.
Unwilling to pay the political price that such a commitment would entail, Johnson opted instead for a bombing campaign from the air. The Air Force assured Johnson that such a strategy could succeed only if the bombing was intense and utterly relentless, in the manner of the aerial campaigns of WWII, but that a restricted and cautious approach would prove disastrous. Notwithstanding this clear warning, Johnson, trying to walk a political tightrope, chose the latter approach. There were 16 bombing pauses and 72 American “peace initiatives,” none of which made any impact on the North Vietnamese, who, unlike the U.S., never showed the slightest concern about the number of casualties they would need to absorb in order to achieve victory.
Admiral U.S.G. Sharp, naval commander in the Pacific, would later reminisce: “We could have flattened every war-making facility in North Vietnam. But the hand-wringers had center stage ... The most powerful country in the world did not have the will-power to meet the situation [preferring instead to peck] away at seemingly random targets.”
The American media played a major role in spreading the idea that the U.S. was not only losing the war, but was also routinely committing the most barbaric atrocities against the Vietnamese population. Writes Paul Johnson: “Once the TV presentation of the war became daily and intense, it worked on the whole against American interests. It generated the idea that America was fighting a ‘hopeless’ war. Not only did the media underplay or ignore any U.S. successes, it tended to turn Vietcong and North Vietnamese reverses into victories.”
Richard Nixon was elected U.S. President in 1968, at a time when many American leftists openly supported a communist takeover in Southeast Asia. Among the most notable spokespeople for this position were the popular actress Jane Fonda and her husband Tom Hayden, both of whom unambiguously expressed contempt for the American cause and sympathy for the Communists. On November 21, 1970, Fonda told a large University of Michigan audience: "If you understood what communism was, you would hope, you would pray on your knees that we would some day become communist." At Duke University, she elaborated, "I, a socialist, think that we should strive toward a socialist society, all the way to communism." The dual villains of Southeast Asian conflicts were, in Fonda's view, "U.S. imperialism" and "a white man's racist aggression."
Nixon, meanwhile, actively pursued peace negotiations with North Vietnam. With America deeply divided thanks to the pressures of the anti-war left and a Democratic Party that had turned its back on the war, the President was persuaded that the United States could neither win the war nor maintain its armies in the battle. During his first four years in office, Nixon reduced the U.S. presence in Vietnam from 550,000 troops to 24,000. In 1973 he signed a truce with North Vietnam that led to the withdrawal of all American forces. Nixon hoped the agreement would preserve the governments of South Vietnam and Cambodia. But the North Vietnamese had no intention of observing the truce; neither did Pol Pot in Cambodia.
The American anti-war movement and its allies in the Democratic Party (led by Senator Edward Kennedy) eventually brought down the Nixon presidency in the Watergate affair. Hayden and his likeminded supporters gained immense political leverage from Nixon's resignation in August 1974. That year's midterm elections resulted in catastrophic losses for Republicans and ushered in a new group of Democratic legislators determined to undo the Nixon peace policy, and to surrender Cambodia and Vietnam to the enemy. The first act of the newly elected Democrat Congress was a vote to cut off funding for the governments of South Vietnam and Cambodia in January 1975. After U.S. funding was terminated, the regimes of South Vietnam and Cambodia were quickly overrun by the Communists, who would go on to slaughter some 2.5 million Indochinese peasants.
This section of DiscoverTheNetworks examines not only the Vietnam War itself, but also its ongoing legacy. The war marked a time when the political left openly identified the U.S. as the font of all evil in the world, charging America with genocide, terrorism, and crimes against humanity. The so-called “Vietnam Syndrome” would thereafter become a part of America’s national psyche, characterized by self-doubt and self-blame in every international conflict. This legacy has profound implications regarding the current War on Terror.
The RESOURCES column located on the right side of this page contains links to articles, essays, books, and videos that explore:
- the origins and history of the Vietnam War
- an analysis of the Vietnam War's lessons and legacies