The war in Vietnam occurred during the Cold War era, and is generally viewed as an indirect conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, with each nation and its allies supporting one side. The causes of the war trace their roots back to World War II, when the French colony of Indochina (consisting of Vietnam, Laos, & Cambodia), was occupied by the Japanese. In 1941 the Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh established a Vietnamese nationalist movement, the Viet Minh, to resist the occupiers. Ho waged a guerrilla war against the Japanese with the support of the United States. Near the end of WWII, the Japanese began to promote Vietnamese nationalism and ultimately granted the country nominal independence.
Following the Japanese defeat in WWII, the French attempted to retake possession of their colony. Their entrance into Vietnam was only permitted by the Viet Minh after assurances had been given that the country would gain independence as part of the French Union. But negotiations broke down between the two parties, and in December 1946 the French shelled the city of Haiphong and forcibly reentered the capital, Hanoi.
These actions began a conflict between the French and the Viet Minh known as the First Indochina War. Fought mainly in North Vietnam, this conflict ended when the French were decisively defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The war was ultimately settled by the 1954 Geneva Accords, which temporarily partitioned the country at the 17th parallel, with the Viet Minh in control of the north, and a non-Communist state to be formed in the south under Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. This division was slated to last until 1956, when national elections would be held to decide the future of the nation.
Initially, the United States had little interest in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. However, as it became clear that the post-World War II world would be dominated by the U.S. and its allies on one side, and by the Soviet Union and its allies on the other, America placed greater emphasis on the task of isolating Communist movements around the globe. American concerns about Communist expansion were ultimately formed into the related doctrines of containment and the "domino theory." First spelled out 1947, containment identified worldwide expansion as the goal of Communism, and suggested that the only way to stop it was to “contain” it within its present borders. Springing from containment was the "domino theory," which stated that if one state in a region were to fall to Communism, then the surrounding states would inevitably fall as well. These concepts were to dominate and guide U.S. foreign policy for much of the Cold War.
In 1950, to combat the spread of Communism, the United States began supplying the French military in Vietnam with advisors and funding its efforts against the “red” Viet Minh. These efforts continued in 1956, when the U.S. provided advisors to train the army of the new Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). But the quality of South Vietnam's army, known officially as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), was to remain consistently poor throughout its existence.
On November 2, 1963, South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated in a coup led by his own generals. Diem had grown increasingly unpopular with his countrymen, chiefly because of his imprisonment and execution of hundreds of Buddhists. The United States, initially a supporter of Diem, no longer wished to continue its association with his regime. Consequently, the Kennedy administration made no effort to discourage Diem's assassins; some reports suggest that the U.S. even encouraged them. At the time of Diem's death, some 16,000 American troops were stationed in South Vietnam, training the ARVN forces. Soon thereafter, American participation in the war increased dramatically, eventually reaching 500,000 troops on the ground. Before long, general Nguyen Khanh seized power in Saigon in a bloodless coup.
On August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox, an American destroyer, was attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats while conducting an intelligence mission. A second attack seemed to have occurred two days later, though the reports were sketchy. (It now appears that there was no second attack.) But the Lyndon Johnson administration, acting on the pretext that there had in fact been a second attack, ordered the systematic bombing of North Vietnam, targeting its air defenses, industrial sites, and transportation infrastructure. Known as Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign began on March 2, 1965. Meanwhile, Congress passed the Southeast Asia (Gulf of Tonkin) Resolution, permitting the President to conduct military operations in the region without a formal declaration of war; this resolution became the legal justification by which America escalated its own role in the conflict. (Operation Rolling Thunder would continue for more than three years, and would drop an average of 800 tons of bombs per day on the north.)
By April 1965, President Johnson had sent the first 60,000 American troops to Vietnam. In the summer of that year, under the command of General William Westmoreland, U.S. forces executed their first major offensive operations against the Viet Cong and scored victories around Chu Lai (Operation Starlite) and in the Ia Drang Valley. This latter campaign was largely fought by the 1st Air Cavalry Division which pioneered the use of helicopters for high-speed mobility on the battlefield.
Learning from these defeats, the Viet Cong seldom again engaged American forces in conventional, pitched battles, preferring instead to resort to hit-and-run attacks and ambushes. Over the next three years, American forces focused on searching and destroying Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units operating in the south. Frequently mounting large-scale sweeps such as Operations Attleboro, Cedar Falls, and Junction City, American and ARVN forces captured large amounts of weapons and supplies but rarely engaged large formations of the enemy.
In Saigon, the political situation began to calm in 1967, with the rise of Nguyen Van Theiu as the head of the South Vietnamese government. Theiu’s ascent to the presidency stabilized the government and ended a long series of military juntas that had administered the country since Diem’s removal. Despite this, the South Vietnamese were clearly incapable of defending the country without American support.
On January 21, 1968, an intense barrage of artillery hit the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh in northwest South Vietnam. This presaged a siege and battle that would last for 77 days and would see 6,000 Marines hold off 20,000 North Vietnamese. Anticipating that American forces would be drawn north to the fighting at Khe Sanh, Viet Cong units broke the traditional Tet (Lunar New Year) cease-fire on January 30, 1968, by launching major attacks (known as the Tet Offensive) against most cities in South Vietnam.
For the next two months, U.S. and ARVN forces successfully beat back the Viet Cong assault, with particularly heavy combat in the cities of Hue and Saigon. The Tet Offensive ultimately cost the lives of 100 Communist fighters for every American killed. Once the fighting had ended, the Vietcong had been permanently crippled and ceased to be an effective fighting force. But major figures in the American media -- most notably the newsman Walter Cronkite -- depicted Tet not as a decisive American victory, but rather as an emblem of a military quagmire from which the U.S. needed to extract itself as quickly as possible. "It seems now more certain than ever," Cronkite told his audience in a de facto editorial, "that the bloody experience of Vietnam is a stalemate" and that the war was "unwinnable."
Cronkite's statement, and his call for U.S. withdrawal, helped turn public opinion against the war. It also demoralized American troops and President Johnson, who was said to have declared that losing Cronkite’s support meant he had lost the backing of Middle America. As a top Communist general said years later on the PBS documentary series Vietnam, those on the left in the American press single-handedly turned the Tet Offensive, a disastrous defeat for the North, into a political victory for the Communist side. President Johnson opened peace talks with North Vietnam in May 1968.
Campaigning under the slogan “Peace with Honor,” Richard M. Nixon won the 1968 presidential election. His plan called for the “Vietnamization” of the war, which was defined as the systematic buildup of ARVN forces to the point that they could prosecute the war without American support. As part of this plan, American troops would slowly be removed. Nixon complemented this approach with efforts to ease global tensions by reaching out diplomatically to the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China. In Vietnam, the war shifted to smaller operations geared towards attacking North Vietnamese logistics.
The antiwar movement in the U.S. was inflamed in 1969 when news broke about a massacre of 347 South Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers at My Lai (March 18, 1968). Tensions grew further when, following a change in stance by Cambodia, the U.S. began bombing North Vietnamese bases over the border. This was followed, in 1970, with ground forces attacking regions in Cambodia, a move which the American public viewed as expanding the war rather than winding it down. Public support for the war plummeted further in 1971 with the release of the top-secret Pentagon Papers, which:
- revealed mistakes the U.S. had made in Vietnam since 1945;
- exposed lies about the Gulf of Tonkin incident;
- detailed U.S. involvement in deposing Diem;
- discussed the secret American bombing of Laos; and
- painted a bleak outlook for American prospects of victory.
Notwithstanding the incursion into Cambodia, Nixon had in fact begun the systematic withdrawal of U.S. forces, lowering troop strength to 156,800 in 1971. That same year, the ARVN commenced Operation Lam Son 719 with the goal of severing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. ARVN forces were routed and driven back across the border. Further cracks were revealed in 1972, when the North Vietnamese launched a conventional invasion of the South, attacking into the northern provinces and from Cambodia. This offensive was only defeated with the support of U.S. airpower (Operation Linebacker).
In October 1972, Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, concluded a secret peace agreement with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho. After reviewing the agreement, President Thieu demanded major alterations to the document. In response, the North Vietnamese published the details of the agreement and stalled the negotiations. Feeling that Hanoi had attempted to embarrass him and to force the negotiators back the table, Nixon ordered the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong in late December 1972 (Operation Linebacker II). On January 15, 1973, after pressuring South Vietnam to accept the peace deal, Nixon announced the end of offensive operations against North Vietnam.
The Paris Peace Accords ending the Vietnam War were signed on January 27, 1973, and were followed by the withdrawal of all remaining American troops. The terms of the accords called for a complete ceasefire in South Vietnam, allowed North Vietnamese forces to retain the territory they had captured, released U.S. prisoners of war, and called for both sides to find a political solution to the conflict. As an enticement to Thieu, Nixon offered U.S. airpower to enforce the peace terms.
With U.S. forces gone from the country, South Vietnam stood alone. The situation worsened in December 1974, when Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974, cutting off all military aid to the South. This act removed the threat of air strikes should North Vietnam break the terms of the accords. Shortly after the Act’s passage, North Vietnam began a limited offensive in Phuoc Long Province to test Saigon’s resolve. The province fell quickly and Hanoi pressed the attack. Surprised by the ease of their advance, against largely incompetent ARVN forces, the North Vietnamese stormed through the South, finally capturing Saigon. South Vietnam surrendered on April 30, 1975, following the fall of its capital. After thirty years of conflict, Ho Chi Minh’s vision of a united, Communist Vietnam had been realized.
This history of the Vietnam War originally appeared as "Vietnam War 101," written by Kennedy Hickman.