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Table of contents :
The Very Brief History Series
Introduction to the Vietnam War
1. The Background to Conflict
2. 1950 to 1954, War with the French
3. The Transition Period Following the French Withdrawal
4. US Foreign Policy and Vietnam
5. Escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965
6. The Vietnam War Under Richard Nixon, 1969 to 1974
7. President Gerald Ford from 1974 to 1977
8. Foreign Involvement in Vietnam
9. The Aftermath of the Vietnam War
THE VIETNAM WAR A Very Brief History Mark Black All Rights Reserved © Very Brief History
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Table of Contents The Very Brief History Series Introduction to the Vietnam War 1. The Background to Conflict 2. 1950 to 1954, War with the French 3. The Transition Period Following the French Withdrawal 4. US Foreign Policy and Vietnam 5. Escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965 6. The Vietnam War Under Richard Nixon, 1969 to 1974 7. President Gerald Ford from 1974 to 1977 8. Foreign Involvement in Vietnam 9. The Aftermath of the Vietnam War
Introduction to the Vietnam War The Vietnam War was a conflict between the country’s North and South which officially started on November 1, 1955 and lasted until April 30, 1975. Though it mostly occurred throughout Vietnam, parts of it reached Laos and Cambodia, as well. The North, aided by the Viet Cong (a guerilla group based in the South), wanted to unite the country under a communist state, which the South opposed. Two types of warfare occurred during this period, a conventional one involving troops from both sides, and a guerilla-type one. What made this war even more devastating was the involvement of foreign nations − with the North supported by some communist nations, and the South by the U.S. government and a number of its allies. Vietnam had long been under foreign powers, first the Chinese, and later the French. To the North, therefore, the war was one for independence from colonial rule. To America, however, involvement in the war was part of a larger international policy to mitigate the spread of communism − a practice they called “containment.” The U.S. began sending military advisers to what was then French Indochina in 1950 to help advise the South’s military against incursions from the North. Feeling that the South was still incapable of defending itself, however, the U.S. brought in more troops in the early 1960s. Their original function was solely for defensive purposes: to protect the U.S. embassy and the American military advisers who provided support for the South Vietnamese military. By 1965, however, they became used for offensive operations and began directing the war – essentially taking over for the South. By 1968, increased incursions from the North (marked by the Tet Offensive) led the U.S. to intensify their attacks on Hanoi with extensive aerial bombings, after which they began a gradual withdrawal of their troops. In January 1973, both North and South Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords. Despite this, the war continued until April 1975. At that time, Saigon fell to the North’s Vietnam People’s Army (VPA), forcing the U.S. to withdraw completely. The number of fatalities from this 25-year conflict was devastating, and
created bitter tensions in the U.S. between those who supported the war and those who opposed it. It is estimated that between one to five million Vietnamese died, as did between 200,000 to 300,000 Cambodians, and some 20,000 to 200,000 Laotians, though exact figures may never be known. U.S. casualties numbered some 58,220 − most of whom were military personnel. While the “Vietnam War” is the most widely used name for this conflict, the “Second Indochina War,” as well as the “Vietnam Conflict,” are others used. To the Vietnamese, however, it is referred to as either the Chiến tranh Việt Nam (The Vietnam War), or the asKháng chiến chống Mỹ (Resistance War Against America). The first refers to the Vietnamese perception that this war was the final one for independence from foreign powers. The latter is meant to distinguish it from the First Indochina War against France, and the Third Indochina War against China, after the U.S. withdrew. The North’s army was called the Vietnam People’s Army, but were also called the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), as well as the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). The Viet Cong (VC) who operated mostly in the South (as well as in Laos and Cambodia) was sympathetic to the North, and their official name was the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF). The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN or ARV) was used by the South, with backing from the U.S. military and its allies.
1. The Background to Conflict Vietnam was a province of Imperial China until it gained its independence in 938 AD after the Battle of Bach Dang River, when it defeated the armies of the Southern Han State. It was then ruled by local dynasties until the French began occupying it in the late 1850s. This culminated in the 1884 Treaty of Huế, wherein China relinquished any claims to Vietnam, and acknowledged French commercial privileges throughout the region. By 1888, France governed the entire country, which included Cambodia, and by 1893, Laos. Thus was French Indochina born. During World War II, the French surrendered to the Germans in 1940, and Vietnam was occupied by the Japanese, who set up a puppet government. Officially, the country was ruled by the alliance of German and Italian forces, but administered by the French. The final say belonged to the Japanese, however. During this time the Viet Minh (an armed guerilla group which had resisted the French prior to the Vietnam War) launched offensives against the Japanese, and were supported by the U.S. and by the Nationalist Chinese. The Viet Minh was lead by Ho Chi Minh, who was later jailed by the Chinese Nationalist Party for being a suspected communist. On March 9, 1945 Japan became suspicious of the Vichy French colonial authorities because of secret talks they held with the Free French Forces – a counter movement started by General Charles de Gaulle after France was absorbed by Germany. As a result, they interred the entire administrative body. They then assumed open control of the region, and created another puppet state called the Empire of Vietnam, which was led by Emperor Bảo Đại. Due to famine and continued exploitation, however, a million people died in northern Vietnam, which had a population of about ten million at the time. In response, the Viet Minh called on people to raid warehouses and to withhold the payment of their taxes. They also began a massive and successful campaign to recruit new members. On August 14, Japan formally surrendered to the allies, which forced them to relinquish Vietnam. Bảo Đại abdicated his position as Emperor, but because
he was of royal blood, he was given the title of Chief of State for South Vietnam. Meanwhile, the French colonial administrators were still incarcerated, while mainland France had its own problems, creating a power vacuum. Taking advantage of this, the Viet Minh launched the August Revolution on August 19, 1945. They retook the entire country, acquired Japanese weaponry, and recruited some Japanese soldiers to train their own military troops. On April 30, Major Archimedes Patti of the U.S. Office of Strategic services met with Ho Chi Minh and pledged continuing U.S. support for him, backing it up with a shipment of arms and American instructors. The following month on September 2, Ho Chi Minh declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as an independent state in Hanoi, which became the capital of North Vietnam. Things had changed, however, for with Japan’s defeat and their subsequent withdrawal from the region, the Viet Minh was no longer of any use to America. Furthermore, as far as the U.S., England, and the Soviet Union were concerned, Vietnam was still French territory. To enforce this, the British sent troops to hold the South, while Nationalist Chinese troops held the North, eventually returning the country to French rule. Ho Chi Minh tried to gain international support for his cause, and to negotiate by holding nationwide elections in January 1946, which he won. Further, on March 6 of that year, he signed an agreement with the French which would allow the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to remain as an independent nation within the French Union. Although the French initially agreed, they reneged in November of that year, and ousted the Viet Minh from Hanoi. The Viet Minh retaliated, launching the First Indochina War, which spread to Cambodia and Laos. This allowed the Viet Minh to set up the Pathet Lao in the former, and the Khmer Serei in the latter, both of whom were communist insurgency groups. The Viet Minh also found allies in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which had defeated the Nationalist Chinese government in 1949. At around this time the Cold War began, led by the U.S. on one side, and the Soviet Union on the other.
2. 1950 to 1954, War with the French The new communist China was the first to recognize Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam in January 1950. Other communist nations followed suit. Thus Vietnam’s capital remained at Hanoi, and was still led by the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh. The Western nations supported South Vietnam: a French-backed nation under the formal governance of Chief of State Bảo Đại. When the Korean War broke out in June of that year, the U.S. government saw the hand of the Soviet Union in both events. They believed that both were a part of the Soviet bid to expand communist ideology throughout the world. In July, China began sending military advisors, weapons, and workers to the Viet Minh, and helped them to transition from a guerilla movement into an actual army. Support also came from the Soviet Union and other communist nations. The U.S. responded by setting up the Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) to do the same for French Vietnam in July. By 1954, it shouldered 80% of France’s war with $1 billion, supplying its territory with 300,000 small arms. There are also contradictory reports of providing the French with nuclear weaponry, but this remains unverified. In March of 1954, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu began: the final war between the Viet Minh and the French. Although the U.S. considered joining the French, it was contingent on participation from Great Britain, which refused. As a result, the French were on their own. The battle reached Laos, a major French ally which the Viet Minh cut off, and ended on May 7 when the military forces of the French Union surrendered to general Vo Nguyen Giap. It also marked the end of France’s occupation of the region, granting formal independence to South Vietnam, as well as to Laos and Cambodia.
3. The Transition Period Following the French Withdrawal With the French gone, a buffer zone was created between the two Vietnams at the 17th parallel. The South declared itself the Republic of Vietnam (ROV), led by the absentee Chief of State Bảo Đại (who had moved to France), with Ngo Dinh Diem as his prime minister. The North became the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and were still led by the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh. Movement was allowed between the two nations for 300 days, and many fled the North for the South with U.S. aid – which spent $93 million for the operation. Most were Catholics who feared retaliation under a communist regime. Some 150,000 went the other way, however, as they believed in the North’s cause. It is estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 Viet Minh remained undercover in the South to act on the North’s behalf. Before the end of 1955, Diem called for nation-wide elections which dissolved the authority of Bảo Đại, and transformed South Vietnam into a Republic led by himself as President. By April 1956, the last of the French soldiers left the Republic of Vietnam, as did their Chinese counterparts in the North. In the South, Diem staffed the top positions of his government with Catholics, despite the fact that the vast majority of the Vietnamese people were Buddhist. In the North, the Viet Minh launched a traumatic land reform program which displaced over 100,000 land owners, and executed many of them. Later that year, they did admit to having gone overboard, and returned some properties to those who survived their purges. Between April 26 and July 20, 1954, a conference was held in Geneva, Switzerland calling for general elections to be held in both Vietnams to bring about its unification. They were to be held in July 1956, according to the Geneva Accord, but Diem rejected them – claiming that the North would never go for it. His brutality made him so unpopular, however, that even the U.S. government believed some 80% of the Vietnamese on both sides would most likely have sided with Ho Chi Minh.
Between 1955 and 1960, the North launched several military incursions in an attempt to capture the South, all of which failed. Diem responded by setting up the “Denunciation of Communists” campaign. This included purging suspected communists in the South, executing some 12,000 from 1955 to 1957, and incarcerating another 50,000 in concentration camps – many of whom were tortured. In November 1963, Diem was finally ousted and executed by his own generals with U.S. backing. Encouraged by this, the North stepped up its attempts to acquire the South with the assistance of China and the Soviet Union. While the U.S. was aware that the vast majority of jailed South Vietnamese were neither pro-communist nor anti, they chose to side with the South anyway. It was their fear that should the entire country become communist, other Southeast Asian nations would follow suit. As a result of such abuses, the National Liberation Front (NFL) was founded in December 1960, which opposed not only Diem’s regime, but American military presence, as well.
4. US Foreign Policy and Vietnam A major reason for the war’s longevity was conflicting U.S. policies on how to deal with Vietnam. Each president had their own different ideas on how to handle the matter, which were often opposed to what U.S. military leaders had in mind. Another had to do with the fact that the Americans had next to no understanding of the historical and cultural mind-set of the Vietnamese. President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961 President Eisenhower defeated his rival, Senator Robert A. Taft (a staunch non-interventionist) during the presidential elections, by vowing to end communism, corruption, and the struggle in Korea. It was his intention to end the country’s official non-interventionist policies, and to make the U.S. play a more active role in international politics. Despite this, he was advised that further involvement in Vietnam would be financially disastrous for the nation. As a result, the U.S tried to keep a hands-off approach in the region during his term. Though America sided with France due to economic interests and increasing involvement in Europe following World War II, its lack of support caused the French to lose at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, and ultimately, their withdrawal from the region. President John F. Kennedy from 1960 to 1963 President John F. Kennedy had other ideas regarding Vietnam, however. Under his administration the Cold War reached its height, and Vietnam became his pet project in the face of what he perceived to be the growing communist encroachment of the free world. Less than three months after he took office, he followed through on a plan hatched under the Eisenhower government to overthrow the Cuban government of Fidel Castro in April 1961. This was called the Bay of Pigs Invasion, which involved a military force of Cuban exiles trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The attack failed, however, as Cuba’s military had been armed and trained by Eastern Bloc nations. A few months later on August 13, East Germany sealed its border against
West Germany by erecting the Berlin wall. The following year, Laos negotiated with the Pathet Lao, a pro-communist insurgency group that had been set up, trained, and supported by the Viet Cong. These three incidents convinced President Kennedy that he had to draw the line somewhere, or communism would gain the upper hand. He therefore decided to use Vietnam as a theater by which to bolster U.S. credibility. He was convinced that if the U.S. helped South Vietnam defeat the North, America would win a greater ideological war against the Soviet Union and other communist nations. His idea, however, was to let South Vietnam’s military overwhelm the North on their own, albeit with U.S. money, arms, and training. This failed, however, because the South Vietnamese government and its military were plagued by incompetence, corruption, and poor leadership. Despite all the funding, support, and materials provided by the U.S., they were no match for the increasing number of attacks from the insurgency groups. In 1961, South Vietnam and the U.S. set up the Strategic Hamlet Program, which sought to keep the rural populace away from insurgents. The program called for their resettlement into fortified camps where education and health care benefits were provided. The operation failed, however, because many people did not want to leave their traditional villages, and many camps were infiltrated by communist sympathizers. Foremost among these was the man responsible for the program itself, Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao, a high-ranking South Vietnamese official who was an undercover communist agent for the North. In April 1962, John Kenneth Galbraith (an economist, author, and the U.S. ambassador to India at the time) warned Kennedy against further encroachment in Vietnam. He pointed out that the country crippled France and devastated its military, something that could happen to the U.S. as well. At that time, some 900 advisors were already in Vietnam, sent in during the Eisenhower administration. President Kennedy rejected Galbraith’s advice, however, and sent in another 16,000 U.S. troops instead. On January 2, 1963 a small Viet Cong force defeated the larger, betterequipped South Vietnamese army (led by general Huynh Van Cao) at the Battle of Ap Bac. This confirmed the South’s inability to contain the North,
let alone insurgents on its own soil. Adding to the tensions was the growing suppression of Buddhists by the minority Catholics. Diem had appointed his own brother – Ngo Dinh Thuc – as the Archbishop of the city of Huế. Thuc used his new position to grant more privileges to Catholics at the expense of Buddhists, such as placing a ban on the public display of Buddhist flags. He also used state funds to support his private and ceremonial activities. On May 8, nine Buddhist civilians who were celebrating Vesak (the Buddha’s birthday) were shot and killed by the military and by the police. On August 21, hundreds more were killed when Catholic military groups destroyed pagodas and other Buddhist sites. It is believed that Nhu (another of Diem’s brothers) was responsible for this massacre. In response, the U.S. contacted local generals through its embassy at Saigon, and informed them that it would support the removal of Diem. On November 2 they did so, executing him and Nhu. This led to a period of political instability for the South, however, as one general after another vied for power over the country. The U.S. itself was divided on how to deal with the region. Kennedy wanted to win over the population through education, health care, and increased trade. It was his hope that the South Vietnamese would see the benefits of capitalism, and be more inspired to resist communism as a result. The U.S. military on the other hand, wanted a full-scale attack on the North, and believed it could achieve complete victory by Christmas. The CIA was not as confident, however, for they knew that the Viet Cong had near absolute control of the rural areas. To deal with this, the CIA sent over its Special Activities Division to fund, train, and equip the Hmong (a tribal people in Vietnam and Laos) in guerilla warfare. Tens of thousands were used in operations against the Pathet Lao, the Viet Cong, and other communist sympathizers. They also set up the Phoenix Program (a controversial counterinsurgency group), as well as the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam - Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), whose function was to conduct unconventional warfare and covert operations. They also operated in neighboring Laos and Cambodia to deal with the communist insurgents there, as well.
Although President Kennedy officially sought a gradual withdrawal from Vietnam, only 1,000 troops were pulled out of it on October 11, 1963. President Lyndon B. Johnson from 1963 to 1969 While President Johnson did not originally prioritize the Vietnam War due to his focus on improving American society, he changed his mind on November 24, 1963 because of deteriorating conditions in the South. With the assassination of Diem, several of the generals who participated in his murder tore the country apart with one coup after another, in the hopes of taking his place. General Duong Van Minh was his first successor, but was overthrown by General Nguyen Kanh in January 1964. Several months later on August 2, several torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin allegedly fired on the USS Maddox, which was on an intelligence mission along the coast of Northern Vietnam. Another attack supposedly followed two days later, and in response, President Johnson signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 5. This gave him the right to order military operations throughout the region without having to formally declare war. In 2005, however, a declassified document from the National Security Agency (NSA) revealed that no such attack against the USS Maddox ever took place – at least not in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was merely a pretext for escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and served as an example of how the Johnson administration manipulated the American public to garner popular support for the war. Between 1959 to 1963, the Viet Cong’s numbers grew from 5,000 to 100,000. In response, U.S. military presence in Vietnam grew from 2,000 in 1961 to 16,500 in 1964, causing massive changes to the culture and to the economy of the country, making it almost completely dependent on the U.S. dollar.
5. Escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965 On February 6, 1965 the Viet Cong attacked the Camp Holloway Airbase outside the city of Pleiku in Gia Lai Province, killing nine U.S. servicemen and wounding 128 others. To retaliate, the U.S. National Security Council launched three attacks on North Vietnam. The first was Operation Flaming Dart, which took place on February 7. This resulted in 49 sorties which targeted bases near the northern city of Dong Hoi, and Viet Cong positions near the Demilitarized Zone. The Viet Cong responded by attacking a hotel which housed U.S. personnel. In response, the U.S. launched Operation Flaming Dart II on February 11, which was made up of 99 sorties on North Vietnamese positions. This was followed up by Operation Rolling Thunder, which was launched on March 2, and lasted 44 months. The assaults had three functions. The first was to destroy the North’s air defenses as well as its industrial base, further weakening its economy. The second was to end North Vietnam’s support for the Viet Cong. The third was to bolster morale among the South Vietnamese. On March 8, 1965 the U.S. escalated its ground war by sending in another 3,500 Marines to South Vietnam, with the overwhelming approval of the American public. The Marines’ original function was defensive, but the ARVN was so incompetent, their morale so low, and their desertion rates so high, that they continuously lost to the communists regardless of how the latter attacked – be it through guerilla operations or through conventional military deployment. It became clear that South Vietnam could not oppose the North and their sympathizers on its own. As a result, President Johnson decided to abandon his original policy of supporting South Vietnam. He decided that the U.S. would take over the war, instead. By December, therefore, 200,000 more Marines were deployed to the country. Their aim was to win the war in three stages. The first phase involved escalating the number of U.S. troops further, and would include soldiers from
allied nations. The second entailed even more aggressive attacks on the North, as well as guerilla camps and agents based in the South. In the event the second phase did not end the war, a further escalation of attacks would continue for between a year to 18 months. Many were confident that this would finally wear the North down until they finally surrendered, and believed that the war would be over by the end of 1967. The toll on American soldiers was immense. Instead of a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, they were stationed there for much longer. Further, to speed up the process of sending more to the war effort, training programs were shortened, and many arrived completely unprepared for actual combat. Australia, New Zealand, Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand also sent troops. Canada, England, and the other NATO nations, however, did not. Political stability finally came to South Vietnam during rigged elections in 1967, when General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu became its president until 1971, aided by his deputy Prime Minister Air Marshal Nguyễn Cao Kỳ. Though Ky was meant to be the real power behind this civilian government, Thiệu managed to outmaneuver him by eliminating his supporters and staffing his government with those loyal to himself. Johnson, meanwhile, ordered a clampdown on the media’s coverage of the war. The only thing they could report was anything that showed impeding U.S. victory over the North. This was to later backfire by destroying the government’s credibility. The Tet Offensive Although a traditional truce occurred during Tet (the Vietnamese lunar New Year, which in 1968 fell on January 31), the NVA and the NLF decided to violate it. They attacked over a hundred cities in South Vietnam, even managing a strike against the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, as well as the office of General William Westmoreland (commander of U.S. military operations in the country). They managed to capture the Imperial Citadel (ancient palace of the Vietnamese royalty) in the city of Huế, massacring some 6,000 of its civilians. South Vietnamese and U.S. forces fought back, however, but at a terrible price: they destroyed about 80% of the city. This is remembered today as the Battle of Huế. This is also called the Tet Offensive, which
destroyed General Westmoreland’s credibility back in the U.S. In 1965, the general was named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year,” and in 1967, he declared that the end of the war was in sight. The Tet Offensive, however, gave obvious lie to his statement. As a result, public support of the war in the U.S. fell, President Johnson’s approval rating declined, and he withdrew his bid for reelection. Westmoreland (who was at that time the Chief of Staff of the Army) was replaced by his own deputy, Creighton Abrams. The My Lai Massacre It was later discovered that some of the attacks for the Tet Offensive came out of Quang Ngai province, with others from Quang Nam. U.S. groundtroops and their allies were on high alert, therefore, as they entered these territories. In February 1968, the villagers of Phong Nhi, Phong Nhat, and Ha My in Quang Nam were massacred by a contingent of South Korean Marines. On March 16, several U.S. divisions attacked the My Ly and My Khe hamlets of the Son My village in Quang Ngai province, raping and massacring some 347 to 504 men, women and children, mutilating several. This became known as the My Lai Massacre. Despite attempts by the U.S. government to suppress this information, details came to light in 1969, causing international outrage. Operation Commando Hunt In March 1968, President Johnson called for an end to the bombing of North Vietnam, and sought peace talks with its government. Despite this, fighting on the ground continued as each side sought to press its advantage. Covert aerial and naval operations also took place, the most notable being Operation Commando Hunt. This was launched on November 11 in the same year that President Johnson signed his peace treaty with the North, which continued until March 29, 1972. This was carried out by the U.S. Seventh Air Force and the U.S. Navy Task Force 77. Their aim was to destroy the logistics chain of the North by constant bombardment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Though illegal, they also carried out regular aerial bombardments of Laos and Cambodia, which
provided refuge to the Viet Cong.
6. The Vietnam War Under Richard Nixon, 1969 to 1974 Since the both the North’s military and the Viet Cong suffered heavy losses during the Tet Offensive, President Nixon had a face-saving excuse to begin the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Vietnam. This was called the “Nixon Doctrine,” also called “Vietnamization,” which was a return to Kennedy’s policy: that of letting the South Vietnamese fight their own war, and keeping U.S. involvement to a minimum. Besides peace talks with North Vietnam, Nixon also opened talks with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China in an attempt to decrease the growing hostility of the Cold War. This also led to an arms reduction on both sides, though it was widely believed that the two communist states continued to support North Vietnam, since the U.S. continued to support the South. Although opposition to the war in the U.S. was growing, it exploded when the Mai Lai Massacre became known, as well as the Green Beret Affair (which involved the CIA’s execution of a South Vietnamese double agent). In 1970, U.S. troops were removed from the border, causing a massive reduction in their casualties compared to 1969. In September, Ho Chi Minh died, and was replaced by Lê Ðức Thọ. The Involvement of Cambodia and Laos from 1955 to 1972 In 1955, the kingdom of Cambodia declared its official neutrality in the war, but tolerated the presence of Vietnamese communists on its soil. In 1969, however, the Nixon administration forced Cambodia to change its policy and close its borders to the communists. It then commenced a massive bombing campaign of the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, called Operation Menu. In 1970, the U.S. had Prince Norodom Sihanouk replaced with his prime minister, General Lon Nol, who was pro-American. Upon President Nixon’s orders, and with Lon Nol’s go-ahead, a joint force of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops then entered Cambodia in 13 major operations from April
to July, attacking North Vietnamese military and Viet Cong bases on Cambodian soil. When this came to light, further protests against the war broke out in the U.S. and around the world. Operation Lam Son 719 in Laos from February 8 to March 25, 1971 Due to the success of the Cambodian Campaign (also called the Cambodian Incursion), it was felt that the ARVN could successfully perform an operation on their own. As Laos was an independent nation in its own right, and since there was greater international scrutiny of the U.S. following their invasion of Cambodia, it was decided that the South Vietnamese military would be able to enter Laos without too much censure from the international community. This was assured by the Cooper-Church Amendment which expressly banned any U.S. military personnel from entering Laos, signed on December 29, 1970. Coming on the heels of their success in Cambodia, it was also hoped that this would further boost the morale of the South Vietnamese military, and thus give credibility to President Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy. The regiments that had participated in the Cambodian operation entered Laotian territory in February 1971. Many of its leading officers had been trained in the U.S. at top notch military schools for up to ten to fifteen years, and they were heavily provisioned with the latest in U.S. gadgets and weaponry. It was a test, therefore, but one which many believed would end quickly with another success for the South Vietnamese, and provide yet another face-saving excuse for the U.S. to withdraw. Their aim was to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos,. U.S. artillery units provided support on the South Vietnamese side of the border, and supply chains were secured. If necessary, airstrikes could be brought to bear. The North Vietnamese expected them, however, and met the South Vietnamese with a conventional military assault. By March 9, the South Vietnamese retreated in a panic, lost half their men, and many had to be rescued by U.S. aircraft. The remaining survivors made their way back to Vietnam on March 25, leaving many behind. The Khe Sanh base on the Vietnamese side (which launched Operation Lam Son) was also destroyed and abandoned by its defenders. Vietnamization had clearly failed. Despite this, President Nixon went on television on April 7 and announced
that Vietnamization was a success. Later that same year, Australia and New Zealand recalled their troops. The U.S. pulled back thousands of its forces, leaving 196,700 behind, with plans to remove another 45,000 more by February 1972. The Easter Offensive from March 30 to October 22, 1972 On March 30, 1972 North Vietnam launched its most ambitious invasion of South Vietnam from three sides. Part came from their side of the Demilitarized Zone, part from Cambodia, and part from North Korea. This invasion force was made up of 300,000 Chinese troops who had crossed over from the Yalu River into North Korea. The North’s aim was not to win the war, but to acquire as much territory within the South as possible, and to destroy as many of the ARVN as they could. By doing so, they hoped to gain a better bargaining position at the ongoing Paris Peace Accords. The U.S. repelled these invasions through a massive aerial bombing of Northern and Chinese troops, ending the fight on October 22. For the U.S., it became clear that without their continued presence, as well as the support of their superior air power, South Vietnam was lost. The Paris Peace Accords and Nixon’s Reelection in 1972 During the presidential campaign, the Vietnam War was a major issue. Nixon’s opponent, George McGovern, pledged a complete withdrawal of American troops as a major part of his election platform. To head him off, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger began secret negotiations with Lê Ðức Thọ, Ho Chi Minh’s successor in the North, and the two reached an agreement in October 1972. Operation Linebacker II (also called the Christmas Bombing) from December 18 to 29, 1972 North Vietnam revealed the details of this agreement, however, which embarrassed the U.S. government and derailed the Paris Peace Accords on December 13. To force the North back to the negotiations, President Nixon ordered the launch of Operation Linebacker II. This entailed a massive aerial bombing of the northern cities of Hanoi and Haiphong from December 18 to 29, destroying the North’s remaining economic and industrial base. B-52s and fighter bombers dumped 20,000 tons of bombs on both cities. The U.S.
lost 26 planes during this attack, but the North lost over 1,600 people. He also threatened to cut off U.S. aid to South Vietnam unless Thieu returned to the bargaining table. The Paris Peace Accords were finally signed by both sides on January 27, 1973. A cease-fire was declared, and North Vietnam released its American prisoners of war. It was also agreed that national elections were to be held by both Vietnams, and that U.S. troops would pull out in sixty days. Nixon and Kissinger were given the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering this deal. It was also offered to Le Due Tho (co-founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party), who was the North’s negotiator at the talks. He refused it, however, claiming that peace was not yet a reality in his country. He was right. Prior to the ceasefire, the South received more U.S. aid, which it used to begin another purge of the Viet Cong. In retaliation, the Viet Cong (under the leadership of Trần Văn Trà) began working to repair the Ho Chi Minh Trail, provisioning it with fuel depots to prepare the way for yet another invasion of the South. They were able to do so free from U.S. bombardment this time, and hoped to launch their offensive during the dry season in either 1975 or 1976. Trà felt that this infrastructure would give the Viet Cong its last chance to strike at the South before it was able to muster a fully-trained army, if at all. The U.S., however, had already given up on Vietnam. Although his administration had pledged a further bombing of North Vietnam if it encroached on the South, the U.S. Senate passed the Case-Church Amendment on June 4, 1973 to prevent such a possibility. The bill banned any further U.S. military involvement in Indochina. Though Nixon and Kissinger lobbied to extend the deadline, they failed. By August 15, no more U.S. military operations could take place in the region. Until then, however, bombing of Northern forces could legally continue, and did. Later in October, oil prices soared when Saudi Arabia declared an oil embargo, hurting the world economy, including those of both the U.S. and South Vietnam. The pressure this put on the U.S. Treasury provided further impetus to end the war. The Resumption of Hostilities from November 1973 until March 30, 1975
In November 1973, the Viet Cong resumed their attack. By January 1974, they managed to regain those parts of the South that they had lost after the failure of their Easter Offensive two years before. This forced President Thiệu to declare the war’s resumption. During the official ceasefire prior to his official statement, however, more than 25,000 South Vietnamese had already lost their lives. After the Viet Cong’s success, their leader Trà appealed to the North Vietnamese government for support to launch a bigger attack the following year. General Vo Nguyen Giáp (who was now the North’s defense minister) did not approve of the plan, however, as he feared further U.S. retaliatory strikes. So Trà went over him and went directly to First Secretary Lê Duẩn, who gave his go-ahead for the attack. Trà launched his strike on December 14, 1974 by attacking route 14 in Phuoc Long Province from Cambodia, and captured the provincial capital of Phuoc Binh on January 6, 1975. His aim was to secure a more direct route deeper into the South, determine South Vietnamese military capabilities, and find out how the U.S. would react. After Trà’s acquisition of Phuoc Binh, President Ford requested more money from Congress to support the South, but they refused. This demoralized the South Vietnamese and emboldened the North, whose leadership decided to press their advantage. They realized that the U.S. had lost interest in the war, and felt confident that the reunification of the two Vietnams under their rule was finally at hand.
7. President Gerald Ford from 1974 to 1977 On August 9, 1974, Nixon had to resign his post because of the Watergate scandal. He was replaced by Gerald Ford, the only president in the country’s history who was never elected, never chosen by the Electoral College, and never held the post of Vice-President. While many Americans had reelected Nixon to his post, they had also voted in a majority of Democrats to Congress. Unlike their Republican counterparts, the Democrats had consistently been less enthusiastic about the war. As a result, they reduced financial aid to South Vietnam to $700 million a year from the original figure of $1 billion, and decreed that further aid would stop in 1976. Campaign 275 from March 10 to March 30, 1975 Encouraged by Trà’s success, the North Vietnamese launched another conventional military assault on the South on March 10, 1975 which included tanks and heavy aruntilery under the leadership of General Văn Tiến Dũng. Its aim was the capture of Buôn Ma Thuột, capital of Đắk Lắk Province, and the biggest city on the Central Highlands. If it could be captured, then Pleiku, capital of Gia Lai Province would be vulnerable, as would access to the coast for another attack the following year. As usual, the South Vietnamese military was useless, and the city was captured the next day on March 11. With its fall, General Dung decided to go ahead with an attack on Pleiku by taking advantage of the two remaining months of the dry season. President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu ordered a full retreat, fearing that his forces would be cut off. Similar to Operation Lam Son in Cambodia in 1971, however, the South Vietnamese army fell into disarray, and what should have been an orderly withdrawal turned into complete chaos. Pleiku and Kon Tum were abandoned, units were separated and fought in individual skirmishes. Worse, fleeing civilians joined the retreating military, many of whom had been abandoned by their commanding officers. The roads and bridges to the coast were in bad condition due to neglect and the years of fighting, further
slowing their progress. When the Viet Cong came upon them, they did not discriminate between the South Vietnamese military forces and the unarmed civilians: they fired on both equally. By April 1, they had all been slaughtered, an event that went down in history as the “Column of Tears.” Thiệu was equally incompetent. On March 20, he gave orders to hold Huế at all costs, before changing his mind, only to repeat his order to defend Huế. His indecision only served to further demoralize the military. Huế was attacked on March 22, and the South Vietnamese soldiers bolted. There were reports that in their panic, many fired on their own civilians in order to get away. The North Vietnamese took the city on March 25, while another regimen captured the port city of Da Nang on March 28. On March 30, about 100,000 ARVN troops surrendered. With the fall of these two cities, the Central Highlands and the rest of the South Vietnam’s northern provinces could no longer be defended. The Fall of Saigon on April 19, 1975 Further emboldened by their success, the North Vietnamese government ordered General Dung to attack South Vietnam’s capital at Saigon. He was to take it before May 1 prior to the rainy season, which would make it harder for the ARVN to come to the capital’s defense. It would also mitigate the U.S.’ ability to launch retaliatory air strikes. On the way to Saigon, they also managed to take the cities of Nha Trang, Cam Ranh, and Da Lat. On April 7, three divisions lay siege to the town of Xuan Loc, some 64 kilometers to the east of Saigon. Here at last the ARVN’s 18th Division fought back, even though they were outnumbered some six to one. On April 21, however, this division was ordered to fall back on Saigon, and the North Vietnamese 4th Army Corps occupied it. President Thiệu resigned that same day. In a televised speech, he accused the U.S. of betrayal and of abandoning the country, before handing power over to Tran Van Huong. He then fled to Taiwan on April 25, the same day that North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Bien Hoa, some 32 kilometers to the east of Saigon. When no U.S. attacks came, they made their way to Saigon, encircling the capital on April 27 with 100,000 troops. To create panic, they shelled the airport, preventing escape by air, trapping civilians.
The U.S. military began evacuating their remaining personnel, foreign nationals, and some South Vietnamese from various parts of the city, including their own embassy. This evacuation was called Operation Frequent Wind, and was acted upon only at the very last minute because U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin believed that the city could still be saved, and that the North Vietnamese could still be negotiated with. As early as March (days before the launch of Campaign 275), he had asked Washington for $722 million dollars in emergency aid to bolster the ARVN, but was denied. This was not only because of the American public’s anti-war sentiment, but also because the U.S. government was allocating resources for the evacuation of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, which later fell to the Khmer Rouge on March 17. Back in Saigon, pandemonium broke out, as many feared a massacre. After the Tet Offensive when Huế was retaken, mass graves were discovered. It was announced that the victims had been ARVN officers, businessmen, landlords, intellectuals, Catholics, and others the North deemed to be counterrevolutionaries. In early April, the Defense Attaché’s Office (DAO) had already begun flying out non-essential personnel, but many refused to leave without their Vietnamese dependents. While the DAO could not legally issue visas to Vietnamese citizens, they relented by illegally flying Vietnamese dependents of U.S. citizens to the Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. Ambassador Martin himself gave orders to his embassy staff to grant Vietnamese citizens entry visas to the U.S., without permission from Washington. On April 28, President Hương resigned, after only a week in power. He was replaced by General Dương Văn Minh, one of those responsible for the assassination of Ngô Đình Diệm in 1963. By April 30, the last of the U.S. Marines left the embassy by helicopter, leaving many of their Vietnamese dependents on the ground. At 11:30 AM, the NLF Flag was raised above the Independence Palace, and President Minh formally surrendered South Vietnam to the North. After eight years of unending war, some two million people died, another three million were wounded, while some twelve million became refugees. On April 21, two days after Saigon fell, President Ford officially announced
the end of the war. Shortly after, he passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, which allowed the entry of over 130,000 Vietnamese refugees into the US, allocating $455 million for their resettlement. By 1975, South Vietnam had more weapons and military personnel than the North did. They had thrice the number of artillery, double the number of tanks and armored cars, 1,400 aircraft, and double the number of combat troops. Due to the hike in oil prices, however, most of the vehicles could not be fueled, rendering them useless. Further, their economy was heavily dependent on the U.S., both from government aid, as well as from the large presence of American troops on their soil. With the pull out of the latter, and the termination of financial support, the South suffered even more. When it became clear that the U.S. would not protect them anymore, they became demoralized, and chaos resulted.
8. Foreign Involvement in Vietnam Although the U.S. provided weapons and tactical support to the South, other nations participated in their cause. Australia and New Zealand The governments of both nations believed in the Domino theory: that if Vietnam fell to the communists, it wouldn’t take long before their other neighbors in the South East Asian region did likewise. Australia therefore sent its own advisors to South Vietnam in 1962, followed by combat troops in 1965. It sent in a total of 60,000 personnel to Vietnam, 521 of whom were killed, and over 3,000 of whom were wounded. New Zealand sent in about 3,000 personnel, 37 of whom lost their lives, while another 187 were injured. Most Australians and New Zealanders served in the province of Phước Tuy, under the 1st Australian Task Force. Canada The ICC was composed of Canada, Poland, and India, who were officially neutral nations whose function was to monitor the ceasefire mandated by the 1954 Geneva Agreements. Canada, however, strongly sided with the U.S., and supplied weapons, napalm, and Agent Orange, as well as raw materials, uniforms, shoes, and food. Provisioning the U.S. was so profitable, that during the Vietnam War, unemployment in Canada fell to its lowest level at 3.9%. Nationalist China Another officially neutral nation, Chinese Nationalists in Taiwan provided cargo transport for the U.S. and South Vietnam. They also sent in several hundred military personnel, and trained the South Vietnamese to set up diving units, called the Lien Doi Nguoi Nhai (LDMN). Philippines There were about 10,450 Filipino personnel sent to Vietnam, most of whom provided medical and civilian services. They operated under the Philippine Civic Action Group – Vietnam (PHLCAG-V).
South Korea In November 1961, South Korean President Park Chung Hee offered to send troops to the war, but was refused by President Kennedy. On May 1, 1964, President Johnson asked for South Korean troops, the first of which arrived later that year, followed by large combat battalions in 1965. About 320,000 South Korean soldiers served in Vietnam, peaking in 1968 with 50,000 troops. Some 5,000 died during their service, and another 11,000 were injured. They were all paid by the U.S. government, which spent a total of $235,560,000 for their salaries. During that period, South Korea’s gross national product (GNP) rose five times, as a result. Thailand Thai military involvement took place between 1964 and 1972. Most took place in Laos, involved in covert operations there. The North was aided by other communist nations, primarily China and the Soviet Union. China In 1962, China sent 90,000 rifles and guns to North Vietnam for free. In 1965, it sent anti-aircraft units and engineers to Hanoi to repair the extensive damage caused by heavy U.S. aerial bombardment. The importation of vast amounts of rice also allowed the North Vietnamese government to impose a universal draft in 1960, since most of the recruits were taken away from rice fields. The Soviet Union The Soviets also provided the North with 158 surface-to-air rocket launchers, 5,000 anti-aircraft guns, 7,000 artillery guns, 2,000 tanks, and some 11,000 military personnel. They also provided them with millions of dollars in aid, and trained over 10,000 North Vietnamese at Russian military academies. North Korea In October 1966, the Korean Workers’ Party decided to become involved, and sent a fighter squadron of 200 pilots to North Vietnam in 1967. Their function was to support the country’s 921st and 923rd squadrons to defend
Hanoi. Two anti-aircraft artillery regimens were also sent, as well as weapons, ammunition, and about two million uniforms. Cuba It is not known exactly how Cuba contributed to the war, but a number of U.S. POWs who were later released claim that there were thousands of them in North Vietnam. It has been reported that many took part in torture.
9. The Aftermath of the Vietnam War In 1976, Vietnam declared itself the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City on July 2. While a unified state at last, Vietnam’s problems were many. Some 1.1 million North Vietnamese military personnel died, while another 600,000 were injured. The South Vietnamese lost between 200,000 to 250,000 soldiers. During Operation Rolling Thunder, between 52,000 to 182,000 Northern Vietnamese civilians died. Overall, some two million Vietnamese civilians had lost their lives by the time the war was over. Besides having had their entire northern industrial infrastructure completely obliterated by U.S. bombers, chemical defoliants were widely dumped on the countryside throughout the south from 1961 to 1971. To this day, the landscape remains scarred, causing disease, birth defects, and a poisoned food chain. The U.S. military unleashed them for three reasons: to prevent the Viet Cong from hiding in the foliage, to poison their food supply, and to force the rural population into protected areas. These included the Rainbow Herbicides, the famous of which was Agent Orange, which contains dioxin. Some 12 million gallons alone were dumped, destroying about 13% of South Vietnamese land. In 2006 the Vietnamese government claimed that over four million of its citizens had been poisoned by dioxin, which resulted in various cancers, multiple myeloma, peripheral neuropathy, and many more. Even U.S. veterans of the war were affected, as were their children. In August 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, and China retaliated by terminating Sino-Soviet relations. They asked North Vietnam to side with them, but were refused. To punish them, China began sending financial aid and material support to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1969 as a counter-balance, and formally ended ties with North Vietnam in 1970. On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge (whose official name was the Communist Party of Kampuchea), took over Cambodia, depopulated all of its cities and towns, and then enacted the genocide of one-fifth of the country’s population, over a million people.
Between 1975 and 1978, the Khmer Rouge began incursions into Vietnam, which replied by invading Cambodia and toppling them. China responded by invading Vietnam on February 17, 1979 withdrawing on March 16 of the same year. This became known as the Third Indochina War, as well as the Sino-Vietnamese War. When they withdrew, Vietnam expelled 450,000 ethnic Chinese, forcing them to flee by boat, or overland to China. In Laos, the Pathet Lao managed to overthrow the royalist government in December 1975, and established the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. This caused a massive exodus of about 250,000 Laotians, and about 130,000 Hmong. As none of the other Asian nations would take them in, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and France did. The Cu Chi Tunnels Besides the support they received from the North Vietnamese government and other communist nations, as well as their use of guerilla warfare, another advantage the VC had were the Cu Chi tunnels. These were originally built in the 1940s during their resistance war against the French, but were later expanded upon with the arrival of the Americans. At the height of the war, the tunnels were so extensive, that the longest stretched about 250 kilometers from Saigon to the border with Cambodia. Where the U.S. bombings were heaviest, the tunnels became homes, complete with living quarters, kitchens, hospitals, theaters, and even munitions factories. To protect them, they were booby trapped with wires and bombs, which the U.S. and South Vietnamese military were aware of. Specially trained soldiers called tunnel rats were tasked with entering these tunnels to scout for traps and the enemy, before they could be cleared. While they were used by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese forces, they were also used by ordinary civilians to escape the worst of the aerial bombing. They were also used to launch surprise attacks on ground forces, allowing shooters to vanish into their maze. Though a number were found and cleared, the Viet Cong would often go back into them and reuse them for their offensives against the U.S. forces and the ARVN. Many have been preserved, and are used today as tourist attractions for both locals and foreign visitors.
The Aftermath for the US U.S. military personnel also suffered from the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical substances, and in 1979, 2.4 million of them filed a class action suit against the government. Seven chemical companies responsible for this substance paid 180 million dollars in an out-of-court settlement, but it was further challenged until 1991. This was the year President George H. W. Bush signed the Agent Orange Act, which codified how the government was to compensate veterans who were exposed to the toxins. Immediately after the fall of Saigon, however, the American psyche suffered a terrible blow. Prior to their withdrawal, many had already become suspicious of their government as revelations of one press cover-up after another came to light. The first came under President Johnson, when it was discovered that the war was not going as well as his press corps claimed it was, then the My Lai Massacre during his last year in office. Americans were already fed up with the war, fearful of the draft, and outraged by the growing casualty rates, both U.S. and South Vietnamese. By 1969, it was believed that the war was winding down. So when Nixon announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia on April 30, 1970 university students began protests, especially since they were often the targets of the draft. On May 4, four students at Kent State University who were at the protests were shot by the Ohio National Guard. Nine were injured, one of whom became permanently paralyzed. Coming on the heels of the My Lai massacre, this further galvanized worldwide sentiment against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, as well as in Cambodia. But even those who were opposed to the war were shocked when the U.S. lost, as they had believed that the country’s wealth, as well as its military and technological superiority rendered it invincible. Further, the country had spent over $120 billion for the war, causing a major deficit and inflation, further exacerbated by the oil crisis in 1973. The country had also become divided over the war, and many of the returning veterans faced severe criticism. Those who supported the war blamed them for losing. Those who opposed it blamed them for killing innocents. Veterans who opposed the war and spoke of its horrors were accused of lying, and were criticized by various administrations as being anti-government. The
topic remained so sensitive, that it was only in 1982 that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was set up in Washington, D.C., which contained the names of 58,200 personnel who were killed or missing. Because of the missing, many families were unable to find closure. Besides the missing and the dead, some 150,000 were wounded, another 21,000 became disabled permanently, and some 83,000 suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. About 125,000 crossed the border to Canada to avoid the draft, while some 50,000 enlisted men deserted. It was only in 1977 that draft dodgers were given a full pardon by President Jimmy Carter, but the stigma still remains, as evidenced by accusations that President Bill Clinton was himself one – a weapon used against him during his election campaign. The Pentagon Papers The official title of this document is the “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force." This was a secret study about the war that was prepared by a group of analysts which included Daniel Ellsberg (a strategic analyst with both the RAND Corporation as well as the Department of Defense) for Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in 1967. Although McNamara claimed that he wanted an accurate record of the war, he kept it a secret from even President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Ellsberg was a former U.S. Marine Corps officer who initially supported the war, but by the time the report was completed in 1969, he opposed it. He realized that not only was the war a lost cause for the U.S., but that several administrations had also exacerbated its escalation. He also noted massive discrepancies between what each U.S. President involved in the war said about it officially, and what happened in reality. Ellsberg therefore felt that the report should be known to the public, and approached several Congressmen with it, but to no avail. So in March 1971, he released portions of a copy to The New York Times, which published them, creating a furor both locally and internationally. Although the federal government tried to ban the report’s publication citing national security concerns, the Supreme Court allowed the paper to publish it, as it contained information from the past.
On May 2011, the full report was finally declassified. Overall, the U.S. learned that its superior technological and military infrastructure were just not suited to some types of wars. While it tried to make up for this lack by setting up covert operations teams, even they failed in the end. Neither did the sustained aerial bombardment of Hanoi, other North Vietnamese positions, as well as Viet Cong insurgents, have the effect that the U.S. government and its military thought it would. They failed to understand the mindset of the North’s leaders: hardened veterans of an equally long, drawn out war against the French and the Japanese. The U.S. entered the war confident of a quick and overwhelming victory because in their eyes, Vietnam, its people, its technological and industrial infrastructure were poor, backwards, and inferior. What they failed to understand, however, was the determination of the Vietnamese (especially the Northerners). They were also not aware that many of their own heavyhanded actions (especially in rural areas) isolated the very people they believed they were helping, and in some cases, drove them to support the Viet Cong. As a result of such ignorance, Washington made a number of administrative decisions regarding the war that had no correlation with actual conditions in Vietnam. The U.S. learned that while weapons and technology can help to win a war, of even greater importance is an understanding of the conditions of that war, the nature of one’s enemy, and certainly that of one’s allies.