1946-1954: The First Indochina War (generally known as the “Indochina War”) between French forces and their Việt Minh (communist) opponents has lasted from 1946 to 1954 in French Indochina.
France obtained control over northern Vietnam (as a colony) following its victory over China at the end of the 19thC. During World War II, Japan invaded and occupied Vietnam (eastern edge of the Indochina Peninsula). Inspired by Chinese and Soviet communisms, Ho Chi Minh formed the Viet Minh (Vietnamese communist party) to fight both Japan and the French colonial administration. Japan withdrew its forces in 1945. The United States had supported the communist Viet Minh in resistance against Japan and American President Roosevelt, privately made it adamantly clear that the French were not to reacquire French Indochina after the war was over!
But France was seeking to regain control of the region, and backed the French-educated Emperor Bao Dai to set up the state of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in 1949, with Saigon as its capital.
Armed conflict continued until a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 ended in French defeat by Viet Minh forces.
The subsequent Geneva Conference that year split Vietnam along the latitude known as the 17th parallel dividing between the North and the South) and called for nationwide elections for reunification to be held in 1956.
The failure to hold reunification elections would eventually lead to war breaking out again, this time with US intervention. Due to the “Truman doctrine” (to prohibit any expansion of communism), the US cut their support to communist Vietminh against the French and the Japanese, and supported South Vietnam (after the French left) against the communist North who wanted an end to all foreign occupation of their country: the “Vietnam War” (or the SECOND Indochina War.)
More at French Withdrawal from Indochina
The “Vietnam War” 1963 – 1975
It was started by the Communist guerrillas (Việt Minh now derisively called Vietcong or “Vietnamese Communist”) in the South, who were backed by Communist North Vietnam, in an attempt to overthrow the South Vietnam government. With the Cold War intensifying, the United States hardened its policies against any allies of the Soviet Union, and by 1955 US President Dwight D. Eisenhower had pledged his firm support to South Vietnam.
The “Truman doctrine” and the “domino theory”
The “domino theory,” held that if one Southeast Asian country fell to communism, many would follow.
Working under this doctrine, the new US President JF Kennedy (1960-63) increased U.S. aid (but no large-scale military intervention): the amount of aid and the number of ‘military advisers’ rose from 900 to 11,000.
1954-60: American progressive involvement
Until the 1954 French defeat by Viet Minh forces, the USA supported the French against the Viet Minh with money and equipment. After the French left in 1954, the US sent aid, equipment and military advisers to South Vietnam until 1960.
1963-64: The start of the Vietnam War
In 1963, a coup d’etat in South Vietnam by some generals succeeded in toppling and killing Diem and his brother causing political confusion. Three weeks later US president JF Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. (See JFK assassination conspiracy theories)
The ensuing political instability in South Vietnam persuaded Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson to further increase U.S. military and economic support.
1964: Gulf of Tonkin incident
In 1964, North Vietnamese forces attack two U.S. destroyers sitting in international waters (the Gulf of Tonkin). This incident led to America’s open entry into the Vietnam War.
After this incident US President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to bomb military targets in North Vietnam received overwhelming backing from US Congress and the Senate in what was known as the ‘Gulf of Tonkin Resolution’. The resolution authorised the President to take ALL necessary measures against North Vietnam.
A sustained U.S. aerial bombing campaign of North Vietnam began (“Operation Rolling Thunder”).
Problem: There is no evidence the “Tonkin Incident” did happen. Journalists and historians found that no North Vietnamese boats were in the area of the Gulf of Tonkin that night… See: Records Show Doubts on ’64 Vietnam Crisis (New York Times)
By 1965, the US President Lyndon Johnson approved regular bombing of North Vietnam to prevent the total collapse of the Saigon regime by the dispatch of troops and marking their overt entry into the war.
1961-73: Helicopter campaigns
Immortalized in the film, Apocalypse Now, the Vietnam War was the birthplace of the modern attack helicopter, and it would change the way wars would be fought forever. With the battle lines not clearly drawn U.S. forces on the ground implemented a series of “Search and Destroy” missions to carry the fight to the enemy. The helicopters were used to hunt down enemy positions and eliminate them so U.S. ground forces could overrun their position. Whole squadrons of attack helicopters were used to precede any large-scale ground operations to “soften” any hardened ground resistance. Helicopters were also extensively used for search and rescue missions, medivac, and troop transport throughout the campaign. The success of the attack helicopters during the Vietnam War set the stage for future conflicts and how ground operations were conducted. The Cobra helicopter is still in use today and was an integral part of the Allied war effort in OPERATION DESERT STORM in 1991.
1965-72: Napalm bombs
U.S. troops used a substance known as “napalm” from about 1965 to 1972 in the Vietnam War.
Napalm is a mixture of plastic polystyrene, hydrocarbon benzene, and gasoline. This mixture creates a jelly-like substance that, when ignited, sticks to practically anything and burns up to ten minutes.
Story of that photograph at I’ve never escaped from that moment: Girl in napalm photograph that defined the Vietnam War 40 years on
The effects of napalm on the human body are unbearably painful and almost always cause death among its victims. “Napalm is the most terrible pain you can ever imagine” said Kim Phúc, a survivor from a napalm bombing. “Water boils at 212°F. Napalm generates temperatures 1,500°F to 2,200°F.”
Kim Phuc (the “Napalm girl” shows her scars from napalm.
Napalm was first used in “flamethrowers” for U.S. ground troops; they burned down sections of forest and bushes in hopes of eliminating any enemy guerrilla fighters. Later on in the war B-52 Bombers began dropping napalm bombs and other incendiary explosives. Throughout the duration of the war, eight million tons of bombs were dropped over Vietnam; this was more than three times the amount used in WWII.
1968: peak of the war
- January – The North Vietnamese join forces with the Viet Cong to launch the Tet Offensive (named for the lunar new year), attacking approximately one hundred South Vietnamese cities and towns.
- March – U.S. soldiers kill hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in the town of Mai Lai.
- December – U.S. troops in Vietnam reaches 540,000.
1968: peak of the Vietnam War Protests
The movement against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War began small–among peace activists and leftist intellectuals on college campuses–but gained national prominence in 1965, after the United States began bombing North Vietnam in earnest. Anti-war marches and other protests attracted a widening base of support over the next three years, peaking in early 1968 after the successful Tet Offensive by North Vietnamese troops proved that war’s end was nowhere in sight.
- The civil rights movement (1955–1968) was at a peak in the 1960s — organising major protests.
- The assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963 shocked America. He was an energetic, youthful president who had appealed to a lot of young people.
- The American government was then stuck in the war.
The war became more and more unpopular in the USA for several reasons:
- Its high level of casualties. Over 50,000 US troops were to eventually lose their lives. By 1968 300 were dying each week. Most Americans knew a relative or friend who had died.
- The economic cost of the war was high. By 1968 it was costing $30,000 million each year. This meant cutbacks in spending on social reforms.
- The use of horrific weapons, such as napalm, brought even greater opposition. This burning petroleum jelly was often used against civilians when villages were bombed. It stuck to the skin of its victims and burned them badly. The Americans also sprayed the land with chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange. This destroyed the vegetation and so prevented Vietcong fighters from hiding in the jungle. However, these chemicals polluted the land and also continued to poison human beings well after the end of the war.
There were stories of drug addiction within the American forces in Vietnam.
- US atrocities against the Vietnamese people turned many more against the war. One example that shocked the American nation was in the village of My Lai where, in March 1968, 300 people were massacred. The villagers, mainly women and children, were believed to be sheltering members of the Vietcong. They were gunned down by US troops. Lieutenant William Galley was charged with responsibility for the crime but served only three years in prison.
- The Vietnam War was the first televised war because it received so much media coverage. Bombarded by horrific images of the war on their televisions, Americans on the home front turned against the war: in October 1967, some 35,000 demonstrators staged a mass antiwar protest outside the Pentagon. Opponents of the war argued that civilians, not enemy combatants, were the primary victims and that the United States was supporting a corrupt dictatorship in Saigon.
By mid-1968, Americans have been stunned by Vietcong military opposition during the Tet offensive, and grown weary of the steady stream of body bags coming home, asking whether the war is winnable. That year, the presidential campaign becomes a referendum on the war. President Johnson drops the bombshell that he will not seek re-election (Richard Nixon, chief spokesman for the silent majority, won the election that fall.) Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy (brother of JFK), the two most visible leftists in American politics, were assassinated. Police used tear gas and billy clubs to break up protests. Furious antiwar protestors took over Columbia University in New York as well as the Sorbonne in Paris and the Free University in Berlin. And the urban riots that had erupted across the country every summer since 1964 continued and intensified.
This contributed to the worldwide Student Revolts of 1968.
The antiwar protests and the civil rights movement
“A time comes when silence is betrayal, and that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
—Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The war in Vietnam provided a backdrop for race and racism that grew out of a long history of European and U.S. colonialism in Asia.
The early opposition to the Vietnam War was largely restricted to pacifists and leftists empowered by the successful application of strategic nonviolent action in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
Martin Luther King, who has been awarded in 1964 a Nobel Peace Prize, draws criticism by publicly speaking against the war. “The promises of the great society have been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam,” he says, “making the poor, white and Negro, bear the heaviest burden both at the front and at home.”
King’s stance creates a rift with President Lyndon Johnson. The FBI is already monitoring King and seeking ways to discredit him, particularly by linking him with Communists. Although King’s views will affect his public image, the tide is turning.
There was a protest at the Mexican Olympics in 1968…
Two African American athletes raised their fists in a “Black Power” salute on the winners’ podium. It was an iconic moment — but they were expelled from the US team.
Vietnam War Ends: From “Vietnamization” to Withdrawal
By 1969, at the peak of U.S. involvement in the war, more than 500,000 U.S. military personnel were involved in the Vietnam conflict.
In 1969, the newly elected US President Nixon (1969-74) Nixon sought to deflate the antiwar movement by appealing to a “silent majority” of Americans who he believed supported the war effort. In an attempt to limit the volume of American casualties, he announced a program of withdrawing troops, increasing aerial and artillery bombardment and giving South Vietnamese control over ground operations; a policy which he called “Vietnamization.”
The next few years would bring even more carnage, including the horrifying revelation that U.S. soldiers had massacred more than 400 unarmed civilians in the village of My Lai in March 1968. Moreover in 1970, Nixon announced that U.S. troops will attack enemy locations in Cambodia. This news sparks nationwide protests, especially on college campuses.
In 1972, the North Vietnamese cross the demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 17th parallel to attack South Vietnam in what became known as the “Easter Offensive.” This led to a cease-fire signed in 1973 (Paris Peace Accords) and in March, the last U.S. troops are withdrawn from Vietnam.
In 1975, North Vietnam forces launched a massive assault on South Vietnam and South Vietnam surrendered to the communists. when North Vietnamese forces captured Saigon.
In 1976, Vietnam is unified as a communist country, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Why was the USA defeated?
This was due to a combination of American weaknesses and Vietcong strengths:
- They failed to develop an effective response to the guerrilla tactics used by the Vietcong.
- American troops were inexperienced and often had low morale. The average age of the American soldiers was just nineteen. They often had no enemy to strike back at. They were frightened in such a hostile country.
- The South Vietnamese army was weak.
- The USA failed to win the support of the Vietnamese peasants. They generally viewed the Americans as invaders and chose to support the Vietcong who offered to improve their lives. (compare to Mao guerrilla tactic against Chiang Kai-shek)
- The Americans also lost support at home when it became clear that the USA could not win the war.
Viet Cong strengths
- They had high morale because they believed passionately in their cause.
- They carried out effective guerrilla tactics.
- They were backed by China and the Soviet Union.
- The Vietcong bases were well hidden. They were frightened of US bombing and built extensive underground bunkers. These contained workshops, kitchens, hospitals and storehouses, all connected by networks of narrow tunnels. These were carefully booby-trapped to kill US soldiers who might discover them. About 300 kilometres of tunnels were built under Vietnam.
Vietnamese resistance : response to bombings
The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located near Saigon and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. These tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped achieve ultimate military success.
Results of the war
- It led to the fall of South Vietnam and the reunification of Vietnam as a Communist country. Twelve million people had lost their homes and relatives in Indo-China. Half a million ‘boat people‘ tried to flee from Vietnam by sea. Many of those died or ended up in camps until they were forced to return to Vietnam. Sporadic violence continued over the next 15 years, including conflicts with neighboring China and Cambodia.
- The long conflict had affected an immense majority of Vietnam’s population; in eight years of warfare, an estimated 3 million Vietnamese died; more than half were civilians, while 3 million were wounded and another 12 million became refugees. War had decimated the country’s infrastructure and economy, and reconstruction proceeded slowly.
- There were Communist take-overs in Cambodia and Laos.
- President Nixon announced the end of the Truman Doctrine. Americans had lost confidence in their ability to ‘contain’ the spread of Communism.
- Although the war worsened superpower relations for many years, when it ended there was some improvement. Cold War tensions began to ease. See Detente (1971-79 Cold War).
- Relations between the USA and Vietnam remained hostile. Vietnam’s economy began to improve, boosted by oil export revenues and an influx of foreign capital. Trade and diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the U.S. were resumed in the 1990s.
American national disgrace
In the United States, the effects of the Vietnam War would linger long after the last troops returned home. Failure is a hard word, and no matter how you analyze the Vietnam War, that is exactly what it was. The War was a personal failure on a national scale. From its covert beginnings, through the bloodiest, darkest days and finally to the bitter end, this ten-year period of American history is a national disgrace.
The nation spent more than $120 billion on the conflict in Vietnam from 1965-73; this massive spending led to widespread inflation, exacerbated by a worldwide oil crisis in 1973 and skyrocketing fuel prices. Many returning veterans faced negative reactions from both opponents of the war (who viewed them as having killed innocent civilians) and from its supporters (who saw them as having lost the war), along with physical damage including the effects of exposure to the harmful chemical herbicide. Some 700,000 veterans suffered psychological effects from fighting in the war. Psychologically, the effects ran even deeper. The war had pierced the myth of American invincibility.