The Vietnam War pitted America against communism and was a classic example of Cold War conflict. The western allies had been victorious in Berlin, but communism had taken root in China. Eastern Europe remained under Russian control and in Vietnam the American feared threat of the spread communism seemed to be real.
Before World War Two, Vietnam had been part of the French Empire. During the war, the country had been overrun by the Japanese. When the Japanese retreated, the people of Vietnam took the opportunity to establish their own government lead by Ho Chi Minh. However, after the end of the war, the Allies gave back south Vietnam to the French while the north was left in the hands of the non-communist Chinese. The Chinese treated the north Vietnamese very badly and support for Ho Chi Minh grew. He had been removed form power at the end of the war. The Chinese pulled out of north Vietnam in 1946 and the party of Ho Chi Minh took over - the Viet Minh.
In October 1946, the French announced their intention of reclaiming the north which meant that the Viet Minh would have to fight for it. The war started in November 1946, when the French bombarded the port of Haiphong and killed 6,000 people. The French tried to win over the people of the north by offering them 'independence'. However, the people would not be allowed to do anything without French permission ! A new leader of the country was appointed called Bao Dai. The Russians and Eastern Europe refused to recognise his rule. They claimed that Ho Chi Minh was the real ruler of Vietnam.
The French had got themselves into a difficult military position. Despite huge American help, the French could not cope with the Viet Minh's guerilla tactics. The Viet Minh were by now receiving help from Communist China - Mao Tse Tung had taken power of China in 1949. The fact that two sides had developed was classic Cold War history.
The country was meant to be ruled by Bao Dai who was supported by the west. Ho Chi Minh was supported by the Russians, Chinese and Eastern Europe - all communist.
In November 1953, the French sent their crack paratroop regiment to Vietnam. It was naturally assumed by the French that this unit would sort out the untrained Viet Minh guerillas. They were sent to Dien Bien Phu in the north. In May 1954, the regiment surrendered which came as a terrible blow to the French people. The French pulled out of Vietnam in the same month.
In April 1954, the world's powers had met at Geneva to discuss Vietnam. In July 1954, it was decided to divide the country in two at the 17th parallel. Bao Dai was to lead the south and Ho Chi Minh the north. The meeting also decided that in 1956, there would be an election in both the north and south to decide who would rule the whole country. The election would be supervised by neutral countries. This election did not take place and the split had become permanent by 1956.
North Vietnam had a population of 16 million. It was an agricultural nation. The Viet Minh trained guerillas to go to the south to spread the word of communism. Their weapons mostly came from communist China. To the surprise of the south Vietnamese, those Viet Minh who went to the south helped them on their farms and did not abuse them. They had become used to fearing soldiers. Instead, the Viet Minh were courteous and helpful.
South Vietnam also had a population of 16 million. Its first proper leader was Ngo Dinh Diem who was a fanatical catholic. As communism hated religion, Diem hated all that communism stood for. This is why he got America's support - he had a poor record on human rights but his rule was in the era of the "Domino Theory" and anybody who was anti-communist in the Far East was likely to receive American backing - regardless of their less than savoury background. Ngo ruled as a dictator along with his brother - Nhu. Their government was corrupt and brutal but it was also backed by America.
After the non-election of 1956, the Viet Minh became more active militarily. Their guerillas - now called the Viet Cong - attacked soft targets in the south. They used the Ho Chi Minh trail which was a 1000 mile trail along the border with Laos with heavy jungle coverage so that detection from the air was very difficult. The Viet Cong were trained by their commander Giap who learned from the tactics used by the Chinese communists in their fight against the Nationalist Chinese forces. He expected his troops to fight and to help those in the south. He introduced a "hearts and minds" policy long before the Americans got militarily involved in Vietnam.
America and Vietnam
During the 1950's, America had developed her Domino Theory. This was the creation of John Foster Dulles, America's Secretary of State. He believed that if one country was allowed to fall to communism, the country next to it would be the next to tumble just as when one domino falls the rest go with it if they are connected. In view of the fear in America of communism spreading throughout the world, the thought of Vietnam starting this process of turning to communism and then it spreading was unacceptable.
America had already sent "special advisors" to South Vietnam since 1955. By 1961, there were 1,500 special advisors in the country. These were men from America's Special Forces who were there to train the South Vietnamese Army in how to fight the Viet Cong. By 1963, there were 16,000 special advisors in South Vietnam.
Regardless of their presence and attempts by the west to demonise the Viet Cong, it is probable that by 1962, over 75% of all south Vietnamese peasants supported the Viet Cong as they were seen as liberators from the unacceptable government of Diem. To "save" the peasants from the Viet Cong, Diem organised a system whereby whole villages were moved into defended camps - known as fortified villages. This policy backfired as the peasants did not want to be removed from their land and as such the policy played into the hands of the Viet Cong who were promising the peasants more land once communism have taken root in the south.
Diem's unpopularity was so great that in November 1963, the South Vietnamese Army overthrew and killed him. The confusion at a political level in South Vietnam and the abuse of peasants rights within the agricultural community were two reasons for the spread of communism within the south. Such a development alarmed the American president, Lyndon Johnson, who had asked his military chiefs to formulate plans should a full-scale war break out. The one proviso the chiefs-of-staff had was that America had to be seen as the victim rather than the aggressor.
In August 1964, the Tongking Incident occurred when two American destroyers were attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats while they were in international waters. In response to this, the American Senate gave Johnson the power to give armed support to assist any country requesting help in defence of its freedom. In March 1965, the first American ground troops landed in South Vietnam and by December 1965, there were 150,000 stationed in the country. The bombing of North Vietnam had already started in February 1965.
American involvement in Vietnam:
This was at its peak from 1965 to 1969 when a maximum of 500,000 American troops were in Vietnam. A number of the front line troops were conscripts and not professional troops. They were young, usually from lower social groups and frequently from America's minority groups. They were trained in conventional warfare whereas the Viet Cong used guerilla tactics - hitting the enemy and then moving away; not wearing a standard uniform; merging into village life with ease etc. It was difficult for these young American troops to know who was the enemy and who they could trust amongst the South Vietnamese population.
The Viet Cong had had years to perfect their tactics whereas the American soldiers in Vietnam had only had their basic training. The Viet Cong used no tanks and frequently moved by foot. US troops responded with the use of helicopter gun ships and they tended to treat all civilians alike as potential enemy. Innocent civilians were killed by both sides. The Viet Cong killed those villagers they believed were helping the Americans while US troops killed those who they believed were helping the Viet Cong. The most infamous case of the latter was the Pinksville Massacre - better known as the My Lai massacre. The village of My Lai was considered friendly by US troops but 109 civilians were murdered here as the US troops investigating the village believed that they were conspiring with the Viet Cong.
America had total control of the air. Planes could be used to back-up ground troops by using napalm. Defoliation chemicals were also used to destroy the jungle cover given to the Viet Cong along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Agent Orange killed large areas of jungle disguising this trail but those using it, simply moved further inland or further into Laos thus avoiding the defoliated areas. To hinder the supply of US troops, the Viet Cong blew up bridges, roads and destroyed canals.
American front line troops were nicknamed 'grunts'. This is because every time they sat down, the straps on the heavy packs they were carrying tightened into their chests thus forcing out air in the lungs causing a sound like a grunt. The average age of a 'grunt' was 19 and they knew that the land they operated in was littered with booby-traps. Each step they took in the jungle or in the long grass that was common in South Vietnam could result in serious injury. This had a devastating psychological effect on the conscripts.
The Viet Cong used mines called "bouncing bettys" - these were on springs and when tripped would spring up to about waist height and explode. They were not usually fatal but the victim would need immediate medical aid and 3 to 4 men to look after him. The noise of the explosion would also attract the attention of the Viet Cong. Punji traps were also used by the Viet Cong - these were pits in the ground with spikes in them which were covered in grass and leaves and left all but invisible to an advancing soldier. The tips of the spikes were usually covered in poison or dirt. Punji traps were also found in rivers and streams where troops had to make crossings.
Though the Viet Cong did not fight full scale battles, in January 1968, they changed tactics with the Tet Offensive. This was a massive attack by the North Vietnamese Army which took the Americans by surprise. All the major South Vietnamese cities were attacked as were all major US military bases. However, the attack was never decisive and eventually the Americans forced the North Vietnamese back though both sides had suffered serious losses. 160,000 civilians were killed and 2 million were made homeless.
By May 1968, the North Vietnamese were willing to start talks that would lead to a peace settlement. Talks started in Paris and very slow progress was made over 5 years. The major sticking points were that Ho Chi Minh wanted all foreigners out of Vietnam and he wanted the country to be internationally accepted as a united country. America was still hampered by her support of the domino theory but the war had become very unpopular at home and the politicians were aware of the views of the voting population.
In 1969, the American president, Richard Nixon, agreed to reduce the number of American troops in South Vietnam. He pursued a policy called "Vietnamisation" whereby the South Vietnamese would be assisted in material matters by the Americans but the fighting would be done by the South Vietnamese Army. In December 1970, there were 350,000 American troops in South Vietnam. By September 1972, there were just 40,000.
The South Vietnamese Army could not cope with the North Vietnamese forces. Once the bulk of the American troops had pulled out, the North Vietnamese changed their tactics by launching a full scale attack against the South which all but wilted under the onslaught.
In January 1973, all sides agreed to a cease fire during which the remaining American troops would have to be withdrawn and all POW's would have to be released. It was agreed that Vietnam would be "eventually reunited".
America's involvement in Vietnam ended in 1973. The war had cost her one billion dollars a day at its peak; she had dropped 7 million tons of bombs - more than the entire total of all participants in World War Two. The cost of the war in 1968 alone was $88,000 million while the combined spending on education, health and housing in that year was $24,000 million.
The ceasefire lasted no time at all and the North attacked what was left of the South's army. By April 1975, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam had fallen. It was re-named Ho Chi Minh City and a united Vietnam came into being.