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.

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.

Following the Tongking Incident in 1964, the US Senate essentially gave the President the power to provide assistance to any country that needed to defend its freedom. By February 1965 aerial bombing of North Vietnam had commenced and from March till December 1965, 150,000 American troops had been landed in South Vietnam.

American involvement in Vietnam 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 and 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. This created a great deal of suspicion and confusion. 

The Viet Cong had had years to perfect their tactics whereas the American soldiers in Vietnam had only 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 the potential enemy. Innocent civilians were killed by both sides, in part due to the mass suspicion of the unknown enemy that spread through the American troops. 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 and land mines. Each step they took in the jungle or in the long grass 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 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. This was a common weapon of choice for the Viet Cong because it meant that at any given time of an explosion, 3/4 men would be incapacitated; the injured and the men carrying him back to safety. 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 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 the following 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 for the domino theory but the war had become very unpopular in the US and further worldwide and politicians faced increasing pressure from the voting population to pull out of Vietnam.

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 contend 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 under the condition that the remaining American troops would be withdrawn and all POW’s would 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 and 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.

Also see: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam and America’s involvement in Vietnam
And: America and Vietnam (to 1965)

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