The Vietnam War
was a war fought between 1964 and 1975 on the
ground in South Vietnam and bordering areas of Cambodia and Laos (see also,
Secret War), and in bombing runs (Rolling Thunder) over North Vietnam.
Fighting on one side was a coalition of forces including the United States
(USA), the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), Australia, and South Korea.
Fighting on the other side was a coalition of forces including the Democratic
Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the National Liberation Front (NLF,
Viet Cong), a communist-led South Vietnamese guerrilla movement. The USSR
provided military aid to the North Vietnamese and to the NLF, but was not
one of the military combatants. The war was part of a larger regional conflict
involving the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos, known as the
. In Vietnam, this conflict is known as the
Origins of the War
The Vietnam War was in many ways a direct successor to the French Indochina
War, sometimes referred to as the First Indochina War, in which the French
fought to maintain control of their colony in Indochina against an independence
movement led by Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh.
After the Vietnamese communist forces, or Viet Minh, defeated the French
colonial army at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the colony was granted
independence. According to the ensuing Geneva settlement, Vietnam was partitioned,
ostensibly temporarily, into a communist North and a non-Communist (and,
some hoped, an eventually democratic) South. The country was then to be
unified under elections that were scheduled to take place in 1956. However
the elections were never held. The RVN government of President Diem, with
the support of US President Eisenhower, cancelled the elections because
they feared that Ho Chi Minh would win as he was seen as a hero by many
Vietnamese for his role in the war for independence. In addition, the communists
did not want to hold free elections in the North.
After the communists consolidated their power in the North, they formed
the National Liberation Front (NLF or Viet Cong) as a guerrilla
movement in opposition to the South Vietnamese government. (The RVN and
the US referred to the NLF as Viet Cong, short for Viet Nam Cong
San, or "Vietnamese Communist". The NLF itself never went by this name.)
In response to the guerilla war, the United States began sending military
advisors in support of the government in the South. North Vietnam and the
USSR supported the NLF with arms and supplies, advisors, and regular units
of the North Vietnamese Army, which were transported via an extensive network
of trails and roads which became known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.
American involvement in the war was a gradual process, as its military
involvement increased over the years under successive U.S. presidents,
both Democrat and Republican (including Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and
Nixon), despite warnings by the American military leadership against a
major ground war in Asia. There was never a formal declaration of war but
in 1964 the U.S. Senate did approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
which gave broad support to President Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement
in the war. On March 8, 1965 3,500 United States Marines became the first
American combat troops to land in South Vietnam and by 1968, over 500,000
troops were stationed there, and the toll of American soldiers killed,
as reported every Thursday on the evening news, was over 100 a week.
The continued escalation of American involvement came as the Johnson
administration, as well as the commander of U.S. forces, General William
Westmoreland, repeatedly assured the American public that the next round
of troop increases would bring victory. The American public's faith in
the "light at the end of the tunnel" was shattered, however, on January
30, 1968, when the enemy, supposedly on the verge of collapse, mounted
the Tet Offensive (named after Tet Nguyen Dan, the lunar new year festival
which is the most important Vietnamese holiday) in South Vietnam (and,
to a lesser degree, in the 1969 Post-Tet Offensive). Although neither of
these offensives accomplished any military objectives, the surprising capacity
of an enemy that was supposedly on the verge of collapse to even launch
such an offensive convinced many Americans that victory was impossible.
There was an increasing sense among many people that the government was
misleading the American people about a war without a clear beginning or
end. When General Westmoreland called for still more troops to be sent
to Vietnam, Clark Clifford, a member of Johnson's own cabinet, came out
against the war.
Opposition to the War
There had been a small movement of opposition to the war within certain
quarters of the United States starting in 1964, especially on certain college
campuses. This was happening during a time of unprecedented leftist student
activism, and of the arrival at college age of the demographically significant
"Baby Boomers." World War II ended in 1945, and the Korean conflict ended
in 1953; thus most, if not all, of the "Baby Boomers" had never been exposed
to war. In addition, the Vietnam War was unprecedented for the intensity
of media coverage--it has been called the first television war--as well
as for the stridency of opposition to the war by the so-called "New Left."
Many young men feared being sent to Vietnam, and hundreds of them fled
to Canada or Sweden to avoid the draft. At that time, not all men of draft
age were actually conscripted; the Selective Service Board used a lottery
system to select draftees. Some men found sympathetic doctors who could
find a medical basis for classifying as 4F, making them ineligible to be
drafted. Others took advantage of a student deferment. Still others joined
the National Guard or entered the Peace Corps as a way of avoiding Vietnam.
All of these issues raised concerns about the fairness of who got selected
for combat, since it was often the poor or those without connections who
were assigned to combat units.
The American people became polarized over the war. Many supporters of
the war argued for what was known as the Domino Theory, which held that
if the South fell to communist guerillas, other nations, primarily in Southeast
Asia, would succumb in short succession, much like falling dominoes. Military
critics of the war pointed out that the conflict was political and that
the military mission lacked clear objectives. Civilian critics of the war
argued that the government of South Vietnam lacked political legitimacy,
and that support for the war was immoral.
On February 1, 1968, a suspected Viet Cong officer was summarily executed
by Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a South Vietnamese National Police Chief. Loan shot
the suspect in the head on a public street in front of journalists. The
execution was videotaped and photographed and helped sway public opinion
in the United States against the war.
The U.S. realized that the South Vietnamese government needed a solid
base of popular support if it was to survive the insurgency. In order to
pursue this goal of "winning the hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people,
units of the United States Army, referred to as "Civil Affairs" units,
were extensively utilized for the first time since World War II. Civil
Affairs units, while remaining armed and under direct military control,
engaged in what came to be known as "nation building": constructing (or
reconstructing) schools, public buildings, roads and other physical infrastructure;
conducting medical programs for civilians who had no access to medical
facilities; facilitating cooperation among local civilian leaders; conducting
hygiene and other training for civilians; and similar activities.
This policy of attempting to win the "Hearts and Minds" of the Vietnamese
people, however, often was at odds with with other aspects of the war which
served to antagonize many Vietnamese civilians. These policies included
the emphasis on "body count" as a way of measuring military success on
the battlefield, the bombing of villages (symbolized by the phrase "it
was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it"), and the killing
of civilians as such locations as in the My Lai massacre. In 1974 the documentary
"Hearts and Minds" dealt with these problems, and won an Academy Award
for best documentary amid considerable controversy. The South Vietnamese
government also antagonized many of its citizens with its suppression of
political opposition, through such measures as holding large numbers of
political prisoners, torturing political opponents, and holding a one-man
election for President in 1971.
Many Americans continued to support the war. Aside from the domino theory
mentioned above, there was a feeling that the goal of preventing a communist
takeover of a pro-Western government in South Vietnam was a noble objective.
Many Americans were also concerned about saving face in the event of disengaging
from the war or, as President Nixon later put it, "achieving Peace with
Some Americans opposed the war on moral grounds, seeing it as a destructive
war against Vietnamese independence, or as intervention in a foreign civil
war; others opposed it because they felt it lacked clear objectives and
appeared to be unwinnable. Some anti-war activists were themselves Vietnam
Veterans, as evidenced by the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the
Unlike previous American wars, soldiers returning from the Vietnam War
were not treated as heroes, and soldiers were sometimes even condemned
for their participation in the war.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson began his reelection campaign. A member
of his own party, Eugene McCarthy, ran against him for the nomination on
an antiwar platform. McCarthy did not win the first primary election in
New Hampshire, but he did surprisingly well against an incumbent. The resulting
blow to the Johnson campaign, taken together with other factors, led the
President to make a surprise announcement in a March 31 televised speech
that he was pulling out of the race. He also announced the initiation of
the Paris Peace Talks with Vietnam in that speech.
Seizing the opportunity caused by Johnson's departure from the race,
Robert Kennedy then joined in and ran for the nomination on an antiwar
platform. Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, also ran for the nomination,
promising to continue to support the South Vietnamese government.
Kennedy was assassinated that summer, and McCarthy was unable to overcome
Humphrey's support within the party elite. Humphrey won the nomination
of his party, and ran against Richard Nixon in the general election. During
the campaign, Nixon claimed to have a secret plan to end the war.
Opposition to the Vietnam War in Australia followed along similar lines
to the United States, particularly with opposition to conscription. Whilst
Australian disengagement began in 1970 under John Gorton, it was not until
the election of Gough Whitlam in 1972 that conscription ended.
On January 21, 1977 American President Jimmy Carter pardoned nearly
all Vietnam War draft evaders.
Nixon was elected President and began his policy of slow disengagement
from the war. The goal was to gradually build up the South Vietnamese Army
so that it could fight the war on its own. This policy became the cornerstone
of the so-called "Nixon Doctrine." As applied to Vietnam, the doctrine
was called "Vietnamization." The goal of Vietnamization was to enable the
South Vietnamese army to increasingly hold its own against the NLF and
the North Vietnamese Army. During this period, the United States conducted
a gradual troop withdrawal from Vietnam. Nixon continued to use air power
to bomb the enemy, and American soldiers continued to die in combat. Ultimately,
more American soldiers died, and more bombs were dropped, under the Nixon
Presidency than under Johnson's.
The morality of US conduct of the war continued to be an issue under
the Nixon Presidency. In 1969, it came to light that Lt. William Calley,
a platoon Leader in Vietnam, had led a massacre of Vietnamese civilians
(including small children) at My Lai a year before. The massacre was only
stopped after two American soldiers in a helicopter spotted the carnage
and intervened to prevent their fellow Americans from killing any more
civilians. Although many were appalled by the wholesale slaughter at My
Lai, Calley was given a light sentence after his court-martial in 1970,
and was later pardoned by President Nixon.
In 1970, Nixon ordered a military incursion into Cambodia in order to
destroy NLF sanctuaries bordering on South Vietnam. This action prompted
even more protests on American college campuses. Four students were shot
dead by National Guard troops during a demonstration at Kent State University
in Ohio, an event which galvanised international opposition to the war
and inspired one of the many anti-war songs by Crosby Stills and Nash.
One effect of the incursion was to push communist forces deeper into
Cambodia, which destablized the country and which in turn may have led
to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, who seized power in 1975. The goal of the
attacks, however, was to bring the North Vietnamese negotiators back to
the table with some flexibility in their demands that the South Vietnamese
government be overthrown as part of the agreement. It was also alleged
that American and South Vietnamese casualty rates were reduced by the destruction
of military supplies the communists had been storing in Cambodia.
Backed by American air and artillery support, South Vietnamese troops
invaded Laos on February 13, 1971.
In the 1972 election, the war was once again a major issue in the United
States. An antiwar candidate, George McGovern, ran against President Nixon.
Nixon's Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, declared that "Peace is at
Hand" shortly before the voters went to the polls, dealing a death blow
to McGovern's campaign, which had been facing an uphill battle. However,
the peace agreement was not signed until the next year, leading many to
conclude that Kissinger's announcement was just a political ploy. Kissinger's
defenders assert that the North Vietnamese negotiators had made use of
Kissinger's pronouncement as an opportunity to embarrass the Nixon Administration
to weaken it at the negotiation table. The US did halt heavy bombing of
North Vietnam on December 30, 1972.
The End of the War
The peace agreement did not last.
Although Nixon had promised South Vietnam that he would provide military
support to them in the event of a crumbling military situation, Congress
voted down any further funding of military actions in the region. Nixon
was also fighting for his political life in the growing Watergate scandal,
so none of the promised military support to defend the South Vietnamese
government was forthcoming though economic aid continued although most
of the aid was siphoned off by corrupt elements in the South Vietnamese
government and little of it actually went to the war effort. The 94th Congress
eventually voted for a total cut off of all aid to take effect at the beginning
of the 1975-76 financial year (July 1, 1975).
On January 15, 1973, citing progress in peace negotiations, President
Nixon announced the suspension of offensive action in North Vietnam which
was later followed by a unilateral withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam.
The Paris Peace Accords were later signed on January 27, 1973 which officially
ended US involvement in the Vietnam conflict. The first American prisoners
of war were released on February 11 and all US soldiers were ordered to
leave by March 29. In early 1975 the North invaded the South and quickly
consolidated the country under its control. Saigon was captured on April
30, 1975. North Vietnam united both North and South Vietnam on July 2,
1976 to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Saigon was re-named Ho
Chi Minh City in honor of the former president of North Vietnam.
Estimating the number killed in the conflict is extremely difficult. Official
records are hard to find or nonexistent and many of those killed were literally
blasted to pieces by bombing. For many years the North Vietnamese suppressed
the true number of their casualties for propaganda purposes. It is also
difficult to say exactly what counts as a "Vietnam war casualty"; people
are still being killed today by unexploded ordinance, particularly cluster
bomblets. Environmental effects from chemical agents and the colossal social
problems caused by a devastated country with so many dead surely caused
many more lives to be shortened. In addition, the Khmer Rouge would probably
not have come into power and committed their slaughters without the destabilization
of the war, particularly of the American bombing campaigns to 'clear out
the sanctuaries' in Cambodia.
The lowest casualty estimates, based on the now-renounced North Vietnamese
statements, are around 1.5 million Vietnamese killed. Vietnam released
figures on April 3, 1995 that a total of one million Vietnamese combatants
and four million civilians were killed in the war. The accuracy of these
figures has generally not been challenged. 58,226 American soldiers also
died in the war or are missing in action. Australia lost almost 500 of
the 47,000 troops they had deployed to Vietnam and New Zealand lost 38
In the aftermath of the war many Americans came to believe that some
of the 2,300 American soldiers listed as "Missing in Action" had in fact
been taken prisoner by the DRV and held indefinitely. "Missing in Action"
is a term applied to missing soldiers whose status cannot be determined
through eyewitness accounts of their death, or a body. While little credible
evidence has been shown for this, images of tortured, emaciated prisoners
of war (notably in the sequel to Rambo) continue to evoke anger among many
Americans. The Vietnamese list over 200,000 of their own soldiers Missing
in Action, and MIA soldiers from World War I and II continue to be unearthed
Both during and after the war, significant human rights violations occurred.
Both North and South Vietnamese had large numbers of political prisoners,
many of whom were killed or tortured. In 1970, two American congressmen
visiting South Vietnam discovered the existence of "tiger cages", which
were small prison cells used for torturing South Vietnamese political prisoners.
After the war, actions taken by the victors in Vietnam, including firing
squads, torture, concentration camps and "re-education," led to the exodous
of tens of thousands of Vietnamese. Many of these refugees fled by boat
and thus gave rise to the phrase "boat people." They emigrated to Hong
Kong, France, the United States, Canada, and other countries.
Many effects of the animosity and ill will generated during the Vietnam
War are still felt today among those who lived through this turbulent time
in American and Indochinese history.
Major Operations of Vietnam War with launching dates
Major battles of Vietnam War
Operation Chopper -- January 12, 1962
Operation Ranchhand -- Early 1962
Operation Starlight -- August 17, 1965
Operation Crimp -- January 8 1966
Operation Birmingham -- April 1966
Operation Hastings -- Late May 1966
Operation Deckhouse Five -- January 6, 1967
Operation Cedar Falls -- January 8, 1967
Operation Junction City -- February 21, 1967
Operation Pegasus -- August 8, 1968
Operation Menu -- February 1969
Operation Lam Son 719 -- February 8, 1971
Major bombing campaigns of Vietnam War
Battle at the hamlet of Ap Bac (formal name?) January 2 1963
Tet Offensive -- January 30 - February 24, 1968
Siege of Khe Sanh
First Battle of Saigon -- March 7, 1968 -
Eastertide Offensive -- March 30, 1972 -
Major figures of Vietnam War
Operation Rolling Thunder
A. Peter Dewey
John Foster Dulles
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Hubert H. Humphrey
John F. Kennedy
Ho Chi Minh
Tran Van Tra
Le Duc Tho
Pham Van Dong
Duong Van Minh
Ngo Dinh Diem
Ngo Dinh Nhu
Nguyen Van Thieu