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The Vietnam War: An Overview

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The Vietnam War, 1954–1975, grew out of the long conflict between France and Vietnam, the result of one hundred years of French colonial rule. In July 1954, after years of bloody fighting, Communist forces under the direction of General Vo Nguyen Giap defeated the allied French troops at Dien Bien Phu, a remote mountain outpost in the northwest corner of Vietnam. This decisive battle convinced the French that they could no longer maintain their Southeast Asian colonies, and Paris quickly sued for peace. As the two sides came together to discuss the terms of the peace in Geneva, Switzerland, international events were already shaping the future of Vietnam.

The Geneva Peace Accords

The Geneva Peace Accords, signed by France and the Communist leadership of Vietnam in the summer of 1954, reflected the strains of the international Cold War. Drawn up in the shadow of the Korean War, which had ended just the year before, the Geneva agreement was an awkward peace for all sides. Because of outside pressures brought to bear by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, Vietnam's delegates to the Geneva conference agreed to temporarily partition their nation at the seventeenth parallel. According to the terms of the Geneva Accords, Vietnam would hold national elections in 1956 to reunify the country.

The Communist superpowers favored this agreement because they feared that a provocative peace that demanded communist control of all of Vietnam would anger France and its powerful ally, the United States, and they did not want to risk another confrontation with the West so soon after Korea. Furthermore, the Communists believed they were well organized to take southern Vietnam through political action alone, a prediction that did not come to pass.

The United States did not support the accords. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles thought that the political protocols of the accords gave too much power to Vietnamese Communists, and he was not going to allow the Communists to take southern Vietnam without a fight. To that end, Dulles and President Dwight D. Eisenhower supported a series of multilateral agreements that created the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the creation of a counterrevolutionary force south of the seventeenth parallel that would oppose Ho Chi Minh and his followers in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), or North Vietnam.

South Vietnam Under Ngo Dinh Diem

The SEATO treaty provided for the mutual defense of all signatories, including the newly created and US-supported state south of the seventeenth parallel, the Government of the Republic of Vietnam (GVN), or South Vietnam. The scheduled national elections never took place. Instead, South Vietnam held its own elections that brought Ngo Dinh Diem, a staunchly anti-Communist figure, to power in 1956. From his first days in office, Diem faced stiff opposition from his opponents. He urged the United States to support his government, claiming that the Communists wanted to take South Vietnam by force. In late 1957, with American aid, Diem began a pre-emptive strike against the forces aligning against him. The Central Intelligence Agency helped him identify those who sought to bring his government down, and he had thousands arrested. In 1959, Diem passed a series of acts, collectively known as Law 10/59, that made it legal to hold suspected Communists in jail without bringing formal charges.

From the moment he took power, Diem faced enormous difficulties. Students, intellectuals, Buddhists, and others joined the Communists in opposition to Diem's rule. The more these forces attacked Diem's troops and secret police, the more he tried to control their protests. The president maintained that South Vietnam was a peace-loving democracy and that the Communists were out to destroy his new country.

The Kennedy administration was split on how peaceful and democratic the Diem regime really was. Some Kennedy advisers believed Diem had not instituted enough social and economic reforms to remain a viable leader in South Vietnam. Others argued that Diem was the best of a bad lot. As the White House met to decide the future of its Vietnam policy, a change in strategy took place at the highest levels of the Communist Party.

Sidewalk barber, Saigon. Photo: Kenneth Hoffman

From 1956 to 1960, the Communist Party of Vietnam desired to reunify the country through political means alone. Adopting the Soviet Union's model of political struggle, the Communist Party tried unsuccessfully to cause Diem's collapse by exerting tremendous internal political pressure. After Diem's success against Communist cells in the South, however, southern Communists convinced the party to adopt more violent tactics to guarantee Diem's downfall. At the Fifteenth Party Plenum in January 1959, the Communist Party finally approved the use of revolutionary violence to overthrow Ngo Dinh Diem's government. In May 1959, and again in September 1960, the party confirmed its approval of revolutionary violence and the combined use of political and armed struggles. The result was the creation of a broad-based united front to help mobilize southerners in opposition to the Saigon government.

The National Liberation Front

The united front had long and historic roots in Vietnam. Used earlier in the century by the Communists to mobilize anti-French forces, the united front brought together Communists and non-Communists in an umbrella organization that had limited but important goals. On December 20, 1960, the party’s new united front, the National Liberation Front (NLF), was born. Anyone could join this front as long as they opposed Ngo Dinh Diem. Many non-Communists who joined the NFL may not have realized that the party had always planned to dissolve the front and limit non-Communist representation in a unified government.

The character of the NLF and its relationship to the Communists in Hanoi has caused considerable debate among scholars, antiwar activists, and policy makers. From the birth of the NLF in 1960, government officials in Washington claimed that Hanoi directed the NLF’s violent attacks against the Saigon government. In a series of government white papers, Washington insiders denounced the NLF, claiming that it was merely a puppet of Hanoi. The NLF, in contrast, argued that it was autonomous and independent of the Communists and that it was made up mostly of non-Communists. Many antiwar activists in the US supported these claims. Washington continued to discredit the NLF, however, calling it the “Viet Cong,” a derogatory and slang term meaning “Vietnamese Communist.”

December 1961 White Paper

In 1961, President Kennedy sent a team to South Vietnam to report on conditions there and to assess future need for American aid. The report, now known as the “December 1961 White Paper,” argued for an increase in military, technical, and economic aid and a sharp increase in American advisers to help stabilize Diem's government and crush the NLF. As Kennedy weighed the merits of these recommendations, some of his other advisers urged the president to withdraw from Vietnam altogether, claiming that it was a “dead-end alley.”

In typical Kennedy fashion, the president chose a middle route. Instead of a large-scale military buildup, as the white paper called for, or an immediate withdrawal, Kennedy sought a limited partnership with Diem in which the United States would increase its military involvement in South Vietnam through more machinery and advisers but would not send troops. This arrangement was problematic from the start, and soon reports from South Vietnam indicated that the NLF was increasing its control in the countryside. To counteract the NLF’s success, Washington and Saigon launched an ambitious plan in the rural areas. Called the Strategic Hamlet Program, the new counterinsurgency measures rounded up villagers and placed them in hamlets constructed by South Vietnamese peasants. The idea was to isolate the NLF from villagers, its base of support. This plan was based on the British experience in Malaya, but conditions in South Vietnam were distinct, and it produced limited results. In fact, according to interviews conducted by US advisers in the field, the Strategic Hamlet Program had a negative impact on relations between peasants and the Saigon government. In the past, many rural Vietnamese had viewed Diem as a distant annoyance, but the program brought government policies to the countryside, and many villagers resented being forced off of their ancestral farmland. They further resented having to construct the hamlets themselves and at their own cost. Some have suggested that the plan actually helped recruit people to the NLF.

Military Coup

By the summer of 1963, because of NLF successes and its own failures, it was clear that Diem's government was on the verge of political collapse. Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, had raided the Buddhist pagodas of South Vietnam, claiming that they harbored the Communists who were creating political instability. The result was a massive demonstration on the streets of Saigon that led one Buddhist monk to protest through self-immolation. The picture of the monk engulfed in flames made world headlines and caused considerable consternation in Washington. By late September, the Buddhist protest had created such dislocation in the South that some of Diem’s own generals in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) approached the American embassy in Saigon with plans to overthrow Diem. With Washington’s tacit approval, on November 1, 1963, Diem and his brother were captured and later assassinated. Three weeks later, President Kennedy was murdered on the streets of Dallas.

Jerry Horgrewe photographs ARVN troops. Photo: Kenneth Hoffman

At the time of the Kennedy and Diem assassinations, there were sixteen thousand American military advisers in Vietnam. The Kennedy administration had managed to run the war from Washington without the large-scale introduction of combat troops. The continuing political problems in Saigon, however, convinced the new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, that more aggressive action was needed. Perhaps Johnson was by his nature more prone to military intervention, or maybe events in Vietnam forced his hand. In any event, after suspected Communist attacks on two US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Johnson administration argued for expansive war powers for the president.

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

On August 2, 1964, in response to American and South Vietnamese espionage along its coast, North Vietnam launched a local and controlled attack against an American ship on call in the Gulf of Tonkin. A second attack allegedly occurred on August 4, although Vo Nguyen Giap, the DRV's leading military figure at the time, and Johnson’s secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, concluded in 1997 that no second attack ever took place. In any event, the Johnson administration used the supposed August 4 attack to secure a congressional resolution that gave the president broad war powers. The resolution, now known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed both the House and Senate with only two dissenting votes (Senators Morse of Oregon and Gruening of Alaska). The resolution was followed by limited reprisal air attacks against North Vietnam.

Throughout the fall and into the winter of 1964, the Johnson administration debated the correct strategy in Vietnam. The Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to expand the air war over the DRV quickly to help stabilize the new Saigon government. The civilians in the Pentagon wanted to apply gradual pressure with limited and selective bombings. Only Undersecretary of State George Ball dissented, claiming that Johnson's Vietnam policy was too provocative for its limited desired results. In early 1965, the NLF attacked two US army installations in South Vietnam, and as a result, Johnson ordered the sustained bombing missions over North Vietnam that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had long advocated.

The bombing missions, collectively known as Operation Rolling Thunder, and the introduction of American combat troops in March 1965 caused the Communist Party to reassess its own war strategy. From 1960 through late 1964, the party had believed it could win a military victory in the South “in a relatively short period of time.” This overly optimistic prediction was based on a limited war scenario in South Vietnam that did not include the introduction of US combat troops. With the new American military commitment, however, the party moved to a protracted war strategy. The idea was to get the United States bogged down in a war that it could not win militarily at acceptable costs and risks and create unfavorable conditions for a political victory. The Communist Party believed that it would prevail in a protracted war because the United States had no clearly defined strategy, and therefore, the country would eventually tire of the war and demand a negotiated settlement. By late 1965, Hanoi’s more-realistic predictions were based on a military stalemate and a protracted war strategy.

The War in America

One of the greatest ironies in a war rich in ironies was that Washington had also moved toward a limited war in Vietnam. The Johnson administration wanted to fight this war “in cold blood.” This meant that America would go to war in Vietnam with the precision of a surgeon, with little noticeable impact on domestic culture. A limited war called for confined mobilization of resources, material and human, and would cause little disruption in everyday life in America. With the advent of the Cold War and an increase in nuclear weapons, a limited war made sense to many strategic thinkers in and out of Washington. Of course, these goals were never met. The Vietnam War did have a major impact on everyday life in America, and the Johnson administration was forced to consider the domestic consequences of its decisions every day. Eventually, there simply were not enough members of the volunteer army to continue to fight a protracted war, and the government instituted a draft.

Protest march in Washington, DC, early '70. Photo: Kenneth Hoffman

As the deaths mounted and American troops continued to leave for Southeast Asia, the Johnson administration was met with the full weight of American antiwar sentiments. Protests first erupted on college campuses and in major cities, but by 1968 every corner of the country seemed to have felt the war's impact. Perhaps one of the most famous incidents in the antiwar movement was the police riot in Chicago were protestors were attacked during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Hundreds of thousands of people had come to Chicago to protest American intervention in Vietnam and the leaders of the Democratic Party, who were in power at the time.

The Tet Offensive

By 1968, things had gone from bad to worse for the Johnson administration. In late January, the DRV and the NLF launched coordinated attacks against the major southern cities. These attacks, known in the West as the Tet Offensive, were designed to “break the aggressive will” of the Johnson administration and force Washington to the bargaining table. The Communist Party believed that the American people were growing war-weary and that Hanoi could humiliate Johnson and force a peace upon him. Most of Hanoi’s predications about the Tet Offensive proved elusive. Communist forces suffered tremendous casualties in the South, and the massacre of thousands of non-Communists in Hue during the Tet Offensive created ill will among many Vietnamese. Furthermore, several leading southern Communist generals thought the plans for the Tet Offensive were too risky, and this created a strain in relations between northern and southern Communists. In any event, in late March 1968, a disgraced Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for president and hinted that he would go to the bargaining table with the Communists to end the war.

The Nixon Years

Johnson engaged the North Vietnamese in secret negotiations in the spring of 1968 in Paris, and soon it was made public that Americans and Vietnamese Communist Party leaders were meeting to discuss an end to the long and costly war. Despite the progress in Paris, the Democratic Party could not rescue the presidency from Republican challenger Richard Nixon, who claimed he had a secret plan to end the war.

Nixon's secret plan, it turned out, was borrowing a strategic move from Lyndon Johnson's last year in office. The new president continued a process called “Vietnamization,”  an awful term that implied that the South Vietnamese were not already fighting and dying in the jungles of Southeast Asia. This strategy brought American troops home while increasing the air war over North Vietnam and relying more on the South Vietnamese armed forces for ground attacks. The Nixon years also saw the expansion of the war into neighboring Laos and Cambodia, as the White House tried desperately to root out Communist sanctuaries and supply routes. The intense bombing campaigns and intervention in Cambodia in late April 1970 sparked campus protests all across America. At Kent State in Ohio, four students were killed by National Guardsmen who had been called out to preserve order on campus after days of anti-Nixon protests. Shock waves crossed the nation as students at Jackson State in Mississippi were shot and killed for political reasons, prompting one mother to cry, “They are killing our babies in Vietnam and in our own backyard.”

Nixon opens second war front. Photo: Kenneth Hoffman

The expanded air war did not deter the Communist Party, however, and it continued to make hard demands in Paris, including the ouster of the Thieu government. Nixon's Vietnamization plan temporarily quieted domestic critics, but his continued reliance on an expanded air war to provide cover for an American retreat angered US citizens. By the early fall 1972, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, and DRV representatives Xuan Thuy and Le Duc Tho had hammered out a preliminary draft of a peace agreement. Washington and Hanoi assumed that South Vietnam would naturally accept any agreement drawn up in Paris, but this did not come to pass. In Saigon, President Nguyen Van Thieu and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky rejected the Kissinger-Tho peace draft, demanding that no concessions be made. The NLF, too, rejected many of the provisions of the draft. The conflict intensified in December 1972, when the Nixon administration unleashed a series of deadly bombing raids against targets in North Vietnam’s largest cities, Hanoi and Haiphong. These attacks, now known as the Christmas bombings, brought immediate condemnation from the international community. The attacks did not fundamentally alter the parameters of the draft peace agreement from October 1972, however, causing one Nixon administration official to claim that the United States bombed Hanoi into accepting American concessions at the bargaining table.

Staging area near Cambodia, 1970. Photo: Kenneth Hoffman

The Paris Peace Agreement

In early January 1973, the Nixon White House convinced the Thieu-Ky regime in Saigon that they would not abandon South Vietnam if it signed on to the peace accord. Likewise, Hanoi convinced leaders of the NLF that all southern political prisoners would be released shortly after the peace accord was signed. On January 23, therefore, the final draft was initialed, ending open hostilities between the United States and the DRV. The Paris Peace Agreement did not end the conflict in Vietnam, however, as the Thieu-Ky government continued to battle Communist forces in what became known as the “War of the Flags.” From March 1973 until the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, South Vietnamese forces tried desperately to save Saigon from political and military collapse. The end finally came, however, as DRV tanks rolled south along National Highway One. On the morning of April 30, Communist forces captured the presidential palace in Saigon, ending the Vietnam War.