The Vietnam War | The Second World War

A special problem for the PRC, Soviets, and Americans arose in southeast Asia from the revolt of the Viet Minh (Revolutionary League for the Independence of Vietnam) against France that broke out in French Indochina after World War II.

During the Korean War the United States, fearing that the Chinese communists would strike across the border into northern Indochina, had given substantial assistance to the French. In 1954, when the French had been resoundingly defeated after the fall of their stronghold of Dien Bien Phu, a conference of powers at Geneva recognized the independence of the Indochinese provinces of Cambodia and Laos.

Vietnam, the third and largest portion of the former French colony, was divided roughly along the 17th parallel. The northern portion, with its capital at Hanoi, was governed by the communist Viet Minh party, whose leader was a veteran communist, Ho Chi Minh (18901969). The southern portion, with its capital at Saigon, was led by a Catholic nationalist leader, Ngo Dinh Diem (1901— 1963).

The Geneva agreements promised free elections in two years. Though the United States did not sign the agreements, it endorsed their intent, hoping that the area, in which it had already invested more than $4 billion, would not fall to the communists. Ho was receiving aid from Mao, with whom he shared a commitment to doctrine and the prestige of victory.

Between 1954 and 1959 Diem created the bureaucratic machinery for a new regime, provided for almost a million refugees from the communist North, and resettled in the countryside millions of peasants who had fled to the cities. After the departure of the French, the Americans assumed the responsibility for financial aid and technical advice. But Diem failed politically. He canceled the scheduled elections and together with his immediate family governed despotically. In 1958 and 1959 communist-led guerrilla activity broke out again. Now known as the Viet Cong (or VC), the guerrillas set up a national liberation front. In September 1960 Ho endorsed the Viet Cong movement, which he was already supplying with arms and training.

Neighboring Laos, strategically important, was less a nation than a collection of unwarlike Buddhist groups, where a small clique of families traditionally managed political affairs. In 1953 a communist-oriented political faction, calling itself the Pathet Lao and supported by Ho Chi Minh, seized the northeastern portion of the country. The United States tried with massive financial and military aid to build a national Laotian army and establish a firm regime, but instead succeeded largely in creating corruption and factionalism.

The head of the government, Souvanna Phouma (1901-1984), who was the brother-in-law of the head of the Pathet Lao, agreed in 1957 to set up a coalition government. The United States objected, ousting Souvanna Phouma and introducing a right-wing government. By 1960 he was working with the Soviets, and a portion of the army was working with the Pathet Lao. Soviet airlifts of supplies to their side enhanced the possibility that the country would fall to the communists.

As president, Kennedy sought to neutralize Laos and to convince the Soviets that if his efforts failed, American military intervention would follow. Although the Soviets agreed to neutralization, fighting in Laos between Soviet-backed and American-backed forces continued until mid-May 1961, when Khrushchev apparently realized that the United States was preparing to send in marines from Okinawa. Before an agreement was reached at Geneva in July 1962, Kennedy did send marines to Thailand to stop the Pathet Lao from continuing to violate the truce there. The Pathet Lao, now a strong force armed with Soviet weapons and still supported by Ho Chi Minh, kept control over its own portion of the country, which bordered on South Vietnam and included the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a supply route from Hanoi to the Viet Cong guerrillas.

In South Vietnam, American efforts to get Diem moving politically failed. All that emerged was the strategic-hamlet plan—a program to relocate peasants to fortified villages in the hope that this would provide protection against the guerrillas and thus make the communist campaigns first expensive and then impossible. Meanwhile, protests against Diem’s rule increased, often led by Buddhist monks. In August 1963 Diem staged a mass arrest of Buddhists, and in November he and his brother were ousted and murdered in a coup led by dissident generals and permitted by the United States.

Thereafter, the South Vietnamese government changed hands many times, each time by military coup. The longest-lived regime, that of General Nguyen Cao Ky (1930– ), successfully conducted elections in September 1966, with Ky emerging as vice-president under President Nguyen Van Thieu (1923– ). But the hamlet program was a failure, and North Vietnamese troops appeared in South Vietnam in support of the guerrillas.

Between 1965 and 1967 the United States increased its troops from 12,000 to more than 500,000 and began bombing North Vietnamese installations. Massive American intervention prevented the Viet Cong from conquering the entire country and assured the United States of bases along the coast. Having increased the American commitment to such a level that none could doubt his intentions, President Johnson, in the hope of bringing Ho Chi Minh to the conference table, then assured the enemy that the United States had no long-range intention of remaining in the country and sought no military bases there.

In 1966 Johnson suspended the bombings for a time, but the North Vietnamese insisted that there could be no negotiations until all American troops left the country. And the government in the South, nominally an ally of the United States, became increasingly dictatorial and corrupt. The communists’ Tet offensive early in 1968 struck at Saigon and the provincial capitals and demonstrated the inability of the government to respond.

The Vietnam War was the first in history to be viewed on television in living rooms half a world away. The horror of the jungle fighting, the misery of the countless fleeing Vietnamese survivors, the corruption of the Saigon government were all brought home vividly to the American public. The war’s mounting costs wrecked President Johnson’s widely hailed Great Society program for domestic reform, and more and more voices called for American withdrawal.

Mass protests, student strikes, demonstrations at military installations, and a substantial number of refusals to register for the draft underscored the growing divisiveness of the war, as opposing public opinion urged that the war be intensified and won. Intensification of the war threatened a land war in Asia of unprecedented difficulty and unpredictable length; on the other hand, withdrawal meant abandoning the goals for which the United States had fought in Asia in World War II.

In 1968, as the time for American elections approached, Senator Eugene McCarthy (1916– ), Democrat of Minnesota, challenged the Johnson administration by announcing his candidacy for the presidency on an antiwar platform. His impressive successes in early primary elections at the state level stimulated another opponent of the war, Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925– 1968), Democrat of New York, to enter the race on his own. The strength of the antiwar candidates brought about the withdrawal of President Johnson, who had been expected to run again.

Ho Chi Minh, who had always thought that internal American politics would force the United States out of Vietnam, then consented to open peace talks, which began in Paris but dragged on inconclusively. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, and the Democratic party, now led by Johnson’s vice-presidential running mate, Hubert Humphrey (1911– 1978), was turned out of office by the Republicans under Richard M. Nixon (1913-199), who had served as Eisenhower’s vice-president.

The Nixon administration inherited an increasingly unpopular war and the halting negotiations designed to end it. Nixon pledged the eventual withdrawal of all American forces and began substantially to reduce them. He hoped to “Vietnamize” the fighting by rapidly training and supplying South Vietnamese forces, who would replace the Americans in combat but continue to have American assistance, including massive air support, until a settlement could be reached with the North that did not involve the communization of the South. But even the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969 did not weaken the North Vietnamese government. It seemed prepared to carry on with the war, obviously believing that the Americans had lost faith in the cause and that the communists would gain more by continuing the war than by ending it through negotiations.

The military picture was further clouded for the United States by the increasing Viet Cong domination of Laos, where the hard-won and tenuous settlement of the early 1960s was in jeopardy, and by the movement of Viet Cong forces into those portions of Cambodia nearest to South Vietnam. The head of Cambodia was a French-educated prince of an old ruling house, Norodom Sihanouk (1922– ), who made some effort to maintain Cambodian neutrality despite his belief that in the end the PRC would dominate his part of the world and so must be appeased. These beliefs made him unpopular both in Washington and at home. In 1970 a coup d’etat overthrew Sihanouk, who, from Beijing (formerly Peking), announced the formation of a government-in-exile.

Not long afterward American and South Vietnamese troops made an “incursion” into Cambodia. The invading forces failed to wipe out the Vietnamese forces believed to be the chief target of the expedition. Many of America’s allies condemned the action, and antiAmerican demonstrations were widespread throughout western Europe and Canada. Despite the capture of many North Vietnamese supplies in Cambodia, the American forces failed to find a central enemy headquarters. Nixon withdrew the forces within the time promised, but there remained much doubt whether the Cambodian operation had been justifiable. During the Cambodian incursion the United States had resumed intensive bombing of North Vietnam, the most effective weapon left to the United States as its land forces in Vietnam were reduced.

Probably no war since the religious wars of the Middle Ages has been so complex, has posed so many moral problems, or has proved so unpopular with its participants. The United States could not, for political and military reasons, commit more troops to the war; without more troops, the Americans and South Vietnamese were slowly being pressed back by the invaders from the North. Withdrawal was advocated by those who condemned the regime in the South as corrupt and undemocratic, as well as by those who actively favored a communist victory on behalf of the peasants.

Withdrawal was also advocated by the “realists” who, whatever the moral issues involved, felt the stakes had become too high and that the United States was wasting its resources over an area of less significance to it than Europe, the Middle East, or Latin America. Withdrawal was demanded by isolationists who felt the United States had no business trying to resolve what they saw as essentially a civil war in a remote land; withdrawal was called for by racists who thought American lives ought not to be spent on Asians; withdrawal was prayed for by pacifists, who felt that all war was evil. Few voices continued to advocate an allout American commitment to Vietnam. American troops were pulled back, and a cease-fire was finally arranged in January 1973.

Persistent violations of the cease-fire on both sides accompanied the evacuation of South Vietnamese troops toward Saigon, an evacuation that advancing North Vietnamese turned first into a retreat and then a rout. The city of Saigon fell to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975, as Americans were completing their own evacuation at the last moment by helicopter from their embassy roof. In this, America’s longest and most expensive war, 58,000 American lives were lost. South Vietnam’s military lost 220,000. North Vietnam sustained an estimated 666,000 deaths, despite victory. In all, perhaps 1.5 million people died.

The war also unleashed the Cambodian Holocaust, in which an estimated 3 million Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, the army of the country’s Communist party, after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Mass relocation of city dwellers devastated Cambodian life and continued until the Vietnamese invaded and occupied the country in 1978-79. Sporadic warfare continued well into the 1980s, driving refugees into neighboring Thailand, and not until 1989 did the Vietnamese declare that they would withdraw their troops from Cambodia and seek to normalize relations.

The war in Vietnam changed the cold war and taught one superpower how difficult it was to wage unconventional warfare in a country that afforded ample opportunities for guerrilla tactics. The United States failed to achieve its objective of victory of a democratic and non-communist Vietnam, for many reasons.

Among them were its own waning will; the rising opposition to the war on the home front; the self-imposed limitations, largely for political reasons, with respect to the use of weapons and the rules of engagement; the growing unpopularity of the war with America’s putative allies; the threat of Communist China entering the war; the nature of the terrain; and the fact that United Nations troops were fighting far from home against entrenched and skillful forces that were willing to sustain high rates of casualties, far exceeding the conventionally acceptable upper limit of attrition in democratic societies.

In 1979 the Soviet Union would plunge into a similar war in Afghanistan, where as in Vietnam elements of a civil war made it difficult to be certain who the enemy was at all times, and it too would withdraw without achieving its intentions. Thus both superpowers learned that victory was illusive in an undeclared war.

To some extent there was a reduction of tensions in the cold war after 1975, marked by an increase once again in the early 1980s, and then, with the virtual collapse of the Soviet Union, an end to that war. During the cold war there was a flourishing of debate in universities and elsewhere about the nature and ethics of war, important changes in the world of art and literature, and above all in communications and information.

While dissent was brutally stamped out in the Soviet Union, and at times intimidated even in the Western democracies, the period of the cold war, now conventionally dated from the Berlin blockade in 1948 to 1989, produced the intellectual climate in which we now live.

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