Vietnam War
the longest war in which the U. S. took part

1957 - 1975


Vietnam War was the longest war in which the United States took part. It began in 1957 and ended in 1975. Vietnam, a small country in Southeast Asia, was divided into Communist-ruled North Vietnam and non-Communist South Vietnam. North Vietnam and Communist-trained South Vietnamese rebels fought to take over South Vietnam. The United States and the South Vietnamese army tried to stop them but failed.

The Vietnam War was actually the second phase of fighting in Vietnam. During the first phase, which began in 1946, the Vietnamese fought France for control of Vietnam. At that time, Vietnam was part of the colony of French Indochina. The United States sent France about $2˝ billion in military equipment, but the Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954. Then Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam.

United States aid to France and later to non-Communist South Vietnam was based on a policy of President Harry S. Truman. He had declared that the United States must help any nation threatened by Communists. Truman's policy was adopted by the next three Presidents -- Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. They feared that if one Southeast Asian nation fell to the Communists, the others would also fall, one after the other, "like a row of dominoes."

The Communists called the Vietnam War a war of national liberation. They saw the Vietnam War as an extension of the struggle with France and as another attempt by a foreign power to rule Vietnam. North Vietnam wanted to end U.S. support of South Vietnam and to unite the north and south into a single nation. China and the Soviet Union, at that time the two largest Communist nations, gave the Vietnamese Communists war materials but not troops.

The Vietnam War had several periods. From 1957 to 1965, it was mainly a struggle between the South Vietnamese army and Communist-trained South Vietnamese rebels known as the Viet Cong. From 1965 to 1969, North Vietnam and the United States did much of the fighting. Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand also helped South Vietnam. By 1969, the United States had about 540,000 troops in South Vietnam. However, the Vietnam War seemed endless, and the United States slowly began to withdraw its forces in 1969.

In January 1973, a cease-fire was arranged. The last American ground troops left Vietnam two months later. The fighting began again soon afterward, but U.S. troops did not return to Vietnam. The war ended when South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam on April 30, 1975.

The Vietnam War was enormously destructive. About 58,000 Americans died in the war. South Vietnamese deaths exceeded a million, and North Vietnam lost between 500,000 and 1 million troops. The war left much of Vietnam in ruin.

Just before the war ended, North Vietnam helped rebels overthrow the government in nearby Cambodia. After the war, North Vietnam united Vietnam and helped set up a new government in nearby Laos. The U.S. role in the war became one of the most debated issues in the nation's history. Many Americans felt U.S. involvement was necessary and noble. But many others called it cruel, unnecessary, and wrong. Today, many Americans still disagree on the goals, conduct, and lessons of U.S. participation in the Vietnam War.

Background to the war

Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia made up the French colony of Indochina from the late 1800's to the 1940's. Japan occupied Indochina during most of World War II (1939-1945). France tried to reestablish control after Japan's defeat in 1945. However, Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese patriot and Communist, organized a revolt in northern Vietnam. Ho's Vietminh (Revolutionary League for the Independence of Vietnam) declared Vietnam to be independent.

A war between France and the Vietminh began in 1946. The Communist take-over of China in 1949 shocked the United States and helped persuade President Harry S. Truman to aid France in Indochina. Truman feared a Vietminh victory would lead to a Communist take-over of Southeast Asia. In 1950, the United States sent troops to South Korea to combat an invasion of that country by Communist North Korea. Later that year, the United States began to give France large amounts of war materials.

In May 1954, the Vietminh captured the great French fortress at Dien Bien Phu in northwestern Vietnam. The war ended in July 1954, when the two sides signed peace agreements at Geneva, Switzerland. The Geneva Accords provided that Vietnam be temporarily divided into North and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel and called for national elections in 1956 to reunify the country.

Ho Chi Minh established a Communist government in North Vietnam. The territory in the south became the Republic of Vietnam, though it was commonly called South Vietnam. Ngo Dinh Diem, who vigorously opposed Communist control, became president of South Vietnam in 1955. With the approval of the United States, he refused to go along with the proposed nationwide election. He argued that the Communists would not permit fair elections in North Vietnam. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent several hundred U.S. civilian and military advisers to assist Diem.

Early stages of the war

Diem did little to ease the hard life of the peasants in the rural areas of South Vietnam. He became increasingly unpopular in 1956, when he ended local elections and appointed his own village officials. In 1957, members of the Vietminh who had stayed in the south rebelled against Diem's rule. Diem called the rebels the Viet Cong, meaning Vietnamese Communists. The rebels were under Communist control, but many were not Communist Party members.

North Vietnam supported the revolt from its early stages. In 1959, it started to develop a supply route to South Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia. This system of roads and trails became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Also in 1959, two U.S. military advisers were killed during a battle. They were the first American casualties of the war.

By 1960, discontent with the Diem government was widespread, and the Viet Cong had about 10,000 troops. In 1961, they threatened to overthrow Diem's government. Then President John F. Kennedy greatly expanded economic and military aid to South Vietnam. From 1961 to 1963, he increased the number of U.S. military advisers in Vietnam from about 900 to over 16,000.

In May 1963, widespread unrest broke out among Buddhists in South Vietnam's major cities. The Buddhists, who formed a majority of the country's population, complained that the government restricted their religious practices. Buddhist leaders accused Diem, a Roman Catholic, of religious discrimination. A growing number of Buddhist priests staged protests. The government responded with mass arrests, and Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Nhu ordered raids against Buddhist temples.

The Buddhist protests aroused great concern in the United States. Kennedy urged Diem to improve his dealings with the Buddhists, but Diem ignored the advice. Kennedy then supported a group of South Vietnamese generals who opposed Diem's policies. On Nov. 1, 1963, the generals overthrew the Diem government. Against Kennedy's wishes, Diem and Nhu were murdered.

The fall of the Diem government set off a period of political disorder in South Vietnam. New governments rapidly succeeded one another. During this period, North Vietnam stepped up its supply of war materials and began to send units of its own army into the south. By late 1964, the Viet Cong controlled up to 75 per cent of South Vietnam's population.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson approved secret South Vietnamese naval raids against North Vietnam. On Aug. 2, 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the U.S. destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam. Johnson warned the North Vietnamese that another such attack would bring "grave consequences." On August 4, he announced North Vietnamese boats had again launched an attack in the gulf, this time against the Maddox and another U.S. destroyer, the C. Turner Joy.

Some Americans doubted that the August 4 attack had occurred, and the attack has never been confirmed. Nevertheless, Johnson ordered immediate air strikes against North Vietnam. He also asked Congress for powers to take "all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." On August 7, Congress approved these powers in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. The United States did not declare war on North Vietnam. But Johnson used the resolution as the legal basis for increased U.S. involvement. In March 1965, he sent a group of U.S. Marines to South Vietnam, the first American ground combat forces to enter the war.

The fighting intensifies

The war soon became an international conflict. United States forces rose from about 60,000 in mid-1965 to a peak of over 543,000 in 1969. They joined about 800,000 South Vietnamese troops and a total of about 69,000 men from Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. North Vietnam and the Viet Cong had over 300,000 troops, but the exact number is unknown.

The two sides developed strategies to take advantage of their strengths. The United States had the finest of modern weapons and a highly professional military force. Its field commanders were General William C. Westmoreland from 1964 to 1968 and, afterward, Generals Creighton Abrams and Frederick Weyand. The United States did not try to conquer North Vietnam. Instead, American leaders hoped superior U.S. firepower would force the enemy to stop fighting. The United States relied mainly on the bombing of North Vietnam and "search and destroy" ground missions in South Vietnam to achieve its aim.

The United States used giant B-52 bombers as well as smaller planes for the main air strikes against the Communists. American pilots used helicopters to seek out Viet Cong troops in the jungles and mountains. Helicopters also carried the wounded to hospitals and brought supplies to troops in the field.

In contrast, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese leaders adopted a defensive strategy. The lightly armed and equipped Communist forces relied on surprise and mobility. They avoided major battles in the open, where heavy U.S. firepower could be decisive. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese preferred guerrilla tactics, including ambushes and hand-laid bombs. Their advantages included a large supply of soldiers, knowledge of the terrain, and large amounts of war materials from the Soviet Union and China.

Between 1965 and 1967, the two sides fought to a highly destructive draw. The U.S. bombing of North Vietnam caused tremendous damage, but it did not affect the enemy's willingness or ability to continue fighting. North Vietnam concealed its most vital resources, and the Soviet Union and China helped make up the losses.

American victories in ground battles in South Vietnam also failed to sharply reduce the number of enemy troops there. The U.S. Army and Marines usually won whenever they fought the enemy. But North Vietnam replaced its losses with new troops. Its forces often avoided defeat by retreating into Laos and Cambodia.

As the war dragged on, it divided many Americans into so-called hawks and doves. The hawks supported the nation's fight against Communism. But they disliked Johnson's policy of slow, gradual troop increases and urged a decisive defeat of North Vietnam. The doves opposed U.S. involvement and held mass protests. Many doves believed that U.S. security was not at risk. Others charged that the nation was supporting corrupt, undemocratic, and unpopular governments in South Vietnam.

The mounting costs of the war, however, probably did more to arouse public uneasiness than the antiwar movement did. By late 1967, increased casualties and Johnson's request for new taxes helped produce a sharp drop in public support for the war.

The Tet offensive. North Vietnam and the Viet Cong opened a new phase of the war on Jan. 30, 1968, when they attacked major cities of South Vietnam. The fighting was especially savage in Saigon, South Vietnam's capital, and in Hue. This campaign began at the start of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration.

As a military strategy, the plan failed. The United States and South Vietnam quickly recovered their early losses, and the enemy suffered an enormous number of casualties. But the Tet attacks stunned the American people. The United States had about 500,000 troops in South Vietnam, and U.S. leaders had reported strong gains only a short time before. Many Americans wondered whether blocking Communist expansion in South Vietnam was worth the cost in lives and money.

The Tet offensive forced basic changes in Johnson's policies. The President cut back the bombing of North Vietnam and rejected Westmoreland's request for 206,000 additional troops. Johnson also called for peace negotiations and declared that he would not seek reelection in 1968. Peace talks opened in Paris in May.

Vietnamization

The U.S. withdrawal begins. The peace talks failed to produce agreement, and more and more Americans became impatient for the war to end. President Richard M. Nixon felt he had to reduce U.S. involvement in the conflict. On June 8, 1969, he announced a new policy known as Vietnamization. This policy called for stepped-up training programs for South Vietnamese forces and the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam. The U.S. troop withdrawal began in July 1969.

In April 1970, Nixon ordered U.S. and South Vietnamese troops to clear out military supply centers that North Vietnam had set up in Cambodia. Large stocks of weapons were captured, and the invasion may have delayed a major enemy attack. But many Americans felt the campaign widened the war. The invasion aroused a storm of protest in the United States, especially on college campuses.

The nation was shocked on May 4, 1970, when National Guard units fired into a group of demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio. The shots killed four students and wounded nine others. The Senate voted soon afterward to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In addition, a move began in Congress to force the removal of the troops from Cambodia by June 30. Nixon helped end further congressional action on these moves by ending the campaign in late June.

Opposition to the war in the United States grew rapidly during Nixon's presidency. Some opposition may have developed as a result of television coverage of the war, which brought scenes of war horrors into millions of homes.

In March 1971, the conviction of Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., for war crimes raised some of the main moral issues of the conflict. Calley's Army unit had massacred at least 100 and perhaps as many as 200 civilians in 1968 in the hamlet of My Lai in South Vietnam. Calley was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to prison for 10 years. Some war critics used the trial to call attention to the large numbers of civilians killed by U.S. bombing and ground operations in South Vietnam. Others pointed to the vast stretches of countryside that had been destroyed by bombing and by spraying of chemicals. U.S. forces used such weedkillers as Agent Orange to reveal Communist hiding places in the jungle and to destroy enemy food crops.

Public distrust of the U.S. government deepened in June 1971, when newspapers published a secret government study of the war called The Pentagon Papers. This study raised questions about decisions and secret actions of government leaders regarding the war.

In March 1972, North Vietnam began a major invasion of South Vietnam. Nixon responded by renewing the bombing of North Vietnam. He also ordered the placing of explosives in the harbor of Haiphong, North Vietnam's major port for importing military supplies. These moves helped stop the invasion, which had nearly reached Saigon by August 1972.

The high cost paid by both sides during the 1972 fighting led to peace negotiations. The talks were conducted by Henry A. Kissinger, Nixon's chief foreign policy adviser, and Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam. On Jan. 27, 1973, a cease-fire agreement was signed in Paris by the United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and the Viet Cong. The pact provided for the withdrawal of all U.S. and allied forces from Vietnam and for the return of all prisoners -- both within 60 days. It permitted North Vietnam to leave 150,000 of its troops in the south and called for internationally supervised elections to decide the political future of South Vietnam.

The end of the war. On March 29, 1973, the last U.S. ground forces left Vietnam. But the peace talks soon broke down, and the war resumed. Congress opposed further U.S. involvement, and so no American troops returned to the war. In mid-1973, Congress began to sharply reduce military aid to South Vietnam.

The decreasing support from the United States encouraged North Vietnam. In late 1974, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops attacked Phuoc Long, northeast of Saigon, and won an easy victory. In March 1975, they forced South Vietnamese troops to retreat from a region known as the Central Highlands. Thousands of civilians fled with the soldiers and died in the gunfire or from starvation. This retreat became known as the Convoy of Tears.

Early in April, President Gerald R. Ford, Nixon's successor, asked Congress for $722 million in military aid for South Vietnam. But Congress provided only $300 million in emergency aid, mainly to evacuate Americans from Saigon. The war ended when South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam in Saigon on April 30, 1975. Saigon was then renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

Results of the war

Casualties and destruction. About 58,000 American military personnel died in the war, and about 300,000 were wounded. South Vietnamese deaths topped 1 million. North Vietnamese losses ranged between 500,000 and 1 million. Countless numbers of civilians in North and South Vietnam also were killed.

The United States spent over $150 billion on the war. The U.S. bombing in the conflict was about four times greater than the combined U.S.-British bombing of Germany in World War II. The American air strikes destroyed much of North Vietnam's industrial and transportation systems. But South Vietnam, where most of the fighting took place, suffered the most damage. The war made refugees of up to 10 million South Vietnamese, or about half the country's population. The bombing and the use of chemicals in order to clear forests scarred the landscape and may have permanently damaged much of South Vietnam's cropland and plant and animal life.

North Vietnam helped establish Communist governments in Laos and Cambodia in 1975. In 1976, it officially united North and South Vietnam into the single nation of Vietnam. North Vietnam also forced its culture and political system on the people of the south. The North Vietnamese imprisoned hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese. About 11/2 million Vietnamese fled Vietnam between 1975 and the early 1990's.

The Vietnam War had far-reaching effects in the United States. It was the first foreign war in which U.S. combat forces failed to achieve their goals. This hurt the pride of many Americans and left bitter and painful memories.

The Americans most immediately affected included the approximately 2,700,000 men and women who fought in the war, and their families. Most veterans adjusted smoothly to civilian life. But the war left others with deep psychological problems. These veterans suffered from a high rate of divorce, drug abuse, suicide, involvement in violent crimes, and joblessness.

After World Wars I and II, the country welcomed the returning veterans as heroes. But many of the Americans who opposed the U.S. role in Vietnam criticized or ignored the returning veterans. These reactions shocked the veterans. Many of them felt that the nation neither recognized nor appreciated their sacrifices.

Both Congress and the public became more willing to challenge the President on U.S. military and foreign policy after the Vietnam War. The war also became a new standard of comparison in situations that might involve U.S. troops abroad.

Today, Americans still disagree on the main issues and lessons of the war. Some believe U.S. participation was necessary and just. Many of these people say the war was lost because the United States did not use its full military power and because opposition at home weakened the war effort. However, other Americans believe that U.S. involvement was immoral and unwise. Some of them feel U.S. leaders stubbornly made the war a test of the nation's power and leadership. Others view the conflict as a civil war that had no importance to U.S. security. Since Vietnam, many Americans have argued that the nation should stay out of wars that do not directly threaten its safety or vital interests.


Contributor: George C. Herring, Ph.D., Prof. of History, Univ. of Kentucky.

Additional resources

Becker, Elizabeth. America's Vietnam War. Clarion, 1992.

Detzer, David. An Asian Tragedy: America and Vietnam. Millbrook, 1992.

Gibson, Michael. The War in Vietnam. Bookwright, 1992. Younger readers.

Marrin, Albert. America and Vietnam. Viking, 1992.

Olson, James S., and Roberts, Randy. Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945-1990. St. Martin's, 1991.

Spector, Ronald H. After Tet. Free Pr., 1993.

SOURCE: IBM 1999 WORLD BOOK


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