The Vietnam War
(November 1, 1955 – April 30, 1975)
South Vietnam: South Vietnam,The United States, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, Philippines, New Zealand, Khmer Republic, Kingdom of Laos
North Vietnam: North Vietnam, the Viet Cong of South Vietnam, Khmer Rouge, Pathet Lao, People’s Republic of China, North Korea
The Cold War in the Heat of the Tropics: The Rise of Communism in Vietnam
Up to 1964
From the 1880s until World War II, the region now known as Vietnam was called French Indochina. During World War II, Japanese forces seized this area. After the Japanese forces retreated at the end of World War II, the Viet Minh (of the communist Vietnamese Liberation Movement headed by Ho Chi Minh) claimed temporary independence. The Viet Minh and France fought for Vietnam in the First Indochina War, with the French able to reinstate its power in the South at Saigon. China began to exert influence in North Vietnam, which was still held by the Viet Minh.
Initial U.S. Involvement
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure of the survival and success of liberty.”– President John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961
In 1954, the Geneva Convention established a temporary partition at the 17thparallel, to allow both sides to “cool off.” Sensing the threat of Communism encroaching on the French-held South, the U.S. began to lend its support to the South and its leader Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem was a corrupt, autocratic, anti-democratic ruler whose only goodtrait was he was anti-Communist. Autocracy refers to a ruler who has absolute power, taking no account of other people’s wishes or opinions. The U.S. sent advisors to Diem in an effort to mediate the brewing conflict without instigating a war.
However, this “cooling period” partition failed to mediate the troubles that arose from separating the country regionally. Minh-supporters still existed in South Vietnam and formed the Viet Cong, a guerilla fighting force in support of the Viet Minh.
The Viet Cong
The Viet Cong were primarily guerilla fighters. Guerilla warfare consists of a small group of combatants who use ambushes, raids, sabotage, mobility, etc. to fight a larger, traditional army. They were Viet Minh-supporters who began insurrection in the South, some originating in the South and some coming down from the North.
The War Escalates
“The battle against communism… must be joined… with strength and determination.”– President Lyndon B. Johnson, November 24, 1963.
During Kennedy’s administration, the U.S. did not send combat troops to Vietnam, instead increasing assistance as the war continued to rage. However, Diem’s government in the South persecuted Buddhists (the religious majority in Vietnam) by shooting Buddhist protestors, creating discriminatory policies, and storming Buddhist temples. When Diem was overthrown and executed, it plunged South Vietnam into a state of chaos, allowing the Viet Cong to take advantage of the situation.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident is one of the most suspect incidents in the Vietnam War. The U.S. had sent ships into the Gulf of Tonkin, located off the coast of North Vietnam. In 1964, the USS Maddox was allegedly stalked and attacked by North Vietnam torpedoes. Shortly after, another U.S. ship was attacked in the Gulf. This enraged the American public and President Johnson now had support to escalate U.S. involvement in war. Due to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the President was able to declare the U.S. an official participant in the Vietnam War.
However, even from the beginning, the story was suspect. The circumstances were likely not the ones reported. In 2005, an NSA publication stated there was no attack. Regardless, retaliatory air strikes were ordered and 500,000 U.S. troops were sent on a “noble war” against communism.
The Tet Offensive
In 1968, the Viet Cong, thought to be guerilla fighters small in number who would be easily defeated, launched the Tet Offensive. This was a massive coordinated attack throughout South Vietnam that shook the American impression of the Viet Cong. Suddenly, Americans began to question the strength and military might of the Viet Cong and, as a result, began to question if they could win the war.
The My Lai Massacre
Regardless of personal feelings about the war, the majority of Americans at this time believed that American troops were the pinnacle of moral integrity. They would never commit the atrocities of war that other countries frequently perpetrated. Unfortunately, this was not the case. In 1968, in the My Lai region, U.S. troops stationed there were informed that the Vietnamese civilians were harboring Viet Cong troops and were Viet Cong sympathizers. Under the guise of following orders, Charlie Company, led by Captain Ernest Medina, committed mass murder of clearly unarmed civilians. Women and young girls were gang raped. Children, infants, women, and elders were killed. Bodies were mutilated. Charlie Company had encountered no enemy fire or weapons in the area. According to one witness: “A lot of women had thrown themselves on top of the children to protect them, and the children were alive at first. Then, the children who were old enough to walk got up and [Lieutenant] Calley began to shoot the children.”
Three U.S. servicemen aboard a helicopter, including Hugh Thompson, Jr., attempted to stop the killing and rescue civilians. He was able to save 12-16 people by piloting them away with his helicopter. However, knowing this scene would harm public support for the public, the U.S. government began a cover-up. It was initially reported as: “U.S. infantrymen had killed 128 Communists in a bloody day-long battle” and the perpetrators were lauded as heroes. However, the American public soon learned the horrible truth of the event, which severely diminished public support back home.
Lack of Public Support
The Vietnam War brought to the forefront the sheer brutality of war. Now, the American public was faced with shades of gray. It had seemed so easy when there was a clear line between good and evil. However, after a series of events that betrayed the American people, we were now asking: who are the good guys?This was another battle in the Cold War that Americans were no longer sure they wanted to be involved in.
The End of the War (for the U.S.)
The war dragged on. Public support dwindled after the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre in 1968. People were tired of war. The authenticity of the Gulf of Tonkin incident was called into question. The Tet Offensive demonstrated the massive strength of the Viet Cong. Innocent civilians were tortured and murdered by American troops. Anti-war sentiment and backlash against the draft was pulling America apart at the seams. We began to wonder if this war was worth it.
During the long twenty years of the Vietnam War, the U.S. presidency had changed hands several times. Now President Nixon was in office and signed the Paris Peace Accords to save face and pull out of the war. However, within two years of the U.S. leaving Vietnam, North Vietnam defeated South Vietnam and created the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which is how it exists today.
The Vietnam War changed our perspective of the Cold War. We learned that this idea of“containment,” not allowing Communism to spread, was not entirely necessary. It was believed, without intervention by “free states,” Communism would spread and overtake the continents of Asia and Europe. However, Vietnam was not contained, yet it did not continue to spread. Eventually the Cold War would end in 1989, with the fall of Communism.