Although the history of Vietnam has been dominated by war for 30 years of the 20th century, the conflict escalated during the sixties. When we talk about the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese refer to as the “American War”), we talk about the military intervention by the U.S. that happened between 1965 and 1973.

The Vietnam War Background: Fight Against Communism

During the late fifties, Vietnam was divided into a communist North and anti-communist South. Because of the Cold War anxiety of the time, the general feeling was that, should the North Vietnamese communists win, the remainder of Southeast Asia would also fall to communism. When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he swore that he would not let that happen.

The more conventionally trained army of South Vietnam was clearly no match for the guerrilla tactics of the North, so in February 1965 America decided to get involved with Operation Rolling Thunder. North Vietnam was supported by China, the Soviviet Union and other communist countries and the Viet Cong, a South Vietnamese communist group.

The struggle for control of Vietnam, which had been a French colony since 1887, lasted for three decades. The first part of the war was between the French and the Vietminh, the Vietnamese nationalists led by the communist Ho Chi Minh, and continued from 1946 until 1954. The second part was between the United States and South Vietnam on one hand and North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front on the other, ending with the victory of the latter in 1975. The communist side, strongly backed by the Soviet Union and mainland China, sought to increase the number of those who lived behind the Bamboo Curtain.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union regarded the conflict not as a civil war between North and South Vietnam but as a consequential engagement of the Cold War in a strategic region. American leaders endorsed the domino theory, first enunciated by President Eisenhower, that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, other nations in the region such as Laos and Cambodia would also fall.

Vietnam War Summary—A Cold War Quagmire

Five American presidents sought to prevent a communist Vietnam and possibly a communist Southeast Asia. Truman and Eisenhower provided mostly funds and equipment. When Kennedy became president there were fewer than one thousand U.S. advisers in Vietnam. By the time of his death in November 1963, there were sixteen thousand American troops in Vietnam. The Americanization of the war had begun.

Kennedy chose not to listen to the French president, Charles de Gaulle, who in May 1961 urged him to disengage from Vietnam, warning, “I predict you will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire.”

A debate continues as to what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam if he had served two terms—widen America’s role or begin a slow but steady withdrawal. We do know that throughout his presidency, Kennedy talked passionately about the need to defend “frontiers of freedom” everywhere. In September 1963, he said “what happens in Europe or Latin America or Africa directly affects the security of the people who live in this city.” Speaking in Fort Worth, Texas, on the morning of November 22, the day he was assassinated, Kennedy said bluntly that “without the United States, South Viet-Nam would collapse overnight. . . . We are still the keystone in the arch of freedom.”

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was an ambitious, experienced politician who had served in both the House and the Senate as a Democrat from Texas, and his persona was as large as his home state. He idolized FDR for winning World War II and initiating the New Deal and sought to emulate him as president. Like the three presidents who had preceded him, he saw action in time of war, serving as a naval aide in the Pacific during World War II, and like them he was a Christian, joining the Disciples of Christ Church in part for its focus on good works. Drawing on his political experience, Johnson thought that Ho Chi Minh was just another politician with whom he could bargain—offering a carrot or wielding a stick—just as he had done as the Senate majority leader. Ho Chi Minh, however, was not a backroom pol from Chicago or Austin but a communist revolutionary prepared to fight a protracted conflict and to accept enormous losses until he achieved victory.

Campaigning in 1964, Johnson promised, “We’re not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” It was a promise he failed to honor. In August of that year, after North Vietnamese patrol boats reportedly attacked two U.S. destroyers, the president got the congressional authority he needed to increase the American presence in Vietnam—the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed by an overwhelming margin in the Senate.

Once elected, Johnson steadily increased the troop levels until by early 1968 there were more than half a million American servicemen in Vietnam—a course of action Eisenhower had strongly opposed. Johnson quadrupled the number of bombing raids against North Vietnam but barred any invasion of the North by U.S. or South Vietnamese forces, fearful of triggering a military response from Communist China. Johnson’s fears were misplaced: China was caught up in the bloody chaos of the Cultural Revolution. For a decade, the People’s Liberation Army was busy trying to advance the Cultural Revolution while controlling the Red Guards, the fanatical youth movement that the Cultural Revolution had unleashed.

Why was LBJ so determined to defend South Vietnam? Ever conscious of his place in history, the president compared the risk of Vietnam going communist to the “loss” of China in 1949: “I am not going to lose Vietnam,” he vowed. “I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” In a nationally televised speech in 1965, he said, “The central lesson of our time is that the appetite of aggression is never satisfied. To withdraw from one battlefield means only to prepare for the next.”

But what if the enemy shows no sign of giving in? By 1968, after three and a half years of carefully calibrated escalation, the Pentagon concluded that the North Vietnamese could continue to send at least two hundred thousand men a year into South Vietnam indefinitely. As one analyst wrote, “The notion that we can ‘win’ this war by driving the VC-NVA [Viet-Cong and North Vietnamese Army] from the country or by inflicting an unacceptable rate of casualties on them is false.”

The Tet offensive of January 1968 seemed to confirm such an analysis. Some eighty-five thousand Viet Cong attacked Saigon and other major cities in the south. In most cases, the military historian Norman Friedman writes, the attackers achieved complete tactical surprise. There were dramatic successes, such as penetration of the U.S. embassy in Saigon and the capture of the old imperial capital Hue. Nevertheless, both the U.S. army and the South Vietnamese army fought well. The civilian population in the South did not rise up against the Saigon government but rejected the communist invaders. It was estimated that 40 percent of the communist cadres were killed or immobilized. The Viet Cong never recovered.

But the American news media reported the Tet offensive as a U.S. defeat, even a debacle. A frustrated and discouraged President Johnson did not know what to believe—the positive reports of his generals or the negative reporting of the media. The public opted for the latter.

Domestic opposition to the war was fueled by the mounting casualties (more than fifty-eight thousand Americans died in Vietnam). CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite—the “most trusted man in America,” according to a Gallup poll at the time—counseled America’s withdrawal in a widely viewed telecast. The president is said to have told an aide that if they had “lost” Cronkite, they had lost the average citizen. Tens and then hundreds of thousands of anti-war protestors filled the streets of Washington, D.C., chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

The inability of the United States to achieve a “final” military victory over the North Vietnamese seemed to confirm Mao’s axiom that peasant armies could triumph over modern armies if they were patient and had the necessary will—qualities North Vietnam had in abundance.

Furthermore, the war in Vietnam was affecting U.S. strategic planning across the board. By 1968, experts argued, it would be difficult for the United States to respond anywhere else in the world because of its commitments in Vietnam.

The Vietnam War, Part I. 1945-1955

Vietnam is a distinct Asian culture over 2,000 years old; whose language is a separate member of the world family of languages.  The Vietnamese originated from the Red River Delta in North Vietnam, where they built a culture based on rice cultivation and local commerce.   In the second century B.C., Vietnam was conquered by its colossal neighbor to the north, China. During the 800 years of Chinese occupation, Vietnam absorbed much Chinese culture, influencing its political system, the arts, literature, and education. Educated Vietnamese conversed and wrote in Chinese.  Much of the poetry, painting, and architecture, however, remained distinctly Southeast Asian. Most significantly, the occupation did not eradicate Vietnamese nationalism, as evidenced by periodic efforts to evict the Chinese. Finally, when China underwent a period of turmoil in the tenth century, the Vietnamese revolted and restored their independence.
The new Vietnamese state, ruled by an emperor, retained Chinese political institutions and values. Loyalty to the emperor was conditional upon his compassionate treatment of the people without resorting to oppression.  Instead of a government body composed of the ruling elite, selection of government officials was done by civil service examination.  Intelligent, studious peasants could therefore rise in the society (as long as they were men).  The new Vietnamese state eventually dominated the region.  It expanded south along the coast, into land then held by a now extinct state called Champa. Especially important was the acquisition of the Mekong River Delta in South Vietnam.  Additional land was taken from Angkor, later to become Cambodia. By 1700, the modern borders of Vietnam were established. The country has an unusual shape, like the letter S. On its western border is a string of mountains, which today separates Vietnam from Laos and Cambodia. On its eastern border is the South China Sea.
Because the entire country lies within the tropical zone, where the temperature rarely falls below 50 degrees and is usually in the eighties and nineties, the terrain is composed of dense jungles, swamps, and rice paddies.  The vast majority of Vietnamese were rice farmers, whose lives hadn’t changed much in thousands of years. Some eighty percent lived off the land, mostly in thousands of technologically primitive villages and hamlets surrounded by their rice paddies. Confucian philosophy and ethics adopted from the Chinese continued to emphasize the importance of family (which often had 3 or more generations under 1 roof) and community over the needs and wants of the individual.  Most major decisions were made either within the family, or by a council of elders that also served as the only connection with the central government that seemed so far way.  Men ruled their families (although women informally had a lot of influence), children obeyed their parents, marriages were arranged, and male children remained on their ancestral land to help
Vietnam's regions
Vietnam’s regions
meet the needs of their elders.  Thus, most villagers spent their entire lives in their village.  It was their entire universe. And yet the Vietnamese maintained an exceptionally strong sense of national identity.

Within this national identity, however, the Vietnamese became divided in several important ways.  During Vietnam’s tenth century expansion to the south, a kind of “frontier spirit” developed which has been likened to that of the American West in the nineteenth century.   South Vietnamese developed a greater sense of freedom and individuality.  They especially came to resent being dictated to by the Emperor and his royal court at Hanoi in the north.  By the seventeenth century Vietnam splintered into two competing factions, led by the Trinh family in the north, and the Nguyen family in the south.  For two hundred years they waged a civil war. It finally ended in 1802, with the Nguyen family dominating.  Their victory was accomplished in part with assistance from the French, who arrived in the region along with other Western countries to compete for colonies and religious converts. But the Nguyen family then turned against the French, and even persecuted their Vietnamese Catholic converts. Undaunted, a French fleet landed at the northern port of Da Nang harbor in 1858 and advanced on the imperial capital city of Hue.  They were rebuffed, but were more successful in the south, where they established a French protectorate in 1862. The following year they added Cambodia.  Twenty years later the French resumed their expansion.  They invaded the Red River Valley in 1884 and forced the emperor to accept a French protectorate over the remainder of Vietnam.  Some Vietnamese tried to conduct guerilla operations against the French, but without support from the Emperor, their movement died off. Less than a year later the French added neighboring Laos.  The French organized the region under a single administrative unit ruled by a French Governor-General appointed from Paris.  They kept an Emperor on the throne to give the appearance of legitimacy, but he ruled only under French “protection.” They called their Southeast Asia colony Indochina.

French Colonial Rule
France rationalized colonialism with its own version of the “White Man’s Burden.” They would “civilize” the backward peoples of Asia.  They did modernize some aspects of the country.  The infrastructure was improved, and they introduced some of the institutions of democracy.  But their main concern was commercial profit for France.  They wanted cheap raw materials for France, and markets for French goods. They knew that if the Vietnamese were given full democratic rights they would vote for self-determination and an end to French rule.  Only French residents and a few wealthy, westernized Vietnamese were given the right to vote, and Vietnamese manufacturing was actively discouraged.  The Vietnamese were not even allowed to produce rice wine, often used for ritual purposes, because it would compete with grape wine imported from France.  The French controlled all of the key rubber plantations, but the Vietnamese provided all of the labor, often at starvation wages.

French Indochina, 1913
More differences between north and south developed as a result of French Colonialism. New lands in the Mekong Delta opened up by French engineering projects were sold to the highest bidder, resulting in a greater concentration of land ownership in a small, wealthy elite. Two major religious sects emerged in the south: the Hoa Hoa, a form of reformed Buddhism, and the Cao Dai, a hybrid of both western and eastern religions.  Additionally, French Colonialism brought Catholicism, which would play a major role in the politics of Vietnam in the years before direct U.S. military involvement.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a new generation of Vietnamese youth took up the cause of nationalism.  Having grown up under French rule, however, they differed from the previous generation in that they didn’t seek a return to the past, but rather looked to a future that would be Vietnamese, but would embrace some western values such as science and democracy.  These new nationalists came from both north and south, were young, educated, and modern.  They formed secret political parties and attempted to organize resistance against French colonial rule. But they tended to focus on free speech and greater legislative representation for natives.  They ignored some of the issues that were important to the working class, such as land reform, improving working conditions, reducing taxes and rent for Vietnamese farmers. As a result, these political organizations failed.

Ho Chi Minh addresses Frech Communists, 1920
Ho Chi Minh addresses Frech Communists, 1920
One of these organizations was the Revolutionary Youth League, founded in South China among Vietnamese refugees there by a Vietnamese named Ho Chi Minh.  The Revolutionary League appeared to be an ally of the other organizations, but in reality it was a competitor.  Rather than a promoter of democracy, Ho’s League was communist.  Ho Chi Minh was the son of a Vietnamese official who opposed French rule.  He grew up on nationalist tales of Vietnamese heroes.  At the age of 21 he traveled the world as a cook on an ocean liner, and then worked in the kitchen of a luxury hotel in London.  Just as WWI was ending he arrived in France. That fall, the leaders of the Great Powers arrived there for the Versailles peace conference.  Using a pseudonym, Ho circulated a petition calling on the Allies to extend the concept of self-determination, one of the key planks in Woodrow Wilson’s
Fourteen Points, to the peoples of Southeast Asia. Since Vietnam was part of a French colony, the petition was ignored.  Ho stayed in France, and his politics became more radical.  Only three years after the Bolshevik Revolution brought communism to Russia, Ho became a founding member of the French Communist Party.  His activities soon brought him to the attention of the Soviets, who trained him in Moscow for a year and then sent him to South China.

By 1929, Ho’s Revolutionary League had over 1,000 members and was steadily growing.  One reason for this was his attractive personality and character.  Another reason was that the Youth League, unlike the other anti-French organizations, appealed to the peasant and the worker. When the Great Depression caused a rise in unemployment and dramatic declines in the price of rice and the standard of living, communism became even more appealing (as it did in the other parts of the world, including the United States). When nationalists staged an uprising in 1930, Ho transformed his League into a formal Indochinese Communist Party.  The French quickly put down the rebellion and arrested most of the Communist Party leaders, including Ho, who spent time imprisoned in the British colony of Hong Kong.  In 1932 the French installed Bao Dai on the throne, the last of the Nguyen family that had ruled South Vietnam since 1802.  He would play a key role in what happened in Vietnam after WWII.  For the rest of the 1930s the Communist Party in Vietnam limped along.  But then WWII and the resulting regional instability changed everything.

Vietnam & WWII
After the fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1940, French colonies fell under the control of Vichy France, the puppet government set up in Northern France by the German-Italian Axis powers. By that time the Japanese war against China was three years old.  In September 1940 the Japanese invaded Indochina to prevent China from moving arms and fuel through the region. The Vichy French yielded to the occupation and signed an agreement giving the Japanese conditional occupation rights. Vichy France continued to run the colony, but ultimate power resided with the Japanese.In 1941, a coalition of anti-French, anti-Japanese Vietnamese founded a military organization called the Viet Minh. Controlled by the Communist Party of Vietnam, it took up arms against both French and Japanese occupation forces. Taking on the Japanese earned the Viet Minh funding from quite a number of allies, including the Soviet Union, China, and the United States.  The Viet Minh toned down their communist rhetoric, earning them support from many Vietnamese patriots who desired independence, if not specifically under communism. During the next four years the Communist Party and Viet Minh built an elaborate political network throughout the country and trained guerilla fighters in the mountains of North Vietnam.Near the end of WWII the Japanese seized control of Indochina from France.  They interned all of the Vichy authorities, but left Emperor Bao Dai on the throne.  The countryside was left with virtually no administration at all.  This allowed the Viet Minh to gain further influence.  When a famine wiped out one million Vietnamese, the French and Japanese did nothing, while the Viet Minh organized to help the starving, earning them even more support.  By the end of the war the Viet Minh were recognized by the Vietnamese people as the main force fighting for independence and justice.

Vietnam War, Part II: 1945-1955

The Creation of North Vietnam & President Truman’s Decisions
Ho Chi Minh Delivers Address, 1945
Ho Chi Minh Delivers Address, 1945
With the French authorities still interned at the time of Japan’s unconditional surrender in August 1945, the Viet Minh, largely supported by the Vietnamese population, rushed to fill the power vacuum. Guerillas quickly seized villages and set up an administration for the rural areas. Ho Chi Minh persuaded Emperor Bao Dai to abdicate on August 25, 1945, thus ending the last of the Vietnamese dynasties. Bao Dai was subsequently appointed “supreme adviser” to the new Viet Minh-led government in Hanoi. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) before a crowd of 500,000 in Hanoi. Although dominated by the communists, this new government included Vietnamese patriots and members of several non-communist parties. In an overture to the Americans, he began his speech by paraphrasing the United States Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal. The Creator has given us certain inviolable Rights: the right to Life, the right to be Free, and the right to achieve Happiness.”
Ho sought U.S. recognition of his new government.  If Truman had agreed to do so, this would have put tremendous pressure on the rest of the West to do the same, and North Vietnam would have become a new Republic with Western ties.  But would it have remained a Republic, or would the communists have pushed out the other parties anyway?  Some historians believe the United States missed a golden opportunity to further develop its relationship with Ho Chi Minh. These historians believe Ho might possibly have been wooed toward an alliance with the U.S. But American political leaders continued to view Ho with suspicion. Their early Cold War worldview tended to cast Ho as a tool of Soviet world domination.  They just couldn’t see that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist first (as late at 1948, investigations by the U.S. State Department and American officials in Saigon “no evidence” that Ho was politically controlled or allied with communists in the Soviet Union or in China).  Additionally, President Truman was conscious of the Cold War boundaries that
Truman
President Truman
were being drawn across war torn Europe. Keeping France as an ally was an essential part of the plan to resist the spread of communism further westward.  In order to not antagonize the French, Truman ignored Ho’s diplomatic overtures.
The First Indochina War
The French were not willing to give up their colony, and both the United States and Great Britain subsequently agreed that Indochina belonged to France.  To help the French restore control, it was agreed that British troops would move in and occupy the south, while Nationalist Chinese forces would move in from the North. Because China was Vietnam’s historic enemy and a regional power growing in stature, Ho wanted to deal with them first.  He couldn’t fight both, so he made a deal with the French. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam would be recognized as a “free” republic within the French Union.  In exchange, Ho Chi Minh agreed to allow the return of economic, military, and cultural presence of the French.  Before a formal agreement could be signed, however, the deal disintegrated.  A new French government elected in 1946 refused to compromise.  They wanted to restore France’s national honor that had been lost to the Axis powers during WWII.  Taking back Indochina was one way to do that.Meanwhile, clashes along the border erupted between French and North Vietnamese forces, and the delicate balance of power between communists and non-communists in Hanoi fell apart.  The communists subsequently took over the North Vietnamese government. In November, a disagreement over the control of customs revenues resulted in the French bombarding the port city of Haiphong, killing thousands of civilians.  Convinced that war was inevitable, Ho Chi Minh ordered his Minster of Defense to prepare for war.  On December 23, 1946, Viet Minh forces launched a surprise attack on French installations in Hanoi, while their main forces withdrew to prepared positions in the mountainous region north of the city.  This marks the beginning of the First Indochina War.
Vo Nguyen GiapVo Nguyen Giap Emperor Bao Dai (right) returns to Indochina, 11/6/53
Emperor Bao Dai (right) returns to Indochina
The man in charge of the North Vietnam’s military strategy for the entire Vietnam War years was Vo Nguyen Giap, considered by many to be one of the most capable military strategists of the twentieth century.  Giap’s plan for the first few years of the war was to wage a low-level insurgency against French authority, mostly in the north. The French had superior numbers and firepower, but Ho and Giap believed they could win by mobilizing the peasants into a guerilla force. By 1948 their plan seemed to be working.  The French realized they needed a symbol of their own to rally the Vietnamese against the communist menace.  They turned to Bao Dai, the former emperor, who by now had left Vietnam and settled in Hong Kong.  Bao Dai agreed to return on the condition that Vietnam be given
independence, or at least substantial autonomy.  The French were reluctant to give up their authority, but after China became a communist nation and sent troops to aid the Viet Minh, Bao Dai and France quickly reached an agreement.  They formed the Associated States of Vietnam.  This new country had some independence, but the French retained significant authority over foreign and military affairs.

Early in the First Indochina War the French appealed to the U.S. for financial aid.  Truman was reluctant to help. He was displeased at the failure of the French to recognize the independence of non-communist Vietnamese.  But after the Chinese Nationalists were defeated by the Chinese communists, Truman’s fears focused on the influence of Chinese communism over Southeast Asia, and the political fallout of being labeled “soft on communism” by his political opponents on the right.  After the agreement was reached between Bao Dai and the French, Truman recognized the Associated States of Vietnam and agreed to send aid ($15 million of more than $2.6 billion sent over the next five years). He hoped it would be able to defeat the Viet Minh and evolve into a stable government resistant to communism.  Ironically, American assistance to the French forced Ho to become dependent on China and the Soviet Union for modern weaponry and financial aid. Three more years of war passed with neither side gaining an advantage.

Eisenhower Elected
With the election of President Eisenhower in 1952, American funding for the war increased. By 1954 American taxpayers were spending about $1 billion per year in Vietnam, roughly 80 percent of France’s costs. The French parliament had voted to stop sending French draftees to the conflict back in 1950.  The actual fighting was done by troops from other parts of the French empire, and by the French Foreign Legion, so that the war would not become unpopular at home. But French strategy suffered from a lack of construction materials for building adequate defenses, and for lack of armor and air support.  Most troubling was that Bao Dai, who lacked leadership skills and spent much of his time in France on the Riviera, was losing the support of the people.  In particular, the Associated States of Vietnam failed to address the crucial problem of land ownership inequality.  In South Vietnam, forty percent of the rice-producing land was in the hands of one quarter of one percent of the population.  To the vast majority of landless peasants living in abject poverty, the Viet Minh were becoming increasingly appealing.
Eisenhower
soundPresident Eisenhower on the importance of Indochina, 8/4/53
Dien Bien Phu
By 1954, even without French draftees, the war was becoming unpopular in France.  The French people took to calling it, “La guerre sale,” “the dirty war.” With support for the war declining, the French Premier began talking about the possibility of peace talks.  A month later, Ho Chi Minh responded positively to the overture, and it was agreed the two sides would meet in the spring in Geneva, Switzerland.  Meanwhile, the war continued.The French commander in Vietnam was General Henri Navarre.  He had arrived in country in 1953, full of the arrogance that typified French officers new to the country.  An aide to Navarre was quoted by Time magazine as saying, “A year ago none of us could see victory.  There wasn’t a prayer. Now we can see it clearly—like light at the end of a tunnel.”  The general himself dismissed warnings from outgoing officers and said to his staff, “Victory is a woman who gives herself only to those who know how to take her.”  Navarre had been directed by his superiors to seek some kind of settlement with the Viet Minh.  His strategy was to assemble a force so impressive that its mere existence would drive the Viet Minh submissively to the bargaining table. Navarre broke off major contact with the enemy for more than a year so that he could rebuild his forces.  But the French cabinet refused to pay the extra $300 million the plan would cost.  Reluctantly, the Eisenhower administration agreed to fund the plan.
Map: Dien Bien Phu
Map: Dien Bien Phu
With peace talks looming, both the French and the Viet Minh wanted a decisive victory on the battlefield that would improve their bargaining position.  The Navarre plan soon centered on committing French resources to the defense of a small outpost on the mountainous Laotian border named Dien Bien Phu, once used by the French as an air base but now of no real strategic value.  Dien Bien Phu was actually a cluster of small villages sitting in a valley stretching about eight miles long and five miles from east to west.  Surrounded by mountains, it was exceptionally vulnerable to attack and difficult to resupply.  Navarre’s plan was to use this apparent vulnerability as bait to lure the Viet Minh into attacking, thus committing their forces in open combat.  He calculated that Giap would
only be able to maneuver a single division into position, would be tricked into standing and fighting, and would be worn down by superior French firepower fighting from entrenched positions. Western arrogance played a role in these calculations.  Despite warring against them for years now, the French had not bothered to study their enemy, who were extremely disciplined and resourceful.  In French dispatches, Giap’s rank of general was mockingly put in quotation marks.  They thought he could easily be trapped.

Instead, it was the French who would be trapped.  Giap moved three full divisions (about 50,000 men) into the mountains.  This was a force four times larger than the

The French at Dien Bien Phu
The French at Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu
French force, and four times larger than French estimates of what Viet Minh forces would be.  It was backed up by another 10,000 peasants committed to resupply efforts.  The French believed the Viet Minh could never move artillery up the mountains.  They were able to move four times the number of French guns into place, including 105 20 mm howitzers. Meanwhile the Frenchman in charge of artillery, Colonel Charles Piroth, repeatedly turned down offers from his superiors for additional artillery pieces for his forces. Ammunition and other supplies were brought in by peasants strapped to reinforced bicycles able to carry up to 500 pounds they pushed up the mountains.  All of this was done without being discovered by the French, who continued to believe that the enemy forces lurking about the mountains were a small force that would be quickly destroyed.  When the siege of Dien Bien Phu began on March 13, 1954, the French were completely outgunned.  Two of the three key French positions in the valley fell within the first two days.  Defeated and humiliated, Colonel Piroth pulled the pin out of a hand grenade and committed suicide.  The siege continued, but the French did not have the resources to rescue their men.  In desperation French officials flew to Washington and met personally with President Eisenhower.  They asked the U.S. to help by bombing Viet Minh artillery around Dien Bien Phu.
Herblock
Cartoonist Herblock attacks Republicans, 3/26/54
President Eisenhower’s First Decision
This then was the first real test of the Eisenhower administration’s foreign policy.  Since the first days of the Cold War, Republicans had hammered Truman’s containment policy as too weak.  They had successfully blamed the Democrats for losing China, and for the dissatisfying stalemate in Korea.  The cornerstone to the Eisenhower administration’s foreign policy was that no additional Asian country would fall to communism. No one was a stronger believer in the policy than Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.  Some officials, including Vice President Nixon, wanted to send American aircraft or even American troops to Vietnam.  But Eisenhower, drawing on the lesson of Korea, wanted allies for an intervention and none were forthcoming.  The most likely ally, Great Britain, had recently lost India without fighting a war, and was just finishing up a war in Malaya.  They had no interest in fighting a war to save French colonialism.  Various alternatives were considered, including the use of atomic bombs, but President Eisenhower refused.
Yet the President had decided that containing communism in Indochina was vital to America’s national security. At a press conference on April 4, 1954, Eisenhower articulated his own containment rationale by using a metaphor that would subsequently be known as The Domino Theory:

“You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have the beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound consequences.”

Map: The Domino Theory
Map: The Domino Theory
He went on to say, “The geographical position achieved thereby does many things. It turns the so-called island defensive chain of Japan, Formosa, of the Philippines and to the southward; it moves in to threaten Australia and New Zealand.”  In other words, Eisenhower was saying that if Vietnam fell to the communists, America’s entire security perimeter in the Pacific would be jeopardized, putting the United States at considerable risk.  Various forms of this theory were adopted by several U.S. presidents, Republicans and Democrats, and ultimately used to justify a major American ground war in Vietnam.

But Eisenhower believed it was not the time to commit U.S. ground forces.  A military assessment of the situation initiated by General Matt Ridgway concluded that as many as 1 million men would be needed to achieve victory in Vietnam. Construction costs would be enormous, and the war would be fought mostly without the support of the Vietnamese people.  To save face and to ward off attacks from Democrats, Dulles went on national television and blamed the British.  We would have gone in but for the lack of allies, he suggested.  As an additional face-saving measure, Dulles engineered the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), an 8-member group that included the U.S., Great Britain, and France. But it had no joint commands with standing forces, nor did it provide for mutual protection. SEATO proved woefully ineffective.

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles
sound Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on the prelude to Geneva, c. 4/54
North Vietnamese Premier Ho Chi Minh, 9/1/54
North Vietnamese Premier Ho Chi Minh, 9/1/54
Even as the battle of Dien Bien Phu continued, negotiations between the French and Viet Minh began in a multi-nation conference in Geneva. Dien Bien Phu fell to the Viet Minh during the negotiations. The final fall took two days, May 6 and 7th, during which the French were overrun by a huge frontal assault. In the 55-day battle, 3,000 French troops had been killed, 8,000 wounded. The Viet Minh suffered much worse: 8,000 dead and 12,000 wounded.  12,000 French prisoners were taken.  The able-bodied were force marched 250 miles to prison camps in the northeast. They were severely mistreated throughout their captivity. Only 3,013 of them were alive four months later. Most importantly (and most prophetically), the Viet Minh won the
battle of public relations. Voters in France elected an anti-war government. The French no longer had the will to carry on.  They would pull out of Vietnam. [soundSecretary of State Dulles on the fall of Dien Bien Phu]

The Geneva Conference (1954)
The U.S. reluctantly attended the Geneva Conference where, to achieve peace, Vietnam was granted independence from France and divided at a demilitarized 17th parallel, behind which the Viet Minh were to retreat. “Free” elections would be held in both the North and South in July 1956 to reunify Vietnam under either Ho Chi Minh or Bao Dai (who remained “head of state” but continued to spend most of his time in France). Despite being on the verge of total victory, Ho Chi Minh agreed to the Geneva Accords, bowing to pressure from the Chinese and the Soviets.  Anyway, with unification elections coming up, Vietnamese self-determination finally seemed at hand.
Map of the demarcation line after Geneva
Map of the demarcation line after Geneva
Herblock promotes independence for Indochina
Herblock promotes independence for Indochina, 4/14/54
Have the colonial powers learned their lesson?, 7/26/54
Have the colonial powers learned their lesson?, 7/26/54
Back in the U.S., Secretary of State John Foster Dulles went into spin mode. He used Ho’s acceptance of the accords as evidence that the Viet Minh had been influenced by the threat of American airpower from two carriers in South China Sea, and from fear of the atomic bomb.  In an interview with Life magazine, Dulles bragged about the peace that the administration had helped achieve in Geneva:

“Some say we were brought to the brink of war.  Of course, we were brought to the brink of war.  The ability to get to the verge without getting into war is the necessary art.  If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war.  If you try and run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost….We walked to the brink and we looked it in the face.  We took strong action.”

Ngo Dinh Diem
Ngo Dinh Diem
President Eisenhower’s Second Decision & the Creation of South Vietnam
During the Geneva conference the U.S. pressured Bao Dai to appoint an anti-communist Catholic named Ngo Dinh Diem as Prime Minister. Diem had no intention of following through with unification elections.  He publicly stated he did not believe that “free” elections could be held in the North unhindered by propaganda and terrorism.  This might be true, but it was also clear that if a truly “free” election was held in South Vietnam with Bao Dai on the ballot against Ho, the communists would win (President Eisenhower predicted that Ho would win with 80 percent of the vote).  Instead, Diem began a takeover of the government.In April 1955 Diem consolidated power, using bribery and violence to take control of the police and military. He abolished Bao Dai’s Imperial Guard, seized his imperial lands, and had the Council of the Royal Family strip
Bao Dai of his powers.  During this leadership crisis, Bao Dai stayed on the French Riviera. On July 16, Diem publicly announced he would not hold the unification election required by the Geneva Accords. The United States, which had been present at the Geneva negotiations but had not signed them, backed him up. Instead, Diem proposed an election between him and Bao Dai.  Through widespread fraud (he won 98% of the vote) Diem became President of a new country, The Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Bao Dai abdicated once again and remained in exile in France for the rest of his life. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), which had declared independence back in 1945, did not hold the “free” election either and continued as a communist country.   To prevent the domino theory from becoming reality, the United States became the main partner of South Vietnam. On November 1, 1955, just days after the election in South Vietnam, the United States established MAAG Vietnam (Military Assistance Advisory Group) to train the South Vietnamese military (This date is now recognized as the official beginning of the Vietnam War).

 

The Vietnam War, Part III: 1955-1963

Ngo Dinh Diem
The South Vietnamese government championed and defended by the United States was corrupt and oppressive. Diem’s most trusted official was his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, an opium addict and admirer of Adolf Hitler who modeled the marching style and torture techniques of his secret police on the Nazis. Diem’s younger brother Ngo Dinh Can was put in charge of the former Imperial City of Hue. These two brothers ruled their regions of South Vietnam with private armies and secret police, and used the regular army as manual labor on the family’s private timber and rubber plantations. Other brothers and family members were installed in high places. The family is widely believed to have been involved in illegal smuggling of rice to North Vietnam; they were involved in the opium trade, and they
monopolized the cinnamon trade. Diem’s family used the power of the Catholic Church to acquire farms, businesses, real estate, and rubber plantations. Meanwhile, Madame Nhu, the wife of Diem’s brother Nhu, was South Vietnam’s First Lady (Diem was a bachelor), and she spearheaded social reforms in Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital, in accordance with their Catholic values. Brothels and opium dens were closed; divorce and abortion made illegal, and adultery laws were strengthened.  The Eisenhower administration privately admitted Diem’s corruption and tried to influence him by attaching financial aid to positive social reforms. But no real change occurred, and the aid kept rolling in.  Why? The administration was reluctant to withdraw support from such an aggressive anti-communist.  But they also believed that  Diem’s oppressiveness was necessary for his survival.

But even as the very first American boots stepped onto Vietnamese soil, no one in the Eisenhower administration bothered to reflect on how a peasant army had been able to defeat a major Western power, and they attacked anyone who raised the question as being soft on communism.  Vietnam, they said, was part of the larger struggle with China. Two months later, in the same Life magazine interview mentioned in part 2, Secretary Dulles argued that the Indochina war was over, that Vietnamese nationalism was on Diem’s side, and that the American presence in South Vietnam was free from the taint of colonialism.  He could not have been more wrong on all three counts. The Viet Minh emerged from the First Indochina War as a modern, confident force.  It was commanded by men who had been promoted up through the ranks based on ability, regardless of their origins (Unlike the South Vietnamese military being built by the Americans, which reflected class and privilege), and who viewed the nationalist struggle as only half over. The North Vietnamese were fueled by nationalism and had earned the reputation of a nationalist army.  The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was nationalist only because the Americans said they were.

When Vietnam was partitioned by the Geneva accords, the Vietnamese people had been encouraged to migrate either north or south, to the side of their preference.  Some did (many Catholics moved from the north to the south), but Vietnamese communists had been urged by their northern comrades to remain in the South to vote in the unification election. To eliminate them as a threat, Diem instituted the Denunciation of Communists campaign in which thousands of these “stay behinds” were executed or sent to concentration camps.  In response, South Vietnamese communists began a low-level insurgency against the Diem regime.  Although it is unclear how much these South Vietnamese communists were directed from North Vietnam, evidence indicated they acted on their own, but with the approval of North Vietnam, which was using the time to rebuild its military forces after the long war with the French. They began a land reform program based on the Chinese model, but it went too far and resulted in the execution of some 50,000 small-scale “landlords”.

The goal of the insurgency was twofold.  First, they wanted to completely destroy Diem’s influence in the countryside and to replace it with a shadow government. Second, they wanted to win the hearts and minds of the rural peasant population in South Vietnam by offering a contrast to the Diem regime. To that end, insurgents were instructed to not take land from peasants, to emphasize nationalism rather than communism, and to use selective violence. Peasants should know why a political assassination had been necessary. Four hundred government officials were assassinated in 1957 alone, and the terror campaign soon escalated to include other symbols of the status quo, such as schoolteachers, health workers, and agricultural officials.

Village chiefs, corrupt outsiders (often Catholic) appointed by Diem (at the urging of U.S. officials), were favorite targets. Seventeen civilians were killed by machine gun fire at a bar in Chau Doc in July 1957, and in September a district chief was killed with his entire family on a main highway in broad daylight. In October a series of bombs exploded in Saigon and left 13 Americans wounded.

Despite these conditions, Diem was warmly received during a state visit to the United States in May 1957. He was met personally at Washington National Airport by President Eisenhower. Diem’s motorcade was greeted by 50,000 well-wishers and his address to the U.S. Congress and his policies were heartily endorsed by both political parties. During his time in the U.S. capital, Diem also attended receptions, and had private meetings with both Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles. Diem was trumpeted as a champion of democracy and anything controversial about his regime was avoided.

Diem is met at the airport by President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles, 5/8/57
Diem is met at the airport by President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles, 5/8/57
Sometime in late 1957 or 1958, North Vietnam began organizing to support the communist struggle against Diem being waged by Southern communists. Economic improvements in North Vietnam allowed Ho to begin focusing more attention on the South. By 1959, the time was ripe for Hanoi to take the military offensive. In May 1959 a resolution was adopted in North Vietnam
identifying the United States as the main obstacle to Vietnamese nationalism and as an enemy of peace.  The resolution called for a strong North Vietnam as a base for helping the South Vietnamese to overthrow Diem and eject the United States.  From here on out North Vietnam assumed ownership of the revolution in the South, and they escalated both military and political activity.

To facilitate movement of men and materials from north to south, a specialized North Vietnamese Army unit, Group 559, was formed to create a supply route from North Vietnam to insurgent forces in South Vietnam. With the approval of Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, Group 559 developed a primitive route along the Vietnamese/Cambodian border, with offshoots into Vietnam along its entire length. This eventually became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Map: The Ho Chi Minh Trail
Map: The Ho Chi Minh Trail
The first American deaths at the hands of the enemy occurred on July 8 1959.  Two military advisors, Army Master Sergeant Chester M. Ovnand and Major Dale R. Buis, were killed at Bien Hoa, 20 miles northeast of Saigon, when the Viet Minh attacked a mess hall where a movie was being shown. Despite these deaths the Eisenhower administration continuously underestimated the seriousness of the threat against Diem. Evidence shows that it wasn’t until March 1960 when they realized that despite the impressive outpouring of treasure, material, and advice, South Vietnamese communists were making significant headway against Diem. The Defense and State Departments disagreed on to what extent Diem was to blame.  They felt the need to both reassure Diem of continued U.S. support and to put pressure on him to reform. Military advisor strategy was changed to increase the use of Special Forces trained in counter-insurgency tactics.

The Viet Cong
But even as U.S. strategy was adapting, North Vietnamese strategy took another key step. On December 20, 1960, a month before John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, North Vietnam reorganized communists in South Vietnam into the National Liberation Front, a political organization. The military wing of the NLF was called the People’s Liberation Army. Americans called them the Viet Cong (VC).  The existence of this organized, South Vietnamese enemy eventually caused much political strife in the United States. Throughout the Vietnam War, U.S. officials would insist that the Viet Cong were controlled exclusively by North Vietnam; while anti-war activists insisted they were an insurgency indigenous to the South (and thus were evidence of the fruitlessness of U.S. policy there). In reality, Viet Cong membership was more complex. Some were native to the North. Some came down from the North but had originally been from the South, having relocated after the partitioning. Many were indigenous to the South. The Viet Cong formed both regular army and guerilla units and were supplied via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Not all of them were communists, but they were all nationalists.

President Kennedy discusses Vietnam at a press conference
President Kennedy discusses Vietnam at a press conference
President Kennedy’s Decision
Within days of taking office in January 1961, President Kennedy agreed to the new counter-insurgency strategy that had been in the works for months, authorizing funds to increase the ARVN from 150,000 to 170,000 troops.  In exchange the president called for modest, common-sense political reforms. But although President Diem indicated he would cooperate with the new military strategy, he balked at reform. Diem would not change.  And yet once again the aid rolled in. On December 22, 1961, Army Specialist 4 James T. Davis became the first U.S. battlefield fatality. As a member of the 3rd Radio Research Unit, Davis provided technical advice to ARVN units on locating enemy signals, and provided valuable training and guidance on ways to get a “fix” on the insurgents’ locations. While en
route to a suspected VC area of operations, he was killed in a firefight when his vehicle was forced off the road from striking a land mine.

Throughout much of 1961, Kennedy was preoccupied with the Berlin crisis and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.  Vietnam only came up during a crisis over neighboring Laos. He finally turned his attention to Vietnam in the fall of 1961, after increased Viet Cong operations caused the situation there to deteriorate dramatically. As evidence of the seriousness of the situation, President Diem proposed a treaty with the U.S. to guarantee South Vietnam’s existence (meaning the U.S. would have to send in troops).  Kennedy declined the treaty and put off the issue of direct military involvement, but he did make more changes.  Along with another increase in funding, 3,000 more U.S. “military advisors” were sent. And in a new development, American military helicopters flown by U.S. pilots were shipped over.  Although U.S. troops were not technically engaged in warfare, now they transported South Vietnamese troops to the battlefield. The first such mission, Operation Chopper, began on January 12, 1962. U.S. pilots transported 1,000 South Vietnamese soldiers to sweep a Viet Cong stronghold near Saigon. American pilots also conducted

Herblock
In 1961-1962, Herblock advocated for a strong response to increased VC activity (4 images) 
American C-123 aircraft spray Agent Orange, 9/30/62
American C-123 aircraft spray Agent Orange, 9/30/62
Operation Ranchhand, designed to clear vegetation alongside highways to make it more difficult for the Viet Cong to set up ambushes. As the operation expanded, vast tracts of forest were sprayed with Agent Orange, an herbicide produced by Monsanto Corporation and Dow Chemical that contained the deadly chemical Dioxin. Guerrilla trails and base areas were exposed, and civilian crops that could potentially be used to feed Viet Cong units were destroyed.   Agent Orange had long-term negative health consequences for both Americans and Vietnamese. Vietnam estimates 400,000 people were killed or maimed, and 500,000 children have been born with birth defects. Studies showed that veterans who served in the South during the war have increased rates of nerve, digestive, skin and respiratory disorders, and well as higher rates of various cancers, including throat cancer, acute/chronic leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, soft tissue sarcoma and liver cancer.
The Strategic Hamlet Program
To isolate the Vietnamese peasants from contact with the Viet Cong, the Kennedy administration supported the Strategic Hamlet Program, where villages were consolidated and reshaped into a networked perimeter defended by trained, armed peasants. To win the hearts and minds of the peasants, reforms were supposed to improve their lives—economically, politically, socially, and culturally. Unfortunately the program was implemented at an unsustainable speed. The government of South Vietnam was unable to fully support or protect the hamlets or their residents, especially at night. The Viet Cong easily sabotaged and overran the poorly defended communities. Those villagers who
Strategic Hamlet Program
Strategic Hamlet Program
supported Diem dared not inform the authorities about Viet Cong infiltration for fear of reprisal. The program had many other difficulties. U.S. officials did not understand the role of the village in the very identity of the Vietnamese peasant. Some villagers were forced to relocate in order to create a defensible perimeter, and their old homes were often burned right in front of them. Villagers were expected to pay their own relocation costs, and financial compensation for burned homes often was siphoned off by corruption. The government refused to undertake land reform, which left farmers paying high rents to a few wealthy landlords. And well-intentioned U.S. shipments of food aid to South Vietnam only served to impoverish the peasants, whose livelihood depended on stable rice prices, further alienating them from Diem. The policy failed.
sound President Kennedy interviewed by Walter Cronkite, 9/2/62
A Buddhist monk commits self-immolation, 10/5/63
A Buddhist monk commits self-immolation, 10/5/63 (2 views)
Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu
sound Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu on Meet the Press, 10/13/63
Buddhist Protests, 1963
Diem’s policies in the cities favored Catholics over Buddhists (the majority in Vietnam), further alienating the South Vietnamese people. Eventually, Diem began to persecute Buddhists. On May 8, 1963 in the City of Hue, nine unarmed Buddhists peacefully protesting a ban on the Buddhist flag were shot and killed by Diem security forces. Diem refused to make concessions to the Buddhist majority or take responsibility for the deaths. In the summer and fall, several Buddhist monks committed suicide by self-immolation in protest of Diem’s regime. One of the more controversial figures during the Buddhist crisis was President Diem’s sister-in-law, the First Lady of Vietnam, Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu. She accused the Buddhists of being communists, called the self-immolation of one monk a “barbecue,” and stated, “Let them burn and we shall clap our hands.” On August 21, 1963, ARVN Special Forces raided pagodas across
Vietnam, causing widespread damage and destruction and leaving a death toll estimated in the hundreds. A few days later, Madame Nhu described the attacks as “the happiest day in my life.” She called on government troops to invade the American embassy and capture Thích Trí Quang, a Buddhist monk who had been given asylum, saying that the government must arrest “all key Buddhists.”

Fearing that the U.S. would cut off economic aid to South Vietnam, Diem and Nhu sent Madame Nhu to the United States on a goodwill tour. She arrived on October 7, 1963, where she refused all pleas from U.S. officials, including one from Vice President Johnson, to tone down her rhetoric. She accused the Americans of undermining South Vietnam through “briberies, threats and other means,” and of trying to destroy her family. She mocked Kennedy’s staff, denounced American liberals as “worse than communists,” and Buddhists as “hooligans in robes.”

She publicly claimed that the United States was responsible for the coup, saying, “Whoever has the

Herblock
Herblock was extremely critical of the Diem regime over the Buddhist crisis (5 images)
Republic of Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem murdered, 11/2/63
Republic of Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem murdered, 11/2/63
Americans as allies does not need enemies.”U.S. officials secretly discussed the possibility of a regime change, and a proposal was conveyed to the U.S. embassy in Saigon.  As it turned out the CIA was already in contact with ARVN generals who were planning a coup against Diem. A CIA agent told these generals the United States would not oppose a coup nor punish the generals by cutting off aid. When rebels surrounded the presidential palace, Diem phoned U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and requested help.  Lodge declined, but offered Diem asylum at the U.S. Embassy. Diem refused and instead fled with his brother Nhu to a church in a nearby suburb.  They were caught the next morning and executed in the back of a personnel carrier that was supposed to bring them to Saigon.  President Kennedy was shocked at the murder of Diem, but accepted that a change in leadership had been necessary. Madame Nhu was still in the United States when news broke of the murders of her
husband and Diem. She went on to predict a bleak future for Vietnam and said that by being involved in the coup the troubles of the United States in Vietnam were just beginning. After Diem’s assassination, a series of coups brought rapid changes in leadership in South Vietnam, with one general or politician after another quickly replaced by the next in line.  Finally in mid-1965, Prime Minister Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky and figurehead Chief of State General Nguyen Van Thieu came to power at the head of a military junta.  They consolidated power in 1967 via rigged elections, but eventually Thieu outmaneuvered Ky and became the sole South Vietnamese leader, a position he maintained until 1975.
From mid-1962 until President Kennedy’s death in November 1963, the administration formed a plan to disengage from direct, large-scale military involvement in Vietnam, but found it difficult to implement. U.S. funds had created a large South Vietnamese army, but despite the training provided by U.S. advisors, the ARVN remained of poor quality. On January 2, 1963, at the Battle of Ap Bac, a small band of Viet Cong beat off a much larger and better equipped South Vietnamese force. Many of the latter’s officers were reluctant even to engage in combat. Almost 400 South Vietnamese were killed or wounded and three American advisors died. President Kennedy continued to increase the number of U.S. advisors. At the time of his death there were 16,000 American military personnel in South Vietnam, compared to 900 when he took office.

 

The Vietnam War, Part IV. 1964-1968

Lyndon B. Johnson: 1963-1964
As stated in part 3, the death of Diem was followed by a period of extreme political instability in the South, as one military government toppled another in quick succession. Each new regime was seen as a puppet of the United States. Although a planned withdrawal of 1,000 American troops did occur in December, shortly after President Kennedy’s death, the instability in South Vietnam in late 1963 and into 1964 soon had President Johnson increasing troop levels. During April and June 1964 American air power in Southeast Asia was massively reinforced. A North Vietnamese offensive in Laos prompted the President to send two aircraft carriers and their escorts to the Vietnamese coast.
Cartoons: Herblock commented several times on the succession of coups in Vietnam (3 images)

[sound Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., former Ambassador to South Vietnam, on Meet the Press, 4/15/64]
[sound U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson’s Remarks to the Security Council on Vietnam and Laos, 5/21/64]
On August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox, on an intelligence mission in the Gulf of Tonkin along North Vietnam’s coast, engaged 3 North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Although no U.S. casualties resulted, the Maddox fired over 280 shells. Four North Vietnamese sailors were killed and six were wounded. Two nights later, a second incident was alleged to have occurred, although a then-secret National security Agency study concluded that the second incident probably never happened, but might have been a combination of misinterpretation of weather data and the actions of an excitable crew. Regardless, Johnson was in a mood to strike back, and early on August 5, he publicly ordered retaliation:  “The determination of all Americans to carry out our full commitment to the people and to the government of South Vietnam will be redoubled by this outrage.” One hundred minutes after his speech, US carrier-based aircraft bombed four torpedo boat bases and an oil-storage facility in Vinh, North Vietnam.
The U.S.S. Maddox under attack, 8/2/64
The U.S.S. Maddox under attack, 8/2/64
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
President Johnson was about to dramatically escalate the U.S. presence and role in Vietnam.  At the time, he had aggressively pushed an expensive anti-poverty agenda called The Great Society.  Wars are expensive, and Johnson did not Vietnam to compete with the Great Society for tax dollars, but he believed the shift in policy was necessary, and that American military power could handle the Viet Cong long enough for the South Vietnamese government and military to become strong enough to win their own war.  Rather than declare war, Johnson asked congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing the President to assist any Southeast Asian nation whose government was considered to be jeopardized by communist aggression. Americans knew little about what had happened in the Gulf of Tonkin.  But Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Congress that the American ships had been minding their own business on routine patrol 30-60 miles offshore when they were attacked.  The vote was scheduled for August 7, 1964. sound UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 8/6/4
Senator Wayne Morse on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, 8/64
sound Senator Wayne Morse on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, 8/64sound Senator Ernest Gruening, c.1964
In a surge of patriotism, the resolution passed the House 416-0.  Only 2 Senators opposed it, Ernest Gruening (D-AK) and Wayne Morse (D-OR). Senator Morse’s main objection was the constitutionality of the Resolution, which authorized an act of war without a formal declaration of war. However, Morse also did not believe a war in Asia was winnable. With the passage of the Resolution, President Johnson now had authorization—what some have referred to as “a blank check”—to dramatically escalate the number of conventional military combat forces in Vietnam and to modify their role.  Mindful of the distasteful experience of the Korean War and its lingering effect on public opinion, Johnson reassured the American public by rejecting strategies that,

“I think would enlarge the war and escalate the war, and result in our committing a good many American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land. And for that reason, I haven’t chosen to enlarge the war.”

That fall Johnson faced the extremely conservative Republican nominee Barry Goldwater in the presidential election.  Goldwater frequently made “off the cuff” remarks that Johnson was able to use against him.  Most memorably, Johnson used a television spot now called “The Daisy Girl ad” to cast Goldwater as a loose cannon who might get the country into nuclear war with Russia.  Johnson spoke reassuring words on Vietnam. At a campaign stop in Akron, Ohio, Johnson said, “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” Johnson’s tough stance on Vietnam combined with his optimism and assurances that “American boys” would not be waging war there appeased voters, and he won easily.
Daisy Girl Ad
Still image from the “Daisy Girl” ad, 1964
President Johnson’s Decision to Escalate the War
Johnson delayed making a major decision on Vietnam while his advisors debated what to do next. Many of his advisors,
Herblock comments on the domino theory, 5/24/64
Herblock comments on the domino theory, 5/24/64
"Backbone," by Bill Mauldin, 1964
“Backbone,” by Bill Mauldin, 1964
including the Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended a bombing campaign against North Vietnam in order to sever the connections between them and the Viet Cong and to increase the morale of ARVN troops.  Some advisors recommended sending combat troops to Vietnam immediately. On the other side of the debate was the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor, who believed bombing North Vietnam would only increase Viet Cong attacks and draw American combat soldiers into the fray, and Under Secretary of State George Ball, who urged a political solution. In late 1964 the Viet Cong, who by now had formed organized combat units, went on the offensive, striking government outposts and villages throughout South Vietnam. On Christmas Eve a bomb blew up in a Saigon hotel, killing 2 Americans. Ambassador Taylor switched sides and urged the President to bomb North Vietnam, but still Johnson hesitated.
The B-52 in action
The B-52 in action
In early February the action in Vietnam shifted to the central highlands, where the ARVN headquartered in the town of Pleiku.  A short distance away was Camp Holloway, where about 400 U.S. servicemen were billeted next to a helicopter facility. On the night of February 6 the Viet Cong attacked the camp.  In the five minute assault, using only small arms and mortars, eight U.S. soldiers were killed, 128 were wounded, and ten aircraft were destroyed. This forced Johnson’s hand.  He immediately authorized a 3-stage bombing campaign against North Vietnam.  Its main phase, Operation Rolling Thunder, lasted from March 2, 1965 until November 1, 1968, during which
millions of tons of bombs were dropped on North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. At the time President Johnson downplayed the situation in Vietnam.  He said the bombings were only a response to the attack on Pleiku and denied they represented a change in U.S. policy.  In part, Johnson did not want to provoke Soviet or Chinese intervention, but it meant the country was slipping deeper into war without few Americans even realizing it. Despite Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis Lemay’s boast that “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age,” the bombing campaign never did force North Vietnam to end its support of the Viet Cong, nor did it reduce the flow of supplies delivered to the VC from the North.
With American aircraft now flying missions to bomb North Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964-1968, wanted U.S. combat troops to protect U.S. air bases from Viet Cong attacks. Less than a week after the bombing campaign began, Johnson dispatched 3,500 U.S. Marines.  Although a defensive mission, they were authorized to undertake offensive operations. In doing so, Johnson did not fully inform the American people, or even Congress.  Full disclosure was only made by an accidental press release several months later.
General William Westmoreland
General William Westmoreland
Marines arrive at Da Nang, 1965
Marines arrive at Da Nang, 1965
Bill Mauldin cartoon
A U.S. soldier encounters the skeleton of a French soldier in this prophetic cartoon by Bill Mauldin, 11/24/64
Herblock cartoons
Herblock responded to President Johnson’s escalation of the war several times in June 1965 (2 images)
The decision to send U.S. combat troops represented a major turning point in the war.  In the months and years ahead, each side responded to the other’s actions, thereby continually causing escalation of the war.  Sure enough, General Westmoreland requested additional troops almost immediately.  Two more Marine battalions were sent in early April.  Soon they were patrolling the countryside, searching for Viet Cong. On April 21, the CIA and the Defense Department became aware that regular army units from North Vietnam (NVA) were now operating in South Vietnam with the Viet Cong.  This meant the threat to South Vietnam was much greater than the Johnson administration had realized. By summer Ky and Thieu had come to power in Saigon, somewhat stabilizing the government, but the ARVN had suffered two major defeats at the hands of the Viet Cong in open, conventional warfare.  ARVN morale dropped and desertions increased.  This time, General Westmoreland made a watershed recommendation.  In order to turn the tide, U.S. forces should assume primary responsibility for combat operations against the Viet Cong.  They would initiate contact to destroy guerrilla forces, wearing them down and driving them from populated areas.  If necessary, a second phase would destroy the
enemy in remote areas.  Westmoreland predicted victory in this “war of attrition” by 1967.  President Johnson approved the plan.  On July 28, 1965, the President held a mid-day press conference and gave a speech titled, “Why We Are In Vietnam.” He announced the immediate escalation of troops by 180,000, with another 100,000 to follow in 1966. A few SEATO allies also sent troops, including Thailand, Australia, and New Zeeland, as did South Korea, but no major allies joined the American cause. Along with American troops and military power came American products.  Virtually all the comforts of home to which Americans had become accustomed were imported, transforming the South Vietnamese society and dramatically increasing corruption.  Most Americans knew little to nothing about Vietnam, but they were once again told that letting it go communist would jeopardize America’s national security position in the Pacific.  If the American government understood little about Vietnamese nationalism, the American people understood far less.  But when told that Vietnam was about the Cold War, plain and simple—that they understood.
Johnson
President Johnson’s press conference speech, “Why We are in Vietnam”
tv LBJ, 7/28/65
The Johnson Administration, 1965-1967:
sound President Johnson’s State of the Union Address, Vietnam excerpt, 1/4/65
sound Secretary of Defense McNamara on the use of tear gas in South Vietnam, 3/65
sound President Johnson “Peace Without Conquest” speech, 4/7/65
sound President Johnson on bombing North Vietnam, 4/17/65
sound Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, 6/6/65
sound Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Leonard Unger on the Viet Cong, 1965
sound Secretary of State Dean Rusk on Bombing North Vietnam, 1965
sound President Johnson’s State of the Union Address, Vietnam section, 1/12/66
sound Secretary of State Dean Rusk, 1/21/66
sound President Johnson’s State of the Union Address, Vietnam section, 1/10/67
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara
McNamara's replacement, Clark Clifford
McNamara’s replacement, Clark Clifford
As escalation continued, some of President Johnson’s advisors began to have doubts about their Vietnam policy. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was particularly troubled by the failure of the bombing campaign on North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to achieve its objectives. Even as pro-war “hawks” in the government argued that stepping up the bombing would win the war, McNamara testified before a congressional committee in August 1967 about the ineffectiveness of the bombing.  Johnson felt betrayed and replaced McNamara with Clark Clifford.  But
privately, the president began to have his own doubts. 500,000 troops were in Vietnam, 9,000 had been killed that year alone, and no end was in sight. Johnson feared further American escalation would provoke Chinese intervention, as it had in Korea in 1950. Publicly Johnson and his policy supporters continued their optimistic message.   Secretary of State Dean Rusk told reporters that progress was being made and that Viet Cong forces were being hurt “very badly.”  In November General Westmoreland announced a new phase of the war would start in early 1968, and said, “We have reached an important point when the end begins now to come into view.”  Weeks later National Security Advisor Walter W. Rostow eerily echoed French General Henri Navarre’s advisor’s statement of confidence back in 1953 by saying, “I see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

sound South Vietnam’s President Thieu on Meet the Press, 9/10/67
sound President Johnson’s State of the Union Address, Vietnam section, 1/17/68

Herblock cartoons
Herblock was very critical of those who wanted to escalate the bombing of North Vietnam (5 views)
Herblock cartoons
Democracy remained elusive in South Vietnam (2 views)
General Westmoreland
General Westmoreland announces new phase of the war, 11/22/67
The Tet Offensive
Meanwhile, the communists were planning an all-out offensive for 1968. Their objectives were to break the stalemate the war had settled into, to test the remaining strength of American resources, and to demonstrate to the South Vietnamese that the United States was not all-powerful. To that end, symbolic targets were chosen, including the American embassy in Saigon.  General Westmoreland had evidence that something was in the works, but he assumed it would take place in the north, so he diverted resources there.  But Viet Cong were quietly infiltrating cities and towns throughout South Vietnam, sometimes disguised as ARVN soldiers.  They smuggled weapons in wagons and carts, even used fake funeral processions. Possibly as a diversionary tactic, the NVA began to surround an isolated Marine outpost near the North Vietnamese border.  Soon America’s attention was
Khe Sanh Combat Base
Khe Sanh Combat Base
drawn to the siege of Khe Sanh, where the Marines were completely cut off.  January 30 marked the beginning of the Vietnamese New Year.  It was traditionally a time of celebration, and a prior agreement had been made with the communists to observe a cease-fire.  On that night, however, some 80,000 Viet Cong attacked 36 of the 44 provincial capitals, 64 district towns, numerous villages, and 12 American bases. Around 4,000 Viet Cong attacked Saigon.  They took over the radio station, hit General Westmoreland’s headquarters, and occupied the American embassy.
U.S. soldiers battle in a Saigon street
U.S. soldiers battle in a Saigon street
Soldiers drag away a dead VC soldier in Saigon
Soldiers drag away a dead VC soldier in Saigon
Wounded Child
Wounded Child
Guards battle to defend the U.S. embassy in Saigon
Guards battle to defend the U.S. embassy in Saigon
South Vietnam's police chief, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executes a Viet Cong Prisoner. Photographed by Eddie Adams
South Vietnam’s police chief, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executes a Viet Cong Prisoner. Photographed by Eddie Adams
This Herblock cartoon depicting the Vietnam War as a quagmire was published 2 days before the Tet Offensive
This Herblock cartoon depicting the war as a quagmire was published 2 days before the Tet Offensive
Herblock's criticism of the propaganda machine, 2/1/68
Herblock’s criticism of the propaganda machine, 2/1/68
Herbock, 2/13/68
Herbock, 2/13/68
Herblock, 2/22/68
Herblock, 2/22/68
Map: Tet Offensive
Map: Tet Offensive
Within a few days President Johnson dismissed the Tet Offensive as a “complete failure.” In many ways it had been.  In most instances the Viet Cong were quickly crushed.  Some 50,000 were killed, virtually ending them as a significant threat for the rest of the war.  And the hoped for uprising of the South Vietnamese against the Americans didn’t materialize either.  But the imagery of the offensive clashed so dramatically with the optimistic pictures being painted by the administration that it severely shocked and polarized the American people.
Reactions to Tet:
tv General Westmoreland on the Tet Offensive, 2/1/68
sound Sec. of State Dean Rusk & Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara discuss Tet on Meet the Press, 2/4/68
tv President Johnson to the National Alliance of Businessment, 3/16/68, & to the National Farmers Union Convention, 3/18/68
After Tet, the American public increasingly called on the president to pull America out of the war (although just as many people urged further escalation of the war to assure victory).  But even before Tet, President Johnson faced opposition within his own party. On November 30, 1967, the relatively unknown Senator Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota officially entered the race for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, running on an antiwar platform. After Tet, McCarthy suddenly surged in popularity and came within 300 votes of defeating Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Only a few days later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the slain president’s brother, announced he too was seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination. Just as troubling to Johnson was yet another request from General Westmoreland for more troops, this time 206,000.  Faced with the possibility of defeat on all sides, Johnson authorized just 13,500 troops.  He then stunned the nation (and the troops in Vietnam) on March 31 by announcing in a televised address an end to the bombing of
Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN)
Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN)
Herblock
Herblock’s take on McCarthy’s New Hampshire primary challenge, 3/14/68
President Johnson announces he will not run for re-election, and orders a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, 3/31/68
tv President Johnson announces he will not run for re-election, and orders a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, 3/31/68
Newspaper reporting on President Johnson's annoucement that he will not run for re-election, 4/1/68
Newspaper reporting on President Johnson’s annoucement that he will not run for re-election, 4/1/68
Herblock
Herblock reacts to President Johnson’s annoucements
North Vietnam, an offer to open negotiations with the communists, and that he would not seek re-election to the presidency. Johnson’s war and political career were over.

The 1968 Election
After Johnson’s withdrawal from the presidential race, Vice President Hubert Humphrey announced his own candidacy.  The three-man race stayed close into June, when an assassin ended the life of Robert Kennedy.  Humphrey won the nomination at the convention in Chicago while outside war protestors had themselves a riot.  Humphrey’s image couldn’t recover from the riots, or from

having been Johnson’s Vice President.  Additionally, former Democrat George Wallace ran on a segregation third party ticket.  The election was won by Republican candidate Richard Nixon; former Congressman, former Senator, former Vice President, loser of the 1960 presidential election, loser of the 1962 California governor’s
Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, 1968
Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, 1968
Police clash with protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 27, 1968
Police clash with protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 27, 1968
Vice President Hubert Humphrey
Vice President Hubert Humphrey
Former Vice President Richard Nixon
Former Vice President Richard Nixon
Herblock
Herblock on the peace process, late 1968 (3 images)
election.  Nixon focused his campaign on the message of restoring law and order to the nation’s cities, which had been racked by race and anti-war riots.  On Vietnam, Nixon gave the vague promise that a new administration would end the war by achieving “peace with honor.”

During the campaign, peace talks on Vietnam had begun in Paris.  The Democrats had pinned their hopes for the election on achieving some results there.  However, evidence suggests that representatives from the Nixon campaign told the government of South Vietnam they would get a better peace deal with a Republican in the White House than they would with a Democrat.  South Vietnam withdrew from the negotiations on the eve of the election and Nixon won. Negotiations resumed shortly thereafter.

 

 

The End of the Vietnam War

Beset at home and abroad, in 1968 Lyndon Johnson decided against running for re-election. In March he banned bombing north of the twentieth parallel, leaving most of North Vietnam a sanctuary. He was succeeded by Republican Richard M. Nixon, who largely limited offensive air operations over the North for nearly four years. One example will suffice: from 1965 through 1968 Navy aircrews downed thirty-three enemy aircraft, but over the next three years tailhookers splashed only one. Meanwhile, “peace talks” trickled out in Paris. The end of the Vietnam War was in sight.

Then, on March 30, 1972, Hanoi launched a full-scale conventional attack against South Vietnam, shattering the dead-end Paris “peace talks.” American airpower responded massively.

Leading Constellation’s Air Wing Nine was Commander Lowell “Gus” Eggert, a cheerful aviator who enjoyed partying with his aircrews. Eggert’s keen intuition told him the 1971–72 cruise might be different from the previous three years. He began training his squadrons for large “Alpha” strikes in addition to the usual close air support in South Vietnam and Laos.

“Connie” completed her six-month deployment, and on April 1 she was in Japan preparing to return to California, when the North Vietnamese spring offensive rolled south. Sailors and aircrews hastily offloaded their new purchases—notably motorcycles—and began loading ordnance. The ship was back in the Tonkin Gulf five days later, joining HancockCoral Sea, and Kitty Hawk. By then the communists had beefed up their air defenses, and on one mission over South Vietnam an Intruder pilot had to abort his attack because a cloud of tracers obscured the reticle of his bombsight.

After further delay, Nixon finally loosed the airmen in order to quicken the end of the Vietnam War. A Phantom pilot recalled, “We had reports of 168 SAMs on the first night after Nixon got serious in May. But that was coordinated with massive B-52 raids supported by three carrier air wings.”

On May 9 a handful of aircraft demonstrated the carrier’s potential for strategic effects with extreme economy of force. While Kitty Hawk provided a diversionary strike, Coral Sea launched nine jets that turned the war around in two minutes: six Navy A-7Es and three Marine A-6As laid three dozen mines in Haiphong Harbor. The weapons were time-delayed to allow ships to leave North Vietnam’s major port. During the next three days, thousands more mines were sown in Hanoi’s coastal waters, effectively blockading the communists from seaborne replenishment. Commander Roger Sheets’s Air Wing Fifteen, on its seventh Vietnam deployment, shut down Haiphong for almost a year—well beyond the impending “peace” treaty.

The mines were frequently replenished, eventually totaling more than eleven thousand weapons. Sometimes the “reseeding” involved unconventional tactics, as when Saratoga’s Air Wing Three employed Phantoms flying formation on Intruders and Corsairs in what one F-4 pilot called “a one-potato, two-potato” drop sequence, based on when the attack jets released.

Finally Phantom crews could ply their trade again. From January 1972 through January 1973, carrier-based F-4s claimed twenty-five aerial kills—nearly as many as the Navy total in the first six years of the war. The tailhookers’ best day was May 10. That morning a twoplane VF-92 section off Constellation trolled Kep Airfield and caught two MiG-21s taking off. The high-speed, low-level chase ended with one MiG destroyed which, with the Air Force bombing the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi, sparked an exceptional response.

That afternoon “Connie” launched thirty-two planes against Hai Duong logistics, producing one of the biggest combats of the war with Phantoms, Corsairs, and MiGs embroiled in a “furball” of maneuvering jets. When it was over, two F-4s fell to flak and SAMs while VF-96 claimed six kills, producing the Navy’s only ace crew of the war. In all, the Navy and Air Force downed a dozen MiGs, which remains an unsurpassed one-day total more than forty years later.

During Operation Linebacker—the final air campaign over North Vietnam, signally the end of the Vietnam War—American aircrews claimed seventy-two aerial kills versus twenty-eight known losses to MiGs, an overall exchange ratio of 2.5–1. However, the Navy’s intensive fighter training program from 1969 onward produced exceptional results. “Topgun” graduates and doctrine yielded twenty-four MiGs against four carrier planes lost, including a lone Vigilante escorted by fighters. In contrast to the Navy’s 6–1 kill ratio, the Air Force figure was closer to 2–1, approaching parity in some months.

The disparity between the two services was dramatically illustrated in August 1972, when four F-8E Crusaders from Hancockdeployed to Udorn, Thailand, to update Air Force Phantom crews on air combat maneuvering. The senior Navy pilot was already a MiG killer, Commander John Nichols, who noted, “My biggest challenge was keeping my guys from lording it over the blue suiters.”

Throughout the war and up to the end of the Vietnam War, naval aviators shot down sixty enemy aircraft—all by carrier pilots. It was a stark contrast to Korea when barely a dozen communist planes were credited to tailhookers among fifty-four total by Navy and Marine pilots.

In fact, the reason for carrier-based fighters was to establish air superiority so the attack planes could perform their vital mission. Skyraiders, Skyhawks, Intruders, and Corsairs seldom worried about enemy aircraft while placing ordnance on target the length and breadth of Indochina. Few aircrews and probably few admirals realized how far carrier aviation had come since the start of World War II. Long gone was the era when airpower theorists insisted that sea-based aircraft could not compete with land-based planes. If nothing else, Vietnam confirmed that naval aviation was a world-class organization.

On two days in October 1972, Commander Donald Sumner led USS America (CVA-66) A-7 Corsairs against Thanh Hoa Bridge, a vital communist transportation target. One of his pilots, Lieutenant Commander Leighton Smith, had first bombed the bridge as a Coral Sea A-4 pilot in 1966. The Air Force had badly damaged “The Dragon’s Jaw,” but spans remained intact. With a combination of two thousand-pound TV-guided weapons and conventional one-ton bombs, the naval aviators finally slew the long-lived dragon, more than seven years after the first U.S. efforts.

During the eleven-day “Christmas War” of 1972, carrier aircraft again supported B-52s in bombing an intransigent Hanoi back to the bargaining table. By then Hanoi was nearly out of SA-2 missiles.

The Paris accords among Washington, Saigon, and Hanoi took effect January 27, 1973. They were the diplomatic efforts that signaled the end of the Vietnam War. On that day Commander Harley Hall, a former Blue Angel leader and the commander of an Enterprise F-4 squadron, became the last naval aviator shot down in the long war. His Phantom fell north of the Demilitarized Zone, and though his back-seater survived captivity, Hall did not. Long thereafter his widow learned that he had probably lived two or more years in captivity, abandoned by his government with unknown numbers of other men.