The Vietnam War was a long, costly and divisive conflict that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. The conflict was intensified by the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. More than 3 million people (including over 58,000 Americans) were killed in the Vietnam War, and more than half of the dead were Vietnamese civilians.
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The Vietnam War: Table of Contents
The Vietnam War: Background and Overview
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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 Soviet 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.
When was the Vietnam War?
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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.
For the first time, Americans saw a war playing out on their TV screens and witnessed a lot of the horrors that it brought and the citizens started to turn against the war. Throughout America, people started to hold large anti-war protests against the U.S. involvement in the war of Vietnam.
In January, 1973, peace talks finally seemed to have been successful and the Paris Peace Accords finally ended direct military involvement of the U.S. in Vietnam. Unfortunately the treaty did not stop the fighting, as both sides of Vietnam kept fighting to gain as much territory as possible. The communists managed to seize Saigon in 1975 and gained control over the whole country.
According to U.S. estimates, between 200 and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed during this period and 58,200 U.S. soldiers were dead or missing in action.
The M-16 And The Vietnam War
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In 1959, America chose the M-14 to be our main battle rifle. It would prove to be the shortest-lived rifle to ever serve in that role. Heavy and uncontrollable when fired on full auto, compared to the Soviet’s AK-47, the M-14 was obsolete at birth. America needed a rifle to match her Space Age dreams. Not surprisingly it was a subsidiary of an aerospace company that delivered that dream. Armalite’s business was developing small arms that could then be sold to manufacturers. Armalite employee, Eugene Stoner was given the canvas to create a masterpiece, and from his fertile mind came the rifle of the future.
The advantages of the M-16 over every other rifle on paper were stunning. The magnitude of the change encompassed by Stoner’s design was the perfect complement to “Space Age” technology. This gun was light, accurate, and had virtually no recoil. Any soldier with a little training could put every round into a suitcase at 100 yards in under 2 seconds. The ammo was lighter, cheaper, and deadly. Early reports of wounds on enemy soldiers were so gruesome that they remained classified until the 80s. Bullets would enter the body and pinball around inside doing horrific damage. So impressed by the M-16s issued to the ARVN troops, Green Berets demanded to be issued the weapons in 1962. The jump from the M-14 to the M-16 was equivalent to switching from prop planes to jets. The design was sold to Colt and adopted by the US Military in 1964. Optimism surrounding the gun was very high. That should have been the first warning sign.
#70: A Vietnam POW’s Story of 6 Years in the Hanoi Hilton — Amy Shively Hawk
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When consider major historical events that involved millions of people— World War 2, the Great Depression, the Cold War—it’s easy to forget that real people with their own stories were part of those events.
Today we’re zeroing in on one story. And that’s the story of James Shively, an Air Force Pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and spent six years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton POW camp. To talk with us is Amy Shively Hawk, Jim’s stepdaughter and author of the new book Six Years in the Hanoi Hilton: An Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in Vietnam.
After being shot down, Shively endured brutal treatment at the hands of the enemy in Hanoi prison camps. But despite unimaginable horrors in prison, the contemplation of suicide, and his beloved girlfriend moving on back home, he somehow found hope escaping prison and eventually reuniting with his long-lost love – proving, in his words, that “Life is only what you make of it.”
In this interview we discuss:
- How Capt. Shively was shot down, what happened when he was captured, and his fate at the hands of Vietnamese villagers
- What kept Captain Shively hopeful during his six years as a prisoner of war
- What happened to the whole prison when two fellow inmates escaped but were captured the next day
- How prisoners built a full prison communications system using Morse code, toilet paper, and hidden messages even though cell blocks were forbidden from speaking to each other under threat of torture
Aircraft: Evolution in Flight
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“The Many Ways To Die While Building an Aircraft Carrier”
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At the start of 1962, the U.S. had 16,000 military advisors training the South Vietnamese army in its fight against the Viet Cong and the Communist government based in Hanoi. In early February, the Pentagon set up a permanent U.S. military presence in Saigon—the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV). The U.S. military presence in a country that most Americans knew very little about would only grow from that point on.
In April, Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay went to Vietnam for an inspection tour and met with the head of MACV, General Paul Harkins, as well as the President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. While MACV was concentrating its efforts in the South, LeMay saw that the real problem was clearly coming from the North. LeMay made the same recommendation he made twelve years earlier, for Korea—if the U.S. intended to stop this infiltration, a massive bombing campaign of the North would do the trick. LeMay zeroed in on the port facility in Haiphong, where the weapons and supplies were coming in from the Soviet Union, and proposed bombing it. He believed this would put a halt to the guerrilla war in the South, but the plan was much too bold for the tentative steps that the Kennedy Administration was making in Vietnam in 1962.
Aircraft: A Focus on Bombers
Ten years and 59,000 American lives later, the U.S. did exactly what LeMay had suggested. From December 19 to 29, 1972, the Air Force and Navy conducted Linebacker II, the largest concentrated bombing since World War II. The bombing of the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, and the port of Haiphong was conducted by such Vietnam War aircraft as tactical fighters, along with 741 B-52 sorties. Ten B-52s were shot down, five crash-landed in Laos and Thailand, thirty-three B-52 crewmen were killed, thirty-three were captured, and twenty-six were rescued. After years of stops and starts, the massive bombing of Vietnam War aircraft finally pushed the North Vietnamese to hammer out a negotiated settlement that gave the U.S. a way to extricate itself from its tortured involvement.
Decades later, the political debate over this conflict remains unresolved. Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen strongly disagreed with the suggestion that the conflict may have ended sooner had LeMay’s plan been followed ten years earlier, “I don’t know how you can say this so many years after the fact, especially when you consider that the Vietnamese had been fighting for their independence since forever and the idea that some bombs in Hanoi or Haiphong would have brought them to the table is ludicrous.”
But former Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, countered Sorensen’s view. “That’s ridiculous, the myth that it was a civil war. What destroyed Vietnam was that 18 divisions came down from the North in 1975. There was nationalism in Hanoi but not in the South and it was the North imposing its view on the South.” Schlesinger also points out that had the strikes taken place earlier when LeMay suggested them, the Soviet surface-to-air missiles would not have been in place, saving the U.S. planes and crews that were shot down a decade later.
Vietnam highlighted the greatest difference between LeMay’s philosophy of war and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s. The Defense Secretary pushed for what he called flexible response from the very start of the U.S. involvement in the conflict: namely, offering the enemy a way out; however, if they show aggression, match the aggression, but only proportionately. Consequently, the full weight of the growing American military was never brought to bear on the North. Ground would be fought over in the South and then abandoned only to be fought over again and again, always with more casualties. The North would be bombed and then the bombing would be halted. It was a completely different strategy than the one the U.S. used in World War II.
LeMay thought flexible response was counterintuitive; it ran completely against his doctrine of war. If a war is not worth winning, LeMay’s answer was simple: do not get involved in the first place. Consequently, as LeMay watched the troop levels expand along with U.S. casualties, he grew more and more angry. The focal point of that anger was McNamara. As the conflict dragged on, he also grew furious with Lyndon Johnson because he believed McNamara and LBJ lied to the American people about the war. While the Vietnam War deeply divided the country, it would create major fissures within the government as well.
End of the Vietnam War
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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.
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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 Hancock, Coral 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 Vietnam 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 Vietnam war. The tailhookers’ best day was May 10. That morning a two-plane 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 Vietnam 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 Hancock deployed 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 on 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.
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