(See Main Section: Vietnam War)
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.
Opposition to the war in the United States bitterly divided Americans, even after President Richard Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords and ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1973. Communist forces ended the war by seizing control of South Vietnam in 1975, and the country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam the following year.
(See Main Article: The Vietnam War: Background and Overview)
The Vietnam War Background: Fight Against Communism
During the late fifties, Vietnam was divided into a communist North and an 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.
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
|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.|
|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.|
|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 the 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.|
|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.
(See Main Article: Vietnam War Aircraft: Evolution in Flight)
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.
Vietnam War 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.
(See Main Article: 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 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 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 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 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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