Vietnam (1946-1975). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Vietnam (1946-1975). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

 (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

Background of the Vietnam War.

Escalation and deception.

Protest on the home front.

U.S. withdrawal and communist victory.

 In 1964, the beacon of the Great Society shone brightly. Motivated by the memory of JFK and energized by the moral passion of Lyndon Johnson, the program of social reform, even more ambitious than the New Deal had been, seemed unstoppable.

Then, on August 2, 1964, the American destroyer Maddox, conducting electronic espionage in international waters, was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Undamaged, Maddox was joined by a second destroyer, the C. Turner Joy. On August 4, both ships claimed to have been attacked. Although evidence of the second attack was thin (later it was discovered that the second attack had not occurred), President Johnson ordered retaliatory air, strikes and asked Congress for support. On August 7, the U.S. Senate passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution., giving LBJ almost unlimited authority to expand American involvement in a long-standing war in a part of the world few Americans knew or cared much about.

That war would wreck the Great Society, nearly tear the United States apart, spawn an idealistic albeit drug-oriented youth counterculture, and cost the lives of 58,000 young Americans.

Flashback. World War II left much of the world, including Southeast Asia, dangerously unstable. During the 19th century, France had colonized Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and when France caved in to Germany in 1940, the Japanese allowed French colonial officials puppet authority in Southeast Asia until the Allied liberation of France in 1945. Japan then seized full control, purging the French police agencies and soldiery that had kept various nationalist groups in check. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) led the most powerful of these independence-seeking groups, the Viet Minh. Aided by U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) personnel, Viet Minh fought a guerrilla war against the Japanese occupiers.

When the war in Europe ended, Allied forces were free to turn their attention to Vietnam (and the rest of Southeast Asia). Nationalist Chinese troops (under Chiang Kai-shek) occupied northern Vietnam. The British secured southern Vietnam for re-entry of the French, who ruthlessly suppressed supporters of Ho Chi Minh. A state of low-level guerrilla warfare developed, which escalated sharply when Chiang Kai-shek, hoping to checkmate communist ambitions in the region, withdrew from northern Vietnam and turned that region over to French control.

The March to Dien Bien Phu. Like Chiang Kai-shek, U.S. leaders feared communist incursions in Southeast Asia and began to supply the French with funding, military equipment, and-on August 3, 1950—the first contingent of U.S. military “advisors.” By 1953, the United States was funding 80 percent of the cost of France’s war effort.

France assigned General Henri Eugene Navarre to strike a decisive blow on the strategically located plain of Dien Bien Phu, near Laos. President Eisenhower stepped up military aid, but despite Navarre’s massing of troops, Dien Bien Phu fell to the forces of Ho Chi Minh on May 7, 1954. This disaster was followed by a string of Viet Minh victories, and, in a July peace conference, the French and the Viet Minh concluded a cease-fire and agreed to divide Vietnam along the 17th parallel.

Domino Theory. During the thick of the Dien Bien Phu campaign, on April 7, 1954, President Eisenhower presented reporters with his rationale for aiding the French—a foreign power-in their fight against communism in Vietnam—a remote country. “You have a row of dominoes set up,” he explained, “you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty it will go over very quickly.” This off-handed metaphor was immediately christened the domino theory, and it became the basis for an escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

American “Advisors”. As a condition of the armistice agreement concluded in Geneva between Ho Chi Minh and the French, the divided Vietnam was to hold elections within two years to reunify. South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem assumed that Ho Chi Minh would win a popular election; therefore, he declined to abide by the Geneva accords, refusing to hold the promised elections. The United States, more concerned with blocking communism that with practicing democracy in Vietnam, backed Diem’s position. Under John F. Kennedy, who succeeded Eisenhower in 1961, the number of military “advisors” sent to Vietnam steadily rose. By June 30, 1962, 6,419 Americans were in South Vietnam. President Kennedy reported to the press that no U.S. combat forces were in the country, but he did admit that the “training units” were authorized to return fire if fired upon.

Flaming, Monks and the Fall of Diem. The Kennedy administration’s desire to stop the falling dominoes caused U.S. officials to turn a blind eye toward the essential unpopularity and corruption of the Diem regime. Diem’s cronies were put into high civil and military positions, and although a small number of urban South Vietnamese prospered under Diem, the rural majority fared poorly. Moreover, the Catholic Diem became tyrannical in his support of the nation’s Catholic minority and openly abused the Buddhist majority. The world was soon horrified by a series of extreme protest demonstrations: Buddhists monks doused themselves in gasoline and set themselves ablaze in the streets of Saigon.

By mid-1963, the Kennedy administration determined that the Diem regime was no longer viable. President Kennedy secretly allowed the CIA to plot the murder of Diem in a U.S.-backed military coup that overthrew him on November 1, 1963. Diem’s death unleashed a series of coups that made South Vietnam even more unstable over the next two years and encouraged the communists to escalate the war, now fueled by increasing Soviet and Chinese aid.

Rolling Thunder. Hindsight, according to a well-worn cliche, is always 20/20, and historians critical of the Kennedy administration often blame JFK for miring the nation in a hopeless war. Actually, evidence exists that, in the months and weeks before his assassination, President Kennedy, recognizing that only the Vietnamese could ultimately resolve the conflict, was planning a withdrawal. Perhaps. What is certain is that Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, moved vigorously to oppose North Vietnamese insurgents, authorizing the CIA to oversee diversionary raids on the northern coast while the navy conducted electronic espionage in the Gulf of Tonkin. The new president also named General William Westmoreland to head the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and increased the number of military “advisors” to 23,000. Nevertheless, faced with a succession of weak Saigon governments, President Johnson continued to weigh the odds. The domino theory was persuasive, but the conflict began to look increasingly hopeless. In February 1965, LBJ sent his personal advisor, McGeorge Bundy, on a fact-finding mission to Saigon.

Suddenly, action by the Viet Cong moved the president’s hand. On February 7, Viet Cong units attacked U.S. advisory forces and the headquarters of the U.S. Army 52nd Aviation Battalion, near Pleiku, killing nine Americans and wounding 108. Bundy, Westmoreland, and U.S. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor recommended a strike into North Vietnam. Operation Flaming Dart retaliated against an enemy barracks near Dong Hoi, provoking a Viet Cong counterstrike on February 10 against a U.S. barracks at Qui Nhon. The next day, U.S. forces struck back with a long program of air strikes deep into the North. Code named Rolling Thunder, the operation formally began on March 2, 1965, and marked the start of a course of escalation as 50,000 new ground troops were sent to Vietnam, ostensibly to “protect” U.S. air bases.

Escalation and Vietnamization. Johnson’s strategy was to continue a gradual escalation of the war, bombing military targets in a war of attrition that would not provoke overt intervention from China or the U.S.S.R. This scheme proved to be a no-win strategy that only prolonged the war. In an aggressive military campaign, success is measured by objectives attained—cities captured, military targets eliminated—but in a war of attrition, the only measure of success is body count. To be sure, American forces produced a massive body count among the enemy, but, just as Buddhist monks were willing to set themselves aflame, this enemy was prepared to die.

Motivated by nationalistic passion, the North Vietnamese did more than militarily infiltrate the South. Special political cadres won widespread support from the rural populace of the South. With this support, the Viet Cong enjoyed great mobility throughout the country, often fighting from a complex network of tunnels that were all but invisible. True, the growing numbers of U.S. troops were successful in clearing enemy territory. Yet U.S. numbers were never great enough to occupy that territory, and, once cleared, battle zones were soon overrun again. President Johnson and his advisors began to recognize that the war would not be won by U.S. intervention, and military efforts were increasingly directed toward Vietnamization—giving the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) the tools and training to take over more and more of the fighting, so that U.S. forces could ultimately disengage. That word, Vietnamization, was endlessly repeated as a mantra of American war policy, even as it became increasingly apparent that the South Vietnamese did not support their own government and had little will to fight.

Hearts and Minds. In the early stages of the war, President Kennedy had spoken of the need to win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. And even as America’s technologically advanced weaponry (including napalm incendiary bombs and highly toxic chemical agents to defoliate the jungle and expose the enemy) destroyed the country, the hearts and minds of the people remained elusive targets.

Hell, No! We Won’t Go! The fact is that American war policy had not only failed to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, but it was rapidly losing influence over the hearts and minds of citizens of the United States. President Johnson increasingly relied on the Selective Service system—the draft—to supply troops. Relatively well-off young people could often avoid conscription through student deferments (college enrollment skyrocketed during the war) and by other means. Less-privileged and minority youth bore the brunt of the draft, a fact that stirred resentment and unrest, especially in the African-American community.

But antiwar sentiment was hardly confined to black America. What rapidly evolved into a full-blown antiwar movement began with leftist college students and peace activists. And its more Americans came home in “body bags,” the movement spread into the mainstream. College campuses first served as centers of discussion about and against the war, and then. they became the staging areas for demonstrations, including a series of marches on Washington starting in 1965 and continuing through 1968 and again in 1971.

Antiwar protest widened what was popularly called the generation gap, pitting young people against “anyone over 30.” The antiwar movement became associated with a general counterculture movement, which featured young people in long hair (for both sexes) and wearing what to their elders seemed bizarre gypsy-hobo outfits. Such youngsters called themselves hippies and ostentatiously indulged in “recreational” drugs (such as marijuana and the hallucinogenic LSD) and “recreational” sex. Government officials assumed that the entire peace movement was backed by communists and used the FBI as well as the CIA (illegally) to infiltrate antiwar organizations. True, some organizations associated with the movement were undoubtedly subversive; however, most protesters were mainstream individuals, aged 20 to 29, who were simply disgusted and outraged by the war.

The student fringe of the peace movement became increasingly vocal during the 1960s, with demonstrations—sometimes destructive—disrupting and even temporarily closing down some college campuses. In mass demonstrations across the country, young men burned their draft registration cards and chanted, “Hell, no! We won’t go!” So-called “confrontations” between demonstrators and police or even National Guardsmen became commonplace.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel. By the end of 1967, it was clear that the Vietnam War was gruesomely stalemated. President Johnson repeatedly went before the nation, assuring television viewers that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.” But the increasing numbers of U.S. casualties created a credibility gap between what the administration claimed and what the public believed.

Tet Offensive. In this period of growing doubt, Hanoi staged a series of massive offensives, first along the border, with attacks against the U.S. base at Khe Sanh, then against South Vietnamese provincial capitals and principal cities beginning on January 30, 1968, a Vietnamese lunar holiday called Tet. The offensive, which included an assault on the U.S. embassy in Saigon, was costly to U.S. and ARVN forces, but even more costly to the Viet Cong. However, the three-week campaign was a devastating psychological victory for the communists and convinced many Americans, including politicians and policy makers, that the war was unwinnable.

With American casualties now topping 1,000 a month, it was hard to believe official military pronouncements that Tet was by no means a defeat. Tet hardened public opposition to the war and sharply divided legislators, with hawks (war supporters) on one side, and doves (peace advocates) on the other.

Resignation of Johnson.On March 31, President Johnson made two surprise television announcements. He declared that he would restrict bombing above the 20th parallel, thereby opening the door to a negotiated settlement of the war, and he announced that he would not seek another term as president. Johnson recognized that his advocacy of the war was tearing the nation apart.

Cease-fire negotiations began in May, only to stall over Hanoi’s demands for a complete bombing halt and NLF (National Liberation Front) representation at the peace table. Johnson resisted but in November agreed to these terms. Despite the boost this move gave the sagging presidential campaign of Democrat Hubert Humphrey, Richard M. Nixon (whom many had counted out of politics after he lost the race for California governor in 1962) emerged victorious in the presidential contest.

Nixon’s War. Richard Milhous Nixon (1913-94) was a man who believed in winning at any cost. To ensure victory in the 1968 election, he made repeated-though vague-promises to end the war. Yet, after he was elected, Nixon did not hesitate to expand the war into neighboring Laos and Cambodia. Nixon had evolved a grand strategy with his foreign policy advisor, Henry Kissinger (b. 1923). The strategy called for improving relations with the Soviets (through trade and an arms-limitation agreement) in order to disengage Moscow from Hanoi, and for normalizing relations with China. After the U.S.S.R. and China had cut the North Vietnamese loose, Nixon and Kissinger reasoned, the United States could negotiate a “peace with honor” in Vietnam. The strategy didn’t work. The Soviets announced their recognition of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) formed by the NLF in June 1969, and the peace talks foundered.

Paris, Cambodia, and Laos. As peace negotiations went round and round in Paris, the Nixon administration sought to accelerate the Vietnamization process by turning more and more of the responsibility for the war over to ARVN forces, which, however, continued to perform poorly. Despite the discouraging results, U.S. casualties did drop, and President Nixon was able to begin troop withdrawals.

With the failure of diplomacy, Nixon turned to force, striking at communist supply and staging areas in Cambodia. This incursion triggered angry protests at home, including a demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, 1970. The event resulted in the killing of four unarmed students and the wounding of nine more when inexperienced National Guardsmen fired on them. Subsequently, 100,000 demonstrators marched on Washington, and Congress registered its own protest by rescinding the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Nixon withdrew troops from Cambodia but stepped up bombing raids, and when communist infiltration continued unabated, the U.S. supplied air support for an ARVN invasion of Laos in February 1971.

By the end of 1971, withdrawals had reduced troop strength to 175,000 in Vietnam, somewhat calming protests at home but destroying front-line morale, as remaining troops saw themselves pawns in a lost cause. Drug and alcohol abuse assumed epidemic proportions among soldiers, who were openly rebellious; some transformed search-and-destroy missions into “search-and-avoid” operations, the object of which was to get home safely.

Death for Easter. In March 1972, the communists launched a new invasion, initially routing ARVN troops until President Nixon retaliated by redoubling air attacks, mining Haiphong harbor, and establishing a naval blockade of the North. Following the communist “Easter Offensive,” Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese representative Le Duc Tho finally formulated an agreement. The terms were to withdraw U.S. troops, return POWs, and lay the foundation for a political settlement through establishment of a special council of reconciliation. South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu rejected the peace terms because they permitted Viet Cong forces to remain in place in the South.

Bombs for Christmas. The fact that Nixon’s negotiator, Kissinger, had been able to announce that “peace is at hand” assured the president reelection in 1972. Once in office, however, Nixon supported Thieu, repudiating the peace terms Kissinger had negotiated. Nixon then ordered massive B-52 bombing raids north of the 20th parallel, which forced the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table.

The agreement reached after the bombing was not materially different from what Kissinger had originally concluded. This time, President Thieu was ignored.

Paris Accords and the Fall of Saigon. On January 31, 1973, the United States and North Vietnam signed the Paris Accords, which brought U.S. withdrawal and the return of the POWs, some of whom had been languishing in North Vietnamese prisons for nearly a decade. A four-party Joint Military Commission and an International Commission of Control and Supervision supervised the cease-fire. However, the Nixon administration continued to send massive amounts of aid to the Thieu government, and both the North and South freely violated the accords. To pressure the North into abiding by them, the United States resumed bombing Cambodia and menaced North Vietnam with reconnaissance overflights.

But a war-weary Congress had turned against the president, whose administration (as you shall see in the next chapter) was now wallowing and disintegrating in the Watergate Scandal. In November 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Act, which required the president to inform Congress within 48 hours of deployment of U.S. military forces abroad; the act also mandated the forces’ withdrawal within 60 days if Congress did not approve. In 1.974, U.S. aid to South Vietnam was reduced from $2.56 billion to $907 million, and to $700 million in 1975.

What hopes Thieu held out for support from the Nixon administration were dashed when the U.S. president, facing impeachment, resigned in August 1974. Beginning in early 1975, the dispirited South suffered one military defeat after another. After Congress rejected President Gerald Ford’s request for $300 million in supplemental aid to South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu hurriedly resigned his office. He left the leadership of his nation to Duong Van Minh, whose single official act was unconditional surrender to the North on April 30, 1975. A dramatic, frenzied evacuation of Americans remaining in Vietnam followed. The spectacle of U.S. personnel being airlifted by helicopter from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon was humiliating and heartbreaking. At the cost of over $150 billion and 58,000 Americans killed, the Vietnam War had ended in defeat for South Vietnam and (as many saw it) for the United States as well.

The Least You Need to Know

U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was an extreme result of the Cold War policy of the “containment” of communism.

     The Vietnam War was the most unpopular and divisive war in American history, wrecking the grand social programs of Lyndon Johnson and badly undermining popular faith in the federal government and the nation’s leaders.

Stats. In 1965, 75,000 Americans were fighting in Vietnam. In 1966, the number jumped to 375,000, and to half a million by 1968.

Main Event. The most visible and violent “confrontation” of the 1960s took place August 26-29, 1968, in Chicago, during the Democratic National Convention. Earlier, on March 31, 1968, President Johnson had announced to a stunned nation that he would not run for reelection. However, probably the most electable antiwar candidate, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated on June 6, following his victory in the California primary. Hubert H. Humphrey then became the most likely candidate, and he did not oppose the war. Some 10,000 individuals massed in Grant and Lincoln parks along Chicago’s lakefront to protest the war, to protest the nomination of Humphrey (Dump the Hump!” they chanted), and to vent rage against Chicago mayor and Democratic ‘boss” Richard J. Daley, whom they as a racist and even a fascist.

Word for the day. The object of the Nixon—Kissin diplomacy was to achieve detente with the Soviet Union and China, a condition of increased diplomatic, commercial, and cultural contact designed to reduce tensions.

Main Event. On March 16, 1968, a U.S. infantry company commanded by Lieutenant William L. Calley marched into the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, supposedly a Viet Cong sanctuary/stronghold. The company massacred 347 unarmed civilians, including women, old men, and children, some of whom were herded into ditches and shot. The grisly scenes were recorded by army photographers.

The “My Lai Incident” was not made public until 1969, and then only through the efforts of Vietnam veteran Ronald Ridenhour, who threatened to go to the media with what he had heard about the massacre if the U.S. Army failed to initiate an inquiry. That proceeding resulted in the court martial of several soldiers, of whom only Calley was convicted on March 29, 1971.

For many Americans, My Lai symbolized the essential brutality of the Vietnam War, a conflict in which the defenders of democracy were seen as slaughterers of innocent women and children. As to Calley, some people saw him as likewise a victim, thrust into a war in which everyone was a potential enemy. Sentenced to life imprisonment, Calley was released in September 1974 when a federal court overturned the conviction.


Word for the Day. Officers who ordered their men into dangerous situations risked fragging–that is, assassination by their own troops—typically by fragmentation grenade.


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