An Overview of the Vietnam war
Reprinted from On-line c 1999-2000 / Article

The Vietnam War

Vietnam War (1955-75) was a protracted and unsuccessful effort by South Vietnam and the United States to prevent the communists of North Vietnam from uniting South Vietnam with North Vietnam under their leadership.

The League for the Independence of Vietnam, generally known as the Viet Minh, was organized in 1941 as a nationalistic party seeking Vietnamese independence from France. It became openly communist only in the mid-1950s. On Sept. 2, 1945, less than a month after the Japanese surrendered in World War II, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Viet Minh, formally declared Vietnam's independence. The Viet Minh had a strong base of popular support in northern Vietnam.

The French wanted to reassert control in Indochina, however, and would recognize Vietnam only as a free state within the French Union. Fighting between the French and the Viet Minh broke out in 1946 and continued until 1954, when the French were badly defeated in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.  An international conference in Geneva in 1954 negotiated a cease-fire. To separate the warring forces, the conferees decided that the French and the Vietnamese fighting under French command would move south of the 17th parallel and the Viet Minh would go north of the 17th parallel, which was established as a military demarcation line surrounded by a demilitarized zone (DMZ). Thousands of people accordingly moved north or south away from their homes, and the French began their final departure from Vietnam. The agreement left the communist-led Viet Minh in control of the northern half of Vietnam, which came to be known as North Vietnam, while the noncommunist southern half became South Vietnam. Ngo Dinh Diem became South Vietnam's prime minister during the armistice negotiations.

The Geneva Accords stipulated that free elections be held throughout Vietnam in 1956 under the supervision of an International Control Committee with the aim of reunifying North and South Vietnam under a single popularly elected government. North Vietnam expected to win this election thanks to the broad political organization that it had built up in both parts of Vietnam. But Diem, who had solidified his control over South Vietnam, refused in 1956 to hold the scheduled elections. The United States supported his position. In response, the North Vietnamese decided to unify South with North Vietnam through military force rather than by political means.

U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, fearing the spread of communism in Asia, persuaded the U.S. government to provide economic and military assistance to the Diem regime, which became increasingly unpopular with the people of South Vietnam. Diem replaced the traditionally elected village councils with Saigon-appointed administrators. He also aroused the ire of the Buddhists by selecting his fellow Roman Catholics (most of whom had moved to South Vietnam from the North) for top government positions.

Guerrilla warfare spread as Viet Minh soldiers who were trained and armed in the North--the Viet Cong--returned to their homes in the South to assassinate, ambush, sabotage, and proselytize. The Diem government asked for and received more American military advisers and material to build up the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the police force, but it could not halt the growing presence of the South Vietnamese communist forces, or Viet Cong. U.S. President John F. Kennedy sent more non-combat military personnel after the North Vietnamese unified the South Vietnamese communist insurgents in an organization called the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (NLF) in December 1960. By the end of 1962 the number of U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam had increased from 900 (in 1960) to 11,000, and Kennedy authorized them to fight if they were fired upon.

Popular dissatisfaction with Diem continued to grow, even within his army, and Diem was assassinated during a military coup on Nov. 1, 1963. The U.S. government had despaired of him and knew about the coup beforehand. A series of unstable administrations followed in quick succession after Diem's death, and the Viet Cong increased their activities while the South Vietnamese were thus politically preoccupied.

On Aug. 2, 1964, North Vietnamese patrol boats fired on the U.S. destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, and, after President Lyndon B. Johnson asserted that there had been a second attack on August 4--a claim later shown to be false--the U.S. Congress almost unanimously endorsed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the president to take "all necessary measures to repel attacks . . . and prevent further aggression." The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in effect gave the president the formal authority for full-scale U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War. Johnson retaliated for the attack by ordering U.S. naval planes to bomb North Vietnam.

After 1965 U.S. involvement in the war escalated rapidly in response both to the growing strength of the Viet Cong (who had 35,000 troops in South Vietnam by 1964) and to the incapacity of the ARVN to suppress the Viet Cong on its own, even with a total force of 400,000 men. The United States became more involved in the war not only to maintain the independence of South Vietnam but also to retain the United States' credibility with other allied nations who depended on its help to resist communist aggression or subversion.

On the night of Feb. 7, 1965, the Viet Cong attacked the U.S. base at Pleiku, killing 8 soldiers and wounding 126 more. Johnson in response ordered another reprisal bombing of North Vietnam. Three days later the Viet Cong raided another U.S. military installation at Qui Nhon, and Johnson ordered more aerial attacks against Hanoi. On March 6, two battalions of Marines landed on the beaches near Da Nang to relieve that beleaguered city. By June 50,000 U.S. troops had arrived to fight with the ARVN. Small contingents of the North Vietnamese army began fighting with the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, which they reached via the Ho Chi Minh Trail west of the Cambodian border.

The government in Saigon was now headed by Air Vice-Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, but he was unable to check the rapidly deteriorating military situation. NLF forces were gaining control of more and more areas of the countryside, and a communist victory seemed imminent. President Johnson's response was to pledge the United States to defend South Vietnam and to send more troops. By the end of 1965, 180,000 Americans were serving in South Vietnam under the command of General William C. Westmoreland.

After mid-1966 the United States and the ARVN initiated a series of new tactics in their intensifying counterinsurgency effort, but their efforts to drive the Viet Cong from the countryside and separate them from their civilian supporters were only partly successful. The U.S. troops depended heavily on superior firepower and on helicopters for rapid deployment into targeted rural areas. The Viet Cong depended on stealth, concealment, and surprise attacks and ambushes.

U.S. troop strength in South Vietnam rose to 389,000 men in 1967, but, despite their sophisticated weapons, the Americans could not eradicate the skillful and determined insurgents. More North Vietnamese troops arrived to bolster the NLF forces in the South. A presidential election, in which all candidates who favored negotiating with the NLF were banned, was held in South Vietnam in September, and General Nguyen Van Thieu became president, with Ky as vice president.

On Jan. 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched a massive surprise offensive during the Tet (lunar new year) Vietnamese festival. They attacked 36 major South Vietnamese cities and towns. The fighting at this time was especially fierce in Saigon and in the city of Hue, which the NLF held for several weeks. The NLF suffered heavy losses (33,000 killed) in the Tet Offensive, and the ranks of the Viet Cong were so decimated by the fighting that, from 1968 on, the majority of the insurgents in South Vietnam were actually North Vietnamese soldiers who had infiltrated into the South. Although the general uprising that the NLF had expected in support had not materialized, the offensive had an important strategic effect, because it convinced a number of Americans that, contrary to their government's claims, the insurgency in South Vietnam could not be crushed and the war would continue for years to come.

In the United States, sentiment against U.S. participation in the war mounted steadily from 1967 on and expressed itself in peace marches, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience. Growing numbers of politicians and ordinary citizens began to question whether the U.S. war effort could succeed and even whether it was morally justifiable in a conflict that some interpreted as a Vietnamese civil war.

General Westmoreland requested more troops in order to widen the war after the Tet Offensive, but the shifting balance of American public opinion now favored "de-escalation" of the conflict. On March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced in a television address that bombing north of the 20th parallel would be stopped and that he would not seek reelection to the presidency in the fall. Hanoi responded to the decreased bombing by de-escalating its insurgency efforts, and in October Johnson ordered a total bombing halt. During the interim the United States and Hanoi had agreed to begin preliminary peace talks in Paris, and General Creighton Abrams became the new commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam.

During 1969, action in South Vietnam tended to be scattered and limited, and the infiltration of North Vietnamese decreased markedly until late fall. In June U.S. President Richard M. Nixon and President Thieu announced the first withdrawal of 25,000 U.S. troops from South Vietnam. At that time there were more than 540,000 U.S. military personnel in Vietnam. The United States instituted a program of "Vietnamization," whereby the South Vietnamese would gradually assume all military responsibilities for their defense while being copiously supplied with U.S. arms, equipment, air support, and economic aid. U.S. commanders in the field were instructed to keep casualties to "an absolute minimum," and losses decreased appreciably. In Paris the peace talks dragged on, but South Vietnam did eventually agree to negotiate directly with the NLF and the North Vietnamese.

The war in Southeast Asia expanded during the spring of 1970 when U.S. and ARVN troops invaded border sectors of Cambodia in order to destroy North Vietnamese sanctuaries and staging areas. U.S. planes bombed northern Laos, where sizable North Vietnamese forces were fighting with the pro-Communists Pathet Lao ("Lao Country") against the U.S.-supported Vientiane government troops. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was the constant target of B-52 bombers. The expansion of the fighting into Cambodia sparked a new wave of antiwar demonstrations and protests in the United States. By late 1970 the number of U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam had been reduced to 335,000.

The gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam proceeded as announced, but the peace talks remained stalemated. By the end of 1971 the South Vietnamese had accepted responsibility for all fighting on the ground, although they still depended on U.S. air support. The number of U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam had dropped to 160,000.

In March 1972 the North Vietnamese invaded the DMZ and captured Quang Tri province. President Nixon responded by ordering the mining of Haiphong and other North Vietnamese ports and an intense bombing of the North. Peace talks resumed in July, but the talks broke down in mid-December with each side accusing the other of bargaining in bad faith. Hanoi and other North Vietnamese cities were then subjected to 11 days of intensive U.S. bombing.

The talks started again in Paris and resulted on Jan. 27, 1973, in an agreement between the South Vietnamese communist forces, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the United States. A cease-fire would go into effect the following morning throughout North and South Vietnam, all U.S. forces would be withdrawn and all its bases dismantled, all prisoners of war would be released, an international force would keep the peace, the South Vietnamese would have the right to determine their own future, and North Vietnamese troops could remain in the South but would not be reinforced. The 17th parallel would remain the dividing line until the country could be reunited by "peaceful means." This pact was augmented by a second 14-point accord signed in June. In August the U.S. Congress proscribed any further U.S. military activity in Indochina. By the end of 1973 there were few U.S. military personnel left in South Vietnam.

But the fighting continued in spite of the cease-fire agreements, and North and South Vietnam each denounced the other for numerous violations of the truce. Casualties, both military and civilian, were as high as they had ever been.

The year 1974 was characterized by a series of small offensives as each side sought to seize land and people from the other. The North Vietnamese began preparing for a major offensive to be launched in either 1975 or 1976, while the South Vietnamese tried to hold all of the areas under their control, although they lacked the strength to do so. South Vietnam's difficulties were compounded when the United States drastically cut its military aid in August 1974. The morale and combat effectiveness of the ARVN plummeted as a result.

In December 1974 the North Vietnamese attacked Phuoc Binh, a provincial capital about 60 miles (100 km) north of Saigon. Their capture of this city in early January 1975 convinced the North Vietnamese that a full-scale invasion of the South was now practicable. Accordingly, in early March, North Vietnamese forces began a large-scale offensive in the central highlands. When President Thieu ordered a withdrawal of all ARVN forces not only from the central highlands but from the northernmost two provinces of the country as well, general panic ensued, and the South Vietnamese military machine began to come apart. The withdrawals rapidly became routs as large ARVN units disintegrated into columns of refugees. One by one the coastal cities were abandoned, and by early April the ARVN had abandoned the northern half of their country to the North Vietnamese forces. The troops of the ARVN began to melt away, and the remaining Americans escaped by air- and sea lifts with Vietnamese friends and coworkers. On April 21, President Thieu resigned and flew to Taiwan. On April 30 what remained of the South Vietnamese government surrendered unconditionally, and North Vietnamese tank columns occupied Saigon without a struggle. A military government was instituted, and on July 2, 1976, the country was officially united as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam with its capital in Hanoi. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

The effects of the long conflict were harsh for all involved. More than 47,000 Americans were killed in action, nearly 11,000 died of other causes, and more than 303,000 were wounded in the war. Casualty figures for the Vietnamese are far less certain. Estimates of the ARVN's casualties range from 185,000 to 225,000 killed and 500,000 to 570,000 wounded. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong suffered about 900,000 troops killed and an unknown, but huge, number of wounded. In addition, more than 1,000,000 North and South Vietnamese civilians were killed during the war. Parts of the countryside were scarred by bombs and defoliation, and some cities and towns were heavily damaged. By the war's end much of the population of South Vietnam had become refugees seeking an escape from the fighting. Agriculture, business, and industry had been disrupted. In the United States, Johnson's economic program for a "Great Society" had been largely halted by the economic and military demands of an unpopular war. The cost of the war has been estimated to have totaled about $200 billion. With the communist victory in South Vietnam and communist takeovers in neighboring Cambodia and Laos, the new Vietnam emerged as an important Southeast Asian power.

The preceding article is a reprint from the on-line c 1999-2000 Inc.


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