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The Vietnam War defined a turbulent, crusading generation, causing massive devastation to South-East Asia, collapsing the US Democratic consensus and infiltrating American culture as no other conflict has done since. At the time it was the US’s longest and most unpopular war, and it resulted in nearly 60,000 American deaths and in an estimated 2 million Vietnamese deaths.
Victory in the anti-colonial war (fought against the French between 1945 and 1954, and supported by US aid) saw Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia granted independence. Vietnam was split North and South, and by 1958 the communist north (Vietcong) were conducting military operations across the border. President Eisenhower dispatched 2,000 military advisors to coordinate the anti-communist effort in South Vietnam. From 1960 to 1963 President Kennedy gradually increased the advisory force in SV to 16,300.
In October 1963 President Kennedy supported the South Vietnam’s military’s overthrow of President Diem and his regime. Ngo Dinh Diem had operated a regime that favoured the Catholic minority at the expense of the Buddhist majority, de-stabilising the country and threatening to enable a Communist takeover. Diem was murdered in the process of the coup, and although JFK did not support this – in fact the news is said to have infuriated him – his assassination means one can never know whether he would have escalated the conflict as President Johnson would do.
Lyndon Johnson’s Escalation – 1964
Johnson was no hawk, but he felt the pressure of his predecessor’s foreign policy successes, and he inherited hawkish advisors. By early the South Vietnamese had lost the Mekong Delta to the Vietcong. President Johnson sought to vastly the USA’s military presence. The Gulf of Tonkin Agreemen was drawn up after a brief skirmish off the coast of Vietnam between the USS Maddox and NV naval forces in August 1964. As the situation deteriorated further in early 1965, Johnson took the decision to massively increase USA’s military presence in SV.
LBJ bypassed Congress in announcing on 2nd March 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder, a massive sustained bombing campaign on NV, aimed at demoralising and undercutting the Communist insurgency. On July 28th he also announced a 50 000 troop increase, with 50 000 more scheduled for later in the year.
In the war’s early stages US forces made sustained, satisfactory progress. In January 1967 combined US and SV forces launched Operation Cedar Falls, a 20 day search and destroy mission, in the ‘Iron Triangle’ Communist stronghold, which was interpreted at the time as a success. Revisionists have posited that a) the communists only suffered temporarily and b) the treatment of the SV civilians in particular was morally dubious and certainly counter productive.
Tet Offensive – 1968
By the start of 1968 536,000 troops were stationed in South Vietnam, but the war was stalling. On January 30th 1968, the Vietnamese New Year, the North Vietnam sprung a huge counter attack on US controlled towns and cities, making significant early gains which were subsequently wiped out.
During the offensive communist forces took the strategically crucial city of Hue. Over the next month South Vietnamese and US forces slowly won back the city in a bloody siege which destroyed the city. In that period around 2800 civilians were executed by the North Vietnamese. Together with Tet this episode signalled a turnaround in domestic perceptions of the war. Criticism of the Johnson administration grew as mutilated veterans returned and the prospects of a decisive victory diminished.
The Vietnam war coincided with and helped shape the 60s movement. Along with the Civil Rights struggle it enabled a mass anti-government movement to form. Pressure grew to the point where Johnson announced, on 31 March, that he would not seek re-election.
Richard Nixon Wins the 1968 Presidential Election
His hope that the conflict would be resolved before he stepped down was quashed by the combined efforts of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who sabotaged peace talks conducted in Paris by offering the SV a better deal should Nixon be elected in November 1968. He was elected (decisively defeating Johnson’s VP, Hubert Humphrey), but talks collapsed and the war continued another 3 years.
Nixon employed the rhetoric of ‘fear, prejudice and division’ in waging a successful Presidential campaign against incumbent VP Hubert Humphrey. He also benefited from the collapse of the Paris Peace Talks. There is strong evidence to suggest that Nixon and Henry Kissinger orchestrated this collapse in the hope of taking credit for their own peace deal after taking office.
Throughout the Nixon presidency a sequence of revelations saw that the war lost all credibility in the USA.
- On April 29 1969 Nixon ordered the first of 13 bombing operations against Cambodia, codenamed Operation Menu. The aim of the campaign was to destroy some 40 000 People’s Army and Vietcong troops stationed in Eastern Cambodia. The devastation of this campaign certainly limited the cross-border threat to Vietnam, but the moral implications of the campaign were huge, and many historians argue that it paved the way for the accession of the murderous Khymer Rouge.
- In 1970 journalist Seymour Hersch exposed the grisly details of the My Lai massacre. On the morning of March 16th 1968 Charlie Company, a unit of the Americal Division’s 11th Infantry Brigade, had entered the hamlet of My Lai on a ‘search and destroy’ mission. Over 3 hours 504 civilians were murdered in cold blood. Not a single shot was fired at US soldiers. This atrocity, the subsequent whitewash – only one soldier was ever successfully prosecuted – and scandal cemented the American public’s unfavourable perception of the War.
- In 1971 the ‘Pentagon Papers’ were published by the New York Times, revealing that the Johnson administration had lied consciously and repeatedly over Vietnam. It also revealed the ‘real’ aim of the war – containment of China. On 13 June 13 1971 began publishing a series of articles based on the 47-volume history, leaked to the paper by Daniel Elsberg. The US government unsuccessfully attempted to restrict their publication, citing a risk to US military interests (lost 6-3 in the Supreme Court.)
On 15 January 1973, after the USA had conducted a huge B-52 bombing campaign, depositing 20 000 tonnes of explosive on NV, at Christmas, Nixon suspended military activities and 10 days after the Paris Peace Accords, negotiated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, were ratified.
Nixon resigned in 1974 after the Watergate scandal, and on 30 April 1975 South Vietnam officially fell to the Communists. The fall of Saigon and the concomitant withdrawal of US civilians and diplomatic personnel was a huge logistical challenge (Operation Frequent Wind.) That marked the end of the war as Vietnam was politically unified as a Socialist Government controlled by the Communist Party.
Unusually for a major conflict, early historical assessments of the Vietnam War were for the most part highly critical of U.S. policy. The works of Bernard Fall, David Halberstam, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. were a few among many that attacked the US intervention, which was labelled variously as avoidable tragedy, a rapacious superpower agitating for global hegemony, and everything in-between.
Vietnam itself is scarred mentally and physically by the conflict. Agent Orange, a defoliant used across the country to expose hidden North Vietnamese troops, has caused many gross, inherited deformities in children born after 1975. Unexploded bombs also remain a constant threat. What is universally acknowledged is that the war was appallingly wasteful, playing host to some of the USA’s greatest shames.