- The Vietnam War is one of the most famous wars to date.
- It was a long, costly and divisive conflict between the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States.
- The conflict was intensified by the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
- More than 3 million people (including over 58,000 Americans) were killed in this war, and more than half of them were Vietnamese civilians.
- The support towards the Vietnam War divided Americans even after the withdrawal of US troops in 1973.
Causes of the Vietnam War
In the 19th century, Vietnam was a French colony. Then Japan invaded it during World War II.
It was hard to fight the Japanese off because there were also French colonists living in Vietnam. The leader Ho Chi Minh formed the Viet Minh, or League for the Independence of Vietnam, to fight both groups.
After Japan lost WWII, they left Vietnam. France’s Emperor Bao Dai stayed in control of Vietnam. But people wanted to take over. Ho and his Viet Minh army did so by taking Hanoi and declaring the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Both France and Ho Chi Minh wanted a unified Vietnam. They both wanted different things, though. France wanted to make it like other communist countries, but Ho Chi Minh wanted a Vietnam with close ties to the West.
The War Begins
The Vietnam War began in 1954. The war had been going on for a long time before that, but the US only became involved in the war in 1954 when Ho’s communist forces won the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The US lost and left Indochina to Ho’s communist forces.
A treaty was signed in July 1954. The treaty called for elections. It also split the country into North and South Vietnam, with Ho controlling the North and Bao controlling the South.
In 1955, the anti-communist government pushed aside Emperor Bao to become president of the new Republic of Vietnam. It was also called South Vietnam during that era.
The Viet Cong
With the Cold War happening, President Eisenhower wanted to help countries that were against the Soviet Union. He decided to help Vietnam through its leader Diem.
The United States trained them in security forces and intelligence so they could fight against people who supported the Vietnamese Communist Party (or Viet Minh). They arrested some 100,000 people and many of them were tortured or killed.
After the Viet Cong and other people in South Vietnam disagreed with how Diem was ruling, they began to fight back. They did this by attacking government officials or other targets.
In December 1960, many people who didn’t agree with Diem’s rule formed a non-communist group. Many Americans thought that this group was controlled by North Vietnam, but it wasn’t true.
President John F. Kennedy sent a team to Vietnam in 1961. They told him that if he gave them money, they would be able to fight off the Viet Cong.
So he did this and also increased U.S. aid, but stopped before giving them military support. This is the Domino Theory which says that if one country becomes communist, many other countries will become communists, too.
By 1962, the US military had 9,000 troops in South Vietnam, compared to 800 in the 1950s.
Operation Rolling Thunder
In 1964, President Johnson ordered the military to attack North Vietnam after torpedo boats attacked two US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Congress soon gave Johnson war-making powers.
The US planes began regular bombing raids in Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965. Congress had passed a resolution giving President Johnson a lot of power to make war on North Vietnam.
The War Keeps Getting Bigger
The bombing in Vietnam was not the only bombing. The United States dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos. This was during the “Secret War” in Laos.
Why Laos? The US wanted to stop supplies from going into Vietnam and to stop the rise of Lao communists. The US-made Laos the most bombed country in the world because of this bombing campaign.
In 1965, President Johnson decided to send more American troops to Vietnam. At first, there were already 82,000 combat troops in Vietnam, but military leaders wanted 175,000 more.
Some people were worried about how the war was growing in Vietnam. Despite these worries, Johnson authorized the immediate dispatch of 100,000 troops in 1965 and another 100,000 in 1966. Other countries also sent troops to fight in South Vietnam: South Korea, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand.
General William Westmoreland
The US and Southern Vietnam fought differently. North Vietnam was attacked from the air, but in the south, most of the war was on foot and under a general’s command, including General William Westmoreland.
Westmoreland made a plan to kill many of the enemy troops, instead of trying to take over territory. Soon, large areas of Vietnam were designated as “free-fire zones.” These zones had few people in them because everyone had left.
B-52s would bomb these zones, so they became uninhabitable. People left the free-fire zones and went to refugee camps near Saigon or other cities.
Even though Westmoreland’s plan killed a lot of soldiers and civilians, the North Vietnamese would not stop fighting. They wanted to get back what they lost. China and Russia helped them to get more supplies.
Protests Against The Vietnam War
By 1967, there must have been around 500,000 American troops situated in Vietnam. By November of that year, 15,058 Americans had been killed and 109,527 wounded.
Some soldiers began to mistrust the government’s reasons for keeping them in Vietnam. In these later years of the war, many of the soldiers were sick. They had problems like drug use, post-traumatic stress disorder, and soldiers attacking officers.
Between 1960 and 1973, over 503,000 US military personnel deserted. There were a lot of protests about the war in Vietnam. Many people got killed and many more saw their friends get killed. It was really bad for those who lived through it all.
The Tet Offensive
At the end of 1967, the communist leaders in Hanoi were also getting impatient. They wanted to strike a blow that would force the United States to give up. They planned an attack on about 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam.
The US and the South Vietnamese forces were taken by surprise. But then they struck back and soon all of the communist targets were captured, but only for a short time.
General Westmoreland had said that victory in Vietnam was imminent. But this was not true. He ended up asking the US government for more troops.
President Johnson stopped bombing North Vietnam because people didn’t like him. He promised to stop the war and to work for peace. People liked him more after that, and the peace talks started in Paris that year.
Nevertheless, the discussion soon reached a stop. After a bad election year that was full of violence, Richard Nixon became the new US president.
Nixon And The War
Nixon wanted to stop the anti-war movement. He appealed to people who supported the war.
He also increased war casualties by withdrawing troops from Vietnam, bombing more often, and giving weapons to South Vietnamese soldiers. Nixon also continued peace talks in Paris, but he added secret talks that Henry Kissinger led.
The North Vietnamese kept insisting that the US should withdraw completely and unconditionally from Vietnam as conditions for peace. The US disagreed. As a result, peace talks reached a stall.
The war gets worse
The next few years brought even more violence. A terrible massacre happened in 1968 where US soldiers killed more than 400 unarmed Vietnamese civilians. This caused protests to grow stronger throughout 1968 and 1969. Many anti-war demonstrations were happening all over the United States.
On November 15, 1969, the largest anti-war demonstration in American history happened. More than a quarter of a million people gathered in peace to ask for the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.
The anti-war movement was strong on college campuses. Some young people supported it because they were tired of the war. Other Americans thought that opposing the government was not right and unpatriotic.
Shootings At Universities
In 1970, the US and South Vietnam joined forces to invade Cambodia. This violated international law.
So this led to worse protests on college campuses across America. In May 1970, National Guardsmen shot four students at Kent State University in Ohio during the protests. Ten days later, two students were killed by police at Jackson State University in Mississippi.
In 1972, North Vietnam attacked the south but they failed. Hanoi wanted to make a peace agreement with the United States. They made one by December and people in South Vietnam said no.
The End Of The Vietnam War
In January 1973, the United States ended its fight with North Vietnam. Fighting between the North and South of Vietnam went on until April 1975.
More than two decades of fighting had killed many people. There was also a lot of destruction too like buildings and roads, so it took a long time to fix that.
Consequences Of The Vietnam War
In 1976, Vietnam became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. But there was still violence for a few more years.
There were conflicts with nearby countries like China and Cambodia. In 1986, a free market policy began to be put in place. The economy improved because of oil export and foreign capital. Trade relations resumed with the US in the 1990s.
After the Vietnam War, there was high inflation in the United States because a lot of money had been spent on the war.
The Vietnam War ruined the idea that the Americans are invincible. It made people from America angry and divided them.
The war also damaged the returning soldiers. Some of them were hurt or had been exposed to toxic chemicals (including Agent Orange).
People who didn’t want the war thought that it was wrong because many innocent civilians died during it. But for people who supported the war, Americans did not win it so their soldiers lost too.
In 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC. On it are names of everyone killed during this terrible time in history.
According to the Veterans Administration, one out of every three men who served in Vietnam suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. More than half of these men had problems during their lives with alcohol, drugs, or suicide.