The Vietnam War is a complex subject, and a college student could spend a whole semester on the simple basics. I tried several methods of relaying the information I learned in my class on the Vietnam War, and finally settled on a mish mash of terms in a loose chronological order.
Indochina- Collective name for Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand; the group of countries located between the superpowers of China, the most populated country, and India, the second most populous.
Brief history to get you acquainted
Trieu Da- An ancient Southern Chinese warlord, often likened to King Arthur, who gave the name of Nam Viet, or “southern waters,” to the land, thereby beginning the official Vietnam history.
Han Dynasty-Annexed Vietnam as a province of China and enslaved her people in order to produce rice.
Trung sisters-Both were widowed when a Chinese official had their husbands executed. They rallied the aristocrats, who in turn rallied the peasants to fight for freedom in 40 AD. Though they were successful, the Trung sisters committed suicide in a river when the Chinese came back 20 years later. Unlike most countries, Vietnam has not underestimated its women, and credit them with daring and cleverness, a fact which the US did not account for.
Kublai Khan- A fearsome Mongol warlord who attempted a 13th century invasion. The Vietnamese used the mountains along with guerrilla-style warfare as a defense. The Khan, who was able to conquer most of the world, couldn’t handle Vietnam. He tried to invade 3 times, and was unsuccessful in each. This is where the Vietnamese tested their medal and learned how to defend themselves.
Ming Dynasty-Invaded again, this time for rice, tusks, gems, and other ores. The Chinese tried to impose their culture by making the children attend Chinese schools, as well as forcing all of the people to wear Chinese (lưới an toàn).
Ly Thuong-Wrote the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence
Le Loi- Much beloved hero of the Vietnamese people, he was often portrayed as a fisherman who caught a magical sword in his net. He was really a frustrated Vietnamese aristocrat, who went to the mountains in 1418 and proclaimed himself the, “prince of pacification,” and rallied his fellow countrymen for the ousting of the Chinese.
Battle of Tot Dong- Successful battle in 1426. Le Loi was so anxious to get rid of the Chinese, he provided them with junks and horses to make their way home.
Golden Age-The time that follows Le Loi’s successful uprising. He built his capital near Hanoi, and rewarded loyals with land and public works. The Le Thanh Tong Dynasty ruled quite peacefully for the next 400 years, encouraging education and structuring Vietnam with an efficient government.
North/south split- Upon the death of the last leader from the Le Thanh Tong Dynasty, Vietnam was split between the in-laws, with the Trinh ruling the north and the Nguyen ruling the south. The Nguyen turned to France for protection.
Part Two: French Involvement
Age of Discovery- Exploring was big business in the 16th century. Magellan’s voyage cost a huge amount of money, but the spices brought back on just one ship were enough to finance the whole venture. There was a lot of money to be made by tapping into the treasures of the undiscovered world. A nation would claim foreign lands to give its ships a safe harbor, tactical advantage, bragging rights, or just to make sure no one else got there first. France settled in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; only Thailand was able to retain independence. France wasn’t really happy with what Vietnam had to offer, but they were interested in a trade route to China.
Merchants- Although they tried, French merchants were not very successful in selling their products to the Vietnamese people.
Missionaries- Christian missionaries found more success, and thousands of Vietnamese were converted from the traditional Confucius religion. France was able to use the missionaries as an excuse to control Vietnam, maintaining that the missionaries were being mistreated and needed protection.
Francis Garnier- (1873) Explored the Red River deep into China, and proclaimed it open to all countries for trade.
White Man’s Burden- The idea that the more “civilized” nations were morally responsible to bring third world countries up to par. This attitude allowed the French to do the Vietnamese the “favor” of building amenities like bridges, dams, harbors, roads, and other public works. Of course, all labor was provided by the Vietnamese, who were paid lightly and taxed heavily for the privilege of having a road they didn’t need.
Mandate of Heaven- The belief that a leader is predestined because of divine right.
Ho Chi Minh- He lived away from Vietnam for many years, but returned home in the early 1940’s when Japan had taken over during WWII. Known affectionately as “Uncle Ho,” by most of his people, he was considered to have the Mandate of Heaven. Although he is one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, he was underestimated by the US, who considered the Vietnamese and other third world peoples as stupid and uncivilized. Ho Chi Minh was a tireless fighter, and an expert at propaganda. He refused to accept anything less than complete withdrawal from any and all countries trying to assert themselves upon Vietnam. He wanted his people to have independence, and would accept nothing less.
WWII and the aftermath- Hitler conquered France in 1940, and Japan took the Vietnam, but used France as a puppet to control it. After the allies won WWII, the area was handed back to France, which became overburdened by the effort and cost of dealing with the situation, especially because those in the north were relentless in their pursuit of independence. France began to ask its allies for help. By 1954, when the U.S. became involved, any person in southern Vietnam with an official position spoke fluent French, as well as carried distinctively French mannerisms.
Part Three-US Involvement
American Sentiment- During and after WWII, Americans were deathly afraid of a nuclear attack. Schools routinely held nuclear drills, and children were taught to hide under their desks in the event of an attack. There are many reasons America became involved in Vietnam, but the most pressing were:
Communism- Russia and China were huge superpowers, and other countries were beginning to join with them. At one point, Khrushchev, the leader of USSR, took off his shoe, slammed it against the podium, and screamed that he would crush his enemies.
Concentration camps- There was no information super highway, and the American people were not as dulled to images of atrocity as they are today. Americans were horrified to hear accounts of what happened in the concentration camps, and disturbed by grisly photographs of starving and naked victims. There was a great feeling of pride in being the country that liberated these helpless people, and American sentiment at the time was to help those less fortunate. The United States was the most powerful force in the world, and because of that, citizens felt responsible for helping those countries who were not so powerful from being overrun by communists.
Eisenhower- Eisenhower was content to give aide in the form of money and equipment to help France with its efforts, but the president was in no rush to send troops.
Kennedy-A young senator aspiring for presidency, Kennedy talked about the Vietnamese as, “our offspring.” It was Kennedy’s position that without our help, the Vietnamese people would be taken over by communism against their will.
Monolithic threat- Russia and China were two hugely powerful communist countries. Though they never really got along, the US and allies worried that China and Russia would join forces and declare war against democracies.
Diem-Although Ho Chi Minh practically begged for the position, the US decided to appoint Diem president of Vietnam. He had a lot going for him as far as US leaders were concerned, being both Catholic and anti-communist. Diem was from a well to do family, and knew very little about the village lifestyle, and attempted to outlaw traditions that had stood for generations. For example, it was customary for Vietnamese men to take many wives, but when Diem came into power he declared this illegal. Diem never attempted to win his constituents support, complaining the villagers were stupid and barbaric.
Why Not Ho? In his pursuit for independence, Ho Chi Minh looked to any country that could offer him help, including communist countries. The leaders of the US did not trust that Ho wasn’t a communist. The US was looking to appoint a leader that would do as he was told, and Ho was far too stubborn.
US Strategy- For the end of the 50’s and the beginning of the 60’s, the US was content to send millions and millions of dollars in cash and equipment to Vietnam. The hope was that the Southern Vietnam Army (ARVN), with the proper training, would be able to successfully defend itself against the north. Advisors were sent to train the ARVN officers on military tactics, as well as how to use the equipment provided.
Cultural difference- Although they weren’t usually outwardly mean, the US advisors saw the Vietnamese as crude, and even stupid. Most Southern Vietnamese people had never seen a television, and rarely left their small village. The American soldiers were not sensitive to the cultural and spiritual differences. For example, it was customary for many Vietnamese men to sleep with a piece of fabric across their stomach for spiritual purposes. American advisors would tease the ARVN officers about this habit, and the ARVN’s request that this fabric be included in with the supplies was denied. These minor misunderstandings added up to cause a rift between the ARVN and those hoping to train them.
Taylor/Rostow report- Kennedy sent Maxwell Taylor and Walter Rostow to Vietnam to give him a report on progress. What came back was not promising. The ARVN had a defensive outlook, and no ambition for an offensive battle. The report suggested that the US would have to send over at least 8,000 more advisors. Kennedy was hesitant to send any more troops because once involved, he could see no end to the commitment. The first 8,000 would only lead to the necessity for more. Luckily, or not, depending on how you look at it, there was a huge flood in the Mekong delta, so the administration felt as if it could send the 8,000 advisors in the form of flood relief, and remove them without embarrassment if needed.
MAAG-A group of senior soldiers sent to deal with the problem.
1961-1962-US strategy continued to be the optimistic view that the ARVN could be trained to eventually handle things on their own. Although Kennedy did have to send in more advisors, up from 3,205 in 1961, to 9,000 in 1962, the US government tried its best to take the middle road and not to provoke any military action from Russia or China. ARVN morale was steadily sinking, leading to high desertion rates, and many villages were offering relief to the enemy. Diem was beginning to become a problem, too. He needed help from the US, but he was sensitive of looking like a puppet to US demands. He would make decisions without consulting the US, and America would return the favor. As a way to control Diem, the US notified him that it would send no further aid until Diem agreed to government reform and involving the United States in his decisions. Although both sides agreed to collusion, neither followed through, and they often worked against each other.
Diem, a Growing Problem- Diem came from a successful Catholic family, and had never rubbed shoulders with the average peasant villager that made up the majority of South Vietnam. He was more concerned with loyalty in his administration, and would appoint a person whose only qualification was that he were friend or family. This made for a government that was inept, inefficient, and corrupt. Diem’s brother and his brother’s wife were becoming the biggest problem of all. Neither had any regard for the common people of the country, and when the Buddhist monks began lighting themselves on fire in protest of the Catholic government, Diem’s sister-in-law made heartless remarks about a barbeque.
Strategic Hamlet Program- Enemies from the north were frequently able to make themselves comfortable in the scattered villages of southern Vietnam. Although Diem and many higher officials wanted a democracy, most of the villagers couldn’t have cared either way, and in fact, many would have preferred Ho Chi Minh. The solution to this problem was to evacuate all of the villages and move the people to one of 23 areas, optimistically called “hamlets.” The plan had worked well for Britain in a similar situation, and seemed like the perfect solution. Not only would the hamlets prevent infiltration by the enemy, but the US hoped it would encourage self-rule through village elections, and self-sufficiency through schools and medical units. The US leaders figured all of the villagers would love the modern amenities, and living in such close proximity would unite the formerly separate clans, who would band together into one large unit.
Why it didn’t work- Southern Vietnamese life centered around the village, and they weren’t as happy to let their lifestyle go as everyone had hoped. The “Xa,” or village was not only their home, but also the burial ground of their ancestors. According to Vietnamese culture, it was one’s duty to look after the graves of his or her ancestors, and many snuck out of the hamlets to do so. Plus, the majority of people on Diem’s administration were on the take, generating bogus reports, which the U.S. relied upon. Those who weren’t corrupt were inept and inefficient, viewing the U.S. as a never-ending supply of funds. Many of the peasant villagers lost their land, and were given nothing but a laminated ID card in exchange. To make matters worse, the villagers were inexperienced in warfare, and were expected to defend the hamlets, themselves. The NLF took advantage of this by infiltrating or attacking the hamlets.
NLF/ National Liberation Front- Also known as the Viet Cong. Headquarters were in the north, but they looked no different than all of the other Vietnamese, and were able to infiltrate at almost every level. Their mission was complete independence, and they would settle for no less.
First US Fighting- The US sent out 300 military aircraft, and the “advisors,” to fly them. American pilots would drop ARVN soldiers into battle zones, as well as train them for combat missions. The Kennedy administration didn’t want the American people to really know what was going on, insisting that troops were only advisors, even long after they were engaged in combat. American combat casualties were publicized as “training accidents.”
Hawks- American citizens for involvement in Vietnam.
Doves- American citizens against involvement in Vietnam
Agent Orange- One of the most pressing problems for helicopter pilots was the thick canopy of trees, which prevented flyers from being able to see what was on the ground; friend, or foe. The solution was to use defoliants, which are chemicals that strip the leaves. When the native Vietnamese looked at the barren wasteland that was once lush and green they reacted in much the same way that Americans would if a foreign power were to come and destroy millions of acres of national forest and wildlife. Ho Chi Minh, a master of bad press, was able to easily manipulate anger into outrage, and even those from the south began to agree.
Assassinations- Another one of NLFs successful tactics. Nobody was safe, from the highest official to the lowliest villager. Many times, the NLF would assassinate an official and have a double agent ready to take his place.
Part Four-Escalating US Involvement
US Soldiers- As time wore on, the US began to send more and more “advisors” to help move things along. These soldiers had been trained in conventional warfare, and though they were told of guerrilla-style, they had never really dealt with it in a real life situation.
Mistrust on Both Sides- The US and ARVN soldiers were technically on the same side, but didn’t trust each other. The Americans soldiers had a “get out of my way,” mentality and tended to think the soldiers of the ARVN were dumb, slow, and corrupt; while the ARVN soldiers, who referred to “the ugly Americans,” viewed their counterparts as pushy know-it-alls, who assumed they were superior to everyone else.
Coup- The US concluded that its objectives could not be reached with Diem in power, and a coup was in the works. The US may not have planned and participated, but Kennedy knew about the takeover beforehand, though he was visibly shaken when he learned that Diem and his brother were assassinated. The coup was a success, but it left Vietnam without a strong government or real leader. The US wondered if it had traded one problem for another.
Kennedy Assassination- Johnson vowed to pick up where Kennedy had left off. Had Kennedy lived, he would have been able to pull out of Vietnam, but after his death, Americans wanted to see all of his objectives honored.
1964 Election- Johnson, the incumbent democrat, had served under Kennedy as vice president and taken over as president upon his death. Goldwater, the opposing republican, was viewed as staunch and conservative. Johnson’s campaign portrayed Goldwater as careless, and warned American voters against allowing him to get his finger near the nuclear bomb.
The Great Society- Though Johnson vowed to continue on where Kennedy left off, his real baby was The Great Society Program. The thought behind the program was that America, being the most powerful country in the world, shouldn’t have social issues. It included programs like Head Start, Medicare, HUD, and endowments to arts and humanities. Johnson wanted to promote ideas like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and set up product safety commissions to regulate things like flame retardant pajamas, etc. Part of the reason Johnson had to back the Vietnam War was because he had to keep those who were for the war happy in order to get their approval on his ideas.
Going on in 1964- By this time, America had committed 24,000 advisors to train the ARVN and stop incursions from the NLF. The NLF was stepping up the fighting, hoping to convince the US to withdraw.
Tonkin Gulf-There were wishy-washy reports that US ships were attacked by the NLF, though later reports have since claimed the situation didn’t happen as originally reported. Either way, at the time congress was so angry that another country would have the nerve to attack the United States they gave Johnson the green light (the vote was 418 to 0) for offensive action. Public opinion suddenly changed as well, from a previous 42% in favor of Vietnam to 72%. Johnson was hugely popular, and basically was given carte blanche to do as he saw fit.
Flaming Dart- Initiated as a means of revenge. Each and every NLF attack would be met with destructive bombings. The hope was that once the NLF got a picture of the United States fire power they would be more than willing to come to the bargaining table.
Rolling Thunder-48 hours later, the US decided to take the approach of continuous bombing with gradual escalation for many reasons; scaring the NLF into submission, sending a strong message to American allies, changing the domestic consensus of failure, give the ARVN a boost, and scaring any Southern Vietnamese who may have been undecided. Initial attacks brought slim results, but once committed, the US couldn’t simply stop. At first, only less important targets were hit, in the hopes that more important targets could be used as a trump card once the NLF realized US power.
Ground Troops-An air campaign needs ground troops to protect the base, and numerous other endeavors. The Johnson administration was nervous about telling American people that lives had been lost on the ground, and hoped to keep the war in the air.
Protest-Americans began to realize that they had been duped. Up until then, the government had been doing everything it could to avoid admitting that US soldiers were participating in combat. The tide of opinion began to turn. Americans wanted to be a part of Vietnam, but the idea of loss of lives for the cause was unacceptable.
Selective Service?-In 1966 the student deferment was revoked, meaning that a student couldn’t get out of the draft just because of his student status. Students began to protest all over the country, burning draft cards and making a lot of noise. Though the majority of people were for involvement in Vietnam, those opposed were much louder and caused a bigger scene.
Communist Action- though the US was nervous of the so-called monolithic threat, in truth, Russia and China were in competition with each other, each one wanting to be the leader of the communist world. Both communist countries contributed to the NLF effort, but they took it no further.
NLF- The north was by no means ready to give in. US bombs struck down many of their roads and bridges, but the northern people were crafty. Often described as “ant labor,” women and children got involved in helping to repair the damage. Gravel would be kept by the roadside in order to repair them almost as soon as they were hit. Instead of using trucks that could be easily spotted by aircraft, the main means of transportation along the Ho Chi Minh Trail was the bicycle, which could carry around 500 pounds of supplies and equipment. The NLF soldiers were used to hard work and didn’t need much in the way of supplies. If anything, the bombing gave the NLF soldiers a powerful rallying cry and made them even more determined and united than before.
ARVN- Meanwhile, the desertion rates in the ARVN training camps could be as high as 50%, and those that weren’t deserting were abusing their positions by taxing and stealing from the villagers. Buddhists were getting more and more vocal, and many ARVN soldiers were sympathetic to them, going up against American soldiers.
American Soldiers- Disgusted by the ARVN defense of Buddhists and hugely resentful that fellow American soldiers were dying while the ARVN soldiers seemed indifferent. Also, it seemed that the Southern Vietnamese soldiers had the remarkable ability to avoid land mines, which made the American soldiers think they were in collusion with the enemy.
Difficulty with Rolling Thunder- From September to May the monsoon season brought almost constant rain, making any attempt at accurate bombing next to impossible. Estimates say that for every $1.00 in NLF damages, the US spent $9.60. Worst of all, captured US flyers gave NLF hostages. In 1966 alone, the NLF used unexploded US bombs to kill 1,000 US allies.
American Consensus- The doves were becoming so vocal that it seemed as if they may have encouraged the NLF to hold out for victory. Many Americans were more annoyed by the loud “hippie” anti-war culture, which in turn made them annoyed by the war. The majority of the country was for the war, but the doves were much louder.
South Vietnamese Government- The US took over after Diem, and did not feel the need to let the ever changing Vietnamese government know what it was doing. Because there was no stable government in place, the South Vietnamese people didn’t have a sense of unity in their country.
US Tactics- The theory behind a war of attrition is that a better equipped, better prepared force will be able to wear down its opponent over time. The US wanted to project the image it could afford to wait it out if it had to, but really, patience and morale were wearing thin. There were always more NLF casualties, but they seemed to be able to replenish manpower effectively. In 1969 there were 542,000 US troops and 71,000 allied troops. US banked on the fact that the NLF couldn’t touch its technology, though the American people were beginning to weary of war.
NLF Tactics- Guerilla-style hit and run while blending into the terrain. Miles and miles of tunnels and caves dug out from the mountains. NLF knew the more US casualties, the more the American public would object to the war.
Negotiation Attempts-between 1965 and 1967 there were more than 2,000 attempts at negotiation. Even the shape of the table was argued. The US wanted an independent southern Vietnam, but the NLF would settle for nothing but complete US withdrawal.
American Troop Sentiments- From the very beginning of Rolling Thunder, Johnson and his advisors wanted to micromanage the war, especially in the air. Johnson was heard to say that not even an outhouse would be bombed without his permission. The US pilots were frustrated because everything was predetermined in Washington by those who were sitting around a desk, not flying a plane. Troops on the ground did not feel the frustration as much. Soldiers had a vague idea about the protesting back home in America, but they had no idea of the extent. They were proud of themselves and thought they were doing the right thing, imagining they would return with a hero’s welcome. Their objective was a democratic South Vietnam, and they felt as if they were winning the war. America won every battle of the Vietnam War, and many of the soldiers who served continue to feel frustration and bitterness at the way things turned out.
Westmoreland- General in Vietnam. He was frustrated, but generally left alone to control the ground, though he wasn’t sent the numbers he wanted. Westmoreland was extremely frustrated, knowing he could win, but not being given the go ahead.
Mai Lai Massacre- On March 16, 1968, as many as 500 unarmed South Vietnamese citizens living in a hamlet, most of them women, children, and elderly, were brutally murdered by American soldiers. Some of the victims were sexually abused or mutilated. Though the justification was that the civilians were accused of harboring enemy soldiers, the incident is clearly and without question an atrocity. The American public was not properly informed about the massacre until the next year, when disgusted soldiers who had been present and tried to stop the carnage began to speak out about what they had witnessed. Naturally, the world was outraged when they realized what had transpired. In the end, only platoon leader William Calley was convicted of any crime regarding the “incident.” Unfortunately, all other American soldiers had to pay the price for the actions of a few, and many good men came home to cries of “baby killer” and other unfair accusations after faithfully serving their country.
America withdraws- Little by little, and then lot by lot, American soldiers were pulled out of Vietnam, and by 1973 America was officially done with the battle. At first, it seemed as if the north would soon impose a communist government on the south, but wouldn’t you know it, the south was able to hold their own, and even caused the north to beat a retreat.
But… The north did not give up, and in 1975 they were able to overtake the south. In April, America began the emergency evacuation of all diplomats, personnel, and civilians. Many were heartbroken to leave the South Vietnamese people, who had fought so valiantly for democracy, behind and begging for help. By April 30, the end was eminent, and newspapers all over the world posted photographs of the last Americans atop the embassy roof, escaping by helicopter in the early morning hours. By 11:30 A.M. the war was lost, as a tank came crashing through the gates of the Presidential Palace and raised the flag of the NLF.
After thought- It is unfair for armchair warriors to imagine what decisions they would have made had they been running the show. Hind sight is 20/20, and I make no judgments on what should have been, or could have been. The only thing I know with any certainty is that the vast, vast majority of American soldiers who served in Vietnam deserve my gratitude and respect.
write by Tucker