Historical Importance of the Vietnam War: The Vietnam War was the prolonged struggle between nationalist forces attempting to unify the country of Vietnam under a communist government and the United States (with the aid of the South Vietnamese) attempting to prevent the spread of communism. Engaged in a war that many viewed as having no way to win, U.S. leaders lost the American public’s support for the war. Since the end of the war, the Vietnam War has become a benchmark for what not to do in all future U.S. foreign conflicts.
Dates of the Vietnam War: 1959 — April 30, 1975
Also Known As: American War in Vietnam, Vietnam Conflict, Second Indochina War, War Against the Americans to Save the Nation
Overview of the Vietnam War:
Ho Chi Minh Comes Home
There had been fighting in Vietnam for decades before the Vietnam War began. The Vietnamese had suffered under French colonial rule for nearly six decades when Japan invaded portions of Vietnam in 1940. It was in 1941, when Vietnam had two foreign powers occupying them, that communist Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh arrived back in Vietnam after spending thirty years traveling the world.
Once Ho was back in Vietnam, he established a headquarters in a cave in northern Vietnam and established the Viet Minh, whose goal was to rid Vietnam of the French and Japanese occupiers. Having gained support for their cause in northern Vietnam, the Viet Minh announced the establishment of an independent Vietnam with a new government called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. The French, however, were not willing to give up their colony so easily and fought back.
For years, Ho had tried to court the United States to support him against the French, including supplying the U.S. with military intelligence about the Japanese during World War II. Despite this aid, the United States was fully dedicated to their Cold War foreign policy of containment, which meant preventing the spread of Communism. This fear of the spread of Communism was heightened by the U.S. “domino theory,” which stated that if one country in Southeast Asia fell to Communism then surrounding countries would also soon fall. To help prevent Vietnam from becoming a communist country, the U.S. decided to help France defeat Ho and his revolutionaries by sending the French military aid in 1950.
France Steps Out, U.S. Steps In
In 1954, after suffering a decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the French decided to pull out of Vietnam. At the Geneva Conference of 1954, a number of nations met to determine how the French could peacefully withdraw. The agreement that came out of the conference (called the Geneva Accords) stipulated a cease fire for the peaceful withdrawal of French forces and the temporary division of Vietnam along the 17th parallel (which split the country into communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam). In addition, a general democratic election was to be held in 1956 that would reunite the country under one government. The United States refused to agree to the election, fearing the communists might win.
With help from the United States, South Vietnam carried out the election only in South Vietnam rather than countrywide. After eliminating most of his rivals, Ngo Dinh Diem was elected. His leadership, however, proved so horrible that he was killed in 1963 during a coup supported by the United States. Since Diem had alienated many South Vietnamese during his tenure, communist sympathizers in South Vietnam established the National Liberation Front (NLF), also known as the Viet Cong, in 1960 to use guerilla warfare against the South Vietnamese.
First U.S. Ground Troops Sent to Vietnam
As the fighting between the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese continued, the U.S. continued to send additional advisers to South Vietnam. When the North Vietnamese fired directly upon two U.S. ships in international waters on August 2 and 4, 1964 (known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident), Congress responded with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This resolution gave the President the authority to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson used that authority to order the first U.S. ground troops to Vietnam in March 1965.
Johnson’s Plan for Success
President Johnson’s goal for U.S. involvement in Vietnam was not for the U.S. to win the war, but for U.S. troops to bolster South Vietnam’s defenses until South Vietnam could take over. By entering the Vietnam War without a goal to win, Johnson set the stage for future public and troop disappointment when the U.S. found themselves in a stalemate with the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong.
From 1965 to 1969, the U.S. was involved in a limited war in Vietnam. Although there were aerial bombings of the North, President Johnson wanted the fighting to be limited to South Vietnam. By limiting the fighting parameters, the U.S. forces would not conduct a serious ground assault into the North to attack the communists directly nor would there be any strong effort to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail (the Viet Cong’s supply path that ran through Laos and Cambodia).
Life in the Jungle
U.S. troops fought a jungle war, mostly against the well-supplied Viet Cong. The Viet Cong would attack in ambushes, set up booby traps, and escape through a complex network of underground tunnels. For U.S. forces, even just finding their enemy proved difficult. Since Viet Cong hid in the dense brush, U.S. forces would drop Agent Orange or napalm bombs which cleared an area by causing the leaves to drop off or to burn away. In every village, U.S. troops had difficulty determining which, if any, villagers were the enemy since even women and children could build booby traps or help house and feed the Viet Cong. U.S. soldiers commonly became frustrated with the fighting conditions in Vietnam. Many suffered from low morale, became angry, and some used drugs.
On January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese surprised both the U.S. forces and the South Vietnamese by orchestrating a coordinated assault with the Viet Cong to attack about a hundred South Vietnamese cities and towns. Although the U.S. forces and the South Vietnamese army were able to repel the assault known as the Tet Offensive, this attack proved to Americans that the enemy was stronger and better organized than they had been led to believe. The Tet Offensive was a turning point in the war because President Johnson, faced now with an unhappy American public and bad news from his military leaders in Vietnam, decided to no longer escalate the war.
Nixon’s Plan for “Peace With Honor”
In 1969, Richard Nixon became the new U.S. President and he had his own plan to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. President Nixon outlined a plan called Vietnamization, which was a process to remove U.S. troops from Vietnam while handing back the fighting to the South Vietnamese. The withdrawal of U.S. troops began in July 1969. To bring a faster end to hostilities, President Nixon also expanded the war into other countries, such as Laos and Cambodia — a move that created thousands of protests, especially on college campuses, back in America. To work toward peace, new peace talks began in Paris on January 25, 1969.
When the U.S. had withdrawn most of its troops from Vietnam, the North Vietnamese staged another massive assault, called the Easter Offensive (also called the Spring Offensive), on March 30, 1972. North Vietnamese troops crossed over the demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 17th parallel and invaded South Vietnam. The remaining U.S. forces and the South Vietnamese army fought back.
The Paris Peace Accords
On January 27, 1973, the peace talks in Paris finally succeeded in producing a cease-fire agreement. The last U.S. troops left Vietnam on March 29, 1973, knowing they were leaving a weak South Vietnam who would not be able to withstand another major communist North Vietnam attack.
Reunification of Vietnam
After the U.S. had withdrawn all its troops, the fighting continued in Vietnam. In early 1975, North Vietnam made another big push south which toppled the South Vietnamese government. South Vietnam officially surrendered to communist North Vietnam on April 30, 1975. On July 2, 1976, Vietnam was reunited as a communist country, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.