In part, the war was a legacy of France's colonial rule, which ended in 1954 with the French army's catastrophic defeat at Dienbienphu and the acceptance of the Geneva Conference agreements (see Vietnam). Elections scheduled for 1956 in South Vietnam for the reunification of Vietnam were canceled by President Ngo Dinh Diem. His action was denounced by Ho Chi Minh, since the Communists had expected to benefit from them. After 1956, Diem's government faced increasingly serious opposition from the Viet Cong, insurgents aided by North Vietnam. The Viet Cong became masters of the guerrilla tactics of North Vietnam's Vo Nguyen Giap. Diem's army received U.S. advice and aid, but was unable to suppress the guerrillas, who established a political organization, the National Liberation Front (NLF) in 1960.
In 1961, South Vietnam signed a military and economic aid treaty with the United States leading to the arrival (1961) of U.S. support troops and the formation (1962) of the U.S. Military Assistance Command. Mounting dissatisfaction with the ineffectiveness and corruption of Diem's government culminated (Nov., 1963) in a military coup engineered by Duong Van Minh; Diem was executed. No one was able to establish control in South Vietnam until June, 1965, when Nguyen Cao Ky became premier, but U.S. military aid to South Vietnam increased, especially after the U.S. Senate passed the Tonkin Gulf resolution (Aug. 7, 1964) at the request of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In early 1965, the United States began air raids on North Vietnam and on Communist-controlled areas in the South; by 1966 there were 190,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam. North Vietnam, meanwhile, was receiving armaments and technical assistance from the Soviet Union and other Communist countries. Despite massive U.S. military aid, heavy bombing, the growing U.S. troop commitment (which reached nearly 550,000 in 1969), and some political stability in South Vietnam after the election (1967) of Nguyen Van Thieu as president, the United States and South Vietnam were unable to defeat the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. Optimistic U.S. military reports were discredited in Feb., 1968, by the costly and devastating Tet offensive of the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong, involving attacks on more than 100 towns and cities and a month-long battle for Hue in South Vietnam.
Serious negotiations to end the war began after U.S. President Lyndon Johnson's decision not to seek reelection in 1968. Contacts between North Vietnam and the United States in Paris in 1968 were expanded in 1969 to include South Vietnam and the NLF. The United States, under the leadership of President Richard M. Nixon, altered its tactics to combine U.S. troop withdrawals with intensified bombing and the invasion of Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia (1970).
The length of the war, the high number of U.S. casualties, and the exposure of U.S. involvement in war crimes such as the massacre at My Lai (see My Lai incident) helped to turn many in the United States against the war. Politically, the movement was led by Senators James William Fulbright, Robert F. Kennedy, Eugene J. McCarthy, and George S. McGovern; there were also huge public demonstrations in Washington, D.C., as well as in many other cities in the United States and on college campuses.
Even as the war continued, peace talks in Paris progressed, with Henry Kissinger as U.S. negotiator. A break in negotiations followed by U.S. saturation bombing of North Vietnam did not derail the talks, and a peace agreement was reached, signed on Jan. 27, 1973, by the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the NLF's provisional revolutionary government. The accord provided for the end of hostilities, the withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops (several Southeast Asia Treaty Organization countries had sent token forces), the return of prisoners of war, and the formation of a four-nation international control commission to ensure peace.
Fighting between South Vietnamese and Communists continued despite the peace agreement until North Vietnam launched an offensive in early 1975. South Vietnam's requests for aid were denied by the U.S. Congress, and after Thieu abandoned the northern half of the country to the advancing Communists, a panic ensued. South Vietnamese resistance collapsed, and North Vietnamese troops marched into Saigon Apr. 30, 1975. Vietnam was formally reunified in July, 1976, and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. U.S. casualties in Vietnam during the era of direct U.S. involvement (1961-72) were more than 50,000 dead; South Vietnamese dead were estimated at more than 400,000, and Viet Cong and North Vietnamese at over 900,000.
For a general introduction, see D. L. Anderson, The Columbia Guide to the Vietnam War (2002). See also F. FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake (1972); D. Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972); G. Lewy, America in Vietnam (1978); R. Komer, Bureaucracy at War (1985); W. A. Williams, ed., America in Vietnam: A Documentary History (1985); W. S. Turley, The Second Indochina War (1986); B. Diem, In the Jaws of History (1987); R. B. Smith, An International History of the Vietnam War (2 vol., 1987); N. Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie (1988); O. Lehrach, No Shining Armor (1992); J. L. Plaster, SOG: The Secret Wars of America's Commandos in Vietnam (1997); M. Lind, Vietnam: The Necessary War (1999); F. Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (1999); R. S. McNamara et al., Argument without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy (1999); L. Sorley, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (1999); A. J. Langguth, Our Vietnam: The War, 1954-1975 (2000); C. G. Appy, ed., Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (2003); D. Maraniss, They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October, 1967 (2003); H. T. Schandler, America in Vietnam (2009).
The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, or the Vietnam Conflict, occurred in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from 1959 to April 30, 1975. The war was fought between the communist North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and South Vietnam, supported by the United States and others.
The Vietcong, the lightly-armed South Vietnamese communist insurgency, largely fought a guerilla war against anti-communist forces in the region. The North Vietnamese Army engaged in a more conventional war, at times committing large-sized units into battle. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces relied on air superiority and overwhelming firepower to conduct search-and-destroy operations, involving ground forces, artillery and air strikes.
The United States entered the war to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam as part of a wider strategy called containment. Military advisors were sent beginning in 1950. U.S. involvement escalated in the early 1960s and combat units were deployed beginning in 1965. Involvement peaked in 1968 at the time of the Tet Offensive. Under a policy called Vietnamization, U.S. forces withdrew as South Vietnamese troops were trained and armed. Despite a peace treaty signed by all parties in January 1973, fighting continued. In response to the anti-war movement, the U.S. Congress passed the Case-Church Amendment in June 1973 prohibiting further U.S. military intervention. In April 1975, North Vietnam captured Saigon. North and South Vietnam were reunified the following year.
The war had a major impact on U.S. politics, culture and foreign relations. Americans were deeply divided over the U.S. government’s justification for, and conduct of the war. Opposition to the war contributed to the counterculture youth movement of the 1960s.
The main military organizations involved in the war were, on the side of the South, the U.S. military and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), and, on the side of the North, the Vietnam People's Army (VPA), also known as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) also called the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), and the Vietcong, or National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF), a communist army based in the South.
In January 1950, the communist nations, led by China, recognized the Vietminh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam as the government of Vietnam. Non-Communist nations recognized the French-backed State of Vietnam in Saigon led by former Emperor Bao Dai the following month. The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 convinced many Washington policymakers that the war in Indochina was an example of communist expansionism directed by the Kremlin.
The communist takeover of China in 1949 revived the fortunes of the Vietminh. Chinese military advisors began assisting the Vietminh in July 1950. Chinese weapons, expertise, and laborers transformed the Vietminh from a guerrilla force into a regular army. In September, the U.S. created a Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) to screen French requests for aid, advise on strategy, and train Vietnamese soldiers. By 1954, the U.S. had supplied 300,000 small arms and spent US$1 billion in support of the French military effort and was shouldering 80 percent of the cost of the war. The Vietminh received crucial support from the Soviet Union and China. Chinese support in the Border Campaign of 1950 allowed supplies to come from China into Vietnam. Throughout the conflict, U.S. intelligence estimates remained skeptical of French chances of success.
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu marked the end of French involvement in Indochina. The Viet Minh and their mercurial commander Vo Nguyen Giap handed the French a stunning military defeat. France had earlier declined the American offer of nuclear weapons to break the Vietnamese siege and on May 7, 1954, the French Union garrison surrendered. At the Geneva Conference the French negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the Viet Minh. Independence was granted to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Vietnam was temporarily partitioned at the 17th parallel, and under the terms of the Geneva Convention, civilians were to be given the opportunity to freely move between the two provisional states. Elections throughout the country were to be held, according to the Geneva accords, but were blocked by the South Vietnamese president, who feared a communist victory. Around one million northerners, mainly Catholics, fled south, fearing persecution by the communists. It is estimated that as many as two million more would have left had they not been stopped by the Vietminh. In the north, the Vietminh established a socialist state—the Democratic Republic of Vietnam—and engaged in a drastic land reform program in which an estimated eight thousand perceived “class enemies” were executed. In 1956 the Communist Party leaders of Hanoi admitted to "excesses" in implementing this program and restored a lot of the land to the original owners. In the south a non-communist state was established under the Emperor Bao Dai, a former puppet of the French and the Japanese. Ngô Đình Diệm became his prime minister. In addition to the Catholics flowing south, up to 90,000 Vietminh fighters went north for “regroupment” as envisioned by the Geneva Accords. However, in contravention of the Accords, the Vietminh left roughly 5,000 to 10,000 cadres in South Vietnam as a “politico-military substructure within the object of its irredentism.” The last French soldiers left Vietnam in April 1956. The Chinese completed their withdrawal from North Vietnam at around the same time.
As dictated by the Geneva Conference of 1954, the partition of Vietnam was meant to be only temporary, pending national elections on July 20, 1956. Much as in Korea, the agreement stipulated that the two military zones were to be separated by a temporary demarcation line (known as the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ). The United States, alone among the great powers, refused to sign the Geneva agreement. The president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, declined to hold elections. This called into question the United States' commitment to democracy in the region, but also raised questions about the legitimacy of any election held in the communist-run North. President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed U.S. fears when he wrote that, in 1954, “80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh” over Emperor Bao Dai. However, this wide popularity was expressed before Ho's disastrous land reform program and a peasant revolt in Ho's home province which was bloodily suppressed.
The cornerstone of U.S. policy was the Domino Theory. This argued that if South Vietnam fell to communist forces, then all of South East Asia would follow. Popularized by the Eisenhower Administration, some argued that if communism spread unchecked, it would follow them home by first reaching Hawaii and follow to the West Coast of the United States. It was better, therefore, to fight communism in Asia, rather than on American soil.
The new American patrons were almost completely ignorant of Vietnamese culture. They knew little of the language or long history of the country. There was a tendency to assign American motives to Vietnamese actions, and Diem warned that it was an illusion to believe that blindly copying Western methods would solve Vietnamese problems.
In April and June 1955, Diem (against U.S. advice) cleared the decks of any political opposition by launching military operations against the Cao Dai religious sect, the Buddhist Hoa Hao, and the Binh Xuyen organized crime group (which was allied with members of the secret police and some military elements). Diem accused these groups of harboring Communist agents. As broad-based opposition to his harsh tactics mounted, Diem increasingly sought to blame the communists.
Beginning in the summer of 1955, he launched the “Denounce the Communists” campaign, during which communists and other anti-government elements were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, or executed. Opponents were labeled Viet Cong by the regime to degrade their nationalist credentials. During this period refugees moved across the demarcation line in both directions. Around 52,000 Vietnamese civilians moved from south to north. However a staggering 450,000 people fled north Vietnam to the south, in aircraft and ships provided by France and the U.S. CIA propaganda efforts increased the outflow with slogans such as “the Virgin Mary is going South.” The northern refugees were meant to give Diem a strong anti-communist constituency.
In a referendum on the future of the monarchy, Diem rigged the poll supervised by his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and received “98.2 percent” of the vote. His American advisers had recommended a more modest winning margin of “60 to 70 percent.” Diem, however, viewed the election as a test of authority. On October 26, 1955, Diem declared the new Republic of Vietnam, with himself as president. The Republic of Vietnam was created largely because of the Eisenhower administration's desire for an anti-communist state in the region. Colonel Edward Lansdale, a CIA officer, became an important advisor to the new president.
As a wealthy Catholic, Diem was viewed by many ordinary Vietnamese as part of the old elite who had helped the French rule Vietnam. The majority of Vietnamese people were Buddhist, so his attack on the Buddhist community served only to deepen mistrust. Diem's human rights abuses increasingly alienated the population.
In May, Diem undertook a ten-day state visit to the United States. President Eisenhower pledged his continued support. A parade in New York City was held in his honor. Although Diem was openly praised, in private Secretary of State John Foster Dulles conceded that he had been selected because there were no better alternatives.
The Sino-Soviet split led to a reduction in the influence of China, which had insisted in 1954 that the Vietminh accept a division of the country. Trường Chinh, North Vietnam's pro-Chinese party first secretary, was demoted and Hanoi authorized communists in South Vietnam to begin a low level insurgency in December 1956. This insurgency in the south had begun in response to Diem's Denunciation of Communists campaign, in which thousands of local Viet Minh cadres and supporters had been executed or sent to concentration camps, and was in violation of the Northern Communist party line which had enjoined them not to start an insurrection, but rather engage in a political campaign, agitating for a free all-Vietnam election in accordance with the Geneva accords. Ho Chi Minh stated, "Do not engage in military operations; that will lead to defeat. Do not take land from a peasant. Emphasize nationalism rather than communism. Do not antagonize anyone if you can avoid it. Be selective in your violence. If an assassination is necessary, use a knife, not a rifle or grenade. It is too easy to kill innocent bystanders with guns and bombs, and accidental killing of the innocent bystanders will alienate peasants from the revolution. Once an assassination has taken place, make sure peasants know why the killing occurred.” This strategy was referred to as "armed propaganda. Soon afterward, Lê Duẩn, a communist leader who had been working in the South, returned to Hanoi to accept the position of acting first secretary, effectively replacing Trường. Duẩn urged a military line and advocated increased assistance to the insurgency.
Four hundred government officials were assassinated in 1957 alone, and the violence gradually increased. While the terror was originally aimed at local government officials, it soon broadened to include other symbols of the status quo, such as schoolteachers, health workers, and agricultural officials. One estimate says that by 1958, 20 percent of South Vietnam's village chiefs had been murdered by the insurgents. The insurgency sought to completely destroy government control in South Vietnam's rural villages and replace it with a shadow government. Finally, in January 1959, the North's Central Committee issued a secret resolution authorizing an "armed struggle". This authorized the southern communist to begin large-scale operations against the South Vietnamese military. However, North Vietnam supplied troops and supplies in earnest, and the infiltration of men and weapons from the north began along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In May, South Vietnam enacted Law 10/59, which made political violence punishable by death and property confiscation.
Observing the increasing unpopularity of the Diem regime, on December 12, 1960, Hanoi authorized the creation of the National Liberation Front as a front group for the Vietcong, the communist army in the South.
Successive American administrations, as Robert McNamara and others have noted, overestimated the control that Hanoi had over the NLF. Diem's paranoia, repression, and incompetence progressively angered large segments of the population of South Vietnam. Thus, many maintain that the origins of the anti-government violence were homegrown, rather than inspired by Hanoi. Historian Douglas Pike asserts that, “today, no serious historian would defend the thesis that North Vietnam was not involved in the Vietnam war from the start…. To maintain this thesis today, one would be obliged to deal with the assertions of Northern involvement that have poured out of Hanoi since the end of the war.
In June 1961, John F. Kennedy bitterly disagreed with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev when they met in Vienna over key U.S.-Soviet issues. Cold war strategists concluded Southeast Asia would be one of the testing grounds where Soviet forces would test the USA's containment policy—begun during the Truman Administration and solidified by the stalemate resulting from the Korean War. The Legacy of the Korean War created the idea of a limited war.
Although Kennedy stressed long-range missile parity with the Soviets, he was also interested in using special forces for counterinsurgency warfare in Third World countries threatened by communist insurgencies. Although they were originally intended for use behind front lines after a conventional invasion of Europe, Kennedy believed that the guerrilla tactics employed by special forces such as the Green Berets would be effective in a "brush fire" war in Vietnam. He saw British success in using such forces in Malaya as a strategic template.
The Kennedy administration remained essentially committed to the Cold War foreign policy inherited from the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. In 1961, the USA had 50,000 troops based in Korea, and Kennedy faced a three-part crisis—the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and a negotiated settlement between the pro-Western government of Laos and the Pathet Lao communist movement These made Kennedy believe that another failure on the part of the United States to gain control and stop communist expansion would fatally damage U.S. credibility with its allies and his own reputation. Kennedy determined to "draw a line in the sand" and prevent a communist victory in Vietnam, saying, "Now we have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place," to James Reston of The New York Times immediately after meeting Khrushchev in Vienna. Kennedy increased the number of U.S. military in Vietnam from 800 to 16,300.
In May 1961, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Saigon and enthusiastically declared Diem the "Winston Churchill of Asia. Asked why he had made the comment, Johnson replied, "Diem's the only boy we got out there." Johnson assured Diem of more aid in molding a fighting force that could resist the communists.
Kennedy's policy toward South Vietnam rested on the assumption that Diem and his forces must ultimately defeat the guerrillas on their own. He was against the deployment of American combat troops and observed that "to introduce U.S. forces in large numbers there today, while it might have an initially favorable military impact, would almost certainly lead to adverse political and, in the long run, adverse military consequences.
The quality of the South Vietnamese military, however, remained poor. Bad leadership, corruption, and political interference all played a part in emasculating the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). The frequency of guerrilla attacks rose as the insurgency gathered steam. Hanoi's support for the NLF played a significant role. But South Vietnamese governmental incompetence was at the core of the crisis. Kennedy advisers Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow recommended that U.S. troops be sent to South Vietnam disguised as flood relief workers. Kennedy rejected the idea but increased military assistance yet again. In April 1962, John Kenneth Galbraith warned Kennedy of the "danger we shall replace the French as a colonial force in the area and bleed as the French did. Because of vast Dutch oil discoveries in nearby Indonesia, first the French, then the Americans, wanted to explore the broad Vietnamese continental shelf. By mid-1962, the number of U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam had risen from 700 to 12,000.
The Strategic Hamlet Program had been initiated in 1961. This joint U.S.-South Vietnamese program attempted to resettle the rural population into fortified camps. The aim was to isolate the population from the insurgents, provide education and health care, and strengthen the government's hold over the countryside. The Strategic Hamlets, however, were quickly infiltrated by the guerrillas. The peasants resented being uprooted from their ancestral villages. The government refused to undertake land reform, which left farmers paying high rents to a few wealthy landlords. Corruption dogged the program and intensified opposition. Government officials were targeted for assassination. The Strategic Hamlet Program collapsed two years later.
On July 23, 1962, fourteen nations, including the People's Republic of China, South Vietnam, the Soviet Union, North Vietnam and the United States, signed an agreement promising the neutrality of Laos.
Chief among the proposed changes was the removal of Diem's younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. Nhu controlled the secret police and was seen as the man behind the Buddhist repression. As Diem's most powerful adviser, Nhu had become a hated figure in South Vietnam. His continued influence was unacceptable to the Kennedy administration. Eventually, the administration concluded that Diem was unwilling to change.
The CIA was in contact with generals planning to remove Diem. They were told that the United States would support such a move. President Diem was overthrown and executed, along with his brother, on November 2, 1963. When he was informed, Maxwell Taylor remembered that Kennedy "rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face. He had not approved Diem's murder. The U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, invited the coup leaders to the embassy and congratulated them. Ambassador Lodge informed Kennedy that "the prospects now are for a shorter war".
Following the coup, chaos ensued. Hanoi took advantage of the situation and increased its support for the guerrillas. South Vietnam entered a period of extreme political instability, as one military government toppled another in quick succession. Increasingly, each new regime was viewed as a puppet of the Americans; whatever the failings of Diem, his credentials as a nationalist (as Robert McNamara later reflected) had been impeccable.
Kennedy increased the number of U.S. military advisers from 800 to 16,300 to cope with rising guerrilla activity. The advisers were embedded at every level of the South Vietnamese armed forces. They were, however, almost completely ignorant of the political nature of the insurgency. The insurgency was a political power struggle, in which military engagements were not the main goal. The Kennedy administration sought to refocus U.S. efforts on pacification and "winning over the hearts and minds" of the population. The military leadership in Washington, however, was hostile to any role for U.S. advisers other than conventional troop training. General Paul Harkins, the commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, confidently predicted victory by Christmas 1963. The CIA was less optimistic, however, warning that "the Viet Cong by and large retain de facto control of much of the countryside and have steadily increased the overall intensity of the effort".
In a conversation with Nobel Peace Prize winner and Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson, Kennedy sought his advice. "Get out," Pearson replied. "That's a stupid answer," shot back Kennedy. "Everyone knows that. The question is: How do we get out? Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, just three weeks after Diem.
Kennedy had introduced helicopters to the war and created a joint U.S.-South Vietnamese Air Force, staffed with American pilots. He also sent in the Green Berets. He was succeeded by his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who reaffirmed America's support of South Vietnam. By the end of the year Saigon had received $500 million in military aid.
Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), as he took over the presidency after the death of Kennedy, did not consider Vietnam a priority and was more concerned with his "Great Society" and progressive social programs. Johnson had a difficult time with American foreign policy makers, specifically Averill Harriman and Dean Acheson, who to Johnson's mind spoke a different language. Particularly heated was the relationship between the new president and national security advisor McGeorge Bundy. Shortly after the assassination of Kennedy, when Bundy called LBJ on the phone, LBJ responded:
"Goddammit, Bundy. I've told you that when I want you I'll call you.
On November 24, 1963, Johnson brought a small group together to talk with Henry Cabot Lodge, and the new president provided his support to help win the Vietnam war. But the pledge came at a time when Vietnam was deteriorating, especially in places like the Mekong Delta, because of the recent coup against Diem.
The military revolutionary council, meeting in lieu of a strong South Vietnamese leader, was made up of 12 members headed by General Minh—whom Stanley Karnow, a journalist on the ground, later recalled as "a model of lethargy. His regime was overthrown in January 1964 by General Nguyen Khanh. Lodge, frustrated by the end of year, cabled home about Minh: "Will he be strong enough to get on top of things?
On August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox, on an intelligence mission along North Vietnam's coast, fired upon and damaged several torpedo boats that had been stalking it in the Gulf of Tonkin. A second attack was reported two days later on the USS Turner Joy and Maddox in the same area. The circumstances of the attack were murky. Lyndon Johnson commented to Undersecretary of State George Ball that "those sailors out there may have been shooting at flying fish. The second attack led to retaliatory air strikes, prompted Congress to approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and gave the president power to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without declaring war. In the same month, Johnson pledged that he was not "... committing American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land."
In 2005, however, an NSA declassified report revealed that there was no attack on August 4. It had already been called into question long before this. "The Gulf of Tonkin incident", writes Louise Gerdes, "is an oft-cited example of the way in which Johnson misled the American people to gain support for his foreign policy in Vietnam. George C. Herring argues, however, that McNamara and the Pentagon "did not knowingly lie about the alleged attacks, but they were obviously in a mood to retaliate and they seem to have selected from the evidence available to them those parts that confirmed what they wanted to believe. Rising from 5,000 in 1959, there were now 100,000 guerrilla fighters in 1964. Some have argued that ten soldiers are needed to deal with every one insurgent. Thus, the total number of U.S. troops in 1964 needed to defeat the insurgents may have exceeded the entire strength of the United States Army.
The National Security Council recommended a three-stage escalation of the bombing of North Vietnam. On March 2, 1965, following an attack on a U.S. Marine barracks at Pleiku, Operation Flaming Dart, Operation Rolling Thunder and Operation Arc Light commenced. The bombing campaign, which ultimately lasted three years, was intended to force North Vietnam to cease its support for the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) by threatening to destroy North Vietnam's air defenses and industrial infrastructure. As well, it was aimed at bolstering the morale of the South Vietnamese. Between March 1965 and November 1968, "Rolling Thunder" deluged the north with a million tons of missiles, rockets and bombs. Bombing was not restricted to North Vietnam. Other aerial campaigns, such as Operation Commando Hunt, targeted different parts of the NLF and Vietnam People's Army (VPA) infrastructure. These included the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through Laos and Cambodia. The objective of forcing North Vietnam to stop its support for the NLF, however, was never reached. As one officer noted "this is a political war and it calls for discriminate killing. The best weapon … would be a knife … The worst is an airplane." The Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force Curtis LeMay, however, had long advocated saturation bombing in Vietnam and wrote of the Communists that "we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age".
Escalation of the Vietnam War officially started on the morning of January 31, 1965, when orders were cut and issued to mobilize the 18th TAC Fighter Squadron from Okinawa to Danang air force base (AFB). A red alert alarm to scramble was sounded at Kadena AFB at 3:00 a.m. F-105s, pilots, and support were deployed from Okinawa and landed in Vietnam that afternoon to join up with other smaller units who had already arrived weeks earlier. Preparations were under way for the first step of Operation Flaming Dart. The mission of Operation Flaming Dart, to cross the Seventeenth Parallel into North Vietnam, had already been planned and was in place before the NLF attack on Pleiku airbase on February 6. On February 7, forty-nine F-105 Thunderchiefs flew out of Danang AFB to targets located in North Vietnam. From this day forward the war was no longer confined to South Vietnam. It took almost an hour to get all forty nine of the F-105's in the air. On that morning, the continuous loud roar of the F-105 engines going down the runway, one following another, was described by the ground crew as a "rolling thunder". At this time the Marines had not landed and Danang AFB was unprotected.
After several attacks upon them, it was decided that U.S. Air Force bases needed more protection. The South Vietnamese military seemed incapable of providing security. On March 8, 1965, 3,500 United States Marines were dispatched to South Vietnam. This marked the beginning of the American ground war. U.S. public opinion overwhelmingly supported the deployment. Public opinion, however, was based on the premise that Vietnam was part of a global struggle against communism. In a statement similar to that made to the French almost two decades earlier, Ho Chi Minh warned that if the Americans "want to make war for twenty years then we shall make war for twenty years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to afternoon tea. As former First Deputy Foreign Minister Tran Quang Co has noted, the primary goal of the war was to reunify Vietnam and secure its independence. The policy of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was not to topple other non-communist governments in South East Asia.
The Marines' assignment was defensive. The initial deployment of 3,500 in March was increased to nearly 200,000 by December. The U.S. military had long been schooled in offensive warfare. Regardless of political policies, U.S. commanders were institutionally and psychologically unsuited to a defensive mission. In May, Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Binh Gia. They were again defeated in June, at the Battle of Dong Xoai. Desertion rates were increasing, and morale plummeted. General William Westmoreland informed Admiral Grant Sharp, commander of U.S. Pacific forces, that the situation was critical. He said, "I am convinced that U.S. troops with their energy, mobility, and firepower can successfully take the fight to the NLF [National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam]. With this recommendation, Westmoreland was advocating an aggressive departure from America's defensive posture and the sidelining of the South Vietnamese. By ignoring ARVN units, the U.S. commitment became open-ended. Westmoreland outlined a three-point plan to win the war:
"Phase 1. Commitment of U.S. (and other free world) forces necessary to halt the losing trend by the end of 1965.
Phase 2. U.S. and allied forces mount major offensive actions to seize the initiative to destroy guerrilla and organized enemy forces. This phase would be concluded when the enemy had been worn down, thrown on the defensive, and driven back from major populated areas.
Phase 3. If the enemy persisted, a period of twelve to eighteen months following Phase 2 would be required for the final destruction of enemy forces remaining in remote base areas.
The plan was approved by Johnson and marked a profound departure from the previous administration's insistence that the government of South Vietnam was responsible for defeating the guerrillas. Westmoreland predicted victory by the end of 1967. Johnson did not, however, communicate this change in strategy to the media. Instead he emphasized continuity. The change in U.S. policy depended on matching the North Vietnamese and the NLF in a contest of attrition and morale. The opponents were locked in a cycle of escalation. The idea that the government of South Vietnam could manage its own affairs was shelved. Soon the NLF began to engage in small-unit guerrilla warfare, which allowed them to control the pace of the fighting.
It is widely held that the average U.S. serviceman was nineteen years old, as evidenced by the casual reference in a pop song (19 by Paul Hardcastle); the figure is cited by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman ret. of the Killology Research Group in his 1995 book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (p. 265). However, it is disputed by the Vietnam Helicopter Flight Crew Network Website, which claims the average age of MOS 11B personnel was 22. This compares with twenty-six years of age for those who participated in World War II. Soldiers served a one year tour of duty. The average age of the US Military men who died in Vietnam was 22.8 years old. The one-year tour of duty deprived units of experienced leadership. As one observer noted "we were not in Vietnam for 10 years, but for one year 10 times." As a result, training programs were shortened. Some NCOs were referred to as "Shake 'N' Bake" to highlight their accelerated training. Unlike soldiers in World War II and Korea, there were no secure rear areas in which to get rest and relaxation (R'n'R). American troops were vulnerable to attack everywhere they went.
South Vietnam was inundated with manufactured goods. As Stanley Karnow writes, "the main PX, located in the Saigon suburb of Cholon, was only slightly smaller than the New York Bloomingdale's … The American buildup transformed the economy and had a profound impact on South Vietnamese society. A huge surge in corruption was witnessed. The country was also flooded with civilian specialists from every conceivable field to advise the South Vietnamese government and improve its performance.
Washington encouraged its SEATO allies to contribute troops. Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines all agreed to send troops. Major allies, however, notably NATO nations, Canada and the United Kingdom, declined Washington's troop requests. The U.S. and its allies mounted complex operations, such as operations Masher, Attleboro, Cedar Falls, and Junction City. However, the communist insurgents remained elusive and demonstrated great tactical flexibility.
Meanwhile, the political situation in South Vietnam began to stabilize somewhat with the coming to power of Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky and President Nguyen Van Thieu in 1967. Thieu, mistrustful and indecisive, remained president until 1975. This ended a long series of military juntas that had begun with Diem's assassination. The relative calm allowed the ARVN to collaborate more effectively with its allies and become a better fighting force.
The Johnson administration employed a "policy of minimum candor" in its dealings with the media. Military information officers sought to manage media coverage by emphasizing stories which portrayed progress in the war. Over time, this policy damaged the public trust in official pronouncements. As the media's coverage of the war and that of the Pentagon diverged, a so-called credibility gap developed.
In October 1967 a large anti-war demonstration was held on the steps of the Pentagon. Of the thousands of protesters, over 680 were arrested. Some protesters chanted phrases like, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! The NLF is going to win!” and "Hey, hey, LBJ! How many boys did you kill today? One reason for the increase in the opposition to the Vietnam War was larger draft quotas.
Having lured General Westmoreland's forces into the hinterland at Khe Sanh in Quang Tri Province, in January 1968, the PVA and NLF broke the truce that had traditionally accompanied the Tết (Lunar New Year) holiday. They launched the surprise Tet Offensive in the hope of sparking a national uprising. Over 100 cities were attacked, with assaults on General Westmoreland's headquarters and the U.S. embassy in Saigon.
Although the U.S. and South Vietnamese were initially taken aback by the scale of the urban offensive, they responded quickly and effectively, decimating the ranks of the NLF. In the former capital city of Huế, the combined NLF and NVA troops captured the Imperial Citadel and much of the city, which led to the Battle of Hue. During the interim between the capture of the Citadel and end of the "Battle of Hue", the communist insurgent occupying forces massacred several thousand unarmed Hue civilians (estimates vary up to a high of 6000). After the war, North Vietnamese officials acknowledged that the Tet Offensive had, indeed, caused grave damage to NLF forces. But the offensive had another, unintended consequence.
General Westmoreland had become the public face of the war. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine three times and was named 1965's Man of the Year. Time described him as "the sinewy personification of the American fighting man … (who) directed the historic buildup, drew up the battle plans, and infused the … men under him with his own idealistic view of U.S. aims and responsibilities."
In November 1967 Westmoreland spearheaded a public relations drive for the Johnson administration to bolster flagging public support. In a speech before the National Press Club he said that a point in the war had been reached "where the end comes into view. Thus, the public was shocked and confused when Westmoreland's predictions were trumped by Tet. The American media, which had been largely supportive of U.S. efforts, rounded on the Johnson administration for what had become an increasing credibility gap. Despite its military failure, the Tet Offensive became a political victory and ended the career of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who declined to run for re-election. Johnson's approval rating slumped from 48 to 36 percent. As James Witz noted, Tet "contradicted the claims of progress … made by the Johnson administration and the military." The Tet Offensive was the turning point in America's involvement in the Vietnam War. It had a profound impact on domestic support for the conflict. The offensive constituted an intelligence failure on the scale of Pearl Harbor. Journalist Peter Arnett quoted an unnamed officer, saying of Ben Tre that "it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it" (though the authenticity of this quote is disputed). Westmoreland became Chief of Staff of the Army in March, just as all resistance was finally subdued. The move was technically a promotion. However, his position had become untenable because of the offensive and because his request for 200,000 additional troops had been leaked to the media. Westmoreland was succeeded by his deputy Creighton Abrams, a commander less inclined to public media pronouncements.
On May 10, 1968, despite low expectations, peace talks began between the U.S. and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Negotiations stagnated for five months, until Johnson gave orders to halt the bombing of North Vietnam. The Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, was running against Republican former vice president Richard Nixon. Through an intermediary, Anna Chennault, Nixon advised Saigon to refuse to participate in the talks until after elections, claiming that he would give them a better deal once elected. Thieu obliged, leaving almost no progress made by the time Johnson left office.
As historian Robert Dallek writes, "Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam divided Americans into warring camps … cost 30,000 American lives by the time he left office, (and) destroyed Johnson's presidency … His refusal to send more U.S. troops to Vietnam was Johnson's admission that the war was lost. As Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara noted, "the dangerous illusion of victory by the United States was therefore dead.
During the 1968 presidential election, Richard M. Nixon promised "peace with honor". His plan was to build up the ARVN, so that they could take over the defense of South Vietnam (the Nixon Doctrine). The policy became known as "Vietnamization", a term criticized by Robert K. Brigham for implying that, to that date, only Americans had been dying in the conflict. Vietnamization had much in common with the policies of the Kennedy administration. One important difference, however, remained. While Kennedy insisted that the South Vietnamese fight the war themselves, he attempted to limit the scope of the conflict. In pursuit of a withdrawal strategy, Richard Nixon was prepared to employ a variety of tactics, including widening the war.
Nixon also pursued negotiations. Theater commander Creighton Abrams shifted to smaller operations, aimed at NLF logistics, with better use of firepower and more cooperation with the ARVN. Nixon also began to pursue détente with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with the People's Republic of China. This policy helped to decrease global tensions. Détente led to nuclear arms reduction on the part of both superpowers. But Nixon was disappointed that the PRC and the Soviet Union continued to supply the North Vietnamese with aid. In September 1969, Ho Chi Minh died at age seventy-nine.
The anti-war movement was gaining strength in the United States. Nixon appealed to the "silent majority" of Americans to support the war. But revelations of the My Lai Massacre, in which U.S. forces went on a rampage and killed civilians, including women and children, provoked national and international outrage. The civilian cost of the war was again questioned when the U.S concluded operation Speedy Express with a claimed bodycount of 10,889 NLF (vietcong) guerillas with only 40 U.S losses; Kevin Buckley writing in Newsweek estimated that perhaps 5,000 of the Vietnamese dead were civilians..
Prince Norodom Sihanouk had proclaimed Cambodia neutral since 1955, but the VPA and NLF used Cambodian soil as a base and Sihanouk tolerated their presence, because he wished to avoid being drawn into a wider regional conflict. Under pressure from Washington, however, he changed this policy in 1969. The VPA and the NLF were no longer welcome. President Nixon took the opportunity to launch a massive secret bombing campaign, called Operation Menu, against their sanctuaries along the border. This violated a long succession of pronouncements from Washington supporting Cambodian neutrality. Richard Nixon wrote to Prince Sihanouk in April 1969 assuring him that the United States respected "the sovereignty, neutrality and territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Cambodia … Over 14 months, however, approximately 2,750,000 tons of bombs were dropped, more than the total dropped by the Allies in World War II. The bombing was hidden from the American public. In 1970, Prince Sihanouk was deposed by his pro-American prime minister Lon Nol. The country's borders were closed, and the U.S. and ARVN launched incursions into Cambodia to attack VPA/NLF bases and buy time for South Vietnam. The coup against Sihanouk and U.S. bombing destabilized Cambodia and increased support for the Khmer Rouge.
The invasion of Cambodia sparked nationwide U.S. protests. Four students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University during a protest in Ohio, which provoked public outrage in the United States. The reaction to the incident by the Nixon administration was seen as callous and indifferent, providing additional impetus for the anti-war movement.
In 1971 the Pentagon Papers were leaked to The New York Times. The top-secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, commissioned by the Department of Defense, detailed a long series of public deceptions. The Supreme Court ruled that its publication was legal.
The ARVN launched Operation Lam Son 719, aimed at cutting the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. The offensive was a clear violation of Laotian neutrality, which neither side respected in any event. Laos had long been the scene of a Secret War. After meeting resistance, ARVN forces retreated in a confused rout. They fled along roads littered with their own dead. When they ran out of fuel, soldiers abandoned their vehicles and attempted to barge their way on to American helicopters sent to evacuate the wounded. Many ARVN soldiers clung to helicopter skids in a desperate attempt to save themselves. U.S. aircraft had to destroy abandoned equipment, including tanks, to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Half of the invading ARVN troops were either captured or killed. The operation was a fiasco and represented a clear failure of Vietnamization. As Karnow noted "the blunders were monumental … The (South Vietnamese) government's top officers had been tutored by the Americans for ten or fifteen years, many at training schools in the United States, yet they had learned little.
In 1971 Australia and New Zealand withdrew their soldiers. The U.S. troop count was further reduced to 196,700, with a deadline to remove another 45,000 troops by February 1972. As peace protests spread across the United States, disillusionment grew in the ranks. Drug use increased, race relations grew tense and the number of soldiers disobeying officers rose. Fragging, or the murder of unpopular officers with fragmentation grenades, increased.
Vietnamization was again tested by the Easter Offensive of 1972, a massive conventional invasion of South Vietnam. The VPA and NLF quickly overran the northern provinces and in coordination with other forces attacked from Cambodia, threatening to cut the country in half. U.S. troop withdrawals continued. But American airpower came to the rescue with Operation Linebacker, and the offensive was halted. However, it became clear that without American airpower South Vietnam could not survive. The last remaining American ground troops were withdrawn in August. But a force of civilian and military advisers remained in place.
The war was the central issue of the 1972 presidential election. Nixon's opponent, George McGovern, campaigned on a platform of withdrawal from Vietnam. Nixon's National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, continued secret negotiations with North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho. In October 1972, they reached an agreement. However, South Vietnamese President Thieu demanded massive changes to the peace accord. When North Vietnam went public with the agreement's details, the Nixon administration claimed that the North was attempting to embarrass the President. The negotiations became deadlocked. Hanoi demanded new changes. To show his support for South Vietnam and force Hanoi back to the negotiating table, Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker II, a massive bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. The offensive destroyed much of the remaining economic and industrial capacity of North Vietnam. Simultaneously Nixon pressured Thieu to accept the terms of the agreement, threatening to conclude a bilateral peace deal and cut off American aid. Popularly known as the Christmas Bombings, Operation Linebacker II provoked a fresh wave of anti-war demonstrations.
On January 15, 1973, Nixon announced the suspension of offensive action against North Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords on "Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam" were signed on January 27, 1973, officially ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. A cease-fire was declared across North and South Vietnam. U.S. POWs were released. The agreement guaranteed the territorial integrity of Vietnam and, like the Geneva Conference of 1954, called for national elections in the North and South. The Paris Peace Accords stipulated a sixty-day period for the total withdrawal of U.S. forces. "This article," noted Peter Church, "proved … to be the only one of the Paris Agreements which was fully carried out.
Opposition to the Vietnam War tended to unite groups opposed to U.S. anti-communism, imperialism and colonialism and, for those involved with the New Left, capitalism itself, such as the Catholic Worker Movement. Others, such as Stephen Spiro opposed the war based on the theory of Just War. Although he was convicted of avoiding conscription, he received a suspended sentence, and was later pardoned by President Gerald Ford.
Some critics of U.S. withdrawal predicted that it would not contribute to peace but rather vastly increased bloodshed. These critics advocated U.S. forces remain until all threats from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army had been eliminated.
Advocates of U.S. withdrawal were generally known as "doves", and they called their opponents "hawks", following nomenclature dating back to the War of 1812. The imagery was intended to present the withdrawal advocates as peace-seeking and the withdrawal opponents as bad and predatory. The idea of a chickenhawk refers back to this time, to describe those who had avoided dangerous military service before they entered politics, but then advocated aggressive stances once in office.
High-profile opposition to the Vietnam war turned to street protests in an effort to turn U.S. political opinion against the war. The protests gained momentum from the Civil Rights Movement that had organized to oppose segregation laws, which had laid a foundation of theory and infrastructure on which the anti-war movement grew. Protests were fueled by a growing network of independently published newspapers (known as "underground papers") and the timely advent of large venue rock'n'roll festivals such as Woodstock and Grateful Dead shows, attracting younger people in search of generational togetherness.
The fatal shooting of four anti-war protesters at Kent State University cemented the resolve of many protesters. The Kent State killings saw campuses erupt all across the country; in May 1970 most universities were strike-bound, for example at Wayne State University. The late 1960s in the U.S. became a time of youth rebellion, mass gatherings and riots, many of which began in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but which ignited in an atmosphere of open opposition to a wartime government.
Provocative actions by police and by protesters turned anti-war demonstrations in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention into a riot. Explosive news reports of American military abuses, such as the 1968 My Lai Massacre, brought new attention and support to the anti-war movement.
Veterans of the Vietnam War returned home to join the movement, including John Kerry, who spearheaded Vietnam Veterans Against the War and testified before Congress in televised hearings. Thirty years later, as a United States Senator, Kerry campaigned to become President of the United States, betraying a newfound reluctance to acknowledge his anti-war roots while playing up his stellar war record. Other U.S. veterans returned from the war saying that nobody wants to be in a war where people are suffering and dying, but that they found peace in their own minds by knowing they served their country. Some cited the words of George Washington's 1790 State of the Union Address: "To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."
Anti-war protests ended with the final withdrawal of troops after the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973. Momentum from the protest organizations became a main force for the growth of an environmental movement in the United States. South Vietnam was left to defend itself alone when the fighting resumed. Many South Vietnamese fled to the United States in one of the largest war refugee migrations in history. There was no peace movement to protest the renewed bloodshed, and little media coverage. Saigon surrendered to the North in 1975; Laos and Cambodia were overrun by Communist troops that same spring.
Under Paris Peace Accord, between North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Lê Ðức Thọ and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and reluctantly signed by South Vietnamese President Thiệu, U.S. military forces withdrew from South Vietnam and prisoners were exchanged. North Vietnam was allowed to continue supplying communist troops in the South, but only to the extent of replacing materials that were consumed. Later that year the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kissinger and Thọ, but the Vietnamese negotiator declined it saying that a true peace did not yet exist.
The communist leaders had expected that the ceasefire terms would favor their side. But Saigon, bolstered by a surge of U.S. aid received just before the ceasefire went into effect, began to roll back the Vietcong. The communists responded with a new strategy hammered out in a series of meetings in Hanoi in March 1973, according to the memoirs of Trần Văn Trà. As the Vietcong's top commander, Trà participated in several of these meetings. With U.S. bombings suspended, work on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and other logistical structures could proceed unimpeded. Logistics would be upgraded until the North was in a position to launch a massive invasion of the South, projected for the 1975-76 dry season. Trà calculated that this date would be the Hanoi's last opportunity to strike before Saigon's army could be fully trained. A three-thousand-mile long oil pipeline would be built from North Vietnam to Vietcong headquarters in Loc Ninh, about northwest of Saigon.
Although McGovern himself was not elected U.S. president, the November 1972 election did return a Democratic majority to both houses of Congress under McGovern's "Come home America" campaign theme. On March 15, 1973, U.S. President Richard Nixon implied that the U.S. would intervene militarily if the communist side violated the ceasefire. Public and congressional reaction to Nixon's trial balloon was unfavorable and in April Nixon appointed Graham Martin as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. Martin was a second stringer compared to previous U.S. ambassadors and his appointment was an early signal that Washington had given up on Vietnam. During his confirmation hearings in June 1973, Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger stated that he would recommend resumption of U.S. bombing in North Vietnam if North Vietnam launched a major offensive against South Vietnam. On June 4, 1973, the U.S. Senate passed the Case-Church Amendment to prohibit such intervention.
The oil price shock of October 1973 caused significant damage to the South Vietnamese economy. The Vietcong resumed offensive operations when dry season began and by January 1974 it had recaptured the territory it lost during the previous dry season. After two clashes that left 55 South Vietnamese soldiers dead, President Thiệu announced on January 4 that the war had restarted and that the Paris Peace Accord was no longer in effect. There had been over 25,000 South Vietnamese casualties during the ceasefire period.
Gerald Ford took over as U.S. president on August 9, 1974 after President Nixon resigned due to the Watergate scandal. At this time, Congress cut financial aid to South Vietnam from $1 billion a year to $700 million. The U.S. midterm elections in 1974 brought in a new Congress dominated by Democrats who were even more determined to confront the president on the war. Congress immediately voted in restrictions on funding and military activities to be phased in through 1975 and to culminate in a total cutoff of funding in 1976.
The success of the 1973-74 dry season offensive inspired Trà to return to Hanoi in October 1974 and plead for a larger offensive in the next dry season. This time, Trà could travel on a drivable highway with regular fueling stops, a vast change from the days was Ho Chi Minh Trail was a dangerous mountain trek. Giáp, the North Vietnamese defense minister, was reluctant to approved Trà's plan. A larger offensive might provoke a U.S. reaction and interfere with the big push planned for 1976. Trà appealed over Giáp's head to party boss Lê Duẩn, who obtained Politburo approval for the operation.
Trà's plan called for a limited offensive from Cambodia into Phuoc Long Province. The strike was designed to solve local logistical problems, gauge the reaction of South Vietnamese forces, and determine whether the U.S. would return to the fray.
On December 13, 1974, North Vietnamese forces attacked Route 14 in Phouc Long Province. Phouc Binh, the provincial capital, fell on January 6, 1975. Ford desperately asked Congress for funds to assist and re-supply the South before it was overrun. Congress refused. The fall of Phouc Binh and the lack of an American response left the South Vietnamese elite demoralized and corruption grew rampant.
The speed of this success led the Politburo to reassess its strategy. It was decided that operations in the Central Highlands would be turned over to General Văn Tiến Dũng and that Pleiku should be seized, if possible. Before he left for the South, Dũng was addressed by Lê Duẩn: "Never have we had military and political conditions so perfect or a strategic advantage as great as we have now.
By 1975 after the withdrawal of US forces, the South Vietnamese Army faced a well-organized, highly determined and well-funded North Vietnam. Much of the North's material and financial support came from the communist bloc. Within South Vietnam, there was increasing chaos. Their abandonment by the American military had compromised an economy dependent on U.S. financial support and the presence of a large number of U.S. troops. South Vietnam suffered from the global recession which followed the Arab oil embargo.
President Nguyen Van Thieu, a former general, was fearful that his forces would be cut off in the north by the attacking communists; Thieu ordered a retreat. The president declared this to be a "lighten the top and keep the bottom" strategy. But in what appeared to be a repeat of Operation Lam Son 719, the withdrawal soon turned into a bloody rout. While the bulk of ARVN forces attempted to flee, isolated units fought desperately. ARVN General Phu abandoned Pleiku and Kontum and retreated toward the coast, in what became known as the "column of tears". As the ARVN tried to disengage from the enemy, refugees mixed in with the line of retreat. The poor condition of roads and bridges, damaged by years of conflict and neglect, slowed Phu's column. As the North Vietnamese forces approached, panic set in. Often abandoned by their officers, the soldiers, and civilians, were shelled incessantly. The retreat degenerated into a desperate scramble for the coast. By April 1 the "column of tears" was all but annihilated. It marked one of the poorest examples of a strategic withdrawal in modern military history.
On March 20, Thieu reversed himself and ordered Hue, Vietnam's third-largest city, be held at all costs. Thieu's contradictory orders confused and demoralized his officer corps. As the North Vietnamese launched their attack, panic set in, and ARVN resistance withered. On March 22, the VPA opened the siege of Hue. Civilians flooded the airport and the docks hoping for any mode of escape. Some even swam out to sea to reach boats and barges anchored offshore. In the confusion, routed ARVN soldiers fired on civilians to make way for their retreat. On March 31, after a three-day battle, Hue fell. As resistance in Hue collapsed, North Vietnamese rockets rained down on Da Nang and its airport. By March 28, 35,000 VPA troops were poised to attack the suburbs. By March 30, 100,000 leaderless ARVN troops surrendered as the VPA marched victoriously through Da Nang. With the fall of the city, the defense of the Central Highlands and Northern provinces came to an end.
On April 7, three North Vietnamese divisions attacked Xuan Loc, 40 miles (64 km) east of Saigon. The North Vietnamese met fierce resistance at Xuan Loc from the ARVN 18th Division. For two bloody weeks, severe fighting raged as the ARVN defenders made a last stand to try to block the North Vietnamese advance. By April 21, however, the exhausted garrison surrendered.
An embittered and tearful President Thieu resigned on the same day, declaring that the United States had betrayed South Vietnam. In a scathing attack on the US, he suggested U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had tricked him into signing the Paris peace agreement two years ago, promising military aid which then failed to materialise.
"At the time of the peace agreement the United States agreed to replace equipment on a one-by-one basis," he said. "But the United States did not keep its word. Is an American's word reliable these days?" He continued, "The United States did not keep its promise to help us fight for freedom and it was in the same fight that the United States lost 50,000 of its young men. He left for Taiwan on April 25, leaving control of the government in the hands of General Duong Van Minh. At the same time, North Vietnamese tanks had reached Bien Hoa and turned toward Saigon, brushing aside isolated ARVN units along the way.
By the end of April, the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam had collapsed on all fronts. Thousand of refugees streamed southward, ahead of the main communist onslaught. On April 27, 100,000 North Vietnamese troops encircled Saigon. The city was defended by about 30,000 ARVN troops. To hasten a collapse and foment panic, the VPA shelled the airport and forced its closure. With the air exit closed, large numbers of civilians found that they had no way out.
Schlesinger announced early in the morning of April 29, 1975 the evacuation from Saigon by helicopter of the last U.S. diplomatic, military, and civilian personnel. Frequent Wind was arguably the largest helicopter evacuation in history. It began on April 29, in an atmosphere of desperation, as hysterical crowds of Vietnamese vied for limited seats. Martin pleaded with Washington to dispatch $700 million in emergency aid to bolster the regime and help it mobilize fresh military reserves. But American public opinion had soured on this conflict halfway around the world.
In the U.S., South Vietnam was perceived as doomed. President Gerald Ford gave a televised speech on April 23, declaring an end to the Vietnam War and all U.S. aid. Frequent Wind continued around the clock, as North Vietnamese tanks breached defenses on the outskirts of Saigon. The song "White Christmas" was broadcast as the final signal for withdrawal. In the early morning hours of April 30, the last U.S. Marines evacuated the embassy by helicopter, as civilians swamped the perimeter and poured into the grounds. Many of them had been employed by the Americans and were left to their fate.
On April 30, 1975, VPA troops overcame all resistance, quickly capturing key buildings and installations. A tank crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace, and at 11:30 a.m. local time the NLF flag was raised above it. Thieu's successor, President Duong Van Minh, attempted to surrender, but VPA officers informed him that he had nothing left to surrender. Minh then issued his last command, ordering all South Vietnamese troops to lay down their arms.
The Communists had attained their goal: they had toppled the Saigon regime. But the cost of victory was high. In the past decade alone, one Vietnamese in every ten had been a casualty of war—nearly a million and a half killed, three million wounded.
Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese officials, particularly ARVN officers, were imprisoned in reeducation camps after the Communist takeover. Tens of thousands died and many fled the country after being released. Up to two million civilians left the country, and as many as half of these boat people perished at sea.
On July 2, 1976, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was declared. After repeated border clashes in 1978, Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia) and ousted the Khmer Rouge. As many as two million died during the Khmer Rouge genocide. Vietnam began to repress its ethnic Chinese minority. Thousands fled and the exodus of the boat people began. In 1979, China invaded Vietnam and the two countries fought a brief border war, known as the Third Indochina War or the Sino-Vietnamese War.
In the post-war era, Americans struggled to absorb the lessons of the military intervention. As General Maxwell Taylor, one of the principal architects of the war, noted "first, we didn't know ourselves. We thought that we were going into another Korean war, but this was a different country. Secondly, we didn't know our South Vietnamese allies … And we knew less about North Vietnam. Who was Ho Chi Minh? Nobody really knew. So, until we know the enemy and know our allies and know ourselves, we'd better keep out of this kind of dirty business. It's very dangerous.
In the decades since end of the conflict, discussions have ensued as to whether America's withdrawal was a political defeat rather than military defeat. Some have suggested that "the responsibility for the ultimate failure of this policy [America's withdrawal from Vietnam] lies not with the men who fought, but with those in Congress... Alternatively, the official history of the United States Army noted that "tactics have often seemed to exist apart from larger issues, strategies, and objectives. Yet in Vietnam the Army experienced tactical success and strategic failure … The … Vietnam War('s) … legacy may be the lesson that unique historical, political, cultural, and social factors always impinge on the military … Success rests not only on military progress but on correctly analyzing the nature of the particular conflict, understanding the enemy's strategy, and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of allies. A new humility and a new sophistication may form the best parts of a complex heritage left to the Army by the long, bitter war in Vietnam. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in a secret memo to President Gerald Ford that "in terms of military tactics, we cannot help draw the conclusion that our armed forces are not suited to this kind of war. Even the Special Forces who had been designed for it could not prevail. Even Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara concluded that "the achievement of a military victory by U.S. forces in Vietnam was indeed a dangerous illusion.
Doubts surfaced as to the effectiveness of large-scale, sustained bombing. As Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson noted, "if anything came out of Vietnam, it was that air power couldn't do the job. Even General William Westmoreland admitted that the bombing had been ineffective. As he remarked, "I still doubt that the North Vietnamese would have relented." The inability to bomb Hanoi to the bargaining table also illustrated another U.S. miscalculation. The North's leadership was composed of hardened communists who had been fighting for independence for thirty years. They had successfully defeated the French, and their tenacity as both nationalists and communists was formidable.
The withdrawal from Vietnam called into question U.S. Army doctrine. Marine Corps General Victor Krulak heavily criticised Westmoreland's attrition strategy, calling it "wasteful of American lives … with small likelihood of a successful outcome." As well, doubts surfaced about the ability of the military to train foreign forces. The defeat also raised disturbing questions about the quality of the advice that was given to successive presidents by the Pentagon.
As the number of troops in Vietnam increased, the financial burden of the war grew. Some of the rarely mentioned consequences of the war were the budget cuts to President Johnson's Great Society programs. As defense spending and inflation grew, Johnson was forced to raise taxes. The Republicans, however, refused to vote for the increases unless a $6 billion cut was made to the administration's social programs.
Almost 3 million Americans served in Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1973, the United States spent $120 billion on the war ($700 billion in 2007 dollars). This resulted in a large federal budget deficit. The war demonstrated that no power, not even a superpower, has unlimited strength and resources. But perhaps most significantly, the Vietnam War illustrated that political will, as much as material might, is a decisive factor in the outcome of conflicts.
On the anti-communist side, South Korea had the second-largest contingent of foreign troops in South Vietnam after the United States. South Korea dispatched its first troops in 1964. Large combat battalions began arriving a year later. South Korean troops developed a reputation for effectiveness. Koreans conducted counterinsurgency operations so well that American commanders felt that Korean AOR (area of responsibility) was the safest. This was further supported when Vietcong documents captured after the Tet Offensive warned their compatriots to never engage Koreans until full victory is certain.
Approximately 320,000 South Korean soldiers were sent to Vietnam. As with the United States, soldiers served one year. The maximum number of South Korean troops peaked at 50,000. More than 5,000 South Koreans were killed and 11,000 were injured in the war. All troops were withdrawn in 1973.
Australia and New Zealand, both close allies of the United States and members of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), sent ground troops to Vietnam. Both nations had gained experience in counterinsurgency and jungle warfare during the Malayan Emergency. Geographically close to Asia, their governments subscribed to the "Domino Theory" of communist expansion and felt that their national security would be threatened if communism spread further in Southeast Asia.
Australia began by sending advisers to Vietnam, the number of which rose steadily until 1965, when combat troops were committed. New Zealand began by sending a detachment of engineers and an artillery battery, and then started sending special forces and regular infantry. Australia's peak commitment was 7,672 combat troops, New Zealand's 552. Most of these soldiers served in the 1st Australian Task Force, a brigade group-type formation, which was based in what was then Phuoc Tuy province, in the vicinity of present-day Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province.
Several Australian and New Zealand units were awarded U.S. unit citations for their service in South Vietnam, while the last Victoria Crosses—the highest award for bravery in the Commonwealth— awarded to members of the Australian armed forces were for actions in Vietnam.
Early in the American military effort it was decided that since the enemy were hiding their activities under triple-canopy jungle a useful first step might be to defoliate certain areas. This was especially true of growth surrounding bases (both large and small) in what became known as Operation Ranch Hand. Corporations like Dow Chemical and Monsanto were given the task of developing herbicides for this purpose. The defoliants, which were distributed in drums marked with color-coded bands, included the "Rainbow Herbicides"—Agent Pink, Agent Green, Agent Purple, Agent Blue, Agent White, and, most famously, Agent Orange, which included dioxin as a by-product of its manufacture. About 12 million gallons (45 000 000 L) of Agent Orange were sprayed over Southeast Asia during the American involvement. A prime area of Ranch Hand operations was in the Mekong Delta, where the U.S. Navy patrol boats were vulnerable to attack from the undergrowth at the water's edge.
In 1961 and 1962, the Kennedy administration authorized the use of chemicals to destroy rice crops. Between 1961 and 1967, the U.S. Air Force sprayed 20 million U.S. gallons (75 700 000 L) of concentrated herbicides over 6 million acres (24 000 km²) of crops and trees, affecting an estimated 13% of South Vietnam's land. A 1967 study by the Agronomy Section of the Japanese Science Council concluded that 3.8 million acres (15 000 km²) of foliage had been destroyed, possibly also leading to the deaths of 1,000 peasants and 13,000 head of livestock.
As of 2006, the Vietnamese government estimates that there are over 4,000,000 victims of dioxin poisoning in Vietnam, although the United States government denies any conclusive scientific links between Agent Orange and the Vietnamese victims of dioxin poisoning. In some areas of southern Vietnam dioxin levels remain at over 100 times the accepted international standard.
The U.S. Veterans Administration has listed prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, multiple myeloma, type II diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma, chloracne, porphyria cutanea tarda, peripheral neuropathy, and spina bifida in children of veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Although there has been much discussion over whether the use of these defoliants constituted a violation of the laws of war, the defoliants were not considered weapons, since exposure to them did not lead to immediate death or incapacitation.
In 1995, the Vietnamese government reported that its military forces, including the NLF, suffered 1.1 million dead and 600,000 wounded during Hanoi's conflict with the United States. Civilian deaths were put at two million in the North and South, and economic reparations were expected. Hanoi concealed the figures during the war to avoid demoralizing the population.