The Vietnam War, or what the Vietnamese call the “American War,” grew out of the Indochina War (1946-1954). The 1954 Geneva Conference, which ended the Indochina War between France and the nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, provided for the independence of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Agreements reached at Geneva temporarily divided Vietnam at the 17th Parallel, pending national elections in 1956. In the meantime, Viet Minh military forces were to withdraw north of that line and the French forces south of it. The war left two competing entities, the northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) and the southern French-dominated State of Vietnam (SV), each claiming to be the legitimate government of a united Vietnam.
In June 1954 SV titular head Emperor Bao Dai appointed as premier the Roman Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem, whom Bao Dai believed had Washington’s backing. Diem’s base of support was narrow but would soon be strengthened by the addition of some 800,000 northern Catholics who would relocate to southern Vietnam. In a subsequent power struggle between Bao Dai and Diem, in October 1955 Diem established the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam), with himself as president. The United States then extended aid to Diem, most of which went to the South Vietnamese military budget. Only minor sums went to education and social welfare programs. Thus, the aid seldom touched the lives of the preponderantly rural populace. As Diem consolidated his power, U. S. military advisers also reorganized the South Vietnamese armed forces. Known as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, South Vietnamese Army) and equipped with American weaponry, it was designed to fight a conventional invasion from North Vietnam rather than deal with countering the growing insurgency in South Vietnam.
Fearing a loss, Diem refused to hold the scheduled 1956 elections. This jolted veteran Communist North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Ho had not been displeased with Diem’s crushing of his internal opposition but was now ready to reunite the country under his sway and believed that he would win the elections. North Vietnam was more populous than South Vietnam, and the Communists were well organized there. Fortified by the containment policy, the domino theory, and the belief that the Communists, if they came to power, would never permit a democratic regime, U. S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration backed Diem’s defiance of the Geneva Accords.
Diem’s decision led to a renewal of fighting, which became the Vietnam War. Fighting resumed in 1957 when Diem moved against the 6,000-7,000 Viet Minh political cadres who had been allowed to remain in South Vietnam to prepare for the 1956 elections. The former Viet Minh (now called Viet Cong [VC], for “Vietnamese Communists”) began the armed insurgency on their own initiative but were subsequently supported by the North Vietnamese government. In December 1960 the Viet Minh established the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (National Liberation Front [NLF]). Supposedly independent, the NLF was controlled by Hanoi. The NLF program called for the overthrow of the Saigon government, its replacement by a “broad national democratic coalition,” and the “peaceful” reunification of Vietnam.
In September 1959 North Vietnamese defense minister Vo Nguyen Giap established Transportation Group 559 to send supplies and men south along what came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, much of which ran through supposedly neutral Laos and Cambodia. The first wave of infiltrators were native southerners and Viet Minh who had relocated to North Vietnam in 1954. VC sway expanded, spreading out from safe bases to one village after another. The insurgency was fed by the weaknesses of the central government, by the use of terror and assassination, and by Saigon’s appalling ignorance of the movement.
By the end of 1958 the insurgency had become a serious threat in several provinces. In 1960 the Communists carried out even more assassinations, and guerrilla units attacked ARVN regulars, overran district and provincial capitals, and ambushed convoys and reaction forces. By mid-1961, the Saigon government had lost control over much of rural South Vietnam. Infiltration was as yet not significant, and most of the insurgents’ weapons were either captured from ARVN forces or were left over from the war with France. Diem rejected American calls for meaningful reform until the establishment of full security. He did not understand that at that time the war was still primarily a political problem and could be solved only through political means.
Diem, who practiced the divide-and-rule concept of leadership, increasingly delegated authority to his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and his secret police. Isolated from his people and relying only on trusted family members and a few other advisers, Diem resisted U. S. demands that he promote his senior officials and officers on the basis of ability and pursue the war aggressively.
By now, U. S. president John F. Kennedy’s administration was forced to reevaluate its position toward the war, but increased U. S. involvement was inevitable, given Washington’s commitment to resist Communist expansion and the belief that all of Southeast Asia would become Communist if South Vietnam fell. Domestic political considerations also influenced the decision.
In May 1961 Kennedy sent several fact-finding missions to Vietnam. These led to the creation of the Strategic Hamlet Program as part of a general strategy emphasizing local militia defense and to the commitment of additional U. S. manpower. By the end of 1961, U. S. strength in Vietnam had grown to around 3,200 men, most in helicopter units or serving as advisers. In February 1962 the United States also established a military headquarters in Saigon, when the Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) was replaced by the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), to direct the enlarged American commitment. The infusion of U. S. helicopters and additional support for the ARVN probably prevented a VC military victory in 1962. The VC soon learned to cope with the helicopters, however, and with the increased flow of infiltrators and weapons from North Vietnam, the tide of battle turned again.
Meanwhile, Nhu’s crackdown on the Buddhists in the spring and summer of 1963 led to increased opposition to Diem’s rule. South Vietnamese generals now planned a coup, and after Diem rejected reforms, the United States gave the plotters tacit support. On November 1, 1963, the generals overthrew Diem, murdering both him and Nhu. Three weeks later Kennedy was also dead, succeeded by Lyndon B. Johnson.
The United States seemed unable to win the war either with or without Diem. A military junta now took power, but none of the South Vietnamese leaders who followed Diem had his prestige. Coups and countercoups occurred, and much of South Vietnam remained in turmoil. Not until General Nguyen Van Thieu became president in 1967 was there a degree of political stability.
Both sides steadily increased the stakes, apparently without foreseeing that the other might do the same. In 1964 Hanoi made two important decisions. The first was to send to South Vietnam units of its regular army, the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN, North Vietnamese Army). The second was to rearm its forces in South Vietnam with modern Communist-bloc weapons, giving them a firepower advantage over the ARVN, which was still equipped largely with World War II-era U. S. infantry weapons (up until this time, because the Hanoi leadership was trying to conceal its involvement in the insurgency in South Vietnam, most of the weapons being sent down from North Vietnam had been older weapons of Western manufacture).
On August 2, 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident occurred when North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the U. S. destroyer Maddox in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. A second attack on the Maddox and another U. S. destroyer, the Turner Joy, that was reported two days later probably never occurred, but Washington believed that it had, and this led the Johnson administration to order retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnamese naval bases and fuel depots. It also led to a near-unanimous vote in Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the president to use whatever force he deemed necessary to protect U. S. interests in Southeast Asia.
Johnson would not break off U. S. involvement in Vietnam, evidently fearing possible impeachment if he did so. At the same time, he refused to make the tough decision of fully mobilizing the country and committing the resources necessary to win, concerned that this would destroy his cherished Great Society social programs. He also feared a widened war, possibly involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
By 1965 Ho and his generals expected to win the war. Taking their cue from Johnson’s own pronouncements to the American people, they mistakenly believed that Washington would not commit ground troops to the fight. Yet Johnson did just that. Faced with Hanoi’s escalation, in March 1965 U. S. marines arrived to protect the large American air base at Da Nang. A direct attack on U. S. advisers at Pleiku in February 1965 also led to a U. S. air campaign against North Vietnam.
Ultimately more than 2.5 million Americans served in Vietnam, and nearly 58,000 of them died there. At the height of the Vietnam War, Washington was spending $30 billion per year on the war. Although the conflict was the best-covered war in American history (it became known as the first television war), it was conversely the least understood by the American people.
Johnson hoped to win the war on the cheap, relying heavily on airpower to inflict pain on North Vietnam and frighten the Communist leaders in Hanoi into halting their support for the war in South Vietnam. Johnson’s goal was to hold down American casualties but also to secure the support of the Republican Party for his domestic Great Society program. Under the code name Operation ROLLING THUNDER, the bombing of North Vietnam, which was paralleled by Operation BARREL ROLL, the secret bombing of Laos (which became the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare), the air campaign would be pursued in varying degrees of intensity over the next three and a half years. Its goals were to force Hanoi to negotiate peace and to halt infiltration into South Vietnam. During the war, the United States dropped more bombs on Indochina than it had on the Axis powers in all of World War II, but the campaign failed in both its objectives.
In the air war, Johnson decided on graduated response rather than the massive strikes advocated by the military. Gradualism became the grand strategy employed by the United States in Vietnam. Haunted by the Chinese intervention in the Korean War, at no time would Johnson consider an invasion of North Vietnam, fearful of provoking a Chinese reaction.
By May and June 1965, with PAVN forces regularly destroying ARVN units, MACV commander General William Westmoreland appealed for U. S. ground units, which Johnson committed. PAVN regiments appeared ready to launch an offensive in the rugged Central Highlands and then drive to the sea, splitting South Vietnam in two. Westmoreland mounted a spoiling attack, with the recently arrived 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) formed around some 450 helicopters.
During October-November 1965 the 1st Cavalry Division won one of the war’s rare clear-cut victories in the Battle of Ia Drang and may have derailed Hanoi’s plan of winning a decisive victory before full American might could be deployed. Hanoi, however, took encouragement from the heavy casualties that the 1st Cavalry Division had suffered during this battle (230 U. S. troops were killed during the four-day battle, with 155 Americans killed during a single afternoon). To Hanoi, these casualty figures meant that in spite of tremendous U. S. superiority in firepower and mobility, Communist troops were capable of inflicting sufficient casualties on U. S. forces to weaken America’s resolve and ultimately force the United States to give up the effort in South Vietnam. Heavy personnel losses on the battlefield, while regrettable, were entirely acceptable to the North Vietnamese leadership. Ho remarked at one point that North Vietnam could absorb an unfavorable loss ratio of 10 to 1 and still win the war. Washington never understood this and continued to view the war through its own lens of what would be unacceptable in terms of casualties.
From 1966 on the Vietnam War was an escalating strategic stalemate, as Westmoreland requested increasing numbers of men from Washington. By the end of 1966 U. S. troop strength in Vietnam had reached 385,000. In 1968 U. S. strength was more than 500,000 men. Johnson also secured some 60,000 troops from other nations-most of them from the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) and Thailand-surpassing the 39,000-man international coalition of the Korean War.
Terrain was not judged important. The goals were to protect the population and kill the enemy, with success measured in terms of body counts that, in turn, led to abuses. During 1966 MACV mounted 18 major operations, each resulting in more than 500 PAVN or VC troops supposedly verified dead. Fifty thousand enemy combatants were supposedly killed in 1966. By the beginning of 1967, the PAVN and VC had 300,000 men versus 625,000 ARVN and 400,000 Americans.
Hanoi, meanwhile, had reached a point of decision, with casualties exceeding available replacements. Instead of scaling back, North Vietnam prepared a major offensive that would employ all available troops to secure a quick victory. Hanoi believed that a major military defeat for the United States would end its political will to continue.
Hanoi now prepared a series of peripheral attacks at Con Thien, Song Be, Dak To, and Loc Ninh, followed in January 1968 by the start of a modified siege of some 6,000 U. S. marines at Khe Sanh near the demilitarized zone (DMZ). With U. S. attention riveted on Khe Sanh, Hanoi planned a massive offensive to occur during Tet, the lunar new year holiday, called the General Offensive-General Uprising. The North Vietnamese government believed that this massive offensive would lead people in South Vietnam to rise up and overthrow the South Vietnamese government, bringing an American withdrawal. The attacks were mounted against the cities and key military installations. In a major intelligence failure, U. S. and South Vietnamese officials misread both the timing and the strength of the attack, finding it inconceivable that the attack would come during the sacred Tet holiday because this would mean that the Communists were sacrificing the goodwill of the South Vietnamese public. Both the Americans and the South Vietnamese had forgotten that there was a precedent in Vietnamese history for such an attack; one of Vietnam’s most renowned emperors had won a decisive victory over an invading Chinese army with a surprise attack during the Tet holiday in 1798.