Vietnam War

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Military History and War

Vietnam War
Part of the Cold War
Vietnamese village after an attack
Vietnamese village after an attack
Date 1959 – April 30, 1975
Location Southeast Asia
Result Peace treaty providing for U.S. disengagement in 1973

Political defeat for the U.S.
Military victory of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam over Republic of Vietnam forces in 1975

Casus belli Cold War escalation and nationalism.
Reunification of Vietnam.
Republic of Vietnam
United States of America
Republic of Korea
New Zealand
The Philippines
Democratic Republic of Vietnam
National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam
People’s Republic of China
Democratic People's Republic of Korea
~1,200,000 (1968) ~520,000 (1968)
dead: 230,000
wounded: 300,000
dead: 58,209
wounded: 153,303
dead: 5,000
wounded: 11,000
dead: 520
dead: 600,000*
wounded: 600,000*
dead: 1100
wounded: 4200
Civilian dead (total Vietnamese): 1,000,000* (* = approximations, see Notes below)
Vietnam War
Ap Bac - Binh Gia - Song Be - Dong Xoai - Ia Drang - Long Tan - Dak To - 1st Tet - Khe Sanh - 1st Saigon - Lang Vei - Hills 881 & 861 - 2nd Tet - Hamburger Hill - Ripcord - FSB Mary Ann - Easter '72 - An Loc - Kontum - Phuoc Long - Ho Chi Minh - Buon Ma Thuot - Battle of Xuan Loc - 2nd Saigon - Barrell Roll - Rolling Thunder - Pony Express - Steel Tiger - Commando Hunt - Linebacker 1 - Linebacker 2 - Chenla I - Tiger Hound - Lima Site 85 - Tailwind - Chenla II - Cambodia

The Vietnam War was a military conflict in which communist forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV or North Vietnam) and the indigenous National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, (also known as the Việt Cộng, "Victor Charlie" or "Charlie" for short, "VC" or "Cong" or "Mr. Charlie" or "Mr. Charles") fought the anti-communist forces of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN or South Vietnam) and its allies — most notably the United States (U.S.) — in a successful effort to unify Vietnam into a single independent, communist state.

It is also known as the Vietnam Conflict, the Second Indochina War and, in the U.S. colloquially, as Vietnam, The Nam or simply Nam. Vietnamese communists often referred to it as the American War or Kháng chiến chống Mỹ (the Resistance War Against America).

The chief cause of the war was the failure of Vietnamese nationalists, in the form of the Viet Minh, to gain control of southern Vietnam both during and after their struggle for independence from France in the First Indochina War of 1946-1954.

Allies of the Vietnamese communists included the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. South Vietnam's main anti-communist allies were the United States, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, and New Zealand. The U.S. in particular, deployed large numbers of military personnel to South Vietnam. U.S. military advisors first became involved in Vietnam as early as 1950, when they began to assist French colonial forces. In 1956, these advisors assumed full responsibility for training the Army of the Republic of Vietnam or ARVN. Large numbers of American combat troops began to arrive in 1965 and the last left the country in 1973.

At various stages the conflict involved clashes between small units patrolling the mountains and jungles, guerrilla attacks in the villages and cities, and finally, large-scale conventional battles. U.S. aircraft also conducted substantial aerial bombing campaigns, targeting both logistical networks and the cities and transportation arteries of North Vietnam. Large quantities of chemical defoliants were also sprayed from the air in an effort to reduce the cover available to enemy combatants.

To some degree the Vietnam War was a " proxy war," one of several that erupted during the Cold War period that followed the conclusion of the Second World War and decolonization. These wars usually grew from localized conflicts that expanded to include the U.S. and its Western allies on one side and the Soviet Union and/or the People's Republic of China on the other. The Korean Conflict, for example, was another such war. Proxy wars occurred because the major players - especially the U.S. and the Soviet Union - were unwilling to engage each other directly due to the threat of escalation into a nuclear exchange.

The Vietnam War was finally concluded on 30 April 1975, with the fall of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces. The war claimed perhaps 2-2.5 million Southeast Asian lives, a large number of whom were civilians.


History to 1949

From 110 BC to 938 AD (with the exception of brief periods), much of present-day Vietnam, especially the northern half, was part of China. After gaining independence, Vietnam went through a history of resisting outside aggression. The French gained control of Indochina during a series of colonial wars beginning in the 1840s and lasting through the 1880s. At the post-World War I negotiations that led to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Hồ Chí Minh requested that a delegation of Vietnamese be admitted in order to work toward obtaining independence for the Indochinese colonies. His request was rejected, and Indochina's status as a colony of France remained unchanged.

During the Second World War, the government of Vichy France cooperated with Imperial Japanese forces sent to occupy Indochina. Vietnam was under de facto Japanese administrative control, although the French continued to serve as official administrators until 1944. Hồ returned to Vietnam and formed a resistance group to oppose the Japanese in the north. He was aided by teams deployed by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency). These teams worked behind enemy lines in Indochina giving support to indigenous resistance groups. In 1944, the Japanese overthrew the French administration and humiliated its colonial officials in front of the Vietnamese population. The Japanese then began to encourage nationalist activity among the Vietnamese and, late in the war, granted Vietnam nominal independence.

Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh

After the war and following the Japanese surrender, Vietnamese nationalists, communists, and other groups hoped to finally take control of the country. The Japanese army in Indochina assisted the Viet Minh — Hồ's resistance army — and other Vietnamese independence groups by imprisoning French officials and soldiers and handing over public buildings to the Vietnamese. On 2 September 1945, Hồ Chí Minh declared independence from France and proclaimed the formation of a new Vietnamese government under his leadership. In his exultant speech before a huge audience in Hanoi, he cited the U.S. Declaration of Independence and a band played " The Star Spangled Banner." Hồ, who had been a member of the Third Communist International since the early 1920s, hoped that the Americans would ally themselves with a Vietnamese nationalist movement, communist or otherwise. He based this hope on speeches by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who opposed a revival of European colonialism after World War II. Roosevelt, however, had moderated his position after the British — who wanted to keep their own colonies — objected.

The new Vietnamese government only lasted a few days, however, since it had been decided by the Allies at the Potsdam Conference that Vietnam would be jointly occupied by Nationalist Chinese and British forces who would supervise the Japanese surrender and repatriation. The Chinese army arrived in Vietnam from north only a few days after Hồ's declaration of independence and took over areas north of the 16th parallel. The British arrived in the south in October and supervised both the surrender and departure of the Japanese army from Indochina. With these actions, the government of Hồ Chí Minh effectively ceased to exist. In the South, the French prevailed upon the British to turn control of the region back over to them.

French officials, when released from Japanese prisons at the end of September 1945, took matters into their own hands in some areas. In the north, The French negotiated with both the Nationalist government of China and the Viet Minh. By agreeing to give up Shanghai and its other concessions in China, the French persuaded the Chinese to allow them to return to northern Vietnam and negotiate with the Viet Minh. Hồ agreed to allow French forces to land outside Hanoi, while France agreed to recognize an independent Vietnam within the new French Union. In the meantime, Hồ took advantage of this period of negotiations to liquidate competing nationalist groups in the north. After negotiations with Hồ collapsed over the possibility of his forming a government within the Union in December 1946, the French bombarded Haiphong, killing thousands and then entered Hanoi. Ho and the Việt Minh fled into the mountainous north to begin an insurgency, marking the beginning of the First Indochina War. After the defeat of the Nationalists by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War, Premier Mao Zedong was able to provide direct military assistance to the Viet Minh. By this method, Viet Minh obtained more modern weapons, supplies, and the expertise necessary to transform themselves into a more conventional military force.

Harry S. Truman and Vietnam (1945-1953)

Milestones of U.S. involvement under President Truman

  • 9 March 1945 — Japan overthrows nominal French authority in Indochina and declares an independent Vietnamese puppet state. The French administration is disarmed.
  • 15 August 1945 — Japan surrenders to the Allies. In Indochina, the Japanese administration allows Hồ Chí Minh to take over control of the country. This is called the August Revolution. Hồ Chí Minh borrows a phrase from the U.S. Declaration of Independence for his own declaration. Hồ Chí Minh fights with a variety of other political factions for control of the major cities.
  • August 1945 — A few days after the Vietnamese "revolution", Nationalist Chinese forces enter from the north and, as previously planned by the allies, establish an administration in the country as far south as the 16th parallel.
  • 26 September 1945: OSS officer Lieutenant Colonel A. Peter Dewey — working with the Viet Minh to repatriate Americans captured by the Japanese — is shot and killed by the Viet Minh, becoming the first American casualty in Vietnam.
  • October 1945 — British troops land in southern Vietnam and establish a provisional administration. The British free French soldiers and officials imprisoned by the Japanese. The French begin taking control of cities within the British zone of occupation.
  • February 1946 — The French sign an agreement with China. France gives up its concessions in Shanghai and other Chinese ports. In exchange, China agrees to assist the French in returning to Vietnam north of the 16th parallel.
  • 6 March 1946 — After negotiations with the Chinese and the Viet Minh, the French sign an agreement recognizing Vietnam within the French Union. Shortly after, the French land at Haiphong and occupy the rest of northern Vietnam. The Viet Minh use the negotiating process with France and China to buy time to use their armed forces to destroy all competing nationalist groups in the north.
  • December 1946 — Negotiations between the Viet Minh and the French break down. The Viet Minh are driven out of Hanoi into the countryside.
  • 1947–1949 — The Viet Minh fight a limited insurgency in remote rural areas of northern Vietnam.
  • 1949 — Chinese communists reach the northern border of Indochina. The Viet Minh drive the French from the border region and begin to receive large amounts of weapons from the Soviet Union and China. The weapons transform the Viet Minh from an irregular small-scale insurgency into a conventional army.
  • 1 May 1950 — After the capture of Hainan Island from Chinese Nationalist forces by the Chinese Red Army, President Truman approves $10 million in military assistance for anti-communist efforts in Indochina.
  • Following the outbreak of the Korean War, Truman announces "acceleration in the furnishing of military assistance to the forces of France and the Associated States in Indochina…" and sends 123 non-combat troops to help with supplies to fight against the communist Viet Minh.
  • 1951 - Truman authorizes $150 million in French support.

Exit of the French, 1950-1955

Four power talks: Geneva, 1954
Four power talks: Geneva, 1954

In the meantime, the U.S. was supplying its French allies with military aid. The outbreak of the Korean Conflict in 1950 changed everything for the Americans. What had been a colonial war in Indochina became another example of expansive world-wide communism, directed by the Kremlin. In 1950, the U.S. Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) arrived to screen French requests for aid, advise on strategy, and train Vietnamese soldiers. In 1956, MAAG assumed responsibility for training the Vietnamese army. By 1954, the U.S. had given 300,000 small arms and machine guns, and one billion dollars to support the French military effort and was shouldering at least 80 percent of its cost.

The Viet Minh eventually handed the French a major military defeat at Ðiện Biên Phủ on 7 May 1954 and the French public and government had had enough. At the Geneva Conference the French government negotiated a peace agreement with the Viet Minh which allowed the French to leave Indochina and granted all three of its colonies, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam their independence. However, Vietnam was temporarily partitioned at the 17th parallel, above which the Viet Minh established a socialist state, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and below which a non-communist state was established under the Emperor Bảo Đại. Bao Dai's Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, shortly thereafter removed him from power, and established himself as President of the new Republic of Vietnam.

The Diem Era, 1955-1963

The Winston Churchill of Asia

As dictated by the Geneva Accords of 1954, the partition of Vietnam was meant to be only temporary, pending free elections for a national leadership. The agreement stipulated that the two military zones, which were separated by a temporary demarcation line (which eventually became the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ), "should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary," and specifically stated that elections would be held in July 1956. However, the Diem government refused to enter into negotiations to hold the stipulated elections, encouraged by U.S. unwillingness to allow a certain communist victory in an all-Vietnam election (this was the only occasion during the post-war period in which the U.S. opposed the reunification of a divided nation). Questions were also raised about the legitimacy of any election held in the communist-run North. The U.S.-supported government of South Vietnam justified its refusal to comply with the Geneva Accords by virtue of the fact it had not signed them.

Diem was an unlikely prospect to lead the Vietnamese people. A devout Roman Catholic, he was aloof, closed-minded, and trusted only the members of his immediate family. For the U.S., however, he was a godsend. He was fervently anti-communist and was untainted by any connection to the French. He was the only prominent Vietnamese nationalist who could claim both attributes. In April and June of 1955, Diem (against U.S. advice) cleared the decks of any political opposition by launching military operations against the Cao Dai Sect, the Hoa Hao, and the Binh Xuyen organized crime group (which was allied with the secret police and some army elements).

Surprisingly, Diem was successful, gaining from his surprised American sponsors the sobriquet of "the Winston Churchill of Asia." Later in the year Diem organized an election for president and a legislature, and wrote a constitution. In the election (which he might have won legally) Diem received 98.2 percent of the vote, raising the eyebrows of even his American supporters.

Beginning in the summer of 1955, he launched a 'Denounce the Communists' campaign, during which communists and other anti-government elements were arrested, imprisoned or executed. During this period refugees and regroupees moved across the demarcation line in both directions. It was estimated that around 52,000 Vietnamese civilians moved from south to north, while 450,000 were air- or boat-lifted from north to south.

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vietnam (1953–1961)

Milestones of the escalation under President Eisenhower.

  • 1954 — The Viet Minh defeat the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The defeat, along with the end of the Korean war the previous year, causes the French to seek a negotiated settlement to the war.
  • 1954 — The Geneva Conference (1954), called to determine the post-French future of Indochina, proposes a temporary division of Vietnam, to be followed by nationwide elections to unify the country in 1956.
  • 1954 — Two months after the Geneva conference, North Vietnam forms Group 100 with headquarters at Ban Namèo. Its purpose is to direct, organize, train and supply the Pathet Lao to gain control of Laos, which along with Cambodia and Vietnam formed French Indochina.
  • 1955 — North Vietnam launches an 'anti-landlord' campaign, during which counter-revolutionaries are imprisoned or killed. The numbers killed or imprisoned are disputed, with historian Stanley Karnow estimating about 6,000 while others (see the book "Fire in the Lake") estimate only 800. R.J. Rummel puts the figure as high as 200,000.
  • 1 November 1955 — Eisenhower deploys the Military Assistance Advisory Group to train the South Vietnamese Army. This marks the official beginning of American involvement in the war as recognized by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
  • April 1956 — The last French troops leave Vietnam.
  • 1954–1956 — 450,000 Vietnamese civilians flee the Viet Minh administration in North Vietnam and relocate in South Vietnam. 52,000 move in the opposite direction.
  • 1956 — National unification elections do not occur.
  • December 1958 — North Vietnam invades Laos and occupies parts of the country
  • 8 July 1959 — Charles Ovnand and Dale R. Buis become the first two American Advisers to die in Vietnam.
  • September 1959 — North Vietnam forms Group 959 which assumes command of the Pathet Lao forces in Laos

As opposition to Diem's rule in South Vietnam grew, a low-level insurgency began to take shape there in 1957, conducted mainly by Viet Minh cadres who had remained in the south and had hidden caches of weapons in case unification failed to take place through elections. In late 1956 one of the leading communists in the south, Lê Duẩn, returned to Hanoi to urge that the Vietnam Workers' Party take a firmer stand on national reunification, but Hanoi hesitated in launching a full-scale military struggle. Finally, in January 1959, under pressure from southern cadres who were being successfully targeted by Diem's secret police, the Central Committee of the Party issued a secret resolution authorizing the use of armed struggle in the South.

On 12 December 1960, under instruction from Hanoi, southern communists established the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam in order to overthrow the government of the south. The NLF was made up of two distinct groups: South Vietnamese intellectuals who opposed the government and were nationalists; and communists who had remained in the south after the partition and regrouping of 1954 as well as those who had since come from the north. While there were many non-communist members of the NLF, they were subject to the control of the party cadres and increasingly side-lined as the conflict continued; they did, however, enable the NLF to portray itself as a primarily nationalist, rather than communist, movement.

South Vietnam, Military Regions, 1967
South Vietnam, Military Regions, 1967

Vietnam is the Place

Back in Washington, the new administration of President John F. Kennedy remained essentially committed to the bi-partisan, anti-Communist foreign policies inherited from the administrations of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. During his first year in office Kennedy found himself faced with a three-part crisis: The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba; the construction of the Berlin Wall by the Soviets; and a negotiated settlement between the pro-Western government of Laos and the Pathet Lao communist movement. Fearing that another failure on the part of the U.S. to stop communist expansion would fatally damage U.S. credibility with its allies, Kennedy realized, "Now we have a problem in making our power credible", he told reporter James Reston, "and Vietnam looks like the place." The commitment of the defend Vietnam was reaffirmed by Kennedy on 11 May in National Security Action Memorandum 52 which became known as "The Presidential Program for Vietnam". Its opening statement reads:

"U.S. objectives and concept of operations [are] to prevent communist domination of South Vietnam; to create in that country a viable and increasingly democratic society, and to initiate, on an accelerated basis, a series of mutually supporting actions of a military, political, economic psychological, and covert character designed to achieve this objective."

Kennedy was intrigued by the idea of utilizing U.S. Army Special Forces for counterinsurgency conflicts in Third World countries threatened by the new "wars of national liberation". Originally intended for use behind front lines after a conventional invasion of Europe, Kennedy believed that the guerrilla tactics employed by special forces would be effective in the "brush fire" war in Vietnam. He saw British success in using such forces during the Malayan Emergency as a strategic template. Thus in May 1961 Kennedy sent detachments of Green Berets to South Vietnam to train South Vietnamese soldiers in guerilla warfare.

The Diệm regime had been initially able to cope with the insurgency with the aid of U.S. materiel and advisers, and, by 1962, seemed to be gaining the upper hand. Senior U.S. military leaders received positive reports from the U.S. commander, General Paul D. Harkins of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam or MACV. By the following year, however, cracks began to appear in the facade of success. In January a possible victory that was turned into a stunning defeat for government forces at the Battle of Ap Bac caused consternation among both the military advisors in the field and among politicians in Washington.

Diem was already growing unpopular with many of his countrymen because of his administration's nepotism, corruption, and its apparent bias in favour of the Catholic minority - of which Diem was a part - at the expense of the Buddhist majority. Promised land reforms were not carried out and Diem's strategic hamlet program for village self-defense (and government control) was a disaster. The Kennedy administration was growing increasingly frustrated with Diệm. In 1963, a crackdown by Diệm's forces was launched against Buddhist monks protesting discriminatory practices and demanding a political voice. Diem's repression of the protests sparked the so-called Buddhist Revolt, during which self-immolations by several monks took place and which were covered in the world press. The communists took full advantage of the situation and fueled anti-Diem sentiment to create further instability.

Coup and Assassination

Some policy-makers in Washington began to believe that Diem was incapable of defeating the communists, and some even feared that he might make a deal with Ho Chi Minh. During the summer of 1963 administration officials began discussing the possibility of a regime change in Saigon. The State Department was generally in favour of encouraging a coup while the Pentagon and CIA were more alert to the destabilizing consequences of such a coup and wanted to continue applying pressure to Diem to make political changes.

Chief among the proposed changes was the removal of his younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu from all of his positions of power. Nhu was in charge of South Vietnam's secret police and was seen as the man behind the Buddhist repression. As Diem's most powerful advisor, Nhu (along with his wife) had become a hated figure in South Vietnam, and one whose continued influence was unacceptable to all members of the Kennedy administration. Eventually, the administration determined that Diem was unwilling to further modify his policies and the decision was made to remove U.S. support from the regime. This choice was was made jointly by the State Department, Pentagon, National Security Council, and the CIA. President Kennedy agreed with the consensus.

In November, the U.S. embassy in Saigon communicated through the CIA to the military officers that made up the conspiracy that the U.S. would not oppose the removal of Diem. The president was overthrown by the military and later executed along with his brother. After the coup, Kennedy appeared to be genuinely shocked and dismayed by the murders. Top CIA officials were baffled that Kennedy didn't understand that this was a possible outcome.

Chaos ensued in the security and defense systems of South Vietnam and, once again, Hanoi took advantage of the situation to increase its support for the insurgents in the south. South Vietnam now entered a period of extreme political instability, as one military junta replaced another in quick succession. Ironically, Kennedy was himself assassinated just three weeks after Diệm. He was automatically succeeded by Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, who declared on 24 November that the U.S. would continue its support of the South Vietnamese. During this period, the U.S. military involvement in South Vietnam dramatically increased and the 'Americanization' of the war began.

The Saigon governments, and their new-found Western allies, portrayed their military actions as simply a defense against the use of armed violence to effect political change. At a geopolitical level, the conflict was conducted in order to deter what was then perceived as expansive global communism emanating from Moscow and Beijing, which had been a keystone of Western foreign policy since the late 1940s. The Cold War paradigms of containment and the domino theory were in their heyday and framed many of the arguments on the issue of Vietnam. As far as the North Vietnamese and the NLF were concerned, the conflict was a struggle to reunite the nation and to repel foreign aggressors and neo-colonialists - battlecries that were a virtual repeat of those of the war against the French.

John F. Kennedy and Vietnam (1961–1963)

  • 20 December 1960 - The National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF) is founded.
  • January 1961 — Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pledges support for " wars of national liberation" throughout the world. The idea of creating a neutral Laos is suggested to Kennedy.
  • May 1961 — Kennedy sends 400 United States Army Special Forces personnel to South Vietnam to train South Vietnamese soldiers following a visit to the country by Vice-President Johnson.
  • June 1961 — Kennedy meets with Khrushchev in Vienna. He protests North Vietnam's attacks on Laos and points out that the U.S. was supporting the neutrality of Laos. Both leaders agree to pursue a policy of creating a neutral Laos.
  • October 1961 — Following successful NLF attacks, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara recommends sending six divisions (200,000 men) to Vietnam. Kennedy sends just 16,000 before his death in 1963.
  • 1 August, 1962 — Kennedy signs the Foreign Assistance Act of 1962 which provides "…military assistance to countries which are on the rim of the Communist world and under direct attack."
  • 3 January 1963 — NLF victory in the Battle of Ap Bac.
  • May 1963 — Buddhists riot in South Vietnam after a conflict over the display of religious flags during the celebration of the Buddha's birthday. Some urge Kennedy to end U.S. support for Ngo Dinh Diem, who is Catholic. Photographs of protesting Buddhist monks burning themselves alive appear in U.S. newspapers.
  • May 1963 — Republican Barry Goldwater declares that the U.S. should fight to win or withdraw from Vietnam. Later on, during his presidential campaign against Lyndon Johnson, his Democratic opponents accuse him of wanting to use nuclear weapons in the conflict.
  • 1 November 1963 — Military officers launch a coup d'état against Diem, with the tacit approval of the Kennedy administration. Diem leaves the presidential residence.
  • 2 November, 1963 — Diem is discovered and killed by rebel leaders, along with his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.
  • 22 November, 1963 — Kennedy is assassinated.

Escalation and Americanization, 1963-1968

Gulf of Tonkin and the Westmoreland Expansion

Commandant of the Marine Corps Wallace Greene (l), III MAF commander General Robert Cushman (c), and General Westmoreland (r)
Commandant of the Marine Corps Wallace Greene (l), III MAF commander General Robert Cushman (c), and General Westmoreland (r)

On 27 July 1964 5,000 additional U.S. military advisors were ordered to South Vietnam, bringing the total U.S. troop commitment to 21,000. The massive escalation of the war from 1964 to 1968 was justified by the administration as a response to the Gulf of Tonkin Incidents of 2-4 August 1964. The first incident concerned the U.S. Destroyer Maddox which was conducting an electronic intelligence gathering mission four miles off the North Vietnamese coast. It was attacked by three torpedo boats of the North Vietnamese Navy. After being joined by the Destroyer C. Turner Joy, both ships returned to "fly the flag" in what the U.S. claimed were international waters. During the evening of the 4th, both ships claimed to have been attacked by many North Vietnamese vessels, which fired "dozens" of torpedoes at the American vessels.

There was rampant confusion in Washington, but the incident was seen by the administration as the perfect opportunity to present Congress with "a pre-dated declaration of war. Unfortunately, neither Congress nor the American people were going to learn the whole story about the events in the Gulf of Tonkin until the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1969. It was on the basis of the administration's assertions that the attacks were "unprovoked aggression" on the part of North Vietnam, that the U.S. Congress approved the Southeast Asia Resolution (also known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) on 7 August. The law gave the president broad powers to conduct military operations without an actual declaration of war. The resolution passed unanimously in the House of Representatives and was opposed in the Senate by only two members.

In a televised address, President Johnson argued that "the challenge that we face in Southeast Asia today is the same challenge that we have faced with courage and that we have met with strength in Greece and Turkey, in Berlin and Korea, in Lebanon and in Cuba." National Security Council members, including Secretary of Defense McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and General Maxwell Taylor, agreed on 28 November to recommend that Johnson adopt a plan for a two-stage escalation of the bombing of North Vietnam.

Operation Rolling Thunder, 1965-1968

U.S. F-105 aircraft dropping bombs.
U.S. F-105 aircraft dropping bombs.

In February 1965, a U.S. air base at Pleiku, in the Central Highlands, was attacked twice by the NLF, resulting in the deaths of over a dozen U.S. personnel. These guerilla attacks prompted the administration to order retaliatory air strikes ( Operation Flaming Dart) against North Vietnam. It was as though the administration had just been awaiting such an opportunity. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy stated that "the incident at Pleiku was like a streetcar - you had to jump on board when it came along."

Operation Rolling Thunder was the code name given to a sustained strategic bombing campaign targeted against North Vietnam by aircraft of the U.S. Air Force and Navy that was inaugurated on 2 March 1965. Its original purpose was bolster the morale of the South Vietnamese and to serve as a signaling device to Hanoi. U.S. airpower would act as a method of "strategic persuasion," deterring the North politically by the fear of continued or increased bombardment. Rolling Thunder gradually escalated in intensity, with aircraft striking only carefully selected targets. When that did not work, its goals were altered to destroying the will of the North to fight by destroying the nation's industrial base, transportation network, and its (continually increasing) air defenses. After more than a million sorties were flown and three-quarters of a million tons of bombs were dropped, Rolling Thunder was ended on 11 November 1968. Other aerial campaigns ( Operation Commando Hunt) were directed to counter the flow of men and supplies down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail.

The Big Build-Up

President Johnson had already appointed General William C. Westmoreland to succeed Paul D. Harkins as Commander of MACV in June 1964. Under Westmoreland, the expansion of American troop strength in Vietnam took place. American forces rose from 16,000 during 1964 to more than 553,000 by 1969. With the U.S. decision to escalate its involvement, ANZUS Pact allies Australia and New Zealand agreed to contribute troops and material to the conflict. They were quickly joined by the Republic of Korea (second only to the Americans in troop strength), Thailand, and the Philippines. The U.S. paid for (through aid dollars) and logistically supplied all of the allied forces. Meanwhile, political affairs in Saigon were finally settling down (at least as far as the Americans were concerned}. On 14 February the most recent military junta, the National Leadership Committee, installed Air Vice-Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky as prime minister. In 1966, the junta selected General Nguyen Van Thieu to run for president with Ky on the ballot as the vice-presidential candidate in the 1967 election. The best thing that can be said about the election of 1967 was that it was held. Thieu and Ky were elected and would remain in office for the duration. In the presidential election of 1971, Thieu ran for the presidency unopposed. With the installation of the Thieu and Ky government (the Second Republic), the U.S. finally had a legitimate government in Saigon with which to deal.

U.S. bombs NLF positions in 1965
U.S. bombs NLF positions in 1965

With the advent of Rolling Thunder, American airbases and facilities would have to be constructed and manned for the aerial effort. And the defense of those bases would not be entrusted to the South Vietnamese. So, on 8 March 1965, 3,500 United States Marines came ashore at Da Nang as the first U.S. combat troops in South Vietnam, adding to the 25,000 U.S. military advisers already in place. On 5 May the 173d Airborne Brigade became the first U.S. Army ground unit committed to the conflict in South Vietnam. On 18 August, Operation Starlite began as the first major U.S. ground operation, destroying a NLF stronghold in Quảng Ngãi Province. The NLF Cong learned from their defeat and subsequently tried to avoid fighting an American-style ground war by reverting to small-unit guerrilla operations.

The North Vietnamese had already sent regular army units to southern Vietnam beginning in late 1964. Some officials in Hanoi had favored an immediate invasion of the south, and a plan was developed to use PAVN units to split southern Vietnam in half through the Central Highlands. The two imported adversaries first faced one another during OperationSilver Bayonet, better known as the Battle of the Ia Drang. During the savage fighting that took place, both sides learned lessons. The North Vietnamese, who had taken horrendous casualties, began to adapt to the overwhelming American superiority in airmobility, supporting arms, and close air support. The Americans learned that the Vietnam People's Army (VPA/PAVN) (which was basically a light infantry force) was not a rag-tag band of guerrillas, but was instead a highly-disciplined, proficient force and one which was extremely well motivated.

Search and Destroy, the Strategy of Attrition

On 27 November 1965, the Pentagon declared that if the major operations needed to neutralize North Vietnamese and NLF forces were to succeed, U.S. troop levels in South Vietnam would have to be increased from 120,000 to 400,000. In a series of meetings between Westmoreland and the president held in Honolulu in February 1966, Westmoreland argued that the U.S. presence had succeeded in preventing the immediate defeat of the South Vietnamese government, but that more troops would be necessary if systematic offensive operations were to be conducted. The issue then became in what manner American forces would be used. What was to be the American strategy?

American troops sweep through a paddy

The nature of the American military's strategic and tactical decisions made during this period would colour the conduct and nature of the conflict for the duration of the American commitment. Military logic demanded that the U.S. attack the locus of PAVN/NLF in North Vietnam itself. If that country could not be invaded, then the enemy's logistical system in Laos and Cambodia should have been cut by ground forces, isolating the southern battlefield. The gloves should have come off in Rolling Thunder and the ports and harbors of the North should have be mined. But political considerations limited U.S. military actions, mainly due to the memory of communist reactions during the Korean Conflict. Ever present in the minds of diplomats, military officers, and politicians was the possibility of a spiraling escalation of the conflict into a superpower confrontation and the possibility of a nuclear exchange. Therefore, there would be no invasion of North Vietnam, the "neutrality" of Laos and Cambodia would be respected, and Rolling Thunder would not resemble the bombing of Germany and Japan during the Second World War.

These limitations were not foisted upon the military as an afterthought. Before the first U.S. combat boot stepped ashore at Da Nang, the Pentagon was cognizant of all of the parameters that were going to be imposed by their civilian masters, yet they still agreed that the mission could be accomplished within them. Westmoreland believed that he had found a strategy that would either defeat Hanoi or, at the very least, force it into serious negotiations. Attrition was to be the key. The general claimed that larger offensive operations would eventually lead to a "crossover point" in PAVN and NLF casualties after which a decisive victory would be possible.

American forces would conduct operations against the PAVN, pushing the enemy further back into the countryside away from the heavily populated coastal lowlands. In the backcountry the U.S. could fully utilize its superiority in firepower and mobility to bleed the enemy in set-piece battles. The cleaning out of the NLF and the pacification of the villages and would be the province of the South Vietnamese military. The adoption of this strategy, however, brought Westmoreland into direct conflict with his Marine Corps commander, General Lewis Walt, who had already recognized the security of the villages as the key to success. Walt had immediately commenced pacification efforts in his area of responsibility, but Westmoreland was unhappy, believing that the Marines were being underutilized and fighting the wrong enemy. In the end, MACV won out and Westmoreland's search and destroy concept, predicated on the attrition of enemy forces, won the day.

It is highly ironic that, at this point in the conflict, both sides chose similar strategies. The PAVN, which had been operating a more conventional, large-unit war, switched back to small-unit operations in the face of U.S. military capability. The real struggle now began in the villages, where the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese peasants, whose cooperation was absolutely necessary to military success, were to be won or lost. Unfortunately for the U.S., it had given responsibility for this struggle to the ARVN, whose troops and commanders were notoriously unfit for the task. Only time would tell which side would feel the pain of the attritional war first and concede victory to the other side.

For the American soldier, whose doctrine was one of absolute commitment to total victory (a la World War II), this strategy led to an extremely frustrating small-unit war. Most of the combat was conducted by units smaller than battalion-size (the majority at the platoon level). Since the goal of the operations was to kill the enemy, ground was not taken and held as in previous wars. Savage fighting and the retreat of the enemy was immediately followed by the abandonment of the terrain just seized, leaving the Americans only in control of the ground upon which they stood. Combined with this was the anger and frustration engendered among American troops by the effective tactics of the NLF, who conducted a war of sniping, booby traps and mines, and terror against the Americans.

President Johnson conferring with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu in July 1968
President Johnson conferring with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu in July 1968

As a result of the Honolulu conference, President Johnson authorized an increase in troop strength to 429,000 by August 1966. The large increase in troops enabled MACV to carry out numerous operations that grew in size and complexity during the next two years. For U.S. troops participating in these operations (Masher/White Wing, Attleboro, Cedar Falls, Junction City and dozens of others) the war boiled down to hard marching through difficult terrain and weather that was alternately murderously hot and bone-chillingly cold and wet. Hours and days passed in excruciating repetition and boredom that was punctuated by adrenaline-pumping minutes of sheer terror when contact was made with the enemy. It was the PAVN/NLF, however, that actually controlled the pace of the war. Fighting only when they believed that they had the upper hand and then disappearing when the Americans and/or ARVN brought their superiority in numbers and firepower to bear. Hanoi, utilizing the Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk Trails, matched the U.S. at every point of the escalation, funneling manpower and supplies to the southern battlefields.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail

The Ho Chi Minh Trail, 1967
The Ho Chi Minh Trail, 1967

North Vietnam received foreign military aid shipments through its ports and rail system. This materiel (and PAVN manpower) was then shuttled south down the logistical corridor called by the Americans the Ho Chi Minh Trail (the Truong Son Strategic Supply Route to the North Vietnamese). At the end of an arduous journey the men and supplies entered South Vietnam's border areas. Complicating matters, the Trail system ran for most of its length through the neighboring neutral nations of Laos and Cambodia. It was impossible to block the infiltration of men and supplies from the north without bombing or invading those countries. Beginning in December 1964, however, the U.S. began a covert aerial interdiction campaign in Laos that would continue until the end of the conflict in 1973 (see Operation Barrell Roll, Operation Steel Tiger, Operation Tiger Hound, and Operation Commando Hunt).

Laos and Cambodia also had their own indigenous communist insurgencies to deal with. In Laos, the North Vietnamese-supported Pathet Lao carried on a see-saw struggle with the Royal Lao armed forces. These regular government forces were supported by CIA-sponsored Hmong army of General Vang Pao and by the bombs of the U.S. Air Force. In Cambodia Prince Norodom Sihanouk maintained a delicate political balancing act both domestically and between eastern and western powers. Believing that the triumph of communism in Vietnam was inevitable, he made a deal with the Chinese in 1965 that allowed North Vietnamese forces to establish permanent bases in his country and to use the port of Sihanoukville for delivery of military supplies in exchange for payments and a proportion of the arms. In the meantime, the Hồ Chí Minh Trail was steadily improved and expanded and became the logistical jugular vein for communist forces fighting in the south.

The Border Battles and the Tet Offensive

Late in 1967, Westmoreland said that it was conceivable that in two years or less U.S. forces could be phased out of the war, turning over more and more of the fighting to the ARVNHe should have known better. During the second half of the year, savage fighting broke out in the northern provinces. Beginning below the DMZ at Con Tien and then spreading west to the Laotian border near Dak To, the PAVN began to stand its ground and fight. This readiness of the enemy to remain fixed in place inspired MACV to send reinforcements from other sectors of South Vietnam. The Border Battles had begun.

Most of the PAVN/NLF operational capability was possible only because of the unhindered movement of men along the Hồ Chí Minh Trail. In order to threaten this flow of supplies, a Marine Corps combat base had been established on the Vietnamese side of the Laotian frontier near the village of Khe Sanh. The U.S. utilized the base as a border surveillance position overlooking Route 9, the only east-west road that crossed the border in the province. Westmoreland also hoped to use the base as a jump-off point for any future incursion against the Trail system in Laos. During the spring of 1967, a series of small-unit actions near Khe Sanh prompted MACV to beef up its defenses. These small unit actions and increasing intelligence information indicated that the PAVN was building up significant forces just across the border.

Indeed, the PAVN was doing just that. Three regular divisions (and later a fourth) were moving toward Khe Sanh, eventually surrounding the base and cutting off its only road access. Westmoreland, contrary to the advice of his superiors, reinforced the Marines. As far as he was concerned if the communists were willing to mass their forces for destruction by American air power, so much the better. MACV then launched the largest concentrated aerial bombardment effort of the conflict to defend Khe Sanh (see Operation Niagara). Another massive aerial effort was undertaken to keep the beleaguered Marines supplied. There were many comparisons (by the media, the Americans, and the North Vietnamese) to the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, but the differences outweighed the similarities.

MACV used this opportunity to field its latest technology against the PAVN. A sensor-driven anti-infiltration system known as Igloo White was in the process of being field tested in Laos as the siege of Khe Sanh began. Westmoreland ordered that it be employed to detect PAVN troop movements near Marine base and the system worked well. By March, the long-awaited ground assault against the base had failed to materialize and communist forces began to melt back toward Laos. MACV (and future historians) were left with only questions. What was the goal of the PAVN? Was the siege a real attempt to stage another Dien Bien Phu? Or had the battles near the border (which had eventually drawn in half of MACV's maneuver battalions) been a diversion, meant to pull forces away from the cities, where another PAVN offensive was about to get under way?

General Westmoreland's public reassurances that the "light at the end of the tunnel" was about to be reached were barely out of his mouth when, on 30 January 1968, PAVN and NLF forces broke the truce that accompanied the annual Lunar New Year (Tet) holiday and mounted their largest offensive thus far in the conflict in hopes of sparking a "General Uprising" among the South Vietnamese. These forces, ranging in size from small groups to entire regiments, attacked nearly every city and major military installation in South Vietnam. The Americans and South Vietnamese, initially surprised by the scope and scale of the offensive, quickly responded and inflicted severe casualties on their enemy (the NLF was essentially eliminated as a fighting force, the places of the dead within its ranks were increasingly filled by North Vietnamese).

The PAVN/NLF attacks were speedily and bloodily repulsed except in Saigon, where the fighting lasted for three days, and in the old imperial capital of Hue, where it continued for a month. During their occupation of Hue, 2,800 South Vietnamese were murdered by the NLF in the single worst massacre of the conflict (see Massacre at Hue). The hoped for uprising never took place, indeed, the offensive drove some previously apathetic South Vietnamese to fight for the government. Another surprise for the communists was that the ARVN did not collapse under the onslaught, instead turning in a performance that pleased even their American patrons.

Burial of victims of VC massacre at Hue
Burial of victims of VC massacre at Hue

Contrary to contemporary opinion, the American media did not characterize the Tet Offensive as a military defeat for the U.S. What shocked and dismayed the American public was the realization that either it had been lied to or that the American military command had been dangerously overoptimistic in its appraisal of the situation in Vietnam. The public could not understand how such an attack was possible after having been told for several years that victory was just around the corner. The Tet Offensive came to embody the growing credibility gap at the heart of U.S. government statements. These realizations and changing attitudes forced the American public (and politicians) to face hard realities and to reexamine their position in Southeast Asia. The days of an open-ended commitment to the conflict were over.

The psychological impact of the Tet Offensive effectively ended the political career of Lyndon Johnson. On 11 March, Senator Eugene McCarthy won 42 percent of the vote in the Democratic New Hampshire Primary. Although Johnson was not on the ballot, commentators viewed this as a defeat for the president. Shortly thereafter, Senator Robert Kennedy announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for the 1968 presidential election. On 31 March, in a speech that took America and the world by surprise, Johnson announced that "I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president" and pledged himself to devoting the rest of his term in office to the search for peace in Vietnam (Text and audio of speech). Johnson announced that he was limiting bombing of North Vietnam to just north of the DMZ, and that U.S. representatives were prepared to meet with North Vietnamese counterparts in any suitable place "to discuss the means to bring this ugly war to an end." A few days later, much to Johnson's surprise, Hanoi agreed to contacts between the two sides. On 13 May, what would become known as the Paris peace talks began.

Paris Peace Talks

On 12 October 1967, Secretary of State Dean Rusk had declared that proposals in the U.S. Congress for peace initiatives with Hanoi were futile due to the DRV's repeated refusals to negotiate. The position of Hanoi was simply that the U.S. should evacuate South Vietnam and leave Vietnamese affairs to the Vietnamese. In the wake of the Tet Offensive, Lyndon finally seemed to realize the predicament that his policies had led to. Neither the strategic "carrot and stick" approach of Rolling Thunder nor the attritional stalemate in the ground war had solved the problem in Vietnam. His chief concern then became getting Hanoi participate in serious negotiations.

U.S. and DRV negotiators met in Paris on 10 May 1968 for the opening session of the peace talks. The DRV delegation was headed by Xuan Thuy, while his American counterpart was U.S. ambassador-at-large Averell Harriman. For five months, however, the negotiations stalled as neither Hanoi nor Washington was willing to give ground that would allow full negotiations to begin; Hanoi insisted on a total cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam, while Washington demanded a reciprocal de-escalation of North Vietnamese military activities in South Vietnam. Matters were further complicated by the fact that delegations from the NLF and South Vietnamese government would also be participating.

Neither gave way until late in October when Johnson issued preliminary orders to halt the bombing of North Vietnam (which ended on 11 November). Johnson's vice-president, and the Democratic Party's nominee in the U.S. presidential election, Hubert H. Humphrey, had managed to close a large lead held by the Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon, partly by breaking with Johnson in September and calling for an end to the bombing of North Vietnam. Humphrey was further boosted by the apparent breakthrough in Paris. Nixon feared that this lead would be sufficient to give electoral victory to Humphrey. Using an intermediary, Nixon encouraged South Vietnamese President Thieu to stay away from the talks by promising that Saigon would get a better deal under a Nixon presidency. Thieu obliged, and Nixon went on to win the election by a narrow margin. By the time President Johnson left office, about all that had been agreed in Paris was the shape of the negotiating table.

Vietnamization and American Withdrawal, 1969-1974

Richard Nixon Searches for Peace with Honour

Nixon had continuously campaigned under the slogan that he "had a plan to end the Vietnam War." Unfortunately, no such plan existed and the American commitment would continue for another five years. The goal of the American military effort was now to buy time, gradually build up the strength of the South Vietnamese armed forces, and to re-equip them with modern weapons so that they could defend their nation on their own. This policy became the cornerstone of the so-called " Nixon Doctrine". As applied to Vietnam, it was labelled "Vietnamization".

President Johnson in conversation with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Earle Wheeler (l) and General Creighton Abrams (r)
President Johnson in conversation with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Earle Wheeler (l) and General Creighton Abrams (r)

Soon after Tet, the axe fell on General Westmoreland (who was inexplicably promoted to Army Chief of Staff) and he was replaced by his deputy, General Creighton W. Abrams. Due to the sea change in American strategy posed by Vietnamization, Abrams pursued a very different approach. The U.S. was gradually withdrawing from the conflict and Abrams favored smaller-scale operations aimed at PAVN/NLF logistics, more openness with the media, less indiscriminate use of American firepower, elimination of the body count as the key indicator of battlefield success, and more meaningful cooperation with South Vietnamese forces.

One of Nixon's main foreign policy goals had been the achievement of a breakthrough in U.S. relations with China and the Soviet Union. An avowed anti-communist since early in his political career, Nixon could make diplomatic overtures to the communists without being accused of being "soft." The result of his overtures was an era of détente that led to nuclear arms reductions by the U.S. and Soviet Union and the beginning of a dialogue with China. In this context, Nixon viewed Vietnam as simply another limited conflict forming part of the larger tapestry of superpower relations; however, he was still doggedly determined to preserve South Vietnam until such time as he could not be blamed for what he saw as its inevitable collapse (or a "decent interval," as it was known). To this end he and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger employed Chinese and Soviet foreign policy gambits to successfully defuse some of the anti-war opposition at home and secured movement at the negotiating table in Paris.

China and the Soviet Union had been the principal backers of Hanoi's effort through large-scale military and financial aid. The two communist superpowers had competed with one another to prove their "fraternal socialist links" with the regime in Hanoi. The North Vietnamese had become adept at playing the two nations off against one another. Even with Nixon's rapprochement, their support of Hanoi would increase significantly in the years leading up to the U.S. departure in 1973, enabling the North Vietnamese to mount a full-scale conventional offensives against the south, complete with tanks, heavy artillery, and the most modern surface-to-air missiles (SAMS).

The My Lai massacre

The morality of U.S. participation in the conflict was a major political issue both in the U.S. and abroad. First, there was the question whether America should have interfered in what was generally considered to be a civil war. Second, was a proxy war, without a clear and decisive path to victory, worth the number of casualties that were being sustained by both combatants and civilians? Third, there was the question how the American military, which depended on the use of massive amounts of firepower (which tended to hold down casualties), could fight a war against an elusive enemy that was often indistinguishable from the civilian population. For example, the levelling of entire villages by airstrikes or artillery because of single shots fired by snipers was relatively common. Last, how could inexperienced U.S. troops (many of whom were unwilling conscripts) be reasonably expected to engage in such a guerrilla war without succumbing to stress and resorting to acts of wanton brutality. Fighting a mostly invisible enemy (who often utilized the civilian population as a shield) that did not obey the conventional rules of warfare, American troops suffered injury and death from impersonal booby traps and snipers. This could only lead to the kind of fear and hatred (elevated by racism) that would compromise morals.

On 16 March 1968, three companies of Task Force Barker, part of the Americal Division, took part in a search and destroy operation near the village of My Lai, in Quang Nam Province. One of those three companies, Charlie Company, under the command of Lieutenant William Calley entered the hamlet of Son My and proceeded to round up, rape, torture, and murder as many of the inhabitants as could be found. Although not all of the members of the company participated, a significant number of them, led by Calley, did. He personally ordered the executions of hundreds of villagers in large groups ("a Nazi kind of thing" as one participant related it). The killings ended only when an American helicopter crew, headed by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., discovered Calley's unit in the act and threatened to attack them with his craft's weapons unless they stopped. One of the soldiers on the scene was Ron Haeberle, a photographer for the Army newspaper, "Stars and Stripes" who took unobtrusive official black and white photos of the operation and colour shots of the massacre itself with his personal camera. Although the operation appeared suspicious to Calley's superiors, it was papered over and forgotten.

Haeberle photo of Vietnamese civilians killed during the My Lai massacre
Haeberle photo of Vietnamese civilians killed during the My Lai massacre

In 1969, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh exposed the My Lai massacre in print and the Haeberle photos splashed across the world media. The Pentagon went into overdrive and launched an investigation headed by General William Peers to look into the allegations. After a flurry of activity the Peers Commission issued its report. It declared that "an atmosphere of atrocity" surrounded the event, and concluded that not only had the massacre taken place, but that the crime had been covered up by the commander of the Americal Division and his executive officer. Perhaps 400 Vietnamese civilians, mostly old men, women, and children had been killed by Charlie company. Several men were charged in the killings, but only Calley was convicted. He was given a life sentence by a court-martial in 1970 but was later pardoned by President Nixon. Cover-ups may have happened in other cases, as detailed in the Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles concerning the Tiger Force of the 101st Airborne Division by the Toledo Blade in 2003.

Although My Lai generated a lot of civilian recriminations and bad publicity for the military, it was not alone. The Vietnam War Crimes Working Group Files made public in 1994 by the "Freedom of Information Act" reveal seven, albeit smaller, massacres previously unacknowledged by the Pentagon. It must also be stated that all of the allegations combined only add up to a fraction of the political murders carried out by the NLF and North Vietnamese Army during the conflict (see Hue Massacre).

The Pentagon Papers

The credibility of the U.S. government again suffered in 1971 when The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers serially published The Pentagon Papers (actually U.S.-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967). This top-secret historical study of the American commitment in Vietnam from the Franklin Roosevelt administration until 1967, had been contracted to the RAND corporation by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The documents were leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg, a former State Department official who had worked on the study.

The Pentagon Papers laid out, in stark black and white, the missteps taken by four administrations in their Vietnam policies. For example: they revealed the Johnson administrations obfuscations (if not outright lying) to Congress concerning the Gulf of Tonkin incidents that had led to direct U.S. intervention; they exposed the clandestine bombing of Laos that had begun in 1964; and they detailed the American government's complicity in the death of Ngo Dinh Diem. The study presented a continuously pessimistic view of the likelihood of victory and generated fierce criticism of U.S. policies.

The importance of the actual content of the papers to U.S. policy-making was disputed, but the window that they provided into the flawed decision-making process at the highest levels of the U.S. government gave many food for thought. Their publication was a news event and the government's legal (Nixon lost out to the Supreme Court) and extra-legal efforts (the "Plumbers" break-in at the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, committed in order to gain material with which to discredit him, was one of the first steps on the road to Watergate) carried out to prevent their publication - mainly on national security grounds - then went on to generate yet more criticism and suspicion of the government by the American public.

Operation Menu and the Cambodian Incursion, 1969-1970

By 1969 the policy of non-alignment and neutrality had worn thin for Prince Sihanouk. Due to pressures from the right in Cambodia, the prince began a shift from the pro-left position he had assumed in 1965-1966. He began to make overtures for normalized relations with the U.S. and created a Government of National Salvation with the assistance of the pro-American General Lon Nol. Seeing a shift in the prince's position, President Nixon ordered the launching of a top-secret bombing campaign, targeted at the PAVN/NLF Base Areas and sanctuaries along Cambodia's eastern border. The massive B-52 strikes ( Operation Menu) deluged Cambodia for 14 months and delivered approximately 2,756,941 tons of bombs, more than the total tonnage that the Allies dropped "during all of World War II, including the bombs that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki." According to historians Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen, "Cambodia may well be the most heavily bombed country in history."

President Nixon explains the expansion of the war into Cambodia
President Nixon explains the expansion of the war into Cambodia

On 18 March 1970, Sihanouk, who was out of the country on a state visit, was deposed by a vote of the National Assembly and replaced by Lon Nol. Cambodia's ports were immediately closed to North Vietnamese military supplies and the government demanded that the PAVN be removed from the border areas. Taking advantage of the situation, Nixon ordered a military incursion into Cambodia by U.S. and ARVN troops in order to both destroy PAVN/NLF sanctuaries bordering South Vietnam and to buy time for the U.S. withdrawal. During the Cambodian Incursion, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces discovered and removed or destroyed a huge logistical and intelligence haul in Cambodia.

The incursion also sparked large-scale demonstrations on and closures of American college campuses. The expansion of the conflict into Cambodia was seen as a direct escalation of the conflict, nullifying Nixon's promises of de-escalating the war. During the ensuing protests, four students were shot and killed and a score were wounded by Ohio National Guardsmen during a demonstration at Kent State University. Two other students were killed at Jackson State University in Mississippi. In an effort to lessen opposition to the U.S. commitment, Nixon announced on 12 October that the U.S. would withdraw 40,000 more troops from Vietnam before Christmas.

There were two tragic and unintended effects of the Cambodian incursion: First, it pushed the PAVN deeper into Cambodia, which destabilized the country. Second, it forced the North Vietnamese to openly support its despised allies, the Khmer Rouge and allowed them to extend their power. During the incursion, South Vietnamese troops had gone on a rampage, in sharp contrast to the exemplary behaviour that had been displayed by the communists, further increasing support for their cause. Sihanouk remained in China, where he established and headed a government in exile, throwing his personal support behind the Khmer Rouge, the North Vietnamese, and the Pathet Lao.

Lam Son 719

In 1971 the U.S. authorized the ARVN to carry out an offensive operation aimed at cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southeastern Laos. Besides attacking the PAVN logistical system (which would buy time for the U.S. withdrawal) the incursion would be a significant test Vietnamization. Backed by U.S. air and artillery support (American troops were forbidden to enter Laos), the ARVN moved across the border along Route 9, utilizing the abandoned Marine outpost of Khe Sanh as a jumping-off point. At first, the incursion went well, but unlike the Cambodian operation of 1970, the PAVN decided to stand and fight, finally mustering around 60,000 men on the battlefield.

The North Vietnamese first struck the flanks of the ARVN column, smashed its outposts, and then moved in on the main ARVN force. Unlike previous encounters during the conflict, the PAVN fielded armoured formations, heavy artillery, and large amounts of the latest anti-aircraft artillery. After two months of savage fighting, the ARVN retreated back across the border, closely pursued by the North Vietnamese. One half of the invasion forces was killed or captured during the operation. Worse than that, Vietnamization was seen as an obvious failure.

On 18 August, Australia and New Zealand decided to withdraw their troops from the conflict. The total number of U.S. forces in South Vietnam dropped to 196,700 on 29 October 1971, the lowest level since January 1966. On 12 November 1971, Nixon set a 1 February 1972 deadline to remove another 45,000 troops.

The Easter Offensive

The Nguyen Hue Offensive, 1972
The Nguyen Hue Offensive, 1972

Vietnamization received another severe test in the spring of 1972 when the North Vietnamese launched a massive conventional offensive across the DMZ. Beginning 30 March, the Easter Offensive (known as the Nguyen Hue Offensive to the North Vietnamese) quickly overran the three northernmost provinces of South Vietnam, including the provincial capital of Quang Tri City. PAVN forces then drove south toward Hue.

Early in April the PAVN opened two additional operations. The first, a three-division thrust supported by tanks and heavy artillery, came out of Cambodia on 5 April. The PAVN seized Loc Ninh and advanced toward the provincial capital of An Loc in Binh Long Province. The second, launched from the tri-border region into the Central Highlands, seized a complex of ARVN outposts near Dak To and then advanced toward Kontum, threatening to split South Vietnam in two.

The U.S. countered with a buildup of American airpower to support ARVN defensive operations and to conduct Operation Linebacker, the first bombing of North Vietnam since the bombing halt of 1968. The PAVN attacks against Hue, An Loc, and Kontum were contained and the ARVN launched a counteroffensive in May to retake the lost northern provinces. On 10 September, the South Vietnamese flag once again flew over the Citadel of Quang Tri City, but the ARVN offensive then ran out of steam, conceding the rest of the occupied territory to the North Vietnamese. South Vietnam had countered the heaviest attack since Tet, but it was very evident that it was totally dependent on U.S. airpower for its survival. Meanwhile, the withdrawal of American troops, who now numbered less than 100,000 at the beginning of the year, was continued as scheduled. By June only six infantry battalions remained. On 12 August, the last American ground combat troops left the country.

The 1972 Election and Operation Linebacker II

During the run-up to the 1972 presidential election, the war was again a major issue. An antiwar Democrat, George McGovern, ran against President Nixon. The president ended Operation Linebacker on 22 October after an agreement had been reached between the U.S. and North Vietnamese negotiators. The head of the U.S. negotiating team, Henry Kissinger, declared that "peace is at hand" shortly before election day, dealing a death blow to McGovern's already doomed campaign. Kissinger had not, however, counted on the intransigence of South Vietnamese President Thieu, who refused to accept the agreement and demanded some 90 changes. These the North Vietnamese refused to accept, and Nixon was not inclined to put too much pressure on Thieu just before the election, even though his victory was all but assured. The mood between the U.S. and DRV further turned sour when Hanoi went public with the details of the agreement. The Nixon Administration claimed that North Vietnamese negotiators had used the pronouncement as an opportunity to embarrass the president and to weaken the United States. White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler on 30 November told the press that there would be no more public announcements concerning U.S. troop withdrawals from Vietnam due to the fact that force levels were then down to 27,000.

Due to Thieu's unhappiness with the agreement, primarily the stipulation that North Vietnamese troops could remain "in place" on South Vietnamese soil, the negotiations in Paris stalled as the North Vietnamese refused to accept Thieu's changes, and retaliated with amendments of their own. To reassure Thieu of American resolve, Nixon ordered a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam using B-52s and tactical aircraft in Operation Linebacker II, which began on 18 December with large raids against both Hanoi and Haiphong. Nixon justified his actions by blaming the impasse in negotiations on the North Vietnamese, causing one commentator to describe his actions as "War by tantrum." Although this heavy bombing campaign caused protests, both domestically and internationally, and despite significant aircraft losses over North Vietnam, Nixon continued the operation until 29 December. Nixon also exerted pressure on Thieu to accept the new terms of the agreement.

Return to Paris

On 15 January 1973, citing progress in peace negotiations, Nixon announced the suspension of all offensive actions against North Vietnam, to be followed by a unilateral withdrawal of all U.S. troops. The Paris Peace Accords on 'Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam' were signed on 27 January, officially ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger (third and fourth from the left respectively)
Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger (third and fourth from the left respectively)

The agreement called for the withdrawal of all U.S. personnel and an exchange of prisoners of war. Within South Vietnam, a cease-fire was declared (to be overseen by a multi-national, 1,160-man International Control Commission force) and both ARVN and PAVN/NLF forces would remain in control of the areas they then occupied, effectively partitioning South Vietnam. Both sides pledged to work toward a compromise political solution, possibly resulting in a coalition government. In order to maximize the area under their control both sides in South Vietnam almost immediately engaged in land-grabbing military operations, which turned into flashpoints. The signing of the Accords was the main motivation for the awarding of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger and to leading North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho. A separate cease-fire had been installed in Laos in February. Five days before the signing of the agreement in Paris, Lyndon Johnson, under whose leadership America had entered the conflict, died.

The first U.S. prisoners of war were released by North Vietnam on 11 February, and all U.S. military personnel were ordered to leave South Vietnam by 29 March. As an inducement for Thieu's government to sign the agreement, Nixon had promised that the U.S. would provide financial and limited military support (in the form of air strikes) so that the south could continue to defend itself. But Nixon was fighting for his political life in the growing Watergate Scandal and facing an increasingly hostile Congress that held the power of the purse. The president was able to exert little influence on a hostile public long sick of the Vietnam War.

Thus, Nixon was unable to fulfill his promises to Thieu. Economic aid continued (after being cut nearly in half), but most of it was siphoned off by corrupt officials in the South Vietnamese government, and little actually went to the military effort. At the same time, aid to North Vietnam from the Soviet Union increased. With the U.S. no longer heavily involved, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union no longer saw the war as significant to their relations. The balance of power shifted decisively in North Vietnam's favour, and the north subsequently launched a major military offensive against the south.

South Vietnam Stands Alone, 1974–1975

Total U.S. Withdrawal

In December 1974, the Democratic majority in Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974, which cut off all military funding to the South Vietnamese government and made unenforceable the peace terms negotiated by Nixon. Nixon, threatened with impeachment because of Watergate, had resigned his office. Gerald R. Ford, Nixon's vice-president stepped in to finish his term. The new president vetoed the Foreign Assistance Act, but his veto was overridden by Congress.

By 1975, the South Vietnamese Army stood alone against the well-organized, highly determined, and foreign-funded North Vietnamese. Within South Vietnam, there was increasing chaos. The withdrawal of the American military had compromised an economy that had thrived largely due to U.S. financial support and the presence of large numbers of U.S. troops. Along with the rest of the non-oil exporting world, South Vietnam suffered economically from the oil price shocks caused by the Arab oil embargo and a subsequent global economic downturn.

Between the signing of the Paris Accord and late 1974 both antagonists had been satisfied with minor land-grabbing operations. The North Vietnamese, however, were growing impatient with the Thieu regime, which remained intransigent as to the called-for national reunification. Hanoi also remained wary that the U.S. would, once again, support its former ally if larger operations were undertaken.

By late 1974, the Politburo in Hanoi gave its permission for a limited VPA offensive out of Cambodia into Phuoc Long Province that would solve a local logistical problem, determine how Saigon forces would react, and determine if the U.S. would indeed return to the fray. In December and January the offensive took place, Phuoc Long Province fell to the VPA, and the American air power did not return. The speed of this success forced the Politburo to reassess the situation. It was decided that operations in the Central highlands would be turned over to General Van Tien Dung and that Pleiku should be seized, if possible. Before he left for the south, General Van was addressed by First Party Secretary Le Duan: "Never have we had military and political conditions so perfect or a strategic advantage so great as we have now."

Campaign 275

On 10 March 1975, the General Dung launched Campaign 275, a limited offensive into the Central Highlands supported by tanks and heavy artillery. The target was Ban Me Thuot, in Darlac Province. If the town could be taken, the provincial capital at Pleiku and the route to the coast would be exposed for a planned campaign in 1976. The ARVN proved no match for the onslaught and its forces collapsed on 11 March. Once again, Hanoi was surprised by the speed of their success. Van now urged the Politburo to allow him to seize Pleiku immediately and then turn his attention to Kontum. There would be two months of good campaigning weather until the onset of the monsoon, so why not take advantage of the situation?

President Thieu, fearful that the bulk of his forces would be cut off in the northern provinces and Central Highlands, decided to redeploy those troops southward in what he declared to be a "lighten the top and keep the bottom" strategy. But the withdrawal of the northern forces soon turned into a bloody retreat as the VPA suddenly attacked from the north. While ARVN forces tried to redeploy, splintered elements in the Central Highlands fought desperately against the North Vietnamese. ARVN General Phu abandoned the cities of Pleiku and Kontum and retreated toward the coast in what became known as the "column of tears". As the ARVN retreated, civilian refugees mixed in with them. Due to already-destroyed roads and bridges, Phu's column slowed down as the North Vietnamese closed in. As the exodus staggered down the mountains to the coast, it was shelled incessantly by the VPA and, by 1 April it ceased to exist.

On 20 March, Thieu reversed himself and ordered that Hue, Vietnam's third-largest city, be held at all costs. But as the North Vietnamese attacked, panic ensued and ARVN resistance collapsed. On 22 March, the VPA opened a siege against Hue. Civilians jammed into the airport and docks hoping for escape. Some even swam into the ocean to reach boats and barges. The ARVN were routed along with the civilians, and some South Vietnamese soldiers shot civilians just to make room for a passageway for their retreat. On 31 March, after a three-day fight, Hue fell. As resistance in Hue collapsed, North Vietnamese rockets rained down on Da Nang and its airport. By the 28 March, 35,000 VPA troops were poised to attack in the suburbs. By the 30th, 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 collapsed.

Final North Vietnamese offensive

With the northern half of the country under their control, the Politburo ordered General Van to seize the opportunity for a final offensive against Saigon. The operational plan for the Ho Chi Minh Campaign called for capturing Saigon before 1 May, thereby beating the onset of the monsoon and preventing the redeployment and regroupment of ARVN forces to defend the capital. Northern forces, their morale boosted by their recent victories, rolled on, taking Nha Trang, Cam Ranh, and Da Lat.

On 7 April, three North Vietnamese divisions attacked Xuan-loc, 40 miles east of Saigon, where they met fierce resistance from the ARVN 18th Infantry Division. For two bloody weeks, severe fighting raged as the ARVN defenders, in a last-ditch effort, tried desperately to save South Vietnam from conquest. By 21 April, however, the exhausted garrison had surrendered. A bitter and tearful President Thiệu resigned his office on the same day, declaring that the Americans had betrayed South Vietnam. He left for Taiwan on 25 April, leaving control of his doomed nation to General Duong Van Minh. By that time, North Vietnamese tanks had reached Bien Hoa and turned towards Saigon, clashing with occasional isolated ARVN units along the way.

By the end of April, the weakened South Vietnamese military had collapsed on all fronts. On the 27th, 100,000 North Vietnamese troops encircled Saigon, which was defended by only about 30,000 ARVN troops. In order to increase panic and disorder in the city, the VPA began shelling the airport and eventually forced its closure. With the air exit closed, large numbers of civilians who might otherwise have fled the city found that they had no way out. On 29 April, the U.S. launched Operation Frequent Wind, arguably the largest helicopter evacuation in history.

Fall of Saigon

Chaos, unrest, and panic ensued as hysterical South Vietnamese officials and civilians scrambled to leave Saigon before it was too late. American helicopters began evacuating both U.S. and South Vietnamese citizens from the U.S. embassy. The evacuations had been delayed until the last possible moment due to U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin's belief that Saigon could be held and that a political settlement was still possible. The evacuations began in an atmosphere of desperation as hysterical crowds of Vietnamese vied for the limited number of seats available on the departing helicopters. Martin pleaded with the U.S. government to send $700 million in emergency aid to South Vietnam in order to bolster the Saigon regime's ability to fight and mobilize fresh military units, but it was to no avail.

In the U.S., South Vietnam was now perceived as doomed. President Ford had given a televised speech on 23 April declaring the end of both the Vietnam War and of all U.S. aid to the Saigon regime. The helicopter evacuations continued day and night as North Vietnamese tanks breached the defenses on the outskirts of the city. In the early morning hours of 30 April, the last U.S. Marines evacuated the embassy roof by helicopter as civilians poured over the embassy perimeter and swarmed onto its grounds.

On that day, VPA troops overcame all resistance, quickly capturing the U.S. embassy, the South Vietnamese government army garrison, the police headquarters, radio station, presidential palace, and other vital facilities. The presidential palace was captured and the NLF flag waved victoriously over it. Thieu's successor, President Dương Văn Minh attempted to surrender Saigon, but VPA Colonel Búi Tín informed him that he did not have anything to surrender. Minh then issued his last command, ordering all South Vietnamese troops to lay down their arms.


The last official American military action in Southeast Asia occurred on 15 May 1975, when 18 Marine and airmen were killed during a rescue operation known as the Mayagüez incident involving a skirmish with the Khmer Rouge on an island off the Cambodian coast. The names of those men are listed on the last panel of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

By 12 April, the Khmer Rouge had entered the Cambodian capital ao Phnom Penh. Only hours before their arrival, the U.S. had launched Operation Eagle Pull, an evacuation similar to Frequent Wind. U.S. Ambassador John G. Dean boarded a Marine helicopter and left the city. The communist victory plunged the nation into darkness as the cities and towns were forcibly evacuated, their inhabitants herded into the countryside to begin the construction of a Maoist paradise in Democratic Kampuchea.

Both of the Vietnams were united 2 July 1976 to form the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the former president of North Vietnam. Thousands of supporters of the South Vietnamese government were rounded up and sent to "re-education" camps. The new regime considered these supporters to be American collaborators and traitors.

North Vietnam followed up its southern victory by first making Laos a virtual puppet state. Socialist fraternalism did not last long. The Khmer Rouge, who had historical territorial ambitions in Vietnam, began a series of border incursions that finally led to a Vietnamese invasion. The VPA onslaught overthrew Pol Pot's murderous regime and a pro-Vietnamese government was installed (see Third Indochina War. The U.S. did not recognise the new government of Cambodia, and, along with the United Nations, continued to consider the Khmer Rouge (perpetrators of the greatest genocide since the Second world War) as their ally. In 1979 the Chinese, furious with the Vietnamese for eliminating their Khmer Rouge allies, launched an invasion of Vietnam's northern provinces. After fighting to a stalemate, the Chinese withdrew.


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