Abuses perpetrated against the North Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian people, which began as far back as the French occupation in the 1840s, galvanized many to fight a 30-year battle for their eventual freedom from foreign occupation.
The United States involvement in the struggles of French Indochina began in 1945 at the Potsdam Conference and continued through many phases, culminating in a final withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. Billions of dollars spent in military aid and equipment from the United States ended after more than 58,000 American lives were lost and another 153,000 were wounded in what is sometimes called “The Impossible War.”
The Indochinese Peninsula consists of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, formerly Burma; Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. French Indochina included Cambodia and Laos plus Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China. The latter three later united to form Vietnam.
End of Japanese occupation
Directly after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Vietnam's communist Viet Minh National Congress met in Tan Trao to ratify the Central Committee’s recommendation to begin a general uprising in the hopes of ousting the Japanese military command. The Congress also elected nationalist Ho Chi Minh, leader of the National Liberation Committee, as the head of the provisional government. When the news of Japan’s surrender in World War II arrived, the local Japanese military command turned over governance to the local authorities. Once Hanoi fell, the Viet Minh declared its independence, established the provisional government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), and made Ho president and minister of foreign affairs. In a speech given on September 2, 1945, Ho announced the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, modeled nearly verbatim after the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, to half a million people assembled in Ba Dinh Square.
Ho’s attempt to garner support from the United States was useless because, unknown by him, the fate of Indochina had already been decided at the Potsdam Conference. The Allies had agreed to a Japanese surrender of their occupation of Indochina above the 17th parallel and the British surrender south of that line. Instead of supporting Ho, the United States gave their support to France, which demanded to re-colonize Vietnam under threats of France’s non-cooperation in helping to rebuild Europe if the U.S. refused. Secretary of State Dean Acheson stated that France’s demand was nothing short of "blackmail." The United States also saw the Indochina situation as a potential example of The Domino Theory, which holds that if a country falls to communism, weaker surrounding nations also eventually fall. Due to political pressure from anti-communist Republican Joseph McCarthy and others in Washington, D.C., against Democrats who were seen as soft on communism’s spread throughout the world, President Harry S. Truman stepped up America’s involvement in the French re-colonization of Indochina under the Truman Doctrine.
Anxious to re-establish their colony of 60 years, the French brought in forces in 1946 that included soldiers from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The colony had once supplied the French with not only important raw materials, but also vast wealth from its opium drug trade. French businessmen and a small number of Vietnamese became wealthy, while most became poorer. Citizens were often held in prison for long periods without being charged, or they died from malaria, tuberculosis, or malnutrition. By refusing to educate most Vietnamese children, literacy of France's re-colonized people reversed from 80 percent literate to 80 percent illiterate when the French left in 1954.
Having traveled to France to sign a cease-fire agreement and to negotiate eventual freedom for the Vietnamese people, Ho Chi Minh felt betrayed by the French government when the puppet government of Bao Dai was established in his absence in 1947. Although Dai had come from a long line of royal leaders, he had no talent for governing, nor did he have the desire to do it.
Ho was forced to assent to French re-occupation. Given the choice, however, Ho preferred French occupation over the Chinese in Vietnam, knowing the French would be easier to depose than the Chinese.
First Indochina War
The beginning of the First Indochina War was marked by an outbreak of fighting as a result of a violation in the cease-fire agreement when Viet Minh soldiers refused a French demand to leave Haiphong. Fighting broke out and approximately 1,000 Vietnamese were killed in a battle fought with armored units against a French gunboat firing from the harbor.
After seven years of fighting against the Viet Minh, the French governance in Indochina ended shortly after the bloody battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 when, at the brink of surrender, they were unable to obtain U.S. reinforcements or additional military aid.
The United States had funded approximately one third of France’s attempt to retain control of Indochina. After inheriting the engagement from Truman, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, continued to support French occupation without much deviation from Truman’s policy. Eisenhower surmised that continued support would eventually lead to the liberation of the Vietnamese people from communism. The tide of U.S. support receded when the hopelessness of a full-scale occupation of Indochina against the Viet Minh was realized in 1953. The French also had requested an additional $400 million in assistance but, due to pressure from Washington for the French to make good on their promise to cooperate in Europe, they received only $385 million.
By the end of the First Indochina War, 75,867 French soldiers had lost their lives and $3 billion had been spent in a war that led to the withdrawal of French troops after the 1954 Geneva Accords were signed.
At the Geneva Conference in Switzerland in July 1954, not only did the Geneva Accords effectively end French control over Indochina, but Cambodia and Laos were also granted independence from France, thus bringing an end to French Indochina. Maintaining the partitioning of North and South Vietnam by the 17th parallel that was first established at the Potsdam Conference, Ho Chi Minh was given the territory north of the 17th parallel while Emperor Bao Dai was given the area south of the 17th parallel. Vietnam was temporarily divided, but an agreement had been reached for free elections to be held in July 1956 to unify the two regions. Emperor Dai’s rule was short lived in that by 1955, Dai was overthrown and U.S.-backed Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem was instated as president.
Rather than bear the entire burden of containment in Southeast Asia, the U.S. began to favor what Secretary of State John Foster Dulles called “United Action.” Under the plan, a coalition of local forces would be called upon to assist with disputes. Out of the “United Action” approach came the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, referred to as the Manila Pact. The pact was signed by Australia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States on September 8, 1954, in Manila. The aim of the Manila Pact was to find peaceful means to resolve differences in Southeast Asia by establishing a council to determine how to implement the treaty and to provide consultation for military and other planning within the treaty area.
The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), whose principal architect was Secretary Dulles, was originated from that defense treaty in an effort to stem further communist takeovers of countries in the Pacific region and to legitimize the United States' presence in South Vietnam. Representatives from the eight original signatories pledged to defend against what it saw as an increase of communist military aggression against democracy. But in the end, the United States carried the heaviest burden in defending against that aggression.
Due to Diem’s success against the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects and other political factions in South Vietnam in 1955, the U.S. began to believe Diem could stave off the Viet Minh with military assistance, and thus engaged in a deeper commitment to their freedom from the communist threat. But because of political instability in South Vietnam and fears that a communist leadership would not allow free elections, Dulles later argued that it was in the best interest of the U.S. to allow Diem to hold a rigged referendum ahead of the elections that had been mandated by the Geneva Conference. The decision not to allow free elections fueled the Viet Minh’s resolve to re-unify Vietnam.
As the threat of a communist takeover of South Vietnam and a possible later capitulation of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, and Indonesia came closer to becoming a reality, President John F. Kennedy began to increase the number of “military advisors” in South Vietnam. Military advisors were used to train and equip South Vietnamese troops. Where there had only been 700 advisors at the end of President Eisenhower’s administration in 1961, Kennedy increased that number to 12,000. Covert operations involving Special Forces (Green Berets) moved the United States closer to an open conflict with North Vietnam and the Vietcong (communist guerillas fighting in South Vietnam).
Second Indochina War (Vietnam War)
"No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now. Rarely have so many people been so wrong about so much. Never have the consequences of their misunderstanding been so tragic."Richard M. Nixon Nearly always referred to in America as "the Vietnam War," and in Vietnam as “the American War” or the “War Against the Americans to Save the Nation” — the conflict was the longest fought by the United States and was never declared by Congress. Although the date of its outset was never clearly established, many historians aver that the Vietnam War began when U.S. Marines arrived on March 8, 1965, to join 21,000 U.S. military advisors already in Vietnam. Until that time, advisors had not assumed an offensive role in the fight against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces. America’s participation in the war officially ended on January 27, 1973, when the Paris Peace Accords were signed, although the U.S. continued to support South Vietnam’s war effort until 1974 when Congress cut off all military funding.
Two coalitions fought the Vietnam War: Along with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam or the DRV), there was the National Liberation Front (NLF), a guerilla militia from South Vietnam that also was known as the Vietcong (VC), the Soviet Union and China, which provided military and financial support. On the other side was South Vietnam and the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN), along with allied members from the United States, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines. Other Cold War allies of the United States were opposed to the war and refused to fight.
While involved in a reconnaissance mission in international waters off the Gulf of Tonkin shores in August 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox was allegedly attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats. In response, the Maddox annihilated one North Vietnamese torpedo boat and damaged two others with air assistance from the nearby USS Ticonderoga carrier. During the incident, the first American pilot was shot down and taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese.
When Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was given broad powers to increase involvement in the war. National Security Council members, including Robert S. McNamara, Dean Rusk, and Maxwell Taylor, recommended to Johnson on November 28 that he implement a two-stage bombing of North Vietnam. Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara micromanaged the bombing raids from Washington, D.C., out of fears of a runaway conflagration. J. William Fulbright, the longest-serving chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a strong critic of the war, later wrote,
"Many Senators, who accepted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution without question, might well not have done so had they foreseen that it would subsequently be interpreted as a sweeping Congressional endorsement for conduct of a large-scale war in Asia."
Johnson saw the war much the same as his predecessor President Kennedy had: a way to retaliate against the Soviet Union for the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1964, Johnson and McNamara considered stepping up their involvement in the war because of the South Vietnamese forces' low morale. After an attack on two U.S. camps at Pleiku in February 1965, Johnson decided to carry out bombings of infiltration routes and military installations in North Vietnam, using South Vietnamese pilots.
In March 1965, President Johnson ordered 3,500 marines, the first U.S. combat troops, into South Vietnam to protect U.S. military bases in response to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Escalation of the troops began in July, and Johnson assigned General William Westmoreland as commander of all U.S. troops in South Vietnam. Fighting reached full-scale combat in 1966 and 1967 when both sides increased their forces, which was followed by a sharp rise in casualties.
The U.S. commenced Operation Rolling Thunder, code name for the relentless, but often interrupted bombing raids in North Vietnam, in February 1965. Rolling Thunder’s purpose was to destroy the fighting will of the North Vietnamese, stop the flow of soldiers and supplies to the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army into South Vietnam on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and to demolish industrial bases and surface-to-air missile (SAM) defenses. (Also, the trail was used for sending Vietcong officers, who had been trained in North Vietnam, back to South Vietnam.) While only intended to last eight weeks, Operation Rolling Thunder bombing raids continued for three years. Construction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a 9,940-mile web of roads and rail lines that ran through Cambodia and Laos, had begun on Ho Chi Minh’s birthday on May 9, 1959, and carried more than one million North Vietnamese soldiers and vast quantities of supplies from China and the Soviet Union to battlefields in South Vietnam over 16 years.
The year 1968 seemed to be the transition from one era to another in the United States — between the idealism of the 1960s and the disillusionment of the 1970s. Americans’ attitude towards the Vietnam War and its ability to win it was sharply changed by two major events occurring that year: the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre. Although much care was taken by Johnson and McNamara to prevent the killing of innocent civilians, the difficulties with discerning guerillas from civilians made fighting the war increasingly frustrating for the American forces.
On January 31, 1968, the first day of the Lunar New Year and Vietnam's most important holiday, 85,000 Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces launched a series of surprise attacks on scores of cities, towns, and hamlets throughout South Vietnam. One such skirmish was at Hue where 3,000 civilians were killed and buried in a mass grave by communist soldiers during their temporary occupation of that South Vietnamese city. It was considered to be a turning point in the Vietnam War when General Westmoreland reported that achieving the Vietcong's defeat would necessitate 200,000 more American soldiers and calling up the reserves. Westmoreland had previously misled the American public by stating, with each successive request for troops, that the current increase would be enough to win the war.
Soon after Tet, Westmoreland was replaced by General Creighton W. Abrams, who took a decidely different approach from what his commanding officer Westmoreland had taken, including more cooperation with ARVN troops, more targeted air strikes, and less indiscriminate use of heavy artillery. Although Abrams’ tactics proved to be more effective, time to gain the public's confidence in winning the war had run out. To a growing segment of Americans, Tet helped to unite those with dissenting opinions by revealing the Vietcong's resolve and the tenuous control South Vietnam had over its own territory.
My Lai Massacre
Also in 1968, a unit of the U.S. 11th Light Infantry Brigade, Charlie Company, was ordered into combat by Captain Ernest Medina to "seek and destroy" any Vietcong or NVA in My Lai (pronounced ME LIE), a hamlet in the province of Quang Ngai. The province was suspected to be a haven for the enemy. Led by Lieutenant William Calley on March 16, 1968, the soldiers were unable to find any insurgents — just ordinary villagers. Nevertheless, having been braced for a major fight, the soldiers opened fire on the villagers, killing 504 innocents, including infants. Known as the My Lai Massacre, it became a symbol of America’s war atrocities, continued to erode the public’s confidence in the war and also provoked international outrage. Calley faced a court martial and was convicted to serve a life sentence in 1970, but was later pardoned by President Richard Nixon.
War in Laos
While America’s attention was tuned in on North and South Vietnam, the largest U.S. covert operation prior to the war in Afghanistan took place in Laos between 1962 and 1975. Laos was subjected to three million tons of bombing, which represented the heaviest U.S. bombing campaign since World War II. The CIA trained approximately 30,000 Laotians to fight a clandestine war along the Ho Chi Minh Trail against the North Vietnamese, Vietcong, and their Pathet Lao allies, with the support of Air America and the Royal Lao Air Force. Due to the U.S. government's denials, little information about a secret war in a thick jungle inside Laotian territory was available until recently.
War in Cambodia
In 1968, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia allowed the pursuit of Vietcong into his country. In 1969, in an effort to destroy communist supply routes and base camps in Cambodia, President Nixon gave the go-ahead to "Operation Breakfast," the secret bombing of Cambodia, perpetrated without the knowledge of Congress or the American public, which continued for 14 months. Prince Sihanouk's attempt to maintain Cambodia's neutrality while war waged in neighboring Vietnam compelled him to forge opportunistic alliances with China, and then the United States. Such ambivalence weakened his government, which led to a coup by his defense minister, Lon Nol, in 1970. U.S. and South Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in 1970 to fight Khmer Rouge guerillas backed by the North Vietnamese. In a genocidal anti-colonial campaign, Cambodians were murdered or became victims of starvation and disease after the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot took over the country in 1973.
Opposition to the Vietnam War
The first opposition to American fighting in Vietnam came from small groups on American college campuses in 1964. Due to greater access to information through the media, the "Baby Boom" generation of college students around the country began to form groups and demonstrate against the war. That year the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a Michigan-based group of college students, were the first to do so and by the end of 1966, SDS had established more than 300 chapters. During a time of much civil unrest in America, other groups, such as California’s Free Speech Movement, also led demonstrations.
As mounting opposition towards the war grew, Congress began to take its first actions to deal with that sentiment. On August 16, 1966, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) initiated investigations to produce evidence to back legislation against Americans suspected of aiding the NLF. Antiwar demonstrations interrupted the first meeting and 50 people were arrested. After President Johnson requested a supplemental $415 million in aid to Vietnam for the 1966 fiscal year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began to hold televised hearings, known as the Fulbright Hearings, with committee chairman J. William Fulbright leading the charge on February 4, 1967.
Attempts to avoid induction into the war became known as draft dodging or draft evading. The first burning of a draft card occurred on October 15, 1965, and was committed by a college student from the National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam. To avoid conscription by the Selective Service System office (draft board), many eligible men moved to Canada and Sweden. Others pursued student deferments by attending college until their required 26th birthday was reached.
When U.S. and South Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia on April 30, 1970, to fight Khmer Rouge guerillas backed by the North Vietnamese, college campus demonstrations in the U.S. intensified. One of the most well known took place on May 4 at Kent State University, Ohio, where four student protestors were killed and nine others were wounded.
When the "Pentagon Papers" were released to the the New York Times in 1971, the Nixon administration prevented the 7,000-page document from further publication due to the leaking of overwhelmingly incriminating evidence against presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Presented by a former U.S. Marine and military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, its publication was only resumed after it was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court. The document substantially eroded public support for the Vietnam War. It also lead to further investigations, including those of alleged illegal activities within the Nixon administration that eventually uncovered the Watergate Scandal and lead to Nixon's resignation.
The United States ceased all bombing and other attacks in North Vietnamese territory on November 1, 1968, to encourage negotiations for ending the war. Aimed at reducing the level of fighting and negotiating a settlement, the Paris Peace Talks began in May 1968. At the close of that tumultuous year, there were 540,000 Americans in Vietnam. On March 31, 1969, President Johnson publicly announced the halt of most bombings in North Vietnam and also that he would not run for re-election. By August 1969, 38,000 American soldiers had been killed.
After Richard Nixon was inaugurated president in 1969, he proposed that both North Vietnam and the United States should begin to withdraw troops from South Vietnam. While U.S. troops began to withdraw during the latter part of that year, the North Vietnamese government refused to go along. In an unsuccessful attempt to force North Vietnam back to the negotiating table, Nixon stepped up bombing raids on North Vietnam. As a result, the total number of bombs dropped in Vietnam, during Nixon’s presidency, was higher than those dropped during the Johnson Administration.
As part of an attempt to encourage the South Vietnamese army to fight more independently and effectively against the NLF, Nixon announced the Vietnamization Plan. By returning combat responsibilities to the ARVN and gradually removing U.S. troops, Nixon hoped to ease America’s opposition to the war without destabilizing the military efforts of South Vietnam.
By the end of 1970, the total number of U.S. troops occupying Vietnam fell to 280,000, and by October 1971, the lowest number of troops (196,700) since January 1966. Nixon announced on November 12, 1971, that another 45,000 American troops would be removed by February 1, 1972. On November 30, 1971, White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler informed the press that troop withdrawals would no longer be announced, since there were only 27,000 remaining in Vietnam. By the end of December, the U.S. had ceased heavy bombing of North Vietnam.
On January 6, 1971, Congress repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In the wake of giving President Johnson a series of “blank checks” for sending troops to Vietnam, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution on April 5, 1973. The resolution limited a president’s power to commit troops into battle without first obtaining approval by Congress.
End of the Second Indochina War
On January 15, 1973, thanks to the progress in peace negotiations, Nixon announced the deferral of all offensive tactics in North Vietnam. When the Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, America’s participation in the Second Indochina War officially ended. Johnson died five days prior to its signing. The first American prisoners of war were released on February 11 and all U.S. soldiers were given orders to leave the country by March 29.
Even after the accords were signed, the United States continued to support the war economically, but most of the funds were siphoned off by corrupt officials within the South Vietnamese government, while funding from the Soviet Union and China to North Vietnam increased. But in 1974, Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act, which cut off all military funding to the Saigon government and made it impossible to meet the peace terms Nixon had negotiated. The South Vietnamese stood alone to fight the NVA. After a series of battles, the U.S. watched helplessly while South Vietnamese resistance collapsed on March 25, 1975, at the Battle of Hue after a three-day siege. On April 21, the city of Xuan-loc, only 40 miles from the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, was overtaken after the NVA forced South Vietnamese troops into a retreat there. Prior to the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, 7,000 Americans and Vietnamese were evacuated from the U.S. Embassy by helicopter in one day, making it the largest helicopter evacuation in history.
The surrender of Saigon was announced by South Vietnamese President General Duong Van Minh, who said, “We are here to hand over to you the power in order to avoid bloodshed." General Minh had become South Vietnam’s president only two days before the country crumbled. North and South Vietnam were reunited on July 2, 1976, establishing the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Min City after North Vietnam’s former leader, who had died six years prior to Saigon’s fall.
When U.S. soldiers began to arrive in America, the flow came in a trickle, which greatly influenced the kind of homecoming they received. Soldiers were not shipped home with their units and greeted with fanfare as they had upon their victorious return from World War II. America had lost the war, but also an overwhelming majority of Americans had been overwhelmingly against it
Many veterans faced misconduct charges or suffered the effects of the herbicide and defoliant Agent Orange or of Napalm, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Others faced ostracism, even by their contemporaries. Benefits available to veterans were no greater than those received during peacetime, unlike the generous benefits received by veterans of World War II. Years later, America made efforts to reverse the treatment Vietnam War veterans were given upon their return.
Over a 10-year span, Americans killed in action or listed as missing in action totaled 58,226 and another 153,303 wounded, bringing the total casualties to 211,529. Many believe that, of the 2,300 U.S. soldiers classified as missing in action, many were taken prisoner by the DRV and held indefinitely. A total of 4,400 to 5,000 South Koreans died. Among the Australian forces, 501 were killed and 3,131 were wounded out of a total of 47,000 troops deployed in Vietnam. New Zealand suffered a total of 225 casualties of which 38 were killed and 187 were wounded, while Thailand suffered 351 casualties. Although Canada did not officially participate in the war, thousands of Canadians joined the U.S. military and served in Vietnam. Therefore the U.S. casualty figures listed above also include at least 56 Canadians.
In April 1995, casualties during the Vietnam War were reported as 1.1 million Vietcong and North Vietnamese were killed and nearly two million North and South Vietnamese civilians were killed between 1954 and 1975, according to Vietnam’s Ministry of Labor War Invalids Report. Initial North Vietnamese statements estimated 1.5 million Vietnamese were killed, although that figure was later discredited by Vietnam. The Vietnamese list more than 200,000 of their soldiers as missing in action.
Approximately 50,000 to 300,000 Cambodians were killed, and nearly 1.7 million were murdered or victims of starvation and disease after the communist Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot took over the country in 1973.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese left their country as refugees fleeing from firing squads, torture, concentration camps, and “re-education” programs. Many of them escaped by boat, landed in neighboring countries, and eventually in America, France, and Canada, giving rise to the term “boat people.” Over the years, one million boat people arrived in the United States from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
The casualties and costs associated with the first and second Indochina wars raised the question in the minds of many Americans and others around the world as to the value of human life and an individual country’s right to rule autonomously without interference from more powerful nations. Colonial avarice came under increasing scrutiny, thanks to those wars. Although many other wars have been fought around the world since those in Indochina, America’s involvement in them has been tempered and the unstated prerequisite of military service for public office no longer exists in that country. Once the Cold War thawed, the landscape of international ties and relations changed permanently.