Vietnam and French Colonialism
The Asian nation of Vietnam has had a troubled past. In fact, conquest and rebellion are the central themes of Vietnam's recorded history. In ancient times, the Vietnamese people came under the control of China, the empire to their north. Centuries of Chinese rule did a great deal to shape Vietnam's culture, language, and religion. But even though China had a profound influence on the development of Vietnamese society, it never managed to erase Vietnam's unique sense of identity or its desire for independence from foreign rule.
In the tenth century A.D., Vietnam finally succeeded in casting off Chinese rule. For most of the next 800 years a succession of Vietnamese emperors ruled the country. In the 1800s, however, Vietnam once again came under the control of a foreign power. France, a European nation eager to build a global empire, conquered Vietnam during the 1860s.
Over the next several decades, France became known for its uncaring attitude toward the country's indigenous (native) people. "[France's] rule was often incompetent, usually inconsistent, and regularly harsh," writes Robert D. Schulzinger in A Time for War. This treatment, combined with traditional Vietnamese resistance to foreign rule, eventually created a strong movement to force France out of Vietnam.
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The Indochina War (1946–54)
In 1946, the struggle between Vietnam's French colonial rulers and its Communist-supported nationalist movement finally erupted into all-out war. This war—known as the Indochina War or the First Indochina War (the Vietnam War is sometimes referred to as the Second Indochina War)—lasted for eight long years. It finally ended in 1954, after France suffered a humiliating defeat in an area of northern Vietnam known as Dien Bien Phu.
Stalemate in the early years
From 1946 to 1949 French occupation forces and the Viet Minh waged bitter war, with neither side able to gain a meaningful advantage. The nation of France entered the Indochina War willingly. Both its government and its military believed that controlling Vietnam was crucial to France's postwar economic recovery, and they expressed confidence that their superior weaponry and resources would lift them to victory.
But the Viet Minh forces proved to be a dedicated and skilled enemy. Operating in small units that specialized in guerrilla warfare (surprise attacks and sabotage), these troops assumed control of significant areas of the countryside in northern and central Vietnam. They also mounted occasional strikes in the south, despite the heavy French military presence....
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Early American Involvement in Vietnam (1954–62)
In 1954, France gave up its colonial claims on Vietnam. But even as France prepared to leave the region, the United States and other democratic nations continued to assert influence on the internal affairs of the country. Specifically, they forced Ho Chi Minh's Vietnamese Communists to accept a treaty that divided Vietnam in half.
Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) established a Communist government in North Vietnam. At the same time, the United States government worked hard to support a non-Communist government in South Vietnam. Ignoring the 1954 Geneva Accords—which called for reunification of the country in 1956 after nationwide elections—U.S. officials threw their support behind an anti-Communist politician named Ngo Dinh Diem (1901–1963). At first, Diem's government seemed like a strong candidate for U.S. financial and military support. But as time passed, Diem's style of governing and the growth of political opposition to his regime (government) sparked great concern in the United States.
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The Fall of Diem (1963)
During 1963, American dissatisfaction with Ngo Dinh Diem's (1901–1963) government in South Vietnam continued to grow. At the beginning of the year, the United States' policy of providing military and financial aid to Diem remained in place. But as the months passed, U.S. President John Kennedy (1917–1963; president 1960–1963) and his administration reluctantly concluded that the Diem government was too deeply flawed to survive.
One primary reason for American unhappiness with Diem was the growing strength of Viet Cong Communists operating in South Vietnam. But an even bigger cause for alarm was Diem's response to a massive uprising by the country's Buddhist majority population, which finally became fed up with Diem's anti-Buddhist views and policies. Diem's brutal crackdown against the demonstrators kept him in power for another few months. But it also convinced the United States that Diem would never be able to rally his people against the Communist threat. As a result, the United States did not interfere when several South Vietnamese generals engineered the overthrow of Diem's government in November 1963.
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Lyndon Johnson and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (1964)
In 1964, political chaos continued to grip South Vietnam. The nation's efforts to achieve political stability floundered, as military and civilian leaders battled for power and influence. At the same time, Communist Viet Cong forces continued to make gains in the country's rural areas and expand their operations in Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam) and other urban centers. These advances convinced many U.S. officials that the Communists who ruled North Vietnam were on the verge of seizing control of the South as well.
In August 1964, a mysterious clash between Communist and U.S. Navy forces took place in the waters of the Tonkin Gulf, off the shores of North Vietnam. American President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; president 1963–1969)—who became president after John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; president 1960–1963) was assassinated in November 1963—took advantage of this controversial event. Seizing on fears of Communist aggression, Johnson and his administration convinced Congress to approve expanded U.S. military action in Vietnam. The administration hoped that the warning of military intervention would help South Vietnam halt the Communist threat.
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Vietnam Becomes an American War (1965–67)
Beginning in 1965, the United States dramatically increased its involvement in the war in Vietnam. U.S. officials and military leaders supported this "escalation" in American activity because they worried that South Vietnam's crumbling government would otherwise fall to the North Vietnamese Communists. "South Vietnam's accelerating crisis alarmed American policymakers, driving them to deepen U.S. involvement considerably in an effort to arrest Saigon's political failure," writes Brian VanDeMark in Into the Quagmire. "Abandoning the concept of [establishing] stability in the South before escalation [of the war] against the North, policymakers now embraced the concept of stability through escalation, in the desperate hope that military action against Hanoi would prompt [create] a stubbornly elusive political order in Saigon."
Over the next few years, so-called "Americanization" of the Vietnam War developed rapidly. The United States launched a long and deadly air bombing campaign against North Vietnam during this time. It also sent hundreds of thousands of American soldiers into South Vietnam to fight Viet Cong guerrillas (small groups of fighters who launch surprise attacks) and North Vietnamese troops. Finally, U.S. officials continued with their efforts to rebuild South Vietnam's weak and unpopular government.
Despite all of these activities,...
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The Tet Offensive (1968)
In late 1967 and early 1968, after three years of bloody war, the U.S. government repeatedly told the American public that the U.S. military was on the verge of victory in Vietnam. But on January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong guerrillas (small groups of fighters who launch surprise attacks) launched the Tet Offensive. This massive surprise attack hit targets all across South Vietnam, astonishing U.S. forces and shocking the American people.
U.S. and South Vietnamese troops eventually pushed back the Communist assault, delivering heavy casualties to NVA and Viet Cong units in the process. But the huge size of the offensive convinced many Americans that the Johnson administration could not be trusted to tell the truth about the war. As William Turley writes in The Second Indochina War, "The official optimism of years past suddenly seemed proof of incompetence or deception." Indeed, Tet convinced large segments of the U.S. population that the war might only be won by sacrificing thousands more lives to the conflict.
Tired and disillusioned after Tet, Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973; president 1963–1969) decided not to seek a second term as president in the upcoming November 1968 elections. He also took steps to begin peace negotiations with North Vietnam. But the war continued, and the debate over Vietnam reached an angry level that...
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The American Antiwar Movement
The Vietnam War divided the American people more than any other event since the American Civil War (1861–65). In the early years of U.S. involvement, most people supported the government's policies. But as the war dragged on and more American soldiers were killed or wounded, increasing numbers of Americans began to oppose the war. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the antiwar movement gained strength and people opposed to the war became more vocal in their protests.
"Opposition began among pacifists [individuals who believe that disputes can be solved peacefully] in the political fringe . . . but then spread to students, academics, artists, intellectuals, clergy, civil rights activists, writers, politicians, journalists, and entertainers," Randy Roberts and James S. Olson explain in the Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War. "Some demanded an end to the war because they felt it was immoral, others because it was poorly conceived and unwinnable, and still others because the United States refused to employ the full range of its military power to achieve a military victory. By the early 1970s, opposition to the Vietnam War was endemic [native] to American political culture, affecting almost every segment of American society."
During the Vietnam War, disagreements arose among the various groups involved in the antiwar movement. Some groups favored radical and...
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The American Soldier in Vietnam
More than 2.5 million American men served in Vietnam during the war. Some of these men were career military officers. But many others were poor or working-class teenagers who enlisted or were drafted into the military right out of high school. A large proportion of the U.S. troops consisted of African American men from the inner cities, the sons of immigrants from factory towns, and boys from rural farming communities.
Upon arriving in Vietnam, American soldiers found themselves in a strange land of watery fields and dense jungles. This unfamiliar environment made their jobs more difficult and unpleasant. Their feelings of vulnerability were increased by strained relations with Vietnam's rural communities. In the early years of the war, some U.S. soldiers expected the South Vietnamese people to greet them as heroes. Instead, the local farmers and villagers usually viewed the Americans with distrust or even hostility. In fact, some South Vietnamese civilians (people not involved in the military, including women and children) actively helped the Viet Cong guerillas (small groups of fighters who launch surprise attacks) that the Americans were fighting against.
Never knowing who to trust, the U.S. combat troops experienced constant fear and anxiety during their frequent patrols of the villages and countryside. They knew that the enemy was all around them, but their...
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Coming Home: Vietnam Veterans in American Society
When the American soldiers returned home from World War II in 1945, they were greeted as heroes in the United States. Cities and towns across the country held parades to honor the returning veterans and recognize the sacrifices they had made. But the homecoming was very different for most Vietnam veterans. They came back to find the United States torn apart by debate over the Vietnam War. There were no victory parades or welcome-home rallies. Instead, most Vietnam veterans returned to a society that did not seem to care about them, or that seemed to view them with distrust and anger.
"Men who fought in World War II or Korea might be just as haunted by what they had personally seen and done in combat," Arnold R. Isaacs writes in Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy. "But they did not come home, as the Vietnam vets did, to a country torn and full of doubt about why those wars were fought and whether they had been worthwhile. Nor did they return as symbols of a great national failure."
Many of the young men who fought in Vietnam had a great deal of difficulty readjusting to life in the United States. Some struggled to overcome physical injuries, emotional problems, or drug addictions from their time in Vietnam. Others had trouble feeling accepted by their friends and families. Some returning soldiers blamed their situation on the antiwar...
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The War's Effect on the Vietnamese Land and People
About 58,000 American soldiers were killed during the Vietnam War, and another 304,000 were wounded. Without a doubt, the war took a terrible toll on the United States. But since most of the fighting took place in Vietnam, the Vietnamese land and people paid a much heavier price for the war. An estimated 4 million Vietnamese were killed or wounded on both sides of the conflict, including as many as 1.3 million civilians (people not involved in the military, including women and children) in South Vietnam.
Much of the death and destruction resulted from bombing. The U.S. military used more than 14 million tons of explosives during the Vietnam War, mostly on the South Vietnamese countryside. This meant that American planes dropped more than twice as many bombs as U.S. forces had used during World War II (1939–45)—all on an area about the size of California. The U.S. military also sprayed millions of gallons of defoliants (chemical agents that killed or burned crops, forests, and other vegetation) on the South Vietnamese land during the war.
The widespread destruction of the farms and villages in the South Vietnamese countryside turned huge numbers of peasants into homeless refugees. Many of these people fled to the cities, where they made a living any way they could—including through illegal activities. The poverty and desperation of the war years—along with...
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Nixon's War (1969–70)
When Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; president 1969– 1974) became president of the United States in January 1969, he promised to guide America out of the Vietnam War by pursuing a policy of "peace with honor." This meant that the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam would have to take place in a way that avoided any appearance of defeat.
After assuming office, Nixon and his advisors first considered a strategy of intensified attacks on North Vietnam. But the president reluctantly decided that escalation [increased military operations] would probably not bring about a negotiated peace agreement. Instead, the Nixon administration pursued a plan called "Vietnamization," in which primary responsibility for fighting the North shifted from the U.S. military to South Vietnamese armed forces. As a result of this strategy, American troop commitments in Vietnam began to drop for the first time since 1965.
But events in Indochina continued to produce angry divisions throughout America. Reports of U.S. war crimes surged upward, creating serious questions about the conduct of American soldiers in Vietnam. In addition, American involvement in neighboring Cambodia began to increase. This development sparked widespread fears that the Vietnam War might spread beyond its borders. America's domestic turmoil did not peak until mid-1970, when four college students were shot to...
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America Withdraws from Vietnam (1971–73)
The United States continued to withdraw its troops from Vietnam throughout the early 1970s. At the same time, America transferred its many military responsibilities over to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) as part of its "Vietnamization" strategy. But even as the size of the U.S. ground forces steadily declined, South Vietnam remained heavily dependent on American air power. In fact, U.S. bombers, helicopter gun ships, and other aircraft were essential to the South, both offensively and defensively. U.S. air power was particularly important in turning back North Vietnam's 1972 Easter Offensive.
In late 1972, the endless peace negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam finally took a promising turn. When the negotiations faltered once again in December, President Richard Nixon (1913–1994; president 1969–1974) approved the so-called "Christmas Bombing" of North Vietnam. Talks resumed a short time later, and in January 1973 the two sides reached agreement on a treaty that finally ended U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. South Vietnam's President Nguyen Van Thieu (1923– ) bitterly opposed the deal, for he feared that the treaty's terms placed his government in jeop ardy. But when it became clear that the United States was pre pared to abandon him if he resisted, Thieu reluctantly pre pared for life without U.S. military protection.
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Victory for North Vietnam (1973–75)
When the last U.S. troops left Vietnam in 1973, President Nguyen Van Thieu (1923– ) and his South Vietnamese government expressed deep unhappiness with the withdrawal. After all, the Communist government of North Vietnam was still trying to take control of the country. Thieu could only hope that continued U.S. economic aid and the threat of American military power would enable South Vietnam to withstand any military aggression by the North.
These hopes rapidly unraveled, however. The U.S. Congress made major cuts in American economic assistance to South Vietnam. Around this same period, the Watergate scandal forced President Richard Nixon (1913–1994; president 1969–1974)—who had vowed to defend the South from northern aggression—to resign from office. Finally, South Vietnam's economy and military suffered a series of setbacks that made the Thieu government even more vulnerable.
In early 1975, North Vietnam launched a major military offensive into the South in hopes of winning the war once and for all. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) expected the invasion to be a bloody and costly one. But the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) collapsed, triggering a wave of panic and chaos across much of the country. North Vietnam's forces rolled across the countryside unopposed, capturing city after city. In late April they captured South Vietnam's capital city, Saigon. The...
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Vietnam Since the War (1976-Present)
The war in Vietnam finally ended in 1975, when North Vietnamese troops captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. The following year, the Communist leaders of North Vietnam reunited the two halves of the country to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). They also introduced a series of changes designed to transform Vietnam into a socialist society. For example, the government took control of all farmland and business activities and placed restrictions on the lives of the Vietnamese people.
These changes created terrible hardships for the Vietnamese. "Rebuilding Vietnam would have been a stupendous task under the best of circumstances. The war shattered its economy, disrupted its social texture, and exhausted its population in both the north and the south," comments Stanley Karnow in Vietnam: A History. "The war left Vietnam in shambles, and the Communists aggravated the devastation after their victory." Before long, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people decided that they could not live under the new government. Many tried to escape the poverty and repression (denial of their basic rights and freedoms) by fleeing the country by water in small boats. These Vietnamese refugees became known around the world as the "boat people."
In the meantime, old rivalries and disagreements heated up between Vietnam and its neighbors, Cambodia and China. In...
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America Since the War (1976–Present)
Even after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, memories of the conflict continued to haunt the United States. Troubled by the U.S. defeat, the war's terrible destruction, and its shattering impact on national unity, the American people entered a period of self-doubt and disillusionment. This attitude made America's Vietnam War veterans feel even more neglected and isolated.
The American people continued to feel uncertain and depressed about both themselves and their political leadership into the 1980s. During that period, however, attitudes about both Vietnam veterans and the U.S. war effort began to change. Americans continued to disagree about U.S. actions and attitudes in Vietnam, but they showed a greater willingness to move on and look to the future together. Veterans, meanwhile, finally began to receive recognition for the sacrifices they made in service to their country.
Nonetheless, historians agree that the wounds the United States received in Vietnam have not completely healed, even a quarter-century after the war's conclusion. U.S. foreign policy decisions continue to be shaped by memories of the war. In addition, the conflict still evokes emotions of sadness, anger, and regret in many American families and communities.
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