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The Vietnam War

§1 Introduction

The Vietnam War was an atrocity which involved the U.S.A, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and other U.S.S.R backed allies. Lasting from 1st November 1955 to the 30th April 1975, it not only secured the Communists an upper hand in the Cold War it also meant an end to French colonialism in Indochina.

The conflict was spurred by nationalist groups led by Ho Chi Minh, who would play an astronomical part in the Vietnam War, he was inspired by Communism in other parts of the continent. In addition to this, there was also opposition to Communism in the south of the nation, especially in the capital Saigon. The South wanted a Western capitalist democracy that would increase ties with the U.S.A. On the other hand, the North and certain rural areas of the South wanted Communism and close ties with the Soviet Union and China.

The controversy concerning the United States’ involvement and the use of Agent Orange meant that numerous studies were made into the number of casualties, injured and those affected by Agent Orange. As many as 2 million civilians on both sides and some 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters were killed by mainly (but not all) American soldiers. The U.S. military has estimated that between 200,000 and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died in the war.

Post-war Vietnam was a significant military power within Southeast Asia and would turn out to be an economic driving force in the consequent decades after the Vietnam war. However, the short-term economic situation was bad and large parts of its countryside were scarred by bombs battlefields and land mines; the cities and towns were also heavily damaged. The fall of the South Vietnamese government in the year 1975 meant that people fleeing the economic restructuring imposed by the communist regime decided to emigrate to Western non-Communist nations, coining the term ‘boat people,’. Meanwhile, the United States, having suffered a humiliating military defeat, began a process of coming to terms with defeat in what had been its longest and most controversial war. The two countries finally resumed formal diplomatic relations in 1995.

The Vietnamese fought the colonial rule first of Imperialist Japan and then of France. The French Indochina War broke out in 1946 and went on for eight years, with France’s war effort largely funded and supplied by the United States. Finally, with their shattering defeat by the Viet Minh at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, the French came to the end of their rule in Indochina.

The Indochina wars consisted of the Vietnam War and the fight against French colonialism in the 20th-century in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The fight against French colonialism lasted in a period when other Western powers were pulling out of the region this lasted for 8 years from 1946 to 1954. The term also regards the Civil war between the North, it’s communist allies and the South with the United States. The wars are often called the French Indochina War and the Vietnam War or the Second Indochina War.

§2 The Divide and the 17th Parallel

The French Indochina War broke out in 1946 and went on for eight years, this was a fight largely between colonialism and communism. Finally, with their shattering defeat by the Viet Minh (Northern Communists) at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, the French came to the end of their rule in Indochina. The battle prodded negotiators at the Geneva Conference to produce the final Geneva accords concerning political division in Vietnam in July 1954. The accords established the 17th parallel as a temporary border separating the military forces of the French and the Viet Minh. The North was under the full control of the Worker’s Party, a communist party led by Ho Chi Minh; its capital was the largest Northern city, Hanoi. In the South, the French transferred most of their authority to the State of Vietnam, which had its capital at Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and was nominally under the authority of Emperor Bao Dai

300 days consequent to the accords, a demilitarized zone, or DMZ, was to be created by the mutual withdrawal of forces north and south of the 17th parallel, and the transfer of any civilians who wished to cross over to either side was to be completed. Nationwide elections to decide the future of Vietnam, North and South, were to be held in 1956. All in all, the North remained very loyal to their regime as well as a Workers Party active in the South. This made the role of Prime Minister in the South Vietnam tough due to numerous religious, political and social pressures. However, Ngoh Dinh Diem managed to become the premier and being allies with the U.S. could help the 900,000 immigrants from the North of the country. In effect, the U.S acted as a significant support to the South running the military and keeping its economy afloat as a not only poor but divided country.

By late 1955 Diem had consolidated his power in the South, defeating the remaining sect forces and arresting communist opposition who had surfaced in considerable numbers to prepare for the anticipated elections. The controversial arresting of opposition meant that he imprisoned many and would not only anger his enemies but backfire creating the infamous Viet Cong. Publicly opposed to the elections, Diem called for a referendum only in the South, and in October 1955 he declared himself president of the Republic of Vietnam.

§3 Ngoh Dinh Diem and the South

Ngoh Dinh Diem managed to successfully allow the South to thrive economically on the United States’ resources. Diem’s work meant that American auxiliary and economic resources poured into South Vietnam while American military and police advisers helped train and equip Diem’s army and security forces. Despite all this American support this regime’s anti-Communist agenda there was continuous hostility from the North that went unchecked. Hence scepticism towards Diem and his close advisors and corrupt networks was ubiquitous due to certain failures that could have easily been avoided.

Diem finally got down on these security issues and began a successful crackdown on all communist groups and political parties outside of the cities meant that plenty of prisoners were taken and there was temporary disorganization of the communists' networks. By 1957 they were a thriving group and were informally known as the Viet Cong. Not only did they commit acts of terrorism and assassination against government officials and functionaries. They were now Diem’s direct opposition both in politics and national security. Diem's main measures against communist terrorism were largely based around punishment and intimidation. Sources from the research done by the Americans post-war found that 12,000 suspected opponents of Diem were killed between 1955 and 1957 and by the end of 1958, an estimated 40,000 political prisoners had been jailed. This hugely backfired on South Vietnam and Diem personally. Due to the southern Viet Cong being successfully targeted by Diem's secret police, Hanoi's Central Committee (Communists in the North) sent supplies and troops from the North to the Viet Cong in the South. On 20 December 1960, under instructions from Hanoi, southern communists established the formally established Viet Cong to take down Diem and his government.

Numerous coup attempts would be made against President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, on the 11th November 1960 one was led by Lieutenant Colonel Vuong Van Dong and Colonel Nguyen Chanh Thi. As well as a further attempt to assassinate Diem and his family in February 1962 by two soldiers at the Presidential Palace.

Many historians and evidence show that Diem favoured Catholics with aid and benefits and that he persecuted many Buddhists. After numerous clearly Catholic favouring enactments the Buddhists pushed for a five-point agreement: the freedom to fly religious flags, an end to arbitrary arrests, compensation for the Hue victims (protests not being allowed to celebrate Vesak day), punishment for the officials responsible, and religious equality. Diem ignored the Buddhists and punished them again by banning demonstrations and ordering his forces to arrest those who engaged in any sort of public assembly. When, on the 3rd June 1963, protesters attempted to march towards the Tu Dam Pagoda they were met with six waves of the Southern Army’s tear gas and attack dogs. Although these methods were relentless, the large crowd did not cease to coalesce meaning that the authorities went to the extreme: brownish-red liquid chemicals were doused on praying protesters, resulting in 67 being hospitalized for chemical injuries. However, when a Buddhist monk, set himself on fire in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection, in June, in protest of Diem’s policies the incidences brought huge international attention. This resulted in the infamous images that shock the world, and for many people, they came to represent the failure of Diem's government.

§4 The conflict roars

The South Vietnamese army and security forces could not cope with the new threat as the 60s rolled in. The Vietcong terrorism and attacks in 1959 averaged well over 100 a month. In the next year, 2,500 civil servants and other real and imagined enemies of the Vietcong were assassinated, this turned out to be a sort of function authority that was so complex and broad across the South of Vietnam, that the South was not only desperate but at its knees. It took some time for the new situation to be recognized in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Washington. Only after 4 Vietcong terrorists had attacked and overrun the Southern Army’s regimental headquarters northeast of Saigon in January 1960 did the Americans realise that this was the last straw for their allies in the South that were clearly struggling. At first, this aid was mainly advisory action to his cabinet and ministers.

To a certain extent, the Vietnam War was, in American eyes just an extension to the Cold War fight against Communism. Many of the South’s problems could be attributed to the continuing incompetence, rigidity, and corruption of the Diem regime, but the South Vietnamese president had few American critics in Saigon or Washington. Instead, the U.S. administration made great efforts to reassure Diem of its support, dispatching the U.S. Vice-President Lydon Johnson to Saigon in May 1961 and boosting economic and military aid.

Boosted in confidence by American support and encouraged by its aggressive and confident American advisers and military personnel, the South Vietnamese army took the offensive ever-stronger against the ever-increasing Vietcong. At the same time, the Diem government undertook a defence and propaganda campaign called the SHP ( Strategic Hamlet Program). This theoretically brilliant idea was meant to encourage the ever-faltering support of the peasants and at the same time provide defences and for Diem to show his country that he was not incompetent. In addition to this, it was near impossible to check if the people were communist or innocent civilians. Because of popular discontent with the compulsory labour and frequent dislocations involved in establishing the villages, many strategic hamlets soon had as many VC recruits inside their walls as outside.

As the fighting deepened and the Americans were working even more with the Vietnamese the Vietcong learned how to deal with this technologically advanced army with quite primitive ways. In January 1963 a Viet Cong battalion near the village of Ap Bac in the Mekong Delta, south of Saigon, though surrounded and outnumbered by Southern Vietnamese forces, successfully fought its way out of its encirclement, destroying five helicopters and killing about 80 South Vietnamese soldiers and three American advisers. By now some aggressive American newsmen were beginning to report on serious deficiencies in the U.S. advisory and support programs in Vietnam.

Nov 1, 1963, At this point, Diem and his closest advisors and family were secluded from everyone else and criticism of him was everywhere. Having been obliged to work with Diem in his futile campaigns, the army had enough of their position against not only the Vietcong but against civilians. This was the last straw and on November 1st 1963 the army secured the whole of Saigon and stormed the palace killing Diem and the Ngo family. Despite having committed military occupation and coup the Americans took a neutral stance, this was exacerbated by the death of President Kennedy.

The climate had now totally changed and with South Vietnam catching its breath and the North bolstered by Soviet and Chinese support and on the war march the Americans had to act. However, with the new President Johnson, the Americans ambitions in Vietnam were not only minimal but ineffective. With changing times came changed actions by the North and on the 2nd August, the destroyer USS Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats while on electronic surveillance patrol in the Northern Waters of Vietnam. Patrol boats of the South Vietnamese navy had carried out raids covertly the day before on the islands Hon Me and Hon Nieu just off the coast of North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese Claimed that the attack of the Maddox was a mistake and was meant to target the Southern boats that had carried out raids on said islands. In any case, the U.S. destroyer suffered no damage, and the North Vietnamese boats were driven off by gunfire from the Maddox and from aircraft based on a nearby carrier.

After the incident in The Gulf of Tonkin the President took immediate action through air strikes and an agreement, the U.S. presidential election occurred inconveniently in November 1964. Beginning in September, the Khanh government in the South was succeeded by incompetent groups, political sideliners and coalitions, some of which stayed in power less than a month. In the countryside, even the most competent soldiers seemed incapable of defeating the now high-calibre Vietcong. The communists were now deliberately targeting the American bases, this consisted of not just raids but half-sieges, including a mortar attack on the U.S. air base at Bien Hoa near Saigon.

President Johnson, having succeeded in the election, was more concerned with the immediate need to take action in order to halt the slide in Saigon. The contentious full-scale attack was materializing and the U.S. began a campaign of sustained air strikes against the North that was code-named Rolling Thunder. Advisors on the ground were predicting the likely collapse of the South Vietnamese army, and with the White House finally realising circumstances recommended the rapid dispatch of U.S. troops to undertake offensive missions against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese anywhere in South Vietnam. The secretary of defence, having visited The South of Vietnam confirmed the unrest and that the South was crumbling and in need of additional forces. The issue of 100,000 soldiers was announced immediately to be dispatched by the President and another 100,000 soldiers after a couple of years. The President must have felt the shame of how this was dealt with and did not formally declare war or ask Congress if he could send his troops, on the other hand, the situation was dire. The president publicly announced his decisions at a news conference at the end of July.

With full and legitimate American support and a military state put in place to defend the South the North could not continue in the fashion they were working in. This very much led to General Westmoreland establishing his battle tactics and coordination with the Vietnamese generals. These generals seemed to have either made the Southerners comfortable and the chronic political instability in Saigon was at its end. With the installation in February 1965 of a government headed by the army General Nguyen Van Thieu as head of state and Air Force General Nguyen Cao Ky as Prime Minister. This arrangement, backed by most of the top military commanders, lasted until 1968, when Ky was eased out of power, leaving Thieu as the sole of the head of state. The Americans adopted their bases like their own establishing that included four new jet-capable air bases with 10,000-foot (3,000-metre) runways, six new deepwater ports, 75 tactical air bases, 26 hospitals, and more than 10,000,000 square feet (900,000 square metres) of warehousing.

At this point the American soldiers were enduring the infamous scenes of rainforest warfare, crossing rivers and being ambushed by the Vietcong from their tunnels and encampments by rivers and being hills. On the opposition, the forces of the Viet Cong and would continue to suffer enormous casualties at the hands of massive U.S. firepower, despite their ambush-style attacks. Eventually, the Americans had committed to their attrition tactic and the communists would reach the point where they would no longer be able to replace their losses on the battlefield. It was commonly thought that the communists having been ground down on the battlefield would presumably agree to a favourable peace settlement. However, these were mainly lies made up by Westmoreland and despite the factual news coverage, the generals all believed that they were very much winning the war.

The Americans constantly had trouble with the Vietcong in and around Saigon, this meant that when they captured bases the Vietcong would simply return when the Americans had returned back to the front. This endless cycle ended in not only waste of time but resources and soldiers were often lost. The problem was attributed by the Americans at the use of a chemical called agent orange; this chemical was meant as a cheap herbicide that was intended to kill all the dense vegetation giving the Vietcong hiding spaces. However, it had disastrous implications Agent Orange was effective in killing vegetation—but only at the price of causing considerable ecological damage to Vietnam and of exposing thousands of people to potentially toxic chemicals that would later cause serious and sometimes fatal health problems, including mutations and cancer.

§5 De-escalation

The methods used in the War by the Americans were crude and ludicrous due to their ineffective strategy and disproportional losses of men, this spurred the civil dislike of the war which had garnered no success and in 1967 campus protests became common. This was due to the intellectual and religious groups that held a similar moral view on the War. On the 1st October 1967 (and lasting all throughout the month) at least 35,000 demonstrators staged a mass protest outside the Pentagon demanding the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. Not only were people opposed to the war because of moral beliefs but also because of the increasing American casualties and the lack of evidence that the United States was winning, something that the press dictated but the government did not. All in all, in 1967 fewer than 50 per cent of polled citizens said they supported the president Lydon B. Johnson’s leadership in Vietnam but the infirmity of the war.

The Communists decided that this instability provided an essential moment to bring on their last successful and actually ground-breaking offensive against the Americans and the South. This would later be known as the Tet offensive (Tet is the Lunar New Year in Vietnamese). They began the long process by exacerbating the small offensives on U.S. strategic bases that were near the border and that were militaristic but not civilian bases. However, the Americans saw through these attacks and did not leave the urban hubs of Saigon and Da Nang; this would prove to be inadequate preparations for what was to come. Then on January 31, while approximately 50,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese troops were occupied in defending or supporting the bases that were previously under attack the communists launched an offensive all over South Vietnam, scattering the already dispersed combined forces in the South.

At this point, the Americans were not only humiliated but struck by the courage of the North and despite being a much less technologically advanced army managed to coordinate a decent offensive that sent a message back to the U.S. The Americans managed to easily get back their bases and the significant cities that were attacked, like Saigon, Da Nang and Hue were eventually recaptured within a couple of days. Despite overcoming the odds the tides had turned and many casualties had been lost from the Americans, this occurrence meant that the pressure was now truly on to bring the soldiers who had survived the passing offensives.

The failure was great and numerous advisors and many people managed succeeded in persuading Johnson that the no more soldiers be sent to Vietnam and should constitute an upper limit and that Johnson should so to speak ‘bend backwards’ for peace. In a nationally televised speech on 31st March 1968, President Johnson announced that he was ‘taking the first step to de-escalate the conflict’ by halting the bombing of North and that the U.S.A. would seek an agreement and talks.

This was arranged and the Communists soon announced that they were prepared to commence talks with the Americans. These began in Paris on 13th May 1968 but the attempts were all in vain. The ongoing conflict was very intense and with nearly 4,000 American fatalities and thousands more wounded, the failing talks had to be committed to. By the time Nixon was elected as President and the South had agreed to join the talks, the Vietcong and Northern army sent another wave of attacks, meaning that a counter-attack from the Americans and the South was inevitable and the bombings of the North continued. In June 1969 Nixon announced the withdrawal of 25,000 U.S. troops from Vietnam. Nixon announced that in September they would continue with the training of the Southern Army and begin troop withdrawals. By March 1970 he was announcing the phased withdrawal of 150,000 troops over the next year. Many were against the training of the Southern Army since it could hardly take over the job at such a rapid pace. The problems were namely that Nixon was highly pressured to continue withdrawals, and the White House soon found them politically indispensable. President Nixon was also part of the Watergate scandal that was partly about Vietnamese military scandals from the earlier parts of the war, and caused outrage mainly because of a series of measures to hide and disperse information.

The collapse of the Khmer Rouge across the border in Cambodia changed the military situation greatly. The fall of authoritarian communists in Cambodia allowed a pro-Western government to enter under Gen. Lon Nol, who had overthrown Sihanouk’s regime (which was officially neutral) in March 1970. Sihanouk was very much aware of the criticism of the communist threat in his country, which was supported by the North Vietnamese and had attempted to force them out of their border, though the armed North Vietnamese easily fended off the attacks of the Cambodian army. In support of the Cambodian army, Nixon authorized a large sweep into the border areas by the U.S. and South Vietnamese force of 20,000 men. The allies captured enormous quantities of supplies and equipment but failed to trap any large enemy forces. The news of the Cambodian incursion triggered widespread protest and demonstrations in the U.S. Unfortunately, on 4th May in a university in Ohio, the National Guard open fired on student protesters, resulting in the death of four students (known as the Kent State Massacre). This in turn worsened the image of what the government was doing and since many students were going on strike or protesting, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was repealed.

Due to the sheer number of American soldiers the Vietcong force was seriously dilapidated by late 1970. Their role was then simply to hide out until Northern forces could invade the south. Meanwhile, with the Southern Army being on the offensive, they decided to carry out an attack on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This was the main route that was used by the Communists to get troops quickly from Hanoi deep into the South. !!In March 1971 the now fully Vietnamese army attacked the trail, but the plan failed miserably, and as the route was heavily defended, the Southerners recieved heavy casualties and made disorderly retreat. When the news arrived in the U.S. a poll conducted in 1971 claimed that 71% of Americans believed that the United States had “made a mistake” in sending troops to Vietnam and that 58% saw the war as “immoral.” With so many soldiers having left by 1972, Nixon ended all draft calls, and in 1973 an all-volunteer military was established.

The failed attack by the South on the Ho Chi Minh trail gave the North hope and they decided to lead an attack on the South, on 30th March 1972, with their depleted army. Despite the soldiers lost previously, the South Vietnamese forces at first suffered small defeats, but Nixon, in an operation code-named Linebacker, unleashed U.S. air power against the North, and the naval bases where Soviet and Chinese supplies arrived, and ordered hundreds of U.S. aircraft into action against the invasive forces and their supply lines. Within less than a month the pressure exerted by the Americans with the sea mines and aircraft bombing made the Northern forces halt.

This pattern of success then defeat resulted in both sides insisting on talks. The Americans demanded some harsh conditions and the leaders in Hanoi requested the impossible from an enemy that was still not defeated. With talks at this stage, both sides left, the North responded with anger and attacks, and the Americans began to bomb out Hanoi in order to pressure them to get back on track. This so-called Christmas bombing was the most intense bombing campaign of the war. After 30 years of hostilities, on the 7th January 1973, the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Viet-Nam was signed by representatives of the Vietcong, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the United States. This resulted in a cease-fire throughout North and South Vietnam, and within 60 days all U.S. forces would be withdrawn, all U.S. bases dismantled, and all prisoners of war released. Despite agreeing to all terms this was very much not want the North wanted, but hostilities were avoided before the Americans had left.

§6 Invasion and Unification

The last of the American forces left Vietnam on 29th March 1973, resulting in the two sides having to stare each other in the eye. Both sides constantly alleged that the other was violating the terms of the peace agreements, despite virtually no actual fighting taking place. As a consequence of the American war effort Congress passed a measure prohibiting any U.S. military operations in the region after 15th August that year. Congress went a step further on 7th August 1973, when it overrode Nixon’s veto to pass the law that, in theory, required the president to consult with Congress before committing U.S. forces abroad.

Unsurprisingly the Southern regime, still led by Nguyen Van Thieu, was highly unpopular, and the dormant Vietcong was able to become active again, resulting in small skirmishes and ambushes between non-communists and communists. Thieu’s corrupt and inefficient government suffered from unemployment, lethargy, and an enormous desertion rate in the army, which was uncontrollable. The situation was dire due to Nixon’s resignation because as Thieu was demanding auxiliary support, the Americans could give no help. When the Communists properly defeated the bulk of the Southern army in Saigon in New Year 1975, the Communists knew victory was imminent. In March the Army collapsed in the South and in a year an American-trained large force turned into nothing. On the 21st April, Thieu escaped and the Republic of Vietnam surrendered unconditionally, with all the remaining American forces having to be swiftly evacuated.

This enduring, bitter 30-year endeavour was not only a fight between Communism and Capitalism, not only a struggle between the North and South of Vietnam but a complicated mess that changed the face of the influential Vietnam forever. Today the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has its capital in Hanoi and the largest city is Ho Chi Minh City (previously called Saigon) named after the leader of the Communist faction in the North and a war hero. Today it is one of the fastest growing economies, specialising in cheap, productive and efficient labour in textiles and plastic goods.

§7 Short-term outcomes

- Economic downturn and political isolation for Vietnam, which was only supported by the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe
- In contrast to the fears of many in the West before the war, the creation of a unified, communist Vietnam did not start a "domino effect" of spreading communism throughout the countries of the region
- The collapse of the South Vietnamese government in the spring of 1975, resulting in a unified communist government in the country
- The deaths of as many as 2 million Vietnamese civilians, 1.1 million North Vietnamese soldiers, 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, and 58,000 U.S. servicemen
- The emigration of some 2 million refugees from Vietnam from the late 1970s to the early '90s

written by Lucas Ali-Hassan.