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“”If you want to, go ahead and fight in the jungles of Vietnam... Perhaps the Americans will be able to stick it out for a little longer [than the French], but eventually they will have to quit too.
|—Nikita Khrushchev in 1963, somehow managing to be saner than four presidents.|
The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, was a civil war of sorts, between the two states set up at the Geneva Conference to govern Vietnam following the French withdrawal from the area.
“”The Vietnam War was fought to prevent Vietnam from becoming a successful model of economic and social development for the Third World...So far we've won: Vietnam is no model for development, it's a model for destruction.
The Vietnam War's 'true' beginning is ambiguous. The Vietnamese state's narrative, north and south of the 17th parallel, is that it was the second-last chapter in a two-millennium anti-colonial struggle for autonomy and national republicanism dating back to 111 BCE. Some historians date it back to the outbreak of the Guerre d'Indochine, or First Indochina War, in French Indochina in 1946 which was ended by the 1954 Geneva Accords (negotiated between the USSR, PRC, UK, USA, and France) which created the separate countries of Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. US involvement began under President Truman in 1946 with Marshall Aid, loans, and arms sales to France. Actual troops were not dispatched until 1961, under President JF Kennedy, but large deployments and the bombing of North Vietnam were only initiated in 1965 under President Lindon B Johnson, following the (faked) 'Gulf of Tonkin Incident' and Congressional Resolution authorising escalation in retaliation for the alleged North Vietnamese attack.
The French had begun colonialist trading in the late 18th century, and after defeating the Qing Empire in the Second Opium War of 1856-60 (while they were busy fighting the 1850-64 Taiping Rebellion) sensed continued weakness. The Third Republic declared war unilaterally in 1884-5 with the aim of detaching coastal Vietnam from the Qing, and narrowly defeated modernised Qing ground forces in small engagements (fewer than 5000-a-side) and destroyed the entire Southern Fleet based out of Fuzhou. After steady expansion westward and inland in the following years which was met by eastward expansion by the British Raj, Paris and London were unable to agree on the final division of Thai territory and so left the rump kingdom as a buffer state. After World War I, the 1919 Versailles Congress attendees ignored a petition by the Viet nationalist Ho Chi Minh (to form a Vietnamese Republic). This was done to make a statement, since several new European nation-states were being created or officially recognised at the conference e.g. Czechoslovakia.
Ho went to China and then Soviet Russia and became involved in the anti-colonial efforts in the Communist International. Dr. Paul Mus, however, who negotiated with Ho, made clear in interviews that Ho was less of a doctrinaire Leninist and more truly a Confucian in outlook, and his political and economic ideas merely were more complemented by Leninism because of the Vietnamese farming hamlet economy and social character.
FDR made clear he was opposed to French colonialism returning to Asia, and both the Americans and British OSS funded Ho and his Viet Minh militias in the struggle against Japanese takeover of the Vichy French territories in Asia. However, by 1945, the Truman administration was laying groundwork for a larger Cold War, and the disarming of the Japanese in Asia became a major argument point. At Potsdam, the 17th Parallel was the decided demarcation point, with all area south of that line being de-militarized by the French and the North by the Kuomintang Chinese forces. The Nationalist Chinese were already being routed by Mao's Communists, and so the lack of government led Ho to asserting power as a patriot akin to George Washington.
On September 2, 1945, he declared the "Democratic Republic of Vietnam's" independence with the words "All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." However, the French were far more interested in ideas surrounding the French economy than the French Enlightenment, and they asserted power in the South while Chiang Kai-shek's forces exiled Ho's government. The declaration of a Red China, however, led to a re-assertion of Ho's power and an alignment of global supply lines for both sides.
In American political parlance, the 'loss' of China to the Commies was blamed on the State Department, the Democrats, and secret Red sleeper cells in Washington. The McCarthy era highlighted the idea of Vietnam's role in the domino theory. As such, both Democrats and Republicans foisted another Red Scare on the US, and many experts on Asia were purged from the State Department. John F. Kennedy was a member of the American Friends of Vietnam, a group which essentially raised capital for puppet regimes the French were creating in the arbitrarily partitioned country. It was "agreed" in 1954 at the Geneva Conference on ending the Korean War and the First Indochina War between France and the Viet Minh that there would be a national ballot to unite the de-militarized nation under one government (though neither South Vietnam nor the US agreed to this). However, because the CIA could not produce a reasonable contender to Ho, the South reneged on the ballot and the US justified this in the name of the fight against communism, installing the Roman Catholic CIA-backed party of Jean Baptiste Ngô Đình Diệm, who, in a family junta between himself, his military tactician brother, and his sister-in-law, essentially ruined the country. The regime was marked by multi-level corruption and stupidity, as well as repression of a Buddhist majority by a minority Catholic dictator who banned opposition parties. When a monk burned himself to death in 1963, the Kennedy administration instructed American military advisors to allow a coup against the family.
Grand Strategy - USA
There are two principle arguments for the USA's grand strategy in Indochina. The first is "The System worked" Argument first advanced by Leslie H. Gelb in 1971, which is essentially that Vietnam was the intended product of US policy and the USA accomplished its essential objectives in Vietnam. Fighting Communism there was a way of demonstrating the intangible factor of 'Resolve' against the Communist menace, 'Commitment' to even the least valuable of the USA's allies (as in Korea), and making an 'Example' of Vietnam to show the world why you should let Uncle Sam mess with you. At the time this argument was controversial since it asserted that Truman and all subsequent US administrations never believed that a final victory over regular and irregular Communist forces in the region was possible. This argument is basically correct, but its weakness at the time and subsequently is that it sounds implausible given how amoral it sounds and incompatible it is with contemporary and subsequent US government rhetoric.
The second argument is the "Quagmire" one advanced by contemporary figures such as Henry Kissinger in 1979, which is that Vietnam was an accident and that the war in Vietnam was an ill-advised failure. It was not totally baseless. The Loss of China and domestic Red Scare did cause Indochina experts to self-censure to avoid sounding too critical of the French and later Diem governments in order to not indict themselves as Communists. For instance it was unwise to say that the Diem government was at best tolerated and often resented because it was trying to ram Catholicism down the Buddhist population's throats: obviously the population was only unhappy with Christian rule because ubiquitous (rare) Soviet (Vietnamese) propaganda (accurate reports) were deceiving the population. Moreover by the time that the French had lost the First Indochina War in 1954 and the USA therefore had to step up its presence in the region, actual experts realised that final victory was impossible and so avoided sticking out their necks to give accurate advice on how to prosecute the war efficiently: it would last forever and couldn't be definitively 'won', so why even try?
There are a further two arguments for why the USA decided to 'stay the course' and keep fighting in Vietnam once ignorance of the multi-decade nature of the commitment evaporated. The first is part of Gelb's "The System Worked" thesis, and the second was advanced by the Pentagon Papers' Daniel Ellsberg - the "Cycles of Optimism and Pessimism" thesis. Both agree that over time the rhetoric that was publicly used to justify the US presence in Vietnam ('Resolve', Commitment', Freedom', 'Fighting Aggression', 'No More Munich Agreements'), present commitments, and prior sacrifices made it increasingly unattractive for US leaders to withdraw. So instead they prolonged and escalated the conflict. The arguments differ in that Gelb asserted that each administration tended towards the minimum commitment necessary to keep the war going and so avoid losing it while they were in office, since they knew the war couldn't be won (in their lifetime) and never believed that it could: it was just that the 'minimum' necessary commitment escalated as the war did. Ellsberg believed that some senior leaders, at times, genuinely believed that the war might be won in the distant or even near future as a result of some short-term gains like the killing of X-many "enemies" or deportation of Y-many villages to monitored compounds.
“”...there would be Robert Kennedy out in front leading the fight against me, telling everyone that I had betrayed John Kennedy's commitment to South Vietnam. That I had let a democracy fall into the hands of the communists. That I was a coward. An unmanly man. A man without a spine. Oh, I could see it coming, all right.
|—Lyndon B. Johnson on prolonging the Vietnam War|
However, after Kennedy's death, Johnson reversed and began sending in troops. In response, the Southern Vietnamese formed their own pro-North militias, the Viet Cong, who executed guerilla actions and sabotage against the Americans and the CIA-backed government. As a result, the Johnson administration reverted to World War II tactics, including carpet bombings and the use of agent orange and napalm. This did very little to stop a guerilla movement, as it was, and the war became a human rights disaster. Johnson refused to run for a second term, and Richard Nixon was elected.
Nixon himself lied about a so-called "Secret Plan," and his abject failures in Vietnam directly led to the formation of The Plumbers, a covert and illegal faux-detective group Nixon put together to dig up dirt on his enemies, starting with Daniel Ellsberg, who had released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. The period of Kissinger and Nixon was the most deadly for US soldiers.
The war exacted a huge human cost, including an estimated 1-2 million North and South Vietnamese, 100,000 to 300,000 Cambodians and 30-50,000 Laotians. The "most comprehensive demographic survey" ever conducted on casualties during the war, as endorsed by the Associated Press, estimated that nearly one million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians were killed throughout the two decades of conflict.
International reaction and perspectives
“”What did we do wrong in Vietnam? We PULLED OUT! Huh? Not a very manly thing to do, is it? When you’re fucking people, you gotta stay in there and fuck 'em good. Fuck ‘em all the way, fuck ‘em ‘til the end, stay in there and keep fucking 'em 'til they’re all dead! We left a few women and children alive in Vietnam and we haven’t felt good about ourselves since!
|—George Carlin, Jamming in NY|
Due to the fact that what was essentially a civil war with a nationalist underpinning was understood in the context of Cold War ideological frameworks, much of the rest of the world was drawn into the war in some way. The anti-communist government of South Vietnam received assistance from the United States, South Korea, and Australia. The communist government of North Vietnam (which controlled the insurgents who had started the war) received assistance from the Soviet Union, North Korea, and China.
It was a lengthy, brutal war of attrition, characterized by heavy use of napalm and numerous atrocities committed by both sides. It was also the first war to be broadcast live into the homes of American television viewers, and (possibly as a result of this coverage) remains one of the most unpopular wars in United States history.
The United States was willing to accept free elections and a reunified Vietnam, Communist-led and hostile to China. Indeed, US officials favored such a default outcome; they listed it in secret communications never intended for public consumption (but released in the Pentagon Papers). The US gradually intervened, due to the insistence of the North on a campaign of military aggression, as part of its wider Cold War strategy of containment. Operations spanned borders with no regard for national sovereignty, with Laos and Cambodia heavily bombed. Involvement peaked in 1968 at the time of the Tet Offensive. After this period of heavy fighting, troops were gradually withdrawn as part of a policy called Vietnamization.
The US withdrew its assistance in 1973 and the war eventually came to a close in 1975 (despite the Paris Peace Accords signed by all parties in January 1973) with the North Vietnamese capture of Saigon and the unification of Vietnam into a single country controlled by the communist government.
The Vietnam War has continued to become an argument point in major political campaigns. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney were all tarred as some sort of draft-dodger, and the GOP-funded Swift Boat Veterans for Truth sank Purple Heart-awarded John Kerry's presidential bid in 2004 by accusing him of conduct unbecoming of a soldier. We've had veterans - often even generals - from every major war[note 1] (except the Korean War) serve as president, but we won't get one from Vietnam.
- The Lessons of Vietnam: Robert McNamara's View, Christian Science Monitor (Prescient, eh?)
- Would nukes have helped in Vietnam? - Debunking one of the most batty, and still prevalent, talking points by war hawks.
- Dien Bien Phu: 1954 battle changed Vietnam's history, CNN
- Chomsky, Noam, Understanding Power p.91., Penguin Books (2002).
-  In 1967, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara commissioned RAND Corporation Analyst Dr. Daniel Ellsberg to write a study explaining to the State Department how they could win the war. By the time he completed it, he concluded that America was not "on the wrong side, we were the wrong side" and dropped a photocopy at the New York Times, in case they were interested. ;)
- An era of the original anti-apartheid movement in South Africa's Communist Party as well.
- Emile de Antonio's film, made in 1968, was made three years before the Pentagon Papers leak and actually proved to be correct.
- Gelb, Leslie H., “How the System Worked” (1971), printed in Ed. by Kimball, Jeffrey P., To Reason Why: The Debate About the Causes of U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War (USA, 1990)
- Kissinger, Henry, "Discovering the Quagmire" (1979); Thomson, James C., "An Autopsy of the Bureaucracy" (1968), printed in Ed. by Kimball, Jeffrey P., To Reason Why: The Debate About the Causes of U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War (USA, 1990)
- Ellsberg, Daniel, “The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine", printed in Papers on the War (USA, 1972)
- Johnson, Lyndon B., "That Bitch of a War" (1970)
- With some back-roomed chicanery to make the blood run cold.
- The Vietnam War as History, University of Houston
- Counting Hell
- Roger Warner. Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos (Steerforth, 1998), pg. 366.
- Charles Hirschman et al., "Vietnamese Casualties During the American War: A New Estimate." Population and Development Review, December 1995
- The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam, The New York Times