| What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!|
|Don't believe us?|
“”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, warning the U.S. against fighting a country under his support.|
The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, was an internationalized civil war between the two states set up at the Geneva Conference in 1954 to govern Vietnam following the French withdrawal from the area. One, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) was supported by Red China and the Soviet Union, while the other, the State of Vietnam and later the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) was backed mainly by the United States. It proved to be both costly and controversial.
Prelude to war
The origin of the Vietnam War is ambiguous. The Vietnamese state's narrative, North and South of the 17th parallel, is that it was the penultimate 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. Trainers and advisors were sent by John F. Kennedy, but large deployments and the bombing of North Vietnam were only initiated in 1965 under Lyndon B. Johnson, following the now known to be fabricated '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 Vietnamese revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh, asking for help in forming a Vietnamese government). 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 the U.S.S.R. 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 opposed 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 Southeast 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 point of argument. At Potsdam, the 17th Parallel was the decided demarcation point, with all area South of that line being demilitarized by the French and the North by the Chinese Nationalist forces. The Nationalist Chinese were already being routed by Mao's Communists.[note 1] This vacuum of power enabled Ho to present himself as a nationalist and seized power.
On September 2, 1945, he declared the "Democratic Republic of Vietnam's" independence with the words he borrowed from the American Declaration of Independence "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. Mao Zedong's proclamation of 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. 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 demilitarized 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. The dictatorial regime was marked by corruption, abuse of power, and repression of a Buddhist majority by a Catholic minority. When a monk burned himself to death in 1963 in protest. The Communists were quick to exploit anti-government sentiments among Buddhists and did so for the remainder of the new Vietnamese conflict.
Strategy — the Allies
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 to US citizens. This is because the US schooling system and media corporations give credence to government rhetoric, which stresses humanitarian values.
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.
Clutching at straws
“”Well, we had all those planes sitting around and couldn't just let them stay there with nothing to do.
|— Montreagle Stearns, US Deputy Chief of Mission to Laos, regarding the decision to use bombers diverted from the cancelled Air Offensive against North Vietnam to Laos |
The US military lack a clear strategy on how to win the war. Civilians leaders ruled out bombing Haiphong or mining its harbor because even though that would prevent Soviet and Chinese shipments of armaments from reaching North Vietnam, that would likely inflict Soviet and Chinese casualties and escalate the war but not change the fact that two Communist powers were backing the North Vietnamese. The use of nuclear weapons was also ruled out on the grounds that this would likely invite Chinese intervention, prompting a rehash of the Korean War.
So instead faith was placed in the ability of a massive campaign of strategic bombing against North Vietnam, Laos and Western Cambodia to erode the enemy's will to resist. It was reasoned that if the assessment of the Strategic Bombing Survey, which the US Army Air Force and US Navy had conducted following World War Two, was correct about the Second World War being won by or in large part due to strategic bombing then dropping a similar amount of ordnance upon vastly less industrialised and populous countries would break the enemy's will to resist in an even shorter duration of time. It turns out that while tactical air strikes supporting the ground forces proved valuable in winning battles, strategic bombing was insufficient for winning the war, despite causing heavy Communist losses.
Due to the fact that what was essentially a civil war with an apparent 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 military assistance from the United States, South Korea, and Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Thailand. West Germany provided humanitarian aid, and some of their doctors were killed by the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive. 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 all 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 (now Ho Chi Minh City) and the unification of Vietnam into a single country controlled by the Communist Party.
Martin Luther King Jr. opposed the war and condemned America's actions in the war as colonialism. This undermines his image as a civil rights activist. Since when have Communists been concerned with individual rights and freedom?
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. Even though there has been veterans, often even generals, from every major war but the Korean War — including George Washington (American Revolutionary War), Andrew Jackson (War of 1812 or Second War of Independence), Zachary Taylor (Mexican-American War), Ulysses S. Grant (American Civil War), Theodore Roosevelt (Spanish American War), Harry Truman (World War I), and Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy (World War II) who became President, there likely will not be 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
-  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
- Stearns, Montreagle,testimony to US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, October 1969, printed in Branfman, Fred, Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War (Madison, 2013) p.36
- The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam, The New York Times
- They ran to the island of Formosa, today the Republic of China (Taiwan), in 1949, after losing the Chinese Civil War.