“No event in history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then,
and is misremembered now.”
— Richard Nixon —
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy dispatched American military advisors to South Vietnam. Their mission was to advise the poorly equipped and trained South Vietnamese Army on how to combat the communist regime of Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam. Already victorious over the French years before, communist forces were planning incursions into the south. Kennedy dispatched the advisors to shore up the free world’s defenses in the wake of the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the building of the Berlin Wall, both of which had emboldened communist regimes around the world. Their advance was called the “domino effect” and represented a wide array of actions that were successfully discrediting American influence on the world stage while promoting the principles of communism as an alternative. A line in the sand had to be drawn. This line was Vietnam.
A Step Back – The First Indochina War
Starting in the late 1800’s, French forces occupied and colonized the whole of Indochina, comprising modern day Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. After losing Indochina to the Japanese, who sowed an independence movement led by the communist Ho Chi Minh during World War Two, the French began to lose their grip on the colony. After some early losses and a failed negotiation with the French government, Minh and his forces fled to the hills until finally being recognized in 1950 by the Soviet Union and Red China, both of whom would flood Minh’s forces with weapons, supplies, and troops. As a result, French forces began to lose battles, beginning at Route Coloniale 4 that same year and ending with the disastrous defeat of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French then negotiated a cease-fire and peace agreement, granting independence to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, the last of which was split at the 17th parallel between the communists in the north and the Republic of Vietnam in the south.
From 1954 to 1960, minor incursions were conducted in the south in an effort to destabilize the region, all of which were unsuccessful. Western interests continued to align with South Vietnam, and more support was given to not only quell communist incursions, but to elevate the country onto the world stage as a model for the Third World, despite wide-spread corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement by the south. During this time, a resistance group known as the National Liberation Front unified and began to intensify conflicts along and beyond the 17th parallel. Southern forces did not take these attacks seriously at first, deeming them a nuisance more than a threat, but as time passed, the communists become more efficient and deadly, gaining support throughout the south. This group had another name, one that the American GI would come to know very well, the Viet Cong.
1961-1963 – American Advisors
At first, American advisors were just that, advisors. They were tasked with training and tactics, providing the armies of the south with important information and ideas for conducting widespread war and suppressing communist tactics along the 17th parallel and Ho Chi Minh Trail, which at the time was a six-month trek through the mountains undertaken by communist forces to resupply their comrades in the south. As time went on however, the advisory role of American forces changed to a combat role, as violence between the north and south escalated. The CIA embedded special forces units to conduct operations against communist forces in the north and against insurgents in the south.
Chaos ensued on November 2, 1963 when the leader of South Vietnam was overthrown and executed, some say as a result of statements from the US State Department to the generals in the South that the US would neither oppose nor hinder such an operation. By this time, American advisors were embedded throughout the South Vietnamese government and were able to influence battle tactics at almost every level, all while doing their best to steer clear of the political upheavals going on around them.
It was during this period that the mission of American involvement became blurry, not because of planning or lack of competence, but more because the “winning of the hearts and minds” of a population was a new tactic for American armed forces. As a result, the chaos in the South further emboldened the organized, and centrally commanded communist forces in the north. Adding to this, John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22nd, with Vice President Lyndon Johnson becoming President, and changing the landscape—and mission—of what was then becoming a full-scale war.
1963-1969: Search and Destroy
In August 1964, the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy were reported to be have been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam. These attacks were answered with retaliatory air strikes. Unfortunately, recently declassified documents state that there were no attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin, and that both were invented by the CIA. As a result of these “attacks”, saturation bombing of the North commenced in 1965 with Operation Rolling Thunder. This operation lasted until 1968, by which time we had dropped more tons of bombs than we did on the Axis Powers in the entirety of World War Two.
The American ground war began in March 1965. United States Marines arrived and began fortifying vulnerable military positions. General William Westmoreland, commander of American forces in Vietnam, outlined his three-step plan for winning the war:
Phase 1. Commitment of U.S. (and other free world) forces necessary to halt the losing trend by the end of 1965.
Phase 2. U.S. and allied forces mount major offensive actions to seize the initiative to destroy guerrilla and organized enemy forces. This phase would end when the enemy had been worn down, thrown on the defensive, and driven back from major populated areas.
Phase 3. If the enemy persisted, a period of twelve to eighteen months following Phase 2 would be required for the final destruction of enemy forces remaining in remote base areas.
Despite early statements from the Johnson administration that South Vietnamese forces needed to win the war themselves, the administration supported Westmoreland’s strategy and increased troop levels from 2,000 to over 17,000. This was anticipated by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) who were actively recruiting during this time, gaining between eight hundred thousand to one million fighters from Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. Further support was given to guerrilla forces from these countries and from Soviet Union.
The belief behind Westmoreland’s strategy was that with enough pressure, the resistance would crumble. Unfortunately, with guns, ammunition, and personnel continually resupplying enemy combatants via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this proved incorrect. As the war dragged on, more and more American troops would be sent to Vietnam, most of whom participated in “Search and Destroy” missions. This strategy entailed American troops moving from one location the other in an effort to find the enemy. Once found, they would engage and clear the area. This method was alien to American commanders, who were used to clear lines of engagement, fronts, and other geographic measures to calculate the progress and success of the war. With exceptions like the battles of Ia Drang Valley and Hue City, most engagements were conducted without the benefit of such lines, and as a result, progress was difficult to measure.
Additionally, most of the engagements took place over an area of land that American forces would leave once the conflict had ended. To make matters more confusing, politicians at the White House and the Pentagon often overrode the orders of those in the field when choosing where to deploy American forces and which VC or NVA targets to attack. This ongoing lack of progress combined with the battle tactics of the Viet Cong and NVA such as mines, snipers, and tunnels, measurably demoralized American forces as the war dragged on.
This culminated with the Tet Offensive of 1968, which is still the largest coordinated attack in the history of war. Every American base was hit simultaneously, at almost the same hour. Though it was an utter failure, and Americans withstood the offensive, the Tet Offensive caused significant damage to the perception of the war at home, with Walter Cronkite of CBS—despite having no military experience, information, battlefield intelligence, or any expertise on war whatsoever—saying the war was all but lost. Statements like this, and many others in the American press, emboldened the defeated Viet Cong an NVA soldiers, who despite losing continuously against American forces, became more aggressive, and more precise in killing American GIs.
1969 – 1975: Winning but Losing
As US forces suffered morale issues and the North Vietnamese became more emboldened, support for the war at home dissipated almost completely. The lack of perceived progress, together with politicians’ inability to effectively wage guerrilla war, contributed to Americans’ disillusionment. This, combined with atrocities like the My Lai massacre, pushed protesters into the streets to try to end the war. These protests increased after 1966, lasting right up to the end of the war nine years later. Many of the protests were centered on “bringing the troops home” and ending the conflict overall, but some were infiltrated by hate groups in an effort to protest the existence of America itself. Whatever the reason, this was a turbulent time for American society, as civilians questioned the motives behind the conflict en masse.
In response to the lack of progress, American forces began to withdraw in 1971, two years into Richard Nixon’s presidency. The NVA launched a full-scale invasion of the south in 1972 which quickly overran South Vietnamese positions that American military professionals believed to be impenetrable. US air power responded to these attacks but were not able to stop them. After the success of the Easter Offensive, negotiators returned to the table in 1973 for the Paris Peace Accords, which called for several stipulations by both the communist North and the democratic South, as well as their American allies, who promised a complete withdrawal from Indochina. In a not-so-surprising move, this was the only provision that was ever honored in the agreement, with the communists ignoring their promises and advancing further. By the end of 1973, all American troops had been pulled off the front lines, leaving only advisors and those serving in the South Vietnamese government behind.
With the withdrawal of American personnel, South Vietnamese forces could not operate the mountains of equipment given or left behind by US forces. This put them at a severe disadvantage as the North marched south. In December 1974, communists attacked and overran the city of Phuoc Long. President Gerald Ford begged Congress to resupply the South and help them hold out. Congress refused. The abandonment of the South Vietnamese by the American government and the continuous losses on the battlefield drove the once-proud Army of the Republic of Vietnam to despair, and many units abandoned their positions or surrendered outright. Others however, made last stands against the communists as they watched their country slowly die.
The fall of Saigon came in April 1975, when over one hundred thousand NVA regulars besieged the city and its thirty thousand defenders. The American embassy was abandoned, with the last US Marines leaving in the early hours as civilians broke down the gates in an effort to get on the last few choppers. Many of these people had worked for the Americans and watched as they were left to their fate while their homes burned around them. The last defenders were overrun within a few days, with NVA soldiers walking through the gates of the American embassy at 11:30 AM on April 30th to raise their flag and declare victory.
It is important to note that despite the tactics, lack of perceived progress, and mismanagement of the war itself, American forces never lost a single battle. This may surprise you, our audience, given the eventual outcome of the conflict. In addition, countless South Vietnamese who opposed communist rule fought to the death for the freedom they sought. Many of them had fled from the North after witnessing the communist definition of “freedom,” which translated into rape and mass execution. In this, its important to remember that the American soldier did not lose the war in Vietnam; the American politician did. Through corruption, lies, micromanagement of battle tactics and plans, and overall incompetence were responsible for the eventual loss.
Over fifty thousand American soldiers died in the Vietnam War, with a larger number maimed or psychologically damaged. The loss in Vietnam demoralized the American public. Protestors who had professed concern for American troops spit and urinated on them as they came home. There were no parades. There were no “thank yous.” Many veterans did not acknowledge their service due to being denied employment for doing so. Additionally, many of the troops who came home did so right out of combat zones; they would be in the jungle, in combat, and then ordered to fall back to bases they would be disarmed, sent to an airport and home within 72 hours of being in the bush. Because of the nature of the war and the hatred they experienced when returning home, the first cases of PTSD were recognized.
The war in Vietnam marked a new chapter in American combat and foreign policy. The failure of the American government to manage a conflict, coupled with the lack of measurable objectives have influenced the conflicts that came after. As we look back on this conflict, it is important to understand the context, history, and motivations to gain the right insight about this war, to understand and honor the sacrifices of the American soldier, and hold government officials accountable for their actions.