Vietnam War

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North Vietnamese Victory. Allied American withdrawal/defeat. Invasion of South Vietnam and reunification of Vietnam under the rule of the Communist Party of Vietnam. Communist rule in Laos and rise to power of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge
South Eastern Asia
Dissolution of South Vietnam and reunification of Vietnam

The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, or the Vietnam Conflict, occurred from 1959 to April 30, 1975. The war was fought between the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), supported by its communist allies, and the US-supported Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).

Throughout the conflict the less equipped and trained Vietcong fought a guerilla war and North Vietnamese soldiers fought a conventional war against US forces in the region, using the jungles of Vietnam to spring deadly ambushes whilst the United States used overwhelming firepower in artillery and aircraft to grind down offensives and potential Vietcong bases. In particular, the iconic Huey helicopters played a decisive role in air-lifting supplies and when later upgraded with rockets and machine guns took part in the heavy ground conflicts.

In 1965 the United States sent in troops to prevent the South Vietnamese government from collapsing. Ultimately, however, the United States failed to achieve its goal, and in 1975 Vietnam was reunified under Communist control; in 1976 it officially became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. During the conflict, approximately 3 to 4 million Vietnamese on both sides were killed, in addition to another 1.5 to 2 million Lao and Cambodians who were drawn into the war.

Communism IntroducedEdit

In 1956 one of the leading communists in the south, Le Duan, returned to Hanoi to urge the Vietnam Workers' Party to take a firmer stand on the reunification of Vietnam under Communist leadership. But Hanoi (then in a severe economic crisis) hesitated to launch a full-scale military struggle. The northern Communists feared U.S. intervention and believed that conditions in South Vietnam were not yet ripe for a "people's revolution." However, in December 1956, Ho Chi Minh authorized the Viet Minh cadres still in South Vietnam to begin a low level insurgency. In North Vietnamese political theory, the action was a subset of "political struggle" called "armed propaganda," and consisted mostly of kidnappings and terrorist attacks.

Four hundred government officials were assassinated in 1957 alone, and the violence gradually increased. While the terror was originally aimed at local government officials, it soon broadened to include other symbols of the status quo, such as schoolteachers, health workers, and agricultural officials. One estimate says that by 1958, 20 percent of South Vietnam's village chiefs had been murdered by the insurgents. The insurgency sought to completely destroy government control in South Vietnam's rural villages and replace it with a shadow government. Finally, in January 1959, under pressure from southern cadres who were being targeted by Diem's secret police, the North's Central Committee issued a secret resolution authorizing an "armed struggle." This authorized the southern Viet Minh to begin large-scale operations against the South Vietnamese military. In response, Diem enacted tough new anti-communist laws. However, North Vietnam supplied troops and supplies in earnest, and the infiltration of men and weapons from the north began along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Observing the increasing unpopularity of the Diem regime, on December 12, 1960, Hanoi authorized the creation of the National Liberation Front as a front group for the Vietcong, the communist army in the South.

Successive American administrations, as Robert McNamara and others have noted, overestimated the control that Hanoi had over the NLF. Diem's paranoia, repression, and incompetence progressively angered large segments of the population of South Vietnam. Thus, many maintain that the origins of the anti-government violence were homegrown, rather than inspired by Hanoi. However, as historian Douglas Pike has pointed out, “today, no serious historian would defend the thesis that North Vietnam was not involved in the Vietnam war from the start…. To maintain this thesis today, one would be obliged to deal with the assertions of Northern involvement that have poured out of Hanoi since the end of the war.

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Ho Chi Minh

United States Inters the WarEdit

Lyndon Johnson, as he took over the presidency after the death of Kennedy, did not consider Vietnam a priority and was more concerned with his "Great Society" and progressive social programs. Johnson had a difficult time with American foreign policy makers, specifically Averill Harriman and Dean Acheson, who to Johnson's mind spoke a different language. Particularly heated was the relationship between the new president and national security advisor McGeorge Bundy. Shortly after the assassination of Kennedy, when Bundy called LBJ on the phone, LBJ responded:

"Goddammit, Bundy. I've told you that when I want you I'll call you."

On November 24, 1963, Johnson brought a small group together to talk with Henry Cabot Lodge, and the new president provided his support to help win the Vietnam war. But the pledge came at a time when Vietnam was deteriorating, especially in places like the Mekong Delta, because of the recent coup against Diem.

The military revolutionary council, meeting in lieu of a strong South Vietnamese leader, was made up of 12 members headed by General Minh—whom Stanley Karnow, a journalist on the ground, later recalled as "a model of lethargy." His regime was overthrown in January 1964 by General Nguyen Khanh. Lodge, frustrated by the end of year, cabled home about Minh: "Will he be strong enough to get on top of things?"

On August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox, on an intelligence mission along North Vietnam's coast, fired upon and damaged several torpedo boats that had been stalking it in the Gulf of Tonkin. A second attack was reported two days later on the USS Turner Joy and Maddox in the same area. The circumstances of the attack were murky. Lyndon Johnson commented to Undersecretary of State George Ball that "those sailors out there may have been shooting at flying fish." The second attack led to retaliatory air strikes, prompted Congress to approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and gave the president power to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without declaring war. In the same month, Johnson pledged that he was not "...committing American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land."

In 2005, however, an NSA declassified report revealed that there was no attack on 4 August. It had already been called into question long before this. "The Gulf of Tonkin incident," writes Louise Gerdes, "is an oft-cited example of the way in which Johnson misled the American people to gain support for his foreign policy in Vietnam." George C. Herring argues, however, that McNamara and the Pentagon "did not knowingly lie about the alleged attacks, but they were obviously in a mood to retaliate and they seem to have selected from the evidence available to them those parts that confirmed what they wanted to believe." Rising from 5,000 in 1959, there were now 100,000 guerrilla fighters in 1964. Some have argued that ten soldiers are needed to deal with every one insurgent. Thus, the total number of U.S. troops in 1964 needed to defeat the insurgents may have exceeded the entire strength of the United States Army.

The National Security Council recommended a three-stage escalation of the bombing of North Vietnam. On March 2, 1965, following an attack on a U.S. Marine barracks at Pleiku, Operation Flaming Dart and Operation Rolling Thunder commenced. The bombing campaign, which ultimately lasted three years, was intended to force North Vietnam to cease its support for the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) by threatening to destroy North Vietnam's air defenses and industrial infrastructure. As well, it was aimed at bolstering the morale of the South Vietnamese. Between March 1965 and November 1968, "Rolling Thunder" deluged the north with a million tons of missiles, rockets and bombs. Bombing was not restricted to North Vietnam. Other aerial campaigns, such as Operation Commando Hunt, targeted different parts of the NLF and Vietnam People's Army (VPA) infrastructure. These included the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through Laos and Cambodia. The objective of forcing North Vietnam to stop its support for the NLF, however, was never reached. As one officer noted "this is a political war and it calls for discriminate killing. The best weapon … would be a knife … The worst is an airplane." The Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force Curtis LeMay, however, had long advocated saturation bombing in Vietnam and wrote of the Communists that "we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age".

American WithdrawlEdit

Under Paris Peace Accord, between North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Lê Ðức Thọ and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and reluctantly signed by South Vietnamese President Thiệu, U.S. military forces withdrew from South Vietnam and prisoners were exchanged. North Vietnam was allowed to continue supplying communist troops in the South, but only to the extent of replacing materials that were consumed. Later that year the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kissinger and Thọ, but the Vietnamese negotiator declined it saying that a true peace did not yet exist.

The communist leaders had expected that the ceasefire terms would favor their side. But Saigon, bolstered by a surge of U.S. aid received just before the ceasefire went into effect, began to roll back the Vietcong. The communists responded with a new strategy hammered out in a series of meetings in Hanoi in March 1973, according to the memoirs of Trần Văn Trà. As the Vietcong's top commander, Trà participated in several of these meetings. With U.S. bombings suspended, work on the Hochiminh Trail and other logistical structures could proceed unimpeded. Logistics would be upgraded until the North was in a position to launch a massive invasion of the South, projected for the 1975-76 dry season. Trà calculated that this date would be the Hanoi's last opportunity to strike before Saigon's army could be fully trained. A three-thousand-mile long oil pipeline would be built from North Vietnam to Vietcong headquarters in Loc Ninh, about 75 miles northwest of Saigon.

Although McGovern himself was not elected U.S. president, the November 1972 election did return a Democratic majority to both houses of Congress under McGovern's "Come home America" campaign theme. On March 15, 1973, U.S. President Richard Nixon implied that the U.S. would intervene militarily if the communist side violated the ceasefire. Public and congressional reaction to Nixon's trial balloon was unfavorable and in April Nixon appointed Graham Martin as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. Martin was a second stringer compared to previous U.S. ambassadors and his appointment was an early signal that Washington had given up on Vietnam. During his confirmation hearings in June 1973, Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger stated that he would recommend resumption of U.S. bombing in North Vietnam if North Vietnam launched a major offensive against South Vietnam. On June 4, 1973, the U.S. Senate passed the Case-Church Amendment to prohibit such intervention.

The oil price shock of October 1973 caused significant damage to the South Vietnamese economy. The Vietcong resumed offensive operations when dry season began and by January 1974 it had recaptured the territory it lost during the previous dry season. After two clashes that left 55 South Vietnamese soldiers dead, President Thiệu announced on January 4 that the war had restarted and that the Paris Peace Accord was no longer in effect. There had been over 25,000 South Vietnamese casualties during the ceasefire period.

Gerald Ford took over as U.S. president on August 9, 1974 after President Nixon resigned due to the Watergate scandal. At this time, Congress cut financial aid to South Vietnam from $1 billion a year to $700 million. The U.S. midterm elections in 1974 brought in a new Congress dominated by Democrats who were even more determined to confront the president on the war. Congress immediately voted in restrictions on funding and military activities to be phased in through 1975 and to culminate in a total cutoff of funding in 1976.

The success of the 1973-74 dry season offensive inspired Trà to return to Hanoi in October 1974 and plead for a larger offensive in the next dry season. This time, Trà could travel on a drivable highway with regular fueling stops, a vast change from the days was Hochiminh Trail was a dangerous mountain trek. Giáp, the North Vietnamese defense minister, was reluctant to approved Trà's plan. A larger offensive might provoke a U.S. reaction and interfere with the big push planned for 1976. Trà appealed over Giáp's head to party boss Lê Duẩn, who obtained Politburo approval for the operation.

Trà's plan called for a limited offensive from Cambodia into Phuoc Long Province. The strike was designed to solve local logistical problems, gauge the reaction of South Vietnamese forces, and determine whether the U.S. would return to the fray.

On December 13, 1974, North Vietnamese forces attacked Route 14 in Phouc Long Province. Phouc Binh, the provincial capital, fell on January 6, 1975. Ford desperately asked Congress for funds to assist and re-supply the South before it was overrun. Congress refused. The fall of Phouc Binh and the lack of an American response left the South Vietnamese elite demoralized and corruption grew rampant.

The speed of this success led the Politburo to reassess its strategy. It was decided that operations in the Central Highlands would be turned over to General Văn Tiến Dũng and that Pleiku should be seized, if possible. Before he left for the South, Dũng was addressed by Lê Duẩn: "Never have we had military and political conditions so perfect or a strategic advantage as great as we have now."

By 1975 the South Vietnamese Army faced a well-organized, highly determined and well-funded North Vietnam. Much of the North's material and financial support came from the communist bloc. Within South Vietnam, there was increasing chaos. Their abandonment by the American military had compromised an economy dependent on U.S. financial support and the presence of a large number of U.S. troops. South Vietnam suffered from the global recession which followed the Arab oil embargo.


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