The Vietnam War (1955-1975) began as a conflict between South Vietnam and North Vietnam following the nation’s independence from colonial France. North Vietnam wanted to unite both the South and the North under the same communist rule.
The American government’s decision to send troops to Vietnam to fight the spread of communism was a controversial one. To this day, the Vietnam War is still an intensely debated historical topic. In this article, we explore a brief historical overview of the Vietnam War and its global impact.
The Start of the Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was part of a series of global conflicts over the spread of communism during the period known as the Cold War. The fight for control of Vietnam started in the mid-1800s when Vietnam was colonized by the French. During World War II the French and the Japanese fought for control of Vietnam. During this power struggle, the Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh started a movement for independence. His movement was called Viet Minh.
After Japan surrendered in WWII, Minh declared independence from France. When France did not concede, the revolutionaries turned to guerilla warfare to fight for their independence. After several months of combat, the French would lose the battle to Vietnamese nationalists. The last French troops left Vietnam in 1956. This left the world wondering what would happen to Vietnam under a new regime.
The Geneva Conference
America in the 1950s and 60s was obsessed with stopping the spread of communism, which they saw as a threat to freedom everywhere. That is why America supported the French during the initial conflicts with Vietnamese nationalists. They feared that if Vietnam gained its independence and turned communist, it would start a domino effect of communism spreading throughout Asia.
After the French had surrendered to the Vietnamese revolutionaries, the question still remained of who would be ruling Vietnam from that point onwards. During the Geneva Conference in April of 1954, world leaders came together to create solutions for the problems in Asia. A hot topic at the conference was the control of Vietnam, which was still up in the air following their recent independence from France.
The Geneva Accords were signed which officially relinquished Vietnam from being a French colony. The agreement also divided Vietnam into the communist North under Ho Chi Minh and the South where the French had established a puppet government led by emperor Bao Dai.
The Geneva Accords arrangement was temporary until an official election united the country under a new leader and government. According to the agreement, any foreign military presence was not to be allowed in Vietnam for two years or until a new government was established. America felt that this agreement would be detrimental, and refused to sign. They feared that communist leader Ho Chi Minh would win in a fair election due to his popularity as the individual who led the fight for Vietnamese independence.
America immediately started to enact policies to support the non-communist government of South Vietnam, including establishing an anti-communist political party and providing financial support for their military. During the Cold War, the United States was devoted to a containment strategy, and its foreign policy was to lend support to any foreign democracies being threatened by a communist takeover. American involvement in the Vietnam War would continue on into the 1960s and 70s, sparking national controversy and protests.
Political Unrest & the Buddhist Crisis
Americans were not the only ones protesting during the Vietnam war. When emperor Bao Dai was replaced by Catholic nationalist Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955, protests broke out all over South Vietnam. Diem was favored by America because of his anti-communist political standpoint. Eisenhower praised Diem for driving the Viet Cong, the Vietnamese Communist Party, off into the remote swamps of Vietnam. At the same time, Diem’s preferential treatment of the Catholic minority had started to anger the people of South Vietnam.
The government, led by Catholic leader Ngo Dinh Diem, banned the Buddhist flag and other religious flags. This act of religious discrimination resulted in widespread protests. This historical event is known as the Buddhist Crisis. When a Buddhist protest ended with the military shooting into the crowd and killing eight protestors, the crisis reached a pinnacle.
Ngo Dinh Diem denied responsibility for the deaths of protestors and blamed the Viet Cong for the violence. Diem lost the support of the American government because of the Buddhist Crisis, and eventually, the United States backed the coup that ended in Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination in 1963. He was regarded as a corrupt dictator at the time of his assassination, but some historians believe that Diem was used as a tool by the United States.
From 1963 to 1965 Vietnam would go through a rapid procession of 12 different government and political parties, with none sticking for long. The Viet Cong declared that the enemy of national unity was the imperialism of the United States. The communist party in Vietnam was backed by the support of the Soviet Union and China. On the other hand, the Americans backed the anti-communist resistance.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
While on an electronic espionage mission for the South Vietnamese, the American warship called the Maddox was allegedly attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. This incident was the push that congress needed to approve more troops being sent to Vietnam by President Johnson. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution escalated America’s role in the war.
Strangely enough, there is some debate as to whether or not the attack on the Maddox warship ever actually happened. A report released by the National Security Agency years later revealed that there was strong evidence that the attack from the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin, the catalyst for American troops being sent en masse to Vietnam, never happened. By the end of 1965, there were around 200,000 American soldiers in Vietnam.
Guerilla Warfare During the Vietnam War
The Vietnam War is one of the most famous examples of the use of guerilla warfare. Guerilla warfare is when a large army fights against a smaller army. In order for the smaller army to be successful, they must use clever strategies to ambush the opposing army. The Viet Cong used guerilla warfare tactics to fight against American soldiers and their anti-communist allies during the war. The American soldiers were not accustomed to guerilla warfare or the terrain of Vietnam, which gave the Viet Cong a huge advantage.
The element of surprise is a huge part of how guerilla warfare works. By disguising themselves as civilians, the guerilla army was able to surprise the American soldiers with hit-and-run ambushes. The Vietnamese soldiers were familiar with the swamps and dense forests that much of the battle took place in. They even had underground tunnels, booby-traps, and a variety of other clever tricks to give them the upper hand in battle.
During the Vietnam War, the communist propagandists were especially proud of their “long-haired troops” of women fighters. Communist China was the main backer of the Viet Cong and provided them with most of their weaponry, including machine guns and grenades. With the aid of the Chinese, the Viet Cong increased their army’s manpower.
During the 1960s, the Viet Cong carried out a series of assassinations using “death squads” which account for around one-third of the causalities of the war. The violence in the region between political groups continued to escalate, prompting America to send more and more troops.
Controversy and Protests
Following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 and the subsequent deployment of armed military forces to Vietnam to wage war against the Viet Cong, protests broke out around America. During the 1960s and 70s, there was a peace movement that was anti-war, anti-racism, and anti-sexism. The protests were mostly peaceful, although on a few occasions the demonstrations turned violent when law enforcement clashed with protestors.
The draft is what led many to protest against the war in the 1960s. The peace movement overlapped with the civil rights movement and student activism. Minorities and students were the most likely to be drafted into the army to fight in Vietnam.
Each month around 40,000 young men were forced to enlist in the army and fight overseas to “save” South Vietnam from communism. By 1967 there were over 400,000 American troops in Vietnam. Many resisted the draft on the grounds that the war was immoral and being fought for the wrong reasons. The issue was a divisive one, and the news media further fueled the polarization of American citizens over the war with biased reporting.
The war in Vietnam was televised to American citizens uncensored. Civilians were given a front-row seat to the atrocities of the Vietnam War and many were disgusted by what they saw as American imperialism. The idea of a “domino effect” of communism spreading throughout the world and threatening global democracy was written off by peace activists as an excuse for American imperialism. College students largely led the movement of activists protesting against the war.
The government was not happy about the protests and tried to stamp out anti-war movements. People who opposed the war could be accused of being communist sympathizers and fired from their jobs. The House Un-American Activities Committee operated from 1938 until 1975 investigating accusations that American citizens were aiding communist political parties.
During the war in Vietnam, American soldiers committed atrocities against innocent Vietnamese civilians. During the My Lai massacre, hundreds of innocent men, women, children, and even babies were tortured and murdered. Women and children were sexually assaulted and mutilated by American soldiers during the massacre. This event and similar massacres that took place further enraged Americans that were against the war. The American government tried to downplay and cover up the massacre in the media.
Only one American soldier involved in the My Lai massacre was ever convicted. Disturbingly, the American soldiers that tried to stop the war crime from occurring were called traitors. The only injured American soldier was one soldier who shot himself in the foot so that he did not have to participate in the massacre. The helicopter pilot who tried to stop the massacre compared the American soldiers to the Nazis.
“It’s mass murder out there. They’re rounding them up and herding them in ditches and then just shooting them.”-Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr.
How the Vietnam War Ended
As the 1960s came to an end, most of America was disenchanted with the idea of ever winning the Vietnam War. Some believed that America had the right intentions when going to war in Vietnam, but that it had proved to be a more difficult battle to win than expected. Others believed that America’s intentions were immoral and imperialist.
By 1970 most people agreed that it was time to pull American troops out of Vietnam. Likewise, the Viet Cong claimed that the only thing standing between the citizens of Vietnam and peace under a unified government was American imperialism. It would still take several years until America would officially retreat from Vietnam in 1973.
Over the course of the Vietnam War, America had gone through four different presidents before Nixon was elected in 1969. Ending the Vietnam War was high on Nixon’s agenda when he took office. At first, Nixon increased American efforts to assist South Vietnam in fighting the Viet Cong. Increasing US military presence in Vietnam did nothing to bring the war closer to an end, and there was mounting pressure from the public to pull the troops.
Nixon’s Nation Security Advisor played a huge role in negotiations with Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union. He took part in peace talks in Paris, and eventually, Nixon made him secretary of the State. In 1971, the government released previously confidential documents that shed light on why America made the decision to fight the Vietnam War. This report fueled further anti-war sentiments.
Once Nixon started bringing troops home, he did not stop. In between 1969 and 1973, all of the American troops would return home from Vietnam. America’s approach shifted to something called “Vietnamization”. Instead of sending soldiers to assist them, the United States created a program to help South Vietnam build an army of their own to fight against North Vietnam. There were increased diplomatic negotiations between the leaders of North and South Vietnam as well as the United States and other foreign governments.
Nixon’s strategy of negotiating with North Vietnam and their allies in China and the Soviet Union would eventually pay off. They used a few strategic attacks on North Vietnam to try to push them to negotiate. Under pressure from the United States government, South and North Vietnam signed a peace settlement. The peace settlement officially withdrew America from the war. America. The United States also claimed that it was committed to aiding South Vietnam if North Vietnam violated the peace settlement.
America did not keep its promise to back up South Vietnam, and the war ended with North Vietnam taking control of the entire country under one unified communist government in the spring of 1975.
Lasting Impact of the Vietnam War On America
The Vietnam War had lasting consequences for American politics, economy, and society. During the war, the economy was severely impacted by inflation. Rather than raise taxes, they used inflation to make up the costs of the war. Many laws were changed and new laws were enacted to prevent history from repeating itself. The War Powers Act was passed to prevent presidents from waging war without approval from Congress. All of this was done in an effort to prevent future imperialist wars.
The draft was replaced with a volunteer-based military following the widespread draft resistance and protests during the Vietnam War. When the war first began, 18-year-olds could be drafted to fight but they could not vote. This changed in 1971 and the voting age was lowered to 18. Nixon resigned from the presidency following the Watergate scandal in 1974 and was replaced with his vice-president Gerald R. Ford. Ford granted clemency to the draft dodgers from the Vietnam War.
Racial injustice was also brought to light when African American soldiers returning from the war were not offered the same resources as their fellow white veterans. The military was the first American institution that integrated black and white citizens. At the height of the Vietnam War in 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Black men were also disproportionately drafted to fight in the front lines of the war.
One of the lasting effects of the Vietnam War on American society was the polarizing effect of the controversial war. The American people lost faith in the government to do the right thing following the atrocities of the war and because of the dishonestly of the government and media reporting on the war. As a result, many Americans who grew up during the Vietnam War have a lasting distrust of the government. To this day, Americans are divided on the topic of the controversial Vietnam War and often debate whether or not America’s role in the conflict was justifiable.