In June 1954, SV titular head Emperor Bao Dai appointed as premier the Roman Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem, whom Bao Dai believed had Washington's backing. Diem's base of support was narrow but had recently been strengthened by the addition of some 800,000 northern Catholics who relocated to southern Vietnam. In a subsequent power struggle between Bao Dai and Diem, in October 1955 Diem established the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam), with himself as president. The United States then extended Diem aid, most of which went to the South Vietnamese military budget. Only minor sums went to education and social welfare programs. Thus, the aid seldom touched the lives of the preponderantly rural populace. As Diem consolidated his power, U.S. military advisors also reorganized the South Vietnamese armed forces. Known as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, South Vietnamese Army) and equipped with American weaponry, it was designed to fight a conventional invasion from North Vietnam rather than deal with insurgency warfare.
Fearing a loss, Diem refused to hold the scheduled 1956 elections. This jolted veteran communist North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Ho had not been displeased with Diem's crushing of his internal opposition but was now ready to reunite the country under his sway and believed that he would win the elections. North Vietnam was more populous than South Vietnam, and the communists were well organized there. Fortified by the containment policy, the domino theory, and the belief that the communists, if they came to power, would never permit a democratic regime, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration backed Diem's defiance of the Geneva Agreements.
Diem's decision led to a renewal of fighting, which became the Vietnam War. Fighting resumed in 1957 when Diem moved against the 6,000–7,000 Viet Minh political cadres who had been allowed to remain in South Vietnam to prepare for the 1956 elections. The Viet Minh began the insurgency on their own initiative but were subsequently supported by the North Vietnamese government. The South Vietnamese communist insurgents came to be known as the Viet Cong (VC). In December 1960 they established the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam. Supposedly independent, the NLF was controlled by Hanoi. The NLF program called for the overthrow of the Saigon government, its replacement by a "broad national democratic coalition," and the "peaceful" reunification of Vietnam.
In September 1959, North Vietnamese Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap established Transportation Group 559 to send supplies and men south along what came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, much of which ran through supposedly neutral Laos. The first wave of infiltrators were native southerners and Viet Minh who had relocated to North Vietnam in 1954. Viet Cong sway expanded, spreading out from safe bases to one village after another. The insurgency was fed by the weaknesses of the central government, by the use of terror and assassination, and by Saigon's appalling ignorance of the movement. By the end of 1958, the insurgency had reached the status of conventional warfare in several provinces. In 1960, the communists carried out even more assassinations, and guerrilla units attacked ARVN regulars, overran district and provincial capitals, and ambushed convoys and reaction forces.
By mid-1961, the Saigon government had lost control over much of rural South Vietnam. Infiltration was as yet not significant, and most of the insurgents' weapons were either captured from ARVN forces or were left over from the war with France. Diem rejected American calls for meaningful reform until the establishment of full security. He did not understand that the war was primarily a political problem and could be solved only through political means.
Diem, who practiced the divide and rule concept of leadership, increasingly delegated authority to his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and his secret police. Isolated from his people and relying only on trusted family members and a few other advisors, Diem resisted U.S. demands that he promote his senior officials and officers on the basis of ability and pursue the war aggressively.
By now, U.S. President John F. Kennedy's administration was forced to reevaluate its position toward the war, but increased U.S. involvement was inevitable, given Washington's commitment to resist communist expansion and the belief that all of Southeast Asia would become communist if South Vietnam fell. Domestic political considerations also influenced the decision.
In May 1961, Kennedy sent several fact-finding missions to Vietnam. These led to the Strategic Hamlet program as part of a general strategy emphasizing local militia defense and to the commitment of additional U.S. manpower. By the end of 1961, U.S. strength in Vietnam had grown to around 3,200 men, most in helicopter units or serving as advisors. In February 1962, the United States also established a military headquarters in Saigon, when the Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) was replaced by the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), to direct the enlarged American commitment. The infusion of U.S. helicopters and additional support for the ARVN probably prevented a VC military victory in 1962. The VC soon learned to cope with the helicopters, however, and again the tide of battle turned.
Meanwhile, Nhu's crackdown on the Buddhists led to increased opposition to Diem's rule. South Vietnamese generals now planned a coup, and after Diem rejected reforms, the United States gave the plotters tacit support. On 1 November 1963 the generals overthrew Diem, murdering both him and Nhu. Within three weeks Kennedy was also dead, succeeded by Lyndon B. Johnson.
The United States seemed unable to win the war either with or without Diem. A military junta now took power, but none of those who followed Diem had his prestige. Coups and countercoups occurred, and much of South Vietnam remained in turmoil. Not until General Nguyen Van Thieu became president in 1967 was there a degree of political stability.
Both sides steadily increased the stakes, apparently without foreseeing that the other might do the same. In 1964 Hanoi made three decisions. The first was to send to South Vietnam units of its regular army, the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), known to the Americans as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The second was to rearm its forces in South Vietnam with modern communist-bloc weapons, giving them a firepower advantage over the ARVN, which was still equipped largely with World War II–era U.S. infantry weapons. And the third was to order direct attacks on American installations, provoking a U.S. response.
On 2 August 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident occurred when North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the U.S. destroyer Maddox in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. A second attack on the Maddox and another U.S. destroyer, the Turner Joy, reported two days later, probably never occurred, but Washington believed that it had, and this led the Johnson administration to order retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnamese naval bases and fuel depots. It also led to a near-unanimous vote in Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the president to use whatever force he deemed necessary to protect U.S. interests in Southeast Asia.
Johnson would not break off U.S. involvement in Vietnam, evidently fearing possible impeachment if he did so. At the same time, he refused to make the tough decision of fully mobilizing the country and committing the resources necessary to win, concerned that this would destroy his cherished Great Society social programs. He also feared a widened war, possibly involving the People's Republic of China (PRC).
By 1965, Ho and his generals expected to win the war. Taking their cue from Johnson's own pronouncements to the American people, they mistakenly believed that Washington would not commit ground troops to the fight. Yet Johnson did just that. Faced with Hanoi's escalation, in March 1965 U.S. Marines arrived to protect the large American air base at Da Nang. A direct attack on U.S. advisors at Pleiku in February 1965 also led to a U.S. air campaign against North Vietnam.
Ultimately more than 2.5 million Americans served in Vietnam, and nearly 58,000 of them died there. At its height, Washington was spending $30 billion per year on the war. Although the conflict was the best-covered war in American history (it became known as the first television war), it was conversely the least understood by the American people.
Johnson hoped to win the war on the cheap, relying heavily on airpower. Known as Operation rolling thunder and paralleled by Operation barrel roll, the secret bombing of Laos (which became the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare), the air campaign would be pursued in varying degrees of intensity over the next three and a half years. Its goals were to force Hanoi to negotiate peace and to halt infiltration into South Vietnam. During the war, the United States dropped more bombs than in all of World War II, but the campaign failed in both its objectives.
In the air war, Johnson decided on graduated response rather than the massive strikes advocated by the military. Gradualism became the grand strategy employed by the United States in Vietnam. Haunted by the Korean War, at no time would Johnson consider an invasion of North Vietnam, fearful of provoking a Chinese reaction.
By May and June 1965, with PAVN forces regularly destroying ARVN units, MACV commander General William Westmoreland appealed for U.S. ground units, which Johnson committed. PAVN regiments appeared ready to launch an offensive in the rugged Central Highlands and then drive to the sea, splitting South Vietnam in two. Westmoreland mounted a spoiling attack with the recently arrived 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) formed around some 450 helicopters. During October–November 1965, the 1st Cavalry won one of the war's rare decisive encounters in the Battle of Ia Drang and may have derailed Hanoi's hopes of winning a decisive victory before full American might could be deployed.
Heavy personnel losses on the battlefield, while regrettable, were entirely acceptable to the North Vietnamese leadership. Ho remarked at one point that North Vietnam could absorb an unfavorable loss ratio of ten to one and still win the war. Washington never did understand this and continued to view the war through its own lens of what would be unacceptable in terms of casualties. From 1966 on, Vietnam was an escalating military stalemate, as Westmoreland requested increasing numbers of men from Washington. By the end of 1966, 400,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam. In 1968, U.S. strength was more than 500,000 men. Johnson also secured some 60,000 troops from other nations—most of them from the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea)—surpassing the 39,000-man international coalition of the Korean War.
Terrain was not judged important. The goals were to protect the population and kill the enemy, with success measured in terms of body counts that, in turn, led to abuses. During 1966, MACV mounted eighteen major operations, each resulting in more than 500 supposedly verified VC/PAVN dead. Fifty thousand enemy combatants were supposedly killed in 1966. By the beginning of 1967, the PAVN and VC had 300,000 men versus 625,000 ARVN and 400,000 Americans.
Hanoi, meanwhile, had reached a point of decision, with casualties exceeding available replacements. Instead of scaling back, North Vietnam prepared a major offensive that would employ all available troops to secure a quick victory. Hanoi believed that a major military defeat for the United States would end its political will to continue.
Giap now prepared a series of peripheral attacks, including a modified siege of some 6,000 U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh near the demilitarized zone (DMZ), beginning in January 1968. With U.S. attention riveted on Khe Sanh, Giap planned a massive offensive to occur over Tet, the lunar new year holidays, called the General Offensive–General Uprising. The North Vietnamese government believed that this massive offensive would lead people in South Vietnam to rise up and overthrow the South Vietnamese government, bringing an American withdrawal. The attacks were mounted against the cities. In a major intelligence failure, U.S. and South Vietnamese officials misread both the timing and strength of the attack, finding it inconceivable that the attack would come during Tet, sacrificing public goodwill.
The Tet Offensive began on 31 January and ended on 24 February 1968. Poor communication and coordination plagued Hanoi's plans. Attacks in one province occurred a day early, alerting the authorities. Hue, the former imperial capital, was especially hard hit. Fighting there destroyed half the city.
Hanoi's plan failed. ARVN forces generally fought well, and the people of South Vietnam did not support the attackers. In Hue, the communists executed 3,000 people, and news of this caused many South Vietnamese to rally to the South Vietnamese government. Half of the 85,000 VC and PAVN soldiers who took part in the offensive were killed or captured. It was the worst military setback for North Vietnam in the war.
Paradoxically, it was also its most resounding victory, in part because the Johnson administration and Westmoreland had trumpeted prior Allied successes, and the intensity of the fighting came as a profound shock to the American people. Disillusioned and despite the victory, they turned against the war. At the end of March, Johnson announced a partial cessation of bombing and withdrew from the November presidential election.
Hanoi persisted, however. In the first six months of 1968, communist forces sustained more than 100,000 casualties, and the VC was virtually wiped out. In the same period, 20,000 Allied troops died. All sides now opted for talks in Paris in an effort to negotiate an end to the war.
American disillusionment with the war was a key factor in Republican Richard Nixon's razor-thin victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey in the November 1968 presidential election. With no plan of his own, Nixon embraced Vietnamization, actually begun under Johnson. This turned over more of the war to the ARVN, and U.S. troop withdrawals began. Peak U.S. strength of 550,000 men occurred in early 1969. There were 475,000 men by the end of the year, 335,000 by the end of 1970, and 157,000 at the end of 1971. Massive amounts of equipment were turned over to the ARVN, including 1 million M-16 rifles and sufficient aircraft to make the South Vietmese Air Force the world's fourth largest. Extensive retraining of the ARVN was begun, and training schools were established. The controversial counterinsurgency phoenix program also operated against the VC infrastructure, reducing the insurgency by 67,000 people between 1968 and 1971, but PAVN forces remained secure in sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia.
Nixon's policy was to limit outside assistance to Hanoi and pressure the North Vietnamese government to end the war. For years, American and South Vietnamese military leaders had sought approval to attack the sanctuaries. In March 1970 a coup in Cambodia ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk. General Lon Nol replaced him, and secret operations against the PAVN Cambodian sanctuaries soon began. Over a two-month span, there were twelve cross-border operations, known as the Cambodian Incursion. Despite widespread opposition in the United States to the widened war, the incursions raised the allies' morale, allowed U.S. withdrawals to continue on schedule, and purchased additional time for Vietnamization. PAVN forces now concentrated on bases in southern Laos and on enlarging the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In the spring of 1971, ARVN forces mounted a major invasion into southern Laos, known as Operation lam son 719. There were no U.S. advisors, and ARVN units took heavy casualties. The operation set back Hanoi's plans to invade South Vietnam but took a great toll on the ARVN's younger officers and pointed out serious command weaknesses.
By 1972, PAVN forces had recovered and had been substantially strengthened with new weapons, including heavy artillery and tanks, from the Soviet Union. They now mounted a major conventional invasion of South Vietnam. Hanoi believed that the United States would not interfere. Giap had fifteen divisions. He left only one in North Vietnam and two in Laos and committed the remaining twelve to the invasion.
The attack began on 29 March 1972. Known as the Spring or Easter Offensive, it began with a direct armor strike across the DMZ at the 17th Parallel and caught the best South Vietnamese troops facing Laos. Allied intelligence misread its scale and precise timing. Giap risked catastrophic losses but hoped for a quick victory before ARVN forces could recover. At first it appeared that the PAVN would be successful. Quang Tri fell, and rain limited the effectiveness of airpower.
In May, President Nixon authorized B-52 bomber strikes on North Vietnam's principal port of Haiphong and the mining of its harbor. This new air campaign was dubbed linebacker i and involved the use of new precision-guided munitions (so-called or smart bombs). The bombing cut off much of the supplies for the invading PAVN forces. Allied aircraft also destroyed 400–500 PAVN tanks. In June and July, the ARVN counterattacked. The invasion cost Hanoi half its force—some 100,000 men died—while ARVN losses were only 25,000.
With both Soviet and Chinese leaders anxious for better relations with the United States in order to obtain Western technology, Hanoi gave way and switched to negotiations. Finally, an agreement was hammered out in Paris that December, but President Thieu balked and refused to sign, whereupon Hanoi made the agreements public. A furious Nixon blamed Hanoi for the impasse, and in December he ordered a resumption of the bombing, dubbed linebackerii but also known as the December or Christmas Bombings. Although fifteen B-52s were lost, Hanoi had fired away virtually its entire stock of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and now agreed to resume talks.
After a few cosmetic changes, an agreement was signed on 23 January 1973, with Nixon forcing Thieu to agree or risk the end of all U.S. aid. The United States recovered its prisoners of war and departed Vietnam. The Soviet Union and China continued to supply arms to North Vietnam, however, while Congress constricted U.S. supplies to South Vietnam. Tanks and planes were not replaced on the promised one-for-one basis as they were lost, and spare parts and fuel were both in short supply. All this had a devastating effect on ARVN morale.
In South Vietnam, both sides violated the cease-fire, and fighting steadily increased in intensity. In January 1975, communist forces attacked and quickly seized Phuoc Long Province on the Cambodian border north of Saigon. Washington took no action. The communists next took Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands, then in mid-March President Thieu decided to abandon the northern part of his country. Confusion became disorder, then disaster, and six weeks later PAVN forces controlled all of South Vietnam. Saigon fell on 30 April 1975, to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam was now reunited, but under a communist government. An estimated 3 million Vietnamese, soldiers and civilians, had died in the struggle. Much of the country was devastated by the fighting, and Vietnam suffered from the effects of the widespread use of chemical defoliants.
The effects were also profound in the United States. The American military was shattered by the war and had to be rebuilt. Inflation was rampant from the failure to face up to the true costs of the war. Many questioned U.S. willingness to embark on such a crusade again, at least to go it alone. In this sense, the war forced Washington into a more realistic appraisal of U.S. power. Spencer C. Tucker
Maclear, Michael. The Ten Thousand Day War: Vietnam, 1945–1975. New York: St. Martin's, 1981.; O'Ballance, Edgar. The Wars in Vietnam, 1954–1960. New York: Hippocrene, 1981.; Palmer, General Bruce, Jr. The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.; Tucker, Spencer C. Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
Spencer C. Tucker