The United States first became involved in Vietnam in 1950 when it began supporting France in its effort to defend its colonial presence in Vietnam. Within the context of the Cold War, this assistance to France was extended as part of the effort to contain Communism. Despite American aid, the French were eventually defeated by the communist-dominated Viet Minh. The Geneva Conference in 1954 resulted in the partition of Vietnam along the 17th parallel with Ho Chi Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) holding sway in the north and the State of Vietnam in the south. In an effort to counter Ho Chi Minh, the United States supported the anti-communist regime in Saigon headed by Ngo Dinh Diem.
Diem's corrupt and unpopular regime was unable to deal with the insurgency that grew up in the south after Diem refused to conduct elections in 1956 which had been called for by the Geneva Accords. Additionally, his repressionist policies alienated the South Vietnamese people. With U.S. approval, a group of South Vietnamese generals launched a coup. The removal and murder of Diem resulted in a series of revolving door governments and more political instability. The communists stepped up their attacks and North Vietnamese soldiers began traveling down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to join the fight in the fall of 1964. In 1965, the United States sent in combat troops to prevent the South Vietnamese government from collapsing in the face of the communist insurgency. By late 1967, after a rapid escalation of the U.S. commitment, there were nearly 500,000 American troops in South Vietnam and bitter fighting raged all over the country.
The war in Vietnam caused deep divisions on the homefront in the United States and contributed to the social upheaval of the 1960s. The failure to forge any meaningful progress against the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese, the spread of the antiestablishment counterculture, the graphic coverage of the fighting by the media, and the credibility gap that developed between successive presidential administrations and the American public seriously undermined support for the war.
By late 1967, U.S. forces had dealt serious blows to the communists, but the fighting continued unabated. President Lyndon Johnson launched a public relations campaign emphasizing that progress was being made in order to bolster public support. In the midst of this campaign, the communists launched the massive Tet Offensive on the Tet holiday in 1968. Although the American and South Vietnamese forces prevailed, the shock and scope of the attacks stunned the American public and convinced a demoralized Johnson not to run for re-election.
Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 largely because he promised to end the war and achieve "peace with honor." To do this, he announced that he would "Vietnamize" the war. This meant that the responsibility for the fighting would be shifted to the South Vietnamese so that U.S. forces could be disengaged. While this was being done, the fighting raged unabated. Neither massive bombing of both South and North Vietnam, nor the expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos brought the war any closer to an end.
Dissatisfied with the bloody stalemate, North Vietnam launched a massive invasion of the south in the spring of 1972. Although initially successful, the North Vietnamese forces were turned back by a massive application of American airpower. Nixon proclaimed Vietnamization a success. Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger had been conducting secret peace negotiations with communist representatives in Paris. By October 1972, they had forged a tentative peace agreement. However, President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam voiced violent opposition to the terms and the North Vietnamese angrily walked out of the negotiations. Nixon ordered a massive bombing campaign against Hanoi and Haiphong. After eighteen days, the North Vietnamese agreed to return to the negotiating tables, but the agreement that was worked out was not substantially different from the one that had been agreed upon before the bombing.
The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973. The terms of the agreement called for an in-place cease-fire and the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by March 1973. There was no mention of the North Vietnamese troops left in the South when the cease-fire went into effect, but Nixon promised Thieu that the United States would support South Vietnam if Hanoi violated the terms of the cease-fire.
Despite Nixon's promises, the fighting continued after U.S. troops had all departed as the South Vietnamese and their opponents vied for control of the countryside. Nixon, beset by the Watergate scandal, resigned in August 1974 and, subsequently, Congress reduced military aid to Vietnam. In December 1974, Hanoi launched a final offensive in the south. On 30 April 1975, North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon and South Vietnam surrendered.
The United States, although it had not been defeated on the battlefield, had lost the first war in its history. More than 58,000 Americans had been killed and over 300,000 wounded. South Vietnam had fallen to the communists. The war had sharply divided American society and made Americans question the veracity of their own governmental institutions. The legacies of the war would last for many years to come. James Willbanks
Anderson, David L., ed. Shadow on the White House: Presidents and the Vietnam War, 1945-1975. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1993.; Baker, Mark. Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There. New York: William Morrow, 1981.