| Oxford Companion to Military History: |
Following the Genesva accords, relative calm descended on Vietnam. In Hanoi, the Vietminh, who had come under the control of the Vietnamese Lao Dong (Communist) Party by the time of the French defeat, consolidated their power under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, collectivized agriculture in the north (which sparked a bloodily suppressed peasant uprising in 1956), and debated how to gain control of South Vietnam. In Saigon Bao Dai, the French-backed emperor, was deposed in a referendum by the US-supported Ngo Dinh Diem in late 1955. Diem, a Catholic in a predominantly Buddhist country, was a committed anti-communist. Bolstered by increasing economic and covert aid from the USA, Diem launched an anti-communist sweep of South Vietnam. By the late 1950s, the hard-pressed Vietminh cadres who had remained in the South, derisively dubbed Vietcong by Diem, appealed to Hanoi for reinforcement and greater support.
Although Hanoi had ordered the formation of Vietcong military units in the Mekong Delta as early as 1957, North Vietnamese leaders debated if the time was ripe to intervene more directly in the South. At a May 1959 meeting of the Lao Dong Party, they decided to support ‘armed revolution’ against Saigon: 4, 500 ‘regroupees’ (a southern communist cadre who had come to North Vietnam following the Geneva accords) began to stream down the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ between North and South Vietnam to help form Vietcong units. In December 1960, Hanoi announced the creation of the National Liberation Front (NLF), a collection of southern groups opposing the Diem regime, to bolster the North Vietnamese contention that the revolt against Saigon was an indigenous movement.
This reversed the military situation and by the early 1960s Saigon was under enormous pressure. Diem's campaign against the communists increasingly was directed against all political dissent, bringing local and US calls for him to reform his government. In November 1960, Diem narrowly avoided being overthrown in a military coup. Vietcong terrorist incidents against the regime surged. In 1959 the Vietcong killed about 1, 200 government representatives, in 1961 this had risen to 4, 000. Vietcong units also began inflicting a string of defeats on the Army, Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). Diem, who generally turned to family members for their political reliability, now relied increasingly on his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu to eliminate political opposition.
The Ngos overstepped the bounds of US patience in 1963 when they forcefully suppressed a series of Buddhist protests against their regime. Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu's characterization of a Buddhist monk's self-immolation as a ‘barbecue show’ only increased the Kennedy administration's disenchantment with Diem. The Ngos had undertaken a delicate balancing act between receiving enormous quantities of US economic and military aid to the civil power (15, 000 US military advisers were in South Vietnam at the end of 1963) while resisting what they perceived as US meddling in South Vietnamese affairs. By 1963 many officials in the Kennedy administration had come to perceive Diem and his brother Nhu as obstructionists. The US diplomatic mission in Saigon gave tacit approval to, if it did not actually orchestrate, a November 1963 coup d'état that resulted in the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu.
The coup caught Hanoi by surprise, but the removal of Diem, recognized as a nationalist throughout Vietnam, invited further North Vietnamese intervention. After his murder, Saigon was rocked by a series of military coups, which produced political instability and battlefield lethargy. Hanoi quickly capitalized on this opportunity: by the end of 1964, Vietcong units had been organized into division-size formations and entire PAVN regiments had infiltrated into South Vietnam. As Vietcong/PAVN activity spread, more US personnel became casualties in the conflict. On 3 February 1964, the Vietcong attacked the US advisers' compound in Kontum City. On 7 February, a bomb blew up in a Saigon theatre, killing three Americans. In May, the USS Card was sunk by Vietcong commandos in a Saigon harbour. In November, the Vietcong attacked the US airbase at Bien Hoa and on 24 December they claimed credit for a bombing at the Brinks Hotel in Saigon where US officers were billeted.
A controversial incident in the Gulf of Tonkin would have a profound impact on the war. Early in the morning of 2 August 1964, the US destroyer Maddox, while patrolling along North Vietnamese territorial waters, was attacked by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The Maddox returned fire and was quickly supported by aircraft from the USS Ticonderoga. During the night of 4 August, the Maddox, now joined by the destroyer C. Turner Joy, initially reported a renewed attack, although officers at the scene quickly determined that the North Vietnamese vessels were nowhere to be found and that inexperienced crewmen had simply responded to sonar and radar anomalies. The Johnson administration, uninterested in validating initial reports and indifferent to the probability that Hanoi might have been responding to South Vietnamese amphibious attacks (30-1 July OPLAN 34A raids) against the North Vietnamese coast, ordered retaliatory air strikes against the torpedo-boat base at Vinh. The Johnson administration also gained congressional approval for increased US military action in South-East Asia. Although critics have long believed that the Johnson administration manipulated public and congressional sentiment by not divulging complete details of the incident, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution provided the administration with carte blanche to take military action to defend US personnel and interests in South-East Asia.
By 1965, the nature of the war was changing. No longer just a Vietcong effort to overthrow the Saigon regime through a ‘People's war’, the conflict became a deadlock between the USA and North Vietnam, which was backed by its Soviet and Chinese allies. Hanoi hoped that the USA would not resist a PAVN invasion of South Vietnam; while Washington hoped that Ho Chi Minh and his followers would be deterred by a demonstration of US military might. The 7 February 1965 Vietcong attack on the US airbase at Pleiku prompted US retaliatory air raids against North Vietnam (FLAMING DART) ; on 13 February Pres Johnson ordered a ‘program of measured and limited air action’, against North Vietnam, which came to be known as ROLLING THUNDER.
To protect the US airbase at Da Nang from Vietcong retaliation for US air strikes against North Vietnam, the Johnson administration dispatched two battalions of US Marines to guard the base. More US troops soon followed, initially to protect other US installations, but US military commanders viewed this initial ‘enclave’ strategy as ineffective. On 27 June 1965, Gen Westmoreland, Commander of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), ordered the first US offensive ground operation of the war. The ‘Big-Unit war’ had begun.
As US troops streamed into the country, Westmoreland faced his first major challenge: preventing the collapse of South Vietnam and a successful PAVN occupation of the northern sections of the country. In November 1965, the battle was joined in the Ia Drang valley in the Western Highlands, a hard-won victory for the US 1st Cavalry Division. As US troop strength grew, Westmoreland went on the offensive. Launching a series of large-scale ‘Search and Destroy’ operations, US and Allied forces targeted Vietcong operating bases. Vietcong and PAVN units often managed to evade Allied forces by fading into Cambodian and Laotian sanctuaries, but continuous attacks took their toll, especially on Vietcong forward-supply bases.
The Vietnam war, 1959-75.
(Click to enlarge)
By mid-1967, the war had reached a turning point and officers at MACV began to proclaim ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. US attrition objectives were being achieved: Vietcong and PAVN units were apparently losing more forces in South Vietnam than could be replaced through recruitment or infiltration. Policy-makers in Hanoi also came to the conclusion that the war was stalemated and that battlefield trends were not in their favour. In response, they called for a ‘Tong Cong Kich, Tong Khai Nghia’ (General Offensive, General Uprising). Known in the USA as the Tet offensive, because it occurred during the celebration of the Chinese lunar New Year, the countrywide attacks were intended to spark an insurrection among South Vietnamese civilians and military forces, destroying the Saigon regime. The North Vietnamese hoped to leave US forces isolated along the South Vietnamese border, forcing the Johnson administration to negotiate an end to the war. Hanoi even planned to re-enact the siege of Dien Bien Phu; by January 1968, 40, 000 PAVN soldiers were laying siege to the firebase at Khe Sanh and its garrison of 7, 000 US Marines.
The Tet attacks failed to prompt a southern uprising and military mutiny. With the exception of the battles of Saigon and Hué, Allied forces quickly repelled attacking Vietcong units. At Khe Sanh, the US Marines, supported by thousands of air sorties, stood firm and inflicted enormous casualties on PAVN. But the Tet offensive was a brilliant political success for Hanoi. Believing that progress was being made in the war, the Johnson administration and the US public were shocked by the scope and intensity of the offensive. On 31 March 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election as his administration reassessed its policies toward South-East Asia.
Following Tet, US policy-makers became increasingly determined to devise an exit strategy that would not simply abandon South Vietnam to PAVN. In terms of diplomacy, US and North Vietnamese negotiators began meeting in Paris in May 1968, but their talks made little progress. On the battlefield, the Nixon administration implemented a policy, called ‘Vietnamization’, to bolster ARVN. The USA began turning the war over to ARVN while gradually withdrawing US combat troops from South Vietnam.
Vietnamization came none too soon. Domestic opposition to the war mounted in the aftermath of the Tet offensive, reaching a peak in May 1970 following a US-ARVN raid into Cambodia. Launched to buy time for Vietnamization by destroying PAVN base areas, the Cambodian raid sparked nationwide student protests and tragedy at Kent State University when four students were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard. In South Vietnam, morale among US troops plummeted as soldiers became preoccupied by the prospect of becoming the last casualty in a war that was winding down. By 1971, over 7, 000 troops in Vietnam faced charges related to heroin (out of a force that numbered about 225, 000), insubordination, and fragging incidents (attacks against officers and NCOs), and courts martial soared. Vietnamization continued, but ARVN remained incapable of holding its own against PAVN: in spring 1971, ARVN launched Lam Son 719, a raid into Laos to destroy PAVN base areas, but was saved from disaster only by the massive use of US air power. In the spring of 1972, during the so-called ‘Easter-Offensive’, Saigon was again saved from disaster by a massive US air effort. Although PAVN, which by now resembled a conventional military force complete with armoured vehicles and ample large-calibre artillery, suffered devastating casualties, it succeeded in bringing western portions of South Vietnam under complete communist control.
By late 1972, Hanoi and Washington, moved along by secret negotiations conducted by Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, were near agreement on a negotiated end to the fighting in South Vietnam. When South Vietnamese Pres Nguyen Van Thieu objected to several portions of the proposed agreement, particularly that North Vietnamese troops would be allowed to stay in South Vietnam, Hanoi began back-pedalling on previously settled issues. The Nixon administration, seeking to break this diplomatic impasse, informed the Thieu regime that the USA would sign the agreement; the only hope of continued US military support to Saigon was in response to Hanoi's violation of the peace accord. To persuade Hanoi, Nixon initiated LINEBACKER II, also known as the ‘Christmas Bombing’. Although aircraft loses were significant, the USA dropped over 20, 000 tons of bombs on the North between 18 and 29 December 1972, causing enormous damage and completely exhausting North Vietnam's air defences. This surge in military-diplomatic pressure finally produced agreement: ceasefire accords were formally signed in Paris on 27 January 1973. The Paris agreement turned out to be a short-lived truce. Saigon forces collapsed in the face of an eight-week offensive launched by PAVN in March 1975. Americans, who had mostly come to the conclusion that US involvement in the war had been a mistake, were in no mood to intervene to prevent Hanoi's victory.
Military victory against the total war waged by North Vietnam was only attainable with US economic and military mobilization, but the decision was taken instead to sell the war in small increments. To minimize the political fallout, the National Guard was not engaged (except to put down domestic disorders) and the children of the influential were exempted from conscription. Secretary of Defense McNamara devised a process of feeding troops in and rotating them out again as individuals, directly attacking unit cohesion and esprit de corps, while the military high command devalued the honour of combat medals by awarding them to non-combatants, and put careerism ahead of combat effectiveness by allowing senior officers to ‘ticket punch’, that is to rotate in and out of combat commands too quickly to bond with their men or to lead them effectively. The impact of the media was twofold, at once feeding domestic outrage at what was being done and demoralizing the troops in Vietnam by showing them the contempt with which veterans were being treated back in ‘the world’. In particular, the effect of live TV coverage of the race riots in the late 1960s on African-American troops was devastating. And, as always, the promises of the air power enthusiasts proved over-optimistic. Bombing the jungle is possibly the least cost-effective form of warfare ever devised by man.
Twenty-five years after the fall of Saigon, much has changed in the world. Relations between reunited Vietnam and the USA are slowly improving, complicated by the issue of MIAs but helped along by tension with China that briefly erupted into a shooting war in 1978. The USSR got into its own Vietnam in Afghanistan and finally could no longer sustain the costs of the Cold War. In South-East Asia the dominos did not fall, although it was only the armed intervention of PAVN that put an end to the genocide of Pol Pot in Cambodia after it was hopelessly destabilized by the neighbouring war. There are 58, 000 names inscribed on the immensely moving war memorial in Washington, while over 2 million dead Vietnamese are largely forgotten. The US military has not yet come to terms with the loss of the war, preferring to nurture a ‘stab in the back’ explanation, but in due course it undertook a reformation of organization and doctrine that was stunningly effective in the Gulf war. Just as the full social and political significance of the American civil war took nearly a century to be appreciated, it may well be that by the middle of the 21st century the Vietnam war will be seen to have been just as important a turning point in the development of the USA.
- Herr, Michael, Dispatches (New York, 1991).
- Herring, George, America's Longest War (New York, 1996).
- Lewy, Gunter, America in Vietnam (Oxford, 1978).
- Lind, Michael, Vietnam: The Necessary War (New York, 1999).
- MacLean, Michael, The Ten Thousand Day War (New York, 1981).
- Palmer, Dave R., The Summons of the Trumpet (Novato, Calif., 1978)
— James J. Wirtz