Seeds of the Vietnam War
By 1884, France had annexed Vietnam, placing it under colonial rule. In 1921, however, the revolutionary Ho Chi Minh created a nationalist party seeking independence from France. During World War II, the Japanese wrested control temporarily from the French, and as Japanese forces surrendered, Ho Chi Minh launched a full-scale revolt, taking Hanoi, the capital.
France refused to allow the independence movement, and by 1946 reestablished rule, fearing (along with the United States) that all of Asia could become Communist as China fell to Mao Tse-tung. President Truman sent military supplies and funds for the French war in Vietnam, aiming to stem Communist imperialism. A cease-fire in July 1954 established a buffer zone between North and South Vietnam. The Communists, led by Ho Chi Minh, controlled the North, while Ngo Dinh Diem stepped in as interim premier in the south.
Having seen enough war through the Korean conflict, Eisenhower was content to leave the area to itself, but as his successor took office, Communist forces were becoming more aggressive, carrying out attacks against South Vietnam. South Korea sent military advisors and aid to assist South Vietnam. Diem's regime, however, was corrupt, complicating matters for the United States as Vietcong Communists within South Vietnam killed Diem's authorities. General Maxwell Taylor, one of Kennedy's top advisors, suggested that sending a few thousand soldiers would quickly take care of the situation, and after Vice President Johnson returned from a fact-finding mission, he concurred that the United States needed to act against the Communist threat in southeast Asia. Kennedy withdrew support of Diem's regime. Shortly thereafter, the Vietnamese overthrew Diem, who was later murdered.
Following Kennedy's own assassination, President Johnson was wary of committing U.S. forces, but when North Vietnamese torpedo boats allegedly attacked U.S. naval destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson ordered immediate retaliation. Later investigation cast doubt on whether the North Vietnamese really attacked or whether radar blips confused naval personnel. But this occurred only after Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing Johnson to wage war in Indochina with whatever force he desired. By the end of 1964, approximately 20,000 troops had already been sent to the region.
The Least Popular War Waged On
The United States began a bombing campaign, code-named Operation Rolling Thunder, to stem the stream of supplies from Communist North Vietnam. The operation met with little success. Missions were halted, then stepped up against Hanoi and Haiphong. Relentless aid streamed in to North Vietnam from the Soviet Union and China. But Johnson ignored the real source, as the threat of war between the superpowers was too daunting.
In 1965, when it became clear that mere bombing wasn't enough, the United States sent ground combat troops. Helicopter-borne troops surprised villages harboring suspected Communist supporters. Troops often destroyed such villages, forcing the Vietnamese to find new homes. Fighting became more brutal, as the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese were experts at mine warfare.
The War Gets Uglier
Though the South Vietnamese elected a new president, the conflict dragged on. In 1968, U.S. troops massacred Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in the aftermath of the Tet offensive in Saigon (where Vietcong soldiers attacked the U.S. embassy as well as multiple military targets throughout all of Vietnam). And at home, protest raged. Too many were dying for a cause not clearly defined or valued. War protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago provoked riot police. The objections to the war were so profound that they convinced President Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election in 1968. In 1970, during a demonstration against the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of students, killing four and wounding eleven.
Visitors to Washington, D.C., can visit the Vietnam Memorial, also known as “The Wall.” The walls of the memorial are a deep black granite and form a V, deepest in the earth at the vertex, tapering and rising to ground level over their length of nearly 500 feet. The Wall is a moving tribute to Vietnam veterans, listing the names of 58,249 Americans who perished in the war.
Peace negotiations opened in Paris in May 1968 and after Nixon won election, he began a gradual withdrawal of forces, which had reached a high of 550,000. South Vietnamese forces with U.S. helicopter support attacked Communist bases in Cambodia in 1970. Nixon continued to withdraw troops while the conflict lingered. Congress withdrew the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on December 31, 1970, and peace came in 1973. The last U.S. combat troops left South Vietnam that March, and many prisoners of war were freed. In spite of the truce, skirmishes continued in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon as remaining Americans and South Vietnamese troops evacuated. South Vietnam's president announced an unconditional surrender in April 1975.