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Home >> Vietnam


Vietnam War Operations

Names for the conflict

Various names have been applied to the conflict and these have shifted over time, although Vietnam War is the most commonly used title in English. It has been variously called the Second Indochina War, the Vietnam Conflict, the Vietnam War, and, in Vietnamese, Chiến tranh Việt Nam (The Vietnam War) or Kháng chiến chống Mỹ (Resistance War against America).

Second Indochina War: places the conflict into context with other distinctive, but related, and contiguous conflicts in Southeast Asia. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia are seen as the battlegrounds of a larger Indochinese conflict that began at the end of World War II and lasted until communist victory in 1975. This conflict can be viewed in terms of the demise of colonialism and its after-effects during the Cold War.

Vietnam Conflict: largely a U.S. designation, it acknowledges that the U.S. Congress never declared war on North Vietnam. Legally, the President used his constitutional discretion - supplemented by supportive resolutions in Congress - to conduct what was said to be a "police action". Vietnam War: the most commonly used designation in English, it suggests that the location of the war was exclusively within the borders of North and South Vietnam, failing to recognize its wider context. Resistance War against the Americans to Save the Nation: the term favored by North Vietnam (and after North Vietnam's victory over South Vietnam, by Vietnam as a whole); it is more of a slogan than a name, and its meaning is self-evident. Its usage has been abolished in recent years as the government of Vietnam seeks better relations with the U.S. Official Vietnamese publications now refer to the conflict generically as "Chiến tranh Việt Nam" (Vietnam War).

Background to 1949

From 110 BC to 938 AD (with the exception of brief periods), much of present-day Vietnam was part of China. After gaining independence, Vietnam went through a long period of resisting outside aggression. In 1789, one of the most celebrated feats of arms in Vietnamese history occurred, when Quang Trung launched a surprise attack against the Chinese garrison of Hanoi during the Tet celebrations. By 1802, centuries of internal feuding between the Trinh and Nguyen lords ended when Emperor Gia Long unified what is now modern Vietnam under the Nguyen dynasty. The French gained control of Indochina (French Indochina included Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) during a series of colonial wars, from 1859 to 1885. At the Versailles Conference in 1919, Hồ Chí Minh (a pseudonym meaning the Enlightener) requested that a Vietnamese delegation be present to work toward independence for Vietnam. He hoped that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson would support the effort. But he was sorely disappointed and Indochina's status remained unchanged.

During the Second World War, the puppet government of Vichy France cooperated with Imperial Japanese forces. Vietnam was under de facto Japanese control, although the French continued to serve as the day-to-day administrators.

In 1941, the Communist-dominated national resistance group called the "League for the Independence of Vietnam" (better known as the Viet Minh) was formed. Hồ Chí Minh returned to Vietnam and quickly assumed the leadership. He had been a Comintern agent since the 1920s, but as the leader of an independent Vietnamese communist party, Ho freed himself from Moscow's control. He maintained good relations with the Soviets, however. The Viet Minh began to craft a strategy to seize control of the country at the end of the war. Ho appointed Vo Nguyen Giap as his military commander.

Ho Chi Minh's guerrillas were given funding and training by the United States Office of Strategic Services (the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency). These teams worked behind enemy lines in Indochina, giving support to indigenous resistance groups. The Viet Minh provided valuable intelligence on Japanese troop movements and rescued downed American pilots. The Pentagon, however, viewed Indochina as a sideshow to the more important theatre of the Pacific. In 1944, the Japanese overthrew the Vichy French administration and humiliated its colonial officials in front of the Vietnamese population. The Japanese began to encourage nationalism and granted Vietnam nominal independence. On March 11, 1945, Emperor Bao Dai declared the independence within the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Following the Japanese surrender, Vietnamese nationalists, communists, and other groups hoped to take control of the country. The Japanese army transferred power to the Viet Minh. Emperor Bao Dai abdicated. On 2 September 1945, Hồ Chí Minh declared independence from France, in what became known as the August Revolution. U.S. Army officers stood beside him on the podium. In an exultant speech, before a huge audience in Hanoi, Ho cited the U.S. Declaration of Independence:

"'All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.' This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776 … We … solemnly declare to the world that Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country. The entire Vietnamese people are determined … to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty."

Hồ hoped that America would ally itself with a Vietnamese nationalist movement, communist or otherwise. He based this hope in part on speeches by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt opposing a revival of European colonialism. As well, he was counting on a long series of anti-colonial U.S. pronouncements, stretching back to the American War of Independence. Indeed, Ho Chi Minh told an OSS officer that he would welcome "a million American soldiers … but no French." Power politics, however, intervened. The U.S. changed its position. It was recognized that France would play a crucial role in deterring communist ambitions in continental Europe. Thus, its colonial aspirations could not be ignored.

The new government only lasted a few days. At the Potsdam Conference the allies decided that Vietnam would be occupied jointly by China and Britain, who would supervise the disarmament and repatriation of Japanese forces. The Chinese army arrived a few days after Hồ's declaration of independence. Ho Chi Minh's government effectively ceased to exist. The Chinese took control of the area north of the 16th parallel. British forces arrived in the south in October. The French prevailed upon them to turn over control.

French officials immediately sought to reassert control. They negotiated with the Chinese Nationalists. By agreeing to give up its concessions in China, the French persuaded the Chinese to allow them to return to the north and negotiate with the Viet Minh. In the meantime, Hồ took advantage of the negotiations to kill competing nationalist groups. He was anxious for the Chinese to leave. "The last time the Chinese came," he remarked, "they stayed one thousand years … I prefer to smell French shit for five years, rather than eat Chinese dung for the rest of my life." After negotiations collapsed over the formation of a government within the new French Union, the French bombarded Haiphong. In December 1946, they reoccupied Hanoi. Several telegrams were sent by Ho Chi Minh to President Truman asking for U.S. support. But they were ignored. Ho and the Việt Minh fled into the mountains to start an insurgency, marking the beginning of the First Indochina War. After the defeat of the Nationalist Chinese by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War, Chairman Mao Zedong provided direct military assistance to the Viet Minh. On the eve of the war, Ho Chi Minh had warned a French official that "you can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win". A long and bloody struggle ensued, with French military casualties exceeding those of the U.S. during its involvement.

The Pentagon Papers characterize the U.S. position at the time as ambivalent. On the one hand, the U.S. wished to persuade France to consider decolonization, while ultimately leaving the timetable up to them. During the war, Roosevelt had consistently stalled French demands for U.S. help in recolonizing Indochina. "France has milked it for one hundred years," he wrote. "The people of IndoChina are entitled to something better than that." After the war, the French argued that it was consistent with the principles of the new United Nations that some degree of autonomy should be granted to Indochina. France, however, claimed that it could do so only after it regained control.

Much hinged on the perception of Hồ's allegiances. In the wake of the Second World War, it was recognized that the Soviet Union would henceforth be a serious competitor to the West. America viewed the Soviet Union and its allies as a bloc. As far as Washington was concerned, the entire communist world was controlled by Moscow. In spite of Hồ's pleas for U.S. recognition, the U.S. gradually came to the conclusion that he was under Moscow's control. This perception suited the French. As Secretary of State, Dean Acheson noted, "the U.S. came to the aid of the French … because we needed their support for our policies in regard to NATO … The French blackmailed us. At every meeting … they brought up Indochina … but refused to tell me what they hoped to accomplish or how. Perhaps they didn't know."

Exit of the French, 1950–1954

In 1950, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and China recognized each other diplomatically. The Soviet Union quickly followed suit. President Harry S. Truman countered by recognizing the French puppet government of Vietnam. Washington feared that Hanoi was now a pawn of Communist China and by extension, Moscow. This flew in the face of the long historical antipathy between the two nations, of which the U.S. seems to have been completely ignorant. As Doan Huynh commented, "Vietnam a part of the Chinese expansionist game in Asia? For anyone who knows the history of Indochina, this is incomprehensible." Nevertheless, Chinese support was very important to the Viet Minh's success and China largely supported the Vietnamese Communists through the end of the war.

The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 marked a decisive turning point. From the perspective of many in Washington, what had been a colonial war in Indochina was transformed into another example of communist expansionism directed by the Kremlin.

In 1950, the U.S. Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) arrived to screen French requests for aid, advise on strategy and train Vietnamese soldiers. By 1954, the U.S. had supplied 300,000 small arms and spent one billion dollars in support of the French military effort. The Eisenhower administration was shouldering 80 percent of the cost of the war. The Viet Minh received crucial support from the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Chinese support in the Border Campaign of 1950 allowed supplies to come from China into Vietnam. Throughout the conflict, U.S. intelligence estimates remained skeptical of French chances of success.

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu marked the end of French involvement in Indochina. The Viet Minh and their mercurial commander Vo Nguyen Giap handed the French a stunning military defeat. On May 7, 1954, the French Union garrison surrendered. At the Geneva Conference the French negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the Viet Minh. Independence was granted to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. As a U.S. Army study noted, France lost the war primarily because it "neglected to cultivate the loyalty and support of the Vietnamese people."

Vietnam was temporarily partitioned at the 17th parallel. This was the first time in history that Vietnam had been divided in half. The Viet Minh established a socialist state, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, in the north and engaged in a land reform program in which the mass killing of perceived class enemies occurred. Ho Chi Minh later apologized. In the south a non-communist state was established under the Emperor Bảo Đại, a former puppet of the French and the Japanese. Ngo Dinh Diem became his Prime Minister. More than 400,000 civilians and soldiers had died during the nine year conflict.

The Diem era, 1955–1963

As dictated by the Geneva Conference of 1954, the partition of Vietnam was meant to be only temporary, pending national elections on July 20, 1956. Much like Korea, the agreement stipulated that the two military zones were to be separated by a temporary demarcation line (known as the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ). The United States, alone among the great powers, refused to sign the Geneva agreement. The President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, declined to hold elections. This called into question the United States' commitment to democracy in the region, but also raised questions about the legitimacy of any election held in the communist-run North. President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed U.S. fears when he wrote that, in 1954, "80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh" over Emperor Bao Dai.

The cornerstone of U.S. policy was the Domino Theory. This argued that if South Vietnam fell to communist forces, then all of South East Asia would follow. Popularized by the Eisenhower administration, some argued that if communism spread unchecked, it would follow them home by first reaching Hawaii and follow to the West Coast of the United States. It was better, therefore, to fight communism in Asia, rather than on American soil. Thus, the Domino Theory provided a powerful motive for the American creation of a client state in southern Vietnam. The theory underpinned American policy in Vietnam for five presidencies. Another important motive was the preservation of U.S. credibility and prestige.

The United States pursued a policy of containment. Following the NATO model, Washington established the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) to counter communist expansion in the region. The policy of containment was first suggested by George F. Kennan in the 1947 X Article, published anonymously in Foreign Affairs. It remained U.S. policy for the next quarter of a century.


Ngo Dinh Diem was chosen by the U.S. to lead the South Vietnam. A devout Roman Catholic, he was fervently anti-communist and was "untainted" by any connection to the French. He was one of the few prominent Vietnamese nationalist who could claim both attributes. Historian Luu Doan Huynh notes, however, that "Diem represented narrow and extremist nationalism coupled with autocracy and nepotism."

The new American patrons were almost completely ignorant of Vietnamese culture. They knew little of the language or long history of the country. There was a tendency to assign American motives to Vietnamese actions and Diem himself warned that it was an illusion to believe that blindly copying Western methods would solve Vietnamese problems.

In April and June of 1955, Diem (against U.S. advice) cleared the decks of any political opposition by launching military operations against the Cao Dai religious sect, the Buddhist Hoa Hao, and the Binh Xuyen organized crime group (which was allied with members of the secret police and some military elements). Diem accused these groups of harboring Communist agents. As broad based opposition to his harsh tactics mounted, Diem increasingly sought to blame the communists.

Beginning in the summer of 1955, he launched the 'Denounce the Communists' campaign, during which communists and other anti-government elements were arrested, imprisoned, tortured or executed. Opponents were labeled Viet Cong by the regime to demean their nationalist credentials. During this period refugees moved across the demarcation line in both directions. Around 52,000 Vietnamese civilians moved from south to north. 450,000 people, primarily Catholics, traveled from the north to south, in aircraft and ships provided by France and the U.S. CIA propaganda efforts increased the outflow with slogans such as "the Virgin Mary is going South." The northern refugees were meant to give Diem a strong anti-communist constituency.

In a referendum on the future of the monarchy, Diem rigged the poll which was supervised by his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and received "98.2 percent" of the vote, including "133 percent" in Saigon. His American advisers had recommended a more modest winning margin of "60 to 70 percent." Diem, however, viewed the election as a test of authority. On October 26, 1955, Diem declared the new Republic of Vietnam, with himself as president. The creation of the Republic of Vietnam was largely due to the Eisenhower administration's desire for an anti-communist state in the region. Colonel Edward Lansdale, a CIA officer, became an important advisor to the new president.

As a wealthy Catholic, Diem was viewed by many ordinary Vietnamese as part of the old elite that had helped the French rule Vietnam. The majority of Vietnamese people were Buddhist. So his attack on the Buddhist community only served to deepen mistrust. Diem's human rights abuses increasingly alienated the population. As opposition to Diem's rule in South Vietnam grew, a low-level insurgency began to take shape in 1957. Four hundred government officials were assassinated in that year.

In May, Diem undertook a ten day state visit of the U.S. President Eisenhower pledged his continued support. A parade in New York City was held in his honor. Although Diem was openly praised, in private Secretary of State John Foster Dulles conceded that he had been selected because there were no better alternative.

In 1956, one of the leading communists in the south, Lê Duẩn, returned to Hanoi to urge the Vietnam Workers' Party to take a firmer stand on reunification. But Hanoi hesitated in launching a full-scale military struggle, fearing U.S. intervention. Finally, in January 1959, under pressure from southern cadres who were being targeted by Diem's secret police, the north's Central Committee issued a secret resolution authorizing an armed struggle. Diem enacted tough new anti-communist laws. Infiltration of men and weapons from the north began along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Observing the increasing unpopularity of the Diem regime, on December 12, 1960, Hanoi authorized the creation of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF). The NLF was made up of two distinct groups: nationalists and communists. While there were many non-communist members of the NLF, they were subject to party control and increasingly side-lined as the conflict continued. The principal objective of the NLF was to seize political power through a popular insurrection—military operations were secondary The NLF emphasized patriotism, honesty and good government, while promising the reunification of Vietnam and an end to American influence.

Successive American administrations, as Robert McNamara and others have noted, over-estimated the control that Hanoi had over the NLF. Diem's paranoia, repression, and incompetence progressively angered large segments of the population of South Vietnam. The origins of the anti-government violence were homegrown, rather than inspired by Hanoi.

Escalation and Americanization, 1960–1963

John F. Kennedy won the 1960 U.S. presidential election. In his inaugural address, Kennedy made the ambitious pledge to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty." In May, 1961, Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Saigon and enthusiastically declared Diem the "Winston Churchill of Asia." Asked why he had made the comment, Johnson replied, "Shit! Diem's the only boy we got out there." Johnson assured Diem of more aid, in order to mold a fighting force that could resist the communists.

Kennedy's policy towards South Vietnam rested on the assumption that Diem and his forces must ultimately defeat the guerrillas on their own. He was against the deployment of American combat troops and observed that "to introduce U.S. forces, in large numbers there today, while it might have an initially favorable military impact would almost certainly lead to adverse political and, in the long run, adverse military consequences."

The quality of the South Vietnamese military, however, remained poor. Bad leadership, corruption and political interference all played a part in emasculating the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). The frequency of guerrilla attacks rose, as the insurgency gathered steam. Hanoi's support for the NLF played a significant role. But South Vietnamese governmental incompetence was at the core of the crisis. Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow recommended that U.S. troops be sent to South Vietnam disguised as flood relief workers. Kennedy rejected the idea, but increased military assistance yet again. In April, 1962, John Kenneth Galbraith warned Kennedy of the "danger we shall replace the French as a colonial force in the area and bleed as the French did." By mid-1962, the number of U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam had risen from 700 to 12,000.

The Strategic Hamlet Program had been initiated in 1961. This joint U.S.-South Vietnamese program attempted to resettle the rural population into fortified camps. The aim was to isolate the population from the insurgents, provide education and health care and strengthen the government's hold over the countryside. The Strategic Hamlets, however, were quickly infiltrated by the guerrillas. The peasants resented being uprooted from their ancestral villages. The government refused to undertake land reform, which left farmers paying high rents to a few wealthy landlords. Corruption dogged the program and intensified opposition. Government officials were targeted for assassination. The Strategic Hamlet Program collapsed two years later.

On July 23, 1962, fourteen nations, including, China, South Vietnam, the Soviet Union, North Vietnam and the United States, signed an agreement promising the neutrality of Laos.

Coup and assassinations

Some policy-makers in Washington began to conclude that Diem was incapable of defeating the communists and might even make a deal with Ho Chi Minh. He only seemed concerned with fending off coups. As Robert F. Kennedy noted, "Diem wouldn't make even the slightest concessions. He was difficult to reason with …" During the summer of 1963 U.S. officials began discussing the possibility of a regime change. The State Department was generally in favor of encouraging a coup. The Pentagon and CIA were more alert to the destabilizing consequences of such an act, and wanted to continue applying pressure for reforms.

Chief among the proposed changes was the removal of Diem's younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. Nhu controlled the secret police and was seen as the man behind the Buddhist repression. As Diem's most powerful adviser, Nhu had become a hated figure in South Vietnam. His continued influence was unacceptable to the Kennedy administration. Eventually, the administration concluded that Diem was unwilling to change.

The CIA was in contact with generals planning to remove Diem. They were told that the United States would support such a move. President Diem was overthrown and executed, along with his brother, on November 2, 1963. When he was informed, Maxwell Taylor remembered that Kennedy "rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face." He had not approved Diem's murder. The U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., invited the coup leaders to the embassy and congratulated them. Ambassador Lodge informed Kennedy that "the prospects now are for a shorter war".

Following the coup chaos ensued. Hanoi took advantage of the situation and increased its support for the guerrillas. South Vietnam entered a period of extreme political instability, as one military government toppled another in quick succession. Increasingly, each new regime was viewed as a puppet of the Americans. For whatever the failings of Diem, his credentials as a nationalist had been impeccable.

Kennedy increased the number of U.S. military advisers to 16,300 to cope with rising guerrilla activity. The advisers were embedded at every level of the South Vietnamese armed forces. They were, however, almost completely ignorant of the political nature of the insurgency. The insurgency was a political power struggle, in which military engagements were not the main goal The Kennedy administration sought to refocus U.S. efforts on pacification and "winning over the hearts and minds" of the population. The military leadership in Washington, however, was hostile to any role for U.S. advisers other than conventional troop training. General Paul Harkins, the commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, confidently predicted victory by Christmas 1963. The CIA was less optimistic, however, warning that "the Viet Cong by and large retain de facto control of much of the countryside and have steadily increased the overall intensity of the effort".

In a conversation with Nobel Peace Prize winner and Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, Kennedy sought his advice. "Get out," Pearson replied. "That's a stupid answer," shot back Kennedy. "Everyone knows that. The question is: How do we get out?" Ironically, Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, just three weeks after Diệm. Kennedy introduced helicopters to the war and created a joint U.S.-South Vietnamese Air Force, staffed with American pilots. He also sent in the Green Berets. He was succeeded by Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, who reaffirmed America's support of South Vietnam. By the end of the year Saigon had received $500 million in military aid, much of which was lost to corruption.

The United States Goes To War, 1964–1968

On August 2, 1964, the U.S.S. Maddox was attacked by torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. The destroyer was on an intelligence mission along North Vietnam's coast. A second attack was reported two days later on the U.S.S. Turner Joy and U.S.S Maddox in the same area. The circumstances of the attack were murky. Lyndon Johnson commented to his Undersecretary of State, George Ball, that "those sailors out there may have been shooting at flying fish." The second attack led to retaliatory air strikes and prompted Congress to approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The resolution gave the president power to conduct military operations in South East Asia without declaring war. It was later revealed that the second attack was questionable. "The Gulf of Tonkin incident," writes Louise Gerdes, "is an oft-cited example of the way in which Johnson misled the American people to gain support for his foreign policy in Vietnam." George C. Herring argues, however, that McNamara and the Pentagon "did not knowingly lie about the alleged attacks, but they were obviously in a mood to retaliate and they seem to have selected from the evidence available to them those parts that confirmed what they wanted to believe."

In 1959, an estimated force of 5,000 guerrillas were operating in South Vietnam. By 1964 that number had risen to 100,000. It is generally accepted that ten soldiers are needed to deal with one insurgent. Thus, the total number of U.S. troops in 1964 needed to defeat the insurgents exceeded the entire strength of the United States Army.

The National Security Council recommended a three-stage escalation of the bombing of North Vietnam. On March 2, 1965, following an attack on a U.S. Marine barracks at Pleiku, Operation Flaming Dart and Operation Rolling Thunder commenced. The bombing campaign, which would ultimately last three years, was intended to force North Vietnam to cease its support for the NLF by threatening to destroy North Vietnam's air defenses and industrial infrastructure. As well, it was aimed at bolstering the morale of the South Vietnamese. Between March 1965 and November 1968, Operation Rolling Thunder deluged the north with a million tons of missiles, rockets and bombs. Bombing was not restricted to North Vietnam. Other aerial campaigns, such as Operation Commando Hunt, targeted different parts of the NLF and PAVN infrastructure. These included the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through Laos and Cambodia. The objective of forcing North Vietnam to stop its support for the NLF, however, was never reached. As one officer noted "this is a political war and it calls for discriminate killing. The best weapon … would be a knife … The worst is an airplane." The Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force Curtis LeMay, however, had long advocated saturation bombing in Vietnam and wrote of the Communists that "we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age".

After several attacks, it was decided that U.S. Air Force bases needed more protection. The South Vietnamese military seemed incapable of providing security. On 8 March 1965, 3,500 United States Marines were dispatched to South Vietnam. This marked the beginning of the American ground war. U.S. public opinion overwhelmingly supported the deployment. Public opinion, however, was based on the premise that Vietnam was part of a global struggle against communism. In a statement similar to that made to the French, almost two decades earlier, Ho Chi Minh warned that if the Americans "want to make war for twenty years then we shall make war for twenty years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to afternoon tea." As former First Deputy Foreign Minister, Tran Quang Co, noted, the primary goal of the war was to reunify Vietnam and secure its independence. The policy of the DRV was not to topple other non-communist governments in South East Asia.

The Marines' assignment was defensive. The initial deployment of 3,500 in March, increased to nearly 200,000, by December. The U.S. military had long been schooled in offensive warfare. Regardless of political policies, U.S. commanders were institutionally and psychologically unsuited to a defensive mission. In May, ARVN forces suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Binh Gia. They were again defeated in June, at the Battle of Dong Xoai. Desertion rates were increasing and morale plummeted. General William Westmoreland informed Admiral Grant Sharp, commander of U.S. Pacific forces, that the situation was critical. He said, "I am convinced that U.S. troops with their energy, mobility, and firepower can successfully take the fight to the NLF." With this recommendation, Westmoreland was advocating an aggressive departure from America's defensive posture and the sidelining of the South Vietnamese. By ignoring ARVN units, the U.S. commitment became open ended. Westmoreland outlined a three point plan to win the war:

"Phase 1. Commitment of U.S. (and other free world) forces necessary to halt the losing trend by the end of 1965.

Phase 2. U.S. and allied forces mount major offensive actions to seize the initiative to destroy guerrilla and organized enemy forces. This phase would be concluded when the enemy had been worn down, thrown on the defensive, and driven back from major populated areas.

Phase 3. If the enemy persisted, a period of twelve to eighteen months following Phase 2 would be required for the final destruction of enemy forces remaining in remote base areas."

The plan was approved by Johnson and marked a profound departure from the previous administration's insistence that the government of South Vietnam was responsible for defeating the guerrillas. Westmoreland predicted victory by the end of 1967. Johnson did not, however, communicate this change in strategy to the media. Instead he emphasized continuity. U.S. policy now depended on matching the North Vietnamese and the NLF in a contest of attrition and morale. The opponents were locked in a cycle of escalation. The idea that the government of South Vietnam could manage its own affairs was shelved.

Operation Starlite was the first major ground operation by U.S. troops and proved largely successful. U.S. soldiers engaged in search-and-destroy missions. Learning from their defeats, the NLF began to engage in small-unit guerrilla warfare, instead of conventional American-style warfare. This allowed them to control the pace of the fighting, engaging in battle only when they believed they had a decisive advantage. The guerrillas benefited from familiar terrain, a degree of popular support and from the fact the U.S. troops were unable to tell friend from foe. Control over a certain portion of the population gave the guerrillas access to manpower, intelligence and financial resources.

Despite calls from the Pentagon to do so, Lyndon Johnson refused to mobilize Reserve units. He feared a political backlash. This led to larger draft call ups and the extension of some tours of duty. It also put a heavy strain on U.S. forces committed to other parts of the world.

The average U.S. serviceman was nineteen years old. This compares with twenty-six years of age for those who participated in World War II. Soldiers served a one year tour of duty. The one year tour of duty deprived units of experienced leadership. As one observer noted "we were not in Vietnam for 10 years, but for one year 10 times." As a result, training programs were shortened. Some NCO's were referred to as "Shake 'N' Bake" to highlight their accelerated training. Unlike soldiers in WWII and Korea, there were no secure rear areas in which to get rest and relaxation (R'n'R). American troops were vulnerable to attack everywhere they went.

Under the command of General Westmoreland, the U.S. increased its troop commitment to more than 553,000 servicemen by 1969. Westmoreland performed a logistical miracle, building a complex series of bases, ports, airstrips, medical facilities, fuel depots, warehouse, roads and bridges from scratch. A third world nation, South Vietnam was inundated with manufactured goods. As Stanley Karnow writes, "the main PX, located in the Saigon suburb of Cholon, was only slightly smaller than the New York Bloomingdale's …" The American build-up transformed the economy and had a profound impact on South Vietnamese society. A huge surge in corruption was witnessed. The country was also flooded by civilian specialists from every conceivable field to advise the South Vietnamese government and improve its performance.

Washington encouraged its SEATO allies to contribute troops. Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines all agreed to send troops. Major allies, however, notably European nations, Canada and Great Britain declined Washington's troop requests. The U.S. and its allies mounted complex operations, such as operations Masher, Attleboro, Cedar Falls, and Junction City. However, the communist insurgents remained elusive and demonstrated great tactical flexibility.

Meanwhile, the political situation in South Vietnam began to stabilize somewhat with the coming to power of Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky and President Nguyen Van Thieu in 1967. Thieu, mistrustful and indecisive, remained president until 1975. This ended a long series of military juntas that had begun with Diem's assassination. The relative calm allowed the ARVN to collaborate more effectively with its allies and become a better fighting force.

The Johnson administration employed a "policy of minimum candor" in its dealings with the media. Military information officers sought to manage media coverage, by emphasizing stories which portrayed progress in the war. Over time, this policy damaged the public trust in official pronouncements. As the media's coverage of the war and that of the Pentagon diverged, a so-called credibility gap developed.

In October, 1967, a large anti-war demonstration was held on the steps of the Pentagon. Some protesters were heard to chant, "Hey, hey, LBJ (Lyndon Baines Johnson)! How many kids did you kill today?" One reason for the increase in the opposition to the Vietnam War was larger draft quotas.

National Chief of Police Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executes an NLF officer in Saigon during Tet. Images of the killing shocked the world.

Having lured General Westmoreland's forces into the hinterland at Khe Sanh, in January 1968, the PAVN and NLF broke the truce that had traditionally accompanied the Lunar New Year (Tet) holiday. They launched the surprise Tet Offensive in the hope of sparking a national uprising. Over 100 cities were attacked. Although the U.S. and South Vietnamese were initially taken aback by the scale of the urban offensive, they responded quickly and decimated the ranks of the NLF. The NLF mounted assaults on General Westmoreland's headquarters and the U.S. embassy. In Huế, they captured the Imperial Citadel and much of the city, executing nearly 3,000 residents and leading to the Battle of Huế. After the war North Vietnamese officials acknowledged that the Tet Offensive caused grave damage to NLF forces. But the offensive had another unintended consequence.

General Westmoreland had became the public face of the war. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine three times and was named 1965's Man of the Year. Time described him as "the sinewy personification of the American fighting man … (who) directed the historic buildup, drew up the battle plans, and infused the … men under him with his own idealistic view of U.S. aims and responsibilities." In November 1967, Westmoreland spearheaded a public relations drive for the Johnson administration to bolster flagging public support. In a speech before the National Press Club he said that a point in the war had been reached "where the end comes into view." Thus, the public was shocked and confused when Westmoreland's predictions were trumped by Tet. The American media, which had been largely supportive of U.S. efforts, rounded on the Johnson administration, for what had become an increasing credibility gap. Despite its military failure, the Tet Offensive became a political victory and ended the career of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who declined to run for re-election. Johnson's approval rating slumped from 48% to 36%. As James Witz noted, Tet "contradicted the claims of progress … made by the Johnson administration and the military." The Tet Offensive was the turning point in America's involvement in the Vietnam War. It had a profound impact on domestic support for the conflict. The offensive constituted an intelligence failure on the scale of Pearl Harbor. Journalist Peter Arnett quoted an unnamed officer, saying of Ben Tre that "it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it" (though the authenticity of this quote is disputed). Westmoreland became Chief of Staff of the Army in March, just as all resistance was finally subdued. The move was technically a promotion. However, his position had become untenable, because of the offensive and because his request for 200,000 additional troops had been leaked to the media. "Westy" was succeeded by his deputy Creighton Abrams, a commander less inclined to public media pronouncements.

On May 10, 1968, despite low expectations, peace talks began between the U.S. and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Negotiations stagnated for five months, until Johnson gave orders to halt the bombing of North Vietnam. The Democratic candidate, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, was running against Republican former Vice-President Richard Nixon. Through an intermediary, Nixon advised Saigon to refuse to participate in the talks until after elections, claiming that he would give them a better deal once elected. Thieu obliged, leaving almost no progress made by the time Johnson left office.

As historian Robert Dallek writes, "Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam divided Americans into warring camps … cost 30,000 American lives by the time he left office, (and) destroyed Johnson's presidency …" His refusal to send more U.S. troops to Vietnam was Johnson's admission that the war was lost. As Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara noted, "the dangerous illusion of victory by the United States was therefore dead."

Vietnamization and American withdrawal, 1969–1973

During the 1968 presidential election, Richard M. Nixon promised "peace with honor". His plan was to build up the ARVN, so that they could take over the defense South Vietnam (the Nixon Doctrine). The policy became known as "Vietnamization", a term criticized by Robert K. Brigham for implying that, to that date, only Americans had been dying in the conflict. Vietnamization had much in common with the policies of the Kennedy administration. One important difference, however, remained. While Kennedy insisted that the South Vietnamese fight the war themselves, he attempted to limit the scope of the conflict. In pursuit of a withdrawal strategy, Richard Nixon was prepared to employ a variety of tactics, including widening the war.

Nixon also pursued negotiations. Creighton Abrams shifted to smaller operations, aimed at NLF logistics, with better use of firepower and more cooperation with the ARVN. There was increased openness with the media. Nixon also began to pursue détente with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with China. This policy helped to decrease global tensions. Détente led to nuclear arms reduction on the part of both superpowers. But Nixon was disappointed that China and the Soviet Union continued to supply the North Vietnamese with aid. In September, 1969, Ho Chi Minh died at the age of seventy-nine.

The anti-war movement was gaining strength in the US. Nixon appealed to the "Silent Majority" of Americans to support the war. But revelations of the My Lai Massacre, in which U.S. forces went on a rampage and killed civilians, including women and children, provoked national and international outrage.

Prince Norodom Sihanouk had proclaimed the neutrality of Cambodia since 1955. "We are neutral," he noted, "in the same way Switzerland and Sweden are neutral." The PAVN/NLF, however, used Cambodian soil as a base. Sihanouk tolerated their presence, because he wished to avoid being drawn into a wider regional conflict. Under pressure from Washington, however, he changed this policy in 1969. The PAVN/NLF were no longer welcome. President Nixon took the opportunity to launch a massive secret bombing campaign, called Operation Menu, against their sanctuaries along the border. This violated a long succession of pronouncements from Washington supporting Cambodian neutrality. Richard Nixon wrote to Prince Sihanouk in April, 1969, assuring him that the United States respected "the sovereignty, neutrality and territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Cambodia …" Over 14 months, however, approximately 2,750,000 tons of bombs were dropped, more than the total dropped by the Allies in World War II. The bombing was hidden from the American public. In 1970, Prince Sihanouk was deposed by pro-American general Lon Nol. The country's borders were closed, and the U.S. and ARVN launched incursions into Cambodia to attack PAVN/NLF bases and buy time for South Vietnam. The coup against Sihanouk and U.S. bombing, destabilized Cambodia, and increased support for the Khmer Rouge.

The invasion of Cambodia sparked nationwide U.S. protests. Four students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University during a protest in Ohio, which provoked public outrage in the United States. The reaction to the incident by the Nixon administration was seen as callous and indifferent, providing additional impetus for the anti-war movement. Nixon was taken to Camp David for his own safety.

In 1971, the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the New York Times. The top-secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, commissioned by the Department of Defense, detailed a long series of public deceptions. The Supreme Court ruled that its publication was legal.

The ARVN launched Operation Lam Son 719, aimed at cutting the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. The offensive was a clear violation of Laotian neutrality, which neither side respected in any event. Laos had long been the scene of a Secret War. After meeting resistance, ARVN forces retreated in a confused rout. They fled along roads littered with their own dead. When they ran out of fuel, soldiers abandoned their vehicles and attempted to barge their way on to American choppers sent to evacuate the wounded. Many ARVN soldiers clung to helicopter skids in a desperate attempt to save themselves. U.S. aircraft had to destroy abandoned equipment, including tanks, to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Half of the invading ARVN troops were either captured or killed. The operation was a fiasco and represented a clear failure of Vietnamization. As Karnow noted "the blunders were monumental … The (South Vietnamese) government's top officers had been tutored by the Americans for ten or fifteen years, many at training schools in the United States, yet they had learned little."

In 1971, Australia and New Zealand withdrew their soldiers. The U.S. troop count was further reduced to 196,700, with a deadline to remove another 45,000 troops by February 1972. As peace protests spread across the United States, disillusionment grew in the ranks. Drug use increased, race relations grew tense and the number of soldiers disobeying officers rose. Fragging, or the murder of unpopular officers with fragmentation grenades, increased.

The Nguyen Hue Offensive, 1972, part of the Easter offensive.

Vietnamization was again tested by the Easter Offensive of 1972, a massive conventional invasion of South Vietnam. The PAVN/NLF quickly overran the northern provinces and in co-ordination with other forces, attacked from Cambodia, threatening to cut the country in half. U.S. troop withdrawals continued. But American airpower came to the rescue with Operation Linebacker and the offensive was halted. However, it became clear that without American airpower South Vietnam could not survive. The last remaining American ground troops were withdrawn in August. But a force of civilian and military advisers remained in place.

The war was the central issue of the 1972 presidential election. Nixon's opponent, George McGovern, campaigned on a platform of withdrawal from Vietnam. Nixon's National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, continued secret negotiations with North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho. In October 1972, they reached an agreement. However, South Vietnamese President Thieu demanded massive changes to the peace accord. When North Vietnam went public with the agreement's details, the Nixon administration claimed that the North was attempting to embarrass the President. The negotiations became deadlocked. Hanoi demanded new changes. To show his support for South Vietnam and force Hanoi back to the negotiating table, Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker II, a massive bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. The offensive destroyed much of the remaining economic and industrial capacity of North Vietnam. Simultaneously Nixon pressured Thieu to accept the terms of the agreement, threatening to conclude a bilateral peace deal and cut off American aid. Popularly known as the Christmas Bombings, Operation Linebacker II provoked a fresh wave of anti-war demonstrations.

On 15 January 1973, Nixon announced the suspension of offensive action against North Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords on 'Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam' were signed on 27 January, 1973, officially ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. A cease-fire was declared across South Vietnam, but North Vietnamese forces were allowed to remain on South Vietnamese territory. U.S. POWs were released. The agreement guaranteed the territorial integrity of Vietnam and, like the Geneva Conference of 1954, called for national elections in the north and south. The Paris Peace Accords stipulated a sixty day period for the total withdrawal of U.S. forces. "This article," noted Peter Church, "proved … to be the only one of the Paris Agreements which was fully carried out."

The ARVN was supplied with hundreds of millions of dollars of new equipment. It became the fourth largest fighting force in the world. Nixon promised Thieu that he would use airpower to support his government. The growing Watergate scandal and an American public tired of the war, however, made it impossible to keep his promise. The balance of power shifted decisively in North Vietnam's favor.

Total U.S. withdrawal

As Stanley Karnow noted, Americans "turned against the war long before America's political leaders did." Doubts began surfacing in Congress. In December 1974, it passed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974, which cut off all military funding to the South Vietnamese government. The act fixed the numbers of U.S. military personnel allowed in Vietnam: 4000 within six months of enactment and 3000 within one year. Robert McNamara writes that " there is no evidence that the South Vietnamese would ever have been able to accomplish on their own what they failed to achieve with massive American assistance. The level of congressional funding was irrelevant … The Nixon administration, like the Johnson administration before it, could not give the South Vietnamese the essential ingredient for success: genuine indigenous political legitimacy." Richard Nixon resigned due to the Watergate Scandal. President Gerald Ford signed the act into law.

By 1975, the South Vietnamese Army was much larger on paper than its opponent. However, they faced a well-organized, highly determined and well-funded North Vietnam. Much of the North's material and financial support came from the communist block. Within South Vietnam, there was increasing chaos. The withdrawal of the American military had compromised an economy dependent on U.S. financial support and the presence of large numbers of U.S. troops. Along with the rest of the non-oil exporting world, South Vietnam suffered from the price shocks caused by the Arab oil embargo and the subsequent global recession.

Between the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accord and late 1974 both antagonists had been satisfied with minor land-grabs. The North Vietnamese, however, were growing impatient with the Thieu regime, which remained intransigent in its opposition to national elections. Hanoi was also concerned that the U.S. would, once again, support its former ally if large scale operations were resumed.

By late 1974, the Politburo gave its permission for a limited VPA offensive from Cambodia into Phuoc Long Province. The strike was designed to solve local logistical problems, gauge the reaction of Saigon forces and determine if the U.S. would return to the fray. In late December and early January the offensive kicked off and Phuoc Long Province quickly fell to the VPA. There was considerable relief when American air power did not return. The speed of this success forced the Politburo to reassess the situation. It was decided that operations in the Central Highlands would be turned over to General Van Tien Dung and that Pleiku should be seized, if possible. Before he left for the south, General Van was addressed by First Party Secretary Le Duan: "Never have we had military and political conditions so perfect or a strategic advantage as great as we have now."

Campaign 275

On 10 March, 1975, General Dung launched Campaign 275, a limited offensive into the Central Highlands, supported by tanks and heavy artillery. The target was Ban Me Thuot, in Daklak Province. If the town could be taken, the provincial capital of Pleiku and the road to the coast would be exposed for a planned campaign in 1976. The ARVN proved incapable of resisting the onslaught and its forces collapsed on 11 March. Once again, Hanoi was surprised by the speed of their success. Van now urged the Politburo to allow him to seize Pleiku immediately and then turn his attention to Kontum. He argued that with two months of good weather remaining until the onset of the monsoon, it would be irresponsible to not take advantage of the situation.

President Nguyen Van Thieu, a former general, now made a strategic blunder. Fearful that his forces would be cut off in the north by the attacking communists, Thieu ordered a retreat. The president declared this to be a "lighten the top and keep the bottom" strategy. But in what appeared to be a repeat of Operation Lam Son 719, the withdrawal soon turned into a bloody rout. While the bulk of ARVN forces attempted to flee, isolated units fought desperately. ARVN General Phu abandoned Pleiku and Kontum and retreated toward the coast, in what became known as the "column of tears". As the ARVN tried to disengage from the enemy, refugees mixed in with the line of retreat. The poor condition of roads and bridges, damaged by years of conflict and neglect, slowed Phu's column. As the North Vietnamese forces approached, panic set in. Often abandoned by their officers, the soldiers and civilians were shelled incessantly. The retreat degenerated into a desperate scramble for the coast. By 1 April the "column of tears" was all but annihilated. It marked one of the poorest examples of a strategic withdrawal in modern military history.

On 20 March, Thieu reversed himself and ordered Hue, Vietnam's third-largest city, be held at all costs. Thieu's contradictory orders confused and demoralized his officer corp. As the North Vietnamese launched their attack, panic set in and ARVN resistance withered. On 22 March, the VPA opened the siege of Hue. Civilians flooded the airport and the docks hoping for any mode of escape. Some even swam out to sea to reach boats and barges anchored offshore. In the confusion, routed ARVN soldiers fired on civilians to make way for their retreat. On 31 March, after a three-day battle, Hue fell. As resistance in Hue collapsed, North Vietnamese rockets rained down on Da Nang and its airport. By the 28 March, 35,000 VPA troops were poised to attack the suburbs. By the 30th, 100,000 leaderless ARVN troops surrendered as the VPA marched victoriously through Da Nang. With the fall of the city, the defense of the Central Highlands and Northern provinces came to an end.

Final North Vietnamese offensive

With the northern half of the country under their control, the Politburo ordered General Van to launch the final offensive against Saigon. The operational plan for the Ho Chi Minh Campaign called for the capture of Saigon before 1 May. Hanoi wished to avoid the coming monsoon and prevent any redeployment of ARVN forces defending the capital. Northern forces, their morale boosted by their recent victories, rolled on, taking Nha Trang, Cam Ranh, and Da Lat.

On 7 April, three North Vietnamese divisions attacked Xuan-loc, 40 miles (64 km) east of Saigon. The next day a rogue South Vietnamese pilot bombed the presidential palace in Saigon. No one was injured. The North Vietnamese met fierce resistance at Xuan-loc from the ARVN 18th Division. For two bloody weeks, severe fighting raged as the ARVN defenders, in a last-ditch effort, tried to block their advance. By 21 April, however, the exhausted garrison surrendered. An embittered and tearful President Thiệu resigned on the same day, declaring that the United States had betrayed South Vietnam. He left for Taiwan on 25 April, leaving control of the government in the hands of General Duong Van Minh. At the same time, North Vietnamese tanks had reached Bien Hoa and turned towards Saigon, brushing aside isolated ARVN units along the way.

By the end of April, the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam had collapsed on all fronts. Thousand of refugees streamed southward, ahead of the main communist onslaught. On the 27th, 100,000 North Vietnamese troops encircled Saigon. The city was defended by about 30,000 ARVN troops. To hasten a collapse and foment panic, the VPA shelled the airport and forced its closure. With the air exit closed, large numbers of civilians found that they had no way out.

Fall of Saigon

Vietnamese civilians scramble to board an Air America helicopter during Operation Frequent Wind. Main articles: Fall of Saigon and Operation Frequent Wind.

Chaos, unrest, and panic ensued as hysterical South Vietnamese officials and civilians scrambled to leave Saigon. Martial law was declared. American helicopters began evacuating South Vietnamese, U.S. and foreign nationals from various parts of the city and from the U.S. embassy compound. Operation Frequent Wind had been delayed until the last possible moment, because of U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin's belief that Saigon could be held and that a political settlement could be reached. Operation Frequent Wind was arguably the largest helicopter evacuation in history. It began on April 29, in an atmosphere of desperation, as hysterical crowds of Vietnamese vied for limited seats. Martin pleaded with the Washington to dispatch $700 million in emergency aid to bolster the regime and help it mobilize fresh military reserves. But American public opinion had long soured on this conflict halfway around the world.

In the U.S., South Vietnam was now perceived as doomed. President Gerald Ford gave a televised speech on April 23, declaring an end to the Vietnam War and all U.S. aid. Operation Frequent Wind continued around the clock, as North Vietnamese tanks breached defenses on the outskirts of Saigon. The song "White Christmas" was broadcast, as the final signal for withdrawal. In the early morning hours of 30 April, the last U.S. Marines evacuated the embassy by helicopter, as civilians swamped the perimeter and poured into the grounds. Many of them had been employed by the Americans and were now left to their fate.

On April 30, 1975, VPA troops overcame all resistance, quickly capturing key buildings and installations. A tank crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace and at 11:30 a.m. local time the NLF flag was raised above it. Thieu's successor, President Dương Văn Minh attempted to surrender, but VPA Colonel Bui Quang Than informed him that he had nothing left to surrender. Minh then issued his last command, ordering all South Vietnamese troops to lay down their arms.


Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. The last official American military action in South East Asia occurred on 15 May 1975. Forty-one U.S. military personnel were killed when the Khmer Rouge seized a U.S. merchant ship, the SS Mayagüez. The episode became known as the Mayagüez incident.

The Pathet Lao overthrew the royalist government of Laos in December, 1975. They established the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese officials, particularly ARVN officers, were imprisoned in reeducation camps after the Communist takeover. Tens of thousands died and many fled the country after being released. Up to two million civilians left the country, and as many as half of these boat people perished at sea.

On July 2, 1976, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was declared. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter issued a pardon for nearly 10,000 draft dodgers.

After repeated border clashes in 1978, Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia) and ousted the Khmer Rouge. As many as two million died during the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Vietnam began to repress its ethnic Chinese minority. Thousand fled and the exodus of the boat people began. In 1979, China invaded Vietnam in retaliation for its invasion of Cambodia, known as the Third Indochina War or the Sino-Vietnamese War. Chinese forces were repulsed.

The dire predictions of a generation did not come to fruition. Since Thailand and other South East Asian nations did not fall to systematic Vietnamese aggression, the Domino Theory, so widely trumpeted, was said to have been an illusion. Vietnam, without the presence of the United States, showed itself to be of little economic or strategic value to anyone.

At home, a generation of Americans struggled to absorb the lessons of military intervention without clear motives or objectives. As General Maxwell Taylor, one of the principal architects of the war noted "first, we didn't know ourselves. We thought that we were going into another Korean war, but this was a different country. Secondly, we didn't know our South Vietnamese allies … And we knew less about North Vietnam. Who was Ho Chi Minh? Nobody really knew. So, until we know the enemy and know our allies and know ourselves, we'd better keep out of this kind of dirty business. It's very dangerous."

In the decades since end of the conflict, some have sought to portray America's defeat as a political, rather than a military defeat. The official history of the United States Army noted, however, that "tactics have often seemed to exist apart from larger issues, strategies, and objectives. Yet in Vietnam the Army experienced tactical success and strategic failure … The … Vietnam War('s) … legacy may be the lesson that unique historical, political, cultural, and social factors always impinge on the military … Success rests not only on military progress but on correctly analyzing the nature of the particular conflict, understanding the enemy's strategy, and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of allies. A new humility and a new sophistication may form the best parts of a complex heritage left to the Army by the long, bitter war in Vietnam." US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in a secret memo to President Gerald Ford that "in terms of military tactics, we cannot help draw the conclusion that our armed forces are not suited to this kind of war. Even the Special Forces who had been designed for it could not prevail." Even Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara concluded that "the achievement of a military victory by U.S. forces in Vietnam was indeed a dangerous illusion."

Doubts surfaced as to the effectiveness of large scale, sustained bombing. As Chief of Staff of the United States Army Harold K. Johnson noted, "if anything came out of Vietnam, it was that air power couldn't do the job. Even General William Westmoreland admitted that the bombing had been ineffective. As he remarked, "I still doubt that the North Vietnamese would have relented." The inability to bomb Hanoi to the bargaining table also illustrated another U.S miscalculation. The North's leadership was composed of hardened communists who had been fighting for independence for thirty long years. They had successfully defeated the French and their tenacity as both nationalists and communists was formidable.

The loss of the war called into question U.S. Army doctrine. Marine Corps General Victor Krulak heavily criticised Westmoreland's attrition strategy, calling it "wasteful of American lives … with small likelihood of a successful outcome." As well, doubts surfaced about the ability of the military to train foreign forces. The defeat also raised disturbing questions about the quality of the advice that was given to successive United States Presidents by the Pentagon.

As the number of troops in Vietnam increased, the financial burden of the war grew. One of the rarely mentioned consequences of the war were the budget cuts to President Johnson's Great Society programs. As defense spending and inflation grew, Johnson was forced to raise taxes. The Republicans, however, refused to vote for the increases, unless a $6 billion cut was made to the administration's social programs. The Vietnam War claimed more than just victims overseas - at home it claimed reforms aimed at lifting millions of people out of poverty.

Almost 3 million Americans served in Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1973 the United States spent $120 billion on the war. This resulted in a large federal budget deficit. The war demonstrated that no power, not even a superpower, has unlimited strength and resources. But perhaps most significantly, the Vietnam War illustrated that political will, as much as material might, is a decisive factor in the outcome of conflicts.

Other countries' involvement

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union supplied North Vietnam with medical supplies, arms, tanks, planes, helicopters, artillery, ground-air missiles and other military equipment. Hundreds of military advisors were sent to train the Vietnamese army. Soviet pilots acted as a training cadre and many flew combat missions as "volunteers". Fewer than a dozen Soviet citizens lost their lives in this conflict. After the war, Moscow became Hanoi's main ally.


China's involvement in the Vietnam War began in 1949, when the communists took over the country. The Communist Party of China (CPC) provided material and technical support to the Vietnamese communists. In the summer of 1962, Mao Zedong agreed to supply Hanoi with 90,000 rifles and guns free of charge. After the launch of Operation Rolling Thunder, China sent anti-aircraft units and engineering battalions to North Vietnam to repair the damage caused by American bombing, rebuild roads, railroads and to perform other engineering works. This freed North Vietnamese army units for combat in the South. Between 1965 and 1970 over 320,000 Chinese soldiers served in North Vietnam. The peak was 1967, when 170,000 served there. Although Chinese assistance was accepted gladly, the North Vietnamese remained distrustful of their larger neighbour. This was due to the historical antipathy between the two nations. China emerged as the principle backer of the Khmer Rouge. The People's Republic of China briefly launched an invasion of Vietnam in 1979, in retaliation for its invasion of Cambodia to depose the Khmer Rouge. In April 2006, a ceremony was held in Vietnam to honor the almost 1,500 Chinese soldiers who were killed in the Vietnam War.

North Korea

As a result of a decision of the Korean Workers' Party in October 1966, in early 1967, North Korea sent a fighter squadron to North Vietnam to back up the North Vietnamese 921st and 923rd fighter squadrons defending Hanoi. They stayed through 1968, and 200 pilots were reported to have served. In addition, at least two anti-aircraft artillery regiments were sent as well. North Korea also sent weapons, ammunition and two million sets of uniforms to their comrades in North Vietnam. Kim Il Sung is reported to have told his pilots to "fight in the war as if the Vietnamese sky were their own".

South Korea

The South Korea had the second-largest contingent of foreign troops in South Vietnam after the United States. South Korea dispatched its first troops in 1964. Large combat battalions began arriving a year later. South Korean troops developed a reputation for ruthlessness. Approximately 320,000 South Korean soldiers were sent to Vietnam. As with the United States, soldiers served one year. The maximum number of South Korean troops peaked at 50,000. More than 5,000 South Koreans were killed and 11,000 were injured in the war. All troops were withdrawn in 1973.


Some 1,450 troops were dispatched to South Vietnam. They were primarily engaged in medical and other civilian pacification projects. These forces operated under the designation PHLCAAG or Philippines Civil Affairs Assistance Group.

Australia and New Zealand

As U.S. allies under the ANZUS Treaty, Australia and New Zealand sent ground troops to Vietnam. Both nations had gained valuable experience in counterinsurgency and jungle warfare during the Malayan Emergency. Geographically close to Asia, they subscribed to the Domino Theory of communist expansion and felt that their national security would be threatened if communism spread further in Southeast Asia. Australia's peak commitment was 7,672 combat troops, New Zealand's 552 and most of these soldiers served in the 1st Australian Task Force which was based in Phuoc Tuy Province. Australia re-introduced conscription to expand its army in the face of significant public opposition to the war. Like the U.S., Australia began by sending advisers to Vietnam, the number of which rose steadily until 1965, when combat troops were committed. New Zealand began by sending a detachment of engineers and an artillery battery, and then started sending Special Forces and regular infantry. Several Australian and New Zealand units were awarded U.S. unit citations for their service in South Vietnam. The ANZUS forces were cohesive and well-disclipined.


Thai Army formations, including the "Queen's Cobra" battalion saw action in South Vietnam between 1965 and 1971. Thai forces saw much more action in the covert war in Laos between 1964 and 1972. There, Thai regular formations were heavily outnumbered by the irregular "volunteers" of the CIA-sponsored Police Aerial Reconnaissance Units or PARU, who carried out reconnaissance activities on the western side of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The activities of these personnel remain one of the great unknown stories of the South East Asian conflict.


Canadian, Indian and Polish troops formed the International Control Commission, which was supposed to monitor the 1954 ceasefire agreement. The Canadian government also lent diplomatic assistance to the United States to establish contact with the North Vietnamese regime. The government of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson resisted considerable U.S. pressure to send troops to Vietnam. Although not a major arms supplier, Canadian-made military hardware was used in Vietnam, including large amounts of Agent Orange manufactured by Dow Chemical. Most Canadians who served in the Vietnam War were members of the United States military with estimated numbers ranging from 2,500 to 12,000. Many became U.S. citizens upon returning from Vietnam or were dual citizens prior to joining the military. The Canadian government gave political asylum to significant numbers of American deserters and draft dodgers during the conflict. Canada hosted 30,000–90,000 Americans seeking asylum. A large number returned to the United States after a pardon was issued by President Jimmy Carter. The remainder, roughly half, chose to stay in Canada.

Use of chemical defoliants

One of the most controversial aspects of the of the U.S. military effort in South East Asia was the widespread use of herbicides between 1961 and 1971 . They were used to defoliate large parts of the countryside. These chemicals continue to change the landscape, cause diseases and birth defects, and poison the food chain.

Early in the American military effort it was decided that, since PAVN/NLF were hiding their activities under triple-canopy jungle, a useful first step might be to defoliate certain areas. This was especially true of growth surrounding bases (both large and small) in what became known as Operation Ranch Hand. Corporations like Dow Chemical and Monsanto were given the task of developing herbicides for this purpose. The defoliants (which were distributed in drums marked with color-coded bands) included the Rainbow Herbicides Agent Pink, Agent Green, Agent Purple, Agent Blue, Agent White, and, most famously, the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange. About 12 million gallons (45 000 000 L) of Agent Orange were sprayed over Southeast Asia during the American involvement. A prime area of Ranch Hand operations was in the Mekong Delta, where the U.S. Navy patrol boats were vulnerable to attack from the undergrowth at the water's edge.

U.S. helicopter spraying chemical defoliants in the Mekong Delta, South Vietnam.

In 1961–1962, the Kennedy administration authorized the use of chemicals to destroy rice crops. Between 1961 and 1967, the U.S. Air Force sprayed 20 million U.S. gallons (75 700 000 L) of concentrated herbicides over 6 million acres (24 000 km²) of crops and trees, affecting an estimated 13 percent of South Vietnam's land. In 1997, an article published by The Wall Street Journal reported that up to half a million children were born with dioxin-related deformities, and that the birth defects in southern Vietnam were fourfold those in the north. A 1967 study by the Agronomy Section of the Japanese Science Council concluded that 3.8 million acres (15 000 km²) of foliage had been destroyed, possibly also leading to the deaths of 1,000 peasants and 13,000 pieces of livestock.

As of 2006, the Vietnamese government estimates that there are over 4,000,000 victims of dioxin poisoning in Vietnam, although the United States government denies any conclusive scientific links between Agent Orange and the Vietnamese victims of dioxin poisoning. In some areas of southern Vietnam dioxin levels remain at over 100 times the accepted international standard.

The U.S. Veterans Administration has listed prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, multiple myeloma, type II diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma, chloracne, porphyria cutanea tarda, peripheral neuropathy, and spina bifida in children of veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Although there has been much discussion over whether the use of these defoliants constituted a violation of the laws of war, it must be noted that the defoliants were not considered weapons, since exposure to them did not lead to immediate death or even incapacitation.


Even today the number of those killed, military and civilian, in the period covered (1959–1975) is open to debate and uncertainty. To illustrate the problem, below are three reference works by three or more authors listing casualty figures. What is remarkable about them is that the only ones that seem to match are the ones that must be, at best, approximations. None of the figures include the members of South Vietnamese forces killed in the final campaign. Nor do they include the Royal Lao Armed Forces, thousands of Laotian and Thai irregulars, or Laotian civilians who all perished in that peculiar conflict. They do not include the tens of thousands of Cambodians killed during the civil war or the estimated one and one-half to two million that perished in the genocide that followed Khmer Rouge victory.

Documents declassified by the Vietnamese government in 1995, revealed that 5.1 million people, died during the Hanoi's conflict with the United States. Four million civilians died in both the North and South. Total military casualties were put at 1.1 million and 600,000 wounded. Hanoi concealed the figures during the war to avoid demoralizing the population.

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