The Vietnam War was a military conflict between the United States supported government of South Vietnam on one side, and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam supported communist guerilla movement called the Viet Cong on the other. The war was fought over control of South Vietnam, with both the United States and North Vietnam supplying arms and soldiers to support their respective sides. Although the ground combat largely took place in South Vietnam, the United States extensively bombed North Vietnam during the course of the war.
In Vietnam, this conflict is known as the American War.
Origins of the War
The Vietnam War was in many ways a direct successor to the French Indochina War, sometimes refered to as the First Indochina War, in which the French fought to maintain control of their colony in Indochina against an independence movement led by Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh. After the Vietnamese communist forces, or Viet Minh, defeated the French colonial army at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the colony was granted independence. According to the ensuing Geneva settlement, Vietnam was partitioned, ostensibly temporarily, into a communist North and a pro-Western South. The country was then to be unified under elections that were scheduled to take place in 1956. However, recognizing that Ho Chi Minh was widely perceived as a national hero, South Vietnam and its principle supporter, the United States, backed out of holding the elections.
The Viet Cong arose as a guerilla movement in opposition to the South Vietnamese government. In response to the guerilla war, the United States began sending military advisors in support of the government in the South. The North supported the South with arms and supplies, which were transported via a transport network known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.
American involvement in the war was a gradual process, as its military involvement increased over the years under successive U.S. presidents. There was never a formal declaration of war, but in 1964 the U.S. Senate did approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave broad support to President Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement in the war. By 1968, over 500,000 troops were stationed there, and the toll of American soldiers killed, as reported every Thursday on the evening news, was over 100 a week.
The continued escalation of American involvement came as the Johnson administration, as well as the commander of U.S. forces, General Westmoreland, repeatedly assured the American public that the next round of troop increases would bring victory. The American public's faith in the "light at the end of the tunnel" was shattered, however, in 1968, when the enemy, supposedly on the verge of collapse, mounted the Tet offensive in South Vietnam. Although the offensive failed to accomplish any military victories, the breadth of its scope convinced many Americans that victory was not around the corner. There was an increasing sense among many people that the government was lying to the American people about a war without a clear beginning or end, or clear objectives. When Westmoreland called for still more troops to be sent to Vietnam, Clark Clifford, a member of Johnson's own cabinet, came out against the war.
Opposition to the War
There had been a small movement of opposition to the war within certain quarters of the United States starting in 1964, especially on college campuses. This was happening during a time of unprecedented of student activism, and opposition to the war had become a focal point of the burgeoning New Left. Many young men feared being sent to Vietnam, and thousands of them fled to Canada or Sweden to avoid the draft. At that time, not all men of draft age were actually conscripted; the Selective Service Board used a lottery system to select draftees. Many men found sympathetic doctors who could find a medical basis for classifying as 4F, making them inelible to be drafted. Others took advantage of a student deferment. Still others joined the National Guard or entered the Peace Corps as a way of avoiding Vietnam. All of these issues raised concerns about the fairness of who got selected for combat, since it was often the poor or those without connections who made it to the front.
The American people became polarized over the war. Many supporters of the war argued for what was known as the Domino Theory, which stated that if the South fell to communist guerillas, other nations around the world would succumb in short succession, much like falling dominoes. Critics of the war argued that the war lacked clear objectives. The winnability of the war was called into question. The U.S., in fighting a guerilla war, realized that the South Vietnamese government needed to have a solid base of popular support if it was to survive. This political policy of winning the "Hearts and Minds" of the Vietnamese people, clashed with the military policy of bringing mass destruction to the enemy. Examples included use of napalm and the carpet bombing of strategic targets; the destruction of villages for strategic advantage led to the oft-quoted statement, "It was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it."
Many Americans continued to support the war, however. Aside from the domino theory, there was a feeling that the goal of preventing a communist takeover of a pro-Western government in South Vietnam was a noble goal. Many Americans were also concerned about saving face in the event of disengaging from the war--or, as Richard Nixon later put it, achieving "Peace with Honor." Meanwhile, on the other side, many Americans opposed the war on moral grounds, seeing it as a destructive war against Vietnamese independence or an invervention in a foreign civil war; others opposed it because they felt it lacked clear objectives and appeared to be an endless, unwinnable quagmire.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson began his reelection campaign. A member of his own party, Eugene McCarthy, ran against him for the nomination on an antiwar platform. McCarthy did not win the first primary election in New Hampshire, but he did surprisingly well against an incumbent. The resulting blow to the Johnson campaign led the President to make a surprise announcement in a March 31 televised speech that he was pulling out of the race. He also announced the initiation of the Paris Peace Talks with Vietnam in that speech.
Seizing the opportunity caused by Johnson's departure from the race, Robert Kennedy then joined in and ran for the nomination on an antiwar platform. Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, meanwhile, ran for the nomination, promising to continue to support the South Vietnamese government.
Kennedy was assasinated that summer, and McCarthy was unable to overcome Humphrey's support within the party elite. Humphrey won the nomination of his party, and he ran against the Republican candidate Nixon, who claimed during the campaign he had a "secret plan" to end the war.
Nixon won the election and began his policy of slow disengagement from the war. The goal was to gradually build up the South Vietnamese army so that it could fight the war on its own. This policy--"you supply the firemen, and we supply the hoses"--because the cornerstone of so-called Nixon doctrine. As applied to Vietnam, the doctrine was called "Vietnamization". The goal of Vietnamization was to enable the South Vietnamese army to increasingly hold its own against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army incursions. During this period, the United States carried out a gradual troop withdrawal from Vietnam; however, despite this gradual disengagement, Nixon continued to use air power to bomb the enemy, and the death toll of Americans in combat also continued. Ultimately, more American soldiers died, and more bombs were dropped, under the Nixon presidency than under Johnson's.
The morality of US conduct of the war continued to be an issue under the Nixon presidency. In 1969, it had come to light that Lt. William Calley had led a massacre of Vietnamese civilians (including small children) at My Lai a year before. The massacre was only stopped after two American soldiers in a helicopter spotted the carnage and intervened to prevent their fellow Americans from killing any more civilians. Although many were appalled by the wholesale slaughter at My Lai, Calley was given a light sentence after his court martial hearings in 1970, and he was later pardoned by Nixon.
In 1970, Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia, in order to destroy Viet Cong sanctuaries that bordered South Vietnam. This invastion prompted massive protests on American college campuses, and several students were shot to death at demonstrations at two universities, Kent State and Jackson State. One effect of the invasion was to push communist forces deeper into Cambodia, which destablized the country and which in turn led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, who siezed power in 1975. The goal of the attacks, however, was to bring the North Vietnamese negotiators back to the table with some flexibility in their demands that the South Vietnamese government be overthrown as part of the agreement. It was also alleged that American and South Vietnamese casualty rates were also reduced by the destruction of military supplies the communists had been storing in Cambodia.
In the 1972 election, the war was once again a major issue in the United States. An antiwar candidate, George McGovern, ran against Nixon. Nixon's Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, declared that "Peace was at Hand" shortly before the voters went to the polls, dealing a death blow to McGovern's campaign, which had been facing an uphill battle over his Vice Presidential nominee as well as other matters. However, the peace agreement was not signed until the next year, leading many to suggest that Kissinger's announcement was just a political ploy. Kissinger's defenders assert that the North Vietnamese negotiators had made use of Kissinger's pronouncement as an opportunity to embarrass the Nixon Administration to weaken it at the negotiation table.
The End of the War
The peace agreement between did not last. Although Nixon had promised South Vietnam that he would provide military support to them in the event of a crumbling military situation, the Congress voted down any further funding of military actions in the region, and he was fighting for his political life in the growing Watergate scandal, and so none of the promised military support to defend the South Vietnamese government was possible. In 1975, the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon (now officialy called as Ho Chi Minh City) fell to the communist forces. The war was at last at an end.