At Dien Bien Phu the defending French garrison of 12,000 men was compelled to surrender to communist forces.
The communist forces active in Vietnam received most of their supplies from the Chinese and the Soviet Union.
Many Americans saw the conflict in Vietnam as a new front in the global effort to contain communist expansion.
The Geneva Accords were agreed upon in the summer of 1954. Vietnam would be temporarily split at the 17th Parallel. The north was to be governed by Ho Chi Minh and his communist government.
The south would be ruled by a pro-western regime. Democratic elections were to be held in 1956. Those elections were to unite Vietnam under a single govt.
The leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, believed he would lose the election to Ho Chi Minh. He refused to allow the elections to be held.
Ho Chi Minh then began to support the growing incursions of communist guerillas referred to as Viet Cong into South Vietnam. The Viet Cong organized the National Liberation Front (NLF) to sponsor attacks and cause South Vietnam’s government to weaken and fall.
As the attacks intensified, President Kennedy, committed growing numbers of American military advisors to aid South Vietnam’s defense. By the time of his assassination in November of 1963, there were 16,000 Americans in Vietnam.
Domino Theory and The Gulf of Tonkin
The Domino Theory held that if South Vietnam fell to communism, similar communist led movements would threaten Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.
Vietnam was the first domino. The American president who allowed it to fall would be revealed as “soft” on communism. Voters would punish the president’s party by voting the opposing party into office in the next election.
This thinking led LBJ, who had inherited JFK’s involvement in Vietnam, to continue American involvement in what others argued was a civil war.
American destroyers were often off the coast of North Vietnam. Two of these vessels – the Maddox and the C. Turner Joy – were allegedly attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats.
LBJ went to Congress and asked for a Tonkin Gulf Resolution permitting the American president to authorize all necessary measures to protect American forces and “prevent further aggression” in Southeast Asia.
The resolution passed in the House by 416-0 and in the Senate by 88-2. LBJ then ordered the US Air Force to bomb targets in North Vietnam.
Operation Rolling Thunder was a sustained bombing assault that sought to destroy manufacturing, railroads, bridges and roadways that aided the supply of war materials to the VC and the NLF.
In 1963 there were approximately sixteen thousand American troops in Vietnam. In 1965 the number exceeded 100,000. By the end of 1966 the number of troops committed was about 350,000.
By the end of 1967 almost half a million American soldiers were in Vietnam.
The North Vietnamese were fighting their end of the war with material support from the USSR and Mao’s China. However, Soviet and Chinese troops were not battling alongside the VC and the NLF.
The South Vietnamese Army or ARVN, was receiving massive support from the US and had hundreds of thousands of American soldiers battling on their behalf.
American military commanders were disgusted with the fighting strength of the ARVN whose troops were regularly defeated by their Northern opponents.
The US believed that the massive material advantage the American military had over the communists would steadily grind down the enemy and make them see that victory against the United States was an unobtainable.
The American military leader, General Westmoreland, relied upon “body counts” that evidenced the huge casualties the communists were sustaining. However, new communist troops were constantly being thrown to the attack.
Ho Chi Minh remarked that he could “lose 10 men for every 1 enemy soldier killed” and still win the war because they were determined to stay until victory was obtained.