Us military struggle fought primarily in South Vietnam from 1959 to 1975

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US military struggle fought primarily in South Vietnam from 1959 to 1975. It began as an attempt by Communist guerrillas (the so-called Vietcong) in the South, backed by Communist North Vietnam, to overthrow the government of South Vietnam. The struggle widened into a war between South Vietnam and North Vietnam and ultimately into a limited international conflict. The U.S. and some 40 other countries supported South Vietnam by supplying troops and munitions, and the USSR and the People's Republic of China furnished munitions to North Vietnam and the Vietcong. On both sides, however, the burden fell mainly on the civilians. The war also engulfed Laos, where the Communist Pathet Lao fought the government from 1965 to 1973 and succeeded in abolishing the monarchy in 1975; and Cambodia, where the government surrendered in 1973 to the Communist Khmer Rouge.


(1945–54). The war developed as a sequel to the struggle (1946–54) between the French, who were the rulers of Indochina before World War II, and the Communist-led Viet Minh, or League for the Independence of Vietnam, founded and headed by the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. Having emerged as the strongest of the nationalist groups that fought the Japanese occupation of French Indochina during World War II, the league was determined to resist the reestablishment of French colonial rule and to implement political and social changes.

Following the surrender of Japan to the Allies in August 1945, Viet Minh guerrillas seized the capital city of Hanoi and forced the abdication of Emperor Bao Dai. On September 2 they declared Vietnam to be independent and announced the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, commonly called North Vietnam, with Ho Chi Minh as president. France officially recognized the new state, but the subsequent inability of the Viet Minh and France to reach satisfactory political and economic agreements led to armed conflict beginning in December 1946. With French backing Bao Dai set up the state of Vietnam, commonly called South Vietnam, on July 1, 1949, and established a new capital at Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

The following year, the U.S. officially recognized the Saigon government, and to assist it, U.S. President Harry S. Truman dispatched a military assistance advisory group to train South Vietnam in the use of U.S. weapons. In the meantime, the two main adversaries in Vietnam—France and the Viet Minh—were steadily building up their forces. The decisive battle of the war developed in the spring of 1954 as the Viet Minh attacked the French fortress of Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam. On May 8, 1954, after a 55-day siege, the French surrendered.

On the same day, both North and South Vietnamese delegates met with those of France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, the U.S., Communist China, and the two other Indochinese states, Laos and Cambodia, in Geneva, to discuss the future of all of Indochina. Under accords drawn up at the conference, France and North Vietnam agreed to a truce. It was further agreed to partition the country temporarily along the 17th parallel, with the north going to the Communists and the south placed under the control of the Saigon government. The agreement stipulated that elections for reunification of the country would be held in 1956.

Neither the U.S. nor the Saigon government agreed to the Geneva accords, but the U.S. announced it would do nothing to undermine the agreement. Once the French had withdrawn from Vietnam, the U.S. moved to bolster the Saigon government militarily and, as asserted by some observers, engaged in covert activities against the Hanoi government. On Oct. 24, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower offered South Vietnam direct economic aid, and the following February, U.S. military advisers were dispatched to train South Vietnamese forces. American support for the Saigon government continued even after Bao Dai was deposed, in a referendum on Oct. 23, 1955, and South Vietnam was made a republic, with Ngo Dinh Diem as president. One of Diem's first acts was to announce that his government would refuse to hold reunification elections, on the grounds that the people of North Vietnam would not be free to express their will and because of the probability of falsified votes (although Diem and other South Vietnamese officials were also accused of fraudulent election practices).

The New War Begins.

The position taken by Diem won the backing of the U.S. The Communist government in Hanoi, however, indicated its determination to reunify the nation under Hanoi. The truce arranged at Geneva began to crumble and by January 1957, the International Control Commission set up to implement the Geneva accords was reporting armistice violations by both North and South Vietnam. Throughout the rest of the year, Communist sympathizers who had gone north after partition began returning south in increasing numbers. Called Vietcong, they began launching attacks on U.S. military installations that had been established, and in 1959 began their guerrilla attacks on the Diem government.

The attacks were intensified in 1960, the year in which North Vietnam proclaimed its intention “to liberate South Vietnam from the ruling yoke of the U.S. imperialists and their henchmen.” The statement served to reinforce the belief that the Vietcong were being directed by Hanoi. On November 10, the Saigon government charged that regular North Vietnamese troops were taking a direct part in Vietcong attacks in South Vietnam. To show that the guerrilla movement was independent, the Vietcong set up their own political arm, known as the National Liberation Front (NLF), with its headquarters in Hanoi.

Social and Political Turbulence in South Vietnam.

In the face of the deteriorating situation, the U.S. restated its support for Saigon. In April 1961, a treaty of amity and economic relations was signed with South Vietnam, and in December, President John F. Kennedy pledged to help South Vietnam maintain its independence. Subsequently, U.S. economic and military assistance to the Diem government increased significantly. In December 1961, the first U.S. troops, consisting of 400 uniformed army personnel, arrived in Saigon in order to operate two helicopter companies; the U.S. proclaimed, however, that the troops were not combat units as such. A year later, U.S. military strength in Vietnam stood at 11,200.

The Diem government, meanwhile, proved unable to defeat the Communists or to cope with growing unrest among South Vietnamese Buddhists and other religious groups. Antigovernment agitation among the Buddhists was especially strong, with many burning themselves to death as a sign of protest. Still others were placed under arrest, the government charging that the Buddhist groups had become infiltrated by politically hostile persons, including Communists. Although this contention was supported by outside observers, including a U.S. fact-finding team, religious friction between the Buddhists and the Catholic-led government was at least as powerful a force as political conflict.

On Nov. 1, 1963, the Diem regime was overthrown in a military coup. Diem and his brother and political adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu (1910–63), were executed. The circumstances surrounding the coup were not fully clear at the time. In the summer of 1971, however, with the publication by the U.S. press of a secret Pentagon study of the war (see Controversy in the U.S. below), it was revealed that the coup had been known to be imminent and that the U.S. was prepared to support a successor government.

The government that replaced the Diem regime was a revolutionary council headed by Brigadier Gen. Duong Van Minh (1916–2001). A series of other coups followed, and in the 18 months after Diem's overthrow South Vietnam had ten different governments. None of these proved capable of dealing effectively with the country's military situation. A military council under Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu and Gen. Nguyen Cao Ky (1930–    ) was finally created in 1965, and it restored basic political order. Later, in September 1967, elections were held and Thieu became president of South Vietnam.

Deepening U.S. Involvement.

Unlike conventional wars, the war in Vietnam had no defined front lines. Much of it consisted of hit-and-run attacks, with the guerrillas striking at government outposts and retreating into the jungle. In the early 1960s some North Vietnamese troops, however, began to infiltrate into South Vietnam to help the Vietcong, and supplies sent to Hanoi from the USSR and China were sent south down the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail. The war began to escalate in the first week of August 1964, when North Vietnamese torpedo boats were reported to have attacked two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Acting on the resolution passed on August 7 by the U.S. Senate (the so-called Tonkin Gulf Resolution), authorizing increased military involvement, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered jets to South Vietnam and the retaliatory bombing of military targets in North Vietnam. From 1964 to 1968 Gen. William C. Westmoreland (1914–    ) was commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam; he was replaced in 1968 by Gen. Creighton Abrams (1914–74).

In February 1965, U.S. planes began regular bombing raids over North Vietnam. A halt was ordered in May in the hope of initiating peace talks, but when North Vietnam rejected all negotiations, the bombings were resumed. In the meantime, the U.S. continued to build up its troop strength in South Vietnam. On March 6, 1965, a brigade of American marines landed at Da Nang, south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that had originally been set up at the time of partition. The marines, the first U.S. combat ground-force units to serve in the country, brought the number in the U.S. military forces in Vietnam to some 27,000. By year's end American combat strength was nearly 200,000.

While continuing the military buildup in Vietnam, the U.S. made another attempt to end the war. In December 1965, President Johnson again halted the bombing of North Vietnam in an effort to achieve a peaceful settlement. Again he was unsuccessful, and the raids were resumed. In June 1966, U.S. planes began bombing major installations near Hanoi and the neighboring port of Haiphong, both of which had heretofore been spared.

In October 1966, government representatives from the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea, and the Philippines—all of which had contributed troops to South Vietnam—met in Manila and pledged their withdrawal within six months after North Vietnam abandoned the war. The offer was rejected by North Vietnam. In June 1967, President Johnson met with Soviet Premier Aleksey N. Kosygin in Glassboro, N.J., and sought his help in bringing Hanoi to the peace table. The war, however, dragged on.

Two months after the Glassboro meeting, President Johnson announced that U.S. forces in Vietnam would be further increased to 525,000 by 1968. At the same time, U.S. planes extended their bombings of North Vietnam to within 16 km (10 mi) of the Chinese border. Shortly thereafter, President Johnson again offered to stop the bombardment of North Vietnam provided peace talks would follow. As in the past, Hanoi rejected the offer.

The war continued, and casualty figures rose. In November 1967, the Pentagon announced that total U.S. casualties in Vietnam since the beginning of 1961 had reached 15,058 killed and 109,527 wounded. The mounting toll was accompanied by a growing sentiment within the U.S. for an end to the war, the cost of which, apart from the loss of life, was estimated by the president at $25 billion per year. The demand for peace became increasingly vocal in many segments of American society.

The Tet Offensive.

From February 1965 to the end of all-out U.S. involvement in 1973, South Vietnamese forces mainly fought against the Vietcong guerrillas, while U.S. and allied troops fought the North Vietnamese in a war of attrition marked by battles in such places as the Ia Dang Valley, Dak To, Loc Ninh, and Khe Sanh—all victories for the non-Communist forces. During his 1967–68 campaign, the North Vietnamese strategist, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, launched the famous Tet offensive (from the name of the Vietnamese lunar new year in mid-February), a coordinated series of fierce attacks on more than 100 urban targets. Despite its devastating psychological effect, the campaign, which Giap hoped would be decisive, failed, and Vietcong forces were ultimately driven back from most of the positions they had gained. In the fighting, North Vietnam lost 85,000 of its best troops.

In spite of this U.S. victory, however, by the early spring of 1968 much of the American public had concluded that the war was unwinnable. On March 31 President Johnson announced a halt in U.S. bombings over North Vietnam. The announcement, intended as a new peace gesture, evoked a positive response from Hanoi, and in May peace talks between the U.S. and North Vietnam opened in Paris. Later in the year, the talks were expanded to include South Vietnam and the Vietcong NLF. The talks, however, made no progress despite the fact that U.S. raids on North Vietnam were completely halted in November.

Vietnamization of the War

(1969–71). In 1969, within a few months after taking office, Johnson's successor, President Richard M. Nixon, announced that 25,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam by August 1969. Another cut of 65,000 troops was ordered by the end of the year. The program, known as Vietnamization of the war, came into effect, as President Nixon emphasized additional responsibilities of the South Vietnamese. Neither the U.S. troop reduction nor the death of North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh, on Sept. 3, served to break the stalemate in Paris; the North Vietnamese delegates insisted upon complete U.S. withdrawal as a condition for peace.

In April 1970, U.S. combat troops entered Cambodia following the occurrence there of a political coup. Within three months, the U.S. campaign in Cambodia ended, but air attacks on North Vietnam were renewed.

By 1971 South Vietnamese forces were playing an increasing role in the war, fighting in both Cambodia and Laos as well as in South Vietnam. At this point, however, the Paris talks and the war itself were overshadowed by the presidential election in South Vietnam. The chief contestants were Nguyen Van Thieu, who was running for reelection, Vice-President Nguyen Cao Ky, and Gen. Duong Van Minh. Both Ky and Minh, after charging that the election had been rigged, withdrew, and Thieu won another 4-year term.

Through the later months of 1971, American withdrawal continued. It coincided, however, with a new military buildup in North Vietnam, thought to be in preparation for a major drive down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Laos and Cambodia. Heavy U.S. air attacks followed throughout the Indochina war sector. On the ground, meanwhile, Vietnamese Communist forces had launched massive effective attacks against government forces in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. It was feared also that Hanoi might launch a major offensive in South Vietnam's central highlands, timing the operating for the Tet observance.

Casualty figures in 1971 reflected the intensification of South Vietnam's own fighting efforts against the Communists. While U.S. deaths in Vietnam declined dramatically to 1380, compared to 4221 in 1970, the Saigon forces, on the other hand, suffered about 21,500 dead, some in Cambodia and Laos but the majority in South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese claimed the enemy death toll to be 97,000.

Controversy in the U.S.

Before troop withdrawal, U.S. military strength in South Vietnam had peaked at over 541,000 in 1969. In the U.S. itself, as military involvement increased, the war issue increasingly became highly controversial. A peace movement developed and gathered momentum, organizing marches and moratoriums against the war in major U.S. cities (see PACIFISM,). Accelerating this movement was the issue of atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam. One widely publicized case was the massacre of unarmed civilians at the village of My Lai in 1968. Lt. William L. Calley (1943–    ), charged with responsibility for their deaths, was found guilty by a military jury in 1971.

A major reinterpretation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was spurred by the controversial publication in 1971 in the New York Times and other newspapers of the so-called Pentagon Papers—a collection of classified U.S. government documents concerning the Vietnamese situation. The papers cast a new, and to many, a dismaying, light on the U.S. handling of the war and of the peace negotiations through the 1960s.

Negotiation Impasses.

On Jan. 25, 1972, President Nixon publicly recounted the many proposals that the administration had secretly put before the North Vietnamese during the last two and one-half years. At the same time, he unveiled a new eight-point plan for peace in Vietnam, including a new presidential election to be held in South Vietnam.

The Nixon plan was followed by a revised version of a peace plan submitted by the Vietcong in July 1971. The new version called for the immediate resignation of President Thieu, to be followed by negotiations with the Saigon administration once it had abandoned what the Vietcong described as its policies of waging war and repression. The same insistence on the immediate resignation of the South Vietnamese president was voiced by Hanoi through the North Vietnamese delegation in Paris, which announced that U.S. prisoners of war would be released only when the U.S. had withdrawn its support from the Thieu administration and the war was brought to an end.

South Vietnamese forces, meanwhile, conducted three drives into Cambodia during February 1972. The U.S. announced that it would no longer disclose the number of planes involved in raids over North Vietnam. Peace talks were broken off on March 23.

Quang Tri Offensive.

The tide of the war took an ominous turn for the worse one week later. On March 30 North Vietnam launched a massive offensive south across the DMZ into Quang Tri Province. In April, the U.S. retaliated with the first deep-penetration bombing raids over the north since 1967.

On May 8 President Nixon ordered the mining of major ports of North Vietnam, notably Haiphong, to destroy enemy supply routes. Air strikes were directed against North Vietnamese railroad lines, causing, as a Hanoi newspaper admitted, serious economic problems. Quang Tri City, after being held by the Communists for four and one-half months, was recaptured by South Vietnamese forces on September 15.


As the war continued into the second half of 1972, secret peace meetings were held at intervals in Paris between Henry Kissinger, assistant to the president for national security affairs, and the North Vietnamese delegate Le Duc Tho, beginning on October 8. A breakthrough was achieved when, for the first time, the Communist side expressed acceptance of a peace plan separating the military from the political settlement of the war, relinquishing its demand for a coalition government in South Vietnam, and agreeing to a formula for simultaneous discussion of the situation in Laos and Cambodia. On October 26 Kissinger disclosed a nine-point peace plan, but technical issues remained unresolved, and President Thieu of South Vietnam called the plan a sellout.

With the resumption of talks between Kissinger and Tho on December 4, general anticipation of a final, signed agreement was perhaps the highest it had been since the beginning of the Paris negotiations in 1968. But the talks abruptly collapsed on December 16, and the following day President Nixon ordered further massive bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. Subsequent night raids by B-52s and attack planes were termed the most severe aerial assaults in all of history, and reaction of both the American people and the world to the sudden reescalation of the bitter conflict was for the most part one of shock. The air attacks also resulted in the loss of 15 B-52s and in the loss or capture of 93 U.S. Air Force personnel.

Temporary Peace.

Despite the stepping up of U.S. bombing, both sides appeared anxious to salvage the progress made in negotiation. On December 29, the U.S. announced a halt to the bombing above the 20th parallel, effective the next day.

With the new year came the resumption of the secret peace meetings in Paris. Sensing progress in the first days, President Nixon ordered a halt to all bombing, mining, and artillery fire in North Vietnam. After six days of conferring, Kissinger and Tho met once again on Jan. 23, 1973, and, on that evening, President Nixon announced over nationwide television that agreement on all terms for a formal cease-fire had finally been reached.

On January 27, in Paris, delegations representing the U.S., South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and the Provisional Revolutionary Communist Government of South Vietnam signed an Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring peace in Vietnam. The cease-fire officially went into effect on January 28. Both the U.S. and North Vietnam asserted that there were no secret peace terms.

The peace accord called for complete cessation of hostilities; withdrawal of all U.S. and allied forces from South Vietnam within 60 days of the signing; return of all captured military personnel by both sides at 15-day intervals within 60 days; recognition of the DMZ as “only provisional and not a political or territorial boundary”; an international control commission (composed of representatives of Canada, Hungary, Indonesia, and Poland) to oversee implementation of the peace; and provision for an international conference to be held within 30 days. The accord allowed some 145,000 North Vietnamese troops to remain in South Vietnam, but with limitation on their future replacement and supplies.

Cease-Fire Aftermath.

By the end of March 1973, all U.S. fighting forces had been withdrawn. Although President Nixon had apparently assured the Thieu government that U.S. forces would step in to support them in the event of a major treaty violation, further military assistance to South Vietnam became politically impossible. One of the reasons for this was the concurrent outbreak of the WATERGATE, (q.v.) scandal.

Fighting between Vietnamese antagonists died down shortly after the cease-fire, only to be renewed as each side attempted to hold or expand its military positions. During 1974 fighting escalated, with major engagements occurring throughout the year. In December the North Vietnamese and their southern allies launched a major offensive that quickly resulted in unprecedented success. The government of South Vietnam lost control of numerous important cities; and by the time that Hue was captured in mid-March 1975, the war had become a rout. On April 30, the capital city of Saigon was captured, and the Republic of Vietnam surrendered unconditionally to the Provisional Revolutionary Government.

Nature of the War.

The Vietnam War marked a turning point in the history of modern conventional warfare both in the extent of guerrilla and antiguerrilla combat involved and in the increased reliance on helicopters, which afforded mobility in a difficult terrain. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Vietnam War was essentially a people's war; because guerrilla fighters were not easily distinguished from noncombatants and because most civilians were mobilized into some sort of active participation, the civilian populace of Vietnam suffered heavily, in unprecedented numbers. The extensive use of napalm by U.S. forces maimed and killed many thousands of civilians, and the employment of defoliants to destroy heavy ground cover devastated the ecology of an essentially agricultural country.


As a result of more than eight years of these methods of warfare, it is estimated that more than 2 million Vietnamese were killed, 3 million wounded, and hundreds of thousands of children orphaned. It has been estimated that about 12 million Indochinese people became refugees. Between April 1975 and July 1982, approximately 1,218,000 were resettled in more than 16 countries. About 500,000, the so-called boat people, tried to flee Vietnam by sea; according to rough estimates, 10 to 15 percent of these died, and those who survived the great hardships of their voyages were eventually faced with entry ceilings in the countries that agreed to accept them for resettlement. In the Vietnam War U.S. casualties rose to a total of 57,685 killed and about 153,303 wounded. At the time of the cease-fire agreement there were 587 U.S. military and civilian prisoners of war, all of whom were subsequently released. A current unofficial estimate puts the number of personnel still unaccounted for in the neighborhood of 2500.

Less measurable but still significant costs were the social conflicts within the U.S. that were engendered by the war—the questioning of U.S. institutions by the American people and a sense of self-doubt.

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