‘This government has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build-up on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakeable evidence has established that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western hemisphere …
Several of these new missile sites include medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead for a distance of more than 1,000 miles. Each of these missiles is capable of striking Washington DC, the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the south-eastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area…
This urgent transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base … constitutes an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas …
This secret, swift and extraordinary build-up of Communist missiles, for the first time outside of Soviet soil, is a deliberately provocative and unjustifiable change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country …’
How useful is Source 2 as evidence of American hostility to the establishment of the Soviet missile base in Cuba?
Reminder: You are being asked to evaluate the source – think about origin, possible purpose, content, and then support this with recalled knowledge.
From the Daily Mail, the British newspaper, 29 October 1962
‘OK Mr President, let’s talk!’
How fully does Source 3 illustrate the concerns at the confrontation between the USA and the USSR during the Cuban Missiles Crisis?
Reminder: Place the source in its wider context.
From In Search of Détente – the Politics of East West Relations since 1945, S R Ashton, 1989.
‘The key issue was Khrushchev’s motives. In his memoirs, Khrushchev claimed that the missiles were necessary to defend Cuba against another American-backed invasion. His reasoning was hardy convincing – 20,000 troops armed with conventional weapons would have sufficed for this purpose …
The missiles were intended by Khrushchev to kill several birds with one stone …
The United States strategic superiority would be neutralised at a stroke …
The USSR would be spared an expensive intercontinental missile programme. He would be in a position to bargain over Berlin, or over the American missile bases in Turkey. Finally, in personal terms, Khrushchev’s prestige would be increased enormously.’
Reminder: Place the source in its wider context.
Section 9: The war in Vietnam
‘And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, the next stop is Vietnam!
And it’s five, six, seven, open up the Pearly Gates!
There ain’t no time to wonder why
Whoopee! We’re all gonna die!’
American pop song, late 1960s
The decision by the United States to intervene actively in the war in Vietnam was highly controversial. It was the longest war ever fought by the USA, it involved the commitment of immense resources both human and material, and, as the song quoted above illustrates, it divided and split the country as never before. Finally, the Vietnam War can be regarded as the only war in which the United States has failed to achieve victory.
The origins of the Vietnam conflict were deep-rooted, in the resistance to the colonial Empire established by France in the 19th century. Vietnam was part of the French colony of Indo-China.
In 1940, France was defeated by Germany. Indo-China became part of Japan’s sphere of influence, with military bases being established there. Later on, the Japanese took formal control of the French colonies.
Opposition to Japanese control soon developed with the growth of the Vietminh movement, a nationalist movement led by Ho Chi Minh, who had been educated in France. The Vietminh resisted the Japanese, and worked and fought for the independence of Indo-China from foreign rule: they received military support from the USA.
In 1945, Japan surrendered, and their forces left Indo-China. Ho Chi Minh proclaimed independence. France had other ideas – it planned to re-establish the colonial empire it had lost in 1940.
The French war
The war between the French and the Vietminh lasted eight years, from 1946 to 1954. The French forces were unable to counter the guerrilla tactics of the Vietminh, who staged ambushes, and avoided major battles. The French retained control of the towns and cities, but lost control of the countryside.
In 1954, the French army attempted one final offensive against the Vietminh. This ended in disastrous defeat at Dien Pien Phu, when a large French force had to surrender.
Peace negotiations then began.
The peace agreement of 1954
France agreed to leave Indo-China.
Four new countries were created: Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam and South Vietnam.
Elections would be held in the two Vietnams to see if the country could be unified.
The two Vietnams
North Vietnam became a Communist state, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. Major land reforms were carried out, and health and education reforms introduced. No other parties were permitted to exist, the media were controlled and censored, and opposition to the government was suppressed.
However, North Vietnam was very much an independent communist state, running its own affairs and making its own decisions. In no way was it any kind of satellite state of either Russia or China.
South Vietnam became a republic under the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem, a strong anti-communist. His government took on widespread powers to crush opposition, cancelling elections that had been arranged for 1956. Diem’s government began to receive extensive financial support from the United States, who saw him as a useful ally against the spread of Communism in Asia.
Opposition to Diem’s government soon developed, particularly from Buddhists, who regarded Diem as a dictator. It was difficult to argue that South Vietnam was a genuine democracy.
War again In the late 1950s, opposition to the government of President Diem increased steadily. Government officials were murdered, his troops were attacked, and wealthy landowners were killed. Diem’s forces responded with equal violence. In effect, a civil war was now taking place in Vietnam. And, like all civil wars, it was cruel and brutal, and increasingly bitter.
In 1960, a new organisation was formed to unite the opposition to Diem, with the formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF), which was heavily backed by North Vietnam. Although the NLF was officially an alliance of a number of groups, it was heavily dominated and controlled by communists. The NLF was also given another, and more familiar, name – the Viet Cong.
A row of dominoes?
‘You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock the first one, and what will happen to the last one is a certainty, that it will go over very quickly.’
President Eisenhower, 1954
In the 1950s, the USA became increasingly concerned about the spread of Communism in South East Asia. It was convinced that the Russians and Chinese were actively trying to extend their power by overthrowing non-Communist governments in countries like South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. Many leading US government figures believed that the USA should actively support these countries, to prevent this from happening: ‘to prop up the dominoes’. If the USA did not act, then, inevitably, communism would spread. If this view was accepted, the United States, as the leader of the Free World, had no alternative but to intervene to support South Vietnam. This became known as the Domino Theory, and was the main justification for the events that followed.
The reality was a bit more complex. There certainly were active Communist guerrilla movements in South East Asia, particularly in South Vietnam. However, there was also a very strong nationalist side to these movements gaining strength from opposition to regimes like that of President Diem. Diem faced strong opposition from many South Vietnamese who were not Communists. In addition, the Communist forces in South Vietnam were most definitely not under the control of the Russians or Chinese, although the
Russians did have strong links with North Vietnam, supplying the country with substantial amounts of military aid.
Tasks 1. Why was France unable to achieve victory against the Vietminh between 1946 and 1954?
2. Outline the terms of the Peace Agreements of 1954.
3. ‘Civil war, or a determined campaign to extend Communist influence?’ Which, in your opinion, is the better explanation for the war in Vietnam from the late 1950s onwards?
American intervention in South Vietnam
Limited American intervention in Vietnam increased during the Kennedy administration, with the decision to increase the numbers of US military advisors. Their job was to improve training of South Vietnamese forces to counter the growing threat from the Viet Cong. By the end of 1961, there were 3,000 American military personnel in Vietnam – a year later, numbers had increased to over 11,000. As time passed, these advisors became drawn into conflict with the Viet Cong.
During 1963, President Diems’s regime became increasingly unpopular, particularly amongst Buddhists, because of its policies of repression. In addition, Diem’s forces were making little headway against the Viet Cong. On 1 November 1963, Diem was overthrown and killed in a coup by a group of generals in the South Vietnamese army. The coup leaders had the support of the CIA.
Lyndon Johnson: the escalation of the war Lyndon Johnson had been vice-president of the United States under John F Kennedy. When Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Johnson took over as president.
Johnson was convinced that the Russians and the Chinese were behind the growing Viet Cong pressure in South Vietnam. He believed passionately that it was the task of the United States to do everything in its power to prevent the advance of communism in South East Asia, making this clear in a number of keynote speeches. He was also being warned by the CIA that the position
of the government of South Vietnam was becoming steadily more difficult. He authorised a further increase in US forces – up to 20,000 by the end of 1963.
Johnson genuinely believed that the Domino Theory was correct. If South Vietnam fell to communism, then other states such as Laos and Cambodia would be next. In a short time, he feared that communism would spread further, to countries such as Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia. The international position of the USA would become much weaker – the US’s allies would begin to lose faith in its intentions.
In the election of 1964, Johnson faced a very right-wing Republican opponent. Accordingly, it was in his own interest to be seen to follow a strong anti-Communist line.
For all these reasons, Johnson took the conscious decision to begin dramatic increases in the US commitment to South Vietnam.
Tasks 1. How important was the ‘domino theory’ in the decision by President Johnson to increase American involvement in South Vietnam from 1963 onwards?
2. Why do you think that American public opinion, to begin with, was broadly supportive of Johnson’s action in sending American forces to Vietnam?
The start of large-scale American involvement
The Gulf of Tonkin incident, August 1964 2–4 August 1964: The USA alleged that North Vietnamese gunboats had attacked US Navy destroyers on patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam. The Americans claimed that the North Vietnamese had made an unprovoked attack on their ships. It was established later that, in fact, the destroyers were covering South Vietnamese raids on the coast of North Vietnam. In addition, the evidence that an attack had taken place at all was strongly challenged later – by American sources.
Johnson used this incident to win support in Congress for increased involvement in Vietnam. He could claim that the communist forces in Vietnam had deliberately attacked American forces.
In a special resolution of the US Senate, known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Johnson was given permission to send US forces to Vietnam. This decision marked the real beginning of US involvement in the Vietnam War.
From 1964 to 1968, the United States built up massive resources, in men and materials, in South Vietnam. Initially, Johnson had strong support from the American people, who were sympathetic to his belief in checking the advances of communism. In particular, Johnson had the support of liberal American opinion, and had won a landslide victory in the 1964 presidential election. Johnson was regarded as continuing the work of John Kennedy in the field of Civil Rights, and it was during this administration that the landmark Civil Rights reforms were put into effect.
However, as the Vietnam War developed, and as the United States became more and more involved, American opinion, about the war and about Johnson, changed radically.
Operation ‘Rolling Thunder’ This was the name given to the US air offensive in Vietnam, which began at this time. US aircraft launched heavy attacks against the Viet Cong in the areas controlled by them in South Vietnam. In addition, air strikes began against North Vietnam, in an attempt to discourage the North Vietnamese from intervening in the South. US bombers, including B52 Stratofortresses, attacked bridges, supply lines and military bases in North Vietnam.
The US bombing campaign became a key feature as the war developed. Heavy damage was inflicted on North Vietnam, and there was severe loss of life. It was hoped that this fearsome array of US firepower would persuade the Viet
Cong and its North Vietnamese allies to back down. The US Air Force dropped a greater tonnage of bombs on North Vietnam than was dropped on Germany during World War II. However, North Vietnam’s intervention in the South continued, with supplies being sent down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through the neighbouring country of Laos.
US ground forces sent in, March 1965 General Westmoreland, the commander of US forces in Vietnam, believed that the South Vietnamese were losing the war to the Viet Cong. He requested that substantial numbers of US troops be sent to boost the war effort.
Johnson was eventually persuaded that Westmoreland was right. In March 1965, US Marines landed at Da Nang – a major escalation of the US war effort had begun.
US forces in South Vietnam now increased steadily – General Westmoreland asked for more and more troops to be sent. President Johnson supplied them. New recruits were organised under the draft system. Eventually, over 500,000 American combat troops were involved in the war.
Fighting in Vietnam, 1965–8
The country South Vietnam is hilly, and covered with rain forest – dense jungle. It has a tropical climate with heavy, monsoon rainfall from June to August. The American troops had no experience of fighting in these conditions, and this had a serious effect on the effectiveness of their military operations. The jungle cancelled out any American advantages in military technology, such as tanks and heavy artillery.
American forces in action The USA entered the war confidently. It was one of the world’s strongest military powers, with overwhelming superiority in air, sea and ground forces. The American forces were convinced that the Viet Cong would stand little chance of success against the awesome firepower that the USA could deploy. The Americans expected to win – they had no reason to think otherwise.
Popularly known as the ‘Air Cavalry’, these were widely used by the US to move troops quickly to combat areas. Helicopter gunships were used to attack and destroy suspected enemy positions. The standard tactic was for the gunships to hammer the Viet Cong positions from the air, and then use troop carrying helicopters to bring in ground forces to complete the destruction. The Americans hoped that this tactic of air mobility would neutralise Viet Cong domination of the jungle.
The US attempted to locate the enemy and then use massive firepower to destroy it. There was widespread use of fighter-bombers and strike aircraft to attack Viet Cong targets with bombs and napalm (fire bombs). This had limited success against guerrilla fighters like the Viet Cong – large numbers of innocent South Vietnamese were killed in these strikes.
This was one of the most controversial methods used by the Americans. Chemical defoliants were used to destroy trees and bushes to deprive the Viet Cong of ground cover – the most famous of these was called Agent Orange, which led to increased levels of cancer and the birth of deformed infants among the Vietnamese people. American troops suffered from similar issues.
The USA had total control of the skies over Vietnam, and, as a result, was able to use its air power to strike at its enemies. US airpower was used throughout the war, both against the Viet Cong in South Vietnam and against North Vietnam. Air raids were carried against known and suspected Communist positions. Thousands of innocent people died or were injured by these air attacks.
The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese The commanders of the Viet Cong and of North Vietnamese forces were fully aware of US firepower. Accordingly, they fought a very different war from the Americans.
‘We rule the day, but Charlie rules the night.’
Comment by an unidentified US soldier
(Victor Charlie is radio code for Viet Cong)
Viet Cong units did not wear uniform – it was difficult for the Americans to identify their enemies. The Viet Cong avoided large-scale pitched battles. Instead, they used guerrilla tactics: sabotage, ambush, and hit-and-run raids. Small numbers of communist forces were capable of inflicting heavy casualties on their enemies. When superior American and South Vietnamese forces counter-attacked, the Viet Cong simply melted back into the local communities, to resume their activities later on.
American troops were worn down by these methods. They never seemed to be getting anywhere. Time after time, they would attack the Viet Cong and seem to drive them out. Heavy air strikes would be ordered. After this, helicopter gunships would move in, and launch devastating attacks. The American commanders would claim that the Viet Cong had been beaten. But,
in a short time, the enemy was back, often under cover of darkness, striking hard at the Americans and the South Vietnamese troops. Inevitably, American casualties began to rise… and American morale began to decline.
Tasks 1. What were the Americans attempting to achieve through their extensive use of air power in Operation Rolling Thunder?
2. The war on the ground: Make up a report on how the war was fought. Your report should cover three main areas:
the tactics used by the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies
the tactics used by the Viet Cong and their allies from North Vietnam
the reasons why the Americans, despite their great superiority in firepower, achieved so little success.
The Tet Offensive, January 1968
This is the name given to the massive attacks launched by the Viet Cong in Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, at the start of 1968.
From his headquarters, General Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam, had been issuing regular statements claiming the Americans and the South Vietnamese were close to victory. The US had certainly suffered high levels of casualties but, he claimed, the communists had suffered far more. Hhe believed that the communists would soon lose the war, and South Vietnam would be saved.
In January 1968, the Communists launched a massive wave of attacks on the South Vietnamese cities and on US bases.
In Saigon, the American Embassy came under attack – the city of Hue was captured for a time – heavy attacks were launched against American forces throughout the country. The Americans found themselves having to fight fiercely for areas of the country from which the communists were supposed to have been driven.
The Communist attacks were eventually driven off with heavy losses. The Communists had hoped for a massive uprising across South Vietnam, against
the Saigon government and the Americans. This simply did not happen, so, in one sense, the Tet offensive was a heavy defeat for the Communists.
However, the Americans were badly shaken by the ferocity of the attacks. They had been in Vietnam, in strength, for three years – General Westmoreland had been assuring the US public that they were on the verge of victory. These claims now had a hollow ring. In another and very real sense, the Tet offensive was a Communist victory, in that it undermined American support for the war.
Back home, in the USA, there was growing support for the anti-war movement, and for American troop numbers in Vietnam to be reduced. More and more Americans began to criticise the war, and to distrust Johnson. They were angry at the heavy American losses in a war that was not being won.
Young men began to burn their draft cards, calling them for military service – there were massive anti-war protest demonstrations, with chants of ‘Hell, no! We won’t go!’, and ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?!’
Opposition to the war
From 1966 onwards, opposition to the war in Vietnam increased inside the USA. This opposition reached its height in 1968, following the Tet Offensive, as it began to be realised that American hopes of victory were receding.
Reasons for opposition The draft
This was the US system of compulsory military service. More and more young men became reluctant to be sent to Vietnam, because of the high casualty rates – the risk of crippling injury or death. Many men burned their draft cards and went on demonstration chanting ‘Hell, no! We won’t go!’
The war was wrong
More and more Americans began to believe this. Vietnam was a long way from the USA and was a very poor country – how could events there possibly be of any risk to the USA? It no longer seemed to be worth the lives of large numbers of young Americans.
Vietnam was the first television war – Americans were shocked and horrified at images of dead and wounded Americans, and of the harm being done to innocent civilians. How could the USA claim to be defending peace and democracy by doing these things?
The American public were horrified by reports that US troops had committed war crimes, in particular the murder of over 300 innocent villagers by the elite combat unit, the Green Berets, in 1968.
The Tet Offensive
This had a massive impact on US opinion. American generals and politicians were discredited – the Viet Cong had not been defeated, as had been claimed. It seemed to be stronger than ever, despite all the USA’s efforts and sacrifices.