The Usa and Vietnam: Failure Abroad and at Home, 1954–1975 Key issue: How effective were guerrilla tactics during the Vietnam War?

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The USA and Vietnam: Failure Abroad and at Home, 1954–1975

Key issue: How effective were guerrilla tactics during the Vietnam War?

The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and its consequences. US policy and intervention following French defeat. The theory of guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla tactics, 1964–1968. The US response to guerrilla tactics: Operation Rolling Thunder; ‘Hearts and Minds’; Agent Orange and napalm; Search and Destroy. The My Lai Massacre, 1968.

Key issue: How did the coverage of the Vietnam War in the USA lead to demands for peace?

TV and media coverage of the war, from the Gulf of Tonkin to the evacuation of Saigon. Protest movements in the USA, 1968–1973. The public reaction to the My Lai Massacre, the trial of Lieutenant Calley. The Kent State University protest, 1970. The Fulbright hearings, 1971..

Key issue: Why were the US actions to end the Vietnam War unsuccessful?

The Tet Offensive and its impact on the war, 1968. Attacks on Laos and Cambodia, 1970. US bombing of the North and attacks on Laos and Cambodia, 1970 –1972. The Paris Peace Conference and US withdrawal. The fall of Saigon, 1975.

Reasons for the US involvement in Vietnam

Vietnam was ruled by the French till defeat at Dien Bien Phu 1954. Then it was divided into two countries, North and South Vietnam. The communist ruler of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, wanted to unite the North and South under his control. He supported the Vietcong in South Vietnam. President Diem ruled South Vietnam. He was strongly anti-communist, but was also a brutal and unpopular leader.


The Vietcong (or the National Liberation Front) were the communist guerrilla soldiers from the North fighting to overthrow President Diem and his government. By 1964, there were over 100,000 Vietcong in the South and they were killing thousands of South Vietnamese officials every year. Diem's army could not get rid of them.

How did Johnson escalate the war after 1963?

At first he just continued the policy of using military "advisers", but then Ho Chi Minh sent units of the NVA (the North Vietnamese Army) into the South to back up the Vietcong. Johnson now decided to escalate (increase) American involvement.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident in August, 1964, (when US ships were allegedly attacked by North Vietnamese ships) gave him the excuse to attack the North. He also persuaded the US Congress to give him a free hand in Vietnam.

In 1965, President ordered the bombing of North Vietnam. He then ordered US combat troops into action to back up the weak ARVN South Vietnamese Army . Johnson believed that this would lead to a quick defeat of the Vietcong.

In March, 1965, 3,500 marines arrived at Danang. From now on, General Westmoreland directed the war in Vietnam. By 1968 there were well over 500,000 US troops in South Vietnam.

The theory of Guerrilla warfare.

Mao Zedong Chinese leader identified three stages

  1. Get support of people

  2. Harrass and weaken enemy

  3. Drive enemy out by convention means

How did the Vietnamese use guerrilla warfare?

Guerrillas fight in small units, avoiding face-to-face fights with their enemy.

The Vietcong guerrillas used ambushes, planted mines worst ones called bouncing bettys and booby traps, sharpened bamboo sticks in pits targeting isolated US and ARVN units. Killed point soldiers , command officers and radio operators

They were experts at camouflage, blending into the countryside. They did not wear a uniform carried very little

They dug 250 km of tunnels to hide in; the tunnels contained kitchens, weapons stores, hospitals and living quarters.

Vietcong guerrillas were helped by local people, but most of their supplies came down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia It was actually many different paths. Thousands of people organised it, enduring terrible conditions.

The Vietcong tried to win over the peasants in the South, but they did not hesitate to torture and murder government officials and spies.

The Vietcong also carried out sabotage (usually bombs) in South Vietnamese cities, especially Saigon and even inside US bases.

US Response to Guerilla Tactics

Initially Johnson insisted victory would only come through winning the hearts and minds of South Vietnamese people called it policy of hope and electricity . US built schools roads and sewers and provided medical aid However bombing and strategic ham,l;est programme undid any good work may have achieved

US They fought a "high-tech" war relying on the latest technology, including B-52 bomber planes, helicopters and chemical warfare. They also used "search and destroy" operations.

Operation Rolling Thunder and bombing campaign

Bombing attack on North Vietnamese military and industrial targets (e.g. bridges, army barracks, railway lines, roads and arms depots).

Operation Rolling Thunder started in February, 1965. The aim was to end the North Vietnamese support for the Vietcong. Bombing did not cost as many American lives as ground warfare.

At first, cities like Hanoi and Haiphong were not bombed because Johnson did not want to anger the USSR and China too much by targeting civilians. But, later, this policy changed and the USA began saturation bombing (bombing everything in sight).

Three times as much explosive was dropped on Vietnam as was dropped on Germany and Japan during the whole of the Second World War.

The Americans also used chemical weapons. They used napalm (jellied petrol) and Agent Orange (a weedkiller) to burn off leaves and vegetation.

Napalm could also injure people horribly and Agent Orange contained dioxin, which poisoned the environment and caused long-term effects, such as cancers and deformities.

Search and destroy

Army units were sent out into the villages and countryside to search for and kill any Vietcong they could find.

This led to much brutality against the Vietnamese, partly because the US soldiers were so afraid and angry when their friends were killed by the Vietcong. Houses set on fire in Zippo raids

The US Army High Command measured the success or failure of a search and destroy mission by the "body count", meaning the number of Vietcong killed.

Search and destroy missions were backed up by helicopters, which were used to carry troops, arms and supplies. Helicopters were the best form of transport in the thick rainforests and swamps of Vietnam.

Helicopters were also used as gunships armed with rocket launchers and machine guns

How did the North Vietnamese try to fight back against the American bombers?

Used anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles and fighter planes (Mig jets supplied by the USSR).

Over 1,400 US planes were shot down between 1965 and 1968.

They also built miles of tunnels and shelters to protect themselves from the bombs.

What was the My Lai massacre and why was it important?

On 16th March, 1968, nine helicopter gunships landed three US platoons near the village of My Lai. The US troops were on a search and destroy mission and My Lai was believed to be a Vietcong stronghold. Over a two hour period, the Americans killed hundreds of men, women and children - probably 300, but maybe more. Rapes and body mutilation took place. Witnessed by US heliocopter pilot Hugh Thompson who tried to persuade Lt Calley to stop killings.

The truth about the massacre did not come out for eighteen months and publication of graphic photos followed. Investigation followed Only Lieutenant Calley was convicted of war crimes defence was he was only following orders Given life sentence then 3 days later President Nixon transferred him to hopsue arrest and eventually only served 3 years

Pictures of the massacre were shown around the word and people were appalled. It was another reason why many Americans began to turn against the war.

On the other hand, some Americans refused to believe the story and 79% disapproved of his court martial

Massacre removed any thoughts that amerciasn were fighting a moral good v evil war. US soldiers returning home referred to as baby killers.

Why did some Americans oppose the war?

There were heavy casualties. A total of 58,000 troops were killed.

TV showed pictures of the horrors of the war - for example the use of napalm. The media played an important part in creating opposition to the war. (There was little media coverage of the war from the Communist side; e.g. North Vietnamese atrocities were rarely shown, My Lai was.)

Many Americans said that the war was immoral. The US government had no right to impose its views on a poor nation like Vietnam.

Don’t forget, though, that many Americans did still support the war and the fight against Communism

War was very expensive money better spent on poor in US

TV and media coverage of the war, from the Gulf of Tonkin to the evacuation of Saigon.

Green Berets Positive view good v evil with John Wayne

CBS news showed Zippo raids

Music Edwin Starr War

Journalist John Wheeler Life in V ring description of battle Hamburger Hill

1968 We are mired in stalemate broadcast Walter Cronkite following Tet

Cartoonist showing expensive war affecting Great Society

TV coverage of US embassy being attacked during Tet offensive

Magazines Life Coverage of My Lai and feature of photographs of “One Weeks Dead”

American protests against the war

The protest movement started in 1964, grew quickly after 1965 and became bigger after the bombing of Cambodia in 1970.

Marches and demonstrations were common, especially on university campuses.

1965 student group called Vietnam day Committee orgasnied 36 hour teach in University of California

Other students began burning draft cards

1967 riot at Wisconsin University in protest about on campus interviews by Dow Chemicals, producer of napalm.

The worst incident took place at Kent State University in May, 1970, when National Guardsmen shot four students dead who were protesting against Us bombing of Cambodia

Young people were especially critical of the war. The late 1960's and early 1970's were a period of rebellion and "dropping out". Hippies told people to "make love, not war".

Some war veterans opposed the war, too. At the Veterans' March in Washington in 1971, some ex-soldiers threw away the medals they had won for bravery during the war.

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King stated it cost half amillion dolalrs to kill a VC but only spending $53 dollars on every poor American at home

Black Americans less likely to avoid draft and twice as likely to be killed

Muhammed Ali refused the draft “No Vietcong ever called me nigger”

Public Opinion only slowly turned against war 1965 24 % against war 56% by 1970

79% disapproved Lt Calleys court martial following My Lai

Tet Offensive

Started on 31st January, 1968. It was an attack by the Vietcong and NVA on more than 100 cities, towns and military bases throughout South Vietnam, including Saigon during Vietnamese New Year

It was totally different to the guerrilla fighting they has used before and was a surprise attack. 15 man suicide squad took over American embassy and held out for 6 hours. Northern town of Hue captured and took 25 days for US to retake it at a loss of 3000 civilians.

The Communists expected the people to join them, but the uprisings they hoped for did not happen.

What were the effects of the Tet Offensive?

Tet Offensive could be seen as a huge failure for the North Vietnamese and Vietcong;

47% of the people killed during the Tet Offensive were Vietcong, 24% were NVA and 22% were civilians. Just 5% were South Vietnam Army ARVN and 2% were US troops. This seems to show it was a massive success for the Americans

As a result of what they saw as a failure, the North Vietnamese agreed to peace talks soon after the Tet Offensive ended. VC lsot most of its best guerrilla fighters

From now on, the NVA did most of the fighting, as the Vietcong never recovered from the setback of Tet.

On the other hand, the Tet Offensive was a huge turning point and was a major reason why more and more Americans turned against the war;

Before the Tet Offensive, the Americans had been quite confident - maybe complacent - about the way the war was going. The US media had given the Americans back home the impression that the war would soon end.

But, when the news of Tet appeared, many Americans felt that they had been deceived by the army. Vietcong troops were shown inside the US embassy in Saigon, which seemed to show that the war could not be won, or at least not for a long time.

Walter Cronkite’s mired in stalemate broadcast

Most Americans became convinced that the war had to be ended as soon as possible. General Westmoreland, who saw Tet as a victory over the Vietcong and NVA, was refused more troops.

Tet also played a large part in Johnson's decision to give up hopes of standing as President again. Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, promised to end the war and was elected as President.

What was Vietnamization?

In 1968, Johnson decided to open peace talks following the Tet Offensive. However, he then stood down as President – sick of the pressure of the War. Nixon won the next election with a promise to end the war.

Nixon began the policy of Vietnamization. This meant taking American troops out of Vietnam and leaving the South Vietnamese troops of the ARVN to do the fighting. The USA would still help by giving arms and money and advice to the ARVN.

At the same time, Nixon continued peace talks as well as continuing to bomb North Vietnam heavily to try to persuade them to give up. Madman theory

Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 and then Laos in 1971. The aim was to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail and to destroy Vietcong bases in these countries.

The invasions also led to more protests against the war back in the USA. It seemed as if Nixon was escalating the war, not trying to bring about peace.

4 American students were shot dead by police in a demonstration at Kent State University OHIO ( “4 dead in Ohio” Crosby Stills Nash and Young)

This made some people even more people angry about US involvement in Vietnam.

How Did the War End?

The American Congress (US equivalent to House of Commons) began a series of meetings Called the Fulbright Hearings to discuss proposals to end the war. The chairman William Fulbright was a critic of the war and questioned the Gulf of Tonkin incident which took responsibility for war away from Congress President directed it. Veteran John Kerry spoke out at Fulbright hearings war been told wasa war against communism but ended up being in middle of civil war ravaging country with bombs.

In January 1973 a peace agreement was reached . The South Vietnamese Presdent, Thieu, was furious because he believed the peace agreement would leave his country at the mercy of North Vietnam.

A few months later, in 1973, the last American troops left Vietnam, leaving the ARVN to fight the communists on their own.

The USA had promised to keep providing aid to South Vietnam, but started to decrease the amount they sent.

North Vietnam then invaded the South and, in 1975 Saigon fell to the Communists.

Reasons for the US defeat

Weaknesses of the USA

  • In beginning of the war, the USA underestimated the Vietcong and the NVA.

  • US generals never found a really effective way to deal with guerrilla warfare. They put too much faith in technology, especially bombing. This did not work well against a guerrilla army.

  • Many of the US troops were young, inexperienced and did not want to fight anyway – they had been conscripted. They did not have the motivation of the Vietcong and NVA. Worst casualties amongst Cherries new inexperienced soldiers. Policy of one year tour of duty , meant most men were cherries. 425 cases of fragging (killing an officer)

  • The US soldiers couldn't cope with the hardships of the Vietnamese climate or terrain. They were often frightened and could not tell who was an enemy.

  • Though the ARVN soldiers (South Vietnam) could fight well, their officers were often corrupt, incompetent and cowardly. They were not much help to the USA.

  • The Americans never won the support of the Vietnamese people. They did not understand the country or its history and the people would not help them.

  • The South Vietnamese government was brutal and corrupt, which gave the Vietnamese people even less reason to support the USA.

  • Many Americans did not support the war, especially after the impact of the Tet Offensive, the My Lai massacre and the Kent State shootings. Gradually more and more people stopped supporting the government.

Strengths of the NVA and Vietcong

  • They used guerrilla tactics very successfully fighting in own country knew well

  • They refused to give in to US bombing - it may even have made them more determined to win

  • They were given vital supplies and equipment by the USSR and China.

  • The Communists received a lot of support from peasants in south

  • North Vietnamese prepared to accept very heavy casualties. They were fighting to protect their homeland. Also, because it was not a democracy, the government did not need to worry about what the public thought (unlike President Johnson and Nixon)

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