The Vietnam War is likely the most problematic of all the wars in American history. It was a morally ambiguous conflict from the start, ostensibly a war against Communism yet also a war to suppress nationalist self-determination. The war was rife with paradoxes: in the name of protecting democracy, the United States propped up a dictatorial regime in South Vietnam; later in the war, the U.S. military was destroying villages in order to “save” them. Because U.S. objectives were often poorly defined during the course of the war, U.S. policy often meandered: indeed, the United States would “Americanize” the war only to “Vietnamize” it five years later. Not surprisingly, a profound sense of confusion pervaded the entire conflict: the American media sometimes represented tactical victories as terrible defeats, while the U.S. military kept meticulous enemy body counts without any clear method of distinguishing the bodies of the hostile Viet Cong from those of the friendly South Vietnamese.
The U.S. involvement in Vietnam is inseparable from the larger context of the Cold War. Ever since the end of World War II, the United States and Soviet Union had been in the midst of a worldwide struggle for spheres of influence, each superpower wanting to exert cultural, political, and ideological control over various regions of the globe. At the same time, the United States and the USSR each wanted to stop the other country from gaining any such spheres. Southeast Asia in general, and Vietnam in particular, were important spheres of influence in the minds of both U.S. and Soviet leaders. With the “fall” of North Vietnam to Communism in 1954, the United States became committed to stopping the further spread of Communism in the region.
The escalation period of the Vietnam War, from 1955 to 1965, mirrored the Cold War in that the United States and USSR avoided direct conflict—and thereby the possibility of nuclear war—by operating through proxy governments and forces. Unfortunately for the United States, the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government was weak and corrupt, while the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese government was a fiercely proud and independent group of nationalists willing to fight endlessly against foreign dominance and for Vietnamese unification.
The United States further antagonized the North Vietnamese by stepping into the power void that France, the former colonial power in Vietnam, had left behind. In its zeal to battle Communism, the United States essentially ended up assuming the hated role of imperial master in Vietnam. As a result, when the United States sent troops into the territory in the mid-1960s, they found a far different situation than any other they had faced up to that point in the Cold War. Instead of its usual tentative dance of brinksmanship with the USSR, the United States suddenly faced an enemy that believed deeply in its nationalist as well as Communist cause and implacably hated U.S. intervention.
Although Lyndon Johnson originally believed that the commitment of U.S. troops would save South Vietnam from Communist oppression, his policy of escalation, combined with Richard Nixon’s later bombing campaigns, effectively destroyed the country. By the end of the war, the U.S. military had used 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam—more than all the bombs dropped on Europe and Japan during World War II. The ultimate human cost of the Vietnam War was staggering for all sides: an estimated 2million Vietnamese civilians, 1.1 million North Vietnamese soldiers, 200,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, and 58,000 U.S. soldiers were killed.
The Vietnam War had a tremendous impact on American society and culture, in large part because it was the first American war to be televised. As a result, the American press played a significant, unforeseen role in the war, especially in the arena of public opinion. The photographs, videos, and opinions of American journalists, coupled with the simple fact that young Americans were dying on foreign soil against an enemy that did not threaten the United States directly, turned much of the American public against the war. This enormous power of the media and public distrust of the government have been a mainstay of American society ever since. Decades later, the war still figures prominently in American film and literature, and the black granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., remains one of the most potent symbols of American loss.
Kennedy and the First U.S. Involvement: 1961–1963
1960 USSR begins airlifting to Communist Pathet Lao forces in Laos
1961 Kennedy takes office
1962 United States (MACV); sends first “military advisors” to Vietnam Cuban Missile Crisis increases Cold War tensions
1963 Battle of Ap Bac sees Viet Cong forces rout ARVN Buddhist monk immolates himself in protest of Diem’s policies Diem overthrown in U.S.-backed coup Kennedy assassinated; Johnson becomes president
John F. Kennedy - 35th U.S. president; sent “military advisors” to Vietnam under auspices of MACV; assassinated in 1963
Robert S. McNamara - Kennedy’s secretary of defense; also served under Johnson
McGeorge Bundy - Kennedy’s national security advisor; advocated early escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam
Madame Nhu - De facto first lady of South Vietnam; caused outrage by dismissing a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation in protest of the Diem regime as a “barbecuing”
Duong Van Minh - ARVN general who became leader of South Vietnam after ouster of Diem
Lyndon B. Johnson - Vice president under Kennedy; became president after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963
The Kennedy Administration
In November 1960, the young Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy was elected U.S. president. When he took office in January 1961, his administration portrayed itself as a break from the older traditions and as the “best and brightest,” with former Rhodes Scholar Dean Rusk as secretary of state, renowned businessman Robert S. McNamara as secretary of defense, and academic McGeorge Bundy as national security advisor. The president also appointed his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general. This group would remain Kennedy’s key advisors, especially in matters relating to Vietnam, throughout his entire time in office.
Despite Kennedy’s attempts to appear tough on Communism, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev suspected that the young president would be more easily intimated than his predecessor, Eisenhower, who had been one of the major Allied military commanders in World War II. In the young and inexperienced Kennedy, Khrushchev saw an opportunity to press for strategic gains.
Laos and Cuba
In 1960, the Soviet Union began airlifting supplies to the Pathet Lao, a Communist-led group of guerrilla insurgents fighting against the French in Vietnam’s neighboring country, Laos. U.S. policy makers worried that the first domino in Indochina was about to fall, and for a brief time, small, landlocked Laos became an important locale in the global Cold War confrontation between the world’s two superpowers.
Then, in 1962, Khrushchev upped the stakes even further by placing Soviet nuclear warheads on the Communist-governed island of Cuba, just ninety miles from the United States. Kennedy, proving himself a master of brinkmanship, ordered the U.S. Navy to blockade Cuba and refused to back down. Ultimately, it was Khrushchev himself who backed down, removing the missiles in exchange for U.S. concessions. Although the Cuban Missile Crisis ended peacefully, it brought tensions to the highest point yet seen in the Cold War.
“Military Advisors” and the MACV
Within this context of increased conflict, the United States in 1962 established the Military Assistance Command of Vietnam (MACV), which provided American personnel to help train the South Vietnamese army, the ARVN, in its growing conflicts with Communist guerrillas. Under the auspices of the MACV, the United States sent thousands of “military advisors” to South Vietnam; within a year, the American presence rose from around 1,000 men to over 15,000. Although the U.S. government maintained that these “military advisors” were not “military forces” per se, the line quickly became quite blurred.
Moreover, in a major embarrassment for the United States, many of the 250,000 weapons that the MACV distributed to the ARVN that year likely ended up in the hands of the Viet Cong. In fact, many ARVN soldiers who had been drafted from the ranks of the peasants were also secretly members of the National Liberation Front at the same time. In short, the MACV not only drastically escalated the U.S. presence in Vietnam but also spent a good deal of time and money training the enemy.
Because Viet Cong forces and ARVN forces often lived in the same villages and undercover Viet Cong members were widespread, air power was a largely useless tool in the fight to extricate Communists from South Vietnam. For this reason, MACV decided that South Vietnamese peasants should be relocated into fortified “strategic hamlets,” allowing U.S. and ARVN forces not only to protect these peasants but also to try to label the Viet Cong as anyone not living in a strategic hamlet. Unfortunately, the MACV entrusted the job of constructing these strategic hamlets to the much-hated Ngo Dinh Nhu, under whose direction the hamlets were run essentially as labor camps. As peasants in the hamlets grew angry at these conditions, many defected to the Viet Cong side.
The year 1963 marked a turning point, both because the first clashes of the nascent war emerged and because American news coverage of Vietnam began to slip toward pessimism. Unlike prior coverage, which had come largely in the form of positive “headway reports,” media coverage in 1963 began to reveal serious problems to the American public.
At one of the first major battles between ARVN and Viet Cong forces, the Battle of Ap Bac in January 1963, a vastly outnumbered and outgunned Viet Cong force nonetheless inflicted more casualties on the ARVN than vice versa. The official U.S. report claimed that the battle was an important victory for the anti-Communist forces, but two American journalists on the scene reported that the battle was a rout against the ARVN and postulated that U.S. involvement in Vietnam might quickly become a quagmire. As it turned out, the journalists’ words were prophetic, and the battle itself was emblematic of the way much of the war would go.
Buddhist Protestors and Madame Nhu
Meanwhile, the corruption and brutality of the Diem government against Vietnam’s Buddhist leaders continued and soon caused a major crisis. In May 1963, ARVN troops fired on a group of Buddhist protesters in the city of Hue, where Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Thuc reigned as archbishop. The next month, a Buddhist monk doused himself in gasoline and burned himself to death in protest, in public and in full view of a number of journalists.
Pictures of this self-immolation made the front pages of world newspapers the next day and provoked outrage against the Diem regime. South Vietnam’s “first lady,” Madame Nhu, only worsened Diem’s image by publicly dismissing the incident as a “barbecuing,” deriding the monk for using “imported gasoline,” and offering to provide fuel and matches for the next monk who wanted to follow suit.
The End of the Diem Regime
In August 1963, dissatisfied with the Diem regime in general and Diem’s brother Nhu in particular, ARVN generals began a new plot to overthrow Diem. This time, the effort was secretly backed by CIA operatives and the U.S. ambassador in Saigon. On November 1, the coup was carried out, and General Duong Van Minh took power. Diem and his brother Nhu were both executed. The new military rulers proved unstable, and in the period that followed, South Vietnam had little consistent leadership.
On November 22, 1963, just three weeks after Diem’s assassination in Saigon, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn into office, kept Kennedy’s key Vietnam advisors in place, and pledged, “Let us continue.” The United States would soon be well past the point of no return in Vietnam.
The Results of Kennedy’s Policies
Despite Kennedy’s talented advisors, his administration made policy mistakes in Vietnam that led the United States into deeper involvement. The strategic hamlet program was an utter failure: it not only failed to root out Viet Cong influence but actually made it stronger, as Nhu’s mismanagement turned many of the 4.3 million peasants forced into the hamlets against the Diem regime and toward the Communist side. The U.S. decision to allow Diem’s overthrow after years of support, though likely necessary, revealed the United States as the true power operating behind the scenes and robbed the South Vietnamese government of whatever shreds of authority it still maintained.
Moreover, the American media’s quick exposure of these bungled U.S. actions marked the first time that journalists had ever played such an immediate “fact-checking” role in a U.S. conflict. Until 1963, Americans had received news only of Diem’s popularity and successes. But after the Battle of Ap Bac and the Buddhist monk’s self-immolation, the American media began to present an increasingly critical view of U.S. policy in Vietnam. This shift had a profound impact on public opinion: the American people slowly turned against the war, and protest movements grew in strength (see The U.S. Antiwar Movement, p. 49). On a larger level, the media’s role in Vietnam prompted an evolution toward more cynical media coverage of the U.S. government in general—a trend of increased media scrutiny that has continued up to the present day.
Johnson and Escalation: 1964–1966
August 1964 U.S. destroyers in Gulf of Tonkin report North Vietnamese attacks U.S. Congress passes Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
November 1964 Johnson wins presidential election
February 1965 Pleiku Raid kills eight U.S. soldiers U.S. forces begin Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign
June 1965 United States reaches 75,000 troops in Vietnam
Lyndon B. Johnson - 36th U.S. president; escalated U.S. troop levels in Vietnam drastically after Gulf of Tonkin incident
Barry M. Goldwater - Hawkish senator from Arizona who ran unsuccessfully against Johnson in 1964 election
William C.Westmoreland - U.S. general who advocated aggressive strategies against Viet Cong and NVA using large numbers of U.S. forces
Ho Chi Minh - North Vietnamese Communist leader; used guerrilla tactics to prolong the war and frustrate U.S. forces
The Johnson Administration
New president Lyndon B. Johnson inherited a difficult situation in Vietnam, as the South Vietnamese government was in shambles and the Viet Cong was making large gains in rural areas of the South. Although Johnson billed himself as a tough anti-Communist, he pledged to honor Kennedy’s limited troop commitments in Vietnam. Indeed, Johnson handled the Vietnam situation moderately during the early part of his term, striving to continue Kennedy’s programs without dramatically escalating the war.
Johnson did make several changes in U.S. military leadership. Although Robert S. McNamara remained as secretary of defense, General Earle G. Wheeler became the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General William C. Westmoreland was instated as commander of the MACV, replacing previous commander General Paul Harkins, by then referred to as “General Blimp” for his tendency to inflate the ARVN’s successes.
Westmoreland, disgusted with the corruption and incompetence of the ARVN, pushed for 200,000 American ground troops. Meanwhile, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy argued for increased bombing of targets in North Vietnam, especially factories. McNamara, a student of game theory, advocated a “tit-for-tat” policy against North Vietnam, in which U.S. forces would strike Hanoi every time the Viet Cong went on the offensive in South Vietnam.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Despite these suggestions, Johnson maintained a moderate policy until August 1964, when the situation changed dramatically. Early that month, two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin (off the coast of North Vietnam) reported that North Vietnamese gunboats attacked them unprovoked. The American public was incensed, and Johnson requested from Congress the authority to take “all necessary steps” to protect U.S. interests in Vietnam. Congress complied and passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964. Out of the 535 total members of Congress, only two voted against this resolution, which policy makers considered a declaration of war in everything but name. Indeed, Johnson ordered bombing runs on North Vietnam not long after the incident.
Soon after the resolution was passed, a debate emerged over the nature of the attacks on the U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Many have argued that the second attack did not occur at all. Others have argued that the attacks were not entirely unprovoked, as the U.S. ships were likely involved in covert missions against North Vietnam that were unknown to the American public at the time. Nonetheless, the U.S. government embraced the public’s anger about the attacks and ultimately used it as a justification to escalate the war.
Although Johnson deferred openly escalating the war until after the election of 1964, the furor over the Gulf of Tonkin incident only helped Johnson in his campaign. His hawkish Republican opponent, Barry M. Goldwater, argued that much more needed to be done in Vietnam to contain Communism. Johnson countered by touting his “Great Society” program for domestic reform and by airing the famous “Daisy Girl” political commercial, which played on the American public’s fears that Goldwater’s aggressiveness might start a nuclear war. Johnson also promised that his government would not “supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do.” On Election Day, Johnson won by a landslide.
Meanwhile, South Vietnam, lacking the order that Diem’s dictatorial regime provided, had become increasingly chaotic. Although ARVN general Nguyen Khanh emerged from the leadership vacuum as a figurehead of sorts, he too proved ineffective, and riots against him broke out in November 1964. After a February 1965 coup, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky succeeded him. Ky was a swaggering, beer-swilling military man who styled himself as Vietnam’s John Wayne. U.S. officials tried to control him by making the more conservative Thieu chief executive, but both men were so deeply involved in the rampant corruption in South Vietnam that their leadership was not what the country needed.
Operation Rolling Thunder
By 1965, Viet Cong attacks on U.S. forces were becoming increasingly violent, and though the Viet Cong obviously had many soldiers in South Vietnam, the MACV was still having difficulty locating any bombing targets at all. In February 1965, Viet Cong guerrillas attacked a U.S. Marine barracks at the South Vietnamese hamlet of Pleiku, killing eight and wounding over a hundred others.
With the free hand recently provided by Congress, Johnson ordered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy to begin an intense series of air strikes called Operation Rolling Thunder. He hoped that the bombing campaign would demonstrate to the South Vietnamese the U.S. commitment to their cause and its resolve to halt the spread of Communism. Ironically, the air raids seemed only to increase the number of Viet Cong and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) attacks.
Despite Johnson’s campaign promise to keep “American boys” out of Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder set the gears in motion for a major escalation of the war, culminating in the first arrival of U.S. ground troops in 1965. General Westmoreland, doubting the corrupt and ineffective ARVN’s ability to defend U.S. air bases against the Viet Cong, lobbied successfully for two Marine battalions to protect the base at Da Nang. For the first time, U.S. ground troops—not just MACV advisors—were committed to Vietnam. The war was undergoing “Americanization.”
The Enclave Strategy
Johnson, meanwhile, advocated an inconsistent strategy: although at one point in 1965 he promised North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh “unconditional discussions,” he also harbored a belief that a gradual increase in the U.S. military presence in Vietnam would make Ho more willing to negotiate and perhaps even cause him to withdraw NVA troops from South Vietnam. The United States did send more troops, and a total of 75,000 were in Vietnam by June 1965, just ten months after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
With these troops in place, U.S. officials instituted an “enclave” strategy under which U.S. forces would try to maintain only those areas of Vietnam already under Saigon’s control. General Westmoreland, opposing the enclave strategy, called for more and more U.S. forces and advocated “taking the battle to the enemy.” Indeed, in July 1965, Johnson sent 100,000 more troops and authorized another 100,000 to be dispatched in 1966.
Continued Bombing Campaigns
Throughout 1965, the U.S. military continued its bombing campaigns, so heavily that by the end of the decade it had dropped 3 million tons of bombs on Vietnam—more than all the bombs dropped in Europe during World War II. Despite the enormous number of bombs used, the campaign had little effect. Target selection was difficult against the hidden Viet Cong and rural, non-industrialized North Vietnamese. Moreover, Ho Chi Minh decided to evacuate much of the population of Hanoi in order to give Rolling Thunder still fewer targets. Nonetheless, the United States continued bombing in an attempt to demoralize the North Vietnamese, misunderstanding both the commitment of the Communist nationalists and the terrain of Vietnam.