1. Imperialism and Colonialism
The Vietnam War has roots in centuries of domination by other countries – China ruled ancient Vietnam, then France took control of Vietnam in the late 1800s. In the early 1900s, movements in Vietnam demanded more self-governance and less French influence. The most prominent of these was led by Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, who founded a militant organization called the Viet Minh.
2. The First Indochina War
During WW II, when France was occupied by Nazi Germany
, it lost its grip in Vietnam. Japan took control of Vietnam. Viet Minh resisted the Japanese dictators. When Japan surrendered at the end of WW II, Ho Chi Minh’s forces took the capital of Hanoi & declared Vietnam an independent country, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
France rejected Ho’s declaration and returned to Vietnam, driving Ho’s forces into north Vietnam. Ho asked for aid from the U.S., who was involved in the Cold War & did not trust Ho’s Communist ideas. U.S. aided France instead. Fighting continued until 1954, when defeat at Dien Bien Phu caused France to seek a peace settlement with Ho.
3. Divided Vietnam
The 1954 Geneva Accords declared a cease-fire & divided Vietnam into South Vietnam (under a French-backed emperor) & North Vietnam (under Ho’s Communist forces). It was temporarily divided at the 17th parallel. The Accords stated Vietnam was to be reunified after its 1956 elections.
4. The Cold War and the Domino Theory
At this point, the U.S. Cold War foreign policy played a major part in Vietnam. U.S. policy was dominated by the domino theory, which believed the “fall” of North Vietnam to Communism might cause all of Southeast Asia to become Communist. Within a year of the Geneva Accords, the U.S. offered support to anti-Communist politician Ngo Dinh Diem. With U.S. help, Diem took control of the South Vietnamese government in 1955, declared the Republic of Vietnam, and canceled the elections scheduled for 1956.
5. The Diem Regime
Diem’s regime was corrupt, oppressive, and unpopular. But, the U.S. still supported it, fearing increasing Communist resistance in South Vietnam. The resistance against Diem was organized by the Ho Chi Minh–backed National Liberation Front, known as the Viet Cong.
In 1962, U.S. president John F. Kennedy sent “military advisors” to Vietnam to help train the South Vietnamese army, but realized Diem’s regime was unsalvageable. Thus, in 1963, the U.S. backed a coup that overthrew Diem and installed a new leader. The new U.S.-backed leaders were just as corrupt and ineffective.
6. Johnson and U.S. Escalation
Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, pledged to honor Kennedy’s promises but hoped to keep U.S. involvement in Vietnam minimal. But after alleged North Vietnamese forces attacked U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, Johnson sent U.S. troops to Vietnam. Bombing battles like 1965’s Operation Rolling Thunder ensued, and the conflict escalated. Johnson’s “Americanization” led to nearly 400,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam by the end of 1966.
7. Quagmire and Attrition
As the U.S. became increasingly help up in Vietnam
, it pursued an attrition strategy, attempting to bury Vietnamese Communist forces under an avalanche of casualties. But, the Viet Cong’s guerrilla tactics frustrated and depressed U.S. troops, while its dispersed, largely rural presence left U.S. bomber planes with few targets. The U.S. thus used unconventional weapons such as napalm and the herbicide Agent Orange but still managed to make little headway.
8. The Tet Offensive
In 1968, the North Vietnamese Army & Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, attacking nearly 30 U.S. targets and dozens of cities in South Vietnam. Though the U.S. pushed back the offensive and won a victory
, American media characterized the conflict as a defeat, and U.S. public support for the war fell. Morale among U.S. troops hit an all-time low, manifesting itself in the 1968 My Lai Massacre, in which frustrated U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians in a small village.
9. The Antiwar Movement
Meanwhile, the antiwar movement within the United States gained momentum as student protesters
, countercultural hippies, and even many mainstream Americans denounced the war. Protests against the war and the military draft grew increasingly violent, resulting in police brutality outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and the deaths of four students at Kent State University in 1970 when Ohio National Guardsmen fired on a crowd. Despite the protests, Johnson’s successor, President Richard M. Nixon, declared that a “silent majority” of Americans still supported the war.
10. Vietnamization and U.S. Withdrawal
Nonetheless, Nixon promoted Vietnamization of the war, promising to withdraw U.S. troops gradually and hand over war management to the South Vietnamese. Although Nixon made good on his promise, he also illegally expanded the geographic scope of the war by authorizing the bombing of Viet Cong sites in the neutral nations of Cambodia and Laos, without knowledge or consent of U.S. Congress. The revelation of these illegal actions, along with publication of the secret Pentagon Papers in U.S. newspapers in 1971, caused an enormous scandal in the United States and forced Nixon to push for a peace settlement.
11. The Cease-fire and the Fall of Saigon
After secret negotiations between U.S. emissary Henry A. Kissinger and North Vietnamese representative Le Duc Tho in 1972, Nixon engaged in talks with China & the USSR & increased bombing of North Vietnam to pressure them into a settlement. This cease-fire was signed in January 1973, and the last U.S. military left Vietnam in March 1973.
The U.S. government still funded the South Vietnamese army, but it dwindled. Meanwhile, as President Nixon was caught in the Watergate scandal that led to his resignation in August 1974, North Vietnamese forces stepped up their attacks on the South and launched an all-out offensive in the spring of 1975. On April 30, 1975, the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, who reunited the country under Communist rule as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, ending the Vietnam War.