Ho Chi Minh was a tiny man, frail in appearance and extremely deferential. He wore simple shorts and sandals. To his followers, he was known simply as “Uncle Ho.”
Ho Chi Minh was born in 1890 in a village in central Vietnam. In 1912, he left his homeland and signed aboard a French freighter. For a time, he lived in the United States-- visiting Boston, New York, and San Francisco. Ho was struck by Americans’ impatience. Later, during the Vietnam War, he told his military advisers, “Don’t worry, Americans are an impatient people. When things begin to go wrong, they’ll leave.”
After three years of travel, Ho Chi Minh settled in London where he worked at the elegant Carlton Hotel. He lived in squalid quarters and learned that poverty existed even in the wealthiest, most powerful countries. In Paris, he came into contact with the French left. He was still in Paris when World War I ended and the peace conference was held. Inspired by Woodrow Wilson’s call for universal self-determination, Ho wrote,”all subject peoples are filled with hope by the prospect that an era of right and justice is opening to them.”
Ho wanted to meet Wilson and plead the cause of Vietnamese independence. Wilson ignored his request.
Ho then traveled to Moscow, where Lenin had declared war against imperialism. While in the Soviet Union, Ho embraced socialism. By the early 1920s, he was actively organizing Vietnamese exiles into a revolutionary force.
In 1941, Ho returned to Vietnam. The time was right, he believed, to free Vietnam from colonial domination. Ho aligned himself with the United States. In 1945, borrowing passages from the Declaration of Independence, Ho declared Vietnamese independence.
However, the French, who returned to Vietnam after World War II, had different plans for Vietnam.
Who was Ho Chi Minh?
What did Ho Chi Minh want?
Before the American War
Digital History ID 3458
After World War II, neither France nor England wanted to see the end of their colonial empires. England was anxious to control Burma, Malaya, and India. France wanted to rule Indochina.
Under Franklin Roosevelt, the United States sought to bring an end to European colonialism. As he put it, condescendingly:
“There are 1.1 billion brown people. In many Eastern countries they are ruled by a handful of whites and they resent it. Our goal must be to help them achieve independence. 1.1 billion potential enemies are dangerous.”
But under Harry Truman, the United States was concerned about its naval and air bases in Asia. The U.S. decided to permit France into Indochina to re-assert its authority in Southeast Asia. The result: the French Indochina War began.
From the beginning, American intelligence officers knew that France would find it difficult to re-assert its authority in Indochina. The French refused to listen to American intelligence. To them, the idea of Asian rebels standing up to a powerful Western nation was preposterous.
Although Truman allowed the French to return to Indochina, he was not yet prepared to give the French arms, transportation, and economic assistance. It was not until anti-communism became a major issue that the United States would take an active role supporting the French. The fall of China, the Korean War, and the coming of Joe McCarthy would lead policymakers to see the French War in Vietnam, not as a colonial war, but as a war against international communism.
Beginning in 1950, the United States started to underwrite the French war effort. For four years, the United States provided $2 billion; however, this had little effect on the war. The French command, frustrated by a hit-and-run guerrilla war, devised a trap. The idea was to use a French garrison as bait, have the enemy surround it, and mass their forces. Then, the French would strike and crush the enemy and gain a major political and psychological victory.
The French built their positions in a valley and left the high ground to their adversaries. An American asked what would happen if the enemy had artillery. A French officer assured him that they had no artillery, and even if they did, they would not know how to use it. Yet, as the journalist David Halberstam noted, “They did have artillery and they did know how to use it.”
Who was involved in Vietnam prior to U.S. intervention?
Why did the U.S. support the French?
How did the U.S. support the French?
What were the Vietnamese fighting for?
Into the Quagmire
Digital History ID 3459
On May 7, 1954, a ragtag army of 50,000 Vietnamese Communists defeated the remnants of an elite French force at a network of bases at Dien Bien Phu in northwestern Vietnam. The French, fighting to restore their Indochinese empire, planned to strike at their adversaries from a network of eight bases (surrounded by barbed wire and minefields) that they had built at Dien Bien Phu. The Viet Minh, Vietnamese Nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh, bombarded these bases with artillery from the surrounding hillsides. Heavy rains made it impossible to bomb the Vietnamese installations or to supply the garrisons. The French, trapped, were reduced to eating rats and pleaded for American air support. Despite support from Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower was not willing to commit American air support without support from Britain, Congress, and the chiefs of staff. Following the advice of Winston Churchill, Gen. Matthew Ridgway, and Senator Lyndon Johnson, President Eisenhower decided to stay out.
Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia had been a French colony since the late 19th century. During World War II, however, Japan occupied French Indochina. After Japan's defeat, France tried to re-establish control, but met opposition from the Viet Minh.
Despite American financial supports, amounting to about three-quarters of France’s war costs, 250,000 veteran French troops were unable to crush the Viet Minh. Altogether, France had 100,000 men dead, wounded, or missing trying to re-establish its colonial empire. In 1954, after French forces were defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, a peace conference was held in Geneva Switzerland. At the conference, the French and the Vietnamese agreed to divide Vietnam temporarily into a non-Communist South and a Communist North, pending re-unification following elections scheduled for 1956.
Those elections never took place. South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, with U.S. backing, refused to participate in the elections for fear of an overwhelming victory by Ho Chi Minh. The failure of the South to fulfill the terms of the Geneva Accord led the North Vietnamese to distrust diplomacy as a way to achieve a settlement.
In 1955, the first U.S. military advisers arrived in Vietnam. President Dwight D. Eisenhower justified this decision on the basis of the domino theory--that the loss of a strategic ally in Southeast Asia would result in the loss of others. "You have a row of dominoes set up," he said, "you knock the first one, and others will fall.” President Eisenhower felt that with U.S. help, South Vietnam could maintain its independence.
In 1957, South Vietnamese rebels known as the Viet Cong began attacks on the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1959, Hanoi approved armed struggle against Ngo Dinh Diem's regime in Saigon.
What happened to the French in 1954?
What agreements were made in Geneva in 1954?
What side did the U.S. support? Why? What leader did the U.S. support?
John Kennedy and Vietnam
Digital History ID 3460
John F. Kennedy arrived in the White House with a far slimmer margin of victory than he had hoped, a mere 100,000 votes. It was an election that seemed to strengthen his enemies more than his friends.
Kennedy came into office committed to increasing defense spending and upgrading and modernizing America’s military. Dwight Eisenhower was committed to a cheap defense. “More bang for the buck,” was Eisenhower’s slogan. He relied on nuclear deterrence and covert operations.
Kennedy was committed to finding an alternative to nuclear weapons. His answer was counterinsurgency. He wanted to use air power and special forces, such as the Green Berets, to fight guerrilla wars.
Kennedy’s foreign policy was based on two major premises. The first was a belief in “monolithic communism”--the idea that all communist movements were orchestrated from Moscow. The second was the domino theory--that should a single strategic country turn communist, surrounding countries were sure to follow.
We must remember that, in the early 1960s, one third of the world was communist and another third was non-aligned.
In Cuba, Kennedy faced a test run for Vietnam. Kennedy completely misread the Cuban people. He was convinced that there was serious anti-Castro sentiment on the island and that an invasion sponsored by the United States would rally the average Cuban to revolt.
Kennedy assumed that Cuba was a small island; however, Cuba is 800 miles long (and would stretch from New York to Chicago). During World War II, it had taken three days and 18,000 Marines to capture the tiny Pacific island from the Japanese. Clearly, an invasion of Cuba would require many more than the 1,500 poorly trained Cuban exiles.
It was during Kennedy’s presidency that the United States made a fateful new commitment to Vietnam. The administration sent in 18,000 advisors. It authorized the use of napalm (jellied gasoline), defoliants, free fire zones, and jet planes.
The government’s efforts, however, weren’t working. By July 1963, Washington faced a major crisis in Vietnam. Buddhist priests had begun to set themselves on fire to protest corruption in the South Vietnamese government. The American response was to help engineer the overthrow the South Vietnamese president.
In 1963, South Vietnamese generals overthrew the Diem government and murdered President Diem. President Kennedy sanctioned Diem's overthrow, partly out of fear that Diem might strike a deal to create a neutralist coalition government including Communists, as had occurred in Laos in 1962. Dean Rusk, Kennedy's secretary of state, remarked, "This kind of neutralism...is tantamount to surrender." By the spring of 1964, fewer than 150 American soldiers had died in Vietnam.
Why did John Kennedy increase American involvement in Vietnam?
What did the U.S. do with the leader they had previously supported? Why?
Digital History ID 3461
President Lyndon Johnson was reluctant to commit the United States to fight in South Vietnam. "I just don't think it's worth fighting for," he told McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser. The president feared looking like a weakling, and he was convinced that his dream of a Great Society would be destroyed if he backed down on the communist challenge in Asia. Each step in deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam made it harder to admit failure and reverse direction.
President Johnson campaigned in the 1964 election with the promise not to escalate the war. "We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves," he said. But following reports that the North Vietnamese had attacked an American destroyer (which was engaged in a clandestine intelligence mission) off the Vietnamese coast, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, giving President Lyndon Johnson power to "take all necessary measures."
In February 1965, Viet Cong units operating autonomously attacked a South Vietnamese garrison near Pleiku, killing eight Americans. Convinced that the communists were escalating the war, Johnson began the bombing campaign against North Vietnam that would last for 2 ½ years. He also sent the first U.S. ground combat troops to Vietnam.
Johnson believed he had five options. One was to blast North Vietnam off the map using bombers. Another was to pack up and go home. A third choice was to stay as we were and gradually lose territory and suffer more casualties. A fourth option was to go on a wartime footing and call up the reserves. The last choice--which Johnson viewed as the middle ground--was to expand the war without going on a wartime footing. Johnson announced that the lessons of history dictated that the United States use its might to resist aggression. “We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else,” Johnson said. He ordered 210,000 American ground troops to Vietnam.
Johnson justified the use of ground forces by stating that it would be brief, just six months. But the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese were able to match the troop build-up and neutralize the American soldiers. In North Vietnam, 200,000 young men came of draft age each year. It was very easy for our enemy to replenish its manpower. By April 1967, we had a force of 470,000 men in Vietnam. The U.S. was learning that there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
The Johnson administration's strategy--which included search and destroy missions in the South and calibrated bombings in the North--proved ineffective, though highly destructive. Despite the presence of 549,000 American troops, the United States had failed to cut supply lines from the North along the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran along the border through Laos and Cambodia. By 1967, the U.S. goal was less about saving South Vietnam and more about avoiding a humiliating defeat.
Then, everything fell apart for the United States. We suddenly learned the patience, durability, and resilience of our enemy. In the past, our enemy had fought in distant jungles. During the Tet Offensive of early 1968, however, they fought in the cities.
At 3 a.m. on January 31, 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched simultaneous attacks on cities, towns, and military bases throughout South Vietnam. The fighting coincided with the Vietnamese lunar New Year, Tet. At one point, a handful of Viet Cong wearing South Vietnamese uniforms actually seized parts of the American Embassy in Saigon.
The North Vietnamese expected that the Tet attacks would spark a popular uprising.
The Tet offensive had an enormous psychological impact on Americans at home, convincing many Americans that further pursuit of the war was fruitless. A Gallup Poll reported that 50 percent of those surveyed disapproved of President Johnson's handling of the war, while only 35 percent approved.
When the offensive ended in late February, after the last communist units were expelled from Vietnam's ancient imperial city of Hue, an estimated 33,249 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had been killed, along with 3,470 South Vietnamese and Americans
The size and strength of the 1968 Tet Offensive undercut the optimistic claims by American commanders that their strategy was succeeding. Communist guerrillas and North Vietnamese army regulars blew up a Saigon radio station and attacked the American Embassy, the presidential palace, police stations, and army barracks. Tet, in which more than 100 cities and villages in the South were overrun, convinced many policymakers that the cost of winning the war, if it could be won at all, was out of proportion to U.S. national interests in Vietnam. The former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who had assured Johnson in 1965 that he was "entirely right" on Vietnam, now stated, "I do not think we can do what we wish to do in Vietnam.” Two months after the Tet Offensive, Johnson halted American bombing in most of North Vietnam and called for negotiations.
As a result of the Tet Offensive, Lyndon Johnson lost it all. Senator Eugene McCarthy, who picked up more than 40 percent of the vote, challenged Johnson in the Democratic presidential primary.
The next primary was in Wisconsin, and polls showed the president getting no more than 30 percent of the vote. Johnson knew he was beaten and withdrew from the race. Johnson was not invited to attend either the 1968 or 1972 Democratic presidential conventions.
Describe how/why the U.S. became heavily involved in Vietnam.
What took place in the Gulf of Tonkin?
What was the Tet Offensive? How did it impact the U.S.?
Digital History ID 3462
Numerous factors contributed to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam: the Cold War fears of communist domination of Indochina; a mistaken belief that North Vietnam was a pawn of Moscow; overconfidence in the ability of U.S. troops to prevent the communist takeover of an ally; and anxiety that withdrawal from Vietnam would result in domestic political criticism. So, too, did a series of events in 1961, including the disastrous attack on Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, the erection of the Berlin Wall, and the threat made by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to sponsor national liberation movements around the world.
The architects of the Vietnam War overestimated the political costs of allowing South Vietnam to fall to communism. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson feared that losing South Vietnam would damage their chances for re-election, weaken support for domestic social programs, and make Democrats vulnerable to the charge of being soft on communism. The North Vietnamese strategy was to drag out the war and make it increasingly costly to the United States.
American leaders also grossly underestimated the tenacity of their North Vietnamese and Viet Cong foes. Misunderstanding the commitment of our adversaries, U.S. General William C. Westmoreland said that Asians "don't think about death the way we do." In fact, the Vietnamese Communists and Nationalists were willing to sustain extraordinarily high casualties in order to overthrow the South Vietnamese government. The United States intervened in Vietnam without appreciating the fact that the Vietnamese people had a strong nationalistic spirit rooted in centuries of resisting colonial powers. In a predominantly Buddhist country, the French-speaking Catholic leaders of South Vietnam were generally viewed as representatives of France, the former colonial power. Communists were able to capitalize on nationalistic, anti-Western sentiment.
List 3 reasons why the U.S. went to war in Vietnam.
List 3 reasons why the Vietnamese defeated the U.S.
Nixon and Vietnam
Digital History ID 3464
In the 1968 election, Republican Richard Nixon claimed to have a plan to end the war in Vietnam, but, in fact, it took him five years to disengage the United States from Vietnam. Indeed, Richard Nixon presided over as many years of war in Indochina as did Johnson. About a third of the Americans who died in combat were killed during the Nixon presidency.
Insofar as he did have a plan to bring "peace with honor," it mainly entailed reducing American casualties by having South Vietnamese soldiers bear more of the ground fighting--a process he called "Vietnamization"--and defusing anti-war protests by ending the military draft. Nixon provided the South Vietnamese army with new training and improved weapons and tried to frighten the North Vietnamese to the peace table by demonstrating his willingness to bomb urban areas and mine harbors. He also hoped to orchestrate Soviet and Chinese pressure on North Vietnam.
The most controversial aspect of his strategy was an effort to cut the Ho Chi Minh supply trail by secretly bombing North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia and invading that country and Laos. The U.S. and South Vietnamese incursion into Cambodia in April 1970 helped destabilize the country, provoking a bloody civil war and bringing to power the murderous Khmer Rouge, a Communist group that evacuated Cambodia's cities and threw thousands into re-education camps.
Following his election, President Nixon began to withdraw American troops from Vietnam in June 1969 and replaced the military draft with a lottery in December of that year. In December 1972, the United States began large-scale bombing of North Vietnam after peace talks reach an impasse. The so-called Christmas bombings led Congressional Democrats to call for an end of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
In late January 1973, the United States, South Vietnam, the Viet Cong, and North Vietnam signed a cease-fire agreement, under which the United States agreed to withdraw from South Vietnam without any comparable commitment from North Vietnam. Historians still do not agree whether President Nixon believed that the accords gave South Vietnam a real chance to survive as an independent nation, or whether he viewed the agreement as a face-saving device that gave the United States a way to withdraw from the war "with honor."
How did Richard Nixon change the war strategy in Vietnam?
What impact did this have on Vietnam and its neighboring countries, Laos and Cambodia?
The Final Collapse
Digital History ID 3466
On the morning of April 30, 1975, a column of seven North Vietnamese tanks rolled down Saigon's deserted streets and crashed through the gates of South Vietnam's presidential palace. A soldier leapt from the lead tank and raised a red, blue, and yellow flag. The Vietnam War was over.
Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese massed at the dock of Saigon harbor, crowding into fishing boats.
In the fall of 1974, President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam abruptly ordered his commanders to pull out of the central highlands and northern coast. His intention was to consolidate his forces in a more defensible territory. However, the order was given so hastily, with so little preparation or planning, that the retreat turned into an uncontrollable panic. Consequently, North Vietnamese forces were able to advance against little resistance. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese soldiers captured Saigon, bringing the Vietnam War to an end.
When did the conflict in Vietnam end?
The War's Costs
Digital History ID 3468
Le Ly Hayslip was born into a peasant family in Central Vietnam in 1949. Her small village was caught in the crossfire of conflict between the French and Moroccan and Viet Minh soldiers, and later between the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong and the armies of South Vietnam and the United States. The daughter of a rice farmer, Le Ly served as a lookout and messenger for the Viet Cong and planted booby traps for the Viet Cong when she was 12-years-old. She was arrested and tortured by the South Vietnamese government police, and then was sentenced to death by the Viet Cong, who accused her of being a government informer. The men assigned to execute her raped her instead.
Like hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese, Le Ly was displaced from her village by the war. She fled to Danang and then to Saigon, where she became a maid, a waitress in GI clubs, and an attendant in a hospital, before trying, out of desperation, to support herself through black market dealing and prostitution. At the age of 20, she married an American construction worker and moved to a San Diego suburb, where she later wrote a harrowing account of her life,When Heaven and Earth Changed Places.
An estimated 58,132 Americans died in Vietnam. More than 150,000 were wounded, and 21,000 were permanently disabled. More than 3 million Americans, average age 19, served in the Vietnam War. An estimated 100,000 Americans fled the United States to avoid serving in the conflict, and approximately 50,000 American servicemen deserted. The Veterans Administration estimates that 830,000 Vietnam vets suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; of that number, 480,000 were so deeply affected that they were considered disabled. Several hundred thousand American troops were exposed to defoliants, such as Agent Orange. The estimated cost of the war in Vietnam during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations was $176 billion. As a whole, 60 percent of all draft-age American men did not serve in the military between 1963 and 1974, and 98 percent did not see combat.
The war's greatest costs and suffering were borne by the Vietnamese people, who may have lost 2 million lives during the conflict. Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were displaced from rural villages, and their families splintered. Herbicides and bombs ravaged the countryside. Between 1964 and 1969, the United States dropped more than nine times the tonnage of high explosives on Vietnam as it did in the Pacific theater during World War II.
After the war, North Vietnam detained 50,000 to 100,000 former supporters of the Saigon regime in re-education camps. Over a million "boat people," consisting largely of Vietnam's persecuted Chinese minority, fled the country to avoid persecution.
Provide a list of 7 facts/statistics describing the costs of the U.S. war in Vietnam.