Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. History: War

Vietnam War (1959–1975)

Vietnam War (1959–1975)


Cold War Escalation

The United States became engaged in the Vietnam conflict during the Cold War as part of its commitment to halt the spread of communism. Several presidents and Congress supported American intervention in Vietnam to halt the Communist North and Ho Chi Minh from overtaking the entire country. American support came in the form of economic aid, military supplies, and, eventually, combat troops. The process began when the United States began to assist the French in maintaining Vietnam as a colony and started to wane after American troops pulled out in early 1973. From the initial interest expressed by the United States until the midpoint of the actual war, a gradual and sometimes rapid escalation of American troop presence characterized U.S. involvement.

The United States had been waging the Cold War on several fronts, especially against Communists in Eastern Europe, South America, and now, with Vietnam, in Southeast Asia. Its main adversaries, however, were the Soviet Union and China. The Viet Minh, Ho Chi Minh’s Communist force from North Vietnam, was seen as a pawn of the larger Communist forces in Asia. As the United States saw a strengthening of the Vietnamese Communists, it began to aid France in trying to quell this movement.

President Harry Truman announced on May 8, 1950, that the United States would give military and economic aid to the French in the Indochina struggle, starting with a $10 million grant. France wanted American combat troops, but Truman never gave any. At the time of Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration, the U.S. was paying for one-third of the French effort in Indochina. It supplied the French with arms and materiel, and two hundred air force technicians. The United States dramatically increased financial support and military supplies to a total of $119 million by the end of 1951; the United States supplied $815 million during 1954.

By 1954, after a defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the French lost interest in their colony. American policy toward Vietnam focused on preventing a Communist takeover. Vice President Richard Nixon was the first high-level official to pose the question: would the United States take the place of the French in Indochina to prevent the spread of communism? Within two years, 350 American military personnel were sent to Vietnam, assigned to help the Vietnamese fix the equipment the French left behind.

After the Geneva Conference of 1954, which was convened to determine the fate of Vietnam after the French defeat, Vietnam was divided at the seventeenth parallel. The United States supported Ngo Dinh Diem as the leader of South Vietnam. U.S. funds for the Diem regime grew constantly during the late 1950s—a total of $1.8 billion from the time of the Geneva Conference to mid-1959.

As American support for a democratic Vietnam grew, so did the preparation for a military campaign. A federal study group recommended in 1961 a forty-thousand man increase in the South Vietnamese Army and a major deployment of U.S. troops for training purposes. On May 11, President John F. Kennedy added four hundred Special Forces troops to the hundreds of advisors already on their way. At this time he ordered a covert campaign against North Vietnam and agreed to the National Security Council goal, “to prevent Communist domination of Vietnam.” The goal had been, “to assist Vietnam to obtain its independence.” In December of 1961, the first American helicopters with their crews arrived in South Vietnam. These helicopters mostly took South Vietnamese troops into battle. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sent President Kennedy a memorandum that declared that he and the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended a plan to give the South Vietnamese effort more support. They felt ground troops would be necessary and this mission would not take more than 205,000 men.

Diem continued to receive American support and requested the U.S. funds for a 170,000- to 270,000-man increase in his army in June 1961, and a buildup of selected elements of U.S. armed forces. In November 1961, the United States sent 948 advisors and combat support personnel to South Vietnam. By January 1962, over 2,500 were in Vietnam; by June 30, 5,576; by the end of 1962, 11,000; and by October 1963, a total of 16,732 were in country.

During this buildup of American advisors and military personnel, both President Diem and President Kennedy were murdered. Diem had proven unpopular; his coziness with the West was not appreciated by Vietnamese North or South. A coup resulted in his death. Kennedy was shot in Dallas in November 1963, which made Lyndon Johnson the new president. Johnson tackled the issue of Vietnam with force, determined not to allow Vietnam to fall to the Communists. To his ambassador to Vietnam, President Johnson declared, “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the one president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.”

Johnson approved Operation Plan 34A, which was “an elaborate program of covert military operations against the state of North Vietnam, directly controlled by U.S. military commanders, using Vietnamese and Thai soldiers.” By 1964, Johnson could not persuade any NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) countries to join the effort against the Communists in North Vietnam. Several nations sent supplies or relief, but only five nations contributed troops—Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines.

At this point, the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese Communist guerilla forces) was estimated at 170,000 soldiers. America had 23,000 troops in Vietnam, and was poised for war, but not openly committed. After a skirmish between American and North Vietnamese vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin in August of 1964, Congress issued the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the president to commit American military troops at his discretion, without a formal declaration of war. Johnson immediately escalated American involvement in Vietnam. On March 8, 1965, the U.S. Ninth Marine Expeditionary Force came ashore at Da Nang. In February 1965, in retaliation against Viet Cong attacks against U.S. stations in the South, Operation Flaming Dart was begun with air strikes by American forces on targets in the North. Operation Rolling Thunder followed. The United States had firmly committed to defending South Vietnam.

Major Figures

Ho Chi Minh

The founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) led the movement for Vietnamese independence and served as the president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from 1945 to 1969. He also sought unity for the whole of Vietnam under Communist control in the face of French and American interference.

Born Nguyen Sinh Cung (some sources say Nguyen That Thanh) on May 19, 1890, in Kim Lien, Vietnam, Ho was the son of Nguyen Sinh Huy, a civil servant and local government official for the French-controlled government of his country. Ho and his two elder siblings were primarily raised by their father after the death of their mother in childbirth when Ho was ten years old. Even before his mother’s death, Ho was involved in anticolonial activities because of his father.

Early Revolutionary Activities

Nguyen Sinh Huy came to oppose French interference in Vietnam and ultimately resigned his position in protest. He introduced Ho to revolutionaries and anticolonial groups. By the age of nine, Ho was serving as a messenger for one such group. He continued to be an activist while attending one of the best schools in Vietnam, the National Academy in Hué. Ho was expelled from school in 1908 for participating in protests against the French.

In 1909, Ho went to southern Vietnam. He continued his education there and worked as a teacher in Saigon for a time. By 1911 or 1912, Ho was working as a cook’s helper for a French-owned steamship company. He spent two years at sea, traveling the world and picking up a knowledge of languages such as Russian and English. After his tenure aboard the ship ended, Ho lived and worked first in London, then in Paris during World War I.

Emerging Communist

While residing in Paris, Ho committed himself to pursuing Vietnamese independence from France. Dubbing himself Nguyen Ai Quoc, which means Nguyen “the Patriot,” he tried to present a petition demanding Vietnamese independence at the Versailles Peace Conference at the end of World War I. He then spent three years as the leader of the Vietnamese community living in Paris in the early 1920s, writing pamphlets decrying French control of Indochina. Already committed to communism, Ho also had been a founding member of the French Communist Party in 1920.

Ho was invited to be educated as a revolutionary leader in the Soviet Union. In 1923, he began a two-year stint at the University of Oriental Workers, located in Moscow. Ho then spent time in China organizing a Communist movement there; he also formed a group of Vietnamese students living in Canton, China, into the Thanh Nien, or Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League, in 1925. In addition to demanding Vietnamese independence, the organization called for gender equality and land redistribution as well.

Compelled to leave China in 1927 due to a crackdown on Communists, Ho returned in 1930 to reunite the fractionalized Thanh Nien into a Communist party representing all of Indochina. Ho’s revolutionary activities with the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) continued in other cities such as Hong Kong, resulting in his arrest by the British in 1931. After two years in prison, Ho went to the Soviet Union for about seven years.

Leader of Vietnamese Independence Movement

After meeting with the ICP upon his return to China in 1940, Ho served as chairman of an ICP Central Committee meeting in Vietnam in May 1941. At the time, France was occupied by the Germans, which gave Japan the opportunity to occupy most of Vietnam and establish several military bases there. The Japanese military occupation of Vietnam lasted until the end of World War II.

In conjunction with ICP, Ho formed the Viet Minh, or League for Vietnamese Independence. Ostensibly non-Communist, the group sought independence for Vietnam from both the French as well as the Japanese occupiers. Ho and his followers hoped to take advantage of the situation in France as well as greater Japanese involvement with the war to gain Vietnam’s independence. In addition to building up an ICP military force, Ho worked to gain support for Viet Minh in countries such as China and the United States. The Viet Minh aided the Americans against the Japanese during the war in hopes of gaining the support of the U.S. government for their cause.

As World War II reached its conclusion, the Viet Minh successfully pushed to take control of most of Vietnam with their August Revolution. Ho was named the president of the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam and on September 2, 1945, formally declared that Vietnam was a free and independent country. Though the French wanted to retake control of Vietnam at war’s end, Ho and France agreed in March 1946 to create a free country of Vietnam within the French Union.

By the end of 1946, the French did an about face and decided to hold Vietnam as a colony, in part to enhance its reputation as a leading world power. Vietnamese forces fought French forces in the French Indochina War until the mid-1950s. The French, already drained by World War II, sought an end to the war in 1954. At a peace conference in July 1954, the agreed-upon truce saw Vietnam divided into a Communist North—the Democratic Republic of Vietnam led by Ho—and a non-Communist South—the Republic of South Vietnam. The two halves were to become one country in 1956, at which time free elections were to be held to determine who would run it.

Head of Free Vietnam

While Ho remained in control of North Vietnam, as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was commonly known, he turned over day-to-day operations to others over the years. Remaining his country’s president as well as the head of its Communist party, Ho focused primarily on putting forth Vietnamese interests on the international stage.

Domestically, Ho’s actions sometimes failed, as with a mid-1950s land reform campaign that cost thousands of Vietnamese citizens their lives. Other moves had wider implications. When South Vietnam refused to hold the 1956 elections—as the Americans advised for fear the Communists would win—Ho and his fellow leaders were determined to reunite both halves of Vietnam under a Communist government.

Vietnam War

An armed conflict soon broke out between North and South Vietnam. North Vietnam supported the Viet Cong, South Vietnamese Communist rebels who engaged in guerrilla warfare in their country. They soon gained much territory in South Vietnam, and North Vietnamese soldiers soon joined the fight. From the beginning of the conflict, the United States provided money, weapons, and military advisors for South Vietnam. The Cold War compelled the United States to become involved for the sake of preventing the spread of communism and promoting democracy; Ho viewed American involvement in Vietnam as an imperialistic power grab.

As the United States became more deeply involved in the conflict in the early 1960s, Ho turned to the Soviet Union and China for important military support in his cause. However, as the Vietnam War intensified, Ho’s health began to fail.

While retaining his titles, Ho gradually made fewer public appearances, had less control of his government, and was essentially a figurehead by the end of the decade. Ho died on September 3, 1969, in Hanoi, after suffering a heart attack. Several years after his death, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam defeated South Vietnam and its American supporters, taking control of the whole country. Because of his importance to Vietnamese history for his leadership in the cause of Vietnamese independence, Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975.

Robert McNamara

During the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara (1916–) was the controversial U.S. secretary of defense in the administrations of both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson. In fact, Vietnam was sometimes called “McNamara’s War,” because he took on primary responsibility for developing and managing America’s war effort. In addition, he was a successful business executive at Ford Motor Company and later chairperson of the World Bank for thirteen years.

Robert Strange McNamara was born on June 9, 1916, in San Francisco, California. He was the son of Robert James McNamara and his wife, Clara Nell Strange. His father worked as a wholesale shoe company manager and raised his family in Piedmont, California. An outstanding student throughout his childhood, McNamara studied philosophy and economics at the University of California, Berkeley. He graduated in 1937.

Early Business Career

After graduating college, McNamara entered Harvard’s business school and earned his MBA in 1939. Returning to California, he then spent a year at Price Waterhouse & Company’s San Francisco office. In 1940, McNamara went back to Harvard and worked as an assistant professor of business administration.

Service during World War II

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, McNamara tried to join the navy. Because of his poor eyesight, he was not accepted for active duty, but he did serve in the U.S. Army. While remaining an educator at Harvard for a time, McNamara taught a business class for officers in the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). He also served as a special consultant for the USAAF.

In 1943, McNamara went on leave from Harvard to focus on his consulting work for the USAAF. Stationed in England as a temporary captain, he used his background in accounting and statistics to aid the B-17 and B-29 bomber programs. McNamara also served in India, China, and the Pacific under the auspices of the USAAF.

Return to Business World

After his war service ended in 1946, McNamara put off plans to return to Harvard in order to join a group of statistical control authorities who had served during the war and were forming a business consulting company. The “Whiz Kids,” as they came to be known, wanted to use the skills they developed during the war in corporate America. The nine men who made up the Whiz Kids were hired by the financially strapped Ford Motor Company in 1946.

Because McNamara displayed the most talent of the nine, he quickly rose through Ford’s corporate ranks. Moving from the manager of Ford’s planning and financial offices to comptroller by 1949, he was named the Ford division’s assistant general manager in 1953. McNamara gained more power in 1957 when he was named vice president in charge of all car and truck divisions of Ford. At the same time, he was elected to Ford’s board of directors. In November 1960, McNamara was named president of Ford Motor Company, the first person to come from outside the Ford family to hold that position.

Named Secretary of Defense

McNamara’s time at the top of Ford was short-lived. He served as the company’s president for only five weeks when newly elected President John F. Kennedy asked him to become the secretary of defense. With the help of the “Whiz Kids” who came with him from Ford, McNamara used his skills in finance and management to improve the Defense Department by increasing its efficiency and strength.

As defense secretary, McNamara oversaw the reorganization of the Pentagon, closed military bases that were not economical, and consolidated the assistant secretaryships from seven to five. In 1963, he introduced the first five-year projected budget plan in the history of the Pentagon. McNamara also revitalized the conventional military forces and developed many types of deterrent forces while moving away from nuclear arms as the primary deterrent defense of the country.

Oversaw Increased Involvement in Vietnam

In addition to using his financial and managerial expertise to improve the operation of the Department of Defense, McNamara also became a top national security and foreign policy advisor to both Kennedy and, later, President Lyndon Johnson. During his time as defense secretary, the U.S. military became more deeply involved in Vietnam, and Vietnam became McNamara’s primary focus.

While McNamara publicly supported the controversial war, he was less sure privately. He endorsed President Johnson’s decisions to put American combat troops in Vietnam and begin a bombing campaign in early 1965. McNamara also consistently offered optimistic public projections about the war, which he initially believed could be won quickly.

After visiting Saigon in late 1965, however, McNamara began expressing doubts about the war in private, and these sentiments only intensified over time. Doubts tormented him, and he encouraged President Johnson to negotiate peace in 1966. McNamara commissioned a study about American involvement in the conflict in 1967, though he continued to support the war vocally in public. By this time, members of the Johnson administration could see support for McNamara declining, and Johnson planned to replace him.

Became World Bank President

Because McNamara became frustrated with American policy in Vietnam, and because the stress of the job was affecting his mental and physical health, he resigned as secretary of defense in February 1968 and was named president of the World Bank. Beginning in 1968, he spent thirteen years improving the international financial body, which lends funds to poor countries for economic, educational, and social programs.

One of McNamara’s primary accomplishments as president of the bank was making it the largest and most important source for international development assistance. In 1968, the World Bank was lending about $1 billion per day. In 1980, it was lending $12 billion per day, which was spent on 1,600 projects worth $100 billion in one hundred developing countries. McNamara retired from his position at the World Bank in 1981.

Writer and Lecturer in Retirement

In retirement, McNamara remained active on the international stage. Becoming a public speaker and author, he commented on world poverty, development strategies, nuclear policies, and other international issues. McNamara spoke out vehemently against the proliferation of nuclear arms.

Vietnam continued to weigh heavily on McNamara’s mind late in his life. He published a book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, in 1995. In the text, he admitted he lied to Congress and the public about why the United States became involved in the Vietnam War. McNamara also acknowledged that he did not fully understand Vietnamese and Asian politics and that these mistakes resulted in the loss of life for thousands of American soldiers. The book and McNamara’s sentiments therein were regarded as highly controversial.

McNamara continues to revisit the lessons of Vietnam in his writing. He co-authored another book on Vietnam in 1999, Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy. He was also the focus of a divisive documentary, The Fog of War, which was released in 2003. In the film, McNamara talks directly to the camera about the whole of his life, his place in history, and most importantly, what happened in Vietnam.

Le Duc Tho

A leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) as well as a founder of the Indochinese Communist Party, Le Duc Tho (1911–1990) played a significant role in conducting the war against South Vietnam. He also was North Vietnam’s primary negotiator with the United States in peace talks. For crafting a peace treaty with American negotiator Henry Kissinger that brought an end to the war in 1973, Tho and Kissinger were jointly awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.

Born Phan Dinh Khai on October 14, 1911, in the village of Dich Le in the Nam Ha Province, Tho was the son of a civil servant in the French colonial government then ruling Vietnam. The family was most likely upper middle-class, though some sources state that they were peasants. He received his education in French schools.

Anti-French Activist

As a young adult, Tho joined the burgeoning Vietnamese revolt against the French overlords and organized demonstrations against the French. In 1929, he was one of the founders of the Indochinese Communist Party, aiding its leader Ho Chi Minh. Tho was often jailed for starting antigovernment riots and other disturbances. In 1930, he was imprisoned by the French on their island prison at Poulo Condore and spent six years doing hard labor. Arrested again in 1939 on similar charges, Tho then spent time in the Son La prison camp.

Soon after his release from the camp, Tho lived primarily in the southern part of Vietnam, where he was a Communist party executive. During World War II, Vietnam was occupied by the Japanese, and Tho played a significant role in organizing resistance to the occupiers. After the war’s end, France reclaimed Vietnam as its colony, though the Vietnamese wanted their independence. This struggle led to the First Indochinese War. Tho emerged as a leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party, serving as its chief commissar during the conflict.

Chief Communist Negotiator

When the Americans became involved in the Second Indochinese War, commonly known as the Vietnam War, Tho was a primary player in directing the war against South Vietnam. His role for the DRV early in the conflict is unclear. Some believe that he might have played a supervisory role over the actions of the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese Communist guerilla forces) from a secret base in the jungle of South Vietnam, perhaps in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Better known are Tho’s activities in the late 1960s. Beginning in May 1968, Tho was the “special advisor” to North Vietnamese chief negotiator Xuan Thuy in the Paris-based peace talks with the Americans. It was soon clear that Tho held real power and eventually became the primary representative for the DRV. Opposite American chief negotiator Kissinger, Tho proved to be a serious opponent who would not compromise on certain points.

After a tough five years of negotiations—some held in secret because of a lack of progress and public pressure in the United States for an end to the conflict—an agreement was finally reached in January 1973 to end the American military presence in Vietnam. The treaty also called for a cease-fire and acknowledgement of General Nguyen Van Thieu as the president of South Vietnam until Vietnam-wide elections could be held to form a new government. However, some North Vietnamese troops were allowed to remain in South Vietnam while the Americans evacuated. The peace was short-lived, and fighting soon resumed between Communist and non-Communist forces in Vietnam.

Refused Nobel Prize

Though Tho and Kissinger, the chief American negotiator, were honored with the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end the fighting in Vietnam, Tho refused to accept it. His refusal stemmed from the fact that the war with South Vietnam was continuing, though the Americans no longer played any role of significance. Tho supported the ongoing attacks by the North Vietnamese on South Vietnam.

After leaving Paris in 1973, Tho became the second highest ranking leader in the Communist Party and served as Le Duan’s (leader of North Vietnam) senior advisor. …