Vietnam War (1960–1975)

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Vietnam War (1960–1975) CausesMilitary and Diplomatic CourseDomestic CoursePostwar ImpactChanging Interpretations
Vietnam War (1960–75): Causes Most American wars have obvious starting points or precipitating causes: the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the capture of Fort Sumter in 1861, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950, for example. But there was no fixed beginning for the U.S. war in Vietnam. The United States entered that war incrementally, in a series of steps between 1950 and 1965. In May 1950, President Harry S Truman authorized a modest program of economic and military aid to the French, who were fighting to retain control of their Indochina colony, including Laos and Cambodia as well as Vietnam. When the Vietnamese Nationalist (and Communist‐led) Vietminh army defeated French forces at Dienbienphu in 1954, the French were compelled to accede to the creation of a Communist Vietnam north of the 17th parallel while leaving a non‐Communist entity south of that line. The United States refused to accept the arrangement. The administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower undertook instead to build a nation from the spurious political entity that was South Vietnam by fabricating a government there, taking over control from the French, dispatching military advisers to train a South Vietnamese army, and unleashing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to conduct psychological warfare against the North.

President John F. Kennedy rounded another turning point in early 1961, when he secretly sent 400 Special Operations Forces–trained (Green Beret) soldiers to teach the South Vietnamese how to fight what was called counterinsurgency war against Communist guerrillas in South Vietnam. When Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, there were more than 16,000 U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam, and more than 100 Americans had been killed. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, committed the United States most fully to the war. In August 1964, he secured from Congress a functional (not actual) declaration of war: the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Then, in February and March 1965, Johnson authorized the sustained bombing, by U.S. aircraft, of targets north of the 17th parallel, and on 8 March dispatched 3,500 Marines to South Vietnam. Legal declaration or no, the United States was now at war.

The multiple starting dates for the war complicate efforts to describe the causes of U.S. entry. The United States became involved in the war for a number of reasons, and these evolved and shifted over time. Primarily, every American president regarded the enemy in Vietnam—the Vietminh; its 1960s successor, the National Liberation Front (NLF); and the government of North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh—as agents of global communism. U.S. policymakers, and most Americans, regarded communism as the antithesis of all they held dear. Communists scorned democracy, violated human rights, pursued military aggression, and created closed state economies that barely traded with capitalist countries. Americans compared communism to a contagious disease. If it took hold in one nation, U.S. policymakers expected contiguous nations to fall to communism, too, as if nations were dominoes lined up on end. In 1949, when the Communist Party came to power in China, Washington feared that Vietnam would become the next Asian domino. That was one reason for Truman's 1950 decision to give aid to the French who were fighting the Vietminh.

Truman also hoped that assisting the French in Vietnam would help to shore up the developed, non‐Communist nations, whose fates were in surprising ways tied to the preservation of Vietnam and, given the domino theory, all of Southeast Asia. Free world dominion over the region would provide markets for Japan, rebuilding with American help after the Pacific War. U.S. involvement in Vietnam reassured the British, who linked their postwar recovery to the revival of the rubber and tin industries in their colony of Malaya, one of Vietnam's neighbors. And with U.S. aid, the French could concentrate on economic recovery at home, and could hope ultimately to recall their Indochina officer corps to oversee the rearmament of West Germany, a Cold War measure deemed essential by the Americans. These ambitions formed a second set of reasons why the United States became involved in Vietnam.

As presidents committed the United States to conflict bit by bit, many of these ambitions were forgotten. Instead, inertia developed against withdrawing from Vietnam. Washington believed that U.S. withdrawal would result in a Communist victory—Eisenhower acknowledged that, had elections been held as scheduled in Vietnam in 1956, “Ho Chi Minh would have won 80% of the vote”—and no U.S. president wanted to lose a country to communism. Democrats in particular, like Kennedy and Johnson, feared a right‐wing backlash should they give up the fight; they remembered vividly the accusatory tone of the Republicans' 1950 question, “Who lost China?” The commitment to Vietnam itself, passed from administration to administration, took on validity aside from any rational basis it might once have had. Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy all gave their word that the United States would stand by its South Vietnamese allies. If the United States abandoned the South Vietnamese, its word would be regarded as unreliable by other governments, friendly or not. So U.S. credibility seemed at stake.

Along with the larger structural and ideological causes of the war in Vietnam, the experience, personality, and temperament of each president played a role in deepening the U.S. commitment. Dwight Eisenhower restrained U.S. involvement because, having commanded troops in battle, he doubted the United States could fight a land war in Southeast Asia. The youthful John Kennedy, on the other hand, felt he had to prove his resolve to the American people and his Communist adversaries, especially in the aftermath of several foreign policy blunders early in his administration. Lyndon Johnson saw the Vietnam War as a test of his mettle, as a southerner and as a man. He exhorted his soldiers to “nail the coonskin to the wall” in Vietnam, likening victory to a successful hunting expedition.

When Johnson began bombing North Vietnam and sent the Marines to South Vietnam in early 1965, he had every intention of fighting a limited war. He and his advisers worried that too lavish a use of U.S. firepower might prompt the Chinese to enter the conflict. It was not expected that the North Vietnamese and the NLF would hold out long against the American military. And yet U.S. policymakers never managed to fit military strategy to U.S. goals in Vietnam. Massive bombing had little effect against a decentralized economy like North Vietnam's. Kennedy had favored counterinsurgency warfare in the South Vietnamese countryside, and Johnson endorsed this strategy, but the political side of counterinsurgency—the effort to win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese peasantry—was at best underdeveloped and probably doomed. Presidents proved reluctant to mobilize American society to the extent the generals thought necessary to defeat the enemy.

As the United States went to war in 1965, a few voices were raised in dissent. Within the Johnson administration, Undersecretary of State George Ball warned that the South Vietnamese government was a functional nonentity and simply could not be sustained by the United States, even with a major effort. Antiwar protest groups formed on many of the nation's campuses; in June, the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society decided to make the war its principal target. But major dissent would not begin until 1966 or later. By and large in 1965, Americans supported the administration's claim that it was fighting to stop communism in Southeast Asia, or people simply shrugged and went about their daily lives, unaware that this gradually escalating war would tear American society apart.
[See also Commander in Chief, President as; Counterinsurgency; Guerrilla Warfare; Peace and Antiwar Movements.]


George C. Herring , America's Longest War, 1979; 3rd ed. 1996.
Stanley Karnow , Vietnam: A History, 1983; rev. ed. 1991.
George M. Kahin , Intervention, 1986.
Andrew J. Rotter , The Path to Vietnam, 1987.
Lloyd Gardner , Approaching Vietnam: World War II Through Dienbienphu, 1988.
Neil Sheehan , A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, 1988.
David Anderson , Trapped by Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953–1961, 1991.
Marilyn B. Young , The Vietnam Wars, 1991.
Lloyd Gardner , Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam, 1995.
John Prados , The Hidden History of the Vietnam War, 1995.
Robert Buzzanco , Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era, 1996.
Robert D. Schulzinger , A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941–1975, 1997.

Andrew J. Rotter

Vietnam War (1960–1975): Military and Diplomatic Course The Vietnam War was the longest deployment of U.S. forces in hostile action in the history of the American republic. Although there is no formal declaration of war from which to date U.S. entry, President John F. Kennedy's decision to send over 2,000 military advisers to South Vietnam in 1961 marked the beginning of twelve years of American military combat. U.S. unit combat began in 1965. The number of U.S. troops steadily increased until it reached a peak of 543,400 in April 1969. The total number of Americans who served in South Vietnam was 2.7 million. Of these, more than 58,000 died or remain missing, and 300,000 others were wounded. The U.S. government spent more than $140 billion on the war. Despite this enormous military effort, the United States failed to achieve its objective of preserving an independent, non‐communist state in South Vietnam. This failure has led to searching questions about why and how the war was fought and whether a better diplomatic and military outcome was possible for the United States.


By 1961, guerrilla warfare was widespread in South Vietnam. Communist‐led troops of the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam, commonly referred to as Vietcong, were initiating hundreds of terrorist and small unit attacks per month. Saigon's military, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), was not able to contain this growing insurgency. During the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a small U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), never numbering more than 740 uniformed soldiers, had provided training and logistics assistance to the ARVN. The Kennedy administration determined that the size and mission of the U.S. advisory effort must change if the U.S.‐backed government of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon was to survive. Some of Kennedy's aides proposed a negotiated settlement in Vietnam similar to that which recognized Laos as a neutral country. Having just suffered international embarrassment in Cuba and Berlin, the president rejected compromise and chose to strengthen U.S. support of Saigon.

In May 1961, Kennedy sent 400 U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Beret) troops into South Vietnam's Central Highlands to train Montagnard tribesmen in counterinsurgency tactics. He also tripled the level of aid to South Vietnam. A steady stream of airplanes, helicopters, armored personnel carriers (APCs), and other equipment poured into the South. By the end of 1962, there were 9,000 U.S. military advisers under the direction of a newly‐created Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), commanded by U.S. Army Gen. Paul Harkins. Under U.S. guidance, the Diem government also began construction of “strategic hamlets.” These fortified villages were intended to insulate rural Vietnamese from Vietcong intimidation and propaganda.

U.S. and South Vietnamese leaders were cautiously optimistic that increased U.S. assistance finally was enabling the Saigon government to defend itself. On 2 January 1963, however, at Ap Bac on the Plain of Reeds southwest of Saigon, a Vietcong battalion of about 320 men inflicted heavy damage on an ARVN force of 3,000 equipped with troop‐carrying helicopters, new UH‐1 (“Huey”) helicopter gunships, tactical bombers, and APCs. Ap Bac represented a leadership failure for the ARVN and a major morale boost for the antigovernment forces. The absence of fighting spirit in the ARVN mirrored the continuing inability of the Saigon regime to win political support. Indeed, many South Vietnamese perceived the strategic hamlets as government oppression, not protection, because people were forced to leave their ancestral homes for the new settlements.

While Vietcong guerrillas scored military successes, leaders of Vietnam's Buddhist majority protested against what they saw as the Diem regime's religious persecution. In June, a monk dramatically burned himself to death at a busy Saigon intersection. The “Buddhist crisis” and dissatisfaction with Diem by top Vietnamese Army leaders made U.S. officials receptive to the idea of a change in South Vietnam's leadership. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did not interfere as a group of ARVN officers plotted a coup. On 1 November 1963, the generals seized power, and Diem and his unpopular brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were murdered. Three weeks later, President Kennedy was assassinated, and U.S. policy in Vietnam was again at a crossroads. If the new government in Saigon failed to show progress against the insurgency, would the United States withdraw its support from a lost cause, or would it escalate the effort to preserve South Vietnam as an anticommunist outpost in Asia?

Lyndon B. Johnson inherited the Vietnam dilemma. As Senate majority leader in the 1950s and as vice‐president, he had supported Eisenhower's and Kennedy's decisions to aid South Vietnam. Four days after Kennedy's death, Johnson, now president, reaffirmed in National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 273 that the U.S. goal was to assist South Vietnam in its “contest against the externally directed and supported communist conspiracy.” U.S. policy defined the Vietnam War as North Vietnamese aggression against South Vietnam. North Vietnam infiltrated troops and matériel into South Vietnam by sea and along the so‐called Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Throughout his administration, Johnson insisted that the only possible negotiated settlement of the conflict would be one in which North Vietnam recognized the legitimacy of South Vietnam's government. Without such recognition, the United States would continue to provide Saigon as much help as it needed to survive.

The critical military questions were how much U.S. assistance was enough and what form it should take. By the spring of 1964, the Vietcong controlled vast areas of South Vietnam, the strategic hamlet program had essentially ceased, and North Vietnam's aid to the southern insurgents had grown. In June, Johnson named one of the army's most distinguished officers, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, then commandant of West Point, as commander U.S. MACV. Westmoreland immediately asked for more men, and by the end of 1964 U.S. personnel in the South exceeded 23,000. Increasingly, however, the U.S. effort focused on the North. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and other key White House aides remained convinced that the assault on South Vietnam originated in the ambitious designs of Hanoi backed by Moscow and Beijing.

Throughout 1964, the United States assisted South Vietnam in covert operations to gather intelligence, disseminate propaganda, and harass the North. On the night of 2 August, North Vietnamese gunboats fired on the USS Maddox, a destroyer on an intelligence‐collecting mission, in the same area of the Gulf of Tonkin where South Vietnamese commandos were conducting raids against the North Vietnamese coast. Two nights later, under stormy conditions, the Maddox and another destroyer, the Turner Joy, reported a gunboat attack. Although doubts existed about these reports, the president ordered retaliatory air strikes against the North Vietnamese port of Vinh. The White House had expected that some type of incident would occur eventually, and it had prepared the text of a congressional resolution authorizing the president to use armed force to protect U.S. forces and to deter further aggression from North Vietnam. On 7 August 1964, Johnson secured almost unanimous consent from Congress (414–0 in the House; 88–2 in the Senate) for his Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which became the principal legislative basis for all subsequent military deployment in Southeast Asia.

Johnson's decisive but restrained response to the Gulf of Tonkin incidents helped him win the 1964 election, but Saigon's prospects continued to decline. The president wanted to concentrate on his ambitious domestic program, the Great Society, but his political instincts told him that his leadership would be damaged fatally if America's client state in South Vietnam succumbed. Instability mounted in South Vietnam as rival military and civilian factions vied for power and as Vietcong strength grew. A consensus formed among Johnson's advisers that the United States would have to initiate air warfare against North Vietnam. Bombing could boost Saigon's morale and might persuade the North to cease its support of the insurgency. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) favored a massive bombing campaign, but civilians in the State and Defense Departments preferred a gradual escalation.

Using as a pretext a Vietcong attack on 7 February 1965 at Pleiku that killed eight American soldiers, Johnson ordered retaliatory bombing north of the Demilitarized Zone along the 17th parallel that divided North and South Vietnam. Within a week, the administration began ROLLING THUNDER, a gradually intensifying air bombardment of military bases, supply depots, and infiltration routes in North Vietnam. Flying out of bases in Thailand, U.S. Air Force fighter‐bombers—primarily F‐105 Thunderchiefs and later F‐4 Phantoms—joined U.S. Navy Phantoms and A‐4 Skyhawks from a powerful carrier task force located at a point called Yankee Station, seventy‐five miles off the North Vietnamese coast in the Gulf of Tonkin. In 1965, U.S. aircraft flew 25,000 sorties against North Vietnam, and that number grew to 79,000 in 1966 and 108,000 in 1967. In 1967 annual bombing tonnage reached almost a quarter million. Targets expanded to include the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and factories, farms, and railroads in North Vietnam.

From the beginning of the bombing, American strategists debated the effectiveness of air power in defeating a political insurgency in a predominantly agricultural country. Despite the American bombs, dollars, and military advisers, the Vietcong continued to inflict heavy casualties on the ARVN, and the political situation in Saigon grew worse. By June 1965, there had been five governments in the South since Diem's death, and the newest regime, headed by General Nguyen Van Thieu and Air Marshall Nguyen Cao Ky, inspired little confidence. To stave off defeat, the JCS endorsed Westmoreland's request for 150,000 U.S. troops to take the ground offensive in the South. When McNamara concurred, Johnson decided to commit the forces. The buildup of formal U.S. military units had begun on 8 March 1965, when two battalions of Marines landed at Da Nang. In June, Marine and army units began offensive unit operations—“search and destroy” missions. On 28 July, Johnson announced that 50,000 U.S. troops would go to South Vietnam immediately. By the end of the year, there were 184,300 U.S. personnel in the South.

Although Johnson's actions meant that the United States had crossed the line from advising the ARVN to actually fighting the war against the Vietcong, the president downplayed the move. The JCS wanted a mobilization of the reserves and National Guard, and McNamara proposed levying war taxes. Such actions would have placed the United States on a war footing. With his ambitious social reform program facing crucial votes in Congress, the president wanted to avoid giving congressional conservatives an opportunity to use mobilization to block his domestic agenda. Consequently, he relied on other means. Monthly draft calls increased from 17,000 to 35,000 to meet manpower needs, and deficit spending, with its inherent inflationary impact, funded the escalation.

With U.S. bombs pounding North Vietnam, Westmoreland turned America's massive firepower on the southern insurgents. Johnson's choice of gradual escalation of bombing and incremental troop deployments was based upon the concept of limited warfare. Risks of a wider war with China and the Soviet Union meant that the United States would not go all out to annihilate North Vietnam. Thus, Westmoreland chose a strategy of attrition in the South. Using mobility and powerful weapons, the MACV commander could limit U.S. casualties while exhausting the enemy, that is, inflicting heavier losses than could be replaced.

Escalation of the air and ground war in 1965 provoked Hanoi to begin deploying into the South increasing units of the regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA), or People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), as it was called. In October, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the PAVN commander, launched a major offensive in the Central Highlands, southwest of Pleiku. Westmoreland responded with the 1st Air Cavalry Division (Air Mobile). Through much of November, in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, U.S. and North Vietnamese forces engaged each other in heavy combat for the first time. The Americans ultimately forced the NVA out of the valley and killed ten times as many enemy soldiers as they lost. Westmoreland used helicopters extensively for troop movements, resupply, medical evacuation, and tactical air support. USAF tactical bombers and even huge B‐52 strategic bombers attacked enemy positions. The battle convinced the U.S. commander that “search and destroy” tactics using air mobility would work in accomplishing the attrition strategy. Soon after the PAVN departed the battlefield, however, so too did the American air “cavalry.” Clearly, control of territory was not the U.S. military objective.

During 1966 Westmoreland requested more ground troops, and by year's end the U.S. ground force level “in country” reached 385,000. These were organized into seven divisions and other specialized airborne, armored, special forces, and logistical units. With U.S. aid, the ARVN also expanded to eleven divisions, supplemented by local and irregular units. While MACV was getting men and munitions in place for large‐unit search and destroy operations, army and marine units conducted smaller operations. Although the “body count”—the estimated number of enemy killed—mounted, attrition was not changing the political equation in South Vietnam. The NLF continued to exercise more effective control in many areas than did the government, and Vietcong guerrillas, who often disappeared when U.S. forces entered an area, quickly reappeared when the Americans left.

In 1967, Westmoreland made his big push to win the war. With South Vietnam's forces assigned primarily to occupation, pacification, and security duties, massive U.S. combat sweeps moved to locate and destroy the enemy. In January, Operation Cedar Falls was a 30,000‐man assault on the Iron Triangle, an enemy base area forty miles north of Saigon. From February through April, Operation Junction City was an even larger attack on nearby War Zone C. There was major fighting in the Central Highlands, climaxing in the battle of Dak To in November 1967. U.S. forces killed many enemy soldiers and destroyed large amounts of supplies. MACV declared vast areas to be “free‐fire zones,” which meant that U.S. and ARVN artillery and tactical aircraft, as well as B‐52 “carpet bombing,” could target anyone or anything in the area. In Operation RANCH HAND, the USAF sprayed the defoliant Agent Orange to deprive the guerrillas of cover and food supplies. Controversy about the use of Agent Orange erupted in 1969 when reports appeared that the chemical caused serious damage to humans as well as to plants.

Late in 1967, with 485,600 U.S. troops in Vietnam, Westmoreland announced that, although much fighting remained, a cross‐over point had arrived in the war of attrition; that is, the losses to the NVA and Vietcong were greater than they could replace. This assessment was debatable, and there was considerable evidence that the so‐called “other war” for political support in South Vietnam was not going well. Corruption, factionalism, and continued Buddhist protests plagued the Thieu‐Ky government. Despite incredible losses, the Vietcong still controlled many areas. A diplomatic resolution of the conflict remained elusive. Several third countries, such as Poland and Great Britain, offered proposals intended to facilitate negotiations. These formulas typically called upon the United States and DRV to coordinate mutual reduction of their military activities in South Vietnam, but both Washington and Hanoi firmly resisted even interim compromises with the other. The war was at a stalemate.


The decisive year was 1968. In the early morning of 30 January, Vietcong forces launched the Tet Offensive, named for the Vietnamese holiday then being observed. In coordinated attacks throughout South Vietnam, the Vietcong assaulted major urban areas and military installations in an attempt to spark a popular uprising against the Saigon regime and its American backers. Heavy fighting ensued for three weeks, some of the most brutal at Hué. Westmoreland claimed victory because no cities were lost and thousands of casualties were inflicted upon the attackers. Indeed, the Vietcong lost so many soldiers that thereafter the PAVN took over much of the conduct of the war. The Tet Offensive, however, was a great strategic gain for North Vietnam and its southern adherents. U.S. and ARVN losses were high, and the fighting generated thousands of refugees that further destabilized the South. Most importantly, as a result of the massive surprise attack and the pictures from Saigon, the U.S. press and public began to challenge the Johnson administration's assurances of success and to question the value of the increasingly costly war.

At the same time as the Tet Offensive, the siege of Khe Sanh underscored the image of the war as an endless, costly, and pointless struggle. From 20 January to 14 April 1968, 30,000 to 40,000 NVA forces surrounded 6,000 U.S. Marines and ARVN at the remote hilltop outpost of Khe Sanh in the northwest corner of South Vietnam. Using artillery and air power, including B‐52 strikes, the United States eventually broke the siege and forced an NVA withdrawal. At the end of June, however, the Marines abandoned the base to adopt a more mobile form of fighting in the DMZ area. Once again, a major engagement left seemingly intangible results.

In March 1968, Johnson decided that the size of the U.S. effort in Vietnam had grown as large as could be justified. Prompted by a request from Westmoreland and JCS Chairman General Earle G. Wheeler for 206,000 more men, the president asked his new secretary of defense, Clark Clifford, for a thorough policy review. Johnson's sense that a limit had been reached seemed confirmed when the “Wise Men,” a group of outside advisers including such elder statesmen as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Gen. Omar Bradley, recommended against further increases. The president authorized only 13,500 more soldiers and bluntly informed Thieu and Ky that their forces would have to carry more of the fighting. He then announced on television on 31 March 1968 that the United States would restrict the bombing of North Vietnam and pursue a negotiated settlement with Hanoi. Johnson also revealed that he would not seek reelection.

Meanwhile, combat raged in South Vietnam. Over 14,000 Americans were killed in action in Vietnam in 1968, the highest annual U.S. death toll of the war. The worst U.S. war crime of the conflict occurred on 16 March 1968 (although not revealed in the press until 6 November 1969) when American infantrymen massacred some 500 unresisting civilians, including babies, in the village of My Lai. In April and May 1968 the largest ground operation of the war, with 110,000 U.S. and ARVN troops, targeted Vietcong and NVA forces near Saigon. Peace talks began in Paris on 13 May but immediately deadlocked. On 10 June 1968, Gen. Creighton Abrams succeeded Westmoreland as MACV commander. In the fall Abrams began to shift U.S. strategy from attrition to a greater emphasis on combined operations, pacification area security, and what was called “Vietnamization,” that is, preparing the ARVN to do more of the fighting.

When Richard M. Nixon became president in 1969, the U.S. war effort remained massive, but the basic decision to de‐escalate had already been reached. Nixon owed his political victory to voter expectation that somehow he would end the war. He and his principal foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, rejected precipitate U.S. withdrawal. With the ground war stalemated, the new administration turned increasingly to air bombardment and secretly expanded the air war to neutral Cambodia. Publicly the White House announced in June the first withdrawal of 25,000 U.S. troops and heralded Vietnamization as effective. In fact, South Vietnam's armed forces remained problem‐plagued. To bolster the South, the administration leaked to the press dire threats of a “go for broke” air and naval assault on the North—possibly including nuclear weapons. Kissinger also began secret meetings with North Vietnamese representatives in Paris hoping to arrange a diplomatic breakthrough.

The morale and discipline of U.S. troops declined in 1969 as the futility of the ground war and the beginnings of U.S. withdrawal became more obvious. After an intense ten‐day battle in May, infantrymen of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Mobile) took a ridge in the A Shau Valley that they had dubbed Hamburger Hill. Having fought bravely and suffered significant losses, the soldiers were bitter when the site soon was abandoned. Such inability to see progress, and an awareness among the troops that politicians back home were giving up on the war, helped undermine military effectiveness. Simple survival of their twelve‐month tour of duty became the only motivation for many soldiers. Incidents of insubordination, mutiny, fatal assaults on officers, drug use, racial tensions, and other serious problems increased.

Faced with mounting public dissatisfaction, the slow pace of Vietnamization, and diplomatic frustration, Nixon boldly sent U.S. units into Cambodia in April 1970. U.S. military leaders had long complained about the sanctuary that neutral Cambodia provided Vietcong and NVA forces. This Cambodian incursion lasted until the end of June and provided some tactical gains, but it also sparked sharp controversy and demonstrations by the Vietnam antiwar movement in the United States over what seemed an expansion of the war to another country. U.S. troop reductions continued with only 334,600 in the South as 1970 ended.

Nixon stuck with more of the same in 1971. Responding to domestic critics, he continued to order U.S. troops home, leaving only 156,000 by December. To support Vietnamization, heavy U.S. air attacks continued against Communist supply lines in Laos and Cambodia, and so‐called protective‐reaction strikes hit military targets north of the Demilitarized Zone and near Hanoi and its port city of Haiphong. Tactical air support continued, with the heaviest coming in March during a South Vietnamese assault into Laos. Code named Lam Son 719, this operation ended in a confused retreat by the ARVN that further sullied the notion of Vietnamization.

During 1971, Kissinger made progress in the secret negotiations by offering to separate the arrangement of a ceasefire from discussion of the future of the Saigon government. In 1972 Nixon traveled to China and the USSR in diplomatic initiatives, trying to isolate Hanoi from its suppliers. With the shrinking American forces nearing 100,000 (only a small portion being combat troops), General Giap launched a spring 1972 offensive by Communist forces against the northern provinces of South Vietnam, the Central Highlands, and provinces northwest of Saigon. In most of the battles, the ARVN was saved by massive B‐52 bombing. Nixon also launched the heavy bombers against North Vietnam itself in a campaign called Linebacker, and the United States mined the harbor at Haiphong. Over the course of the war, total U.S. bombing tonnage far exceeded that dropped on Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II.

Wearied by the latest round of fighting, the United States and North Vietnamese governments agreed in October on a ceasefire, return of U.S. prisoners of war (POWs), at least the temporary continuation of Thieu's government, and, most controversially, permission for NVA troops to remain in the South. Objections from Thieu caused Nixon to hesitate, which in turn led Hanoi to harden its position. In December, the United States hit North Vietnam again with repeated B‐52 attacks, codenamed Linebacker II and labeled the Christmas Bombing by journalists. On 27 January 1973, the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Provisional Revolutionary Government representing the NLF signed the Paris Peace Agreements Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam, which basically confirmed the October terms.

By 1 April 1973, U.S. forces were out of Vietnam (except for a few embassy guards and attaches) and 587 POWs had returned home (about 2,500 other Americans remained missing in action). Congress cut off funds for the air war in Cambodia, and bombing there ended in August. Over Nixon's veto, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in November 1973. It limited presidential power to deploy U.S. forces in hostile action without congressional approval.

Nixon characterized the Paris Peace Agreements of 1973 as “peace with honor,” but primarily they allowed the U.S. military to leave Vietnam without resolving the issue of the country's political future. Without U.S. air and ground support, South Vietnam's military defenses steadily deteriorated. In the spring of 1975, an NVA thrust into the Central Highlands turned into an ARVN rout. On 30 April, as NVA and Vietcong soldiers entered the city, the last remaining Americans abandoned the U.S. embassy in Saigon in a dramatic rooftop evacuation by helicopters.

The United States failure in Vietnam raised important questions. Should the United States have fought the war at all? Did the United States fight the war the wrong way? Many analysts believe that the strategic importance of Vietnam was vastly exaggerated and, furthermore, that the nationalism driving Vietnam's history and politics could not be altered by U.S. military power, no matter how great. An alternative view is that even if the odds were poor for U.S. success, the United States had to make the effort to maintain its moral and strategic credibility in the world. On the question of how the war was fought, the debate centers on whether the United States used its military power adequately and effectively. Assuming that more is better, some critics argue that a greater use of U.S. force, either against North Vietnam or to isolate the battlefield in South Vietnam, would have produced victory. Throughout the conflict, however, the Saigon regime proved incapable of translating military success into political success. Also, massive U.S. assistance seemed to prove North Vietnam's and the Vietcong's claims that South Vietnam was not a Vietnamese but an American creation. Finally, a larger war would have risked a dangerous military conflict with China and the Soviet Union. Most scholars conclude that the Vietnam War was a tragic event whose costs far exceeded any benefits for the United States.


Raphael Littauer and Normal Uphoff, eds., The Air War in Indochina, 1972.
Edwin Hooper, et al. , The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict, 1976.
Harry G. Summers, Jr. , On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, 1982.
Stanley Karnow , Vietnam: A History, 1983.
Bruce Palmer, Jr. , The 25‐Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam, 1984.
John S. Bowman, ed., The World Almanac of the Vietnam War, 1985.
James William Gibson , The Perfect War, 1986.
Gary R. Hess , Vietnam and the United States, 1990.
David L. Anderson, ed., Shadow on the White House: Presidents and the Vietnam War, 1945–1975, 1993.
Ronald H. Spector , After Tet, 1993.
George Donelson Moss , Vietnam: An American Ordeal, 2nd ed., 1994.
George C. Herring , America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975, 3rd ed., 1995.

David L. Anderson

Vietnam War (1960–75): Domestic Course When President Lyndon B. Johnson made the war in Vietnam an American war in 1965, he worried about the impact of his policies on the home front. He could have rallied support for his decisions to bomb North Vietnam and assume the dominant ground combat role by telling the nation that it faced a crisis vital to its national security. But he feared that in response to such a message, the public would demand a full‐scale, no‐holds‐barred war that could have led to Chinese and Russian intervention. For Johnson and his advisers, the Vietnam War was the prototype for future limited wars in the Third World that would have to be fought without arousing public passion. However, by underselling the war, the president presented an opening to critics who asked why he was expending so much human and material treasure in such a remote conflict.

Johnson had another motive for playing down the commitment in Southeast Asia. After the Democrats won by a landslide in the 1964 election, the president believed he had a two‐year window of opportunity to push through Congress legislation for his Great Society, the most ambitious set of reforms since the New Deal. He was painfully aware of what happened to Woodrow Wilson's and Franklin D. Roosevelt's comparable reform programs when they fell victim to “guns‐over‐butter” decisions. Escalating by stealth in Vietnam, Johnson was able to have “guns and butter” without increasing taxes to pay for both projects. This irresponsible decision had a profound impact on the American economy.

Johnson's failure to rally the public around the commitment in Vietnam led to the growth of the largest and most effective antiwar movement in American history. Beginning in 1966, through mass demonstrations, petitioning, teach‐ins, electoral politics, civil disobedience, and countless other individual and collective forms of protests, millions of Americans challenged administration policies. Although a majority of the population found aspects of the campus‐based movement repellent, it did attract support in many important sectors of the society and contributed to the collapse of the bipartisan Cold War consensus that had held since 1947.

Moreover, on at least two occasions, the antiwar movement dramatically affected policy. After 35,000 mostly young people besieged the Pentagon on 21–22 October 1967, Lyndon Johnson launched a public relations campaign that emphasized how well the war was going. When the Communists launched their seemingly successful nationwide Tet Offensive on 30 January 1968, most Americans felt that they had been deceived by their own government. That widespread public disaffection led to Johnson's decision on 31 March 1968 not to escalate further and not to stand for reelection. He also faced serious challenges for the nomination from antiwar senators Eugene McCarthy (D‐Minn.) and Robert F. Kennedy (D‐N.Y.).

A little more than a year later, Republican president Richard M. Nixon sent an ultimatum to Hanoi to alter its bargaining position at the Paris Peace Talks by 1 November or confront a major escalation. The North Vietnamese called Nixon's bluff, and he did not escalate, in good measure because of the depth and breadth of antiwar sentiment reflected in the largest antiwar activity of the period, the 15 October 1969 Moratorium, a peaceful and dignified protest involving many middle‐class adults. Nixon's decision was also influenced by his advisers' determination that no matter what form the proposed escalation (Operation Duck Hook) took, it was unlikely to end the war.

Finally, both Johnson and Nixon were convinced that the perceived popularity of the antiwar movement influenced the Vietnamese Communists. Thus, both presidents' policies were affected, to some degree, by how they thought Hanoi interpreted the success of the movement. That relative success led Johnson, and especially Nixon, to take extralegal and illegal actions against antiwar critics and organizations. Some of those actions became part of the Watergate scandal, the series of crimes and misdemeanors that ultimately led to Nixon's resignation. For example, Nixon first authorized illegal wiretaps in May 1969 to find the leaker who told a New York Times reporter that the United States was secretly bombing Cambodia.

Johnson and Nixon also confronted spirited challenges to their foreign policymaking authority on Capitol Hill. Beginning in the winter of 1966 with hearings held by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright (D‐Ark.), and increasing to a crescendo after 1968 when the Democratic legislature confronted a Republican president, Congress began to rein in what had come to be called the “imperial presidency.” It was true that 95 percent of those legislators present and voting approved of war‐related appropriation bills from 1965 through 1972. Nevertheless, during the invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970, the Senate voted to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and to cut off funds for the operation after 30 June. Moreover, from 1973 through 1975, Congress passed several resolutions that restricted the use of troops and airpower in Southeast Asia and rejected presidential requests for further aid to South Vietnam. Most important, in 1973 it passed, over Nixon's veto, the War Powers Resolution, which sought to restrict the president's ability to send American troops into combat without informing Congress or obtaining its approval for an extended commitment.

The war affected as well the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972. In 1968, the candidacy of Hubert H. Humphrey was significantly weakened by the bloody confrontations in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention between youthful critics of the war and the police. In addition, Lyndon Johnson announced a complete bombing halt one week before the election in an “October Surprise,” which aided his vice president. For his part, Richard Nixon suggested obliquely that he had a plan (it did not exist) to end the war. In a law and order campaign, he also appealed to those who abhorred antiwar and other unruly demonstrators.

After Nixon was unable to end the war on his terms during his first year in office, he and his aides encouraged the growth of the POW‐MIA movement, which was concerned about the treatment of the known prisoners of war (POWs) in Communist captivity and the whereabouts of those classified as missing in action (MIA), some of whom were also suspected to be among those languishing, undocumented, in camps in North and South Vietnam and Laos. Nixon then contended from 1970 through 1972 that during the extended public and secret peace talks, the North Vietnamese were recalcitrant on the emotional POW‐MIA issue. Undoubtedly, the president was concerned about how the sort of peace he obtained in Vietnam would affect his prospects in his reelection campaign.

One week before the 1972 election, Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, offered a Republican “October Surprise” when he announced that “peace is at hand.” The North Vietnamese forced Kissinger to make this statement when they announced on 25 October that they and the Americans had finally agreed on terms for ending the war. Hanoi went public with the arrangements because it feared, correctly, that Washington and especially Saigon were reneging on the provisional agreement reached on 21 October. What the national security adviser did not reveal then—or even after the election—was that he had been unable to convince the South Vietnamese government to accept the terms he had negotiated with the North Vietnamese. Nonetheless, Kissinger's announcement effectively took away Democratic antiwar candidate George McGovern's most important issue. McGovern had obtained the nomination in good measure because of reforms adopted by his party in the wake of the Chicago riots.

Some of those who opposed the war were driven by the fact that as Johnson's policy escalated, more and more young people were drafted into the armed services and sent to Vietnam. By 1967, almost 50 percent of the enlisted men in the army were draftees. By 1969, draftees comprised over 50 percent of all combat deaths and 88 percent of army infantrymen in Vietnam.

No war since the Civil War produced so much opposition to the draft. Part of the problem had to do with its perceived unfairness. Undergraduates and, until 1968, graduate students could defer military service until they completed their programs. In addition, many young men, often from the middle class, joined the National Guard and Reserves on the likely gamble that they would not be called up for duty in Southeast Asia. Consequently, the Vietnam War appeared to many to be a “working‐class war,” with draftees and enlisted men coming disproportionately from blue‐collar backgrounds. At first, from 1965 through 1967, African Americans especially served and died in Vietnam in disproportionate numbers. By the end of the war, however, they accounted for 12 percent of the combat deaths, a figure close to their actual percentage in the population.

Of the 27 million men eligible for conscription during the Vietnam era, 8,720,000 enlisted, often to beat the draft; 2,215,000 were drafted; and almost 16 million never served. Of that 16 million, 15,410,000 were deferred, exempted, or disqualified, and an estimated 570,000 were draft offenders. Of that number, over 209,517 were accused of draft violations, 8,750 were convicted, and 3,250 were imprisoned. The number of violators swamped the judiciary system.

During the war, the Selective Service System, prodded by the Supreme Court, relaxed its definition of conscientious objection. As a consequence, 170,000 men received that status, of whom close to one‐third evaded alternate service. Between 60,000 and 100,000 young men chose exile to avoid the draft, with Canada and Sweden the favorite sanctuaries. The prospect of the draft also affected millions of eligible males' decisions to marry, have children, or continue their education.

Widespread draft resistance—including flamboyant acts of civil and not so civil disobedience that impeded the operation of the system—and severe discipline problems posed by obstreperous and poorly motivated draftees in the field led to dramatic reform. First, on the eve of the Moratorium in October 1969, Nixon removed the unpopular Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, who had been in charge of the Selective Service System since World War II. The president instituted a lottery system two months later in an attempt to make the system somewhat fairer. In September 1971, Congress passed his proposal for an All‐Volunteer Force, and in July 1973, Nixon terminated the draft.

As important as these reforms were to the American military and society in general in the years from 1973 to the present, the impact of the Vietnam War on the economy during the same period was even more important. For many economists, the last truly good years for the economy were 1962–65, with almost full employment; very low inflation; respectable growth in productivity, gross national product, and national income; and a favorable balance of trade.

On the last issue, an increasingly unfavorable balance of trade, related in part to spending for the war abroad, contributed to an international monetary crisis involving a threat to U.S. gold reserves in 1967–68. That threat helped convince some administration officials and Wall Street analysts that the United States could no longer afford the war.

As early as the winter of 1965, Lyndon Johnson's economic advisers, who worried about the imminent overheating of the economy, recommended a tax increase to help pay for the increasingly expensive war and to hold down inflation. For domestic political reasons, Johnson refused to accept their advice until 1968, when he introduced a 10 percent income tax surcharge, which, economists now claim, was too little and too late.

For most of Johnson's term, however, the inflation figures remained relatively low, reaching 4 percent in 1968. Nixon had to deal with the economic problems caused in part by war spending. His attempts to solve the unique “stagflation,” rising inflation and rising unemployment, included a variety of fiscal and monetary adjustments, and ultimately wage and price controls in August 1971 through April 1973. That Democratic solution, which was influenced by Nixon's decision to end the convertibility of the dollar to gold, was one way to stabilize the economy until the 1972 election.

As early as the Johnson administration, the Vietnam War, which civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., called “America's tragic distraction,” began significantly to affect domestic reform. Although critics continue to disagree about the design and relative success of the vast array of Great Society programs, there is no doubt that Johnson would have spent more on them had he not had to pay for the war. In fact, Congress would not give him his 1968 surcharge until he agreed to cut $6 billion from nondefense programs.

Inflation, sparked by the war, contributed to the rise in oil prices in 1973 because of the impact of the devaluation of the dollar on oil producers. It also led to the real estate boom of the 1970s, and because of the built‐in expectation of inflation, the introduction of variable interest rates and certificates of deposit by banks and offshore banking.

The Department of Defense placed the direct costs of the Vietnam War at $173 billion. To that could be added potential veterans' benefits costs of $220 billion and interest of $31 billion. Of course, veterans did receive educational and other benefits; research and design in certain fields were enhanced; and expenditures in the defense industry provided jobs for millions that might not have been there in other circumstances.

Despite its limited scope, in many ways the Vietnam War influenced the future course of events on the home front as dramatically as the two world wars. Whether the focus is on domestic politics, the economy, the armed services, or even the way presidents have thought about future military interventions, the war profoundly affected all aspects of American life.
[See also Bombing of Civilians; Commander in Chief, President as; Draft Resistance and Evasion; Economy and War; Prisoners of War: U.S. Soldiers as POWs; Veterans: Vietnam War; Vietnam Antiwar Movement.]


Robert Warren Stevens , Vain Hopes, Grim Realities: The Economic Consequences of the Vietnam War, 1976.
Lawrence M. Baskir and and William A. Strauss , Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation, 1978.
P. Edward Haley , Congress and the Fall of South Vietnam and Cambodia, 1982.
Melvin Small , Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves, 1988.
Charles DeBenedetti with and Charles Chatfield , An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era, 1990.
Anthony S. Campagna , The Economic Consequences of the Vietnam War, 1991.
Christian P. Appy , Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam, 1993.
George Q. Flynn , The Draft, 1940–1973, 1993.
H. Bruce Franklin , M.I.A. or, Mythmaking in America, 1993.

Melvin Small

Vietnam War (1960–75): Postwar Impact Following the end of America's combat role in Vietnam in 1973, and the subsequent fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in 1975, the often prophesied and much feared resurgence of McCarthyite Red‐baiting, the bitter accusations of “who lost Vietnam?” barely transpired. Rather than massive recriminations, a collective amnesia took hold. The majority of Americans, it appeared, neither wanted to talk or think about their nation's longest and most debilitating war—the only war the United States ever lost. That forgetfulness gave way in the early 1980s to a renewed interest in the war: Hollywood, network television, and the music industry made Vietnam a staple of popular culture; and scholars, journalists, and Vietnam veterans produced a flood of literature on the conflict, especially concerning its lessons and legacies. Much of it, emphasizing the enormity of the damage done to American attitudes, institutions, and foreign policy by the Vietnam ordeal, echoed George F. Kennan's depiction of the Vietnam War as “the most disastrous of all America's undertakings over the whole two hundred years of its history.”

Initially, the humiliating defeat imposed by a nation Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had described as “a fourth‐rate power” caused a loss of pride and self‐confidence in a people that liked to think of the United States as invincible. An agonizing reappraisal of American power and glory dampened the celebration of the Bicentennial birthday in 1976. So did the economic woes then afflicting the United States, which many blamed on the estimated $167 billion spent on the war. President Lyndon B. Johnson's decision to finance a major war and the Great Society simultaneously, without a significant increase in taxation, launched a runaway double‐digit inflation and mounting federal debt that ravaged the American economy and eroded living standards from the late 1960s into the 1990s.

The United States also paid a high political cost for the Vietnam War. It weakened public faith in government, and in the honesty and competence of its leaders. Indeed, skepticism, if not cynicism, and a high degree of suspicion of and distrust toward authority of all kind characterized the views of an increasing number of Americans in the wake of the war. The military, especially, was discredited for years. It would gradually rebound to become once again one of the most highly esteemed organizations in the United States. In the main, however, as never before, Americans after the Vietnam War neither respected nor trusted public institutions.

They were wary of official calls to intervene abroad in the cause of democracy and freedom, and the bipartisan consensus that had supported American foreign policy since the 1940s dissolved. Democrats, in particular, questioned the need to contain communism everywhere around the globe and to play the role of the planet's policeman. The Democratic majority in Congress would enact the 1973 War Powers Resolution, ostensibly forbidding the president from sending U.S. troops into combat for more than ninety days without congressional consent. Exercising a greater assertiveness in matters of foreign policy, Congress increasingly emphasized the limits of American power, and the ceiling on the cost Americans would pay in pursuit of specific foreign policy objectives. The fear of getting bogged down in another quagmire made a majority of Americans reluctant to intervene militarily in Third World countries. The neo‐isolationist tendency that former President Richard M. Nixon called “the Vietnam syndrome” would be most manifest in the public debates over President Ronald Reagan's interventionist policies in Nicaragua and President George Bush's decision to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Despite the victorious outcome of the Persian Gulf War for the United States and its allies, and President Bush's declaration in March 1991—“By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!”—the fear of intervention would reappear in the public debate over President Bill Clinton's commitment of U.S. peacekeeping forces in Somalia and Bosnia. Quite clearly, for at least a quarter of a century after the Vietnam War ended, that conflict continued to loom large in the minds of Americans. Accordingly, a new consensus among foreign policy makers, reflecting the lessons learned from the Vietnam War, became manifest: the United States should use military force only as a last resort; only where the national interest is clearly involved; only when there is strong public support; and only in the likelihood of a relatively quick, inexpensive victory.

Another consensus also gradually emerged. At first, rather than giving returning veterans of the war welcoming parades, Americans seemed to shun, if not denigrate, the 2 million‐plus Americans who went to Vietnam, the 1.6 million who served in combat, the 300,000 physically wounded, the many more who bore psychological scars, the 2,387 listed as “missing in action,” and the more than 58,000 who died. Virtually nothing was done to aid veterans and their loved ones who needed assistance in adjusting. Then a torrent of fiction, films, and television programs depicted Vietnam vets as drug‐crazed psychotic killers, as vicious executioners in Vietnam and equally vicious menaces at home. Not until after the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., did American culture acknowledge their sacrifice and suffering, and concede that most had been good soldiers in a bad war.

Yet this altered view of the Vietnam veterans as victims as much as victimizers, if not as brave heroes, was not accompanied by new public policies. Although most veterans did succeed in making the transition to ordinary civilian life, many did not. More Vietnam veterans committed suicide after the war than had died in it. Even more—perhaps three‐quarters of a million—became part of the lost army of the homeless. And the nearly 700,000 draftees, many of them poor, badly educated, and nonwhite, who had received less than honorable discharges, depriving them of educational and medical benefits, found it especially difficult to get and keep jobs, to maintain family relationships, and to stay out of jail. Although a majority of Americans came to view dysfunctional veterans as needing support and medical attention rather than moral condemnation, the Veterans Administration, reluctant to admit the special difficulties faced by these veterans and their need for additional benefits, first denied the harm done by chemicals like Agent Orange and by the posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) afflicting as many as 700,000, and then stalled on providing treatment.

Although diminishing, the troublesome specter of the Vietnam War continued to divide Americans and haunt the national psyche. It surfaced again in 1988 when Bush's running mate, Dan Quayle, had to defend his reputation against revelations that he had used family political connections to be admitted into the Indiana National Guard in 1969 to avoid the draft and a possible tour of duty in Vietnam. It emerged four years later when Bill Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president, faced accusations that he had evaded the draft and then organized antiwar demonstrations in 1969 while he was a Rhodes scholar in England. In each instance, such charges reminded Americans of the difficult choices young Americans had to make in what many saw as at best a morally ambiguous war.

Mostly, remembrances continue to be stirred by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the most visited site in the nation's capital. Its stark black granite reflecting panels, covered with the names of the more than 58,000 American men and women who died in Vietnam, is a shrine to the dead, a tombstone in a sloping valley of death. Lacking all the symbols of heroism, glory, patriotism, and moral certainty that more conventional war memorials possess, the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial is a somber reminder of the loss of too many young Americans, and of what the war did to the United States and its messianic belief in its own overweening virtue.
[See also Economy and War; Memorials, War; Toxic Agents: Agent Orange Exposure; Veterans: Vietnam War.]


James F. Veninga and Harry A. Wilmer, eds., Vietnam in Remission, 1985.
John Hellman , American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam, 1986.
Nayan Chanda , Brother Enemy: The War After the War, 1986.
Ellen Frey‐Wouters and and Robert S. Laufer , Legacy of a War, 1986.
Bob Greene , Homecoming, 1989.
Bill McCloud , What Should We Tell Our Children About Vietnam?, 1989.

Harvard Sitkoff

Vietnam War (1960–75): Changing Interpretations Interpretations of the Vietnam War have departed significantly from typical patterns both during and after most of America's previous wars. Instead of reflecting, defending, and bolstering official accounts of the war, as occurred with World Wars I and II, early historical assessments of the Vietnam conflict were for the most part highly critical of U.S. policy. The most widely read works on the Vietnam War during the late 1960s and early 1970s—including those of journalists Bernard Fall, Robert Shaplen, and David Halberstam, and historians Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and George McT. Kahin and John W. Lewis—indicted government policy, often quite harshly. Those works presented a radically different version of the war's origins, purpose, and efficacy than that offered by Washington officialdom. Only in the late 1970s, following North Vietnam's military triumph and the extended soul‐searching it occasioned throughout the United States, did a revisionist school of thought emerge. Ironically, the Vietnam revisionists mounted a belated defense of the American war effort, venting much of their anger at the prevailing liberal orthodoxy, which, they insisted, wrongly considered the Indochina war to be unwinnable or—even more egregious from their perspective—immoral.

Despite the broad agreement among early writers that the Vietnam War represented a colossal mistake for the United States, and that American policy was plagued persistently by errors, blunders, misperceptions, and miscalculations, significant interpretive differences still existed within that literature. In their influential book, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked (1979), Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts identified no less than nine distinct explanations advanced by experts during the 1960s and 1970s for America's failed intervention in Vietnam. They ranged from economic imperialism to idealistic imperialism, from bureaucratic politics to domestic politics, and from misperceptions and ethnocentrism to ideological blinders and the imperatives of international power politics. Analysts disagreed from the first, then, not just about the reasons for the U.S. failure in Vietnam, but about the relative weight of the factors that precipitated and sustained the American commitment.

Two sharply differentiated views emerged in that first wave of scholarship about the Vietnam War, views that continue to be echoed in today's debates. The first characterizes American involvement in the war as an avoidable tragedy. American policymakers, according to this liberal realist perspective, foolishly exaggerated Vietnam's importance to the United States. Had they more soberly assessed its true value to the economic and security interests of the United States, recognized the popular appeal of revolutionary nationalism within the country, and appreciated the limits of American power, then the ensuing tragedy might well have been averted.

That view remains the dominant interpretation of the Vietnam War. Most books and articles about American involvement, for all the different emphases that naturally distinguish the work of individual authors, fall within its wide boundaries. Major overviews of the war by such experts as George C. Herring, Stanley Karnow, Gary R. Hess, George McT. Kahin, William S. Turley, Neal Sheehan, and William J. Duiker take as a basic point of departure the notion that the Vietnam conflict was a tragic misadventure that could have been avoided had American leaders only been wiser, more prudent, and less wedded to the assumptions of the past. The former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara's memoir, In Retrospect (1995), also falls within this interpretive school.

The other major interpretive approach offers a far more radical critique of American intentions and behavior. It depicts the United States as a global hegemony, concerned primarily with its own economic expansion, and reflexively opposed to communism, indigenous revolution, or any other challenge to its authority. Authors writing from this perspective typically characterize American intervention in Indochina as the necessary and logical consequence of a rapacious superpower's drive for world dominance. Although scholarly and polemical treatments of the war have been written in this vein since the late 1960s, Gabriel Kolko's seminal Anatomy of a War represents the most sophisticated and comprehensive formulation of the radical perspective. Kolko sees U.S. intervention in Vietnam as a predictable consequence of the American ruling class's determination to exert control over the world capitalist system. The U.S. political economy's need for raw materials, investment outlets, and the integration between capitalist core states and the developing regions of the periphery set Washington on a collision course with revolutionary nationalist currents throughout the Third World.

By the early 1980s, a conservative revisionism had emerged that, at least temporarily, shifted the terms of a debate that up to then had largely pitted liberal realists against radical neo‐Marxists. The Vietnam revisionist perspective was spearheaded by three former U.S. Army officers, Harry G. Summers, Jr., Bruce Palmer, Jr., and Philip B. Davidson, all veterans of the war. In separate books, each vehemently criticized U.S. policy. Summers, Palmer, and Davidson asserted that military and civilian leaders failed to develop realistic plans for achieving American politico‐military objectives in Vietnam, failed to assess accurately the capabilities and intentions of their adversaries, and failed to coordinate specific battlefield tactics with an overall strategy for securing victory. The conservative critique of America's Vietnam policy scored points with academic and nonacademic audiences alike, while calling attention to fundamental shortcomings in the American approach to warfare in Southeast Asia. Another group of conservative revisionists also emerged during the 1980s. This group, which included such diverse authorities as R. B. Smith, Larry Cable, Andrew Krepinevich, Walt W. Rostow, and William Colby, insisted that real benefits accrued to the non‐Communist nations of Southeast Asia as a result of U.S. intervention, and argued that the “pacification” campaign pursued by the United States could have succeeded.

For all the attention accorded it by the media and by politicians, the conservative revisionist wave has not fundamentally altered our understanding of the Vietnam War. The revisionists may, ironically, have bolstered the central premises of the liberal realists more than they have overturned them. The chief faultline in the literature continues to lie between the liberal realists, on the one hand, and their left radical critics on the other—much as it has for the past three decades. That faultline will not soon be closed since the core issues at stake concern matters much broader than the mere origins and outcome of a war. They encompass as well such fundamental questions as the purpose of American foreign relations, the nature of American society, and the meaning of the American historical experience. That is why, perhaps, debates about the Vietnam conflict remain as hotly contested years after the war's end as they were at the height of U.S. involvement in the late 1960s.


George McT. Kahin and and John W. Lewis , The United States in Vietnam, 1969.
George C. Herring , America's Longest War, 1979; 3rd rev. ed. 1996.
Harry G. Summers, Jr. , On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, 1982.
Gabriel Kolko , Anatomy of a War, 1985.
George McT. Kahin , Intervention, 1986.
Robert J. McMahon , U.S.‐Vietnamese Relations: A Historiographical Survey, in Pacific Passage, ed. Warren I. Cohen, 1996.

Robert J. McMahon

Vietnam War

views updated May 29 2018

Vietnam War







The Vietnam War has been permanently singed into the American consciousness, and its impact will be felt for years to come in foreign policy debates. The conflict produced four million killed or wounded Vietnameseone-tenth of the combined population of North and South Vietnam at the onset of the warand ranks as the United States longest and costliest overseas conflict, with the loss of 57,939 American lives and $150 billion in U.S. military spending. Moreover, Vietnam was a critical issue in the foreign policy of six successive U.S. presidential administrations.


A thorough understanding of the Vietnam War must begin with the end of World War II (19391945) and the onset of the cold war. To be sure, Communist Vietnam and the United States had interacted before 1946, notably when Ho Chi Minh requested Vietnamese self-determination at the 1918 Versailles Peace Conference ending World War I (19141918) and when he made his 1945 independence speech, which quoted the U.S. Declaration of Independence as a band played the Star Spangled Banner. But it was the specter of a strengthened Soviet Union threatening Asia that spurred U.S. involvement in Indochina, the French colonial holdings that comprised present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In 1945 France had petitioned for the return of Indochina, which it had surrendered to the Japanese earlier in World War II. A year earlier, U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt, a fervent anticolonialist, had written to the British ambassador that he believed Indochina should not go back to the French, but that it should be administered by international trusteeship.

But by the summer of 1950, four years into the French Indochina War, Roosevelt was long dead, Harry Truman had assumed office, and the geopolitical landscape looked remarkably different: the Soviet Union had detonated an atomic bomb, Chinese communists had completed their conquest of the mainland, Senator Joseph McCarthy had initiated his now infamous campaign against softness toward communism, and the United States was involved in a full-scale war against a Soviet satellite in Korea. In such a political climate the United States regarded Ho Chi Minh and his organization the Viet Minh (the abbreviation for the Vietnam Independence League, formed in 1941) as part of a wider communist threat. The image of France in U.S. policy circles also had evolved with the changing times; the country was no longer a nation of greedy imperialists, but a stalwart opponent of the spread of the red menace in Asia. Thus, in much the same spirit as the Berlin airlift (19481949) and the postwar provision of monetary assistance to Greece and Turkey, the United States offered financial support to France in its quest for repossession of Vietnam. The allotment in 1950 started at $10 million, but it rapidly grew to $1.06 billion by 1954. In fact, a full 80 percent of the French war effort was paid for by the United States.

Despite the substantial U.S. support, the French were unable to prevail, and they eventually withdrew entirely after the battle of Dien Bien Phu in spring 1954. The resounding defeat (13,200 of the 16,000 French soldiers were either killed or captured) drove both sides to the bargaining table (along with, among others, the United States, China, and Soviet Union) at the 1954 Geneva Conference, where an agreement was reached to temporarily partition the country at the seventeenth parallel. A demilitarized zone (DMZ) now divided two governments: the communist North (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) led by the Viet Minh, and the anticommunist South (the Republic of Vietnam) under the emperor Bao Dai.

The seeds of war were sown in the very language of the Geneva Accords, which called for an election to take place in July 1956 to choose the government of a reunified Vietnam. There was considerable consternation that a Communist government could prevail in a democratic election: Ho Chi Minh had become a popular revolutionary figure throughout Vietnam and, more importantly, no southern leaders had emerged with the charisma to best him in an election. Certainly, few Vietnamese would be willing to support an emperor who owed his very position to French colonialism. A Communist win would pose a setback to Eisenhowers global strategy of rolling back the Communist threat, and U.S. officials warned that the loss of Vietnam would cause a chain reaction, much like the falling of dominoes, as other Southeast Asian nations succumbed to Communist pressures. Recent scholarship has refuted this domino theory by arguing that the United States military advantage over the Soviet Union at that time demonstrates that important U.S. policymakers such as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were less afraid of fending off Communist insurgencies and more interested in projecting U.S. power in the region.

Eventually the United States chose to throw its support behind Ngo Dinh Diem, the prime minister of South Vietnam, who was nominated in 1954 by Emperor Bao Dai in the midst of the Geneva Conference. Although he possessed staunch anticommunist credentials, Diem was handicapped by his Catholicism (a religion shared by only 15% of the countrys population), his residence in the United States during the war against the French (which prevented him from capitalizing on the nationalist fervor), and his lack of many political allies other than his own powerful family. He needed help to build a political base and popular support before he could possibly succeed in an election. The United States was willing to offer that assistance, in part because of Diems cultivation of important political figures such as intelligence officer Colonel Edward G. Lansdale, and it began channeling aid through Diem, informing all potential rivals that future assistance hinged on Diems position at the helm. The gamble to support Diem until he could consolidate power and institute democratic reforms was the means by which the United States found itself inextricably linked to the southern regime.


The issue of which side first violated the Geneva Accords will forever remain the fault line dividing historians of the war. Did South Vietnam violate the accords by postponing the elections, claiming (with U.S. support) that free and fair elections could never take place under a Communist government? Or did North Vietnam violate the terms of the accords through its military assistance to Communist guerrillas in the South, the National Liberation Front (NLF)? Although some have claimed that the NLF (also called the Vietcong ) was always composed of northern agents and controlled by Hanoi, and not an indigenous popular movement of the South, there was no clear political relationship between the northern government and the growing insurgency in the South until northern leaders decided in May 1959 that they needed to take control of the movement.

Whatever the answer, the South found itself embroiled in a deadly conflict with the NLF, which had entrenched itself in the Mekong Delta as early as 1957 and in the central highlands by 1958. Afraid that Diems power might be threatened by the conflict, the United States almost immediately lent him military assistance. The first deaths recorded on the U.S. Vietnam War Memorial are from 1957, but for the most part the U.S. militarys role remained minor until May 1959, when U.S. military advisors were placed with South Vietnamese regiments as part of a police action. Although the United States described this move as aiding an anti-Communist ally, North Vietnam interpreted the assistance as a continuation of the Western colonialism begun by the French.

The U.S. commitment to Vietnam expanded under the Kennedy administration at the end of 1961 after a series of incidents (most notably the Bay of Pigs) allowed the Republican opposition to portray him as soft on Communism. Consequently, Kennedy chose to take a hard line against the advance of Communism in Southeast Asia, expanding the number of military advisers from 900 to 3,200 by the end of 1961 and then to 11,300 by the end of 1962. Despite these large increases in advisers and despite optimistic Defense Department reports to the contrary, little progress was being made in quelling the insurgency. Prominent U.S. officials began to blame this failure on Diem, claiming that rampant corruption by his friends and family, lack of progress on land reform, and, above all else, an anti-Buddhist policy, were causing him to lose favor with Vietnamese citizens. Diems relationship with Buddhists was highlighted by a May 1963 incident in Hue when a deputy provincial chief gave orders to fire on 20,000 Buddhists at a religious celebration. Nine people were killed, and the Buddhist monk Quang Duc was prompted to burn himself a month later, calling for Diem to show charity and compassion to all religions. Photographs of his self-immolation appeared in U.S. newspapers and were thought to undermine support for the war effort. Small-scale opposition to the war, mainly on U.S. college campuses, erupted not long after the incident.

Putting pressure on Diem, the United States called for South Vietnamese military leaders to act against Diems excesses. How much the United States knew of the southern militarys true plans is a matter of intense debate, but on November 2, 1963, Diem was overthrown in a coup and executed, and General Duong Van Minh (or Big Minh) came to power. (Minh lasted less than two months before another military coup installed Nguyen Khanh.) The overthrow of Diem was followed by an announcement on November 15 that the United States would begin withdrawing 1,000 troops. The withdrawal never happened because a week later Kennedy was assassinated and Vice President Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency. More optimistic about the potential for U.S. victory, Johnson increased the number of U.S. advisers to 21,000.


The Gulf of Tonkin incident served as the catalyst to full U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. On August 2, 1964 the USS Maddox was conducting a routine reconnaissance mission in the gulf when it was fired on by North Vietnamese coastal defense forces. The Maddox easily repelled the attack with air support from the nearby USS Ticonderoga, destroying one torpedo boat in the encounter. President Johnson, who was mired in a tough election campaign, chose a firm but restrained response, rejecting reprisals against the North but warning Hanoi that grave consequences would result from further unprovoked military attacks. Then, on August 4, the Maddox and USS Turner Joy picked up radar signals of an apparent torpedo attack from North Vietnamese vessels, and for two hours the ships responded with a torrent of fire against radar targets and took a series of evasive actions. Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnamese targets and used the event to persuade Congress to pass the August 7 Gulf of Tonkin resolution that authorized the president to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force.

Recent scholarship has examined whether the North Vietnamese ever actually attacked during the Tonkin incident. Maddox captain John J. Herrick conceded that the radar signal may have been nothing more than an overeager sonar man who was hearing the ships own propeller beat. The National Security Agency admitted to translation errors in intercepted Vietnamese transmissions that were used as grounds for the second attack. Senator William Fulbright confessed that he felt hoodwinked by the information presented in the 40-minute Senate debate. Most importantly, the scholar Gareth Porter in Perils of Dominance (2005) claimed that important information that cast doubt on the attack may have been concealed from Lyndon Johnson by Robert McNamara, his own secretary of defense.

Thus began the Vietnam War. The United States convinced Australia and New Zealand to contribute troops and material support, and in March 1965 began a series of bombing raids on North Vietnam known as Rolling Thunder, with the intention of bringing the Hanoi leadership to the bargaining table. An initial 3,500 ground troops were designated for combat rather than advisory duty in Vietnam; through incremental escalation, the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam grew to 184,000 by the end of 1965 and to 429,000 by the end of 1966.

As the United States geared up for war, young Americans sensed that there would be a return to the draft lottery. The National Committee to the End the War in Vietnam staged the first burning of a draft card in the United States in October 1965. After the Tonkin incident there was also turmoil in South Vietnam, where Nguyen Khanh tried to exploit the new situation with a series of repressive decrees that led to riots in the street and a series of plots and counterplots until Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky grabbed power in the spring of 1965.

North Vietnam attempted to match the U.S. escalation with incursions by its regular army into the central highlands, but a setback with the battle of Ia Drang Valley in November 1965 curtailed the use of their regular army in favor of guerrilla tactics. Even so, at Ia Drang 240 Americans were killed and 450 wounded, sending a shocking signal to the United States that the war would not be won easily or on the cheap.

Most U.S./South Vietnam military activity after Ia Drang focused on three areas. First, search and destroy missions, a favorite of General Westmoreland, the head of U.S. forces in the country, were part of his attrition strategy to kill and capture Vietcong forces in the South. Second, pacification was the securing of the South Vietnamese countryside by means of a combination of military protection and development assistance. Finally, efforts were made to cut the Vietcongs supply line that came down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a dense network of forest paths running through Laos into South Vietnam. Although the CIA began to pick up evidence of enemy activity along the trail as early as 1959, the route was of limited value to the North until 1963, when at the behest of Colonel Bui Tin it was expanded to accommodate trucks and large movements of North Vietnamese regulars. The original intention of Rolling Thunder was to disrupt traffic on the trail, but the bombing raids did not have the desired effect because the North Vietnamese showed remarkable ingenuity in repairing damaged roads and bridges. Moreover, the United States use of toxic chemical defoliants such as napalm and Agent Orange along the trail and in other areas to cut back the dense brush and expose Northern forces had devastating effects on Vietnamese civilians; news of this bolstered the antiwar movement in the United States, and protesters and police clashed violently at the University of Wisconsin in October 1967.

The United States attempted again to disrupt the supply network in January 1968 by setting up a fire base along the Laotian border near the town of Khe Sanh. The U.S. marines at the base soon found themselves under heavy attack from North Vietnamese regulars. Only in April did the siege finally end, after an incessant barrage of U.S. artillery and air strikes equivalent to five Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. Khe Sanh served to distract U.S. attention from North Vietnams preparations for its largest and best coordinated operation of the war, lasting from January 1968 to July 1969. Known as the Tet Offensive because it occurred during the Tet Nguyen Dan (the Vietnamese name for the Chinese New Year), the operation had North Vietnamese troops driving to the center of South Vietnams seven largest cities and attacking thirty provincial capitals from the deep South to the DMZ. The goal of the attacks was to ignite a popular uprising that would result in the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government and withdrawal of U.S. forces. In the first days of the offensive several cities were overrun and a nineteen-man suicide squad managed to seize the U.S. embassy in Saigon for six hours before they were routed. In most areas the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces repulsed the attacks immediately, but in Saigon the fighting lasted almost a week and in Hue bloody house-to-house combat consumed the two sides for over a month. Eventually, Hue was recovered, and Westmoreland declared that allied forces had killed more enemy troops in the last seven days of fighting than the United States had lost since the beginning of the war.

Although North Vietnams military objectives had not been achieved in the Tet Offensive, the psychological impact on the American home front was considerable. Many U.S. citizens who had supported the war were shocked by the ferocity of the attack and concluded that the government was misleading them. Members of Johnsons own cabinet began to turn against the war and resisted calls for more troops. Soon Westmoreland was replaced in Vietnam by Creighton Adams, and that same year, 1968, Johnson announced an October surprisea complete cessation of all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam north of the twentieth parallel as a symbolic gesture to encourage the peace talks taking place in Paris. The Paris talks broke down eventually, as did Johnsons fortitude. He chose not to run for president in the 1968 election, which was marred by intense antiwar protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and eventually won by the Republican candidate Richard Nixon, in part because of his secret plan to remove the United States from the war with honor.


Nixons secret plan rested on two pillars. First, Vietnamization consisted of the gradual strengthening of the South Vietnamese military until they could hold their own against the NLF and North Vietnamese Army. It was hoped that reducing the combat load of U.S. troops would lessen popular opposition to the war stateside. Second, Nixons foreign policy of rapprochement with both China and the Soviet Union, in the midst of the Sino-Soviet split, had the effect of limiting their assistance to North Vietnam.

The diplomatic success was undermined by the negative publicity surrounding two notorious events: the 1968 My Lai massacre, which occurred when a platoon led by William Calley killed several hundred Vietnamese women and children and burned a small town to the ground; and the bombing of Cambodia in 1969, which was intended to destroy NLF sanctuaries and supplies hidden along the Cambodian border. The latter action prompted more protests on U.S. college campusesfour students were shot and killed by National Guard troops during demonstrations at Kent State University in Ohio. On the warfront, one unintended effect of the bombing campaign was to push Communist forces deeper into Cambodia, which destabilized the country and in turn may have encouraged the rise of the Khmer Rouge, who seized power in 1975.

In an effort to help assuage opposition to the war, Nixon announced on October 12, 1970 that the United States would withdraw 40,000 more troops before Christmas. But on October 30th, the worst monsoon to hit Vietnam in six years caused large floods, killed close to 300, left 200,000 Vietnamese homeless, and brought the war effort to a standstill. On January 15, 1973, citing progress in peace negotiations, President Nixon suspended offensive operations in North Vietnam, then followed with a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, officially ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict. For their efforts, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese lead negotiator Le Duc Tho were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But the fighting in Vietnam continued unabated. In December 1974 the U.S. Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974, thereby cutting off all military funding to the Saigon government and rendering the peace terms negotiated by Kissinger unenforceable. By 1975 the South Vietnamese army stood alone against the powerful North Vietnamese, and Saigon famously fell on April 30, 1975 when two tanks crashed through the gates of the presidential palace as South Vietnamese who had cooperated with the United States desperately tried to flee the country.


Vietnam became a unified nation after the war, but at a great cost in terms of human lives and infrastructure, and in 1975 it was one of the worlds poorest countries. Although the population still suffers effects of Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance, economic reform (Doi Moi ) begun in 1986 has drastically reduced poverty from over 70 percent of the population to less than 20 percent and spurred impressive long-term growth throughout the nation. Foreign investment also has played a major role in Vietnams economic upturn, with an increasing amount coming from the United States after the normalization of relations in 1995. For South Vietnamese connected with the former regime, the end of the war was a time of fear and resentment. Many highly skilled and educated South Vietnamese fled the country at the fall of Saigon and for years after, severely depleting the nations human capital. The new Communist government promptly sent connected South Vietnamese to hard-labor camps for reeducation, many for several years. Persecution and poverty prompted an additional two million people to flee Vietnam as boat people over the fifteen years following unification. To deal with the severe refugee crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, the United Nations established refugee camps in neighboring countries to process them. Many of these refugees resettled in the United States, forming large Vietnamese American emigrant communities with a decidedly anticommunist viewpoint.

In the United States the war had profound psychological effects, dividing the American public over the contentious issues of the humiliating withdrawal, perceived inequities in the draft, the schism in society created by the antiwar movement, knowledge of the devastation wrought on an impoverished country, and, most importantly, a profound sense of distrust in government, as many Americans believed their elected officials had not been forthcoming about the difficulties of the encounter while young citizens died in unprecedented numbers. Civil military relations were damaged because many soldiers and officers believed a winnable war had been undermined by civilian leadership and politics, and politicians felt that a runaway military had supplied it with misleading reports about the success of operations (particularly pacification). Finally, the role of the media was forever altered by reporters, photographers, and television crews who delivered coverage of the war into American living rooms. Some would hold the media up as heroic truth-tellers; others would blame it for supplying fodder to unpatriotic war protesters.

SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Bay of Pigs; Communism; Coup dEtat; Domino Theory; Guerrilla Warfare; Imperialism; Johnson, Lyndon B.; Kennedy, John F.; Khrushchev, Nikita; Peace; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics


Bowman, John S. 2005. The Vietnam War Almanac. New York: Barnes and Noble.

Economist. 2005. Vietnam: Changing Gear. November 26: 4950.

Ely, John Hart. 1993. War and Responsibility: Constitutional Lessons of Vietnam and Its Aftermath. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Herring, George C. 1996. Americas Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Levy, David W. 1995. The Debate over Vietnam. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Marr, David G. 1945. Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Miguel, Edward, and Gerard Roland. 2005. The Long Run Impact of Bombing Vietnam. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper no. 11954. Washington, DC.

Porter, Gareth. 2005. Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Scott, Shane. 2005. Vietnam War Intelligence Deliberately Skewed, Secret Study Says. New York Times, December 2.

Van Arkadie, Brian, and Raymond Mallon. 2003. Vietnam: A Transition Tiger? Canberra: Asia Pacific Press at Australia National University.

Edmund J. Malesky

Vietnam War

views updated May 23 2018

Vietnam War


After France withdrew its troops from Indochina in 1954, its former colony was partitioned by the Geneva Accords into North and South until elections could be held to determine the leadership of a united Vietnam. Fearing that Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969)—leader of the North who with the Viet Minh had defeated French troops at Dien Bien Phu—would succeed in uniting the nation as a communist state, the United States supported the South. Over the next decade, US military support for the South escalated, culminating in 1964 air strikes over North Vietnam and the deployment of ground troops the following year. Although the conflict was never officially declared as a war, it was represented and fought as such. By 1975, when the last remaining Americans were airlifted from Saigon, the United States had used in Vietnam over twice the amount of military force that it expended in World War II in both the European and Asian theaters; despite its efforts, North and South Vietnam were united as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976.

Through advanced firepower and chemical weaponry deployed during more than a decade of military involvement in the region, the United States and its allies succeeded in transforming Vietnam's political, economic, and social realities. But this transformation was not the one envisioned by US political leaders; nor was it the one communicated to the American people when they embarked upon military action in the area. A conflict that had a lasting effect on both the American culture and the Vietnamese culture, the Vietnam War as portrayed in US cinema bears witness to the difficulty the government had in promoting the cause of this war during the conflict and its problematic status in US popular culture for decades to come. Ultimately, the Vietnam War demonstrated both the terrible power and the limitations of America's political aims and national ideology as they were deployed by military action and promoted by the fantasy-making apparatus of cinema.


In contrast to the central role played by Hollywood in World War II, representations of the Vietnam War were rare in mainstream American cinema while US troops occupied Southeast Asia. Although a variety of fiction films referenced or showed the influence of the war, few combat films were made about Vietnam during the period of actual combat. Instead, the primary media representation of combat was television news coverage. Because Vietnam was the first "television war," some critics have surmised that an excess of and explicitness in television coverage made the combat film unappealing to audiences—just as some government leaders accused the news media of turning the population against the cause of war. Some vivid, even horrifying, images of the war appeared in print and on television; yet content analyses of television news has shown that, on the whole, war coverage was neither as plentiful nor as sensational as its critics have suggested.

Other factors, both industrial and ideological, appear to have had a more direct effect on the production of war films during the period. Hollywood studios were suffering in the late 1960s from a recession brought on by post-World War II industrial and cultural changes and by their consequent investment in some disastrously unsuccessful blockbuster films. Likewise, there was some difficulty in finding appropriate means to communicate the goals of America's action in Vietnam, as the US government discovered in its failed attempt to utilize techniques drawn from World War II documentary for its first Vietnam-era production, Why Vietnam? (1965). Its title and style deliberately echo Frank Capra's Why We Fight series (1943–1945), as did its rhetorical methods: it attempted to bring a clear moral purpose to the US role in Southeast Asia by comparing Ho Chi Minh to Hitler and Mussolini, thereby representing US action as primarily defensive. It was publicly criticized in 1967, and in 1971 the US Department of Defense report United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967 (also known as the Pentagon Papers) revealed that it had included deliberate misrepresentations. Troubled in its reception, the documentary never achieved its hoped for audience; and, although it continued to be shown to troops, it was pulled from civilian distribution. Similarly unsuccessful in its effort to present the nobility of the American cause, the US Information Agency documentary Vietnam! Vietnam! (1971), a full-color feature-length film executively produced by Hollywood veteran John Ford, was made for international distribution that it never achieved; its clear-cut representations of good versus evil were no longer, considered relevant by the time of its release. Thus for economic and political reasons, both Hollywood studios and the US government were hesitant to put this new war on screen. As a result, by 1970 a number of otherwise successful screenwriters, such as Samuel Fuller, Sy Barlett, and Stanley Kramer, had scripts in circulation that focused on the Vietnam War, but they found no support from studios or from the Pentagon. At the Pentagon, the Department of Defense Motion Picture Production Branch supported only one film during the war, with an estimated $1 million worth of military hardware and expertise: John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968). Studio and governmental reluctance to support projects dealing with Vietnam highlighted what appeared to be the particular difficulty of telling its story—or at least the difficulty of applying the generic formulae that had worked for previous wars, whereby the cause of America is transparently good, the enemy undeniably evil, combat goals clearly defined, and failure unthinkable.

The few combat films made about the Vietnam War during the conflict reflect these difficulties: The Green Berets as well as A Yank in VietNam (1964), Operation C.I.A. (1966), and To the Shores of Hell (1965) made an effort to fit America's complex relation with Vietnam within the parameters of the classic Hollywood narrative and the combat genre, by focusing on a well-defined mission or target; and, each is marked with its own type of ambiguity. Most notable in these terms is the The Green Berets, which applied generic elements of both the World War II combat film and the western in its effort to depict the heroism of the Special Forces and their struggle to protect Vietnamese peasantry from the hostile "Cong." An attempt to garner support for the war when, according to a 1967 poll, public opinion was beginning to move in opposition, it tells the story of a cynical journalist who is swayed to the cause of the war when he witnesses enemy atrocities. In doing so, the film dramatizes the notion that only eyewitnesses can really understand America's war in Vietnam, a war unlike previous wars because its nature and purpose are effectively unrepresentable. The difficulty of understanding and representing Vietnam and its consequent difference from previous wars are themes that persisted in its fictional—and documentary—representations. Films such as the Oscar®-winning documentary feature La Section Anderson (The Anderson Platoon, 1967) and A Face of War (1968) underplayed political explanation and contexts to focus instead on the day-to-day experiences of war and privileged the "grunt" point of view as the primary site of knowledge about the war.


For many critics, the failure of The Green Berets to tell an accurate story of the war and to find and persuade an audience signaled the end of the combat film as a genre. For the duration of the war, Vietnam was represented on screen not by images of battle but by images of the war's veterans. Films focusing solely on individuals tended to depoliticize and personalize the conflict. The earliest of these were low-budget, independently produced "exploitation" pictures that incorporated Vietnam veterans into narratively simple, sensationalist, and action-oriented biker, blaxploitation, and horror films designed to capitalize on the topicality of Vietnam. Later these films would be joined by a few independent features, studio-produced exploitation pictures, and made-for-television melodramas. Taken together, they demonstrate the way that Vietnam was first imagined on screen as primarily a domestic problem for the United States and as a violent disruption of the status quo—another thematic trope that continued in representations of the war well after 1975.

Biker films produced by companies such as American International Pictures (AIP) featured violent veterans, often characterized as former Green Berets whose fighting skills are used in and against the United States. In such films, war's violence comes home with the veteran who fights against the police, the establishment, and other gangs, as in Angels from Hell (1968) or The Hard Ride (1971); or veterans may take over the role of the police as dispensers of vigilante justice, as in The BornLosers (1967) and Chrome and Hot Leather (1971). Although such films had little to say about the war directly, their emphasis on the rage and violence of veterans is worth noting—particularly given the fact that they were most heavily distributed in those rural and urban areas of the United States where the draft hit hardest. Of particular interest in these terms are black-themed action or blaxploitation films that featured black veterans who return to battle the mob, drug dealers, and murderers of their family and friends. In the way that such films as Slaughter (1972), Black Gunn (1972), and Gordon's War (1973) focused on black communities and families alienated from white lawmakers and official sources of power, they blended references to the Vietnam War with representations of militant black power. In doing so, they obliquely referenced the politicization of black soldiers and civilians and their opposition to a war viewed as irrelevant to the needs and priorities of black America.

In addition to these action-oriented films, low-budget horror films likewise featured violent veterans as a metonym for war brought home to America. Such films as Psycho a Go-Go (1965) and The Crazies (1973) associated the war with psychosomatic transformations that produce monsters. The low-budget Canadian-produced Deathdream (also known as Dead of Night, 1972) voiced tacit criticism through its graphic horror, as an undead veteran systematically takes revenge on the family and community members who sent him to war.

Outside of generic exploitation formats, other low-budget independent productions dealt with many of the same tropes of war invading the home through the figure of the veteran. Such films offered space for directors blocked from mainstream production to comment on the war and its effects, for the low-budget milieu of the domestic melodrama or the art cinema feature allowed them to circumvent Pentagon support and the large-scale, studio-based funding required for films in the combat genre. For instance, when Elia Kazan was unable to obtain studio backing for his Vietnam War screenplays, he shot what he called a "home movie," using his own home as a set and a script written by his son, Chris. In The Visitors (1972), which mixes family melodrama with graphic violence, veterans visit an old buddy who testified against them for war crimes, kill his dog, and rape his wife before leaving. Brian De Palma's Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970) work for more comic effect with draft dodgers and psychotic veterans who blend in with the generally surreal landscape that is De Palma's vision of America during the war years.

By 1971 low-budget films featuring violent vets had become lucrative enough to attract the interest of Hollywood, in particular, the sequel to Born Losers, Billy Jack (1971), which by 1973 had grossed $60 million and attracted a family audience with its fight-for-peace vigilantism. Just as in the 1960s Hollywood studios had borrowed aspects of European art cinema to win over younger and more educated audiences no longer interested in its standard family entertainment fare, in the 1970s they imported plotlines, marketing strategies, and exhibition techniques from exploitation pictures. Along with simplified plots and sensational violence, they took up the theme of returned veterans-turned-violent vigilantes: in 1973 Magnum Force and The Stone Killer and their stars Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, respectively, ushered in a new generation of action heroes. By the mid-1970s the figure of the violent, often psychotic, veteran was so familiar that in Taxi Driver (1976) a brief mention of Vietnam provides ample motivation for the psychosocial and physical transformations experienced by its troubled protagonist, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro).

At the same time that the combat genre was replaced by films that represented the war indirectly in the person of the returned Vietnam veteran, and low-budget exploitation films capitalized on Americans' emotional responses to Vietnam, some mainstream productions appeared to offer covert criticism of the war. The western, like the combat film, had long served as a vehicle for America's perception of itself and its history, offering mythic representations of the frontier, Manifest Destiny, the relation between civilization and wilderness, and the nature of heroism and masculinity. Released after revelations of the My Lai massacre in 1969, revisionist westerns like Little Big Man (1970), Soldier Blue (1970), and Ulzana's Raid (1972) appeared to reference such atrocities in their representation of violence between Native Americans and white settlers; in doing so, they critically reconsidered the mythic basis of American identity and offered a tacit critique of US policies in Southeast Asia. Such allegorical representations notwithstanding, explicitly antiwar films were as rare in American mainstream cinema as combat films were during the conflict. However, the year after US troops were withdrawn, the antiwar documentary Hearts and Minds (1974), which combined archival footage and interviews with veterans to excite emotional responses against the war, was widely distributed throughout the United States and won an Academy Award® the same year.


Fewer representations of Vietnam veterans appeared on screen for several years after the withdrawal of troops, but this changed with a series of films, such as Who'll Stop the Rain (1978), Coming Home (1978), and Birdy (1984), that featured violent or victimized veterans who stand in for the war's effects on America. Coming Home, for example, narrowly focuses its antiwar message on the damage inflicted on the bodies and minds of American soldiers. It seeks to resolve the problems of war—which it imagines primarily as problems of masculine identity—within the conventions of melodrama, by working through a love triangle that includes two veterans with very different perspectives on the war and their role as soldiers, along with the political-but-bankable star, Jane Fonda.

b. Detroit, Michigan, 7 April 1939

Francis Ford Coppola is an independent whose career has undergone wide fluctuations both in critical and popular reception and in financial resources. A major figure of the so-called "movie brat" generation, he emerged in the 1960s among the wave of filmmakers who had studied film formally before making them. Known primarily for The Godfather trilogy—The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), and The Godfather: Part III (1990)—Coppola's greatest achievement in film may be his Vietnam war epic, Apocalypse Now (1979).

Raised in a family involved in the arts, in the early 1960s Coppola studied film at UCLA, a program that has produced a number of other important filmmakers. While still in film school he worked on several films, including his first feature, Dementia 13 (1963) for B-movie king Roger Corman. Coppola's thesis project, the youth comedy You're a Big Boy Now (1966), was distributed theatrically by Warner Bros. He established his own production company, American Zoetrope, in 1969, but the company foundered financially and eventually filed for bankruptcy. The Conversation (1974), about a troubled surveillance expert, which he wrote and directed, garnered both Oscar® nominations and a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival; the film displayed Coppola's art-film aspirations, but the commercial success of The Godfather—at one point it ranked as the most successful film of all time—was more influential on Coppola's career.

Apocalypse Now, loosely based on Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, is the story of a Special Forces captain (Martin Sheen), who is assigned to travel up the Nung river in Cambodia during the Vietnam War in search of an infamous rogue officer (Marlon Brando), who has established his own violent cult society somewhere upriver, and "terminate him with extreme prejudice." The making of the film was plagued by a number of legendary difficulties (as well as a ballooning budget); as a result of long delays in production, the film loses a degree of narrative coherence but gains in its place an almost hallucinatory power in evoking the absurdity and confusion of a war that few Americans understood.

Coppola's career since Apocalypse Now has been uneven. One from the Heart (1982), his first film after Apocalypse Now, is fascinating as a stylish musical set entirely in an expressionist Las Vegas, but it failed to connect with audiences. The overblown Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) was more successful at the box office; his two adaptations of S. E. Hinton's novels about youth growing up in 1960s Oklahoma, Rumble Fish (1983) and The Outsiders (1983), are among his most interesting work. Coppola also has produced films by other important directors such as Wim Wenders and Akira Kurosawa and been involved in a number of publishing ventures.


The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979), Gardens of Stone (1987), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)


Chown, Jeffrey. Hollywood Auteur: Francis Coppola. New York: Praeger, 1988.

Kolker, Robert Philip. A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman, 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Phillips, Gene D. Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

——, ed. Francis Ford Coppola: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.

Schumacher, Michael. Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker's Life. New York: Crown Publishers, 1999.

Barry Keith Grant

The most notable change in the cinematic representation of Vietnam after the war was that mainstream filmmakers

appeared to feel confident enough in their audience to put Vietnam combat on screen for the first time. Late 1970s war films reflected Americans' ambivalence about—and its exhaustion from—the war. The Boys in Company C (1978) and Go Tell the Spartans (1978), both relatively modest but carefully scripted encounters with the madness of that war, attracted little critical response. By contrast, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) both won multiple awards for their epic treatments of the war and its insanity. Cimino's film portrayed the effects of war on a community of second-generation Ukranian-American steelworkers, employing a blend of naturalism (in setting, acting, cinematography) and fantasy (motifs of the "one shot" of Russian roulette) designed to evoke an emotional response to its image of shattered innocence and belief. The stylistic excesses of Coppola's film, offering a nearly surrealist image of the war, were used in a similar way to evoke a subjective sense of the war's losses. Garnering praise for their style, performances, and direction, both films were also strongly criticized for their lack of historical specificity. Instead of a historically accurate depiction of the war, they offered a mythic space in which national and personal ideals were explored and challenged. Rather like Hollywood's representation of the West in frontier days, such representations were best understood not according to their historical veracity, but in terms of their applicability to the contemporary values and beliefs of the audience.

The films that followed in the early 1980s likewise constructed a mythic Vietnam: the POW/MIA revenge films Uncommon Valor (1983), Missing in Action (1984), and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) all combined the spectacular elements of action cinema with right-wing nationalistic fantasy to refigure the vigilante of 1970s exploitation cinema as a lone veteran who returns to Vietnam, this time "to win." In each case the focus of the veteran/soldier's quest is the MIA/POW: soldiers unaccounted for after the repatriation of POWs in 1973 were, according to the logic of these films, still alive; likewise, the Vietnam War had never ended. A complex figure, despite the simplicity of its film treatment, the MIA/POW of these films stands in for all that was lost during the turbulent period of the war, including trust in the government in the wake of the revelations of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. The vigilante heroes of these films fight as much against government corruption as they do against evil communists; the films offer narrative engagements with the numerous conspiracy theories that circled around America's conduct of the war and its treatment of its own soldiers.

During the latter half of the 1980s, a more recognizable war returned to the screen in such films as Platoon (1986), Hamburger Hill (1987), Full Metal Jacket (1989), Casualties of War (1989), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and 84C MoPic (1989). These works made a stylistic shift from the action-adventure films that preceded them in the first part of the decade; they were marketed and praised for the realism, authenticity, and verifiability of their presentation of war. Employing the generically familiar traits of the World War II combat film, they reference extra-cinematic authorities, eyewitness accounts, and real historical events to buttress their claims to historical truth. They provided a sense of authenticity in their settings, with 1960s fashions, consumer goods, and recognizable locations. They were perhaps most persuasive—and influential on the war film—in their representation of the visual and aural texture of battle; We Were Soldiers (2002), which depicts the war's first major battle of 1965, is evidence of their ongoing influence. While a film like Apocalypse Now affected viewers with the surreality of its image of Vietnam, these films focused instead on its visceral character: their sense of verifiability was confirmed by camera movement that referenced combat and documentary reportage; and their soundtracks heightened the effect with period rock music, bone-shaking weapons' fire, and the slap-thud of Hueys.

Yet, at the same time that they offered a Vietnam never before seen—or heard—on screen, the representations of combat in these 1980s films were indebted to earlier representations of the war that likewise invoked the individual, eyewitness experience as the key to understanding it. Similar in these terms was the TV-documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1987), made for HBO and later given theatrical release. Featuring dramatic readings of letters from soldiers, their families, and their loved ones, it emphasizes personal experience over politics and ideology to produce a therapeutic text of remembrance. Its critics viewed it as a profoundly political film, however, for the way that it forestalled any critical or oppositional stance toward the war via its emotional engagement with the soldiers' experience.

In the 1990s and 2000s, following the American victory in the Cold War and its—somewhat anticlimactic and short-lived—triumph in the Persian Gulf, the Vietnam War was less prevalent on screen, despite the fact that documentaries such as Daughter from Danang (2002)—which recounted the reunion of an Amerasian woman and her Vietnamese mother—served as a reminder of the ongoing effects of war on both soldiers and non-combatants. Some critics observed that the popularity of Forrest Gump (1994) signaled the end of America's struggle with this chapter of its history: its slow-witted protagonist's affability and ignorance effectively smoothed the edges of every major event of the 1960s in which he unwittingly participated—including the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, Coppola's remixed and restored Apocalypse Now Redux (2001) seems as relevant as its 1979 predecessor as a film that recognizes and confronts the madness and excess of war: Vietnam was not the first—or last—conflict to inspire such films, but they are an important part of its legacy in American cinema.

SEE ALSO Genre;Historical Films;Violence;War Films


Adair, Gilbert. Hollywood's Vietnam: From "The Green Berets" to "Apocalypse Now". New York: Proteus, 1981.

Anderegg, Michael, ed. Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991.

Auster, Albert, and Leonard Quart. How the War Was Remembered: Hollywood and Vietnam. New York: Praeger, 1988.

Berg, Rick. "Losing Vietnam: Covering the War in an Age of Technology." Cultural Critique 3 (1986): 92–125.

Dittmar, Linda, and Gene Michaud, eds. From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Hansen, Miriam. "Traces of Transgression in Apocalypse Now." Social Text 3 (Fall 1980): 123–135.

Howell, Amanda. "Lost Boys and Angry Ghouls: Vietnam's Undead." Genders 23 (1996): 297–334.

James, David. "Rock and Roll in Representations of the Invasion of Vietnam." Representations 29 (1990): 78–98.

Smith, Julian. Looking Away: Hollywood and Vietnam. New York: Scribner's, 1975.

Springer, Claudia. "Defense Department Films from World War II to Vietnam." Cultural Critique 3 (Spring 1986): 151–167.

Studlar, Gaylyn, and David Desser. "Never Having to Say You're Sorry: Rambo's Rewriting of the Vietnam War." Film Quarterly 42, no.1 (1988): 9–16.

Walker, Mark. Vietnam Veteran Films. Metuchen, NJ and London: Scarecrow Press, 1991.

Amanda Howell

Vietnam War

views updated May 11 2018

Vietnam War


The Vietnam War was a struggle between communist and pro-western forces that lasted from the end of World War II until 1975. The communist Viet Minh, or League for the Independence of Vietnam, sought to gain control of the entire nation from its stronghold in the north. Opposing it were, first, France, and later the United States and United Nations forces, who supported the non-communist forces in southern Vietnam. In 1975, in violation of a 1973 peace treaty negotiated to end United States military involvement in South Vietnam and active war against North Vietnam, North Vietnamese forces and South Vietnamese communist sympathizers seized control of South Vietnam

and reunited the two countries into a single communist country.

American involvement in Vietnam has long been a subject of controversy. The fighting depended, to a greater extent than in any conflict before, on the work of intelligence forces. Most notable among these were various U.S. military intelligence organizations, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Early stages. Led by Ho Chi Minh (18901969), the Viet Minh aligned themselves with the Soviets from the 1920s. However, they configured their struggle not in traditional communist terms as a class struggle, but as a war for national independence and unity, and against foreign domination. Vietnam at the time was under French control as part of Indochina, and World War II provided the first opportunity for a Viet Minh uprising against the French, in 1940. France, by then aligned with the Axis under the Vichy government, rapidly suppressed the revolt. Nor did the free French, led by General Charles de Gaulle, welcome the idea of Vietnamese independence.

After the war was over, de Gaulle sent troops to resume control, and fighting broke out between French and Viet Minh forces on December 19, 1946. On May 7, 1954, the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu fell to the Viet Minh after an eight-week siege. Two months later, in July 1954, the French signed the Geneva Accords, by which they formally withdrew from Vietnam.

The Geneva Accords divided the country along the 17th parallel, but this division was to be only temporary, pending elections in 1956. However, in 1955 Ngo Dinh Diem declared the southern portion of the nation the Republic of Vietnam, with a capital at Saigon. In 1956, Diem, with the backing of the United States, refused to allow elections, and fighting resumed. The conflict was now between South Vietnam and the communist republic of North Vietnam, whose capital was Hanoi. Fighting the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) were not only the regular army forces of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), but also Viet Cong, guerrillas from the South who had received training and arms from the North.

American involvement. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had already sent the first U.S. military and civilian advisers to Vietnam in 1955, and four years later, two military advisers became the first American casualties in the conflict. The administration of President John F. Kennedy greatly expanded U.S. commitments to Vietnam, such that by late 1962 the number of military advisers had grown to 11,000. At the same time, Washington's support for the unpopular

Diem had faded, and when American intelligence learned of plans for a coup by his generals, the United States did nothing to stop it. Diem was assassinated on November 1, 1963.

Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, U.S. participation in the Vietnam War reached its zenith. The beginnings of the full-scale commitment came after August 2, 1964, when North Vietnamese gunboats in the Gulf of Tonkin attacked the U.S. destroyer Maddox. Requesting power from Congress to strike back, Johnson received it in the form of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which granted the president virtual carte blanche to prosecute the war in Vietnam.

High point of the war. As a result of his strengthened position to wage war, and still enjoying broad support from the American public, Johnson launched a bombing campaign against North Vietnam in late 1964, and again in March 1965, after a Viet Cong attack on a U.S. installation at Pleiku. By June 1965, as the first U.S. ground troops arrived, U.S. troop strength stood at 50,000. By year's end, it would be near 200,000.

General William C. Westmoreland, who had assumed command of U.S. forces in Vietnam in June 1964, maintained that victory required a sufficient commitment of ground troops. Yet by the mid-1960s, the NVA had begun moving into the South via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and as communist forces began to take more villages and hamlets, they seemed poised for victory. Johnson pledged greater support, but despite growing number of ground troops and intensive bombing of the North in 1967, U.S. victory remained elusive.

The turning point in the U.S. effort came on January 30, 1968, when the NVA and Viet Cong launched a surprise attack during celebrations of the Vietnamese lunar new year, or Tet. The Tet Offensive, though its value as a military victory for the North is questionable, was an enormous psychological victory that convinced Americans that short of annihilation of North Vietnaman unacceptable geopolitical alternativethey could not win a Korea-like standoff or outright victory in Vietnam. In March 1968, Johnson called for an end to bombing north of the 20th parallel, and announced that he would not seek reelection. Westmoreland, too, was relieved of duty.

Withdrawal (196975). The administration of President Richard Nixon in 1969 began withdrawing, and instituted a process of "Vietnamization," or turning control of the war over to the South Vietnamese. In 1970, the most significant military activity took place in Cambodia and Laos, where U.S. B-52 bombers continually pounded the Ho Chi Minh Trail in an effort to cut off supply lines.

Despite the bombing campaign, undertaken in pursuit of Vietnamization and the goal of making the war winnable for the South, the North continued to advance. On January 27, 1973, the United States and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords, and U.S. military involvement in Vietnam ended.

During the two years that followed, the North Vietnamese gradually advanced on the South. On April 30, 1975, communist forces took control of Saigon as government members and supporters fled. On July 2, 1976, the country was formally united as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and Saigon renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

The intelligence and special operations war. Behind and alongside the military war was an intelligence and special operations war that likewise dated back to World War II. At that time, the United States, through the Organization of Strategic Services (OSS), actually worked closely with Viet Minh operatives, who OSS agents regarded as reliable allies against the Japanese. Friendly relations with the Americans continued after the Japanese surrender, when OSS supported the cause of Vietnamese independence.

This stance infuriated the French, who sought to reestablish control while avoiding common cause with the Viet Minh. They attempted to cultivate or create a number of local groups, among them a Vietnamese mafia-style organization, that would work on their behalf against the Viet Minh. These efforts, not to mention the participation of one of the world's most well-trained special warfare contingents, the Foreign Legion, availed the French little gain.

Special Forces, military intelligence, and CIA. In the first major U.S. commitment to Vietnam, Kennedy brought to bear several powerful weapons that together signified his awareness that Vietnam was not a war like the others America had fought: the newly created Special Forces group, known popularly as the "Green Berets," as well as CIA and a host of military intelligence organizations.

Though Special Forces are known popularly for their prowess in physical combat, their mission in Vietnam from the beginning had a strong psychological warfare component. In May 1961, Kennedy committed 400 of these elite troops to the war in Southeast Asia, and more would follow.

Alongside them, in many cases, were military intelligence personnel, whose ranks in Vietnam numbered 3,000 by 1967. Most of these were in two army units, the Army Security Agency (ASA) and the Military Intelligence Corps. The work of military intelligence ranged from the signals intelligence of ASA, one of whose members became the first regular-army U.S. soldier to die in combat in 1961, to the electronic intelligence conducted by navy destroyers such as the ill-fated Maddox. In addition, military aircraft such as the SR-71 Blackbird and U-2 conducted extensive aerial reconnaissance.

As for CIA, by the time the war reached its height in the mid-to late 1960s, it had some 700 personnel in Vietnam. Many of these operated undercover groups that included the Office of the Special Assistant to the Ambassador (OSA, led by future CIA chief William Colby), which occupied a large portion of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

Cooperation and conflict. These three major arms of the intelligence and special operations warSpecial Forces and other elite units, military intelligence, and CIAoften worked together. When Kennedy sent in the first contingent of Special Forces, they went to work alongside CIA, to whom the president in 1962 gave responsibility for paramilitary operations in Vietnam.

Unbeknownst to most Americans, CIA was also in charge of paramilitary operations in two countries where the United States was not officially engaged: Cambodia and Laos. Long before Nixon's campaign to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail with strategic bombers, CIA operatives were training a clandestine army of tribesmen and mercenaries in Laos. Ordinary U.S. troops were not involved in this sideshow war in the interior of Southeast Asia: only Special Forces, whoin order to conceal their identity as American troopsbore neither U.S. markings nor U.S. weaponry.

CIA and army intelligence personnel worked on another notorious operation, Phoenix, an attempt to seek out and neutralize communist personnel in South Vietnam during the period from 1967 to 1971. CIA claimed to have killed, captured, or turned as many as 60,000 enemy agents and guerrillas in Phoenix, a project noted for the ruthlessness with which it was carried out. In this undertaking, CIA and the army had the nominal assistance of South Vietnamese intelligence, but due to an abiding U.S. mistrust of their putative allies, the Americans gave the Saigon little actual role in Phoenix.

The military and CIA debacles. In other situations, CIA and military groups did not so much intentionally collaborate as they found themselves thrown together, often at cross-purposes, or at least in ways that were not mutually beneficial. While U.S. Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin were monitoring North Vietnamese electronic transmissions, CIA was busy striking at Viet Minh naval facilities with fast craft whose South Vietnamese (or otherwise non-American) crews made CIA involvement deniable. But North Vietnamese intelligence was as capable as its military, and they fired on the Maddox in direct response to this CIA operation.

The U.S. military became involved in another CIA debacle when, in 1968, army intelligence tried to resume a failed effort by CIA's Studies and Observation Group (SOG), another cover organization. From the early 1960s, SOG had been attempting to parachute South Vietnamese agents into North Vietnam, with the intention of using them as saboteurs and agents provocateur. The effort backfired, with most of the infiltrators dead, imprisoned, or used by the North Vietnamese as bait. CIA put a stop to the undertaking, but army intelligence tried to succeed where CIA had failedonly to lose several hundred more Vietnamese agents.

The U.S. Air Force had to take over another unsuccessful CIA operation, Black Shield, which involved a series of reconnaissance flights by A-12 Oxcart spy planes over North Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. Using the A-12, which could reach speeds of Mach 3.1 (2,300 m.p.h. or 3,700 k.p.h.), Black Shield gathered extensive information on Soviet-built surface-to-air missile (SAM) installations in the North. To obtain the best possible photographic intelligence, the Oxcarts had to fly relatively low and slow, and in the fall of 1967 North Vietnamese SAMs hitbut did not downan A-71. In 1968, the U.S. Air Force, operating SR-71 Blackbirds, replaced CIA.

Assessing CIA in Vietnam. Despite the notorious nature of Phoenix or the CIA undertakings in Cambodia and Laos, as well as the occasions when CIA overplayed its hand or placed the military in the position of cleaning up one of its failed operations, CIA involvement in Vietnam was far from an unbroken record of failure. One success was Air America. The latter, a proprietary airline chartered in 1949, supplied the secret war in the interior, and also undertook a number of other operations in Vietnam and other countries in Asia. That Air America was only disbanded in 1981, long after the war ended, illustrates its effectiveness.

The popular image of CIA operatives in Vietnam as fiends blinded by hatred of communisman image bolstered by Hollywoodis as lacking in historical accuracy as it is in depth of characterization. Like other Americans involved in Vietnam, members of CIA began with the belief that they could and would save a vulnerable nation from Soviet-style totalitarianism and provide its people with an opportunity to develop democratic institutions, establish prosperity, and find peace. Much more quickly than their counterparts in the military and political communities, however, members of the intelligence community came to recognize the fallacies on which their undertaking was based.

Intelligence vs. the military and the politicians. Whereas many political and military leaders adhered to standard interpretations about the North Vietnamese, such as the idea that they were puppets of Moscow whose power depended entirely on force, CIA operatives with closer contact to actual Vietnamese sources recognized the appeal of the Viet Minh nationalist message. And because CIA recognized the strength of the enemy, their estimate of America's ability to win the warparticularly as the troop buildup began in the mid-1960sbecame less and less optimistic.

CIA appraisal of the situation tended to be far less sanguine than that of General Westmoreland and other military leaders, and certainly less so than that of President Johnson and other political leaders far removed from the conflict. In 1965, for instance, CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) produced a joint study in which they predicted that the bombing campaign would do little to soften North Vietnam. This was not a position favored by Washington, however, so it received little attention.

Whereas Washington favored an air campaign, General Westmoreland maintained that the war would be won by ground forces. Both government and military leaders agreed on one approach: the use of statistics as a benchmark of success or failure. In terms of the number of bombs dropped, cities hit, or Viet Cong and NVA killed, American forces seemed to be winning. Yet for every guerrilla killed, the enemy seemed to produce two or three more in his place, and every village bombed seemed only to increase enemy resistance.

The lessons of Vietnam. In the end, the United States effort in Vietnam was undone by the singularity of aims possessed by its enemies in the North; the instability and unreliability of its allies in the South, combined with American refusal to give the South Vietnamese a greater role in their own war; and a divergence of aims on the part of American leaders.

For example, the Tet Offensive, which resulted in so many Viet Cong deaths that the guerrilla force was essentially eliminated, and NVA regulars took the place of the Viet Cong, is remembered as a victory for the North. And it was a victory in psychological, if not military, terms. The surprise, fear, and disappointment elicited by the Tet Offensivecombined with a rise of political dissent within the United Statespunctured America's will to wage the war, and marked the beginning of the end of American participation in Vietnam.

For some time, U.S. college campuses had seen small protests against the war, but in 1968 the number of these demonstrations grew dramatically, as did the ranks of participants. Nor were youth the only Americans now opposing the war in large numbers: increasingly, other sectors of societyincluding influential figures in the media, politics, the arts, and even the sciencesbegan to make their opposition known. In the final years of Vietnam, there was a secondary war being fought in the United Statesa war concerning America's vision of itself and its role in the world.

By war's end, Vietnam itself had largely been forgotten. Despite earlier promises of a liberal democratic government, the unified socialist republic fell prey to the exigencies typical of communist dictatorship: mass imprisonments and executions, forced redistribution of land, and the banning of political opposition. Forgotten, too, were Laos and even Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge launched a campaign of genocide that killed an estimated two million people.

The Vietnamese invasion in 1979 probably saved thousands of Cambodian lives, but in the aftermath, Vietnam came to be regarded as a colonialist power. The nation once admired by the third world for standing up to America now became a pariah, supported only by Moscowwhich had gained access to a valuable warm-water port at Cam Ranh Bayand its allies in Eastern Europe.

During the remainder of the 1970s, America was in retreat, its attention turned away from the fate of countries that fell to communism or, in the case of Iran, to Islamic fundamentalist dictatorship. Americans focused their anger on those they regarded as having led them astray during the war years: politicians, the military, and CIA, which came under intense scrutiny during the 197576 Church committee hearings in the U.S. Senate. Only in the 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan, did the United States return to an activist stance globally.



Allen, George W. None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.

Conboy, Kenneth K., and Dale Andradé. Spies and Commandos: How America Lost the Secret War in North Vietnam. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000.

Kissinger, Henry. Years of Renewal. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

Shultz, Richard G. The Secret War against Hanoi: Kennedy's and Johnson's Use of Spies, Saboteurs, and Covert Warriors in North Vietnam. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

Sorley, Lewis. A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.

Wirtz, James J. The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.


Vietnam War Declassification Project. Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum. <> (February 5, 2003).


CIA (United States Central Intelligence Agency)
Cold War (19501972)
Cold War (19721989): The Collapse of the Soviet Union
Johnson Administration (19631969), United States National Security Policy
Kennedy Administration (19611963), United States National Security Policy
Nixon Administration (19691974), United States National Security Policy

Vietnam War

views updated May 09 2018


VIETNAM WAR, fought from 1957 until spring 1975, began as a struggle between the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) supported by the United States and a Communist-led insurgency assisted by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). Eventually, both the United States and North Vietnam committed their regular military forces to the struggle. North Vietnam received economic and military assistance from the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. The Republic of Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines furnished troops to the U.S.–South Vietnamese side. With 45,943 U.S. battle deaths, Vietnam was the fourth costliest war the country fought in terms of loss of life.

The Vietnam War was a continuation of the Indochina War of 1946–1954, in which the Communist dominated Vietnamese nationalists (Viet Minh) defeated France's attempt to reestablish colonial rule. American involvement began in 1950 when President Harry S. Truman invoked the Mutual Defense Assistance Act of 1949 to provide aid to French forces in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Early U.S. aims were to halt the spread of Communism and to encourage French participation in the international defense of Europe.

Even with U.S. aid in the form of materiel and a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), the French could not defeat the Viet Minh use of both guerrilla warfare and conventional attacks. Ending the Indochina War, the Geneva Accords of 1954 divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel with a three-mile Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The partition in effect created two nations: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north with its capital at Hanoi, and the Republic of Vietnam in the south with its capital at Saigon. Vietnam's neighbors, Laos and

Cambodia, became independent nations under nominally neutralist governments.

The administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower provided aid and support to the government of Ngo Dinh Diem. The MAAG, which grew in strength from 342 personnel to nearly 700, helped Diem to build up his armed forces. In 1956, with Eisenhower's concurrence, Diem refused to participate in the national elections called for in the Geneva Accords, asserting that South Vietnam had not acceded to the agreement and that free elections were impossible in the north, and declared himself president of the Republic of Vietnam.

During the first years of his rule, Diem, assisted by the MAAG, American civilian advisers, and by $190 million a year in U.S. financial aid, established effective armed forces and a seemingly stable government. He defeated or co-opted South Vietnamese rivals, resettled some 800,000 Catholic refugees from North Vietnam, initiated land reform, and conducted a campaign to wipe out the Viet Minh organization that remained in the south. Although strong on the surface, however, Diem's regime was inefficient and riddled with corruption. Its land reform brought little benefit to the rural poor. Commanded by generals selected for loyalty to Diem rather than ability, the armed forces were poorly trained and low in morale. The anti–Viet Minh campaign alienated many peasants, and Diem's increasingly autocratic rule turned much of the urban anticommunist elite against him.

Anticipating control of South Vietnam through elections and preoccupied with internal problems, North Vietnam's charismatic leader, Ho Chi Minh, at first did little to exploit the vulnerabilities of the southern regime. Nevertheless, Ho and his colleagues were committed to the liberation of all of Vietnam and had accepted the Geneva Accords only with reluctance, under pressure from the Russians and Chinese, who hoped to avoid another Korea-type confrontation with the United States. In deference to his allies' caution and to American power, Ho moved slowly at the outset against South Vietnam.

Beginning in 1957, the southern Viet Minh, with authorization from Hanoi, launched a campaign of political subversion and terrorism, and gradually escalated a guerrilla war against Diem's government. Diem quickly gave the insurgents the label Viet Cong (VC), which they retained throughout the ensuing struggle. North Vietnam created a political organization in the south, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF), ostensibly a broad coalition of elements opposed to Diem but controlled from the north by a Communist inner core. To reinforce the revived insurgency, Hanoi began sending southward soldiers and political cadres who had regrouped to North Vietnam after the armistice in 1954. These men, and growing quantities of weapons and equipment, traveled to South Vietnam via a network of routes through eastern Laos called the Ho Chi Minh Trail and by sea in junks and trawlers. At this stage, however, the vast majority of Viet Cong were native southerners, and they secured most of their weapons and supplies by capture from government forces.

Building on the organizational base left from the French war and exploiting popular grievances against Diem, the Viet Cong rapidly extended their political control of the countryside. Besides conducting small guerrilla operations, they gradually began to mount larger assaults with battalion and then regimental size light infantry units. As the fighting intensified, the first American deaths occurred in July 1959, when two soldiers of the MAAG were killed during a Viet Cong attack on Bien Hoa, north of Saigon. By the time President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, it was clear that America's ally needed additional help.

Kennedy viewed the conflict in South Vietnam as a test case of Communist expansion by means of local "wars of national liberation." For that reason, as well as a continuing commitment to the general policy of "containment," Kennedy enlarged the U.S. effort in South Vietnam. He sent in more advisers to strengthen Diem's armed forces, provided additional funds and equipment, and deployed American helicopter companies and other specialized units. To carry out the enlarged program, Kennedy created a new joint (army, navy, air force) headquarters in Saigon, the Military Assistance Command,

Vietnam (MACV). The number of Americans in South Vietnam increased to more than 16,000 and they began engaging in combat with the Viet Cong.

After a promising start, the Kennedy program faltered. Diem's dictatorial rule undermined South Vietnamese military effectiveness and fed popular discontent, especially among the country's numerous Buddhists. An effort to relocate the rural population in supposedly secure "strategic hamlets" collapsed due to poor planning and ineffective execution. With support from the Kennedy administration, Diem's generals overthrew and assassinated him in a coup d'etat on 1 November 1963.

Diem's death, followed by the assassination of President Kennedy on 22 November 1963, did nothing to improve allied fortunes. As a succession of unstable Saigon governments floundered, the Viet Cong began advancing from guerrilla warfare to larger attacks aimed at destroying the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). To reinforce the campaign, Hanoi infiltrated quantities of modern Communist-bloc infantry weapons, and in late 1964, began sending units of its regular army into South Vietnam. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, during 1964 increased American military manpower in South Vietnam to 23,300 and tried to revive the counterinsurgency campaign. However, political chaos in Saigon and growing Viet Cong strength in the countryside frustrated his efforts and those of the MACV commander, General William C. Westmoreland.

Johnson and his advisers turned to direct pressure on North Vietnam. Early in 1964, they initiated a program of small-scale covert raids on the north and began planning for air strikes. In August 1964, American planes

raided North Vietnam in retaliation for two torpedo boat attacks (the second of which probably did not occur) on U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Johnson used this incident to secure authorization from Congress (the Tonkin Gulf Resolution) to use armed force to "repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to repel further aggression." That resolution served as a legal basis for subsequent increases in the U.S. commitment, but in 1970 after questions arose as to whether the administration had misrepresented the incidents, Congress repealed it.

Committed like his predecessors to containment and to countering Communist "wars of national liberation," Johnson also wanted to maintain U.S. credibility as an ally and feared the domestic political repercussions of losing South Vietnam. Accordingly, he and his advisers moved toward further escalation.

During 1964, Johnson authorized limited U.S. bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In February 1965, after the Viet Cong killed thirty-one Americans at Pleiku and Qui Nhon, the President sanctioned retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam. In March, retaliation gave way to a steadily intensified but carefully controlled aerial offensive against the north (Operation Rolling Thunder), aimed at reducing Hanoi's ability to support the Viet Cong and compelling its leaders to negotiate an end to the conflict on U.S. terms.

At the same time, Johnson committed American combat forces to the fight. Seven U.S. Marine battalions and an Army airborne brigade entered South Vietnam between March and May 1965. Their initial mission was to defend air bases used in Operation Rolling Thunder, but in April, Johnson expanded their role to active operations against the Viet Cong. During the same period, Johnson authorized General Westmoreland to employ U.S. jets in combat in the south, and in June, B-52 strategic bombers began raiding Viet Cong bases. As enemy pressure on the ARVN continued and evidence accumulated that North Vietnamese regular divisions were entering the battle, Westmoreland called for a major expansion of the ground troop commitment. On 28 July, Johnson announced deployments that would bring U.S. strength to 180,000 by the end of 1965. Westmoreland threw these troops into action against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese's large military units. Taking advantage of their helicopter-borne mobility, U.S. forces won early tactical victories, but the cost in American dead and wounded also began to mount and the enemy showed no signs of backing off.

Additional deployments increased American troop strength to a peak of 543,400 by 1969. To support them, MACV, using troops and civilian engineering firms, constructed or expanded ports, erected fortified camps, built vast depots, paved thousands of miles of roads, and created a network of airfields.

Desiring to keep the war limited to Vietnam, President Johnson authorized only small-scale raids into the enemy bases in Laos and Cambodia. As a result, in South Vietnam, General Westmoreland perforce fought a war of attrition. He used his American troops to battle the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong regular units while the ARVN and South Vietnam's territorial forces carried on the pacification campaign against the Viet Cong guerrillas and political infrastructure. As the fighting went on, a

stable government emerged in Saigon under Nguyen Van Thieu. These efforts, however, brought only stalemate. Aided by Russia and China, the North Vietnamese countered Operation Rolling Thunder with an air defense system of increasing sophistication and effectiveness. In South Vietnam, they fed in troops to match the American buildup and engaged in their own campaign of attrition. While suffering heavier losses than the U.S. in most engagements, they inflicted a steady and rising toll of American dead. Pacification in South Vietnam made little progress. The fighting produced South Vietnamese civilian casualties, the result of enemy terrorism, American bombing and shelling, and in a few instances—notably the My Lai massacre of March 1968—of atrocities by U.S. troops.

In the U.S., opposition to the war grew to encompass a broad spectrum of the public even as doubts about America's course emerged within the administration. By the end of 1967, President Johnson had decided to level off the bombing in the north and American troop strength in the south and to seek a way out of the war, possibly by turning more of the fighting over to the South Vietnamese.

Late in 1967, North Vietnam's leaders decided to break what they also saw as a stalemate by conducting a "General Offensive/General Uprising," a combination of heavy military attacks with urban revolts. After preliminary battles, the North Vietnamese early in 1968 besieged a Marine base at Khe Sanh in far northwestern South Vietnam. On the night of 31 January, during the Tet (Lunar New Year) holidays, 84,000 enemy troops attacked seventy-four towns and cities including Saigon. Although U.S. intelligence had gleaned something of the plan, the extent of the attacks on the cities came as a surprise.

Viet Cong units initially captured portions of many towns, but they failed to spark a popular uprising. Controlling Hué for almost a month, they executed 3,000 civilians as "enemies of the people." ARVN and U.S. troops quickly cleared most localities, and the besiegers of Khe Sanh withdrew after merciless pounding by American air power and artillery. At the cost of 32,000 dead (by MACV estimate), the Tet Offensive produced no lasting enemy military advantage.

In the United States, however, the Tet Offensive confirmed President Johnson's determination to wind down the war. Confronting bitter antiwar dissent within the Democratic Party and a challenge to his renomination from Senator Eugene McCarthy, Johnson rejected a military request for additional U.S. troops and halted most bombing of the north. He also withdrew from the presidential race to devote the rest of his term to the search for peace in Vietnam. In return for the partial bombing halt, North Vietnam agreed to open negotiations. Starting in Paris in May 1968, the talks were unproductive for a long time.

Taking office in 1969, President Richard M. Nixon continued the Paris talks. He also began withdrawing U.S. troops from South Vietnam while simultaneously building up Saigon's forces so that they could fight on

with only American advice and materiel assistance. This program was labeled "Vietnamization."

Because the Viet Cong had been much weakened by its heavy losses in the Tet Offensive and in two subsequent general offensives in May and August 1968, the years 1969–1971 witnessed apparent allied progress in South Vietnam. The ARVN gradually took on the main burden of the ground fighting, which declined in intensity. American troop strength diminished from its 1969 peak of 543,400 to 156,800 at the end of 1971. The allies also made progress in pacification. American and South Vietnamese offensives against the enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia in April and May 1970 and an ARVN raid against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in February 1971 helped to buy time for Vietnamization. On the negative side, as a result of trends in American society, of disillusionment with the war among short-term draftee soldiers, and of organizational turbulence caused by the troop withdrawals, U.S. forces suffered from growing indiscipline, drug abuse, and racial conflict.

In spring 1972, North Vietnam, in order to revive its fortunes in the south, launched the so-called Easter Offensive with twelve divisions, employing tanks and artillery on a scale not previously seen in the war. In response, President Nixon, while he continued to withdraw America's remaining ground troops, increased U.S. air support to the ARVN. The North Vietnamese made initial territorial gains, but the ARVN rallied, assisted materially by U.S. Air Force and Navy planes and American advisers on the ground. Meanwhile, Nixon resumed full-scale bombing of North Vietnam and mined its harbors. Beyond defeating the Easter Offensive, Nixon intended these attacks, which employed B-52s and technologically advanced guided bombs, to batter Hanoi toward a negotiated settlement of the war. By late 1972, the North Vietnamese, had lost an estimated 100,000 dead and large amounts of equipment and had failed to capture any major towns or populated areas. Nevertheless, their military position in the south was better than it had been in 1971, and the offensive had facilitated a limited revival of the Viet Cong.

Both sides were ready for a negotiated settlement. During the autumn of 1972, Nixon's special adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, and North Vietnamese representative Le Duc Tho, who had been negotiating in secret since 1969, reached the outlines of an agreement. Each side made a key concession. The U.S. dropped its demand for complete withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops from South Vietnam. Hanoi abandoned its insistence that the Thieu government be replaced by a presumably Communist-dominated coalition. After additional diplomatic maneuvering between Washington and Hanoi and Washington and Saigon, which balked at the terms, and after a final U.S. air campaign against Hanoi in December, the ceasefire agreement went into effect on 28 January 1973.

Under it, military prisoners were returned, all American troops withdrew, and a four-nation commission supervised the truce. In fact, the fighting in South Vietnam continued, and the elections called for in the agreement never took place. During 1973 and 1974, the North Vietnamese, in violation of the ceasefire, massed additional men and supplies inside South Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Nixon administration, distracted by the Watergate scandal, had to accept a congressional cutoff of all funds for American combat operations in Southeast Asia after 15 August 1973.

Early in 1975, the North Vietnamese, again employing regular divisions with armor and artillery, launched their final offensive against South Vietnam. That nation, exhausted by years of fighting, demoralized by a steady reduction in the flow of American aid, and lacking capable leadership at the top, rapidly collapsed. A misguided effort by President Thieu to regroup his forces in northern South Vietnam set off a rout that continued almost unbroken until the North Vietnamese closed in on Saigon late in April. On 21 April, President Thieu resigned. His successor, General Duong Van Minh, surrendered the country on 30 April. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops entered Saigon only hours after the U.S. completed an emergency airlift of embassy personnel and thousands of South Vietnamese who feared for their lives under the Communists. Hanoi gained control of South Vietnam, and its allies won in Cambodia, where the government surrendered to insurgent forces on 17 April 1975, and Laos, where the Communists gradually assumed control.

The costs of the war were high for every participant. Besides combat deaths, the U.S. lost 1,333 men missing and 10,298 dead of non-battle causes. In terms of money ($138.9 billion), only World War II was more expensive. Costs less tangible but equally real were the loss of trust by American citizens in their government and the demoralization of the U.S. armed forces, which would take years to recover their discipline and self-confidence. South Vietnam suffered more than 166,000 military dead and possibly as many as 415,000 civilians. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong deaths amounted to at least 937,000. To show for the effort, the U.S. could claim only that it had delayed South Vietnam's fall long enough for other Southeast Asian countries to stabilize their noncommunist governments.


Andrade, Dale. America's Last Vietnam Battle: Halting Hanoi's 1972 Easter Offensive. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Berman, Larry. Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam. New York: Norton, 1982.

Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1996.

Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House, 1972.

Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

McMaster, H. R. Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.

McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Vintage, 1996.

Oberdorfer, Don. Tet! Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Palmer, Bruce. The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

Thompson, Wayne. To Hanoi and Back: The U.S. Air Force and North Vietnam, 1966–1973. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Turley, William S. The Second Indochina War: A Short Political and Military History, 1954–1975. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1987.

Westmoreland, William C. A Soldier Reports. New York: Da Capo, 1989.

Graham A.Cosmas

See alsoAgent Orange ; Cambodia, Bombing of ; Domino Theory ; Pentagon Papers ; andvol. 9:The Christmas Bombing of Hanoi Was Justified ; The Pentagon Papers ;Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam ; Letter to Nguyen Van Thieu ; Pardon for Vietnam Draft Evaders ; President Lyndon B. Johnson's Speech Declining to Seek Re-election ; Vietnamization and the Silent Majority ; Statement by Committee Seeking Peace with Freedom in Vietnam ; The Fall of Saigon .

Vietnam War

views updated May 09 2018


The Vietnam War was a 20-year conflict in Southeast Asia (1955–1975) between the government of South Vietnam and the Communist government of North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese sought the reunification of the two countries under its form of rule. The United States, determined to prevent Communist aggression, supported the government of South Vietnam and in the early 1960s became increasingly involved militarily in the conflict. By 1965 U.S. involvement had escalated, and U.S. armed forces had been introduced. Opposition to the war in the United States grew steadily, resulting in one of the most divisive periods in U.S. history. The United States ultimately withdrew its forces in 1973. Within two years the North Vietnamese defeated the South Vietnamese armed forces and took control of the country.

Westmoreland v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc.

On January 23, 1982, CBS television broadcast a 90-minute documentary entitled The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. The program was produced by George Crile and based in large part on the reporting of Sam Adams, a Pentagon analyst who had acted as a CBS consultant for the program. Mike Wallace from 60 Minuteswas the narrator. He also conducted some of the interviews.

The documentary reported charges by a number of U.S. Army and central intelligence agency (CIA) intelligence sources, who claimed that prior to the surprise North Vietnamese-Viet Cong led Tet Offensive in January 1968, the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, also known as MACV, conspired to mislead President lyndon b. johnson, the American public, and the rest of the military about the enemy's actual strength. The witnesses interviewed for the documentary stated that MACV carried out this deception to make it appear that progress was being made in winning the war of attrition against enemy forces, that the war could be won, and that there was "some light at the end of the tunnel" in what was the longest war in U.S. history.

The documentary made clear that not only was MACV under the control and command of General William C. Westmoreland but that the conspiracy to understate enemy troop strength was carried out at least with Westmoreland's knowledge, acquiescence, and tacit approval. The documentary then charged that the Tet Offensive might have been less surprising and demoralizing had MACV been providing accurate information. Since many historians and military experts consider the Tet Offensive to be the war's final turning point, the documentary suggested that Westmoreland played a significant role in the U.S. defeat in Vietnam.

In the preface to the broadcast, correspondent Mike Wallace stated: "The fact is that we Americans were misinformed about the nature and the size of the enemy we were facing, and tonight we're going to present evidence of what we have come to believe was a conscious effort—indeed, a conspiracy at the highest levels of American military intelligence—to suppress and alter critical intelligence of the enemy in the year leading up to the Tet Offensive."

Three days later, General Westmoreland held a press conference attended by former CIA special assistant George Carver, former senior CIA officials, a former ambassador to Vietnam, and some of the general's principal intelligence people during the war. Westmoreland and his supporters denounced the program as filled with lies, distortions, fraudulent statements that constituted a hoax on the public. Westmoreland and the others criticized the documentary on four grounds. They alleged that (1) one of the interviews had been rehearsed; (2) one of the witnesses was interviewed after being allowed to see the interviews of the other witnesses; (3) there was insufficient notice to General Westmoreland of the scope of his interview; and (4) certain answers were improperly spliced and edited.

CBS News decided to conduct an internal investigation, appointing senior editor Burton Benjamin to coordinate it. On July 7, 1982, Benjamin submitted his findings to Van Gordon Sauter, the president of CBS News. Eight days later Sauter issued a statement expressing regret that the documentary had failed to comply with certain journalistic standards ordinarily followed by CBS. However, Sauter emphasized that the program contained no falsehoods or distortions of the truth. In September, CBS offered to General Westmoreland 15 minutes of unedited airtime to respond to the documentary, which was to be followed by a 45 minute panel discussion about the criticisms and merits of the broadcast. The general declined the offer.

On September 13, 1982, Westmoreland filed a $120 million lawsuit against CBS, alleging that the Vietnam documentary had made 16 libelous statements against him. But statements that accused the general of having conspired to understate enemy troop strength constituted the centerpiece of the lawsuit. Although Westmoreland filed the lawsuit in his home state of South Carolina, CBS successfully moved the case to a federal district court in New York for trial. Westmoreland's suit was funded in part by the Capital Legal Foundation, a conservative think tank headed by Dan Burt, who also served as the general's lawyer. CBS was represented by the law firm of Cravath, Swaine, & Moore.

Discovery began immediately and continued for a year and a half. Hundreds of witnesses were interviewed and deposed throughout the country and the world. It was an exhaustive preparation for both sides. In the summer of 1984, the defense moved for summary judgment. Its memorandum of law ran just under 400 pages—not including volumes of exhibits. On September 24, 1984, Judge Pierre Leval denied the motion, concluding that the complaint contained several triable issues for the jury. Leval said it was the jury's province to determine whether certain statements of fact contained in the documentary were true, and, if proven to be false, whether they were made with "actual malice," the two lynch-pins of any libel case involving a public figure.

The case came to trial on October 9, 1984, and concluded on February 17, 1985. Just as the case was about to go to the jury, the two sides settled their differences, each side claiming it had proven its major points. As part of the settlement, CBS agreed to issue the following written statement: "CBS respects General Westmoreland's long and faithful service to his country and never intended to assert, and does not believe, that General Westmoreland was unpatriotic or disloyal in performing his duties as he saw them." CBS then conducted a second internal investigation over the matter. This time it found that the program was "seriously flawed" and out of balance. It admitted that "conspiracy" had not been proven, friendly witnesses had been coddled, and those opposing the program's thesis were treated harshly. Despite these findings, Mike Wallace stood by the program.

Perhaps no other libel case in the twentieth century attained the celebrity of Westmoreland's libel suit. Born in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, and a 1936 graduate of West Point, General Westmore-land gained a reputation for superb staff work and sound battle leadership during world war ii, in which he participated in the North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy campaigns. He served as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from June of 1964 until June of 1968 and was the primary advocate for escalating U.S. troop involvement in South Vietnam during that period. He was Timemagazine's Man of the Year for 1965.

further readings

Adler, Renata. 1988. Reckless Disregard: Westmoreland v. CBS et al., Sharon v. Time. New York: Vintage Books.

Brewin, Bob. 1987. Vietnam on Trial: Westmoreland vs. CBS. New York: Atheneum.

Roth, M. Patricia. 1986. The Juror and the General. New York: Morrow.


Libel and Slander.

The War in Vietnam

During world war ii, the Viet Minh, a nationalist party seeking an end to French colonial rule of Vietnam, was organized. After the defeat of the Japanese and their withdrawal from what was then known as French Indochina, the Viet Minh, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, formally declared independence. France refused to recognize Vietnamese independence, and war broke out between the French and the Viet Minh. In 1954 the French withdrew after suffering a devastating defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

After the French withdrawal, participants at an international conference in Geneva, Switzerland, divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel. The Viet Minh were given control of the north, which became known as North Vietnam, while the non-Communist southern half became South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese government was headed by Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, who refused to allow free elections on reunification in 1956 as agreed by the Geneva Accords. Diem rightly feared that Ho Chi Minh and the Communists would win the election. The United States supported Diem's defiance, which led the North Vietnamese to seek unification through military force.

The Diem regime, which soon proved to be corrupt and ineffective, had difficulty fighting the Viet Cong, a South Vietnamese army of guerrilla soldiers who were trained and armed by the North Vietnamese. The Viet Cong became part of the National Liberation Front (NLF), a Communist-backed insurgent organization. In 1961 President john f. kennedy began to send more U.S. military advisers to South Vietnam, and by the end of 1962, their number had risen from 900 to 11,000. Kennedy,

Vietnam War Timeline
source: Dupuy, R. Ernest and Trevor N. Dupuy, Harper Encyclopedia of Military History. New York Public Library's Book of Chronologies.
1954French Indochina War ends with French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
1955United States agrees to help train South Vietnamese army.
1956President Eisenhower announces first U.S. advisers sent to Vietnam.
1957North Vietnamese guerrilla (Vietcong) activity directed against South Vietnam begins.
1959First U.S. military advisers killed in Vietcong attack.
1961President Kennedy agrees to increase 685-member military advisory group and to arm and supply 20,000 South Vietnamese troops (June 16); first U.S. aircraft carrier arrives off Vietnam with armed helicopters to aid the South Vietnamese army.
1962President Kennedy states that U.S. military advisers in Vietnam will return fire if fired pon. U.S. noncombat troops number 12,000 by year's end.
1963South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem assassinated (Nov. 2).
1964North Vietnamese patrol boats attack U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. U.S. Congress passes resolution (Aug. 7) that President Johnson uses as basis for later U.S. troop buildup in Vietnam. United States announces massive aid increase to counter Hanoi's support of Vietcong (Dec. 11).
1965First U.S. air attacks in North Vietnam begin (Feb. 24); first major deployment of U.S. ground troops (March 7–9). U.S. troops number 184,300 at year's end.
1966Bombing of Hanoi begins (June 29). U.S. troops number 389,000 at year's end.
1967U.S. troops number 480,000 at year's end.
1968"Tet" offensive by North Vietnamese (Jan. 30 to Feb. 29); My Lai massacre by U.S. troops (March 16). Start of Paris peace talks.
1969U.S. troop deployment reaches highest point of the war in April: 543,000. President Nixon begins U.S. troop withdrawal on May 14.
1970U.S. and South Vietnamese forces cross Cambodian border to get at enemy bases (April 30).
1971U.S. bombers strike massively in North Vietnam for alleged violations of 1968 bombing halt agreement (Dec. 26 to 30). U.S. troops number 140,000 at year's end.
1972North Vietnamese launch bombing offensive across demilitarized zone (March 30). U.S. resumes bombing of Hanoi (April 15); U.S. announces mining of North Vietnam ports. Last U.S. combat troops leave (Aug. 11).
1973Cease-fire accord signed (Jan. 27); last non-combat U.S. troops withdraw from Vietnam (March 29); last U.S. prisoners of war released (April 1). Some U.S. civilians remain.
1975President Theu's government of South Vietnam surrenders to Communists April 30; United States abandons embassy. All U.S. civilians leave Vietnam. 140,000 South Vietnamese refugees flown to United States.
1976Vietnam reunified; large-scale resettlement and reeducation programs started.

however, was dissatisfied with the Diem regime and allowed a military coup to occur on November 1, 1963. Diem was assassinated during the coup, but none of the lackluster military leaders who followed him was able to stop the Communists from gaining more ground.

Direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam began in 1964. On August 2, 1964, President lyndon b. johnson announced that North Vietnamese ships had attacked U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin. Johnson asked Congress for the authority to employ any necessary course of action to safeguard U.S. troops. Based on what turned out to be inaccurate information supplied by the Johnson administration, Congress gave the president this authority in the tonkin gulf resolution (78 Stat. 384).

Johnson used this resolution to justify military escalation in the absence of a congressional declaration of war. Following attacks on U.S. forces in February 1965, he authorized the bombing of North Vietnam. To continue the protection of the South Vietnamese government, Johnson increased the number of U.S. soldiers fighting in South Vietnam from 20,000 to 500,000 during the next three years.

U.S. military leaders had difficulty fighting a guerrilla army, yet repeatedly claimed that Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces were losing the war. On January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese made a surprise attack on 36 major cities and towns during the Tet (lunar new year) festival. Though U.S. troops repelled these attacks, the Tet offensive undermined the credibility of U.S. military leaders and of Johnson himself, who had claimed the war was close to being won. Antiwar sentiment in the United States grew after Tet as the public became skeptical about whether the war could be won and, if it could, how many years it would take to achieve victory.

The 1968 presidential campaign of Minnesota antiwar senator eugene mccarthy gained popularity after Tet. On March 31, 1968, Johnson announced that the United States would stop bombing North Vietnam above the 20th parallel and that he would not seek reelection to the presidency. Johnson ordered a total bombing halt in October, when North Vietnam agreed to begin preliminary peace talks in Paris. These discussions dragged on during the fall election campaign, which saw Republican richard m. nixon elected president.

Nixon sought to preserve the South Vietnamese government while withdrawing U.S. troops. He began a policy of "Vietnamization," which promised to gradually transfer all military operations to the South Vietnamese. During this process the United States would provide massive amounts of military aid. In 1969, when the number of U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam had reached 540,000, Nixon announced a modest troop withdrawal. During 1969 the Paris peace talks continued with the NLF, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese, but little progress was made.

In the spring of 1970, Nixon expanded the war as U.S. and South Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia to destroy North Vietnamese military sanctuaries there. The Cambodian action created a firestorm on U.S. college and university campuses, where antiwar protests led to the closing of many institutions for the remainder of the spring. Nevertheless, Nixon persevered with his policies. He authorized the bombing of Cambodia and Laos by B-52 bombers, destabilizing the Cambodian government and destroying large sections of both countries. By late 1970 the number of U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam had declined to 335,000. A year later the number had dropped to 160,000 military personnel.

In March 1972 the North Vietnamese invaded the northern section of South Vietnam and the central highlands. Nixon responded by ordering the mining of Haiphong and other North Vietnamese ports and large-scale bombing of North Vietnam. In the fall of 1972, a peace treaty appeared likely, but the talks broke off in mid-December. Nixon then ordered intense bombing of Hanoi and other North Vietnamese cities. The "Christmas bombing" lasted 11 days.

The peace talks then resumed, and on January 27, 1973, the parties agreed to a cease-fire the following day, the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, the release of all prisoners of war, and the creation of an international force to keep the peace. The South Vietnamese were to have the right to determine their own future, but North Vietnamese troops stationed in the south could remain. By the end of 1973, almost all U.S. military personnel had left South Vietnam.

The conflict in the south continued in 1974. The United States cut military aid to South Vietnam in August 1974, resulting in the demoralization of the South Vietnamese army. The North Vietnamese, sensing that the end was near, attacked a provincial capital 60 miles north of Saigon in December 1974. After the city of Phouc Binh fell in early January 1975, the North Vietnamese launched a full-scale offensive in the central highlands in March. The South Vietnamese army fell apart and a general panic ensued. On April 30 the South Vietnamese government surrendered. On July 2, 1976, the country was officially united as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

More than 47,000 U.S. military personnel were killed in action during the war and nearly 11,000 died of other causes. Approximately 200,000 South Vietnamese military personnel were killed, and 900,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers lost their lives. The civilian population was devastated by the war. An estimated 1 million North and South Vietnamese civilians were killed during the war. Large parts

of the countryside were destroyed through bombing and the U.S. spraying of chemical defoliants such as agent orange.

The War and U.S. Law

The war provoked many legal and constitutional controversies in the United States. Though the U.S. Supreme Court refused to decide whether the war was constitutional, it did rule on several war-related issues. In United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 88 S. Ct. 1673, 20 L. Ed. 2d 672 (1968), the Court upheld the conviction of David Paul O'Brien for violating a 1965 amendment to the Selective Service Act (50 U.S.C.A. App. § 451 et seq.) prohibiting any draft registrant from knowingly destroying or mutilating his draft card. The Court rejected O'Brien's contention that his burning of his draft card was symbolic speech protected by the first amendment. In tinker v. des moines independent community school district, 393 U.S. 503, 89 S. Ct. 733, 21 L. Ed. 2d 731 (1969), however, the Court ruled that high school students had the First Amendment right to wear black armbands to school to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

In welsh v. united states, 398 U.S. 333, 90 S. Ct. 1792, 26 L. Ed. 2d 308 (1970), the Court held that a person could be exempted from compulsory military service based on purely moral or ethical beliefs against war.

One of the most significant Court decisions of the Vietnam War period involved the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a highly classified government report on the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The Nixon administration sought to prevent the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing excerpts from the study on the ground that publication would hurt national security interests. In new york times v. united states, 403 U.S. 713, 91 S. Ct. 2140, 29 L. Ed. 2d 822 (1971), the Supreme Court, by a 6–3 vote, held that the government's efforts to block publication amounted to an unconstitutional prior restraint.

further readings

Belknap, Michal R. 2002. The Vietnam War on Trial: The My Lai Massacre and the Court-Martial of Lieutenant Calley. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Caputo, Philip. 1987. A Rumor of War. New York: Ballantine Books.

FitzGerald, Frances. 1973. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. New York: Random House.

Hawley, Thomas M. 2003. "Accounting for Absent Bodies: The Politics and Jurisprudence of the Missing Persons Act." Studies in Law, Politics, and Society 28 (spring).

Solis, Gary D. 2000. "Military Justice, Civilian Clemency: The Sentences of Marine Corps War Crimes in South Vietnam." Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems 10 (spring).


Cold War; Communism; Conscientious Objector; Kissinger, Henry; Prior Restraint.

Vietnam War

views updated May 29 2018


The Vietnam War (19641975) was an eleven-year conflict in Southeast Asia between the American-backed government of South Vietnam and the Communist government of North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese sought to reunify the country following its partition in 1954, while the United States sought to contain Communist expansion by providing South Vietnam with economic and military aid. U.S. involvement reached its peak in 1968-1969, when over five hundred thousand U.S. troops were on the ground. The Pentagon spent $77.8 billion to finance the war. Approximately 58,000 U.S. citizens and over three million Vietnamese were killed during the conflict. Two years after the United States withdrew in 1973, North Vietnamese forces defeated the South Vietnamese and reunified the country.

Vietnam entered the twentieth century as a French colony. During World War II (19391945) the French evacuated the colony and the Japanese occupied it. An indigenous nationalist resistance movement to the Japanese invaders sprang up under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh (18921969). Ho Chi Minh was a member of both the Vietnamese and the French Communist Parties and the preeminent leader of national self-determination in Vietnam. When the Japanese were defeated in 1945 the French returned to Vietnam and tried to reestablish their colonial authority. For 56 days, the nationalist Vietnamese military force (called the Viet Minh, besieged the French fort at Dien Bien Phu where several thousand French troops were trapped. The French surrender led to peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland in 1954. The treaty required withdrawal of all French troops from Vietnam and a temporary partition of the country at the 17th parallel, with Communists retreating to the north and non-Communists moving to the south. National elections to unify Vietnam were scheduled for 1956.

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (19531961) feared that in a national election Ho Chi Minh would defeat the American-supported president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem (19551963). As a result, elections were held only in South Vietnam. But the elections were rigged and Diem won an over-whelming majority of the vote, declared his country's independence from North Vietnam, and named Saigon as its capital. The decision whether to support Diem was a difficult one for U.S. policymakers. On one hand the United States was concerned that without U.S. support, the South Vietnam government would collapse and fall to the Communists. On the other hand President Eisenhower harbored reservations about getting U.S. troops mired in another Asian conflict so soon after the Korean War (19501953).

Diem's actions in office raised further concerns. His anti-Communist sympathies manifested themselves in harsh policies that alienated peasants and villagers. Diem, a Catholic, discriminated against Buddhists even though the Catholics made up only a small minority of the population that had played subordinate roles during the period of French colonialism. Opposition to Diem became widespread and in 1963 he was assassinated by elements in the Army. Diem's death was followed by ten successive South Vietnamese governments in 18 months.

Taking advantage of this upheaval, the nationalist guerilla forces in South Vietnam (called the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) or, colloquially, the "Viet Cong") emerged under the political leadership of the National Liberation Front. The NLF was an organization of broad nationalist forces, led by the Communist Party of Vietnam. Their goal was the reunification of North and South Vietnam.

The United States responded to these developments by increasing the number of U.S. military, economic, and political advisers in Vietnam from 800 in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy took office, to 16,700 in 1963. During the 1964 presidential race Republican candidate Barry Goldwater charged President Lyndon B. Johnson (19631969), who took office following Kennedy's assassination, with not doing enough to win the war. Goldwater stated that Johnson would be responsible if Vietnam and its neighboring countries toppled like dominoes into the lap of the Communists.

Despite Goldwater's defeat, President Johnson was determined to not allow the so-called "domino theory" to become a reality. In August, 1964, U.S. ships off the coast of North Vietnam, in the Gulf of Tonkin, reported sonar indications of a torpedo attack. In response, Johnson ordered an air attack on North-Vietnamese ship bases and oil facilities. The next day the Senate granted the president's request for broad powers over the Southeast Asian conflict by passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The resolution gave the president authority to take all measures necessary to repel any further armed aggression against U.S. forces in the area.

Johnson relied on this "blank check" to commit the first U.S. combat troops to Vietnam on March 8, 1965. By the end of the year the initial commitment of 3,500 troops had increased to 80,000. These combat troops fought alongside the South Vietnamese armed forces, known as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). The ARVN was a poorly led group that lacked cohesion and motivation. In 1965 alone 113,000 ARVN troops were lost to desertion. Many U.S. soldiers disliked and mistrusted the ARVN and accused them of cowardice.

As the war dragged on in Vietnam, the anti-war movement picked up at home. Promises of victory by politicians and military commanders wore thin on an U.S. public confronted nightly by television images of bloody battles that accompanied mounting casualties. The credibility of U.S. government reports predicting imminent U.S. victory was further eroded by the 1968 Tet Offensive, an all-out assault on every major city in South Vietnam. The NLF forces suffered staggering losses during their offensive and made few strategic gains. The Viet Cong were virtually wiped out. But, though Tet was a military catastrophe for the NLF, it was a political victory. It took both U.S. and ARVN forces by surprise and had a resounding effect on the U.S. public.

The war had reached a stalemate and the Tet Offensive forced U.S. citizens to confront how deeply Communist resistance was entrenched throughout Vietnam. In 1969 opinion polls showed that for the first time in the war, a majority of respondents were opposed to the war. But, even though the war was becoming unpopular, most people were reluctant to pull out of Vietnam immediately. For a time, the American people were still willing to stand by the President in the struggle against Communism. Only between 20 and 40 percent of U.S. citizens polled in 1969 favored immediate withdrawal. But the protests were becoming larger and more frequent. And one-byone, mainstream organizations and politicians began demanding peace in Vietnam. Inflation and higher taxes resulting from the war soured still other segments of society. It was no surprise that upon taking the oath of office in January, 1969, President Richard Nixon (19691974) promised to end the war with honor. But before he ended the war, President Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, widened it.

In March of 1969 President Nixon ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia. His goal was to wipe out North Vietnamese and NLF bases along the South Vietnam border. The "Ho Chi Minh trail" went through this area, carrying provisions and troop convoys of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). When U.S. troops invaded Cambodia the following year, college campuses erupted in protest. Four students at Kent State University in Ohio were killed by national guardsmen who had been called in to prevent rioting. Student protests were staged again in 1971 when the United States provided air support for an ARVN invasion of Laos and in 1972 when the United States began mining the Haiphong harbor. Nixon contended that these operations strengthened his hand at the bargaining table. He pointed to his program of "Vietnamizing" the war, which had reduced the number of U.S. troops in Southeast Asia to under 100,000 by 1972 and gave the South Vietnamese greater control of day-to-day tactical operations. In any event, during Christmas of 1972 the president ordered the final and most intense bombing of the war over Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam.

On January 27, 1973, U.S. participation in the Vietnam War officially ended when the Treaty of Paris was signed by each of the parties to the conflict. The United States agreed to withdraw all of its forces from Vietnam and stop military operations in Laos and Cambodia. North and South Vietnam agreed to a cease-fire and all prisoners of war were to be released. U.S. military and economic aid to South Vietnam could continue.

Following the collapse of the South Vietnamese regime in 1975, the unified country of Vietnam collectivized the colonial rubber plantations, and some businesses were nationalized. Within ten years, however, elements of capitalism had crept into Vietnamese society. By the 1990s the Vietnam government began instituting policies to bring about a mixed economy involving state, collective, and private ownership. The opening of Vietnamese society improved relations with the United States, which ended a 20-year trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994. Full diplomatic relations between the two countries were established the next year.

See also: Cold War, Richard Nixon


Baily, Bernard, David Brion Davis, David Herbert Donald, John L. Thomas, Robert H. Wiebe, and Gordon S. Wood. The Great Republic: A History of the American People. Lexington, KY: D. C. Heath and Company, 1981.

Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam 19501975. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History The First Complete Account of the Vietnam War. New York: The Vikings Press, 1983.

Powers, Thomas. Vietnam: The War at Home. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1984.

Small, Melvin. Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1989.

Vietnam War

views updated Jun 11 2018

Vietnam War

More than fifty-eight thousand American soldiers and an estimated two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed in the Vietnam War (1954–75). It was a vicious, brutal conflict fought in a land few Americans could even identify on a map at the beginning of the 1960s. By the time it was over, the war had divided America over the issue of foreign policy.

Roots of the war

In the 1800s the French took control of an area in Asia that included Vietnam. The Japanese, in an effort to gain control of trade in the Far East, evicted French forces from the region early in World War II (1939–45). When native political forces rebelled against Japanese rule, the United States was eager to help them because the Japanese were their enemies as well. The United States provided weapons and advice to these Vietnamese patriots, also known as Vietminh. Their leader was a man named Ho Chi Minh (c.1890–1969).

When the Japanese were defeated in 1945, Ho Chi Minh came to power and claimed Vietnam's right to self-rule. But that same year, the United States helped its longtime ally, France, regain control over the area. The United States justified its support of France by claiming that the Vietminh were Communists (people who support a system of government in which the state controls the economy and all property and wealth are shared equally by the people) and posed a threat to the little country's well-being.

When the Vietminh went to war to evict the French from Vietnam, the United States ignored pleas for assistance from the Vietminh and instead gave France money, weapons, and advice. By 1954 the conflict had killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides, as well as countless Vietnamese civilians. France withdrew from the area by negotiating a peace treaty that split Vietnam in half. North Vietnam was controlled by Communists led by Ho Chi Minh, and South Vietnam was led by Ngo Dinh Diem (1901–1963) and supported by the United States. Neither side was pleased with the arrangement.

America goes to war

Diem turned out to be a brutal dictator who ran his country in a manner that violated American values. Because he was an oppressive leader who tortured and killed his own people, he had little support even within his own country. As this type of treatment continued, more and more South Vietnamese supported the North Vietnamese and wanted the two countries to unite under Communist rule. These people were called the Viet Cong. They rebelled against Diem's forces and in 1960 alone, killed more than 2,500 government officials.

As John F. Kennedy (1917–63; served 1961–63) took presidential office, the situation in Vietnam demanded his immediate attention. The new president was passionately anticommunist and determined to support Diem's government. He slowly increased American monetary aid, which reached half a billion dollars by 1962. In addition, he had stationed more than eleven thousand military advisers in South Vietnam by 1962. These advisers were actually soldiers, but because federal law prohibits a president from sending soldiers to fight a foreign war without congressional approval, all soldiers were considered “advisers.”

This military aid was meant only to support Diem's government, not to assist in attacks on North Vietnam. But as the North continued to gain supporters from the South, the United States was drawn further into the conflict.

Kennedy's assassination in 1963 put Vice President Lyndon Johnson (1909–1973; served 1963–69) in the president's chair. Some advisers urged him to withdraw troops from Vietnam; most urged him to increase American involvement to send a clear message to the Communist superpower Soviet Union that no attempts at spreading Communism would be accepted. By the summer of 1964, Johnson had increased the number of soldiers and advisers to twenty thousand.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Maddox was ordered to sail to the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea on July 28, 1964. Its mission was to support South Vietnamese commando raids along the North Vietnamese coast. The purpose of the raids was to gather intelligence on radar sites and defenses in North Vietnam.

Three North Vietnam torpedo boats attacked the Maddox on August 2. The destroyer sank two enemy boats, but the third escaped. The next day, the Maddox was joined by the USS Turner Joy. On August 4, radar information led the two ships to report a second attack. This report elicited a strong response from President Johnson, who used the report to order an immediate aerial assault on the North Vietnamese coastline. It was the United States's first major air strike on North Vietnam.

Johnson also used the report to seek special authority to take further military action if necessary. Congress composed a resolution that gave Johnson this power. It became known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Johnson and his administration convinced the American public that unwavering support of the government would make North Vietnam understand that the United States could not be intimidated. The resolution passed almost unanimously in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Although further investigation revealed that the second attack never happened, Johnson did not share that information. And although the resolution granted the United States power to attack and escalate the fighting in Vietnam, it never did convince the Communists to back down.

Johnson was reelected in 1964. Before the end of the year, the Viet Cong had control of many South Vietnamese provinces. On Christmas Eve they bombed a U.S. officer barracks in the city of Saigon, killing two soldiers and wounding many others, including civilians.


Although war was never officially declared on Vietnam, the United States drastically increased its involvement in the conflict in 1965. Over the next few years, the “Americanization” of the war developed quickly

as U.S. bombing campaigns killed thousands. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers fought the Viet Cong, whose guerilla strategies using small groups of fighters launching surprise attacks were unlike anything the U.S. military had ever confronted. Because they were fighting on their own turf, using their own strategies, the Communist forces remained strong. American soldiers were not well prepared either physically or mentally for the kind of fighting they encountered. To make matters worse, most of the U.S. troops had been forced into service by the military draft. The average age of an American infantryman in the Vietnam War was 22.8 years.

By 1967 the war had reached a stalemate; neither side was winning, and nothing much was happening. Despite major bombing campaigns, the United States could not reach its goals. The harder Americans fought, the more determined the Communist forces became. American troops were under the command of General William Westmoreland (1914–). He had been confident that with more troops, he could wipe out the Viet Cong. His efforts included search-and-destroy missions that used weapons, helicopters, and other resources to raid rural towns and villages and kill anyone suspected of being a Viet Cong or Viet Cong supporter. One such mission, which came to be known as the My Lai Massacre , took place in the small hamlet of My Lai on March 16, 1968. American soldiers brutalized and murdered between three hundred and five hundred unarmed, unresisting women, children, and elderly men.

It soon became evident that these missions were useless. Because so many people assisted the Viet Cong, the guerrilla fighters would slip away right before a town or village was raided. Then, as military attention was diverted elsewhere, the Viet Cong forces would sneak back in and resume their activities.

Peasants pay the price The peasant population of South Vietnam paid a heavy price as it found itself caught in the middle of the fighting. Although some peasants joined the Viet Cong of their own free will, most were forced into assisting the fighters. Viet Cong agents monitored the behavior and actions of villagers throughout the country, and anyone suspected of helping U.S. forces was brutally punished. Yet the villagers resented American troops as well. U.S. bombing campaigns destroyed their homes, killed their children, and drove hundreds of thousands to the crowded cities. Toxic chemicals were sprayed on crops to kill the vegetation and force Communist fighters out of hiding, but these chemicals also killed the peasants' food supply and resulted in severe birth defects in babies born during the war and for years afterward.

Stalemate and a change of sentiment

As the war reached a stalemate, the U.S. economy suffered. The government did not have enough money to sustain the war and fund social programs. As a result, the cost of food, clothing, and other goods and services rose drastically, making them less affordable. Americans became angry as their own lives became less comfortable because of a war that wasn't producing results.

Anger gave rise to a tremendous antiwar movement . Opposition increased on college campuses and in the streets. The people no longer trusted the government; they had been told that victory was at hand too many times when the reality was far different. Those who had once supported the overseas involvement of U.S. forces now marched in protest of the prolonged fighting.

Civilians were not the only people to change their minds about the legitimacy of the war when U.S. involvement escalated. Johnson's secretary of defense surprised everyone when he began pushing for peace negotiations in the mid-1960s. Robert McNamara (1916–) had supervised the military build-up in Vietnam in the early and mid-1960s. An intelligent man, he had relied on statistics and analysis to solve conflict. He was seen as the driving force behind the military's strategy, and some antiwar protestors called the conflict McNamara's War.

McNamara's confidence in the United States's ability to end the war quickly faded as it became obvious that victory was nowhere near at hand. His efforts for negotiation failed. Even after McNamara's eighth trip to Vietnam and his report to Johnson that the Communist forces were stronger than ever, Johnson would not alter his course. Many people believed McNamara should have gone public with his analysis.

In 1967, in testimony before a Senate committee, McNamara reported that the bombing campaigns were not having the desired effect, nor would they ever. McNamara's honesty cost him his job. His duties

were distributed among other officials, and McNamara left the administration in February 1968.

Tet Offensive

The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched a surprise assault in January 1968. Known as the Tet Offensive , it did not succeed in collapsing the Saigon government, but it did reinforce McNamara's warning that U.S. bombing campaigns were not going to win the war.

Tet is a Vietnamese holiday, and no one expected fighting during that time, but rebel forces seized control of villages, towns, and cities throughout South Vietnam. Hundreds of civilians were executed by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops and buried in shallow graves.

Despite this carnage, Johnson and his administration repeatedly assured the American public that the enemy was weakening. When news of the Tet Offensive was publicized, Americans were outraged. Their anger only intensified when it was reported that Johnson was considering sending another two hundred thousand troops overseas.

Johnson's presidency was destroyed by his decisions and deceit. The majority of Americans wanted out of Vietnam. Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) was elected president on a promise for an honorable end to a dishonorable war. He and his foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger (1923–), achieved a peace settlement in Paris in January 1973. All U.S.combat forces in South Vietnam returned home, even as North Vietnamese troops were allowed to remain. The Paris agreement did not resolve the conflict, but it did provide a way out for the United States.

North Vietnamese forces captured Saigon in April 1975, and South Vietnam became a Communist country. Millions left the country over the next several years. The United States admitted millions of Vietnamese and Laotians who had supported U.S. efforts in the war; others remained in refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia.

The legacy of Vietnam lived on long after physical fighting had ended. The United States was not accustomed to losing. Diehard supporters of the war insisted that if U.S. troops had remained in place for just a while longer, surely they could have claimed victory. Government analysis does not support this viewpoint, and when investigations and reports were leaked to the press in 1971, they revealed numerous mistakes and poor decisions on the part of U.S. leaders.

As it was, the United States struggled for decades to recover from the Vietnam War.

Vietnam War

views updated May 14 2018



The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, ranks among the longest, bloodiest, and most controversial of the many conflicts that erupted in formerly colonized parts of the world during the second half of the twentieth century. Most historians agree that the struggle was fundamentally a civil war among Vietnamese with different visions of their country's postcolonial political order. But from its outset the fighting drew in the Cold War superpowers, which saw global interests at stake and placed massive resources at the disposal of their Vietnamese allies. Full-scale American intervention led to enormous destruction in Vietnam and a scarring defeat for the United States.


The Vietnam War had its roots in the late nineteenth century, when France established colonial control over the Indochinese territories of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. French efforts to exploit Indochina economically disrupted traditional patterns of political participation and land ownership in Vietnam, generating powerful grievances among large segments of the population. Those grievances, along with a growing nationalist consciousness, gave rise to an assertive anticolonial movement in the first decades of the twentieth century.

The Second World War created a golden opportunity for the nationalists to assert themselves and initiated more than three decades of conflict in the country. Germany's crushing victory over France badly weakened French power around the world. When Japanese forces overthrew the French administration in Vietnam in March 1945, the era of French colonialism appeared to be at an end. When the Allies in turn defeated Japan a few months later, the Vietminh movement led by Ho Chi Minh stepped into the void and declared a new state, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, on 2 September 1945.

The renascent French government refused to accept Vietnamese independence, however, and quickly regained a domineering presence in Indochina. French and Vietnamese negotiators attempted to reach a compromise recognizing Vietnamese autonomy within a French imperial confederation. But at the end of 1946, hawks on both sides provoked a war that would last for the next eight years.

This First Indochina War pulled the United States deeply into Vietnam for the first time. For many months, the Truman administration attempted to stay on the sidelines of what most U.S. officials viewed as a colonial conflict. As the Cold War unfolded between 1947 and 1950, however, Washington increasingly sided with France. The prevalence of communists within the Vietnamese leadership led U.S. officials to worry that Vietnamese successes would serve the interests of the Soviet Union. They also feared that a French defeat in Vietnam would encourage instability across Southeast Asia, a part of the world crucial to the economic health of key U.S. allies, including Japan and Britain. In 1950 the United States began sending military and economic assistance to support the French. Four years later, Washington bore 80 percent of the costs of the war.

This massive infusion of American resources failed to turn the tide of the war, however, and the Vietnamese forces, now strongly supported by China, dealt the French military a devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. A few weeks later in Geneva, the great powers settled the war through a complicated formula that divided Vietnam into two parts. The accord stipulated that the communists regroup in the north and prepare for national elections to be held in 1956 to reunify the country, while Western-oriented Vietnamese did the same in the south. The unwillingness of southern leaders to hold elections torpedoed the process, however, and North and South Vietnam gradually became separate states during the 1950s.


While Ho Chi Minh's government consolidated its control in the North, the United States established a close relationship with the new South Vietnamese leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, and replaced France as the major Western power shaping Vietnamese affairs. U.S. officials exuded confidence that their country's material prowess and its freedom from any taint of colonialism would enable them to succeed where the French had failed. Washington supplied large amounts of economic and military assistance for the new state and increasingly regarded it as a key Western stronghold in Southeast Asia. American officials therefore grew alarmed in 1959 and 1960 as a new communist-tinged insurgency erupted in South Vietnam.

That rebellion—the start of the Second Indochina War—began as a spontaneous groundswell against a South Vietnamese regime widely criticized as repressive and subservient to a new foreign master. Before long, however, the insurgents, led by the National Liberation Front, enjoyed the support of North Vietnam and indirectly of the Soviet Union and China. As the fighting mounted, the United States pumped more aid into South Vietnam and demanded that Ngo Dinh Diem enact reforms to win support for his regime. When Diem refused to act as the United States wished, Washington assented to a coup by South Vietnamese military officers on 1 November 1963. Diem's assassination left the United States more deeply implicated than ever in South Vietnamese affairs.

The administration of John F. Kennedy sharply increased U.S. military support for the beleaguered South Vietnamese regime but resisted proposals to introduce American troops. President Lyndon B. Johnson, however, took that step in early 1965—a move that historians have explained in various ways. Some have emphasized that earlier decisions to escalate the American commitment to South Vietnam made Johnson's choice practically inevitable. Other scholars have stressed Johnson's fear of his conservative political opponents if he failed to act boldly in a part of the world where U.S. interests seemed to be threatened. Still others have emphasized the president's determination to uphold his personal reputation for toughness.

Whatever the motives, U.S. military operations escalated rapidly from 1965 to 1968. Under the rubric of Operation Rolling Thunder, U.S. war-planes intensively bombed North Vietnam in an attempt to disrupt the flow of supplies sustaining the insurgency in the South and to intimidate the Hanoi government into negotiating on American terms. Meanwhile, U.S. ground forces in South Vietnam, numbering more than half a million by mid-1968, undertook major operations with the aim of locating and destroying units of "Vietcong" insurgents and North Vietnamese troops.

U.S. officials quickly discovered various problems that would plague their efforts throughout the war. The bombing campaign in the North produced no appreciable results, while frustrated ground forces, despite tactical victories and vast amounts of firepower, failed to defeat an elusive and highly motivated enemy. Within the United States, an increasingly robust antiwar movement challenged administration policy as misguided and immoral. In the diplomatic arena, strenuous U.S. efforts failed to attract political or military support from the West European allies. The British, French, and West German governments, preferring to avoid any public rift with Washington, generally remained quiet about the war, but in private they criticized the American effort.

U.S. problems mounted dramatically on 31 January 1968, when Vietcong guerrillas launched bold and coordinated attacks throughout South Vietnam. The Tet Offensive provoked an outpouring of pessimism about the U.S. war effort even though U.S. forces repelled the offensive and scored their biggest victories of the war. Under intense criticism, Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection, scaled back the bombing campaign, and opened negotiations to end the war.

Richard Nixon won the presidency partly on the strength of promises to end the war quickly, but he wound up presiding over another four years of bloody fighting in a quest for an agreement on American terms. Invoking the need to preserve America's credibility around the world, Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, even expanded the war, launching invasions of Cambodia in 1970 and Laos in 1971 in an attempt to destroy communist bases in those countries. The operations failed to change the overall military situation, however, while setting off new explosions of opposition around the world. By the end of 1972, the Nixon administration was prepared to ease its negotiating demands in order to end the war. On 27 January 1973, U.S. and North Vietnamese leaders signed a deal that embodied major concessions to Hanoi but enabled Washington to withdraw its troops from Indochina.


For Vietnam, the fighting continued for two more years—a bloody coda to a war that cost an estimated three million Vietnamese deaths. Finally on 30 April 1975 North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon, ending the war and dealing Washington its final defeat. Americans paid little attention, however, as Vietnam was reunified under communist rule. Stung by defeat and sharply divided over the U.S. role in the war, Americans recognized new limits on their nation's power and turned to a less assertive foreign policy. Only with the election of a tough-talking new president, Ronald Reagan, in 1980 did the United States return to its accustomed activism around the world.

Even so, the legacy of the war persisted in many ways. Vietnam continued to wrestle with enormous human loss and ecological damage caused by the war. In the United States, the war helped sow a lasting distrust of government. Meanwhile, Americans continued well into the twenty-first century to debate the lessons of the Vietnam War. Some, claiming that the principal failure in Vietnam lay in a failure to apply sufficient force to achieve U.S. objectives, argued for greater determination whenever Washington used force abroad. Others contended that the Vietnam experience showed the hazards of becoming embroiled in distant, unfamiliar parts of the world and counseled caution about undertaking such commitments again.

See alsoCold War; France; French Empire; Indochina.


Daum, Andreas W., Lloyd C. Garner, and Wilfred Mausbach, eds. America, the Vietnam War, and the World: Comparative and International Perspectives. Cambridge, U.K., 2003. A useful overview of European and other "third-country" perspectives on the war.

Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam. 2nd ed. Boulder, Colo., 1996. A survey of the decision making on the communist side of the war.

Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975. 4th ed. Boston, 2002. An authoritative general survey of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Lawrence, Mark Atwood. Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam. Berkeley, Calif., 2005. An analysis of the beginnings of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, with emphasis on European policies.

Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley, Calif., 1999. A standard account of U.S. decision making that sets U.S. behavior against an international context.

Neu, Charles E., ed. After Vietnam: Legacies of a Lost War. Baltimore, Md., 2000. Insightful essays on various legacies of the war in the United States and Vietnam.

Mark Atwood Lawrence

Vietnam War

views updated Jun 27 2018


Throughout American history, Presidents have dispatched armed forces abroad to protect the lives and property of United States citizens as well as American security interests. However, these military operations usually were limited in scope and duration, were conducted against relatively defenseless nations, and did not involve major powers. Thus, there was little opportunity to test the President's constitutional authority to send armed forces abroad without prior congressional authorization or a declaration of war. For various reasons, the korean war did not furnish the occasion to test President harry s. truman's constitutional powers. The Vietnam War (1965–1973) was the first modern undeclared war that provided the opportunity to test the President's authority as commander-in-chief.

During the Vietnam War numerous litigants challenged the President's authority to initiate and conduct military hostilities without a congressional declaration of war or other explicit prior authorization. Such litigants denied that the gulf of tonkin resolution constituted authorization. Despite these challenges, the federal courts exhibited extreme caution in entering this twilight zone of concurrent power. The federal judiciary's reluctance to decide war powers controversies reveals a respect for the constitutional separation of powers, an appreciation for the respective constitutional functions of Congress and the President in foreign affairs, and a sense of judicial self-restraint. Nevertheless, toward the end of the Vietnam War, several lower federal courts entered the political thicket to restore the constitutional balance between Congress and the President.

Despite factual variations, the Vietnam War cases can be classified into four broad categories. One federal district court asserted categorically that the complaint raised a political question beyond the court's jurisdiction. a second agreed that the President's authority to conduct military activities without a declaration of war posed a nonjusticiable political question, but proceeded to determine whether the President had acted on his own authority, pursuant to, or in conflict with either the expressed or implied will of Congress. Courts in the third category concluded that the political question doctrine did not foreclose them from inquiring into the existence and constitutional sufficiency of joint congressional-presidential participation in prosecuting the war. Finally, some district courts decided cases on the substantive merits. Yet the Vietnam War ended without an authoritative Supreme Court decision.

At the war's end Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution (1973), which attempted to resolve the constitutional ambiguities posed by the separation of the congressional war powers from the President's office of commander-in-chief. Under the resolution, Congress can alternatively authorize continuation of military hostilities that the President has initiated or require him to disengage armed forces from foreign combat within sixty to ninety days. Practical problems aside, the resolution seems constitutionally flawed. The Supreme Court's decision in immigration and naturalization service v. chadha (1983) cast doubt on the constitutionality of the resolution's legislative veto provision, which states that Congress can direct the disengagement of troops by concurrent resolution. Moreover, if the Constitution vests the authority to initiate military hostilities exclusively in the Congress, can Congress constitutionally delegate this authority to the President, even for a limited period? Is the War Powers Resolution an undated declaration of war that allows the President to choose the time, the place, and the enemy?

The Framers of the Constitution conferred only a limited set of defensive war powers on the President. As commander-in-chief he superintends the armed forces in war and peace, defending the nation, its armed forces, and its citizens and their property against attack, and directing military operations in wartime. The Framers did not authorize the President to initiate military hostilities, to transform defensive actions into aggressive wars, or to defend allies against attack.

In the Framers' view, only Congress could change the nation's condition from peace to war. Yet neither the constitutional text nor the records of the constitutional convention conclusively draw the boundary between congressional power to initiate war and presidential power to defend against attack. In the twentieth century, international terrorism, the Vietnam War, guerrilla and insurgency warfare, wars of "national liberation," and the global conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union have virtually erased the Framers' distinction between defensive and offensive war.

A long history of undeclared war and military hostilities demonstrates that the constitutional questions raised during the Vietnam War are inherent in the American constitutional system. Presidents will be confronted with demands and opportunities to intervene militarily to protect American national security interests and the security interests of the nation's allies. Before yielding to this temptation, future Presidents should recall one of the Vietnam War's most important lessons: the nation should not wage a protracted undeclared war without a continuing agreement between Congress and the President that reflects broad, sustained public support.

Edward Keynes


Keynes, Edward 1982 Undeclared War. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Revely, W. Taylor, III 1981 War Powers of the President and Congress: Who Holds the Arrows and Olive Branch? Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Sofaer, Abraham D. 1976 War, Foreign Affairs, and Constitutional Power. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger Publishing Co.

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