Introduction to the Vietnam War (1959–1975)

views updated

Introduction to the Vietnam War (1959–1975)

The Vietnam War was a struggle for control of Vietnam, a country in southeast Asia. On one side were the communist forces of North Vietnam, who sought to unite the country under a communist government. On the other side was the democratic government of South Vietnam which, with American military backing, sought to halt the spread of communism in the South. American military involvement lasted from the late 1950s until 1975. By the time it was over, more than one million Vietnamese and nearly sixty thousand Americans were dead, and the North Vietnamese were victorious. The United States—if not precisely the loser, certainly not the victor—was compelled to reexamine not only its commitment to fighting communism but the foundations of its very national identity.

The Vietnamese people had been colonized and suppressed for centuries by larger world powers, including China and France. During World War II, Japan gained control of Vietnam, which had been a French colony. Upon the Japanese surrender, France reasserted control of its colony with American support. But its control was shaky at best.

Likely the most famous Vietnamese figure in history, Ho Chi Minh was a charismatic leader who wanted to return control of Vietnam to the Vietnamese people under a communist form of government. After studying in Paris, he returned to his homeland in 1941. By 1954, Ho had achieved political prominence and sufficient military power to defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu. France relinquished its claims to the territory, and Vietnam was divided at the seventeenth parallel. To the north, Ho Chi Minh established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, a communist regime; to the south Ngo Dinh Diem headed the anticommunist Republic of Vietnam. Diem was supported by the United States.

Soon, fighters from the North began to invade South Vietnam in an effort to unify the nation under a communist rule. Fearful of another “domino” falling to communism, President Dwight Eisenhower chose to befriend the Diem regime and sent a few hundred military personnel to support him. At first, the American military role was limited to advising and supplying equipment to the South Vietnamese government. By 1962, 11,300 American military personnel were in the region.

In 1964, U.S. and North Vietnamese ships skirmished in the Gulf of Tonkin. Shots were fired, but no one was injured. Still, the U.S. Congress voted unanimously to authorize President Lyndon Johnson to stop further aggression in Southeast Asia. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution essentially excused the Congress from formally declaring war while it gave Johnson, the commander-in-chief, carte blanche to operate what turned into America’s longest war. Within four years, there were well over half a million American troops in Vietnam.

Although initially supportive of a fight against communism, the American public became disillusioned by the bloody, seemingly endless war they saw broadcast into their homes on the news each night. By 1968, anti-war demonstrations were common throughout the country. When Richard Nixon won the presidency in that year, his first order of business was to find a way to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He began a military campaign he called Vietnamization—turning over the responsibility of defeating the North Vietnamese to the South Vietnamese Army and withdrawing American troops.

This process brought United States troops home, but the original goals of the Vietnam War were not achieved. Without American support, the South Vietnamese Army lost to the northern communist fighters. By 1975, the last Americans had departed Vietnam, and the entire country, now the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, was united.

About this article

Introduction to the Vietnam War (1959–1975)

Updated About content Print Article


Introduction to the Vietnam War (1959–1975)