Vietnam Becomes an American War (1965–67)

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Vietnam Becomes an American War (1965–67)

Beginning in 1965, the United States dramatically increased its involvement in the war in Vietnam. U.S. officials and military leaders supported this "escalation" in American activity because they worried that South Vietnam's crumbling government would otherwise fall to the North Vietnamese Communists. "South Vietnam's accelerating crisis alarmed American policymakers, driving them to deepen U.S. involvement considerably in an effort to arrest Saigon's political failure," writes Brian VanDeMark in Into the Quagmire. "Abandoning the concept of [establishing] stability in the South before escalation [of the war] against the North, policymakers now embraced the concept of stability through escalation, in the desperate hope that military action against Hanoi would prompt [create] a stubbornly elusive political order in Saigon."

Over the next few years, so-called "Americanization" of the Vietnam War developed rapidly. The United States launched a long and deadly air bombing campaign against North Vietnam during this time. It also sent hundreds of thousands of American soldiers into South Vietnam to fight Viet Cong guerrillas (small groups of fighters who launch surprise attacks) and North Vietnamese troops. Finally, U.S. officials continued with their efforts to rebuild South Vietnam's weak and unpopular government.

Despite all of these activities, however, the Communists remained strong. Dedicated to their cause, they used guerrilla tactics to neutralize America's huge advantages in mobility and firepower. By the end of 1967, the war had become a military stalemate (a standstill, with no side emerging victorious) in Vietnam and a source of explosive unrest back in the United States.

Operation Rolling Thunder

In early 1965, the United States took a bold step forward in its defense of South Vietnam by launching a sustained campaign of bombing attacks against North Vietnam. This campaign was triggered by a February Viet Cong attack on American barracks in the South Vietnamese city of Pleiku. U.S. and South Vietnamese planes responded by bombing several targets in the North. America's military leadership then halted the bombing. But as it turned out, the bombing stopped for only a few weeks.

One month later, on March 2, 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder began. This U.S. air bombing campaign against targets in North Vietnam remained in place, with occasional interruptions, for the next three and a half years. Experts estimate that from 1965 to 1968 alone, American Navy and Air Force fighter planes dropped 643,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam. This amount was greater than all the bombs dropped in the Pacific "theatre" (a geographic area where war is conducted) during World War II (1939–45). North Vietnam responded by building a deadly air defense system that shot hundreds of U.S. planes out of the sky. The pilots of these downed planes accounted for many of America's prisoners of war (POWs) in Vietnam (see box titled "American Prisoners of War (POWs)" in Chapter 10, "Coming Home: Vietnam Veterans in American Society").

The United States launched Operation Rolling Thunder for several reasons. It hoped that the deadly bombing runs would destroy the North's ability to supply soldiers and equipment to Communists in the South. American officials also hoped that the bombings, which continued day after day, would ruin the morale of the people of North Vietnam and convince them to negotiate an end to the war. Still, President Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973; president 1963–1969) and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (1916–) spared some targets, such as power plants, oil storage facilities, and military airfields, from bombing. Johnson and McNamara hoped that the threat of destroying these valuable facilities might also help convince the North to end hostilities.

As time passed, however, the bombings failed to meet American goals. Soldiers and supplies continued to pour into South Vietnam from the North, and the Communist government took a number of steps to protect itself and its people from the bombings. Northern leaders supervised the construction of a large system of bomb-proof shelters and tunnels. They also dispersed people and industries from the cities to locations all across the country so that enemy planes could not concentrate their fire on a few areas. Finally, they rebuilt highways, railroad bridges, and other targets during the night as fast as the United States could blow them up. The North was aided in all of these efforts by the Communist governments of China and the Soviet Union.

As the Rolling Thunder bombings continued, the Northern Communists actually became more determined to continue the fight. This situation never changed, even after the United States increased the force of its attacks. "The Americans thought that the more bombs they dropped, the quicker we would fall to our knees and surrender," recalled one North Vietnamese citizen. "But the bombs heightened rather than dampened our enthusiasm." In fact, the Rolling Thunder campaign intensified anti-American feelings and made it easier for North Vietnam President Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) to characterize the war as a battle between the Vietnamese people and a foreign invader. "To oppose the United States and save the country is the most sacred task of every Vietnamese patriot," he claimed.

U.S. combat troops arrive in Vietnam

The first American combat troops arrived in South Vietnam in the spring of 1965. Of course, thousands of U.S. advisors, clerks, pilots, and other military personnel had served in Vietnam prior to 1965. But they had been responsible only for assisting the South Vietnamese military and government. They had not been ordered to Vietnam to fight the Viet Cong (VC) or North Vietnamese military. When U.S. marines arrived in Vietnam on March 8 to guard important facilities, a new stage of the war began.

Over the next few months, General William Westmoreland (1914–)—who was commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam—urged President Johnson to send additional combat troops to Vietnam and allow them to fight in battles against the Communists. Many advisors and military experts like the Joint Chiefs of Staff (composed of the heads of the four branches of the American armed forces and an overall chairman) supported this request. They argued that the time had come to either abandon South Vietnam to the Communists— an option that they saw as humiliating—or use America's awesome military power directly.

President Johnson granted both of Westmoreland's requests, even though he harbored great concerns about expanding America's military role in Vietnam. First, the president approved the commitment of thousands of new troops to Vietnam. Then, on April 6, Johnson authorized U.S. ground troops to engage in direct combat operations in Vietnam. Three months later, he announced an expansion of the military "draft"—a system in which citizens are legally required to provide military service—so that the United States could increase its troop strength in Vietnam. By the end of 1965, more than 180,000 American troops had been transferred to the troubled Southeast Asian nation.

Westmoreland's plan

As American forces poured into South Vietnam, General Westmoreland expressed great confidence that the United States would whip the Viet Cong and their NVA (North Vietnamese Army) allies. He planned to use some of his American troops to defend important U.S. bases and fortify strategic areas of the South like the Central Highlands, located in the heart of the country. He then planned to launch a series of "search-and-destroy" missions, using America's tremendous advantages in weapons, helicopters, airplanes, and other resources to locate and wipe out the enemy. Finally, he intended to introduce a new "pacification" scheme in the South's Viet Cong-infested rural areas.

Westmoreland and other American officials hoped that this new military, economic, and social program would "pacify," or calm, South Vietnamese peasants and persuade them to support the Saigon government. Westmoreland believed that his plan, combined with the bombing campaign against North Vietnam, would eventually prove too much for the Communists to withstand. "We'll just go on bleeding them until Hanoi wakes up to the fact that they have bled their country to the point of national disaster for generations," he said.

Westmoreland's confidence was shared by most of the rest of the American military as well, from generals to ordinary soldiers. "When we marched into the rice paddies on that damp March afternoon [in 1965], we carried, along with our packs and rifles, the implicit [unspoken but understood] convictions that the Vietcong would be quickly beaten," American Marine Philip Caputo recalls in his memoir A Rumor of War. Their confidence was understandable. After all, America had never lost a war, and the U.S. military held huge advantages over the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces in firepower, mobility, and technology. With all of these advantages, they could not imagine losing in Vietnam.

Continued troubles in Saigon

As America's military leadership prepared to take outright command of the war against the Communists in South Vietnam, U.S. advisors continued trying to breathe new life into the nation's government. With each passing month, however, the generals and politicians who ruled Saigon relied more heavily on American military and economic aid. This situation created significant tensions between the two groups. "[South Vietnam's leaders] repeatedly tried to assert their sovereignty [independence] by defying the Americans in disputes that often resembled quarrels between an adolescent and a parent," reports Stanley Karnow in Vietnam: A History. "They would sulk or rebel or maneuver mysteriously, their petulance [immature behavior] betraying an uncomfortable sense of dependence and frustration with the growing American intrusion into their affairs. The more they resisted American guidance, however, the more the U.S. commanders bypassed them in the planning and pursuit of the war." After a while, the Americans practically ignored the Saigon government when making their war plans.

The American military leadership also worked to improve the performance of South Vietnam's armed forces. But many of the South's officers were corrupt or showed little motivation to fight. In addition, most South Vietnamese troops received poor equipment, low pay, and little respect from their superiors. By 1966, many South Vietnamese soldiers relied on extra supplies of American rice for their meals. Not surprisingly, some members of the South Vietnamese army became reluctant to risk their lives for a government that did not seem to care about them. Finally, some of these soldiers had been waging war against the Viet Cong for years, and they were weary of all the bloodshed and violence.

Over time, these factors made many American military leaders and soldiers view the South Vietnamese as poor and undependable fighters. The U.S. forces became unwilling to rely on them. As a result, most South Vietnamese units were reduced to security duties and occasional support of American-led search-and-destroy operations. During this time they played a minor role in American military strategy, even though the war was taking place in their country.

Early American successes

In 1965 and 1966, America's armed forces claimed several significant military triumphs in Vietnam. For instance, U.S. and South Vietnamese naval forces established control over much of Vietnam's coastline. This prevented North Vietnam from sending supplies by sea to Viet Cong and NVA troops operating in the South. In addition, U.S. Navy gunboat patrols loosened the Communist grip on the rivers, canals, and delta areas of South Vietnam, especially in the Mekong Delta region.

U.S. troops also won a number of notable clashes with the enemy during this period. For example, in November 1965, U.S. forces met the North Vietnamese Army at the Battle of Ia Drang, a longtime Communist sanctuary. This was the first major engagement between U.S. troops and NVA troops in the Vietnam War. NVA troops had begun moving into the South in late 1964, when Ho Chi Minh and other North Vietnamese leaders decided that the Viet Cong needed additional help.

Operating from their base in the Ia Drang Valley, these NVA forces hoped to sweep eastward through South Vietnam and attack populated areas along the coastline. But the American forces destroyed this plan in its early stages. Over four days of savage battle, the U.S. troops stood firm, using superior artillery and air strikes to inflict terrible casualties on the Communists. The North Vietnamese finally retreated from the field, fleeing for secret bases in nearby Cambodia or remote jungle hideouts. This victory boosted the morale of the American forces. The presence of NVA troops at the battle also supported U.S. claims that North Vietnam—not the South Vietnamese people—was the main force behind efforts to topple the government in Saigon.

A frustrating enemy

Despite these triumphs, however, the American forces struggled in other aspects of the war. For example, they failed to shut down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the primary route used by Communists to transport soldiers and supplies. This roadway ran through the thick jungles of Laos and Cambodia, the countries immediately to the west of Vietnam. From 1965 to 1968, American planes bombed the trail every day, using sophisticated detection devices and spy reports to select their targets. But the Communists continued to use the route, making repairs as needed. By 1967, an estimated 20,000 NVA troops used the trail to enter South Vietnam each month, despite the heavy bombing.

U.S. forces also became frustrated with the way their enemy waged war. The American soldiers wanted to engage the Viet Cong and NVA forces in open battle, where they could take full advantage of their superiority in firepower and mobility. But for the most part, the Communists avoided open confrontation with the American forces. Instead, they used sniper attacks, booby traps, and ambushes to terrorize the American troops. When the U.S. units chased after them, they often disappeared into the jungle or hid among village populations. This style of fighting—called guerrilla warfare—angered and discouraged American foot soldiers and generals alike.

The Americans also found it very difficult to remove Viet Cong forces from rural areas permanently. The U.S. forces repeatedly chased the enemy out of villages or strategic jungle areas. The military made heavy use of ground troops in these efforts, but their biggest weapon was air power. They targeted many suspected Communist strongholds with bombings of explosives or napalm, a gasoline-based chemical that sent large sections of forest up in flames. But as soon as the American forces left the area, the Communists would creep back and resume their guerrilla operations.

One prime example of this trend was an American military campaign known as Operation Cedar Falls. In January 1967, U.S. military leaders decided to clear the Viet Cong out of a region northwest of Saigon called the "Iron Triangle." They believed that the Communists were using this area as their base for guerrilla activities in nearby villages and terrorist activities in Saigon.

Using both ground and helicopter assault forces, the Americans swept into the Iron Triangle. They killed or captured about 1,000 Viet Cong and seized large amounts of supplies, while suffering far fewer casualties themselves. The U.S. offensive succeeded in chasing the Communists out of the area. But as time passed and American military attention turned elsewhere, Viet Cong forces quietly slipped back into the Iron Triangle to resume their activities. This sequence of events happened time after time across South Vietnam.

Rural Vietnamese trapped in warfare

As the war between the Communists and the Americans intensified, South Vietnam's large peasant population became caught in the middle. On one side, Communist guerrillas struck fear into the hearts of many peasants. Some villagers joined the Viet Cong willingly. They believed the Communist argument that the war was actually a fight for Vietnamese independence from foreign control. But in many other instances, the Viet Cong forced rural villagers to assist them in their war effort. "The first Marines who came to Vietnam learned quickly that the Vietnamese peasant was tired of war, hungry for a little tranquility [peace], and terrified of the Viet Cong guerrillas who . . . murdered their village mayors, extracted rice and tribute [payments to avoid punishment], labor and information . . . and impressed [forced] their children into the Viet Cong ranks," recalled one U.S. Marine commander.

As American troops traveled deeper into the countryside, they found that fear of the Viet Cong kept many villagers from cooperating with them. As South Vietnamese General Lu Mong Lan noted in Al Santoli's To Bear Any Burden, "in areas close to their sanctuaries in Cambodia, the North Vietnamese were never more than a two-day march from any village. There was always a fear of reprisal [consequences] among people who cooperated with our forces . . . . And there were well-informed VC agents who monitored every villager's activities."

But the peasants also came to resent the American forces marching across their land. They hated and feared U.S. planes, which dropped bombs and defoliants (chemicals designed to kill crops and jungle vegetation in order to deprive Communists of food and cover) all across the South. These bombing campaigns drove hundreds of thousands of peasants from their longtime villages into overcrowded cities. In fact, an estimated four million Vietnamese—about one quarter of the total population—became refugees (people without homes) during the war. Some American strategists applauded this development. They believed that as more villages were abandoned, the Viet Cong and NVA would have greater difficulty obtaining supplies and hiding from U.S. forces.

Rural Vietnamese also suffered because American and South Vietnamese troops could never be sure if the villagers were actually Viet Cong. When these military units entered a village, they often treated the residents roughly as they searched for evidence of Viet Cong membership. After all, they had no way of knowing who was an enemy and who was a friend. Scared and frustrated, American and ARVN troops distrusted every villager they encountered. "At the end of the day, the villagers would be turned loose," recalled one soldier. "Their homes had been wrecked, their chickens killed, their rice confiscated—and if they weren't pro-Vietcong before we got there, they sure as hell were by the time we left." After the war, one South Vietnamese villager compared American efforts to find possible VC fighters in her village to "a raging elephant stomping on red ants too far down in their holes to feel the blows."

As time passed, many of these helpless South Vietnamese families became resigned to the grim situation. Helpless to protect themselves from either side, they simply tried to survive until the war ended. "The villagers were horrified because they couldn't win at all," remembered one U.S. soldier in To Bear Any Burden. "If they didn't submit to the Viet Cong and pay their bounty, the chiefs were killed or the young men or women taken away. And then here we come along or the South Vietnamese troops. And they'd have to submit to our will at the same time. So they didn't have a chance. I pitied them."

War settles into a stalemate

By the beginning of 1966, U.S. troop strength in Vietnam was at 250,000. Westmoreland also had substantial South Vietnamese forces under his command. In addition, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand all sent limited numbers of troops to South Vietnam to help the United States. The size of this military machine enabled America to conduct operations in all corners of South Vietnam, from the coastline to the deep jungles bordering Cambodia.

But as the weeks passed without any major change in the war, Westmoreland and other U.S. officials reluctantly concluded that the United States would have to send additional troops and weaponry to Vietnam. North Vietnam showed no sign of giving up the fight. In fact, the North's leaders continued to insist that peace would not come until the United States left Vietnam and accepted reunification of North and South into one country, as stated in the 1954 Geneva Accords that ended the First Indochina War (1946–54).

Throughout 1966, Westmoreland made repeated requests for additional troops, helicopters, weapons, and other supplies. He and other military leaders told U.S. officials that these extra forces were necessary to break the will of the Communists and force them to give up the fight. The Johnson administration granted most of these requests, hopeful that the new soldiers and guns would finally turn the tide in favor of the Americans. But as the U.S. government steadily increased its spending on the war, Johnson's domestic education and anti-poverty programs became endangered.

Paying for Vietnam

Shortly after Lyndon Johnson became president in 1963, he announced a series of programs designed to battle poverty, racism, pollution, and other American social problems. He hoped to build a "Great Society" by increasing educational and economic opportunities for disadvantaged people throughout the United States. Johnson believed in these programs so deeply that he refused to cut funding for them, even as the price of waging war in Vietnam kept rising.

As a result, the Johnson administration maintained its support for both the war and its social programs, even though it did not have enough money to pay for both. This decision placed a great strain on the U.S. economy. Within months, an economic trend known as inflation developed. During periods of inflation, the cost of food, clothing, and other goods and services rise sharply, making them less affordable. Johnson eventually called for tax increases so that the government could cover its spending. This move failed to calm the country's economic troubles and angered many Americans.

As the U.S. economy stumbled, growing numbers of people blamed the turmoil on the war in Vietnam. "The inspiration and commitment of the Great Society have disappeared," charged Senator William Fulbright (1905–1995), an antiwar Democrat from Arkansas. "In concrete terms, the President simply cannot think about implementing the Great Society at home while he is supervising bombing missions over North Vietnam. There is a kind of madness in the facile [casual] assumption that we can raise the many billions of dollars necessary to rebuild our schools and cities and public transport and eliminate the pollution of air and water while also spending tens of billions to finance an 'open-ended' war in Asia."

Rise of the antiwar movement

During the mid-1960s, President Johnson and his administration were also rocked by growing American opposition to the war on moral grounds. When Johnson first sent American combat troops to Vietnam in March 1965, most Americans supported his decision. But as U.S. casualties (dead and wounded soldiers) mounted and Americans learned more about the war, this support faded. Organized protests against American involvement in Vietnam erupted all across the country in 1966 and 1967. The antiwar movement was especially strong on college campuses, where student activists charged that the United States was waging an immoral and horribly destructive war against the Vietnamese people (see Chapter 8, "The American Antiwar Movement").

As opposition to the war increased on American campuses and city streets, greater numbers of political leaders began questioning U.S. policy as well. They no longer trusted the administration's claims that victory was within reach. Instead, they began to feel that the United States was sacrificing thousands of young men to a war that looked to them like a bloody and wasteful stalemate.

Yet even as the antiwar movement gathered strength, the Johnson administration also faced tremendous pressure to maintain or even increase its commitment to the war. Large segments of the American population resented the antiwar movement and disagreed with its views. They remained firmly supportive of U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia.

Many American politicians and military leaders also complained that the United States was not using enough military force in Vietnam. For example, they harshly criticized the administration's decision to spare North Vietnamese airfields and petroleum facilities during the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. They also urged the administration to expand the war into Laos and Cambodia, where the Ho Chi Minh Trail and countless Communist hideouts were located (see box titled "'Secret War' in Laos" in Chapter 3, "Early American Involvement in Vietnam"). These critics claimed that the Communists would soon be crushed if the United States expanded its military operations and sent additional troops.

"McNamara's War"

As the uproar over American involvement in Vietnam increased from 1965 to 1967, many public officials changed their views on the conflict. The most highly visible member of the Johnson administration to do so was Robert McNamara, the president's secretary of defense.

McNamara had supervised the U.S. military build-up in Vietnam throughout the early and mid-1960s. He was known for his sharp intelligence and reliance on statistics to analyze situations and solve problems. In fact, he was widely credited with improving the management and efficiency of U.S. armed forces in the early 1960s. As the war heated up, he came to be seen as the primary architect of American military strategy in Vietnam. Over time, McNamara became so closely identified with the conflict that some antiwar protestors referred to it as "McNamara's War."

When U.S. combat forces were first sent to Vietnam in early 1965, McNamara was highly confident that his logical approach to problem-solving, combined with superior American resources, would produce a quick victory over the Communists. By late 1965, however, McNamara became convinced that the North would never stop fighting, no matter how much punishment they endured. This realization made him doubt that the United States would ever win the war. Paul Hendrickson, author of The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War, writes that "In essence, what McNamara and a handful of others at the high echelons [levels] of strategy and analysis began to see was this: No matter how many men our side was willing to put in, the enemy would be willing to put in more. They would match us, and up it. They would give a million dead over to their cause. And keep going."

As the war continued in 1966, McNamara privately began pushing for peace negotiations to end the conflict. But all of these diplomatic efforts failed. "My frustration, disenchantment, and anguish deepened" after each failure, McNamara recalls in his memoir In Retrospect. "I could see no good way to win—or end—an increasingly costly and destructive war . . . . It became clear then, and I believe it is clear today, that military force—especially when wielded [controlled] by an outside power—just cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself."

But even though McNamara became convinced that America could not win in Vietnam, he publicly insisted that the U.S. war effort was going well. In October 1966, for instance, he returned from a trip to Vietnam, his eighth trip to the country in less than five years, and proclaimed that "Today I can tell you that military progress in the past twelve months has exceeded our expectations." But when he delivered his post-trip report to Johnson, he confessed that Communist forces seemed stronger than ever. Many people have criticized McNamara's decision to withhold his doubts from the American public during this time. Journalist David Halberstam, for example, spoke for many when he called it a "crime of silence."

By the summer of 1967, McNamara had privately abandoned all hope that the United States could defeat the Communists in Vietnam. In August, he testified before a Senate committee that was holding hearings on whether the United States should expand its bombing of North Vietnam. The committee was led by Senator John Stennis, a strong supporter of American involvement in Vietnam, and dominated by other senators who supported the war. Dozens of top military officers who testified at the hearing stated that the United States should increase its bombing of the North. But when McNamara testified, he bluntly stated that the Rolling Thunder campaign was a failure and that expanded bombing operations would not change the situation. He admitted that the bombing had put a "high price tag on North Vietnam's continued aggression." But he also said that no amount of bombing could stop North Vietnam from continuing its efforts to win the South, "short, that is, of the virtual annihilation [destruction] of North Vietnam and its people."

Everyone viewed McNamara's testimony as evidence that he no longer believed in the war. President Johnson decided that he had to replace him as secretary of defense. During the last months of 1967, most of McNamara's war responsibilities were given to other officials. In February 1968, he left the administration for a position as head of the World Bank.

State of the war in late 1967

During the final months of 1967, the Johnson administration continued to push forward with the war effort. Boosted by a steady stream of new soldiers, the U.S. force in Vietnam rose to about 485,000 troops. But American casualty figures continued to rise as well. By October 1967, the number of American soldiers killed, wounded, or missing in the war reached the 100,000 mark. From 1966 to 1967, the death rate among American troops in Vietnam doubled to more than 800 a month.

To opponents of the war, these statistics suggested that the war seemed likely to continue for some time, despite America's efforts to crush the enemy. "Air power had not brought the Communists to their knees, neither had General Westmoreland's strategy of attrition [wearing down the enemy with superior troop strength, firepower, and resources]," confirmed Clark Dougan and Stephen Weiss in The American Experience in Vietnam. "The commitment of nearly half a million troops had saved South Vietnam from defeat and taken a heavy toll of enemy casualties. U.S. soldiers had fought well under adverse [difficult] conditions, utilizing an enormous advantage in mobility and firepower to drive the Vietcong from even their most secure strongholds. Indeed, whenever American forces actually engaged VC or NVA units, they almost always prevailed. But the primary goal of grinding down the enemy until he hollered 'uncle' was not happening."

Nonetheless, Johnson's generals and military advisors insisted that the war's momentum was shifting in favor of the United States. In addition, the Johnson administration helped South Vietnam hold national elections in late 1967. These elections, which established Nguyen Van Thieu (1923– ) and Nguyen Cao Ky (1930–) as the South's leaders, did not improve the performance of the government in meaningful ways. Still, Johnson hailed the election as a symbol that South Vietnam remained a legitimate nation deserving of protection. He called the election "a milestone along the path toward . . . a free, secure, and peaceful Vietnam."

But the election in South Vietnam did not impress America's growing antiwar movement. In fact, the war had grown into a source of great pain, anger, and conflict in the United States. Many Americans were convinced that the war could still be won if the United States remained firm in its determination to beat the Communists. But many other citizens offered emotional protests against the war. They continued to call for an end to the bombing and withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South. As the debate intensified, each side expressed great bitterness and anger about the beliefs of the other.

In November 1967, General Westmoreland traveled to Washington, D.C., in an attempt to increase congressional and public support for the American war effort. Upon arriving, he told reporters that U.S. efforts to defeat the Viet Cong and NVA were going well. "I have never been more encouraged in my four years in Vietnam," he said. Other administration officials and military experts echoed the general's remarks, arguing that America was slowly but surely winning the war. But even as Westmoreland and other officials offered their assurances, the Communists of Vietnam were preparing a massive military strike for the coming new year. This attack—known as the Tet Offensive—permanently changed the shape of the Vietnam War.


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

Caputo, Philip. A Rumor of War. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.

Dougan, Clark, and Stephen Weiss. The American Experience in Vietnam. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.

Hendrickson, Paul. The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Herring, George C. LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Kearns, Doris. Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

Kolko, Gabriel. Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience. New York: New Press, 1994.

McNamara, Robert, with Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Times Books, 1995.

Moore, Harold G., and Joseph L. Galloway. We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young. New York: Random House, 1992.

Santoli, Al. To Bear Any Burden: The Vietnam War and Its Aftermath in the Words of Americans and Southeast Asians. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Shandler, Herbert Y. The Unmaking of a President: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Thompson, James Clay. Rolling Thunder. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

VanDeMark, Brian. Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Words to Know

ARVN The South Vietnamese army, officially known as the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. The ARVN fought on the same side as U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.

Communism A political system in which the government controls all resources and means of producing wealth. By eliminating private property, this system is designed to create an equal society with no social classes. However, Communist governments in practice often limit personal freedom and individual rights.

Great Society A set of social programs proposed by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson designed to end segregation and reduce poverty in the United States.

Hanoi The capital city of Communist North Vietnam. Also an unofficial shorthand way of referring to the North Vietnamese government.

North Vietnam The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War (1946–54), divided the nation of Vietnam into two sections. The northern section, which was led by a Communist government under Ho Chi Minh, was officially known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, but was usually called North Vietnam.

NVA The North Vietnamese Army, which assisted the Viet Cong guerrilla fighters in trying to conquer South Vietnam. These forces opposed the United States in the Vietnam War.

Saigon The capital city of U.S.-supported South Vietnam. Also an unofficial shorthand way of referring to the South Vietnamese government.

South Vietnam Created under the Geneva Accords of 1954, the southern section of Vietnam was known as the Republic of South Vietnam. It was led by a U.S.supported government.

Viet Cong Vietnamese Communist guerrilla fighters who worked with the North Vietnamese Army to conquer South Vietnam.

People to Know

Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) Vietnamese Communist leader who led Viet Minh forces in opposing French rule and became the first president of North Vietnam in 1954. He also led the North during the Vietnam War until his death.

Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) After serving as vice president under John Kennedy, he became the 36th president of the United States after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Johnson sent U.S. combat troops to Vietnam. Opposition to his policies convinced him not to seek re-election in 1968.

Robert McNamara (1916–) Served as U.S. secretary of defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, 1961–1968. After helping to shape U.S. policy toward Vietnam, he privately began to doubt that America could win the war.

William Westmoreland (1914–) Commander of American military forces in Vietnam, 1964–1968.

One North Vietnamese Villager Remembers Rolling Thunder

In early 1965, the United States launched an ongoing air bombing campaign against strategic targets throughout North Vietnam. This campaign—code-named Operation Rolling Thunder—lasted for more than five years, with only brief interruptions. The bombing caused terrible damage to North Vietnam's military facilities, factories, towns, and countryside. It also inflicted heavy casualties on the North's civilian population, even though American political and military leaders insisted that they did not want to harm innocent people.

Years after the end of the Vietnam War, a villager named Ho Thanh Dam told Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History, how it felt when American planes bombed his small town in July 1967:

The bombing started at about eight o'clock in the morning and lasted for hours. At the first sound of explosions, we rushed into the tunnels, but not everyone made it. During a pause in the attack, some of us climbed out to see what we could do, and the scene was terrifying. Bodies had been torn to pieces—limbs hanging from trees or scattered around the ground. Then the bombing began again, this time with napalm, and the village went up in flames. The napalm hit me, and I must have gone crazy. I felt as if I were burning all over, like charcoal, and I lost consciousness. Comrades took me to the hospital, and my wounds didn't begin to heal until six months later. More than two hundred people died in the raid, including my mother, my sister-in-law, and three nephews. They were buried alive when their tunnel collapsed.

"A Nation at Odds"

As U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War deepened in the mid-1960s, the American public entered a heated debate over the wisdom and morality of these military operations. With each passing month, the divisions widened between people who supported the war and those who opposed it. By 1967, these differences had sparked such great anger and hostility that many Americans worried about the future of the nation. In the following excerpt from "A Nation at Odds," published on July 10, 1967, the editors of Newsweek magazine express their concerns about the country's troubled state:

Cleft [divided] by doubts and tormented by frustration, the nation this Independence Day is haunted by its most corrosive [damaging], ambiguous [vaguely defined] foreign adventure—a bloody, costly jungle war half a world away that has etched the tragedy of Vietnam into the American soul.

Few scars show on the surface . . . . The casualty lists run inconspicuously [unnoticed] on the inside pages of newspapers; wounded veterans are kept mostly out of sight, remain mostly out of mind. Save on the otherworldly mosaic [images] of the TV screen, the war is almost invisible on the home-front. But, like a slow-spreading blight [disease], it is inexorably [steadily] making its mark on nearly every facet of American life.

The obvious costs of Vietnam are easy enough to compute: 11,373 American dead, 68,341 wounded, treasure now spent at the rate of $38,052 a minute, swelling the war's price by more than $25 billion in two years. Indeed, never have Americans been subject to such a barrage of military statistics—and never have they been so hopelessly confused by them. There are no statistics to tote up Vietnam's hidden price, but its calculus [result] is clear: a wartime divisiveness all but unknown in America since the Blue bloodied the Gray [in the American Civil War].

In the new world's citadel [stronghold] of democracy, men now accuse each other of an arrogance of power and of complicity [involvement] in genocide [killing an entire race of people], of cowardice and disloyalty. So incendiary [explosive] have feelings become that close-knit families have had to agree not to disagree about Vietnam at table. Ministers have become alienated from their flocks, parents from their children, teachers from their students and each other, blacks from whites, hawks [supporters of the war] from doves [opponents of the war]. The crisis of conscience has spilled out into the streets—in mammoth antiwar marches like last April's big parade in New York and the "Support our Boys" countermarch a month later . . . .

The nation has become so committed to seeing Vietnam through to an honorable conclusion that repudiation [rejection] of that commitment would unleash shock waves that would rock the country. Thus, like a neurotic [mentally ill person] clinging desperately to set patterns of behavior, America is likely to submerge its anxieties in a brave show of business-as-usual unless the war dramatically escalates. Deep in their hearts, most Americans cherish the idea that somehow the nightmare will turn out to have a silver lining—that the U.S. will in the end achieve its limited and honorable goals in Vietnam. After all, have Americans ever failed before?

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Vietnam Becomes an American War (1965–67)

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