Vietnam War (1959–1975)

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Vietnam War (1959–1975)


Cold War Escalation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Major Figures

Ho Chi Minh

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

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

Early Revolutionary Activities

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

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

Emerging Communist

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

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

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

Leader of Vietnamese Independence Movement

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

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

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

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

Head of Free Vietnam

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

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

Vietnam War

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

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

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

Robert McNamara

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

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

Early Business Career

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

Service during World War II

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

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

Return to Business World

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

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

Named Secretary of Defense

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

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

Oversaw Increased Involvement in Vietnam

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

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

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

Became World Bank President

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

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

Writer and Lecturer in Retirement

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

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

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

Le Duc Tho

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

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

Anti-French Activist

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

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

Chief Communist Negotiator

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

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

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

Refused Nobel Prize

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

After leaving Paris in 1973, Tho became the second highest ranking leader in the Communist Party and served as Le Duan’s (leader of North Vietnam) senior advisor. Tho also was influential in the DRV’s ongoing effort to gain control over the whole of Vietnam. Under his leadership, the final push came when the Communist forces took Saigon in 1975, after which Vietnam became one country again. Tho also might have had a part in the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978.

After victory was achieved, Tho continued to be an active member of the Vietnamese Communist Party and its Central Committee. He also was the director of the Party Organization Department for Vietnam. Resigning from the party in 1986 after a power struggle caused by conflict over economic reforms, Tho retired to private life. He died of throat cancer on October 13, 1990, in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Robert F. Kennedy

During his 1968 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968) spoke out against President Lyndon B. Johnson’s policies in Vietnam. Kennedy was a senator at the time and had previously held the position of attorney general during the presidency of his brother, John F. Kennedy. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 shortly after winning the California primary.

Born Robert Francis Kennedy on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, he was the seventh of the nine children of Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Sr., and his wife Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Kennedy’s father was a business executive who had served as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain during the 1930s. He harbored grand political ambitions for his family that were realized by his brother John (who served as president), himself, and his younger brother Edward (longtime U.S. senator).

Educated at Harvard

Despite being overshadowed by his older brother, Kennedy developed a competitive and ambitious nature. After graduating from Milton Academy, Kennedy entered Harvard in 1944. Kennedy’s eldest brother, Joseph, served in the American military during World War II. After Joseph Kennedy was killed in combat, Kennedy left school and joined the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant. He remained in the service until the end of the war.

Kennedy went back to Harvard in 1946. He completed his bachelor’s degree in 1948. Kennedy then entered the University of Virginia Law School. After earning his law degree, he went back to Massachusetts and was admitted to that state’s bar in 1951.

Federal Law Career

That same year, Kennedy joined the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Division. He stepped down in 1952 to run his brother John’s campaign for U.S. senator. His brother won the office. In 1953, Kennedy briefly worked as an assistant counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s permanent Senate subcommittee on investigations. While Kennedy was anti-Communist, he resigned when Democratic members of the subcommittee walked out in protest against McCarthy’s bullying tactics in investigating alleged Communists.

In 1954, Kennedy rejoined the subcommittee as chief counsel for the Democratic minority. When the subcommittee was reorganized in 1955 under Senator John L. McClellan, Kennedy was named chief counsel and director of staff. Kennedy was gaining national prominence as an emerging leader.

Kennedy took on a new post in 1957. He became the chief counsel of the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, which was known as the “Rackets” Committee. The committee was chaired by Senator McClellan, and Kennedy oversaw a staff of sixty-five. Kennedy also gained media attention for his inquiries into labor and management abuses. One of his best known investigations dealt with corruption in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, especially by the union’s president, James Hoffa. Kennedy exposed the vast amount of criminal activities taking place within the union.

Kennedy as Attorney General

In 1960, Kennedy served as the campaign manager for his brother John’s presidential run. When John F. Kennedy won the presidency and took office in early 1961, he appointed Robert to be the U.S. attorney general. Though many Americans believed the younger Kennedy’s appointment smacked of nepotism, the president relied heavily on his brother, who was his chief advisor on all issues. Robert Kennedy came to be seen as something of an assistant president.

Kennedy supported his brother’s actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis and in events related to the emerging civil rights movement. He also backed the president’ decisions in the burgeoning Vietnam conflict, which included sending large amounts of financial aid, military advisors, and public officials to South Vietnam. Kennedy was also an effective attorney general. In addition to using the office to protect civil rights activists, he conducted numerous investigations into organized crime groups.

U.S. Senator

In November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency. Kennedy remained attorney general under Johnson until September 1964. He resigned to seek a seat in the U.S. Senate representing New York and won the office with ease.

Already planning a run for president, Kennedy proved himself an outstanding liberal senator with an exceptional record. As senator, he continued to support civil rights as well as other issues related to discrimination and poverty in America. Kennedy also took on causes related to migrant farm workers and Native Americans.

In addition, Kennedy began speaking out against Johnson’s policy in Vietnam in 1966. Much of his criticism was directed against the escalation of American involvement to include ground troops, bombings, and more money and weapons. Kennedy saw that such actions related to the war were creating deep divisions in American society. The senator voiced doubts about the South Vietnamese political leadership being propped up by the United States as well.

Running for President

In early 1968, Kennedy declared he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination after Johnson decided against seeking a second full term. Like fellow Democratic candidate Eugene McCarthy, Kennedy spoke out against President Johnson’s policies in Vietnam and was popular among antiwar activists. He also gained the support of many African Americans because of his support of the civil rights movement. In addition, many young Americans and working-class Catholics backed Kennedy’s campaign. Among his campaign promises was a vow to end American involvement in Vietnam.

After winning the California primary in the spring of 1968, Kennedy was shot by an assassin at a Los Angeles hotel. He died of his wounds a day later, on June 6, 1968, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was survived by his wife Ethel and their eleven children, one of whom was born after his death.

Eugene J. McCarthy

An outspoken opponent of American involvement in the Vietnam War, Eugene J. McCarthy (1916–2005) was a U.S. senator when he tried to force a public debate on Vietnam in 1967 by announcing his intention to seek the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. McCarthy’s actions helped compel President Lyndon B. Johnson to opt not to seek reelection that year. McCarthy also had a secondary career as an author.

Born Eugene Joseph McCarthy on March 29, 1916, in Watkins, Minnesota, he was the son of a farmer, Michael J. McCarthy, and his wife, Anna Baden McCarthy. The family was devoutly Roman Catholic, and McCarthy attended the Catholic St. John’s University for his undergraduate education. Completing his B.A. in 1935, he then earned his master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in 1939.

While attending graduate school, McCarthy was employed as a public school educator teaching social sciences. In 1940, he went back to St. John’s to work as economics and education instructor for several years before serving in military intelligence as a civilian technical assistant during World War II. In 1946, McCarthy took a position at St. Thomas College to teach economics and sociology. He remained at St. Thomas until 1949.

Political Life

By this time, McCarthy had already launched a career in politics. In 1947, he served as an organizer of the newly merged Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. McCarthy then ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the Fourth Congressional District. He won by 25,000 votes, despite being a liberal in a traditionally Republican district.

McCarthy spent the next ten years in the House and built a reputation as a strong liberal and internationalist. He hoped to influence the House so that liberal bills could be passed, and he often worked to limit the Central Intelligence Agency’s activities. One highlight of his decade in the House was his challenge to the Communist-hunting activities of powerful U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Representative McCarthy debated Senator McCarthy on national television in 1952, an act considered extremely brave given the senator’s fearsome reputation.

Elected to U.S. Senate

Realizing the limits of the House, McCarthy ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1958 and won. During his first term, he emerged as a unique force in the Senate, because he was more concerned with the overall quality and focus of policy rather than drawing up bills or the extensive work of committees. However, McCarthy did chair the Special Committee on Unemployment, which sought to understand the causes of unemployment and lessen its effects.

Nearly selected as Johnson’s vice-presidential running mate in 1964, McCarthy instead remained in the U.S. Senate for a second term. He came to national attention early in his second term as a critic of Johnson’s foreign policies. One of his first targets was American involvement in the Dominican Republic in 1965 (the United States had invaded the politically unstable Dominican Republic to protect its interests).

Vocal Vietnam War Critic

As President Johnson escalated American involvement in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, McCarthy initially accepted the administration’s positions as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. McCarthy supported the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. He also backed Johnson’s decision to authorize the sending of American ground troops to Vietnam as well as extensive bombing of the enemy in early 1965.

By 1966, the senator came to believe that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and peace would only come via a political deal with the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese Communist guerilla forces). McCarthy then spoke out against American involvement in the war at every turn, and he supported a 1966 measure that called for the repeal of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Because his protests did not affect the Johnson administration’s policies, McCarthy announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for president on November 30, 1967.

McCarthy won several primaries in early 1968 and found widespread support for his positions on the war. On March 31, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection so he could focus on solutions for Vietnam without the burden of a political campaign. McCarthy gained support but lost the nomination to Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic National Convention. McCarthy did not announce his support for the rival candidate until late in Humphrey’s presidential campaign.

Post-Senate Activities

After Republican Richard M. Nixon won the White House in 1968, McCarthy announced that he would not seek reelection to Senate after his term expired in 1970. McCarthy then focused much of his time on publishing books of political commentary. He had published his first work in 1960, Frontiers in American Democracy. McCarthy continued to write books and articles regularly throughout the 1960s until his death. He also branched out into other genres, including children’s books, such as Mr. Raccoon and His Friends (1977), and poetry, including Ground Fog and Night (1979).

Politics remained alluring to McCarthy, who sought the presidency again in 1972 and 1976. In the latter campaign, he ran as an independent candidate. By 1980, McCarthy was endorsing Republican Ronald Reagan for the presidency. In 1982, he ran again for his former seat in the U.S. Senate, but was defeated. McCarthy ran for president as a third-party candidate for the Consumers Party in 1988, but his campaign was limited.

McCarthy published his last book in January 2005, Parting Shots From My Brittle Bow: Reflections on American Politics and Life. The book was a collection of essays and poems. McCarthy spent the last years of his life in an assisted living facility in Washington, D.C., where he died in his sleep on December 10, 2005.

Henry Kissinger

During the administrations of presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger (1923–) served as the National Security Council chief, secretary of state, and chief foreign policy advisor overseeing the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War. Because of his efforts at achieving a Vietnam solution, Kissinger was the co-winner of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize with Le Duc Tho. Kissinger’s actions as secretary of state were often controversial, and he was often criticized for his handling of American foreign policy.

Born Heinz Alfred Kissinger on May 27, 1923, in Furth, Germany, he was the son of Louis and Paula Stern Kissinger. His father was a teacher, but lost his position when the Nazis came to power, because the Kissingers were Jewish. The family, which included Kissinger’s younger brother Walter, moved to England from Germany in 1938. After a few months, the Kissingers left London for the United States.

Settling in New York City, Kissinger attended high school for a year. Because of the family’s financial needs, he then began working at a factory during the day and attending night school. He completed high school and then began studying accounting at the City College of New York. After the United States entered World War II, Kissinger was drafted into the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany. There, he primarily served in Army Intelligence and worked as an interpreter for a general. Kissinger continued to work in intelligence after the war ended by spending 1946 as a civilian instructor at the Germany-based European Command Intelligence School.

Work in Academia

After returning to the United States in 1947, Kissinger entered Harvard University. Earning his bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in 1950, he went on to earn two graduate degrees at Harvard as well, a master’s degree in 1952 and a Ph.D. in 1954. While completing his Ph.D., Kissinger began serving as the director for the annual summer Harvard International Seminar. He continued in this capacity until he joined the Nixon administration in 1969. Kissinger also wrote Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, which offered his thoughts on how the United States should deal with the Soviet Union. This widely read book was published in 1957 and was created for the Council on Foreign Relations, for which he had worked for some time.

While holding other posts, Kissinger also was employed at Harvard in a teaching capacity. He became a lecturer in 1957, and by 1962 held a full professorship at his alma mater. In addition to his academic career, Kissinger also helmed an eighteen-month special studies project of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Kissinger also served as a consultant to several government agencies and the Rand Corporation in the 1960s, and was an informal advisor to several U.S. presidents.

By 1965, Kissinger had stepped back from working as a full-time professor at Harvard and focused much of his time on his consulting activities. That year, he became a consultant on Vietnam for the U.S. State Department and visited the country several times between 1965 and 1967. In 1968, he also aided early negotiations between the administration of President Lyndon Johnson and North Vietnam, but Kissinger’s demands for both a Communist and American withdrawal from South Vietnam led to a quick end to the process. That same year, Kissinger also entered the political arena by working on Nelson Rockefeller’s bid for the Republican nomination.

Nixon’s Foreign Policy Advisor

When Rockefeller lost the nomination to Richard M. Nixon, Rockefeller urged Nixon to consider giving a position to Kissinger. Nixon named Kissinger the head of the National Security Council during his first term in office. In this post, Kissinger acted as national security advisor and had a number of successes, primarily in dealings with the Soviet Union. He implemented the policy of détente (French for “easing”) to relax relations with the Soviet Union and completed the negotiations that resulted in the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT) with the Soviet Union in the early 1970s.

Kissinger helped the United States make progress in China as well. Though the United States had not yet recognized the Communist-controlled People’s Republic of China, contact was made early in Nixon’s first term. More secret communication was facilitated by the president of Pakistan, resulting in multiple visits by Kissinger to China. President Nixon himself went to China a short time later on an official state visit. The 1972 Shanghai Communiqué outlined how American-Chinese relations would be established.

End to Vietnam War

The most controversial element of Kissinger’s foreign policy concerned Vietnam. Though he desired a peaceful yet honorable end to the war, he also wanted to negotiate from a position of strength. To that end, Kissinger supported covert U.S. operations in Cambodia and Laos (countries neighboring Vietnam), as well as other demonstrations of military might, to compel the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese Communist guerilla forces) and North Vietnamese to stop the war. He also hoped to ensure that not all the Indochinese countries would become communist.

Kissinger began negotiating secretly with Tho in 1969, but talks made little progress over two years. In the early 1970s, however, both the Soviet Union and China cut the amount of financial aid given to the North Vietnamese. This situation contributed to more success in negotiations. While a treaty was reached between Kissinger and Tho in October 1972, Nguyen Van Thieu, the president of South Vietnam, did not support it. The United States stepped up bombings over North Vietnam to force the resumption of peace talks.

By January 1973, Kissinger was able to broker a truce with North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho in Paris, France. Though the South Vietnamese did not support the treaty or its contents, Kissinger and Tho were awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for their effort. Nevertheless, Kissinger was also roundly criticized for his handling of Vietnam, especially his endorsement of what some believed to be excessive use of military might. Kissinger was also criticized because the war did not end with the treaty he had crafted and North Vietnam eventually took over South Vietnam in 1975.

Named Secretary of State

After Nixon won reelection in 1972, Kissinger took a new post and retained it even after Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon. As Secretary of State, Kissinger played an active role in the Middle East and tried to help restore peace to the region by facilitating negotiations between the various countries. He made eleven trips to the area in this capacity. Kissinger also remained interested in the situation in Vietnam, but could not convince Ford or Congress to send troops back there in support of the South Vietnamese.

Return to Consulting

Following Ford’s defeat in the 1976 presidential election by Jimmy Carter, Kissinger left office and founded his own consulting firm. Serving as the director of Kissinger Associates, he and his colleagues provided international political assessments for a variety of clients. Most of his work was done for businesses. When Republicans were in the White House, Kissinger sometimes served as an advisor. During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, for example, Kissinger advised him on U.S. policy in the Middle East. Kissinger also served President George H.W. Bush in an informal advisory capacity.

Kissinger also wrote several books about his service in the Nixon and Ford administrations. They include The White House Years (1979), Years of Upheaval (1982), and The Anatomy of Two Major Foreign Policy Crises(2003). In addition, he became a professor at Georgetown University and was a popular lecturer.

William Westmoreland

During the Vietnam War, General William Westmoreland (1914–2005) served as the commander of all American forces from 1964 until 1968. He was removed from his post because of mounting criticism over his handling of the American effort as well as decreasing support for American involvement in the conflict. Until his death, Westmoreland believed that a strong American military buildup would have resulted in a victory in Vietnam.

William Westmoreland was born on March 26, 1914, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. His father managed a textile plant before becoming a banker. From an early age, Westmoreland embraced leadership roles and enjoyed the Boy Scouts. He served as a patrol leader of his scout troop as well as president of his senior class. Westmoreland chose the military as a career before leaving high school.

Early Military Career

Westmoreland first attended the Citadel, an acclaimed military college, for a year, then gained an appointment to West Point, where he was first captain in his class. After graduating in 1936, he worked in field artillery in the United States Army. Westmoreland’s first posts were in Oklahoma and Hawaii, after which he was transferred to the infantry division of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There, he was promoted to major and put in charge of the Thirty-fourth Field Artillery Battalion.

During World War II, Westmoreland served in several positions of significance. He was an executive officer of the Ninth Division Artillery in France as well as a colonel in a Germany-based division. Promotions continued during the Korean War, where he served as the commander of the paratroopers who made up the 187th Airborne Combat Team. Serving in the Pentagon after the end of the Korean War, Westmoreland was promoted to brigadier general.


By the mid-1950s, the United States was providing financial support and military advisors for the non-Communist half of the country. Communist North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, supported guerilla attacks against the South Vietnamese government by the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese Communist guerilla forces). The conflict soon broke out into an all-out war. Though Westmoreland became the superintendent of West Point in 1960, he shared President John F. Kennedy’s belief that the United States should expand its military presence in South Vietnam to prevent a Communist takeover, which could lead to a further expansion of communism in Southeast Asia.

By December 1963, Westmoreland was serving as the commander of the Eighteenth Airborne Corps and stationed in Vietnam. Though the United States was still providing only military advice to the South Vietnamese, Westmoreland and other generals were able to convince President Lyndon B. Johnson to increase the role of the American armed services there. Beginning in 1964, the United States joined the Vietnam conflict with combat troops, limited bombings of key targets in North Vietnam, and naval operations. While there was some controversy surrounding this shift in policy, most Americans believed in the cause.

Head of U.S. Forces in South Vietnam

For the next four years, Westmoreland, by now a full general, served as the head of American forces in Vietnam as they fought the Viet Cong who engaged in both guerilla warfare as well as larger conventional attacks. By 1965, the North Vietnamese Army became more directly involved in the battle against South Vietnamese and American troops. Westmoreland did not control the bombings or the overall American strategy in the war, but directed American operations in South Vietnam. He saw his primary role as attacking the North Vietnamese Army and their bases, while secondarily helping to pacify and provide security for the South Vietnamese.

Westmoreland’s actions during his four years in charge of American troops in South Vietnam were regularly criticized by the press. He believed that the conflict in Vietnam was a war of attrition (a war won by wearing one’s enemy down over time) that would take years to win, and that U.S. forces never lost a battle of significance during the whole war. The American public saw the situation differently. For example, Westmoreland believed the February 1968 Tet Offensive by the Viet Cong resulted in a victory for the United States and South Vietnam. Many Americans, however, saw only that the North Vietnamese were much stronger than they had imagined and became convinced the war was unwinnable.

Removed from Post

Facing intense pressure from the American public, President Johnson decided to begin removing American troops from the conflict and begin negotiations with the North Vietnamese. In July 1968, Westmoreland was removed from his post. He returned to Washington to become the U.S. Army’s chief of staff, where it was his job to organize the removal of American forces from Vietnam and return the army to an all-volunteer force. Though he was roundly criticized, and often heckled, by people opposed to the war and the military, Westmoreland gave many public speeches in support of the army and the necessary transition ahead of it.

After retiring on June 30, 1972, Westmoreland returned to South Carolina, where he remained a controversial figure. He made a run for the Republican nomination for his state’s governorship in 1974, but was defeated in the primary. Westmoreland remained critical of the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam as well as the government’s Vietnam policy, outlining his opinions in his 1976 memoir, A Soldier Reports.

Libel Suit

Westmoreland’s actions in Vietnam haunted him for the rest of his life. On January 23, 1982, CBS aired a documentary entitled The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, which claimed that Westmoreland was involved in a cover-up that muffled or garbled American intelligence gathered about North Vietnam. Several months later, Westmoreland filed a $120 million lawsuit against the network, denying the charges and demanding an apology. Three years later, the suit was settled out of court, with CBS acknowledging some fault in the matter.

Living quietly for the rest of his life, Westmoreland died on July 18, 2005, at a retirement home in Charleston, South Carolina. He was ninety-one years old.

Nguyen Cao Ky

During the Vietnam War, Nguyen Cao Ky (1930–) was a distinguished pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force who also played a significant role in the power politics of South Vietnam (also known as the Republic of Vietnam) during the 1960s. He helped oust Duong Van Minh (South Vietnamese leader who had seized power in a 1963 coup) in 1964, then served as prime minister and vice president himself before fading from the South Vietnamese political scene in the early 1970s.

Ky was born on September 8, 1930, in the Son Tay Province of Vietnam, the son of a teacher. After graduating from a high school in Hanoi in 1948, Ky entered a French military academy located in the northern part of Vietnam. He began his career in the military when he was drafted into the Vietnamese National Army in 1950. Ky reached the rank of lieutenant in three years.

Trained as a Pilot

In 1951, Ky volunteered to be trained as a pilot with the French Air Force. He received his training in Algeria, another French colony, and France. Ky then flew practice missions in Algeria, France, and Morocco. He completed his training in 1954 and returned to Vietnam.

By the time Ky came back to Vietnam, the French Indochina War was ending. The Geneva Accords, which ended the war, divided Vietnam into two countries: a Communist-controlled North Vietnam (also known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) and non-Communist South Vietnam, supported by the United States and helmed by Ngo Dinh Diem. Ky chose to live in South Vietnam and joined the South Vietnamese Air Force.

Military Pilot for South Vietnam

On advice from the United States, Diem refused to hold the general elections mandated by the 1954 Geneva Accords because of fears the Communists would win total control of Vietnam. Ky went to the United States that year to receive additional fighter pilot training necessary for the forthcoming war with Communist forces. He served with distinction in the South Vietnamese Air Force as the conflict between North and South Vietnam heated up, eventually reaching the rank of lieutenant general.

As part of his service, Ky began flying secret missions for the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) in 1960. Using South Vietnamese military planes, Ky and other fighter pilots flew over North Vietnam, dropping guerrilla soldiers and experts in sabotage by parachute. These missions were intended to cut off the Communist-supported Viet Cong guerillas operating in South Vietnam from their leadership in the North.

Involved with Coups

After unpopular South Vietnamese leader Diem was murdered in a coup in 1963, the political situation in South Vietnam grew more unstable with regular power shifts. In 1964, Ky himself was part of the coup which removed Duong Van Minh from power and replaced him with General Nguyen Khanh. For his assistance in the coup, Ky was named head of the South Vietnamese Air Force by Khanh.

Ky soon developed a celebrity status as a pilot and leader among younger South Vietnamese military officers. As head of the air force, he made changes to increase the effectiveness of the service. Soon after the United States began sending combat troops to South Vietnam to support their cause in 1965, Ky, with the help of Generals Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Huu Co, overthrew the government in power and created a new government.

Becoming Prime Minister

The three generals formed the National Leadership Committee. With the support of the Americans, Ky began his own two-year stint as the prime minister of South Vietnam. He was the youngest person to hold that post in Vietnamese history.

When Ky took over, he said he wanted to run a government that was both stable and democratic. He hoped to restore order as well as confidence in the government to further the war effort. To that end, Ky made positive changes in the South Vietnamese military and threw corrupt government officials out of office. He also began programs of land reform and built much-needed hospitals and schools.

Ky’s time in office ultimately proved controversial, however. Like Diem before him, Ky ordered action against and repression of Buddhists. Ky believed they were allies of the Communists attacking South Vietnam because they disagreed with his politics. He participated in such actions himself by leading two battalions of the South Vietnamese Army against what he believed were Buddhist bases of operation in Da Nang and Hué in 1966. Such moves lost Ky significant support at home and abroad, and it was believed he would not have his office without American backing.

Loss of Power

Ky held a presidential election in 1967 in an effort to legitimatize the South Vietnamese government. Ky initially ran against General Thieu for the presidency. Because of pressure from military leaders who saw his reputation as damaged, Ky ran as Thieu’s vice president instead. These same military leaders rigged the elections, and Thieu and Ky won their respective offices. Their relationship was tense, however.

When elections were held again in 1971, Thieu would not permit Ky to run for the presidency. Ky left politics and again became the leader of the South Vietnamese Air Force. He continued to criticize Thieu’s government through 1975, when North Vietnam won battles that gave it control over more and more of South Vietnam. Though Ky publicly stated in April 1975 he would not leave Vietnam, he left on an American military helicopter after the fall of Saigon.

At Home in America

Living in the United States with his wife and six children, Ky settled in Los Angeles, California, where he operated a liquor store. Forced to file for bankruptcy in 1985 because of unpaid business loans and debts from gambling, he eventually wrote his autobiography, with Marvin J. Wolf, entitled Buddha’s Child: My Fight to Save Vietnam. After its publication in 2002, Ky made a trip back to Vietnam in 2004 as part of President George W. Bush’s efforts to improve relations with that country.

Gerald R. Ford

An unexpected president, Gerald R. Ford (1913–2006) took office on August 9, 1974, after the resignation of Richard M. Nixon. The only president to never be elected to the office or the vice presidency, Ford oversaw the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam and the end of American involvement in the conflict.

Ford was born Leslie King, Jr., on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska. The son of Leslie King, Sr., and his wife Dorothy, his parents divorced when he was two years old. His mother took her son to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she married Gerald R. Ford. Her new husband adopted her young son, and he was renamed Gerald R. Ford, Jr. Ford’s adoptive father worked as a paint and varnish salesman with a successful business that withstood the Great Depression. The elder Ford instilled values of honesty and hard work in his son.

Athlete to Lawyer

Throughout his childhood, Ford was an outstanding athlete. He played football at the University of Michigan while an undergraduate studying economics. In 1934, Ford, the team’s center, was voted Michigan’s most valuable player. After graduating from the university in 1935, he went to New Haven, Connecticut, to work as an assistant football coach for Yale. Two years later, Ford entered Yale Law School, while he continued to work as an assistant coach to support himself.

Completing his law degree in the top quarter of his class in 1941, Ford returned to Grand Rapids and opened his own legal practice. As the United States entered World War II a few months later, Ford resigned and enlisted in the U.S. Navy as an ensign. He spent forty-seven months in the service. When his tour of duty was completed, Ford again went back to Grand Rapids to resume his legal career.

Political Career

In 1948, Ford began his political career by running for a seat in the House of Representatives, representing the fifth district in Michigan. Defeating the Republican incumbent in the primary, Ford won the seat and soon was known for his outstanding work ethic. Ford remained in the House for several decades and worked well with all members of his party as well as Democrats. He eventually served on the Warren Commission, which examined circumstances surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Because of his unblemished reputation, Ford was asked to join the Republican ticket as vice president in 1964. Ford declined, and in 1965, became the minority leader in the House. Critical of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s policies in Vietnam, Ford believed that an all-out air and naval assault by the Americans would result in victory. In 1968, he served as the Republican National Convention’s chairman. As a Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon, won the White House that year; Ford worked with him during his first term, though he disagreed with some of Nixon’s policies.

The Vice Presidency

After Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew overwhelmingly won re-election in 1972, Ford was considering the end of his political career as the Democrats continued to retain control of Congress. When the Watergate scandal came to light early in Nixon-Agnew’s second term (the Watergate scandal involved criminal activities within the Nixon administration), Agnew’s previous improprieties also became known, and he faced prison time for racketeering and bribery. A deal was arranged that involved Agnew resigning in exchange for the dismissal of most criminal charges.

Under the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution, Nixon could appoint a replacement vice president with approval by Congress. Because Ford had the trust and respect both of Democrats and Republicans, Nixon appointed Ford to replace Agnew in 1973. As vice president, Ford kept his distance from the growing scandal surrounding President Nixon.

Became President

In 1974, Watergate engulfed the president, and Nixon resigned. Ford became the first president in the history of the United States to be elected to neither the presidency nor the vice presidency. As president, Ford demonstrated his trademark modesty. Though the public initially embraced him, Ford soon lost much of their support.

On September 8, 1974, Ford pardoned Nixon for any crimes he committed while in office. Ford believed that the pardon was in the nation’s best interest, but his action was viewed with disgust and suspicion by many Americans, whose confidence in their leaders had been profoundly undermined by the Watergate scandal. Ford’s approval rating plummeted. Many believed rumors that there had been a secret deal between Ford and Nixon, so much so that Ford was compelled to testify before a congressional subcommittee on the matter. Ford denied that any such deal existed, but a significant number of Americans were not convinced and distrusted the president.

Short Presidency

While handling the fallout from Watergate and his pardon of Nixon occupied much of Ford’s 896 days as president, he also dealt with serious domestic and international issues. Increasing inflation, a stagnating economy, and high unemployment had begun during Nixon’s second term, and the country endured a significant economic recession during Ford’s presidency. Ford took various actions to improve the economy. Though inflation was reduced by his measures, the recession did not begin to ease until 1976.

Ford’s foreign policy followed the lead set by Nixon. Ford continued trying to improve relations with the Soviet Union by following a policy of détente (French for “easing”), but relations slowly worsened during his time in office. Ford’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, was able to lay the groundwork for SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II) through the Vladivostok Accords, agreed to in November 1974. Ford also pursued a similar policy with Communist China, trying to ease tensions with the country.

Vietnam Issues

Vietnam remained a pressing concern as well. In January 1973, Kissinger had signed an agreement on ending the war and restoring peace in Vietnam, which saw the Communist North Vietnamese pledging to honor the sovereignty of the democratic government in South Vietnam. Two years later, North Vietnam resumed their planned conquest of South Vietnam, and Ford was unable to convince Congress to provide military aid to America’s former ally. North Vietnam completed the conquest of South Vietnam in April 1975. The last Americans were evacuated by helicopter from a falling Saigon on April 30.

Post-Presidential Activities

During the 1976 presidential elections, Ford won the Republican nomination over Ronald Reagan. Because of lingering distrust over his pardon of Nixon and the failing economy, however, Ford lost the election to Democrat Jimmy Carter. After leaving office in 1977, Ford remained involved in politics. Reagan even considered him for his vice president in the 1980 election.

Ford also sat on the boards of a number of corporations and gave lectures around the United States. In addition, Ford founded a charity, the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, in which he was active. Suffering from ill health in the last year of his life, Ford died on December 26, 2006, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California.

See also Cold War: Major Figures: John F. Kennedy

See also Cold War: Major Figures: Lyndon B. Johnson

See also Cold War: Major Figures: Richard M. Nixon

Major Battles and Events

Founding of the MACV

On February 8, 1962, the Kennedy administration created the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). Despite its tangled organizational and political structure, the MACV oversaw the deepening American presence in South Vietnam.


John Kennedy’s foreign policy was rooted in the prevailing theories of the Cold War. Having narrowly weathered the Cuban Missile Crisis (in which Soviet nuclear warheads were installed in Cuba and aimed at the United States), he believed that the Soviet Empire posed a real threat to America. Unwilling and unable to launch a traditional war against the Soviets, the United States opted to limit the spread of communism around the globe.

This was no small task. When European empires crumbled after World War II, nationalist movements rose up in developing countries everywhere. Many of these embraced Socialist or Communist ideals. Soviet rhetoric convinced Americans that these revolutions were, in fact, directed from Moscow. In the 1950s, President Harry Truman articulated the “domino theory”—if one country falls under Communist control, its neighbors would soon fall as well, like a row of dominos.

In response, the United States developed a policy of “universal containment,” which meant squelching nascent Communist movements by any means necessary. One of the regions of highest concern was Southeast Asia, specifically former French Indochina—Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Having thrown off French colonialism and Japanese occupation, Vietnam had separated into two warring camps. The nationalist Communist Viet Minh group, led by Ho Chi Minh, established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). They made Hanoi their capital. The pro-French and pro-American Ngo Dinh Diem declared the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), with its capital in Saigon.

Around 1957, the North Vietnamese began secret attacks on the south, hoping to topple Diem’s “puppet” government. With encouragement and supplies from Hanoi, southern Communists formed the National Liberation Front, also known as the Viet Cong, a force of guerilla fighters that would later prove effective against American military forces.


In 1962, trying to prevent a Communist take-over in the country, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff suggested the creation of a new command dedicated to South Vietnam. Kennedy approved it, and the MACV was duly established. The new agency was to oversee U.S. military units throughout South Vietnam. It was also to advise and support the South Vietnamese military.

That year, the number of Americans in Vietnam tripled, from 3,200 to 11,300. General Paul D. Harkins, who had served as principle staff aide under George Patton in World War II, was made Commander of the MACV (COMUSMACV). In 1964, the title passed on to General William D. Westmoreland. Two other officers would hold this title over the course of the war: Creighton Abrams and Frederick Weyand.


In the beginning, the new command suffered from a tortuous and confused command structure. For one thing, a very similar agency, with overlapping responsibilities, already existed in the country. The Military Assistance Advisory Group Vietnam (MAAGV) had been created in 1955 and continued to operate independently until 1964.

In addition, the Pentagon would not grant theater-command status to MACV, limiting its authority and its ability to act. The COMUSMACV was to report to the naval commander-in-chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), who reported to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Later, by order of the secretary of defense, MACV communications were also sent directly to the Pentagon.

These intricacies hampered the COMUSMACV’s ability to conduct the war. For instance, although the war zone clearly extended into North Vietnam and Laos, those countries fell outside MACV’s jurisdiction. Operations in those areas had to be cleared by Washington and CINCPAC. CINCPAC sometimes carried out such operations separately from MACV.

CINCPAC was a navy command, and yet the navy had less direct involvement with the fighting than the army or air force. Jurisdiction squabbles were particularly bitter in the air. Army helicopters, air force aviation, and navy aviation all fell under separate and often competitive commands. On top of all this, the COMUSMACV had no direct authority over the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). The South Vietnamese were free to ignore American advice and often did.

The disunity of the American war effort often showed on the battlefield, with disastrous results. Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann broke with the MACV in 1963 after charging the South Vietnamese with rampant corruption and incompetence.


Frustrated by the organizational chaos, Westmoreland pushed for a more centralized command structure. In May 1964, the MAAGV was dissolved. The MACV took over the training and advising of the ARVN. Responsibility for this task was divided among the various field advisors instead of being centralized at headquarters. As a result, the U.S. military largely neglected the ARVN’s development.

Although the navy never relinquished its overall command, other military units realigned into a more streamlined structure. As part of his efforts at consolidation, General Westmoreland became the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Vietnam (USARV). He refused to create a separate U.S. Army field headquarters. MACV headquarters therefore handled field operations, ARVN advisory efforts, and a broad range of military and political issues.

The load may have been too great for a single office to handle. Certainly the military decisions made in Vietnam have been subject to intense criticism. It is said that American soldiers sometimes painted “UUUU” on their helmets, which stood for “the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.” Others, especially General Westmoreland, have claimed that, militarily, the MACV was entirely successful. The war was lost, in their opinion, by politicians and journalists.

The MACV was abolished under the terms of the Paris Agreement of 1973.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

In the summer of 1964, the U.S. destroyer Maddox exchanged fire with three torpedo ships off the North Vietnamese coast. Two days later, the Maddox, accompanied by the destroyer C. Turner Joy, reported once again that they had been fired upon. Reports of the encounters were confused. It was unclear what had provoked the attacks; it was uncertain that the second attack had happened at all. Nevertheless, the administration of President Lyndon Johnson used the incident to justify a dramatic escalation of American involvement in Vietnam.


The year 1964 was an election year. Political debate focused on the U.S.S.R and on civil rights. The United States had sent thousands of “advisors” into South Vietnam, but the war had not yet come to the forefront of the public consciousness. Incumbent President Lyndon Johnson took heavy criticism for his South Asia policy from the Republican challenger, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Goldwater, a fervent anti-Communist, advocated using nuclear weapons to clear the Viet Cong’s jungle cover.

The Johnson administration had in fact been more aggressive than the Republicans thought. American “advice” to South Vietnam included training, military equipment, and covert operations. In 1961, the C.I.A. launched a highly classified program known as Operation 34A, which included naval electronic intelligence cruises (called “DeSoto” missions). The South Vietnamese also launched American-supported raids on the North Vietnamese coast.

On July 31, 1964, American-trained South Vietnamese commandos attacked a radio transmitter station on Hon Nieu Island. This may have provoked the North Vietnamese to attack American ships in the area.


On August 2, 1964, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats bore down fast on the U.S.S. Maddox, which had been on a DeSoto cruise in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Maddox opened fire, and the approaching boats answered with torpedoes and machine guns. Shortly afterwards, four U.S. naval airplanes from the carrier Ticonderoga were dispatched to strafe the enemy craft. All three North Vietnamese ships sustained damage, while the Maddoxreturned unscathed to southern waters.

Two days later, the Maddox returned, reinforced by the destroyer C. Turner Joy. The ships intercepted North Vietnamese radio messages, which they believed signaled an imminent attack. After nightfall, in the middle of a storm, radar and sonar indicated incoming torpedoes, all of which missed.

The two ships engaged in vigorous evasive maneuvering and called in air support. However, no one could make a visual sighting of the enemy. Other than an initial surprise torpedo attack, the commander noted, the whole affair might have been a product of bad weather and nervous radar operators.


On August 3, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Khanh told reporters that the United States should strike back at the North Vietnamese “to save face.” President Lyndon Johnson apparently agreed. In a taped conversation with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, he said that America “ought to always leave the impression that if you shoot at us, you’re going to get hit.”

Johnson publicly announced that the American ships had been on a routine patrol in international waters when they had been attacked with no provocation. He immediately sanctioned air strikes on four North Vietnamese naval bases and on an oil storage depot. In the meantime, he asked for Congressional approval of a resolution “expressing the unity and determination of the United States in supporting freedom and in protecting peace in Southeast Asia.”

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by both houses of Congress only three days after the attacks. It condemned the naval incidents as part of a “systematic campaign of aggression by North Vietnam against South Vietnam.” Only two representatives voted against the bill, which gave the president full authority “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States.”

The second part of the resolution gave the president discretion to give military aid to any member state of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). For practical purposes, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution functioned as an informal declaration of war. It was to expire only at the president’s discretion, unless Congress repealed it.

On August 8, Ho Chi Minh declared “the indignation and wrath of our entire people at the U.S. Government’s deliberate acts of aggression against the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam.” With North Vietnam’s backing, the Viet Cong increased its operations against American targets in South Vietnam.

Unlike President John Kennedy, who had sent “advisory” officials to Vietnam, Johnson deployed combat-ready American ground troops. Calling themselves “grunts,” these forces were sent on aggressive “search-and-destroy” missions to find and crush Viet Cong and North Vietnamese groups. Military command theorized that the United States could win a war of attrition (a war in which one wears the enemy down over time), as long as the U.S. soldiers killed as many of the enemy as possible.


In 1968, a congressional review made it public knowledge that the Maddoxhad actually been on a reconnaissance mission and that Americans had carried out secret attacks against North Vietnam prior to the August 2 incident. More disturbing were allegations that the reports of the August 4 incident had been mistaken or even fabricated. Antiwar activists began to charge that Johnson had already been planning to increase American involvement in Vietnam and that the affair had given him an excuse to do so.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was not repealed, however, until January 13, 1971, after President Richard Nixon used it to order air raids over neutral Cambodia.

Flaming Dart

After the Gulf Of Tonkin Incident, the United States launched a series of aerial assaults on North Vietnamese targets. Flaming Dart was the first of these air war operations, which, though effective in many ways, could not guarantee victory.

Strike and Counterstrike

In immediate response to the Tonkin Incident, on August 5, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson authorized Operation Pierce Arrow. Aircraft from the carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation struck a variety of North Vietnamese naval bases and petroleum storage houses. Four planes were destroyed, and one U.S. pilot died in the attack. Lieutenant Everett Alvarez was captured and was subsequently imprisoned for eight years. He became the first and longest-held American prisoner of war in Vietnam.

On February 6, 1965, the Viet Cong attacked the U.S. air base at Pleiku. They killed eight men, wounded 128, and destroyed ten airplanes. In Saigon, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (1919–1996), who had come to the country on a fact-finding mission for Johnson, received the news with outrage. He sent an angry report to Washington, recommending stronger American action in Vietnam.

Beginning on February 7 and 8, 1965, the United States launched retaliatory air raids on North Vietnam, an operation code-named Flaming Dart. Planes from the sea carriers Coral Sea and Hancock hit North Vietnamese ports and army barracks. A few days later, the North Vietnamese struck U.S. billets in Qui Nhon.

In response, the United States launched Flaming Dart II. Military command carefully planned the action to take place at the exact same time as President Johnson’s evening address to the nation. Whatever the political impact of the raid, militarily it did not succeed—the attack did little damage to its targets, staging and communications areas in the North.

The Ongoing Storm

Johnson’s aerial attacks, called Rolling Thunder, soon became a regular feature of the American campaign. American planes would target enemy locations in North and South Vietnam, as well as in the officially neutral countries Laos and Cambodia. Over the course of the Vietnam War, the United States dropped more bomb tonnage than had all of the belligerents of World War II put together.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara intended the air campaign to wear away resistance gradually and to force the North Vietnamese to negotiate. Aerial attacks also served as a very visible sign of American power and helped to bolster South Vietnamese morale.

The operations were an interservice effort, carried out by both air force and navy attack squadrons. Air Force F-105 and F-4 fighters flew from bases in South Vietnam and Thailand, while navy F-4, F-8, A-4, and A-6 planes took off from carriers.

Like much of the American war effort in Vietnam, Rolling Thunder suffered from muddled military and political leadership. Johnson and McNamara maintained strict control of tactical details. Much to the military’s disgust, targets were chosen by the president, secretary of defense, secretary of state, and the White House press secretary. They sent airmen in attacks against barracks and military supply lines, but forbade high value targets like petroleum storage, power plants, and airfields. Because of departmental squabbles, the air campaign was hardly coordinated with the land campaign at all.

The region under attack was strictly limited by political and diplomatic considerations. At first, only southern North Vietnam came under attack, from the demilitarized zone (also called the DMZ—a narrow strip of land demarcating the divide between North and South Vietnam) to a northern “bombing line.” As the war progressed, the target area expanded until it included all of North Vietnam.

Those flying these missions did so at an enormous risk. The USSR supplied North Vietnam with the latest antiaircraft artillery, including SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Downed aviators made up almost seventy percent of U.S. prisoners of war.

POWs and MIAs

Long after the war officially ended, the emotionally charged issue of unreturned prisoners of war (POWs) and soldiers missing in action (MIAs) continued to haunt Americans.

South Vietnam and North Vietnam had agreed to the Geneva Convention, which dictated humane treatment for captured enemy soldiers. Nevertheless, the Viet Cong, since they fought in their own country, were considered traitors and criminals and were often brutalized. In the north, the Communists declared that American aviators were guilty of “crimes against humanity.” Released POWs told horrifying tales of mistreatment, torture, and murder. They also reported that the North Vietnamese still held some American prisoners.

By 1975, 1,750 soldiers were still listed as missing in action. For almost two decades, the United States refused to recognize the united Social Republic of Vietnam until a “full accountability” of the missing could be made. To this end, America insisted that Vietnam return the bodies of the fallen. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan announced that “until all our questions are fully answered, we will assume that some of our countrymen are alive.”

Relations with Vietnam improved in the late 1980s. Hundreds of sets of remains were eventually flown back to the United States, and veterans groups made progress tracking down unresolved cases. In 1994, President Bill Clinton lifted the American trade embargo against Vietnam, normalizing relations between the two nations.

Grounding the Birds

As the war dragged on, Rolling Thunder came under heavy media scrutiny and criticism. In December 1966, Harrison Salisbury reported in the New York Times on the collateral damage to noncombatants that he had witnessed in Hanoi. He claimed that the bombing only increased the North Vietnamese determination to fight, and he suggested that the military was deliberately striking at civilian targets. The Pentagon furiously denied the charges.

In August 1967, Johnson reluctantly allowed attacks on high-value targets in Hanoi and Haiphong. Rolling Thunder attacks were, for a season, particularly effective. The British chargé d’affaires to Hanoi believed that the bombing came close to crippling the North Vietnamese economy in 1967. Nevertheless, following the Tet Offensive (a massive attack by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong) in 1968, a discouraged President Johnson announced that the air campaign would be discontinued.

Battle of the Ia Drang Valley

During November 14–17, 1965, the U.S. First Airmobile Cavalry Division engaged the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in the Ia Drang Valley in the Central Vietnamese Highlands. The pitched battle raged for four days, resulting in heavy losses for the Americans and enormous losses for the North Vietnamese.

The Battle

On November 14, 1965, the U.S. Army deployed the First Battalion, Seventh Cavalry to the Ia Drang Valley, fourteen miles west of a U.S. Special Forces base at Plei Me. The 450-man force arrived on Huey helicopters, with orders to hunt down and destroy NVA troops hidden in the mountains.

As it turned out, North Vietnamese General Chu Huy Man planned to seize the base at Plei Mei and to ambush any Americans and South Vietnamese soldiers who came to the rescue. He led more than two thousand Vietnamese soldiers in the valley, waiting a few miles from where the Seventh Cavalry touched down.

The Americans had one stroke of luck—they almost immediately captured a young Vietnamese soldier. The terrified prisoner told them that three Communist battalions were hiding up the mountain and were about to start killing Americans. Sure enough, rifle fire broke out around noon. Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Harold Moore quickly realized that he was not only hugely outnumbered, but outflanked.

The next seventy-two hours were characterized by desperate fighting and dogged courage on both sides. The North Vietnamese took advantage of the many giant termite mounds around the field, which were as hard as cement and stood as high as fifteen feet tall. NVA soldiers would fire down from the mounds, gaining both elevation and cover against their enemies. Vietnamese snipers tied themselves to the trees on either side—when they were hit, their bodies hung gruesomely from the branches.

The Americans defended the clearing where they had landed—a flat grassy perimeter about three hundred yards across. As the NVA streamed down the mountain to the west and through the jungle, the American soldiers advanced toward the tree line on foot, bayonets fixed, to establish a perimeter around the clearing. Helicopters flew in through heavy fire to drop off ammunition and to collect the wounded.

Early in the engagement, the Second Platoon was cut off from the main division and surrounded. Led by Lieutenant Henry Herrick, the lost platoon defended a hilltop with heavy losses for the duration of the battle.

At dusk of the first day, Moore ordered a withdrawal, covered by white phosphorus smoke, to the nighttime perimeter. The fighting continued sporadically all night and all the next day.

Eventually, however, superior American firepower was brought to bear. Rocket-bearing helicopters, attack planes, B-52 bombers, and long-range howitzers did enormous damage to the North Vietnamese forces, and they withdrew on November 16.

The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) helicopters ambushed the NVA’s retreat, inflicting still more losses. But the Communists still did not give up, and reinforcements arrived from across the Laotian border every day. The next day a NVA force fell on the Second Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry, killing 155 Americans.

The Lessons

The U.S. military always had difficulty determining enemy losses in Vietnam. At Ia Drang they estimated that the NVA suffered over 2,500 casualties. The battle left 234 Americans dead and more than 300 wounded.

In some ways, the battle surprised and dismayed American leadership. It was the first time since Dien Bien Phu that the Communists had stood their ground and fought, rather than melting back into the jungle. Considering their enormous losses, the NVA had shown ferocious determination. Robert McNamara could draw only one conclusion: “It will be a long war.”

Ia Drang also confirmed American fears of the level of North Vietnamese commitment to their cause. As McNamara said to President Johnson: “The rate of infiltration has increased from three battalion equivalents a month in late 1964 to a high of nine or twelve during one month this last fall.” That meant that the number of enemy combatants in South Vietnam was increasing by as many as 9,600 every month.

General Westmoreland, however, still pronounced the battle a resounding victory, which demonstrated “the ability of the Americans to meet and defeat the best troops the enemy could put on the field of battle.” He asked for, and received, two hundred thousand more troops to counter the increased North Vietnamese incursion.

For Westmoreland and other military leaders, Ia Drang also seemed to affirm the U.S. strategy of attrition. If America killed far more soldiers than they lost, they reasoned, eventually the Communists would give up. Over the course of the war, the United States sent more search-and-destroy missions into the Vietnamese countryside, essentially attempting to repeat the battle of Ia Drang.

In the meantime, the North Vietnamese learned to avoid conventional standing warfare, and largely returned to guerrilla tactics. American search-and-destroy missions met booby-traps, snipers, and mines more often than a direct attack. When the Communists did attack, Ia Drang had taught them to “cling to the belt”—to fight as close as possible to American troops, where U.S. long-range artillery could not be used effectively.

Military experts do not agree on the effectiveness of the attrition campaign. Some argue that, effectively, U.S. troops ran wild-goose chases in the jungle and neglected the populated coast. Others believe that the search-and-destroy missions developed a flexible and responsive fighting force in Vietnam. Certainly they inflicted heavy damage to the Communists, particularly in the Attleboro Operations of 1966, and at the Cedar Falls and Junction City Battles of 1967.

The possible military efficacy of a campaign of attrition is beside the point to some degree; American leaders fundamentally failed to grasp North Vietnamese dedication to their cause. If anything, their massive losses only seemed to goad the Communists on. In the end, it was the American public, not the American military leadership, that would give up, unwilling to support a seemingly endless war in the face of ever-mounting casualties.

The Siege of Khe Sanh

From January to April of 1968, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) laid siege to the American base at Khe Sanh. While the United States successfully held its defenses, the battle worried and distracted American leadership. To this day, it is unclear if the NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap seriously meant to take Khe Sanh—it is possible that the battle was meant as a diversion for the Tet Offensive.

The Base

In 1962, MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) set up an Army Special Forces camp at Khe Sanh, a village in the northwest region of South Vietnam. Located in hill country, about six miles from the Laotian border and fourteen miles from the demilitarized zone, the base looked down on Route 9, the major roadway between Laos and northern South Vietnam.

In 1966, General William Westmoreland ordered a marine base built close by. He did so against the vigorous opposition of Marine General Lewis W. Walt. Walt advocated a “pacification” strategy, in which U.S. troops would defend coastal populations. In his opinion, Khe Sanh was a useless outpost in the middle of nowhere.

Westmoreland, on the other hand, pushed for an “attrition” policy, in which American troops would hunt down and destroy the enemy. “Khe Sanh,” he reasoned, “could serve as a patrol base blocking enemy infiltration from Laos; a base for … operations to harass the enemy in Laos; an airstrip for reconnaissance to survey the Ho Chi Minh Trail; a western anchor for the defenses south of the DMZ; and an eventual jumping off point for ground operations ….”

In the spring of 1967, the Third Marine Amphibious Force (MAF) arrived at Khe Sahn, reinforcing the undermanned base. It was not long before they saw combat. The NVA attacked the area in April and May, seeking possession of key hilltops. The Americans held on to the highlands after a series of bloody skirmishes—both sides took heavy casualties. Before long the Third Marines were relieved by the Twenty-sixth Marines, commanded by Colonel David E. Lownds.

In January, the NVA began a serious, sustained campaign against Khe Sanh, in contrast with their normal hit-and-run tactics. Westmoreland was delighted to see a relatively concentrated North Vietnamese force attack in a virtual wilderness. He reasoned that the U.S. military could bring the full weight of its artillery against the enemy without fear of massive civilian collateral.

Westmoreland sent in reinforcements. By January, Lownds commanded one marine artillery battalion, four marine infantry battalions, the South Vietnamese Thirty-seventh ARVN Ranger battalion, and various units from other services. Altogether over six thousand men defended Khe Sanh.

The Shadow of Dien Bien Phu

American interest in the base extended beyond its strategic location. Invariably, discussion of Khe Sanh brought up the specter of a similar French base at Dien Bien Phu, which had been taken by the Vietnamese in 1954. Military brass, political leaders, and wartime journalists all obsessively worried that General Giap would attempt to repeat that victory, which had ended the French presence in southeast Asia.

President Lyndon Johnson became so anxious on the subject that he repeatedly demanded reassurance from his generals. He made his Joint Chiefs of Staff sign a pledge that the base was, in fact, defensible. Westmoreland, after assessing the base’s artillery and air strength, promised the president that Khe Sanh could hold out indefinitely under siege.

Having given their word, the U.S. military took trouble to back up their claims. The MACV went so far as to investigate the use of tactical nuclear weapons, but the option was never seriously proposed.

Instead Westmoreland ordered a massive wave of air strikes on North Vietnamese positions in the area, involving both tactical aircraft and B-52 bombers. Operation Niagara, as it was called, became one of the largest air assaults in American history. Altogether the assault, which lasted until the end of March, dropped almost sixty thousand tons of bombs on the Vietnamese countryside.

The Siege

The battle of Khe Sanh began on January 21, when North Vietnamese infantry launched an assault against a marine outpost on Hill 861. The NVA failed to dislodge the Americans, who had been warned of the attack the day before by a North Vietnamese defector.

Nevertheless, the fighting was brutal. Soviet-made 122-mm howitzer rockets, fired from beyond the Laotian border, pounded down on the fortifications. At one point a round hit a marine ammunition supply, setting off 1,500 tons of high explosives. Covered by the rain of artillery fire, the NVA penetrated deep into American defenses before being driven back. At the end of the day, fourteen marines were killed and another forty-three were wounded.

Many historians believe that the North Vietnamese Khe Sanh campaign was primarily a feint, designed to draw American attention away from the coastal urban centers. On January 30–31, the NVA and Viet Cong (South Vietnamese Communist guerilla forces) initiated the massive Tet Offensive against those urban centers. The Americans quickly repelled most of the Tet attacks, but the siege of Khe Sanh continued. Feint or no, the NVA meant to take the base if they could.

The NVA had managed to block Route 9, forcing the Americans to resupply the base by air. The Communists’ sophisticated antiaircraft battery made this difficult. Even covered by Operation Niagara, the air force was unable to land on the exposed airstrip. Instead they developed paradrop techniques to get food and ammunition to the troops on the ground. The Marine Corps used a combination of tactical aircraft and helicopters, called a “Super Gaggle,” to supply hill outposts.

On February 7, NVA armored divisions demolished a U.S. Special Forces camp at Lang Vei, about nine miles from the Khe Sanh base. Afraid of enemy ambush, Colonel Lownds refused to send back-up. Almost 300 of the 350 defenders were killed, missing, or wounded. On February 25, a marine platoon was ambushed and took heavy losses.

On February 29, the NVA mounted an assault on a South Vietnamese Ranger battalion position. Supported by a B-52 Arc Light strike, the Rangers repelled the North Vietnamese, killing over seventy enemy soldiers. Only one of the South Vietnamese was wounded.

The Relief

In April, a combined Army-Marine-RAVN force, called Operation Pegasus, managed to break through enemy lines and lift the siege. Westmoreland steadfastly refused to abandon the base, but he was recalled to Washington in June. His successor, General Creighton Abrams had the base officially closed on July 5.

The siege of Khe Sanh drew an enormous amount of press scrutiny. Marines living “in the V-ring,” constantly under enemy fire, were romanticized, toasted, or pitied by the media. According to U.S. Army estimates, the NVA lost upwards of ten thousand men, while the U.S. Marines suffered around five hundred dead.

The Tet Offensive

In January 1968, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong launched a coordinated attack against hundreds of villages, towns, and cities across South Vietnam. They aimed primarily to topple the American-backed “puppet” government in Saigon. They also hoped to discredit the American government’s claim that the Communists were on their last legs and that the war was almost over. While the former goal was never realized, the Tet Offensive did lend fuel to the U.S. antiwar movement and put considerable pressure on the administration of President Lyndon Johnson.

The Buildup

From 1965 to 1967, the number of American troops in Vietnam increased from fewer than sixty thousand to nearly a half million. However, as casualties mounted, the American people grew increasingly weary of the war effort. In an effort to rally public support, the Johnson administration routinely made highly optimistic reports on America’s progress. According to the U.S. military commanders, the National Liberation Front (NLF), also known as the Viet Cong, and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had suffered heavy losses, and they would not be able to hold out much longer. There was, the government promised, “light at the end of the tunnel.”

The Vietnamese Communists, however, were still in the fight, and they had no intention of giving up. Instead, faced with a bloody stalemate, General Vo Nguyen Giap devised a massive campaign in the hopes of changing the face of the war. Called the “General Offensive-General Uprising,” the action was to have two phases. First, a series of diversionary campaigns would draw American troops out of the urban centers into the countryside. Second, the Viet Cong and the NVA would attack the major cities, prompting an uprising of the South Vietnamese people against the Saigon government.

The campaign began in October and November, as North Vietnamese forces descended on small, inland targets. Among these was the U.S. Marine base at Con Thien, across the Laotian border, as well as the towns of Loc Ninh, Song Be, and Dak To. American forces were dispersed from the coastal units to deal with these threats.

United States General Westmoreland could tell that these attacks, coupled with the massing of forces to the north, were leading up to something big. However, the army believed that the buildup was centered around the battle of Khe Sanh. They were caught off guard by the scope and coordination of the Tet Offensive.

Attack and Counterattack

Hanoi’s main assault was launched on January 30–31, during the Vietnamese holiday of Tet. This holiday, coinciding with the lunar New Year, was traditionally celebrated by returning to one’s home village for feasting with family. In October of 1967, the North Vietnamese had agreed to a cease-fire during the festivities, a promise that they did not keep. As a result, a third of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was on leave when the fighting began.

On January 30, 1968, nine NLF guerillas raided the American Embassy in Saigon, which was held by five American Marines. They managed to take control of the grounds, but could not enter the U.S. Chancery building. The next morning U.S. troops retook the compound after a bloody firefight.

At the same time, NLF and NVA strikes were launched throughout the country. Military units attacked thirty-nine provincial capitals, seventy-one district towns, and five of the six major cities.

Militarily, the offensive proved a miserable failure for the Communists. The South Vietnamese people showed no interest in a general uprising, and the ARVN fought fiercely in defense of their hometowns. With American support, most of the raids were repelled within a day. Fighting in some towns continued to the end of the week, and the former imperial city of Hué was occupied for almost a month.

The American Front

From a political point of view, the Tet Offensive signaled the beginning of the end for the South Vietnamese cause, in that it ultimately cost them their most vital ally. Shocked by the ferocity and scale of the offensive, the American people began to doubt their government’s glib assurance that victory was in sight. “What the hell is going on?” Walter Cronkite burst out on hearing the news, “I thought we were winning.”

Cronkite, a respected news anchor, had initially supported the war. After two years of fighting, however, the Tet Offensive convinced him (and many others) that the military had made no progress. The conflict, he declared, was stalemated.

The brutality of the urban warfare also contributed to popular disillusionment, as when South Vietnam’s chief of national police, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, summarily executed a Viet Cong suspect on the streets of Saigon. Having just lost several men to the NLF, he shot the man in the head before photographers and television cameras, leading to one of the most memorable—and horrifying—images of the Vietnam War. Fairly or not, Americans began to question the worthiness of their Asian allies.

More significantly, they questioned the worthiness of their own troops. American platoons had ruthlessly driven the enemy back, often with tragic cost in civilian life and property. One soldier reported after securing the village of Ben Tre, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Neither side emerged from the battle as creditably as they would have liked. A month of American bombardment drove the NLF out of Hué, but left the ancient city in ruins and 116,000 townspeople homeless. On entering the city, however, they discovered an even greater atrocity. The Viet Cong had executed 2,800 Vietnamese civilians thought to be in sympathy with the South Vietnamese government and buried the bodies in shallow graves.

Johnson’s Office

Military commanders urged Johnson to take advantage of what they considered to be a resounding victory. Nearly forty thousand of the enemy had been killed, and the Viet Cong was in disarray. Westmoreland requested an additional two hundred thousand troops from Washington. He accurately predicted that the NLF would soon be reinforced by North Vietnam.

Johnson knew that public opinion would not permit a further escalation in Vietnam, and he worried that America would be forced away from its Southeast Asian containment policy altogether. Senator Robert Kennedy of New York and Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota announced that they would be running for the Democratic presidential nomination on anti-war platforms.

On March 31, 1968, Johnson reluctantly declared that military operations in Vietnam would be scaled back. He suspended the bombing campaign on North Vietnam. He also announced that he would not run for re-election.

The My Lai Massacre

On March 16, 1968, American soldiers committed one of the worst wartime atrocities in the Vietnam War. Descending on a tiny South Vietnamese hamlet, they murdered over four hundred civilians, mostly women, children, and old men. The massacre and the subsequent army cover-up became an international scandal and a permanent mark on the American conscience.

The Massacre

Lieutenant William Calley commanded Charlie Company, First Battalion, Twentieth Infantry Division. On March 16, he and his men were ordered to My Lai 4, a small hamlet of the Song My village in the Quang Ngai province. Officially, they were on a search-and-destroy mission. Military intelligence had determined that the Viet Cong sheltered in the area.

The Charlie Company was on edge. Two days before, the well-beloved Sergeant George Cox had been killed by a booby trap. Wild with grief, the squad members had murdered a Vietnamese woman who had been working in a field close by. When villagers complained to Captain Ernest Medina, he told them that the woman had been holding a land mine detonator.

Calley’s commanding officer, Captain Ernest “Mad Dog” Medina, had told him that all innocent Vietnamese citizens would be at the market. Everyone remaining in the village, according to intelligence, would be Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathizers. In fact, all of the able-bodied Vietnamese men had retreated from the village the day before.

Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker gave Calley permission to treat My Lai as an enemy stronghold. Their orders were to kill the livestock, to spoil the wells, to cut down the banana trees, and to take no prisoners. Neither Barker nor Calley explicitly included civilians in their instructions. Nevertheless, Calley believed that he had been ordered to kill everyone in the village.

At 7:40 in the morning, the soldiers marched into My Lai 4 (known to the soldiers as Pinkville.) On Calley’s orders, the Americans then embarked on a ruthless, indiscriminate killing spree. They raped women and young girls; they shot mothers holding their babies. Villagers were rounded up in ditches and summarily executed. Others were clubbed, bayoneted, and even mutilated. Bodies were found with the words “C Company” carved on their chests. The U.S. Army estimates that 347 civilians were murdered. The Vietnamese put the number at 504.

A few American soldiers refused to take part in the atrocity. Pilot Hugh Thompson watched with increasing disbelief as the carnage unfolded beneath him. Finally, seeing U.S. troops chasing ten civilians, he set his helicopter down between the Vietnamese and the Americans. Thompson had his gunners train their M60 guns on the soldiers.

Thompson jumped out and asked the officer in charge to help him get the Vietnamese out of the ditch. The officer answered that a hand grenade would do the job. “You see my guns?” Thompson replied, “If you open up, they open up.”

Thompson called down two more helicopters and somehow managed to convince the ten cowering Vietnamese to board them. A little later his crew pulled a three-year-old child out of a pit full of bloody corpses. Then they flew back to base and reported what was going on to his superiors, who put a stop to the rampage.

The Uncovering

Those same superiors also immediately buried the story. If the media mentioned the incident at all, they reported that American troops had won a military victory over Viet Cong troops.

The massacre came to light in 1969 due to the efforts of a veteran, Ronald Ridenhour. He had just returned from a tour of duty, during which he had heard appalling stories from eyewitnesses of the massacre. Ridenhour’s letters to the House Armed Services Committee reported that “something rather dark and bloody” had happened in My Lai; he demanded justice for the victims.

In response, General William Westmoreland initiated an army investigation, headed by Lieutenant General William Peers. The Peers Commission found that the soldiers in question had committed 224 violations of the code for military conduct. When the grisly truth of the matter became clear, the U.S. Army started trying and convicting the perpetrators in courts martial.

Twenty-five indictments were filed altogether, thirteen for war crimes and twelve for covering up the affair. Almost all of the defendants were acquitted or charges against them were dropped. The army released General Samuel Koster (Captain Medina’s commanding officer) with a demotion and a letter of censure.

The army quietly published the charges, and initially the American news media did not make much of a stir. However in November 1969, freelance journalist Seymour Hersh picked up the story. He published a detailed description of the slaughter. Shortly afterwards, the Charlie Company army photographer, Ron Haeberle, published lurid photographs of the massacre in Lifemagazine. The American people were horrified. In the debacle, antiwar advocates saw proof that the United States military had lost its way, if not its soul.

The Trial of Lt. Calley

Only Lieutenant Calley, who had directly commanded Charlie Company, was convicted of any crime. He openly admitted to having shot unarmed civilians and having ordered others to do so. “I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy,” he said. “That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women, and children. They were all classified the same, and that was the classification we dealt with, just as enemy soldiers.” Medina denied having explicitly ordered the death of noncombatants. He also denied allegations from some troops that he had participated in the massacre. Calley was found guilty of murder by military court martial and sentenced to life imprisonment.

However, many Americans felt that Calley’s conviction was deeply unfair, since his superior officers went unpunished. As the Vietnam Veterans Against the War explained, “We are all of us in this country guilty for having allowed the war to go on. We only want this country to realize that it cannot try a Calley for something which generals and presidents and our way of life encourage him to do.”

Richard Nixon reduced Calley’s sentence to twenty years and had him transferred from a military prison to house arrest. The U.S. Army gradually reduced his sentence to ten years. In 1974, a federal court overthrew his conviction entirely, by which time he had already been released on parole.

Secret Bombing of Cambodia

On March 18, 1969, President Richard Nixon initiated a secret B-52 bombing campaign in Cambodia, despite that country’s official neutrality. When word of the attacks leaked out to the American press, the affair inspired renewed criticism of the war’s legality.

Neutral Neighbors

As the Vietnam War progressed, the U.S. military became increasingly frustrated by the issue of Laos and Cambodia. Though officially neutral, these neighboring countries were essential to the North Vietnamese war effort. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) traveled on the famed “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” a system of trails and paths that snaked south from North Vietnam through neighboring Laos and Cambodia just east of the Vietnamese border. The Ho Chi Minh Trail allowed the North Vietnamese troops multiple entry points into South Vietnam.

In addition, the NVA kept arms and munitions in semipermanent bases in western Cambodia. From these locations, the Communists constantly launched lightning strikes across the border at American troops. After an attack, the Viet Cong and NVA would swiftly retreat to neutral Cambodia, where they could regroup and rearm in total safety.

The Communists had built their Cambodian bases with the permission of King Norodom Sihanouk, who had ruled Cambodia since before the country became independent from France in 1952. Unable to retain both ceremonial and political power, under the terms of the constitution, Sihanouk had abdicated in 1955. As president, the former king was still half-worshipped by the Cambodian people, despite his erratic nature and constantly shifting alliances.

In return for their adulation, Sihanouk exerted every effort to keep his people out of the ever-deepening Vietnamese conflict. A crafty politician, he successfully negotiated the choppy diplomatic waters between the United States, the U.S.S.R, China, and the two Vietnams. “The word brinkmanship,” he once remarked, “was perhaps invented for me.”

In 1965, angered by America’s part in the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and convinced that the Communists were going to win, Sihanouk broke diplomatic relations with the United States. In 1966, he gave permission to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to smuggle arms through Cambodia to Viet Cong forces. Sihanouk and his officials profited enormously from the black market in weapons that resulted.

The Menu Bombings

In 1966, however, Sihanouk’s government began to turn away from the left. The reinforced American army had driven an increasing number of Viet Cong across the border, where the guerrillas encouraged Cambodia’s own Communist insurgents. The northwest province of Battambang witnessed a serious peasant uprising, which Defense Minister General Lon Nol brutally repressed. The surviving Cambodian Communists escaped and regrouped in the wilderness. Sihanouk named them the Khmer Rouge. They were led by one Saloth Sar, who had taken the name Pol Pot.

Unable to fight the Khmer Rouge on his own and unwilling to count on China for help (the PRC was at the time in the midst of its “Cultural Revolution”), Sihanouk turned back to the United States. Nixon immediately responded to Cambodia’s friendly overtures, sending ambassador Chester Bowles to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

In their meeting, Bowles promised that the United States would “do everything possible to avoid acts of aggression against Cambodia.” However, Sihanouk gave the American military rather vague permission to cross his borders if “in hot pursuit” of the enemy.

This was more than enough license for Nixon. On March 18, 1969, Nixon and his advisors launched an air assault against Communist bases and supply points in Cambodia. Over the next fourteen months, B-52 planes flew 3,630 sorties, dropping over 100,000 tons of bombs. The individual attacks were code-named “Breakfast,” “Lunch,” “Snack,” “Dinner,” etc., and the overall campaign came to be known as “Operation Menu.”

The ever-paranoid Nixon insisted that the campaign remain a profound military secret. Sihanouk later denied having giving permission for the strikes, but he did nothing to stop or expose them. The North Vietnamese government also said nothing, as it could not openly admit to the presence of its troops in neutral Cambodia.

However, the news reached the press in May 1969. The New York Timesran the story, which cited an unknown source in the administration. Furious, Nixon instigated a cover-up and a crackdown on suspected leaks. He began a practice of illegal surveillance that would later explode in the Watergate scandal, which in turn resulted in his resignation.

The Invasion

In 1970, General Lon Nol ousted Sihanouk while the latter was visiting France. A staunch anti-Communist, Lon Nol ordered a crack-down on ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia. He also asked for American assistance in driving out the Viet Cong. On April 24, 1970, Nixon ordered American tactical air strikes on NVA targets in Cambodia, which were followed by a ground incursion.

The invasion had devastating consequences. The Americans and South Vietnamese troops were only permitted to penetrate nineteen miles into Cambodia, so the Viet Cong simply pushed deeper into the country. South Vietnamese soldiers slaughtered Cambodian civilians in retaliation for Lon Nol’s brutality against the ethnic Vietnamese. American college campuses, the hotbed of the antiwar movement, exploded in protest, and the ground campaign was halted in May, having achieved none of its objectives.

At Lon Nol’s request, however, U.S. air raids continued. American bombs continued to batter the region, destroying property and killing thousands of civilians. Rural Cambodians grew increasingly resentful of their government. They also remained devoted to Sihanouk who had, in another bizarre turnabout, aligned himself with the Khmer Rouge.

In 1971, Congress revoked the Gulf of Tonkin Resolutions. In 1973, Congress forced Nixon to stop the bombing campaign.

“Peace With Honor”

The United States people had lost patience with the war. By early 1969, 250 American soldiers were dying every week. Fearing that he might not win reelection, Nixon announced a plan for “Vietnamization,” the process of gradually pulling American troops out of Southeast Asia and “transferring” the war effort to the South Vietnamese.

In August 1969, Nixon sent his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, to conduct secret meetings with North Vietnam. These culminated in the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, which South Vietnam rejected. America signed them anyway and withdrew all U.S. troops from the region.

In April 1975, North Vietnam broke the cease-fire established by the Paris Peace Accords, invaded Saigon, and forcibly reunited the country. Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were forced into harsh “reeducation” camps. Over a million fled the country on boats, many of them dying at sea.

In the same month, the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh. Sihanouk was put under house arrest. The next four years of Communist rule in Cambodia were marked by mass relocations, forced labor, and genocide. The Khmer Rouge killed more than 1.5 million Cambodians before they were ousted in 1979.

Release of the Pentagon Papers

In 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara secretly commissioned a report from Pentagon officials. The document, known informally as the Pentagon Papers, described in detail American political and military decisions with regard to Vietnam. When they were leaked to the press in 1971, they sparked controversy in the United States over the government’s lack of honesty about the war.

The Papers

McNamara believed that America had a moral responsibility to check the spread of communism. As secretary of defense under presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, he fully supported both presidents’ decisions to escalate the conflict in Southeast Asia. As a result, many Americans saw him as the chief architect of the Vietnam War.

By 1966, despite his public expressions of optimism, McNamara had developed private reservations about Vietnam. He worried that American political objectives could not be achieved through military means, a position that put him out of step with the Johnson administration. As his personal doubts grew, and his friction with the president intensified, McNamara sought to document and analyze U.S. policy in the war. He asked a Department of Defense analyst, Leslie Howard Gelb, to compile a detailed history of U.S. internal government decisions relating to the country’s involvement in Vietnam.

Gelb assembled a team of experts—military officers, civilian analysts, and historians—who worked for the next eighteen months on a series of highly classified reports. They produced the seven thousand pages of memos, commentary, and analysis that came to be called the Pentagon Papers. While the papers did not include White House deliberations, they did provide detailed information on behind-the-scenes American policy making. The document described the government’s step-by-step descent into the Vietnam War, covering such topics as the 1953 overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, secret peace negotiations, and game theory analysis of the ongoing combat.

The Leak

McNamara was not the only “Cold warrior” to question the Vietnam War. One of the thirty-six experts asked to work on the Pentagon Papers was Daniel Ellsberg, a consultant for the RAND Corporation California think-tank, who was then an analyst with the State Department and the Department of Defense. Ellsberg had begun his career by advocating the use of force in Southeast Asia. However, his 1965 fact-finding tour of Vietnam left him deeply troubled. He became convinced not only of the ineffectiveness and brutality of the American war effort, but of the U.S. government’s duplicity.

Unable to convince any congressmen to declassify the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg decided to take a personal stand. In February 1971, he photocopied the forty-seven volumes and gave them to Neil Sheehan, a reporter for the New York Times.

The Times published the documents in installments, causing an instant national uproar. The papers demonstrated a systematic abuse of power by three American presidents. Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon had sidestepped Congress, the public, and even their own advisors in pursuit of their objective. They had used secrecy and misdirection to avoid public opposition to their policies.

The Nixon administration immediately went on the offensive. The publication of classified documents, they claimed, clearly endangered national security. U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell charged that the newspaper had violated the Espionage Act; he threatened a lawsuit if publication was not halted. He also got a temporary court order against the Times, but by then the Washington Post and the Boston Globe also possessed copies of the Pentagon Papers.

In June, Alaska Senator Mike Gravel read parts of the papers aloud during a congressional hearing, thus making their contents public record. A year later, the Supreme Court heard the case Gravel v. United States. The Court ruled that the senator and his aide were immune from prosecution under the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution.

The United States government then sued the newspapers. However, on June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the press to print the sensitive material.

The Plumbers

Richard Nixon attributed every setback to his political opponents. He was convinced that a broad range of people plotted against him, from antiwar activists to the entire Kennedy family. Even though the Pentagon Papers primarily embarrassed Democratic predecessors John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, their release reinforced the president’s essential paranoia. “We’re up against an enemy conspiracy,” he reportedly told his aides. “They’re using any means. We’re going to use any means.”

In response, Nixon created a secret cadre of White House operatives called “the Plumbers.” Supervised by White House Counsel John Ehrlichman, the Plumbers were told to plug the administration’s “leaks.” White House aides David Young and Egil “Bud” Krogh led the group, who were instructed to dig up dirt in order to discredit Ellsberg. In addition, Nixon ordered dozens of illegal phone taps on White House staff. “Anyone who opposes us, we’ll destroy,” said Krogh.

In September 1971, the Plumbers broke into the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, looking for incriminating material on Ellsberg. The next year, several of the same men broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C. The burglary was shabbily managed, and the police investigation led back to the White House. The press, aided by an anonymous source in the administration calling himself “Deep Throat,” traced the matter directly to the president. The resulting scandal swept Nixon out of power—he resigned in August 1974 before an imminent impeachment vote in the House could take place.

After the first release of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg had been charged on thirteen counts, including espionage and theft of government property. He had initially gone into hiding, but he turned himself in, asserting that he had committed no crime. His case went to court in 1973, but was dismissed because of the Plumbers’s misconduct.

Passage of the War Powers Act

Throughout the Cold War, and especially in its Vietnamese theater, U.S. presidents wielded a great deal of autonomy in military matters. By 1973, many Americans believed that the Oval Office had been corrupted by a concentration of power. In response, Congress passed the War Powers Act, which was meant to limit the president’s ability to personally prosecute a war.

Leader of the Free World

The framers of the U.S. Constitution made every effort to check and to balance the different branches of government. In military matters, the Constitution dictates that the legislative branch is the sole branch of government that has the power to declare war. Congress also raises troops and funds the military. The executive, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, wages war.

With the rise of communism and the nuclear age, the president of the United States took on an unprecedented amount of personal responsibility and power. President Harry Truman alone had to make the difficult decision to bomb Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II. President John Kennedy kept abreast of Russian ship movements during the Cuban Missile Crisis and personally gave the orders when those ships were to be boarded. President Lyndon Johnson ordered air strikes in retaliation for the Gulf of Tonkin incident a few hours after he received word of the attacks.

The world had changed. Correctly or not, Cold War American presidents believed themselves to be the world’s chief defenders, not only against a vast Communist conspiracy, but against total global annihilation.

The Credibility Gap

Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt had delayed American entry into the World Wars because there had been little public support for intervention. In the 1950s, however, terrified of the “Red Menace” of communism, the American people largely gave their government a free hand in foreign affairs. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 ceded to the chief executive the right to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States” in Southeast Asia. As in Korea, no formal declaration of war was made in Vietnam. Yet the Vietnamese conflict became the longest sustained war in U.S. history.

As the Vietnam War dragged on, it became increasingly unpopular, and the American public began to think that presidents were abusing their power. They also became distrustful of the government’s statements concerning the progress of the war, which contrasted sharply with journalists’ reports from the battlefield. This “credibility gap” intensified in 1965, when the Tet Offensive cast doubt on Johnson’s optimistic forecasts of victory.

In 1970 it became widely known that Nixon had ordered bombing raids over neutral Cambodia, raids that had been kept secret even from top military commanders. Antiwar activists furiously charged that the American presidency had become corrupt. The publishing of the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971 only seemed to confirm this opinion. The papers revealed that the White House had systematically withheld or misrepresented information about the war.

In 1970, two bills were introduced in Congress: the Cooper-Church and Hatfield-McGovern amendments, which attempted to cut funding for the Cambodia campaign and to force Nixon to withdraw all American troops from Vietnam. Both measures were defeated in both houses. The same year, New York Senator Jacob Javits introduced the War Powers Resolution, which was ratified only after three years of debate.

The Legislation

The War Powers Act, as it came to be known, passed in November of 1973. Under the terms of the resolution, the president of the United States has to submit a written report to Congress before introducing American troops into “situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances.” Once the military has been mobilized, Congress must be kept informed of all non-routine deployments. Furthermore, if Congress does not declare war or authorize the action within sixty days of the commencement of hostilities, troops must be withdrawn. If the withdrawal cannot be safely managed within that time frame, the president can extend the window to ninety days.

President Nixon vetoed the bill on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. However, because he was embroiled in the Watergate scandal at the time, he held little sway over Washington lawmakers. Congress mustered more than a two-thirds majority needed to overrule him.

Congress intended the War Powers joint resolution to limit the executive’s ability to act autonomously. It was meant to ensure that the United States would not go to war without the “collective judgment of both the Congress and the president.” Strangely enough, in some ways the bill actually gave the president the power to enter an undeclared conflict. As one senator put it, the president of the United States now wields an “undated ninety day declaration of war.”

War Powers in Practice

However, presidents have since disparaged the War Powers Act, claiming that it is unworkable and that it unconstitutionally undermines executive authority. Many have submitted the required reports, but failed to fully comply with the full terms of the resolution.

In 1975, President Gerald Ford mounted an armed rescue of the USS Mayaguez, which had been seized by Cambodian troops. He also ordered punitive air strikes over Cambodia. In response to congressional criticism, he argued that the War Powers Act did not apply in an emergency evacuation of American citizens. Furthermore, he said, “I did not concede that the resolution itself was legally binding on the president on constitutional grounds.”

Jimmy Carter made much the same case when he unsuccessfully attempted to rescue American hostages in Teheran, Iran, in 1970. Ronald Reagan likewise shrugged aside the resolution when ordering the 1983 invasion of Grenada and the air strike against Libya in 1986.

Nevertheless, Congress still holds its War Powers prerogatives and will, on occasion, exercise them. In 1993, the House of Representatives invoked the War Powers Act to demand that U.S. troops be pulled out of Somalia.


Peace Corps

The Peace Corps is a federal government agency that places American volunteers in developing countries to assist with medical programs, education, and economic development. The agency was created in 1961 under the control of the State Department. Since then, more than 187,000 Americans have volunteered to serve in 139 nations to pursue the Corps’ goals of alleviating poverty, illiteracy, and disease.

President John F. Kennedy is largely credited with the creation of the Peace Corps, but the concept originated with his congressional colleagues, Representative Henry S. Reuss and Senator Hubert Humphrey in the late 1950s. While campaigning for the office of president, then Senator Kennedy put forth the initiative in a campaign speech at the University of Michigan. In front of thousands of students assembled to hear the candidate speak, Kennedy asked, “How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?” Kennedy claimed that this type of effort would be necessary for America to compete on a global scale, and the notion went along with the famous challenge in his inaugural address on January 20, 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Within months, Kennedy was elected president and issued an executive order creating the Peace Corps.

He named Sargent Shriver, his brother-in-law, as its first director. In August 1961, the president hosted a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden to recognize the first class of Peace Corps volunteers who traveled to Ghana and Tanzania. When the first fifty-one American Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Ghana, they were warmly greeted with a chorus of the nation’s anthem. Shriver oversaw 7,300 volunteers who assisted developing countries during his first year. He served ambitiously through the remainder of Kennedy’s short life and until 1966, under Lyndon Johnson. For the agency’s first year, Congress appropriated $30 million. By the time Shriver left his post, the Peace Corps had seen fourteen thousand volunteers serve in fifty-two countries and his budget expand to $110 million. Also during his tenure, the agency was given greater independence within the State Department.

In the late 1960s, interest in the program decreased somewhat, due to budget cuts and a leveling off of the numbers of volunteers. Volunteers who may have opposed America’s role in the Vietnam conflict also may have felt they should distance themselves from the government-sponsored program because they disagreed with United States foreign policy. Some have criticized the Peace Corps since its inception. Fiscal conservatives in Congress have questioned how much impact a relatively small group assisting localities in far away third-world countries could have on extinguishing poverty and illness. Nevertheless, the Peace Corps continues to attract many of the brightest young men and women in the United States, offering them a chance to put their skills and efforts to use in faraway lands.

Women’s Movement

While America became concerned with stopping communism at the seventeenth parallel in Vietnam, it experienced a major social change at home with the Women’s Movement. For more than a century, activists had pushed to expand rights—gaining the constitutional right for women to vote in 1920—and by the 1960s, the movement had gained enormous attention. Women by this time composed a large part of the U.S. workforce. In 1950, roughly 90 percent of mothers with children under the age of six did not hold jobs. Three decades later, a majority of mothers with small children did earn a living outside the home.

As more women entered the workforce and exercised their right to vote, lawmakers began to give them more attention. Many of the same progressives and reformers who sought equality for blacks also supported equality for women. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act made it illegal for employers to base wages on gender. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, mostly concerned with preventing discrimination toward African Americans, also addressed the equality of women. Title VII of the 1964 law prevented gender discrimination in hiring practices. By 1972, Congress passed Title IX of the Higher Education Act. This law requires colleges and universities to give equal attention to women’s programs, particularly in the area of sports.

During this same era, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was created. Its first president was Betty Friedan. Her landmark, bestselling book, The Feminine Mystique (1963), argued that women need not live up to female stereotypes or assume traditional female roles. Friedan’s ideas served as key goals for NOW. To forward these goals, NOW employed tactics such as holding public protests, lobbying lawmakers, filing lawsuits for equality in courts, and pressuring the federal government to enforce the gender equality laws passed by Congress. It was NOW, and other grassroots organizations and pioneering women, that caused Ivy League universities and the U.S. military to open their doors to female applicants. NOW had a membership of about three hundred when it started in 1966, and today has more than a half million members in 550 chapters throughout the country.

One of the movement’s most sought-after goals was the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would have amended the U.S. Constitution. The proposed amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1923. It gradually gained attention over the years until NOW made it one of its main priorities. The language of the proposed amendment was simple: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied on account of sex.” Both the Republican and Democratic parties endorsed the amendment, and it garnered the required two-thirds vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But it fell short of ratification by the necessary number of states, thirty-eight. Even supporters of equality questioned complicated matters that could have resulted from such an amendment. Labor unions wondered what might happen to the special laws for women they had worked so hard to pass. Would women be drafted into the military and have to serve in combat? Extremists argued that unisex toilets would become the norm.

The ERA never was ratified, but the movement itself had more successes than failures. Since the 1960s, a greater number of women have been elected to public office, have served as administrators and presidents of companies, have played professional sports, and have had a profound influence on American society. In 1972, Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, became the first African American woman to run for president. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed the first female Supreme Court justice: Sandra Day O’Connor; Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running-mate in 1984. Thanks to the efforts of the women and men active in the women’s movement, women enjoy freedoms and opportunities today that would have been unheard of to their grandmothers.

Antiwar Movement

For Americans, the Vietnam War proved to be one of the most unpopular wars in the nation’s history. From the time that official combat began in 1964 until final U.S. withdrawal from Saigon in 1975, dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war intensified, reaching a fever pitch in 1968.

Most Americans generally supported American involvement in Vietnam, at least initially. The American attempt to stop communism in Asia followed common Cold War policy carried out by U.S. presidents—from Harry Truman through Richard Nixon. An American presence was already in place when the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred. Soon after, Congress handed President Lyndon Johnson virtually unchecked power to stop further aggression in Southeast Asia in the form of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Public support for this measure can be gauged by the vote in Congress. Only two senators voted against the resolution, and both lost reelection bids when their terms expired.

Support Begins to Decline

As the war dragged on, however, public support for the effort began to wane. Advances in television reporting likely contributed to the growing antiwar movement. By the late 1960s, images in both print and television media gave Americans a clear and detailed view of the fighting occurring in Vietnam. Americans began to question the purposes and management of the military endeavor.

College campuses became centers for antiwar activity. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a group that organized on the University of Michigan campus in the early 1960s to promote civil rights, began to focus more on its antiwar agenda. Tom Hayden, one of the founding members, helped to create hundreds of chapters of the society on college campuses nationwide. One of the first notable anti-Vietnam War protests was a march in Washington, D.C., sponsored by SDS, which took place in April 1965. At that rally, an estimated twenty thousand people demonstrated against the war. A New York City protest in April 1967 saw 130,000 dissenters.

One event that decisively turned American public opinion against the war was the Tet Offensive. On January 31, 1968, during an agreed-upon truce for Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year festival, North Vietnamese soldiers conducted a surprise attack against more than one hundred cities, including Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. The attack on Saigon pitted some four thousand Viet Cong against the city, especially the U.S. embassy. Headlines in American newspapers reported the attack but were no match for the moving images that were broadcast on television. The reality was that the Tet Offensive did not have the impact militarily that the North Vietnamese had hoped for, but Americans witnessed their embassy in shambles, dead American soldiers, and South Vietnamese falling dead in the street.

Leaders Oppose the War

The public’s confidence had been shaken. Americans began to question the practical sense of the war. Public officials, too, asked if the Vietnam War was being waged competently, or if it was a war that could be won. Senator Robert Kennedy had been in favor of stopping the spread communism since serving in his brother President John Kennedy’s cabinet, but two weeks after Tet, he outlined the illusions that made the approach at that time nonproductive. He argued that the United States had misconceived the nature of warfare in Vietnam, because it was using military might to solve a conflict that required the conviction of the South Vietnamese people to win. “It is like sending a lion to halt an epidemic of jungle rot,” Kennedy said. He also questioned the use of many thousands of tons of bombs, which ruined the landscape of Vietnam, both North and South. “Whatever the outcome of these battles,” Kennedy continued, “it is the people we seek to defend who are the greatest losers.”

Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for the Democratic nomination for president was gaining steam when he was assassinated in Los Angeles on June 6, just after declaring victory in the California primary election.

Democratic National Convention 1968

President Lyndon Johnson had dropped out of the presidential race, so the field was open for the Democratic nomination. When the time came for the Democratic National Convention in August, the atmosphere was fraught with tension. The violent deaths of Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was assassinated in April of 1968), coupled with the continued escalation of the war in Vietnam, had made many in the antiwar movement desperate. Antiwar protestors converged on the Chicago convention hoping for an opportunity to influence Vietnam policy and bring about some change. The ten thousand people who showed up were a mixture of left-wing extremists, moderate dissidents, and rabble-rousers with a variety of agendas. Most had lost confidence in the traditional political system.

Mayor Richard Daley assured citizens that he would not allow protestors to overrun the city and called out extra law enforcement. Things remained fairly peaceful until protestors marched on the International Amphitheater and were met with police rifle butts, clubs, and tear gas. The incident got the protestors publicity, but the media painted the dissidents as violent and disrespectful. What followed was the trial of the so-called Chicago Seven: seven protest leaders charged in court with the violent disturbance. Tom Hayden, one of the seven leaders, recalled his logic: “Our strategy was to show that the Democratic Party would lose all credibility if it didn’t promise to end the war.… Reason had never worked; moral persuasion had never worked.… We were prepared to go to jail … how could we protest from the sidelines?”

The events at Chicago in 1968 resulted in injuries and convictions. But another protest held at Kent State University in Ohio left four students dead. The protest came after Nixon had ordered the U.S. military into Cambodia. Protestors on several campuses burned Reserved Officers Training Corps (ROTC) buildings, and at Kent State, the National Guard had been activated. On May 4, 1970, guardsmen shot a volley into the crowd, killing four students. These killings sparked protests on more campuses across the nation. More than four hundred colleges shut down as professors and students staged strikes. Nearly 100,000 people marched on Washington, D.C. The antiwar movement had suddenly become mainstream.

News Reporting during Vietnam

Fewer than ten journalists were assigned to cover events in Vietnam in 1960 as the United States began to increase its involvement in the conflict. By 1968, about five hundred full-time reporters delivered news on a daily basis to media outlets worldwide. Most were Americans working for companies like the New York Times, United Press International (UPI), the Associated Press, the major television networks, and weekly news magazines. As American troop levels began to decline during President Richard Nixon’s administration, so too did the number of reporters and the level of interest in the battlefield.

Reporters like David Halberstam of the New York Times, Peter Arnett of the Associated Press, and Neil Sheehan of UPI enjoyed less restriction and government censorship than reporters covering earlier wars. These reporters felt what they observed in the field did not square with official government reports on the progress of the war, and they openly communicated their interpretations to American readers. Leaders like General William Westmoreland and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara frequently objected to news reports that painted a grim picture of the situation in Vietnam, arguing that many of the journalists covering the conflict were too young and too inexperienced to understand what was going on, or that they simply sought personal celebrity. What seems clear is that both the press and the military leaders had interests to protect, and the American public was often given skewed views of the truth about Vietnam.


The Watergate scandal (1972–1974) involved an illegal break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters—located in an office/apartment building called the Watergate in Washington, D.C.—in 1972 that was conceived and sponsored by those tied to President Richard Nixon and the Republican Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP). Nixon denied any knowledge of the crime, but after an investigation ensued, he lost credibility, and it became clear that he at least knew of crucial events around the burglary. The scandal led to Nixon’s eventual resignation and public disillusionment with politics in general.

Ironically, Nixon was predicted to win reelection in 1972 by a wide margin. His opponent, Democratic Sen. George McGovern, was a liberal member of his own party who stood with the antiwar movement and trailed significantly in the polls. The November election that year gave Nixon a landslide victory with 72 percent of the popular vote and 520 of the available 538 electoral votes.

The Break-In

On June 17, 1972, a security guard at the Watergate Complex noticed signs of a possible burglary: there were pieces of tape over the locks of several doors. He called the police, and five burglars were caught inside the offices of the Democratic National Headquarters. Not present in the room but indicted along with them were former CIA agents G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, who orchestrated the break-in and monitored the burglars’ activities with radio equipment from a hotel across the street. One of the accused burglars, James McCord, wrote a letter to the judge assigned to the case reporting that powerful forces in the government were attempting to cover up the burglary. The story began to evolve into the biggest American political scandal of the twentieth century.

Woodward and Bernstein

As the story around this break-in unfolded, two newspaper reporters found it odd that the accused men had connections with the White House. The reporters were Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post. They suspected a conspiracy and probed until they turned up more information. Woodward and Bernstein had an anonymous informant, whom they nicknamed “Deep Throat,” who was clearly knowledgeable and provided more information. The reporters uncovered evidence that knowledge of either the break-in or the ensuing cover-up could be traced to the highest branches of government—even the White House itself. In 2005, W. Mark Felt, a deputy director at the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the early 1970s, identified himself publicly as “Deep Throat.” Woodward and Bernstein confirmed this.

Cut Tape

The press was not the only entity interested in the Watergate burglary. Members of Congress, the courts, and citizens suspected the president of involvement. The common questions became, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” Nixon began to lose credibility and conducted a full-scale cover-up, denying his involvement with or knowledge of the crime. This included withholding audio tapes of White House conversations among the conspirators and firing those in the administration who cooperated with investigators. When subpoenaed for the tapes as evidence, Nixon withheld them, claiming that executive privilege allowed him to keep conversations between him and his advisors confidential. The dispute went to the Supreme Court, which ultimately forced Nixon to hand over the evidence. Once the tapes arrived, there was an eighteen minute gap that to this day has never been explained.

In the summer of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee voted to approve articles of impeachment against Nixon. Before the vote to impeach made it to the full house, the president resigned. In a dramatic live televised speech, he announced on August 8, 1974, that he would resign the presidency effective noon the following day. That is when Vice President Gerald Ford took the oath of office and began his short tenure as president. One of his first steps was to pardon Nixon of any crimes he may have committed in the affair. Ford’s purpose was to forgo a costly and distracting investigation that had already been played out in the court of public opinion. The American public, however, considered the move a miscarriage of justice. It may be what cost Ford the election in 1976.

Nixon left the White House with full retirement benefits, but with the mistrust of the American people. He was never indicted or tried. Liddy, Hunt, an aide named James McCord, and the burglars were convicted and served prison sentences. The scandal, which came after America’s involvement in Vietnam had reached an all-time low in U.S. popularity, contributed to a distrust of government among many American citizens.

International Context

Emergence of Independent African Nations

Much like Southeast Asia, the continent of Africa suffered centuries of oppression at the hands of imperialistic European powers. During the twentieth century, many African countries began to push for freedom from European control.

African Resources

As early as the 1400s, Portuguese explorers made their way to Africa in search of gold, slaves, and other resources. By the late 1800s, conflicts between competing colonizing nations like Britain, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany emerged as disputes over resource-rich Africa occurred. These costly battles over land brought the need for a compromise. The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 carved up the continent among the various European powers. A land mass that had housed thousands of tribes with a multitude of languages, cultures, and political systems had been consolidated into a handful of colonies under European rule.

This system developed over the following decades with little opposition. Some tribes resisted and revolted, but the uprisings of tribesmen against the more powerful European states with modern war machines proved futile. Rarely were these attempted revolutions more than sporadic. As World War II began, only four African nations were free of European control: Liberia, created by the United States as part of a slave emancipation movement a century earlier; Ethiopia; South Africa; and Egypt. After World War II, a movement for local independence had taken place in colonies across the globe. Britain withdrew from India. The Netherlands left Indonesia. And France experienced a loss in Vietnam to the independence movement there. African veterans of World War II, commercial farmers, and scholars pushed for independence.

The Push for Independence

Though the British had granted Independence to Egypt years before, there was a strong British presence in the country after WWII. Many British citizens had withdrawn, but several remained. The ascent of the aggressive Egyptian general Gamal Abdel Nasser brought the final withdrawal of the British from the Suez Canal Zone.

In the post–World War II era, the French constitution treated Algeria as a department of the republic. During a celebration of Victory-in-Europe day in May 1945, an Algerian procession carried nationalist flags that the French police proceeded to block. A riot ensued pitting French authorities against native Algerians. Twenty-two died and forty-eight were wounded. Algerian resentment of the French only grew after this incident. By 1956, a National Council of the Algerian Revolution was formed. Over the next several years, the French tried to suppress this independence movement, but had difficulties. Neighboring Morocco and Tunisia had become independent and provided safe haven for Algerian revolutionaries. By 1962, the movement, and the armed forces that supported it, had gained control of Algeria.

In the Congo, which had been held by Belgium since the Berlin Conference, the movement toward independence intensified in the 1950s. At the time, Belgium still maintained a marked distinction between the Congolese and the Belgians, who were clearly in charge in the Congo. Only a handful of Congo’s natives were permitted to attend Belgian universities and no native African held a rank higher than sergeant in Belgium’s military. Such inequities inspired the creation of the Congolese national movement. By 1960, the Congo had gained its independence.

As the Congo received its independence, Mali, Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Zaire, and other Saharan nations won theirs. Those nations further south—like Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe—earned independence after 1970. By 1993, the final African colony earned its sovereignty and became the independent Eritrea.

Six Day War

The Six Day War, also known as the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, was one of several conflicts between the Jewish nation of Israel and its surrounding Arab neighbors. The name “Six Day War” sums up the rapid, intense strikes that the Israeli military made on its adversaries—Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Israel won the short war and gained additional territory. The encounter had international complications as part of the Cold War, and it proved that Israel was a force to be reckoned with.


The year 1967 must be seen in the context of the centuries-old struggle between Jews, Muslims, and Christians for the territory that is now Israel. All three religious groups claim the area as their “holy land,” and the region has been the source of bloody disputes for thousands of years. The Christian Crusaders of Europe, for example, attempted to claim the region throughout the Middle Ages.

After World War II, the United Nations, motivated by the atrocities suffered by the Jewish population of Europe under the genocidal dictatorship of Germany’s Adolf Hitler, agreed with Great Britain’s plan to divide the area, which was then under British control. The UN voted to divide the region into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Israel proclaimed its independence in 1948, and the Arab-Israeli war ensued when Israel’s Arab neighbors attacked. Israel gained territory in the conflict, including the area known as Palestine, a predominantly Arab region. Israel’s neighbors were ill pleased to have the new Jewish state in control of an Arab territory.

During the 1960s, this dispute over Palestine was made worse when the Palestine Liberation Organization was created in 1964. One of the PLO’s primary goals was to liberate Palestine from Israel, proclaiming Zionism (a political movement that supports the maintenance of a Jewish homeland) a racist movement against Islam. During the next few years, Palestinians, under no official Arab state flag, made attacks on Israeli civilians. Also during the mid-1960s, heightened anti-Israeli rhetoric and promises to annihilate and eradicate Zionism and the Israeli state compelled Israel to retaliate. Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser had gained huge popularity among Arab nations and in the third world, and felt it was his destiny to remove Israel from the map.

Nasser Makes His Move

In May 1967, Nasser moved Egyptian forces into the Sinai Peninsula, which had been a demilitarized zone since the 1956 war and ousted the United Nations Emergency Forces, which had been a peacekeeping force stationed there. Afterward, he blockaded the Strait of Tiran, a common Israeli shipping path.

Israel lost little time responding. It began a mission, using its air force to attack Egyptian planes in the early hours of June 5, 1967. While Egyptian pilots ate breakfast, the Israeli Air Force destroyed three hundred of Egypt’s military aircraft. With its air superiority assured, Israel then led its ground forces into Egypt and subdued them. Egypt lost six hundred of its one thousand tanks, and suffered ten thousand dead and twelve thousand prisoners. By an agreement between Nasser and Jordan’s King Hussein, Jordan entered the conflict and fought hard, but suffered defeat at the hands of the determined Israelis. Syria, too, faced off with Israel only to lose the strategic point of the Golan Heights.

The war was over by June 11 and had marked consequences for the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the USSR. Moscow denounced the Israeli actions as preemptive and aggressive. They pushed for a resolution at the United Nations to condemn Israel, but it was vetoed. The United States took a cautious approach, but sided more so with Israel.

The Six Day War resulted in a stronger Israel. The new nation had proved its military prowess and reluctance to put up with Arab threats. Israel also gained considerable territory, expanding from 80,000 to 260,000 square miles with the acquisition of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Golan Heights, much of the Sinai Peninsula, and Jerusalem. With these acquisitions came a population of over one million Arabs. Their victory was decisive, but the conflict would continue with another deadly encounter in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Yom Kippur War

The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was one of several military conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The war cast the two sides—the Israelis and the neighboring Arab states—as pawns in the Cold War clash between the Soviet Union and the United States.


Israel had proven a formidable foe in the 1967 Six Day War, through which it had gained thousands of square miles of territory, including the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. Along with these land gains came nearly a million Arabs.

Between the Israeli victory in 1967 and the commencement of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, several events took place. Anwar Sadat had become the new Egyptian president and pledged to seek revenge on Israel. The two sides had grown closer to their respective allies—the Israelis to the United States, and the Arab states, Egypt in particular, to the USSR. The Soviets, in fact, had supplied Sadat with new weaponry. The portable Sagger missile allowed a single foot soldier to take out a tank, and SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) diminished the importance of the Israeli Air Force, which had played a decisive role in the Six Day War.

Surprise Attack

October 6, 1973, was Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holy days. In Israel, no one travels, except on foot, on this celebrated day. On the Bar-Lev line (the point of Israeli defenses on the east bank of the Suez Canal) reservists waited out their tour. In the Golan Heights, to the north bordering Syria, undermanned units observed Yom Kippur. No one was ready for what was about to take place. At 2:00 pm, the Egyptians and Syrians carried out a coordinated attack on two fronts. The Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and established a stronghold in the Sinai Peninsula. The Syrians attacked Israelis in the Golan Heights with both infantry and armored vehicles, as well as air support. A mere 180 Israeli tanks faced an onslaught of 1,400 Syrian tanks. In the Suez, 436 Israeli defenders were attacked by 80,000 Egyptians. When the Israeli Air Force tried to respond, the new Soviet weapons proved useful. The Israelis were quickly crippled militarily.

Though Egypt and Syria were the major players against the Jewish state on Yom Kippur, several other Arab nations had contributed to the effort. Iraq had transferred a squadron of Hunter jets to Egypt and provided a division of some eighteen thousand men and several tanks to the Golan Heights. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait committed men to battle. Libya and Algeria also provided men and materiel. The Arab states assisted in a diplomatic embargo as well. When the United States and Western Europeans showed signs of assisting Israel, Arab OPEC nations (those organized in the oil cartel) promised an oil embargo. Once the help that Israel requested from the United States, the Netherlands, and others arrived, oil shipments from the major oil providers to the West slowed, and in some cases stopped entirely.

While the fighting intensified and became public, the United Nations tried to intervene to stop the war in this volatile region. A showdown took place between the Soviet Union and the United States. Each country wielded veto power in the UN Security Council, which made it impossible to bring a decisive truce. Egypt had demanded Israel give up the territory it had won in the Six Day War and return to its pre-1967 borders. As the superpowers debated the issue at the UN, they also began supplying their friends in the Middle East.

Israel Fights Back

Israel was able to recover after the initial shock. By the third day of the war, Israeli jets had struck into Syria, hitting Damascus and causing serious civilian casualties. Israel was able to drive back the Syrian army to within twenty miles of the Syrian capital. Its artillery units shelled the suburbs of the city. The fighting lasted a little more than two weeks. Israel lost 800 tanks, 115 aircraft, and 2,500 soldiers. About 9,000 were wounded. Arab losses were still greater. More than 450 planes went down and 2,000 tanks were destroyed. An estimated 8,500 Arabs died, while about 20,000 were wounded.

On October 22, the UN Security Council finally drafted a cease-fire resolution that both Egypt and Israel accepted. Syria accepted a slightly different resolution the following day. Some fighting continued along the Suez until a UN peacekeeping force arrived and an official cease fire was signed on November 11. Israel agreed to withdraw to a line that was twenty miles beyond its 1967 line at the Suez. A UN buffer zone was created between Syria and Israel. The war highlighted Isreal’s weakened military position in the Middle East. No longer could it count on an easy six day victory. Tensions in the region mounted.


OPEC Power

OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, was created in 1960 as a cartel of mostly Arab nations to protect their interests against major Western oil companies. The organization has seen a variance in its economic, and thus diplomatic, power since its creation, but in the early 1970s, as the United States was preoccupied with the Vietnam War, OPEC proved a strong international player. OPEC proved its strength against the United States during the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1973 known as the Yom Kippur War when it began an oil embargo against Israel’s allies. For the next decade, if not the next generation, OPEC proved a powerful force.

Creation of OPEC

After the industrial revolution a century ago, the United States was the world’s leader in crude oil production. Oil found largely in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and then Texas was first used for lighting and then lubrication for heavy machinery in urban centers. After the introduction of the automobile, refining oil into gasoline expanded the need for the product even more. After World War I, the United States was responsible for about 70 percent of the world’s oil production. But then, British companies discovered oil in the Middle East. By the post-World War II era, it became obvious to international oil companies that most of the world’s supply of oil would come form this area. The major companies—Standard Oil, Royal Dutch Shell, British Petroleum, Chevron, Exxon, Gulf, and others—took full advantage of their discovery. They began developing Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and other Arab states, providing the machinery and know-how to extract oil from the region to sell on the global marketplace. In the eyes of many Arab leaders, these Western companies began to exploit their Arab partners.

The Arab response was the creation of OPEC. An Arab Petroleum Congress convened in Cairo, Egypt, in 1959 to discuss the situation, and another meeting took place in Baghdad in 1960, resulting in the creation of the OPEC organization. The charter countries included Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Venezuela. Seven more—Qatar, Indonesia, Libya, Abu Dhabi, Algeria, Nigeria, and Ecuador—joined by 1973. OPEC’s charter notes that it shall promote member interests and shall “demand that Oil Companies maintain their prices steady and free from unnecessary fluctuations and that Members shall study and formulate a system to ensure the stabilization of prices.” By the early 1970s, the major Western oil companies controlled only a modest one-fifth of the world oil production. The increased dependency on oil worldwide also made OPEC an even more powerful player. From 1950 until 1972, oil consumption in the United States grew from 5.8 million barrels per day to 16.4 million. Western Europe and Japan experienced even greater increases in oil use.

The power that came with control over such a precious commodity became obvious. In September of 1973 at a meeting in Vienna, Austria, members of OPEC had already called for a new system of determining the division of revenues between the Western companies and the oil-producing states. A solution was tabled and planned to be determined in an October meeting. In the meantime, a conflict broke out between a handful of member Arab states and Israel. For more than two decades, the United States had generally sided with Israel in prior conflicts. Arab states had warned that a cozy American-Israeli relationship would likely result in an oil embargo. President Richard Nixon basically ignored these warnings. Egypt, Jordan, and Syria had all lost territory to Israel in the 1967 Six Day War and wanted to reclaim it. Saudi Arabia, too, had interest in Arab states retaking Jerusalem. The Egyptians and Syrians launched a surprise coordinated attack on the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, October 6, 1973.

Initially, the attack resulted in heavy Israeli losses. Israel was forced to request war materiel from the United States. The United States agreed. As the October OPEC conference approached, American air force carriers could be spotted landing in Israel with supplies. When delegates from the Persian Gulf states and one from Iran met in Kuwait to discuss the situation, OPEC asserted its power. On October 17, they imposed a five percent cut in oil shipments to states that were friendly to Israel. An additional five percent per month cut would follow until these states officially endorsed United Nations Resolution 242 that called on Israel to give back the lands they gained from the 1967 Six Day War. When President Nixon announced a $22 billion package to be sent to Israel to assist with the aggression by her neighbors, Saudi Arabia announced that all oil headed for the United States and other pro-Israeli states would stop.

The United States, its allies, and the Western oil companies all felt the impact of the embargo. American consumers drove into gas stations to find prices had gone up 40 percent. Soon signs informed them “Sorry, no gas today.” The effects of the embargo were partially eased by the fact that non-Arab OPEC members did not join the embargo. Major oil companies tried to solve the crisis by rerouting shipments. The embargo ended in March 1974. OPEC had asserted the power it had been developing since its creation in 1960. It made the production and control of oil a matter for diplomacy and forced American allies to break with the United States on this issue for fear of being blacklisted by OPEC. The oil companies lost power, becoming contractors of these oil-producing states instead of controlling operations within them. And, perhaps most importantly, the oil embargo drove the price of crude oil up to four times its pre-embargo price, which made the OPEC nations even more powerful and wealthy.



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Vietnam War (1959–1975)

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