Before the war in Afghanistan, the Vietnam War was the longest in American history. The concerns of the Cold War led American leaders into the conflict in Vietnam, but over time, the war became less and less about stopping the spread of communism. By the time the last Americans were evacuated from Saigon, few people believed losing Vietnam would significantly impact the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Compared to the United States, Vietnam is a tiny nation in every respect – territory, economic output, natural resources, population, and technology – and yet the United States lost. Despite dropping more bombs in Vietnam than in all of World War II, the nation that had defeated Hitler could not suppress Ho Chi Minh.
How was this possible? Why didn’t we win our war in Vietnam?
America’s foray into Vietnam began early in the Cold War, and was motivated by Cold War priorities. Unlike Korea, however, Vietnam proved to be more complicated. Korea had no colonial master waiting to come back at the end of the Second World War, but Vietnam had been part of the French colony of Indochina, and the French wanted to reestablish control over their colony. The United States was placed in the uneasy position of supporting a colonial empire in an age of decolonization or supporting the Vietnamese independence movement under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh army. President Harry S. Truman had no love for France’s colonial regime in Southeast Asia but did not want to risk the loyalty of its Western European ally against the Soviet Union.
In 1950, the Truman administration sent a small group of military advisors to Vietnam and provided financial aid to help France fight the Viet Minh. Despite America’s help, however, Vietnamese forces defeated the French in 1954, and the country was temporarily divided at the 17th Parallel. Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh controlled the North. In the South, the last Vietnamese emperor and ally to France, Bao Dai, named the French-educated, anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem as his prime minister. The Geneva Accords ending the conflict called for countrywide national elections in 1956, with the victor to rule a reunified nation, but Diem knew he would lose an election and refused to abide by the treaty.
After a fraudulent election in the South in 1955, Diem ousted Bao Dai and proclaimed himself president of the Republic of Vietnam. He cancelled the 1956 elections in the South and began to round up communists and supporters of Ho Chi Minh. Realizing that Diem would never agree to the reunification of the country under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, the North Vietnamese began efforts to overthrow the government of the South by encouraging insurgents called Viet Cong to attack South Vietnamese officials.
The United States, fearing the spread of communism under Ho Chi Minh, supported Diem, assuming he would create a democratic, pro-Western government in South Vietnam. However, Diem’s oppressive and corrupt regime openly promoted the nation’s small Catholic minority and elevated Diem’s family members to power. He was an unpopular ruler, particularly with farmers, students, and Buddhists, and many in the South actively assisted the Viet Cong in trying to overthrow his government.
The world became frighteningly aware of the conflict between Diem and his people when Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk burned himself to death at a busy Saigon intersection on June 11, 1963. Fellow monks had notified the press that something important was going to happen and photographs of his self-immolation were circulated widely across the globe. President Kennedy said of Malcolm Browne’s Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of the monk’s death, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”
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The death of Thich Quang Duc. This photograph by Malcolm Browne won the Pulitzer Prize and brought international attention to Vietnam.
Quang Duc’s act of protest increased international pressure on Diem and led him to announce reforms with the intention of mollifying the Buddhists. However, the promised reforms were not implemented, leading to a deterioration of affairs. With protests continuing, the special forces loyal to Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, launched nationwide raids on Buddhist pagodas, resulting in bloodshed and widespread damage. Several Buddhist monks followed Quang Duc’s example, and self-immolated.
When Kennedy took office as president in 1961, he chose to continue the policies of the Eisenhower administration by supplied Diem with money and military advisors and by November 1963, there were 16,000 American troops in Vietnam. But American leaders were growing impatient with Diem and after the CIA indicated their support for a new regime, South Vietnamese military officers assassinated Diem and his brother Nhu. For good or bad, no one emerged as a clear, decisive, strong and effective leader for the South.
Kennedy’s own death a few weeks before the overthrow of Diem meant that President Lyndon B. Johnson would be responsible for guiding America’s involvement in Vietnam. Johnson was effective at building legislative majorities in a style that ranged from diplomacy to quid pro quo deals to bullying. In the summer of 1964, he deployed these political skills to secure congressional approval for a new strategy in Vietnam with fateful consequences.
THE AMERICAN WAR
President Johnson had never been the cold warrior Kennedy was, but he believed that the credibility of the nation and his office depended on maintaining a foreign policy of containment. When, on August 2, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox conducted an arguably provocative intelligence-gathering mission in the Gulf of Tonkin on the coast of Vietnam, it reported an attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Two days later, the Maddox was supposedly struck again, and a second ship, the USS Turner Joy, reported that it also had been fired upon. The North Vietnamese denied the second attack, and Johnson himself doubted the reliability of the crews’ report. The National Security Agency has since revealed that the August 4 attacks did not occur. Relying on information available at the time, however, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reported to Congress that American ships had been fired upon in international waters while conducting routine operations. On August 7, with only two dissenting votes, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and on August 10, the president signed the resolution into law.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave President Johnson the authority to use military force in Vietnam without asking Congress for a declaration of war. It dramatically increased the power of the president and transformed the American role in Vietnam from supporter to combatant. Although he was not the first president to send Americans to Vietnam, and did not oversee the entire conflict, Americans would remember the Vietnam War as Johnson’s war because of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
In 1965, large-scale bombing of North Vietnam began. The intent of the campaign, which lasted three years, was to force the North to end its support for the Viet Cong insurgency in the South. More than 200,000 American military personnel were sent to South Vietnam. At first, most of the American public supported the president’s actions. Support began to ebb, however, as more troops were deployed. Frustrated by losses suffered by the South’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), General William Westmoreland called for the United States to take more responsibility for leading the war. By April 1966, more Americans were being killed in battle than ARVN troops. Johnson, however, maintained that the war could be won if the United States stayed the course, and in November 1967, Westmoreland proclaimed that the end was in sight.
In reality, the end was nowhere near. Victory was elusive for a variety of reasons. The Viet Cong rarely faced off on the battlefield in the traditional way Americans had been accustomed to from World War II and Korea. The enemy was hard to identify. The Viet Cong blended in with the native population and struck by ambush, often at night. In an effort to separate the enemy from the civilians, the government of South Vietnam established free-fire zones. All civilians were forced to leave these areas and anyone left behind was considered an enemy combatant. Cases of indiscriminate attacks on civilians within free-fire zones were frequent. According to political scientist R.J. Rummel, American troops murdered about 6,000 Vietnamese civilians during the war. Nick Turse, in his 2013 book, “Kill Anything that Moves,” argues that the widespread use of free-fire zones, rules of engagement where civilians who ran from soldiers or helicopters could be viewed as Viet Cong, and a widespread disdain for Vietnamese civilians led to massive civilian casualties and war crimes inflicted by American troops. It seems obvious now, but the establishment of free-fire zones, camps for the civilians who were forced to leave their homes, and the attitudes of American troops toward civilians turned many South Vietnamese into supporters of the Viet Cong.
Without a clear enemy, it became harder and harder for American commanders to demonstrate that they were winning. Instead of pointing to territory won, or battle victories, they began to measure success by the body count of the enemy. Being rewarded, promoted, and given medals for killing large number of enemy soldiers undoubtedly led American forces to target civilians.
More than any other reason, however, the Americans ultimately lost the war because the Vietnamese were fighting for freedom and were willing to suffer enormous casualties to win. Vietnam was their homeland and they were not going anywhere. The Americans, on the other hand, might leave. The Vietnamese had suffered through the French colonial era, the Japanese occupation, and would suffer through the American war as well. For the Vietnamese, it was only a matter of time.
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Navy A-6A Intruders dropping bombs in 1968 as part of Operation Rolling Thunder.
This did not mean, however, that the Americans didn’t unleash the full onslaught of their armed forces. In February 1965, the air force began a long program of sustained bombing of North Vietnamese targets known as Operation Rolling Thunder. At first only military targets were hit, but as months turned into years, civilian targets were pummeled as well.
The United States also bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a supply line used by the North Vietnamese to aid the Viet Cong. The trail meandered through the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia, so the bombing was kept secret from Congress and the American people. More bombs rained down on Vietnam than the Allies had used during the whole of World War II.
Additional sorties delivered defoliating chemicals such as Agent Orange and napalm to remove the jungle cover utilized by the Viet Cong. The intense bombardment did little to deter the enemy and they continued to use the Ho Chi Minh Trail despite the grave risk. They also burrowed underground, building 30,000 miles of tunnel networks to keep supply lines open.
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An American helicopter sprays the defoliant Agent Orange.
AMERICANS TURN AGAINST THE WAR
Westmoreland’s predictions of imminent victory were called into question at home in January 1968 during the Vietnamese new year, called Tet, when the North Vietnamese launched their most aggressive formal assault on the South, deploying close to 85,000 troops. During the Tet Offensive, as these attacks were known, nearly one hundred cities in the South were attacked, including the capital of Saigon. The Americans and South Vietnamese Army were able to retake all the areas captured by the North during the offensive, but at an enormous cost in lives. Even the iconic and respected CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite, who visited Saigon during the Tet Offensive, questioned the possibility of success, stating that he believed it was clear the war would in stalemate.
And it wasn’t only Cronkite. Although North Vietnamese forces suffered far more casualties than the roughly 4,100 Americans killed, public opinion in the United States began to turn against the war. The conflict in Vietnam was the first war Americans watched on television, and they were troubled by what they saw. Disastrous surprise attacks like the Tet Offensive persuaded many that the war would not be over soon and raised doubts about whether or not Johnson’s administration was telling the truth about the real state of affairs. A dangerous credibility gap began to develop. People in America simply stopped believing what their president was telling them about the progress of the war.
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Walter Cronkite reporting from Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.
When Operation Rolling Thunder began in 1965, only 15% of the American public opposed the war effort in Vietnam. As late as January 1968, only a few weeks before the Tet Offensive, only 28% of the American public labeled themselves anti-war. However, by April 1968, six weeks later, the tables had turned and more Americans opposed the war than supported it.
Declining public support brought declining troop morale. Many soldiers questioned the wisdom of American involvement. Soldiers who had signed up believing they were going to be engaging in a great moral crusade against communism found themselves burning down villages. Some turned to alcohol, marijuana, and even heroin to escape the stress and horror of the war. To make matters worse, President Johnson had asked for the Selective Service Administration to triple the number of young men drafted in 1965. Many of the new soldiers who found themselves in Vietnam did not want to be there at all. For them, the most important objective of the war was surviving and making it home. Incidents of fragging, the murder of officers by their own troops who did not want to go into combat, increased in the years that followed the Tet Offensive. Soldiers who completed their yearlong tour of duty were welcomed home with chants of “baby killer,” instead of the parades that had greeted their fathers after World War II.
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Anti-war protesters used flowers as a symbol peace. This photograph of a protester putting flowers in the rifles of military police came to symbolize the conflict between the anti-war movement and the pro-war government.
In May 1968, with over 400,000 American troops in Vietnam, Johnson began peace talks with the North. It was too late to save Johnson’s presidency, however. Many of the most outspoken critics of the war were Democratic politicians whose opposition began to erode unity within the party. Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy, who had called for an end to the war surprised the nation when he received nearly as many votes in the New Hampshire presidential primary as Johnson. McCarthy’s success in New Hampshire encouraged Robert Kennedy to announce his candidacy as an anti-war candidate as well. Johnson, suffering health problems and realizing his actions in Vietnam had hurt his public standing, announced that he would not seek reelection and withdrew from the 1968 presidential race. With his remaining time in office, he dedicated himself to finding a peaceful end to America’s involvement in Vietnam. Taking his place on the campaign trail as a supporter of the war, Vice President Hubert Humphry would go on to win the party’s nomination.
A peace deal was not to be. The North Vietnamese sensed crumbling American resolve. They knew that the longer the war raged, the more anti-war sentiment in America would grow. For the next five years, they pretended to negotiate with United States, making proposals they knew would be rejected, and with each passing day, support for continuing the war in America decreased.
MY LAI: THE END OF MORAL AUTHORITY
In the 1940s and 1950s the United States had stood up to Stalin and Khrushchev in Berlin and Korea. But the moral authority the United States had as the defenders of freedom in the face of communism was lost in Vietnam. The killing of civilians horrified the Vietnamese people, Americans and the world. In Vietnam, a dangerous blend of power, racism, and frustration undermined the ethics of the young men who had been sent on a crusade that was failing.
On March 16, 1968, men from the army’s Twenty-Third Infantry Division committed one of the most notorious atrocities of the war. About one hundred soldiers commanded by Captain Ernest Medina were sent to destroy the village of My Lai, which was suspected of hiding Viet Cong fighters. Although there was later disagreement regarding the captain’s exact words, the platoon leaders believed the order to destroy the enemy included killing women and children. Having suffered twenty-eight casualties in the past three months, the men of Charlie Company were under severe stress and extremely apprehensive as they approached the village. Two platoons entered it, shooting randomly. A group of seventy to eighty unarmed people, including children and infants, were forced into an irrigation ditch by members of the First Platoon under the command of Lt. William L. Calley, Jr. Despite their proclamations of innocence, the villagers were shot. Houses were set on fire, and as the inhabitants tried to flee, they were killed with rifles, machine guns, and grenades. The Americans were never fired upon, and one soldier later testified that he did not see any man who looked like a Viet Cong fighter.
The precise number of civilians killed at My Lai is unclear. The numbers range from 347 to 504. None were armed. Although not all the soldiers in My Lai took part in the killings, no one attempted to stop the massacre until Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson arrived in his helicopter. Along with his crew, Thompson attempted to evacuate women and children. Upon returning to base, Thompson immediately reported the events taking place at My Lai.
Although Thompson’s crew members confirmed his account, none of the men from Charlie Company gave a report, and a cover-up began almost immediately. The army first claimed that 150 Viet Cong had been killed during a firefight with Charlie Company. Hearing details from friends in Charlie Company, a helicopter gunner named Ron Ridenhour began to conduct his own investigation and in April 1969, wrote to thirty members of Congress, demanding an investigation. By September 1969, the army charged Lt. Calley with premeditated murder. Many Americans were horrified at the graphic images of the massacre. The incident confirmed their belief that the war was unjust and not being fought on behalf of the Vietnamese people.
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Villagers from My Lei massacred by American troops in 1968. Images of the slaughter turned many people in the United States and around the world against the war.
Aghast that their boys could ever commit such an atrocity, nearly half of all Americans surveyed after the incident believe that it had not actually happened. They wanted to believe that American goals in Vietnam were honorable and speculated that the anti-war movement had concocted the story to generate sympathy for the enemy.
But it was not made up. Americans had murdered hundreds of innocent women and children, and not just at My Lai.
Calley was found guilty in March 1971, and sentenced to life in prison. Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of Americans joined a “Free Calley” campaign. Two days later, President Nixon released him from custody and placed him under him house arrest at Fort Benning, Georgia. In August of that same year, Calley’s sentence was reduced to twenty years, and in September 1974, he was paroled. The only soldier convicted in the massacre, he spent a total of three-and-a-half years under house arrest for his crimes.
The massacre and the investigations that followed had a profound effect on Americans and the world. Never again would the United States be able to claim the moral high ground in its fight against the evils of the world. America is not to be believed, the world learned. Her motives are not always pure. No matter how justifiable the cause, America will always be tainted by the blood of the innocents of My Lai.
THE WAR COMES HOME
As the conflict wore on and reports of brutalities increased, the anti-war movement grew in strength. To take the political pressure off himself and his administration, and find a way to exit Vietnam “with honor,” Nixon began a process he called Vietnamization, turning more responsibility for the war over to South Vietnamese forces by training them and providing American weaponry, while withdrawing American troops from the field. At the same time, however, Nixon authorized the bombing of neighboring Cambodia, in an effort to destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong bases and cut off supply routes between North and South Vietnam. The bombing was kept secret from both Congress and the American public since Cambodia had declared its neutrality. In April 1970, Nixon decided to follow up the bombings with an invasion of Cambodia.
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Student protesters march through a campus during the Vietnam War.
The invasion could not be kept secret, and when Nixon announced it on television on April 30, 1970, protests sprang up across the country. In fact, opposition to the war had been brewing for years, most noticeably among students. Because college students could apply for a deferment from being drafted while they completed school, colleges were filled with well-educated, highly-motivated young men who knew that as graduation approached, so did the likelihood of being conscripted into the army. These students, both men and women, formed a powerful and vocal element of the anti-war movement. In 1965, professors organized a teach-in at the University of Michigan attended by 2,500 faculty and students. Focused on the war, the meetings were replicated at other campuses. That same year, the Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the civil rights activist group, organized the first of several marches in Washington, DC with some 25,000 protesters in attendance. Brunings of draft cards in public began in earnest in 1965 and President Johnson was burned in effigy at the University of California, Berkeley.
Musicians such as Joan Baez, John Lenin, Pete Seeger, Barry McGuire, Jimi Hendrix and the groups Country Joe and the Fish, and Peter, Paul and Mary recorded anti-war songs and performed at protests rallies. In 1967, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali declared himself a conscientious objector and refused to go to war. He was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in jail. His conviction was overturned on appeal, but he lost his title and was banned from boxing for three years.
By 1967, the anti-war movement was fully intertwined with the other social movements of the time. The counterculture of the hippies overlapped with the anti-war movement as hippies professed free love and turned out at rallies. Activists within the African-American civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were strongly anti-war. Since college students could obtain a deferment, wealthier white teenagers who could afford a college tuition were able to legally avoid the draft, while poorer African Americans who did not have the money for college, could not. On the battlefield, African Americans made up a disproportionately high number of the soldiers and the casualties. For many of America’s poor, white and black, Vietnam felt like a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.
In June of 1967, President Johnson travelled to Los Angeles for a Democratic fundraiser. He met a massive anti-war protest outside his hotel. When the Los Angeles police tried to break up the crowd, violence ensued and Johnson refused to give public speeches from that point onward.
In 1968, students at Columbia University in the heart of New York City took over the campus, occupied the offices and classrooms and shut down the school, demanding that the university end research it was conducting to help the government’s war effort. After seven days, the New York police were called in to forcibly remove the students. Some 700 were arrested and 12 police officers were injured.
The most tragic and politically damaging protest occurred on May 1, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio. Violence erupted in the town of Kent after an initial student demonstration on campus, and the next day, the mayor asked Ohio’s governor to send in the National Guard. Troops arrived at the university’s campus, where students had set fire to the ROTC building and were fighting off firemen and policemen trying to extinguish it. The National Guard used tear gas to break up the demonstration, and several students were arrested.
Tensions came to a head on May 4. Although campus officials had called off a planned demonstration, some 1,500 to 2,000 students assembled, and threw rocks at a security officer who ordered them to leave. 77 members of the National Guard, with bayonets attached to their rifles, approached the students. After forcing most of them to retreat, the troops seemed to depart. Then, for reasons that are still unknown, they halted, turned, and began firing at the students. Nine students were wounded and four were killed. Two of the dead had simply been crossing campus on their way to class. Peace was finally restored when a faculty member pleaded with the remaining students to leave. Ironically, most of the national guardsmen were the same age as the students and just as conflicted about the war as the protesters.
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John Filo, a student and part-time news photographer, distilled the feelings many Americans had about Vietnam into a single image when he captured Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over a fatally wounded Jeffrey Miller at Kent State. Filo’s photograph was printed on the front page of the New York Times. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and has since become the visual symbol of a hopeful nation’s lost youth.
News of the Kent State shootings shocked students around the country. Millions refused to attend class, as strikes were held at hundreds of colleges and high schools across the United States. On May 9, 100,000 protesters turned out in Washington, DC.
Only a few weeks later on May 15, a similar tragedy took place at Jackson State College, an African American university in Jackson, Mississippi. Once again, students gathered on campus to protest the invasion of Cambodia, setting fires and throwing rocks. The police arrived to disperse the protesters who had gathered outside a women’s dormitory. Shortly after midnight, the police opened fire with shotguns. The dormitory windows shattered, showering people with broken glass. Twelve people were wounded, and two young men, one a student at the college and the other a local high school student, were killed.
Not everyone sympathized with the slain students, however. Nixon had referred to student demonstrators as “bums,” and construction workers attacked the New York City protestors. A Gallup poll revealed that most Americans blamed the students for the tragic events at Kent State and in Jackson. While the students, African Americans, and hippies certainly had supporters, and by the early 1970s the majority of Americans opposed the war, their actions did not have the support of most of the country. Many, most notably their parents and grandparents, felt that the students represented the worst of America. They were spoiled. They complained. They disrespected authority. They smoked and abused drugs. They were throwing away time-honored social traditions. And perhaps worst of all, they refused to support America’s fighting men and women.
PULLING OUT OF THE QUAGMIRE
Ongoing protests, campus violence, and the expansion of the war into Cambodia deeply disillusioned Americans about their role in Vietnam. Understanding the nation’s mood, Nixon dropped his opposition to a repeal of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In January 1971, he signed Congress’s revocation of the notorious blanket military authorization. Gallup polls taken in May of that year revealed that only 28% of Americans supported the war. By then, many felt that the war had been a mistake.
Realizing that he must end the war but reluctant to make it look as though the United States was admitting its failure to subdue a small Asian nation, Nixon began maneuvering to secure favorable peace terms from the North Vietnamese. His diplomatic efforts in China and the Soviet Union also helped. Combined with the intensive bombing of Hanoi and the mining of crucial North Vietnamese harbors, the loss of support from their benefactors made the North Vietnamese more willing to negotiate.
Nixon’s actions also won him popular support at home. By the 1972 election, voters favored his policy of Vietnamization by a ratio of two to one. On January 27, 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger signed an accord with Le Duc Tho, the chief negotiator for the North Vietnamese, ending American participation in the war. The United States was given sixty days to withdraw its troops, and North Vietnam was allowed to keep its forces in places it currently occupied. This meant that over 100,000 northern soldiers would remain in the South where they were ideally situated to continue the war with South Vietnam. The United States left behind a small number of military advisors as well as equipment, and Congress continued to approve funds to support South Vietnam, but considerably less than in earlier years. After American troops withdrew the war continued, but it was clear the South could not hope to defeat the North.
On the morning of April 29, 1975, as North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces moved through the outskirts of Saigon, orders were given to evacuate Americans and South Vietnamese who had supported the United States. Unable to use the airport, helicopters ferried Americans and Vietnamese refugees from the American embassy to ships off the coast. North Vietnamese forces entered Saigon the next day, and the South surrendered.
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Hubert van Es’s iconic photograph of refugees boarding a UH-1 on a rooftop of one of the American embassy’s building during Operation Frequent Wind. This photograph is emblematic of the final failure of America’s long efforts in Vietnam.
EFFECTS OF THE WAR
The war had both immediate and long-term effects. With the exit of the Americans from Southeast Asia, neighboring Cambodia and Laos also fell to communist regimes. Domino Theory proved to be true in Southeast Asia. Supporters of the South Vietnamese government, and those afraid of what the new communist governments might do tried to escape. Over 3 million refugees left Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Most Asian countries were unwilling to accept these refugees, many of whom fled on whatever small fishing vessels they could find and were known as boat people. Between 1975 and 1998, an estimated 1.2 million refugees from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries resettled in the United States. Hundreds of thousands more found refuge in Canada, Australia, France and China. Of all the countries of Indochina, Laos experienced the largest refugee flight in proportional terms, as 10% of its total population crossed the border into Thailand.
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One example of the Vietnamese boat people – refugees escaping the advancing North Vietnamese Army.
In the longer term, the war left a scar on a generation of Americans. The Baby Boomers, whose parents had fought and won World War II, were left wondering what they had done wrong. Their friends had gone to die in a distant land, but had not come home victorious. What had all the bloodshed and heartache been for? And so it was that the generation that helped bring about an end of Jim Crow and had done so much good for social justice in America, collectively decided to try to forget the war. For decades, the veterans and protestors alike never mentioned their experiences. When Saigon fell in 1975, Kissinger said that “what we need for this country… is to heal the wounds and put Vietnam behind us…” But despite their efforts to forget, the wounds of Vietnam never healed. Even today, the generation of Americans who suffered through the war, both in Vietnam and in the streets and campuses back home, struggle to make sense of the catastrophe that shaped their young lives.
The war led to constitutional change. Up until the war, the Constitution granted voting rights to citizens age 21 and older. Many Americans felt that if 18-year-olds were old enough to be drafted and die for their country, they ought to be able to vote as well. On July 1, 1971, the 26th Amendment was ratified by the requisite two-thirds of the states, just three months and eight days after it was proposed in Congress. It was the fastest any amendment was ever ratified.
The loss in Vietnam left its mark on the armed forces. Having failed to achieve the mission the military is designed to do – win on the battlefield – Americans were hesitant to send troops back into combat. This was Vietnam Syndrome, and it lasted into the 1980s, when President Reagan finally committed the military into action again, albeit in much smaller operations. When President George H. W. Bush decided to send the military into Iraq as part of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, much of the criticism came from those who feared “another Vietnam.” Now, most of the generals who had been young soldiers in Vietnam are retiring and a new generation of commanders, who never experienced that defeat, are leading. Of course, America’s recent, long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought back painful memories of the quagmire of Vietnam for the generation who lived through it.
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The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. Popularly known as the Vietnam Wall, the memorial bears the names of all Americans killed in the war.
In all, America’s war in Vietnam cost the lives of more than 1.5 million Vietnamese combatants and civilians, and over 58,000 American troops. Those soldiers are honored in a poignant memorial in the nation’s capital. The Vietnam Wall cuts a long V through the earth near the Lincoln Memorial. Along its face are carved the names of all those who were lost. Visitors, many of them family and friends of the fallen, come to find their love ones’ names and to leave mementos. A young architect, Maya Lin, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, won a competition to design the memorial and the black granite of her vision reflects back the faces of those who visit. It is perhaps the most fitting memorial possible – the emotions of the living who struggle with the pain of the past are bound together with the names of the people they loved and lost in a war that America still has not come to fully understand.
Since the Second World War, the United States had been the most economically vibrant, militarily powerful nation on Earth. Why is it then, that the American military could not subdue the insurgency of a relatively tiny Third World nation? Vietnam was no proxy war. American troops were fully committed, leading the fight on the ground and they were not fighting the Soviets or the Chinese Red Army. The enemy was often disorganized and poorly equipped. Americans controlled the sea and the air almost without opposition.
Could it have been a lack of knowledge of the fighting spirit of the Vietnamese people, or a passion for communist ideology that was fiercer than America’s commitment to freedom and democracy?
Was it a problem of two wars? Maybe America’s loss was because the Vietnamese were fighting a struggle for independence while Americans believed they were facing down communists in a battle of the Cold War and the two goals simply never could have ended in an American victory.
Maybe it was a matter of leadership. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon failed to understand the true nature of the conflict. General Westmoreland tried to fight a new foe using old tactics. The United States supported the wrong man in Diem. On the other side, Ho Chi Minh was beloved and the North Vietnamese commanders wisely used their limited resources to inflict the greatest harm at the lowest cost.
Or maybe Americans failed because they simply gave up. If the Baby Boomer Generation had not been so spoiled or afraid of sacrifice, could they have prevailed the way their parents had?
What do you think? Why did America lose its war in Vietnam?
BIG IDEA: The United States first became involved in the Vietnam War because of Cold War fears about the spread of communism. Over time it became harder and harder to exit the conflict and eventually it led to major civil unrest at home as a youth-driven anti-war movement grew. America had to exit the conflict without winning.
The United States initially became involved in Vietnam because of Cold War fears about the spread of communism. Most American leaders saw Vietnam as another Korea. That is, the United States would have to fight to prevent Vietnam from falling to communists or else neighboring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, or even the Philippines might fall to communists as well. This was the Domino Theory.
Although American advisors had been in South Vietnam for years, Americans did not become heavily involved in fighting until 1964 when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and gave President Johnson authority to carry out combat operations.
Vietnam turned out to be more complicated than Korea. The Vietnamese were fighting a war for independence and American soldiers were often viewed as foreigners to be expelled rather than as protectors. Furthermore, Ngo Dinh Diem, the leader of non-communist South Vietnam was an unpopular leader for a variety of reasons, whereas Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader of North Vietnam was beloved.
To make matters worse, the Americans faced an enemy that used guerilla warfare. Unable to adapt, the Americans ended up doing significant harm to the civilian population, further alienating potential allies.
As the war dragged on through the later 1960s and into the 1970s, Americans began to doubt the rationale for fighting the war and a vocal anti-war movement emerged, especially on college campuses. Violent clashes between protesters and police focused attention on the divide between the people and political and military leaders.
Eventually, President Nixon adopted a strategy of Vietnamization in which American forces left and responsibility was transferred to the South Vietnamese army. In reality, this was a dignified way to surrender. In 1975, Vietnam fell to the communists as the last Americans left.
Americans who lived through that time continue to struggle with difficult memories of conflicts on the battlefield and at home.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Ho Chi Minh: Communist leader of North Vietnam who fought the French, Japanese and then Americans in an effort to realize independence for Vietnam.
Viet Minh: The North Vietnamese army.
Ngo Dinh Diem: Dictator of South Vietnam. He was widely hated due to his corrupt government, policies that favored the Catholic minority and was eventually killed in a coup that was tacitly supported by the US.
Thich Quang Duc: Buddhist monk who self-immolated on a street corner in Saigon to protest Diem’s government. A photograph of the even captured the world’s attention.
Robert McNamara: Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. He is often blamed for the failure.
Viet Cong: Guerilla fighters in South Vietnam who supported the North.
William Westmoreland: American commander in Vietnam.
Walter Cronkite: Respected television news anchor who went to Vietnam during the Tet Offensive and reported that he believed that war would end in a stalemate. Is opinion influenced many Americans.
Students for a Democratic Society: Group of college students who organized protests, most notably large rallies in Washington, DC.
Muhammad Ali: Heavyweight boxing champion who went to jail instead of going to Vietnam when he was drafted. He lost his title but served as an example for other draft dodgers.
Vietnamese Boat People: South Vietnamese refugees who escaped the advancing North Vietnamese Army by boarding small boats and travelling to neighboring countries. They were one part of a larger refugee crisis the followed the fall of South Vietnam.
Maya Lin: Young Chinese-American architect who won a competition to design the Vietnam War Memorial.
Baby Killer: Derogatory name that anti-war protesters called returning soldiers. It referred to the killing of civilians.
Rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight: Phrase the exemplified the idea that wealthy politicians were making choices about the conduct of the war but that poor Americans, especially African Americans, had to do the fighting.
Vietnam Syndrome: A fear on the part of American leaders to send the military into action due to the loss in Vietnam.
Agent Orange: Chemical sprayed from aircraft that caused the leaves to fall off of trees, thus making it easier to find enemy fighters. It is widely believed to have caused serious health problems for the soldiers who were exposed.Chemical sprayed from aircraft that caused the leaves to fall off of trees, thus making it easier to find enemy fighters. It is widely believed to have caused serious health problems for the soldiers who were exposed.
Free-Fire Zones: Areas of the Vietnamese countryside. All civilians in these areas were supposed to move to camps and anyone left in the zones was considered an enemy. In reality, many civilians refused to leave and were killed. The policy made the government of South Vietnam and the Americans unpopular with the civilian population.
Ho Chi Minh Trail: Route taken by North Vietnamese to supply the Viet Cong in the South. The route went through Laos and Cambodia.
Vietnam War Memorial: Also known as the Vietnam Wall, the memorial in Washington, DC bears the names of all Americans who died in the war. It takes the shape of a long granite V sunken into the earth. Visitors see themselves reflected in the polished stone.
Assassination of Diem: South Vietnamese army officers arranged the assassinate Diem and his brother and take over the government. The plot was carried out in November 1963. The CIA knew about the plot and did nothing to stop it.
Operation Rolling Thunder: Major bombing campaign initiated in 1965 in an effort to force the North Vietnamese to surrender. It inflicted heavy damage but failed in its primary objective.
Tet Offensive: Major operation undertaken by the North Vietnamese to attack cities in the South during the new year’s celebration (Tet) of 1968. It ultimately failed but did demonstrate that the North was not about to surrender.
1968 Democratic Primary: In 1968 senator Eugene McCarthy challenged sitting president Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy ran as an anti-war candidate. When McCarthy did surprisingly well in the first primary election Johnson withdrew from the race. Robert Kennedy joined as another anti-war candidate and vice president Hubert Humphry joined as a pro-war candidate. Humphry eventually won the nomination but lost the general election to Richard Nixon.
My Lai Massacre: Attack by American troops on the village of My Lai in 1968. The American commander ordered his soldiers to kill everyone in the village, including women and children. The massacre caused many in the around the world to doubt the good intentions of the United States.
Invasion of Cambodia: In 1970 President Nixon decided to send American ground forces into Cambodia to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. His move intensified the anti-war movement.
Columbia University Protest: Protest in which students occupied the campus of Columbia University in 1968. They were violently ousted by the NYC police.
Kent State Shooting: Clash between students and the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University in 1970. The guardsmen opened fire on unarmed students resulting in nine deaths. The massacre shocked the nation as it seemed the war was coming home.
Jackson State Shooting: A less publicized shooting similar to the Kent State Massacre that occurred a few weeks later at the predominantly African American Jackson State College. Twelve students were wounded and two were killed by police.
Operation Frequent Wind: A military airlift to transport escaping American and Vietnamese supporters out of Saigon as the North Vietnamese closed in in 1975.
Surrender of South Vietnam: April 30, 1975. North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon and the South Vietnamese government fell. Vietnam was united under communist leadership.
TREATIES, LAWS & POLICIES
Geneva Accords: International agreement after World War II to unify Vietnam and hold nation-wide elections. Diem in the South ignored the accords knowing he would lose an election.
Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: Resolution passed by Congress in 1964 that granted President Johnson wide authority to use armed force in Vietnam. It was used by presidents Johnson and Nixon to go to war without an actual declaration of war.
Vietnamization: Nixon’s policy of withdrawing American troops and turning responsibility for fighting over to the South Vietnamese Army. It was a way of ending the war without surrendering.
26th Amendment: Constitutional amendment ratified in 1971 granting the right to vote to anyone age 18 and older. Previously citizens had to be 21 to vote.