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Why did US lose the vietnam war Essay Sample

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Why did US lose the vietnam war Essay Sample

Vietnam is a small country to the south of China (‘Vietnamese’ means “non-Chinese people of the south”). In 111 BC, Vietnam became part of the Chinese Empire. For the next thousand years Vietnam struggled to gain its independence from its much larger neighbour. This was achieved in 938 AD. The long period of Chinese rule had left its mark on Vietnam. The language, religion, architecture, system of government and most other aspects of Vietnamese life, reflected the influence of the Chinese. In the 17th Century, French missionaries arrived in Vietnam. The Catholic priests received a friendly welcome from the Vietnamese people and they were allowed to live and work in the country. However, the Vietnamese authorities became concerned when the missionaries began to recruit the local people to Roman Catholicism. The converted Catholics were told to abandon their religious customs including that of taking several wives. The missionaries also instructed their followers to give their loyalty to God rather than to their Emperor.

Hostility towards the Christian missionaries grew and over the years there were several cases of priests being murdered. In 1847, French troops were sent to Vietnam to protect the Catholic community. News soon got back to Francethat Vietnam would make a good addition to the French Empire. Nothing was done about it at first but in 1858, Napoleon III sent 14 ships and 2,500 men to the Vietnamese port of Danang. It was a long drawn out struggle but in 1868, the Vietnam Emperor surrendered and signed a peace treaty with France. This did not stop the fighting as China, concerned about the presence of French troops on its border, sent soldiers into Vietnam. The war continued until 1885, when China finally accepted her inability to defeat the French Army and signed an agreement recognising French control over Vietnam. By 1893, the neighbouring states of Laos and Cambodia had also been added to the French Empire. Vietnam became profitable for the French. Vietnam had good supplies of coal, tin, zinc and rubber. Much of this was sent to France.

Vietnam also provided a good market for French manufactured goods. By 1938, 57% of all Vietnam’s imports were provided by French companies. To help transport these raw materials and manufactured goods, the French built a network of roads, canals and railways. To pay for this the French taxed the Vietnamese peasants. This resulted in many new French mines and plantations. Like the Chinese before them, the French were to change dramatically the Vietnamese way of life. Those who resisted were punished. Others collaborated and agreed to abandon Buddhism and to adopt the Catholic religion and other French customs. In exchange for this sacrifice they were granted privileges in the new Vietnam. This small group, which in time developed into a new elite class helped the French to control the 30 million people living in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, an area that France now called Indochina The skills needed by the Vietnamese administrators meant that they would require educating.

French schools were built and in 1902, Hanoi University was opened. Although one of the purposes of this education was to develop people who would remain loyal to the French Empire, some students began to question the right of France to rule their country. One such student was Ho Chi Minh. Inspired by the Russian Revolution, in 1924, he visited the Soviet Union. While in Moscow, Ho wrote to a friend that it was the duty of all communists to return to their own country to: “make contact with the masses to awaken, organise, unite and train them, and lead them to fight for freedom and independence.” However, Ho was aware that if he returned to Vietnam he was in danger of being arrested by the French authorities. He therefore decided to go and live in China on the Vietnam border. Here he helped organise other exiled nationalists into the Vietnam Revolutionary League (Vietminh). In September, 1940, the Japanese army invaded Indochina. With Paris already occupied by Germany, the French troops decided it was not worth putting up a fight and they surrendered to the Japanese.

Ho Chi Minh and his fellow nationalists saw this as an opportunity to free their country from foreign domination. Under the military leadership of General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietminh began a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese. The Vietminh received weapons and ammunition from the Soviet Union, and after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, they also obtained supplies from the United States. During this period the Vietminh leant a considerable amount about military tactics which was to prove invaluable in the years that were to follow. When the Japanese surrendered to the Allies after the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, the Vietminh was in a good position to take over the control of the country. In September, 1945, Ho Chi Minh announced the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Unknown to the Vietminh Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin had already decided what would happen to post-war Vietnam at a summit-meeting at Potsdam. They had agreed that the country would be divided into two, the northern half under the control of the Chinese and the southern half under the British. After the Second World War France attempted to re-establish control over Vietnam. In January 1946, Britain agreed to remove her troops and later that year, China left Vietnam in exchange for a promise from France that she would give up her rights to territory in China. Emperor Bao Dai went into exile in Hong Kong in March, 1946. After signing an accord recognising Vietnamese national unity within the French Union, he was allowed to return in June, 1948. The following year the French installed Bao Dai as Head of State. France refused to recognise the Democratic Republic of Vietnam that had been declared by Ho Chi Minh and fighting soon broke out between the Vietminh and the French troops.

At first, the Vietminh under General Vo Nguyen Giap, had great difficulty in coping with the better trained and equipped French forces. The situation improved in 1949 after Mao Zedong and his communist army defeated Chaing Kai-Shek in China. The Vietminh now had a safe-base where they could take their wounded and train new soldiers. By 1953, the Vietminh controlled large areas of North Vietnam. The French, however, had a firm hold on the south. When it became clear that France was becoming involved in a long-drawn out war, the French government tried to negotiate a deal with the Vietminh. They offered to help set-up a national government and promised they would eventually grant Vietnam its independence. Ho Chi Minh and the other leaders of the Vietminh did not trust the word of the French and continued the war. French public opinion continued to move against the war.

There were four main reasons for this: (1) Between 1946 and 1952 90,000 French troops had been killed, wounded or captured; (2) France was attempting to build up her economy after the devastation of the Second World War. The cost of the war had so far been twice what they had received from the United States under the Marshall Plan; (3) The war had lasted seven years and there was still no sign of an outright French victory; (4) A growing number of people in France had reached the conclusion that their country did not have any moral justification for being in Vietnam. General Navarre, the French commander in Vietnam, realised that time was running out and that he needed to obtain a quick victory over the Vietminh. He was convinced that if he could manoeuvre General Vo Nguyen Giapinto engaging in a large scale battle, France was bound to win.

In December, 1953, General Navarre setup a defensive complex at Dien Bien Phu, which would block the route of the Vietminh forces trying to return to camps in neighbouring Laos. Navarre surmised that in an attempt to reestablish the route to Laos, General Giap would be forced to organise a mass-attack on the French forces at Dien Bien Phu. Navarre’s plan worked and General Giap took up the French challenge. However, instead of making a massive frontal assault, Giap choose to surround Dien Bien Phu and ordered his men to dig a trench that encircled the French troops. From the outer trench, other trenches and tunnels were dug inwards towards the centre. TheVietminh were now able to move in close on the French troops defending Dien Bien Phu. While these preparations were going on, Giap brought up members of the Vietminh from all over Vietnam.

By the time the battle was ready to start, Giap had 70,000 soldiers surrounding Dien Bien Phu, five times the number of French troops enclosed within. Employing recently obtained anti-aircraft guns and howitzers from China, Giap was able to restrict severely the ability of the French to supply their forces in Dien Bien Phu. When Navarre realised that he was trapped, he appealed for help. The United States was approached and some advisers suggested the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the Vietminh. Another suggestion was that conventional air-raids would be enough to scatter Giap’s troops. The United States President, Dwight Eisenhower, however, refused to intervene unless he could persuade Britain and his other western allies to participate. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, declined claiming that he wanted to wait for the outcome of the peace negotiations taking place in Geneva before becoming involved in escalating the war.

On March 13, 1954, Vo Nguyen Giap launched his offensive. For fifty-six days the Vietminh pushed the French forces back until they only occupied a small area of Dien Bien Phu. Colonel Piroth, the artillery commander, blamed himself for the tactics that had been employed and after telling his fellow officers that he had been “completely dishonoured” committed suicide by pulling the safety pin out of a grenade. The French surrendered on May 7th. French casualties totalled over 7,000 and a further 11,000 soldiers were taken prisoner. The following day the French government announced that it intended to withdraw from Vietnam. The following month the foreign ministers of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France decided to meet in Geneva to see if they could bring about a peaceful solution to the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

After much negotiation the following was agreed: (1) Vietnam would be divided at the 17th parallel; (2) North Vietnam would be ruled by Ho Chi Minh; (3) South Vietnam would be ruled by Ngo Dinh Diem, a strong opponent of communism; (4) French troops would withdraw from Vietnam; (5) the Vietminh would withdraw from South Vietnam; (6) the Vietnamese could freely choose to live in the North or the South; and (7) a General Election for the whole of Vietnam would be held before July, 1956, under the supervision of an international commission. After their victory at Dien Bien Phu, some members of the Vietminh were reluctant to accept the cease-fire agreement. Their main concern was the division of Vietnam into two sections. However, Ho Chi Minh argued that this was only a temporary situation and was convinced that in the promised General Election, the Vietnamese were sure to elect a communist government to rule a re-united Vietnam.

This view was shared by President Dwight Eisenhower. As he wrote later: “I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held at the time of the fighting, possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the communist Ho Chi Minh.” When the Geneva conference took place in 1954, the United States delegation proposed the name of Ngo Dinh Diem as the new ruler of South Vietnam. The French argued against this claiming that Diem was “not only incapable but mad”. However, eventually it was decided that Diem presented the best opportunity to keep South Vietnam from falling under the control of communism. Once in power, the Americans discovered that Diem was unwilling to be a ‘puppet’ ruler. He constantly rejected their advice and made decisions that upset the South Vietnamese people. Several attempts were made to overthrow

Diem but although the Americans were unhappy with his performance as president, they felt they had no choice but to support him. The United States government was severely concerned about the success of communism in South East Asia. Between 1950 and 1953 they had lost 142,000 soldiers in attempting to stop communism entering South Korea. The United States feared that their efforts would have been wasted if communism were to spread to South Vietnam. President Eisenhower was aware that he would have difficulty in persuading the American public to support another war so quickly after Korea. He therefore decided to rely on a small group of Military Advisers’ to prevent South Vietnam becoming a communist state. Under the leadership of Colonel Edward Lansdale, a twelve-man team of American soldiers and intelligence agents was sent to Saigon in June, 1954. The plan was to mount a propaganda campaign to persuade the Vietnamese people in the south not to vote for the communists in the forthcoming elections.

In the months that followed, this small team of men distributed targeted documents that claimed the Vietminh and Chinese communists had entered South Vietnam and were killing innocent civilians. The Ho Chi Minh government was also accused of slaying thousands of political opponents in North Vietnam. Colonel Lansdale also recruited mercenaries from the Philippines to carry out acts of sabotage in North Vietnam. This was unsuccessful and most of the mercenaries were arrested and put on trial in Hanoi. Finally, the American advisers set about training the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) in modem fighting methods. For it was coming clear that it was only a matter of time before the anti-Diem forces would resort to open warfare. In October, 1955, the South Vietnamese people were asked to choose between Bao Dai, the former Emperor of Vietnam, and Ngo Dinh Diem for the leadership of the country.

Colonel Edward Lansdale suggested that Diem should provide two ballot papers, red for Diem and green for Bao Dai. Lansdale hoped that the Vietnamese belief that red signified good luck whilst green indicated bad fortune, would help influence the result. When the voters arrived at the polling stations they found Diem’s supporters in attendance. One voter complained afterwards: “They told us to put the red ballot into envelopes and to throw the green ones into the wastebasket. A few people, faithful to Bao Dai, disobeyed. As soon as they left, the agents went after them, and roughed them up… They beat one of my relatives to pulp.” After the election Diem informed his American advisers that he had achieved 98.2 per cent of the vote. They warned him that these figures would not be believed and suggested that he published a figure of around 70 per cent.

Diem refused and as the Americans predicted, the election undermined his authority. Another task of Edward Lansdale and his team was to promote the success of the rule of President Ngo Dinh Diem. Figures were produced that indicated that South Vietnam was undergoing an economic miracle. With the employment of $250 millions of aid per year from the United States and the clever manipulating of statistics, it was reported that economic production had increased dramatically. The North Vietnamese government reminded Diem that a General Election for the whole of the country was due in July, 1956. Diem refused to accept this and instead began arresting his opponents. In a short period of time, approximately 100,000 people were put in prison camps.

Communists and socialists were his main targets but journalists, trade-unionists and leaders of religious groups were also arrested. Even children found writing anti-Diem messages on walls were put in prison. When it became clear that Ngo Dinh Diem had no intention of holding elections for a united Vietnam, his political opponents began to consider alternative ways of obtaining their objectives. Some came to the conclusion that violence was the only way to persuade Diem to agree to the terms of the 1954 Geneva Conference. The year following the cancelled elections saw a large increase in the number of people leaving their homes to form armed groups in the forests of Vietnam. At first they were not in a position to take on the South Vietnamese Army and instead concentrated on what became known as ‘soft targets’. In 1959, an estimated 1,200 of Diem’s government officials were murdered. Ho Chi Minh was initially against this strategy. He argued that the opposition forces in South Vietnam should concentrate on organising support rather than carrying out acts of terrorism against Diem’s government.

In 1959, Ho Chi Minh sent Le Duan, a trusted adviser, to visit South Vietnam. Le Duan returned to inform his leader that Diem’s policy of imprisoning the leaders of the opposition was so successful that unless North Vietnam encouraged armed resistance, a united country would never be achieved. Ho Chi Minh agreed to supply the guerrilla units with aid. He also encouraged the different armed groups to join together and form a more powerful and effective resistance organisation. This they agreed to do and in December, 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) was formed. The NLF, or the ‘Vietcong’, as the Americans were to call them, was made up of over a dozen different political and religious groups. Although the leader of the NLF, Hua Tho, was a non-Marxist, Saigon lawyer, large numbers of the movement were supporters of communism.

The NLF put forward a ten-point programme. It included the replacement of the Catholic dominated Ngo Dinh Diemadministration with a government that: “represented all social classes and religions.” The most popular aspect of the NLF programme was the promise to take the land from the rich and to distribute it amongst the peasants. During the Indochina War the Vietminh had taken the land from the large landowners in the territory they controlled and given it to the peasants. After Diem had gained power in South Vietnam, he forced the peasants to pay for the land they had been given. This was often more than the peasants could afford and it caused a considerable amount of suffering amongst the peasant community. The promise of the NLF to give the peasants their land free of charge was an important factor in persuading them to help the guerrillas in their fight against the Diem government. John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States in November, 1960.

In the first speech he made to the American public as their President, Kennedy made it clear that he intended to continue Eisenhower’s policy of supporting Diem’s South Vietnamese government. He argued that if South Vietnam became a communist state, the whole of the non-communist world would be at risk. If South Vietnam fell, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Philippines, New Zealand and Australia would follow. If communism was not halted in Vietnam it would gradually spread throughout the world. This view became known as the Domino Theory. Kennedy went on to argue: “No other challenge is more deserving of our effort and energy… Our security may be lost piece by piece, country by country.” Under his leadership, America would be willing to: “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Kennedy’s speech had a considerable impact on many young Americans.

Philip Caputo was one of those who traced back his decision to join the US Marines to Kennedy’s inauguration speech: “War is always attractive to young men who know nothing about it, but we had also been seduced into uniform by Kennedy’s challenge to “ask what you can do for your country” and by the missionary idealism he had awakened in us… we believed we were ordained to play cop to the Communists’ robber and spread our own political faith around the world.” When Kennedy became President he was given conflicting advice on Vietnam. Some, like President Charles De Gaulle of France, warned him that if he was not careful, Vietnam would trap the United States in “a bottomless military and political swamp.” However, most of his advisers argued that with a fairly small increase in military aid, the United States could prevent a NLF victory in South Vietnam.

Kennedy agreed and in 1961 he arranged for the South Vietnamese to receive the money necessary to increase the size of their army from 150,000 to 170,000. He also agreed to send another 100 military advisers to Vietnam to help train the South Vietnamese army. As this decision broke the terms of the Geneva Agreement, it was kept from the American public. In 1962, the Strategic Hamlet programme was introduced. For sometime the governments of South Vietnam and the United States had been concerned about the influence of the NLF on the peasants. In an attempt to prevent this they moved the peasants into new villages in areas under the control of the South Vietnamese army. A stockade was built around the village and these were then patrolled by armed guards. This strategy failed dismally and some observers claimed that it actually increased the number of peasants joining the NLF.

As one pointed out: “Peasants resented working without pay to dig moats, implant bamboo stakes, and erect fences against an enemy that did not threaten them but directed its sights against government officials.” In the majority of cases the peasants did not want to move and so the South Vietnamese army often had to apply force. This increased the hostility of the peasants towards the Ngo Dinh Diem government. The peasants were angry at having to travel longer distances to reach their rice fields. Others were upset for religious reasons for they believed that it was vitally important to live where their ancestors were buried. Kennedy became worried when he was informed that despite the Strategic Hamlet programme, the membership of the National Liberation Front had grown to over 17,000 – a 300 per cent increase in two years – and that they now controlled over one-fifth of the villages in South Vietnam. These details were used to pressurise Kennedy into supplying more military advisers. This he agreed to do and by the end of 1962 there were 12,000 in Vietnam.

Kennedy also made the decision to supply South Vietnam with 300 helicopters. Their American pilots were told not to become “engaged in combat” but this became an order that was difficult to obey. Although Kennedy denied it at the time, American soldiers were becoming increasingly involved in the fighting in Vietnam. Roman Catholics made up only just over 10% of the population in South Vietnam. As a reward for adopting the religion of their French masters. Catholics had always held a privileged position in Vietnam. The Catholic Church was the largest landowner in the country and most of the officials who helped administer the country for the French were Catholics. The main religion in Vietnam was Buddhism. Surveys carried out in the 1960s suggest that around 70% of the population were followers of Buddha. The French, aware of the potential threat of Buddhism to their authority, passed laws to discourage its growth.

After the French left Vietnam the Catholics managed to hold onto their power in the country. President Ngo Dinh Diem was a devout Catholic and tended to appoint people to positions of authority who shared his religious beliefs. This angered Buddhists, especially when the new government refused to repeal the anti-Buddhist laws passed by the French. On May 8, 1963, Buddhists assembled in Hue to celebrate the 2527th birthday of the Buddha. Attempts were made by the police to disperse the crowds by opening fire on them. One woman and eight children were killed in their attempts to flee from the police. The Buddhists were furious and began a series of demonstrations against the Diem government. In an attempt to let the world know how strongly they felt about the South Vietnamese government, it was decided to ask for volunteers to commit suicide.

On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Due, a sixty-six year old monk, sat down in the middle of a busy Saigon road. He was then surrounded by a group of Buddhist monks and nuns who poured petrol over his head and then set fire to him. One eyewitness later commented: “As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.” While Thich Quang Due was burning to death, the monks and nuns gave out leaflets calling for Diem’s government to show “charity and compassion ” to all religions. The government’s response to this suicide was to arrest thousands of Buddhist monks. Many disappeared and were never seen again. By August another five monks had committed suicide by setting fire to themselves. One member of the South Vietnamese government responded to these self-immolations by telling a newspaper reporter: “Let them burn, and we shall clap our hands.”

Another offered to supply Buddhists who wanted to commit suicide with the necessary petrol. These events convinced President John F. Kennedy that Ngo Dinh Diem would never be able to unite the South Vietnamese against communism. Several attempts had already been made to overthrow Diem but Kennedy had always instructed the CIA and the US military forces in Vietnam to protect him. In order to obtain a more popular leader of South Vietnam, Kennedy agreed that the role of the CIA should change. Lucien Conein, a CIA operative, provided a group of South Vietnamese generals with $40,000 to carry out the coup with the promise that US forces would make no attempt to protect Diem. At the beginning of November, 1963, President Diem was overthrown by a military coup. After the generals had promised Diem that he would be allowed to leave the country they changed their mind and killed him. Three weeks later. President Kennedy was also assassinated.

After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, his deputy, Lyndon B. Johnson became the new president of the United States. Johnson was a strong supporter of the Domino Theory and believed that the prevention of anNational Liberation Front victory in South Vietnam was vital to the defence of the United States: “If we quit Vietnam, tomorrow we’ll be fighting in Hawaii and next week we’ll have to fight in San Francisco.” Johnson, like Kennedy before him, came under pressure from his military advisers to take more ‘forceful’ action against North Vietnam and the NLF. The Joint Chiefs of Staff advised Johnson to send United States combat troops to South Vietnam. The overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem had not resulted in preventing the growth of the NLF. The new leader of South Vietnam, General Khanh, was doubtful that his own army was strong enough to prevent a communist victory.

Johnson told his Joint Chiefs of Staff that he would do all that was necessary to prevent the NLF winning in South Vietnam but was unwilling to take unpopular measures like sending troops to tight in a foreign war, until after the 1964 Presidential Elections. Just let me get elected,” he told his military advisers, “and then you can have your war.” As the election was not due for another eleven months, the Joint Chiefs of Staff feared that this was too long to wait. They therefore suggested another strategy that would be less unpopular with the American public as it would result in fewer of the men being killed. For sometime, military intelligence officers working in Vietnam had believed that without the support of the Hanoi government, the NLF would not survive. They therefore advocated the bombing of Hanoi in an attempt to persuade North Vietnam to cut off supplies to the NLF. Curtis LeMay, the commander of the US air force, argued that by using the latest technology, North Vietnam could be blasted “back to the Stone Age.”

Others pointed out that “terror” raids on civilian populations during the Second World War had not proved successful and claimed that a better strategy would be to bomb selected targets such as military bases and fuel depots. Lyndon B. Johnson preferred the latter proposal but was aware he would have difficulty convincing the American public and the rest of the world that such action was justified. He therefore gave permission for a plan to be put into operation that he surmised would eventually enable him to carry out the bombing raids on North Vietnam. Operation Plan 34A involved the sending of Asian mercenaries into North Vietnam to carry out acts of sabotage and the kidnapping or killing of communist officials. As part of this plan, it was decided to send US destroyers into North Vietnamese waters to obtain information on their naval defences.

On August 2, 1964, the US destroyer, “Maddox” was fired upon by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. In retaliation, “Maddox” fired back and hit all three, one of which sank. The “Maddox” then retreated into international waters but the next day it was ordered to return to the Gulf of Tonkin. Soon after entering North Vietnamese waters, Captain Herrick reported that he was under attack. However, later he sent a message that raised doubts about this: “Review of action makes reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather reports and over-eager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No actual sightings by “Maddox”.

Suggest complete evaluation before further action.” Johnson now had the excuse he had been waiting for and ignored Captain Herrick’s second message. He ordered the bombing of four North Vietnamese torpedo-boat bases and an oil-storage depot that had been planned three months previously. President Johnson then went on television and told the American people that: “Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defence, but with a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight.” Ernest Gruening of Alaska advised Johnson to “disengage immediately, to relieve all our military of combat assignments and bring them home at once.” Gruening made a speech where he argued: “I consider the life of one American boy worth more than this putrid mess. I consider every additional life that is sacrificed in this forlorn venture a tragedy. Someday…. if this sacrificing is continued it will be denounced as a crime.”

Along with Wayne Morse of Oregon, he voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized an expansion of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Gruening pointed out in Many Battles (1973): “I detailed my objections to the resolution on the second day of the debate, and again on the third. But the resolution was adopted by eighty-eight yeas to two nays, that of Senator Morse and mine… What none of the senators and representatives knew, however, was that they had been misled about the Tonkin Gulf incident. The facts would not be fully revealed until four years later when, on February 20, 1968, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reopened an investigation into what actually had or had not happened in the Tonkin Gulf. But even before these subsequent disclosures, Senator Fulbright publicly and repeatedly expressed regret for his sponsorship and support of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. He said he had been deceived.

The Congress had been bamboozled into giving the President the unlimited power he sought to wage war in Southeast Asia. Had the Congress not been misinformed by the executive branch, the resolution would never have been adopted.” The House of Representatives passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution by 416 to 0. This resolution authorised the President to take all necessary measures against Vietnam and the National Liberation Front. President Johnson’s belief that the bombing raid on North Vietnam in August, 1964, would persuade Ho Chi Minh to cut off all aid to the NLF was unfounded. In the run-up to the November election, the NLF carried out a series of attacks and only two days before the election, the US air base near Saigon was mortared and four Americans were killed. Barry Goldwater, the right-wing Republican candidate for the presidency, called for an escalation of the war against the North Vietnamese.

In comparison to Goldwater, Lyndon B. Johnson was seen as the ‘peace’ candidate. People feared that Goldwater would send troops to fight in Vietnam. Johnson, on the other hand, argued that he was not willing: “to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” In the election of November, 1964, the voters decided to reject Goldwater’s aggressive policies against communism and Johnson won a landslide victory. What the American public did not know was that President Johnson was waiting until the election was over before carrying out the policies that had been advocated by his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater. Three months after being elected president, Lyndon B. Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder. Unlike the single bombing raid in August 1964, this time the raids were to take place on a regular basis.

The plan was to destroy the North Vietnam economy and to force her to stop helping the guerrilla fighters in the south. Bombing was also directed against territory controlled by the NLF in South Vietnam. The plan was for Operation Rolling Thunder to last for eight weeks but it lasted for the next three years. In that time, the US dropped 1 million tons of bombs on Vietnam. The response of the NLF to ‘Rolling Thunder’ was to concentrate its attacks on the US air bases in South Vietnam. General Westmoreland, the person in charge of the military advisers in Vietnam, argued that his 23,000 men were unable to defend adequately the US air bases and claimed that without more soldiers, the NLF would take over control of South Vietnam.

On March 8, 3,500 US marines arrived in South Vietnam. They were the first ‘official’ US combat troops to be sent to the country. This dramatic escalation of the war was presented to the American public as being a short-term measure and did not cause much criticism at the time. A public opinion poll carried out that year indicated that nearly 80% of the American public supported the bombing raids and the sending of combat troops to Vietnam. The strategy and tactics of the National Liberation Front were very much based on those used by Mao Zedong in China. This became known as Guerrilla Warfare. The NLF was organised into small groups of between three to ten soldiers. These groups were called cells. These cells worked together but the knowledge they had of each other was kept to the bare minimum. Therefore, when a guerrilla was captured and tortured, his confessions did not do too much damage to the NLF.

The initial objective of the NLF was to gain the support of the peasants living in the rural areas. According to Mao Zedong, the peasants were the sea in which the guerrillas needed to swim: “without the constant and active support of the peasants… failure is inevitable.” When the NLF entered a village they obeyed a strict code of behaviour. All members were issued with a series of ‘directives’. These included:” (1) Not to do what is likely to damage the land and crops or spoil the houses and belongings of the people; (2) Not to insist on buying or borrowing what the people are not willing to sell or lend; (3) Never to break our word; (4) Not to do or speak what is likely to make people believe that we hold them in contempt; (5) To help them in their daily work (harvesting, fetching firewood, carrying water, sewing, etc.).” Most peasants in South Vietnam were extremely poor. For centuries, the Vietnamese peasants had accepted this state of affairs because they believed that poverty was a punishment for crimes committed by their ancestors.

The NLF educated the peasants in economics and explained how poverty was the result of the landowner’s selfishness. They pointed out that fifty per cent of the agricultural land in South Vietnam was owned by only two and a half per cent of the population. Two thirds of the peasants owned no land at all and were therefore forced to work for the rich landlords. The NLF’s solution to this problem was to take the property of the large landowners and distribute it amongst the peasants. In some cases, the landowners were executed as a punishment for the way they had treated the peasants in the past. In return for the land they had been given, the peasants agreed to help the NLF by feeding and hiding them. In some cases, the peasants also agreed to take up arms with the NLF and help ‘liberate’ other villages. The peasants were motivated by fear as well as a sense of gratitude.

The NLF told them that if the United States Marines or ARVN managed to gain control of the village, they would take the land back. Given this situation, it is not surprising that the peasants saw the NLF as their friends and the US Marines/ARVN as the enemy. This view was re-inforced if the NLF left the village to escape advancing US or South Vietnamese troops. In an effort to discover information about the NLF, the peasants were sometimes tortured. If evidence was found of the NLF being in the village, the people were punished. As William Ehrhart, a US marine explained:”… they’d be beaten pretty badly, maybe tortured. Or they might be hauled off to jail, and God knows what happened to them. At the end of the day, the villagers would be turned loose. Their homes had been wrecked, their chickens killed, their rice confiscated – and if they weren’t pro-Vietcong before we got there, they sure as hell were by the time we left.” As well as taking over the running of villages, the NLF would send out patrols into government controlled areas.

The tactics they employed have been described by Robert Taber, who fought with the guerrillas in Cuba, as the war of the flea: “The flea bites, hops, and bites again, nimbly avoiding the foot that would crush him. He does not seek to kill his enemy at a blow, but to bleed him and feed on him, to plague and bedevil him… All this requires time. Still more time is required to breed more fleas… the military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages: too much to defend; too small and agile an enemy to come to grips with.” To defeat the more powerful enemy, the guerrilla needs to dictate the terms of warfare. In the words of Mao Zedong: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.” The NLF was told not to go into combat unless it outnumbered the enemy and was certain of winning. It therefore concentrated on attacking small patrols or poorly guarded government positions.

To increase its advantage, the NLF relied heavily on night attacks. At first the NLF used hand-made weapons such as spears, daggers and swords. However, over a period of time, it built up a large supply of captured weapons. A US army survey of weapons in 1964 discovered that 90% of weapons taken from the NLF had previously belonged to the ARVN and the US army. The NLF also employed booby traps against US and South Vietnamese troops. These took the form of sharpened bamboo staves and fragmentation mines. The most feared mine was the ‘Bouncing Betty’. As one marine reported, every step created tension. You constantly asked yourself: “Should you put your foot to that flat rock or the clump of weeds to its rear… The moment-to-moment, step-by-step decision-making preys on your mind. The effect is sometimes paralysis.”

As another pointed out: “The infantryman knows that any moment the ground he is walking on can erupt and kill him; kill him if he’s lucky. If he’s unlucky, he will be turned into a blind, deaf, emasculated, legless shell.” Ironically, most of the explosives used for these mines came from unexploded bombs dropped by the United States. It has been estimated that 800 tons of bombs dropped on Vietnam every month failed to explode. These materials were then used to make booby traps. After seeing their comrades killed by booby traps, there was a temptation for the patrol to take it out on the next village they arrived at. By doing so they increased the peasants hostility towards the Americans and made it more difficult for them to support the South Vietnamese government against the communists.

In 1965, General William Westmoreland developed the aggressive strategy of ‘search and destroy’. The objective was to find and then kill members of the NLF. The US soldiers found this difficult. As one marine captain explained: “You never knew who was the enemy and who was the friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike.” Innocent civilians were often killed by mistake. As one Marine officer admitted they “were usually counted as enemy dead, under the unwritten rule ‘If he’s dead and Vietnamese, he’s VC’.” In the villages they controlled, the NLF often built underground tunnels. These tunnels led out of the villages into the jungle. They also contained caverns where they stored their printing presses, surgical instruments and the equipment for making booby traps and land mines. If US patrols arrived in the village unexpectedly, the NLF would hide in these underground caverns. Even if the troops found the entrance to the tunnels, they could not go into the tunnels as they were often too small for the much larger American soldiers.

The overall strategy of Guerrilla Warfare is to involve the enemy in a long-drawn out war. The aim is to wear down gradually the much larger and stronger enemy. It is only when all the rural areas are under their control and they are convinced that they outnumber the opposition, that the guerrillas come out into the open and take part in conventional warfare. Thus the NLF, who were based in the thick forests of South Vietnam, began by taking control of the villages in the rural areas. As their strength grew and the enemy retreated, they began to take the smaller towns. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a complex web of different jungle paths that enabled communist troops to travel from North Vietnam to areas close to Saigon. It has been estimated that the National Liberation Front received sixty tons of aid per day from this route. Most of this was carried by porters. Occasionally bicycles and ponies would also be used.

At regular intervals along the route the NLF built base camps. As well as providing a place for them to rest, the base camps provided medical treatment for those who had been injured or had fallen ill on the journey. In the early days of the war it took six months to travel from North Vietnam to Saigon on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But the more people who travelled along the route the easier it became. By 1970, fit and experienced soldiers could make the journey in six weeks. From the air the Ho Chi Minh Trail was impossible to identify and although the United States Air Force tried to destroy this vital supply line by heavy bombing, they were unable to stop the constant flow of men and supplies. The main danger to the people who travelled on the Ho Chi Minh Trail was not American bombs but diseases like malaria. In the early days, as many as 10 per cent of the porters travelling down the trail died of disease. The North Vietnamese also used the Ho Chi Minh Trail to send soldiers to the south.

At times, as many as 20,000 soldiers a month came from Hanoi in this way. In an attempt to stop this traffic, it was suggested that a barrier of barbed wire and minefields called the McNamara Line should be built. This plan was abandoned in 1967 after repeated attacks by the NLF on those involved in constructing this barrier. As the United States is the most advanced industrial nation in world it was able to make full use of the latest developments in technology in its war against North Vietnam. B-52 bombers, that could fly at heights that prevented them being seen or heard, dropped 8 million tons of bombs on Vietnam between 1965 and 1973. This was over three times the amount of bombs dropped throughout the whole of the Second World War and worked out at approximately 300 tons for every man, woman and child living in Vietnam. As well as explosive bombs the US air force dropped a considerable number of incendiary devices. The most infamous of these was napalm, a mixture of petrol and a chemical thickner which produces a tough sticky gel that attaches itself to the skin.

The igniting agent, white phosphorus, continues burning for a considerable amount of time. A reported three quarters of all napalm victims in Vietnam were burned through to the muscle and bone (fifth degree burns). The pain caused by the burning is so traumatic that it often causes death. The US also made considerable use of anti-personnel bombs. The pineapple bomb was made up of 250 metal pellets inside a small canister. Gloria Emerson, a reporter in Vietnam, witnessed their use: “An American plane could drop a thousand pineapples over an area the size of four football fields. In a single air strike two hundred and fifty thousand pellets were spewed in a horizontal pattern over the land below, hitting everything on the ground.” The United States also experimented with the use of plastic rather than metal needles and pellets in their antipersonnel bombs.

The advantage of plastic was they could not be identified by X-Ray machines. Dropped on highly populated areas, antipersonnel bombs could severely disrupt the functioning of North Vietnam. It has been claimed that the major objective of the US bombing raids on North Vietnam was not to kill its 17 million population but to maim them. As was pointed out at the time, serious injury is more disruptive than death as people have to be employed to look after the injured where they only have to bury the dead. One of the major problems of the US forces was the detection of the NLF hiding in the forests of Vietnam. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy approved Operation Ranch Hand. This involved the spraying of chemicals from the air in an attempt to destroy the NLF hiding places.

In 1969 alone, Operation Ranch Hand destroyed 1,034,300 hectares of forest. ‘Agent Orange’, the chemical used in this defoliation programme not only destroyed trees but caused chromosomal damage in people. Chemicals were also sprayed on crops. Between 1962 and 1969, 688,000 agricultural acres were sprayed with a chemical called ‘Agent Blue’. The aim of this exercise was to deny food to the NLF. However, research suggests that it was the civilian population who suffered most from the poor rice harvests that followed the spraying. In economic terms, the bombing hurt the economy of the United States more than North Vietnam. By the beginning of 1968, it was estimated that $300 million of damage had been done to North Vietnam. However, in the process, 700 US aircraft, valued at $900 million had been shot down. When all factors were taken into consideration it was argued that it cost the United States “ten dollars for every dollar’s worth of damage inflicted.”

Three million US soldiers served in Vietnam between 1965 and 1973. Only about a quarter of these were involved in direct combat with the NLF. The majority were employed in supplying the needs of the combat troops. However, because of Guerrilla Warfare, there were no ‘front-lines’ and most Americans in Vietnam came under attack from the NLF at some time during their stay in the country. The United States Army drafted (called-up) soldiers at the age of eighteen. To protect them from the stress of war, draftees served in Vietnam for just over a year. As victory did not appear to be in sight, surviving this period became the soldiers’ main objective. As one marine explained: “You developed a survival mentality. You stop thinking about what you’re doing, and you count days. I knew I was in Vietnam for three hundred and ninety-five days, and if I was still alive at the end of those three hundred and ninety-five days, I’d go home and forget the whole thing. That was the way you operated.” Not all young men in America were drafted. There were several ways that men could avoid being sent to Vietnam.

The most popular way was to go to college. For example, eight of 10 Vietnam-era presidential candidates managed to avoid going to Vietnam. George Bush, the current president of the United States avoided the war by enlisting in the Texas Air National Guard. As a consequence of the actions of wealthy Americans, most soldiers who went to Vietnam came from working, rather than middle-class homes. Ethnic minorities were also more likely to serve in Vietnam than white Americans. The average age of the soldier fighting in Vietnam was nineteen. Given the nature of the war being fought, these young soldiers were vulnerable to psychological damage. It has been estimated that 700,000 of the soldiers who served in Vietnam have since suffered from some form of stress disorder. According to figures published by the Washington State Department for Veteran Affairs, over 100,000 of these soldiers have committed suicide since returning from the Vietnam War.

The fear of death or serious injury was a constant cause of concern. The belief that the NLF would torture captured US soldiers was another factor in creating stress amongst combat troops. One of the main problems for the American soldier serving in Vietnam was caused by the climate. Philip Caputo, a Marine officer, argued: “The climate of Indochina does not lend itself to conventional standards of measurement… The only valid measurement was what the heat could do to a man, and what it could do was simple enough: it could kill him, bake his brains, or wring the sweat out of him until he dropped from exhaustion… Relief came only at night, and night always brought swarms of malarial mosquitoes… Mosquito netting and repellents proved ineffective against the horde of flying, creeping, crawling, buzzing, biting things that descended on us… By midnight, my face and hands were masses of welts.” Combat troops also complained about some of the military decisions made by their officers.

One of the most controversial battles that took place during the Vietnam War was the one fought for ‘Hamburger Hill’. For ten days 600 men attempted to take this hill from the NLF. By the time they had obtained their objective, 476 of the US troops had been killed or wounded. After holding the hill for a day, Lieutenant-Colonel Weldon Honeycutt, the commander responsible for the operation, ordered the men to withdraw. US soldiers were so angry about these unnecessary deaths that money was raised to pay for the assassination of Honeycutt. Shortly after the assault on ‘Hamburger Hill’, the soldiers’ underground newspaper in Vietnam offered a $10,000 bounty on Honeycutt. Despite several attempts on his life, Honeycutt survived. It has been admitted that between 1969 and 1971 there were 730 attempts by US soldiers to kill unpopular officers, of which 83 were successful.

However, these figures only take into account the cases that were reported and investigated. It has been estimated that the actual figures were very much higher than this. In September, 1967, the NLF launched a series of attacks on American garrisons. General William Westmoreland, the commander of US troops in Vietnam, was delighted. Now at last the National Liberation Front was engaging in open combat. At the end of 1967, Westmoreland was able to report that the NLF had lost 90,000 men. He told President Lyndon B. Johnson that the NLF would be unable to replace such numbers and that the end of the war was in sight. Every year on the last day of January, the Vietnamese paid tribute to dead ancestors. In 1968, unknown to the Americans, the NLF celebrated the Tet New Year festival two days early. For on the evening of 31st January, 1968, 70,000 members of the NLF launched a surprise attack on more than a hundred cities and towns in Vietnam. It was now clear that the purpose of the attacks on the US garrisons in September had been to draw out troops from the cities.

The NLF even attacked the US Embassy in Saigon. Although they managed to enter the Embassy grounds and kill five US marines, the NLF was unable to take the building. However, they had more success with Saigon’s main radio station. They captured the building and although they only held it for a few hours, the event shocked the self-confidence of the American people. In recent months they had been told that the NLF was close to defeat and now they were strong enough to take important buildings in the capital of South Vietnam. Another disturbing factor was that even with the large losses of 1967, the NLF could still send 70,000 men into battle. The Tet Offensive proved to be a turning point in the war. In military terms it was a victory for the US forces. An estimated 37,000 NLF soldiers were killed compared to 2,500 Americans.

However, it illustrated that the NLF appeared to have inexhaustible supplies of men and women willing to fight for the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government. In March, 1968, President Johnson was told by his Secretary of Defence that in his opinion the US could not win the Vietnam War and recommended a negotiated withdrawal. Later that month, President Johnson told the American people on national television that he was reducing the air-raids on North Vietnam and intended to seek a negotiated peace. When the Vietnam War started only a small percentage of the American population opposed the war. Those who initially objected to the involvement in Vietnam fell into three broad categories: people with left-wing political opinions who wanted an NLF victory; pacifists who opposed all wars; and liberals who believed that the best way of stopping the spread of communism was by encouraging democratic, rather than authoritarian governments.

The first march to Washington against the war took place in December, 1964. Only 25,000 people took part but it was still the largest anti-war demonstration in American history. As the war continued, more and more Americans turned against it. People were particularly upset by the use ofchemical weapons such as napalm and agent orange. In 1967, a group of distinguished academics under the leadership of Bertrand Russell, set up the International War Crimes Tribunal. After interviewing many witnesses, they came to the conclusion that the United States was guilty of using weapons against the Vietnamese that were prohibited by international law. The United States armed forces were also found guilty of torturing captured prisoners and innocent civilians. The Tribunal, and other critics of the war, claimed that the US behaviour in Vietnam was comparable to the atrocities committed by the Nazis in Europe during the Second World War.

In November, 1965, Norman Morrison, a Quaker from Baltimore, followed the example of the Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Due, and publically burnt himself to death. In the weeks that were to follow, two other pacifists, Roger La Porte and Alice Herz, also immolated themselves in protest against the war. The decision to introduce conscription for the war increased the level of protest, especially amongst young men. To keep the support of the articulate and influential members of the middle class, students were not called up. However, students throughout America still protested at what they considered was an attack on people’s right to decide for themselves whether they wanted to fight for their country. In 1965, David Miller publically burnt his draft card (call-up notice) and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. His actions inspired others and throughout America, Anti-Vietnam War groups organised meetings where large groups of young men burnt their draft cards.

Between 1963 and 1973, 9,118 men were prosecuted for refusing to be drafted into the army. The most famous of these was Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight boxing champion. Muhammad Ali was one of the many distinguished black figures who protested against the war. There were several reasons why blacks and other ethnic minorities felt so strongly about Vietnam. One reason involved the expense of the war. By 1968, the Vietnam War was costing 66 million dollars a day. As a result. President Lyndon B. Johnson increased income taxes and cut back on his programme to deal with poverty. The blacks, who suffered from poverty more than most other groups in America, were understandably upset by this decision.

Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights leader, argued: “that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor as long as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.” Other Civil Rights leaders pointed out that because of the draft deferment enjoyed by college students, it was the poor who were more likely to be sent to Vietnam. What is more, as Eldridge Cleaver, a Civil Rights activist pointed out, in many southern states of America, blacks were being denied the right to vote in elections. Therefore, blacks were fighting in Vietnam “for something they don’t have for themselves.” As another black leader put it: “If a black man is going to fight anywhere, he ought to be fighting in Mississippi” and other parts of America. This advice was taken and in the late 1960s, several cities in the United States suffered violent riots in black ghettos.

Anti-Vietnam War leaders began to claim that if the government did not withdraw from the war they might need the troops to stop a revolution taking place in America. Demonstrations against the war steadily increased in size during the late 1960s. In New York, over a million people took part in one demonstration. The public opinion polls showed that a narrow majority of the people still supported US involvement in Vietnam. However, the polls also indicated that much of this support came from middle class families whose own sons were not at risk. President Lyndon B. Johnson knew that if the war continued, he would eventually be forced to start drafting college students. When that happened he would have great difficulty obtaining majority support for the war. The most dramatic opposition to the war came from the soldiers themselves.

Between 1960 and 1973, 503,926 members of the US armed forces deserted. Many soldiers began to question the morality of the war once they began fighting in Vietnam. One soldier, Keith Franklin, wrote a letter that was only to be opened on his death. He was killed on May 12, 1970: “If you are reading this letter, you will never see me again, the reason being that if you are reading this I have died. The question is whether or not my death has been in vain. The answer is yes. The war that has taken my life and many thousands before me is immoral, unlawful and an atrocity… I had no choice as to my fate. It was predetermined by the war-mongering hypocrites in Washington. As I lie dead, please grant my last request. Help me inform the American people, the silent majority who have not yet voiced their opinions.” In 1967, Vietnam Veterans Against the War was formed. They demonstrated all over America. Many of them were in wheelchairs or on crutches. People watched on television as Vietnam heroes threw away the medals they had won fighting in the war.

One shouted: “Here’s my merit badges for murder.” Another apologised to the Vietnamese people and claimed that: “I hope that someday I can return to Vietnam and help to rebuild that country we tore apart.” The US administration, unlike-most governments at war, made no official attempt to censure the reporting in the Vietnam War. Every night on colour television people saw pictures of dead and wounded marines. Dean Rusk, US Secretary of State, pointed out that: “This was the first struggle fought on television in everybody’s living room every day… whether ordinary people can sustain a war effort under that kind of daily hammering is a very large question.” Newspaper reporters and television commentators were free to question the wisdom of fighting the war. Military leaders accused their critics of being “unpatriotic” and guilty of “helping the enemy.”

The Generals were especially angered by the way the media covered the Tet Offensive. General Maxwell Taylor wrote later: “The picture of a few flaming Saigon houses, presented by a gloomy-voiced telecaster as an instance of the destruction caused in the capital, created the inevitable impression that this was the way it was in all or most of Saigon.” Admiral Grant Sharp was another critic of the mass media. He argued: “The reality of the 1968 Tet offensive was that Hanoi had taken a big gamble and had lost on the battlefield, but they won a solid psychological victory in the United States.” Sharp believed that the biased reporting of the Tet offensive convinced the American public and the government that the war was being lost and the only option was to withdraw from Vietnam.

One of the most influential acts during the war was the decision of Life Magazine to fill one edition of its magazine with photographs of the 242 US soldiers killed in Vietnam during one week of the fighting. It was this type of reporting that encouraged General William Westmoreland, commander of US troops in Vietnam, to accuse the mass media of helping to bring about a National Liberation Front victory. However, defenders of the mass media claimed that reporters were only reflecting the changing opinions of the American people towards the war. Public opinion polls carried out at the time suggest that the tax increases to pay for the war and the death of someone they knew, were far more influential than the mass media in changing people’s attitude towards the war.

In March, 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not stand for re-election in the forthcoming presidential election. The Vietnam War was a central issue in the campaign, with both Hubert Humphrey, theDemocratic Party candidate, and Richard Nixon, his Republican opponent, promising to end the war by obtaining an “honourable peace”. Humphrey, who had been Johnson’s Vice-President and had been closely associated with the failures of the previous four years, was beaten by Nixon in the election. Soon after taking office. President Nixon introduced his policy of “vietnamization”. The plan was to encourage the South Vietnamese to take more responsibility for fighting the war. It was hoped that this policy would eventually enable the United States to withdraw gradually all their soldiers from Vietnam.

To increase the size of the ARVN, a mobilisation law was passed that called up into the army all men in South Vietnam aged between seventeen and forty-three. In June, 1969, Nixon announced the first of the US troop withdrawals. The 540,000 US troops were to be reduced by 25,000. Another 60,000 were to leave the following December. Nixon’s advisers told him that they feared that the gradual removal of all US troops would eventually result in aNational Liberation Front victory. It was therefore agreed that the only way that America could avoid a humiliating defeat was to negotiate a peace agreement in the talks that were taking place in Paris. In an effort to put pressure on North Vietnam in these talks, Nixon developed what has become known as the Madman Theory. Bob Haldeman, one of the US chief negotiators, was told to give the impression that President Nixon was mentally unstable and that his hatred of communism was so fanatical that if the war continued for much longer he was liable to resort to nuclear weapons against North Vietnam.

Another Nixon innovation was the secret Phoenix Program. Vietnamese were trained by the CIA to infiltrate peasant communities and discover the names of NLF sympathisers. When they had been identified, Death Squads were sent in to execute them. Between 1968 and 1971, an estimated 40,974 members of of the NLF were killed in this way. It was hoped that the Phoenix Program would result in the destruction of the NLF organisation, but, as on previous occasions, the NLF was able to replace its losses by recruiting from the local population and by arranging for volunteers to be sent from North Vietnam. From the beginning of the Vietnam War, the NLF had used bases situated just inside the borders of neighbouringCambodia. For many years US military advisers had wanted these bases to be bombed.

President Lyndon B. Johnson had rejected this strategy as he feared it would undermine the anti-communist government of Prince Sihanouk. Soon after becoming president, Richard Nixon gave permission for the bombing of Cambodia. In an effort to avoid international protest at this action, it was decided to keep information about these bombing raids hidden. Pilots were sworn to secrecy and their ‘operational logs’ were falsified. The bombing failed to destroy the NLF bases and so in April, 1970, Nixon decided to send in troops to finish off the job. The invasion of Cambodia provoked a wave of demonstrations in the United States and in one of these, four students were killed when National guardsmen opened fire at Kent State University. In the days that followed, 450 colleges closed in protest against the killings. The arrival of US marines in Cambodia also created hostility amongst the local population.

The Cambodian communist movement, the Khmer Rouge, had received little support from the peasants before the United States invasion. Now they were in a position to appeal to their nationalist sentiments and claimed that Cambodia was about to be taken over by the United States. During 1970 and 1971, membership of the Khmer Rouge grew rapidly. Laos, another country bordering Vietnam, was also invaded by US troops. As with Cambodia, this action increased the support for the communists (Pathet Lao) and by 1973, they controlled most of the country. In 1971, Colonel Robert Heini reported that: “By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near-mutinous.” For sometime stories had been circulating about deteriorating behaviour amongst US soldiers.

Efforts were made by the US army to suppress information about the raping and killing of Vietnamese civilians but eventually, after considerable pressure from certain newspapers, it was decided to put Lieutenant William Calley on trial for war-crimes,

In March, 1971, Calley was found guilty of murdering 109 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. He was sentenced to life imprisonment but he only served three years before being released from prison. During the war, twenty-five US soldiers were charged with war-crimes but William Calley was the only one found guilty Calley received considerable sympathy from the American public when he stated: “When my troops were getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn’t see, I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t touch… nobody in the military system ever described them anything other than Communists.” Even Seymour Hersh, the reporter who had first published details of the My Lai killings, admitted that Calley was “as much a victim as the people he shot.” Critics of the war argued that as the US government totally disregarded the welfare of Vietnamese civilians when it ordered the use of weapons such as napalm and agent orange, it was hypocritical to charge individual soldiers with war-crimes.

As the mother of one of the soldiers accused of killing civilians at My Lai asserted: “I sent them (the US army) a good boy, and they made him a murderer.” Philip Caputo, another US marine accused of killing innocent civilians, wrote later that it was the nature of the war that resulted in so many war-crimes being committed: “In a guerrilla war, the line between legitimate and illegitimate killing is blurred. The policies of free-fire zones, in which a soldier is permitted to shoot at any human target, armed or unarmed… further confuse the righting man’s moral senses.” The publicity surrounding the My Lai massacre proved to be an important turning point in American public opinion. It illustrated the deterioration that was taking place in the behaviour of the US troops and undermined the moral argument about the need to save Vietnam from the “evils of communism”.

Vietnam was not only being destroyed in order to “save it” but it was becoming clear that those responsible for defeating communism were being severely damaged by their experiences. Peace talks between representatives from United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam and the NLF had been taking place in Paris since January, 1969. By 1972, Richard Nixon, like Lyndon B. Johnson before him, had been gradually convinced that a victory in Vietnam was unobtainable. Henry Kissinger was put in charge of peace talks and In October, 1972, he came close to agreeing to a formula to end the war. The plan was that US troops would withdraw from Vietnam in exchange for a cease-fire and the return of 566 American prisoners held in Hanoi. It was also agreed that the governments in North and South Vietnam would remain in power until new elections could be arranged to unite the whole country.

The main problem with this formula was that whereas the US troops would leave the country, the North Vietnamese troops could remain in their positions in the south. In an effort to put pressure on North Vietnam to withdraw its troops. President Richard Nixon ordered a new series of air-raids on Hanoi and Haiphong. It was the most intense bombing attack in world history. In eleven days, 100,000 bombs were dropped on the two cities. The destructive power was equivalent to five times that of the atom bomb used on Hiroshima. This bombing campaign was condemned throughout the world. Newspaper headlines included: “Genocide”, “Stone-Age Barbarism” and “Savage and Senseless”. The North Vietnamese refused to change the terms of the agreement and so in January, 1973, Nixon agreed to sign the peace plan that had been proposed in October. However, the bombing had proved to be popular with many of the American public as they had the impression that North Vietnam had been “bombed into submission.”

The last US combat troops left in March, 1973. It was an uneasy peace and by 1974, serious fighting had broken out between the NLF and the AVRN. Although the US continued to supply the South Vietnamese government with military equipment, their army had great difficulty using it effectively. President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam appealed to President Nixon for more financial aid. Nixon was sympathetic but the United States Congress was not and the move was blocked. At its peak US aid to South Vietnam had reached 30 billion dollars a year. By 1974 it had fallen to 1 billion. Starved of funds, Thieu had difficulty paying the wages of his large army and desertion became a major problem. Le Duc Tho and Vo Nguyen Giap continued to direct the military operations against South Vietnam. The spring of 1975 saw a series of NLF victories.

After important areas such as Danang and Hue were lost in March, panic swept through the AVRN. Senior officers, fearing what would happen after the establishment of an NLF government, abandoned their men and went into hiding. Nguyen Van Thieu announced in desperation that he had a signed letter from Richard Nixon promising military help if it appeared that the NLF were winning in South Vietnam. However, Nixon was no longer in a position to fulfil his promise as he had been forced to resign over Watergate. The new president, Gerald Ford, a strong supporter of US involvement in Vietnam, tried to raise support for the South Vietnamese government but the Senate was adamant that as far as it was concerned, the war was over. On April 23, 1975, President Gerald Ford told the American people: “Today Americans can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished.”

Two days later. President Thieu, accusing the United States of betrayal, resigned and left the country. He was quickly followed by other South Vietnamese leaders and the remaining American advisers. The NLF arrived in Saigon on April 30, 1975. After declaring that Vietnam was now a united country, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established in July 1976. Communist governments were also set-up in Laos and Cambodia. These victories had been at a terrible cost to the people of these countries. Between 1961 and 1975 an estimated 10% of the people living in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos had died. In the same period, 56,869 US troops were killed and another 153,329 were seriously wounded. The long-term psychological damage to the three million soldiers who fought in Vietnam and the resulting social problems are still being counted.

Chemical Warfare
As the United States is the most advanced industrial nation in world it was able to make full use of the latest developments in technology in its war against North Vietnam. B-52 bombers, that could fly at heights that prevented them being seen or heard, dropped 8 million tons of bombs on Vietnam between 1965 and 1973. This was over three times the amount of bombs dropped throughout the whole of the Second World War and worked out at approximately 300 tons for every man, woman and child living in Vietnam. As well as explosive bombs the United States Air Force dropped a considerable number of incendiary devices. The most infamous of these was napalm, a mixture of petrol and a chemical thickner which produces a tough sticky gel that attaches itself to the skin.

The igniting agent, white phosphorus, continues burning for a considerable amount of time. A reported three quarters of all napalm victims in Vietnam were burned through to the muscle and bone (fifth degree burns). The pain caused by the burning is so traumatic that it often causes death. The US also made considerable use of anti-personnel bombs. The pineapple bomb was made up of 250 metal pellets inside a small canister. Gloria Emerson, a reporter in Vietnam, witnessed their use: “An American plane could drop a thousand pineapples over an area the size of four football fields. In a single air strike two hundred and fifty thousand pellets were spewed in a horizontal pattern over the land below, hitting everything on the ground.” The United States also experimented with the use of plastic rather than metal needles and pellets in their antipersonnel bombs. The advantage of plastic was they could not be identified by X-Ray machines.

Dropped on highly populated areas, antipersonnel bombs could severely disrupt the functioning of North Vietnam. It has been claimed that the major objective of the US bombing raids on North Vietnam was not to kill its 17 million population but to maim them. As was pointed out at the time, serious injury is more disruptive than death as people have to be employed to look after the injured where they only have to bury the dead. One of the major problems of the US forces was the detection of the National Liberation Front hiding in the forests of Vietnam. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy approved Operation Ranch Hand. This involved the spraying of chemicals from the air in an attempt to destroy the National Liberation Front hiding places. In 1969 alone, Operation Ranch Hand destroyed 1,034,300 hectares of forest. Agent Orange, the chemical used in this defoliation programme not only destroyed trees but caused chromosomal damage in people. Chemicals were also sprayed on crops.

Between 1962 and 1969, 688,000 agricultural acres were sprayed with a chemical called Agent Blue. The aim of this exercise was to deny food to the NLF. However, research suggests that it was the civilian population who suffered most from the poor rice harvests that followed the spraying. When a report appeared in the St. Louis Dispatch about the dropping of “poison” on North Vietnam the United States denied the herbicide they were using was a chemical weapon. It was claimed that Agent Orange and Agent Blue were harmless to humans and only had a short-lived impact on the environment. This was disputed by international experts and 5,000 American scientists, including 17 Nobel prize winners and 129 members of the Academy of Sciences, signed a petition against chemical and biological weapons being used in Vietnam. However, it was not until 1974 that the United States government stopped using Agent Orange and Agent Blue. A baby in Tu Du Hospital suffering from the consequences of Agent Orange being dropped on Vietnam 30 years ago.

During the war about 10% of Vietnam was intensively sprayed with 72 million litres of chemicals, of which 66% was Agent Orange. Some of this landed on their own troops and soon after the war ended veterans began complaining about serious health problems. There was also a high incidence of their children being born limbless or with Down’s syndrome and spina bifida. The veterans sued the defoliant manufacturers and this was settled out of court in 1984 by the payment of $180 million. The TCCD dioxin used in Agent Orange seeped into the soil and water supply, and therefore into the food chain. In this way it passed from mother to foetus in the womb.

In Vietnam the dioxide remains in the soil and is now damaging the health of the grandchildren of the war’s victims. A report published in 2003 claimed that 650,000 people in Vietnam were still suffering from chronic conditions as a result of the chemicals dropped on the country during the war. Since the war the Vietnamese Red Cross has registered an estimated one million people disabled by Agent Orange. It is estimated that 500,000 people in Vietnam have died from the numerous health problems created by these chemical weapons.

(1) In 1967, the journalist Martha Gellhorn visited Vietnam. Her reports were published in the Ladies’ Home Journal. In the children’s ward of the Qui Nhon province hospital I saw for the first time what Napalm does. A child of seven, the size of our four-year-olds, lay in the cot by the door. Napalm had burned his face and back and one hand. The burned skin looked like swollen red meat; the fingers on his hand were stretched out, burned rigid. A scrap of cheesecloth covered him, for weight is intolerable, but so too is air. (2) A housewife from New Jersey, the mother of six, decided to go to Vietnam and adopt three Vietnamese children. While she was there she visited several hospitals. I had heard and read that napalm melts the flesh, and I thought that’s nonsense, because I can put a roast in the oven and the fat will melt but the meat stays there. Well, I went and saw these children burned by napalm, and it’s absolutely true.

The chemical reaction of this napalm does melt the flesh, and the flesh runs right down their faces onto their chests and it sits there and grows there… These children can’t turn their heads, they were so thick with flesh… And when gangrene sets in, they cut off their hands or fingers or their feet. (3) In 1982 four war veterans returned to Vietnam. This group included Bob Muller, a former lieutenant in the Marines who is paralysed from the waist down after being shot through the spine in Vietnam in 1969. When they returned home they called for the United States government to pay compensation to the Vietnamese people. In Ho Chi Minh City we visited two hospitals which house the deformed children thought to be victims of Agent Orange. Since the dumping on Vietnam of some 11 million gallons of Agent Orange there has been a huge increase in the frequency of genetic malfunctions. Children have been born without eyes, with twisted, mangled limbs, even without brains.

In the main hospital in Tay Ninh, a quarter of all births are miscarriages… Hydrocephalus, or water on the brain, is thought to be one of the many malformations attributable to Agent Orange. At the Tu Do Hospital, doctors need to perform some 100 operations a year on hydrocephalic babies. The operation required is a relatively simple one, frequently performed in the West, using a special silicone tube. But the Vietnamese doctors cannot carry out the operations because they have no silicone tubes… The tubes are manufactured in the US and America has imposed a complete embargo on exports to Vietnam. (4) Joseph Buttinger attempted to document the effect that the war had on the people of Vietnam in his book A Dragon Defiant (1972). The total tonnage of bombs dropped between 1964 and the end of 1971 was 6.2 million. This means that the US has dropped 300 pounds of bombs for every man, woman, and child in Indochina, and 22 tons of bombs for every square mile.

Enormous craters dot the landscape in many regions covering dozens of square miles. Hundreds of villages were totally destroyed by bombs and napalm, forests over vast areas defoliated, making the land infertile for years, and crops destroyed, with little or no consideration for the needs of the people, merely on suspicion that some of the crop might benefit the enemy… The total number of people made refugees is more than 5 million… The rise of the refugee population in South Vietnam was partly due also to the past American policy of removing from countless villages, for strategic reasons, the entire population, and of putting these unfortunate people in what were called refugee camps or relocation centres. (5) Michael Parris, The American Film Industry and the Vietnam War (1987) The American film industry can hardly be accused of ignoring the Vietnam War. But what it has ignored are some of the more unpleasant aspects of that conflict. No film has yet presented any real justification for Americans going to South East Asia other than in the most vague terms such as “treaty obligations”.

No American feature has dealt with the end of the war, the withdrawal of American troops in 1973 or the subsequent fall of Saigon in 1975. It appears that Americans have yet to come to terms with defeat and it seems fashionable to soften the truth with phrases like “the war that nobody won”… All of which diverts attention from the harsh reality – that America suffered a costly military defeat. Other aspects of the war have also been ignored in the cinema’s view of events. There has been no mention of the defoliation programmes or reference to other chemical weapons; nor of the massive bombing campaigns against North Vietnam or Laos. (6) Dr. James Cary, a military scientist involved in Operation Ranch Hand, was interviewed by a Congress Committee investigating Agent Orange in 1988.

When we initiated the herbicide programme in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the military formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the civilian version, due to the lower cost and speed of manufacture. However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned. (7) Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, Spectre Orange, Sunday Times (29th March, 2003) Hong Hanh is falling to pieces. She has been poisoned by the most toxic molecule known to science; it was sprayed during a prolonged military campaign. The contamination persists. No redress has been offered, no compensation. The superpower that spread the toxin has done nothing to combat the medical and environmental catastrophe that is overwhelming her country. This is not northern Iraq, where Saddam Hussein gassed 5,000 Kurds in 1988. Nor the trenches of first world war France.

Hong Hanh’s story, and that of many more like her, is quietly unfolding in Vietnam today. Her declining half-life is spent unseen, in her home, an unremarkable concrete box in Ho Chi Minh City, filled with photographs, family plaques and yellow enamel stars, a place where the best is made of the worst. Hong Hanh is both surprising and terrifying. Here is a 19-year-old who lives in a 10-year-old’s body. She clatters around with disjointed spidery strides which leave her soaked in sweat. When she cannot stop crying, soothing creams and iodine are rubbed into her back, which is a lunar collage of septic blisters and scabs. “My daughter is dying,” her mother says. “My youngest daughter is 11 and she has the same symptoms. What should we do? Their fingers and toes stick together before they drop off. Their hands wear down to stumps. Every day they lose a little more skin. And this is not leprosy.

The doctors say it is connected to American chemical weapons we were exposed to during the Vietnam war. This is a chain of events bitterly denied by the US government. Millions of litres of defoliants such as Agent Orange were dropped on Vietnam, but US government scientists claimed that these chemicals were harmless to humans and short-lived in the environment. US strategists argue that Agent Orange was a prototype smart weapon, a benign tactical herbicide that saved many hundreds of thousands of American lives by denying the North Vietnamese army the jungle cover that allowed it ruthlessly to strike and feint. New scientific research, however, confirms what the Vietnamese have been claiming for years. It also portrays the US government as one that has illicitly used weapons of mass destruction, stymied all independent efforts to assess the impact of their deployment, failed to acknowledge cold, hard evidence of maiming and slaughter, and pursued a policy of evasion and deception.

Teams of international scientists working in Vietnam have now discovered that Agent Orange contains one of the most virulent poisons known to man, a strain of dioxin called TCCD which, 28 years after the fighting ended, remains in the soil, continuing to destroy the lives of those exposed to it. Evidence has also emerged that the US government not only knew that Agent Orange was contaminated, but was rally aware of the killing power of its contaminant dioxin, and yet still continued to use the herbicide in Vietnam for 10 years of the war and in concentrations that exceeded its own guidelines by 25 times.

The Korean War showed the American government that the communist threat was not restricted to Europe. Two regions in particular, appeared vulnerable to communism, Indo-China and Latin America. Indochina had been colonized by the French in the late 19th Century but had been lost to Japan during the Second World War. Resistance groups set-up to fight the Japanese often contained supporters of the communist party and after the allied victory in 1945, France attempted to reestablish control. Western governments feared that if France was unsuccessful in this, communism might spread throughout the whole of South East Asia. The same reasoning was applied to Latin America after guerrilla fighters, under the leadership of Fidel Castro, overthrew Fulgencio Batista, the right-wing dictator of Cubain 1959.

To justify his support for South Vietnam, President Dwight Eisenhower and Vice-President Richard Nixon put forward the ‘domino theory. It was argued that if the first domino is knocked over then the rest topple in turn. Applying this to South-east Asia he argued that if South Vietnam was taken by communists, then the other countries in the region such as Loas, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia, would follow. John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States in November, 1960. In the first speech he made to the American public as their President, Kennedy made it clear that he intended to continue Elsenhower’s policy of supporting Ngo Dinh Diem and his South Vietnamese government. He argued that if South Vietnam became a communist state, the whole of the non-communist world would be at risk.

If South Vietnam fell, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Philippines, New Zealand and Australia would follow. If communism was not halted in Vietnam it would gradually spread throughout the world. Kennedy went on to argue: “No other challenge is more deserving of our effort and energy… Our security may be lost piece by piece, country by country.” Under his leadership, America would be willing to: “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

The term ‘guerrilla’ originates from the actions of small bands of Spanish soldiers who fought against Napolean’s French army in the Peninsular War (1807-1814). The word ‘guerrilla’ is Spanish for “little war”. The tactics employed by “guerrillas” date back to the ideas of Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist who lived over 2000 years ago. Sun Tzu argued that all warfare involves the employing of one’s strength to exploit the weakness of the enemy. In his book, The Art of War, Sun Tzu gives several suggestions on how to defeat an enemy that is larger and better equipped than your own army. Sun Tzu’s ideas were successfully adapted by Mao Zedong, the leader of the communist forces in China. The establishment of a communist government in China was an inspiration to all revolutionaries in South East Asia. This was especially true of China’s neighbour, Vietnam. The strategy and tactics of the National Liberation Front were very much based on those used by Mao Zedong in China. The NLF was organised into small groups of between three to ten soldiers. These groups were called cells. These cells worked together but the knowledge they had of each other was kept to the bare minimum.

Therefore, when a guerrilla was captured and tortured, his confessions did not do too much damage to the NLF. The initial objective of the NLF was to gain the support of the peasants living in the rural areas. According to Mao Zedong, the peasants were the sea in which the guerrillas needed to swim: “without the constant and active support of the peasants… failure is inevitable.” When the NLF entered a village they obeyed a strict code of behaviour. All members were issued with a series of ‘directives’. These included:” (1) Not to do what is likely to damage the land and crops or spoil the houses and belongings of the people; (2) Not to insist on buying or borrowing what the people are not willing to sell or lend; (3) Never to break our word; (4) Not to do or speak what is likely to make people believe that we hold them in contempt; (5) To help them in their daily work (harvesting, fetching firewood, carrying water, sewing, etc.).” Most peasants in South Vietnam were extremely poor.

For centuries, the Vietnamese peasants had accepted this state of affairs because they believed that poverty was a punishment for crimes committed by their ancestors. The NLF educated the peasants in economics and explained how poverty was the result of the landowner’s selfishness. They pointed out that fifty per cent of the agricultural land in South Vietnam was owned by only two and a half per cent of the population. Two thirds of the peasants owned no land at all and were therefore forced to work for the rich landlords. The NLF’s solution to this problem was to take the property of the large landowners and distribute it amongst the peasants. In some cases, the landowners were executed as a punishment for the way they had treated the peasants in the past. In return for the land they had been given, the peasants agreed to help the NLF by feeding and hiding them. In some cases, the peasants also agreed to take up arms with the NLF and help ‘liberate’ other villages.

The peasants were motivated by fear as well as a sense of gratitude. The NLF told them that if the United States Marines or ARVN managed to gain control of the village, they would take the land back. Given this situation, it is not surprising that the peasants saw the NLF as their friends and the US Marines/ARVN as the enemy. This view was re-inforced if the NLF left the village to escape advancing US or South Vietnamese troops. In an effort to discover information about the NLF, the peasants were sometimes tortured. If evidence was found of the NLF being in the village, the people were punished. As William Ehrhart, a US marine explained:”… they’d be beaten pretty badly, maybe tortured. Or they might be hauled off to jail, and God knows what happened to them. At the end of the day, the villagers would be turned loose. Their homes had been wrecked, their chickens killed, their rice confiscated – and if they weren’t pro-Vietcong before we got there, they sure as hell were by the time we left.” As well as taking over the running of villages, the NLF would send out patrols into government controlled areas.

The tactics they employed have been described by Robert Taber, who fought with the guerrillas in Cuba, as the war of the flea: “The flea bites, hops, and bites again, nimbly avoiding the foot that would crush him. He does not seek to kill his enemy at a blow, but to bleed him and feed on him, to plague and bedevil him… All this requires time. Still more time is required to breed more fleas… the military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages: too much to defend; too small and agile an enemy to come to grips with.” To defeat the more powerful enemy, the guerrilla needs to dictate the terms of warfare. In the words of Mao Zedong: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.” The NLF was told not to go into combat unless it outnumbered the enemy and was certain of winning. It therefore concentrated on attacking small patrols or poorly guarded government positions.

To increase its advantage, the NLF relied heavily on night attacks. At first the NLF used hand-made weapons such as spears, daggers and swords. However, over a period of time, it built up a large supply of captured weapons. A US army survey of weapons in 1964 discovered that 90% of weapons taken from the NLF had previously belonged to the ARVN and the US army. In 1965, General William Westmoreland developed the aggressive strategy of ‘search and destroy’. The objective was to find and then kill members of the NLF. The US soldiers found this difficult. As one marine captain explained: “You never knew who was the enemy and who was the friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike.” Innocent civilians were often killed by mistake. As one Marine officer admitted they “were usually counted as enemy dead, under the unwritten rule ‘If he’s dead and Vietnamese, he’s VC’.”

In the villages they controlled, the NLF often built underground tunnels. These tunnels led out of the villages into the jungle. They also contained caverns where they stored their printing presses, surgical instruments and the equipment for making booby traps and land mines. If US patrols arrived in the village unexpectedly, the NLF would hide in these underground caverns. Even if the troops found the entrance to the tunnels, they could not go into the tunnels as they were often too small for the much larger American soldiers. The overall strategy of guerrilla warfare is to involve the enemy in a long-drawn out war. The aim is to wear down gradually the much larger and stronger enemy. It is only when all the rural areas are under their control and they are convinced that they outnumber the opposition, that the guerrillas come out into the open and take part in conventional warfare. Thus the NLF, who were based in the thick forests of South Vietnam, began by taking control of the villages in the rural areas. As their strength grew and the enemy retreated, they began to take the smaller towns.

Gulf of Tonkin
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, his deputy, Lyndon B. Johnson became the new president of the United States. Johnson was a strong supporter of the Domino Theory and believed that the prevention of anNational Liberation Front victory in South Vietnam was vital to the defence of the United States: “If we quit Vietnam, tomorrow we’ll be fighting in Hawaii and next week we’ll have to fight in San Francisco.” Johnson, like Kennedy before him, came under pressure from his military advisers to take more ‘forceful’ action against North Vietnam and the NLF. The Joint Chiefs of Staff advised Johnson to send United States combat troops to South Vietnam. The overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem had not resulted in preventing the growth of the NLF.

The new leader of South Vietnam, General Khanh, was doubtful that his own army was strong enough to prevent a communist victory. Johnson told his Joint Chiefs of Staff that he would do all that was necessary to prevent the NLF winning in South Vietnam but was unwilling to take unpopular measures like sending troops to tight in a foreign war, until after the 1964 Presidential Elections. Just let me get elected,” he told his military advisers, “and then you can have your war.” As the election was not due for another eleven months, the Joint Chiefs of Staff feared that this was too long to wait. They therefore suggested another strategy that would be less unpopular with the American public as it would result in fewer of the men being killed. For sometime, military intelligence officers working in Vietnam had believed that without the support of the Hanoi government, the NLF would not survive. They therefore advocated the bombing of Hanoi in an attempt to persuade North Vietnam to cut off supplies to the NLF.

Curtis LeMay, the commander of the US air force, argued that by using the latest technology, North Vietnam could be blasted “back to the Stone Age.” Others pointed out that “terror” raids on civilian populations during the Second World War had not proved successful and claimed that a better strategy would be to bomb selected targets such as military bases and fuel depots. Lyndon B. Johnson preferred the latter proposal but was aware he would have difficulty convincing the American public and the rest of the world that such action was justified. He therefore gave permission for a plan to be put into operation that he surmised would eventually enable him to carry out the bombing raids on North Vietnam. Operation Plan 34A involved the sending of Asian mercenaries into North Vietnam to carry out acts of sabotage and the kidnapping or killing of communist officials.

As part of this plan, it was decided to send US destroyers into North Vietnamese waters to obtain information on their naval defences. On August 2, 1964, the US destroyer, “Maddox” was fired upon by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. In retaliation, “Maddox” fired back and hit all three, one of which sank. The “Maddox” then retreated into international waters but the next day it was ordered to return to the Gulf of Tonkin. Soon after entering North Vietnamese waters, Captain Herrick reported that he was under attack. However, later he sent a message that raised doubts about this: “Review of action makes reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather reports and over-eager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No actual sightings by “Maddox”. Suggest complete evaluation before further action.” Johnson now had the excuse he had been waiting for and ignored Captain Herrick’s second message. He ordered the bombing of four North Vietnamese torpedo-boat bases and an oil-storage depot that had been planned three months previously.

President Johnson then went on television and told the American people that: “Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defence, but with a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight.” Johnson asked Congress to approve his decision to bomb North Vietnam. Ernest Gruening of Alaska advised Johnson to “disengage immediately, to relieve all our military of combat assignments and bring them home at once.” Gruening made a speech where he argued: “I consider the life of one American boy worth more than this putrid mess. I consider every additional life that is sacrificed in this forlorn venture a tragedy. Someday…. if this sacrificing is continued it will be denounced as a crime.” Along with Wayne Morse of Oregon, he voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized an expansion of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Gruening pointed out in Many Battles (1973): “I detailed my objections to the resolution on the second day of the debate, and again on the third. But the resolution was adopted by eighty-eight yeas to two nays, that of Senator Morse and mine… What none of the senators and representatives knew, however, was that they had been misled about the Tonkin Gulf incident. The facts would not be fully revealed until four years later when, on February 20, 1968, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reopened an investigation into what actually had or had not happened in the Tonkin Gulf. But even before these subsequent disclosures, Senator Fulbright publicly and repeatedly expressed regret for his sponsorship and support of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. He said he had been deceived. The Congress had been bamboozled into giving the President the unlimited power he sought to wage war in Southeast Asia.

Had the Congress not been misinformed by the executive branch, the resolution would never have been adopted.” The House of Representatives passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution by 416 to 0. This resolution authorised the President to take all necessary measures against Vietnam and the National Liberation Front. President Johnson’s belief that the bombing raid on North Vietnam in August, 1964, would persuade Ho Chi Minh to cut off all aid to the NLF was unfounded. In the run-up to the November election, the NLF carried out a series of attacks and only two days before the election, the US air base near Saigon was mortared and four Americans were killed. Barry Goldwater, the right-wing Republican candidate for the presidency, called for an escalation of the war against the North Vietnamese. In comparison to Goldwater, Lyndon B. Johnson was seen as the ‘peace’ candidate. People feared that Goldwater would send troops to fight in Vietnam.

Johnson, on the other hand, argued that he was not willing: “to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” In the election of November, 1964, the voters decided to reject Goldwater’s aggressive policies against communism and Johnson won a landslide victory. What the American public did not know was that President Johnson was waiting until the election was over before carrying out the policies that had been advocated by his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a complex web of different jungle paths that enabled communist troops to travel from North Vietnam to areas close to Saigon. It has been estimated that the National Liberation Front received sixty tons of aid per day from this route. Most of this was carried by porters. Occasionally bicycles and ponies would also be used. At regular intervals along the route the NLF built base camps. As well as providing a place for them to rest, the base camps provided medical treatment for those who had been injured or had fallen ill on the journey. In the early days of the war it took six months to travel from North Vietnam to Saigon on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But the more people who travelled along the route the easier it became.

By 1970, fit and experienced soldiers could make the journey in six weeks. From the air the Ho Chi Minh Trail was impossible to identify and although the United States Air Force tried to destroy this vital supply line by heavy bombing, they were unable to stop the constant flow of men and supplies. The main danger to the people who travelled on the Ho Chi Minh Trail was not American bombs but diseases like malaria. In the early days, as many as 10 per cent of the porters travelling down the trail died of disease. The North Vietnamese also used the Ho Chi Minh Trail to send soldiers to the south. At times, as many as 20,000 soldiers a month came from Hanoi in this way. In an attempt to stop this traffic, it was suggested that a barrier of barbed wire and minefields called the McNamara Line should be built. This plan was abandoned in 1967 after repeated attacks by the NLF on those involved in constructing this barrier.

Vietnam and the Mass Media
The US administration, unlike-most governments at war, made no official attempt to censure the reporting in the Vietnam War. Every night on colour television people saw pictures of dead and wounded marines. Dean Rusk, US Secretary of State, pointed out that: “This was the first struggle fought on television in everybody’s living room every day… whether ordinary people can sustain a war effort under that kind of daily hammering is a very large question.” Newspaper reporters and television commentators were free to question the wisdom of fighting the war. Military leaders accused their critics of being “unpatriotic” and guilty of “helping the enemy.” The Generals were especially angered by the way the media covered the Tet Offensive.

General Maxwell Taylor wrote later: “The picture of a few flaming Saigon houses, presented by a gloomy-voiced telecaster as an instance of the destruction caused in the capital, created the inevitable impression that this was the way it was in all or most of Saigon.” Admiral Grant Sharp was another critic of the mass media. He argued: “The reality of the 1968 Tet offensive was that Hanoi had taken a big gamble and had lost on the battlefield, but they won a solid psychological victory in the United States.” Sharp believed that the biased reporting of the Tet offensive convinced the American public and the government that the war was being lost and the only option was to withdraw from Vietnam.

One of the most influential acts during the war was the decision of Life Magazine to fill one edition of its magazine with photographs of the 242 US soldiers killed in Vietnam during one week of the fighting. It was this type of reporting that encouraged General William Westmoreland, commander of US troops in Vietnam, to accuse the mass media of helping to bring about a National Liberation Front victory. However, defenders of the mass media claimed that reporters were only reflecting the changing opinions of the American people towards the war. Public opinion polls carried out at the time suggest that the tax increases to pay for the war and the death of someone they knew, were far more influential than the mass media in changing people’s attitude towards the war.

My Lai Massacre
In 1971, Colonel Robert Heini reported that: “By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near-mutinous.” For sometime stories had been circulating about deteriorating behaviour amongst US soldiers. Efforts were made by the US army to suppress information about the raping and killing of Vietnamese civilians but eventually, after considerable pressure from certain newspapers, it was decided to put Lieutenant William Calley on trial for war-crimes,

In March, 1971, Calley was found guilty of murdering 109 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. He was sentenced to life imprisonment but he only served three years before being released from prison. During the war, twenty-five US soldiers were charged with war-crimes but William Calley was the only one found guilty Calley received considerable sympathy from the American public when he stated: “When my troops were getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn’t see, I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t touch… nobody in the military system ever described them anything other than Communists.” Even Seymour Hersh, the reporter who had first published details of the My Lai killings, admitted that Calley was “as much a victim as the people he shot.” Critics of the war argued that as the US government totally disregarded the welfare of Vietnamese civilians when it ordered the use of weapons such as napalm and agent orange, it was hypocritical to charge individual soldiers with war-crimes.

As the mother of one of the soldiers accused of killing civilians at My Lai asserted: “I sent them (the US army) a good boy, and they made him a murderer.” Philip Caputo, another US marine accused of killing innocent civilians, wrote later that it was the nature of the war that resulted in so many war-crimes being committed: “In a guerrilla war, the line between legitimate and illegitimate killing is blurred. The policies of free-fire zones, in which a soldier is permitted to shoot at any human target, armed or unarmed… further confuse the righting man’s moral senses.” The publicity surrounding the My Lai massacre proved to be an important turning point in American public opinion. It illustrated the deterioration that was taking place in the behaviour of the US troops and undermined the moral argument about the need to save Vietnam from the “evils of communism”. Vietnam was not only being destroyed in order to “save it” but it was becoming clear that those responsible for defeating communism were being severely damaged by their experiences.

Operation Thunder
Military intelligence officers working in Vietnam believed that without the support of the Ho Chi Minh government, the National Liberation Front would not survive. They therefore advocated the bombing of Hanoi in an attempt to persuade North Vietnam to cut off supplies to the NLF. Curtis LeMay, the commander of the US air force, argued that by using the latest technology, North Vietnam could be blasted “back to the Stone Age.” Others pointed out that “terror” raids on civilian populations during the Second World War had not proved successful and claimed that a better strategy would be to bomb selected targets such as military bases and fuel depots. Three months after being elected president, Lyndon B. Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder. Unlike the single bombing raid in August 1964, this time the raids were to take place on a regular basis.

The plan was to destroy the North Vietnam economy and to force her to stop helping the guerrilla fighters in the south. Bombing was also directed against territory controlled by the NLF in South Vietnam. The plan was for Operation Rolling Thunder to last for eight weeks but it lasted for the next three years. In that time, the US dropped 1 million tons of bombs on Vietnam. The response of the NLF to ‘Rolling Thunder’ was to concentrate its attacks on the US air bases in South Vietnam. General Westmoreland, the person in charge of the military advisers in Vietnam, argued that his 23,000 men were unable to defend adequately the US air bases and claimed that without more soldiers, the NLF would take over control of South Vietnam. On March 8, 3,500 US marines arrived in South Vietnam. They were the first ‘official’ US combat troops to be sent to the country. This dramatic escalation of the war was presented to the American public as being a short-term measure and did not cause much criticism at the time.

A public opinion poll carried out that year indicated that nearly 80% of the American public supported the bombing raids and the sending of combat troops to Vietnam. As the United States is the most advanced industrial nation in world it was able to make full use of the latest developments in technology in its war against North Vietnam. B-52 bombers, that could fly at heights that prevented them being seen or heard, dropped 8 million tons of bombs on Vietnam between 1965 and 1973. This was over three times the amount of bombs dropped throughout the whole of the Second World War and worked out at approximately 300 tons for every man, woman and child living in Vietnam. As well as explosive bombs the US air force dropped a considerable number of incendiary devices. The most infamous of these was napalm, a mixture of petrol and a chemical thickner which produces a tough sticky gel that attaches itself to the skin.

The igniting agent, white phosphorus, continues burning for a considerable amount of time. A reported three quarters of all napalm victims in Vietnam were burned through to the muscle and bone (fifth degree burns). The pain caused by the burning is so traumatic that it often causes death. The US also made considerable use of anti-personnel bombs. The pineapple bomb was made up of 250 metal pellets inside a small canister. Gloria Emerson, a reporter in Vietnam, witnessed their use: “An American plane could drop a thousand pineapples over an area the size of four football fields. In a single air strike two hundred and fifty thousand pellets were spewed in a horizontal pattern over the land below, hitting everything on the ground.” The United States also experimented with the use of plastic rather than metal needles and pellets in their anti-personnel bombs.

The advantage of plastic was they could not be identified by X-Ray machines. Dropped on highly populated areas, anti-personnel bombs could severely disrupt the functioning of North Vietnam. It has been claimed that the major objective of the US bombing raids on North Vietnam was not to kill its 17 million population but to maim them. As was pointed out at the time, serious injury is more disruptive than death as people have to be employed to look after the injured where they only have to bury the dead. One of the major problems of the US forces was the detection of the NLF hiding in the forests of Vietnam. In 1962, President Kennedy approved Operation Ranch Hand. This involved the spraying of chemicals from the air in an attempt to destroy the NLF hiding places.

In 1969 alone, Operation Ranch Hand destroyed 1,034,300 hectares of forest. ‘Agent Orange’, the chemical used in this defoliation programme not only destroyed trees but caused chromosomal damage in people. Chemicals were also sprayed on crops. Between 1962 and 1969, 688,000 agricultural acres were sprayed with a chemical called ‘Agent Blue’. The aim of this exercise was to deny food to the NLF. However, research suggests that it was the civilian population who suffered most from the poor rice harvests that followed the spraying. In economic terms, the bombing hurt the economy of the United States more than North Vietnam. By the beginning of 1968, it was estimated that $300 million of damage had been done to North Vietnam. However, in the process, 700 US aircraft, valued at $900 million had been shot down. When all factors were taken into consideration it was argued that it cost the United States “ten dollars for every dollar’s worth of damage inflicted.”

Strategic Hamlet
In 1962, the Strategic Hamlet programme was introduced. For sometime the governments of South Vietnam and the United States had been concerned about the influence of the NLF on the peasants. In an attempt to prevent this they moved the peasants into new villages in areas under the control of the South Vietnamese army. A stockade was built around the village and these were then patrolled by armed guards. This strategy failed dismally and some observers claimed that it actually increased the number of peasants joining the NLF. As one pointed out: “Peasants resented working without pay to dig moats, implant bamboo stakes, and erect fences against an enemy that did not threaten them but directed its sights against government officials.” In the majority of cases the peasants did not want to move and so the South Vietnamese army often had to apply force. This increased the hostility of the peasants towards the Ngo Dinh Diem government.

The peasants were angry at having to travel longer distances to reach their rice fields. Others were upset for religious reasons for they believed that it was vitally important to live where their ancestors were buried. Kennedy became worried when he was informed that despite the Strategic Hamlet programme, the membership of the National Liberation Front had grown to over 17,000 – a 300 per cent increase in two years – and that they now controlled over one-fifth of the villages in South Vietnam.

Tet Offensive
In September, 1967, the NLF launched a series of attacks on American garrisons. General William Westmoreland, the commander of US troops in Vietnam, was delighted. Now at last the National Liberation Front was engaging in open combat. At the end of 1967, Westmoreland was able to report that the NLF had lost 90,000 men. He told President Lyndon B. Johnson that the NLF would be unable to replace such numbers and that the end of the war was in sight. Every year on the last day of January, the Vietnamese paid tribute to dead ancestors. In 1968, unknown to the Americans, the NLF celebrated the Tet New Year festival two days early. For on the evening of 31st January, 1968, 70,000 members of the NLF launched a surprise attack on more than a hundred cities and towns in Vietnam. It was now clear that the purpose of the attacks on the US garrisons in September had been to draw out troops from the cities.

The NLF even attacked the US Embassy in Saigon. Although they managed to enter the Embassy grounds and kill five US marines, the NLF was unable to take the building. However, they had more success with Saigon’s main radio station. They captured the building and although they only held it for a few hours, the event shocked the self-confidence of the American people. In recent months they had been told that the NLF was close to defeat and now they were strong enough to take important buildings in the capital of South Vietnam. Another disturbing factor was that even with the large losses of 1967, the NLF could still send 70,000 men into battle. The Tet Offensive proved to be a turning point in the war. In military terms it was a victory for the US forces. An estimated 37,000 NLF soldiers were killed compared to 2,500 Americans. However, it illustrated that the NLF appeared to have inexhaustible supplies of men and women willing to fight for the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government.

In March, 1968, President Johnson was told by his Secretary of Defence that in his opinion the US could not win the Vietnam War and recommended a negotiated withdrawal. Later that month, President Johnson told the American people on national television that he was reducing the air-raids on North Vietnam and intended to seek a negotiated peace.

Vietnamization
Soon after taking office. President Richard Nixon introduced his policy of “vietnamization”. The plan was to encourage the South Vietnamese to take more responsibility for fighting the war. It was hoped that this policy would eventually enable the United States to withdraw gradually all their soldiers from Vietnam. To increase the size of the ARVN, a mobilisation la\v was passed that called up into the army all men in South Vietnam aged between seventeen and forty-three. In June, 1969, Nixon announced the first of the US troop withdrawals. The 540,000 US troops were to be reduced by 25,000. Another 60,000 were to leave the following December. Nixon’s advisers told him that they feared that the gradual removal of all US troops would eventually result in aNational Liberation Front victory. It was therefore agreed that the only way that America could avoid a humiliating defeat was to negotiate a peace agreement in the talks that were taking place in Paris.

In an effort to put pressure on North Vietnam in these talks, Nixon developed what has become known as the Madman Theory. Bob Haldeman, one of the US chief negotiators, was told to give the impression that President Nixon was mentally unstable and that his hatred of communism was so fanatical that if the war continued for much longer he was liable to resort to nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. Another Nixon innovation was the secret Phoenix Program. Vietnamese were trained by the CIA to infiltrate peasant communities and discover the names of NLF sympathisers. When they had been identified, Death Squads were sent in to execute them. Between 1968 and 1971, an estimated 40,974 members of of the NLF were killed in this way. It was hoped that the Phoenix Program would result in the destruction of the NLF organisation, but, as on previous occasions, the NLF was able to replace its losses by recruiting from the local population and by arranging for volunteers to be sent from North Vietnam.

The Vietcong
The Vietnamese Communists, or Vietcong, were the military branch of the National Liberation Front (NLF), and were commanded by the Central Office for South Vietnam, which was located near the Cambodian border. For arms, ammunition and special equipment, the Vietcong depended on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Other needs were met inside South Vietnam.

Main force Vietcong units were uniformed, full-time soldiers, and were used to launch large scale offensives over a wide area. Regional forces were also full-time, but operated only within their own districts. When necessary, small regional units would unite for large scale attacks. If enemy pressure became too great, they would break down into smaller units and scatter. Unlike the main troops, who saw themselves as professional soldiers, local Vietcong groups tended to be far less confident. For the most part, recruits were young teenagers, and while many were motivated by idealism, others had been pressured or shamed into joining. They also harbored real doubts about their ability to fight heavily armed and well-trained American soldiers.

Initially, local guerrillas were given only a basic minimum of infantry training, but if they were recruited to a main force unit, they could receive up to a month of advanced instruction. Additionally, there were dozens of hidden centers all over South Vietnam for squad and platoon leader, weapons and radio training. To ensure that the guerrillas understood why they were fighting, all training courses included political instruction. By the mid-1960s, most main force Vietcong troops were armed with Chinese versions of the Russian AK-47 submachine gun. They also used a range of effective Soviet and Chinese light and medium machine guns, and infrequently, heavy machine guns. In particular, heavy machine guns were valued for defense against American helicopters. For destroying armored vehicles or bunkers, the Vietcong had highly effective rocket propelled grenades and recoilless rifles. Mortars were also available in large numbers and had the advantage of being very easy to transport.

Many weapons, including booby traps and mines, were homemade in villages. The materials ranged from scavenged tin can to discarded wire, but the most important ingredients were provided by the enemy. In a year, dud American bombs could leave more than 20,000 tons of explosives scattered around the Vietnamese countryside. After air-raids, volunteers retrieved the duds and the dangerous business of creating new weapons began. Local forces also designed primitive weapons, some designed to frighten intruders, but others were extremely dangerous. “Punji traps” — sharp spikes hidden in pits — could easily disable an enemy soldier. Punjis were often deliberately contaminated to increase the risk of infection.

The Vietcong were masters at moving through and blending into the local terrain

Guerrilla Tactics
In December 1965, Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese leadership ordered a change in a way the war in the South was to be fought. From now on, the Vietcong would avoid pitched battles with the Americans unless the odds were clearly in their favor. There would be more hit and run attacks and ambushes. To counter the American build-up, Vietcong recruitment would be stepped up and more North Vietnamese Army troops would be infiltrated into South Vietnam. The Vietcong, following the example of Chinese guerillas before them, had always given the highest priority to creating safe base areas. They were training grounds, logistics centers and headquarters. They also offered secure sanctuaries for times when the war might go badly. Hiding the base areas had always been a high priority for the Vietcong. Now, with American spotter planes everywhere, it was more vital than ever to protect them.

In remote swamps or forests, there were few problems, but nearer the capital, it was much more difficult. The answer was to build enormous systems of underground tunnels. The orders coming from NLF headquarters were absolutely clear. Tunnels were not to be treated as mere shelters. They were fighting bases capable of providing continuous support for troops. Even if a village was in enemy hands, the NLF beneath were still able to conduct offensive operations. There were complexes big and small scattered across the country. Each villager in a NLF area had to dig three feet of tunnel a day. There was even a standard handbook specifying how tunnels were to be built. The biggest tunnel systems were in the Iron Triangle and the Cu Chi District, only 20 miles from Saigon.

An American soldier carefully examines a Vietcong tunnel–they were often boobytrapped if abandoned

Close-up: Cu Chi
The base area at Cu Chi was a vast network, with nearly 200 miles of tunnels. Any facility used by the guerillas — a conference room or training area — had almost immediate underground access. Hidden trapdoors led below, past guarded chambers, to long passages. At regular intervals, branches led back to the surface and other secret entrances. Some openings were even concealed beneath the waters of streams or canals. At the deeper levels, there were chambers carved out for arms factories and a well for the base’s water supply. There were store rooms for weapons anad rice, and there was sometimes a hospital or forward aid station. Long communication tunnels connected the base with other distant complexes. Base kitchens were always near the surface, with long, carved-out chimneys designed to diffuse cooking smoke and release it some distance away. Near the kitchens were the guerilla’s sleeping chambers, where they could survive for weeks at a time if need be. Everywhere on the top level, there were tunnels leading upwards to hundreds of hidden firing posts for defense of the base.

954

May 7, 1954

Vietnamese forces occupy the French command post at Dien Bien Phu and the French commander orders his troops to cease fire. The battle had lasted 55 days. Three thousand French troops were killed, 8,000 wounded. The Viet Minh suffered much worse, with 8,000 dead and 12,000 wounded, but the Vietnamese victory shattered France’s resolve to carry on the war.

Vietnamese forces celebrate their victory over the French

1959

During 1959

A specialized North Vietnamese Army unit, Group 559, is formed to create a supply route from North Vietnam to Vietcong forces in South Vietnam. With the approval of Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, Group 559 develops a primitive route along the Vietnamese/Cambodian border, with offshoots into Vietnam along its entire length. This eventually becomes known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

1961

Late 1961

President John F. Kennedy orders more help for the South Vietnamese government in its war against the Vietcong guerrillas. U.S. backing includes new equipment and more than 3,000 military advisors and support personnel.

President John F. Kennedy

December 11, 1961

American helicopters arrive at docks in South Vietnam along with 400 U.S. personnel, who will fly and maintain the aircraft.

1962

January 12, 1962

In Operation Chopper, helicopters flown by U.S. Army pilots ferry 1,000 South Vietnamese soldiers to sweep a NLF stronghold near Saigon. It marks America’s first combat missions against the Vietcong.

U.S. Army helicopter on an Operation Chopper mission

Early 1962

Operation Ranchhand begins. The goal of Ranchhand is to clear vegetation alongside highways, making it more difficult for the Vietcong to conceal themselves for ambushes. As the war continues, the scope of Ranchhand increases. Vast tracts of forest are sprayed with “Agent Orange,” an herbicide containing the deadly chemical Dioxin. Guerrilla trails and base areas are exposed, and crops that might feed Vietcong units are destroyed.

1963

January 2, 1963

At the hamlet of Ap Bac, the Vietcong 514th Battalion and local guerrilla forces ambush the South Vietnamese Army’s 7th division. For the first time, the Vietcong stand their ground against American machinery and South
Vietnamese soldiers. Almost 400 South Vietnamese are killed or wounded. Three American advisors are slain.

The victory at Ap Bac raised morale and drove recruitment for the Vietcong

1964

April – June 1964

American air power in Southeast Asia is massively reinforced. Two aircraft carriers arrive off the Vietnamese coast prompted by a North Vietnamese offensive in Laos.

July 30, 1964

On this night, South Vietnamese commandos attack two small North Vietnamese islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. The U.S. destroyer Maddox, an electronic spy ship, is 123 miles south with orders to electronically simulate an air attack to draw North Vietnamese boats away from the commandos.

August 4, 1964

The captain of the U.S.S. Maddox reports that his vessel has been fired on and that an attack is imminent. Though he later says that no attack took place, six hours after the initial report, a retaliation against North Vietnam is ordered by President Johnson. American jets bomb two naval bases, and destroy a major oil facility. Two U.S. planes are downed in the attack.

August 7, 1964

The U.S. congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving President Johnson the power to take whatever actions he sees necessary to defend southeast Asia.

President Johnson signs the Resolution

October 1964

China, North Vietnam’s neighbor and ally, successfully tests an atomic bomb.

November 1, 1964

Two days before the U.S. presidential election, Vietcong mortars shell Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon. Four Americans are killed, 76 wounded. Five B-57 bombers are destroyed, and 15 are damaged.

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