Vietnam was part of French Indochina, a
French colony in Southeast Asia established in 1887 for the French to
reinforce Catholic missionaries. Indochina was controlled by France up
until World War 2 when France was invaded by Nazi Germany and Japan
invaded Indochina. The Japanese ruled through the former French protectorate
Emperor Bao Dai as a puppet. Ho Chi Minh was the leader of the Viet Minh, a
communist army who rose up against the Japanese occupiers. After the Japanese
defeat in 1945, the Viet Minh declared Vietnamese independence with the
Democratic Republic of Vietnam and Hanoi as its capital, and extended their war
against the French, becoming the First Indochina war. During this time, the Cold
War was setting in and the USA were backing anti communist regimes while the
Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China were backing Pro communist regimes;
the Korean War was a fine example of this. Thusly, China and the Soviet Union
backed the Viet Minh and the USA and Britain backed the French in the south.
The State of Vietnam was established with Emperor Bao Dai as the leader in an
anti communist regime. American military advisors had been helping the French,
though President Eisenhower was reluctant to put US troops on the ground.
The Viet Minh ultimately were victorious and it was decided in the Geneva Accords
that Vietnam be divided into the State of Vietnam and the Democratic Republic
of Vietnam. Cambodia and Laos were also granted independence, ending French
Indochina. Ngo Dinh Diem became the prime minister in the south as South Vietnam
prepared for a referendum on reuniting North and South. Many northern Vietnamese
Catholics fled south while many Viet Minh went north to plan ahead. The North
Vietnam regime sought to take power away from the landlords and distribute the
wealth among the peasants. Many people were executed and wrongly imprisoned. The
referendum was held but many were skeptical about its fairness. Diem rigged
the votes, winning a ridiculously massive majority in keeping the South separate.
Diem declared the south independent and became the Republic of Vietnam with
Saigon as its capital. Thus Vietnam would move into the Second Indochina War,
or simply known in the West as the Vietnam War. The U.S. looked on in fear,
believing that communism would spread like dominoes and if Vietnam fell, it
would threaten India, Japan and other nations in that region. Diem set about
quelling any communist actions in the South arresting and executing many
people. He was a Roman Catholic which was often at odds with the predominantly
Buddhist population. In 1960, communist forces and other anti-government groups
in the south were organized into the National Liberation Front or the
Viet Cong, as they were branded by the South. North Vietnam support came via the
Ho Chi Minh Trail, a border hopping trail connecting north and south via Laos and
Cambodia. Support for the NLF was strongest in the countryside which was
being crushed by extreme rent and landlord reforms by the South government.
The government under US advisement and funding tried to relocate many rural
peasants into strategic hamlets to keep them away from the influence of the NLF
insurgents but the program was a failure and actually ended up strengthening the
NLF. New US President John F Kennedy faced many embarrassments with the
spread of communism such as the Bay of Pigs disaster, the construction of the
Berlin Wall, and the growth of communist power in Laos. He believed Vietnam was
where he could make a strong stand against the spread of communism. Kennedy
was reluctant to put US troops on the ground
believing that the South Vietnam Army had to defeat the NLF on their own, but
they were disorganized, crippled by political corruption, and under constant
attack from guerrilla forces. More and more US military advisors and equipment
were sent to Vietnam to help, but despite this, the South Vietnam Army continued to
suffer silly defeats at the hands of the NLF. By 1963, religious tensions ran high
as the Pro-Catholic government discriminated more and more against
Buddhists, banning their flag, killing protesters and raiding pagodas. Protests
intensified. On November 1st, officers of the South Vietnam army rose up against
the government and captured the leaders in a coup d’état. Ngo Dinh Diem and his
brother and advisor in Ngo Dinh Nhu were brutally assassinated the following day.
NLF took advantage of the political chaos of the south and strengthened
their position with the people. To add even more instability, John F Kennedy was
assassinated in Dallas, Texas less than a month after the coup. Lyndon B Johnson
became the new US president and things changed. After some more coups, General Nguyen Khanh became head of the South Vietnamese military council. The CIA had
been training South Vietnamese forces and sending Vietnamese commandos on
raids in the north. On August 2nd 1964, the u.s. navy ship the USS Maddox was
monitoring signals coming from North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. It fired
three warning shots at some North Vietnam torpedo boats who opened fire
with torpedoes and machine guns. The skirmish resulted in four Vietnamese
casualties and no US casualties. Two days later, a similar incident was reported
from the Maddox but it would later turn out to be false, but not before these
incidents were used by President Johnson to order an air strike and get Congress
to push through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which allowed him to escalate
the United States involvement in Vietnam without an actual declaration of war.
Johnson ensured the u.s. people that he would not be sending American boys over
to Vietnam… before he was reelected. Conscription in the United States known
as The Draft had been on the go constantly since 1940 to fill gaps in
the army where volunteers weren’t joining. As tensions in Vietnam escalated,
many young men tried to avoid the draft which could be a criminal offense. From
1965, the NLF and North Vietnam forces continued their victories against the
south. In February, while new Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin was on a state
visit to strengthen ties with North Vietnam, the MLF attacked a US helicopter
facility in Pleiku. In retaliation, Johnson ordered bombing campaigns over
North Vietnam. It was also decided that the South Vietnam Army weren’t enough to
guard the u.s. air bases so on the 8th of March, the first u.s. ground troops
were sent to South Vietnam in the form of 3,500 Marines. Neighboring Laos fell
into civil war between the us-backed government and the Communist Pathet Lao.
US operation Barrel Roll saw the aerial bombardment of the Pathet Lao, trying to
deny Viet Nam’s access to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but this
didn’t work. One particular bomb which was used by the US throughout the war
was napalm, a sticky, flammable chemical which was very effective at destroying
jungle and causing mass devastation and terror. By the end of 1965, US ground
forces had swollen to 200,000 troops still with the view of defending South
Vietnam, but troop morale was low. This defensive position was soon to change
however as General William Westmoreland believed that US troops could end this
war if they went on the offensive. A three point plan was made with a view to
winning the war. Johnson approved and the war escalated. South Vietnamese Air
Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky became prime minister in mid 1965, bringing a little
political stability to the south. The u.s. called its SETO allies to
contribute troops to the conflict, which they did, as did South Korea. Despite the
change of focus to go on the offensive, the harsh conditions,
and lack of progress, President Johnson and the US government reassured the
public that everything was going as planned.
Amidst the war, the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races rose up to
oppose both North and South and defend minorities in the central highlands of
Vietnam. In December 1966, Ho Chi Minh said of the Americans “if they want to
make war for 20 years, then we shall make war for 20 years. If they want to make
peace, we shall make peace and invite them to tea afterwards.” It was a hard and
grueling war of attrition in which the US had the technological advantage, but
the NLF and North Vietnam had the knowledge of the land and the support of
many of the people. Underground tunnel networks were used by the NLF to
secretly move around the countryside near Saigon, surprising US troops
seemingly out of nowhere. Nguyen Van Thieu became president of south vietnam in
1967 and would remain until 1975. On January 30th 1968, the Vietnamese new
year known as Te’t, the NLF and the North Vietnamese launched a massive offensive
across the south, taking everyone by surprise. The Te’t Offensive saw 85,000
troops attacking over 100 cities including the US Embassy in Saigon.
Despite being caught unawares, the u.s. and South Vietnamese counter-attack was
powerful and effective. The city of Hue, the former capital which lay near the
border of north and south, was fiercely fought over. While occupying the city, NLF
and North Vietnam forces brutally executed over 3,000 people after a month
of fighting. The city was retaken by the US and the south, but there was little
after the city standing. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Media
coverage of journalists on the ground in Vietnam differed from the official line
coming from President Johnson, which damaged his credibility. The u.s.
people’s approval of Johnson and the war plummeted. The conduct of some US forces
was also very controversial. The My Lai massacre in March 1968 saw between 347
and 504 unarmed men women and children massacred by US troops in Son My. The
story didn’t emerge to the public until November 1969. Peace talks between US and
North Vietnam began in Paris in May 1968 which resulted in the stopping of
bombing on North Vietnam. After a presidential campaign with many twists
and turns, Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States. When
Nixon came into office, the war was very unpopular and looking more
and more unwinnable. Nixon began to withdraw troops from Vietnam in 1969
with a view of replacing them with South Vietnam forces. Ho Chi Minh died at the
age of 79 in September 1969. Some ministers and military leaders formed a
Politburo for collective leadership to see an end of the war.
Unbeknownst to the public until the 2000s, Nixon actually sent a squadron of
nuclear-armed B-52 bombers to the Soviet border in October in the hope that
they’d believe he was mad enough to win the war in Vietnam at any cost. The u.s.
bombed NLF and North Vietnamese camps in neighboring Cambodia. North Vietnam
invaded Cambodia in support of the Cambodian communist movement Khmer Rouge,
so US and South Vietnam in turn invaded Cambodia. This escalation angered many.
Nationwide protests in America sprang up and four students were killed by
national guardsmen in Ohio. The south vietnam army invaded Laos looking to cut
off the Ho Chi Minh Trail but it was a complete disaster.
More controversies about the war became publicly known, including the Pentagon
Papers, revealing top-secret documents which were leaked to the New York Times.
Nixon tried to block their publishing but the Supreme Court ruled in favour of
the papers. Nixon did begin to open talks with the Soviet Union and China possibly
to isolate North Vietnam from its communist allies. The Easter offensive
saw a new invasion from the NLF of North Vietnam in 1972. This resulted in the
u.s. recommencing the bombing of North Vietnam which stopped the North’s
offensive. Eventually after Hanoi and Haiphong were heavily bombed at the end
of 1972, North and South came to the negotiating table with the u.s. Around
this time, Lyndon Johnson died of heart disease in Texas. In January 1973, Nixon
suspended any attacks on North Vietnam, ended the draft, and the Paris Accords
were signed, ending the United States involvement in the Vietnam War.
All US ground troops were withdrawn by March. US Secretary of State Henry
Kissinger and North Vietnam foreign minister Le Duc Tho were awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize but Tho refused, as true peace didn’t exist yet in Vietnam,
and right he was. The South’s economy felt the vacuum left by the US Army and
spiking oil prices due to the trouble in the Middle East hit the South hard. In
January 1974, the North used the dry season to retake much lost land from the
south while the United States was embroiled in the Watergate scandal and
Nixon’s ultimate resignation. Seeing the limited response from
the south, the north pressed their advantage in 1975. Poor and Confused
leadership from the southern president led to massive gains by the north, capturing
Da Nang and many other cities. A stream of retreating southern forces and
refugees headed for the coast. With the momentum built, the North moved to capture
Saigon before the monsoon season. A desperate evacuation began of many US
Marines and foreign diplomats by helicopter as Vietnam civilians, trying
desperately to escape, were abandoned. On the 30th of April 1975, North Vietnam
forces entered Saigon, raising the NLF flag and the Vietnam War came to an end.
In 1976 North and South would be unified into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. EDIT: Hanoi* became capitol of the whole country. All of former Indochina was now communist. The massive upheaval in
Cambodia led to the terrible reign of the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot who would
commit genocide of millions of Cambodians. Vietnam would go to war with
Khmer Rouge leading to more war with China and Thailand. Vietnam’s economy
struggled throughout the 70s and 80s with many southern rice farmers refusing
to cooperate with the state-run system, leading to aspects of capitalism
creeping in. The wars and poor living led to many refugees. The US had dropped
7 million tons of bombs across Indochina throughout the war. Much of the
unexploded bombs render much of the potential farmland in the region
unusable to this day. This war deeply scarred the region. It also deeply scarred
the psyche of the United States, the great world superpower which couldn’t
win a war against a small nation of Communists. It led to a weariness
towards u.s. foreign intervention in the future and whether it was worth the
american lives or the lives of those in whichever country for that matter. 58,220 American soldiers were killed during the war. Between 1 and 3 million
Vietnamese were killed. The Cold War would chill on for another decade and
communism did not spread to India or Japan. The government of Vietnam today
still claims to be socialist but contains much of the capitalist
corruption of neoliberalism. It has solid relations with the rest of the world yet
remains scarred by what they refer to as the American War.
Thank you for watching
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