In the early 1960s, the American president, John F. Kennedy pledged financial and military aid to the struggling South Vietnam. As political unrest grew the support from a war in North Vietnam grew and 1963, and with John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, President Johnson felt that, to keep in with the U. S. foreign policy of containment, he would have to send a vast amount of young soldiers into Vietnam to help fight the rising influence of the Viet Cong.
For over ten years, the U. S. ledged thousands of young troops and billions in financial aid until public opinion and guerilla tactics forced the U. S. to withdrawal from Vietnam, claiming that they hadn’t been defeated but that they had left in their own right. But in reality, a tiny, lesser economically developed country had successfully defeated a new super power. This was due to many reasons, both short and long-term, such as the political unrest in the U. S. , fighting conditions, military tactics and lack of trained unity within the U. S. forces, all of which will be dealt with in this essay.
In the mid-1800s, Vietnam was colonized by French forces, which imposed dramatic political and cultural changes on to the country. And though they helped boost the country’s economy, fuelled by exports, the French government often ignore calls for self-government and to improve human rights in Vietnam. The French continued their control of Vietnam, until shortly after World War 2, when Japanese forces invaded the country; using the natural resources in Vietnam to continue their wars against British forces in the colonies of Burma, Malay and India.
In 1941, the Japanese government lost control of the colony of Vietnam and a communist and nationalist liberation movement emerged under Ho Chi Minh, who set up a provisional government in Hanoi, desperate for Vietnam to finally be an independent nation. As fighting broke out between Ho Chi Minh’s forces in the north and loyalists in the south, China began to support Ho Chi Minh’s forces, and the North Vietnamese were beginning to be seen as an ally of China and a threat to the US. The U. S. foreign policy, at the time, was dominated by a fear of communism and a need to contain it from spreading throughout the world.
The witch hunts and warmongering caused by McCarthyism, an intense way of anticommunist behavior seen throughout the U. S. in the 1950s, this insured that the American people feared the spread of communism and felt that the Vietnam War was a device they could use to stop the “Domino Effect”, which suggested that the whole of Asia would eventually be controlled by communist states, much like what happened in Eastern Europe under Joseph Stalin.
This theory acted as justification for the U. S. foreign policy. As the fighting escalated, the U. S. poured $500 million dollars a year into the new French war effort, desperate for them to set up a democratic government in the south. The Geneva Peace agreements separated the country into two, following the 17th parallel, and the example of Korea. This was only meant to be temporary, and the unification of the countries put up for vote in 1956. The US foreign policy was one of ignorance and determination. In fact, the 1956 vote didn’t take place due to US interferance because of their fear that the population would support Ho Chi Minh.
Eisenhower said; ’80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist,’ Instead they changed the agreement, sponsoring a new, democratic government in the South, giving over $1. 6 billion dollars in financial aid to the state. This action lead to the election of Ngo Dinh Diem and the start of presidential rule over South Vietnam. As a strict, rich catholic, Diem’s regime alienated the majority of Vietnam’s Buddhist population, his election and rule highlighted how little the US knew of Vietnamese culture, religion and people.
Eventually, in 1975 and after 10 years of war, South Vietnam fell as Saigon was taken by the Communists and the National Liberation Front had won. Both sides had seen the conflict has a symbolic reference to the two political idealogies and the Communist’s victory was a blow to American Pride. Throughout the Vietnam conflict, several long term issue dogged the US’s attempts to deafeat the Viet Cong. Vietnam’s victory had been shocking and extraordinary; the US had gone into the Vietnam conflict with the belief it would only last months, but they were pulled into a war that they could not get out of.
There were many reasons why US forces lost in Vietnam, one was that the US marines and troops had never been trained in guerilla warfare, only conventional warfare. But the Viet Cong were predominately a guerilla movement and the US troops struggled to combat something they had never been trained to fightin especially sticky, wet, hot and foreign conditions. In conditions like these, unlike anything in the US, soldiers spent their time soaked through in heavy uniforms, and developed conditions like trench foot and head lice.
The Viet Cong were very good at exposing these weaknesses using, primarily, the Ho Chi Minh trail to sneak supplies from the North around guerilla forces in the South. The US forces found these shipments very hard to monitor and control, letting the Nation Liberation Front (NLF) take many supplies to the Viet Cong forces. During the Vietnam conflict, North Vietnam was vigorously supported by communist superpowers Russia and the People’s Republic Of China.
Together they sent supplies to the North Vietnamese, along with over 173,000 soldiers which increasd the NFL’s massive manpower and helped reinforce the cause political importance. Both sides had seen the conflict has a symbolic reference to the two political idealogies and China and Russia were desperate to fight off the US’s forces, and to weaken the general public beliefs in containment. Another issue the US had in Vietnam was that they didn’t know who they could trust; they could search entire villages for Viet Cong, find none, and ‘you could go throught that village later and get shot at by a sniper’.
In Vietnam, the majority of the population lived in tiny villages scattered around the jungle, and because of the US’s continuous napalm attacks on their vegetation, these villagers tended to side with the Viet Cong forces. The NLF had managed to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, in both the North and the South, whereas the Americans seemed like a threat to their culture and their land, dropping napalm with no warning to the public.
And napalm did not only kill off vegetation, it also caused death by aphixiation, which means to slowly suffocate to death from lack of oxygen. During these attacks, you could not choose who was effected by the napalm, and the areas were bombs were dropped held just as many innocent civillians as they did Viet Cong, innocent civillains died during these attacks, which only helped to increase the resentment seen towards the Americans.
Tatics used by the US to try and clear out areas of rural Vietnam like Search and Destroy, in which soldiers would enter a village, search for any Viet Cong forces and, whether or not there was any Viet Cong present, they would procede to burn down everything in the village, and in addition attacks like Operation Rolling Thunder, an aerial bombing campaign which lasted from 1965 to 1968, showed the US were more concerned with killing communists than protecting the people of South Vietnam.
Stratergies like these were adopted to try to offset the impact of Guerilla Warfare which the US were not sucessfully coping with. This meant the US forces became a symbol of hostility and invasion the Vietnamese people. Throughout the Vietnam War, troop morale was dangerously low with the average age of a soldier being 19, with the average age of death being 22. 8 years. Troops were only supposed to serve a one year tour in Vietnam, which deprived the US forces of any experienced or qualified leaders it had which only increased the difficulty of combatting Guerilla tactics.
One member of personnel noted, “We were not in Vietnam for 10 years, but for one year 10 times,” This lack of experience and training may have been a main cause of the high death toll (58,159 dead and 2,000 missing out of 553,000 soldiers sent), which became a source of resentment in the general American public. The lack of skill and tactics used by the US army was taken advantage of by Ho Chi Minh, who devised ways of alluding and fighting the US forces’ heavy handed techniques.
However, unlike Korea and World War 2, there were no secure places for troops to rest and relax, wherever they went, they risked being attacked. Homesickness plagued the high majority of troops, for most it was their first time away from home and, also, their first real conflict. This lead to many soldiers relying on drugs, such as heroin, which was locally available, to work through the horrors that they were facong during war-time. The common use of drugs lead to many soldiers being high on duty and soldiers developing serious addictions whilst serving in Vietnam.
This affected not only their physical and mental state, but also their ability to be effective in combat. Over the 10 year period that US troops were in Vietnam, they failed to unify as one, instead many soldiers kept within their own groups, mostly distinguished by a soldier’s race. There was a lot of racism within the troops, and very little respect for higher-ranking officers, who were only a little older than the people they were commanding. A common practice emerged, fragging, where troops would attack, and kill their commanding officers.
It was acts like these that further laienated troops from one another and a break down in the chain of command within the US military and contributed to their withdrawal in 1973. Short term causes were also responsible for the US’s failure in Vietnam, the decline in positive public opinion and the peace movement also contributed to the retreat of the US military in 1973 for it is very difficult for an elected government to continue a war which the voters weren’t happy with. Vietnam was the first major conflict every to be affected by non-propaganda media.
News that was kept from soldiers in the field by the military was released by the American press to the public who, for the first time, could actually see the effects of war through films and images and even radio. Vietnam became the first media war, with the press unafraid to question how the conflict in Vietnam was being fought specifically the use of napalm on villages with Nick Ut;s image of a naked girl running down the streets, trying to peel the napalm from her body, sparking outrage in the United States.
However it was the Mai Lai massacre, the mass murder of 347 to 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians, caused outrage and shock in the US and sparked much political and public outcry over the Vietnam conflict. On March 16 1968, the Charlie Company of 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division, were given the orders to ‘go in there aggressively, close with the enemy and wipe them out for good. ‘ From Colonel Oran K. They proceeded to cordon off the village and systematically kill every Vietnamese person within the hamlet, this included women and children.
This event proved to be a turning point in the war and helped to start the American Peace movement, this movement included students, teachers, journalists and regular citizens. In August 1974, after the repetitive embarssment of the Watergate scandals, Richard Nixon was forced to resign as President of the United States of America, leaving his Vice-President Gerlad Ford to suceed him. Fords reluctance to continue supporting Vietnam lead to him stop all financial aid to Vietnam in December of the same year.
This lack of financial and public support quickly lead to the Fall of Saigon and a hasty tactical retreat of the US troops. On April 30 1974, American helicopters evacuated South Vietnamese, U. S. , and foreign nationals from various parts of the city and from the U. S. embassy compound, Operation Frequent Wind is arguably the biggest helicopter rescue in history, as Viet Cong troops stormed through the city towards the Presidential Palace in Saigon, eager to raise the flag and signal the end of the war.