THE VIETNAM WARS: 1946-54; 1958-73; 1973-5



1. The establishment of French rule in Indo-China (that is, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam).

In 1801, the king of Annam (capital Hu'), Nguyen Anh, had re-united Vietnam, which since 1620 had been divided into the Nguyen Dynasty's Annam in the south and the Le Dynasty's Tonkin China in the north (based on Hanoi), with the border almost at the 1954 dividing line of the 17th parallel. In 1802, Nguyen Anh had taken the name Gia Long, and the title Emperor of Vietnam (from the Chinese for "non-Chinese people of the south"), although until 1945, Vietnam was generally called Annam.

1858-62, the Emperor of Annam (1848-83), Tu Duc, was forced to cede to France half of Cochin China (the Saigon area); Tu Duc had rejected all trade with the West, and, more important, tried to wipe out Christianity, for example executing 27 European missionaries, 300 Vietnamese priests, and 30,000 Vietnamese converts.

In 1863, King Norodom of Cambodia (previously a joint Siamese-Annamese protectorate) agreed to his country becoming a French protectorate. The capital Phnom Penh was an important port on the Mekong River, but French merchants were disappointed to find that rapids upstream meant that the river was not a commercial route to the interior and turned their attention to the Red River in Tonkin (the Hanoi area).

In 1867, the rest of Cochin China became a French colony, following attacks on French forces instigated by Tu Duc.

In 1883, Tu Duc, after some years of uneasy relations with French merchants, was forced to agree to a French protectorate over Tonkin and Annam, 

In 1887, Cochin China (the Saigon area), Annam (capital Hu�, situated in the centre of Vietnam), Tonkin  (Hanoi and the north) and Cambodia were united by the French into what was called the Indo-Chinese Union.

In 1893, the Kingdom of Laos was made a French protectorate and included in Indo-China. This was partly for prestige reasons and partly because of disorders in the country. The French also feared that the Siamese (nowadays called Thais) would take over.

2. The French takeover in Indo-China was displeasing to the Chinese, who regarded the area as tributary. For example, between 207 and 111 BC, the Chinese had conquered Vietnam, which only gained independence in 939 AD. Even so, the Vietnamese had had to recognize Chinese sovereignty, and tribute, in the form of gold and precious stones, had been sent regularly to forestall Chinese intervention.

The Cambodians and Laotians were less hostile to the French presence, as it gave them security against the Vietnamese and Siamese, who had persistently attacked and taken over Cambodian and Laotian land.

3. French rule.

i. Administration.

This was headed by Admiral Governors until 1879 when a civilian Governor was appointed. After 1887, when Annam, Cambodia, Cochin-China and Tonkin were united into the Indo-Chinese Union (with Laos being added in 1893), there was a Governor General.

Below the Governors were the Residents, appointed to the state capitals of Annam, Tonkin, etc, and also to the provincial capitals. Residents carried out the Governor's instructions and supervised local officials, who enjoyed a certain degree of independence, although less so in Cochin China which was a colony. Residents appointed to the royal courts supervised the courts, the kings and emperor not being allowed to initiate legislation without the approval of the Resident.

The French did not interfere in the royal succession unless it was felt necessary. Thus, in 1889, the Vietnamese royal family was allowed to select Thanh Thai on the death of Dong Khanh. However, Thanh Thai increasingly showed a passion for eccentric practical jokes and sadism and in 1907 was deposed, after which Vietnamese emperors were selected by the French military doctor in Hu� on grounds of mental and physical fitness.

At various levels, there were Colonial Councils composed only of Vietnamese (except in Cochin-China where the French were also represented), elected on a limited franchise, but these were advisory only and were not allowed to discuss politics.

The French considered colonies as Outer or Overseas France and had no concept of eventual independence. The goal was to make the colonial peoples "civilized", by which they meant "thoroughly French". As far as possible, Vietnamese were excluded from all but the minor posts, so that as late as 1937, Vietnam, with a population of 30,000,000, had 3 times as many French officials as British India with its population of 400,000,000 had British officials. The number of French officials was greatest in Cochin-China, a straight colony.

Vietnamese interests were adversely affected by the way French businessmen were able to influence politicians in Vietnam and France, so that any colonial administrator trying to implement policies damaging to company profits was likely to find himself recalled in disgrace.

  ii. Development.

According to Ho Chi Minh (see v. below), the French "built more prisons than schools". Taxes were heavy (levied especially on salt and alcohol, which were government monopolies) and not used entirely to finance development. Development was hindered by French protective policies to help French industry. Extortion by money-lenders, many of them Chinese, was not stopped. Trade was dominated by French "colons" (colonists) and Chinese. Areas outside Cochin-China were neglected.


there was some development of education. The Vietnamese elite, about 1%, attended secondary school and 10% received higher elementary education at schools and lyc�es built by the French. Many Vietnamese studied in France and in 1902 the University of Hanoi was established. some construction of hospitals took place, slavery and cruel punishments (such as crushing to death by elephants) were stopped.  agriculture was improved. For example, rubber growing was introduced, irrigation was developed, and between 1880 and 1937, there was a 421% increase in the cultivated acreage in Vietnam, helping to feed the rapidly growing population, which numbered 1,679,000 in 1880 and 4,484,000 in 1937. 

communications were developed to some extent. For example, ports were constructed and by 1939, there were 24,000 km. of roads and 3,000 km. of railway track (most built between 1898 and 1913), although the link between Hanoi and Saigon was completed only in l936. All of this facilitated the increase of exports (coal, zinc, tin, rubber, coffee, rice). some factories were built (for example, cement factories and textile mills). Thus there was some improvement over the pre-French situation, when generally there had been internecine warfare, barbaric penalties, slavery, great poverty (except for the princes), no roads, and no schools.

4. Vietnamese efforts to achieve independence before 1945. 

i. Anti-French disturbances occurred from the moment the French took over, with the mandarins (government officials) stirring up popular feelings. Disturbances increased after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 had shown that a European power could be beaten.

ii. In the early 1900s, the main resistance took the form of the "Scholars' Movement", led by the scholars Phan Chau Trinh and, especially, Phan Boi Chau. Phan Chau Trinh believed that the French might be persuaded to develop Vietnam and prepare it for independence, which would be granted gradually as in British India; in vain, he toured France, trying to influence officials. Phan Boi Chau, who wanted to learn from Japan and sought Japanese aid, in 1910, in the safety of Canton, founded the Vietnamese Restoration Society; he had earlier stirred demonstrations, especially in 1908 in Hu� and Hanoi. (In 1925, Phan Boi Chau was betrayed to the French by Ho Chi Minh [see v. below]; he was sentenced to hard labour for life, but this was commuted to house-arrest, under which he died in 1940). Japanese support ended in 1910, after Japan negotiated a loan from France.

iii. Attempts to take advantage of French preoccupation with the Great War failed. Thus, for example, the 1916 revolt in Hanoi was crushed, and the emperor Duy Tan was exiled to Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, with his position being given to Kai Dinh (1916-1925),

iv. At the Versailles peace talks in 1919 following the First World War, Ho Chi Minh won a hearing for the Vietnamese cause, but nothing was gained, despite the high hopes caused by wartime propaganda and the presence at the talks of the idealistic United States President, Woodrow Wilson.

v. After 1918, Vietnamese nationalists increasingly turned to violence and gradually, Ho Chi Minh emerged as the main leader.

Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), whose real name was Nguyen Tat Thanh, was the son of a middle-ranking civil servant in Nguyen Sinh Cuong in Central Vietnam, where there was a revolutionary tradition.

 In 1911, Ho left Vietnam, returning only in 1930. After a variety of jobs (including pastry cook in the Carlton Hotel in London, ship's steward, and photographer's assistant), in 1919 he went to Paris. There, he joined the French Socialist Party and in 1920 was a founder member of the French Communist Party. He also edited an exile newspaper, "Le Paria" ("The Pariah"), writing under the name of Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot). Between 1923 and 1925 he was in Moscow, being trained in revolutionary techniques. In 1925, he went to Guangzhou (formerly called Canton) to assist Mikhail Borodin (the Russian adviser to the Chinese Communist Party). There, later in 1925, he set up the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League to train Vietnamese nationalists, who returned to Vietnam to establish cells.

In 1930, Ho united the various communist groups to form the Vietnamese Communist party (renamed, later in 1930 on Comintern orders, the Indo-Chinese Communist Party; Comintern, a contraction  of the Communist International, had been set up in 1919 by Lenin to promote communist activities throughout the world). Later in 1930, he went to Hong Kong for safety, but was arrested by the British and imprisoned 1931-3 for underground political activities, in the meantime being condemned to death in absentia by the French.

Ho eventually escaped to South China and then Russia, but in 1938, he was back in China and in 1940 in Vietnam. In May 1941, in China, using the name Nguyen Ai Quoc, he succeeded in uniting various nationalist groups into what was called the Vietminh (see point viii. below). This was a coalition of democrats, socialists, communists and nationalists, with Ho being prepared to go further than any other communist. For example, he dissolved the Communist Party in order to reassure his new non-communist allies in the group, despite criticism of this from other communists (which did not prevent accusations that the Vietminh was merely a cover for Communism).

In 1942, Ho went to China to try to make arrangements with the Nationalist Chinese but was arrested by Chang Fa-kuai, Governor of Kwangsi Province. He was released in 1943 in return for agreeing to supply information to the United Nations forces about the Japanese in Vietnam. As his name was on Chinese security records, he changed his name to Ho Chi Minh (Ho Who Seeks After Intelligence), and it was by this name that he came generally to be known (and later Uncle Ho, "uncle" being a style of address given to men honoured in old age in Vietnam).

Under his leadership, the Vietnamese fought against the French and Japanese and then the Americans, although he died in 1969, before fighting had ended. He shared power with Truong Chinh the theorist, and Le Duan the First Party Secretary.

Although physically small and frail in appearance, he was tough. He was also ruthless, for example, in 1925, betraying to the French the nationalist leader Phan Boi Chau as he wanted to remove an opponent, and the reward was useful for party funds. He had great political ability, was a skilful negotiator, saw and seized his opportunities, was a realist ready to compromise, and was a considerable orator and propagandist; according to the French, he mesmerized the United States Office of Strategic Studies (OSS), forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency - and later he won the propaganda war against the US. He had the ability to pick out and attract able people (for example, Vo Nguyen Giap the teacher-turned-general, and Pham Van Dong the politician and administrator), and to retain their loyalty.

There was, and is, much disagreement as to how far he was a communist and how far he was a nationalist. The OSS did not consider him a flaming radical and considered him more nationalist than communist, blaming the French for exaggerating his communism in order to provide an excuse for prolonging the French colonial presence (although admittedly, the US later changed its attitude). When China and the USSR split in 1961, Ho sided with Russia, partly because he feared Chinese domination, and partly because he supported Soviet revisionism; however, he did what he could to heal the rift

vi. In February 1930, an abortive rising was staged in Tonkin by the VNQDD (Vietnam Quoc Dan Dang, the Vietnamese Nationalist Party). This had been established in 1927 by the 23-year-old teacher Nguyen Thai Hoc, who aimed at the expulsion of the French by means of a campaign of assassination, violence, and blackmail. The VNQDD had planned a general rising in Tonkin, but only a few rose, notably in the army mutiny at Yen Bay on the Chinese border, and hopes of arousing a national uprising by their action proved unfounded. In part, the rising was an attempt to stop further French arrests of members, and an attempt to take advantage of the increased unrest resulting from the post-1929 Depression. In the event, Nguyen Thai Hoc and 12 others were beheaded, and the other VNQDD leaders mostly arrested and imprisoned or deported (if they had not fled). 

Not wishing to be outdone, the communists also mounted equally unsuccessful anti-French demonstrations. (In 1925, Ho Chi Minh in Canton had established the Marxist Revolutionary Youth League [Thanh Nien] and then in 1930 united various communist groups into the Vietnamese Communist Party. However, in 1930, Ho had had to flee to Hong Kong for safety, returning to Vietnam only in 1940.)

The French had restored order by 1933, by which time there were about 10,000 political prisoners in gaol, and the main nationalist and communist leaders had been executed or imprisoned, or were in exile.

vii. In 1936, the French Popular Front Government released prisoners and eased restrictions. However, Vietnamese communists were hampered by the directive from Comintern (the Communist International in Moscow) in 1935 to co-operate with the French government in view of the Nazi threat. The Vietnamese Nationalists were not constrained in this way. Then, on the outbreak of war in 1939, the French authorities arrested the communist and nationalist leaders who had not prudently escaped to China. Following the collapse of France in June 1940, the French Vichy government in September 1940 was forced to entrust the defence of Indo-China to the Japanese. Thereafter, until April 1945, a French quisling (collaborationist) government ran Indo-China. Only when the defeat of Japan seemed likely did French resistance to Japanese rule begin, whereupon the Japanese in April 1945 assumed direct control.

viii. Resistance to the Japanese was organized by the Vietminh (a contraction of Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh, League for the Independence of Vietnam) which had been formed by Ho Chi Minh in China in May 1941. This was a coalition of all nationalists, Ho having dissolved the Communist Party to calm fears that the Vietminh was merely a communist stratagem to dominate the country. The Vietminh, especially after Ho had been released from his Chinese prison in 1943, directed underground campaigns in Vietnam against the Japanese, using equipment provided by the US. In 1944, the various Vietminh guerrilla units were formally united into the National Liberation Army, under Vo Nguyen Giap, an outstanding commander (a former history teacher, whose sister had been executed by the French, and whose wife had died in a French labour camp).

In October 1942, Chang Fa-kuai, the Governor of the Chinese Province of Kwangsi, had persuaded the Vietnamese nationalists to form their own Dong Minh Hoi (Vietnamese Revolutionary League) but this had not proved very successful and in 1943, Chang had released Ho from prison.

ix. On 2nd September 1945, the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was declared.

By August 1945, Giap's forces had won control of most of theTonkin area. However, it was the Japanese surrender on 14th August 1945 that made possible on 19th August 1945 the occupation of Hanoi and then on 2nd September the declaration of independence, although the communists were not, and never were, strong in the south. Ho worked hard to win international support. For example, at the ceremony, the British, Chinese, Soviet, and US national anthems were played; Bao Dai, the puppet emperor since 1925, who understandably had abdicated, was given the post of "Supreme Counsellor"; the new republic was declared to be "within the French Union", with future relations with France to be negotiated; and the declaration of independence was based on the US one. (Ho's emulation of the US example was probably sincere, but it might also have been intended to win US support, for, to quote Giap, the French were "desperate to return to Vietnam" and he was especially anxious for US support.)


I. Events leading to war.

 1. As had been agreed by the leaders of the anti-Axis coalition at their 1943 Cairo and 1945 Potsdam Conferences, the Japanese surrendered in Indo-China to the Chinese in the north, and to the British in the south, with the dividing line at the 16th parallel (line of latitude).


2. In October 1945, the French and British governments arranged the details of the restoration of French rule in the south, and in January 1946, the British forces under General Douglas Gracey left Vietnam. Gracey had used Japanese troops against the Vietnamese nationalists until Indian reinforcements had arrived, and had declared martial law in order to prevent a Vietnamese takeover. Louis, Earl Mountbatten (Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia) had opposed Gracey's policy, fearing that Britain would become involved, just as it had in the civil war that had raged in Greece since 1944. However the Labour government of Clement Attlee in London upheld Gracey, justifying its policy by referring to the Yalta agreement of February 1945 that there should be no transfer of sovereignty without the consent of the people. Already, on 19th December 1945, there had been fighting between French and Vietnamese, when Vietnamese forces attacked French garrisons. Admittedly, there was the possibility of a compromise until the November 1946 Haiphong Incident (see vii. below).

3. The restoration of French rule in the north was more difficult but was achieved in February 1946.

Jiang Jieshi (ruler of China 1925-49) had sent Lu Han, a too independent South Chinese warlord, to occupy northern Vietnam. Ho bribed Lu Han not to overthrow the Democratic Republic of Vietnam which he had set up on 2nd September 1945, but he feared that, when the money ran out, Lu Han would establish a Nationalist government. Thus Ho, in November 1945, agreed to Lu Han's demand that the Communist Party be officially dissolved and replaced by a United National Front. However, at the same time, he cunningly and skilfully negotiated with the French (the Hanoi-Paris-Fontainebleau negotiations) to put pressure on the Chinese, considering that it would be easier to get the French out than it would the Chinese; as a result, in February 1946, the French obligingly arranged the withdrawal of the 200,000 Chinese troops from the north, in return for French surrender of extra-territorial rights in China, and Ho accepted the presence of 15,000 French troops in the north.

4. In March 1946, France and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam arranged the Hanoi Agreement. By this, the French recognized Vietnam as a free state within the Indo-Chinese Federation, which would be part of the newly established French Union (modelled on the British Commonwealth), and French forces would withdraw in 5 annual instalments; whether Cochin China would be included in Vietnam was to be decided by referendum, and the details of the Federation were to be worked out later. The Agreement enabled French forces to occupy northern towns, especially Hanoi and Haiphong. Ho was opposed by some Vietnamese nationalists for making the Agreement, but in 1945, he had only about 5,000 troops (in contrast to 30,000 in 1946) and needed to get the Chinese out. In addition, he was probably optimistic about a deal with the French (despite Giap's belief that the French were "desperate to return to Indo-China"), which would bring necessary French economic aid, and would bring French support against any Chinese threat. His optimism was probably the result of: the presence of five communist ministers in Paris; French weakness and inability to fight; the example of the British in India; wartime propaganda; and presumed US support. Moreover, Ho, with French help, would be able to suppress the Nationalists.

5. However the French and Vietnamese were unable to agree on the final terms for independence.

French government after 1945 suffered from instability and lack of direction; between 1946 and 1955, there were 16 coalition governments (headed generally by L�on Blum, Robert Schuman, Henri Queuille and Ren� Pleven), preoccupied with retaining power and reluctant to take the unpopular step of decolonization (especially from 1947 when communist strength declined).

The retention of empire was a means to restore French prestige after the humiliation of the defeat of 1940 and to preserve French great power status. Anyway, French colonial policy, unlike the  British, had never envisaged colonial independence.

French policy was thus one of greater but not complete independence; ideally, there would be only a facade of independence.

6. Not surprisingly, talks failed.

In June 1946, the French High Commissioner, Admiral Thierry d'Argenlieu (an imperious, ex-Carmelite monk, reputedly "the most brilliant mind of the 12th century"!) announced the establishment of a provisional government for Cochin China (that is, it was not to be included in Vietnam, and there was to be no referendum). Furthermore, he insisted not only that the Federation should be chaired by the French High Commissioner but that the Federation should have such extensive powers that there would be indirect French rule and no real independence. Consequently, it was scarcely any wonder that the talks about the Federation broke down. It had not helped that at the same time, there was a political crisis in Paris, with no government in being, and d'Argenlieu had virtually a free hand,

In further talks at Dalat (South Vietnam) between July and September 1946, D'Argenlieu once again blocked progress.

Later in September 1946, the Vietnamese delegates walked out of the Fontainebleau Conference. The weak Prime Minister, Georges Bidault, was influenced by d'Argenlieu and by Charles de Gaulle (who was quoted in the newspaper, Le Monde, to the effect that France without colonies would cease to be a great power). General Philippe Leclerc, who advised that it was impossible to win in Vietnam if it came to war, was overruled. (In June 1946, Leclerc had resigned as French commander in Vietnam because of his opposition to d'Argenlieu's policies.)

7. Clashes between the Vietnamese and French began in September 1946, often when the French tried to stop the traffic in arms. Full-scale war developed after the Haiphong Incident of 23rd November 1946, which occurred at a time when, once again, France was without a government. A French cruiser was ordered to fire on Haiphong (killing 6,000). It had been assumed that a show of force would end Vietnamese resistance, but the effect was the opposite.

8. The war is usually taken as starting on 20th December 1946 when Ho, on the radio station Voice of Vietnam, called for a "general uprising". According to some historians, Ho was motivated less by the Haiphong Incident than by the French proposal for the holding in southern Vietnam of a plebiscite, which he feared he would lose.

9. Possibly the US could have prevented the war. US OSS personnel in Vietnam had found the French unco-operative, and the US had refused to help the French forces get to Hanoi before the Vietminh. US policy had been for the continuation of Vietnamese independence (although possibly the French might be "trustees"). However, despite OSS advice, the US ignored Vietnamese requests for diplomatic recognition; nor did it press for Vietnam to become a UN trust, which might have avoided the outbreak of war. The US might also have pressed France to make real steps to independence. In 1983, the US OSS area chief at the time (1945) took the view that the US had missed a great chance and had pushed Ho, who was not especially pro-Russian, into Russian hands.

II. Factors.

1. It was a guerrilla war, even after February 1950, when Giap announced the end of the guerrilla phase and the start of a conventional war of movement. Vietminh strategy had three main parts: win over the people; cut off enemy supply lines and isolate their strong points; and attack the strong points. The French held the towns while the Vietminh dominated the countryside. The Vietminh were never strong or popular in the south and saw little chance of winning there, but mounted operations in the area none the less. 

2. French leaders.

March 1946-March 1947, Admiral Thierry d'Argenlieu served as High Commissioner. The French Expeditionary Force was led by General Jacques Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque. In June 1946 Leclerc, who favoured compromise with Ho Chi Minh, resigned and was succeeded by General Etienne Valluy.

March 1947-October 1948, the civilian Emile Bollaert (a former Resistance leader) was High Commissioner. He was more conciliatory than d'Argenlieu, but declared that the "French would stay on in Indo-China". He refused an extension of his term of office.

October 1948-December 1950, L�on Pignon acted as High Commissioner, with General Carpentier as head of French forces.

                                                December 1950-January 1952, (when he resigned for health reasons and died soon after) Marshal Jean de Lattre de Tassigny was both High Commissioner and Commander-in-Chief. He was capable (for example, he established flexible "groupes mobiles", and intensified air operations, using napalm) and held the Vietminh.

                                                April 1952-July 1953, Jean Letourneau acted as High Commissioner for Indo-China, and then 1953, when Cambodia and Laos each gained a separate High Commissioner, Commissioner General for Indo-China. General Raoul Salan served as Commander-in-Chief.

                                                July 1953-June 1954, Maurice Dejean, a career diplomat, served as Commissioner General, with General Henri-Eugene Navarre as Commander-in-Chief. Navarre was defeatist, believing that there was "no possibility of winning", largely because of the political climate in France, which prevented total war.

                                                June-July 1954, General Paul Ely was the last Commissioner General and also Commander-in-Chief.


                                3. The Vietminh were ably led by Ho Chi Minh (President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and Prime Minister and Foreign Minister until 1955) and Vo Nguyen Giap. Giap was born in 1912 in An-Xa village in Quang-Bing Province, just north of the 17th parallel; he was the son of a poor but scholarly father and had studied at the University of Hanoi, becoming a history teacher; he was a master strategist, with Napoleon as his hero; he was also bitter, perhaps because his wife had died in a French prison, serving a life sentence for conspiracy; according to d'Argenlieu, he was "cunning, arrogant and mean".


                                4. The 2 sides.

                                                French forces eventually numbered 230,000 (including many Germans, in the French Foreign Legion, and North Africans), supported by 370,000 Vietnamese of the Vietnamese Army created in 1949 (recruited in general by the bait of food and pay, but of doubtful value militarily).

                                                The Vietminh numbered about 5,000 in 1945, 30,000 in 1946; and by 1953, Giap commanded 125,000 regular soldiers, with 75,000 regional troops and a militia of 300,000 or so.

                                                The French had air-superiority and better (though outdated) equipment, but poor intelligence, political instability in government, and colonial troubles elsewhere; the war was also unpopular in France.


                                5. Foreign involvement.

                                                The Vietminh took an increasingly communist appearance, especially after the establishment in October 1949 of the People's Republic of China. Then, in June 1950, the Korean War began and Vietnam became part of the Cold War.

                                                In January 1950, People's China, soon followed by the USSR, recognized Ho's People's Democratic Republic. The Chinese gave aid, especially heavy mortars, and Giap was able to go on to a war of movement.

                                                In 1950, the US Democratic administration, hitherto critical of the French, began to give aid, including advisers. The opposition Republican leaders, John Foster Dulles and Richard Nixon, and Admiral Arthur Radford (Admiral Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1953-1957, spoke of the "Row of Dominoes" and the "Domino Theory", that is, that if Vietnam fell, so would neighbouring countries) favoured US military intervention, but the Republican President from 1953, Dwight Eisenhower, was opposed. However, by 1954, the US was financing 78% of the costs of the war. The US did admittedly encourage the French to negotiate.



                III. Events: December 1946-February 1950.


                                1. In January 1947, Ho, after a rearguard action, evacuated Hanoi and other towns, which he was aware he lacked the means to hold. Vietminh strategy was a guerrilla war of attrition against France and its economy. Ho and Giap organized the war from their HQ in the Viet Bac area near the Chinese border, working through "cadres" (the French translation of Chinese "can pu", meaning "junior leader", usually in a political context). The French replied by evacuating people from the countryside and then mounting operations to find and destroy the guerrillas.


                                2. In May 1948, in view of their lack of success, and in an attempt to win over the Vietnamese, the French arranged a Provisional Central Government, headed by General Xuan, and elected by 40 "representative personalities" from Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China (this last, in February 1947, had been proclaimed a free state within the Indo-Chinese Federation); the "capital" was to be Hu�, but because of destruction in the city, administration was centred on Haiphong and Saigon. In June 1948, the Bay of Along Agreement (signed on the French cruiser Duguay-Trouin, in the Bay of Along, off Haiphong) arranged relations between the French and the new Provisional Vietnamese government. In August 1948, the French government formally approved Vietnamese self-government, on the terms arranged in May and June.


                                3. In June 1949, by the Elys�e Agreement, Bao Dai became head of state of an "independent Vietnam, in association with the French Union". The French and General Xuan (in view of their lack of success, and communist success in China) had requested Bao Dai, Emperor of Vietnam 1925-45, to become head of the independent state, Bao Dai accepting in March 1949, on condition that the French agreed to the inclusion of Cochin China, and Vietnamese control of defence and foreign policy; for their part, the French were granted strategic bases, co-ordination of the French and Vietnamese armies, and safeguard for French economic interests. Possibly, real French concessions would have won over many Vietnamese nationalists, disillusioned by the Vietminh turn to communism, but the French made it clear they intended to "influence" Vietnam, and Bao Dai was not an effective rallying point, being more fluent in French than Vietnamese, too fond of an easy life, and not generally popular. The independent Vietnam also suffered from the administrative inexperience of the Vietnamese, especially as Bao Dai served as Prime Minister until January 1950 (when Nguyen Phan Long took over as Premier).



                IV. Events: 1950-1954.


                                1. In February 1950, Giap announced the end of the guerrilla phase of the war. March 1950 brought the heaviest fighting to date, with a Vietminh offensive in the province of Travinh (90 miles south west of Saigon), which cut off all roads leading into the province until April, when French forces regained control.


                                2. In October 1950, strengthened by the supply of heavy mortars from China, the Vietminh attacked a string of French fortified positions in the north, capturing them one by one.


                                3. In 1951, the Vietminh advance was halted and the Vietminh began to be pushed back. De Lattre was courageous and capable, holding the Vietminh in a number of conventional engagements; Giap's general offensive had proved premature and Vietminh forces took two years to recover. Although de Lattre had halted the advance to Hanoi, in February 1952, Salan had to evacuate Hoa Binh (south west of Hanoi).


                                4. In 1952, Giap began to advance again, and by the end of 1953, the Vietminh held all Tonkin except the lower delta, most of the Central Highlands, and much of Laos and the Mekong area (west of Saigon).


                                5. Dien Bien Phu, March-7th May 1954.

                                                Navarre at first followed a policy of "harry and destroy" the enemy, by means of forces from "fortified centres of resistance". This having proved unsuccessful, he planned to draw the Vietminh into a pitched battle by offering an attractive bait of a French force, choosing as the bait Dien Bien Phu, a village of 112 houses in a valley 12 miles long by 4 miles wide, barring the main supply route between China and Vietnam via Laos. Dien Bien Phu was 170 miles from Hanoi, and 8 miles from the Laotian border and was surrounded by jungles and cliffs, but it was assumed that it could be supplied by air. The Navarre Plan was made in conjunction with the US adviser Lieutenant General John "Iron Mike" O'Daniel. In November 1953, the first French, 800 in number, arrived and eventually there were 15,000. Giap was in no hurry to do anything until February 1954, when it was announced that peace talks were to commence in Geneva in April. Consequently on 12th March, he began an offensive against Dien Bien Phu.

                                                The Navarre Plan might have worked had Giap not achieved what had been thought impossible, namely the bringing up of a large force of 45,000 men (supplied by brigades with specially reinforced bicycles, helped by 600 Russian trucks supplied by the Chinese), supported by artillery (dragged 50 miles in 3 months, all the time under French air attack) which the French had not expected. The French, under the command of General de Castries, were surprised by the number of Vietnamese and their equipment; consequently, the French fought in the open, without proper trenches, blockhouses, or sandbag defences. Even so, despite Vietminh shelling and volunteer "suicide squads", the French hung on, and Giap's casualties were so high, that in April, he began digging trenches, especially for communications. (From the trenches, Giap played French wartime Resistance songs over loudspeakers!) Eventually, a Vietnamese offensive, starting on 5th May, brought the capture of Dien Bien Phu on 7th May, after a 55-day siege. 10,000 French soldiers were captured, few of whom survived the march to prison camps or the camps; in all, the French casualties numbered 2,000 dead and 5,000 wounded. The Vietminh had suffered about 8,000 dead and 50,000 wounded. The fall of Dien Bien Phu brought French withdrawal from Vietnam, arranged at the Geneva talks, which began on 8th May, not in April as had been arranged at first; French prestige had suffered irretrievably because of Dien Bien Phu and prestige was clearly the main reason for the French continuing the war, since, in 1953, Laos and Cambodia had already been granted independence.



                V. The Geneva Agreement, July 1954.


                                1. In February 1954, the French, UK, US and USSR agreed to hold talks on Korea and Indo-China. In May, the talks began in Geneva.


                                2. The Terms of the July Geneva Agreement.

                                                The French and Vietminh agreed to an armistice.

                                                Vietnam was to be divided temporarily, at a line more or less along the l7th parallel.

                                                French troops were to withdraw from the north, and eventually from the south, while Vietminh forces were to withdraw from the south.

                                                France guaranteed the independence of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

                                                In a "final declaration", the French and Vietminh agreed to reunifying elections by July 1956. Unity made sense, as the north was industrial, while the south was agricultural. However, the South Vietnamese and US representatives did not sign this "final declaration".

                                                An International Control Commission (from Canada, India, and Poland) was to supervise the agreement.


                                3. It is perhaps surprising that the French and Vietminh agreed.

However, in June, during the talks, the French Prime Minister Georges Bidault was replaced by the new Premier Pierre Mend�s France, who realistically recognized the inevitability of peace (especially after Dien Bien Phu) and worked for a settlement.

Le Duan, the Vietminh commander in southern Vietnam opposed the settlement and

thought that they should have continued the war. However, Ho took the view that the Vietminh were likely to win the elections, and that conquest of the south would be difficult (especially if the US joined in). It also made sense to establish a regime in the north first and then deal with the problem of the south, rather than try to solve two problems as the same time. In addition, there was also pressure from the Chinese and Russians to make a settlement. Mao was reluctant to see another war against the US after Korea, was busy with the Five Year Plan, and did not want Vietnam to be too strong. Molotov, the Russian Foreign Minister, had no wish to push France and Europe into the European Defence Community (1950-54, an unsuccessful attempt to unite Western Europe's defences), to see Chinese influence increased, or to risk US involvement in another Asian war.



                VI. Reasons for Vietminh victory (nb. these are very similar to why the US later failed to win). 


                                1. France was weakened by the Second World War, by colonial troubles generally, and by the widespread unpopularity of the war in France. "France was tired of the war" (Navarre) but as early as February 1947 an opinion poll showed that 42% favoured negotiations, while only 30% wanted force to be used. French troops were not trained in guerrilla fighting. French leadership was not outstanding, militarily and politically. A rapid succession of governments had meant that there was a general lack of direction. 


                                2. Giap militarily and Ho politically were very capable.


                                3. There was no direct US help to France. Eisenhower favoured US bomber support, but Congress disapproved. After 1950, there was Chinese (and some Soviet) aid to the communists.


                                4. The terrain was ideal for guerrilla warfare. 40% of the interior was uninhabitable jungle, swamp, scrub, or mountain.


                                5. French rule was not popular, even in the south. 



                VII. Results.


                                1. At least 1,000,000 died in the fighting between 1945 and 1954, including about 20,000 French and 70,000 non-French in the French forces, about 76,000 French officials (of whom 22,000 were French), about 500,000 Vietminh, and between 800,000 and 2,000,000 Vietnamese civilians. There was considerable destruction and many refugees. About 85% of the 900,000 Catholics in the north moved south (encouraged it seems by CIA misinformation intended to frighten), while 80,000 moved from the south to the north.


                                2. Peace was not long lasting, and unifying elections were not held. Union came only in 1976, until which time Vietnam was divided into the Democratic Republic in the north (63,000 square miles and 18,000,000  people) and the Republic of Vietnam in the south (66,200 square miles, 17,000,000 people).


                                3. The French evacuation left South Vietnam in a difficult position, with private armies of bandits, little central control, and nearly 1,000,000 refugees to be absorbed. However, in the early years, South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem was remarkably successful.

                                                Perhaps surprisingly, the French Premier, Pierre Mend�s France rapidly arranged French reconciliation with the North; Ho guaranteed French economic interests, and in November 1954 French and North Vietnamese representatives signed an economic and cultural pact.

                                                In the North, the General Secretary of the Lao Dong (Workers' Party), Truong Chinh inaugurated a 3 year land reform programme, ruthlessly dispossessing landlords and the 2/3 of the peasants who owned land, and forcing all produce to be sold to the government; not surprisingly, there was a peasant revolt in 1957, and Ho had to intervene rapidly to save the situation by making changes in the land reform programme.


                                4. The war produced the "Domino Theory", escalated the Cold War, and brought the serious risk of a general war, should the US have joined in.


                                5. The war had an adverse effect on the French economy. France spent on the war about the same amount that it received from the US in Marshall Aid. French governments did not learn from the lesson partly as the army was not anxious to have a third defeat and 1954-62 fought the Algerians in their War of Independence. However, French colonial policy was modified; for example, Laos and Cambodia in 1953, and Morocco and Tunisia in 1956 became independent.


                                6. The military lessons were not learnt, especially by the US leaders, for example that it would be hard to win a guerrilla war of attrition against the Vietnamese.






                I. 1956-8. Reasons for the renewal of fighting, and first steps in the war.


                                1. It became clear that the South Vietnamese President, Ngo Dinh Diem, supported by the US, would not agree to unifying elections by July 1956, although this had been stipulated by the "Final Declaration" of the July 1954 Geneva Agreement, which admittedly neither the US nor South Vietnam had approved. Diem and the US government took the view that communist "intimidation and coercion of the electorate" (US Assistant Secretary of State, Walter Robertson) would make impossible free elections. Consequently, the southern members of the Vietminh (the League for the Independence of Vietnam, set up in 1941 by Ho Chi Minh) began a campaign of violence, for example, assassination of government officials, and destruction of roads, bridges, and public buildings. The official goal of the Vietcong (the pejorative name for the insurgents, coined in 1958 by President Diem, and meaning Vietnamese Communists) was to "liberate the South" from the increasingly unpopular Diem regime. The VC (Vietcong) emphasised that their aim was an independent South Vietnam, a fiction maintained right up to when unification was arranged in June and July 1976.


                                2. Reasons for United States support.

                                                John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959, was a staunch anti-communist, and believed in strong action to prevent the spread of communism. It was assumed that a communist Vietnam would be a Chinese and/or Soviet puppet, and that the rest of Indo-China and beyond would fall to communism, in line with the Domino Theory. Memories of the 1938 Munich Conference and appeasement were strong, and there was no wish to encourage the spread of communism by appearing to appease it.  

                                                Diem seemed worth backing as he had proved surprisingly successful (so far), for example, ending the virtual independence of parts of South Vietnam and, with US aid, developing the economy (including land reform). In contrast, North Vietnam was beset with difficulties, especially the disastrous land reform programme of Troung Chinh, which deprived the peasants of their land. In 1957, this provoked armed peasant uprisings, which had to be crushed by the Vietnam People's Liberation Army!

                                                Unlike Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam could be supplied by sea.

                                                The State Department wanted to show US allies that the US could be trusted to take firm action.


                                3. Had it been unwise for Ho Chi Minh to accept the 1954 Geneva Settlement? Le Duan, the southern Vietnamese leader, had always opposed the settlement, maintaining that Ho should have continued the war until the south had been conquered, since complete victory had seemed close. Possibly Ho in 1954 feared US involvement in the war, and as a result complete failure.


                                4. In May 1956, Dulles sent 150 more advisers to join the 342 permitted the US by the 1954 Geneva Agreement. These advisers trained the police and the ARVN (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam). The Agreement forbad the sale of arms to Vietnam, but the US equipped the police with weapons. However, the chance was lost in these years to deal with the Vietminh, mainly as both the US and Diem thought in terms of an invasion from the North (just as the North Koreans had invaded South Korea in 1950), and not in terms of a protracted guerrilla conflict. Only in 1959 and 1960 was the Strategic Hamlet Project begun, and half-heartedly at that (see B.2 below).



                II. December 1958-63: the development of a guerrilla war in the South, with the VC suffering reverses, largely as a result of US aid to the Diem regime.


                                1. December 1958 is usually taken as the start of the war proper - a guerrilla war until 1964 -  as it was then that the VC stepped up their campaign of violence and assassinations against the Diem regime.


                                2. The 150,000 strong Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) countered with "search and destroy" operations, and 1959-60 began the Strategic Hamlet Project (also called Operation Sunrise and the Staley Plan) in which peasants were resettled in fortified villages. The US CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) chief, William Colby, had persuaded Diem to try the Project, but Diem was never enthusiastic and the villagers generally resented being resettled. In 1962, greater emphasis was put on the idea, but by 1963, the Project had been dropped; by then, 4,000 of the 11,000 planned Hamlets had been set up, and 30% of the peasants resettled.


                                3. From 1959 at least, the North Vietnamese (Party Leader and President Ho Chi Minh, Party Secretary Le Duan, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, Defence Minister Vo Nguyen Giap, and Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh) were helping the VC, initially perhaps to preoccupy the South, which it was feared might invade. In 1983, Giap revealed that the goal from 1959 had been reunification, and not, as had been consistently claimed, just the establishment of a communist regime in the South. At the same time, Giap said that, from 1959, General Bam was in charge of the infiltration trails bringing men and supplies across the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between North and South.

                                (Until Giap's statements, it had generally been thought that the trails were the response to US involvement in the war, and that they were initially for supplies of materiel not men. In 1959, the journey from North Vietnam to near Saigon took six months, but by 1961, regular trails had been built by some 30,000 men; eventually the trails, which often made use of Laotian and Cambodian territory, included several thousand kilometres of surfaced road and air-raid shelters, and by 1973, the journey took one week. According to Giap in 1983, the goal in 1959 was reunification.)


                                4. In July 1959, the first VC attack was made on the ARVN, at the military air-field of Bien Hoa, 20 miles north of Saigon. The casualties included two US advisers, the first US dead.


                                5. In December 1960 (probably - the details are still not clear), the North Vietnamese Lao Dong (Workers' Party) assumed control of the war, although the North Vietnamese People's Liberation Army only became involved in 1964 (according to William Colby), or May 1965 (according to other sources) after direct US involvement began in March 1965. Also from December 1960, the insurgents called their political wing the NLF (National Liberation Front) and their military wing the NLA (National Liberation Army).


                                6. In 1961, President Kennedy, advised by Dean Rusk (Secretary of State from 1961 to 1969), and Robert McNamara (Defense Secretary from 1961 to 1968), decided to increase ("escalate") US involvement, despite the distance involved, and the abortive 1961 Bay of Pigs raid to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba, which had prompted Kennedy to say he had learned never to trust the generals or the CIA. However, Kennedy wanted to reassure US allies (and US voters) that his government could be counted on to stand up to communism and other threats. He also wanted a success after the Bay of Pigs, for his own prestige and for that of the Democratic Party.

                                Thus, in December 1960, there were 900 US advisers in South Vietnam. By December 1961, there were 3,400 advisers, including Green Berets (specially trained forces, although they were not trained in counter-insurgency). However, in November 1961 Kennedy rejected the recommendation of his military adviser, General Maxwell Taylor, to send a force of 10,000 combat troops, disguised as a flood control mission; on the other hand, the first US fighter bombers and helicopters were sent.

                                In December 1962, the US Military Advisory Command Vietnam (MACV) was set up, initially under General Paul Harkins.

                                In December 1962 there were 11,000 US advisers. A year later, December 1963, there were 16,700.


                                7. In August 1962, the first Australian jungle experts were sent and eventually there were 8,000 Australian and 150 New Zealand advisers. The first South Koreans arrived in January 1965, eventually numbering 48,000. In September 1966, 2,000 Filipinos were sent, and in January 1967 1,000 Thais. However, the US was disappointed by the lack of international support, especially from France and Britain, in comparison with the Korean War (1950-1953).


                                8. Because of the success of ARVN-US counter-insurgency measures in 1961, the VC adopted a new policy of systematically taking over villages in a province, and using less terror and more propaganda, for example, making the Americans out to be the "new French".


                                9. By 1963, the VC were apparently on the defensive, suffering especially from US "fire-power" and "vertical envelopment" by helicopter gunships, and adopting as a result a new tactic of feint attacks to draw the ARVN into ambushes. Thus, in August 1963, General Harkins predicted that the war would be over by December 1963. However, the VC soon learnt to cope with helicopters, which proved not to be the war-winning weapon it had been hoped they would be.


                                10. In September 1963, the VC proposed a 3 Point Peace Plan based on an end of the US presence and aid, and the establishment of a coalition government. To some experts, this was proof of VC weakness, while to others, it was the result of VC confidence! Certainly, VC moral was high. For example, in January 1963, in the battle of Ap Bac village, the ARVN surrounded a VC force 1/10 their strength, but despite the US advisers, the ARVN refused to attack and the VC shot down five US helicopters before escaping. Above all, South Vietnam was undergoing a political crisis, which culminated in the overthrow of Diem on 1st November 1963.

                                The Diem regime had become increasingly dictatorial, corrupt, and unpopular. In May 1963, after Diem, a Catholic, banned the flying of religious flags on Buddha's birthday, riots ensued in Hu�, leaving 9 dead. In June 1963, there was the first of 7 immolation suicides by Buddhist monks, in protest at the regime. In August, further Buddhist-led protests against the regime brought riots in Saigon, in which 40 died and 1,000 were arrested. Eventually, the South Vietnamese generals, led by General Duong Van Minh ("Big Minh"), and (according to the US government "Pentagon Papers"[1] 1971) supported by Henry Cabot Lodge, the US ambassador between 1963 and 1967, overthrew Diem, who refused the position of honorary president and was shot. Unfortunately, insufficient attention had been paid to who should replace Diem, and until September 1967, when Nguyen Thieu took over the presidency, there was a political vacuum in South Vietnam. Also, from mid 1963, the Chinese began to provide significant aid, which was increased in 1965.



                III. 1964-1965: the VC mounted conventional pitched battles, putting the ARVN on the defensive, and bringing increased US involvement (escalation).

                                1. In 1964, Giap began large scale, protracted operations (for example, the battle of Binh Gia). VC success was the result of the political vacuum in South Vietnam; the reopening in October 1964 of fighting in Laos between the communist Pathet Lao and the Laotian government, so that the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laotian territory was more secure; the VC gaining the measure of the helicopter; and increased Chinese aid.


                                2. In June 1964, General William Westmoreland replaced Paul Harkins as MACV head. Westmoreland was an artillery officer, with no knowledge of jungle warfare, but he was popular with the men, was good with the media, had studied Mao's guerrilla tactics, and realised that the US was fighting a war of attrition. "Westy" believed that the war would have to be fought in the jungles (the ARVN had concentrated on the towns), and worked hard to dispel the popular idea that a quick and easy victory was possible. Westmoreland planned: to establish bases and a logistic system; undertake search and destroy operations, leaving the ARVN to look after the villages and towns (a reversal of roles); and use the Air Force to bomb and destroy communist bases.


                                3. President Lyndon Johnson (popularly called LBJ), who succeeded on Kennedy's assassination in 1963, was persuaded by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to reverse Kennedy's last policy of reducing the number of US advisers; Johnson was not well versed in foreign affairs, had been kept in the dark about foreign affairs by Kennedy, and had no wish to see the Democrats lose in Vietnam. Then on 7th August 1964, Johnson gave in to Pentagon pressure and got Congress, in the "Tonkin Resolution", to authorise "all necessary steps". The Resolution followed what Johnson called "intolerable provocation" by North Vietnam; North Vietnamese Motor Torpedo Vessels, it was alleged, had mounted two unsuccessful and unprovoked attacks on 2nd and 4th August on the destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy (part of the US 7th Fleet) in international waters. There is in fact some doubt as to whether both or either of the alleged attacks took place, and the "Pentagon Papers" showed clearly that the North Vietnamese attacks would not have been unprovoked, as 400 and later 1,300 Green Berets had, between 1962 and 1963, taken an active and effective role, including from February 1964 clandestine sabotage missions in North Vietnam; the Papers also revealed that US planes, with Laotian markings, had taken part in the war (that is, direct, covert, US action). Already, on 5th August 1964, US planes, in retaliation, had bombed North Vietnamese installations, destroying an estimated 10% of North Vietnam's oil stores. Johnson was influenced by McNamara's contention that 12 days of bombing would stop Northern involvement in the South; in fact, the North just decentralized and camouflaged their supply bases and the US soon realised that bombing was unlikely to end the war, although bombing was continued as it did have considerable impact. Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State, saw bombing as part of a two-track policy: the stick to force the North to the negotiating table.

                (In November 1995, Time reported that Robert McNamara had just admitted that the Tonkin naval encounter Johnson used as a justification to escalate the war never happened.)


                                4. In December 1964, US advisers were increased to 23,000 and Westmoreland argued for a US build up and an open combat role.


                                5. In March 1965, following attacks in February by battalion-size VC units on two US air-bases (killing 8 US personnel), Operation Rolling Thunder, the systematic bombing of North Vietnam, was begun, even though Lodge had argued against bombing North Vietnam, on the grounds that it would make it harder for the US to extricate itself from the war. This replaced reprisal bombing raids (such as Operation Flaming Dart, February 1965).                               

6. March 1965 also saw the first open involvement of US combat troops, although not in a combat role, when two battalions of marines (that is, 3,500 troops) were landed at Danang to defend US air-bases. The numbers were soon increased, and on 26th June 1965, the White House confirmed that US troops had been authorized to take a combat role, despite the fact that General Maxwell Taylor had warned against a combat role, arguing that the marines were not trained in guerrilla and jungle warfare, and would be unable to tell who was a VC. On 27th June 1965, there occurred the first US (with Anzac Australian and New Zealand - units) "search and destroy" operation. In August 1965, US forces mounted the first solely US action, south of Chu Lai (itself south of Danang), where they forced the NLA, trapped between the sea and the mountains, to withdraw.


7. Another turning point occurred on 28th July 1965, when President Johnson committed a further 125,000 US personnel, with the possibility of more to follow. The US role had thus changed from one of protection to a larger commitment. US forces by December 1965 numbered 180,000. and in April 1969 reached a peak of 540,000. 

The ARVN had already been increased to 565,000 in June 1964, following the April 1964 law declaring all men aged 20 to 45 eligible for drafting.

By 1965, the NLA, which in 1964 had also begun to conscript, had increased (from about 10,000 in 1960) to about 25,000, although possibly half of these came from the North. The NLA regulars also had the support of about l00,000 militia. Then, in May 1965, according to the Pentagon Papers, the North Vietnamese People's Army (VPA), about 325,000-strong, began to take a direct role in the fighting in the South. NLA forces were apparently under the command of Tran Nam Truong, nom de guerre of Tran Van Tra.


IV. 1966-8: further escalation, with the communists apparently on the defensive again. In 1966, for the first time, US casualties exceeded those of the ARVN.

1. 1965-6, Giap persuaded the North Vietnamese Politburo to give up pitched battles, and to return to guerrilla insurgency tactics.

2. Despite the diversionary problem of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the US extended its role in Vietnam. By December 1966, US forces numbered 390,000, increased by December 1967 to 500,000. In November 1966, the US took over military operations, leaving the ARVN to concentrate on "pacification". Increased attention was paid to blocking VC supply routes, especially the Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk Trails, and in February 1967, the US also mined North Vietnamese waters (but not the harbours until 1972). In 1967, McNamara began the construction of a fence between North and South, but security problems and cost caused the work to be stopped. Roads were cleared of vegetation and defoliants were used in the jungle to make it easier to spot the guerrillas. The United States also (belatedly?) began to develop psychological warfare, for example, dropping leaflets and broadcasting frightening sounds over loudspeakers. The old Strategic Hamlets Project re-emerged in the guise of the Revolutionary Development Program, which, it was also hoped, would make it difficult for the VC to get food.

3. 1967 was a bad year for the communists, with heavy losses of men and equipment, the former being put by US sources at 88,0000 dead, 30,000 wounded, 25,000 lost through disease and desertion, and 600 prisoners. US intelligence (notoriously inadequate throughout the war -see the 1970 commando raid to rescue prisoners of war, in which the commandos found the prison camp long since deserted, with tall vegetation all over!) estimated that the communists would not be able to continue the war much longer. Also the September 1967 elections in South Vietnam brought to power President Nguyen Thieu, an apparently strong leader.  

4. However, in September 1967, the North Vietnamese rejected US offers of an end of bombing, in return for a negotiating time-table for peace-talks, and demanded an unconditional end of the bombing. Then, in November 1967, McNamara, responsible for US escalation of the war and previously optimistic about victory, resigned as Defense Secretary, having turned against the war, although he agreed to stay on until the end of February 1968. His successor, Clark Clifford, Defense Secretary from March 1968, pursued a policy of Vietnamization and US disengagement.

5. Then between 31st January and 24th February 1968, the communists mounted the Tet (lunar new year) Offensive, the most decisive of the war. �It was "the turning point of the war; it could have been the turning point of success, but it was the turning point of failure" (Westmoreland).

i. Despite their setbacks, the Dao Long Politburo (persuaded by Politburo member Nguyen Chi Thanh) mounted the large Tet Offensive. Tet was heralded by North Vietnam's "Radio Liberation" as the final offensive. Possibly they hoped to win by a massive surprise attack (either as a last resort, or as the result of overconfidence!), or perhaps they just wanted to raise morale. Most likely, however, the goal was to show the US (both government and people), that the US could not win, and that the war had reached a state of stalemate.  

ii. The US and ARVN were taken by surprise, largely as it was thought (correctly) that a VC attack on towns could not succeed. Westmoreland had warned in December 1967 of a "major effort", and possibly a new strategy for the new year, but the size and nature of Tet came as a surprise.

iii. The opening of the Tet Offensive was preceded by 10 days by the start of a 77 day

siege (21st January-31st March 1968, the longest battle of the war) of Khe Sanh, just south of the 17th parallel, and close to the Laotian border. Khe Sanh was a US "fire-base", set up in October 1966, on the site of an old French airfield, with the goal of drawing the VC into a battle of attrition, which the US would win as it controlled the surrounding mountain peaks. The attack on Khe Sanh was not just a feint as it carried on after the Tet Offensive had begun and after it had ended. The VC goal was probably not to capture the base, as no assault was made (although trenches were dug right up to the US trenches), but to pin down US troops and planes, and, like Tet, show the US that it could not win the war. The US obligingly provided massive TV coverage of the battle for Khe Sanh.

iv. The Tet Offensive was a simultaneous attack by an estimated 80,000 VC on ARVN and US bases and some 140 towns in the north, central highlands, and south of South Vietnam. For example, about 5,000 VC infiltrated Saigon, gathering at a prearranged spot, where they were issued with weapons, previously smuggled in, in, among other things, coffins; even the presidential palace and the radio station were assaulted. In Hu�, where the demonstrations that had toppled Diem in 1963 had begun, but where there was no mass support for the VC, heavy street fighting ensued, and the VC behaved with much brutality, which was remembered and feared long after in South Vietnam; for example, the communists shot, buried alive or beheaded between 1,000 and 3,000 civilians, especially teachers and police.

Hu' was not the first atrocity of the war on the part of the VC, who used terror as a tactic. For example, earlier, in December 1967 they had killed 114 Montagnard tribesmen for allowing their village to be used for counter-insurgency operations. Admittedly brutality was unfortunately not unknown on the US side, the most famous case being that of Lieutenant William Calley, who was court-martialled in 1970 and in 1971 sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing 22 defenceless villagers -out of the 347 who died- in March 1969 at My Lai, known as Pinkville to the Americans (and Tinh Khe to the communists).

v. By 10th February 1968, the VC had been forced back into their sanctuaries and the Offensive had ended, except in Hu', where fighting continued until 24th February.

vi. According to the North Vietnamese, Tet failed because of poor communications and co-ordination. However, they clearly lacked popular support and the ARVN for once performed well, for example, not breaking and running.


6. The results of Tet.

i. The dead numbered 2,788 ARVN, 1,536 US and allies, an estimated 38,000 VC, and 7,000 civilians (including 5,800 in Hu'). 7,000 VC prisoners were taken. 700,000 were made homeless, with 50,000 homes destroyed (the US Air Force having levelled communist-held areas).

ii. President Johnson rightly called Tet "a complete failure" for the communists, but the sensational US media coverage (especially TV) turned US public opinion - which had hitherto generally been in favour of the war- against involvement, so that Tet was a psychological defeat for the US. The Anti-War Movement, which had long opposed and impeded the US war effort gained strength. Anti-war activists like Jerry Rubin and David Dellinger had campaigned against the war from 1964, for example, organizing teach-ins at universities. In April 1965, 15,000 students demonstrated outside the White House, protesting especially at the draft. In October 1967, 50,000 students demonstrated outside the Pentagon. Then, in May 1970, 4 demonstrating students at Kent State University in Ohio died, after tired National Guardsmen opened fire. The singer Joan Baez had also campaigned against the war. Increasingly leading US figures spoke out against the war, including Dr. Spock, famous for his book on child care; the politicians McCarthy, McGovern, Fulbright, Edward Kennedy: and Walter Kronkite, the TV news "guru", who on TV called for a negotiated settlement, as a result of which LBJ reportedly said that having lost the support of Walter Cronkite, he had lost the support of America and the war was lost.

iii. Admittedly, it was clear that the US, despite its successes since 1965, was unlikely to destroy the VC in the near future. The Johnson government faced either a long war, or peace talks. Unfortunately for Johnson and the Democratic Party, 1968 was a presidential election year and Johnson decided not to stand.

iv. US forces failed to take advantage of VC disarray after Tet. Westmoreland proposed taking advantage by pursuing the VC, especially into their sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos, for which purpose he asked for an increase of 200,000 troops (a 40% increase). However, Johnson, faced with great popular opposition to the war would agree only to 10,500, followed by a further 30,000 in March, Then on 31st March, Johnson announced a freeze on troop levels.

v. Clark Clifford, who on 1st March 1968 succeeded McNamara as Defense Secretary, failed to get the US military to give any clear idea of the size of force needed to win, or to propose any policy other than the one of attrition. Consequently, Clifford, a former "hawk" (that is, in favour of strong action), turned against the war. The US returned to the less effective (but more sparing in lives) tactic of fire-power (especially by means of planes and artillery), which had been dropped in 1966. In June 1968, Westmoreland was "promoted" to Army Chief of Staff in Washington, (either because he had failed to win the war, or because he favoured more troops being sent), being replaced by General Creighton Abrams. Abrams paid much more attention to training and equipping the ARVN, and used "stingray tactics" of small mobile forces (rather than large search and destroy operations) to hit the VC where and when reported. Greater attention was paid to "pacification" by WHAM (Winning The Hearts And Minds of the Vietnamese, especially the rural population). Villagers were armed; village councils -selected by election- were re-established; provincial powers were increased; and in 1970, despite Thieu's objections, land reform was begun, with land going to the tiller. WHAM was very much the work of Robert Komer 1967-68, and then William Colby. (According to Colby, the war was "not an affair for soldiers'.Americans finally understood the nature of the war as existing primarily at village level. And we began to work on it".)

vi. In May 1968, peace talks began between US and North Vietnam representatives, although a settlement was signed only in January 1973.

In March 1968, President Johnson, via Paris, proposed peace talks, which North Vietnam accepted in April 1968. Already, in January 1967, North Vietnam had offered talks, dropping the previous demand for a US commitment to leave Vietnam before talks began, but demanding the end of US bombing. It was President Johnson's partial ending of bombing in March 1968 that brought talks in Paris from 13th May. (The end was partial as in March 1968 it was merely bombing north of the 20th parallel that was stopped. It was only on 1st November 1968 that the US unconditionally stopped all bombing). It is unlikely that Johnson made the offer for propaganda purposes, expecting the North Vietnamese to reject it. Johnson clearly wanted an end of the war, which was unpopular in the US (and so precluded the fuller commitment that alone could bring victory), which had an adverse effect on the US economy, and which was interfering with his plans for social reform and the "Great Society". The President was also persuaded by his advisers that, although the VC could still strike hard, the ARVN had acquitted itself well, and a VPA-VC victory was unlikely.

In April 1968, in view of the impending peace talks, a Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam was "elected" by the VC.

vii. In November 1968, the Republican candidate Richard Nixon won the presidential election on the platform of "peace with honor". Lyndon Johnson had refused to stand for re-election.


V. 1968-73: the ending of the war.

1. In January 1968, President Nixon was inaugurated, and with Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, Secretary of State William Rogers, and, above all, National Security Adviser (and from August 1973 Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger (himself advised on Vietnam by Alexander Haig) continued and developed the previous administration's policy, which Dr. Kissinger defined as "two-track, that is, negotiation and Vietnamization" (the latter meaning the building up of ARVN strength, a policy largely ignored until 1968). Nixon also worked to get the USSR (for example, by Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, which resulted in the signature in May 1972 of a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, SALT I) and Mainland China (in February 1972, Nixon visited People's China, and among other things, arranged the reopening of diplomatic relations) to put pressure on North Vietnam to end the war, just as the USSR had been instrumental in bringing the First Vietnam War to a conclusion in 1954. The USSR clearly wanted d'tente with the US and increasingly disliked North Vietnam's growing demands and its independent stance. For their part, the communist Chinese did not want to see a united Vietnam grateful to or dominated by the USSR, whose leaders they believed were trying to encircle China.

Nixon was widely criticized for not withdrawing in 1969, and for causing 20,000 more deaths, at a cost of $70 milliard. Even Dean Rusk was surprised at Nixon continuing the war. Nixon defended his stance on the grounds that "none of our allies could ever count on the US word again" if the US withdrew precipitately. Nixon also feared that too rapid a disengagement would encourage isolationist feelings in the US.

2. The lull in the fighting after Tet ended in February 1969 when the VC began a new offensive. Nixon, advised by Abrams, responded from March 1969 with the secret bombing of VC sanctuaries in Cambodia (revealed only during the Watergate Scandal 1972-74). In l4 months, the US dropped on Cambodia 4 times the tonnage of bombs dropped on Japan in the Second World War. In April 1969, US forces began to take a more "guerrilla" role, hiding and searching in the jungle like the VC.

3. In June 1968, Nixon announced, as part of the Vietnamization programme, the first withdrawal of US forces, which in April 1969 had reached a peak of 540,000. In July 1969, the first US troops, 25,000 in number, left Vietnam and thereafter the US withdrawal was rapid, so that by May 1972, there were only 69,000, and by December 1972 25,000. In June 1972, the US ended its combat role, thereafter merely advising.

Between April 1970 and December 1972, the Australians and New Zealanders, and then the other US allies in Vietnam also withdrew, the South Koreans being the last to go, in December 1972.

From June 1972, General Frederick Weyand headed US forces in Vietnam, Abrams being promoted to Army Chief of Staff.

By 1972, South Vietnam's forces included an army of 1,100,000, the second largest in Asia after Mainland China's, and 1,200 planes. (In contrast, in 1975, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway had 700 between them.)

The US withdrawal was obviously poor for US morale, as no GI wanted to be the last one to die; even so, in 1969, the US suffered an average of 800 dead and 6,000 wounded per month. Conversely, withdrawal was good for communist morale.

4. In 1970, the VPA and VC returned to large formation warfare. Consequently, in March 1970, the US helped the right-wing general Lon Nol to seize power in Cambodia (while the President, Prince Sihanouk, was out of the country), with the goal of denying the VC their sanctuaries and supply routes. Between 29th April and 30th June 1970, US and ARVN forces mounted an unsuccessful invasion of Cambodia, but the communists merely withdrew, and a US Senate amendment prohibited further use of US troops or air support in Cambodia, although in practice, ways of circumventing the amendment were found. In its first announcement about the invasion, the Pentagon said the US was providing "advisers, logistics, and support as required" and that it was acting in "response to requests" from Lon Nol. Only later did it emerge that 15,000 of the 20,000 strong invasion force were Americans, who were taking a combat role, and that Lon Nol had not been consulted and had in fact complained. The invasion of Cambodia brought increased anti-war protests in the US (for example, at Kent State University, Ohio, on 4th May 1970, during which four students were shot, as a result of which 450 colleges closed in protest) and caused the North Vietnamese to break off peace talks, which were resumed only in September 1970. Rogers had opposed the invasion but Dr. Kissinger considered it essential to force the North Vietnamese to negotiate.

In February and April 1971, the ARVN mounted an unsuccessful operation in Laos. No US personnel were involved, except in a support capacity (artillery and air), but these numbered 10,000, to 17,000 ARVN!

The above incursions were part of Nixon's "Madman Scenario", to convince the North Vietnamese that he was mad enough for anything. He also threatened "measures of great consequence and force".

5. On Easter Sunday, 30th March 1972, despite US intelligence reports that the communists lacked the strength, the VC launched their spring offensive, the largest since Tet, and the most conventional of the war, involving 120,000 men and 500 tanks.

i. The main target was Quang Tri, just south of the demilitarized zone. Civilians fleeing were deliberately killed by the VC. On lst May 1972, Quang Tri fell, ARVN troops breaking in panic and running, leaving behind about 200 tanks and armoured cars, and about 200 artillery pieces. The VC then headed south, towards Hu.

ii. A second front, in Binh Long Province, near the Cambodia border was held by ARVN forces.

iii. A third VC front, in the Central Highlands, was begun in April 1972 and met with success.

iv. A fourth front, in Binh Dinh and Quang Ngai Provinces, was also a VC success.

v. The VC may have hoped this would prove to be the final offensive, but they underestimated Nixon's resolve, although there were only 95,000 US troops in Vietnam at the time. In April 1972, the US resumed (until October 1972) the bombing of North Vietnam and in May 1972 mined North Vietnamese harbours.

vi. The VC became increasingly short of materiel and in May the offensive diminished, although it continued until September. US intelligence estimated in July 1972 that half or more of the 120,000 VC involved had been killed or injured, and that 100 to 200 of the tanks had been destroyed. The ARVN mounted a counter-offensive, which by September had recovered most of the ground lost earlier.

vii. The VC agreed to resume the peace talks, which they had broken off in May, dropping their demand that Thieu should go and that a coalition government should be set up. They were presumably influenced by the clear signs that Nixon was going to be re-elected.    

6. The Paris Accord, 27th January 1973: "peace with honor" (Nixon).

i. Underlying factors.

The US government did not expect the communists, though well organized, to get more than 25% of southern votes in a free election. Intelligence estimates indicated that North Vietnam was so battered that it would be unable to make war for 5 years, during which time southern forces could be built up even more. 1972 was a presidential election year (although Nixon had told his aides that he would rather lose the election than accept terms equal to defeat). Congress and US public opinion opposed the war.

The North Vietnamese were possibly influenced by the conclusion that they could not win until the US left Vietnam and the bombing stopped. Despite the sacrifices, and the fact that the communists controlled 1/3 to 1/2 of South Vietnam, Saigon still controlled 90% of the population and all 44 provincial capitals. Also, there was declining Russian and Chinese support.

ii. Preliminary talks had begun in May 1968 in Paris (in the ballroom of the Hotel Majestic) with the intention that full talks would start in November. The North Vietnamese demanded as a precondition of full talks the end of US bombing, which came in November 1968. It was also agreed that there should be representatives from South Vietnam and the NLF, although this brought protracted discussions about the shape of the table as they refused to face each other.

iii. Eventually full talks (at a round table!) began in January 1969. The North Vietnamese delegation was led by Le Duc Tho and that of the US by Henry Cabot Lodge. However, Dr. Kissinger made a number of trips to Paris, Saigon and Moscow, and his "shuttle diplomacy" probably stopped the talks from stalling.

iv. In general, the main problem was President Thieu, who opposed any settlement. In contrast, the US and North Vietnamese representatives were ready to make concessions. For example, in April 1972, Dr. Kissinger in Moscow conceded that there should be a continued North Vietnamese presence in the South, and in October 1972, Le Duc Tho agreed to release US prisoners of war before a political settlement had been concluded.

v. On 26th October 1972, just before the US elections, Dr. Kissinger announced that "peace is at hand" and North Vietnam released a draft text, for signature 30th-31st October. However, signature was stopped by Thieu's objections, which prompted Dr. Kissinger to try to get Le Duc Tho to agree to 60 changes! On 13th December 1972, the talks stopped and on 19th December 1972 the US began 12 days of heavy bombing (until 31st December) of North Vietnam, including Hanoi and Haiphong; a greater tonnage of bombs was dropped than on Britain in the Second World War, and Hanoi ordered the evacuation of major cities and the dispersal of factories (thereby suggesting that Hanoi saw little hope of peace). The bombing was widely condemned; for example, the Los Angeles Times announced that "Civilized man will be horrified", and the London Times called it "A crime against humanity".  In January 1973, talks were resumed and on 22nd January 1973, President Nixon announced on TV that Dr. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho had initialled an agreement that meant "peace with honor". Formal signature of the Accord took place on 27th January 1973 in the Hotel Majestic, and in February 1973 an International Conference (of the USSR, US, China, France, North and South Vietnam and the 4 members of the International Commission of Control - Canada, Hungary, Indonesia, and Poland) ratified the Agreement. North Vietnam had made no concessions, despite the bombing, and the terms were the same as those in October. The US had made it clear to Thieu that aid would stop completely if he did not accept the terms as the best possible.

vi. The Terms.

There was to be a cease-fire, operative from midnight on 27th January 1973.

US troops were to leave within 60 days (the first left in February). Prisoners of war were also to be returned within 60 days.

Internationally supervised elections were to be held in South Vietnam. Thieu was to stand down as President but he could stand for re-election.

A Council of National Reconciliation and Concord was to be set up, representing the Saigon Government, the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, and South Vietnamese neutrals. Any measure had to be voted unanimously.

An International Commission of Control (from Canada, Hungary, Indonesia and Poland) was to supervise the truce and the Accord in general.

The US was to provide reconstruction aid. Dr. Kissinger suggested $7,500,000,000 over 5 years, of which $1,000,000,000 would go to North Vietnam.

The self-determination of Laos and Cambodia was reaffirmed and no foreign country was to maintain bases there.

vii. Comments.

It was widely felt that the same terms could have been arranged in 1969, so that all the extra suffering since 1969 had been completely futile.

Thieu perspicaciously commented that "based on past experience (for example, the 1954 Geneva Agreement), we cannot rely too much on international treaties, for the communists do not respect them. Nor can we rely too much on the International Control Commission". In the event, the elections were not held; fighting continued, the Third Vietnam War, admittedly without US involvement and with the communists not solely responsible for the continuation of hostilities; and the Control Commission of 1,160 observers could do nothing. Eventually in April 1975, Saigon surrendered unconditionally to the communist forces surrounding it.


VI. Reasons for the US/ARVN failure to destroy the Vietcong, although the allied forces won "every major encounter of the war" (Newsweek, April 1985) and enjoyed overwhelming material and numerical supremacy. Despite the fact that there were 18,000,000 people in the South and 21,000,000 in the North, according to US sources, in 1973 more than 500,000 US soldiers and 250,000 ARVN were fighting a mere 170,000-237,000 VPA and 50-60,000 VC.

1. US ignorance about Vietnam. "Ignorance of Vietnamese history was one of the reasons the US pursued a policy which, in its complete disregard of the political realities of contemporary Vietnam, was doomed to fail." (Joseph Buttinger, Vietnamese expert, in 1977).

i. The US army did not "know the enemy" (Frederick II, King of Prussia, 1740-86), advice which goes back at least as far as Sun Tzu in "The Art of War", 650 BC. Little effort was made to get to know the Vietnamese mentality, or to learn from the French (for example, about the methods of commanders like Giap). Only in 1957 did studies begin about Vietnam and by 1960, only 30 universities had experts; the US was especially short of Vietnamese-speakers, so interrogation had to be left to South Vietnamese.

ii. Thus the 1970 commando raid to rescue US prisoners of war found the prison camp long deserted. In 1968 and 1972, US intelligence concluded that large-scale VC offensives were impossible. In 1973, it was predicted that the North could not mount an offensive for 5 years; this was proved wrong almost immediately. Yet the Second World War had shown how vital intelligence was.

iii. There was deliberate deception, especially by officers (to further their careers). A 1982 CBS television documentary showed that the US persistently underestimated enemy forces to preserve the impression back home that the war was being won, and that this was covered up, especially by Westmoreland. (This under-estimation was one reason for the initial losses in Tet.) After Tet, it was impossible to reconcile earlier US statements with the real situation; this came as a great shock for US public opinion, which turned against the war, and was one reason why, in March 1968, Johnson's advisers decided that the war was unwinnable. The South Vietnamese authorities also concealed unpleasant facts from the Americans.

2. The weakness of South Vietnam. There was no real support by the people for South Vietnam's rulers. Diem (Ngo Dinh Diem), President 1954-63, became increasingly authoritarian and unpopular; his overthrow in 1963 was largely the work of Buddhist priests. After 1963, chaos reigned, culminating in virtual civil war in Saigon between Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu until 1967 when Thieu gained power as President, and Ky became Vice-President. No great leader emerged in the South and the people remained very divided.

i. Diem, President 1954-63, underestimated the Communists when they were weak and could perhaps have been eliminated. From early 1960, Diem suppressed adverse news to encourage Vietnamese and Americans (but this had a demoralizing effect on those fighting, as their sacrifices were not recognized). Diem's central control stifled initiative (as did US advisers). Diem made no attempt to win over the 500,00 to 1,000,000 Montagnards of the Central Highlands, who opposed the VC and could have been a great help.

ii. Thieu, President 1966-75, was not an outstanding leader, for example, in 1975 causing confusion by changing orders, and according to his Vice-President Marshal Ky, was "unfaithful, disloyal and dishonest". Ky himself used to dress in the style of an American cowboy.

iii. In general, South Vietnamese governments were too interested in staying in power and feathering their own nests. (Diem's sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, was notorious for her luxurious life).

iv. The ARVN was weak; peasants, who had often been harassed by US forces, were conscripted into the army. Not surprisingly, orders were often disobeyed, and the defection rate was an average of 20% ;there were times when deserters outnumbered casualties, and according to Le Monde in June 1966, there had been 160,000 deserters in 2 years. ARVN officers had no links with the people, did not serve in their native area, were divided (between young and old, Northerners and Southerners, Buddhists and Christians), and were discouraged by US contempt and the frequent US changes (of advisers, and of policies and approach).

3. Northern strength.

i. Good political leadership. Ho Chi Minh was capable and ruthless. For example, in 1925, age 19, he betrayed the rival but non-communist nationalist Scholars' Movement leader (Phan Boi Chau) to the French, who executed him; this removed a potential rival, encouraged a revolutionary climate, and the French reward helped Communist funds! Party Secretary Le Duan was very able and laid out the overall strategy, "the strategic guide-lines to fight a protracted war". (Like Westmoreland and others, he assumed US public opinion would not tolerate a protracted war). Of the 11 Politburo members of 1945, all were still there 1973 except Ho and Nguyen Chi Thanh, who had died and not been replaced. The Politburo was often divided, but once a decision had been made, they united (for example, Giap opposed the Tet offensive). Pham Van Dong was Prime Minister and Truong Chinh Chairman of the National Assembly.

ii. The People's Revolutionary Party was aware that winning "the hearts and minds" of the people was as important as fighting. They used slick slogans ("peace, independence from the US, and national reunification", "popular livelihood"), and the VC collected fair taxes, distributed land, built canals and dykes, and generally set a good example. At the same time, they were prepared to use terror (for example, mass graves were unearthed at Hu after the Tet Offensive of 1968, with many victims buried alive. In 1967, in Suoi Chan village, 18 people, including three girls, were tied and shot, to deter villagers from voting. (cf. Lieutenant William Calley's massacre at My Lai in March 1968, revealed in November 1969; Calley was tried and convicted in March 1971, and in general US forces were restrained. For details of My Lai, see below, Results, Point 3 vi). The North was aware of the value of propaganda, which was carefully handled; for example, sympathetic US and other foreign journalists were invited and shown what the North wanted them to see.                            

iii. There was a readiness to pursue the strategy of a protracted war of attrition. "The destruction is not important. The deaths are not important." (Giap). According to Giap, the VC engaged in open battle to distract the US (although more likely, it was an attempt to speed up victory and so reduce losses).

iv. Vo Nguyen Giap, "The Organizer of Victory" (according to the North Vietnamese) was a brilliant, experienced guerrilla tactician, leading "the best enemy we have ever faced in our history" (Douglas Kinnard, in "War Managers"). This was surely an exaggeration, but the enemy was well-trained, used to hardship (cf, US forces and leaders) and dedicated. From 1965, Giap was ailing with cancer, and the main field-commander was probably Tran Vam Trung, the pseudonym for Tran Van Tra, although the final offensive was under General Van Tien Dung, Deputy Defence Minister and Chief of Staff, who had been prominent at Dien Bien Phu. Giap and the other leaders adapted remarkably well to US measures, for example, with simple but effective bomb-shelters, and camouflage (even of school uniforms ). The "City" of Vinh Linh near the border with South Vietnam had 70,000 people living underground, in a vast tunnel system, tending crops at night. (cf. the US, which also ignored reports by European visitors to North Vietnam about the North's capacity to withstand bombing). The Northern command was less centralized than the Southern, commanders being given considerable freedom of action. Industrial production was scattered as far as possible.

v. Communist enthusiasm and self-sacrifice.

vi. The US, especially at first, underestimated the enemy, and US power was "overextended and overbearing" (Walter La Feber).


4. US military weakness. (cf. Britain in the US war of Independence, 1775-83.)

i. There was the US tradition of being unready for war. (cf. the British tradition of "muddling through".) In 1941, US rifles were 39 years old, the artillery, mortars and machine guns were 26 years old, and First World War model helmets were retained. In Korea 1950-53, the US used bazookas (against Soviet T 34 tanks), although they had been labelled junk by World War II troops; and on the Yalu River, US forces froze, as they had no cold weather gear.

ii. According to the military, the US was "quite aware that we did not lose militarily" (Westmoreland), and that the politicians, the media and public opinion were responsible for the military failure. In 1969, an official army spokesman claimed that the war was won, just when the government decided to withdraw. The army had a point, but, according to "Cincinnatus" (a pseudonym, as the author was an army officer at the General Staff College) in his 1981 book "Self-destruction: the disintegration and decay of the US army during the Vietnam era", "basically America suffered a military defeat brought about by the ineptness of the soldier leaders."

iii. Wrong strategies were pursued, although there were more generals than Eisenhower had in the Second World War.

  1. a.        Successive commanders (Maxwell Taylor 1961-62, Paul Harkins 1962-

64, William Westmoreland 1964-68, Creighton Abrams 1968-72, Frederick Weyand 1972-73) ignored the past (for example, the War of Independence, the Civil War, Geronimo 1885-86 and the Apaches, the Philippine guerrilla insurrection of Emilio Aguinaldo, 1899-1901). Mao in China had studied Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" (650 BC) and George Washington's campaigns, but the US generals did not. US army leaders before the Vietnam War had admittedly neglected counter-insurgency, but successive US commanders in Vietnam failed to adapt sufficiently. Thus US strategy continued to be to fight as if in Europe, with tanks and artillery against a known enemy, in expectation of grinding down the enemy by killing as many as possible in "search and destroy" patrols, and by bringing them to major conventional battles.

"I would say that our strategy today is that which I have been

recommending. As we get greater forces, we can always move toward some objective which is so valuable to the VC that they must stand and fight". (Taylor in 1965, after being relieved. This policy seemed very reminiscent of Dien Bien Phu.)

The US won the major battles but gave this "real war" (killing) priority over "the other war" ("hearts and minds"), forgetting that the number of casualties was not vital (for example, the Union forces in the US Civil War lost more men than the defeated Confederates; in the Lopez War 1965-70, Paraguay lost 84% of its male population before admitting defeat.)

Admittedly, the US army had difficulties; in April 1967, Westmoreland admitted "We are fighting a war of attrition", which brought criticism that attrition meant a lack of imagination and strategy, as well as a likely VC victory. Westmoreland was also aware that the US government and people generally would not tolerate a long war.

b. The US neglected "the other war" of counter-insurgency and "Winning the Hearts and Minds" (buzz word WHAM), failing to realize until it was too late that (or to cope with the fact that) "the threat was not from the North but from within the South." (Cincinnatus. The war after all began as a Southern civil war.)

"We forgot that armies are not the only weapons in the counter-insurgent's arsenal, or even the most important" (John Collins, 1981, retired army colonel, in the Army Times). ARVN Rangers and US Green Berets (commandos) proved the most effective, but were generally ignored.

There was no attempt at "nation-building" as there had been in Cuba and the Philippines after 1898, in West Germany and Japan after 1945, and in South Korea after 1953 (admittedly, the US had to be careful to avoid, as much as possible, accusations of imperialism), and internal defence and development, and popular support, took second place to combat.

The populace was generally alienated as a result of random shelling by artillery; 1962-71 Project Agent Orange, which spread defoliant on 1/7 of the country; the forced moving of villages into protected areas; the shooting of non-VC to "raise the body-count"; and the fact that, by 1972, 5,000,000 or so South Vietnamese were homeless refugees. The US killed VC, but the VC infrastructures always remained intact. The US controlled the terrain but the VC controlled the people; "the tools of the VC are primarily non-military" (Lt. Col. Carl Bernard).

c. 1959-60, the Strategic Hamlet Project was inaugurated (recommended by the British adviser, General Sir Robert Thompson, who had successfully used the method in the l948-60 "Emergency" in Malaya, where admittedly there was no comparable attachment to the land, and where more was done for the villagers) but collapsed 1963; there had never been much US enthusiasm, and the Vietnamese resented being moved into fenced villages and carrying ID cards.

Subsequent half-hearted imitations (for example, the 1967 Revolutionary Development Program) were no more successful, except for the CAPs (Combined Action Platoons), which were not developed by the army. CAPs were modelled on the British SAS (Special Air Service) Malayan model; these were groups of soldiers (specially trained, for example, in languages, civil defence, farming, health), who stayed in the villages and tried to make friends. January 1968 brought the new agency CORDS (Civil Operations and Rural Development Support), the brain-child of Robert Komer, who in mid-1967 had taken over the US aid programme. Komer took the view that aid had been neglected and instituted 59-man CAP teams (30 defence experts and 29 specialists in village needs such as agriculture and health) to live in the villages, but it was hard to find trained South Vietnamese personnel, was too late (Tet came 1968), and in 1968 William Colby replaced Komer.

d. 1965-66 saw the "enclave approach", advocated by General James Gavin (and preferred by the airforce and marines). The goal was to clear and pacify a specific area, and then move on to do the same in the next area; to "find, fix and finish" the VC. This ran counter to the previous US policy of "search and destroy" or "pacification"( the former French name and policy), later renamed "reconnaissance in force" because of popular opposition to the name; this was an attempt to destroy the VC throughout the country as a whole. However, Westmoreland returned to the "Search and Destroy" policy, finding the "enclave approach" too slow and passive, although "clearing and holding" (another new name for "pacification") operations continued. The problem with "search and destroy" was actually finding the VC; then if the VC were found, it was hard to find LZs (landing zones) for the US helicopter gunships bringing reinforcements and supplies. (Of course, the VC knew the potential LZs.)   

e. Only in November 1964 was a small US psychological warfare branch established, and belatedly, in February 1966, Political Action Teams formed (cf. in 1962, the NLF established Radio Liberation to broadcast propaganda.)

f. The US Ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, emphasized, correctly, that the US was not imperialist, but the US did not consolidate the ARVN (until Nixon's 1969 Vietnamization) and instead took an increasingly large role (generally "search and destroy"), leaving the holding of villages and security to the Vietnamese. This policy was dictated largely by the US lack of interpreters.(Naturally, as the US had few Vietnamese-speakers, suspects had to be interrogated at regional level, with the result that information was very slow to return to the relevant area.) As important, however, was the fact that the ARVN was not in general taken seriously by the US in training and arming, and there was no joint command of the ARVN and US.

g. The US continued French methods, which had not worked. Thus the French "hit and run" tactic became the US "search and destroy" tactic; French "raking over" became "free-fire zones"; French "mopping up" became US "clear and hold".

h. According to Dean Rusk (Secretary of State 1961-69), it might have been better if maximum force had been used at the beginning. "One could make an argument that President Kennedy should have put in 100,000 troops immediately instead of a gradual response". Throughout, the US laid the emphasis on fire-power and technology, rather than manpower and risking lives.

iv. Reasons for the wrong strategies:-

a. Poor command, with General Westmoreland being singled out especially. "Westy" was "the most disastrous American general since Custer." (Arthur Schlesinger Junior). "General Westmoreland built up a huge conventional force and used conventional tactics, noisily thrashing about in the jungle in his elephantine search for the VC rats." (Edgar O'Ballance). All, especially Westmoreland, rejected advice from civilians and army dissidents, especially about the "other war". Too many commanders stayed in the safety of helicopters, running the fighting from there, although it was hard to know what was going on below and to give the necessary leadership. Too often, an officer on the spot during a battle had to report to several superior officers, all wanting to know what was happening!

b. A faulty appointments system. After 1953, the US High Command was filled by technicians and bureaucrats; promotion depended on theory, and a wide range of experience, rather than expertise and commitment. Thus Westmoreland, although an artillery man, was appointed to a guerrilla war (partly as he had a good presence with the media!).

c. Too many officers were afraid to criticize, as this would go on their Officers' Evaluation Report" (OER), and make promotion unlikely. One served one's term, "getting your ticket punched", and moved on and up.

d. The Army 1963 was unprepared for the sort of war it had to fight, although it should have adapted.

v. The Army was increasingly ineffective.

a. According to Brigadier General Theodore Mataxis, commander of a US division in Vietnam, the US experience in Vietnam was the opposite of Korea. "There we went in with a bad army, and came out with a good one. In Vietnam, we went in with a good army, and came out with a bad one." A 1971 report by Colonel Robert Heinl stated: "By every conceivable indicator, our army in a state approaching collapse...with individual units... murdering their officers, drug-ridden and dispirited, where not near-mutinous". By 1973, the army was "almost unusable" according to one analyst at the General Staff College.

b. Poor leadership. Westmoreland was "a bureaucrat, not good at handling men" (Robert Komer, in "Bureaucracy does its thing", although he did not speak out when he worked as a civilian on Westmoreland's staff in Vietnam.) Colonel David Hackman (Instructor at the General Staff College) considered US commanders "amateurs", responsible for the poor leadership, strategy and discipline. "Deterioration from the top down and the bottom up. In the latter years, the army was almost unusable."

c. Especially serious was the rapid turn-over of officers, who served a six-month tour of duty (in contrast to 12 months for "men", a difference which naturally rankled in the ranks). This began in expectation of a short war, with the goal of getting the maximum number of men "blooded", that is, having had experience of actual combat. Later, the reason was "burn-out", but the rapid turn-over (called "the revolving door" and "turbulence") was considered (for example, by a 1970 Report on Professionalism after My Lai) as unnecessary (15% personnel were officers; cf. 9% in Korea and 7% in the Second World War) and unwise, as it meant inexperience (the men knew more than the officers, who thus had little respect) and lack of continuity.

d. Discipline and morale were low. UUUU appeared on helmets ("The Unwilling led by the Unqualified doing the Unnecessary for the Ungrateful"). Problems included racial conflict, drugs, violence towards Vietnamese, and attacks on officers; in 1969, over 200 "Fraggings", short for fragmentations, that is, the  killing of officers, were documented, and in 1970 there were 363. GIs were especially irked to see so many Vietnamese not in uniform. There were many "combat refusals"; 82 convictions for mutiny in 1968, 117 in 1969, 131 in 1971. More often, troops just sat in the jungle until their patrol time was up. In 1967, 27,000 deserted; in 1968 - 39,334; in 1969 - 56,608; in 1970 65,643. In addition, there were AWOLs - those �absent without leave�. Those caught were sent to LBJs, meaning LBjails. Between 1969 and 1971, heroin users increased from 2% to 22% of personnel, and in 1971, combat wounds took 5,000 GIs to hospital, in comparison to 20,529 for drug abuse.

e. Officers were badly prepared, and each new batch had to learn. Officers completed "lessons learned" forms, which show how the obvious had to be learnt (for example, radio and electronic equipment should be protected from the weather; soldiers should not be overloaded; jungle contact was likely to be at point-blank range; good driving and maintenance preserved vehicles).

f. Officers were too interested in promotion, which depended on no bad OERs (Officer Evaluation Reports) and this produced a willingness to please -the mood of "no problem" and "can do" and "zero defects". Consequently, there was falsification of facts and figures to make things look good. For example, the "body count", that is the number of VC killed, was exaggerated (there was admittedly the problem of how to count bodies after an artillery attack, which tended to leave only pieces of body) by taking out rifles already captured, so that they could be counted again! Some officers sent their body-counters into areas where other groups had fought! In the VC ambush near Dak Ta on 22nd June 1967, which brought 80 US dead and 34 wounded, the US troops claimed 457 VC dead but, although no more than 10 VC bodies were found, the official "body-count" was reduced to only 106! Killing for statistics' sake resulted. Prisoners tended not to be taken alive which meant that there could  be no interrogation for vital information. Soldiers were rewarded, for example, with leave, for a good body count, and an enemy village was one where one shot was fired. Consequently, the commanders at the top had no real idea of the situation.

g. There was corruption at all levels, with for example, bribes, kickbacks, and extortion. The GI saw contractors making fat profits out of his life. The black-market (even of US weapons to the VC) was, especially rampant under Westmoreland, who made little effort to halt it. Brigadier General Earl Cole was questioned about irregularities in officers' club finances ($27,000,000 came each year from slot machines alone!). Brigadier General Forrester accepted the Silver Star, the third highest award, with a citation, for things he had not done! (He was later stripped of his awards.) Medals in Vietnam were awarded very generously, especially to officers. 1,766,000 were awarded in the Second World War, 50,200 in Korea, and 1,274,000 in Vietnam, one apparently to someone flying frozen turkeys into a besieged area!

h. Only 14% US forces actually fought; for example, in 1968, of 543,000 troops, no more than 80,000 were combat troops. The US armed forces were sophisticated (in equipment and in life-style), needing large numbers of back-up troops, but there were probably too many back-up troops, for example, providing iced beer and ice-cream to the forces in the jungle. In the Second World War, there were fewer support troops, and they were generally kept more out of sight. Commanders often stayed in the safety of helicopters and gave orders from above, although it was hard to see what was going on. Higher officers remained back at base. Not surprisingly, there was much resentment on the part of the combat troops that so many were safe and enjoying the good life. Combat troops spent much time inactive, so that even for them, the war was a little like a holiday, with swimming and sun-bathing on the beaches.     

i. There was general ignorance about Vietnam and the real situation, especially at the top (See Point 1 above). Statistics and reports from below were apparently believed. The intelligence aspect was neglected and, too often, commanders stayed in the safety of helicopters, directing things from above, having little idea of what was happening on the ground, and being unable to give the necessary leadership. "In general, they ignored those who sought to modify or change its (the army's) behavior in Vietnam" (Cincinnatus). Ignored were the 1970 Peel Report after My Lai and the 1970 Army War College's Study on Professionalism. (The Study was allowed only 2� months for preparation, so it was presumably intended to be weak and cosmetic. Anyway, it was too late.) "The war is being properly managed. We must keep up what we are doing". (General Harkins) "We have the enemy licked now" (Admiral John McCain Junior, 1969, C-in-C Pacific and nominal head in Vietnam).

j. Too great an emphasis was placed on technology. The war was a field day for R and D (Research and Development) people. Robert McNamara (Defence Secretary 1961-67) especially hoped technology would win the war, without resort to atomic weapons.

Westmoreland became noted for his  "automatic battlefield". People-sniffers detected the ammonia excreted by the body (but, unfortunately, the water buffalo gave off the same smell). The "daisy-cutter" bomb was designed to be dropped on the jungle from a B52 bomber to cut down trees and clear a landing area. Hydrofoil armoured personnel carriers and light tanks that skimmed across the water proved so unreliable that they were called "Westy's Wonders". More successful were sound sensors, dropped to give warning of movement.

Maxwell Taylor's Davy Crockett nuclear rifle never got far; this  shot a kiloton nuclear bomb about one mile, but it would have taken about 2 hours to get permission for use, and those firing it were unlikely to survive!

Yet only by 1967 did US troops have enough M16 rifles (replacing M14s), and these were inferior to the Communist AK 47.

There were vast repair problems (some months were often needed to diagnose a fault and get spare parts sent out), the helicopter was overrated, and the "Electronic Battlefield" made men feel like laboratory rats!.


5. The US government did not give the military a free hand.                      

i. The Army High Command's requests for the calling up of men from the Reserves and the National Guard were rejected by Johnson and McNamara (public opinion was opposed and the Reserves and National Guardsmen had more political clout than draftees), although this would have raised the overall standard in the army, which was generally very low.

ii. McNamara was obsessed with facts, and insisted on statistics, in part to justify troop increases. This gave rise to the "body count" (Vietnam's contribution to warfare, according to Cincinnatus).

iii. The Pentagon insisted on a short tour of duty by officers, despite objections from Westmoreland and others.


6. The US media fuelled opposition to the war.

i. Vietnam was "the living-room war", watched on TV screens daily, which presented "doom and gloom" reporting (Senator William Fulbright, Democrat from Arkansas, a war critic, although a conservative), and increasingly turned US public opinion against the war. Walter Cronkite, CBS News Managing Editor, witnessed Tet, decided the US could not win and said so on TV, the only important occasion in his career where he used his political power. LBJ (President Lyndon Johnson) then allegedly said: "Well, if we've lost Walter, we've lost the country."                                                       

According to P.J. Honey (in "The 20th Century Magazine"), the communists fared badly after the US marines were committed in 1965, and 1968 mounted a "desperate gamble", the Tet Offensive. In Tet, the "damage (to US forces was) so sensationally reported by American TV and press, that a costly Communist military defeat was transformed into a psychological victory over American public opinion. Pressures on the US government to withdraw from Vietnam became intense."

ii. There was general and growing lack of support in the US. It was estimated that 15,000,000 avoided the draft by, for example, becoming students, or securing deferment of service, or emigrating to Canada, so that the war was "fought in the main by the sons of poor whites and blacks" (Arthur Schlesinger Junior), which tended to mean low standards. (1969-71, deferment was ended, although it had been a means to discourage vocal people from opposing the war by removing their personal interest.)

7. The US fought a limited war, with self-imposed restraints (no doubt, partly because of fear of direct Russian and Communist Chinese involvement, and adverse world opinion).

i. The US did not use atomic weapons or commit its full war potential.

ii. It did not bomb the Red River delta dykes, which would have halted the North Vietnamese economy, but would also have caused 1,000,000 or so deaths. ( Defense Secretary Melvin Laird admitted accidental hits.)

iii. The Army was not allowed full mobilization.

8. Chinese and Soviet aid to the Vietcong. By 1968, Soviet aid was about $1,000,000,000 per annum. Especially important were diplomatic help and the prevention of US use of nuclear weapons.

9. The VC were helped by circumstances and geography.

i. Vietnam's terrain was ideal for guerrilla warfare.

ii. Unlike Malaya, where the Communists were mostly Chinese and unpopular, it was hard for Americans and ARVN to tell who was VC.

iii. The VC could use the Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk Trails in Laos and Cambodia respectively. (These were the US journalists' names for the supply routes.) The Ho Chi Minh Trail, 700 or so miles long, at first a path, and then almost a road, went round the border between North and South, and was vital for supplies; it was no picnic, taking perhaps 6 weeks walking, carrying things at first by hand, and many died from exhaustion and US bombing. According to one deserter, only 30 of his 300-strong squad survived. The Sihanouk Trail from the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville was almost as useful. Intermittent civil war between Communists and non- Communists in Laos and Cambodia facilitated VC and VPA use of these vital routes.

iv. There was much opposition throughout the world to US involvement. US administrations were especially annoyed that, unlike the Korean War, there was no direct British of French participation, although a continued US commitment to defend Europe from Communism was sought.

v. The US was experiencing growing economic problems, in part caused by the war. In 1971, for the first time since 1893, US imports exceeded exports, and August 1971, President Nixon devalued the dollar against gold and imposed a 10% surcharge on imports. This was followed in 1973 by the ending of dollar convertibility (to gold).

VII. Results and importance of the war.

1. Casualties. In all, there were about 15,000,000 dead and injured. According to US estimates, total Vietnamese dead were about 1,500,000, including 500,000 civilians (= 1,000 per week).

i. The US. January 1961-28 January 1973, 46,000 Americans were killed in action, 10,000 died from other causes, 300,000 were wounded, 1,300 were missing and 500 were prisoners of war, out of a total of 2,796,000 US personnel who served. 1966-72 saw the greatest number of US casualties, with 44,000 dead. (cf. in the same period, 52,000 were murdered in the US by hand-guns, that is 20% more than died in Vietnam.) 1968 was especially bad, with nearly 15,000 killed.

                  US dead               1961          11                          1967      9,378

                                                1962            31                        1968    14,592

                                                1963            78                        1969      9,414

                                                1964          147                        1970      4,221

                                                1965      1,369                         1971      1,372

                                                1966      5,008                         1972         257


(cf. The US Civil War, 1861-65, brought 526,000 dead. The First World War 115,000. The Second World War 325,000, out of 12,000,000 in the forces. Korea, 1950-1953, 33,629.)

More casualties came from booby-traps, snipers, and mines, than from actual fighting. The US lost 1,000 planes over North Vietnam, and 2,720 over South Vietnam, with 8,000 airmen killed; 4,865 helicopters, at an average cost of $250,000 dollars, were lost.

The average GI (soldier) was 19 years old (cf. 26 in the Second World War), and proportionally more Blacks fought in Vietnam (13% US forces, 28% combat troops, but 2% officers).

ii. The ARVN[2]. 159,917 - 183,528 dead. 417,167 - 499,026 wounded. According to a US Senate Sub-Committee report, January 1965-October 1972, 415,000 South Vietnamese civilians were killed and 935,000 wounded. After 1973, 60,000 more South Vietnamese died. South Vietnam's population 1973 was 18,000,000. (1965-73, the total Vietnamese population increased by 2,000,000.)

iii. The NLA[3] and VPA[4]. An estimated 924,048 (sic) were killed. (North Vietnam's population in 1973 was 21,000,000.)   

iv. Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand 4,875 - 5,225 dead.

2. For Vietnam.

i. Great destruction resulted, especially in the South. Vast areas were laid waste in both North and South. By December 1966, 500,000 tons of shells had been fired, more than in the Second World War. The US dropped 8,000,000 tons of bombs, about 4 times the Second World War total (although some estimates give only 3,500,000 tons). From mid-1965 to the end of 1967 more tons of bombs were dropped than were dropped on Europe 1939-45. 1965-68, according to the North Vietnamese government, one province, with 600,000 people, was bombed 25,529 times. In all, about 15,000,000 tons of explosives were used, 80% in the South, an average of 500 pounds per acre, and 1,333 pounds per Vietnamese. Admittedly, unlike the Second World War, explosives affected jungle and country, rather than towns, although towns were also levelled (the North had primitive but effective shelters). The US used napalm and defoliants (10,000,000 gallons of Agent Orange defoliant, with dioxin, which resulted in birth deformities).

However, the US introduced into the South "miracle rice", which, by 1971, meant a 25% greater yield than 1965, although 10% less land was cultivated. By Asian standards, Vietnam was basically rich agriculturally and capable of rapid agricultural reconstruction.

ii. South Vietnamese society was disrupted. In the South, the war uprooted the rural population, which fled to towns or was moved there. In 1974, there were about 8,000,000 refugees (Displaced Persons, DPs) in a population of 18,000,000. By January 1975, there were about 10,000,000 refugees. Shortages and US aid and spending brought bribery, corruption, black-market, problems of drug-peddling, prostitution (cf. in the North, where the women increasingly did the work of men who were fighting, "women's lib." gained ground), inflation (20% average in the South during the war; 1973 65%).

With the end of fighting, it was hard for people to adapt and return to the countryside. The rapid US departure 1973 and the end of US spending and aid brought difficulties. In 1971, South Vietnam's exports had been worth only $8,000,000 but imports had been $373,000,000, paid by the US. Thus in 1974, there were food shortages and deaths from starvation.

The Northern victory 1975 was not accompanied by the expected slaughter of Southerners, although 1,500,000 Saigon officials were relocated in the country, and 200,000 senior government and military were sent to camps for re-education. 1975 had witnessed a mad scramble by Southerners to escape, but only about 250,000 succeeded, most going to the US. (Ky set up in business in California, selling liquor.) Many half- American children had difficulties later.

iii. The North Vietnamese Communists conquered the South in 1975 and in 1976 reunited the country as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which became a strong force in the area. The US government believed (see for example, Time Magazine, November 1972) that North Vietnam was so battered that it could not attack for at least 5 years, while South Vietnam in the meantime could be built up. This was proved wrong in 1975 when the North conquered the South. Hanoi was strengthened by the US equipment it thus gained (of course, obtaining spares was a problem), worth about 5,000,000,000 dollars. Vietnam had 9 times as many Cessna A 37 light planes as Thailand, enough ships to make it the second Asian naval power after China (the US lost 940 ships), and more armoured cars than India. The US had also developed the country: about 300,000 South Vietnamese had learnt skills (clerks, mechanics, technicians, engineers); plastics, bricks, textiles industries had been developed; and ports, roads, and power lines had been provided. Miracle rice had been introduced. Vietnam was thus in a position 1979 to intervene in Cambodia, becoming involved in a 10 year war.

iv. There was no "reconciliation" with the US or reconstruction aid in accordance with the US January 1973 promise to contribute to healing the wounds of war. (Hanoi had told the US it had $3,250,000,000 in mind.) The US also blocked Vietnam's admission to the UN until September l977; the new US policy was the result of the North's victory 1975 and the US desire for friendly relations with Mainland China, which was on increasingly bad terms with Vietnam. The USSR gave $3 milliard for reconstruction. (In 1991, the US began to give some aid by providing assistance for the rehabilitation of war victims.)



3. For the US. (cf. Britain after the US War of Independence, 1775-83.)

i. The war, especially with the 1973 oil crisis, shattered the belief in US omnipotence.  "All we did was show our inability with 500,000 troops and vast technology, to cope with a few 100,000 guerrillas in black pajamas" (Arthur Schlesinger Junior).

ii. The US was deeply divided, between those for and against the war. (See the disturbances in the University of Kent State, Ohio, in 1970, which resulted in four dead and nine injured.)


iii. Doubts were raised about US government decision-making procedures. "A disastrous undertaking from the beginning" (George Ball, Under-Secretary of State under Johnson).

iv. Questions were asked about the honesty of the US government and its dedication to democracy. (It did not help that this coincided with the Watergate Scandal 1972-74, when President Nixon tried to cover up the fact that some Republicans had organized a break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington). Thieu's and later Saigon regimes were notoriously corrupt, brutal and undemocratic. In 1971, there were 80,000 to 150,000 political prisoners. According to the NLF, 350,000 patriots were imprisoned. (Admittedly, the Vietnamese were not interested in democracy and progress, but, being Confucian, wanted order and harmonious relationships. US freedom was generally equated with chaos). Pictures of South Vietnam's "cage" prisons and of the shooting of suspects were bad publicity. All this weakened the US reputation abroad and encouraged disaffection in the US.

v. Government credibility was weakened. Daniel Ellsberg, a State Department official, in 1971, leaked the Pentagon Papers, (an official but secret history of the war in Vietnam) showing how, for example, Johnson had lied to Congress in 1965 to get US combat troops committed, and how in 1968 Cambodia was secretly being bombed. A war to stop communist expansion seemed odd at a time when the US was courting Russia and China! (In fact, it was not really that odd. One reason for the US courting them was to get them to help stop the war in Vietnam.)                          

vi. US bombing, the use of defoliants, and the My Lai Case (and the attempt at a cover-up) showed US callousness.

The My Lai Case was revealed by Seymour Hersh's investigative journalism in 1969 for the Washington Post. In March 1968, between 200 and 700 villagers had been killed in cold blood in Quang Ngai Province in the village of My Lai, called Pinkville by the Americans as the area was coloured pink on the map, and now called Son My. 13 officers and men, including the Company Commander, Captain Medina, were charged with war crimes, and 12 for covering up. Of the defendants, who claimed that the area had seen NLF activity, especially by snipers, only one, Lieutenant William Calley was gaoled, for life, 1971 (but was soon paroled by Nixon and went on to run a jewellers in Georgia), being convicted of killing 22 villagers. The official report made in 1970 was made public in 1974.

vii. There was loss of confidence in the US military, which clearly had failings. It was even asked if the US could defend itself. The sheer cost of the war reduced US power. The war was one reason for d'tente with China and the USSR.

viii. It was hard for the 2,796,000 veterans to adapt to civilian life. In Vietnam, a dose of heroin costing $50 in the US sold for $2 and was 98% pure, unlike the US average of 3-12%. Veteran divorce and unemployment rates were slightly above the national average for the age group. A 1981 US government survey found that about a quarter of those who saw combat had been arrested on criminal charges since their return, mostly for drug-related offences.

ix. The war was one reason for US inflation (and for the upset to the world economy) and hindered President Johnson's efforts to achieve the Great Society (i.e. social reform). In particular, Johnson financed the war by means other than taxation. 1965-73, the US spent $107,800,000,000, and total spending in Vietnam was about $150,000 million. The peak was 1969, with $21,000,000,000. (cf. 1939-45, $664 milliard). The costs also included 62,000 US personnel stationed in Thailand, and $500,000,000 aid to South Vietnam 1973-5. The war was an important reason for President Nixon in August 1971 ending dollar convertibility into gold and In May 1972 formally devaluing the US dollar by 7.89% against gold, steps which in turn encouraged governments the world over to end fixed exchange rates and to let their currencies float.

x. The war blackened President Johnson's reputation (and Kennedy's) and he stood only one term. Vietnam confirmed many Americans in the belief that the Democratic Party was likely to lead the country into foreign adventures (the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, and finally Vietnam). On the other hand, the Watergate Scandal weakened the Republicans (see Point 4. above). The Democrat Party was confirmed as the party of war.

xi. Congress (especially with Watergate, June 1972-1974) kept a closer eye on the President and Foreign Policy. The war showed how a President could circumvent Congress, which, as a result, passed, over Nixon's veto, the 1973 War Act that no combat troops could be sent by the President into battle, or to areas where hostilities might be imminent, for more than 90 days, without Congressional approval. (It was in fact very questionable whether this was constitutional and ways round the act were found; for example, the invasion of Grenada October 1983 was called a "rescue operation" to evade the Act.) The Government became more open and responsive to public opinion, but consequently, less flexible and less quick to act.

xii. Changes in US foreign policy resulted, as well as a growing mood of isolationism in some quarters. US foreign policy became more "realistic" and limited. (cf. Kennedy's inaugural speech offering unlimited help with Nixon's 1969 Guam Doctrine of limited help). "Our Foreign Policy difficulties are often described as the legacy of Vietnam. But the Vietnam ordeal was not a cause but a symptom. The late 1960s, coinciding with Vietnam, marked the end of the period when America was overwhelmingly more powerful than any other nation .... when American initiatives were accepted without serious debate." "Vietnam was a catharsis". (Dr. Kissinger 1977).

xiii. US foreign policy became less doctrinaire and the USA more selective in its interventions. (The conclusion was not that it should not intervene.) For example, Clark Clifford (Defense Secretary 1968-69) decided that the war had in fact been a civil war after all, and "the domino theory proved to be erroneous". (Admittedly, General Alexander Haig, US Secretary of State 1981-2, and others continued to see the hand of Moscow behind Hanoi, and the "full range of our national power should have been employed".) Thus, for example, Mozambique was Marxist, but it traded with South Africa and so with a flexible US policy it might be won over.

xiv. Vietnam was one reason for US diplomatic overtures to both Russia and Communist China, with the goals of keeping them out of the war and of securing their aid in ending it.

xv. It showed the power of the media and brought the end of the mutual trust between US government and media.  After Vietnam, the media were denied access to military operations, for example, the Gulf War in 1991. The passage of time brought a number of novels and films on "'Nam".

xvi. The military did not fully learn the lessons. Thus, according to "Cincinnatus" in 1981, there was no greater attention in US military schools to counter-insurgency. However, courses on Military Ethics were introduced and the neglect of WHAM (Winning Hearts and Minds) was realised; for example, in 1983 the US mounted "Operation Well-Being" in El Salvador, a rural pacification programme in which soldiers settled in villages and left only when the area was secure and civil defence organized. Also in the US invasion of Grenada October 1983, the press was barred.           

xvii. The fact that 18 year olds were drafted was one reason for many states legalizing the sale of alcohol at 18, and for the 26th Amendment in 1971, which lowered the voting age to 21 for federal elections.

xviii. The war (with the 1973 Middle East Crisis) helped make Dr. Kissinger's reputation (and win the Nobel Peace Prize), although he was also criticized for continuing the war, and bombing in order to secure the semblance only of "peace with honour". The war helped Richard Nixon and the Republicans win the Presidential election of 1968.Opponents of the war generally suffered. For example, Eugene McCarthy, the 1968 anti-war Democratic presidential candidate got nowhere and William Fulbright, Senator for Arkansas (a conservative, but nevertheless an opponent of the war) lost his Senate seat.           


NB. By 1978, historians (for example, Guenter Lewy of the University of Massachusetts in "America in Vietnam") were taking the view that the war was not illegal or immoral, any more than any other war. Nor was it a complete failure for it discouraged Communism as there was no reason for Communists to think the US would let them take over easily. When, in his 1980 Presidential election campaign, Ronald Reagan called the war a "noble cause", he was widely praised for his courage in saying so, and was cheered by the Convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars. The US administrations were very disappointed at the lack of aid from Britain, France and other countries.

4. For the world as a whole                           

i. There was a loss of confidence in US strength and willingness to fight against communism, and a greater willingness to seek accommodation with Communists.

1975 saw the end of SEATO (the South East Asia Treaty Organization, set up in 1954 by Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, France, the US and Britain. Pakistan left in 1972, France stopped paying contributions 1974, and after Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand called for its termination.)

1972-75, the European Conference on Security and Co-operation met, and the final Helsinki Accord, among other things, recognized Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

In 1979, CENTO (the Central Treaty Organization, established in 1955 by Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, the US, and Britain) was wound up, after requests by Iran and Pakistan, on the grounds that it was "no longer effective". (Admittedly, 1979 saw the return to Thailand of a US presence, which the Thais had ended in 1976. This followed  Vietnamese incursions after 1977 into Thailand, as a result of the Vietnamese involvement in Cambodia.)

ii. There was a loss of confidence in US dedication to principle. Lord Russell, the British philosopher, and Jean-Paul Sartre, the French writer and philosopher, organized an unofficial "War Crimes Tribunal in Stockholm". Much of the world was critical of US intervention and management of the war. (Yet the US had not bombed the Red River dykes, which would have halted the North's economy but would at the same time probably have caused 1,000,000 deaths.)

iii. The war was one reason for the world economic boom of the 1960s (for example, Communist China sold steel to Singapore, and this steel ended up in US weapons in Vietnam; North Vietnamese cement was used by the US in the South, via Singapore, until the US authorities found out. As in the Korean war, the Japanese economy was greatly helped) and then the recession in 1973. With the end of the war, US imports were drastically reduced, and this unfortunately coincided with poor Russian harvests, which raised grain prices, and with oil price increases as a result of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.                                 

iv. Did the war encourage communism? Communist success had not been easy and US intervention was still possible. The US maintained a presence in the area after the war. For a time, the war brought Sino-Soviet co-operation, but in the end it worsened Sino-Soviet relations, as China came to fear that the USSR was using Vietnam to encircle China.

v. Was there a danger of world war? There were fairly widespread fears, especially with the escalation after 1965.

vi. Vietnam showed the irrelevance of the UN. U Thant, the Secretary General (1961-7l), tried, especially 1964-65, to get peace talks going, but neither side officially approached the UN.

vii. The war was one reason for d'tente because the war had to be ended as it was very dangerous to world peace. At the same time, the war made it easier really to improve relations between the US on the one hand and China and the USSR on the other as:-the apparent weakness of the US and the obvious aversion of the US to total war reduced Sino-Soviet fears of the US.US losses and its more limited foreign policy made the US more anxious for better relations.              


viii. The war generally weakened US relations with other countries. The US was disappointed at the lack of support from other countries and other countries were disappointed by the US. They all felt they could no longer rely on the other.               


ix. The war did not extend Soviet or Communist Chinese power. Even North Vietnam wanted a continued US presence in the area to counterbalance the USSR and People's China.


x. US preoccupation with Vietnam encouraged the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to attack Israel in 1973 as US aid to Israel would of necessity have to be limited. In the event, the 1973 Arab-Israeli War was a turning point in Middle Eastern affairs as it was apparently the first step to a solution.

5. For military thinking.

i. The war showed the limits of equipment and technology, and the importance of small, self-contained units, and good propaganda and intelligence.

ii. Above all, the helicopter, for which there had been great hopes, was shown to be overrated, as were SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles, to destroy planes. The US used ECMs - Electronic Counter Measures - to warn pilots and jam and divert Surface-to-Air Missiles). AA (Anti Aircraft) equipment, about to be scrapped generally, proved the most effective means to stop planes, with a wall of fire that could not be diverted. The US encountered problems of maintenance and repair of sophisticated equipment, and realised the need to raise training standards for mechanics and repairmen.

iii. Vietnam led many to conclude that guerrillas could not be stopped. (This was not in fact true, as events in Bolivia, Greece, Malaya and Venezuela have shown. The outcome depends very much on the circumstances.)



[1] Commissioned by the Defense Secretary, McNamara, in 1967, when he was beginning to have doubts about the war, as a sort of secret history, and leaked to the Washington Post in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, one of the compilers, who also had doubts about the war.

[2] Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

[3] National Liberation Army.

[4] Vietnam People's Army.