The Vietnam War Years American Involvement

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The Vietnam War Years

American Involvement

From late 1800 until WWII – France ruled Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia).

French did not treat most of the population well (took away land, took much of the rice and rubber for their own profit).

French restricted freedom of speech and assembly, jailing many Vietnamese who protested against French rule.

In 1941, Japanese took control of Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh, driven out leader of the Indochinese Communist Party, returned and organized a nationalist group called Vietminh – which sought independence from foreign rule.

When Japanese were defeated in WWII, the Vietnamese believed they had won independence.

US had supplied Ho Chi Minh with aid during WWII to resist the Japanese.

After Japan’s defeat, French troops moved into Vietnam in 1946 to retake control, starting the first Indochina War

Vietminh were driven out of the South.

In 1950, US under Truman got involved by sending $15 million (within 4 years it was a Billion) in economic aid to France to defeat Ho Chi Minh (irony) and his communist party, who didn’t want any foreigners in Vietnam.

Support of France meant keeping an ally against Soviet influence, as well as stopping another Asian country close to the USSR from turning Communist (we had already lost China and North Korea!!)

Ho Chi Minh’s ideas of a democratic government, based on the US Declaration of Independence, for a Vietnam ruled by Vietnamese were shattered, and he looked to Communist countries like China and the USSR for support to get the foreigners out of his country.

1953, President Eisenhower introduces his “Domino Theory” – where countries on the brink of communism are like a row of dominos, ready to fall one after the other.

May 1954, the Vietminh overran the French outpost at Dien Bien Phu – forcing the French surrender. The French had no idea how well armed the Vietnamese were…

United States, France, Great Britain, China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietminh, anti-Communist Vietnamese nationalists and the Soviet Union meet in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss peace. Their agreement, the Geneva Accords, temporarily divided Vietnam into North and South at 17th parallel until a 1956 election could be held, ending the 1st Indochinese War.

Ho Chi Minh (North)

Ho Chi Minh controlled the Communists in the North, with Hanoi as their capital

He was brutal and repressive, but popular due to land redistribution to the peasants

He was a national hero for his fight against Japanese and French, gaining the Vietnamese their independence

Ngo Dinh Diem (South)

Strong anti-Communist, refused to take part in elections dictated by Geneva Accords, fearing Ho Chi Minh’s popularity

Led corrupt government that suppressed any opposition

Devout Catholic, angered large Buddhist population by restricting Buddhist practices

Eisenhower continued military aid and decided to “sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem”

By 1957, a group of Vietnamese with communist ties, started attacking the Diem government, assassinating thousands of officials

Known as the Vietcong (VC), or the National Liberation Front, they supported ridding Vietnam of all foreign entanglements, and especially the Diem regime
Ho Chi Minh Trail

Ho Chi Minh supported the Vietcong’s goals, so by 1959, he started supplying the Vietcong via paths through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia – what became the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They used guerilla warfare tactics, quickly ambushing their opponents, using non-conventional weapons often and then disappearing.


When Kennedy was elected, he increased aid to Diem, and sent thousands of military advisors to help train South Vietnamese troops

By 1963, nearly 16,000 US military personnel were in South Vietnam

Diem’s popularity plummeted even further when, to combat the Vietcong, he moved villagers to protected areas and away from their homes. Villagers lost everything they had worked their lives for.

Diem’s continued attacks on Buddhism, including imprisonment of Buddhist monks and destruction of temples, led to monks and nuns burning themselves in protest publicly, which made papers around the world

November 1, 1963 – under Kennedy’s orders, a US supported military coup toppled Diem’s regime – not under Kennedy’s orders - Diem was executed

Kennedy’s planned to remove troops from Vietnam. He stated “In the final analysis, it’s their war.” It never happens, though, as JFK is assassinated weeks later.

Johnson, a Democrat, didn’t want to look “soft” on communism, or like he was appeasing the Vietcong. He believed it would weaken the US influence all over the world.

Johnson increased US involvement in Vietnam, leading us into America’s longest war, the 2nd Indochinese War, most often referred to as the Vietnam War.
Tonkin Gulf Resolution

August 2, 1964 a North Vietnamese patrol boat fired a torpedo on an American destroyer – USS Maddox (no damage to US ship, but return fire crippled the patrol boat)

This and a later unconfirmed attack prompted Johnson as permission from Congress to launch air strikes on North Vietnam to retaliate for the attack on US forces

August 7, Tonkin Gulf Resolution allows “all necessary measures to repel an armed attack” – broad military power without a declaration of war

Johnson did not inform the US or Congress that he had already been sending in secret raids to North Vietnam!

1st American Soldiers

Though Johnson campaigned in 1964 against sending American troops to fight a war for Vietnamese – in March 1965 our first 3500 troops arrive in Vietnam

64% of Americans supported this, only 24% opposed

Troop size in Vietnam escalated very quickly and by June more than 50,000 were US troops were there.

General William Westmoreland

General William Westmoreland, a veteran of WWII and Korea, didn’t believe the South Korean Army, or ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) could fight without our support, and requested more and more troops, which Johnson provided.

By 1967 the US had more than 500,000 troops in Vietnam, and it escalated every year until 1969
The Enemy

The Vietcong were elusive, experienced in jungle warfare, and used ambush tactics.

They lived among the civilian populations, making it nearly impossible to tell friend from foe

They laced the terrain with booby traps and land mines, oftentimes repurposing mines and bombs Americans had left for them.

Vietcong built elaborate underground tunnels, with sleeping areas, storage rooms, and kitchens

These tunnels connected villages, and became home to many of the guerilla fighters

They were absolutely resolved to fight harder the more we harassed them


Westmoreland’s strategy was to wear down the enemy by giving out body counts of enemy dead

Vietcong came harder and faster, struggling for their existence

US fought against communism (DENY them something – how can you win??), Vietcong fought for freedom from tyranny

Hearts and Minds

US hoped to win over rural population, giving guerillas nowhere to hide

US tactics such as gasoline bombs called napalm, and Agent Orange which was a toxic chemical to kill the vegetation, and search-and-destroy missions which uprooted villagers and burned villages – did not make this hope a reality

Knowing Vietcong were hiding amongst the rural population, the strategy was to keep rural villages safe by clearing them, which led to 3 million refugees in South Vietnam by 1967

“We had to destroy the town in order to save it” was a quote made after the destruction of the village of Ben Tre

Jungle conditions, guerilla warfare, and lack of headway caused US troop morale to drop. Many soldiers turned to alcohol and other drugs, though most firmly still believed in the cause of fighting communism, and doing their patriotic duty…

After Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination, South Vietnam was being ruled by a series of military leaders, in power by force – leading to a civil war within a civil war – even more unstable and inefficient than when we arrived…
President Johnson

Lyndon B. Johnson, after finishing what Kennedy started, started making some legacies of his own at home.

Johnson’s plan for America was called the Great Society (make American the Great Society everyone knows it is.)

The Great Society focused on ending poverty and racial injustices in America, creating programs for things like education, Medicare and Medicaid, housing assistance.

Unfortunately, due to the rising costs of the war in Vietnam and skyrocketing taxes, Johnson had to pull funding for most of his programs.
Credibility Gap

For the first time, Americans were seeing images of war on television

Despite body count numbers of enemy dead being broadcast, and assurances that their surrender was imminent, a credibility gap occurred between what Americans were seeing and what they were being told
The Draft

Many men sought deferments from the Draft, which was often easily manipulated

Sympathetic doctors gave medical excuses, draft boards were inconsistent with qualifications, and many men joined the National Guard or Coast Guard to keep away from service in Vietnam.

Male college students were deferred from the draft, meaning most men fighting were lower class, lower income.

African Americans served in disproportionate numbers (20% of deaths in Vietnam compared to 10% of our population) (why?)

To correct this imbalance, the draft lottery system was instituted in 1969, after Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders had protested the death of so many young black men, proportionate to white men.

Racial tensions followed many to war…

Women in Vietnam

Women were still not allowed to serve in combat, but more than 10,000 served as nurses, Red Cross volunteers, and USO entertainers and hospitality workers.


New Left organizations (youth movements) such as Students for a Democratic Society protested against large corporations and government that had hijacked the average American voice

“Teach-ins” and other forms of demonstration against US involvement in Vietnam grew rapidly, especially on college campuses
Turning Point

January 1968, on the Vietnamese New Year called Tet – there was supposed to be a cease fire

In coffins supposedly holding bodies for memorial, Vietcong had hidden weapons

At one such siege at Khe Sanh – 40,000 NVA surrounded 5,600 Marines for 77 days

Operation Niagara in February dropped more bombs than ever before in war

The Tet Offensive, though devastating in body count to Vietcong, was even more devastating to an American public who thought we were nearing peace

Shocking News at Home

March 1968 Johnson stuns the nation when he announces not to run again for President

April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, leading to violence nationwide

June 1968, Robert Kennedy, a contender for the Democratic nomination, is assassinated


Chaos engulfs the 1968 election, where Nixon wins by promising to restore law and order, and getting us out of Vietnam

By summer 1969, Nixon announces the first US troop withdrawals from Vietnam

Nixon’s strategy, Vietnamization, was gradual withdrawal of US troops so South Vietnamese could take more role in war

Nixon hopes for “Peace with Honor” – to maintain US dignity while withdrawing

Demands that South Vietnamese government remain intact

Secretly orders bombing missions in Laos and Cambodia
My Lai Massacre

November 1969 US public learns of an event that had occurred in March

Lt. Wm. Calley, Jr. led troops into the village of My Lai to find Vietcong rebels. They found no Vietcong, but rounded up all the villagers and shot them – more than 100, mostly women and children

Calley was convicted and imprisoned – Americans consciences shocked, and they started calling returning veterans “baby killers”

Kent State

May 4, 1970, students protesting US invasion of Cambodia were fired on by the National Guard

9 wounded and 4 killed, bringing the Vietnam war home
Hollywood Gets Political

Jane Fonda, famous Hollywood actress, becomes a traitor - meeting with the Vietcong (our enemy) while a war is still being fought against them.

Many Vietnam vets never forgive her, and give her the nickname “Hanoi Jane.”

The End of the War

By mid 1972 – US social division was growing and Nixon’s preparation for his next election prompted him to drop his insistence that all North Vietnamese troops are removed from the South

Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s advisor and negotiator, announced “peace is at hand”
Christmas Bombings

South Vietnam rejected Kissinger’s plan

Nixon unleashes a bombing campaign against Hanoi and Haiphong – dropping 100,000 bombs for 11 days, stopping only for Christmas Day

January 27, 1973, peace talks culminate in an agreement to end the war

The End of the War

By March of 1973, the last US soldier in Vietnam was pulled-out

Cease-fire between North and South collapsed – North Vietnamese launched a full-scale invasion of the South

By April 1975 South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam

More than 58,000 Americans were killed, and 385,000 wounded

Americans had a much more cautious outlook on foreign affairs and more cynical toward government

War Powers Act of 1973 stipulates that a President needs to inform Congress within 48 hours before troops sent in without a declaration of war

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