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Vietnam is a small country to the south of China ('Vietnamese' means "non-Chinese people of the south"). In 111 BC, Vietnam became part of the Chinese Empire. For the next thousand years Vietnam struggled to gain its independence from its much larger neighbour. This was achieved in 938 AD.
The long period of Chinese rule had left its mark on Vietnam. The language, religion, architecture, system of government and most other aspects of Vietnamese life, reflected the influence of the Chinese.
In the 17th Century, French missionaries arrived in Vietnam. The Catholic priests received a friendly welcome from the Vietnamese people and they were allowed to live and work in the country. However, the Vietnamese authorities became concerned when the missionaries began to recruit the local people to Roman Catholicism. The converted Catholics were told to abandon their religious customs including that of taking several wives. The missionaries also instructed their followers to give their loyalty to God rather than to their Emperor. Hostility towards the Christian missionaries grew and over the years there were several cases of priests being murdered.
In 1847, French troops were sent to Vietnam to protect the Catholic community. News soon got back to France that Vietnam would make a good addition to the French Empire. Nothing was done about it at first but in 1858, Napoleon III sent 14 ships and 2,500 men to the Vietnamese port of Danang. It was a long drawn out struggle but in 1868, the Vietnam Emperor surrendered and signed a peace treaty with France. This did not stop the fighting as China, concerned about the presence of French troops on its border, sent soldiers into Vietnam.
The war continued until 1885, when China finally accepted her inability to defeat the French Army and signed an agreement recognising French control over Vietnam. By 1893, the neighbouring states of Laos and Cambodia had also been added to the French Empire.
Vietnam became profitable for the French. Vietnam had good supplies of coal, tin, zinc and rubber. Much of this was sent to France. Vietnam also provided a good market for French manufactured goods. By 1938, 57% of all Vietnam's imports were provided by French companies.
To help transport these raw materials and manufactured goods, the French built a network of roads, canals and railways. To pay for this the French taxed the Vietnamese peasants. This resulted in many new French mines and plantations.
Like the Chinese before them, the French were to change dramatically the Vietnamese way of life. Those who resisted were punished. Others collaborated and agreed to abandon Buddhism and to adopt the Catholic religion and other French customs. In exchange for this sacrifice they were granted privileges in the new Vietnam. This small group, which in time developed into a new elite class helped the French to control the 30 million people living in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, an area that France now called Indochina
The skills needed by the Vietnamese administrators meant that they would require educating. French schools were built and in 1902, Hanoi University was opened. Although one of the purposes of this education was to develop people who would remain loyal to the French Empire, some students began to question the right of France to rule their country. One such student was Ho Chi Minh. Inspired by the Russian Revolution, in 1924, he visited the Soviet Union. While in Moscow, Ho wrote to a friend that it was the duty of all communists to return to their own country to: "make contact with the masses to awaken, organise, unite and train them, and lead them to fight for freedom and independence."
However, Ho was aware that if he returned to Vietnam he was in danger of being arrested by the French authorities. He therefore decided to go and live in China on the Vietnam border. Here he helped organise other exiled nationalists into the Vietnam Revolutionary League (Vietminh).
In September, 1940, the Japanese army invaded Indochina. With Paris already occupied by Germany, the French troops decided it was not worth putting up a fight and they surrendered to the Japanese. Ho Chi Minh and his fellow nationalists saw this as an opportunity to free their country from foreign domination. Under the military leadership of General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietminh began a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese.
The Vietminh received weapons and ammunition from the Soviet Union, and after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, they also obtained supplies from the United States. During this period the Vietminh leant a considerable amount about military tactics which was to prove invaluable in the years that were to follow.
In September, 1945, Ho Chi Minh announced the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Unknown to the Vietminh Harry S. Truman, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Joseph Stalin had already decided what would happen to post-war Vietnam at a summit-meeting at Potsdam. They had agreed that the country would be divided into two, the northern half under the control of the Chinese and the southern half under the British.
After the Second World War France attempted to re-establish control over Vietnam. In January 1946, Britain agreed to remove her troops and later that year, China left Vietnam in exchange for a promise from France that she would give up her rights to territory in China.
Emperor Bao Dai went into exile in Hong Kong in March, 1946. After signing an accord recognising Vietnamese national unity within the French Union, he was allowed to return in June, 1948. The following year the French installed Bao Dai as Head of State.
France refused to recognise the Democratic Republic of Vietnam that had been declared by Ho Chi Minh and fighting soon broke out between the Vietminh and the French troops. At first, the Vietminh under General Vo Nguyen Giap, had great difficulty in coping with the better trained and equipped French forces. The situation improved in 1949 after Mao Zedong and his communist army defeated Chaing Kai-Shek in China. The Vietminh now had a safe-base where they could take their wounded and train new soldiers.
By 1953, the Vietminh controlled large areas of North Vietnam. The French, however, had a firm hold on the south. When it became clear that France was becoming involved in a long-drawn out war, the French government tried to negotiate a deal with the Vietminh. They offered to help set-up a national government and promised they would eventually grant Vietnam its independence. Ho Chi Minh and the other leaders of the Vietminh did not trust the word of the French and continued the war.
French public opinion continued to move against the war. There were four main reasons for this: (1) Between 1946 and 1952 90,000 French troops had been killed, wounded or captured; (2) France was attempting to build up her economy after the devastation of the Second World War. The cost of the war had so far been twice what they had received from the United States under the Marshall Plan; (3) The war had lasted seven years and there was still no sign of an outright French victory; (4) A growing number of people in France had reached the conclusion that their country did not have any moral justification for being in Vietnam.
General Navarre, the French commander in Vietnam, realised that time was running out and that he needed to obtain a quick victory over the Vietminh. He was convinced that if he could manoeuvre General Vo Nguyen Giap into engaging in a large scale battle, France was bound to win. In December, 1953, General Navarre setup a defensive complex at Dien Bien Phu, which would block the route of the Vietminh forces trying to return to camps in neighbouring Laos. Navarre surmised that in an attempt to reestablish the route to Laos, General Giap would be forced to organise a mass-attack on the French forces at Dien Bien Phu.
Navarre's plan worked and General Giap took up the French challenge. However, instead of making a massive frontal assault, Giap choose to surround Dien Bien Phu and ordered his men to dig a trench that encircled the French troops. From the outer trench, other trenches and tunnels were dug inwards towards the centre. The Vietminh were now able to move in close on the French troops defending Dien Bien Phu.
While these preparations were going on, Giap brought up members of the Vietminh from all over Vietnam. By the time the battle was ready to start, Giap had 70,000 soldiers surrounding Dien Bien Phu, five times the number of French troops enclosed within.
Employing recently obtained anti-aircraft guns and howitzers from China, Giap was able to restrict severely the ability of the French to supply their forces in Dien Bien Phu. When Navarre realised that he was trapped, he appealed for help. The United States was approached and some advisers suggested the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the Vietminh. Another suggestion was that conventional air-raids would be enough to scatter Giap's troops.
The United States President, Dwight Eisenhower, however, refused to intervene unless he could persuade Britain and his other western allies to participate. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, declined claiming that he wanted to wait for the outcome of the peace negotiations taking place in Geneva before becoming involved in escalating the war.
On March 13, 1954, Vo Nguyen Giap launched his offensive. For fifty-six days the Vietminh pushed the French forces back until they only occupied a small area of Dien Bien Phu. Colonel Piroth, the artillery commander, blamed himself for the tactics that had been employed and after telling his fellow officers that he had been "completely dishonoured" committed suicide by pulling the safety pin out of a grenade.
The French surrendered on May 7th. French casualties totalled over 7,000 and a further 11,000 soldiers were taken prisoner. The following day the French government announced that it intended to withdraw from Vietnam. The following month the foreign ministers of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France decided to meet in Geneva to see if they could bring about a peaceful solution to the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
After much negotiation the following was agreed: (1) Vietnam would be divided at the 17th parallel; (2) North Vietnam would be ruled by Ho Chi Minh; (3) South Vietnam would be ruled by Ngo Dinh Diem, a strong opponent of communism; (4) French troops would withdraw from Vietnam; (5) the Vietminh would withdraw from South Vietnam; (6) the Vietnamese could freely choose to live in the North or the South; and (7) a General Election for the whole of Vietnam would be held before July, 1956, under the supervision of an international commission.
After their victory at Dien Bien Phu, some members of the Vietminh were reluctant to accept the cease-fire agreement. Their main concern was the division of Vietnam into two sections. However, Ho Chi Minh argued that this was only a temporary situation and was convinced that in the promised General Election, the Vietnamese were sure to elect a communist government to rule a re-united Vietnam.
This view was shared by President Dwight Eisenhower. As he wrote later: "I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held at the time of the fighting, possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the communist Ho Chi Minh."
When the Geneva conference took place in 1954, the United States delegation proposed the name of Ngo Dinh Diem as the new ruler of South Vietnam. The French argued against this claiming that Diem was "not only incapable but mad". However, eventually it was decided that Diem presented the best opportunity to keep South Vietnam from falling under the control of communism.
Once in power, the Americans discovered that Diem was unwilling to be a 'puppet' ruler. He constantly rejected their advice and made decisions that upset the South Vietnamese people. Several attempts were made to overthrow Diem but although the Americans were unhappy with his performance as president, they felt they had no choice but to support him.
The United States government was severely concerned about the success of communism in South East Asia. Between 1950 and 1953 they had lost 142,000 soldiers in attempting to stop communism entering South Korea. The United States feared that their efforts would have been wasted if communism were to spread to South Vietnam. President Eisenhower was aware that he would have difficulty in persuading the American public to support another war so quickly after Korea. He therefore decided to rely on a small group of Military Advisers' to prevent South Vietnam becoming a communist state.
Under the leadership of Colonel Edward Lansdale, a twelve-man team of American soldiers and intelligence agents was sent to Saigon in June, 1954. The plan was to mount a propaganda campaign to persuade the Vietnamese people in the south not to vote for the communists in the forthcoming elections.
In the months that followed, this small team of men distributed targeted documents that claimed the Vietminh and Chinese communists had entered South Vietnam and were killing innocent civilians. The Ho Chi Minh government was also accused of slaying thousands of political opponents in North Vietnam.
Colonel Lansdale also recruited mercenaries from the Philippines to carry out acts of sabotage in North Vietnam. This was unsuccessful and most of the mercenaries were arrested and put on trial in Hanoi.
Finally, the American advisers set about training the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) in modem fighting methods. For it was coming clear that it was only a matter of time before the anti-Diem forces would resort to open warfare.
In October, 1955, the South Vietnamese people were asked to choose between Bao Dai, the former Emperor of Vietnam, and Ngo Dinh Diem for the leadership of the country. Colonel Edward Lansdale suggested that Diem should provide two ballot papers, red for Diem and green for Bao Dai. Lansdale hoped that the Vietnamese belief that red signified good luck whilst green indicated bad fortune, would help influence the result.
When the voters arrived at the polling stations they found Diem's supporters in attendance. One voter complained afterwards: "They told us to put the red ballot into envelopes and to throw the green ones into the wastebasket. A few people, faithful to Bao Dai, disobeyed. As soon as they left, the agents went after them, and roughed them up... They beat one of my relatives to pulp."
After the election Diem informed his American advisers that he had achieved 98.2 per cent of the vote. They warned him that these figures would not be believed and suggested that he published a figure of around 70 per cent. Diem refused and as the Americans predicted, the election undermined his authority.
Another task of Edward Lansdale and his team was to promote the success of the rule of President Ngo Dinh Diem. Figures were produced that indicated that South Vietnam was undergoing an economic miracle. With the employment of $250 millions of aid per year from the United States and the clever manipulating of statistics, it was reported that economic production had increased dramatically.
The North Vietnamese government reminded Diem that a General Election for the whole of the country was due in July, 1956. Diem refused to accept this and instead began arresting his opponents. In a short period of time, approximately 100,000 people were put in prison camps. Communists and socialists were his main targets but journalists, trade-unionists and leaders of religious groups were also arrested. Even children found writing anti-Diem messages on walls were put in prison.
When it became clear that Ngo Dinh Diem had no intention of holding elections for a united Vietnam, his political opponents began to consider alternative ways of obtaining their objectives. Some came to the conclusion that violence was the only way to persuade Diem to agree to the terms of the 1954 Geneva Conference. The year following the cancelled elections saw a large increase in the number of people leaving their homes to form armed groups in the forests of Vietnam. At first they were not in a position to take on the South Vietnamese Army and instead concentrated on what became known as 'soft targets'. In 1959, an estimated 1,200 of Diem's government officials were murdered.
Ho Chi Minh was initially against this strategy. He argued that the opposition forces in South Vietnam should concentrate on organising support rather than carrying out acts of terrorism against Diem's government.
In 1959, Ho Chi Minh sent Le Duan, a trusted adviser, to visit South Vietnam. Le Duan returned to inform his leader that Diem's policy of imprisoning the leaders of the opposition was so successful that unless North Vietnam encouraged armed resistance, a united country would never be achieved.
Ho Chi Minh agreed to supply the guerrilla units with aid. He also encouraged the different armed groups to join together and form a more powerful and effective resistance organisation. This they agreed to do and in December, 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) was formed. The NLF, or the 'Vietcong', as the Americans were to call them, was made up of over a dozen different political and religious groups. Although the leader of the NLF, Hua Tho, was a non-Marxist, Saigon lawyer, large numbers of the movement were supporters of communism.
The NLF put forward a ten-point programme. It included the replacement of the Catholic dominated Ngo Dinh Diem administration with a government that: "represented all social classes and religions."
The most popular aspect of the NLF programme was the promise to take the land from the rich and to distribute it amongst the peasants. During the Indochina War the Vietminh had taken the land from the large landowners in the territory they controlled and given it to the peasants. After Diem had gained power in South Vietnam, he forced the peasants to pay for the land they had been given. This was often more than the peasants could afford and it caused a considerable amount of suffering amongst the peasant community. The promise of the NLF to give the peasants their land free of charge was an important factor in persuading them to help the guerrillas in their fight against the Diem government.
John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States in November, 1960. In the first speech he made to the American public as their President, Kennedy made it clear that he intended to continue Eisenhower's policy of supporting Diem's South Vietnamese government. He argued that if South Vietnam became a communist state, the whole of the non-communist world would be at risk. If South Vietnam fell, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Philippines, New Zealand and Australia would follow. If communism was not halted in Vietnam it would gradually spread throughout the world. This view became known as the Domino Theory. Kennedy went on to argue: "No other challenge is more deserving of our effort and energy... Our security may be lost piece by piece, country by country." Under his leadership, America would be willing to: "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty."
Kennedy's speech had a considerable impact on many young Americans. Philip Caputo was one of those who traced back his decision to join the US Marines to Kennedy's inauguration speech: "War is always attractive to young men who know nothing about it, but we had also been seduced into uniform by Kennedy's challenge to "ask what you can do for your country" and by the missionary idealism he had awakened in us... we believed we were ordained to play cop to the Communists' robber and spread our own political faith around the world."
When Kennedy became President he was given conflicting advice on Vietnam. Some, like President Charles De Gaulle of France, warned him that if he was not careful, Vietnam would trap the United States in "a bottomless military and political swamp." However, most of his advisers argued that with a fairly small increase in military aid, the United States could prevent a NLF victory in South Vietnam.
Kennedy agreed and in 1961 he arranged for the South Vietnamese to receive the money necessary to increase the size of their army from 150,000 to 170,000. He also agreed to send another 100 military advisers to Vietnam to help train the South Vietnamese army. As this decision broke the terms of the Geneva Agreement, it was kept from the American public.
Roman Catholics made up only just over 10% of the population in South Vietnam. As a reward for adopting the religion of their French masters. Catholics had always held a privileged position in Vietnam. The Catholic Church was the largest landowner in the country and most of the officials who helped administer the country for the French were Catholics.
The main religion in Vietnam was Buddhism. Surveys carried out in the 1960s suggest that around 70% of the population were followers of Buddha. The French, aware of the potential threat of Buddhism to their authority, passed laws to discourage its growth.
After the French left Vietnam the Catholics managed to hold onto their power in the country. President Ngo Dinh Diem was a devout Catholic and tended to appoint people to positions of authority who shared his religious beliefs. This angered Buddhists, especially when the new government refused to repeal the anti-Buddhist laws passed by the French.
On May 8, 1963, Buddhists assembled in Hue to celebrate the 2527th birthday of the Buddha. Attempts were made by the police to disperse the crowds by opening fire on them. One woman and eight children were killed in their attempts to flee from the police.
The Buddhists were furious and began a series of demonstrations against the Diem government. In an attempt to let the world know how strongly they felt about the South Vietnamese government, it was decided to ask for volunteers to commit suicide.
On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Due, a sixty-six year old monk, sat down in the middle of a busy Saigon road. He was then surrounded by a group of Buddhist monks and nuns who poured petrol over his head and then set fire to him. One eyewitness later commented: "As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him." While Thich Quang Due was burning to death, the monks and nuns gave out leaflets calling for Diem's government to show "charity and compassion " to all religions.
The government's response to this suicide was to arrest thousands of Buddhist monks. Many disappeared and were never seen again. By August another five monks had committed suicide by setting fire to themselves. One member of the South Vietnamese government responded to these self-immolations by telling a newspaper reporter: "Let them burn, and we shall clap our hands." Another offered to supply Buddhists who wanted to commit suicide with the necessary petrol.
These events convinced President John F. Kennedy that Ngo Dinh Diem would never be able to unite the South Vietnamese against communism. Several attempts had already been made to overthrow Diem but Kennedy had always instructed the CIA and the US military forces in Vietnam to protect him. In order to obtain a more popular leader of South Vietnam, Kennedy agreed that the role of the CIA should change. Lucien Conein, a CIA operative, provided a group of South Vietnamese generals with $40,000 to carry out the coup with the promise that US forces would make no attempt to protect Diem.
At the beginning of November, 1963, President Diem was overthrown by a military coup. After the generals had promised Diem that he would be allowed to leave the country they changed their mind and killed him. Three weeks later. President Kennedy was also assassinated.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, his deputy, Lyndon B. Johnson became the new president of the United States. Johnson was a strong supporter of the Domino Theory and believed that the prevention of an National Liberation Front victory in South Vietnam was vital to the defence of the United States: "If we quit Vietnam, tomorrow we'll be fighting in Hawaii and next week we'll have to fight in San Francisco."
Johnson, like Kennedy before him, came under pressure from his military advisers to take more 'forceful' action against North Vietnam and the NLF. The Joint Chiefs of Staff advised Johnson to send United States combat troops to South Vietnam. The overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem had not resulted in preventing the growth of the NLF. The new leader of South Vietnam, General Khanh, was doubtful that his own army was strong enough to prevent a communist victory.
Johnson told his Joint Chiefs of Staff that he would do all that was necessary to prevent the NLF winning in South Vietnam but was unwilling to take unpopular measures like sending troops to tight in a foreign war, until after the 1964 Presidential Elections. Just let me get elected," he told his military advisers, "and then you can have your war."
As the election was not due for another eleven months, the Joint Chiefs of Staff feared that this was too long to wait. They therefore suggested another strategy that would be less unpopular with the American public as it would result in fewer of the men being killed.
For sometime, military intelligence officers working in Vietnam had believed that without the support of the Hanoi government, the NLF would not survive. They therefore advocated the bombing of Hanoi in an attempt to persuade North Vietnam to cut off supplies to the NLF.
Curtis LeMay, the commander of the US air force, argued that by using the latest technology, North Vietnam could be blasted "back to the Stone Age." Others pointed out that "terror" raids on civilian populations during the Second World War had not proved successful and claimed that a better strategy would be to bomb selected targets such as military bases and fuel depots.
Lyndon B. Johnson preferred the latter proposal but was aware he would have difficulty convincing the American public and the rest of the world that such action was justified. He therefore gave permission for a plan to be put into operation that he surmised would eventually enable him to carry out the bombing raids on North Vietnam.
Operation Plan 34A involved the sending of Asian mercenaries into North Vietnam to carry out acts of sabotage and the kidnapping or killing of communist officials. As part of this plan, it was decided to send US destroyers into North Vietnamese waters to obtain information on their naval defences. On August 2, 1964, the US destroyer, "Maddox" was fired upon by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. In retaliation, "Maddox" fired back and hit all three, one of which sank. The "Maddox" then retreated into international waters but the next day it was ordered to return to the Gulf of Tonkin.
Soon after entering North Vietnamese waters, Captain Herrick reported that he was under attack. However, later he sent a message that raised doubts about this: "Review of action makes reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather reports and over-eager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No actual sightings by "Maddox". Suggest complete evaluation before further action."
Johnson now had the excuse he had been waiting for and ignored Captain Herrick's second message. He ordered the bombing of four North Vietnamese torpedo-boat bases and an oil-storage depot that had been planned three months previously.
President Johnson then went on television and told the American people that: "Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defence, but with a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight."
The Congress approved Johnson's decision to bomb North Vietnam and passed what has become known as the Gulf of Tonkin resolution by the Senate by 88 votes to 2 and in the House of Representatives by 416 to 0. This resolution authorised the President to take all necessary measures against Vietnam and the NLF.
Johnson's belief that the bombing raid on North Vietnam in August, 1964, would persuade Ho Chi Minh to cut off all aid to the NLF was unfounded. In the run-up to the November election, the NLF carried out a series of attacks and only two days before the election, the US air base near Saigon was mortared and four Americans were killed.
Barry Goldwater, the right-wing Republican candidate for the presidency, called for an escalation of the war against the North Vietnamese. In comparison to Goldwater, Lyndon B. Johnson was seen as the 'peace' candidate. People feared that Goldwater would send troops to fight in Vietnam. Johnson, on the other hand, argued that he was not willing: "to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."
In the election of November, 1964, the voters decided to reject Goldwater's aggressive policies against communism and Johnson won a landslide victory. What the American public did not know was that President Johnson was waiting until the election was over before carrying out the policies that had been advocated by his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater.
Three months after being elected president, Lyndon B. Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder. Unlike the single bombing raid in August 1964, this time the raids were to take place on a regular basis. The plan was to destroy the North Vietnam economy and to force her to stop helping the guerrilla fighters in the south. Bombing was also directed against territory controlled by the NLF in South Vietnam. The plan was for Operation Rolling Thunder to last for eight weeks but it lasted for the next three years. In that time, the US dropped 1 million tons of bombs on Vietnam.
The response of the NLF to 'Rolling Thunder' was to concentrate its attacks on the US air bases in South Vietnam. General Westmoreland, the person in charge of the military advisers in Vietnam, argued that his 23,000 men were unable to defend adequately the US air bases and claimed that without more soldiers, the NLF would take over control of South Vietnam.
On March 8, 3,500 US marines arrived in South Vietnam. They were the first 'official' US combat troops to be sent to the country. This dramatic escalation of the war was presented to the American public as being a short-term measure and did not cause much criticism at the time. A public opinion poll carried out that year indicated that nearly 80% of the American public supported the bombing raids and the sending of combat troops to Vietnam.
The strategy and tactics of the National Liberation Front were very much based on those used by Mao Zedong in China. This became known as Guerrilla Warfare. The NLF was organised into small groups of between three to ten soldiers. These groups were called cells. These cells worked together but the knowledge they had of each other was kept to the bare minimum. Therefore, when a guerrilla was captured and tortured, his confessions did not do too much damage to the NLF.
In 1965, General William Westmoreland developed the aggressive strategy of 'search and destroy'. The objective was to find and then kill members of the NLF. The US soldiers found this difficult. As one marine captain explained: "You never knew who was the enemy and who was the friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike." Innocent civilians were often killed by mistake. As one Marine officer admitted they "were usually counted as enemy dead, under the unwritten rule 'If he's dead and Vietnamese, he's VC'."
In the villages they controlled, the NLF often built underground tunnels. These tunnels led out of the villages into the jungle. They also contained caverns where they stored their printing presses, surgical instruments and the equipment for making booby traps and land mines. If US patrols arrived in the village unexpectedly, the NLF would hide in these underground caverns. Even if the troops found the entrance to the tunnels, they could not go into the tunnels as they were often too small for the much larger American soldiers.
The overall strategy of Guerrilla Warfare is to involve the enemy in a long-drawn out war. The aim is to wear down gradually the much larger and stronger enemy. It is only when all the rural areas are under their control and they are convinced that they outnumber the opposition, that the guerrillas come out into the open and take part in conventional warfare. Thus the NLF, who were based in the thick forests of South Vietnam, began by taking control of the villages in the rural areas. As their strength grew and the enemy retreated, they began to take the smaller towns.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a complex web of different jungle paths that enabled communist troops to travel from North Vietnam to areas close to Saigon. It has been estimated that the National Liberation Front received sixty tons of aid per day from this route. Most of this was carried by porters. Occasionally bicycles and ponies would also be used.
The North Vietnamese also used the Ho Chi Minh Trail to send soldiers to the south. At times, as many as 20,000 soldiers a month came from Hanoi in this way. In an attempt to stop this traffic, it was suggested that a barrier of barbed wire and minefields called the McNamara Line should be built. This plan was abandoned in 1967 after repeated attacks by the NLF on those involved in constructing this barrier.
As the United States is the most advanced industrial nation in world it was able to make full use of the latest developments in technology in its war against North Vietnam. B-52 bombers, that could fly at heights that prevented them being seen or heard, dropped 8 million tons of bombs on Vietnam between 1965 and 1973. This was over three times the amount of bombs dropped throughout the whole of the Second World War and worked out at approximately 300 tons for every man, woman and child living in Vietnam.
As well as explosive bombs the US air force dropped a considerable number of incendiary devices. The most infamous of these was napalm, a mixture of petrol and a chemical thickner which produces a tough sticky gel that attaches itself to the skin. The igniting agent, white phosphorus, continues burning for a considerable amount of time. A reported three quarters of all napalm victims in Vietnam were burned through to the muscle and bone (fifth degree burns). The pain caused by the burning is so traumatic that it often causes death.
One of the major problems of the US forces was the detection of the NLF hiding in the forests of Vietnam. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy approved Operation Ranch Hand. This involved the spraying of chemicals from the air in an attempt to destroy the NLF hiding places. In 1969 alone, Operation Ranch Hand destroyed 1,034,300 hectares of forest. 'Agent Orange', the chemical used in this defoliation programme not only destroyed trees but caused chromosomal damage in people.
Chemicals were also sprayed on crops. Between 1962 and 1969, 688,000 agricultural acres were sprayed with a chemical called 'Agent Blue'. The aim of this exercise was to deny food to the NLF. However, research suggests that it was the civilian population who suffered most from the poor rice harvests that followed the spraying.
In economic terms, the bombing hurt the economy of the United States more than North Vietnam. By the beginning of 1968, it was estimated that $300 million of damage had been done to North Vietnam. However, in the process, 700 US aircraft, valued at $900 million had been shot down. When all factors were taken into consideration it was argued that it cost the United States "ten dollars for every dollar's worth of damage inflicted."
Every year on the last day of January, the Vietnamese paid tribute to dead ancestors. In 1968, unknown to the Americans, the NLF celebrated the Tet New Year festival two days early. For on the evening of 31st January, 1968, 70,000 members of the NLF launched a surprise attack on more than a hundred cities and towns in Vietnam. It was now clear that the purpose of the attacks on the US garrisons in September had been to draw out troops from the cities.
The NLF even attacked the US Embassy in Saigon. Although they managed to enter the Embassy grounds and kill five US marines, the NLF was unable to take the building. However, they had more success with Saigon's main radio station. They captured the building and although they only held it for a few hours, the event shocked the self-confidence of the American people. In recent months they had been told that the NLF was close to defeat and now they were strong enough to take important buildings in the capital of South Vietnam. Another disturbing factor was that even with the large losses of 1967, the NLF could still send 70,000 men into battle.
The Tet Offensive proved to be a turning point in the war. In military terms it was a victory for the US forces. An estimated 37,000 NLF soldiers were killed compared to 2,500 Americans. However, it illustrated that the NLF appeared to have inexhaustible supplies of men and women willing to fight for the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government. In March, 1968, President Johnson was told by his Secretary of Defence that in his opinion the US could not win the Vietnam War and recommended a negotiated withdrawal. Later that month, President Johnson told the American people on national television that he was reducing the air-raids on North Vietnam and intended to seek a negotiated peace.
In March, 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not stand for re-election in the forthcoming presidential election. The Vietnam War was a central issue in the campaign, with both Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic Party candidate, and Richard Nixon, his Republican opponent, promising to end the war by obtaining an "honourable peace". Humphrey, who had been Johnson's Vice-President and had been closely associated with the failures of the previous four years, was beaten by Nixon in the election.
Soon after taking office. President Nixon introduced his policy of "vietnamization". The plan was to encourage the South Vietnamese to take more responsibility for fighting the war. It was hoped that this policy would eventually enable the United States to withdraw gradually all their soldiers from Vietnam.
To increase the size of the ARVN, a mobilisation la\v was passed that called up into the army all men in South Vietnam aged between seventeen and forty-three.
In June, 1969, Nixon announced the first of the US troop withdrawals. The 540,000 US troops were to be reduced by 25,000. Another 60,000 were to leave the following December.
Nixon's advisers told him that they feared that the gradual removal of all US troops would eventually result in a National Liberation Front victory. It was therefore agreed that the only way that America could avoid a humiliating defeat was to negotiate a peace agreement in the talks that were taking place in Paris. In an effort to put pressure on North Vietnam in these talks, Nixon developed what has become known as the Madman Theory. Bob Haldeman, one of the US chief negotiators, was told to give the impression that President Nixon was mentally unstable and that his hatred of communism was so fanatical that if the war continued for much longer he was liable to resort to nuclear weapons against North Vietnam.
Another Nixon innovation was the secret Phoenix Program. Vietnamese were trained by the CIA to infiltrate peasant communities and discover the names of NLF sympathisers. When they had been identified, Death Squads were sent in to execute them. Between 1968 and 1971, an estimated 40,974 members of of the NLF were killed in this way. It was hoped that the Phoenix Program would result in the destruction of the NLF organisation, but, as on previous occasions, the NLF was able to replace its losses by recruiting from the local population and by arranging for volunteers to be sent from North Vietnam.
From the beginning of the Vietnam War, the NLF had used bases situated just inside the borders of neighbouring Cambodia. For many years US military advisers had wanted these bases to be bombed. President Lyndon B. Johnson had rejected this strategy as he feared it would undermine the anti-communist government of Prince Sihanouk.
Soon after becoming president, Richard Nixon gave permission for the bombing of Cambodia. In an effort to avoid international protest at this action, it was decided to keep information about these bombing raids hidden. Pilots were sworn to secrecy and their 'operational logs' were falsified.
The bombing failed to destroy the NLF bases and so in April, 1970, Nixon decided to send in troops to finish off the job. The invasion of Cambodia provoked a wave of demonstrations in the United States and in one of these, four students were killed when National guardsmen opened fire at Kent State University. In the days that followed, 450 colleges closed in protest against the killings.
The arrival of US marines in Cambodia also created hostility amongst the local population. The Cambodian communist movement, the Khmer Rouge, had received little support from the peasants before the United States invasion. Now they were in a position to appeal to their nationalist sentiments and claimed that Cambodia was about to be taken over by the United States. During 1970 and 1971, membership of the Khmer Rouge grew rapidly.
Laos, another country bordering Vietnam, was also invaded by US troops. As with Cambodia, this action increased the support for the communists (Pathet Lao) and by 1973, they controlled most of the country.
Peace talks between representatives from United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam and the NLF had been taking place in Paris since January, 1969. By 1972, Nixon, like Johnson before him, had been gradually convinced that a victory in Vietnam was unobtainable.
In October, 1972, the negotiators came close to agreeing to a formula to end the war. The plan was that US troops would withdraw from Vietnam in exchange for a cease-fire and the return of 566 American prisoners held in Hanoi. It was also agreed that the governments in North and South Vietnam would remain in power until new elections could be arranged to unite the whole country.
The main problem with this formula was that whereas the US troops would leave the country, the North Vietnamese troops could remain in their positions in the south. In an effort to put pressure on North Vietnam to withdraw its troops. President Richard Nixon ordered a new series of air-raids on Hanoi and Haiphong. It was the most intense bombing attack in world history. In eleven days, 100,000 bombs were dropped on the two cities. The destructive power was equivalent to five times that of the atom bomb used on Hiroshima. This bombing campaign was condemned throughout the world. Newspaper headlines included: "Genocide", "Stone-Age Barbarism" and "Savage and Senseless".
The North Vietnamese refused to change the terms of the agreement and so in January, 1973, Nixon agreed to sign the peace plan that had been proposed in October. However, the bombing had proved to be popular with many of the American public as they had the impression that North Vietnam had been "bombed into submission."
The last US combat troops left in March, 1973. It was an uneasy peace and by 1974, serious fighting had broken out between the NLF and the AVRN. Although the US continued to supply the South Vietnamese government with military equipment, their army had great difficulty using it effectively.
President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam appealed to President Nixon for more financial aid. Nixon was sympathetic but the United States Congress was not and the move was blocked. At its peak US aid to South Vietnam had reached 30 billion dollars a year. By 1974 it had fallen to 1 billion. Starved of funds, Thieu had difficulty paying the wages of his large army and desertion became a major problem.
The spring of 1975 saw a series of NLF victories. After important areas such as Danang and Hue were lost in March, panic swept through the AVRN. Senior officers, fearing what would happen after the establishment of an NLF government, abandoned their men and went into hiding.
Nguyen Van Thieu announced in desperation that he had a signed letter from Richard Nixon promising military help if it appeared that the NLF were winning in South Vietnam. However, Nixon was no longer in a position to fulfil his promise as he had been forced to resign over Watergate. The new president, Gerald Ford, a strong supporter of US involvement in Vietnam, tried to raise support for the South Vietnamese government but the Senate was adamant that as far as it was concerned, the war was over.
On April 23, 1975, President Gerald Ford told the American people: "Today Americans can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished." Two days later. President Thieu, accusing the United States of betrayal, resigned and left the country. He was quickly followed by other South Vietnamese leaders and the remaining American advisers.
The NLF arrived in Saigon on April 30, 1975. After declaring that Vietnam was now a united country, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established in July 1976.