The Vietnam War: A Basic Outline and Look Back
Conflict Bleeding Over
World War II tore up Europe, Russia, England and really, the world. France as a colonial entity lost big time, as did many other countries. The term colonial means acquiring the lands and assets of another country and setting up housekeeping in order to exploit the resources and build a country’s economy and stronghold.
Since the 1860s, France had taken over and occupied three regions in Vietnam, which they called Cochinchina in the south, Annam in the center and Tonkin in the north. By the 1890s, France controlled the eastern part of Southeast Asia forming a territory called French Indochina—taking up the larger territory of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. They built roads and railways to transport Vietnam’s natural resources and set up large plantations for rubber, coffee and tea.
During WWII, the balance of power shifted and the Germans occupied France. Germany’s ally, Japan, took control of Vietnam from the French.
Japan surrendered in August 1945, but after WWII, the Japanese took control of French colonies in the Indochina Peninsula of southeast Asia—areas east of Thailand, extending into the Gulf of Thailand as a peninsula and bordering the South China Sea, all the way up to the Gulf of Tonkin.
A leader named Ho Chi Minh (“Uncle Ho” to his people) led the Vietnamese “Nationalist” party and battled the Japanese occupying forces to in order to regain independence. Minh, a Communist, had fighters in the Nationalist Army that were trained by advisors from the U.S., who were also battling with Japan.
Ho Chi Minh vs. Japan
The Vietnamese Communists wasted no time in proclaiming themselves an independent nation: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The French tried to take back their colonies in Indochina, including Vietnam, and set up the Associated State of Vietnam (ASV). This led to the Indochina War between France and the Vietminh.
Ho Chi Minh hoped the United States would support the new country, but the U.S. Government feared the spread of communism in Asia and supported France. They had once backed Ho Chi Minh against Japan, but switched sides to back fighters for France now.
From 1950 to 1953, the U.S. was in an Advisory Phase, which photographer Larry Burrows said, “Was something of a slow-motion war.” The U.S. Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) was set up to aid the French against the rebel Vietminh army. The U.S. sent supplies, funding and military equipment and the French forces won control of the cities.
In 1954, the Vietminh defeated the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu led by Communist General Vo Nguyen Giap. Following this, France, the U.S., the Soviets, the Chinese government and representatives from both the DRV and ASV met in Switzerland to negotiate peace terms.
Vietnam was divided into North Communist Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam. They were supposed to reunite for national elections, but it never happened.
In 1957, when the communist rebels in the south rose up against South Vietnam’s government, the rebels—Viet Cong—were supported by Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam. They received weapons from the north by sea and through the jungles of Laos and Cambodia. Later, North Vietnam’s army also joined the fighting. The Soviet Union and China also supported the north, while the United States backed South Vietnam.
The so-called “domino theory” said that if South Vietnam fell to the Communists, then other Southeast Asian nations would soon fall.
The United States President, Lyndon B. Johnson and other advisors were afraid of Communism spreading. The “Free World Forces,” troops from South Korea and nations in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), joined forces. South Korea sent the most troops to Vietnam; Australia was next. Philippines, Thailand and New Zealand also contributed troops to fight Communism.
Gulf of Tonkin
In 1964, the U.S. military claimed that North Vietnamese gunboats attacked a U.S. vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Senate passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving President Johnson broad war powers. Air strikes and a bombing campaign, called Operation Rolling Thunder began on North Vietnam.
By the late 1960s, half a million U.S. soldiers were in Vietnam fighting the Communists.
Weapons of War
United States planes bombed North Vietnam’s cities and the Viet Cong’s supply lines in Laos and Cambodia. They also dropped millions of gallons of Agent Orange onto the forest. These poisonous chemicals destroyed jungle, croplands and woods believed to hide the enemy.
Also used were bombs containing napalm—naphthenic and palmitic acids—an incendiary that burned all it touched and tripled the range and capacity of flamethrowers. These tactics failed to reduce the support for Ho Chi Minh.
Surface-to-air missiles (SAM) sprung up in Hanoi controlled by the North Vietnamese Air Force, with the aid of thousands of trained Chinese SAM operators, who sprinkled the air with explosives and downed 922 American aircraft with antiaircraft guns.
For the ground war, Vietcong salvaged U.S. shell casings and unexploded artillery ammunition found on battlefields, and used it to made booby traps, grenades and other explosive devices. Sharpened bamboo stakes (punji) were laid in covered-over pits that gave way when stepped on.
Guerilla warfare—laying ambush by hiding under haystacks, in trees, and melting into the landscape—became a staple of attack, including laying strategic land mines and the use of complex tunnels.
In 1969, President Nixon pressed the military for “Vietnamization,” turning the conflict over to South Vietnam’s military, which was to take a larger role in defending the country. U.S. forces numbered 543,000 that spring, the largest amount of the war. Hamburger Hill, a ruthless battle atop a mountain near the Laotian border, was the last major battle fought by American troops.
Vietnam has national holidays such as Anniversary of the founding of the Vietnamese Communist Party (Feb. 3), Saigon Liberation Day (April 30), Ho Chi Minh’s birthday (May 19), and Anniversary of the August 1945 Revolution (Aug. 19)—all days of war involvement.