The Vietnam War, the nation's longest, cost fifty-eight thousand
American lives. Only the Civil War and the two world wars were
deadlier for Americans. The goal was to preserve a separate,
independent, noncommunist government in South Vietnam, but after
April 1975, the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam drv
ruled the entire nation.
The initial reasons for U.S. involvement in Vietnam seemed logical
and compelling to American leaders. Following its success in
World War II, the United States faced the future with a sense
of moral rectitude and material confidence. Any communist anywhere,
at home or abroad, was, by definition, an enemy of the United
States. When France agreed to a quasi-independent Vietnam under
Emperor Bao Dai as an alternative to Ho's drv the United States
decided to support the French position.
The American conception of Vietnam as a cold war battleground
largely ignored the struggle for social justice and national
sovereignty occurring within the country. American attention
focused primarily on Europe and on Asia beyond Vietnam. The outbreak
of war in Korea in 1950 served primarily to confirm Washington's
belief that communist aggression posed a great danger to Asia.
This apprehension, an overestimation of American power, and an
underestimation of Vietnamese communist strength locked all administrations
from 1950 through the 1960s into a firm anticommunist stand in
The United States was not a party to the Geneva Agreements and
began to foster the creation of a Vietnamese regime in South
Vietnam to rival that of Ho in the North. With support from Washington,
South Vietnam's autocratic president Ngo Dinh Diem, who deposed
Bao Dai in October 1955, resisted holding an election on the
reunification of Vietnam. Diem's death left a leadership vacuum
in South Vietnam, and the survival of the Saigon regime was in
jeopardy. A larger war in Vietnam also raised the risk of a military
clash with China. Using as a provocation alleged North Vietnamese
attacks on U.S. Navy vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin in August
1964, Johnson authorized limited bombing raids on North Vietnam
and secured a resolution from Congress allowing him to use military
forces in Vietnam. By July 1965, Johnson faced the choice of
being the first president to lose a war or of converting the
Vietnam War into a massive, U.S.-directed military effort. The
Vietcong struck throughout South Vietnam, including a penetration
of the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon. American and South Vietnamese
forces eventually repulsed the offensive and inflicted heavy
losses on the Vietcong, but the fighting had exposed the reality
that a quick end of the war was not in sight.
Johnson limited the bombing, began peace talks with Hanoi and
the nlf and withdrew as a candidate for reelection. His successor,
Richard M. Nixon, announced a program of Vietnamization, which
basically represented a return to the Eisenhower and Kennedy
policies of helping Vietnamese forces fight the war. Nixon gradually
reduced U.S. ground troops in Vietnam, but he increased the bombing;
the tonnage dropped after 1969 exceeded the already prodigious
levels reached by Johnson. Nixon expanded air and ground operations
into Cambodia and Laos in attempts to block enemy supply routes
along Vietnam's borders. In January 1973, the United States and
North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Agreement, which provided
for the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. forces from Vietnam,
the return of U.S. prisoners of war, and a cease-fire. The American
troops and pows came home, but the war continued. In April 1975,
North Vietnamese troops and tanks converged on Saigon, and the
war was over.
Why did the United States lose the war? America's infliction
of enormous destruction on Vietnam served only to discredit politically
the Vietnamese that the United States sought to assist. For the
Vietnamese communists, the struggle was a total war for their
own and their cause's survival. For the United States, it was
a limited war. Despite U.S. concern about global credibility,
Vietnam was a peripheral theater of the cold war. The Vietnam
War taught Americans a humbling lesson about the limits of power.
The domestic consequences of the war were equally profound. From
Truman through Nixon, the war demonstrated the increasing dominance
of the presidency within the federal government. Vietnam also
destroyed credibility within the American political process.
The Vietnam War brought an end to the domestic consensus that
had sustained U.S. cold war policies since World War II and that
had formed the basis for the federal government's authority since
the sweeping expansion of that authority under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In the Vietnam War which lasted from the mid-1950s until
1975 the United States and the southern-based Republic of Vietnam
(RVN) opposed the southern-based revolutionary movement known
as the Viet Cong and its sponsor, the Communist Democratic Republic
of Vietnam (the DRV, or North Vietnam). The war was the second
of two major conflicts that spread throughout Indochina, with
Vietnam as its focal point. The First Indochina War was a struggle
between Vietnamese nationalists and the French colonial regime
aided by the United States. In the second war the United States
replaced France as the major contender against northern-based
Communists and southern insurgents.
The Origins of the War
French Indochina, which included Vietnam, Cambodia (Kampuchea),
and Laos, was occupied by Japanese forces during World War II.
Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh movement
organized resistance against the Japanese and in 1945 declared
Vietnam an independent republic. Fearing Ho's Communism, the
United States supported the restoration of French rule.
The Partition of Vietnam.
Facts contiue below the map
Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam were granted independence, and
no foreign troops were to be stationed there. In an exchange
of population, thousands of northern Vietnamese Roman Catholics
moved south, while Communists moved north. Neither the United
States nor the South, now led by the U.S.-backed Ngo Dinh Diem
in Saigon (later renamed Ho Chi Minh City), signed the accords.
Providing economic and military aid, the United States supported
Diem's refusal to hold the pledged elections, apparently assuming
the popular nationalist Ho would win. After a shaky start, Diem
began working to destroy the remaining Communist infrastructure
in the South. His military force, the Army of the Republic of
Vietnam (ARVN), was advised by some 700 Americans, who replaced
the French in 1956.
In the North, the DRV developed as a Communist state with ties
to China and the USSR. Under Ho's direction, Vietnamese communism
developed independently of Soviet and Chinese models.
Armed resistance to Diem was organized by former Viet Minh who
became known as Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists). Supplemented
by cadres that had moved north after 1954 and returned a few
years later, the Viet Cong organized in 1960 as the National
Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF). The Viet Cong used assassinations,
terrorist activity, and military action against government-controlled
villages. Kennedy accepted (1962) a Laotian settlement that brought
temporary neutralization, but South Vietnam posed a more intractable