The Vietnam war can be a difficult topic to broach because, for the most part, Vietnamese people want to consign it to the past. That isn’t to say that they don’t care about the veterans and the tremendous sacrifice they made; rather, they’re a nation and a people who want to build a prosperous future.
What people often overlook about the war is that it wasn’t merely a fight between the U.S and Vietnam; it was a civil war between The Republic of Vietnam (the South) and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the North) that the U.S became embroiled in.
After the North was victorious, they set about a period of ‘reconciliation’ with the South that had to balance a victory with the sense that the South had to be reintegrated into the concept of a unified country.
What’s more, the unified Vietnam (post-1975) paid a heavy toll because of its victory. It was excluded from the international community and had to rely on an increasingly hostile China and a crumbling Soviet Union. It wasn’t until 1994 that diplomatic relations with the U.S were restored, starting the amazing boom period that we see today. Since 2010 Vietnam’s GDP growth has been approximately 5% per year.
Now, as I write this from a hotel room overlooking Hanoi’s skyscrapers, it is difficult to imagine that only 55 years ago American planes were raining bombs from overhead.
The French Conundrum (1858-1961)
A moment that stands out for me during my time in Vietnam was walking the streets of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and coming across a teenage girl selling Bánh xèo. The girl wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase ‘Am I French yet?’
It was stunning to me because, for so long, Vietnam revolutionaries did everything they could to ensure that they weren’t French.
The French first arrived in Da Nang in 1858 and, within 30 years, had taken over the whole country, quite a staggering achievement when you consider Vietnam is 331,210 km².
From around the turn of the 20th century, the French began exploiting Vietnam’s resources, starting with rice and precious minerals and then later the cash crop at the time, rubber.
Vietnamese workers were treated as slave labor, and it was out of these camps that many early stirrings of communist rebellion began to appear.
Note: It’s worth saying that the French were not alone among the great powers in exploiting their colonial possessions. The British Empire is still reviled in parts of India today. A lesser-known crime is what the Belgians did in the Congo, also in the pursuit of rubber. An estimated 10 million native workers were killed.
In an ironic twist, it was the French modernizing efforts that chipped away at their control of the territory. Native Vietnamese officials were able to send their children to French-style schools, as was the case with the two most famous Vietnamese figures, Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap.
Ho Chi Minh, or at the time as he was known as Nguyen Sinh Cung, studied in a French school in Hue and then traveled to France in 1911. In 1919 he joined the French socialist party and became heavily involved in the Vietnamese independence movement.
Perhaps the most famous moment of his early political career was presenting a petition to then President Woodrow Wilson arguing for Vietnamese independence after the humanitarian disaster of World War 1– a petition that went unobserved.
Ho Chi Minh traveled to Russia, where he received training from the Soviets, and finally to South China in 1930 to oversee a growing communist insurgency.
Any hold the French had over Indochina was quickly smashed during World War 2 when the Japanese swamped the area.
When Japan was defeated, Vietnam was on a knife edge. Ho Chi Minh returned to the country and declared Vietnam a socialist republic.
In what could only be described as a move of political genius, his opening line to the masses assembled at Ba Đình flower garden was this- ‘All people are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’
Eventually, the French drove the Vietminh out of Hanoi, and the only way to break the stalemate was a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Dien Bien Phu does not get the attention it deserves because of what was to follow in the American war, but it is among the most harrowing battles ever fought by an empire against an insurgency.
What Happened At The Battle Of Dien Bien Phu?
Dien Bien Phu was little more than a French airstrip in Northwest Vietnam that was involved in suppressing communist activities. The French decided to make a stand and committed 16,000 to defend the region.
However, the French massively underestimated both the Vietminh military personnel(50,000) as well as the number of civilian porters, which perhaps doubled the force. Over 56 days, they transported 24,000 tonnes of rice and 10,000 wounded soldiers back from the front line.
This would be an impressive feat on flat terrain under normal conditions, but the land around Dien Bien Phu was made up of mountainous jungle washed into sticky mud– something the French in the valley below would also come to suffer.
The French didn’t take a number of things into account, including the weather, Vietnamese artillery, and the commander Vo Nguyen Giap. Giap was a military genius but also had a serious axe to grind (both his father and sister died in French jails for subversive activities).
The battle of Dien Bien Phu was an eery prelude to what American forces would experience 10 years later. The French were wholly surrounded in their valley but thought their overwhelming air power would win through; however, the sheer weight of Vietnamese artillery destroyed the landing strip meaning supplies could only be parachuted in.
The French were forced to dig trenches that quickly became flooded and filled with dead bodies–conditions that hadn’t been since World War 1. One french newspaper at the time simply reported: ‘Dien Bien Phu is a tomb.’
The final battle saw 25,000 North Vietnamese completely overrun 3000 French troops and take many prisoners, an outcome that was almost unthinkable to the French and so shocking that the Archbishop of Paris held a special mass.
The French had no choice at the Geneva conference to agree to a partition and separate the country into North and South Vietnam. Here, we see the gradual withdrawal of French support and increasing American involvement as brilliantly documented in the all-time classic Graham Greene novel ‘The Quiet American.’
American Entanglement (1961- 1963)
Vietnam was a country that the vast majority of Americans had never heard of. At the time, it was one of the poorest areas in the world, and the recently elected President Kennedy had wide-ranging domestic social policies that he wanted to implement.
So why would America become involved in the Vietnam war?
In military circles at the time, there was a popular theory called the domino effect. It predicted that if one country abandoned capitalism in favor of communism, then ultimately, the country beside would also fall to the ‘red side.’ At the time, there was a genuine belief(perhaps not unjustified) that communism could sweep the globe. Its effects were even felt in American domestic policy with the Red Scare and McCarthyism.
China had already fallen in 1949, as had North Korea, and the real fear was that the ‘super domino’ Japan would inevitably fall too. The hawks (the militarily minded) saw Vietnam as a line in the sand. Eventually, America would have to stand and fight or see all the victories of World War 2 go up in smoke.
Fear is a powerful motivator and can make seemingly sane and rational leaders do things that contradict their fundamental beliefs. Kennedy was the liberal’s liberal and became increasingly convinced that he must support the tyrannical dictator of South Vietnam’s government, Ngo Dinh Diem.
Diem, like many others in the article, deserves an entire post of his own. He was educated in a catholic monastery in the U.S and was determined to ensure South Vietnam became a Catholic country- a feature that would lead to his ultimate undoing.
Student and Buddhist protests grew against the autocratic and corrupt Diem and his spy chief brother Nhu culminating in an event that sent shock waves throughout the world.
On June 11, 1963, the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc walked onto the intersection between Phan Đình Phùng Boulevard and Lê Văn Duyệt Street, sat down in lotus position, had a fellow monk tip a 5-gallon jug of petrol over his head, before taking a match and setting himself on fire.
He sat calmly as the flames engulfed him, and the journalist Malcolm Browne took the now iconic picture. The world reacted in horror, and Diem’s position was not helped when his brother’s wife, considered the first lady of Vietnam, remarked at a press conference: “clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show.”
Diem and his brother were doomed from this point on. With tacit U.S acceptance, generals in the South Vietnamese military hatched a plan to overthrow the brothers, and 5 months after Thich Quang Duc self-immolated, the brothers were shot and bayonetted to death by members of their own armed forces.
In President Kennedy’s defense, he was only informed of the coup when he returned from vacation. He would be shot and killed less than a month later by the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
By this point, the number of American ‘advisors’ in South Vietnam had grown to 17,000. Still, it didn’t seem to matter how much support was poured into the country, the Viet Cong forces, the guerilla fighters in the South supported by North Vietnam, grew in strength until South Vietnam threatened to collapse completely.
No Way Back (1964- 1965)
The overthrow of Diem and Nhu did nothing to stabilize South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese continued to send troops into the South, and more coup attempts rocked the Southern government.
The new U.S president Lyndon Johnson was in an unenviable position. His first problem was following Kennedy, a president who would go down in the pantheon of iconic American leaders along with Lincoln and Roosevelt. The second was that members of the American right wanted him to be seen as tough on communism.
Johnson had very little desire for war, at least if it involved conventional American ground troops. Like Kennedy, he had grand plans in America, most notably the civil rights act signed on July 2, 1964.
However, the specter of communism loomed just as large for him. Almost immediately after Kennedy died, he remarked in a white house meeting that “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.”
Johnson was adamant that if the Southern Vietnamese army had access to enough materials, it would learn to fight and win (a mistake made 40 years later by George W. Bush in Afghanistan).
With the Southern government in increasing disarray Johnson committed to sending more and more American troops. Between 1964 and 1966, the number jumped from 23,000 to 380,000.
The key moment of this time was the Gulf of Tonkin incident, whereby in August 1964, the North Vietnamese navy attacked American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. A direct attack on American ships was deemed a red line for the American government, and afterward, the White House was able to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. After this America started bombing targets in North Vietnam (up until then American forces had only fought North Vietnamese guerillas in the South).
The Gulf of Tonkin incident remains one of the great mysteries in U.S naval history. The fact there was an initial attack is probably true, but the supposed follow-up attacks that led to outrage in the States most likely never happened and were due to extremely nervous radar operators on American warships. It was an almost catastrophic error that led to the U.S becoming firmly entrenched in the conflict.
The Horrors Of War (1966-1967)
From this point on, for President Lyndon Johnson, there seemed no way back. Fierce fighting erupted in large parts of the South, and the North continued to be bombed.
The Southern Guerillas, the Viet Cong, inflicted more and more casualties on American forces and the South Vietnamese regular army.
A key battle area became the Ho Chi Minh trail which snaked through the Western mountains into Laos and Cambodia. Without air support, the North Vietnamese had no way to get supplies to their guerillas fighting in the South, so the only way was to develop an intricate network of roads and tunnels that cut through the jungles and over the border.
As we saw earlier at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the North Vietnamese were adept at moving large amounts of materials through seemingly impassable terrain. The Americans had no choice but to begin the most intensive bombing campaign in human history.
7,662,000 tons of explosives were dropped in all of Vietnam, and a considerable amount of this was on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Numbers like that don’t really mean much when you see them written down but consider that in world war 2(the most deadly conflict in human history), the Americans dropped only 2,150,000 tons.
Increasingly, American troops were beginning to see the futility of their efforts. The war had been sold to them as a repeat of World War 2 where returning men were heroes who had movies made about their bravery.
However, it was difficult in Vietnam to define the bad guys and the good guys. Ho Chi Minh, with his scholar’s beard and soft-spoken ways, didn’t look or act anything remotely like Hitler or Stalin. Increasingly, villagers were being targeted for hiding Viet Cong soldiers. Where was the nobility in going to a village full of women and children and setting fire to everything they owned?
Also, there was no conventional battleground. The Viet Cong were like ghosts. They’d ambush American soldiers and then dissolve back into the jungle. More and more American troops grew disillusioned and began taking hard drugs to get through their tours of duty.
Back home, as troops returned with horror stories, and pictures of both civilian and military casualties began to mount, an anti-war movement sprung up in colleges.
Protests swelled as college students began chanting, “Hey, Hey LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?”
The Tet Offensive (1968)
The Tet Offensive was a massive guerilla campaign in the South organized by Hanoi. 190 targets were attacked in conjunction, including major targets in the Southern capital of Saigon.
It is worth pointing out that most scholars think that by this point, Ho Chi Minh had very little to do with the actual day-to-day decisions of the North Vietnamese (unlike Chairman Mao, who ruled to the end). He was seen as a spiritual figurehead of the movement. In contrast, the person actually making decisions was Le Duan (a leader that still to this day not much scholarship has been devoted).
So why would the communists launch an all-out attack on the South when there was no hope of getting supplies to the insurgents?
Because they had the notion that when the people of the South saw that their forces were being overwhelmed, they would switch allegiances; however, at least for now, that didn’t happen. The death toll of the North Vietnamese was massive (50,000), and the people did not revolt.
But in another sense, the tet offensive was much more than a military plan.
Until then, President Johnson had been suggesting to the American people that the situation in Vietnam was stabilizing and just required more resolve. The idea that the North could hit the South in full view of the world’s media, even if they sustained massive losses, was disastrous for the P.R battle that the government was waging.
By now the pressure was too great for Johnson. The war had destroyed his legacy as well as his health, and he decided not to run for reelection. He would die only 5 years later.
A Downward Trajectory (1968-1970)
The next president, Richard Nixon, was probably the most infamous in American history.
Now the war became a question of how the U.S could withdraw with dignity. The only way was to ‘Vietnamize’ things, which meant withdrawing U.S troops and replacing them with well-trained Southern Vietnamese fighters.
However, Nixon was far from a simple man. He was a proponent of the so-called madman theory, a plan to fly U.S bombers equipped with nuclear weapons to communist-controlled areas. If he could convince the Russians, who were supplying North Vietnamese forces with weapons, that he was capable of dropping a nuclear weapon in a communist-controlled area, then perhaps he could gain better conditions at the negotiating table.
Nixon might have had no choice but to withdraw whatever the media said because, by then, large parts of the army were refusing to carry out orders. Mutiny was rife, and In 1970, U.S forces were pulled away from the jungle interior and stationed along coastlines.
Nixon sparked further outrage in 1970 when it emerged that the U.S. had been secretly bombing Cambodia, a neutral country since 1955. Nixon claimed to be winding down the war but it was clear that this was an escalation. The war had entered a phase where each side tried to gain any advantage in the inevitable peace talks.
Jockeying For Position (1971-1973)
By this point, the South was led by a rather unremarkable president called Nguyen Van Thieu. Perhaps his lack of charisma and guile could’ve been made up for if he’d been incorruptible, but South Vietnam was practically a pirate state. Massive amounts of American aid would be ‘misplaced’ on the docks in Saigon as government officials built palatial homes in the countryside.
Most crucially, Thiệu appointed allies in high-ranking military posts instead of men who deserved to be there on merit alone. No more was this in evidence than in 1971 when the South Vietnamese army went into Laos in a bid to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail and were subsequently routed by communist forces.
Further disaster struck in 1972 when the North Vietnamese army teemed over the DMZ and threatened to take the whole of the South during the Easter offensive. Only U.S bombing raids stopped a complete collapse.
Nixon was under tremendous pressure to strike a peace agreement and made it one of his main reelection promises. A complete collapse of South Vietnam would undermine his position. This led to untold misery in the North as U.S planes continued to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong in a bid to make the South Vietnamese fight on and the North Vietnamese more compliant.
The man President Nixon put in charge of the peace mission was Henry Kissinger. However, many liberal scholars would argue that the idea of putting the name Henry Kissinger and peace in the same sentence is laughable. In the excellent ‘trial of Henry Kissinger,’ the writer Christopher Hitchens argues Kissinger should be tried for war crimes, not just in Vietnam but also in Chile and Indonesia.
The Americans were in an unenviable position although most would argue a position of their own making. They were trying to make peace with a North Vietnamese government they’d threatened to drop a nuclear bomb on while simultaneously dealing with a South Vietnamese government that repeatedly changed the terms of an acceptable negotiated peace. Nixon went as far as threatening military action against Nguyen Van Thieu and the South unless they agreed to sign the peace treaty with the North. It is absurd to think that the U.S could have gone to war simultaneously with both North and South Vietnam.
On January 27, 1973, a peace treaty was signed, and U.S forces had 60 days to leave the country.
The Fall (1973-1975)
Even though a peace treaty had been signed and the U.S had cleared out, war never really left Vietnam. For a while, the two sides were evenly matched, but several telling factors came into play. Firstly, with the lack of American planes, supplies could come down the Ho Chi Minh Trail unimpeded.
Secondly, American money began to dry up, and it became even more apparent that the Southen Economy was built on a house of cards. Perhaps the final death knell was when Richard Nixon was indicted over the Watergate scandal.
When the communist North decided to go in for the kill, it took 6 weeks for the whole of South Vietnam to collapse. Perhaps the South Vietnamese forces were always destined to capitulate, but international observers were stunned by just how fast North Vietnamese troops were able to advance.
New President Gerald Ford attempted to get congress to pass an emergency bill to help out the South, but by this time the public was too war-weary (It is estimated that the war effort and support to the South cost the U.S in total $1trillion in today’s money).
The Fall of Saigon became yet another iconic moment in the war. North Vietnamese troops crashed through the palace gates and rode over the manicured law (if you go to the Presidential palace in modern-day Ho Chi Minh City, you can still see the tank).
Undoubtedly the most iconic moment is the chaos at the U.S embassy where mothers passed children over the walls terrified that when the communists arrived, they’d massacre anyone who’d helped the U.S forces.
There was no conventional way for the Americans or their Vietnamese collaborators to escape because the communists had already shelled the runway at Tan Son Nhat airport. The only option was to fly helicopters from the embassy’s roof to ships waiting in the South China Sea. About 1000 Americans and 1000 Vietnamese were flown to safety; however, 1000’s more were left for the rapidly approaching communist forces.
There are several striking images from that final day, including a swimming pool full of guns disposed of by American guards or the chopping down of an ancient tamarind tree in the embassy grounds to allow space for a helicopter to land. However, for me, the most striking is U.S embassy staff burning millions of dollars in the facility’s incinerator. A sound metaphor if ever there was one.
Why Exactly Did South Vietnam Lose The War Against North Vietnam?
This is a question that is poured over by many scholars of foreign policy. To my mind, the most compelling answer is the motivation of the North Vietnamese. The Americans saw the war as a battle against communism when in fact, it was a battle for national independence (the independence movement in the North just happened to take the shape of communism).
The North Vietnamese had a clearly defined goal, whereas the South wasn’t really sure what it wanted to be.
Did The U.S Lose The War In Vietnam?
In contemporary U.S discourse, it’s difficult to get the left and right to agree on anything, but I’d hazard a guess that both sides would concur that the U.S intervention in Vietnam was a complete disaster.
Going by the figures alone, it is easy to see why it is considered one of the darkest moments in human history:
- Amount of U.S soldiers killed in The Vietnam War: 58,820
- Amount of South Vietnamese soldiers killed in The Vietnam War: 250,000
- Amount of North Vietnamese soldiers killed in The Vietnam War: 1,100,000
- Amount of civilians killed on both sides in The Vietnam War: 2,000,000
Words like cataclysm and apocalypse are often overused when describing war, but I think they are justified in this case. And that is without considering the devastating effects of Agent Orange (the toxin that was dropped over the South to defoliate the jungle), which still affects Vietnamese people today.
How Do The Modern Day Vietnamese Feel About The Vietnam War?
So, for all the reasons over the last 4000 words, it stunned me just how welcoming the Vietnamese people still are to Westerners.
Before I first travelled to Saigon in 2014, I bought a new pair of Converse shoes decorated with an American flag. I suddenly realized in shock and horror how potentially insensitive this was and abandoned them in England.
The first thing that greeted me in Ho Chi Minh City was young kids whizzing about on motorbikes wearing helmets proudly displaying a U.S flag. At night, they drank Budweiser and danced to the latest Justin Bieber tracks. And, of course, they wore t-shirts saying Am I French yet?
Bombs don’t change people’s minds; good ideas do. For all the terror wrought, the Vietnamese still wanted to be like the people they saw in the movies. It was what Ho Chi Minh intimated when he gave the declaration of independence speech in Ba Dinh square in 1945.
Of course, modern Vietnam has its issues, it would be naïve to think it didn’t, but the people I meet on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are firmly committed to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Learn Vietnamese With Ling
However, I think learning Vietnamese is precisely what you should do. I’m reminded daily just how important language is in coming to an understanding and diffusing a potentially disastrous situation.
The main way to get around Vietnamese cities is to use ride-sharing apps like Grab. I sometimes see tourists and Grab bike drivers getting into shouting matches. Most of the time, these situations can be put down to simple misunderstandings like the price of a ride suddenly going up or the input of the wrong location. It is easy for tempers to flare when it’s 40 degrees, someone has somewhere to be, and the chaos of the city continues to stream all around you.
When you don’t speak the same language as someone, it is easy to reduce them. As people, all we have is dialogue to work out our problems. I often wonder if some of those Americans in the oval office in 1963 had spoken Vietnamese, understood the culture, and had travelled to Hanoi, whether the whole war would have happened in the first place.
Thanks for reading.