The Vietnam War

Pre-University Paper, 2003

15 Pages

Free online reading


1. Antecedents

2. Americanisation

3. Vietnamisation

4. Anti-war-movement

5. New Escalation

6. End of the war

7. The Civil war

8. Effects and consequences

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was a military struggle fought in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975 for independence, unity and hegemony. It started as a fight for Vietnam’s independence against the French colonial supremacy, involved later also Laos and Cambodia and developed itself into one of the most important east -west-conflicts with international participation.

The war involved the North Vietnamese army and the National Liberation Front (NLF) in conflict with United States forces and the South Vietnamese army.

From 1946 until 1954, the Vietnamese had fought for their independence from France during the First Indochina War. At the end of this war, the country was divided into North and South Vietnam. North Vietnam came under the leadership of the Vietnamese Communists who opposed France and who aimed for a unified Vietnam under Communist rule. The South was controlled by the South Vietnamese Government who had collaborated with the French. In 1965 the United States sent in troops to prevent the South Vietnamese government from loosing the conflict.

Ultimately, however, the United States were defeated for first time in the American history ( Frey, 1999, S. 231) and in 1975 Vietnam was reunified under Communist control; in 1976 it officially became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

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The war was heavily criticised for its cruelty and caused world wide indignation and anti-imperialistic movements. The costs of the war were immensely high and millions of people died, got wounded or crippled. 2 millions Vietnamese were killed, about 1 Million fled their native country after the war was finished. About 60.000 American soldiers died in Vietnam – in the most expensive, most cruel and, for the most people in the world, most incomprehensible war. (Krücker, 1994, S. 98) (picture :


The Vietnam fought successfully against the French for independence during the Indochina war from 1946 till 1954

After the defeat of Japan in the World War II and the withdrawal of the Japanese troops from Indochina, the ‘ Democratic Republic of Vietnam’ was established in Hanoi, 2nd September 1945.

The President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, founder and leader of the communistic Vietminh demanded the unrestricted sovereignty for whole of Vietnam. This arouse a military conflict since France wanted to restore its colonial supremacy ( Frey, 1999, S.12 ). The war began in Nov. 1946 when French warships fired on the seaport Haiphong. When the Vietminh ignored the French demand to withdraw all the troops from Haiphong, they were forced back behind the western part of the city.

Bao Dai, the Vietnamese emperor, deposed by the Vietminh in 1945, was reappointed in Saigon in 1949 as the leader of the ‘Republic Vietnam’.

After the victory of the communists in the Chinese civil war in 1949 the Vietminh got political and military support from China. So the Vietminh gained ground back step by step.

The West feared - according to the ‘Domino Theory’ – the spreading of the communist and anti-colonial movement to the neighbouring countries.

( Westermann, 1996, S. 812 )

For this reason America promised France financial and logistic support.

( Krücker, 1994, S. 96 )

In 1953 the Vietminh dominated again most parts of Vietnam and defeated the French troops at Dien Bien Phu.

In 1954 the French and the Vietnamese signed up an armistice in the Geneva IndochinaPeace Conference and Vietnam was declared independent. The conclusion resulting from this armistice was a division of the country into two parts. ( Krücker, 1994, S. 812)

A year later, in 1955, Vietnam was provisionally divided into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (northern part) and the Republic of Vietnam ( southern part) along the 17th meridian.

From now on the North was governed by the Communists (Vietminh) under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. The South was ruled by a government appointed and supported by the USA and France. To reunite the country again an election was scheduled for the year 1956.

The Vietminh in North Vietnam received strong support by further communist governed countries like the Soviet Union and China. Fearing the expansion of communism, the USA replaced the French who until that point of time governed the southern part of Vietnam.

Nga Dinh Diem, the present governor had established an dictatorial regime to suppress his political enemies and the Buddhist majority in the country. As a result of this policy he was very unpopular and had to cancel the foreseen election in South Vietnam.

The odds to win the election were against him since Ho Chi Minh was treated like a national hero by the people living in the northern part of the country.

In 1959 the civil war between North Vietnam and South Vietnam began when the South Vietnamese liberation party started to oppose the dictatorship of the Diems regime as well as the military establishments of the USA. They got support from the North Vietnamese Vietcong which provided the guerrilla warriors with food transported on the Ho Chi Minh Path which led from North to South.

Diem’s army received U.S. advice and aid but was not able to suppress the guerrilla warriors who established in 1960 a political organisation, the National Liberation Front. It was political dependent on North Vietnam.

( )

As the number of the attacks increased the USA reassured their support to South Vietnam and sent 2000 military consultants. After they became victims of attacks, J. F. Kennedy in 1961 sent the first active troops. One year later 11.200 soldiers were already stationed. ( Frey, 1999, S. 85/ 93 )

By now ( November 1963 ) the USA was convinced that the Diem Regime was incapable of solving the conflict and wanted to replace him. Diem was overthrown in a military coup - insinuated by America - and finally executed.


But the following leader could not satisfy the American expectations and so the tensions between the North and the South grew steadily.

When President Johnson was sworn in, large regions of the South were already under the control of the Vietcong. He wanted desperately to prevent the defeat and in his opinion the only chance to win was an intervention of the American troops and to cut off supplies to the guerilla warriors.


The Vietnam war escalated when two US destroyers were attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin on 2nd and 4th August 1964. After this incident the Congress passed on 7th August the so called ‘Tonkin Gulf Resolution’ at the request of President Johnson which enabled him to order retaliatory attacks in Vietnam.

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In February 1965 America started to bomb important political and military facilities. The air raids were also directed at the Ho Chi Minh Path which provided the Vietcong with supplies from the North.


Until 1969, 71.000 soldiers were already stationed in Vietnam. Besides this the American troops received massive military aid from other states like Australia, New Zealand and North Korea.

( Frey, 1999, S.179)

Despite the support from other countries and the massive superiority the USA were not able to defeat the Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces. (

After that the President was willing to negotiate to settle the conflict but North Vietnam refused.

The USA fought the Vietcong with helicopter actions, extensive usage of Napalm bombs and defoliant (Agent Orange) in the southern part of the country. Most of the economy and the infrastructure of North Vietnam was destroyed, so the country finally became dependent on military and economic support from the Soviet Union and China.( Frey,1999, S.128)

The losses of the Americans were estimated at 15,000 casualties and 100,000 wounded people by now. As the numbers increased and because of the immense costs spent each year on the war Americans started to demonstrate strongly against the policy of their government. ( Frey,1999,S.133f )

TET- Offensive

On January 1st in 1968, New Years Day in Vietnam, the Vietcong started a surprising attack - supported by North Vietnam - on American buildings and South Vietnamese towns. Having expected a cease fire on the most important Vietnamese holiday, the American soldiers couldn’t react appropriately. Especially at Saigon and Hue the battle was very violent and involved heavy casualties. Many inhabitants loyal to the government were killed and their houses levelled to the ground. ( Frey , 1999, S. 160,163)

Altogether the TET-offensive was a hard military defeat for the Vietcong but showed one more time the underestimation of the Vietnamese. That’s why the TET-offensive is regarded as a big psychological success. It showed clearly the helplessness of the US- troops against ‘guerrilla warriors.’ ( Krücker, 1994, S. 98)

The Americans were not used fighting in the jungle and couldn’t cope with the war tactics of the Vietcong. Hoping to defeat the enemy by the destruction of his industry the USA became finally aware that there was hardly any industry to destroy. The next problem was the missing front line. The fight against an invisible enemy was a challenge the troops have never had before.

The TET-Offensive also raised world wide criticism of the American Vietnam policy. Both the usage of chemical weapons and the attacks at civilians upset the people.

In 1968 the USA realised that they could no longer win the war. The American as well as the North Vietnamese government were now more willing to negotiate with each other.

Finally the President stopped the air attacks to fulfil the demanded conditions. In May 1968 the peace negotiations started in Paris but led to nothing.


Several months after he had become President, Nixon started to withdraw the ground forces from Vietnam step by step to end the American engagement in this war. His program included the withdrawal of 90.000 soldiers until 1969, the extension of the South Vietnamese forces and the transfer of political responsibility to the government in Saigon. ( Frey,1999,S.192)

The South Vietnamese regime agreed publicly to the plans of the American government but basically they were made uncertain by the “Vietnamisation”.

( Krücker, 1994, S. 100)

Despite the withdrawal of the American forces had the negotiations in Paris still no success because North Vietnam didn’t deviate from its aim : The independence and reunification of the country.

A compromise could not be found. Furthermore North Vietnam demanded the complete withdrawal of all US-troops as a basis for the negotiations.

In 1970 the USA expanded the war and started to fight against Cambodia and since 1971 against Laos to raise the North Vietnamese readiness to negotiate. The targets were facilities of the Vietcong in border areas. Nixon had started to attack the neighbouring regions because he thought the Vietcong had their military headquarters there, but had not yet been found. However, neither the invasion of the troops in Cambodia, nor the bomb raid at Laos were militarily successful. Both actions caused world wide indignation and raised anti- American protests. (

But after years of trying for vain to negotiate started the first North Vietnamese - American Talks in 1968 and the negotiation in Paris in the following January. The increasing political pressure on the USA to withdraw the troops and the exhaustion of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam supported the disassociation of preconditions.


Supporters of the American engagement in Vietnam are firmly convinced that the USA have not lost the war in the jungles of Asia but in America itself. Mainly the media were blamed for the defeat. They were accused to have broadcast a wrong picture of the war. But until 1968 (TET-Offensive) the majority of the press was for the war and gave the impression of a fight which would be won quickly.

( Frey,1999,S. 151)

The universities were blamed, too. The students built up the organisation ‘Students for a Democratic Society’ (SDS) which had 100.000 members at the end of the seventies. The public burning of their conscription and their demonstration against the war were broadcast via television to all American households. (

They criticised the American war policy and had a big influence over the public opinion. According to them the USA had no right to interfere in this civil war. They demanded the immediate withdrawal from Vietnam as well as a society of non- violence and justice (Hippie movement ). ( Frey, 1999, S. 150,151)

Several further groups participated in the anti-war movement, especially many Blacks, since most people killed in the war were Blacks. ( Frey,1999,S. 135/ 156)

The summit of the anti-war movement was the demonstration in Washington, DC of 250.000 participants. The announcement of the My Lai massacre in March 1968, where 300 Vietnamese civilists were brutally killed by American soldiers, aroused new demonstrations within the population and world wide critics.

When President Nixon declared the invasion of the American troops in Cambodia in 1970, it became evident that he was not to finish the war quickly. The following riots, led by students this time, claimed for the first time 4 casualties at the Kent State University of Ohio. (

New escalation

Several days after the failure of the peace negotiations in Paris on March 23rd, 1972, the North Vietnamese started an offensive against the South. After that the American President again ordered bomb attacks on North Vietnam. In addition the most important harbours were mined in order to cut supplies from China and the Soviet Union. This action should have raised again the North Vietnamese’s readiness to talks and force them to accept defeat.

When he was sworn in, President Nixon had promised to commit himself to peace. ( Krücker, 1994, S. 98)

Being under political pressure by now, he began to withdraw American troops in the summer of 1972 to keep a part of his promise. Only 40,000 soldiers remained stationed for protection. Already at the Easter-offensive the troops had not intervened in the attacks anymore. On October 8th1972, confidential peace talks between H Kissinger, American safety advisor, and Le Duc Tho took place in Paris. At the beginning, the negotiations seemed to be successful but made no progress in the end.

After that the American air forces reacted with massive bomb attacks on Hanoi and Haiphong from 18. to 29. December 1972. ( Frey, 1999, S. 211)

These attacks were the most serious attacks of the Vietnam War.

The international public and the media were shocked by the attacks and the respect for America reached its lowest point. ( Krücker, 1994, S.99)

6.End of the war

Under the pressure of the air attacks the government of North Vietnam came back to the negotiating table. Saigon was first reluctant but agreed finally to the armistice.

The USA stopped the bomb attacks north of the 20th Meridian and the peace talks between Kissinger and Le Du Tho went on. On January 27th 1973, the USA, South and North Vietnam and the Vietcong signed an ‘Agreement for the completion of the war and the reestablishment of peace’. (

It required an immediate cease fire, the withdrawal of all American troops within 60 days, and the giving up of prisoners as well as the recognition of the demilitarised zone as a frontier

The keeping of peace should be controlled by an international commission. Finally a national reconciliation council should be formed consisting of representatives of the South Vietnamese government, the Vietcong and other groups to prepare an election in South Vietnam. But both the building of a council and the preparation of the election failed.

The USA had withdrawn all their troops from Vietnam by March 1973. Nevertheless they still promised South Vietnam economical and military aid.

( Westermann, 1996, S. 815)

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7.The Civil War

Despite the signature of the armistice the fight between the communist groups and the South Vietnamese governmental groups went on. Both groups wanted to defend and enlarge their territory.

Without the support of the USA the South Vietnamese army had no chance to win. On April 1975 the Vietcong marched into Saigon.

At the same day the Vietnam War was finished with the unconditional surrender of the South Vietnamese government. ( Westermann, 1996 S. 815)

One year later, on July 2nd 1976, the all-Vietnamese state was restored by the proclamation of the socialistic Republic of Vietnam.

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8.Effects and consequences


2 million Vietnamese were killed, 3 million of them were wounded and hundreds of thousands children were left as orphans. 12 million people lost their native country. ( Frey,1999,S.222)

Threatened by political repression and faced with massive economic difficulties in the post war period from 1975-1982, nearly 1.500.000 Vietnamese emigrated to over 16 different countries. About 500.000, the so called ‘boat people’, tried to escape in small boats from Vietnam over the south Chinese ocean, many of them drunk. Those who survived the flight were even by countries which had admitted Vietnamese in previous times - confronted with immigration interdictions. ( Frey, 1999,S. 226)

Vietnam itself was seriously destroyed. The bomb attacks had damaged the economy and the infrastructure and the extensive use of Napalm and defoliants had caused irreparable ecological harm.


Nearly 60.000 American soldiers were killed, 300.000 wounded returned from Vietnam. 5.000 soldiers sent by other countries had lost their lives The costs amount altogether to 170 Billions of US-Dollars. (

The Vietnam war was the first military defeat in the history of America. It had national as well as international effects on the further political and social development in the USA. The war led to a world wide loss of credit for the United States. (

As a result of the assignment of resources and money for the Vietnam war, the carrying out of social programs such as ‘ war on poverty’ and social back up was deferred. Also the attempt to reduce racial discrimination was doomed to failure. The war split the country and made the population uncertain. Big parts of it longed for routine.

The Vietnam conflict triggered a national trauma of the population of the USA which has had even today an effect on the international politics of America.


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The Vietnam War
Real Centro Universitario Maria Cristina
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Christine Schmidt (Author), 2003, The Vietnam War, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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