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Rural scenes near Hanoi


Conflict in Indochina 1954 - 1979

Vietnam: US Involvement

Geoff Lewis
Kelso High School

Rural scenes near Hanoi.
G. Lewis


Key features and Issues:

From this tutorial you will learn about:

The USA and Indochina:

The Second Indochina War:

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The United States becomes involved

Unlike previous wars in which the US had been involved, the Americans gradually became sucked into the mire of Vietnam. There was no declaration of war.

In 1961 newly elected President John F. Kennedy revived the so-called "domino theory". This had been one of the foundations of US foreign policy under President Eisenhower and basically sought to contain or stop the spread of communism wherever it might arise. Initially it applied to Eastern Europe following the Second World War; but now it applied to Asia, following the successful communist revolution in China under Mao Zedung in 1949 and the Korean War of 1950–53. Kennedy was determined to stop the spread of North Vietnamese communism into the south and into Laos and Cambodia.

The first step was to send 12,000 US "military advisers" to the Republic. The Americans denied that they would be taking an active role in the increasing conflict. Their role was "strictly advising" the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

The so-called "strategic hamlet" program was extended. Under this plan thousands of villagers were relocated into new villages that were enclosed by barbed wire fences and could be controlled around the clock to "prevent communist infiltration". The focus of the program was along Highway 1, the main road from Saigon to Hue and Quang Tri.

It soon became a shambles. Most of those relocated did not want to be there and returned to their home villages. The plan also gave the Vietcong an ideal opportunity to proselytise their cause by helping these villagers in many ways such as with clothing, food, health and education.

1963 was one of the turning points of the war. In the first open conflict between the Vietcong and the ARVN on 2 January at Ap Bac the communists emerged victorious.

Meanwhile, Diem's position was becoming increasingly untenable. Corruption, inefficiency and dictatorial behaviour became the hallmarks of the regime. Popular opposition, especially from among students and Buddhist monks, was growing. The Buddhists felt that they were being discriminated against through Diem's pro-Catholic policies.

In May troops gunned down several Buddhists in a demonstration. The world was shocked by pictures of a monk, Thich Quan Duc, from Hue, who sat down in the street outside the presidential palace, poured petrol over himself and set fire to himself. His demonstration was followed by several other monks. The world and the US administration now saw the depth of anti-Diem feeling. Kennedy was disillusioned and embarrassed by the Diem regime.

On 1 November Diem and his brother Nhu Ngo Diem were found shot to death in the rear of a van in one of Saigon's back streets. The coup was instigated by a group of high-ranking ARVN officers with at least tacit CIA support and certainly no interference from Washington. Diem's family were either arrested or fled to France.

Three weeks later President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and was replaced by Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

A power struggle between the generals erupted. For the next few years the political situation in the south became increasingly confused as one general replaced another as president. The first of these was General Nguyen Van Thieu, who became president. His intentions were to introduce reforms in the republic, especially aimed to get the support of the peasants for the government. However, as the war and consequent disruption increased, most of the reforms were lost. By the end of 1963 the "strategic hamlets" program had largely been abandoned.

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US involvement steps up

It's damn easy to get into a war, but it's going to be harder to ever extricate yourself if we get in.

(Lyndon Johnson to National Security Adviser George Bundy, 27 May 1964)

One of the problems for the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) was that there were many villages that were unsympathetic to the Diem regime. Most of these were under the control of the Vietcong or the Vietminh. Some observers have estimated that almost half of the population of the south was always opposed to the Saigon government.

Despite the brutal attempts to stamp out opposition, many hard core communists undermined the republic or prepared the people for the eventual communist revolution which they believed was inevitable. The strategic hamlets strategy had antagonised many who might have supported Saigon. Government officials were always considered outsiders.

Between 1964 and 1965 the number of American servicemen in South Vietnam jumped to 100,000. It was becoming impossible for President Johnson to justify these men as mere "advisers". The war was escalating.

General William Westmoreland was appointed to command Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) in Saigon. The policy was to suppress the large areas of the countryside dominated by Vietcong guerillas. The Americans were worried that the efficiency and morale of the ARVN soldiers was declining. (There is some controversy on this point. Australian photojournalist Neil Davis, who worked in Vietnam for over ten years, believes that this was not so and that most of the fighting in the war was carried out by the ARVN.)

1964 also saw small numbers of North Vietnamese regular troops operating with the Vietcong in the south. All this added up to the conviction in Washington that the government which it had been supporting militarily and financially was in imminent danger of collapse. Johnson had to find a way of providing greater military support, possibly through the direct employment of US combat troops.

The opportunity soon presented itself. On 2 August the US destroyer USS Maddox was attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by three North Vietnamese patrol boats the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident. There is some doubt exactly what had occurred, but the significance was not lost on Washington.

Already the US had pre-planned the bombing of North Vietnam by aircraft. This began almost at once. Johnson had to convince Congress that direct involvement of US troops was necessary to save the RVN from communism. With barely any voices raised in opposition, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed. The gate was now open for direct US military intervention in the war.

On 8 March the following year the first US marines landed on the famous China Beach near Da Nang. It was more of a media spectacle than a military operation. By December over 200,000 more had arrived. These troops, whose numbers rose to half a million by 1967, were engaged in actual combat. The whole nature of the war had changed.

The survival of the RVN had become a central feature of US foreign policy. The more successful the guerillas were, the more dangerous communism seemed to become, and the more determined Johnson became to wipe it out in Vietnam.

Ironically the first protests against US involvement broke out as a small group of protesters burned their draft cards and fled to Canada and Sweden to avoid being drafted into the army.

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The tactics employed by the Americans, ARVN and the now involved Australians were called "search-and-destroy". The aim was suddenly to surround and attack a village suspected of harbouring Vietcong, searching the village for evidence that the people were sympathetic to or were assisting the Vietcong and then destroying it. Often villages were destroyed even if there was no evidence of Vietcong infiltration. It was a policy that would hardly "win the hearts and minds" of the locals as Johnson had hoped. ('When you have them by the balls the hearts and minds will follow!' L.B. Johnson.)

The first use of defoliants and herbicides especially the notorious "Agent Orange" began. The aim was to spray the forests and thus deprive the guerillas of cover. [The author has seen the results of this program in both Vietnam and especially in Laos. It is not a pretty sight!]. The number of US troops was now 400,000.

Large and sometimes violent anti-war rallies were held in America and increasingly in Australia.

If ever there was a turning point in a war, 1968 was the turning point in the Vietnam War. Traditionally the Vietnamese celebrate the Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year in late January to early February. This is known as "Tet". Up to 1968 it had been accepted that a cease-fire should be put in place. This year was to be different.

On 31 January communist uprisings and attacks broke out simultaneously across South Vietnam. Obviously this military campaign was extremely well planned and well prepared by General Giap. It became known as the Tet Offensive. Although it has been generally recognised that it was a military failure for the Vietcong and NVA, it became significant for other reasons.

According to General Tran Do, in a typical example of Vietnamese understatement: "In all honesty, we didn't achieve our main objective. As for making an impact on the United States, it had not been our intention but it turned out to be a fortunate result."

The aim was to undermine the Saigon government and military to such an extent that the US would be forced to seek some kind of peaceful settlement to the war. Within a month the communists were largely defeated. However, two lasting images appeared on the world's television screens images that were to reverse the fortunes of the war towards the communists.

  1. Americans back home were shocked to see that the Vietcong occupied the US embassy in Saigon. Propaganda said that the embassy was so secure that it was impregnable. Yet Vietcong guerillas appeared to occupy it with ease. The sight of US troops and members of the CIA firing and throwing grenades into the building was unimaginable in the loungerooms of America.
  2. On the morning of the offensive the people of the old imperial capital Hue were surprised to see the Vietcong flag flying over the citadel, the fortified part of the imperial city in the middle of Hue. Following almost three weeks of heavy fighting by US and ARVN forces, it was recaptured. The cost was the almost complete destruction of this ancient city within a city. (So far it has cost UNESCO over $36 million to repair the damage.)
The Citadel in Hue




The "Citadel" in Hue. Scene of some of the most bitter fighting in the 1968 Tet Offensive.
G. Lewis


Neil Davis believes that this was the closest the Americans ever came to victory in Vietnam. The communists were defeated militarily; but the anti-war tide in America suddenly increased.

Two other events were to make the American position even worse:

  1. The North Vietnamese attack on the US base at Khe Sanh. This was a repeat of Dien Bien Phu, even though the communists were repelled after a long siege. The reasons for the attack are unclear: a diversion for the Tet Offensive or a real attempt to impose a large-scale defeat on the Americans. Eight months after the siege the Americans gave up this famous base.
  2. The infamous My Lai [pron. 'Me Lay'] Massacre: four companies under the command of Lt William S. Calley attacked a village and murdered close to 500 innocent civilians. News of the massacre was suppressed for some time, but eventually Calley was charged. He used the excuse, "I was only following orders". He received a five-year sentence, which he never served. Both incidents galvanised public opinion against the war as people doubted the account and statistics put out by the military. The government had lost the publicity war.
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This year saw US forces in Vietnam peak at 549,000 men. At the same time formal peace negotiations to end the war began in Paris. In October President Johnson, in an emotional speech, announced that he would not seek re-election as president. The Vietnam War had destroyed him politically and physically. As a gesture towards peace, he announced an end to the bombing of North Vietnam.

Johnson was unable to institute his social programs in the United States because of the war. Watergate was still ahead. Between 28 July 1965 and Nixon's inauguration in January 1969, 30,000 Americans died.

Newly elected President Richard M. Nixon began the so-called "Vietnamisation" of the war when he commenced the withdrawal of US ground troops from Vietnam in 1969. He justified this by saying that he was turning over the responsibility of the war to the ARVN. The implication was that the South Vietnamese had not done their fair share of the fighting.

At the same time Cambodia and Laos were dragged fully into the war when Nixon ordered the secret bombing of these two neighbouring countries in Operations Phoenix and Menu. The targets were supposed to be the Ho Chi Minh Trail where it ran through Cambodia and Laos. [This author's visit to Laos in early 1997 suggests that a great deal more than the Ho Chi Minh Trail was bombed, especially on the Plain of Jars.] This secret bombing by high flying B-52 bombers went on and off for the next three years. Laos and Cambodia were claimed to be the most bombed places on earth.

On 2 September Ho Chi Minh died in Hanoi, thus depriving North Vietnam of its inspirational leader. Ho was replaced by Pham Van Dong.

1970 seemed to offer promise that peace would come to Indochina. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Le Duc Tho began secret talks in Paris to seek an end to the conflict that was costing tens of thousands of lives on both sides and was wounding and maiming hundreds of thousands of troops and civilians.

Opposition to the war continued at home. On 4 May four university students at Kent State University in Ohio were killed by the National Guard at an anti-war demonstration. This seemed to strike at the heart of American democracy which proclaimed freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in its Bill of Rights.

Even within the RVN government there were some concerns that the large numbers of American troops in Vietnam would alienate the people from the republic.

The US was stepping up Nixon's "peace with honour" policy when the Senate repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and by the end of the year there were fewer than 300,000 American "boys" in Vietnam. By the end of 1971 there were only 139,000.  

A Russian surface-to-air missile (SAM) in Hanoi




 A Russian surface-to-air missile (SAM) in Hanoi.
G. Lewis


Following an NVA strike across the Seventeenth Parallel which resulted in the fall of Quang Tri, Nixon ordered an increase in the bombing to speed up the peace process. This 1972 plan was believed to "try to bomb the north to the conference table". The main port of the north, Haiphong, was mined in an effort to prevent supplies coming into the north from the Soviet Union and China who were backing the North Vietnamese.

After years of negotiations a ceasefire was signed between Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in Paris. RVN President Thieu violently objected to the agreement, but by this time he had largely become irrelevant. The Peace Agreement was signed by all parties on 27 January. The Americans agreed to a complete pull-out of troops by the end of March.

As far as the Americans were concerned, the war had ended. The republic was now left to its own devices to face the North Vietnamese. On 9 August 1974 Nixon was forced to resign as president following his involvement in the Watergate scandal.

With the Americans gone and with increasing support of the Soviet Union, it was only a matter of time before the communists would secure a victory. This was important for the Soviets in the Cold War against the US both militarily and in the propaganda war.

In 1975 the "Ho Chi Minh Campaign" began to sweep the North to power in the south. Coordinated attacks by the Vietcong and NVA fell upon the remnants of the Saigon forces, who retreated quickly and ignominiously. They had nothing left to fight for. City after city and town after town quickly fell to the forces led by General Van Tien Dung.

The NVA wished to capture Saigon before the beginning of the wet season, which usually began in May, and before President Thieu could regroup his forces. By 21 April Saigon was surrounded and the Americans and other foreigners began to evacuate their people. A week later the airport was captured and the communists moved into the suburbs. Over the next eighteen hours helicopters took off from the roof of the American Embassy moving out 6000 people– one of the lasting images of the war.

President Thieu had fled Saigon on 25 April, to be replaced by "Big" Minh. At 10:00 am on 30 April the official capture of Saigon was announced. In one of the great ironies of history President Minh said to General Van Tien Dung that "I have been waiting for you to hand over power!", to which the General replied, "You cannot hand over that which you do not possess!"

Perhaps Neil Davis said it all when he met North Vietnamese tank crews in the grounds of the presidential palace: "Welcome to Saigon, comrade. I've been waiting for you."

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