The Vietnam War

The Years Before the War

The seeds of the Vietnam War were sown in 1945, when the country was divided into the two halves that would see millions die before reunification in 1975. The end of World War II ended the short Japanese occupation, and Ho Chi Minh declared an independent Vietnam. A few weeks later, the French, who had been temporarily ousted from their colony by the war, returned to, as General Jacque Philippe Leclerc famously declared, “claim our inheritance". Ho Chi Minh accepted the French presence as preferable to aggression from China, but the Vietnamese would continue to fight for independence until they achieved it in 1954.

Under the Geneva Accord of that year, hammered out between France, Vietnam, Laos, China, Cambodia, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, foreign involvement in Indochina affairs would cease, and the country was divided at the seventeenth parallel. The South was ruled by the staunchly anti-Communist Ngo Dinh Diem, the North by the Communist Party. The next few years would see the slow infiltration of the South by Communist forces, increasing evidence of Diem’s corruption, and the expansion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, used to move people, weapons and supplies from the North to the South. By the end of 1960, the campaign to ‘liberate’ the South was in progress, and the National Liberation Front (‘NLF’, later to become widely known as the Viet Cong) had been founded.

The US Enters the War

The US had at this point been involved in Vietnam for years, first funneling money to the French, then propping up Diem’s increasingly unpopular government - all in the name of fighting Communist expansion. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed in 1964 by the US Congress after two highly disputed attacks on American destroyers[1], gave President Lyndon Johnson carte blanche to wage war against the NLF. US aircraft began dropping bombs on the North, the first American prisoner of war was captured, and in March 1965, combat troops arrived in Danang. The war had begun. By the end of the year, there would be over 200,000 US troops in Vietnam.

B52s dropping bombs1966 saw the first use of B-52 bombers by the US, and the Southern forces managed to take control of Hue and Danang, both major cities. Such strong US support for the South had not been expected in Hanoi, and the initial vision of a quickly achieved unification was rapidly replaced by the realisation that this was to be a long, drawn-out conflict. The North had initiated compulsory military conscription in 1960, and it now altered its strategy to one of ‘protracted war’, whereby they would ‘bog down’ the US in a lengthy, unwinnable war, and make it politically unfeasible for US troops to remain. Ultimately, though costly in terms of Vietnamese and American lives, this was successful.

Operation Cedar Falls began on 8 January 1967, a campaign to oust NLF forces from an area just north of Saigon known as the ‘Iron Triangle’. A massive two-and-a-half-week assault, this was the war’s single largest ground operation, involving over 30,000 American and Southern Vietnamese troops. The area had long been an NLF stronghold, and home to the Cu Chi tunnels, a series of underground refuges where NLF troops would hide, sometimes for weeks at a time. Although Operation Cedar Falls made use of saturation bombing, artillery fire and intense patrols seeking to root out the Communist fighters, it was largely unsuccessful. Within two days, the NLF had reentered the area, and it would become a staging ground for the next year’s Tet Offensive.

The Tet Offensive

Marines in Hue shelter by a wall during the Tet Offensive30 January 1968 was the beginning of a three-phase operation designed to inspire an uprising among the people of southern Vietnam, and to provoke the American public into rebelling against a war that had long since fallen out of favour. The Tet Offensive, the most well-known of all the war’s battles, was launched on the first day of the lunar new year, Vietnam’s most important holiday and a day on which both sides had previously agreed they would hold their fire. The NLF diverted attention from the plan by massing troops near Khe Sanh, then 80,000 NLF fighters attacked more than 100 towns and cities, catching US and southern forces completely unprepared. The NLF was quickly beaten back in most places, but fighting continued in Hue for almost a month, leaving thousands of civilians dead and the city nearly razed to the ground.

While the North suffered huge casualties compared with the relatively few American deaths, the Tet Offensive was a psychological victory and is widely regarded as a turning point in the war. Anti-war protests in the US has been growing, and the unwelcome news that the government had been misleading the public about the NLF’s ability to launch such a large-scale attack turned opinion firmly against. In March, President Johnson would announce that he would not run for office again, and made it clear he wished to end the war.

Nixon Intensifies Attacks on Vietnam

Nixon Richard Nixon took office in January of the next year, and ordered the bombing of Cambodia, in an effort to destroy Communist supplies and strongholds. The war continued apace, with no pause at the death of Ho Chi Minh on 2 September 1969. In November, news of the My Lai massacre (16 March 1968) finally reached the US public. The atrocities committed by the US army on the villagers of My Lai provoked serious questions about how the war was being conducted, who was in charge, and what was actually happening. The US was by now relying increasingly on an air war and sending some soldiers home, leaving Vietnamese troops to defend the South on the ground.

Between 1969 and 1972, peace talks were in progress, but produced little result. A major stumbling block was the insistence of the North Vietnamese on the deposition of South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu, to which the US government was unwilling to agree. These years also saw ferocious US bombing of Cambodia, and the use of Laos (also officially ‘neutral’) as a battleground. In 1971 Australia and New Zealand withdrew their soldiers from the conflict, and American troop numbers were reduced to less than 200,000. The war intensified, however, in December 1972, with what were known as the ‘Christmas bombings’. Nixon, in an attempt to win concessions from Hanoi at the conference table, ordered heavy bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, the North’s biggest cities. These were roundly criticised by the international community.

The War Draws to a Close

Signing the Paris Peace AccordsThe end of Vietnamese-US hostilities came with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords 27 January 1973 by chief negotiators Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. The Accords stipulated a maximum of sixty days for the withdrawal of all US troops (which was followed, only a few technicians and agents remained) and called for elections to be held in the North and the South (which was not). Prisoners of war were exchanged. The war between Vietnam and the US was over, but the battle for the country would rage for another two years.

After the departure of the Americans, the advantage moved from the North to the South and back again. The NLF improved the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which eventually became a drivable road, a far cry from the dangerous mountain pass of a few years before. The North was receiving more funding from the Communist bloc, while US Congress had cut American aid to the South. In December 1974, the NLF took the town of Phuoc Binh and - when it was clear the US would not intervene - this signalled the beginning of the end.

10 March 1975 saw the North take Ban Me Thuot in the Central
Highlands, a surprisingly easy victory. Inspired, the NLF quickly moved further south, taking Hue and then Danang. With the bulk of the South’s defences eradicated, they continued progress southwards, the remainder of the opposing army rapidly collapsing.

The Fall of Saigon

In a symbolic move NLF tanks crash through the gates of the presidential palace in SaigonAs the NLF neared Saigon, the few remaining Americans evacuated, taking some Vietnamese friends and families with them. Those who had been employed by the army, fearing for their lives when Saigon fell, were especially desperate to get out, but many were forced to remain behind. Some would be deported to the countryside, others to re-education camps.

On 30 April, NLF entered Saigon, driving a tank through the gates of the Presidential Palace and raising its flag. The war was officially over. Between three and four million Vietnamese had died, but Vietnam had finally ousted its last occupiers.

Written By Nell McShane Wulfhart. Images used are in the public domain