Background information for the Vietnam War


            Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ)–The U.S. president who introduced combat troops into Vietnam in 1965.  He assumed the presidency after John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.  (Kennedy increased the number of military advisers during his presidency but did not send combat troops.  He is alleged to have been contemplating a withdrawal of those advisers at the time of his assassination.)

            Johnson, a Democrat, was elected president in 1964, running on a peace platform in which he maintained that American boys would not die fighting an Asian war.  Johnson declined to run for reelection in 1968, largely due to the intense opposition to the war within the United States.  He was succeeded by Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, who maintained during the campaign that he had a secret plan to end the war.  However, the U.S. military involvement did not end until March 29, 1973, two months after Nixon was inaugurated for his second term.  

            National Liberation Front (NLF)–the communist-backed movement among South Vietnamese who opposed the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam and sought to reunite South Vietnam with North Vietnam. 

             Viet Cong (or Vietcong) a.k.a. V.C., a.k.a. Victor Charles–the military arm of the National Liberation Front.  The Viet Cong were South Vietnamese guerilla forces that fought against the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces (ARVIN) in order to depose the South Vietnamese government.  They were allied with the Army of North Vietnam (NVA). 

            NVA–Army of North Vietnam.  From the standpoints of the United States and South Vietnam, the NVA was an invading army that illegally entered another sovereign nation, South Vietnam, to overthrow its legitimate government.  From the standpoint of North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front, there was only one Vietnam, and South Vietnam was not a sovereign nation.  North Vietnam maintained therefore that the government of South Vietnam was not a legitimate government, and the NVA and Vietcong were fighting to reunite the nation, as called for in the 1954 Geneva peace accords that followed the French defeat by Vietnamese nationalists at Dien Bien Phu.  (See discussion below). 

            ARVIN–Army of Vietnam.  This was the South Vietnamese army that fought with the U.S. forces against the NVA and Viet Cong. 

            Tet–the NVA and Viet Cong’s 1968 Tet offensive was, in the view of many historians, the turning point of the war.  Although it was ultimately a costly military defeat for the communists, its initial successes in major cities and villages throughout the country, including the capture of parts of Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam, and an intense, televised attack on the U.S. embassy there, convinced many Americans that the U.S. government’s optimistic prediction of success in Vietnam was inaccurate (hence the government’s widening “credibility gap” about the war).  Opposition to the war within the United States increased substantially after the Tet Offensive, so-named because it was initiated on January 31, 1968, during a cease-fire for the Tet holiday. 

            fragging–a slang term for the practice by some U.S. soldiers of shooting officers who insisted they participate in especially dangerous or seemingly futile missions.  Fragged officers were sometimes shot in the back while leading such missions. 

            gook–a demeaning slang term for an enemy Viet Cong or NVA soldier, or for any Vietnamese person, or for any Asian. 



The Vietnam War and Protest

Chapter 13

copyright: Richard A. Schwartz, Cold War Reference Guide (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1997), pp. 57-64.


            The Vietnam War must be viewed within its Cold War context.  It began in the early 1960s as a classic American Cold War effort to halt communist expansion in underdeveloped regions by supporting a local regime to oppose the communists.  By the time it ended in 1973, however, it transformed both the Cold War and the United States itself by forcing Americans to examine the assumptions behind the war and the far-reaching consequences it carried.

            Prior to World War II France controlled the region of Southeast Asia called Indochina, which included Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  Japan conquered it during the war.  Afterwards the Vietminh, Vietnamese nationalists who had fought against the Japanese, demanded Vietnamese independence.  But France insisted on maintaining its colonial dominance.  The United States rejected appeals for aid by the Vietminh since it did not wish to undermine its ally or support a movement with communist sympathies.  Led by Ho Chi Minh, a communist, the Vietminh took up arms to drive out the French.  In 1950 France recognized a friendly, non-communist government led by Bao Dai and located in Saigon in the south.  Under the agreement Vietnam was to become an "associated state" within the French union, but France would retain control of the country's defense and finances.  However, Ho Chi Minh, who was based in Hanoi in the north, declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and insisted that the communist regime was the sole legitimate Vietnamese government.  This dispute over which government properly represented the people of Vietnam remained at the core of the Vietnam conflict until its resolution in 1975.

            In 1953, the year the Korean War ended, Secretary of State Dulles had warned of a "domino effect," declaring that if Vietnam fell to the communists the rest of Southeast Asia might soon follow.  However the French fortunes continued to fail as the communists occupied more territory in both the North and South.  During the decisive two-month battle of Dien Bien Phu in spring 1954, France appealed to the United States for assistance.  Several plans were proposed including air support for the French and atomic strikes against the Vietminh.  But Army Chief of Staff Matthew Ridgway, who had commanded the UN forces in Korea, argued against intervention, claiming that "Indochina is devoid of decisive military objectives" and that intervention would "be a serious diversion of limited U.S. capabilities."   He further maintained that air strikes alone would be insufficient and even atomic warfare would still require the commitment of at least seven combat divisions--twelve if the Chinese intervened as they had in Korea.  Eisenhower insisted on prior Congressional approval and that of the allies.  But Great Britain's Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden rejected a proposal for a joint British-American force claiming that military support would only complicate and prolong a messy, hopeless political situation.  Eisenhower then declined to provide significant assistance to the French, who lost the battle on May 7.  Geneva peace talks held immediately afterwards ended hostilities and set the terms for the French withdrawal from the region.  The peace agreement called for Vietnam to be divided at the 17th parallel for two years, at which time nationwide elections were to settle the unification question in a democratic fashion.  In the interim the Vietminh agreed to remove its forces from the south--something the French army had been unable to achieve.

            A participant in the Geneva talks, the United States refused to accept the agreements but agreed not to disturb them either.  However Eisenhower declared that the United States would view any new Vietminh aggression in the South with concern.  Bao Dai also refused to abide by the Geneva agreements, as also did his successor in 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem.  Consequently neither the United States nor the Saigon government felt bound to honor the call for the 1956 elections, which never took place since U.S. and South Vietnamese officials feared a large victory for Ho Chi Minh.  Instead on October 26, 1955, Diem proclaimed a separate Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) with himself as president.  The United States and its Western European supporters recognized Diem's government, but North Vietnam, the Soviet Union, China and the other communist countries continued to insist that Ho Chi Minh's government was the sole legitimate Vietnamese government, though initially China's foreign minister Zhou En-lai indicated willingness to accept a permanently partitioned Vietnam, and in 1957 the Soviet Union suggested that North and South Vietnam be admitted to the United Nations as separate states.

            America's direct involvement began with the introduction of military advisers in 1955.  That year North Vietnam began receiving military aid from China and the Soviet Union.  In 1957 it renewed insurgent activity in the South and by 1959 it was sending cadres and weapons into South Vietnam to organize military opposition.  It imposed universal military conscription in 1960, when it also formed the Southern-based National Liberation Front (NLF) that the South Vietnamese derisively called the Vietcong.  In the interim Diem had difficulty maintaining the support of the military and the people, especially the Buddhist majority.  He squelched a coup in 1960 and brutally suppressed massive Buddhist demonstrations in 1963.  A coup overthrew and murdered Diem in November, 1963, three weeks before President Kennedy was assassinated.

            The following decade saw considerable in-fighting within the South Vietnamese leadership, including a succession of military governments led by such figures as General Nguyen Khanh (1964-65), Vice Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky (1965-67), General Nguyen Van Thieu (1967-April, 28, 1975) and General Duong Van Minh (April 28-April 30, 1975), who surrendered Saigon to North Vietnam's Colonel Bui Tin.  Bitter internal protest against the South Vietnamese government continued throughout the war, especially among South Vietnam's Buddhist majority whose interests were not especially served by these mostly Catholic and frequently brutal military regimes.

            America initially committed military advisers and military aid to Diem to fill the vacuum in the fight against communism created by France's exit from the region.  The Vietcong continued guerrilla efforts to seize control of the South and overthrow Diem's government, and they were later supported by regular army troops from North Vietnam (NVA).  Early U.S. involvement remained at a fairly low level.  However the number of advisers leapt from 700 to 12,000 during the first year and a half of Kennedy's presidency.  In August 1964, in response to one authentic and one dubious attack by North Vietnamese gunboats on a U.S. destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf, Congress voted nearly unanimously to authorize President Lyndon Johnson to commit U.S. forces to defend any nation in Southeast Asia against communist aggression or subversion.  The Tonkin Gulf Resolution served as Presidents Johnson and Nixon's Congressional authorization to conduct the war, even though Congress repealed the resolution in 1970.

            Johnson did not use his authority to strike against North Vietnam until after the 1964 presidential election when, running on a peace platform, he defeated his more hawkish Republican rival, Barry Goldwater.  However on February 7, 1965, the Vietcong attacked a U.S. transport and observation installation, killing eight and wounding over one hundred American advisers.  Within hours of receiving the news Johnson authorized Operation Flaming Dart, American air raids against a North Vietnamese army camp sixty miles north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Vietnam.

            In March 1965, Johnson sent in two marine battalions to defend Danang airfield.  These were the first American combat troops in Vietnam.  Aside from the Cambodian incursion in 1970 and the infiltration into North Vietnam and Cambodia by clandestine commando units on raids, American ground troops operated solely within South Vietnam and generally respected the DMZ.  However it bombed North Vietnam from 1965 to 1968 and in 1972.  Calls to expand the war to the north and to use nuclear weapons were balanced by fears that China would then enter the war and replay the Korea War.  Growing protests by its allies also inhibited U.S. action.

            In the summer of 1965 General Westmoreland requested and received forty-four additional combat battalions; in October American forces defeated North Vietnamese forces in the Ia Drang Valley in their first conventional confrontation of the war.  By December there were 200,000 American troops in South Vietnam.  Johnson suspended the bombings of North Vietnam on Christmas but resumed them at the end of January after failing to induce the communists to negotiate.  During 1966 America stepped-up its effort, bombing oil depots near Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam and increasing the number of troops to 400,000.  By the end of 1967 there were 500,000 American troops serving in Vietnam, and domestic opposition to the war became significant, despite government assurances that victory was close at hand.

            On January 31, 1968 the communists began their Tet Offensive in which they overran many South Vietnamese-held cities and towns and brought the war to Saigon itself, where there was intense street fighting.  Commandos attacked the U.S. embassy which was secured only after over six hours of fighting. Westmoreland's own headquarters were also attacked near the Saigon airport.  Even though the Tet Offensive ultimately failed militarily for the communists, it was probably the single most forceful event to turn U.S. public opinion against the war, as it demonstrated that the promised "light at the end of the tunnel" was illusory.

            American troop strength peaked at 540,000 at the end of 1968.  After an increasing number of his advisers expressed pessimism over prospects for an outright victory Johnson initiated peace talks on March 31, when he also announced he would not seek re-election.  He restricted bombing in North Vietnam and later imposed a full moratorium.  The peace talks began in mid-May; however North Vietnam was unwilling to settle for less than full national unification. 

            President Nixon, who defeated Johnson's Vice-President Hubert Humphrey in 1968, had campaigned on a peace platform.  Both he and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger concluded that the United States and South Vietnam could not win a limited war and that expanding the war raised too many domestic and international risks.  Both also insisted that the United States must avoid the appearance of a humiliating defeat in which it would lose credibility and influence throughout the world.  Thus they adopted "peace with honor" as their slogan.  In August 1969, Kissinger first met secretly with a North Vietnamese negotiator, and in February 1970, he began secret talks in Paris with Le Duc Tho.  However fundamental differences in how they viewed the war kept the two sides apart.  For Kissinger the Vietnam War was a conflict between two sovereign nations, while for the North Vietnamese and the NLF it was a civil war directed at reunifying the nation.  According to his aide, Roger Morris, Kissinger was never able to understand North Vietnam's position.  This basic difference over the very nature of the war seriously inhibited the peace negotiations.  The communists remained firm in their commitment to ultimate reunification, rejecting an early Kissinger "two track" proposal for a military settlement between the United States and North Vietnam and a political settlement between South Vietnam and the NLF.  Thus the peace negotiations failed to show results until the very end of Nixon's first term.

            As the peace talks stalled Nixon adopted Kissinger's plan for the "Vietnamization" of the war in which South Vietnam assumed increasingly greater responsibility for conducting the war and American troops were gradually withdrawn.  Nixon reduced the number of troops to 280,000 by the end of 1970 and 140,000 by the end of 1971, when the U.S. announced its intention of incrementally turning the war over to the South Vietnamese army.  But while the number of American soldiers in Vietnam diminished during Nixon's first term, America intensified the war in other ways.  In 1969 Nixon authorized secret bombing raids in Cambodia despite official U.S. recognition of that country's sovereignty.  And in 1970, he authorized a joint invasion of Cambodia by American and South Vietnamese troops.  Their mission was to attack communist sanctuaries and disrupt the flow of soldiers and supplies from North Vietnam into South Vietnam through the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which passed through Cambodia.  The war expanded again in 1971 when, after Congress voted to forbid sending American troops into Laos or Cambodia, the United States sponsored unsuccessful South Vietnamese incursions into Laos.  In 1970, Nixon permitted limited bombing of targets in the North in "protective reaction" strikes that were made ostensibly to protect reconnaissance flights.  However he did not authorize renewed massive bombings of North Vietnam until spring 1972, following a major North Vietnamese offensive.  The policy objective was to enable the United States to disengage from the conflict while still preserving the anti-communist regime of South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu.  Kissinger maintained that U.S. credibility with other countries precluded a rapid withdrawal that might undermine Thieu.

            By 1972 the war had emerged as a major campaign issue, and Kissinger increased his efforts to settle it.  Nixon renewed the air war in the North and ordered the mining of Haiphong harbor after North Vietnam launched a major attack across the DMZ.  These efforts prevented the collapse of the South Vietnamese army in the northern region of South Vietnam but did not succeed in forcing the North Vietnamese to make major concessions at the bargaining table.  However in October, a month before the U.S. election, Kissinger announced a major breakthrough and declared that "We believe that peace is at hand."  But South Vietnam's President Thieu refused to accept the new terms and demanded sixty-nine amendments to the agreements.  After new talks between Kissinger and North Vietnamese representative Le Duc Tho broke down in December, Nixon ordered massive "Christmas bombings" of Hanoi and Haiphong.  Nixon told the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he was lifting the restrictions on target selections to permit the bombing of railroads, power plants, radio transmitters and other installations surrounding Hanoi, as well as docks and shipyards in Haiphong.  He added, "I don't want any more of this crap about the fact that we couldn't hit this target or that one.  This is your chance to use military power to win this war, and if you don't, I'll hold you responsible."  After eleven days of bombings the North Vietnamese returned to the bargaining table and consented to an agreement similar to the October accord.  Nixon then warned Thieu, "You must decide now whether you desire to continue our alliance or whether you want me to seek a settlement with the enemy which serves U.S. interests alone."   Kissinger and Le Duc Tho concluded a formal cease-fire agreement in Paris on January 8, 1973.  The last American troops left on March 29, 1973.

            Unlike the 1954 Geneva Accords, the 1973 agreement allowed North Vietnamese troops to remain in those areas in the South where they held control.  Within a year after the U.S. withdrawal hostilities resumed between North and South Vietnam.  The United States continued to furnish military aid, but the amount was significantly restricted by a Congress eager to "put Vietnam behind us."  Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces on April 30, 1975.

            On Veteran's Day, 1982 the Vietnam War Memorial opened, commemorating the more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers and support personnel who died in Vietnam War between 1961 and 1973.  Over 3 million Americans served in Vietnam; 46,370 were killed in action and some ten thousand more died of other causes.  Over 153,000 Americans were hospitalized, 1,300 soldiers were reported missing in action (MIA), and the total cost exceeded $140 billion.  South Vietnam lost 400,000 soldiers killed in the war; North Vietnam lost 900,000.  More than 4 million Vietnamese civilians and soldiers on both sides, about 10% of the total population, were killed or wounded during the U.S. era of Vietnam's war for national unification.

            The size and intensity of the domestic protest against the Vietnam War significantly changed the U.S. experience of the Cold War.  Throughout the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s "Middle America" had been largely unified in its support of its government's basic policy to oppose communist expansion anywhere on the globe, a policy that reflected one of the lessons of World War II--never to allow another "Munich" where British and French leaders appeased Hitler and failed to stop him when they had the chance.  Moreover despite right-wing charges of communist infiltration of the government, most Middle Americans trusted the government to act rationally and in good faith to steer the country in safe and positive directions.

            However, by the late 1960s widespread anti-war sentiments had spread beyond the student ranks to middle-class America itself. This was especially true after the 1968 Tet Offensive when television pictures of enemy troops inside the American embassy belied repeated U.S. government promises that the war was almost won.  Moreover televised images of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire in protest to South Vietnamese human rights abuses undermined the U.S. government’s attempts to represent South Vietnam as a freedom-loving democracy.  So too did revelations that the South Vietnamese government placed political prisoners in tiger cages.

            The Vietnam protest attacked the earlier, almost automatic acceptance of government authority as well as many of the basic assumptions behind the Cold War.  In the long run these attacks did not fundamentally change America's Cold War orientation: witness the country's enthusiastic acceptance of Ronald Reagan's hard-line, anti-communist position during the early 1980s.  During the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, the country's attitude about the Cold War was far more fragmented, nor did it ever fully return to its pre-Vietnam War unity.

            The anti-war sentiment undermined many citizens' belief in the fundamental honesty and morality of their government; it also led some to question the government's commitment to such concerns as human rights, free speech and democracy, especially in the face of government attempts to infiltrate protest groups and keep important information secret from the public.  The highly moral nature of the Vietnam debate generated very intense feelings that severely polarized significant elements of the citizenry.  Anti-war protests became increasingly violent and confrontational as the war wore on into the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Violence sometimes erupted between pro-war "hawks" and anti-war "doves," or between anti-war protestors and the police and National Guard troops charged with maintaining order.  Protests to the 1970 invasion of Cambodia closed college campuses across the country as students and faculty went "on strike" in protest.  At demonstrations at Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State College in Mississippi protesting students were shot and killed by the National Guard and state police, and the relationship between the Nixon and his anti-war opponents became increasingly hostile.  Disposed to regard the protesters as potential revolutionaries and fearful that the anti-war coalitions might cripple his presidency, Nixon and his White House aides began formulating an "enemies list" and ordered the FBI, CIA and other government agencies to maintain files on suspicious, individuals, as well as to disrupt anti-war activities.  Many of these government actions were illegal, and they were exposed during the Watergate scandal and the Congressional investigations that followed.

            In many instances the hawks retained the traditional Cold War view of communism as a threat to American well being, while doves, though not necessarily approving communism, no longer saw it as the major threat to U.S. safety and prosperity.  Hawks supported the war largely because they believed it was necessary for halting communist expansion in Southeast Asia.  They also felt that the United States should honor its commitment to the South Vietnamese people to protect them from communist invaders who would rob them of their government, property and freedoms.  In addition, many believed that having entered a war the country should pursue it to a successful conclusion.  Hawks based much of their support for the war on the Domino Theory that maintained that the fall of Vietnam would result in subsequent communist takeovers in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim, culminating with the loss of the Philippines.  The domino metaphor, drawn in part from the experience in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, portrayed the communist insurrections in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia as part of a concerted, monolithic, world-wide communist offensive directed from Moscow.  The Domino Theory thus played down the desire for social reform and national liberation by which the revolutionary factions claimed to be motivated and diminished the importance of traditional rivalries among communist countries in the region.  Put to the test after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, the Domino Theory did not prove to be accurate.

            Although many of the more vocal anti-war activists also espoused socialist or communist ideology, the majority of those opposing the war did not hold such a radical viewpoint.  The fuzziness of U.S. objectives, the highly televised brutality of the various corrupt and undemocratic South Vietnamese regimes that the United States propped up, and the growing willingness to view the war between North and South as being more about national unification than communist expansionism were the primary reasons for opposing the war.  In 1995, the anti-war faction received considerable vindication when former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who had been one of the chief architects of the war during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, published In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, in which he admitted the war was a mistake and U.S. policies had been muddled and improvised from the beginning.  He also maintained that the U.S. failed to recognize the power of Ho Chi Minh's appeal to Vietnamese nationalism, and he criticized his own and President Johnson's decision to send combat troops into a country whose internal political situation was highly unstable.  Twenty years after the fall of South Vietnam his book generated considerable controversy and stirred passionate feelings among Americans from every part of the political spectrum.

            The Vietnam War fostered many serious divisions within the United States, often along generational lines.  Together with the civil rights movement, which was concurrent with it, the war helped spawn a "counter-culture" that rebelled not just against U.S. foreign policy but against consumer capitalism itself.  In this respect the Vietnam War protest went to the heart of American Cold War ideology that championed capitalism as the bulwark against immoral communism.  The end of the war and the economic recession of the middle 1970s led to the general decline of the anti-capitalistic counter-culture, which was in far less evidence during the last decade of the Cold War.