Vietnam War

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The Vietnam War
Conflict Vietnam War, part of the Cold War
Date 19571975
Place Southeast Asia
Result • Capitulation of South Vietnam
• Reunification of Vietnam under Communist DRVN


Major Combatants
Republic of
(South Vietnam)

Flag of South Vietnam

United States of America

Flag of the United States
Democratic Republic of Vietnam
(North Vietnam)

Flag of North Vietnam

National Liberation Front
(Viet Cong)

Flag of the Viet Cong

~1,200,000 (1968) ~420,000 (1968)
Total dead: 250,000+ (South Vietnam), 58,226 (US)
Wounded: 153,303 (US)
Total dead: Official Vietnamese estimate: 1,100,000
Wounded: 600,000
Civilian Casualties: c. 2–4 million
Victor: North Vietnam
Military history of Australia
Military history of New Zealand
Military history of the Philippines
Military history of South Korea
Military history of the Soviet Union
Military history of Thailand
Military history of the United States
Military history of Vietnam

The Vietnam War or Second Indochina War 1 was a conflict between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN, or North Vietnam), allied with the National Liberation Front (NLF, or "Viet Cong") against the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, or South Vietnam), and its allies—notably the United States military in support of the South, with American combat troops committed from 1965 to 1973.

After France's attempted recolonization of Indochina was defeated in 1954 by the Viet Minh at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the country was partitioned in two by a Demilitarized Zone or DMZ after the Geneva Conference. Each part of the modern day Vietnam became controlled by separate governments with distinctly different ideologies and political bases. The scheduled elections for the unification of the country never took place. Instead, the Vietnam War began as a civil war—fought to determine the status of Vietnam as either a unified nation or as one partitioned indefinitely into two independent states, each supported by rival Superpowers (as after the Korean War). Fighting began in 1957, and with U.S. and Soviet-Chinese involvement and support, it would steadily escalate and spill over into the neighboring Indochinese countries of Cambodia and Laos.

South Vietnam—and allies such as the U.S.—portrayed the conflict as one based in a principled and strategic opposition to communism, to deter its expansion throughout Southeast Asia and elsewhere. North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies claimed the war as a struggle to reunite the country and to repel a foreign aggressor—a continuation of the earlier war for independence against the French.

After fifteen years of protracted fighting and massive civilian and military casualties, major, direct U.S. involvement ended with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. Fighting between Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces against the dominant combined People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and Viet Cong forces would soon bring an end to the RVN and the war. With the Northern victory, the country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) with a communist-controlled government based in Hanoi.



History of Vietnam series
Map of Vietnam

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Vietnam War
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A precise timeline of the Vietnam War is difficult to determine. Some consider the Vietnam War to have been a continuous conflict beginning with the French attempt to reestablish colonial control in 1946 and continuing until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Others divide the conflict into two separate wars, the First Indochina War between the French and the Viet Minh and the Second Indochina War between North Vietnam and South Vietnam and its American allies. Many experts consider the Vietnam War to have just been one front in the larger Cold War.
The First Indochina War may be said to have begun in 1946 with the writing of the Vietnamese constitution and to have ended in 1954 with the Geneva Peace Accord.The American involvement in the conflict is less distinct. The United States had supported Vietnamese guerillas against the Japanese during World War II, and provided aid to the French in the early 1950s. An American military presence was established in South Vietnam following the 1954 Peace Accord. As American advisors were drawn into battles between North and South Vietnamese forces the American involvement escalated.
Many Americans view the Vietnam War as beginning with the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964.
The ground war was fought in South Vietnam and the border areas of Cambodia and Laos (see Secret War). The air war was fought there and in the strategic bombing (see Operation Rolling Thunder) of North Vietnam. Commando raids or secret operations were conducted by U.S or South Vietnamese forces in the north but there was never any full-scale ground fighting north of the 17th parallel (For more details of the events during the war, see: Timeline of the Vietnam War.) A coalition of forces fought for South Vietnam, including its army the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (or ARVN), the United States, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines. Participation by the South Korean military was financed by the United States, but Australia and New Zealand fully funded their participations. The United Kingdom and Canada, did not participate in the war militarily, although a few of their citizens volunteered to join the U.S. forces and Canada led peace talks between the two countries for years. The Spanish government sent a small group of military medical personnel from 1966 to 1971. The North Vietnamese government directed the fighting against that of South Vietnam, using forces including their People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN, better known to Americans as the NVA) and the guerrilla forces of the National Liberation Front, better known as the Viet Cong. The U.S.S.R. provided military and financial aid, along with diplomatic support to the North Vietnamese as did the People's Republic of China. Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and North Korea provided minor assistance through provision of supplies and armor. North Vietnamese pilots and other specialized members of the PAVN often received training in the USSR or in North Korea, as did many of their Southern counterparts in Arizona or Hawaii.


Main article: Background to the Vietnam War
Hồ Chí Minh
Hồ Chí Minh

France had gained control of Indochina in a series of colonial wars beginning in the 1840s and lasting until the 1880s. During World War II, Vichy France had collaborated with the occupying Imperial Japanese forces. Vietnam was under effective Imperial Japanese control, as well as de facto Japanese administrative control, although the Vichy French continued to serve as the official administrators until 1944. After the Japanese surrender Vietnamese nationalists hoped to achieve formal independence from France.

On September 5, 1945, Ho Chi Minh spoke at a ceremony heralding an independent Vietnam. In his speech he cited the American Declaration of Independence and a band played "The Star Spangled Banner." Minh had hoped that the United States would be an ally of a Vietnamese independence movement based on speeches by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt against the continuation of European imperialism after World War II. However the death of Roosevelt, the development of the Cold War, and Ho's Communist sympathies led to U.S. support being given to the French.

Indochina had been in the British theater of operations during the war. The French prevailed upon the British to turn control of the region back over to them, setting the stage for the First Indochina War in which France attempted to reestablish Vietnam as part of a French overseas colony. In a gradual process, accelerated by the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the Vietnamese nationalist army, the Viet Minh, gradually wrested control of the country from France.

After the Viet Minh's historic victory over the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu all of Indochina was granted independence, including Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. However, Vietnam was partitioned at the 17th parallels, above which the former Viet Minh established a Communist state and below which an anti-communist state was established under the Emperor Bao Dai. As dictated in the Geneva Accords of 1954 the division was meant to be temporary pending free elections for national leadership. Neither of the two Vietnamese countries signed the election clause in the agreement. The United States, fearing a Communist takeover of the region, supported Ngo Dinh Diem, who had ousted Bao Dai, as leader of South Vietnam while Ho Chi Minh became president of the North.

The War Begins

Map of South Vietnam. During the war, South Vietnam was divided into 4 Corps Tactical Zones (CTZ), renamed "Military Regions" in 1970. Most of the fighting took place in 1st CTZ and the populated areas around Saigon which included War Zone C and D.
Map of South Vietnam. During the war, South Vietnam was divided into 4 Corps Tactical Zones (CTZ), renamed "Military Regions" in 1970. Most of the fighting took place in 1st CTZ and the populated areas around Saigon which included War Zone C and D.

NLF in the South

Communist forces initiated guerilla activities in South Vietnam in 1957. Two years later these forces named themselves the National Liberation Front (NLF). Although considered by many to have been composed of northern agents under the control of Hanoi, ostensibly the NLF was an organization of South Vietnamese communists committed to establishing a communist state in South Vietnam. By 1959 the Hanoi government were supplying the NLF via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a supply route running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia (a violation of neutrality) into South Vietnam. Further supplies were sent by sea to Sihanoukville in Cambodia until that outlet was closed by Lon Nol in 1970. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was steadily expanded to become the vital lifeline for communist forces in South Vietnam, which included the North Vietnamese Army in the 1960s when it became a major target of American air operations.

The Diem government was initially able to cope with the insurgency with the aid of American advisors, and by 1962 seemed to be winning. Senior U.S. military leaders were receiving positive reports from the American commander, Gen. Paul D. Harkins of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. However outside Saigon large areas of the country were not under government control. In 1963 a Communist offensive beginning with the Battle of Ap Bac inflicted major defeats on the South Vietnamese army, while disorganization reigned in the Saigon government.

John F. Kennedy and Vietnam

John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.
John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

In June 1961, John F. Kennedy met with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, where Khrushchev sought to bully him over key U.S.-Soviet issues. Kennedy left the meeting convinced that the Russians were committed to conflict. This led to the conclusion that Southeast Asia would be an area where Soviet forces would test America's commitment to the containment policy.

Although Kennedy's election campaign had stressed long-range missile parity with the Soviets, Kennedy was particularly interested in Special Forces. Originally intended for use behind front lines after a conventional invasion of Europe, it was quickly decided to try them out in the "brush fire" war in Vietnam.

Nikita S. Khrushchev
Nikita S. Khrushchev

The Kennedy administration remained essentially committed to the Cold War foreign policy inherited from the Truman administration. Furthermore in 1961 Kennedy found himself faced with a three-part crisis that seemed very similar to that faced by Truman in 194950. 1961 had already seen the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and a negotiated settlement between the pro-Western government of Laos and the Pathet Lao Communist movement. Fearing that another failure on the part of the United States to stop Communist expansion would fatally damage the West's position and his reputation, Kennedy was determined to prevent a Communist victory in Vietnam.

The Kennedy administration grew increasingly frustrated with Diem. In 1963 a violent crackdown by Diem's forces against Buddhist monks protesting government policies prompted self-immolation by monks, leading to embarrassing press coverage. The most famous event is the self-burning of Thich Quang Duc to protest the government's violence against Buddhists. Vietnam was a largely Buddhist nation (two-thirds were Buddhist in the Southern half), while Diem and much of his administration were Roman Catholic, and Diem was criticized as being out of touch with his citizens. The U.S. attempted to pressure Diem by asking South Vietnamese generals to act against the excesses. The South Vietnamese military interpreted these messages as tacit U.S. support for a coup d'etat which overthrew and killed Diem on November 1, 1963.

Initially the death of Diem made the South more unstable. The new military rulers were politically inexperienced and unable to provide the strong central authority of Diem's rule and a period of coups and countercoups followed. The communists, meanwhile, stepped up their efforts to exploit the vacuum.

Kennedy himself was assassinated three weeks after Diem's death, and the newly sworn-in president, former Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, confirmed on November 24, 1963, that the United States intended to continue supporting South Vietnam.

The propaganda campaign

The nature and identity of the opposing forces was as always a major political focus of the war. The U.S. depicted a war in which an independent country was fighting international Communist aggression, thus depicting the NLF and even the PAVN as puppet armies.

The North Vietnamese portrayed the conflict as one between an imperialist United States and an indigenous South Vietnamese insurgency that was receiving the noncombat support of North Vietnam and its allies. This view presented the South Vietnamese as puppets of the U.S.

These conflicting stances influenced early peace talks in which arguments were made over "the shape of the negotiating table," with each side seeking to depict itself as a group of distinct allies opposing a single entity, ignoring the other's "puppet".


The U.S. involvement in the war has been described as an escalation. This is typically meant to refer to the incremental increase in forces in response to greater need, rather than an intentional strategy. However a key element was that there was no traditional declaration of war which would have involved a national commitment to using all available means to secure victory.

Instead U.S. involvement increased over several years, beginning with the deployment of noncombatant military advisors to the South Vietnamese army, followed by the use of special forces for commando-style operations, followed by the introduction of regular troops for defensive purposes, until regular troops were used in offensive combat. Once U.S. troops were engaged in active combat, escalation meant increasing their numbers.

The escalation of the war complicated its ambiguous legal status. The treaty agreements between the U.S. and South Vietnam allowed each escalation to be seen as simply another step in helping an ally resist Communist aggression. This allowed the U.S. Congress to vote appropriations for war operations without requiring the Johnson Administration to meet the Constitutionally mandated requirement that Congress declare war.

Successive U.S. administrations also hoped that by limiting its involvement it could support South Vietnam without provoking a major response from China or the Soviet Union, as had happened in the Korean War. President Johnson maintained the Kennedy administration's position that South Vietnam's independence was a crucial U.S. defense against Soviet aggression, while at the same time trying to avoid provoking direct participation in the conflict by the Warsaw Pact.

The situation caused friction between the American armed services and the civilian authorities in Washington. Military officials such as General William Westmoreland resented the Johnson Administration's restraints on their operations but feared making outspoken policy criticisms lest they suffer the same fate as General Douglas MacArthur who had been dismissed by Truman on such grounds during the Korean War.

The relatively slow process of escalation also tended to mute U.S. political debate, since no individual instance of escalation dramatically increased the level of U.S. involvement. However in 1968 the Joint Chiefs of Staff considered increasing the total number of active reserve troops by 200,000, concerned about having roughly a third of U.S. forces committed to one theater of conflict. The Joint Chiefs of Staff asked General Westmoreland, the only military official currently commanding U.S. troops in a conflict to testify to the need to increase. The press portrayed this increase as a need for more troops in Vietnam to reconcile the situation after the Tet Offensive. When this possibility was made public, popular criticism caused the Johnson Administration to abandon the idea. Presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon called for a decrease in U.S. troop levels and by the end of 1969, under his new administration, they were reduced by 60,000 from their wartime peak.

American Intervention

Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin

Main article: Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Johnson raised the level of U.S. involvement on July 27, 1964, when 5,000 additional U.S. military advisors were ordered to South Vietnam. This brought the total number of U.S. forces in Vietnam to 21,000.

On July 31, 1964, the American destroyer USS Maddox, was in international waters conducting a reconnaissance mission in the Gulf of Tonkin. Critics of President Johnson have suggested that the purpose of the mission was to provoke a reaction from North Vietnamese coastal defense forces as a pretext for a wider war. North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the Maddox and in response, with the help of air support from the nearby carrier USS Ticonderoga, she destroyed one of the torpedo boats, damaging two others. The Maddox suffered only superficial damage and retired to South Vietnamese waters where she was joined by USS C. Turner Joy.

U.S. President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson.
U.S. President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson.

On August 3, the Government of the Republic of Vietnam (GVN or South Vietnam) again attacked North Vietnam; the Rhon River estuary and the Vinh Sonh radar installation were bombarded under cover of darkness.

On August 4, a new DESOTO patrol to the North Vietnam coast was launched, with Maddox and C. Turner Joy. The latter got radar signals later claimed to be another attack by the North Vietnamese. For some two hours the ships fired on radar targets and maneuvered vigorously amid electronic and visual reports of torpedoes. Later, Captain John J. Herrick admitted that it was nothing more than an "overeager sonarman" who "was hearing the ship's own propeller beat".

In consequence the U.S. Senate approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964, which gave broad support to President Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement in the war "as the President shall determine". In a televised address Johnson claimed that "the challenge that we face in South-East Asia today is the same challenge that we have faced with courage and that we have met with strength in Greece and Turkey, in Berlin and Korea, in Lebanon and in Cuba." National Security Council members, including Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and Maxwell Taylor agreed on November 28, 1964, to recommend that President Johnson adopt a plan for a two-stage escalation of bombing in North Vietnam.

With the decision to escalate its involvement in the conflict, America's ANZUS Pact allies Australia and New Zealand were pressured to contribute troops and material to the war effort. As a result, in late 1964 the Australian government controversially re-introduced conscription for compulsory military service by eligible males aged 18-25, and many Australian conscripts served alongside American troops.

Operation Rolling Thunder

Main article: Operation Rolling Thunder

Operation Rolling Thunder was the code name for bombing raids in North Vietnam conducted by the United States armed forces during the Vietnam War. Its purpose was to destroy the will of the North Vietnamese to fight, to destroy industrial bases and air defenses (SAMs), and to stop the flow of men and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Starting in March 1965 Operation Rolling Thunder gradually escalated in intensity to force the Communists to negotiate. Although half North Vietnam's bridges were destroyed and many supply depots hit, its Communist allies were always able to resupply it. The two principal areas where supplies came from, Haiphong and the Chinese border, were off limits to aerial attack. Restrictions on the bombing of civilian areas also enabled the North Vietnamese to use them for military purposes, siting anti-aircraft guns on school grounds.

In March 1968 Operation Rolling Thunder was suspended after the North agreed to negotiate in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.

U.S. Forces Committed

Da Nang, Vietnam. A young Marine private waits on the beach during the Marine landing- August 3, 1965
Da Nang, Vietnam. A young Marine private waits on the beach during the Marine landing- August 3, 1965

In February 1965 the U.S. base at Pleiku was attacked twice killing over a dozen Americans. This provoked the reprisal air strikes of Operation Flaming Dart in North Vietnam, the first time an American air strike was launched because its forces had been attacked in South Vietnam. That same month the U.S. began independent air strikes in the South. An American HAWK team was sent to Da Nang, a vulnerable airbase if Hanoi intended to bomb it. One result of Operation Flaming Dart was the shipment of anti-aircraft missiles to North Vietnam which began in a few weeks from the Soviet Union.

On March 8, 1965, 3,500 United States Marines became the first American combat troops to land in South Vietnam, adding to the 25,000 U.S. military advisers already in place. The air war escalated as well; on July 24, 1965, four F-4C Phantoms escorting a bombing raid at Kang Chi became the targets of antiaircraft missiles in the first such attack against American planes in the war. One plane was shot down and the other three sustained damage. Four days later Johnson announced another order that increased the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000. The day after that, July 29, the first 4,000 101st Airborne Division paratroopers arrived in Vietnam, landing at Cam Ranh Bay.

On August 18, 1965, Operation Starlite began as the first major American ground battle of the war when 5,500 U.S. Marines destroyed a Viet Cong stronghold on the Van Tuong peninsula in Quang Ngai Province. The Marines were tipped off by a Viet Cong deserter who said that there was an attack planned against the U.S. base at Chu Lai. The Viet Cong learned from their defeat and tried to avoid fighting a U.S.-style war from then on.

The North Vietnamese committed regular army troops to South Vietnam beginning in late 1964 to use guerilla and regular forces to wear down and destroy the South Vietnamese Army. However some North Vietnamese officials favored an immediate invasion, and a plan was drawn up to use PAVN forces to split South Vietnam in two at the Central Highlands, and then to defeat each half. However in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley the PAVN was defeated, prompting a return to guerilla tactics.

The Pentagon told President Johnson on November 27, 1965, that if planned major sweep operations needed to neutralize Viet Cong forces during the next year were to succeed, the number of American troops in Vietnam needed to be increased from 120,000 to 400,000. By the end of 1965, 184,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam. In February 1966 there was a meeting between the commander of the U.S. effort, head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam General William Westmoreland and Johnson in Honolulu. Westmoreland argued that the U.S. presence had prevented a defeat but that more troops were needed to take the offensive, he claimed that an immediate increase could lead to the "crossover point" in Vietcong and NVA casualties being reached in early 1967. Johnson authorized an increase in troop numbers to 429,000 by August 1966.

The large increase of troop numbers enabled Westmoreland to carry out numerous search and destroy operations in accordance with his attrition strategy. In January 1966 during Operation Masher/White Wing in Binh Dinh province the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division killed 1,342 Viet Cong by repeatedly marching through the area. The Operation continued under Thayer/Irving until October where a further 1,000 Viet Cong were killed and numerous others wounded and captured. U.S. forces conducted numerous forays into Viet Cong controlled "War Zone C", an area northwest of the densely populated Saigon area and near the Cambodian border, in Operations Birmingham, El Paso, and Attleboro. In 1st Corp Tactical Zone (CTZ) located in the Northern provinces of South Vietnam North Vietnamese conventional forces entered Quang Tri province. Fearing an assault on Quang Tri city might develop, U.S. Marines initiated Operation Hastings which caused the North Vietnamese to retreat over the DMZ. Afterwards, a follow up operation called Prarie began. "Pacification", or the securing of the South Vietnamese countryside and people was mostly conducted by the ARVN. However, morale was poor in the South Vietnamese army due to corruption and incompetence of generals and hence little was accomplished in the form of pacification other than high desertion rates.

On 12 October 1967, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk stated during a news conference that proposals by the U.S. Congress for peace initiatives were futile because of North Vietnam's opposition. Johnson then held a secret meeting with a group of the nation's most prestigious leaders ("the Wise Men") on November 2 and asked them to suggest ways to unite the American people behind the war effort. Johnson announced on November 17 that, while much remained to be done, "We are inflicting greater losses than we're taking...We are making progress." Following up on this, General William Westmoreland on November 21 told news reporters: "I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing." Nevertheless it was recognized that although the communists were taking a major beating, true victory could not come until the country was pacified.

Most of the PNVA operational capability was possible due only to the movement of supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. In order to threaten this flow of supplies, a firebase was set up just on the Vietnam side of the Laosian border, near the town of Khe Sanh. The US planned to use the base as a launching point for raids against the trail. To the PNVA leaders this looked like a wonderful opportunity to repeat their famous victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, and hand the americans a massive defeat. Over the next few months both the PNVA and US Marines added forces to the area, with the Battle of Khe Sanh "officially" starting on January 21st, 1968. Every PNVA attempt to take the base was repulsed with heavy casualties, and even their rear areas were under constant attack by US airpower, including B-52 strikes. When the battle finally petered out in April, the PNVA had lost an estimated 8,000 KIA and many more wounded, while never seriously threatening resupply into the base (an important feature of Dien Bien Phu) due to the US's massive resupply ability and helicopter support. In retrospect it appears the PNVA was using the battle to draw US attention away from other operations being developed, but this position appears difficult to support considering the loss of about 1/3rd of the attacking force KIA alone.

U.S forces bomb Viet Cong positions in 1965.
U.S forces bomb Viet Cong positions in 1965.

The Tet Offensive

Main article: Tet Offensive

General Westmoreland had asserted that American forces were on the verge of victory, infamously claiming he "could see the light at the end of the tunnel." As a result it was a considerable shock to public opinion when on January 30, 1968 NLF and NVA forces broke the Tet truce and mounted the Tet Offensive (named after Tet Nguyen Dan, the lunar new year festival which is the most important Vietnamese holiday) in South Vietnam attacking nearly every major city in South Vietnam. The goal of the attacks was to ignite an uprising among the Vietnamese people which would result in the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government and withdrawal of American forces. To the contrary, no such uprising occured and it drove some previously apathetic Vietnamese to fight with the RVN government. Attacks everywhere were shortly repulsed except in Saigon where the fighting lasted for three days and in Hue for a month. During the temporary communist occupation of Hue 2,800 Vietnamese were killed by the Viet Cong in what was the worst single massacre during the war (see Massacre at Hue).

Although the Communists' military objectives had not been achieved, the propaganda effect was considerable and had a profound impact on public opinion. Many Americans felt that the government was misleading the American people about a war without a clear end. When General Westmoreland called for still more troops to be sent to Vietnam, Clark Clifford, a member of Johnson's own cabinet, came out against the war.

Tet Aftermath

Soon after Tet, Westmoreland was replaced by his deputy, General Creighton W. Abrams. Abrams pursued a very different approach than Westmoreland's, favoring more openness with the media, less indiscriminate use of air strikes and heavy artillery, elimination of body count as the key indicator of battlefield success, and more meaningful cooperation with ARVN forces. His strategy, although yielding positive results, came too late to influence U.S. public opinion.

Facing a troop shortage, on October 14, 1968, the United States Department of Defense announced that the United States Army and Marines would be sending about 24,000 troops back to Vietnam for involuntary second tours. Two weeks later on October 31, citing progress with the Paris peace talks, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson announced what became known as the October surprise when he ordered a complete cessation of "all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam" effective November 1. Peace talks eventually broke down, however, and one year later, on November 3, 1969, then President Richard M. Nixon addressed the nation on television and radio asking the "silent majority" to join him in solidarity on the Vietnam War effort and to support his policies.

The credibility of the government suffered when The New York Times, and later The Washington Post and other newspapers, published The Pentagon Papers. This top-secret historical study of Vietnam, contracted by Robert McNamara (the Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson,) presented a pessimistic view of victory in the Vietnam War and generated additional criticism of the United States of America (USA (US)) policy, whereupon the policy was discarded by officials as a result of the war.

Opposition to the war

Children, Kim Phuc Phan Thi in left-center, run down a road near Trang Bang after an ARVN napalm attack on villages suspected of harboring NLF fighters in June 1972. Photo by Huynh Cong Ut, which became a symbol of the international movement against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. (© Nick Ut/The Associated Press)
Children, Kim Phuc Phan Thi in left-center, run down a road near Trang Bang after an ARVN napalm attack on villages suspected of harboring NLF fighters in June 1972. Photo by Huynh Cong Ut, which became a symbol of the international movement against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Nick Ut/The Associated Press)

Small-scale opposition to the war began in 1964 on college campuses. This was happening during a time of unprecedented leftist student activism, and of the arrival at college age of the demographically significant Baby Boomers.

Protests against the draft began on October 15, 1965, when the student-run National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam staged the first public burning of a draft card in the United States. The first draft lottery since World War II in the United States was held on 1 December 1969, and was met with large protests and a great deal of controversy; statistical analysis indicated that the methodology of the lotteries unintentionally disadvantaged men with late year birthdays.

[1] This issue was treated at length in a 4 January 1970, New York Times article titled "Statisticians Charge Draft Lottery Was Not Random".

U.S. public opinion became polarized by the war. Many supporters of the war argued for what was known as the Domino Theory, which held that if the South fell to communist guerillas, other nations, primarily in Southeast Asia, would succumb like falling dominoes. Military critics of the war pointed out that the conflict was political and that the military mission lacked clear objectives. Civilian critics of the war argued that the government of South Vietnam lacked political legitimacy and that support for the war was immoral. Some anti-war activists were themselves Vietnam Veterans, as evidenced by the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Some of the Americans opposed to the Vietnam War, as for instance Jane Fonda, stressed their support for ordinary Vietnamese civilians struck by a war beyond their influence. President Johnson's undersecretary of state, George Ball, was one of the lone voices in his administration advising against war in Vietnam.

The growing anti-war movement alarmed many in the U.S. government. On August 16, 1966 the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigations of Americans who were suspected of aiding the NLF. Anti-war demonstrators disrupted the meeting and 50 were arrested.

South Vietnamese police Chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes NLF Captain Nguyen Van Lem
South Vietnamese police Chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes NLF Captain Nguyen Van Lem

On 1 February 1968, a suspected NLF officer was captured near the site of a ditch holding the bodies of as many as 34 police and their relatives, bound and shot, some of whom were the families of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan's deputy and close friend. General Loan, a South Vietnamese National Police Chief, summarily shot the suspect in the head on a public street in front of journalists. The execution was filmed and photographed and provided another iconic image that helped sway public opinion in the United States against the war.

In Australia, resistance to the war was at first very limited, although the Australian Labor Party (in opposition for most of the period) steadfastly opposed conscription. However anti-war sentiment escalated rapidly in the late 1960s as more and more Australian conscripts were killed in battle. Growing public unease about the death toll was fuelled by a series of highly-publicised arrests of conscientious objectors, and exacerbated by the shocking revelations of atrocities against Vietnamese civilians, leading to a rapid increase in domestic opposition to the war between 1967 and 1970. The Moratorium marches, held in major Australian cities to coincide with the American marches, were among the largest public gatherings ever seen in Australia up to that time, with over 200,000 people taking to the streets in Melbourne alone.

On 15 October 1969, hundreds of thousands of people took part in National Moratorium antiwar demonstrations across the United States. A second round of "Moratorium" demonstrations was held on November 15.

On April 22, 1971, John Kerry became the first Vietnam veteran to testify before Congress about the war, when he appeared before a Senate committee hearing on proposals relating to ending the war. He spoke for nearly two hours with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in what has been named the Fulbright Hearing, after the Chairman of the proceedings, Senator J. William Fulbright. Kerry presented the conclusions of the Winter Soldier Investigation, where veterans had described personally committing or witnessing war crimes.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson began his reelection campaign. A member of his own party, Eugene McCarthy, ran against him for the nomination on an antiwar platform. McCarthy did not win the first primary election in New Hampshire, but he did surprisingly well against an incumbent. The resulting blow to the Johnson campaign, taken together with other factors, led the President to make a surprise announcement in a March 31 televised speech that he was pulling out of the race. He also announced the initiation of the Paris Peace Talks with Vietnam in that speech. Then, on August 4, 1969, U.S. representative Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese representative Xuan Thuy began secret peace negotiations at the apartment of French intermediary Jean Sainteny in Paris. This set of negotiations failed, however, prior to the 1972 North Vietnamese offensive.

Anti-Vietnam war demonstration
Anti-Vietnam war demonstration

Pacification and "Hearts and Minds"

The U.S. realized that the South Vietnamese government needed a solid base of popular support if it was to survive the insurgency. In order to pursue this goal of "winning the hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people, units of the United States Army, referred to as "Civil Affairs" units, were extensively utilized for the first time for this purpose since World War II.

Civil Affairs units, while remaining armed and under direct military control, engaged in what came to be known as "nation building": constructing (or reconstructing) schools, public buildings, roads and other physical infrastructure; conducting medical programs for civilians who had no access to medical facilities; facilitating cooperation among local civilian leaders; conducting hygiene and other training for civilians; and similar activities.

This policy of attempting to win the "Hearts and Minds" of the Vietnamese people, however, often was at odds with other aspects of the war which served to antagonize many Vietnamese civilians. These policies included the emphasis on "body count" as a way of measuring military success on the battlefield, the accidental bombing of villages (symbolized by journalist Peter Arnett's famous quote, "it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it"), and the killing of civilians in such incidents as the My Lai massacre. In 1974 the documentary Hearts and Minds sought to portray the devastation the war was causing to the South Vietnamese people, and won an Academy Award for best documentary amid considerable controversy. The South Vietnamese government also antagonized many of its citizens with its suppression of political opposition, through such measures as holding large numbers of political prisoners, torturing political opponents, and holding a one-man election for President in 1971. Despite this, the government captured a large percentage of the votes of the large percentage of the Vietnamese that participated.


Nixon was elected President and began his policy of slow disengagement from the war. The goal was to gradually build up the South Vietnamese Army so that it could fight the war on its own. This policy became the cornerstone of the so-called "Nixon Doctrine". As applied to Vietnam, the doctrine was called "Vietnamization". The stated goal of Vietnamization was to enable the South Vietnamese army to increasingly hold its own against the NLF and the North Vietnamese Army. The unstated goal of Vietnamization was that the primary burden of combat would be returned to ARVN troops and thereby lessen domestic opposition to the war in the U.S.

During this period, the United States conducted a gradual troop withdrawal from Vietnam. Nixon continued to use air power to bomb the enemy, along with an American troop incursion in Cambodia. Ultimately more bombs were dropped under the Nixon Presidency than under Johnson's, while American troop deaths started to drop significantly. The Nixon administration was determined to remove American troops from the theater while not destabilizing the defensive efforts of South Vietnam.

Many significant gains in the war were made under the Nixon administration, however. One particularly significant achievement was the weakening of support that the North Vietnamese army received from the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China. One of Nixon's main foreign policy goals had been the achievement of a "breakthrough" in U.S. relations with the two nations, in terms of creating a new spirit of cooperation. To a large extent this was achieved. China and the USSR had been the principal backers of the North Vietnamese army through large amounts of military and financial support. The eagerness of both nations to improve their own U.S. relations in the face of a widening breakdown of the inter-Communist alliance led to the reduction of their aid to North Vietnam.

U.S. soldiers' massacre of Vietnamese villagers at My Lai.
U.S. soldiers' massacre of Vietnamese villagers at My Lai.

The morality of U.S. conduct of the war continued to be a political issue under the Nixon Presidency. In 1969, American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh exposed the My Lai massacre and its cover-up, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. It came to light that Lt. William Calley, a platoon leader in Vietnam, had led a massacre of several hundred Vietnamese civilians, including women, babies, and the elderly, at My Lai a year before. The massacre was only stopped after three American soldiers (Glenn Andreotta, Lawrence Colburn and Hugh Thompson, Jr.) noticed the carnage from their helicopter and intervened to prevent their fellow Americans from killing any more civilians. Calley was given a life sentence after his court-martial in 1970, but was later pardoned by President Nixon. Cover-ups may have happened in other cases, as contended in the Pulitzer Prize-winning article series about the Tiger Force by the Toledo Blade in 2003.

In 1970, Prince Sihanouk was deposed by Lon Nol in Cambodia, who became the chief of state. The Khmer Rouge guerillas with North Vietnamese backing began to attack the new regime. Nixon ordered a military incursion into Cambodia in order to destroy NLF sanctuaries bordering on South Vietnam and protect the fragile Cambodian government. This action prompted even more protests on American college campuses. Several students were shot and killed by National Guard troops during demonstrations at Kent State.

One effect of the incursion was to push communist forces deeper into Cambodia, which destabilized the country and in turn may have encouraged the rise of the Khmer Rouge, who seized power in 1975. The goal of the attacks, however, was to bring the North Vietnamese negotiators back to the table with some flexibility in their demands that the South Vietnamese government be overthrown as part of the agreement. It was also alleged that American and South Vietnamese casualty rates were reduced by the destruction of military supplies the communists had been storing in Cambodia. All U.S. forces left Cambodia on June 30.

In an effort to help assuage opposition to the war, Nixon announced on October 12, 1970, that the United States would withdraw 40,000 more troops before Christmas. Later that month on October 30, the worst monsoon to hit Vietnam in six years caused large floods, killed 293, left 200,000 homeless and virtually halted the war.

Backed by American air and artillery support, South Vietnamese troops invaded Laos on 13 February 1971. On August 18 of that year, Australia and New Zealand decided to withdraw their troops from Vietnam. The total number of American troops in Vietnam dropped to 196,700 on 29 October 1971, the lowest level since January 1966. On November 12, 1971, Nixon set a 1 February 1972 deadline to remove another 45,000 American troops from Vietnam.

By this time, facilitated by general instability in the region and the U.S.-backed ousting of Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, the opium and heroin trade that had arisen in the infamous Golden Triangle region was also beginning to escalate. Significant amounts of heroin started to flow into Vietnam during 1970 and this was followed soon after by the first large-scale seizures of Asian heroin in the United States and Europe. Historian and drug trafficking expert Dr Alfred W. McCoy claims that there was significant covert American involvement in the drug trade which, he alleges, was the result of what he calls the CIA's policy of "radical pragmatism".

McCoy claims that this policy led to the creation of a new Asian-based heroin trade, organised as a collaboration between the Sicilian-American and Corsican-French Mafia, with assistance from elements of the CIA. Although McCoy's broader claims remain controversial, the indisputable fact was that by late 1970 heroin use was emerging as a major health issue among American servicemen, with some medics reporting that as more than 10% of GIs in some units were regular heroin users by the end of 1970. The penetration of drugs into American military in Vietnam also led to a rapid increase in drug importation into Australia, thanks in part to the the thriving Rest and Recreation circuit, with some US personnel sent to Sydney on R&R leave being used as drug "mules". Around this time, American journalists also began to report allegations that South Vietnamese politicians were using money from the drug trade to finance their election campaigns, and that senior intelligence personnel were directly involved in drug running operations.

In the 1972 election, the war was once again a major issue in the United States. An antiwar candidate, George McGovern, ran against President Nixon. Nixon's Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, declared that "peace is at hand" shortly before election day, dealing a death blow to McGovern's campaign, which was already far behind in opinion surveys. However, the peace agreement was not signed until the next year, leading many to conclude that Kissinger's announcement was just a political ploy. Kissinger's defenders assert that the North Vietnamese negotiators had made use of Kissinger's pronouncement as an opportunity to embarrass the Nixon Administration to weaken it at the negotiation table. White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler on 30 November 1972, told the press that there would be no more public announcements concerning American troop withdrawals from Vietnam due to the fact that troop levels were then down to 27,000. The U.S. halted heavy bombing of North Vietnam on December 30, 1972.

The end of U.S. involvement

On 15 January 1973, citing progress in peace negotiations, President Nixon announced the suspension of offensive action in North Vietnam which was later followed by a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords were later signed on 27 January 1973, which officially ended U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict. This won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for Kissinger and North Vietnamese Politburo member and lead negotiator Le Duc Tho while fighting continued, leading songwriter Tom Lehrer to declare that irony had died. However, five days before the peace accords were signed, Lyndon Johnson, whose presidency was marred by the war, died. The mood during his state funeral was one of intense recrimination because the war's wounds were still raw. However, there was relief that not only U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended, but also a tragic and turbulent chapter in the life of the United States came to a close.

The first American prisoners were released on February 11 and all U.S. soldiers were ordered to leave by March 29. In a break with history, soldiers returning from the Vietnam War were generally not treated as heroes, and soldiers were sometimes even condemned for their participation in the war. The peace agreement did not last.

Nixon had promised South Vietnam that he would provide military support to them in the event of a crumbling military situation. Nixon was fighting for his political life in the growing Watergate Scandal at the time. Economic aid continued, but most of it was siphoned off by corrupt elements in the South Vietnamese government and little of it actually went to the war effort. At the same time aid to North Vietnam from the USSR and China began to increase, and with the Americans out, the two countries no longer saw the war as significant to their U.S. relations. The balance of power had clearly shifted to the North.

In December 1974, Congress completed passage of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974 that voted to cut off all military funding to the Saigon government and made unenforceable the peace terms negotiated by Nixon. It was believed that any new military equipment shipped to South Vietnam would quickly fall into the hands of the victorious communists.

By 1975, the South Vietnamese Army stood alone against the powerful North Vietnamese. Despite Vietnamization and the 1972 victories against the PAVN offensive, the ARVN was plagued with corruption, desertion, low wages, and lack of supplies. Then in early March the PAVN launched a powerful offensive into the poorly defended Central Highlands, splitting the Republic of Vietnam in two. President Thieu was fearful that ARVN troops in the northern provinces would be isolated due to a PAVN encirclement. He decided on a redeployment of ARVN troops from the northern provinces to the Central Highlands. But the withdrawal of South Vietnamese forces soon turned into a bloody retreat as the PAVN crossed the DMZ. While South Vietnamese forces retreated from the northern provinces, splintered South Vietnamese forces in the Central Highlands fought desperately against the PAVN.

On March 11, 1975 Ban-Me-Thuot fell to the PAVN. The attack began in the early morning hours. After a violent artillery barrage, 4,000-man garrison defending the city retreated with their families. On March 15, President Thieu ordered the Central Highlands and the northern provinces to be abandoned, in what he declared to lighten the top and keep the bottom. General Phu abandoned the cities of Pleiku and Kontum and retreated to the coast in what became known as the column of tears. General Phu led his troops to Tum Ky on the coast, but as the ARVN retreated, the civilians also went with them. Due to already destroyed roads and bridges, the column slowed down as the PAVN closed in. As the column staggered down mountains to the coast, PAVN shelling attacked. By April 1, the column ceased to exist after 60,000 ARVN troops were killed.

On March 20, Thieu reversed himself and ordered Hue, Vietnam's 3rd-largest city be held out at all cost. But as the PAVN attacked, a panic ensued and South Vietnamese resistance collapsed. On March 22, the PAVN launched a siege on Hue, the civilians, remembering the 1968 massacre jammed into the airport, seaports, and the docks. Some even swam into the ocean to reach boats and barges. The ARVN routed with the civilians and some South Vietnamese shot civilians just to make room for themselves. On March 25, after a 3-day siege, Hue fell.

As Hue fell, PAVN rockets hit downtown Da Nang and the airport. By March 28, 35,000 PAVN troops were poised in the suburbs. On March 29, a World Airways jet led by Edward Daley landed in Da Nang to save women and children, instead 300 men jammed onto the flight, mostly ARVN troops. On March 30, 100,000 leaderless ARVN troops surrendered as the PAVN marched victoriously through Da Nang on that Easter Sunday. With the fall of Da Nang, the defense of the Central Highlands and northern provinces collapsed. With half of South Vietnam under their control, PAVN prepared for its final phase in its offensive, the Ho Chi Minh campaign, the plan: By May 1, capture Saigon before South Vietnamese forces could regroup to defend it.

The PAVN continued its attack as South Vietnamese forces and Thieu regime crumbled before their onslaught. On April 7, 3 PAVN divisions attacked Xuan-loc, 40 miles east of Saigon , where they met fierce resistance from the ARVN 18th Infantry division. For 2 bloody weeks, severe fighting raged in the city as the ARVN defenders in a last-ditch effort tried desperately to save South Vietnam from military and economic collapse. Also, hoping Americans forces would return in time to save them, the ARVN 18th Infantry division used many advanced weapons against the PAVN, and it was in the final phase in which Saigon government troops fought well. But on April 21, the exhausted and besieged army garrison defending Xuan-loc surrendered. A bitter and tearful Thieu resigned on April 21, saying America had betrayed South Vietnam and he showed the 1972 document claiming America would retaliate against North Vietnam should they attack. Thieu left for Taiwan on April 25, leaving control of the doomed government to General Minh.

By now PAVN tanks had reached Bien Hoa, they turned towards Saigon, clashing with few South Vietnamese units on the way. The end was near.

Fall of Saigon

South Vietnamese civilians scramble to board a U.S. helicopter leaving the country.
South Vietnamese civilians scramble to board a U.S. helicopter leaving the country.
Main article: Fall of Saigon

By April, the weakened South Vietnamese Army had collapsed on all fronts. The powerful PAVN offensive forced South Vietnamese troops on a bloody retreat that ended up as a hopeless siege at Xuan-loc, a city 40 miles from Saigon, and the last South Vietnamese defense line before Saigon. On April 21, the defense of Xuan-loc collapsed and PAVN troops and tanks rapidly advanced to Saigon. On April 27, 100,000 PAVN troops encircled Saigon, which was to be defended by 30,000 ARVN troops. On April 29, the U.S. launched Option IV, the largest helicopter evacuation in history. Chaos, unrest, and panic ensued as hectic Vietnamese scrambled to leave Saigon before it was too late. Helicopters began evacuating from the U.S. embassy and the airport. Evacuations were held to the last minute because U.S. Ambassador Martin thought Saigon could be held and defended. The operation began in an atmosphere of desperation as hysterical mobs of South Vietnamese raced to takeoff spots designated to evacuate, many yelling to be saved. Martin had pleaded to the U.S. government to send $700 million in emergency aid to South Vietnam in order to bolster the Saigon regime's ability to fight and to mobilize fresh South Vietnamese units. But the plea was rejected. Many Americans felt the Saigon government would meet certain collapse. President Ford gave a speech on April 23, declaring the end of the Vietnam War and the end of all American aid to the Saigon regime. The helicopter evacuation continued all day and night while PAVN tanks reached the outskirts of Saigon. In the early hours of April 30, the last U.S. Marines left the embassy as hectic Vietnamese breached the embassy perimeter and raided the place. PAVN T-54 tanks moved into Saigon. The South Vietnamese resistance was light. Tank skirmishes began as ARVN M-41 tanks attacked the heavily armored Soviet T-34 tanks. PAVN troops soon dashed to capture the U.S. embassy, the government army garrison, the police headquarters, radio station, presidential palace, and other vital targets. The PAVN encountered greater than expected resistance as small pockets of ARVN resistance continued. By now, the helicopter evacuations that had evacuated 7,000 American and Vietnamese had ended. The presidential palace was captured and the NLF flag waved victoriously over it. President Duong Van Minh surrendered Saigon to PAVN colonel Bui Tin. The surrender came over the radio as Minh ordered South Vietnamese forces to lay down their weapons. Columns of South Vietnamese troops came out of defensive positions and surrendered. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. As for the Americans, many stayed in South Vietnam but by May 1, 1975 most Americans had fled, leaving the city of Saigon forever. Finally, despite the fact that the United States military had decisively won most major engagements, and had withdrawn troops from the country two years earlier following a peace accord, the Vietnam War is popularly considered America's most humiliating defeat, with over 58,000 dead and many left severely injured. As for the people of South Vietnam, over a million ARVN soldiers died in the 30-year conflict. Three million communist soldiers and Vietnamese civilians also died.

North Vietnam united both North and South Vietnam on 2 July 1976, to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the former president of North Vietnam. Thousands of supporters of the South Vietnamese government were rounded up and executed, and many more were imprisoned and "re-educated". Communist rule continues to this day. In 1995 Vietnam and the USA established diplomatic and trade relations.

On 21 January 1977, American President Jimmy Carter pardoned nearly all Vietnam War draft evaders.


Main article: Vietnam War casualties

Estimating the number killed in the conflict is extremely difficult. Official records from North Vietnam are hard to find or nonexistent and many of those killed were literally obliterated by bombing. For many years the North Vietnamese suppressed the true number of their casualties for propaganda purposes. It is also difficult to say exactly what counts as a "Vietnam war casualty"; people are still being killed today by unexploded ordnance, particularly cluster bomblets. More than 40,000 Vietnamese have been killed so far by landmines and unexploded ordnance. [2]

Environmental effects from chemical agents and the colossal social problems caused by a devastated country with so many dead surely caused many more lives to be shortened.

The lowest casualty estimates, based on North Vietnamese statements which are now discounted by Vietnam, are around 1.5 million Vietnamese killed. Vietnam's Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs released figures on April 3, 1995, reporting that 1.1 million fighters—Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers—and nearly 2 million civilians in the north and the south were killed between 1954 and 1975. Other figures run as high as 4 million civilian casualties with 1 million casualties being NVA or VC fighters. Robert McNamara, in his regretful memoir of the war, references a figure of 3.2 million. The number of wounded fighters was put at 600,000. It remains even more unclear how many Vietnamese civilians were wounded.

Of the Americans, 58,226 were killed in action or classified as missing in action. A further 153,303 Americans were wounded to give total casualties of 211,529. The United States Army took the majority of the casualties with 38,179 killed and 96,802 wounded; the Marine Corps lost 14,836 killed and 51,392 wounded; the Navy 2,556 and 4,178; with the Air Force suffering the lowest casualties both in numbers and percentage terms with 2,580 killed and 931 wounded.

American allies took casualties as well. South Korea provided the largest outside force and suffered between 4,400 and 5,000 killed[3] full details including WIA and MIA appear difficult to find. Australia lost 501 dead and 3,131 wounded out of the 47,000 troops they had deployed to Vietnam. New Zealand had 38 dead and 187 wounded. Thailand had 351 casualties. It is difficult to locate accurate figures for the losses of the Philippines. Although Canada was not involved in the war, thousands of Canadians joined the American armed forces and served in Vietnam. The American fatal casualties include at least 56 Canadian citizens. It is difficult to estimate the exact number because some Canadians crossed the border to volunteer for service under false pretenses whereas others were permanent residents living in the United States who either volunteered or were drafted. See also Canada and the Vietnam War.

In the aftermath of the war many Americans came to believe that some of the 2,300 American soldiers listed as Missing in Action had in fact been taken prisoner by the DRV and held indefinitely. The Vietnamese list over 200,000 of their own soldiers missing in action, and bodies of MIA soldiers from World War I and II continue to be unearthed in Europe.

Both during and after the war, significant human rights violations occurred. Both North and South Vietnamese had large numbers of political prisoners, many of whom were killed or tortured. In 1970, two American congressmen visiting South Vietnam discovered the existence of "tiger cages", which were small prison cells used for torturing South Vietnamese political prisoners (see Con Son Island). After the war, actions taken by the victors in Vietnam, including firing squads, torture, concentration camps and "reeducation," led to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. Many of these refugees fled by boat and thus gave rise to the phrase "boat people." They immigrated to Hong Kong, France, the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries, creating sizable expatriate communities, notably in the United States.

Among the many casualties of the war were the people of the neighboring state of Cambodia. Approximately 50,000–300,000 died as a result of U.S. bombing campaigns. The bombing campaigns also drove some Cambodians into the arms of the nationalist and communist Khmer Rouge, who took power after America cut off funds for bombing them in 1973, and continued the slaughter of opponents or suspected opponents. About 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered or fell victim to starvation and disease before the regime was overthrown by Vietnamese forces in 1979.

Domestic effects and aftermath in Indochina


Virtually every Vietnamese, especially South Vietnamese, was affected by the war, having endured relentless bombardments. To the northerners, fighting and hostility continued on with neighboring countries until 1989. Many Vietnamese lost relatives as a result of the war in general. The end of the war marked the first time that Vietnam was not engaged in substantial civil war or active military conflict with an external opponent in many years. North and South Vietnam were reunified under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam following the war.

Fear of persecution caused many highly skilled and educated South Vietnamese connected with the former regime to flee the country during the fall of Saigon and the years following, severely depleting human capital in Vietnam. The new government promptly sent people connected to the South Vietnam regime to concentration camps for "reeducation", often for years at a time. Others were sent to so-called "new economic zones" to develop the undeveloped land. Furthermore, the victorious Communist government implemented land reforms in the south similar to those implemented in North Vietnam earlier. However, it is as well to remember that large areas of land in South Vietnam had already been appropriated by the communists well before the end of the war—and their owners compensated for the loss by the South Vietnamese government. Persecution and poverty prompted an additional 2 million people to flee Vietnam as boat people over the 20 years following unification. The problem was so severe that during the 1980s and 1990s the UN established refugee camps in neighboring countries to process them. Many of these refugees resettled in the United States, forming large Vietnamese-American emigrant communities with a decidedly anti-communist viewpoint.

The newly established Republic of South Vietnam promptly implemented currency reforms. The dong previously used in South Vietnam was converted to the "liberation dong" at a rate of 500 old dongs to 1 liberation dong, essentially rendering much of the South Vietnamese money worthless. After unification in 1976, the liberation dong was abandoned in favor of a new unified dong. While the north exchanged at the 1:1 rate, the south had to exchange 10 liberation dong for each 8 unified dong. Private enterprises in the South were socialized. During much of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Vietnam underwent an economic depression and came close to famine.

The new unified Vietnamese government also took it upon themselves to punish the indigenous highland Montagnard tribes Vietnam, for their long term opposition to Hanoi, and their cooperation with the United States during the war. Between 1975 and 1978, the Vietnamese government carried out retributions against the highland tribes; imprisoning or executing nearly all prominent tribal leaders and confiscating fertile tribal lands for coffee plantations. Several human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, has called this an act of genocide.

Vietnam today is among the poorest countries in the world, and remittance from overseas Vietnamese constitute a considerable part of the economy. Vietnamese people often make reference to events as happening "before 1975" or "after 1975", but life in South Vietnam before 1975 is rarely discussed because most newspapers and movies published in the South prior to 1975 are forbidden from circulation. Many people were disabled during war, and continue to be killed and disabled by unexploded ordnance. Agent Orange, used as a defoliant during the war, is alleged by the Vietnamese government to continue to cause birth defects in many children and still preventing any substantial environmental recovery in some areas.

The large number of people born after 1975 may be indicative of a postwar baby boom, and despite the devastating effect of the civil war on their parents' generation, a general disinterest in politics and recent history among this postwar generation of Vietnamese is notable.

In the late 1980s the government instituted economic reforms known as đổi mới (renovation), which introduced some market elements, achieving modest results. The Soviet collapse in 1991 left Vietnam without its main economic and political partner, and thus it began to seek closer ties with the West. After taking office, U.S. President Bill Clinton announced his desire to heal relations with Vietnam. His administration lifted economic sanctions on the country in 1994, and in May 1995 the two nations renewed diplomatic relations, with the U.S. opening up an embassy on Vietnamese soil for the first time since 1975.


In 1975, shortly before the end of the war, the Communist Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia after a bloody civil war. This led to a genocide that collectively killed some 1.7 million people, one-fifth of the country's population. A month after taking power Khmer Rouge soldiers seized the SS Mayaguez, an American merchant ship, which resulted in a tough response from President Ford who ordered air strikes on Cambodian oil installations and the landing of troops at Kok Tang Island which resulted in the recapture of the ship and the freeing of the crew (see Mayaguez Incident). The Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979 when Vietnam invaded and installed a pro-Vietnam government.

Domestic effects in the U.S.

The Vietnam war had many long term repercussions for American society and foreign policy.

War powers

Criticism of the Vietnam War's planning and its enabling legislation led the U.S. Congress to reconsider how military deployments were authorized. After the U.S. withdrawal Congress passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which curtailed the President's ability to commit troops to action without first obtaining Congressional approval.

Social impact

The Vietnam War had a powerful impact on American sociopolitical opinion, especially that of the young Americans of the baby boom. For both supporters and critics these opinions generated political positions regarding American foreign and domestic policy. The Vietnam War was also significant in encouraging the belief that mass mobilization and protest can influence government policy.

The war and its aftermath led to a mass emigration from Vietnam, mostly to the United States and especially after the Communist takeover. During the postwar period over 1 million refugees arrived in the United States (see Vietnamese American). They included Cambodians and Vietnamese of many ethnicities as well as Amerasians, the offspring of Vietnamese and Americans. The integration of these groups, particularly Vietnamese ethnic minorities, generated further social issues in the U.S.

The vast increase in heroin trafficking and hard drug use in the United States, which escalated rapidly and dramatically in the early 1970s, is widely seen as stemming from the American military presence in Vietnam. Commentators such as historian Alfred W. McCoy cite the virtual epidemic of heroin use in the American forces in Vietnam ca. 1970-71, and the alleged connections between the CIA, the Mafia and local Asian drug lords, as a major causal factor in the subsequent massive expansion of the hard drug trade into America and other western nations.

Social attitudes and treatment of veterans

Service in the war was unpopular and opposition to the war generated negative views of veterans in some quarters. Some Vietnam veterans experienced social exclusion in the years following the war and some experienced problems readjusting to society. Negative stereotyping of veterans in popular culture was common in the 1970s. Eventually, however, a greater understanding of Post-traumatic stress disorder, previously known as battle fatigue, together with the development of Vietnam veterans associations, generated more sympathy for Vietnam veterans.

In contrast to the generous benefits afforded veterans of World War II, Vietnam veterans received benefits no better than those in the prior peacetime service period.

Many veterans who had been exposed to the defoliation agent known as Agent Orange later developed health problems, resulting in class action lawsuits against the government. The U.S. department of Veterans Affairs awarded compensation to 1,800 of some 250,000 claimants.

Another important contrast to the post–World War II period is that the acceptability of avoiding service during the Vietnam War has resulted in an increasing majority of U.S. officials, including those elected to major positions, not being war, or even military service, veterans. Every president, except Reagan, from 1945 to 1992 was a war veteran (it is worth noting that even George McGovern, the pacifist Democratic candidate in 1972, was a highly decorated B-24 bomber pilot.) Many who did perform military service during this period did not serve in the war itself, including U.S. President George W. Bush who served in the National Guard. Former President Bill Clinton, after enrolling in the ROTC, successfully withdrew his commitment and did not serve at all.

In 1982, construction began on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (also known as 'The Wall') designed by Maya Lin. It is located on the National Mall adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial. The Three Soldiers statue was added in 1984.

Popular opinion regarding the war and its veterans changed slowly through the late 1970s and 1980s. Vietnam service has become more respected and has been an important feature of several election campaigns, notably U.S. Senators John McCain and John F. Kerry. Kerry, the first Vietnam combat veteran to be nominated as a presidential candidate by a major party, made his service record a major issue in the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign. Although the specifics of his record proved controversial, the fact that he had actually served in combat in Vietnam was viewed as a major political asset.

Common military medals of the Vietnam War

Main article: Awards and decorations of the Vietnam War

During the war, a wide array of military decorations for bravery, meritorious actions, and general service were created by both nations of Vietnam. The United States began issuing combat decorations which were last bestowed in the Korean War as well as several new service medals.

Most South Vietnamese decorations were issued to both members of the South Vietnamese military and the United States armed forces. As such, several of the current U.S. senior military officers, who served during the Vietnam War, can today still be seen wearing South Vietnamese medals on active duty uniforms. Since South Vietnam as a country no longer exists, such medals are in fact considered obsolete and may only be privately purchased.

See also


Note 1:

Names for the war

Various names have been given to the war, and these have shifted over time, though Vietnam War is the dominant standard in English. It has been called the Second Indochina War, the Vietnam Conflict, the Vietnam War, and, by the victors, the American War (Vietnamese Kháng Chiến Chống Mỹ Cứu Nước, "Resistance War Against the Americans to Save the Nation").

The usage of these names may represent a particular viewpoint.

  1. Second Indochina War: puts the conflict into context with other distinctive but related and contiguous conflicts in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the prior ending in 1954 and the subsequent beginning in 1979.
  2. Vietnam Conflict: largely an American term, it regards the war as unofficial, minor or merely a police action and also acknowledges that the U.S. never declared war on any other party in it.
  3. Vietnam War: the most commonly-used term in English, it implies that the location was chiefly within the borders of the nation (which is disputed, as many regard the scope as including at least Cambodia); it sidesteps the issue of the lack of an American declaration of war.
  4. Resistance War Against the Americans to Save the Nation: the term favored by North Vietnam (and after its victory, Vietnam); it is more of a slogan than a name, and its meaning is self-evident. Its usage had waned in recent years as the Vietnamese government seeks better relations with the United States. Official publications now increasingly refer to it generically as "Chiến tranh Việt Nam" (Vietnam War).

In Vietnam, the conflict is usually referred to as The American War (Vietnamese: Kháng chiến chống Mỹ, literally Resistance War Against America) to distinguish it from other conflicts that occurred in Vietnam (The French War, The Japanese War, The Chinese Wars, Trinh - Nguyen Civil War, etc.) Some Vietnamese speakers oppose this terminology because it does not reflect the civil war nature of the conflict, while others oppose calling it the "Vietnam War" because it reflects a Western viewpoint, not a Vietnamese one.


Main article: Vietnam War (lists)

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