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Vietnam Introduction

The war in Indochina was a long and tragic episode in the Cold War

Table of Contents

The Wars for Indochina, 1945-1975

Ia Drang. Khe Sanh. The Tet Offensive. Napalm. Agent Orange. The Christmas Bombing. Kent State. Ho Chi Minh. The bombing of Cambodia. Vietnamization. To many Americans, the words above resurrect memories of war in Indochina, a war usually seen as a tragic episode in the Cold War that helped to shape an entire generation’s encounter with the world. These words drive home that American memory of Indochina is fragmentary. Remembrance, yes; but of an American-refracted experience.

The wars for Indochina (and area comprised of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) stretched over four decades: 1945 to 1989. They ultimately came to play an important role in the global Cold War. American involvement in Indochina was heaviest from 1965 to 1975, but these wars cannot be reduced to those years alone. One has to go back to 1945, for this long conflict only makes sense in the context of French colonialism, the rise of anticolonial nationalism, French decolonization, and the rise of the Cold War.

Looking at a map, one can see that French Indochina occupied the eastern third of mainland Southeast Asia. Vietnam in particular takes up the easternmost portion, a long S-shaped wedge of land bordering the South China sea. Although geographers place Vietnam within Southeast Asia, Vietnamese have historically defined themselves in relation to China, on its northern frontier, and Southeast Asia to its south and west.

With the coming of French imperialists in the nineteenth century, the Japanese military in World War Two, and Americans in the Cold War, a wide array of international forces have also left their mark on the country. It is also important to note, however, that the wars that broke out after 1945 in Vietnam eventually spilled over into Laos and Cambodia as well. For this reason, I will refer to the conflicts in this region as the First Indochina War (1946-1954), the Second Indochina War (1959-1975), and the Third Indochina War (1977-89). Given the limited space available here, I will focus on Vietnam in the period from 1945 to 1975 but make a few comments on the wars in these other countries.

Argument Without End: How Do We Understand the Wars for Indochina?

“There was an international communist conspiracy,” Michael Lind tells us in a 1999 book that attempts to resurrect a Cold War liberal view of the wars for Indochina. In this view, while war never broke out between the United States and its main adversaries, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, such conflicts did occur between their respective proxies. But were these wars, and particularly the Second Indochina War (1959-1975), proxy conflicts between the USSR and the USA? Or, in contrast, were their ultimate significance determined by Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians themselves? More specifically, were they conflicts over nationalism? Communism? Or were they civil wars between competing Vietnamese. Laotian, and Cambodian political groups whose essential dynamic had little to do with Cold War conflicts?

These interpretive problems are compounded by another. What wars, exactly, are we talking about, and what do we call them? There have been three wars for Indochina (a region including Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam). The first, against the French, lasted from 1946-1954. This war, an anticolonial struggle for independence, would have occurred even if the Cold War had never existed, and the result would probably have been identical. The Second Indochina War, what most Americans call the “Vietnam War,” lasted from 1959 to 1975, with heavy American involvement from 1965 to 1973. Some scholars have argued that it fits into a classic definition of the Cold War, in which antagonism among the Superpowers is played out through proxy conflicts in the Third World. The Third Indochina War in 1979, involving China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, was a fraternal conflict among communist powers in which the United States played no meaningful role. Examining all these conflagrations together, we can tentatively conclude that while all the Wars for Indochina were linked to the Cold War, some had closer ties than others.

This essay will focus on the Second Indochina War (1959 – 1975), but will pay substantial attention to its origins in the struggle against French colonial rule. Historians have long argued over the place of the Second Indochina War in the Cold War as a whole. But throughout the debate, two facts seem clear. First of all, in sheer numbers American works of scholarship dominate the field. This scholarship focuses heavily on the years between 1965 and 1975. Second, few of these scholars have widely exploited materials in a language other than English. As a result, our view of the Second Indochina War has been skewed: scholars tend to see the war through a post-1965 American prism. To understand the genesis and evolution of its development, we need to better understand the local conditions in Indochina as well as the complex international contexts of war.

From the End of French Colonialism to the First Indochina War

From the 1920s onwards, we see Vietnamese engaging, as the historian Alexander Woodside has phrased it, in a search for new “organized communities.” Nationalists, communists, Buddhists, Constitutionalists, and others: all tried to create new forms of community. Some of these groups, among them communists, tried to mobilize Vietnamese against French rule. Initially, they had limited success. The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) was established in 1930 to bring together rival communist factions. To escape the prying eyes of the French police, Ho Chi Minh, acting as a representative of the Moscow-based Communist International (Comintern), had the factions meet for a unification conference in a Hong Kong football (soccer) stadium. But for most of the 1930s, the ICP was plagued by two problems. First of all, it did not have a message that appealed to most Vietnamese. The ICP espoused a rigid class against class view in which the proletariat, or working class, was to lead the revolution against the bourgeoisie. This message was irrelevant to most Vietnamese. Second, the French police were quite successful at penetrating the ICP with spies. Faced with these problems, the communists repeatedly failed before the 1940s.

In 1941, the veteran communist organizer Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam after decades abroad. He had a new goal: to establish a new front organization with communists secretly in control. With their creation in 1941 of the Viet Minh, the communists transformed themselves into pragmatists. Downplaying their communist origins, they advocated an inclusive and nationalist political program that could appeal to the great majority of Vietnamese and that opposed both French and Japanese “Fascists.” At this point, communist fortunes began to change. Despite repeated setbacks, the communist-led Viet Minh emerged as the leading organization opposing the French by 1945. In August 1945 it led a General Uprising (Tong Khoi Nghia; since rebaptised the “August Revolution”) and seized power throughout the country. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh, the new head of state, declared that Vietnam was an independent nation: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). This independence would prove to be fleeting, as the French soon returned to reclaim their colony.

Overwhelmingly, large numbers of Vietnamese followed the Viet Minh in 1945 (and in the years immediately after) because they desired a free Vietnam. When the Viet Minh launched the General Uprising in August 1945, masses of Vietnamese, even those who had little understanding of the Viet Minh, joined in this movement for independence. This uprising marked an historic turning point in Vietnamese history. The Viet Minh promised its fellow inhabitants of Vietnam freedom of speech, of association, of religion, and of movement. It saw itself as “liberating” the populace from “feudal” superstitions and other bad habits of the past (like illiteracy). Despite the fact that few inhabitants of Vietnam really knew what the Viet Minh stood for in September 1945, masses of them supported the Viet Minh’s efforts to throw out the French and establish an independent Vietnam.

The Viet Minh drew on two contradictory legacies. The first has been mentioned: the openly expressed desire for freedom that animated many of the leading cadres of revolution. Yet there was another side to the revolution as well. Years of agitation against the French state had shown communists that if they organized and protested out in the open, the French police would crack down on them. A strong communist movement had to organize in secret. There was an unsavory side to this clandestine work: sometimes it involved intimidation, coercion, or even assassination. This was particularly evident in the years from 1945 to 1947, when thousands of opponents were killed. “The Public Security Police are actively eliminating traitors,” DRV Finance minister Le Van Hien tersely wrote in a May 1947 diary entry (Nhat ky, vol. 1, May 4, 1947, p. 87), indicating that targeted assassinations were not simply aberrations from central policy. In times of weakness, as in the dark days of the struggle against the French, the difficult struggle against the southern dictator Ngo Dinh Diem in the late 1950s, or the worst years of the fight against the Americans, the communists occasionally resorted to such tactics with a vengeance. (It is worth noting that some of their opponents used the same tactics.)

In these early years after the August “Revolution” of 1945, the Viet Minh faced an acute problem – should it emphasize its nationalist and democratic credentials (and thus appeal to Western powers like the United States) or should it boldly reach out to the communist bloc? One 1948 Viet Minh publication took the first tack: it went so far as to claim that the “Vietnamese Republic was the most advanced Asian democracy, and one of the most advanced democracies in the world.” This was hyperbole, of course, but the quotation gives a sense of the heady atmosphere among some partisans of revolution. Some veteran communists, however, grumbled that Ho Chi Minh was betraying the communist bloc. Indeed, in these early years the Soviet Union was suspicious of Vietnamese communists, especially Ho Chi Minh, and gave the Vietnamese no support (on this, see Goscha, “La survie diplomatique de la RDVN . . .”). One can safely say that in these early years, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam failed to articulate a coherent and consistent foreign policy.

The First Indochina War broke out when France, trying to seize back its colony of French Indochina, forced the communist-led Viet Minh into fighting. From 1946 to 1954, a long struggle ensued. Initially, it had nothing to do with the Cold War and everything to do with anticolonialism. At first, the war went badly for the Viet Minh. It lacked significant numbers of troops, possessed few weapons (or any other resources), and badly needed training. Ironically, it received crucial helped in these early years by “new Vietnamese” (Viet Nam moi), or Japanese deserters. They joined the Viet Minh and provided key help in technical areas and in training troops. Despite its early difficulties, the Viet Minh was heartened by unrest in other French colonies, such as Algeria and Madagascar, as well as by the example of the Indian independence movement.

If the Viet Minh and its guerrilla army was weak, the French could not initially deploy military forces strong enough to defeat it. (For one, some French regiments were tied down in the occupation of Germany.) The French army, it should be pointed out, was not simply composed of French. The French Foreign Legion accepted recruits from anywhere. (In the post-1945 era, some of these recruits were ex-German soldiers.) Colonial regiments included Algerians, Moroccans, and Senegalese, as well as recruits from French Indochina itself, serving under French officers. Looking at the all the armed forces involved in this conflict, we can see that the fate of French Indochina was often in the hands of soldiers who did not enjoy French citizenship.

By the late 1940s, the situation in Indochina had changed dramatically. As the Cold War heated up, Vietnam too became pulled into the struggle among the USSR, China, and the United States. The Chinese communists seized control of their country in 1949 and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC recognized the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1950; this was followed by Soviet recognition of the DRV as well. DRV foreign policy then abruptly changed. The communist leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam abandoned their attempt to soft-pedal criticisms of the United States and veered toward an embrace of Maoism. This shift included a belief in fundamental land reform. At the Second Party Congress of 1951, the Workers Party (the new name of the Communist Party) announced that “Vietnam's experience, especially, testifies to the validity of applying Mao Zedong's ideology.”

Such pronouncements had been accompanied by a fundamental transformation of the party, which vastly increased its mass base after 1945. A few statistics bear this out. In August 1945, the Indochinese Communist Party (the core of the Viet Minh) could only count approximately 5,000 members. By 1948, it claimed 110,000 members; by 1951, over 776,000. The Party repeatedly claimed that many of these new members were ill-informed and sometimes violated party rules, to be sure, but these two numbers show the dramatic transformation of the communist party from a tiny and marginal political force to a powerful organization that was effectively contesting French colonial rule. This transformation was initially accomplished with almost no substantive help from outside Communist parties. Indeed, the communist-led Viet Minh had extremely limited contact with foreign communist parties: from 1940 to late 1949.

By the 1950s, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was overtly embracing Maoism and receiving large amounts of aid from the People’s Republic of China. (At this early date, the Soviet Union did not share Chinese enthusiasm for the Vietnamese revolution. As a sign of Soviet disinterest, the USSR did not even appoint an ambassador to the DRV until 1954.) At the same time, the US began to fund the French effort in Indochina. In 1950, the United States contributed $10 million to the French cause. This amount rapidly increased, so that by 1954, the United States was paying $1.1 billion in support of French military expenditures in Indochina. This amount constituted 78 percent of French ware costs.

The year 1950 marked an important shift on the French side as well of the entire rationale for war. Previously, the French had prosecuted the war for quintessentially French reasons: to keep their empire together. But as the French High Commissioner for Indochina Pignon wrote back to Paris in 1950,

"I now believe that, as we have become aware of the size and cohesion [??] of our opponents’ aggressive plans, we can no longer ignore the facts. The problems of the Far East must be addressed in their totality, at the international level, and through the lens of a global military strategy. It is thus imperative that we take stock of the means that we possess, and to decide together the defensive possibilities these means provide us in the Far East [ . . .]." In short, the collapse of nationalist China, and its consequences, have completely changed the basic realities of the Indochina problem.

Indeed the “Indochina problem” had changed. By 1950, the war for Indochina was shifting from a struggle over France’s right to rule its colonies to one that was increasingly linked to an international Cold War.

This international change was accompanied by domestic ones. The public embrace in the early 1950s of Mao’s and Stalin’s views by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s leadership signaled the dramatic shift that had been occurring in the practice of Vietnamese politics. Before 1945, the only political constituencies that mattered to the French colonialists had been elites. But from 1945 onwards, we see communists working to bring new social groups into the political process, including ethnic minorities, workers, and peasants. Increasingly, the traditional power brokers under the French -- rural landholders and Westernized and urbanized elites -- were attacked, and thus marginalized from the political process. But so were some of the early allies of the communist-led Viet Minh, so-called “patriotic” landlords and independent intellectuals. Mobilizing the power of the peasantry, organizing an effective administrative infrastructure, and slowly cracking down on dissidents, the communists in the north moved to a more authoritarian model of politics, one which had less and less space for dissident voices. Indeed, by the mid-1950s, communist crackdowns on opponents would lead to a political climate in the northern half of the country that was much less pluralistic than ten years earlier.

In 1954, the military forces of the communist-led Democratic Republic of Vietnam scored a dramatic victory over the French in the battle of Dien Bien Phu. With this defeat, the French decided to abandon their Vietnamese colony. After winning the First Indochina War against the French, the leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam declared themselves to be the rightful government of all of Vietnam, from north to south. But this claim did not go uncontested. In 1949, the French had agreed to set up a rival state in Vietnam under the former emperor Bao Dai. This state was technically independent of the French; in reality, it exerted little autonomy and had little legitimacy. By 1954, however, this newly created State of Vietnam became truly independent of France, and challenged the communist-led Democratic Republic of Vietnam for the right to represent the Vietnamese living in the southern half of Vietnam. In 1954, then, Vietnamese achieved their independence from France, but they still had to decide which regime or regimes would gain their allegiance.

The Problem of Sovereignty: Were There Two Vietnams or One?

Historians often present the war that broke out from 1960 onwards as a struggle between two sovereign countries, North Vietnam and South Vietnam. In this view, North Vietnam is the “aggressor” that “invades” the territory of South Vietnam. This view, however, is simplistic and relies on a selective reading of the evidence. To understand this point, it makes sense to understand how the end of the First Indochina War in 1954 left fundamental issues of sovereignty unresolved.

As mentioned, two regimes existed in Vietnam in 1954: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, led by the communist Workers Party, and the State of Vietnam, led by emperor Bao Dai. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam was strongest in the north and center of the country, but had some followers in the south as well. At the time of the French defeat, 65,000 members of the Workers Party lived south of the seventeenth parallel. In the Mekong delta alone, there were 30,000 party members. In addition to party members there were hundreds of thousands of others in the South who were sympathizers of the Viet Minh, which had led the struggle against the French. In short, the DRV and its main political party, the Workers Party, could claim followers throughout Vietnam.

The State of Vietnam, led by emperor Bao Dai, also had followers throughout Vietnam. But it failed to generate a level of support comparable to that of the Viet Minh movement, and it lacked the legitimacy of the DRV state. For one, until 1954 Bao Dai was completely dependent on the French for defense and foreign affairs. In short, when comparing the claims of the DRV and Bao Dai’s State of Vietnam to represent all of Vietnam, the DRV had the strongest claim.

The existence of two states on the territory of Vietnam, both of which purported to represent all of the inhabitants of the country, led to a crisis of authority. To resolve this crisis, the major powers (including China, the USSR, Great Britain, and France, as well as the three Indochinese countries) convened the Geneva conference in 1954 to end the war in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Faced with a messy military and political situation, this accord set up a two-step process of resolving claims of sovereignty. The first step was to pull apart, and regroup, military forces. All forces belonging to the DRV were to be regrouped north of the 17th parallel; all forces belonging to the State of Vietnam were to move south of this line. The second step was then hold national elections in 1956 to unite Vietnam under one government. The first step, regroupment of forces, was carried out. The second step of elections, however, never happened.

As a result of the end of the Geneva Accords, approximately 50,000 communist combatants left the south in 1954 to go north for what was supposed to be a temporary regroupment. That migration, plus subsequent repression by the Diem regime, devastated communist strength in the south. At approximately the same time, approximately 900,000 refugees (over half of whom were Catholics) fled the north for the south.

At this point, the temporary administrative arrangements set out by the Geneva Accords began to acquire some sense of permanency. At first the Bao Dai government in southern Vietnam seemed to be on shaky ground. It had the international backing of the United States and France, to be sure, but could not control large chunks of territory under its supposed control. Soon, however, the autocratic Ngo Dinh Diem pushed Bao Dai aside. In 1955, Diem established the Republic of Vietnam. In the next few years, he managed to assert his dominance over contenders in the cities and the countryside. American military and economic aid dates from this year.

In 1955, Diem initiated an Anticommunist Denunciation campaign which pulled into its dragnet all sorts of individuals, even those only tangentially linked to the Viet Minh. In the next four years, this anti-communist crusade would reap clear dividends while alienating many peasants as well. But with the promulgation of Decree 10/59 in May 1959, Diem went one step further: all political opposition could now be equated with treason. This decree, arbitrarily implemented by corrupt local officials, further weakened communists. As the political scientist David Elliott has noted, by 1959 there were only 3,000 communist party members in the entire Mekong Delta (Elliott, 165). This sharp drop in communist strength was found in other parts of southern Vietnam as well. In short, by 1959, Diem appeared to have crushed all his major rivals. Peace, it seemed to some, was at hand.

In fact, the view that peace was at hand was chimerical. The years 1959 and 1960 constituted a major turning point in the struggle for the South. Stung by repression, and aware that its back was against the wall, communists decided to forgo mere political struggle and build back up its military strength. As part of this shift, the Workers Party set up the National Liberation Front for the Liberation of the Southern Region (Mat Tran Dan Toc Giai Phong Mien Nam), usually referred to as the National Liberation Front or NLF, in 1960. Americans and their South Vietnamese allies took to calling the NLF the “Viet Cong,” which was shorthand for “Viet Nam cong san,” or “Vietnamese communists.” The NLF resisted the use of this term, arguing that the NLF was composed of a range of groups. Technically, this was true, but it was also true that communists exerted strong and effective control over the organization. In the sections that follow, I will not use the term “Viet Cong,” but will instead use the term used by revolutionaries, who called themselves members of the NLF.)

The NLF often presented itself as southern organization independent of Communist Party control. While the NLF was indeed a southern organization dominated by southerners, it formed an integral part of the Communist Party, which now had its Politburo (or central political committee) in Hanoi in the north. From 1961 to 1965, the National Liberation Front gradually extended its hold over parts southern countryside. It took advantage of widespread dissatisfaction with Diem’s regime. It built up organizational strength and pursued mild land reform. It also engaged in limited and selective acts of assassination and intimidation to counter the South Vietnamese regime’s own use of terror tactics. Slowly, the NLF began to turn the struggle in its favor. This general trend would continue, with some ups and downs, to November1963, when Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown, then killed, in a coup. (He was killed at the behest of officers in the South Vietnamese military. Communists played no role in this assassination.) From late November till 1965, as a series of governments came to power, the Saigon government increasingly lost control of the countryside. That fact, and growing NLF strength, ultimately convinced the United States to intervene on a massive scale in 1965. Furthermore, in Laos, Vietnamese soldiers were helping the communist Pathet Lao expand their base areas at the expense of the American allied Royal Lao Army.

By 1965, what can we say about the relative situations in the communist-led Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the north and its opponent, the Republic of Vietnam in the south? They clearly had evolved in different directions. Land reform in the first half of the 1950s had descended into uncontrolled violence: at least 12,000, and perhaps as many as 45,000 “suspects,” such as landowners, were executed. Since 1956, with a crackdown on dissidents, the Communist Party in the north had reasserted its control over the Party and the polity. Dissident intellectuals (like the philosopher Tran Duc Thao or the writer and journalist Phan Khoi) were silenced: indeed, intellectuals no longer occupied the leading position in society that they once had. Despite such repression, and even though land reform had led to serious miscarriages of justice, the overall result was that the Party did turn over more land to poorer peasants and solidified its hold over the peasantry. It is probably safe to say that despite the repression of some groups, the great majority of northern peasants (and thus the great majority of the population) supported their government. After all, this government had defeated the French in the Resistance War and had brought land reform to the villages. Furthermore, as Americans bolstered their aid to successive southern regimes, the DRV regime exploited this fact to whip up patriotic, anti-Diem, and anti-American sentiment.

The situation in southern Vietnam was quite different from that of the north. On the one hand, the South had more press freedom. It was not by any stretch of the imagination completely free: for example, the government still threw journalists and writers into prison if it did not approve of their writings. Opposition parties were forbidden. In stark contrast to the north, the South pursued no meaningful land reform. Tenancy rates (in other words, the percentage of farmers renting land from landlords) were high. It is no surprise, then, that southern peasants felt little allegiance to the South Vietnamese government, and increasingly resented the harsh tactics used by the military to flush out and capture suspected communists. In contrast to northern and southern communists, who brought the peasantry into the political process, Southern anti-communist regimes were increasingly alienated from the masses of peasants who formed the majority of the population in their country.

The American Decision to Send Combat Troops to Vietnam: Was it a Necessary War, or a War of Choice?

Was the decision to send American troops to Vietnam inevitable and necessary? Was American credibility in the Cold War on the line? According to the writer Michael Lind, the answer to all these questions was yes:

It was necessary for the United States to escalate the [Vietnam] war in the mid-1960s in order to defend the credibility of the United States as a superpower, but it was necessary for the United States to forfeit the war after 1968, in order to preserve the American domestic political consensus in favor of the Cold War on other fronts. (Michael Lind, Vietnam: The Necessary War (New York: Free Press, 1999), xv)

The historian Fredrik Logevall strenuously disagrees. He argues that President Johnson, far from being forced into the decision, had a real choice about whether or not to intervene in Vietnam. He did not face overwhelming pressure at home and abroad to escalate the war by sending in American ground troops. But what about the argument that President Johnson had to intervene anyhow to uphold American credibility? In hindsight, of course, we know that American credibility was harmed, not helped, by intervention in Vietnam. But even in 1964 or 1965, Logevall argues, there was no consensus in the United States or abroad that American credibility was on the line. Indeed, Logevall argues, the common argument that American credibility was at stake in Vietnam “did not reflect the realities of the international system of late 1964-early 1965” (Logevall, Choosing War, 380).

So who is right, Lind or Logevall? Before addressing this issue, some background on American intervention might help us understand the issues.

When torpedo boats from the communist DRV were reported to have attacked the US destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, Johnson called on Congress to support him in taking armed action against the DRV. Congress agreed, with a joint resolution on August 7, 1964 supporting the President in taking “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States.” Then, after vowing not to send “American boys” to fight in Vietnam, Johnson used this opportunity to commit large numbers of combat troops to South Vietnam to prevent a communist takeover. In March 1965, US Marines waded ashore near Da Nang, the vanguard of a much larger force. Was this intervention forced upon the United States by the actions of the DRV?

To answer this question, it helps to realize that the decision to send US military personnel to Vietnam was not sudden. The US had been providing an advisory and support role to the South Vietnamese military (ARVN) since the 1950s. In 1957, Special Forces based on Okinawa traveled to South Vietnam to train commandos for ARVN. In 1961, Kennedy set up a more systematic training program involving Special Forces based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. From 1961 to 1965, then, Special Forces, mostly acting in an advisory capacity, trained the South Vietnamese Army in counterinsurgency warfare, especially in the Central Highland areas that were outside of effective and enduring governmental control. In the end, American training of ARVN did not stop the advances of the National Liberation Front in the South or the infiltration of troops from the north down south. Neither did it stop NLF success in the countryside. The question, then, was whether or not American aid needed to be stepped up in a dramatic way.

The conventional wisdom is that President Johnson made a fatal mistake when he dramatically expanded US commitment to Vietnam in 1965. Indeed, the intervention ultimately failed in its main objectives: to protect South Vietnam from military defeat and give the South Vietnamese regime time to extend its control over the countryside. But abandoning hindsight, and putting ourselves in Johnson’s shoes, we can perhaps better understand why Johnson intervened.

The American foreign policy establishment was both optimistic and alarmed by early 1965. Alarmed, because in addition to being concerned about communist China, some experts feared that the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) might take over Indonesia in the near future. If that happened, communist power in Southeast Asia would dramatically increase. But Americans were cautiously optimistic as well. The United States and its allies had achieved some notable successes in Asia from 1950 onwards despite the communist takeover of China. Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, and Taiwan were firmly in the anticommunist camp. United Nations forces, led by the United States, had defeated North Korea’s attempt to take over South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). In the Philippines, the United States had covertly aided President Magsaysay in putting down the communist-led Hukbalahap’s armed struggle in the early 1950s. In Malaya, after fighting a long guerrilla war, the British defeated a communist-led insurgency. In Laos, American aid was shoring up an anti-communist army.

Soon after American troops began to pour into Vietnam in 1965, the Indonesian military, with very limited help from the United States, crushed the third largest communist party in the world, the PKI. By that point, when American leaders took stock of American and allied actions in “containing” communism in Southeast Asia, they were cautiously optimistic. Perhaps because of past success, many of them grossly underestimated the sophistication and tenacity of Vietnamese communist opponents. To the above reasons, one should add that American leaders were anxious to appear strong in the face of communism.

American miscalculations were abetted, ironically, by Vietnamese communist ones. The communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north engaged in a game of brinkmanship with the United States. Aware that southern political factions were constantly fighting amongst each other while the southern government was somewhat paralyzed, the Communist Party resolved in January 1965 to prepare for a general uprising in the south to seize power. They hoped to present the Americans with a fait accompli: that the United States would arrive too late to save the anticommunist Republic of Vietnam. President Johnson decided, however, to intervene anyhow – despite some advice to the contrary.

To return to the question: was intervention necessary? While that view has articulate proponents (like Michael Lind), the answer is no. Given the climate of the time in Washington, it made sense that President Johnson intervened in Vietnam. It was an understandable reaction to the crisis of leadership in South Vietnam. One can comprehend why President Johnson thought American prestige was on the line. But to say that intervention was necessary presupposes two things. First, it assumes that alternatives to intervention would have deeply harmed American credibility. This view is highly debatable. Second, the view that intervention was necessary implies that the United States had an adequate understanding of the situation in Vietnam. This is not true.

Key decision makers seemed to dismiss or ignore some of the best early intelligence analysis on Vietnam, such as that which came out of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). INR analysis tended to be pessimistic. Instead, the decision to go to war was based on a fragmentary and sometimes simplistic understanding of the situation in South Vietnam, and – perhaps even more importantly -- little understanding of the character of the communist DRV regime in the north. Johnson, then, was not objectively compelled to go to war in Vietnam. He had even heard some of the critiques of intervention. He appears to have believed, for personal reasons unrelated to intelligence analysis on Vietnam, that he could not freely choose a course of action.

The dispatch of troops to Vietnam in March 1965 heralded a massive build-up of American troops, whose numbers would eventually peak at 543,482 in 1969. In total, approximately three and a half million Armed Forces personnel served in Southeast Asia during this period, of whom approximately two and a half million served within the Republic of Vietnam’s borders. On the anti-communist side, numerous foreign countries contributed troops to the conflict. Leading the way, of course, was the United States, which supplied by far the greatest number of foreign troops to the South Vietnamese side. South Korea contributed a sizeable number as well. Over the length of the conflict, over 300,000 South Koreans served in Vietnam, with a peak strength of 50,003 in 1968. Lesser numbers of troops were contributed by Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. Both Thailand and the Philippines provided bases from which bombers could attack Vietnam as well.

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the communist north) could count on outside help as well. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army supplied, over the course of the war, approximately 300,000 troops, most of whom served in engineer battalions and anti-aircraft units. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) provided a limited number of pilots, as did the Soviet Union. Both communist China and the Soviet Union supplied large amounts of military materiel and other East bloc nations (like Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, and Hungary) sent aid as well.

From Intervention to the Tet Offensive

From intervention to 1968, the American General in charge of the war in Vietnam, William Westmoreland, pursued a strategy of attrition. In effect, he focused on killing off enemy troops rather than simply controlling territory. Ultimately, American war planners thought, their communist opponents would reach the point where they could not replenish their ranks, and the balance of power would shift to the Americans and South Vietnamese. And indeed, in encounter after encounter, American troops killed large numbers of their enemy while suffering minimal casualties themselves.

Faced with the overwhelming firepower of the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies (ARVN), troops of the National Liberation Front as well as of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) tended to avoid large-scale clashes. They also did not aim to defend territory at all costs. Instead, they tended to disperse their armed forces, and only attacked targets at times and places of their own choosing whenever possible. They also came to realize that if they fought the Americans and ARVN at close quarters, this would negate the American advantage in airpower. For example, when fighting NLF or PAVN forces at close quarters, the Americans were far less likely to call in air strikes for fear of getting themselves hit by mistake.

In the process of pursuing a strategy of attrition, American war planners often lost sight of an elementary point: that the main purpose of the war was not for the United States to win victories. It was for the (anticommunist) Republic of Vietnam to create an effective state, win over the “hearts and minds” of the populace, and thus to triumph over its communist adversaries. But the Republic of Vietnam did not seize the moment in these early years (1965-68) of American intervention. Weak institutionally, lacking respected leadership, plagued by corruption, and commanding little legitimacy, the government failed to pursue meaningful and relevant policies (like land reform) to gain the allegiance of the population. In these early years, Saigon politics boasted a range of weak political factions (like the Dai Viet and the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang). It was clientelistic politics, but none of the leaders of factions commanded broad civilian support.

Given the lack of a unified civilian opposition, military factions struggled amongst themselves for dominance. President Johnson pushed the Vietnamese to have elections for president in 1967. Out of these elections, General Nguyen Van Thieu emerged victorious with about 35% of the vote. Despite this weak beginning, Thieu would rule South Vietnam until April 1975. Despite his long tenure, he was unable to develop widespread civilian support, especially in rural areas. Furthermore, most Vietnamese saw him as subordinate to the Americans. That was the root of the South Vietnamese government’s eventual failure to present an alternative to the National Liberation Front and its communist patrons in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to the north.

Tet 1968: Turning Point or Perpetuation of Stalemate?

"The Tet General Offensive and Uprising conducted by our soldiers and civilians secured a great strategic victory [ . . .] . We had struck a decisive blow that bankrupted the ‘limited war’ strategy of the American imperialists, shook their will to commit aggression, forced them to deescalate the war, initiated the strategic decline of the American imperialists in their war of aggression against Vietnam, and created a decisive turning point in the war." -- Military History Institute of Vietnam, Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954-1975. (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2002), pp. 223-224.

An examination of the events of 1968 makes clear that rather than World War II or Korea, to which it is often compared, the most appropriate analogy to Vietnam is World War I. As in World War I on the Western front, the War in Vietnam was a stalemate since the early months of the conflict. As in World War I, neither side was prepared to admit this fact,and each side grossly underestimated the determination and staying power of the other. -– Ronald Spector, After Tet: the Bloodiest Year in Vietnam, xvi.

Was the Tet Offensive of 1968 really a turning point, as Vietnamese and American military analysts often state? Or is this view at variance with the facts – did the war continue to be, as Spector argues, a stalemate? Once again, some historical context may help us decide this issue.

In the early morning hours of January 31, 1968, National Liberation Front forces across South Vietnam, aided by People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) units, launched simultaneous attacks on South Vietnam’s cities. A sapper unit infiltrated into Saigon attacked the American embassy after blowing a hole in the embassy wall. Similar attacks occurred in all the other major cities of South Vietnam. In one of them, the former imperial capital of Hue, National Liberation Front (NLF) forces held on to their positions for twenty-five days, but in most other cities, they were quickly beaten back. The National Liberation Front had hoped to provoke massive urban uprisings, but these never came. The attacks caught the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies by surprise. But they quickly rallied and beat back the attacks, albeit through some of the most intense fighting of the war. The Tet Offensive was a shock to many Vietnamese, not to mention the rest of the world. As footage of the conflict, now taken to the cities, made it on to television screens, protests against the war mounted in the United States and abroad.

In a common American formulation, the communists lost the military battle at Tet, but won a political victory. Many analysts also argue that Tet was a turning point. The NLF suffered so many dead and wounded in the Tet Offensive that its military and political abilities were severely impaired. In consequence, PAVN main force units from northern Vietnam took on an increasing share of the burden of fighting the Americans, and thus increasingly marginalized southerners from the military struggle. Tet, these analysts argue, marked a turning power in another way. From this point onwards, the United States increasingly aimed not for a victory in Vietnam, but an honorable and face-saving way to exit the conflict.

ut was Tet really a turning point? The military historian Ronald Spector argues that it was not: in fact, while the NLF was badly hurt in 1968, the overall fact of the matter was that the Tet offensive did not break an overall stalemate. First of all, Tet was not the last major communist offensive of 1968. Several others followed. The single highest week of American casualties (deaths) occurred not during Tet, but in May1968. Second, it is undoubtedly true, as proponents of the “turning point” thesis argue, that Tet was a shock to the American leadership. It is also true, however, that the United States did not withdraw its army forces from Indochina until 1973.

By March 31, 1968, 24,907 American soldiers had died in Indochina. From that point to the end of the war, another 33,286 would die – a total of 58,193 (Combat Area Current File, NARA Electronic records). If the Tet Offensive of 1968 were such a turning point, why did so many Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, die after that date?

What did change was the mix of forces that opposed the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. Tet made the Democratic Republic of Vietnam realize that it could not win a war with guerrilla tactics alone. The vicious combat of 1968 took a heavy toll on the National Liberation Front in southern Vietnam. It was devastated. From this point onwards, the north pursued a clear strategy of upgrading its conventional forces in the north. Indeed, in the end, it was conventional forces, not guerrilla ones, that provided most of the muscle for the final victory in April 1975.

From Tet 1968 to American Withdrawal in 1973: “Vietnamization”

While Nixon campaigned during the 1968 Presidential race on a platform of “Peace With Honor,” he was vague on how, exactly, he would end American involvement in Vietnam. He provided no timetable for withdrawal of American troops. On November 3, 1969, he offered a “plan to end the war.” Yet the major mechanism for ending the war, the Paris Peace Talks, dragged on from 1968 to early 1973. Peace was hardly at hand.

In fact, peace was extremely elusive. Nixon tried to enlist the Soviet Union and China to moderate the demands of the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Neither the Chinese nor the Soviets proved to be of much use: the Vietnamese were extremely stubborn negotiators. This stubbornness, and the American one as well, forces us to ask the general question: what, exactly, are negotiations for? To what extent should the historian or student take the stated aims of the negotiators seriously? The more that one examines the Paris Peace Talks, the more one realizes that the emphasis on the search for peace occurred at the same time as the war intensified. What, exactly, then, was the relationship between international Cold War diplomacy and the war on the ground?

From the American point of view, the major reason for peace negotiations with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was to craft a face-saving exit from Vietnam while not completely leaving the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in the lurch. From the point of view of the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front, a key objective was to hasten the exit of the United States from Vietnam without conferring legitimacy on “South Vietnam” (the anti-communist Republic of Vietnam) as a sovereign country.

The fact that the Paris Peace talks took place, and that American troops levels began to decline from 1969 onwards, might lead an observer to conclude that both sides were searching for peace and that the war was winding down. In fact, as negotiations for peace were taking place, the war escalated in intensity: both sides (but particularly the United States) used war fighting to jockey for better position at the negotiating table. This escalation occurred despite the fact that American combat strength declined after 1968. At the same time, however, the South Vietnamese armed forces, and particularly its army (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam, or ARVN), expanded. Nixon referred to the expansion of ARVN’s role as the “Vietnamization” of the war. In Nixon’s view, as South Vietnam shouldered more and more of the burden of the war, the United States would be able to craft a face-saving exit.

The increase in South Vietnamese strength is not the only reason why the intensity of the war escalated. Despite fewer troops, the American military became far more indiscriminate in its use of firepower. As David Elliott has observed about the war around My Tho (in the Mekong Delta),

the U.S. military adopted the method of ‘draining the pond to catch the fish’ and directed an unprecedented level of violence at the villages, which resulted in the depopulation of large parts of the countryside and further isolation of the revolutionary forces. Not surprisingly, this led to a catastrophically high level of civilian casualties in the year following Tet . . . (Elliott, 1126-27)

In addition to the greater use of firepower on the ground, the United States was even more liberal in its use of air power. John Balaban graphically captures the horror of the use of napalm during the Tet offensive of 1968:

When the napalm cases started coming in, one of the surgeons –all of whom had labored in the intense heat without break – sat down a minute as his knees went wobbly. I remember one napalmed woman wrapped mummylike in yellow gauze, her face swollen horribly, thrashing on the floor next to her beautiful, chubby, naked, tanned infant daughter with gold earrings who was perfectly whole except for one arm burned black. The child was lying quietly on an issue of the military’s Stars and Stripes newspaper whose R&R ad said, under the ruined arm, ‘Expand your ego. Visit the exotic East.’ (John Balaban, Remembering Heaven’s Face, 103)

Indeed, the years from 1968 to 1971 were devastating for both civilians and soldiers in the countryside. In the end, hundreds of thousands of civilians probably died during the war, and especially during these years of peak intensity. Balaban’s observation above also drives home that because of the indiscriminate use of firepower, many women and children died in the war. The extreme violence caused great refugee flows. It also, ironically, undercut NLF support, as many villagers fled their homes. American attempts, with their South Vietnamese allies, at “pacification” severely damaged the National Liberation Front strength in the south. A hard core of supporters in the villages remained, but many others temporarily abandoned the NLF cause.

The severe harm caused to the National Liberation Front and its guerrilla forces led to a major strategic shift: from guerrilla war to conventional war. As the South Vietnamese government and the United States succeeding in driving more and more of the population away from the National Liberation Front, and as areas under “revolutionary” control shrank. American and South Vietnamese leaders saw their military “success” as proof that they could win the war. But politically, the South Vietnamese still had not gained the allegiance of the masses of the rural inhabitants, and their political efforts, like a modest land reform, were too little, too late. In the meantime, Hanoi sent increasing numbers of troops south. These were People’s Army of Vietnam, or PAVN units; the literature usually refers to them as NVA. They were equipped for conventional warfare, not just guerrilla fighting. By the end of the war, guerrilla forces were playing less of a role in the fighting, and conventional forces more of one.

The shift in military strategy within Vietnam was accompanied by a shift in the Cold War strategies of the United States, the USSR, and China. Vietnam had been an important battleground over which the communist bloc and the anti-communist one had sparred. China and the USSR, not to mention smaller communist powers, had given military aid to the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam. But despite the fact that China and the USSR both supported Vietnam, those two superpowers were increasingly estranged from one another. This tension would ultimately shape their relations with Vietnam as well.

After Soviet and Chinese troops engaged in border clashes in 1969, President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger saw an opportunity to transform the existing world order. To balance the power of the USSR, the United States reached out to China. Mao Zedong had stated in 1970 that Nixon’s envoy, Henry Kissinger, was a “stinking scholar” who “does not know anything about diplomacy,” but Mao’s views seem to have abruptly changed. Thanks to Kissinger’s diplomacy, Nixon could announce in 1971 that he would travel to China the next year. The Vietnamese were shocked and dismayed by China’s diplomatic about-face on the United States. This sense of dismay was only accentuated when Nixon set foot on Chinese soil in 1972.

Although the People’s Republic of China continued to affirm support for the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Vietnamese liberation struggle, it was clear that China saw improved ties with the United States as even more important. As China reached out to the United States, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, for its part, tilted now towards the USSR. The USSR, in fact, provided the communist side with the advanced weaponry, such as T-54 tanks and Strella anti-aircraft missiles, with which it ultimately won the war.

As the Democratic Republic of Vietnam tilted towards the USSR, the United States was rapidly shrinking its combat presence in Vietnam. Yet despite its imminent exit, American political and military influence in Vietnam was strong up through 1973. In fact, the United States expanded the war into Cambodia. In 1969, Nixon ordered the misnamed “secret” bombing of Cambodia . The logic of the bombing was clear: to destroy southern headquarters of communist Vietnamese troops, who had exploited Cambodia’s neutrality to create a sanctuary for themselves in Cambodia.

This bombing was secret to the American public, but not to Cambodians. It never achieved its stated objective of destroying the southern military headquarters of the communist troops. But the attack on Cambodia did have other results: tens of thousands of civilians died from this bombing by 1973; the number of civilians who perished may even have topped 100,000. This bombing, and the 1971 American and South Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, contributed, in the long run, to the overthrow of the neutralist Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, the rise of the murderous Khmer Rouge, and the destruction of Cambodia. It is a story that is, unfortunately, outside of the scope of this essay.

The End of the War as a Civil War?

The United States withdrew its last ground combat forces from Vietnam in 1973. From then until 1975, the war returned to its fundamental character: a civil war. One side was led by the anticommunist nationalist regime of the southern Republic of Vietnam. The other side was led by the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam and its National Liberation Front allies in the south. Caught between these two blocs were the mass of southern Vietnamese, few of whom were deeply committed to either side. Such divisions were not unique to Vietnam. Cambodia, too, was wracked by bloody civil conflicts. And so was Laos, where the CIA had directed a covert war from 1961 to 1974, and where the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam continued to station troops and support the indigenous communist resistance, the Pathet Lao.

When the United States withdrew ground troops from Vietnam, it did not leave its South Vietnamese allies without aid. After they seized control of the South in April 1975, PAVN troops were astonished at the warehouses of unused weapons left behind. At its defeat, ARVN was far better equipped than its rivals. It lacked, however, the leadership and discipline of its opponent. The end, in April 1975, came as Saigon forces collapsed and were routed. But if the proximate cause of defeat was military ineptitude, the larger reason was that the South Vietnamese government had failed to rally the population at large behind it. In the end, the anticommunist Vietnamese were failed by their leaders.


The Vietnamese conflict was both a civil and an international war. It was a civil war in that two competing Vietnamese regimes, each with a different territorial base, both claimed to represent the interests of all Vietnamese. It was an international, war in that international actors, and particularly France, the United States, China, and the USSR, came to played key roles in defining and fighting the conflict.

The First Indochina War (1946-1954) was not initially part of the Cold War: it had been fought over whether or not France should be allowed to continue to rule its Indochinese colonies. This war was overshadowed by numerous other crises around the world, and particularly by the struggles in Europe between Cold War antagonists. We call the rivalry centered on the United States and the USSR a “Cold War” because in Europe, Warsaw Pact and NATO armies faced off in a tense stalemate, but their antagonism never broke out into a violent conflict

In Asia, in contrast, the Cold War was anything but cold. The First Indochina War (1946-54) and the Second Indochina War (1959-1975) were both quite bloody. The latter was without question one of the key flashpoints in the Cold War that pitted the United States and its allies against a range of communist opponents. Both sides poured resources into the struggle. If Vietnamese were essentially fighting a civil war over who had the right to govern their country, they did so with massive aid from the outside.

In 1969, the Southern writer Son Nam noted, not approvingly, that many people thought that Vietnam was simply a “laboratory of war” for the superpowers and their allies. (Son Nam, 62). The wars for Indochina were enormously costly in human and environmental terms. In the Second Indochina War (1959-75) in particular, the United States its allies brought vast amounts of firepower to bear on the conflict. The United States sprayed large amounts of defoliants (especially Agent Orange), and left behind large numbers of landmines, unexploded bombs, and shells. Furthermore, the United States dropped almost eight million tons of bombs on all of Indochina, of which more than five million fell on Vietnam (Turley, 87). This is greater than all the tonnage of bombs dropped in World War Two. Vietnamese society encountered devastation the likes of which it had never experienced. What the political scientist David Elliott has observed for the province of My Tho is true for the country as a whole: the war set in motion a chain of events that the communist leadership could not control, notably massive destruction and massive depopulation, which in turn had unforeseen consequences.

These wars were extremely bloody. But death and destruction were not evenly spread throughout the country. The anthropologist Gerald Hickey has suggested that one third of the highlanders living in territories under putative South Vietnamese (Republic of Vietnam) control died of war or war related causes. It is an astonishing statistic. American military sources have estimated that between 1965 and 1974, 950,765 troops on the communist side were killed (Turley, 195, quoting Lewy, 450) but even admitted that these figures might be inflated by up to thirty percent. The government of Vietnam estimated in 1993 that over one million Vietnamese combatants died in the wars from 1945 to 1975, and that two million civilians were killed as well (Agence France Presse, July 28, 1993). But these unscientific estimates should be taken with a grain of salt. The most rigorous estimates of death tolls come from demographers, who have concluded that approximately one million inhabitants of Vietnam died from war-related causes between 1965 and 1975. This figure includes both civilian and military deaths. (Hirschman et al., “Vietnamese Casualties . . “).

To the dead in Vietnam one must add deaths in other theaters of battle. The demographer Patrick Houseline has argued that from 1970 to 1975, the best estimate is that 300,000 residents of Cambodia died violent deaths (Houseline, 59). For Laos, the historian Martin Stuart-Fox estimates that the war killed 200,000 residents of Laos. To these numbers, we can add over 58,000 Americans and over 4,000 South Koreans (who fought on the anticommunist side). In short, approximately 1.5 million individuals lost their lives through violence during the Second Indochina War. If we wanted to add to this grim statistic those killed in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the First Indochina War (1946-54) and the Third Indochina War (1977-1989), or who died through war-related famine or in fleeing from Indochina as refugees, one can conservatively estimate that the dead probably exceed 3.6 million. It may have been quite higher.

Wars set in motion large migrations. In the Resistance War against the French (1946-54), hundreds of thousands of inhabitants left the Red River delta (and environs) in the north to go to resistance zones in the highlands (Hardy, 136). In 1954, an estimated 900,000 northerners, most of them Catholic, fled to the South. From 1954 to 1975, a million more northerners resettled in the highlands (Hardy, 148). During the Second Indochina War, the sheer destructiveness of the war effort, which turned some areas into free fire zones, set in motion massive population shifts. In the central highlands, one scholar has estimated, “more than two thirds of all highlander settlements were forcibly relocated at least once.”

But the largest population movements occurred from the lowland countryside to the cities, not to mention frequent and smaller refugee flows. (One indication of this massive population shift: the size of South Vietnam’s cities doubled from 1960 to 1970, from about three million to six million inhabitants. As migrants left the countryside for the relative safety of the cities, they set in motion a process by which Vietnam became a more urban country.) Overall, from 1954 to 1975, one source has estimated that, at one time or another, eleven million inhabitants of Vietnam were made refugees. This number would swell if we included all of the Laotian and Cambodian refugees in this period as well. “At one time or the other,” Martin Stuart-Fox writes of Laos, “as many as three-quarters of a million people, a quarter of the entire population, had . . . become refugees” (Stuart-Fox, History, 144).

After each war, new population shifts occurred. Some were planned, some acts of desperation. After 1975, the socialist government resettled hundreds of thousands of land hungry Vietnamese in the central highlands. Some inhabitants of Vietnam, however, took the refugee route. After the First Indochina war, thousands of inhabitants of the former French Indochina fled to France. The fall of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam to Communist forces in 1975 precipitated a much larger wave of refugees.