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America's War in Vietnam: A Short Narrative History

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"This book has been long needed: a concise, complete and dispassionate survey of the Vietnam War.... Best of all, the no-nonsense approach answers questions as soon as they arise in the reader's mind." —Kliatt

"If there is such a thing as an objective account [of the Vietnam War], this is it.... If you want to read one book about Vietnam, read this one." —New York Review of Books

A short, narrative history of the origins, course, and outcome of America's military involvement in Vietnam by an experienced guide to the causes and conduct of war, Larry H. Addington. He begins with a history of Vietnam before and after French occupation, the Cold War origins of American involvement, the domestic impact of American policies on public support, and the reasons for the ultimate failure of U.S. policy.

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1 The Geography of Vietnam and Its History to World War Two

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Vietnam has been likened to two rice bowls at the opposite ends of a carrying pole. The rice bowls represent the Song Coi (Red River) delta in the north and the Mekong River delta in the south, and the carrying pole represents the long, narrow territory in between. The country uncoils from its frontier with China, at approximately the 26th parallel, in an elongated “S” that stretches southward for more than 1,200 miles to a point below the 9th parallel, where the Ca Mau peninsula separates the South China Sea from the Gulf of Thailand. In all, Vietnam’s borders encompass 127,300 square miles, or a land area slightly more than that in the state of New Mexico. For much of the distance from north to south, the Truong Son (Long Mountains) provide a natural frontier between Vietnam on the one hand and China and Laos on the other; the mountains near the Chinese border attain elevations as great as 10,000 feet, while those along the Lao frontier have elevations from 4,000 to 6,000 feet. This mountainous frontier gradually runs out along Vietnam’s border with Cambodia in the Mekong delta. Though Vietnam’s coastline is not much shorter than that of the eastern seaboard of the United States, the country at its widest point is no more than about 250 miles across, and it is only about 20 miles wide at its narrow waist at the 17th parallel.

 

2 The Career of Ho Chi Minh to 1939

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The man who would become famous under the name Ho Chi Minh (“He who enlightens”), and who would also become America’s chief antagonist in America’s war in Vietnam, was born in Annam on 19 May 1890 under the name of Nguyen That Thanh. Little is known about his mother except that she was a concubine. Nguyen Sinh Sac, his father, was of peasant origins, but through assiduous study of Confucian philosophy, he had risen to the lower ranks of the mandarins and to a place at the court at Hue. The emperor’s subservience to the French led to his disillusionment, and he gave up his post at court to become an itinerant village school teacher.

Still, Ho was more fortunate than most Vietnamese in that he was enabled to pursue his formal education as far as the lyceé at Hue, though it ended there when, at age seventeen, he quarreled with a teacher and left school. After a stint as a village school teacher, he headed south to the port of Saigon, where he signed on as a stoker and cook’s helper aboard a French vessel. In signing on, he used an alias, the first of many he would use over the course of his lifetime. When he sailed from Vietnam in 1911, he would not see his homeland again for thirty years.

 

3 World War Two and America’s Collaboration with Ho

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China’s internal divisions and civil war made it a tempting target for Japanese expansion in a time when the government in Tokyo was increasingly dominated by its militarists. In 1931, Japanese forces invaded China’s huge northern province of Manchuria, and, after turning Manchuria into the puppet state of Manchukuo, they launched a new aggression against China by capturing Beijing in 1937. Then they commenced moving south across China’s great coastal plain.

In northern China, the Chinese communists resisted Japanese encroachments with guerrilla warfare, and further south Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist armies battled the invaders. But Nanking, the nationalist capital, fell before the Japanese onslaught, and Chiang Kai-shek was compelled to shift his capital to Chungking in China’s mountainous hinterland. By the spring of 1940, the Japanese had occupied most of China’s coastal areas and in places were far inland.

Chiang’s armies continued to survive in part on supplies brought in through French Indochina and British Burma, but these sources had been threatened ever since the Second World War broke out in Europe in September 1939. In May to June 1940, the Nazi Blitzkrieg swept over Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. As France was going down in defeat, old Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain assumed leadership of the dying Third Republic. His representatives accepted Adolf Hitler’s terms for an armistice that went into effect on 22 June.

 

4 America and the Indochina War, 1946–1954

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Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of Vietnam’s independence on 2 September 1945 made little impression on the Allies. Once Japan had surrendered, they proceeded to put into effect the agreements made at Potsdam in regard to Indochina. During September, British troops under General Sir Douglas Gracey occupied Vietnam south of the 16th parallel (in effect, Cochinchina and part of Annam), while Chinese nationalist troops under General Lu Han occupied the area north of it (the rest of Annam and Tonkin). Trouble soon followed the occupations.

General Gracey was a colonial soldier, and from the outset of his duties he was sympathetic to a French return to power in Vietnam. Though the Viet Minh had set up a Provisional Executive Committee in Saigon to govern southern Vietnam, Gracey refused to recognize its authority. Instead, he made an alliance with Jean Cédile, the French representative, and even used Japanese soldiers to supplement his own troops in enforcing his rule. He made the situation more dangerous by rearming the freed French colonial soldiers, many of whom were spoiling for a fight with the Vietnamese.

 

5 Eisenhower and the Road to America’s War in Vietnam, 1954–1960

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The obsession of the Eisenhower administration with containing the spread of communism in Southeast Asia manifested itself even before the signing of the Geneva Accords. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles lobbied vigorously for a collective security pact in the region, and when that effort met with favorable responses from other countries, he began to envision an alliance that would form a military-political force in Southeast Asia that the communists would not dare to challenge. The American diplomatic efforts culminated in a conference in Manila, the Philippines, early in September 1954 for the signing of a treaty that founded the South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO). The signatories to the treaty were the United States, Great Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines, and Pakistan. Dulles personally led the American delegation at Manila, and he made his conception of SEATO clear on 6 September when he told reporters:

We are united by a common danger, the danger that stems from international Communism and its insatiable ambition. We know that wherever it makes gains, as in Indochina, these gains are looked on, not as final solutions, but as bridgeheads for future gains. . . . We can greatly diminish that risk by making clear that an attack upon the treaty area would occasion a reaction so united, so strong and so well-placed, that the aggressor would lose more than he could hope to gain.

 

6 Kennedy’s War: Counter-Insurgency and the Fall of Diem, 1961–1963

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The presidential campaign of 1960 was fiercely contested between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard M. Nixon. Nixon had served two terms as Eisenhower’s vice president, and his anti-communist credentials were beyond question. From the time he had entered Congress shortly after World War II, he had largely made a career of alleging both an internal and an external communist menace. As vice president under Eisenhower, Nixon had visited Vietnam, and he strongly supported the policy of containment of communism there. His performance over the years had brought him national notoriety and made him popular in conservative circles.

In order to defeat such a rival as Nixon at the polls, Kennedy had to offset public doubts about Democratic willingness and ability to take on the communist threat. The albatross of having “lost China” in 1949 was still hanging around the Democratic neck. Hence, at times during the 1960 campaign, both contenders for the presidency had outdone themselves in promising to be “hard” on the global communist threat. And Kennedy’s narrow victory at the polls in November—by only about 100,000 votes among the many millions cast—made it clear that he could not afford to be perceived as being “soft” or ineffectual on communism if he hoped to be reelected in 1964.

 

7 Johnson’s War, I: To the Brink, 1964

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Though a pall hung over General Duong Van Minh for his responsibility in the murders of President Diem and his brother Nhu, he won a large measure of support from President Johnson by canceling martial law in the ROV, releasing the Buddhist monks and nuns who had been incarcerated by the Diem regime (Minh himself had a Buddhist background), and promising equal treatment of Buddhist and Catholic Vietnamese in future. But Johnson’s satisfaction with Minh was short-lived.

To Johnson’s dismay, Minh planned to dismantle the discredited Strategic Hamlet program and to seek some kind of understanding with the communist-led National Liberation Front (NLF). He seemed to favor the neutralization of the ROV through the mediation of President Charles de Gaulle, who, having returned to power in France in 1958 and established the Fifth Republic, was critical of American policy in Southeast Asia and believed that a return to the 1954 Geneva Accords was the best answer to resolving the conflict in the ROV. Any kind of a coalition government in Saigon that included the communists was anathema to the Johnson administration, lest it be advertised by the Republicans, and perceived by the public, as a “sell-out” to the communist world. The specter of the “betrayal of China” was ever before the eyes of the Democratic policy makers, and they thought that they could not afford a repetition of that event in South Vietnam without punishment at the next election. Thus Minh turned out to be not a solution, but a new problem.

 

8 Johnson’s War, II: The Year of the Plunge, 1965

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The year 1965 proved critical to the American involvement in Vietnam, for in that twelve-month period the United States took over chief responsibility for waging the counter-insurgency (CI) war, attacked North Vietnam on a sustained basis through the air, and engaged troops of the PAVN, the North Vietnamese army, in the ROV on the ground. In consequence, 1965 proved to be the Year of the Plunge, one that irrevocably committed the United States to victory in South Vietnam or to the worst foreign-policy defeat in its history.

Because President Johnson’s advisers advocated an aerial war against the DRV, in the fall of 1964 the JCS and certain civilian members of the Johnson administration took part in a war game known as SIGMA II–64. The game purported to test the efficacy of a sustained bombing campaign against the DRV and specifically sought answers to three questions: Would air attacks alter Hanoi’s willingness to support the VC insurgency in South Vietnam? Would they materially aid the South Vietnamese war effort against the VC? And would they significantly affect the operations of the PAVN should its troops join those of the VPLA?

 

9 Johnson’s War, III: Moving toward Defeat, 1966–1967

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After the failure of his “smash and grab” strategy in 1965, General Thanh adopted General Giap’s preferred strategy of protracted war, the communist version of attrition warfare but one that aimed at wearing away the enemy’s will to continue the conflict rather than at winning a straight mathematical competition in inflicting the most casualties. As in the earlier Indochina War, the communists placed their faith in the remarkable Vietnamese ability to endure heavy losses and deprivations until they achieved final victory through wearing down the will of the enemy, or until the communists had the strength to wage grand war, as they had done against the French in the battle for Dienbienphu. And in order to cope with Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition and his search-and-destroy tactics, Thanh’s weaker forces tried to avoid contact with Allied forces except when their enemies were vulnerable to surprise attack or ambushes or where they could be drawn into storming well-fortified positions at great cost to themselves.

 

10 Johnson’s War, IV: The Turning Year, 1968

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Even though the war would drag on for years after 1968 (or the Year of the Monkey on the Vietnamese lunar calendar), the events of that twelve-month period marked the war’s turning point. The siege of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive would destroy any lingering confidence the American public might have had that President Johnson had acceptable solutions to the conflict in Vietnam, and public reaction to those events virtually assured that he would have no chance of reelection for another term. President Johnson himself recognized those portents, and on 31 March he announced that he was bowing out of the race for reelection in the fall and would use his remaining time in office to seek a negotiated peace. Though Johnson was unable to bring the war to an end during the remainder of his term, his announcements in March 1968 marked the beginning of a protracted American retreat from Vietnam that would end five years later.

After General Thanh’s “smash and grab” strategy had failed to bring down the ROV in 1965, he had adopted General Giap’s strategy of protracted war, that is, one of gradually wearing down American determination to continue its effort in South Vietnam. Giap preferred to follow that strategy indefinitely, for he was confident that communist persistence would outlast American patience and willingness to sacrifice, just as it had worn down the French until the climactic battle of Dienbienphu finally broke their will to continue the Indochina War. With or without a similar climactic battle with the Americans, Giap believed that sooner or later they and their Third Country allies would abandon the ROV, and without their presence the Saigon government would surely fall.

 

11 Nixon’s War, I: The Strategy of Withdrawal, 1969–1970

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The secret strategy that Nixon had talked about during the 1968 campaign for ending America’s war in Vietnam had three facets. The first facet embodied what Nixon called his “madman pose,” or the threat that he would take drastic action against North Vietnam, and against countries that supported North Vietnam, if the DRV did not become more reasonable about peace terms. Nixon was banking on his reputation as an aggressive anti-communist who might take almost any action to gain his ends.

The second facet was “linkage,” or linking progress in improving relations with the Soviet Union to the latter’s success in influencing North Vietnam to take more moderate positions in peace talks. Under Chairman Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union had been anxious to cap the expensive strategic arms race with a strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT), and Nixon believed that the Soviets would put their interests ahead of those of North Vietnam.

The final facet was not very different from Robert McNamara’s proposal, repeated by Clark Clifford, to President Johnson that the main burden of the war should be shifted to an expanded and more capable ARVN while the American and Third Country combat forces in South Vietnam were gradually withdrawn. Melvin Laird, a former Republican congressman and the new secretary of defense, called this facet “Vietnamization,” and it underscored the importance that the administration attached to reducing American exposure to casualties in order to keep the public behind Nixon’s policy in Vietnam.

 

12 Nixon’s War, II: The Final Round, 1971–1972

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At the beginning of 1971, critics of the Nixon administration clamored for a demonstration that Vietnamization was actually working and that as a result the ARVN was a match for the VPLA/PAVN forces without direct American intervention. Nixon urged President Thieu to order the ARVN to undertake an independent operation as a demonstration of its newfound self-sufficiency. The two presidents agreed that the demonstration would consist of a thrust by 17,000 ARVN troops into Laos in order to sever the Ho Chi Minh Trail at the town of Tchepone, twenty-five miles from the ROV-Lao frontier. The ROV’s joint general staff named the operation LAM SON 719, after a long-ago Viet victory over the Chinese.

The ARVN expedition used the site of the old U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh as a starting point, and commenced its advance down Route 9 into Laos on 8 February 1971. But matters went badly for the ARVN force almost from the outset. Three days into the operation and twelve miles from Tchepone, it found its way blocked by PAVN forces. Repeated ARVN efforts to break through their resistance were unsuccessful, and much to President Thieu’s embarrassment, the task force remained stalled into March.

 

13 The Paris Peace Accords and the Fall of Indochina, 1973–1975

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The American bombing of North Vietnam under Operation LINEBACKER II had brought the communists back to the negotiating table at Paris, but except for giving up their demand that President Thieu resign as head of the Saigon government they did not move far from their previous positions in negotiations. They were especially inflexible on the issue of partitioning South Vietnam into communist-controlled and Saigon-controlled areas, and they insisted on the continued presence of PAVN troops in the so-called liberated zones.

President Nixon’s delegation was in no position to haggle over these issues. On 3–4 January 1973, the Democratic caucuses in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives had voted by large majorities in favor of cutting off all funding for the war as soon as the U.S. troop withdrawal from South Vietnam was complete and all American prisoners of war were repatriated. If America’s war in Vietnam was not ended soon, Congress threatened to take even more drastic action. Even so, President Thieu still vigorously objected to the peace plan. In order to get Thieu’s acceptance of it, Nixon gave his personal promise of American air and naval support if the communists violated the armistice terms and resumed hostilities. In addition, Nixon threatened to cut off all further military and economic aid to South Vietnam if Thieu continued to block the peace process. A still reluctant South Vietnamese government finally withdrew its objections to the peace plan on 21 January.

 

14 Aftermath and Summing Up

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The communist victory over the Republic of Vietnam at the end of April 1975 propelled the communist Provisional Revolutionary Government into power. The PRG proceeded to blot out all reminders of the defunct ROV, even to changing the name of Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City. But while the communists executed perhaps 5,000 former South Vietnamese military and civil officials for alleged “crimes against the people,” in general they avoided the “blood bath” that some Americans had feared would take place following a communist takeover. Instead, the communists packed off some 200,000 former officials and soldiers of the ROV to “reeducation centers” (forced-labor camps with communist indoctrination). Some of the prisoners in these camps died there, but 90 percent of the inmates had been freed by March 1978. A few of the senior-ranking prisoners were even treated leniently. “Big” Minh, the last president of the ROV, spent only a few weeks in a “reeducation center,” and was given a minor post in the new government upon release. Of course, few other people connected to the former Saigon regime were as fortunate as Minh.

 

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