Vietnam War Timeline and Photographs
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|1971 |1972 |1973 |1974 |1975 |
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Origins of the War
The Vietnam War was in many ways a direct successor to the French Indochina War, sometimes referred to as the First Indochina War, in which the French fought to maintain control of their colony in Indochina against an independence movement led by Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh.
After the Vietnamese communist forces, or Viet Minh, defeated the French colonial army at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the colony was granted independence. According to the ensuing Geneva settlement, Vietnam was partitioned, ostensibly temporarily, into a communist North and a non-Communist (and, some hoped, an eventually democratic) South. The country was then to be unified under elections that were scheduled to take place in 1956. However the elections were never held. The RVN government of President Diem, with the support of US President Eisenhower, cancelled the elections because they feared that Ho Chi Minh would win.
In response to the failure of establishing unifying elections, the National Liberation Front (NLF or Viet Cong) was formed as a guerrilla movement in opposition to the South Vietnamese government. (The RVN and the US referred to the NLF as Viet Cong, short for Viet Nam Cong San, or "Vietnamese Communist". The NLF itself never went by this name.) In response to the guerrilla war, the United States began sending military advisors in support of the government in the South. North Vietnam and the USSR supported the NLF with arms and supplies, advisors, and regular units of the North Vietnamese Army, which were transported via an extensive network of trails and roads which became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
American involvement in the war was a gradual process, as its military involvement increased over the years under successive U.S. presidents, both Democrat and Republican (including Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon), despite warnings by the American military leadership against a major ground war in Asia. There was never a formal declaration of war, but in 1964 the U.S. Senate did approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave broad support to President Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement in the war. By 1968, over 500,000 troops were stationed there, and the toll of American soldiers killed, as reported every Thursday on the evening news, was over 100 a week.
The continued escalation of American involvement came as the Johnson administration, as well as the commander of U.S. forces, General William Westmoreland, repeatedly assured the American public that the next round of troop increases would bring victory. The American public's faith in the "light at the end of the tunnel" was shattered, however, in 1968, when the enemy, supposedly on the verge of collapse, mounted the Tet Offensive (named after Tet, the Chinese New Year) in South Vietnam (and, to a lesser degree, in the 1969 Post-Tet Offensive). Although neither of these offensives accomplished any military objectives, extensive negative media coverage convinced many Americans that victory was impossible. There was an increasing sense among many people that the government was misleading the American people about a war without a clear beginning or 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.
Opposition to the War
There had been a small movement of opposition to the war within certain quarters of the United States starting in 1964, especially on certain 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." World War II ended in 1945, and the Korean conflict ended in 1953; thus most, if not all, of the "Baby Boomers" had never been exposed to war. In addition, the Vietnam War was unprecedented for the intensity of media coverage--it has been called the first television war--as well as for the stridency of opposition to the war by the so-called "New Left."
Many young men feared being sent to Vietnam, and hundreds of them fled to Canada or Sweden to avoid the draft. At that time, not all men of draft age were actually conscripted; the Selective Service Board used a lottery system to select draftees. Some men found sympathetic doctors who could find a medical basis for classifying as 4F, making them ineligible to be drafted. Others took advantage of a student deferment. Still others joined the National Guard or entered the Peace Corps as a way of avoiding Vietnam. All of these issues raised concerns about the fairness of who got selected for combat, since it was often the poor or those without connections who were assigned to combat units.
The American people became polarized over 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 in short succession, much 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.
The U.S. realized that the South Vietnamese government needed a solid base of popular support if it was to survive the insurgency. This policy of winning the "Hearts and Minds" of the Vietnamese people sometimes seemed at odds with the emphasis on "body count" as a way of measuring military success on the battlefield. At the same time, the bombing of villages in "free fire zones" (symbolized by the phrase "it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it") often had the effect of negating the positive impact of this approach. In 1974 the documentary "Hearts and Minds" dealt with some of these policies, and won an Academy Award for best documentary amid considerable controversy.
Of particular interest in "Winning the hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people is the fact that units of the United States Army, referred to as "Civil Affairs" units, were extensively utilized for the first time 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.
Many Americans continued to support the war. Aside from the domino theory mentioned above, there was a feeling that the goal of preventing a communist takeover of a pro-Western government in South Vietnam was a noble objective. Many Americans were also concerned about saving face in the event of disengaging from the war or, as President Nixon later put it, "achieving Peace with Honor."
Some Americans opposed the war on moral grounds, seeing it as a destructive war against Vietnamese independence, or as intervention in a foreign civil war; others opposed it because they felt it lacked clear objectives and appeared to be unwinnable. Some anti-war activists were themselves Vietnam Veterans, as evidenced by the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Of particular note during the Vietnam War were actions taken against members of the Armed Forces and their families. Soldiers were condemned for their participation in the war. Many were spat upon and cursed by anti-war demonstrators upon their return from Vietnam. Families of soldiers killed and wounded in the War received threatening phone calls and hate mail.
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.
Seizing the opportunity caused by Johnson's departure from the race, Robert Kennedy then joined in and ran for the nomination on an antiwar platform. Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, also ran for the nomination, promising to continue to support the South Vietnamese government.
Kennedy was assassinated that summer, and McCarthy was unable to overcome Humphrey's support within the party elite. Humphrey won the nomination of his party, and ran against Richard Nixon in the general election. During the campaign, Nixon claimed to have a secret plan to end the war.
Opposition to the Vietnam War in Australia followed along similar lines to the United States, particularly with opposition to conscription. Whilst Australian disengagement began in 1970 under John Gorton, it was not until the election of Gough Whitlam in 1972 that conscription ended.
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 goal of Vietnamization was to enable the South Vietnamese army to increasingly hold its own against the NLF and the North Vietnamese Army. During this period, the United States conducted a gradual troop withdrawal from Vietnam. Nixon continued to use air power to bomb the enemy, and American soldiers continued to die in combat. Ultimately, more American soldiers died, and more bombs were dropped, under the Nixon Presidency than under Johnson's.
The morality of US conduct of the war continued to be an issue under the Nixon Presidency. In 1969, it came to light that Lt. William Calley, a platoon Leader in Vietnam, had led a massacre of Vietnamese civilians (including small children) at My Lai a year before. The massacre was only stopped after two American soldiers in a helicopter spotted the carnage and intervened to prevent their fellow Americans from killing any more civilians. Although many were appalled by the wholesale slaughter at My Lai, Calley was given a light sentence after his court-martial in 1970, and was later pardoned by President Nixon.
In 1970, Nixon ordered a military incursion into Cambodia in order to destroy NLF sanctuaries bordering on South Vietnam. This action prompted even more protests on American college campuses. Several students were shot to death by National Guard troops during demonstrations at Kent State.
One effect of the incursion was to push communist forces deeper into Cambodia, which destablized the country and which in turn may have led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, who siezed 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.
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 the voters went to the polls, dealing a death blow to McGovern's campaign, which had been facing an uphill battle. 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.
The End of the War
The peace agreement did not last.
Although Nixon had promised South Vietnam that he would provide military support to them in the event of a crumbling military situation, Congress voted down any further funding of military actions in the region. Nixon was also fighting for his political life in the growing Watergate scandal, so none of the promised military support to defend the South Vietnamese government was forthcoming though economic aid continued although most of the aid was siphoned off by corrupt elements in the South Vietnamese government and little of it actually went to the war effort. The 94th Congress eventually voted for a total cut off of all aid to take effect at the beginning of the 1975-76 financial year (July 1, 1975).
The United States unilaterally withdrew its troops from Vietnam in 1973. In early 1975 the North invaded the South and quickly consolidated the country under its control. Saigon was captured on April 30, 1975. North Vietnam united both North and South Vietnam on July 2, 1976 to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Saigon was re-named Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the former president of North Vietnam.
Estimating the number killed in the conflict is extremely difficult. Official records are hard to find or nonexistent and many of those killed were literally blasted to pieces 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 ordinance, particularly cluster bomblets. 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. In addition, the Khmer Rouge would probably not have come into power and committed their slaughters without the destabilization of the war, particularly of the American bombing campaigns to 'clear out the sanctuaries' in Cambodia.
The lowest casualty estimates, based on the now-renounced North Vietnamese statements, are around 1.5 million Vietnamese killed. Vietnam released figures on April 3, 1995 that a total of one million Vietnamese combatants and four million civilians were killed in the war. The accuracy of these figures has generally not been challenged. 58,226 American soldiers also died in the war or are missing in action. Australia lost almost 500 of the 47,000 troops they had deployed to Vietnam and New Zealand lost 38 soldiers.
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. "Missing in Action" is a term applied to missing soldiers whose status cannot be determined through eyewitness accounts of their death, or a body. While little credible evidence has been shown for this, images of tortured, emaciated prisoners of war (notably in the sequel to Rambo) continue to evoke anger among many Americans. The Vietnamese list over 200,000 of their own soldiers Missing in Action, and 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 prisons used for torturing South Vietnamese political prisoners. After the war, actions taken by the victors in Vietnam, including firing squads, torture, concentration camps and "re-education," led to the exodous of tens of thousands of Vietnamese. Many of these refugees fled by boat and thus gave rise to the phrase "boat people." They emigrated to Hong Kong, France, the United States, Canada, and other countries.
Many effects of the animosity and ill will generated during the Vietnam War are still felt today among those who lived through this turbulent time in American and Indochinese history.
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