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Chapter 31: The Vietnam War, 1954–1975

TIMELINE

1954

France defeated at Battle of Dien Bien Phu  • Geneva Accords  • Ngo Dinh Diem installed as prime minister of South Vietnam

1956

Elections for the reunification of Vietnam canceled

1957

Vietcong begin actions in South Vietnam

1960

Eisenhower sends 3,000 military advisers to South Vietnam

1963

Kennedy sends an additional 13,000 advisers to South Vietnam  • Buddhist monks begin self-immolation  • CIA allows anti-Diem coup d’état, which results in Diem’s murder

1964

Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Resolution occur  • First bombings of North Vietnam take place

1965

First antiwar demonstration by Students for a Democratic Society takes place in Washington, D.C.  • First teach-in occurs at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor  • First draft board sit-in happens at University of Michigan SDS in Ann Arbor, Michigan  • Vietnam Day Committee (VDC) demonstrations held in Berkeley, California  • President Johnson begins escalation of war

1967

More than 500,000 troops are in Vietnam  • Simultaneous demonstrations of 500,000 held in New York and San Francisco

1968

Tet Offensive takes place  • Johnson declines to run for second full term  • Demonstrations held at Chicago Democratic Convention  • Nixon elected on “peace with honor” platform

1970

Nixon bombs and invades Cambodia and Laos  • Demonstrations held at Kent State University; four students killed by National Guard

1971

Daniel Ellsberg gives Pentagon Papers to the New York Times  • New York Times Co. v. United States decided

1973

Cease-fire called in Vietnam; the United States agrees to withdraw in 60 days

1975

North Vietnamese troops enter Saigon and rename it Ho Chi Minh City

IMPORTANT PEOPLE, PLACES, EVENTS, AND CONCEPTS

26th Amendment

Dien Bien Phu

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

Kent State University

missing in action (MIA)

Richard Nixon

self-immolation of Buddhist monks

Vietnamization

booby traps

William J. Fulbright

Ho Chi Minh

Eugene McCarthy

National Liberation Front

“Peace with Honor”

Tet

War Powers Act

Cambodia and Laos

Geneva Accords

Ho Chi Minh Trail

Robert McNamara

New York Times Co. v. United States

Pentagon Papers

tunnels

General William Westmoreland

Clark Clifford

Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Lyndon B. Johnson

military advisers

Ngo Dinh Diem

prisoners of war (POWs)

Vietcong

“You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds you will lose and I will win.”

—Ho Chi Minh

INTRODUCTION

Americans were first introduced to Vietnam in 1963 when the newspapers showed a picture of a seated Buddhist monk who had immolated (sacrificed) himself by igniting his gasoline-soaked robes. This protest against the U.S.-supported government of South Vietnam was a dramatic introduction to a series of world-changing events. Nearly 30 years after the end of the war, some liberals still steadfastly maintain that President Kennedy would not have pursued the war. Some conservatives still argue that the United States pulled out without really fighting hard enough. Nearly 60,000 Americans and more than 2 million Vietnamese (both North and South) died in the conflict.

THE GROWING AMERICAN INVOLVEMENT IN VIETNAM

France ruled Vietnam from the 1890s to 1954, when the communist and nationalist leader, Ho Chi Minh, led a successful war of liberation. After fighting a guerrilla war that began in 1948, the Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap forced the French to surrender atDien Bien Phu.

The Geneva Accords

France and its ally Great Britain, along with the victorious Vietnamese and their allies, the Soviet Union and China, agreed to divide the country into North (communist) and South (pro-West). There were to be elections in 1956 to decide whether it should be reunited. The United States attended the conference in Geneva, Switzerland, but did not sign the Geneva Accords of 1954.

The Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations

Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy held to the standard Cold War theory of containment, and their domino theory followed from it: If one country fell to communism, its neighbors would follow. Eisenhower installed a “puppet” regime in South Vietnam headed by Ngo Dinh Diem, who had supporters in the old, pro-French bureaucracy. Ho Chi Minh ruled in the North. Since the United States assumed that Ho Chi Minh would win in the 1956 referendum, it prevented the elections from taking place. Opposed to the U.S.-supported South Vietnamese government and supported by the North were the National Liberation Front and the Vietcong. Both were organizations of communists and nationalists who wanted to rid the country of foreign control.

As the internal conflict in South Vietnam increased, Eisenhower sent 3,000 military advisers to the Diem government. Kennedy sent an additional 13,000. They were called “advisers,” but they also fought in combat. In his inaugural address, Kennedy had stated his version of the Truman Doctrine: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price … support any friend, oppose any foe … in order to assure the survival … of liberty.”

Diem was unable to control the South because of the work of the Vietcong and the anger of the Buddhist majority. The burning monks had protested because only Catholic interests, former French supporters, were represented in the government. In 1963, South Vietnamese military officers led a coup d’état against the Diem government; President Kennedy had instructed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) not to oppose or interfere with such a move. Diem was killed in the coup.

The Lyndon Johnson Administration

The new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan, wanted to be greater than Franklin Roosevelt. He was a political maneuverer par excellence who was accused of being an ignorant cowboy. According to the antiwar Kennedy liberals, he “dragged the country into Vietnam.” But Johnson took the advice of the whole Harvard-educated Kennedy cabinet, comprised of intellectuals and corporate executives. It wasn’t until 1968 that any of these “wise men” changed their minds about the war.

In the 1964 election, Johnson and the liberal Senator Hubert Humphrey ran against Barry Goldwater, the standard bearer of the ideological conservatives. Goldwater believed in a strong-arm foreign policy and extreme free-enterprise economics. Johnson ran as a peace candidate, saying he would never send “boys” to Asia, but during the campaign, he began to bomb North Vietnam.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

In August 1964, American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin (near the Northern capital of Hanoi) had been attacking targets in North Vietnam. In a midnight speech, President Johnson announced that the Vietnamese had shot at the U.S. boat, the Maddox, and called the attack “unprovoked” and “unequivocal.” Such an attack probably never took place; no damage had been done to the Maddox, and at Senate hearings chaired by Senator J. William Fulbright in 1966, no attack could be proven. As a result of the “attack,” Johnson asked Congress for an authorization to “repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States.” This Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964) passed in Congress with only two dissenting votes. Although not a declaration of war, it provided Johnson with permission to bomb the North, which he did immediately. Johnson used the Gulf of Tonkin Incident to justify a major escalation to the war. Today, both the incident and the resolution remain sources of controversy.

THE WAR

The Enemy

Movies such as Full Metal Jacket, which shows the frightening experience of guerrilla war fought in a jungle in which the enemy could be anywhere, and Good Morning Vietnam, in which the main character discovers that his best friend in Saigon is a member of the Vietcong, portray a reality only the soldiers could describe.

The Vietcong and their numerous supporters fought with booby traps, homemade weapons that could overturn tanks, and sharp, poisoned sticks that could kill soldiers. Women and children would plant bombs in cities while riding bicycles. Under their villages, the Vietcong built tunnels many hundreds of miles long for hiding, storing supplies, and living for months at a time. The North Vietnamese sent supplies to the South by truck and by mule and on the backs of soldiers, men, and women. These routes were collectively called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The NLF and the North Vietnamese received aid from Russia and China, but it was the support of the people of Vietnam for the cause of independence that allowed Ho Chi Minh to say, “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds you will lose and I will win.”

War Strategies

The Vietnamese wanted independence, but the Americans wanted a pro-West South Vietnam. After Diem was killed, the United States installed a series of generals and colonels to run the government. America tried to force Ho Chi Minh to give up the South. After the Tonkin Gulf Incident, Johnson sent 185,000 troops in 1965 and kept escalating the number until it reached 543,000 in 1969. Many of these young men were drafted, prompting more demonstrations. General William Westmoreland kept calling for more and more troops, claiming they were winning because they killed more Vietnamese every day. Johnson tried to bomb the North into submission in prolonged bombing raids such as Rolling Thunder. U.S. troops tried to defoliate (eliminate) the jungle with Agent Orangeand to terrorize the population with napalm, a jellylike substance that would burst into flames after it stuck to its victim. The expression “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” characterizes the American war effort.

The War on Television

Night after night, scenes on the TV news showed soldiers fighting in the jungle or being interviewed about how they felt. Also broadcast were pictures of body bags of dead U.S. soldiers—more than 100 for weeks in a row—but, as General Westmoreland said, the Vietcong body count was always many times more. This was the first “television war”; many people blamed the antiwar protests on the TV coverage.

THE GROWING ANTIWAR PROTEST

As the war escalated, the protests grew apace. There were teach-ins to learn about Vietnam history and the role of America in the world. Students held sit-ins to protest the war—to obstruct the work of draft boards (University of Michigan); to stop the CIA from recruiting on campus (Columbia University); to stop buses from taking recruits to military bases (University of California at Berkeley); to stop weapons research (University of Michigan and Princeton); to protest against the manufacturer of napalm, Dow Chemical Company (University of Wisconsin); and to try to eliminate the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) from many campuses. There were demonstrations twice a year in Washington, D.C., from 1965 to 1970, which grew to include many hundreds of thousands of people. In 1967, there were simultaneous marches of 500,000 people each in New York and San Francisco. In these demonstrations, the chants were “Hey, Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” “Out Now,” and, after 1968, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win!” Some men burned draft cards or refused to be drafted and went to jail, and more than 30,000 of them went to Canada. No matter where Johnson, or later Nixon, went, there would be demonstrators. One of Johnson’s aides called this the “imprisonment in the White House.”

Tet

In 1968, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had said that the “light is at the end of the tunnel, or victory was near in Vietnam. Events proved him disastrously wrong. A cease-fire was planned for the Vietnamese New Year, Tet. The respite was broken by simultaneous North Vietnamese attacks on more than 100 cities and towns, including Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, where the radio station and the CIA headquarters were taken over. There was news footage of General Westmoreland defending his headquarters in Saigon with a pistol. Americans had thought that the United States controlled the cities, if not the jungle. Now it was clear that the Vietnamese could coordinate a devastating attack in the cities, just when McNamara had said the end was near.

The consequences of the Tet Offensive were momentous. The government and the Army were immediately discredited, and Johnson’s “wise men” began to see that the war was unwinnable. It caused Clark Clifford, a presidential adviser since the late ’40s, to turn to a policy of withdrawal instead of continuous escalation. He convinced most of Johnson’s senior advisers of this position, and they brought Johnson himself to this point of view. Johnson decided it was time for peace and arranged for a peace conference with the Vietnamese, both North and South.

The 1968 Election

The 1968 election was one of the most turbulent in American history. During the primaries, there were two peace candidates in the Democratic Party in addition to Johnson. Robert Kennedy began a run late in the season, and Eugene McCarthy, an antiwar senator from Minnesota, had started a youth campaign to end the war, gathering support by having his workers go door to door all over the country. In the first primary, in New Hampshire, McCarthy received a much larger percentage of the vote than Johnson anticipated, showing LBJ that the president no longer had control of his party. Johnson decided not to run for re-election. In a dramatic speech to the nation on April 1, 1968, Johnson called for peace negotiations and, in one short paragraph at the end of a 4,000-word speech, he announced that he “would not seek another term” as president. This opened the door for Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and Governor George Wallace of Alabama (who ran on the American Independent Party platform).

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were killed in April and June, respectively. The riots that occurred after King’s assassination were a violent prelude to demonstrations that rocked the August Democratic Convention in Chicago. Television viewers saw unprovoked police attacks on demonstrators as thousands tried to get into the convention to nominate Eugene McCarthy. They chanted the “whole world is watching” as they were being beaten. The Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey, who felt it necessary to defend his role as vice president. He promised negotiations when many of his liberal colleagues were calling for immediate withdrawal.

Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were nominated by the Republicans. Nixon promised “Peace with Honor.” He said he spoke for the silent majority and that he would “bring us together.” The election was extremely close in popular votes: Nixon won with 43 percent to Humphrey’s 42 percent, and Wallace got 13 percent.

NIXON AND THE WAR

War Strategy

Nixon had run as a peace candidate. Once in office, however, he began to implement the plan outlined by Clark Clifford. There would be a gradual withdrawal of American troops, but the strategy was to “Vietnamize” the war: U.S. troops would train the South Vietnamese to fight on their own, while the United States would support them with bombing raids. In the meantime, America would try to win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. Nixon also had Secretary of State Henry Kissinger arrange invasions and bombings of Cambodia and Laos, designed to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail. These prompted huge demonstrations, including the Kent State University demonstration (1970) at which the National Guard killed four students.

Domestic Strategy

To reduce protests and wind down the war, Nixon ended the draft. First he introduced a lottery, but then he phased it out until America had an all-volunteer army. Nixon’s attempt to unite the country was an utter failure. It is not clear that anyone could have brought together the prowar hawks and the antiwar doves, but calling the demonstrators “bums,” making an enemies list of reporters and dissenters, and giving the names to the FBI for investigation and harassment did not endear him to his opponents.

The Pentagon Papers

Much of the true story of Vietnam and America was revealed in the Pentagon Papers, which were leaked to the New York Times in June of 1971 by a Pentagon employee named Daniel Ellsberg. In 7,000 pages of documentation secretly ordered by Robert McNamara, the papers revealed that the Johnson administration had been lying about the success of the war. They revealed that the CIA analysis had concluded that the war was unwinnable, but president after president ignored the advice and went ahead with it. Nixon decided that this information was too damaging to publish, so he tried to stop its publication. The Supreme Court ruled against him in the landmark decision of New York Times Co. v. United States. A free press was more important than keeping government secrets that did not pose a threat at the moment.

THE END OF THE WAR

Nixon was re-elected in 1972 in a landslide against the antiwar candidate, George McGovern, but his relations with Congress were becoming more and more troubled. Having been lied to too many times, the Senate refused to allow more funds for new actions in the war. However, Nixon continued to bomb in Cambodia and to mine Haiphong Harbor in the North. Despite this, the North would not give in. Finally, Henry Kissinger arranged a cease-fire in January of 1973; troops were to be withdrawn within 60 days. There were still some forces left behind, but South Vietnam had to fend for itself from that point forward. On April 27, 1975, North Vietnamese forces marched into South Vietnam’s capital, leading to the Fall of Saigon and the city’s new name, Ho Chi Minh City. The war was over.

RESULTS

Politically, the Vietnam War resulted in The War Powers Act (1973), which prevented the president from sending troops to a foreign country for more than 60 days without a vote by Congress. The war also resulted in the voluntary army and the 26th Amendmentof the Constitution (1971), which reduced the voting age to 18. Most of the student protesters of the ’60s—and many of the draftees—could not vote.

The issue of the prisoners of war (POWs) and those missing in action (MIAs) lasted well into the 1980s as a campaign issue. Conservatives, and some relatives of MIAs, lobbied Congress and the presidents to investigate the whereabouts of those soldiers who had never come home.

The controversy about how the war was fought and whether the United States could have won continues to this day. General Westmoreland maintained that the war was lost because he was not given the support he needed from Congress and from the American people. This Vietnam revisionism still had many adherents in 2000, at the 25th anniversary of the defeat of South Vietnam.

SUMMARY

Political thinkers believe the culture wars of the 1960s were still working themselves out during the Clinton administration in the 1990s. One source of these cultural conflicts was different understandings of the Vietnam War. Were the protests justified? Should we distrust the government? Is America a good country, an imperialist monster, or something in between? One way to understand Vietnam is to compare it to the American Revolution. Britain was the most powerful country of the 1770s, and America fought an eight-year guerrilla war against the British. The British could have sent more troops to America after Yorktown, but a powerful opposition in George III’s government favored withdrawal. America won that war, but the British still teach it much differently than we do.

THINGS TO REMEMBER

•  Domino theory: This was the Eisenhower-era theory that one communist country would infiltrate or influence its neighbors, supporting insurrection there and causing them to become communist too. They would fall like a series of dominoes standing close together. Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon also subscribed to this theory, which supported the strategy of containment.

•  Doves: Those who were against the Vietnam War in the 1960s (See hawks.)

•  Escalation: An increase in number, volume, scope. In reference to the Vietnam War, escalation refers to the increase in the number of troops and the intensity of involvement by the United States.

•  Guerrilla war: These are hit-and-run tactics combined with hiding and ambushing the enemy. The soldier would live off the land and the population in an area so that he or she need not carry many supplies. The Americans learned this from the Indians in colonial times and used it during the Revolution. The Vietnamese used it against the Americans in the Vietnam War.

•  Hawks: Those who were pro–Vietnam War in the 1960s (See doves.)

•  Puppet regime: A government controlled behind the scenes by another power. During the Vietnam War, South Vietnam’s governments were installed and controlled by the United States; Ngo Dinh Diem and General Thieu, leaders of South Vietnam, were American puppets.

•  Teach-ins: A form of educational protest at universities, this practice began in 1965 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, when professors and students analyzed U.S. foreign policy and debated with each other and—only in the earlier days of the war—with government representatives.

•  Vietnam revisionism: This is the political position that claimed that we could have won the Vietnam War if we had declared war, put in more troops, had a more unified country, or given our generals free rein to fight. These positions are called revisionist because the consensus among historians and politicians was that we lost the war because it was unwinnable.

REVIEW QUESTIONS

1.   Put the following events in order from oldest to most recent.

1)    Geneva Accords

2)    Tonkin Gulf

3)    Dien Bien Phu

4)    The Tet offensive

5)    The assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem

Answer choices:

(A)     2, 3, 4, 1, 5

(B)     4, 3, 2, 5, 1

(C)     3, 1, 5, 2, 4

(D)     3, 1, 4, 2, 5

(E)     2, 3, 5, 1, 4

2.   Nixon’s policy in Vietnam was called

(A)    Rolling Thunder.

(B)    Vietnamization.

(C)    containment.

(A)    immediate withdrawal.

(E)    pacification.

3.   Vietnam revisionism is a belief that

(A)    immediate peace was necessary.

(B)    America lost the war because of a lack of congressional support.

(C)    the demonstrators lost the war.

(D)    the Army did not fight hard enough.

(E)    the Vietnamese were tougher than we had expected.

4.   In 1968, President Johnson did not run for re-election because

(A)    he had already served two full terms.

(B)    he had lost the New Hampshire primary.

(C)    he wanted to negotiate a peace.

(D)    his health was failing.

(E)    Eugene McCarthy came in a close second in the New Hampshire primary.

ANSWERS AND EXPLANATIONS

1.    C

The French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The Geneva Accords were signed soon after. Diem was killed in 1963. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed in 1964, during the campaign of Johnson against Goldwater. The Tet offensive occurred in 1968, before Johnson decided not to seek another term.

2.    B

Vietnamization was the slow withdrawal of troops and increased bombing to try to support South Vietnam before leaving Vietnam. Rolling Thunder and pacification were Johnson policies, containment was a general approach to counter the spread of communism, and immediate withdrawal was a radical demand.

3.    B

The general opinion among political thinkers is that Vietnam was an unwinnable war. The Revisionists contend that Congress did not give the military enough support. They believe that the demonstrations had no effect, and they also believe the Army fought hard but was not permitted to fight long enough.

4.    E

Johnson did not try to run for re-election because he was losing decisive control of his party. The antiwar forces (McCarthy and Kennedy) were gaining strength. He had not served two terms, and he was not sick. He wanted to negotiate a peace, but that was not a reason to drop out of the election; he could have negotiated a peace while campaigning.

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