Origins of War
In 1941, a Comintern agent named Ho Chi Mihn formed the League for the Independence of Vietnam, better known as the Viet Mihn. This communist affiliated force fought against the Japanese, who were actually in control of French Indochina during WWII. While ostensibly administered by Vichy France, Imperial Japan was actually in charge on the ground with French bureaucrats doing their bidding. The OSS (US Office of Strategic Services) aided the Viet Mihn against the Japanese, but the Pentagon correctly saw this theatre as a sideshow, and refused to commit significant assets.
Please note that this article was written for us by a US journalist. As is the case with all historical writing, interpretation of events may vary.
The Japanese eventually threw out and humiliated the Vichy French officials in the region and gave Vietnam nominal independence in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. When Japan surrendered, they turned over Vietnam to the Viet Mihn.
The needs of the Cold War showed the US government that France was going to be critical to the vital European theatre, so no opposition was launched against French claims in Indochina. The independent Vietnamese government only lasted a few days before the British and Chinese occupied the region, and eventually allowed the French to return. Ho Chi Minh used the time to weaken nationalist opposition by assassinations and overt attacks.
Ho Chi Mihn and his followers fled into the mountains and began a guerrilla war as the French reoccupied Indochina, and after the defeat of the Nationalists in China, received aid from the People’s Republic of China and USSR. The eight-year war cost the French 94,000 dead and 40,000 captured. The basic French plan was to push the Viet Mihn to attack strong positions in remote locations, where French logistics were superior and the French forces could inflict stinging losses. The French were worn down by shortages of engineer barrier materials, poor road networks and limited amounts of mobile forces, unable to respond to each crisis in turn.
While most French actions resulted in victory, each loss was difficult to replace, while the Viet Mihn could afford even the heaviest losses. The French moved from attempts to control all of Indochina to attempts to control secure zones, and sweeps outside of those zones. The Viet Mihn increasingly possessed heavy weapons and supporting arms. The new French Commander, Henri Navarre, reported he was unable to produce victory in the war, but could still achieve a stalemate. He selected Dien Ben Phu as the site. This was an old Japanese airstrip with loyal tribes in the area. It was less than 10 miles from Laos and less than 200 from Hanoi, and was astride the main Viet Mihn supply route deeper south.
The French had missed the transition from guerrilla to mixed warfare, on the lines proposed by Mao, and thus found that at the end of a long supply line, their firepower wasn’t as great as that of General Giap. Mixed warfare was the phase when the guerrillas were able to field the beginnings of real armies. The response to guerrillas was to spread out to track them down, but with real army units available, the counter-guerrillas could not spread out without being vulnerable to the army forces, and if they concentrated to face the army, the guerrillas were unmolested. Even with covert US aid to deliver supplies to Dien Ben Phu, the French were unable to keep their forces fully combat ready, and they were eventually defeated one fortification at a time. The Viet Mihn were aided by overt Chinese support and were able to call on vast logistical aid. General Giap praised the performance of his 400 Soviet supplied GAZ trucks in keeping his forces supplied, even during the monsoon, which crippled French resupply attempts.
This French phase ended with Indochina broken into North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This was a great complication, for the communist forces were always clear they were fighting for Indochina, not a specific country, while the West was hamstrung by international boundaries.
The outbreak of the Korean War finally ended US ambivalence over Vietnam. Now seen as part of the Soviet and Chinese plan to take over the Pacific Rim, US advisors were sent to Vietnam. During the overlapping period while the French were still in Vietnam and Korea was ongoing, March Battalion Korea was sent to fight with the UN forces in Korea, becoming a well regarded part of the US 2nd Infantry Division. It was later destroyed in Vietnam.
Brief History of the Vietnam War
Under President Eisenhower a force of 500 instructors was to lead and teach Republic of Vietnam forces. As the unpopular Diem government alienated Buddhists and others, the communist government of the north decided it was time to move, and formed the National Liberation Front, better known as the Viet Cong (VC). President Kennedy decided the Vietnamese were incapable of solving the problem on their own, and that US combat forces were required. He sent 12,000 US troops into the fray. The ability of the VC to operate in the south was correctly seen as the first issue to solve, but the strategic hamlet plan to separate the population from the guerrillas was badly handled and served to further anger the peasant farmers, already incensed about high rent payment to landowners.
Kennedy approved the removal of the now hated Diem and his family, though he was shocked when the coup resulted in their deaths. The coup was a strategic error, creating a period of instability and the NLF quickly took advantage. US forces were increased to 16,000 as Kennedy sought a way to regain control.
The assassination of President Kennedy was followed by President Johnson, who saw Vietnam as a distraction from his domestic priorities. A pair of controversial attacks on USN warships in the waters off Vietnam was used to increase the US commitment to the war. The first of these two attacks certainly took place, and the missile boats are in Vietnamese museums. The second attack may have been a radar error, and remains controversial to this day. Lyndon B. Johnson used these to force a major increase in forces committed, unwilling to be seen as the President who lost the war.
The US started a major bombing campaign against the north to encourage it to stop supporting the NLF, and began increases of military forces committed until US troops topped half a million. Additionally, Filipino, Thai, Australian, New Zealand and Korean troops also fought for the south.
President Johnson had a very secretive policy and this lack of candour hurt his policy with the US public. Current scholarship is reexamining conventional wisdom about the role of the anti-war movement, but at the time it was seen as a major theatre of conflict and a vital means to defeat US involvement in the war. The traditional American weakness in Information Operations was well evident during the whole conflict.
The Tet Offensive
In January of 1968 the NLF attacked Khe Sanh in the Demilitarised Zone in what proved to be the biggest battle of the whole war. Some 10,000 North Vietnamese were killed as well as around 500 US soldiers. It proved to be a diversionary tactic from what was to take place a week later, the Tet Offensive.
On the night of January 31st, whilst the country was celebrating the Lunar New Year, the Viet Cong started an enormous offensive on towns and cities all over South Vietnam including Saigon where the courtyard of the US embassy was briefly occupied. US and South Vietnamese forces hit back with huge firepower which caused huge losses of VC personnel and civilians. Around 3000 members of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and US troops lost their lives as a result of the Tet Offensive whilst more than 30,000 VC troops were killed.
Whilst US military chiefs claimed a great victory, the shocked media back in the US portrayed it as a stunning US defeat having seen events unfold on their TV sets. As a result, public opposition to the war back in the US reached an all time high. In spite of enormous VC casualties, the Tet Offensive ultimately proved to work in their favour. Antiwar demonstrations in the US became even more widespread as reports of atrocities against Vietnamese civilians became public such as the My Lai Massacre.
Final Years of the Vietnam War (1969-75)
One notable casualty of the Tet Offensive was the presidency of Lindon Johnson who was succeeded by President Nixon who was elected in no small part to put an end to the war. When elected, he didn’t know how he was going to do this, but his staff quickly put together the Vietnamization program. US units would gradually turn over missions to the ARVN which would be greatly strengthened and trained. As part of this comprehensive restructuring, the government of Cambodia under Sihanouk was forced to abandon their claims of neutrality while sheltering People’s Army of Vietnam forces on his soil, and Nixon ordered secret bombing raids on those extranational sanctuaries. Sihanouk was deposed, and the Khmer Rouge were able to take advantage of the instability. Cross border ground operations took place, and were followed by Vietnamese led incursions into Laos which served as a sanctuary for the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN).
US forces continued to draw down, and fell to less than 200,000 in 1971, with more reductions scheduled. 1972 saw overt invasion from the north. US airpower provided the edge needed to defeat the Easter Invasion. Another US aerial attack was used to force the north to negotiate the Paris Peace Accords. US military forces were essentially removed after this, as required within 60 days. This was the only part of the treaty that actually took place.
In 1975, the north again attacked, with more tanks than the Wehrmacht used to invade France in 1940 and more trucks than Patton’s Third Army. The critical US logistical and air support was denied. President Thieu panicked, and issued a series of conflicting orders to his forces, which collapsed in the face of the invasion.
The Republic of Vietnam fell on 30th April 1975, right after Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge and months before Laos fell to the Pathet Lao.
In Vietnam, hundreds of thousands were imprisoned by the new leadership, with tens of thousands killed. Two million fled the country. Two million died in Cambodia alone, almost a third of the population, killed by the Khmer Rouge. In 1995, Hanoi admitted that four million civilians died in the war, north and south, and over a million Vietnamese soldiers. US forces suffered 58,000 dead.