Vietnam War and Crisis

Category: Politics
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In 1887, France imposed a colonial system over Vietnam, Tonkin, Annam, Cochin China and Cambodia, calling it French Indochina. Laos was added in 1893. Upon the weakening of France during WWII, Japanese troops invaded French Indochina. In 1945, Japanese troops carried out a coup against French authorities and declared Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as independent states. When Japan was defeated, a power vacuum opened over Indochina. France began to reassert its authority, and met resistance from Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. A guerilla war between the two forces began in 1946.

In an address to Congress in 1947, Truman stated that the foreign policy of the United States was to assist any country whose stability was threatened by communism. This became known as the Truman doctrine. Two years later, Mao Zedong declared the creation of the communist People’s Republic of China. The USSR tested its first atomic bomb, marking an escalation in the Cold War. Together, the USSR and communist China recognized the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam and started to supply economic and military aid to resistance fighters. This led the US to identify the Viet Minh as a communist threat and step up assistance to the French.

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In 1954, the French suffered a decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The French asked the United States for military assistance. Eisenhower issued a refusal: if the British were to intervene, the US would provide support. However, the British declined military support, as they were already heavily involved in suppressing a communist insurgency in Malaya (Moyer). Congress also refused to support any US military intervention in Vietnam. As a result, Eisenhower committed to provide support in the form of everything short of troops. Eisenhower said the fall of the French in Indochina could cause other nearby states to come under communist rule. Eisenhower’s domino theory would come to guide US thinking on Vietnam for the next decade.

The French held an international conference in Geneva to negotiate what would happen as they pulled out of the region. The Geneva Accords established North and South Vietnam, split along the 17th parallel. Ngo Dinh Diem led South Vietnam whilst Ho Chi Minh led the North (up until 1960, when he was replaced by Le Duan). The US refused to sign the agreement, but pledged not to do anything to explicitly undermine the Accords, either (Moyer). Elections were to be held in two years to unite Vietnam under one government. These elections never happened.

As the French retreated, the Eisenhower administration moved in. They committed aid, military advisors, and CIA support. They desperately searched for a government they could support in South Vietnam. As such, they installed the Diem regime over South Vietnam (Moyer). Diem won an election, seemingly assuring the consent of the governed. However, after 2 years, the elections stopped as worry arose that communists might win. The stoppage of elections lead to a sharp increase in insurgent activity in the South (Moyer).

In September of 1954, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was signed in Manila, Philippines. SEATO was an international organization for collective defense in Southeast Asia. While Vietnam was not an explicit member of the treaty, the treaty protected Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam from further communist aggression (Moyer).

After the Chinese Civil War, the Communist leader Mao Zedong declared a new country, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in Beijing on September 21, 1949. The Chinese Nationalists fled to the island of Formosa (Taiwan) and some small neighboring islands off the mainland. The communists heavily shelled the islands (Moyer). Eisenhower went to Congress with the Formosa Straights Resolution, a direct prelude to the Tonkin Straights Resolution. The resolution asked Congress to authorize the president to use whatever force necessary to stop the Chinese Communists from taking those islands and Taiwan (Moyer).

North Vietnam built a supply route, later known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam to support guerrilla attacks. This led to the formation of the National Liberation Front in late 1960 as the political wing of antigovernment insurgency in the South. The US took the NLF as an extension of North Vietnam and called the military wing the Viet Cong (short for Vietnam Cong-san, or Vietnamese communists). By the end of 1960, Eisenhower had 600 Americans in Vietnam and various forms of aid committed to Diem.

In 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy authorized secret operations against the Viet Cong, sending over helicopters and 400 Green Berets. The US began to use Agent Orange to kill vegetation that offered cover and food for guerrilla fighters. In 1962, Diem survived a bombing at his palace. His extreme favoritism toward the South’s Catholic minority had alienated him from most of the South Vietnamese people, including Vietnamese Buddhists, causing an intense reaction from citizens.

Kennedy was faced with a crisis. Would he make an irrevocable commitment to victory? Would he commit to military action first or a reform of the Diem government? If he were to commit to military action, what form would it take? In the end, Kennedy was unwilling to send combat troops, but was willing to do everything short of boots on the ground. He increased his commitment of Americans from 600 to 16000 (Moyer). However, this increase was still unsuccessful.

About a year later, South Vietnamese troops were trounced by a much smaller group of Viet Cong fighters, despite a 4:1 advantage and both technical and planning assistance from US advisers. In May 1963, Diem’s government opened fire on Buddhist protesters. A monk immolated himself in protest, leading other monks to follow suit in following weeks. Kennedy was faced with practically the same crisis as before. What choices did he have left? Would he commit troops or replace Diem? The US decided to back a coup against Diem, resulting in the death of the former South Vietnam leader and his brother (Moyer). Twelve different governments took leadership in the South as coups replaced one government after another. In the same month, JFK was assassinated. 1964 was an election year. Running for the conservatives was the hawkish Barry Goldwater. His campaign ran on a platform based upon escalating the conflict in Vietnam significantly, calling for heavy bombing of North Vietnam. Johnson ran with the platform to go more slowly (Moyer). He would keep commitment in Vietnam, but would increase involvement gradually and hoped to stabilize the government. He wanted to send a message to North Vietnam to cease and desist while mobilizing South Vietnam to put

down the insurrection. As such, Johnson won the election under his promise of a slow escalation (Moyer).

The period between 1964 and 1972 saw at least five different peace proposals of significance, along with numerous third-party offers that were either disregarded or rebuffed (Llewellyn). The significant number of peace proposals and their eventual – perhaps inevitable – failure reveals much about the nature of the Vietnam conflict and its chief combatants. Vietnam produced multiple rounds of peace negotiations and peace proposals throughout the course of the war. These attempts to forge a working peace were initiated by the United States, North Vietnam, and by other nations acting as mediators (Llewellyn). Proposals for ceasefires and peace deals flowed back and forth regularly, even when fighting was at its worst. Some of this negotiation was conducted publicly, some through secret diplomatic communications or through ‘back channels’.

On August 4th, American destroyers were attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats. The US painted this as an unprovoked attack, while in reality, the US was running anti-insurgency efforts in North Vietnam (Moyer). Two days later, another “attack” took place against the same destroyers, which was a misperception (Moyer). After attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, allowing the president to take ‘all necessary measures, including the use of armed force’ against any aggressor in the conflict. In March of 1965, Johnson ordered the sustained bombing of targets in North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail in Operation Rolling Thunder. In June, the presidency was handed over to General Nguen Van Thieu, of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam Governmental Military.

The US began building military bases in South Vietnam, several of which were attacked by North Vietnamese. The US launched bombing strikes in retaliation and decided to send conventional forces to protect the bases. However, the touchdown of US troops did not stop the attacks.

The first proposal for peace came from North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong in April 1965. He issued a four point proposal that scaffolded off the Geneva Accords of 1954 alongside the withdrawal of the US military (Llewellyn). The first point called for the US withdrawal from South Vietnam, the cancellation of the US’s military alliance with South Vietnam, and recognition of rights of the Vietnamese people. The second point outlined a return to the 1954 Geneva agreements. The third point stated that the internal affairs of South Vietnam must be settled by the Vietnamese people without foreign interference. The fourth point called for the peaceful reunification of Vietnam to be settled by the Vietnamese people in both zones without any foreign interference.

One of the primary obstacles to reaching true peace was due to the differing objectives of North Vietnam and the United States in peace talks. The Americans viewed negotiations as a way to extricate themselves from Vietnam while avoiding the humiliation of defeat. The North Vietnamese ultimately wanted country reunification, but would use peace talks as a military tactic to obtain breathing space while denying and frustrating the enemy (Llewellyn). Despite this, both sides claimed to be open to negotiating peace. When peace talks fell through, either side could blame it on the stubbornness or ignorance of their adversary. In late 1966, Ho Chi Minh declared that North Vietnam was willing to “make war for 20 years” – but added that if the Americans “want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to afternoon tea”. US president Lyndon Johnson also made public statements that expressed willingness to negotiate with Hanoi, even issuing peace proposals to North Vietnam twice through the press. US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, responding to Pham’s proposals, declared that he could live with points one, two and four. However, he interpreted point three as a demand for Viet Cong control of South Vietnam. As such, he refused the deal, citing the third and fourth points as reason for US rejection. Rusk claimed that he could find no member of the North Vietnamese government willing to “give up their aggressive ambitions or to come to a conference table”, so he would place his trust in “our own men in uniform” (Llewellyn). In 1966 and 1967, other peace proposals and various thoughts of ceasefire circulated but no new deals stuck. Between 1965 and 1968, the war escalated slowly. In July of 1965, President Johnson increased the draft to 35,000 each month. This marks the real beginning of the escalation of US involvement in Vietnam (Moyer). In November, a pacifist Quaker set himself on fire in front of the Pentagon while holding his 11 month old daughter. That same month, nearly 300 Americans were killed and hundreds more injured in the Battle of la Drang Valley, the first large-scale battle of the war. Both sides declared victory. Following the battle, General Westmoreland requested even more troops. After each escalation, the US debated what to do: whether to escalate significantly, slowly, or somewhere in between. Johnson always elected for medium escalation (Moyer). When North Vietnam came to the negotiation table, their offers were never satisfactory enough for the US.

In 1966, U.S. troop numbers stationed in Vietnam rose to 400,000. In 1967, U.S. troops in Vietnam increased to 500,000, with 400 people killed a week (Moyer). Despite the government’s attempted overselling of success on the ground, the public was intensely dissatisfied with the war (Moyer). Large-scale Vietnam War protests erupted in Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco. Meanwhile, in the Battle of Dak To, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces resisted an offensive by communist forces in the Central Highlands, where US troops suffered some 1,800 casualties. Then in early 1968, a U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh in South Vietnam was bombarded with massive artillery by communist forces from the People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN). For 77 days, the marines and South Vietnamese forces fended off the siege. After this, the war quieted momentarily.

The decision to further involvement in Vietnam under Johnson was a classic case of a subgoal taking precedence over the primary goal (Moyer). Containment was a subgoal for the national security of the United States. However, the primary goal was lost in preoccupation of dealing with communist insurgencies in other countries, such as Vietnam. Furthermore, Johnson’s administration itself dealt with many obstacles to rational decision making, such as Johnson’s stifling of dissent. When McNamara let on about his disagreement with the continued increasing of commitment to troops in South Vietnam in 1967, Johnson replaced him entirely, and McNamara took over a post at the World Bank (Moyer). When McNamara’s replacement, Clark Clifford, a personal friend of Johnson’s, also voiced dissent, their friendship became cold and strictly professional (Moyer). To Johnson, loyalty was paramount, and disagreeing with Johnson’s position on involvement in Vietnam was viewed as a personal attack. Additionally, no one thought to ask, “Should we be in Vietnam at all?” Under Johnson, not every option was given consideration, due to groupthink and other perceptual biases.

Then in 1968, the Tet Offensive began, encompassing a combined assault of Viet Minh and North Vietnamese armies. Attacks were carried out in more than 100 cities and outposts across South Vietnam, including Hue and Saigon, and the U.S. Embassy was invaded. The effective, bloody attacks shocked U.S. officials and marked a turning point in the war and the beginning of a gradual U.S. withdrawal from the region. During the U.S. massacre at Mai Lai, more than 500 civilians were murdered by U.S. forces. The massacre happened amid a campaign of U.S. search-and-destroy operations that were intended to find enemy territories, destroy them, and then retreat.

In addition to being the year of the Tet Offensive, 1968 was also an election year. The antiwar movement exploded following the Tet Offensive. As a leading antiwar proponent McCarthy throws his hat in the ring for election and builds support rapidly. This forced Johnson to face the question if he was going in the right direction. This realization of his own misdirection was catalyzed by Westmoreland’s request for 200,000 more troops (Moyer). Westmoreland got more troops and a step up in bombing and reserves. The number of troops came close to one-third of those in WWII (Moyer). However, Johnson fails to gauge the horrific public reaction (Moyer). He loses internal support from advisors. On April 22nd, he gives a speech on taking the first step toward deescalating the conflict (Moyer). However, facing immense backlash about the war, Johnson announces he will not run for reelection.

The country was in chaos. The Chicago Democratic National Convention turned out to be a horrendous debacle, and Hubert Humphrey won the nomination over McCarthy. In response, huge protests erupted across Chicago, and police violently beat the protestors. Richard Nixon won the Republican nomination, pledging that he had a secret plan to end the war (Moyer). This secret plan, in the end, would be nothing more than pulling troops while increasing bombing. However, the public perception was that he knew how to win the war. Nixon won the election, promising to restore “law and order” and to end the draft.

An informal meeting between the US and the North Vietnamese was organized in Paris in May of 1968. On December 20, 1968, the United States expressed readiness to seek a settlement. The North Vietnamese responded with an ultimatum: all U.S. forces were to leave Vietnam, after the United States forcibly deposed the South Vietnamese government. As President Nixon’s National Security Adviser, Kissinger judged that, if fulfilled, Hanoi’s demand to turn on an ally would deal a severe blow to the U.S. credibility worldwide. The offer was rejected (Sebenius).

Hanoi responded with a different proposal. North Vietnam demanded that the US halt bombing over the country. The Americans wanted Viet Cong activities to de-escalate in South Vietnam. About five months later, Johnson agreed to suspend all bombing activities in North Vietnamese territory. This allowed for formal peace negotiations to begin. In January 1969, representatives from the United States flew to Paris for peace discussions with North and South Vietnam and the NLF (Llewellyn).

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Vietnam War and Crisis. (2022, Apr 27). Retrieved from