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An Excerpt From Vietnam, "Facts about Vietnam - History"
Written by Mason Florence and Virginia Jealous Published by Lonely Planet; Melbourne, Australia

Enter the Americans
In the 1870s, Emperor Tu Duc sent a respected scholar, Bui Vien, to Washington in an attempt to garner international support to counter the French. Bui Vien met President Ulysses S. Grant, but without the proper documents of accreditation he was sent back to Vietnam empty-handed.
The theory rapidly gaining acceptance in the West was that there was a worldwide communist movement intent on overthrowing one government after another by waging various 'wars of liberation'. Known as the Domino Theory, it gained considerable support after the start of the Korean War in 1950, and the Americans saw France's colonial war in Indochina as an important part of the worldwide struggle to stop communist expansion. By 1954, US military aid to the French war effort topped US$2 billion. In 1950, 35 US solidiers arrived in Vietnam as part of the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), ostensibly to instruct the troops receiving US weapons on how to use them; there would be American soldiers on Vietnamese soil for the next 25 years.
In 1950, the People's Republic of China established diplomatic relations with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam; shortly thereafter, the Soviet Union did the same. Only then did Washington recognize Bao Dai's French-backed government. The circumstances of this event are instructive: though Ho's government had been around since 1945, the USSR didn't recognize it until the communist Chinese did and the US State Department, which at the time was reverberating with recriminations over who was to blame for 'losing China' to communism, recognized Bao Dai's government as a reaction to these events. From that point on, US policy became a knee-jerk reaction against whatever the communists did.
When the last French troops left Vietnam in April 1956, the MAAG, now numbering several hundred men, assumed responsibility for training the South Vietnamese military; the transition couldn't have been neater. The first American troops to die in Vietnam were killed at Bien Hoa in 1959 at a time when about 700 US military personnel were in the country.
As the military position of the South Vietnamese government continued to deteriorate, the Kennedy administration (1961-3) sent even more military advisers to Vietnam. By the end of 1963, there were 16,300 US military personnel in the country.
Vietnam became a central issue in the 1964 US presidential election. The candidate for the Republican Party, Senator Barry Goldwater, took the more aggressive stance. He warned that if elected he would tell Ho Chi Minh to stop the war 'or there won't be enough of North Vietnam left to grow rice on it.' Many Americans, with bitter memories of how Chinese troops came to the aid of the North Korea during the Korean War, feared the same would happen again if the USA invaded North Vietnam. The thought of a possible nuclear confrontation with the USSR could not be ruled out either. With such horrors in mind, voters overwhelmingly supported Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Ironically, it was 'peace candidate' Johnson who rapidly escalated US involvement in the war. A major turning point in US strategy was precipitated by the August 1964 Tonkin Gulf Incidents, in which two US destroyers, the Maddox and the Turner Joy, claimed to have come under 'unprovoked' attack while sailing off the north Vietnamese coast. Subsequent research indicates that the first attack took place while the Maddox was in North Vietnamese territorial waters assisting a secret South Vietnamese commando raid and that the second one simply never took place.
However, on Johnson's orders, carrier-based jets undertook 64 sorties against the North - the first of thousands of such missions that would hit every single road and rail bridge in the country, as well as 4000 of North Vietnam's 5788 villages. Two US aircraft were lost and the pilot of one, Lieutenant Everett Alvarez, became the first American prisoner of war (POW) of the conflict; he would remain in captivity for eight years.
A few days later, an indignant (and mislead) US Congress almost unanimously (two senators dissented) passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave the president the power to 'take all necessary measures' to 'repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further agression'. Only later was it established that the Johnson administration had in fact drafted the resolution before the 'attacks' had actually taken place. Until its repeal in 1970, the resolution was treated by US presidents as carte blanche to do whatever they chose in Vietnam without any congressional control.
As the military situation of the Saigon governement reached a new nadir, the first US combat troops splashed ashore at Danang in March 1965, ostensibly to defend Danang air base. But once they had 'American boys' fighting and dying, they had to do everything necessary to protect and support them, including sending over more American boys. By December 1965, there were 184,300 US military personnel in Vietnam and 636 Americans had died. Twelve months later, the totals were 385,300 US troops in Vietnam and 6644 dead. By December 1967, there were 485,600 US soldiers in the country and 16,021 had died. In 1967, the South Vietnamese and 'Free World Military Forces' counted in, there were 1.3 million men (one for every 15 people in South Vietnam) under arms for the Saigon government.
By 1966, the failed Strategic Hamlets Program of earlier years was replaced with policies of 'pacification', 'search and destroy', and 'free-fire zones'. Pacification meant building a pro-government civilian infrastructure of teachers, health-care workers and officials in each village, as well as soldiers to guard them and keep the VC away from the villagers. To protect the villages from VC raids, mobile search and destroy units of soldiers moved around the country (often by helicopter) to hunt bands of VC guerillas. In some cases, villagers were evacuated so the Americans could use heavy artillery, bombs and tanks in areas that were declared free-fire zones. A relatively little-publicized strategy was dubbed Operation Phoenix, a controversial programme run by the CIA and aimed at eliminating VC cadres by assassination, capture or defection.
These strategies were only partially successful: US forces could only control the countryside by day, while the VC usually controlled it by night. The VC proved adept at infiltrating pacified villages. Although lacking heavy weapons like tanks and aircraft, VC guerillas continued to inflict heavy casualties on US and ARVN troops in ambushes, and by using mines and booby traps. Although free-fire zones were supposed to prevent civilian casualties, plenty of villagers were nevertheless shelled, bombed, strafed, or napalmed to death - their surviving relatives often joined the ranks with the VC.

The Turning Point
In January 1968, North Vietnamese troops launched a major attack at Khe Sanh in the Demilitarized Zone. This battle, the single largest of the war, was in part a massive diversion for what was to follow only a week later: the Tet Offensive.
The Tet Offensive marked a crucial turning point in the war. On the evening of 31 January, as the country celebrated the Lunar New Year, the VC launched a stunning offensive in over 100 cities and towns, including Saigon. As the television cameras rolled, a VC commando team took over the courtyard of the central Saigon US embassy building.
The US forces had long been wanting to engage the VC in an open battle rather than a guerilla war where the enemy couldn't be seen. The Tet Offensive provided them with this opportunity. Although taken by complete surprise (a major failure of US military intelligence), the South Vietnamese and Americans immediately counterattacked with massive firepower, bombing and shelling heavily populated cities as they had the open jungle. The effect was devastating on the VC, but also on the civilian population. In Ben Tre, a US officer bitterly explained that they 'had to destroy the town in order to save it'.
The Tet Offensive killed about 1000 US soldiers and 2000 ARVN troops, but VC losses were more than 10 times higher at approximately 32,000 deaths. In addition, some 500 American and 10,000 North Vietnamese troops had died at the battle of Khe Sanh a week before. According to American estimates, 165,000 civilians also died in the three weeks following the start of the Tet Offensive: two million more became refugees.
The VC only held the cities for three or four days (with the exception of Hue, which they held for 25 days). The surviving VC then retreated to the jungles. They had hoped the offensive would lead to a popular uprising against the Americans and that ARVN forces would desert or switch sides but this did not happen. General William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, insisted that the uprising had been a failure and a decisive military blow to the communists (and he was right - by their own admission, the VC never recovered from their high casualties). Westmoreland then asked for an additional 206,000 troops - he didn't get them and was replaced in July by General Creighton W. Abrams.
Perhaps the VC lost the battle, but they were far from losing the war. After years of hearing that they were winning, many Americans - having watched the killing and chaos in Saigon on their nightly TV news - stopped believing what they were being told by their government. While US generals were proclaiming a great victory, public tolerance of the war and its casualties reached a breaking point. For the VC, the Tet Offensive proved to be a success after all - it made the cost of fighting the war (both in dollars and in lives) unbearable for the Americans.
Antiwar demonstrations rocked American university campuses and spilled onto the streets. Seeing his political popularity plummet in the polls, Johnson decided not to stand for re-election.
Richard Nixon was elected president of the USA, in part because of a promise that he had a 'secret plan' to end the war. Many suspected this would be military invasion of North Vietnam, but it didn't turn out to be that. The plan, later to be unveiled in July 1969 and called on Asian nations to be more 'self-reliant' in defence matters and not expect the USA to become embroiled in future civil wars. Nixon's strategy called for 'Vietnamisation', which meant making the South's military fight the war without US troops.
Nixon Doctrine or not, the first half of 1969 saw still greater escalation of the conflict. In April, the number of US soldiers in Vietnam reached an all-time high of 543,400. By the end of 1969, US troops levels were down to 475,200; 40,024 Americans had been killed in action, as had 110,176 ARVN troops. While the fighting raged, Nixon's chief negotiator, Henry Kissinger, pursued talks in Paris with North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho.
In 1969, the Americans began secretly bombing Cambodia. The following year, American ground forces were sent into Cambodia to extricate ARVN units whose fighting ability was still unable to match the enemy's. This new escalation infuriated previously quiescent elements of the US public, leading to even more bitter antiwar protests. The television screens of Americans were almost daily filled with scenes of demonstrations, student strikes and even deadly acts of self-immolation. A peaceful demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio resulted in four protesters being shot dead by National Guard troops.
The rise of organizations like Vietnam Veterans Against The War demonstrated that it wasn't just 'cowardly students fearing military conscription' who wanted the USA out of Vietnam. It was clear that the war was ripping the USA apart. Nor were the protesters confined to the USA - huge anti-American demonstrations in Western Europe shook the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance. There was even a Vietnamese peace movement - under great risk to themselves, idealistic young students in Siagon protested against the US presence in their country.
In 1971, excerpts from a scandalous top-secret study of American involvement in Indochina were published in the New York Times after a legal battle, which went to the US Supreme Court. The study, best known as the Pentagon Papers, was commissioned by the US Defense Department and described how the military and former presidents had systematically lied to Congress and the US public. The Pentagon Papers infuriated Americans and caused antiwar sentiments to reach new heights. The New York Times obtained the study from one of its authors, Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, who had turned against the war. Ellsberg was subsequently prosecuted for espionage, theft, and conspiracy. A judge dismissed the charges after Nixon's 'plumbers' (so called because their job was to stop information leaks) burgled the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist to obtain evidence.
In the spring of 1972, the North Vietnamese launched an offensive across the 17th Parallel; the USA responded with increased bombing of the North and mined seven North Vietnamese harbours. The 'Christmas bombing' of Haiphong and Hanoi at the end of 1972 was meant to wrest concessions from North Vietnam at the negotiating table. Finally Kissinger and Le Duc Tho reached agreement. The Paris agreements, which were signed by the USA, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the VC on 27 January 1973, provided for a cease-fire, the establishment of the National Council of Reconcilation and Concord, the total withdrawal of US combat forces and the release of 590 American POWs. The agreement made no mention of approximately 200,000 North Vietnamese troops then in South Vietnam.
Nixon was then re-elected president in November 1972, shortly before the Paris peace agreements were signed. By 1973, he became hopelessly mired in the Watergate scandal resulting from illegal activities of his re-election campaign. The Pentagon Papers and Watergate contributed to such a high level of public distrust in America of the military and presidents that the US Congress passed a resolution which prohibited any further US military involvement in Indochina after 15 August 1973. President Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974 and was succeeded by Gerald Ford.
In total, 3.14 million Americans (including 7200 women) served in the US armed forces in Vietnam during the war. Officially, 58,183 Americans (including eight women) were killed or are listed as missing in action (MIA). The US losses were nearly double those of the Korean War. Pentagon figures indicate that by 1972, 3689 fixed-wing aircraft and 4857 helicopters had been lost and 15 million tonnes of ammunition had been expended. The direct cost of the war was officially put at US$165 billion, though its true cost to the economy was at least twice that. By comparison, the Korean War had cost America US$18 billion.
By the end of 1973, 223,748 South Vietnamese soldiers had been killed in action; North Vietnamese and VC fatalities have been estimated at one million. Approximately four million civilians (or 10% of the Vietnamese population) were injured or killed during the war, many of them in the North as a result of US bombing. At least 300,000 Vietnamese and 2200 Americans are still listed as MIA.
As far as anyone knows, the Soviet Union and China - who supplied all the weapons to North Vietnam and the VC - did not suffer a single casualty.

Fall of the South (1975)
Except for a small contingent of technicians and CIA agents, all US military personnel were out of Vietnam by 1973. The bombing of North Vietnam ceased and the US POWs were released, but the guerilla war continued - the only difference was that the fighting had been thoroughly Vietnamised. However, the foreign powers continued to bankroll the war. America supplied the South Vietnamese military with weapons, ammunition and fuel while the USSR and China did the same for the North.
Although the USA had ended its combat role, antiwar organizations such as the Indochina Resource Centre continued to lobby the US government to cut off all financial and military assistance to South Vietnam. They nearly succeeded - the US Senate came within two votes of doing just that. The antiwar lobby did succeed in having funding greatly reduced. In 1975, America gave South Vietnam US$700 million in aid, less than half of what military experts estimated was needed. The South Vietnamese suddenly found they were running desperately low on stocks of ammunition and fuel.
The North Vietnamese were quick to assess the situation. They continued a major military build-up and in January 1975 launched a massive convential ground attack across the 17th Parallel using tanks and heavy artillery. The invasion - a blatant violation of the Paris agreements - panicked the South Vietnamese army and government, which in the past had always depended on the Americans. In March, the NVA quickly occupied a strategic section of the central highlands at Buon Ma Thout. In the absence of American military support or advice, the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, decided on a strategy of tactical withdrawal to more defensible positions. This proved to be a spectacular military blunder. Rather than stand and fight as expected, South Vietnamese troops were ordered to retreat from Central Highland bases at Pleiku and Kon Tum. The totally unplanned withdrawal was quite a disaster. Retreating ARVN soldiers were intercepted and attacked by the well disciplined North Vietnamese troops. The withdrawal became a disaster as panicking ARVN soldiers deserted en masse in order to try and save their families.
Whole brigades of ARVN soldiers disintegrated and fled southward, joining the hundreds of thousands of civilians clogging the National Highway 1. City after city - Buon Ma Thout, Quang Tri, Hue, Danang, Qui Nhon, Tuy Hoa, Nha Trang - was simply abandoned by the defenders with hardly a shot fired. So quickly did the ARVN troops flee that the North Vietnamese army could barely keep up with them. The US Congress, fed up with the war and its drain on the treasury, refused to send emergency aid that Nixon - before his resignation - had promised in the event of such and invasion.
Nguyen Van Thieu, in power since 1967, resigned on 21 April 1975 and fled the country, allegedly taking with him millions of dollars in ill-gotten wealth. He moved to Britain and bitterly blamed the Americans for 'abandoning' his regime.
Thieu was replaced by Vice President Tran Van Huong, who quit a week later, turning the presidency over to General Duong Van Minh, who surrendered on the morning of 30 April 1975, after only 43 hours in office, in Saigon's Independence Palace (now called Reunification Palace). Minh died in 2001, at the age of 86, while living in exile in California.
The last Americans were evacuated by helicopter from the US embassy roof, to ships stationed just offshore, only a few hours before South Vietnam surrendered. Thus more than a decade of American military involvement was brought to an end. Throughout the entire episode, the USA had never declared war on Vietnam.
The Americans weren't the only ones who left. As the South collapsed, 135,000 Vietnamese also fled the country; in the next five years, at least 545,000 of their compatriots would do the same. Those who left by sea would become known to the world as 'boat people'.