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American Involvement in The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War is without a doubt one of the most memorable wars yet to date. Because of the time period, the war took place there are many survivors that are still living. The basic reason I chose to do my individual project on the war was basically that it took place while I was a child. However, another reason I chose this topic was that I actually know a person who was in the war.

The Vietnam War was basically a military struggle fought in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975. The war involved the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front in conflict with United States forces and the South Vietnamese army. From 1946 until 1954, the Vietnamese had struggled for their independence from France during the First Indochina War. At the end of this war, the country was temporarily divided into North and South Vietnam. North Vietnam came under the control of the Vietnamese Communists who had opposed France and who aimed for a unified Vietnam under Communist rule. Vietnamese who had collaborated with the French controlled the South.

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Now what you might be asking yourself is “Why did the United States get involved in the war.” Well, the truth is that The United States became involved because it believed that if all of the countries fell under a Communist government, Communism would spread throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. This belief was known as the “domino theory.” The U.S. government, therefore, supported the South Vietnamese government. This government’s repressive policies led to rebellion in the South, and the NLF was formed as an opposition group with close ties to North Vietnam.

In 1965 the United States sent in troops to prevent the South Vietnamese government from collapsing. Ultimately, however, the United States failed to achieve its goal, and in 1975 Vietnam was reunified under Communist control; in 1976 it officially became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. During the conflict, approximately 3 to 4 million Vietnamese on both sides were killed, in addition to another 1.5 to 2 million Laotians and Cambodians who were drawn into the war. More than 58,000 Americans lost their lives.

In 1955, the United States picked a man by the name of Ngo Dinh Diem to head the anti-Communist regime in South Vietnam. With U.S. encouragement, Diem refused to participate in the planned national elections. He was not favoured to win. Instead, Diem held elections only in South Vietnam, an action that violated the Geneva Accords. Diem won the elections with 98.2 percent of the vote. Diem then declared South Vietnam to be an independent nation called the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), with Saigon as its capital. Vietnamese Communists and many non-Communist Vietnamese nationalists saw the creation of the RVN as an effort by the United States to interfere with the independence promised at Geneva.

The repressive measures of the Diem government eventually led to increasingly organized opposition within South Vietnam. Diem’s government represented a minority of Vietnamese who were mostly businessmen, Roman Catholics, large landowners, and others who had fought with the French against the Viet Minh. When Vietnam was divided in 1954, many Viet Minh who had been born in the southern part of the country returned to their native villages to await the 1956 elections and the reunification of their nation. When the elections did not take place as planned, these Viet Minh immediately formed the core of opposition to Diem’s government and sought its overthrow. The Viet Minh were greatly aided in their efforts to organize resistance in the countryside by Diem’s own policies, which alienated many peasants.

Beginning in 1955, the United States created the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in South Vietnam. Using these troops, Diem took land away from peasants and returned it to former landlords, reversing the land redistribution program implemented by the Viet Minh. He also forcibly moved many villagers from their ancestral lands to controlled settlements in an attempt to prevent Communist activity, and he drafted their sons into the ARVN. Many people did not agree with the ARVN and protested against it. However, President John F. Kennedy still believed that the ARVN could become effective. Some of his advisers advocated the commitment of U.S. combat forces, but Kennedy decided to try to increase support for the ARVN among the people of Vietnam through counterinsurgency. The United States Special Forces would work with ARVN troops directly in the villages in an effort to match NLF’s political organizing and to win over the South Vietnamese people.

The number of U.S. advisers assigned to the ARVN rose steadily. In January 1961, when Kennedy took office, there were 800 U.S. advisers in Vietnam; by November 1963 there were 16,700. Although the number of advisors began to increase, they wouldn’t last long. After some questionable incidents that took place, the numbers once again began to decrease. The inability of the ARVN to protect U.S. air bases led Johnson’s senior planners to the consensus that U.S. combat forces would be required. On March 8, 1965, 3500 U.S. Marines landed at ðà Nang. By the end of April, 56,000 other combat troops had joined them; by June the number had risen to 74,000.

When some of the soldiers of the U.S. 9th Marine Regiment landed in ðà Nang in March 1965, their orders were to protect the U.S. airbase, but the mission was quickly escalated to include search-and-destroy patrols of the area around the base. This corresponded in miniature to the larger strategy of General William Westmoreland. Westmoreland, who took over the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) in 1964, advocated establishing a large American force and then unleashing it in big sweeps. His strategy was that of attrition—eliminating or wearing down the enemy by inflicting the highest death toll possible. There were 80,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam by the end of 1965; 1969 would reach a peak of 543,000 troops.

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Having easily pushed aside the ARVN, both the North Vietnamese and the NLF had anticipated the U.S. escalation. With a full-scale movement of U.S. troops onto South Vietnamese territory, the Communists claimed that the Saigon regime had become a puppet, not unlike the colonial collaborators with the French. Both the North Vietnamese and NLF appealed to the nationalism of the Vietnamese to rise up and drive this new foreign army from their land.

The strategy developed against the United States was the result of intense debate both within the Lao Dong in the north, and between the northerners and the NLF. Truong Chinh, the leading southern military figure, argued that the southern Vietnamese must liberate themselves; Le Duan, secretary-general of the Lao Dong, insisted that Vietnam was one nation and therefore dependent on all Vietnamese for its independence and reunification. Ho Chi Minh, revered widely throughout Vietnam as the father of independence, successfully appealed for unity. The Central Committee Directorate for the South (also known as the Central Office for South Vietnam, or COSVN), which was composed of DRV and NLF representatives, was then able to coordinate a unified strategy.

After the United States initiated large-scale bombing against the DRV in 1964, in the wake of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Hanoi dispatched the first unit of northern-born regular soldiers to the south. Previously, southern-born Viet Minh, known as regrouped, had returned to their native regions and joined NLF guerrilla units. Now PAVN regulars, commanded by generals who had been born in the south, began to set up bases in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam in order to gain strategic position.

Unable to cross the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the 17th parallel separating North from South Vietnam, PAVN regulars moved into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia. In use since 1957, the trail was originally a series of footpaths; by the late 1960s, it would become a network of paved highways that enabled the motor transport of people and equipment. The NLF guerrillas and North Vietnamese troops were poorly armed compared to the Americans, so once they were in South Vietnam they avoided open combat. Instead, they developed hit-and-run tactics designed to cause steady casualties among the U.S. troops and to wear down popular support for the war in the United States.

In June 1964 retired general Maxwell Taylor replaced Henry Cabot Lodge as ambassador to South Vietnam. A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military advisory group to the president, Taylor at first opposed the introduction of American combat troops, believing that this would make the ARVN quit fighting altogether. By 1965 he agreed to the request of General Westmoreland for combat forces. Taylor initially advocated an enclave strategy, where U.S. forces would seek to preserve areas already considered to be under Saigon’s control. This quickly proved impossible, since NLF strength was considerable virtually everywhere in South Vietnam.

In October 1965 the newly arrived 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army fought one of the largest battles of the Vietnam War in the Ia Drang Valley, inflicting a serious defeat on North Vietnamese forces. The North Vietnamese and NLF forces changed their tactics as a result of the battle. From then on both would fight at times of their choosing, hitting rapidly, with surprise if possible, and then withdrawing just as quickly to avoid the impact of American firepower.

The success of the American campaign in the Ia Drang Valley convinced Westmoreland that his strategy of attrition was the key to U.S. victory. He ordered the largest search-and-destroy operations of the war in the “Iron Triangle,” the Communist stronghold northeast of Saigon. This operation was intended to find and destroy North Vietnam and NLF military headquarters, but the campaign failed to wipe out Communist forces from the area.

By 1967 the ground war had reached a stalemate, which led Johnson and McNamara to increase the ferocity of the air war. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had been pressing for this for some time, but there was already some indication that intensified bombing would not produce the desired results. In 1966 the bombing of North Vietnam’s oil facilities had destroyed 70 percent of their fuel reserves, but the DRV’s ability to wage the war had not been affected.

Planners wished to avoid populated areas, but when 150,000 sorties per year were being flown by U.S. warplanes, civilian casualties were inevitable. These casualties provoked revulsion both in the United States and internationally. In 1967 the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle Wheeler, declared that no more “major military targets” were left. Unable to widen the bombing to population centers for fear of Chinese and Soviet reactions in support of North Vietnam, the U.S. Department of Defense had to admit stalemate in the air war as well. The damage that had already been inflicted on Vietnam’s population was enormous.

In 1967 North Vietnam and the NLF decided the time had come to mount an all-out offensive aimed at inflicting serious losses on both the ARVN and U.S. forces. They planned the Tet Offensive with the hope that this would significantly affect the public mood in the United States. In December 1967 North Vietnamese troops attacked and surrounded the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh, placing it under siege. Westmoreland ordered the outpost held at all costs. To prevent the Communists from overrunning the base, about 50,000 U.S. Marines and Army troops were called into the area, thus weakening positions further south.

This concentration of American troops in one spot was exactly what the COSVN strategists had hoped would happen. The main thrust of the Tet Offensive then began on January 31, 1968, at the start of Tet, or the Vietnamese lunar New Year celebration, when a lull in fighting traditionally took place. Most ARVN troops had gone home on leave, and U.S. troops were on stand-down in many areas. Over 85,000 NLF soldiers simultaneously struck at almost every Major City and provincial capital across South Vietnam, sending their defenders reeling. The U.S. Embassy in Saigon, previously thought to be invulnerable, was taken over by the NLF and held for eight hours before U.S. forces could retake the complex. It took three weeks for U.S. troops to dislodge 1000 NLF fighters from Saigon.

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During the Tet Offensive, the imperial capital of Hue witnessed the bloodiest fighting of the entire war. Communists assassinated South Vietnamese for collaborating with Americans; then when the ARVN returned, NLF sympathizers were murdered. United States Marines and paratroopers were ordered to go from house to house to find North Vietnamese and NLF soldiers. Virtually indiscriminate shelling was what killed most civilians, however, and the architectural treasures of Hue were laid to waste. More than 100,000 residents of the city were left homeless.

The Tet Offensive as a whole lasted into the fall of 1968, and when it was over the North Vietnamese and the NLF had suffered acute losses. The U.S. Department of Defense estimated that a total of 45,000 North Vietnamese and NLF soldiers had been killed, most of them NLF fighters. Although it was covered up for more than a year, one horrifying event during the Tet Offensive would indelibly affect America’s psyche. In March 1968 elements of the U.S. Army’s Americal Division wiped out an entire hamlet called My Lai, killing 500 unarmed civilians, mostly women and children.

Promising an end to the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon won a narrow victory in the election of 1968. Slightly more than 30,000 young Americans had been killed in the war when Nixon took office in January 1969. The new president retained his predecessor’s goal of a non-Communist South Vietnam, however, and this could not be ensured without continuing the war. Nixon’s most pressing problem was how to make peace and war at the same time. His answer was a policy called “Vietnamization.” Under this policy, he would withdraw American troops and the South Vietnamese army would take over the fighting.

During his campaign for the presidency, Nixon announced that he had a secret plan to end the war. In July 1969, after he had become president, he issued what came to be known as the Nixon doctrine, which stated that U.S. troops would no longer be directly involved in Asian wars. He ordered the withdrawal of 25,000 troops, to be followed by more, and he lowered draft calls. On the other hand, Nixon also stepped up the Phoenix Program; a secret CIA operation that resulted in the assassination of 20,000 suspected NLF guerrillas, many of whom were innocent civilians. The operation increased funding for the ARVN and intensified the bombing of North Vietnam. Nixon reasoned that to keep the Communists at bay during the U.S. withdrawal, it was also necessary to bomb their sanctuaries in Cambodia and to increase airstrikes against Laos.

The DRV leadership, however, remained committed to the expulsion of all U.S. troops from Vietnam and to the overthrow of the Saigon government. As U.S. troop strength diminished, Hanoi’s leaders planned their final offensive. While the ARVN had increased in size and was better armed than it had been in 1965, it could not hold its own without the help of heavy U.S. airpower.

Vice President Johnson had initiated peace negotiations after the first phase of the Tet Offensive. Beginning in Paris on May 13, 1968, the talks rapidly broke down over disagreements about the status of the NLF, which the Saigon government refused to recognize. In October 1968, just before the U.S. presidential elections, candidate Hubert Humphrey called for a negotiated settlement, but Nixon secretly persuaded South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu to hold out for better terms under a Nixon administration. Stating that he would never negotiate with Communists, Thieu caused the Paris talks to collapse and contributed to Humphrey’s defeat as well. Nixon thus inherited the Paris peace talks, but they continued to remain stalled as each faction refused to alter its position. The United States, on the other hand, insisted that all North Vietnamese troops be withdrawn.

In March 1969 Nixon ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia. Intended to wipe out North Vietnamese and NLF base camps along the border with South Vietnam in order to provide time for the buildup of the ARVN, the campaign failed utterly. The secret bombing lasted four years and caused great destruction and upheaval in Cambodia, a land of farmers that had not known war in centuries. Code-named Operation Menu, the bombing was more intense than that carried out over Vietnam. An estimated 100,000 peasants died in the bombing, while 2 million people were left homeless.

In April 1970 Nixon ordered U.S. troops into Cambodia. He argued that this was necessary to protect the security of American units than in the process of withdrawing from Vietnam, but he also wanted to buy security for the Saigon regime. When Nixon announced the invasion, U.S. College campuses erupted in protest, and one-third of them shut down due to student walkouts. At Kent State University in Ohio panicky national guardsmen who had been called up to prevent rioting killed four students. Two days later, two students were killed at Jackson State College in Mississippi. Congress proceeded to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Congress also passed the Cooper-Church Amendment, which specifically forbade the use of U.S. troops outside South Vietnam. The measure did not expressly forbid bombing, however, so Nixon continued the airstrikes on Cambodia until 1973.

Three months after committing U.S. forces, Nixon ordered them to withdraw from Cambodia. The combined effects of the bombing and the invasion, however, had completely disrupted Cambodian life, driving millions of peasants from their ancestral lands.

The United States began conducting secret bombing of Laos in 1964 and many other areas, targeting both the North Vietnamese forces along sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Communist Pathet Lao guerrillas, who controlled the northern part of the country. Roughly 150,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the Plain of Jars in northern Laos between 1964 and 1969. By 1970 at least one-quarter of the entire population of Laos were refugees, and about 750,000 Laotians had been killed.

The success of Vietnamization seemed highly doubtful since the Communist forces showed that the new ARVN could be defeated. Instead of inhibiting the Communist Pathet Lao, the U.S. attacks on Laos promoted their rise. In 1958 the Pathet Lao had the support of one-third of the population; by 1973 a majority denied the legitimacy of the U.S.-supported Royal Lao Government. 1975 established a Communist government in Laos.

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In the spring of 1972, with only 6000 U.S. combat troops remaining in South Vietnam, the DRV leadership decided the time had come to crush the ARVN. On March 30 over 30,000 North Vietnamese troops crossed the Demilitarized Zone, along with another 150,000 PRG fighters, and attacked Quang Trí Province, easily scattering ARVN defenders. The attack, known as the Easter Offensive, could not have come at a worse time for Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. A military defeat of the ARVN would leave the United States in a weak position at the Paris peace talks and would compromise its strategic position globally.

Risking the success of the upcoming Moscow summit, Nixon unleashed the first sustained bombing of North Vietnam in 1969 and moved quickly to mine the harbour of Haiphong. Between April and October 1972 the United States conducted 41,000 sorties over North Vietnam, especially targeting Quang Trí. North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive was crushed. At least 100,000 Communist troops were killed. The ailing Vo Nguyen Giap, the founder of North Vietnam’s army, was forced into retirement and succeeded by Van Tien Dung, who counselled the renewal of negotiations with the United States.

Further negotiations were held in Paris between Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, who represented North Vietnam. Seeking an end to the war before the U.S. presidential elections in November, Kissinger made remarkable concessions. The United States would withdraw completely while accepting the presence of 14 North Vietnamese divisions in South Vietnam and recognizing the political legitimacy of the PRG. Hanoi would drop its insistence on the resignation of Nguyen van Thieu, who had become president of South Vietnam in 1967. Kissinger announced on October 27 that “peace was at hand.” Thieu, however, accused the United States of selling him out and Nixon refused to sign the agreement.

After the 1972 elections, Kissinger attempted to revise the agreements he had already made. North Vietnam refused to consider these revisions, and Kissinger threatened to renew air assaults against North Vietnam unless the new conditions were met. Nixon then unleashed at Christmas the final and most intense bombing of the war over Hanoi and Haiphong.

While many U.S. officials were convinced that Hanoi was bombed back to the negotiating table, the final treaty changed nothing significant from what had already been agreed to by Kissinger and Tho in October. Nixon’s Christmas Bombing was intended to warn Hanoi that American airpower remained a threat, and he secretly promised Thieu that the United States would punish North Vietnam should they violate the terms of the final settlement. Nixon’s political fortunes were about to decline, however. Although he had won reelection by a landslide in November 1972, he was suffering from revelations about the Watergate scandal. The president’s campaign officials had orchestrated a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, and Nixon had attempted to cover it up by lying to the American people about his role.

The president made new enemies when the secret bombing of Cambodia was revealed at last. Congress was threatening a bill of impeachment and in early January 1973 indicated it would cut off all funding for operations in Indochina once U.S. forces had withdrawn. In mid-January Nixon halted all military actions against North Vietnam.

On January 27, 1973, all four parties to the Vietnam conflict—the United States, South Vietnam, the PRG, and North Vietnam—signed the Treaty of Paris. The final terms provided for the release of all American prisoners of war from North Vietnam; the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from South Vietnam; the end of all foreign military operations in Laos and Cambodia; a cease-fire between North and South Vietnam; the formation of a National Council of Reconciliation to help South Vietnam form a new government; and continued U.S. military and economic aid to South Vietnam. In a secret addition to the treaty, Nixon also promised $3.25 billion in reparations for the reconstruction of ravaged North Vietnam, an agreement that Congress ultimately refused to uphold.

In my introduction, I stated that I know a person who was involved in the war. The person I know is my employer. He was in the war however I never really talked to him about it. Sometime in the near future, I do want to talk to him and see what experiences he actually had.

When I chose to do a report on the Vietnam War, I had no idea how much really took place during these times. I basically had an important choice to make about how I would approach the report. I could have just briefly explained how the war started and how it ended or I could do my best to explain most of the details. I hope you realized that I did my best to include as many details as possible. As I said, when I started the research I had no idea what was in store for me. There is just so much to this war that it is hard to explain everything. I hope that you enjoyed my report and I hope you learned just as much as I did.

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