The Vietnam War, also known as the 2nd Indochina War or Resistance War Against America in Vietnam, is a bloody conflict that lasted 19 years, 5 months, 4 weeks and 1 day. It began on 1st November 1955 with the French withdrawal led to direct US involvement in Vietnam and ended with the Fall of Saigon on 30th April 1975 with the victory of the North-backed Vietnamese National Liberation Front (Viet Cong).
The War is a continuity of a period of massive convulsion and western intervention in Vietnamese history, which dated back to the French Colonists’ invasion of the Empire of Dai Nam under Nguyen Dynasty in 1861. During World War II, Vietnam was occupied by the Japanese Empire in September 1940 and was established as a Nipponese puppet state under the regime of the Empire of Vietnam. Acknowledging the inevitable collapse of the Axis power, from 1941 to 1945, the Viet Minh had fought against the Japanese forces. Eventually, the Viet Minh under the lead of Ho Chi Minh organized the resistance movement called August Revolution, effectively overthrown the Empire of Vietnam’s government and removing the power of foreign forces for the first time in nearly one century. This communist force then proclaimed independence from both Japan and France and established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on 2nd September 1945 on all territory of Vietnam. Having received decent support from the Office of Strategic Service of CIA, Ho Chi Minh believed in the prospect of “full cooperation with the U.S.” to seek for long-term independence of the Vietnamese people from the inevitable comeback of French colonialists and sent a series of eight letters to President Truman. (“Ho’s Letter to President Truman”). To appeal to America, in the Declaration of Independence that established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh began his speech with the words that familiar to every American: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (Lindsay). However, he received no response from the U.S. and therefore, must seek help from China and the Soviet Union.
After WWII ended, the French quickly reinvaded and regained most of Vietnam in 1946 and set up the State of Vietnam government which existed until its defeat in Dien Bien Phu in 1954. This event ended the Indochina War and followed with the Geneva Accords, which regained the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (established in 1945) the territory above the 17th parallel north (DMZ) and ruled that the State of Vietnam under French protection (established in 1946) would be reduced to the Southern part of the DMZ. The accord also promised that a general election would be held in 1956 to “reunify the country.” Despite its history as an oppressed British colony and controversy over supporting a colonial power, “the U.S. began to support the French in Vietnam. Washington aided the French during their war with the Viet Minh, investing almost $3 billion in the years before 1954” to “‘saving’ Indochina from the specter of communism” (Llewellyn). Therefore, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower realized that “if the elections had been held in 1956, Ho Chi Minh would have won 80 percent of the vote” and would establish a Communist state in Vietnam (Eisenhower 337-338). Therefore, the United States, despite being pledged to honor the agreements, fearing the Domino Theory of Communism in Asia, decided to violate the Geneva Accords and held a fraud-ridden referendum vote to dismiss Chief of State Bao Dai of the State of Vietnam and establish Ngo Dinh Diem as the 1st President of the Republic of Vietnam to establish a strong foundation for direct American intervention. In the 1955 referendum, Diem received 98.2% vote and in some places, such as the Capital Saigon, it was reported that his credited votes were even higher than the actual number of people registered on the electoral roll (Karnow” 223-224). Since the establishment of the Republic of Vietnam, the United States has the morale justification of preventing Communism takeover of South Vietnam and bogged down in a brutal war that caused the 4th most casualties in American history (just below the Civil War and the two World Wars) and costed a hefty estimation of $168 billion ($950 billion in 2011 dollars) (Rohn).
Despite its superior advantages in warfare logistics and weapons, as well as copious funding powered by the steadfast determination in preventing the spread of communism in Asia, the United States was bitterly defeated. Although mentally, it is a stereotypical belief that the Viet Cong forces had stronger spirit than that of American and its allies’ troops, the major causes for American loss in the war lied on strategy and political affairs. Strategically, the American government was unprepared in advocating an effective total war against North Vietnam. Politically, the U.S. has established a South Vietnamese government that was exceedingly corrupted, unstable and overdependent.
It is a common stereotypical notion among both American soldiers and the Vietnamese people that the Viet Cong forces possessed spectacular nerves of steel and greater motivation than that of American and its allies’ troops.
Firstly, located in one of the uttermost strategically important locations in the region, Vietnam has a great potential for economic, political and military development and traditionally became a prominent target for major imperialist powers. For most of their four-thousand-year history dated back to the Hong Bang Dynasty in 2879 BC (Pelley” 151), the Vietnamese people have found themselves stuck in wars and conflicts with tremendous involvement of foreign powers, notably the Chinese dynasties, Mongol Empire, French Empire, Japanese Empire and the United States (Vietnam History Timeline). In the war of the Dai Viet Kingdom against the second Mongol invasion in the 13th century, after being captured by the army of the Yuan Dynasty (which was then a satellite state of the Mongol), general Tran Binh Trong rejected the proposal of the Mongolian to surrender in exchange for a minister position in China. Upon getting executed, it is documented that he was saying “I prefer to be a ghost in the South [Dai Viet] than a King in the North [Yuan Dynasty]” (Chapuis 83). The above story is just among a myriad of lessons and propaganda being used for centuries in the Vietnamese’ Taoism- and Confucianism-based education to instill and kindle a sense of independence and patriotism among Vietnamese people. It is reasonable to perceive that due to this historical background of constant oppression, the Vietnamese people have a very stubborn desire for independence and a galvanizing sense of nationalism.
Secondly, many Vietnamese saw the Vietnam War less of a civil war between the North and the South but more of a resistance war against the American forces. This was due to the very fundamental of the establishment of South Vietnam government – a successor of the State of Vietnam, which was a puppet state of France after its comeback in 1946; therefore, the people from both the North and the South regard the U.S. not as an ally but just another ruler like France. The last President of South Vietnam – Mr. Duong Van Minh himself, just a few days before the Fall of Saigon rejected the proposition of French spy Francois Vanussème in which China would attack North Vietnam to save the inevitable fall of South Vietnam. But he replied to Vanussème “I appreciate your goodwill, but for my whole life, I have been the henchman for France, for America. That was enough. I can no longer be the henchman for China (Nguyen).” The Vietnam War was, de facto, a civil war or a revolution within South Vietnam, since the majority of combats and bombing missions were operated inside the territory of the South between the ARVN (backed up by America) and the South Vietnamese people (backed by Viet Cong forces and the North) (Thomas). The U.S., in fact, dropped four times as many bombs on the South – the ally it was defending, than on the North (Kiernan). And these bombs carried the notorious Agent Orange that was technically a chemical weapon causing tremendous disabilities, cancers and disorders for generations of the Southern people. Ironically, the spraying of Agent Orange stopped at the DMZ (17th parallel north), which was the border between North and South Vietnam (Aerial Herbicide spray missions). This fact, along with tremendous propaganda of the North and popularity of Ho Chi Minh, upheld the notion among South Vietnamese civilians that the enemy of the U.S. on the war was the South and therefore, the people must follow communism to resist to “liberate” the South and unify the nation. The Viet Cong forces, despite being regarded as a major belligerent were technically South Vietnamese civilians who followed and received aid from the Communist North to fight against the South Vietnam government. Although the notion of a stronger motivation and mentality of the Vietnamese people can be used to explain the eventual defeat of the American forces in Vietnam War, it does not sufficiently reflect the whole picture of the fundamental reasons behind the victory of the Viet Cong. For example, if we acknowledge that the Vietnamese superiority in mentality was the utmost important reason for the North’s victory, then one could argue that the South must have won the war since statistically, the South Vietnamese army population as of 1975 was around 1.5 million Vietnamese, nearly doubled that of the North and the Viet Cong combined (Le Gro 28; Pribbenow 211). Therefore, there must be some other pieces of the bigger picture contributing to the defeat of U.S. in this war, and that were the advantages in strategic and political affairs of the North over the South and the U.S.
Strategically, although the Republic of Vietnam was constantly claiming their “northward” missions, the U.S. never actually operated an effective and total war against North Vietnam.
Firstly, most of the missions of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and American forces’ operation were, as aforementioned, taken place in Southern territory (Thomas). Notably, the two biggest warfare missions in the Vietnam War, “Staley-Taylor Plan” (1961-1963) and “Joint Warfare in South Vietnam” (1963-1969), never saw the North as a target but aimed to “stabilize South Vietnam” and “counterinsurgency” within the South territory (Phillips). The ultimate goal of the two missions was to squeeze the willingness of the communist forces to riot and force the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to negotiate in a peace agreement or at least, an armistice agreement that recognized the Republic of Vietnam like what being done in the Korean War. Furthermore, the nature of the Vietnam War was arguably a civil uprising inside the South and therefore, despite having superiority in manpower and firepower, most of these resources were focused on preventing an overthrown of the Republic of Vietnam government by the South Vietnamese guerrilla organizations backed by Communist North. The U.S. dropped over 5 million tons of bombs on Vietnam during the war—more than double the 2.1 million tons dropped on Europe and Asia during all of World War II, and nearly eight times the amount dropped by the U.S. during the Korean War (Armstrong; Kiernan) but most of them were operated on the South Vietnamese territory. The reason behind American reluctance in launching a total war to invade the North and end the Vietnam War was due to the complication of the situation at that time: taken place in the Cold War period, the war witnessed a subsequent involvement of major global powers. As President Johnson acknowledge, since the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was allied with the Soviet Union and China, an invasion of the North will provoke the two nations to stage a full-scale military intervention similar to that of the earlier Korean War (Hilsman). Although there were some suggestions on the possibility of a nuclear war on the North, this concept was later deemed as unrealistic and dangerous by the U.S. government (“Release of Vietnam nuclear”). Contrary to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII, during the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union had already achieved parity in terms of nuclear technology with the United States. A nuclear attack on the North would unmistakably trigger retaliation from the Soviet and likely to cause a catastrophic nuclear war.
Secondly, the welfare tactics of the U.S. and South Vietnam were inferior to that of the Viet Cong in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. Despite having much smaller military personnel, the Viet Cong had taken advantage of their compact and flexibility. They were South Vietnamese ordinary people who had very normal jobs, families and came from every walks of life in the South society but secretly helped the North through spying, transportation of welfare equipment or guerilla operations. Since they were de jure civilians and could easily blend in every corner of the South, it gives the Viet Cong great control over important frontiers, from a myriad of small murders of American soldiers to a few primary offensive missions. Setting up “kill zone” ambushes in very ordinary places such as the jungles or rice paddy fields, NFL guerrilla fighters would “sneak up” on unaware U.S. and South Vietnamese troops, attack them then leave and go back to their daily life as if nothing had happened, waiting for the next missions (Burns & Novick; McDaniel). Although the Viet Cong guerilla was killed more than American soldiers in these operations, it shaped a psychological crisis among Americans. “You will kill ten of us, we will kill one of you, but in the end, you will tire of it first.” And this guerrilla tactics proved to be extremely effective in disturbing mentality and willingness to fight of U.S. troops. “In Vietnam, there were no front lines to advance. […] An apparently benign peasant could be a guerilla, a pretty prostitute a clandestine agent, the kid who delivered the laundry a secret informer, flooded rice fields concealed spikes, booby traps permeated jungles, and barracks were vulnerable to terrorist attacks” (Karnow). This was, once again, illustrated in the Tet Offensive in 1968, one of the most important events shaping the outcome of the war. As aforementioned, the North had a wide range of loyalists in every walks of life of the South society, including many spies in the elite class, such as the Pham Xuan An, who played a key role in the Offensive. Mr. Pham was a correspondent for Time magazine and a spy for the North Vietnamese communist intelligence services. This 1968 offensive, despite being regarded as a failure in military affairs since the “National Liberation Front lost half of their 80,000 fighters and secured none of their targets”, was actually a “psychological victory.” Events like the Hue Massacre or the occupation of the U.S. Embassy by communists sparked the “firestorm of antiwar protest” across America, and the request for two hundred thousand additional U.S. troops was denied. Mr. Pham not only recommended the Viet Cong targets to be attacked in Sai Gon but also did he manipulate the news reporting these attacks and convincingly twisted the defeat of the Viet Cong into a victory (Bass).
Politically, the South Vietnamese government of the Republic of Vietnam backed by America was a complete disaster of instability, corruption and overdependence.
Firstly, despite presenting to the world as a Western-modeled democracy, South Vietnam was de facto “anti-democratic, autocratic, corrupt and nepotistic” (Llewellyn et al.). Freedom of speech, religion, human rights, etc. – the major tenets of a democracy, were being tremendously violated under the South Vietnamese government, especially under the Diem regime. The curtailment of freedom of the press was imminent since “writing or protesting against the government could end in a prison sentence, or worse” (Llewellyn et al.). Furthermore, since 1955, Diệm and his brother Nhu launched the “Denounce the Communists” campaign, to locate, arrest, imprison, torture and execute suspected communists, sympathizers and anti-government elements (which were his political enemies in fact). Diem issued the Law 10/59 to legalize the death penalty against any activity deemed as communism, and approximately 12,000 suspected opponents were killed between 1955 and 1957 and 40,000 political prisoners had been jailed (“Origins of the Insurgency”). Moreover, having extreme favoritism towards Roman Catholics in a nation that Buddhist was followed by three-quarters of the population, Diem violated the freedom of religion with the notorious Buddhism Crisis in South Vietnam (Llewellyn et al.). Promotion of public servants and military officers, granting of government contracts and US aid, concessions of tax were based on religious preferences (Tucker 291). High ranking military leaders, governmental officials, business executives were overwhelmingly Catholic, to the point that Buddhism must convert to Catholicism to have better treatment and regime’s favor. He executed a decree banning the display of the Buddhist flag in public just shortly before the celebration of Buddha’s birthday. The protest of Hue Buddhists in response was brutally oppressed using tear gas and pouring battery acid on the heads of seated Buddhists and eight civilians were killed by the government forces (Roberts 250). These brutal and cruel treatments of the South Vietnamese government allowed Hanoi to propagate Saigon government as the enemy of the people and attract more civilians to “thoát ly” (join) the Viet Cong. In fact, this had been a continuity of puppet states in the South, dated back to the predecessor of the Republic of Vietnam. After the visit to Vietnam, in a broadcast on 15 November 1951, Congressman John F. Kennedy himself perceived that “The [State of Vietnam] [is a] puppet state […] In Indochina [the U.S. has] allied [itself] to the desperate effort of a French regime to hang on to the remnants of empire. There is no broad, general support of the native Vietnam Government among the people of that area…” (Bostdorff; Goldzwig). The South, through their brutal hostilities to its citizens, was unable to kindle a century-instilled sense of patriotism and collective power of the Vietnamese people in the South to protect their regime and were instead perceived them as “Việt gian” (“Vietnamese traitors”) or “American Imperialism Puppets” by many Vietnamese civilians (Elliott 52; Becker).
Secondly, the Republic of Vietnam was exceedingly dependent on the United States of America from the economy to the military. The declassified documents of Pentagon implied that without the aid of U.S., Diem would never be able to rule South Vietnam and suggested that the Republic of Vietnam was technically a creation of the U.S. (Patti 398). In fact, just more than two years after U.S. withdrawal of South Vietnam and restricted aids, South Vietnamese government collapsed bitterly in all frontiers, despite still possessing the 4th strongest army in the world (John). Moreover, in 1973, South Vietnam officials were very reluctant and resisted to sign the Paris Peace Accords, which was basically the death penalty for their regime since the terms of the accords were extremely detrimental to the South. But President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam they were forced to sign it by a threatening call of U.S. President Nixon that Thieu would have the same consequences as Ngo Dinh Diem if he did not obey (Kissinger). In the other hands, North Vietnam autonomously and independently negotiated with the United States regarding the terms of the Accords, despite pressure from the Soviets and Chinese. In fact, the main negotiators were North Vietnamese Communist Party Politburo Member Lê Đức Thọ and US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and were awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for their great contributions to the Accords (although Thọ refused to accept it, claiming that peace had not yet been established) (Flora).
In conclusion, the Vietnam War proved that superior logistical advantages do not necessarily mean victory in a war. History has shown that the Vietnamese people have a great desire for independence and galvanizing patriotism, but this was not the main reason behind the victory of the North and the NLF over the South. The Republic of Vietnam and the United States, despite the aforementioned superiority, was bitterly defeated due to its fundamental inferiority in political and strategic affairs.
Nguyen Le Dong Hai “DoHa”
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