Vietnam War Essay, Research Paper
From the 1880s until World War II, France governed Vietnam as part of French
Indochina, which also included Cambodia and Laos. The country was under the control of
an emperor, Bao Dai. In 1940 Japanese troops invaded and occupied French Indochina. In
December of that year, Vietnamese nationalists established the League for the
Independence of Vietnam, or Viet Minh, seeing the turmoil of the war as an opportunity
for resistance to French colonial rule. The United States demanded that Japan leave
Indochina, warning of military action. The Viet Minh began guerrilla warfare against Japan
and entered an effective alliance with the United States.
When the Japanese signed their formal surrender on September 2, 1945, Ho Chi
Minh used the occasion to declare the independence of Vietnam, which he called the
Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Emperor Bao Dai abdicated the throne. The French,
however, refused to acknowledge Vietnam?s independence, and later that year drove the
Viet Minh into the north of the country.
Ho Chi Minh wrote eight letters to U.S. president Harry Truman, imploring him to
recognize Vietnam?s independence. But, the foreign policy of the United States during the
Cold War was driven by a fear of the spread of Communism. Eastern Europe had fallen
under the domination of the Communist USSR, and China was ruled by Communists.
United States policymakers felt they could not afford to lose Southeast Asia as well to the
Communists. The United States therefore condemned Ho Chi Minh as an agent of
international Communism and offered to assist the French in recapturing Vietnam.
In May 1954, the Viet Minh mounted a massive assault on the French fortress at
?ien Bi?n, in northwestern Vietnam. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu resulted in perhaps the
most humiliating defeat in French military history. Already tired of the war, the French
public forced their government to reach a peace agreement at the Geneva Conference.
France asked the other world powers to help draw up a plan for French withdrawal
from the region and for the future of Vietnam. Meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, from May
8 to July 21, 1954, diplomats from France, Great Britain, the USSR, China, and the
United States, as well as representatives from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, drafted a set
of agreements called the Geneva Accords. These agreements provided for the withdrawal
of French troops to the south of Vietnam until they could be safely removed from the
country. Viet Minh forces moved into the north. Vietnam was temporarily divided at the
17th parallel to allow for a cooling-off period and for warring factions among the
Vietnamese to return to their native regions. Ho Chi Minh maintained control of North
Vietnam, while Emperor Bao Dai remained head of South Vietnam.
Also in 1955, the United States picked Ngo Dinh Diem to replace Bao Dai as head
of the anti-Communist regime in South Vietnam. With U.S. encouragement, Diem refused
to participate in the planned national elections, which Ho Chi Minh and the Lao Dong, or
Workers? Party, were favored to win. Instead, Diem held elections only in South Vietnam,
an action that violated the Geneva Accords. This led to the start of the war.
The United States became involved in Vietnam because it believed that if all of
the country 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.
When some of the soldiers of the U.S. 9th Marine Regiment landed in ?? Nang in
March 1965, their orders were to protect the U.S. air base, 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 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;
by 1969 a peak of 543,000 troops would be reached.
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 North
Vietnam 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.
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.
Having no faith that the Paris treaty would be implemented, the North
Vietnamese set 1975 as the year to mount their final offensive. They believed it would
take at least two years; the rapid collapse of the ARVN was therefore a surprise even to
them. After the initial attack by the North Vietnamese in the Central Highlands northeast
of Saigon on January 7, the ARVN immediately began to fall apart. On March 25 the
ancient imperial city of Hue fell; then on March 29, Da Nang, the former U.S. Marine
headquarters, was overtaken. On April 20 Thieu resigned, accusing the United States of
betrayal. His successor was Duong Van Minh, who had been among those who
overthrew Diem in 1963. On April 30 Minh issued his unconditional surrender to the
PRG. Almost 30 years after Ho Chi Minh?s declaration of independence, Vietnam was
In 1965 the United States sent in troops to prevent the South Vietnamese
government from collapsing. Ultimately, 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