VIETNAM’S LEADING BATTLEFIELD TOUR OPERATOR

Join us for a journey through the history of Vietnam conflicts.

Vietnam War in brief

How and why did The U.S. become involved in Vietnam and why was a super power unable to defeat such a poor, under equipped country? In order to get some understanding of what brought U.S into its longest war, I have tried to put together a brief history of the events that took place. Be aware that this is neither an apology nor a justification for the war. It is merely a summary of how I understand U.S became involved and some of the major events that took place.
The 1st Indochina War ( French War )
  The French began their colonization of Vietnam in 1858. The wealth created by rice, tea, and rubber, as well as its strategic location on the Pacific rim, made Vietnam a jewel in the crown of France. Though they allowed the imperial family to maintain their royal stature, the French ruled the country with an iron fist, creating distrust and hatred among the people. Uprisings became frequent, building more resentment between the French and the local people. By the 1920's the resistance groups became strong enough to form the Vietnamese Nationalist Party. This in turn was inherited by the Indo-Chinese Communist Party (ICCP) founded in the 30's by a young student named Nguyen ai Quoc, later to be known as Ho Chi Minh. Though the ICCP did not have the strength to oust the French legions, they were a constant irritation. When Germany invaded and occupied France at the beginning of W.W.II, the French were forced to withdraw their military from many of their colonies to focus attention on the home front. The absence of French troops on their soil was only briefly enjoyed by the Vietnamese, however. Japan, in its quest to invade China and define power over the Pacific rim, found Vietnam to be an ideal location to set up camp. They were more ruthless than the French had ever been. Ho Chi Minh and his resistance fighters now had to turn on this new enemy. But in order for them to have any chance of success against the Japanese, it would be necessary to bring together all of the revolutionary factions under one banner. This new order was called Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, or Viet Minh. With the help of American arms and aid, this new Viet Minh was able to keep Japan from enjoying a peaceful occupation of Vietnam. With the surrender of Japan in 1945, Vietnam thought it would be able to finally have the independence it had been seeking for so long. This was not to be. The Western powers had been keeping a watchful eye on the changes taking place in China and were worried that the Communist movement being led by Mao Tse-tung would spread to the vulnerable country of Vietnam. In spite of moderate reluctance from the Americans, France was allowed to once again return to their former colony in hopes their presence would deter the Chinese from spreading their revolution too far afield. Inevitably, this renewed occupation led to confrontation with the Viet Minh. These conflicts took place mostly in the northern regions around Tonkin and Hai Phong. And though the French were able to successfully defeat the Viet Minh, this new resistance group was much stronger, more organized, and had much more popular support than had ever been realized before. The military leader, Vo Nguyen Giap had learned to fight a guerilla war, hitting the French only when he was certain he had the advantage.
The French Lost The Desisive Battle Of Dien Bien Phu
  By 1953, the French were about ready to pull out of Vietnam. They could see the price they had to pay for their colony was becoming too great. But a new head of military operations, Gen. Navarre thought he could destroy the best troops of Viet Minh Army once and for all by luring the Viet Minh into an open battle. Choosing a small valley surrounded by mountains about 200 miles west of Hanoi, Navarre set up a base at Dien Bien Phu. He was in hopes of drawing the enemy into a full scale battle where his air and big guns would destroy him decisively. Unfortunately, he grossly underestimated the strength and the will of his adversary. Giving command of this base to a Col. Castries, Navarre watched in horror as nearly 60,000 militia surrounded Dien Bien Phu and pounded it with large guns that were never known to exist. The siege lasted for 55 days. In May of 1954, Giap's troops overran the compound, killing nearly 2,000 French troops and taking 10,000 into captivity. The cream of the French foreign forces had been all but destroyed. This victory for Giap did not come without cost. The battle for Dien Bien Phu cost him an estimated 20,000 soldiers and nearly drained his reserves of equipment and money.
The Geneve Agreements
  After such a humiliating defeat, the French were eager to relieve themselves of the burden of Vietnam. In July of 1954, a conference was called in Geneva laying out a plan that would restore independence to Laos and Cambodia and require the French military to leave the northern areas of Vietnam if Vietnam would agree to a temporary division of its country along the 17th parallel. Ho Chi Minh and his followers would be allowed to set up their government north of this line and those who did not want to follow him would be allowed freedom to create their government in the south. It was agreed that this division would only be for two years, giving Vietnam time to stabilize itself enough to hold free elections to determine its own fate. The United States, fearful that a true, free election would not be possible with Ho Chi Minh and his communist supporters in control, would not agree to signing the accord. To understand America's reluctance to sign this accord, one must realize the political climate of the day. In 1954, the Cold War was at its peak. The threat of Communist expansion was a very real concern of the Free World. Russia was amassing huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons aimed at the U. S., Meo Tse-tung had just achieved victory with his People's Revolution in China, the Red Army in Korea had just been barely stopped from taking over the country, and the revolutionary Fidel Casto was snuggling up to his Soviet Union supporters. It was firmly believed by both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations that if Vietnam fell to communism, the entire Pacific rim could fall like a stack of dominos.
The U.S Involvement
  Desperately hoping to find someone who could build up enough support in the south to overcome Ho Chi Minh in a popular election the U.S. thought they found their man in Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem had been popular as a Minister of Justice under the imperial Bao Dai rule and had lived in the United States for a time. Most important, he was anti-communist and had turned down offers from Ho Chi Minh to serve in his cabinet. Unfortunately, together with his brother Nhu as vice-president, Diem's self-serving ambitiousness created a leadership of corruption and deceit. Diem was reluctant to commit his shinny new army to the hazards of fighting the Viet Cong and would more often use it to achieve personal gain by intimidating his own people. A devout Catholic, he began persecuting the Buddists. This persecution brought about the shocking demonstrations of several Buddist monks who burnt themselves to death in the streets of Saigon. Instead of winning the support of the people, he was turning them against him. The American government, so frustrated by Diem's incompetence, turned their backs when they learned of a coup being planned to remove him from office. In early November of 1963, Diem's own generals kidnapped him, shuttled him and his brother to a basement in the Cholon section of Saigon, and murdered them. Twenty-two days later, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. This was only the beginning of the turmoil that would plague South Vietnam's political structure in the coming years. During 1964, the government changed hands seven times, six of them through coups or attempted coups. The North Vietnamese quickly capitalized on the confusion in the south by sending large quantities of men and supplies to strengthen the rebels in the south. With the south's government now in chaos, the new Johnson administration had no option but to become more involved in trying to stabilize the "mess of Vietnam". Johnson's advisors discussed bombing the northern supply depots of Hai Phong and other ports in the Gulf of Tonkin to stop the flow of arms to the South. But the U. S. was reluctant to take such drastic measures without some justification in fear that China and Russia would see this as an unprovoked act of aggression and enter into the conflict.
The Gulf Of Tonkkin Incident
   The U.S. positioned a surveillance ship, the USS Maddox, in the Gulf of Tonkin to keep an eye on what was going on up there. The events that took place on the night of August 2, 1964 are under debate but the official report says that late in the evening, the Maddox, while in international waters, came under attack of three North Vietnamese patrol boats. They managed to sink two of the patrol boats and seriously cripple the third. Though the Maddox was not damaged, this attack against the American Navy was considered an act of aggression against the United States. As a result, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, granting Johnson the power to take all necessary means to prevent further aggression against the United States and its military forces. The United States began bombing key military targets in North Vietnam.
So It Begins 
  With this new position of the U.S., the National Liberation Front later known as The VC, in the south began to direct more of their attention on American targets. Nearly thirty American advisors were killed in attacks against Pleiku and Qui Nhon. In retaliation, Johnson stepped up the bombing and began his Operation Rolling Thunder, using B52's to carpet bomb the supply lanes running through the DMZ. In this tense period of escalation, yet another coup was attempted in the South Vietnamese government. Though the coup was unsuccessful, General Nguyen Van Thieu and Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky eventually were able to seize control of the government.
The Marines Lands in Danang
  This new bombing strategy of the U.S. required the Americans to set up an air base in the city of Da Nang and a top-secret communications center further up the coast at a town called Phu Bai. Gen. Westmoreland requested and received permission to inject 33,000 Marines to protect these installations. These troops were under very strict orders that theirs was only a defensive mission. Under no circumstances were they to become involved in offensive actions against the hostile forces in the area. In May of 1965 the first shiploads of combat ready Marines were landed on Red Beach, just north of Da Nang. Instead of facing Marines landing in Dananga hostile enemy, the Marines were greeted by a group of young school girls passing out flower leis and smiles. As one general put it, "We are in for one hell of a war." It soon became apparent that the bases could not be defended without disrupting the build up of enemy forces around the bases. General Green, Commanding General of the Marines said, "You cannot defend a position by sitting on your ass." The initial plan was to let the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) do the dirty work of clearing out the rebles but it was clear they could not or would not do the job. By July, the Americans were given permission to run patrols in the remote areas surrounding their bases and destroy any pockets of resistance they might encounter. For several months, the Marines would run into only light resistance; snipers, booby traps, an occasional ambush where the enemy would strike then vanish. This tactic of avoiding a head-to-head confrontation left the Marines frustrated, denying them the chance to use their superior firepower to claim a meaningful victory.
The VC and the NVA
  The Vietnamese call all of their fighters Viet Cong, whether they were regular army or guerillas. However, the American military made a distinction between the two. Viet Cong (VC) were an untrained, loosely organized band of guerillas with no central command. This group of farmers and peasants did not all share the same ideals as the Ho Chi Minh government in the north but they did have a common cause; to remove the corrupt government in the south and to expel the foreign powers from their country. But being untrained and poorly equipped did not mean they were ineffective. The fact that they had no uniforms made them nearly impossible to distinguish from the general population and being local citizens they had the advantages of knowing the terrain and having support of the people in their areas. Having no capacity for the manufacture of arms, they relied on whatever they could find. Most of their weapons were from W.W.II or before. Many had no weapons at all except what they could devise on their own. Their ingenuity and resourcefulness made them masters at creating boobytraps and mines. While these weapons were not very efficient, they were extremely effective in demoralizing those unfortunates who fell victim to them. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) on the other hand, were highly trained and disciplined regular army. The NVA wore a common uniform designed for the extreme climate and landscape of Vietnam. They had a very skilled and experienced central leadership and were well armed. Their favorite weapon, the AK-47 was being supplied to them by China in large quantities. In addition to this, they had state of the art artillery and anti-aircraft guns. They even had tanks, though they were not used much for the bulk of the war. While the use of booby traps was not unheard of by the NVA, they did not use them to the level of the VC. The NVA was on the move too much and knew that such weapons could be as deadly for their own troops as they were for the Americans.
The DMZ and the Ho Chi Minh Trail
  The focus of attention and activity around Chu Lai during Operation Starlight gave the North Vietnamese the opportunity to escalate their movement of men and supplies across the virtually undefended demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separated the two countries. This vast network of trails running from Hanoi to Saigon was being improved to the point it could handle convoys of large vehicles and was capable of funneling more than 1,000 tons of supplies a day to the south. One of the main orders of business for the U. S. military was to stop this flow of resources. To do this required abandoning the previous posture of being a defensive element and moving to the offence. Nowhere was the need for this new strategy more evident than along the border separating the North from the South. Johnson's Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara came up with his ambitious plan to create a barrier of both muscle and high technology to block the enemy's movement across the border. This plan involved creating The Trace, an area cleared of vegetation several hundred meters wide along the length of the DMZ. American planes would also drop hundreds of thousands of listening and sniffing devices designed to detect any movement or troop build up in the area. Of course, to properly patrol this "McNamara Line" required more American troops to seek out and destroy the enemy that was able to get across the line. By mid 1966 most of the civilian population had been relocated out of the remote mountainous area and placed in camps along the coast. The mountains became a free fire zone where anyone found was considered to be a combatant. The 3rd Marine Division was given the primary responsibly of keeping the NVA out of these mountains. The number of American troops in Vietnam reached 400,000 by 1967. VIETNAMIZATION After the Tet offensive of 1968, the United States began looking for a way out of Vietnam. Richard Nixon promised the American people that he would "find peace with honor". One of the key elements of Nixon's plan was called Vietnamization. The ARVN forces were to take on more of the responsibly of military actions while the U.S. began to pull its military out of Vietnam in stages. To show that he was serious, Nixon promised to pull 25,000 troops from Vietnam by August of '69. The South Vietnamese Army showed signs of promise as fighters but their leadership showed lack of resolve. Squabbling between the generals, corruption, and reluctance to aggressively engage with the enemy soon made it evident that they would have a difficult time defeating their disciplined foe. The push to find an end to the war was accelerated in Paris. When the leadership in the North began to drag their feet, Nixon ordered the bombing of the North to be escalated. Though this was not popular with many of those at home who were opposed to the war, it did bring the Communists to the table. It was agreed upon that the U.S. would begin pulling its military out of the country if the North would halt its flow of men and supplies into the South. It soon became obvious that although the flow of Communist forces into the South had greatly diminished, they were building up inside their border north of the DMZ and inside of the borders of Laos and Cambodia. Inresponse to MACV's new Commanding General, General Abrams plea, Nixon agreed to allow secret bombings inside the Cambodian border to disrupt this threat. The weak Cambodian military was unable to stop the North Vietnamese when they moved further inland to avoid the bombing. By May of 1969, Cambodia fell to the Communist Khmer Rouge. The 3rd Marine Division had pulled out of Vietnam by late November of 1969, leaving the area along the DMZ in the hands of the ARVNs. The American military focused its attention to the Cambodian and Laotian borders and in 1970, in support of the South Vietnamese military, began pushing operations inside of these countries. When the American public learned of this expansion of the war, Congress was outraged and voted to stop all future funding of the war. Demonstrations broke out across the country. At Kent State in Ohio, National Guardsmen opened fire on a group of protesters, killing four students. The demand to get out of Vietnam became louder. By November of 1971 the U.S. had reduced its number of troops in Vietnam to 139,000. The North took advantage of this vacuum and launched an assault on the northern provinces around Dong Ha and Quang Tri in March of 1972. The ARVNs put up an impressive resistance in a ferocious battle that left the provincial capital of Quang Tri completely destroyed. But they were soon overwhelmed when the North sent in large numbers of tanks. The defenders fled the area in panic and disarray, leaving the gate to the South wide open.
The Fall of Saigon
    With the northern provinces now firmly in the hands of the Communists, the U.S. concentrated its remaining forces in the area around Saigon. The fall of the South appeared to be a certainty but Nixon needed time to keep his troops and vast stores of materials from falling into enemy hands. When, in December of 1972, the government in the North showed reluctance to slow their advance and allow the Americans to withdraw with 'honor', Nixon launched Operation Linebacker. This massive air assault on the North dropped more bombs than had been dropped during the entire previous eight years of the war. The air defenses around Hanoi became nearly depleted under the relentless air strikes, forcing the Communists to agree to a cease fire and exchange of prisoners in return for the Americans' agreement to pull out of South Vietnam. In spite of the ecouraging break through at the peace talks, things back in the United States were not going well for the Nixon administration. American consensus had shifted to where the majority of the public was calling for an immediate end to the war. Also, the Watergate scandal had completely undermined the effectiveness of Nixon as President. In August of 1974, Richard Nixon resigns as President. The Communists took advantage of the turmoil in the States by resuming its advance to Saigon. The new government in Washington under Gerald Ford was unwilling to be sucked into the quagmire again and refused to send in any more military support to stop this assault. The ARVN were going to have to defend their government by themselves. Though they did put up an impressive resistance, without the air support they had enjoyed in the past, they were unable to stop the NVA's advance. In late April of 1975, Saigon awoke to the sound of gunfire. Rumors spread that columns of NVA tanks were moving into the city. Though this assault had been expected for some time, the suddenness of it seemed to take everyone by surprise. South Vietnam's President Thieu and his staff fled the country. Operation Frequent Wind was initiated. Americans and South Vietnamese citizens who had been key supporters of the U. S. quickly gathered at predetermined locations to be air lifted out of Vietnam. On April 30. as the American Ambassador and the last of the Marines were being helicopter off the the roof of the American embassy, North Vietnamese tanks burst through the gates of the Presidential Palace. The war in Vietnam was over.

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