The Vietnam War: An Overview
Published August 2020
This is a brief overview of the Vietnam War, meant to be used as an educational starting point for the many high school students who do not learn about the Vietnam War in history classes. Here I intend to answer the basic question: What was the Vietnam War?
Background of Vietnam: French Indochina and WWII
As European nations sought to expand colonial empires, French Catholic missionaries established a foothold in Vietnam. This was in line with the “civilizing mission” goal of French colonialism that spread language and religion to countries they colonized. The Vietnamese sought to expel the missionaries, but French military forces acted in defense of their missionaries. Between 1858 and 1887, French and Vietnamese forces clashed as France sought to gain control. In bits and pieces, France formed what became known as French Indochina, which encompassed all of modern Vietnam. France also created colonies of Cambodia and Laos.
During World War II, the Vichy French government granted Japan access to Vietnam. After the liberation of France in 1945, Japan took complete control in Vietnam by destroying the French administration. Vietnamese nationalists and Communists came together in opposition to Japanese control in the ranks of the Việt Minh, a group established by Hồ Chí Minh in 1941. After Japan’s surrender, Hồ Chí Minh declared Vietnam independent and established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. However, the Allied forces that arrived in Vietnam to facilitate the surrender of Japanese troops wound up re-establishing French control.
Beginning of US involvement: Harry Truman
American involvement in Vietnam began in earnest with President Harry S. Truman. During WWII, the US supported the Việt Minh because they shared a common enemy: Japan. In the aftermath of the war, however, US support shifted to France. It was important to bolster the European nation as the wartime allies shared a new goal: anti-communism. The bulk of aid rendered to France under President Truman consisted of money and military equipment sent between 1950 - 1953.
First Indochina War
Despite France’s renewed control, Hồ Chí Minh and his compatriots were unwilling to let the dream of a free Vietnam die. They continued to fight against the French, with Hồ Chí Minh leading the political arm of the Việt Minh and Võ Nguyên Giáp commanding the military arm. There was no North/South division at the time, and fighting occurred across the entirety of the country, though much fighting took place in what Americans would later call North Vietnam. Not long after a Vietnamese victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (a French fort established in a valley), negotiations proceeded at the Geneva Conference of 1954.
The resultant Geneva Accords:
divided Vietnam into North (Democratic Republic of Vietnam) and South (State of Vietnam) at the 17th parallel and established a demilitarized zone at that border.
instructed French forces to regroup in the South and Việt Minh to regroup in the North.
established an International Control Commission, whose members included Canada, Poland, and India, to monitor the ceasefire.
provided for a general election to be held no later than July 1956 to unify Vietnam.
Continuing US Involvement: Dwight Eisenhower
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, from 1954 - 1961, continued policies of economic and military aid in Vietnam. The Geneva Conference occurred during his presidency and the US attended the conference, largely to discuss unresolved issues from the Korean War. Though the US acknowledged the ceasefire in Vietnam, the Americans did not sign the Geneva Accords. This was mostly in order to maintain flexibility to respond as they saw fit to Communist action in Vietnam.
Following the Geneva Accords, the US continued to involve itself in the affairs of the Republic of Vietnam, now widely known as South Vietnam. American advisers provided military aid and training to the newly established South Vietnamese military forces. The US also offered advice and assistance regarding the establishment of government and supported Ngô Đình Diệm as Prime Minister.
Despite the provisions of the Geneva Accords, no unifying election was held in Vietnam.
Deepening US involvement: John F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy again deepened American involvement in Southeast Asia, committing US Special Forces troops to Vietnam to train more South Vietnamese military units. Under Kennedy, the number of military advisers and personnel in Vietnam rose from 900 when he entered office in January 1961 to 16,000 at the time of his death in November 1963.
Escalation to war: Lyndon B. Johnson
After Kennedy’s assassination, his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was sworn in as president. Now the third president to inherit the responsibility for US policy in Vietnam, President Johnson followed the path of those before him and committed to aiding the South Vietnamese state. Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August of 1964, this aid increased dramatically. The resultant Gulf of Tonkin Resolution signed by Congress granted Johnson the power to commit conventional US forces to Vietnam. The first fighting ground troops landed in Da Nang in March 1965. From this point until 1968, American troop numbers in Vietnam increased steadily. Johnson struggled to balance the war with domestic policy for the entirety of his presidency.
During Johnson’s tenure, the war was characterized by search and destroy tactics, pacification efforts, and bombing campaigns intended to interrupt Communist troop movements through Laos and Cambodia. On the homefront, a growing anti-war movement brewed to the surface.
USMC photo A183676
Marines wade ashore at Da Nang, March 1965.
National Archives photo no. 192605
Anti-war demonstration, Washington, DC, 1967.
De-escalation and Vietnamization: Richard Nixon
As the anti-war movement continued to grow and public opinion on the war soured, President Richard Nixon decided on a plan of de-escalation. US forces would hand over the major responsibilities of fighting the war to South Vietnam in a process dubbed “Vietnamization.” This policy aimed to “expand, equip, and train South Vietnam’s forces” while withdrawing US combat personnel. Though repeated attempts were made to engage North Vietnamese leaders in peace talks, Nixon also expanded the geographical bounds of the war with the Cambodian Incursion in 1970.
In 1973, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the United States agreed to terms during the Paris Peace Accords. A ceasefire began at midnight (GMT) on January 27, 1973. Both North and South Vietnam violated the accords almost immediately by fighting. While some American advisers, technicians, and security forces remained in Vietnam, all US combat troops were withdrawn. Within two and a half years, North Vietnam rolled through South Vietnam, and Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam) fell on April 30, 1975.