The Vietnam War was a conflict between the Cold War ideologies of communism and capitalism. It resulted in the United States’ first military defeat.
The Vietnam War lasted 20 years (1955 to 1975). It was fought between communist North Vietnam and its allies, China and the Soviet Union, and South Vietnam, aided by the United States of America.
The United States had initially just been providing military assistance to South Vietnam, but in 1965 it began a full-scale war against North Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson anticipated a quick victory, but the war dragged on for another ten years as the US faced increasing difficulties.
The Fighting Begins
At the end of the Second World War communist forces seized control of the north of Vietnam. The French colonial power in Vietnam fought against the communists but was defeated and the country was divided into North and South Vietnam.
America pledged support for South Vietnam and in 1955 provided training and equipment for its army. The number of US personnel steadily increased and, although not involved in actual fighting, it was heavily involved in the growing conflict through economic and military aid.
In August 1964 North Vietnamese gunboats attacked US naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered retaliation and in 1965 an aerial bombardment known as Operation Rolling Thunder was begun.
In March 1965 Johnson decided to send in American combat troops and America’s role changed from providing support to being active participants in the conflict.
Having won the Second World War through superior military capability, US strategists believed that military might would be enough to win any war. Operation Rolling Thunder was therefore designed to quickly force defeat on North Vietnam.
The terrain of North Vietnam was largely agricultural and bombing this rural countryside had little effect on its military capability. It only resulted in the USSR and China supporting North Vietnam with the supply of guns, fighter jets, and other military hardware.
The failure of the aerial campaign saw the US begin ground operations and they soon became bogged down in a difficult and demoralizing campaign. The US did not understand the nature of jungle warfare and was easily outmaneuvered by the expert Viet Cong guerrillas.
High casualty rates also led to low morale and poor discipline among the lower ranks and many soldiers turned to drugs as an escape from the horror of a war they did not know why they were fighting. American public opinion also turned against participation in a war few people understood.
When Richard Nixon became president in 1969 he looked for a way of withdrawing from the war. He implemented the policy of Vietnamization that saw American troops pull back to provide a more supporting role for the South Vietnamese who took on more combat duties.
This had limited effect as the South Vietnamese army was poorly trained and led by corrupt leaders. It proved more difficult than Nixon had realized to withdraw from the war with dignity and American participation carried on for several more years.
In 1972 Nixon withdrew most of the American combat troops and stepped up diplomatic negotiations with China and the Soviet Union to try and reach a peaceful solution that would save face.
Peace at Last
A peace treaty was agreed between the US and North Korea in January 1973 in which the two countries agreed to a cease-fire and the gradual withdrawal of US troops. By the end of the year, only 50 US personnel officially remained in Vietnam.
Despite the peace treaty, fighting still continued between North and South Vietnam, and America still secretly provided military support to South Vietnam.
At the start of 1975, the North Vietnamese launched a major offensive that successfully overran South Vietnamese forces. President Gerald Ford, who had replaced Nixon the previous year, announced that the war “is finished as far as America is concerned” and began an operation to evacuate the remaining civilian and military personnel.
On 30 April the South Vietnamese army surrendered in Saigon, but the war carried on sporadically until the end of 1975. North and South Vietnam were unified the following year as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The war may have ended in 1975, but its legacy can still be felt today. The previously unthinkable idea that the United State could be defeated still preys on US foreign policy and influences political decision-making.