by William H. Benson
August 23, 2012
The Vietnam War began on August 22, 1945, when French paratroopers dropped into southern Indochina to counter a coup by guerrilla forces led by the Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh. This war was less hot, more cold, and more protracted than the war with the Japanese. The French army battled Ho Chi Minh and the Communists for the next nine years, until March of 1954, when the French lost a crucial victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
By then the French had their fill of Vietnam. They met the Communists at a Geneva Conference, and there signed an armistice agreement that divided Vietnam into two states: North and South.
The Americans stepped in. President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote a letter, dated October 1, 1954, to South Vietnam’s new leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, and declared American support in light of the North’s aggressive tactics: “The purpose of this offer is to assist the Government of Vietnam in developing and maintaining a strong, viable state, capable of resisting attempted subversion or aggression through military means.” The support was limited and intended to only provide arms to the South Vietnamese.
In the winter of 1959-60, the North Vietnamese attacked South Vietnam. In an article that appeared in The New York Times two weeks ago, on August 12, Lien-Hang Nguyen explained the Communists’ rationale for war then. “Revolutionary war was an effective way to deflect attention from domestic problems, including a devastating land reform campaign, a dissident intellectual movement, and an unsuccessful state plan for socialist transformation of the economy.” So they attacked the South.
John F. Kennedy, the new U.S. President, elected in November of 1960, stuck with Eisenhower’s plan to contain Communist expansion in Vietnam, and he did so by providing more money and more military advisers than Ike had. On May 11, 1961, Kennedy issued Memorandum 52 that reiterated U. S. objectives: “to prevent Communist domination of South Vietnam, and to create in that country a viable and increasingly democratic society.”
One can see the battle of ideas approaching a flash point. The Americans wanted a free South Vietnam, able to defend itself, with periodic elections and private ownership of land and property. The Communists wanted national ownership of all land and property, Communist Party-control of all official governing posts, and absolute control of the media. The two ideologies would inevitably clash.
November 22, 1963 came and went, and Kennedy’s Vice-President, Lyndon Johnson, succeeded him in the White House. Johnson’s military advisers insisted that he accelerate U.S. support for the South Vietnamese, but he waived them aside, knowing that public opinion would frown on a military strike, and so he would wait until after the November 1964 Presidential election.
On May 27, 1964, Johnson spoke on the telephone to his national security adviser McGeorge Bundy and indicated his anxiety if he allowed the Communists in the North to overrun the free people in the South. If it fell, so too would Laos, Cambodia, and the rest of southeast Asia. If one domino fell, so would all the others. Publicly, Johnson said, “If we quit Vietnam, tomorrow we’ll be fighting in Hawaii , and next week we’ll be fighting in San Francisco.” Because he believed in the “domino theory,” he felt obliged to support the South Vietnamese people.
The North Vietnamese attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf Tonkin, and on August 7, 1964, Congress gave LBJ authority “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States.”
Johnson won the election by a landslide over Barry Goldwater in November 1964. On February 24, 1965, just seven weeks after his inaugural address, he introduced Operation Rolling Thunder. American military aircraft would bomb the North Vietnamese into submission. He intended it to last eight weeks, but it lasted for three years. On March 8, 1965, Johnson sent the first 3500 Marines to South Vietnam.
He never envisaged what lay ahead for him and the American and Vietnamese people.
James Cameron, a reporter near Hanoi and the Vietcong, wrote on December 10, 1965 that the North Vietnamese people adapted by burying their army under branches and leaves by day and moving at night. When an America jet screamed overhead, the reaction was horror as the people scrambled for protection. Cameron wrote, “There was somehow a sense of outrage against civility: what an impertinence, one felt, what arrogance, what an offence against manners. The people in North Vietnam are agreeable, shy people, and very poor. Will this sort of thing blow Communism out of their heads?”
Nixon won the White House in 1968, accelerated the bombing, but finally decided to let the South Vietnamese fight their own war as he drew American forces down. Under President Gerald Ford, in April of 1975, the last of the Americans fled Saigon. The war in Vietnam was officially over.