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The Military and Diplomatic Course of the Vietnam War

David L Anderson

huet1.jpg (75611 bytes)The Vietnam War was the longest deployment of U.S. forces in hostile action in the history of the American republic. Although there is no formal declaration of war from which to date U.S. entry, President John F. Kennedy's decision to send over 2,000 military advisers to South Vietnam in 1961 marked the beginning of twelve years of American military combat. U.S. unit combat began in 1965. The number of US. troops steadily increased until it reached a peak of 543,400 in April 1969. The total number of Americans who served in South Vietnam was 2.7 million. Of these, more than 58,000 died or remain missing, and 300,000 others were wounded. The US. government spent more than $140 billion on the war. Despite this enormous military effort, the United States failed to achieve its objective of preserving an independent, noncommunist state in South Vietnam. This failure has led to searching questions about why and how the war was fought and whether a better diplomatic and military outcome was possible for the United States.

Escalation. By 1961, guerrilla warfare was widespread in South Vietnam. Communist-led troops of the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam, commonly referred to as Vietcong, were initiating hundreds of terrorist and small unit attacks per month. Saigon’s military, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), was not able to contain this growing insurgency. During the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a small U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), never numbering more than 740 uniformed soldiers, had provided training and logistics assistance to the ARVN. The Kennedy administration determined that the size and mission of the U.S. advisory effort must change if the U.S.-backed government of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon was to survive. Some of Kennedy's aides proposed a negotiated settlement in Vietnam similar to that which recognized Laos as a neutral country. Having just suffered international embarrassment in Cuba and Berlin, the president rejected compromise and chose to strengthen U.S. support of Saigon.

In May 1961, Kennedy sent 400 U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Beret) troops into South Vietnam's Central Highlands to train Montagnard tribesmen in counterinsurgency tactics. He also tripled the level of aid to South Vietnam. A steady stream of airplanes, helicopters, armored personnel carriers (APCs), and other equipment poured into the South. By the end of 1962, there were 9,000 U.S. military advisers under the direction of a newly-created Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), commanded by U.S. Army Gen. Paul Harkins. Under U.S. guidance, the Diem government also began construction of "strategic hamlets." These fortified villages were intended to insulate rural Vietnamese from Vietcong intimidation and propaganda.

U.S. and South Vietnamese leaders were cautiously optimistic that increased U.S. assistance finally was enabling the Saigon government to defend itself. On 2 January 1963, however, at Ap Bac on the Plain of Reeds southwest of Saigon, a Vietcong battalion of about 320 men inflicted heavy damage on an ARVN force of 3,000 equipped with troop-carrying helicopters, new UH- I ("Huey") helicopter gunships, tactical bombers, and APCS. Ap Bac represented a leadership failure for the ARVN and a major morale boost for the antigovernment forces. The absence of fighting spirit in the ARVN mirrored the continuing inability of the Saigon regime to win political support. Indeed, many South Vietnamese perceived the strategic hamlets as government oppression, not protection, because people were forced to leave their ancestral homes for the new settlements.

While Vietcong guerrillas scored military successes, leaders of Vietnam's Buddhist majority protested against what they saw as the Diem regime's religious persecution. In June, a monk dramatically burned himself to death at a busy Saigon intersection. The "Buddhist crisis" and dissatisfaction with Diem by top Vietnamese Army leaders made U.S. officials receptive to the idea of a change in South Vietnam's leadership. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did not huet2.jpg (139290 bytes)interfere as a group of ARVN officers plotted a coup. On 1 November 1963, the generals seized power, and Diem and his unpopular brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were murdered. Three weeks later, President Kennedy was assassinated, and U.S. policy in Vietnam was again at a crossroads. If the new government in Saigon failed to show progress against the insurgency, would the United States withdraw its support from a lost cause, or would it escalate the effort to preserve South Vietnam as an anticommunist outpost in Asia?

Lyndon B. Johnson inherited the Vietnam dilemma. As Senate majority leader in the 1950s and as vice-president, he had supported Eisenhower's and Kennedy's decisions to aid South Vietnam. Four days after Kennedy's death, Johnson, now president, reaffirmed in National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 273 that the U.S. goal was to assist South Vietnam in its "contest against the externally directed and supported communist conspiracy." U.S. policy defined the Vietnam War as North Vietnamese aggression against South Vietnam. North Vietnam infiltrated troops and materiel into South Vietnam by sea and along the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. Throughout his administration, Johnson insisted that the only possible negotiated settlement of the conflict would be one in which North Vietnam recognized the legitimacy of South Vietnam's government. Without such recognition, the United States would continue to provide Saigon as much help as it needed to survive.

The critical military questions were how much U.S. assistance was enough and what form it should take. By the spring of 1964, the Vietcong controlled vast areas of South Vietnam, the strategic hamlet program had essentially ceased, and North Vietnam's aid to the southern insurgents had grown. In June, Johnson named one of the army's most distinguished officers, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, then commandant of West Point, as commander U.S. MACV. Westmoreland immediately asked for more men, and by the end of 1964 U.S. personnel in the South exceeded 23,000. Increasingly, however, the U.S. effort focused on the North. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and other key White House aides remained convinced that the assault on South Vietnam originated in the ambitious designs of Hanoi backed by Moscow and Beijing.

Throughout 1964, the United States assisted South Vietnam in covert operations to gather intelligence, disseminate propaganda, and harass the North. On the night of 2 August, North Vietnamese gunboats fired on the USS Maddox a destroyer on an intelligence-collecting mission, in the same area of the Gulf of Tonkin where South Vietnamese commandos were conducting raids against the North Vietnamese coast. Two nights later, under stormy conditions, the Maddox and another destroyer, the Turner Joy, reported a gunboat attack. Although doubts existed about these reports, the president ordered retaliatory air strikes against the North Vietnamese port of Vinh. The White House had expected that some type of incident would occur eventually, and it had prepared the text of a congressional resolution authorizing the president to use armed force to protect U.S. forces and to deter further aggression from North Vietnam. On 7 August 1964, Johnson secured almost unanimous consent from Congress (414-0 in the House; 88-2 in the Senate) for his Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which became the principal legislative basis for all subsequent military deployment in Southeast Asia.

Johnson's decisive but restrained response to the Gulf of Tonkin incidents helped him win the 1964 election, but Saigon's prospects continued to decline. The president wanted to concentrate on his ambitious domestic program, the Great Society, but his political instincts told him that his leadership would be damaged fatally if America's client state in South Vietnam succumbed. Instability mounted in South Vietnam as rival military and civilian factions vied for power and as Vietcong strength grew. A consensus formed among Johnson's advisers that the United States would have to initiate air warfare against North Vietnam. Bombing could boost Saigon's morale and might persuade the North to cease its support of the insurgency. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) favored a massive bombing campaign, but civilians in the State and Defense Departments preferred a gradual escalation.

Using as a pretext a Vietcong attack on 7 February 1965 at Pleiku that killed eight American soldiers, Johnson ordered retaliatory bombing north of the Demilitarized Zone along the 17th parallel that divided North and South Vietnam, Within a week, the administration began ROLLING THUNDER, a gradually intensifying air bombardment of military bases, supply depots, and infiltration routes in North Vietnam. Flying out of bases in Thailand, U.S. Air Force fighter-bombers--primarily F-105 Thunderchiefs and later F-4 Phantoms--joined U.S. Navy Phantoms and A-4 Skyhawks from a powerful carrier task force located at a point called Yankee Station, seventy-five miles off the North Vietnamese coast in the Gulf of Tonkin. In 1965, U.S. aircraft flew 25,000 sorties against North Vietnam, and that number grew to 79,000 in 1966 and 108,000 in 1967. In 1967 annual bombing tonnage reached almost a quarter million. Targets expanded to include the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and factories, farms, and railroads in North Vietnam.

From the beginning of the bombing, American strategists debated the effectiveness of air power in defeating a political insurgency in a predominantly agricultural country. Despite the American bombs, dollars, and military advisers, the Vietcong continued to inflict heavy casualties on the ARVN, and the political situation in Saigon grew worse. By June 1965, there had been five governments in the South since Diem’s death, and the newest regime, headed by General Nguyen Van Thieu and Air Marshall Nguyen Cao Ky, inspired little confidence. To stave off defeat, the JCS endorsed Westmoreland's request for 150,000 U.S. troops to take the ground offensive in the South. When McNamara concurred, Johnson decided to commit the forces. The buildup of formal U.S. military units had begun on 8 March 1965, when two battalions of Marines landed at Da Nang. In June, Marine and army units began offensive unit operations—"search and destroy" missions. On 28 July, Johnson announced that 50,000 U.S. troops would go to South Vietnam immediately. By the end of the year, there were 184,300 U.S. personnel in the South.

Although Johnson's actions meant that the United States had crossed the line from advising the ARVN to actually fighting the war against the Vietcong, the president downplayed the move. The JCS wanted a mobilization of the reserves and National Guard, and McNamara proposed levying war taxes. Such actions would have placed the United States on a war footing. With his ambitious social reform program facing crucial votes in Congress, the president wanted to avoid giving congressional conservatives an opportunity to use mobilization to block his domestic agenda. Consequently, he relied on other means. Monthly draft calls increased from 17,000 to 35,000 to meet manpower needs, and deficit spending, with its inherent inflationary impact, funded the escalation.

With U.S. bombs pounding North Vietnam, Westmoreland turned America’s massive firepower on the southern insurgents. Johnson's choice of gradual escalation of bombing and incremental troop deployments was based upon the concept of limited warfare. Risks of a wider war with China and the Soviet Union meant that the United States would not go all out to annihilate North Vietnam. Thus, Westmoreland chose a strategy of attrition in the South. Using mobility and powerful weapons, the MACV commander could limit U.S. casualties while exhausting the enemy, that is, inflicting heavier losses than could be replaced.

Escalation of the air and ground war in 1965 provoked Hanoi to begin deploying into the South increasing units of the regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA), or People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), as it was called. In October, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the PAVN commander, launched a major offensive in the Central Highlands, southwest of Pleiku. Westmoreland responded with the 1st Air Cavalry Division (Air Mobile). Through much of November, in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, U.S. and North Vietnamese forces engaged each other in heavy combat for the first time. The Americans ultimately forced the NVA out of the valley and killed ten times as many enemy soldiers as they lost. Westmoreland used helicopters extensively for troop movements, resupply, medical evacuation, and tactical air support. USAF tactical bombers and even huge B-52 strategic bombers attacked enemy positions. The battle convinced the U.S. commander that "search and destroy" tactics using air mobility would work in accomplishing the attrition strategy. Soon after the PAVN departed the battlefield, however, so too did the American air "cavalry." Clearly, control of territory was not the U.S. military objective.

During 1966 Westmoreland requested more ground troops, and by year's end the U.S. ground force level "in country" reached 385,000. These were organized into seven divisions and other specialized airborne, armored, special forces, and logistical units. With U.S. aid, the ARVN also expanded to eleven divisions, supplemented by local and irregular units. While MACV was getting men and munitions in place for large-unit search and destroy operations, army and marine units conducted smaller operations. Although the "body count"--the estimated number of enemy killed--mounted, attrition was not changing the political equation in South Vietnam. The NLF continued to exercise more effective control in many areas than did the government, and Vietcong guerrillas, who often disappeared when U.S. forces entered an area, quickly reappeared when the Americans left.

In 1967, Westmoreland made his big push to win the war. With South Vietnam's forces assigned primarily to occupation, pacification, and security duties, massive U.S. combat sweeps moved to locate and destroy the enemy. In January, Operation Cedar Falls was a 30,000-man assault on the Iron Triangle, an enemy base area forty miles north of Saigon. From February through April, Operation Junction City was an even larger attack on nearby War Zone C. There was major fighting in the Central Highlands, climaxing in the battle of Dak To in November 1967. U.S. forces killed many enemy soldiers and destroyed large amounts of supplies. MACV declared vast areas to be "free-fire zones," which meant that U.S. and ARVN artillery and tactical aircraft, as well as B-52 "carpet bombing" could target anyone or anything in the area. In Operation RANCH HAND, the USAF sprayed the defoliant Agent Orange to deprive the guerrillas of cover and food supplies. Controversy about the use of Agent Orange erupted in 1969 when reports appeared that the chemical caused serious damage to humans as well as to plants.

Late in 1967, with 485,600 U.S. troops in Vietnam, Westmoreland announced that, although much fighting remained, asawada1.jpg (93996 bytes) cross-over point had arrived in the war of attrition; that is, the losses to the NVA and Vietcong were greater than they could replace. This assessment was debatable, and there was considerable evidence that the so-called "other war" for political support in South Vietnam was not going well. Corruption, factionalism, and continued Buddhist protests plagued the Thieu-Ky government. Despite incredible losses, the Vietcong still controlled many areas. A diplomatic resolution of the conflict remained elusive. Several third countries, such as Poland and Great Britain, offered proposals intended to facilitate negotiations. These formulas typically called upon the United States and DRV to coordinate mutual reduction of their military activities in South Vietnam, but both Washington and Hanoi firmly resisted even interim compromises with the other. The war was at a stalemate.

De-escalation. The decisive year was 1968. In the early morning of 30 January, Vietcong forces launched the Tet Offensive, named for the Vietnamese holiday then being observed. In coordinated attacks throughout South Vietnam, the Vietcong assaulted major urban areas and military installations in an attempt to spark a popular uprising against the Saigon regime and its American backers. Heavy fighting ensued for three weeks, some of the most brutal at Hué. Westmoreland claimed victory because no cities were lost and thousands of casualties were inflicted upon the attackers. Indeed, the Vietcong lost so many soldiers that thereafter the PAVN took over much of the conduct of the war. The Tet Offensive, however, was a great strategic gain for North Vietnam and its southern adherents. U.S. and ARVN losses were high, and the fighting generated thousands of refugees that further destabilized the South. Most importantly, as a result of the massive surprise attack and the pictures from Saigon, the U.S. press and public began to challenge the Johnson administration's assurances of success and to question the value of the increasingly costly war.

At the same time as the Tet Offensive, the siege of Khe Sanh underscored the image of the war as an endless, costly, and pointless struggle. From 20 January to 14 April 1968, 30,000 to 40,000 NVA forces surrounded 6,000 U.S. Marines and ARVN at the remote hilltop outpost of Khe Sanh in the northwest corner of South Vietnam. Using artillery and air power, including B-52 strikes, the United States eventually broke the siege and forced an NVA withdrawal. At the end of June, however, the Marines abandoned the base to adopt a more mobile form of fighting in the DMZ area. Once again, a major engagement left seemingly intangible results.

In March 1968, Johnson decided that the size of the U.S. effort in Vietnam had grown as large as could be justified. Prompted by a request from Westmoreland and JCS Chairman General Earle G. Wheeler for 206,000 more men, the president asked his new secretary of defense, Clark Clifford, for a thorough policy review. Johnson's sense that a limit had been reached seemed confirmed when the "Wise Men," a group of outside advisers including such elder statesmen as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Gen. Omar Bradley, recommended against further increases. The president authorized only 13,500 more soldiers and bluntly informed Thieu and Ky that their forces would have to carry more of the fighting. He then announced on television on 31 March 1968 that the United States would restrict the bombing of North Vietnam and pursue a negotiated settlement with Hanoi. Johnson also revealed that he would not seek reelection.

Meanwhile, combat raged in South Vietnam. Over 14,000 Americans were killed in action in Vietnam in 1968, the highest annual U.S. death toll of the war. The worst U.S. war crime of the conflict occurred on 16 March 1968 (although not revealed in the press until 6 November 1969) when American infantrymen massacred some 500 unresisting civilians, including babies, in the village of My Lai. In April and May 1968 the largest ground operation of the war, with 110,000 U.S. and ARVN troops, targeted Vietcong and NVA forces near Saigon. Peace talks began in Paris on 13 May but immediately deadlocked. On 10 June 1968, Gen. Creighton Abrams succeeded Westmoreland as MACV commander. In the fall Abrams began to shift U.S. strategy from attrition to a greater emphasis on combined operations, pacification area security, and what was called "Vietnamization," that is, preparing the ARVN to do more of the fighting.

When Richard M. Nixon became president in 1969, the U.S. war effort remained massive, but the basic decision to de-escalate had already been reached. Nixon owed his political victory to voter expectation that somehow he would end the war. He and his principal foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, rejected precipitate U.S. withdrawal. With the ground war stalemated, the new administration turned increasingly to air bombardment and secretly expanded the air war to neutral Cambodia. Publicly the White House announced in June the first withdrawal of 25,000 U.S. troops and heralded Vietnamization as effective. In fact, South Vietnam's armed forces remained problem-plagued. To bolster the South, the administration leaked to the press dire threats of a "go for broke" air and naval assault on the North--possibly including nuclear weapons. Kissinger also began secret meetings with North Vietnamese representatives in Paris hoping to arrange a diplomatic breakthrough.

The morale and discipline of U.S. troops declined in 1969 as the futility of the ground war and the beginnings of U.S. withdrawal became more obvious. After an intense ten-day battle in May, infantrymen of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Mobile) took a ridge in the A Shau Valley that they had dubbed Hamburger Hill. Having fought bravely and suffered significant losses, the soldiers were bitter when the site soon was abandoned. Such inability to see progress, and an awareness among the troops that politicians back home were giving up on the war, helped undermine military effectiveness. Simple survival of their twelve-month tour of duty became the only motivation for many soldiers. Incidents of insubordination, mutiny, fatal assaults on officers, drug use, racial tensions, and other serious problems increased.

Faced with mounting public dissatisfaction, the slow pace of Vietnamization, and diplomatic frustration, Nixon boldly sent U.S. units into Cambodia in April 1970. U.S. military leaders had long complained about the sanctuary that neutral Cambodia provided Vietcong and NVA forces. This Cambodian incursion lasted until the end of June and provided some tactical gains, but it also sparked sharp controversy and demonstrations by the Vietnam antiwar movement in the United States over what seemed an expansion of the war to another country. U.S. troop reductions continued with only 334,600 in the South as 1970 ended.

Nixon stuck with more of the same in 1971. Responding to domestic critics, he continued to order U.S. troops home, leaving only 156,000 by December. To support Vietnamization, heavy U.S. air attacks continued against Communist supply lines in Laos and Cambodia, and so-called protective-reaction strikes hit military targets north of the Demilitarized Zone and near Hanoi and its port city of Haiphong. Tactical air support continued, with the heaviest coming in March during a South Vietnamese assault into Laos. Code named Lam Son 719, this operation ended in a confused retreat by the ARVN that further sullied the notion of Vietnamization.

During 1971, Kissinger made progress in the secret negotiations by offering to separate the arrangement of a ceasefire from discussion of the future of the Saigon government. In 1972 Nixon traveled to China and the USSR in diplomatic initiatives, trying to isolate Hanoi from its suppliers. With the shrinking American forces nearing 100,000 (only a small portion being combat troops), General Giap launched a spring 1972 offensive by Communist forces against the northern provinces of South Vietnam, the Central Highlands, and provinces northwest of Saigon. In most of the battles, the ARVN was saved by massive B-52 bombing, Nixon also launched the heavy bombers against North Vietnam itself in a campaign called Linebacker, and the United States mined the harbor at Haiphong. Over the course of the war, total U.S. bombing tonnage far exceeded that dropped on Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II.

Wearied by the latest round of fighting, the United States and North Vietnamese governments agreed in October on a ceasefire, return of U.S. prisoners of war (POWs), at least the temporary continuation of Thieu's government, and, most controversially, permission for NVA troops to remain in the South. Objections from Thieu caused Nixon to hesitate, which in turn led Hanoi to harden its position. In December, the United States hit North Vietnam again with repeated B-52 attacks, code-named Linebacker II and labeled the Christmas Bombing by journalists. On 27 January 1973, the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Provisional Revolutionary Government representing the NLF signed the Paris Peace Agreements Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam, which basically confirmed the October terms.

By 1 April 1973, U.S. forces were out of Vietnam (except for a few embassy guards and attaches) and 587 POWs had returned home (about 2,500 other Americans remained missing in action). Congress cut off funds for the air war in Cambodia, and bombing there ended in August. Over Nixon's veto, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in November 1973. It limited presidential power to deploy U.S. forces in hostile action without congressional approval.

Nixon characterized the Paris Peace Agreements of 1973 as "peace with honor," but primarily they allowed the U.S. military to leave Vietnam without resolving the issue of the country's political future. Without U.S. air and ground support, South Vietnam's military defenses steadily deteriorated. In the spring of 1975, an NVA thrust into the Central Highlands turned into an ARVN rout. On 30 April, as NVA and Vietcong soldiers entered the city, the last remaining Americans abandoned the U.S. embassy in Saigon in a dramatic rooftop evacuation by helicopters.

The United States failure in Vietnam raised important questions. Should the United States have fought the war at all? Did the United States fight the war the wrong way? Many analysts believe that the strategic importance of Vietnam was vastly exaggerated and, furthermore, that the nationalism driving Vietnam’s history and politics could not be altered by U.S. military power, no matter how great. An alternative view is that even if the odds were poor for U.S. success, the United States had to make the effort to maintain its moral and strategic credibility in the world. On the question of how the war was fought, the debate centers on whether the United States used its military power adequately and effectively. Assuming that more is better, some critics argue that a greater use of U.S. force, either against North Vietnam or to isolate the battlefield in South Vietnam, would have produced victory. Throughout the conflict, however, the Saigon regime proved incapable of translating military success into political success. Also, massive U.S. assistance seemed to prove North Vietnam's and the Vietcong's claims that South Vietnam was not a Vietnamese but an American creation. Finally, a larger war would have risked a dangerous military conflict with China and the Soviet Union. Most scholars conclude that the Vietnam War was a tragic event whose costs far exceeded any benefits for the United States.

From The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Oxford UP.

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