Five Things to Know About the Vietnam War

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  1. A Ideological Civil War: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were under French control for nearly 70 years, until 1954, when France lost a war to maintain its colonial power. The question of what political ideology an independent Vietnam would choose literally divided the country—The Geneva Convention tasked with dismantling the French empire in Southeast Asia split Vietnam at the 17th Parallel, forming communist North Vietnam and noncommunist South Vietnam. The plan was for a peaceful reunification following democratic elections in 1956. Instead, a Civil War ensued. China and the Soviet Union sided with North Vietnam and its communist fighters in the South (known as Viet Cong). The US, anxious to limit the spread of communism, provided military assistance to the South. For 10 years, the US increased the number of military advisors in Vietnam as guerilla fighting from the North escalated. The North deployed and recruited fighters in the South, and as the number of these Viet Cong increased, they were able to both continue their guerilla tactics and engage in more conventional battles. At sea, reports of a North Vietnamese attack on a US destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, led the US Congress to authorize a greater military role in Vietnam.
  2. Aggressive Arial Campaign: In March 1965, American Marines landed near Da Nang, South Vietnam, thus initiating the American ground war. The number of soldiers, sailors, and Marines in combat and logistical roles increased from 120,000 to 400,000, in part filled by men drafted into military service, from early 1965 to 1968, the height of the conflict.At the same time, the US began a systematic aerial campaign targeting the Ho Chi Minh Trail with bombs, defoliants and incendiary chemicals. This target was the critical jungle supply road in Laos and Cambodia that provided men and material to the Viet Cong. In February 1965, following an attack on the US air base at Pleiku, aerial bombing extended to targets in North Vietnam, with intensity rapidly escalating over the next few years. In early 1968, the US Air Force had 56,000 men and almost 1,100 planes in Vietnam, up from 218 planes just three years prior. Air Force units also flew from Guam, Okinawa and Thailand.
  3. Guerilla Warfare: Most ground battles of the war were not large campaigns but fierce, chaotic and brief attacks of 200 or fewer combatants, often resulting in heavy casualties. Viet Cong soldiers hid in tunnels, rivers, homes and communities. On the eve of Lunar New Year (“Tet Nguyen Dan”) in 1968, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces attacked nearly every city and base in South Vietnam. The attack was a military loss for the communists. But the “Tet Offensive” made it clear that, given how widely the Viet Cong had infiltrated the South and their guerilla tactics, this war would not soon be won.
  4. Negotiated Withdrawal: In the wake of the Tet Offensive, newscaster Walter Cronkite said, “We are mired in a stalemate [and] the only rational way out, then, will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.” These negotiations secured the release of 591 American prisoners of war (POWs) from North Vietnam in 1973, and an additional 60 from surrounding countries. The US ceased military involvement in the region in August 1973. The Civil War continued, however, and the last few Americans in the country were airlifted out in April 1975, as Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to communist forces. By the end of the conflict, over a million fighters and nearly two million civilians from North and South Vietnam were killed. 2.7 million American servicemen and women served in Vietnam and 58,220 Americans, including 361 Utahans, were killed in the conflict (90% of these deaths occurred between 1966 and 1970). The remains of 1,584 are still missing. Many veterans continue to suffer from their war-related illnesses and injuries.
  5. Lasting Social Effects: The effects of the Vietnam War have been far reaching. The Vietnam War became the first “television war” with embedded journalists capturing and broadcasting uncensored footage of the conflict. The war would hamper the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, creating a credibility gap that peaked following the Watergate scandal. While two-thirds of the US military personnel who served in the Vietnam war volunteered for duty, the remaining one-third were drafted from the eligible group of young men between the ages of 18-26. This was true even while the voting age was 21. To resolve this injustice for younger men (“old enough to fight, old enough to vote”), Congress proposed, and 38 states (but not Utah) quickly ratified, the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1971, which lowered the voting age to 18. The military draft was not random, particularly prior to 1969 when control of the process was local and exemptions were more generous, leading to inequities across socioeconomic and racial lines. In 1967, the year Martin Luther King, Jr., linked the civil rights and anti-war movements, Black Americans were 11% of the population, 16% of draftees and 23% of combat troops. In 1973, President Nixon did not request that Congress extend the military draft, and as a result, today’s military is an all-volunteer force.