Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Vietnam War

Background Information
Vietnam had been occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War and had given birth to a communist resistance movement under the inspired leadership of Ho Chi Minh. Unlike Korea, however, Indochina had been a French possession before the war and France wanted to regain control. The Vietnamese people had not fought the Japanese to be ruled by France. Using the same tactics which had been so successful against Japan, the Vietminh fought the French and defeated them at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French had received massive support from the Americans, who feared that Indochina might be another domino, but the Vietminh had received vital supplies and equipment from China.
America then watched developments in Indochina with concern. Indochina split into communist North Vietnam and non communist South Vietnam. The plan was to hold national elections but this was prevented by the Americans who feared a communist victory. The problem was that the rulers of South Vietnam were corrupt and hated by the Vietnamese peasants. The ruling classes were Christian landowners who had little respect for the Buddhist peasants they ruled. Ho Chi Minh sent help to the Vietcong guerrilla forces who had rebelled against the South's president Ngo. US President Kennedy began sending money, equipment and advisers to help the government of the South. In a frighteningly short time, the USA had become entangled in a vicious and complex war. By 1962 there were 16,500 US troops in Vietnam and by 1968 there were over half a million.
It soon became an American nightmare. The Vietcong could melt into the jungle or disappear amongst the local peasants. They were expert guerrilla fighters and the Americans had no real answer to this type of warfare. They were not used to being seen as invaders. Tactics on both sides became more desperate. As American losses piled up huge US air raids devastated North Vietnam and Vietcong bases in Cambodia. Chemical weapons were used and many civilians died agonising deaths alongside the fighters.
Vietnam has been called the first television war, it was just as much the photographer's war. Graphic pictures showing American dead and atrocities carried out by both sides changed the minds of the American people. By the late 1960s there were large demonstrations against the war. The cost in money but above all lives was not acceptable to the American public.
In order to try to get the USA out of Vietnam a new President, Richard Nixon, came up with a new policy in 1969. The new policy involved building up South Vietnamese forces and providing money, training and equipment while US troops were withdrawn. At the same time Nixon tried to start peace talks. The new policy could not halt the Vietcong but Nixon did reach an agreement with Ho Chi Minh in 1973. The Americans pulled out and in less than two years Saigon (capital of South Vietnam) had fallen to the Communists.
The Vietnam war was a disaster for the USA. Its armed forces were unable to deal with Vietcong tactics and the international reputation of the USA was damaged by stories of atrocities and by the effects of bombing and chemical weapons. The campaign was really fought on the wrong ground in the sense that the US troops were supporting a regime in South Vietnam which did not have the full support of its own people. In addition, the US bombing missions over Laos and Cambodia alienated the people of those countries to the American cause. By 1975 both Laos and Cambodia had communist governments. Some historians believe that as well as failing to prevent Vietnam becoming communist, US actions actually speeded up the spread of Communism in the region.


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