The Vietnam War Essay

The dynamics of the Vietnam War make it one of the most complex wars ever fought by the United States.  Every element of the war was saturated with complexities beyond the previous conceptions of war.  From the critical perspective, for the first half of the twentieth century, Vietnam was of little strategic importance to the United States and, even “after World War II, Vietnam was a very small blip on a very large American radar screen” (Herring, 14).  The U.S. knew very little about Vietnam outside of its rice production until the French colonized the country.  Even after France’s colonization of Vietnam, a great deal of America’s perspective and the media’s perspective of Vietnam was “devoid of expertise and based on racial prejudices and stereotypes that reflected deep-seated convictions about the superiority of Western culture. In U.S. eyes, the Vietnamese were a passive and uninformed people, totally unready for self government” (Herring, 13).  A survey of New York Times articles published during the First Indochina War revealed that the U.S. foreign policy analysis, media and public overwhelmingly concentrated on the French perspective of the conflict.  Little attention was given to the Vietminh perspective or to the perspective of the French backed government of South Vietnam.  This viewpoint continued until 1949 when China’s civil war ended and the Communist took control of China.  Shortly after taking control Mao Zedong, the Communist leader acknowledged the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the Soviet Union quickly followed suit.  After that, the U.S. media placed a greater emphasis on Cold War rhetoric when dealing with Vietnam.  As noted, the Cold War mindset permeated much of American culture during this time period; “it was an age of ideological consensus, and this was true above all in foreign policy” (Hallin, 50).  At the conclusion of the First Indochina War, the U.S. foreign policy, public and media considered Vietnam as a nation that could spread Communism in Southeast Asia.  The focus of the United States foreign policy from 1954 to 1957 looked mainly at the internal affairs of South Vietnam and at Ngo Dinh Diem, and to a smaller degree at the Refugee Crisis after the Geneva Accords.  From 1957-1961 the U.S. attention shifted heavily on Vietnam’s fate in relation to the turmoil in Laos and Cambodi as well as to the Soviet threat.  This perception dominated the public opinion, media and U.S. foreign policy well into President John F. Kennedy’s Administration.


On August 5, 1964, Congress considered the Southeast Asia Resolution, commonly called the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” (Johnson, 118).  After two days of debate it passed the Senate by a vote of 88-2 and the House by a resounding 416-0 (Johnson, 118).  It was a resolution to deliberately allow the United States a broad hand in protecting peace and security in Southeast Asia.  A second section asserted that “peace and security in southeast Asia” was vital to American national security and therefore the president, acting in accord with the Charter of the United Nations and as a member of the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), would “take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force,” to assist member states of SEATO “in defense of [their] freedom” (Young, 109).  Finally, the resolution would expire when the president determined “peace and security had returned to the area” (Young, 109).  It could also be terminated by a subsequent congressional resolution.

On March 8, 1965, 3,500 Marines landed at Da Nang.  In May the first United States Army units arrived (Westmoreland, 124).  With air attacks against both North and South Vietnam being launched from bases in the South, airfields were a logical target for forces from the National Liberation Front, the Communist guerrillas fighting against the South Vietnamese, and no one placed much confidence in the protection from the forces of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) (Westmoreland, 123).  The United States ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor, cabled the State Department on February 22, 1965, voicing his concerns about the deployment of Marines in Da Nang to protect the airfield there.  In addition Taylor indicated that

As for the use of Marines in mobile operations rather than static defense, [The] [w]hite-faced soldier, armed, equipped, and trained as he is not suitable guerrilla fighter for Asian forests and jungles…there would be [the] ever present question of how foreign soldier[s] would distinguish between a [Viet Cong] and a friendly Vietnamese farmer. When I view this array of difficulties, I am convinced that we should adhere to our past policy of keeping ground forces out of direct counterinsurgency role (Young, 139).  

Between 1965 and 1967, the United States military strategy in Vietnam had two major facets. The first involved strategic bombing of North Vietnam, and the second involved killing more Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars fighting in South Vietnam than could be replaced by new communist troops (McNamara,, 237).  President Johnson used the bombings and bombing pauses to pressure the North Vietnamese to conduct peace talks and bring the war to an end as quickly as possible.

But the war failed to end, and in early 1969, a counterattack occurred.  In the opening hours of the Tet Offensive, Viet Cong troops attacked thirteen of the sixteen provincial capitals of the Mekong delta of Southern Vietnam and many of the district capitals (Oberdorfer, 113).  Part of the shock of Tet was the contrast between recent official American military optimism that the war was drawing to a close and the public’s perception of the disparity between that optimism and the reality illuminated by the Tet attacks. The Viet Cong led the brunt of the communist Vietnamese attacks. In the majority of battles of the Tet Offensive throughout South Vietnam, the Viet Cong suffered crippling casualties. South Vietnamese and American casualties were proportionately less. 

From tactical perspective, the Tet Offensive was a military failure for the communist Vietnamese.  The main goal of the Tet Offensive was to incite a general uprising of the South Vietnamese population by demonstrating a powerful show of communist force.  However, no general uprising occurred as a result of the Tet Offensive.  The casualties sustained by the Viet Cong took a tremendous toll on the Viet Cong’s ability to conduct guerrilla raids on South Vietnamese and American forces for the remainder of the Vietnam War.

From the strategic viewpoint, the Tet Offensive was one of the communist Vietnamese’s greatest victories, because it severely affected the United States government’s political will to wage war in Vietnam.  Prior to the offensive, the Commanding General of the United States Military Assist Command Vietnam (MACV), General William Westmoreland, had stated that the war was winding down and that the United States could “see light at the end of the tunnel” (Oberdorfer, 271).  Upon hearing news reports of massed communist attacks throughout Vietnam, the existing American public support for the war eroded further.  In March 1968, upon hearing of General Westmoreland’s request for 200,000 more American combat troops in Vietnam while 500,000 servicemen and women were already fighting in Vietnam, the American public not only felt deceived but believed that the situation in Vietnam was unwinable or that the cost in American lives was too high (Oberdorfer, 271).  The Tet Offensive marked one of the most significant turning points in the Vietnam War (Oberdorfer, 280). 

Between 1968 and 1972, strategic bombing and bombing halts continued to be used to induce the North Vietnamese to engage in significant peace talks. American combat patrols continued throughout the South Vietnamese countryside to find and eliminate the Viet Cong presence. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese continued to erode the South Vietnamese government’s power and make the casualty toll on American forces higher and less bearable to Americans at home. Significant changes occurred in key positions on both sides of the conflict. Richard Nixon won the 1968 election. Along with President Nixon, his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger began American troop withdrawals in 1969 (Herring, 226).  Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, and First Secretary Le Duan succeeded as the head of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (Duiker, 561).

On January 23, 1973, the United States signed the nine-point proposal from the North Vietnamese delegates that called for a cease-fire to allow for the withdrawal of United States forces from Vietnam.  In Vietnam itself, the North Vietnamese followed some elements of the cease-fire agreement, particularly those which included the health and well-being of the American armed forces prisoners.  The release of the remaining American prisoners of war occurred simultaneously with the departure of the last combat soldier, and both sides made arrangements for search teams to continue to look for soldiers missed on the battlefields.  On the sixtieth day after the truce, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) officially closed down, declaring its mission accomplished (Young, 219). When the last American soldiers had left Camp Alpha, the processing barracks at Tan Son Nhut air base in Saigon, it was systematically dismantled by Vietnamese soldiers and civilians (Young, 220). The last American troops in Vietnam left on March 29, 1973.  Nevertheless, from 1973 to 1975 the South Vietnamese continued to fight the war without United States combat troops, using only weapons and supplies.  On April 30, 1975, the South Vietnamese government ordered a general cease-fire to all remaining loyal troops as North Vietnamese regulars occupied the southern capital city of Saigon. The Vietnam War was over.


The initial United States military strategy from 1959-1964 was to provide military advisors to train the South Vietnamese military in its war against the communist forces of the North Vietnamese and insurgents in the South, the Viet Cong.  A major lesson learned from the previous conflict the United States was involved in, the Korean War, was to fight a limited war that would not provoke larger and more powerful communist countries from getting directly involved.  The United States, throughout the Vietnam War up until its withdrawal in 1973, limited its actions against the Vietnamese communists in order to not provoke neighboring China or the Soviet Union from getting more involved.  From 1959 to 1964, American military advisors and United States Army regular and special forces were deployed to South Vietnam and attached to South Vietnamese military units. Their mission was to train the fledgling South Vietnamese in effective combat techniques.

The United States wanted a South Vietnamese victory over the communists with minimal United States involvement. Presidents Harry S Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to avoid another war and to focus American resources elsewhere (McNamara, 40).  The United States government and military knew that it was highly unlikely for China or the Soviet Union to get directly involved if the United States limited its role to advising and allowed the South Vietnamese to fight their own battles.  The United States understood that a military victory would be more likely were American troops deployed to Vietnam. It believed that such action would not be necessary.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident in June 1964 changed the United States’ military strategy in Vietnam.  The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed by Congress allowed President Johnson to commit military forces “to protect the interests of the United States.” Whereas prior to the Tonkin episode American soldiers could not directly engage in combat, after the Marines landed at Da Nang in March 1965, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized American soldiers to directly engage with enemy forces.  This marked a significant shift in American military strategy in Vietnam.   Not long after the Marines landed to defend the air base at Da Nang from local Viet Cong attacks, the commanding general of Miliatry Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) General Westmoreland shifted American forces’ posture in Vietnam from defensive to offensive.

Throughout the Vietnam War, the United States imposed several strategic limitations on its military forces to minimize the risk of broadening the war.  The United States did not want to repeat having the Chinese directly enter the war militarily.  The most significant limitation was the refusal to send ground troops into North Vietnam or to send any American forces including air and ground forces into neighboring Laos or Cambodia (Westmoreland, 44).  The military value of sending ground troops into North Vietnam to destroy troop and supply staging areas, occupy and deny use of strategic areas, and force the communist Vietnamese to assume a defensive posture and fight on ground of the Americans choosing would have been enormous.

The United States military did not leave North Vietnam unmolested. While American ground troops were not authorized to cross the 17th parallel dividing North and South Vietnam, the United States placed relatively few restrictions on sending bombers over North Vietnam with the goal to demolish North Vietnamese military supplies and weaponry before it could be used in South Vietnam (Kissinger, 239).  The American strategy regarding the air war over North Vietnam was to inflict the maximum amount of damage and casualties on the North Vietnamese necessary to make them lose their will to fight (Kissinger, 239).  The objective was to kill enough soldiers, destroy enough rice, which was the main staple of all Vietnamese people’s diets, and demolish enough bridges, railways, factories that the North Vietnamese could no longer wage war effectively against the South Vietnamese and its American ally.  The United States’ fury that was held in check by withholding ground troops from North Vietnam spurted out in the air campaigns conducted from 1965-1973 (Kissinger, 239).

Moving supplies during any military conflict is vital. One of the biggest challenges American and South Vietnamese forces faced throughout the Vietnam War was the North Vietnamese ability to supply their communist South Vietnamese allies, the Viet Cong, through Laos and Cambodia, a supply line dubbed the Ho Chi Minh trail after the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh (Westmoreland, 389).  The United States’ military strategy towards the Ho Chi Minh Trail centered on two facets. First was to destroy or prevent the supplies from North Vietnam aerially while they were still located in North Vietnam. Second was to position American and South Vietnamese forces along the South Vietnamese western border and so keep supplies from reaching the South.