United States History I & II
United States History I & II

United States History I & II

Lead Author(s): Sara Eskridge

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Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition

Pearson

Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013

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$63.90

Hardcover print text only

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$79.60

Digital only

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Constantly revised and updated by a community of professors with the latest content

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Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Customizable

Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Pricing

Average price of textbook across most common format

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

$63.90

Hardcover print text only

MacMillan

Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition

$87.99

Per volume

Pearson

Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013

$79.60

Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Content meets standard for Introduction to Anatomy & Physiology course, and is updated with the latest content

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

In-book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

Customizable

Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

About this textbook

Lead Authors

Sara Eskridge, Ph.DRandolph-Macon College, VA

Dr. Eskridge is a Professor of History at Western Governors University. She specializes in Civil Rights, Cold War, Southern, and Cultural History. She is the author of Rube Tube: CBS as Rural Comedy in the Sixties (University of Missouri Press, 2019) as well as several articles and book chapters on southern mediated images during the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

Contributing Authors

Andrew WegmannLoyola University

Michael CarverCalifornia Polytechnic State University

Michael FrawleyUniversity of Texas of the Permian Basin

Linda ClemmonsIllinois State University

Angela HessCameron University

Sam NelsonRidgewater College

Volker JanssenCalifornia State University

Lance JandaCameron University

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Chapter 27: The Vietnam War


Chapter Overview

After World War II, the United States utilized its new-found status as a world power to assist France in maintaining its colonial holdings in Vietnam. The Viet Minh, freedom fighters led by Ho Chi Minh, fought against their colonial oppressors, engaging the French in a war for independence that ended in Vietnamese victory in 1954. While U.S. leaders ostensibly supported free elections in Vietnam, they were concerned that the Vietnamese would fall under the sway of the communists. After determining that a sizable portion of southern Vietnam was anti-communist, the U.S. encouraged a temporary partition of the country in 1954, then staged an election which resulted in the ascension of President Ngo Dinh Diem. From 1955-1975, the North Vietnamese engaged in a war to reunite the country using tactics that involved infiltrating the South and developing communist strongholds. Throughout that period, the U.S. sent an increasing amount of money and military advisors to South Vietnam in an effort to maintain its independence. In 1964, two American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin were supposedly attacked by the North Vietnamese. These alleged attacks became the basis of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, in which Congress gave the president unlimited power in subduing North Vietnam. Starting in 1965, the United States sent an ever-larger number of troops to Vietnam, peaking at just over a half million by 1969. With American support for the war dwindling due to perceived American losses, coverage of American atrocities in Vietnam, and an anti-war movement developing among the nation's youth, the U.S. sought to make peace with North Vietnam, while simultaneously hoping to maintain South Vietnamese autonomy. After signing a peace treaty in 1973, the American military presence rapidly dwindled and the North Vietnamese were able to make rapid gains into South Vietnam. By 1975, the U.S. orchestrated a rapid evacuation of the remaining Americans and pro-American South Vietnamese as the North Vietnamese declared victory and forcibly reunited the nation under the auspices of communism.

Chapter Objectives

  • Establish the reasons for U.S. involvement in Vietnam
  • Explain why U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated between 1945-1965.
  • Enumerate U.S. political, economic, and military strategies used in the Vietnam War.
  • Understand the reasons for the U.S. anti-war movement and the subsequent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.
  • Explain the consequences and legacies of the Vietnam War


Origins of the Vietnam War

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the nations of Europe embarked on campaigns of expansion and colonization throughout Africa and Asia. After World War II, however, those same colonial powers struggled to re-build their own countries and had little ability to finance foreign colonies. France was one such country that found itself in an impossible situation. Its colonial empire included an area called Indochina, which contained the countries of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (Figure 27.1). The French abandoned Vietnam to the Japanese during World War II, and in 1945, attempted to reclaim its former colony. The Vietnamese, however, did not want to return to their formal colonial status. Following French retreat from Vietnam in 1941, Ho Chi Minh created the Viet Minh, a revolutionary organization dedicated to securing Vietnamese independence. In 1945, Minh declared Vietnam's independence from France. Although Minh was a nationalist and had previously made comparisons between Vietnam and the American Revolution, he had adopted communist ideals following World War I, after the United States declined to assist the Vietnamese freedom movement. His  declared sympathy for communism and his deepening relationship with the USSR made him an object of fear and derision in the United States.

Figure 27.1: Map of Southeast Asia, showing positioning of Vietnam in relation to the rest of Indochina and China

Spotlight on Primary Source

On September 2, 1945, hours after the Japanese surrender in World War II, Ho Chi Minh publicly declared Vietnam’s independence from its French occupiers. Although western powers had come to distrust Ho Chi Minh due to his professed conversion to communism, his Declaration of Vietnamese Independence cast doubts on the degree to which he truly embraced the philosophy.

Question 27.01

27.01 - Level 4

Based on the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, to what degree do you think Ho Chi Minh was committed to the communist ideology?

Click here to see the answer to Question 27.01.


French forces attempted to suppress the Viet Minh rebellion, resulting in a war for independence that lasted until 1954. France, which could ill afford another foreign conflict in the wake of World War II, preyed upon U.S. concerns about communism in order to engage its financial and political support in Vietnam. Between 1950-1954, the United States paid the majority of French war costs in Southeast Asia. Although some in the Eisenhower administration wanted to intervene further in order to prevent a communist victory, Congress refused to do so without the benefit of supportive coalition forces, none of which were forthcoming. By May 1954, France could no longer sustain its influence in Vietnam, even with overwhelming U.S. financial support, and the French army surrendered its northern garrison at Dien Bien Phu to the Vietnamese following a four-month siege.

The Geneva Peace Accords of 1954 represented a turning point for the Vietnam conflict, both in terms of U.S. involvement and the nature of the conflict. The agreement had two major stipulations. The first was a ceasefire agreement that called for a temporary dividing line drawn through the middle of the country at the 17th parallel, separating the Viet Minh- controlled North from the French-controlled South. The second stipulation called for free democratic elections to determine the future leadership of Vietnam. This portion of the agreement also required that neither the North nor the South  develop any political or military alliances with outside parties before the elections. Likewise, no foreign troops were permitted into Vietnam during the pre-election period. After the elections, set for 1956, the 17th parallel line would be removed. While the Viet Minh did not approve of these stipulations, which granted significant authority to the French in light of their recent defeat at Dien Bien Phu, they accepted the treaty as the price of gaining independence. For its part, the United States signed the first agreement, but not the second one (Figure 27.2).

Figure 27.2: Map of North and South Vietnam. [1]


27.02 - Level 1

The 1954 Geneva Accords stipulated that Vietnam be temporarily divided into two separately governed parts. Match the region of Vietnam to the entity that occupied it under the Geneva agreement.

Premise
Response
1

South Vietnam

A

Viet Minh

2

North Vietnam

B

United States

C

The United Nations

D

France


Although the Geneva Accords stated that the 1956 election must democratic and overseen by a panel of nations, the United States took issue with the arrangement. U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles believed the elections would pave the way for the communists to take over, as Ho Chi Minh was certain to win. An adherent to the so-called "domino theory," the U.S. government believed that the political position of Vietnam connected to the rest of Indochina as a set of dominoes: if one fell to communism, the others would soon follow. The United States was one of the nations chosen to oversee the election, but in 1955, it withdrew from this obligation in order to implement an alternative plan- the creation of an anti-communist South Vietnam.

The United States provided significant military, economic, and political aid in order to create the Republic of Vietnam in 1955, and also supported this mission by creating the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), designed to respond to attacks on any country in Southeast Asia. In October 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem, the French-educated anti-communist serving as the interim prime minister, staged a referendum in which the public had to choose between him and leader Bao Dai. Based on the results of that referendum, Diem declared himself the new president of the Republic of Vietnam (Figure 27.3).

Diem immediately claimed to face constant attacks from the North and asked for U.S. help in identifying and rooting out suspected communists in the South. He frequently utilized the CIA for this purpose and arrested thousands of people. He passed a series of laws that allowed him to imprison suspected communists for indeterminate periods of time, developing a reputation for repression. The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations' faith in Diem's ability to uphold democratic ideals in Vietnam steadily declined.

27.03 - Level 1

Put these items into the correct chronological order

A

Declaration of Vietnamese Independence

B

Creation of SEATO

C

Geneva Peace Accords

D

Election of Ngo Dinh Diem


Figure 27.3: Republic of Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem shaking hands with U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 [2]

The National Liberation Front

The North Vietnamese felt betrayed by South Vietnamese independence. The Viet Minh leadership trusted in the authority of the Geneva Accords, only to have their ambitions for unity and independence destroyed. They initially responded with a series of bombings and assassinations designed to instill terror in the South Vietnamese government and the general population. However, the North soon realized that many South Vietnamese disliked their new government, as evidenced by the ever-growing number of public protests. In 1960, the North Vietnamese created the National Liberation Front (NLF), an organization that transcended ideological differences in order to promote national reunification. President Diem doubted the intentions of the NLF, as did the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. They were widely referred to as the Viet Cong, a slang term meaning "northern communist."

27.04 Level 5

Why did South Vietnam doubt the motives of the National Liberation Front? In your opinion, do you think these doubts are justified?


Kennedy and the Strategic Hamlet Program

When John Kennedy became president in 1961, fewer than one thousand military and political advisors represented the sum total of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The Kennedy administration experienced intense divisions on the issue of Vietnam, with some advisors believing that with more economic and military aid the South Vietnamese could successfully defeat the NLF, and others believing that the U.S. should remove itself from the situation altogether. Kennedy opted for a moderate approach, escalating involvement slightly while maintaining the option to withdraw. The U.S. invested sixteen thousand men in a program of nation-building, believing that this would help to create a more stable citizenry. Among the initiatives developed for South Vietnam during the Kennedy administration was the Strategic Hamlet Program (Figure 27.4). Designed to protect South Vietnamese citizens from the NLF, the program called for the building of safe hamlets guarded by the South Vietnamese army (ARVN). This plan proved difficult to implement for multiple reasons. Locals did not believe that the goals of the program justified leaving their homes in order to relocate to a glorified refugee camp and the ARVN could not differentiate NLF sympathizers from other civilians. Years into the program, South Vietnam remained both politically and socially unstable. In some cases, traumatic experiences with the Strategic Hamlet Program actually made many South Vietnamese people more sympathetic toward the NLF and its goals.

In 1962, Kennedy launched a limited program of air strikes against Viet Cong camps and strongholds within South Vietnam. This represented an attempt to provide support to the weak South Vietnamese air force. It also allowed the U.S. to spray defoliants into wooded areas, thus providing more visibility for South Vietnamese bombers. The military purposefully limited the campaign, however, as the United States had not officially declared itself a combatant in the war and wanted to maintain its status as an ally.

By 1963, the Kennedy administration lost faith in the Diem regime. Protests in the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon grew increasingly more common and Diem's secret policy became more brutal in response. The most infamous protest was the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who burned himself in a busy Saigon intersection to protest the government targeting of Buddhist monasteries.  In November 1963, generals in the ARVN assassinated Diem. In the weeks that followed,  his successor proved no better, and  the government of South Vietnam appeared as ineffectual as ever.

Figure 27.4: Strategic hamlet in South Vietnam, 1964 [3]

Gulf of Tonkin

John Kennedy's assassination occurred mere weeks after Ngo Dinh Diem's. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, privately believed that the United States should honor its commitments to South Vietnam,  but avoid military intervention if possible. However, he also feared being perceived as weak if he did not offer appropriate support for South Vietnam. Unsure of how to proceed, he initially elected to follow Kennedy's course and continued to send advisors. His indecision disappeared in August 1964, amid reports of two alleged attacks by North Vietnamese patrol boats on U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam. 

Despite conflicting reports and intelligence suggesting that at least one of the attacks did not happen, Johnson reported the attacks to a joint session of Congress and asked for retaliatory strikes and a resolution to "take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia." Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which resulted in the rapid escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, including the commitment of ground troops (Figure 27.5). This measure received all but two votes in the Senate and the unanimous support of the House of Representatives. Congress passed this resolution assuming that the president would request their support in the event that the war escalated further.  However, the Resolution formed the basis of all actions taken by the Johnson and Nixon administrations to prosecute the Vietnam War. Neither administration sought further support from Congress.

Spotlight on Primary Source

Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, thus opening the possibility of expanding the Vietnam War. Critics of the resolution would later claim that the Johnson administration purposefully misled Congress in order to escalate the war.

Figure 27.5: Lyndon Johnson signing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, August 1964 [4]
27.05 - Level 4

What was the proximate cause for the initial escalation of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam?

A

Strategic Hamlet Program

B

Gulf of Tonkin attack

C

Formation of the Viet Minh

D

1954 Geneva Accords


Question 27.06

27.06 - Level 3

How might the president have interpreted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution differently than Congress?

Click here to see the answer to Question 27.06.



Prosecuting the War

General William Westmoreland, the commanding general over U.S. forces in Vietnam, had a three-part strategy for prosecuting the war. The first stage involved breaking down the enemy’s ability to fight, the second required U.S. forces to take the offensive and crush the enemy, and the third stage called for the U.S. working to hand the reins of government completely over to South Vietnam. The military hoped to accomplish the first stage through a bombing campaign called "Operation Rolling Thunder," which commenced in February 1965 in response to a Viet Cong attack on a U.S. air base in Pleiku. The Johnson administration believed that the North Vietnamese government would weaken in the face of repeated bombing raids, and subsequently lose its will to fight the war in South Vietnam. Johnson also hoped that strategic bombing would create breaks in supply lines, making it impossible for the North Vietnamese to supply their troops further south. The bombing was also intended to boost morale in South Vietnam.

Over the course of four years, the range and intensity of the bombing expanded. Although the U.S. initially kept its bombing range in the southern portion of North Vietnam, the targets gradually extended farther and farther north in an attempt to put increased pressure on the communist government in Hanoi. By the end of the campaign, the only off-limits places in North Vietnam were the capital city of Hanoi and the ten-mile buffer zone just south of the Chinese border. The U.S. military dropped more than four million tons of bombs and 18 million tons of chemicals on North Vietnam over the course of this bombing campaign (Figure 27.6).

The effectiveness of this campaign remains a subject of debate among historians. There are some who believe that this systematic targeting of North Vietnamese political and military targets severely weakened the nation and could have potentially ended the war if continued for a longer period. Others argued that the campaign merely strengthened Northern resolve to remove the United States from Vietnam. What is known is that the North Vietnamese, despite having a relatively small air force, were very effective in limiting the effectiveness of the U.S. bombers. They used surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery to shoot down American planes, resulting in a large number of prisoners of war from very early in the campaign. They also had construction crews working around the clock to repair the damage caused by U.S. bombs, although they often recorded footage of the damage so it could be used in propaganda.

Whatever the effect of Operation Rolling Thunder on the North Vietnamese ability to make war, the human cost was immense. When Johnson unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a peace settlement in October 1968, a large portion of North Vietnamese hamlets had already been destroyed by the bombing, and the military estimates that nearly two million people were killed

Figure 27.6: F105 crews bomb North Vietnamese targets during Operation Rolling Thunder [5]


27.07 - Level 1

In what year did the Gulf of Tonkin Incident occur?


27.08 - Level 1

In what year did Operation Rolling Thunder commence?


In addition to the bombing campaign, the American army also utilized a “search and destroy” strategy for South Vietnam as part of its second stage of war. The strategy entailed placing ground troops, typically a platoon or a company, in hostile territory to search out the enemy, destroy the threat, and immediately evacuate the area. The helicopter, a relatively new technology for the time, helped to make search and destroy missions possible by allowing the military to land troops quickly and efficiently almost directly in war zones. However, troops frequently accomplished these missions by simply hiking to their destination.

As with Operation Rolling Thunder, the efficacy of search and destroy missions was a hotly debated subject. Some apologists believed that if attrition was the goal, then killing any number of North Vietnamese got the U.S. closer to it. Critics of the strategy pointed out that even when the U.S. successfully cleared an area of enemy presence, the North Vietnamese simply waited until the troops left and repopulated as quickly as possible. The most common complaint about the search and destroy missions is that American military leadership severely underestimated the North Vietnamese ability to resupply and replace men after an attack. This willful blindness led the U.S. to declare victory in a number of cases where it was not warranted.

Working at odds with the bombing campaign and the search and destroy missions was the third element to the U.S. strategy, which was the goal of winning popular support from South Vietnam and destroying North Vietnamese credibility among the people. The government and military believed that if they could convince the South Vietnamese people of the fundamental righteousness of their cause, then they would join the war effort of their own volition and actively fight against the Viet Cong. Although the Kennedy administration approved a similar concept in the early 1960s, Lyndon Johnson revitalized it and popularized the phrase “hearts and minds,” utilizing it no fewer than 28 times in speeches. Unlike the mixed assessments given to the bombing campaign and the search and destroy strategy, “hearts and minds” is generally considered an unmitigated failure, largely due to the conflicting messages sent by American troops while in Vietnam. American soldiers were taught to view Vietnamese as an unknowable enemy, and it was often difficult for them to distinguish enemies from friends. The American insistence on using attrition as a war strategy meant that many South Vietnamese people lived in constant fear of U.S. soldiers instead of embracing them as liberators.

27.09 - Level 2

Which of the following efforts to advance U.S. interests in Vietnam was specifically designed to win the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people?

A

Strategic Hamlet program

B

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

C

Operation Rolling Thunder

D

"Search and Destroy" strategy


Fulbright Hearings

In 1966, a reporter on assignment in Vietnam sent a letter to William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The reporter, after interviewing hundreds of soldiers in the field, told Fulbright that the war was not going well and that the increased troops being sent to Vietnam were not having the desired impact. Rattled by this letter, Fulbright called Secretary of State Dean Rusk to testify before the Committee in January 1966. Rusk reiterated the Johnson administration's position that if the U.S. and South Vietnam held firm, the NLF would eventually falter. Fulbright remained unconvinced by this claim, and came to believe that the Johnson administration was blinded by its own convictions.

In an attempt to prevent the Johnson administration from calling for more troops, Fulbright called for a series of televised hearings on the war in February 1966. Among the witnesses called were well-respected foreign policy analyst George Kennan, author of the infamous "Long Telegram," who testified that it was in the best interests of the United States to withdraw from Southeast Asia as soon as possible. He argued that with every escalation, no matter how incremental, a negotiated settlement became less likely—a sentiment that proved prescient. Other witnesses included the Secretary of State and General Maxwell Taylor, whose pro-war stance was met with grim resistance from Fulbright.

Though Senate support for the war did not shift immediately, polls showed a demonstrable shift in public opinion following the hearings. Before the Fulbright hearings, public support for the handling of the war had stood at 63%, but it fell to 49% just four weeks later. Once well-respected figures expressed their doubts on television, it became acceptable to oppose the war. The Fulbright Committee held several more public hearings on the war; the last took place in 1971 as American anti-war sentiment reached its zenith.

Tet Offensive

Despite growing skepticism in some corners, American support for the war remained relatively strong from 1965 to 1968. News reports portrayed the NLF as an unknowable communist enemy and the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) as freedom fighters, so most Americans had no questions about the value of the cause. Reports also claimed that Americans consistently conquered their NLF foes on the battlefield. Signs pointed to an imminent victory for the U.S., with senior American commander General William Westmoreland publicly declaring in late 1967 that "we have reached an important point, where the end begins to come into view." The U.S. measured its victories through the number of people killed in battle, and although the body counts supplied by the Army have been thoroughly discredited, these numbers seemed to support Westmoreland's contentions.

Ten weeks after General Westmoreland's confident proclamation, the Tet Offensive shattered any hope of a quick U.S. victory. In the early hours of January 30, 1968, following a ceasefire in honor of the Vietnamese New Year, the NLF attacked every major U.S. military installation in South Vietnam, including the U.S. embassy in Saigon (Figure 27.7). U.S. forces initially sustained massive casualties but managed to re-take every position within a few weeks, securing one of the biggest American victories of the war. The NLF sustained 35,000 casualties, or half of its total fighting force, but it achieved a major political victory of public opinion. A "credibility gap" formed as the American people struggled to reconcile the imminent victory promised by U.S. politicians with the powerful, determined, enemy that executed the Tet Offensive.

Figure 27.7: Map of NLF strikes during the Tet Offensive. [6]


The Tet Offensive spurred a second round of public Fulbright Committee hearings, in which members openly questioned the basis of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Angry that the size and scope of the war had increased dramatically, Congress members demanded to be included on any future decisions to expand the war. More than a hundred members of the House of Representatives sponsored a resolution demanding a complete review of U.S. policy in Vietnam. In response, Johnson permanently suspended Operation Rolling Thunder in March 1968 and placed a limit on the number of U.S. troops in South Vietnam rather than executing the planned call for 200,000 more troops. That same month, after the New Hampshire primaries indicated that Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy could effectively challenge Johnson as the 1968 Democratic presidential nominee, the president announced he would not be seeking a second term.

27.10 - Level 1

Which of the following was a consequence of the Tet Offensive?

A

U.S. military victory

B

NLF public relations victory

C

Increased Congressional oversight on war


Turning Against the War

Anti-war protests had existed since the early 1960s, but the Tet Offensive brought the movement into the national spotlight. CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite helped to spark this movement in February 1968 when he traveled to Vietnam and subsequently aired a special broadcast that exposed the complicated nature of the war. The program ended with an editorial by Cronkite, in which he expressed a belief that the best outcome the U.S. could hope for was a stalemate. 

Although Cronkite probably helped to turn Middle America against the war, people protested for many reasons. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, an 18 year old could be drafted, but in some states could not vote or drink alcohol. Many believed that this was unjust because these young men were not able to participate in the political process that would send them to war. Others were horrified that the United States was propping up a corrupt regime in South Vietnam, or disgusted by the number of innocent bystanders included in the casualties. Still others were concerned about the environmental damage caused by industrial defoliants like Agent Orange. African Americans protested the war, claiming that they could not fight for democracy abroad while being treated as second-class citizens at home. In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. made headlines when he announced that he did not support the war on those grounds. 


Young people in particular joined the anti-war movement after the institution of the military draft in 1969. There were a number of ways to avoid the draft, including pretending to be homosexual, expressing suicidal thoughts, acquiring disfigurement, and fleeing the country. Some were able to get deferments due to attending college, but most were unable to afford that option. Even those who chose to enter service after college were eligible for leadership positions that placed them high enough in the chain of command to get away from the battlefield. Eighty percent of the people drafted were working class and poor. Likewise, African American and Latino soldiers were more likely to become ground combat troops than white soldiers, even when accounting for socioeconomic class. The average age of a U.S. soldier in Vietnam was 19—seven years younger than their World War II counterparts (Figure 27.8).

Figure 27.8: This chart shows the demographics of the average Vietnam era soldier.​​


The administration of the draft represented a particularly heated point of contention among anti-war protesters. The draft was administered through a so-called "lottery." Every man between the ages of 18-25 was given a lottery number based on his birthday. The lower the lottery number, the higher chance of being called for duty. Lottery numbers were selected in a televised drawing. Statisticians quickly realized that the lottery was not random, and that, due to the way birth dates were placed in the barrel, some men were more likely to get drafted depending on what month they were born in (Figure 27.9).

Figure 27.9: Graph showing the average lottery number drawn between 1969-1972 based on birth date.​


By the end of the 1960s, most Americans no longer supported the Vietnam War, regardless of whether they formally joined a movement. A number of atrocities casting U.S. ground forces in a negative way came to light toward the end of the decade. Foremost among these was the tragedy at My Lai, a village in the Quang Ngai province, a Viet Cong stronghold. In March 1968, a group of U.S. troops entered the village and, after finding mostly elderly people, women, and children, proceeded to burn down many of the homes and kill most of the citizens, all while high-ranking officers watched from a helicopter hovering over the village (Figures 27.10-12). When some witnesses complained to their supervisors, the event was covered up until late the following year, when one serviceman, disgusted by the inaction, spoke to an Associated Press reporter. News reports of My Lai, combined with photographs taken at the scene, led to disgust and concern among the American people. Although the men involved in the massacre were tried for war crimes, all but one was acquitted.

Warning: Graphic photographs of war scenes to follow. Click here to skip images.

Figure 27.10: SP4 Dustin sets fire to a hut during My Lai massacre. From the Report of the Department of the Army Review of the Preliminary Investigations of the My Lai incident. [7]


Figure 27.11: Unidentified bodies from the My Lai massacre.From the Report of the Department of the Army Review of the Preliminary Investigations of the My Lai incident. [8]


Figure 27.12: Women and children in their last moments of life during the My Lai massacre. From the Report of the Department of the Army Review of the Preliminary Investigations of the My Lai incident.​ [9]

End of Images

Question 27.11

27.11 - Level 5

In your opinion, what impact could photos like these have on American feelings about the war? Be sure to support your opinion.

Click here to see the answer to Question 27.11.

The Anti-War Movement in the Culture

Regardless of their reasons for joining, by 1969, people had flocked to the anti-war movement in droves. There were numerous ways that the movement used to protest against the war. The most common method of protest was the public demonstration. As many of the movement members were college students, these became most common on college and university campuses across the country, particularly at schools with robust ROTC and recruitment programs or military research contracts. As early as 1965, members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) staged so-called "teach-ins" in university campuses across the country in order to protest the war and its conduct. While these public demonstrations started small, by 1967, they commanded upwards of 100,000 attendees, as did a protest at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. in the fall of that year (Figure 27.13).

Figure 27.13: Federal marshals bodily remove a protester from a demonstration at the Pentagon, October 22, 1967. [10]


In addition to pervasive demonstrations, anti-war sentiment became common in elements of popular culture as well. Music proved an excellent medium for conveying the sentiments of a generation jaded and disgruntled at what they perceived as a misguided war. One of the most popular protest songs of the late 1960s was "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" by Pete Seeger. The song was a folk allegory in which a clueless army captain inadvertently leads his platoon into dangerous water and near death, despite the fevered protests of his sergeant. It is only when the captain abruptly drowns in quick sand that the sergeant is able to turn the men around and lead them to safety. The song concluded with a pointed verse obliquely alluding to Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson. It was considered so controversial that it was censored when Seeger attempted to play it on national television in 1968. Another popular protest anthem was "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" by Country Joe and the Fish. As an upbeat satire of the Vietnam War, its jarring lyrics were dissonant with the upbeat tempo and the song became an instant lightening rod for controversy, remaining a subject of debate among historians even today.

Spotlight on Primary Source



Although this song was first released in 1965, well before the anti-war movement gained traction, it became an anthem of the movement. Be sure to note how the zany ragtime music contrasts with the dark satire of the lyrics.

Question 27.12

27.12 - Level 4

In what ways do Country Joe and the Fish use this song as a statement against the Vietnam War? Point to specific examples within the lyrics.

Click here to see the answer to Question 27.12.


As the anti-war movement became more and more popular, it became common for American celebrities to add their high profiles to the cause. Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda were some of the most famous people to support the movement. Although celebrity participation in protests was generally innocuous, Fonda’s desire to get involved took a dark turn. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Fonda was one of the most recognizable actresses in the United States. In 1972, she took a high-profile trip to Hanoi, the capitol of North Vietnam, so that she could speak to political leaders there and view the damage created by U.S. bombing campaigns. After viewing some of the damage, Fonda announced that the U.S. had purposefully destroyed the dike system in North Vietnam in order to cause massive flooding in the countryside. She made radio broadcasts denouncing U.S. policy in Vietnam and, in what she later termed one of the most ill-advised decisions of her life, posed on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun used to shoot down U.S. planes. The photograph became widely publicized as North Vietnamese propaganda, earning her the derogatory title “Hanoi Jane.

The Weather Underground represents one of the more extreme examples of an anti-war protest group. The group was comprised of former members of SDS, who believed that peaceful protest had not accomplished the goal of ending the Vietnam War. Instead, the members of the Weather Underground believed that violence was the only language that Americans understood, and that protest must come to them in that format. Their philosophy hinged on the premise that if Americans experienced an approximation of a war in their own land, they were less likely to encourage war in foreign lands. The group staged its protests in the form of bombings and other terrorist actions aimed at instrumental government buildings, factories, and laboratories. Several members of the group ended up on the FBI Most Wanted list throughout the 1970s, and many served prison time for their activities with the group. Most anti-war protesters did not support the mission of the Weather Underground, which became notorious even in an era characterized by bombastic behaviors.

POW Camps in Vietnam

A large part of American concern about U.S. policy in Vietnam was in reference to the treatment of the prisoners of war held captive in North Vietnam. Most American prisoners were held in prisons in and around Hanoi. Politicians and civilians alike debated heartily over the conditions faced by these men, who often lived in POW prisons for years at a time in small cells. Rumors persisted about torture, lack of food, and unliveable conditions, but North Vietnamese propaganda films often showed POWs who, appearing well kept, testified to the humane treatment they received. However, in one such 1966 film, a Navy combat pilot named Jeremiah Denton systematically used Morse code to blink the word “torture.” This represented the first confirmation of the conditions inside the POW prisons. Denton later claimed that he experienced the most severe torture sessions in the aftermath of his interview, after his captors learned of his covert messages. Denton, along with many others, offered details of torture sessions that included being severely beaten and tied with ropes to cut off circulation.

One important aspect of POW confinement was the complete separation of the prisoners from one another. They lived in total confinement, unable to speak to any of their fellow inmates. The so-called “Tap Code” represented one way that POWs got around their isolation. Guards often detected whispers and confiscated notes, but tapping proved a reliable method of communicating. Prisoners tapped out messages using two-number codes that represented each letter of the alphabet. As new prisoners came in, old prisoners initiated them to the system. In this way, the prisoners shared stories and commiserated over their treatment at the hands of the North Vietnamese.

The Nixon Years and "Vietnamization"

By March 1968, Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election. A rotating group of candidates vied to take his place as the Democratic nominee, with Vice-President Hubert Humphrey taking the spot after the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Richard Nixon was the Republican candidate, running a campaign that focused on returning the country to "law and order." A third party candidate, George Wallace, also ran. Nixon won the election with a plurality of votes, taking 43.4% of the votes cast. 

While Johnson was considering peace negotiations with Vietnam by the end of his term, Nixon went in a slightly different direction. He wanted to extract U.S. troops from Vietnam while honoring the nation's commitment to South Vietnam. He referred to his plan as finding "peace with honor." The U.S. government adopted a policy of "Vietnamization," which involved strengthening the democratic South Vietnamese government while gradually turning over all military operations to the ARVN. Nixon increased U.S. economic aid to Vietnam by 20%, but manage to decrease the number of U.S. troops in the country from 539,000 to 156,000.

By 1970, it was clear that Vietnamization did not work. The increased monetary aid from the U.S. made South Vietnam less willing to compromise or work toward a peace settlement, and the war seemed to be expanding instead of contracting. The Viet Cong had a well-established system of staging areas located in Cambodia and Laos along the Vietnamese borders, and the U.S. began bombing those regions in 1970 (Figure 27.14). Anti-war protests ignited on college campuses all over the country. One of these, at Kent State University in Ohio, culminated in the calling of National Guard troops, who opened fire on the unarmed protesters, wounding nine and killing four. The incident provoked rage from both those who felt the National Guard had overstepped its authority and those who felt that the students were exploiting their privilege and had gotten what they deserved.

Figure 27.14: Richard Nixon pointing to Viet Cong sanctuaries along the Cambodia/Vietnam border, April 30, 1970. [11]


27.13 - Level 1

Which of the following is not an element of Nixon's Vietnamization plan?

A

Increased American involvement with South Vietnamese military operations

B

Reduction in the number of American forces

C

Decreased American supervision of military activities in South Vietnam

D

Increased American financial aid to South Vietnam


27.14 - Level 2

Which of the following figures is most closely associated with the “Vietnamization” of the War?


Pentagon Papers

In the late 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara asked the State Department for an official history of the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg, one of those who worked on the project, initially supported the war and advocated for strong U.S. intervention in Vietnam, but what he found shocked him. The Pentagon's record of the war demonstrated that as far back as the 1940s, the Pentagon, along with various presidential administrations, systemically lied to the people and to Congress about the objectives, scope and progress of the war. Ellsberg leaked the documents to The New York Times, which published them in 1971. Although Ellsberg was initial branded with a myriad of charges, including conspiracy and treason, the Supreme Court ruled that The New York Times could continue publishing the materials he provided. With unequivocal proof that the government had lied its way into war, popular support for the conflict waned even farther (Figure 27.15).

Figure 27.15: This graphic shows the public approval rating of the Vietnam War from 1965-1973, based on a national poll.​

Peace and Operation Frequent Wind

In 1972, the U.S. unsuccessfully attempted to draw the North Vietnamese into peace talks. The army enacted the largest single bombing of the war, dropping 36,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam on Christmas Eve, leading journalists to dub the event the "Christmas bombing." The bombing demonstrated that the U.S. had the capability to bomb the nation into submission, and had the effect of bringing the North Vietnamese to the negotiation table. Throughout 1973, the U.S. and the two Vietnams struggled to find a way to allow both sides a victory. By the end of 1973, the U.S. began sending home its remaining troops in Vietnam and the North Vietnamese government began releasing American prisoners of war, some of whom had been held in captivity for nearly eight years.  Only a few thousand advisors and diplomats remained in the country.

27.15 - Level 1

Sort these items into the correct chronological order.

A

Christmas bombing

B

Vietnamization

C

Kent State Massacre

D

Operation Rolling Thunder


27.16 - Level 2

Please sort the following dates by the American public’s approval of the Vietnam War, from highest to lowest.

A

Spring 1971

B

Autumn 1967

C

Autumn 1969

D

Spring 1970


The ARVN was woefully outmatched by the NVA. In the spring of 1975, with the North Vietnamese surrounding Saigon, the U.S. executed one last military maneuver in order to remove all remaining American personnel and "at-risk" South Vietnamese from the region. Termed Operation Frequent Wind, the mission was designed to transport refugees and Americans from the beleaguered South Vietnamese capital onto U.S. naval vessels waiting in the South China Sea (Figure 27.16). Thousands waited for their turn, standing in lines that reached more than a mile. On April 29 and 30, more than 50,000 people were lifted out of Saigon. Many of those refugees would find their way to the United States in order to start a new life. There were also thousands left behind, only to come later. In the years following the war, as the NVA sought violent retribution again those in the South who supported U.S. policies, many more refugees followed.

Figure 27.16​: Evacuees from Saigon offloading onto the USS Midway on April 29, 1975. [12]

Question 27.17

27.17 - Level 2

Why was it so urgent to evacuate Americans and South Vietnamese sympathizers at the end of the war?

Click here to see the answer to Question 27.17.


27.18 - Level 2

Match the military strategy with its primary goal.

Premise
Response
1

Strategic Hamlet Program

A

Rescue our allies

2

Operation Rolling Thunder

B

Win "hearts and minds"

3

Vietnamization

C

Achieve "peace with honor"

4

Operation Frequent Wind

D

Create "shock and awe"


Missing in Action

The Vietnam War ended officially, but for the families of those missing in action, the conflict was never resolved. At the end of the war, 2,583 U.S. soldiers were listed as missing in action, meaning that their death on the battlefield went unrecorded, they died in captivity, or they met with some other misfortune. The U.S. government began formally searching for these unfortunate men in 1970, and the search for missing remains or clues continues today within Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. No Vietnam soldier classified as missing in action has ever been found alive.

Conclusion

The Vietnam War was a difficult episode in U.S. history, primarily due to the complicated nature of the conflict and the rifts that it created in American society. The outcome of the war, which resulted in Vietnam united under a communist government, demonstrated the fallacy of the domino theory of communism. The U.S. government, eager to contain communism, misunderstood the fundamental nature of the war, mistaking a civil conflict for an example of aggressive communism on the march. As the impossibility of victory became more apparent, the leadership continually passed on the responsibility to subsequent administrations, ensuring a continued pattern of gradual escalation. With both government duplicity and multiple war crimes exposed, the American people lost faith in national leadership and began to question the nation's moral standing in the world. In the wake of the war, the nation plunged into a decade of stagnant wages and inflation, exacerbated by the weight of the debt incurred from the war. It would be nearly a decade before the economy recovered and Americans started to regain faith in their system of leadership.

Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Class Discussion 27.01

Class Discussion 27.01 - Level 5

In your opinion, why did the United States stay involved in the Vietnam War for so long?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 27.01.

Class Discussion 27.02

Class Discussion 27.02 - Level 5

Which of the methods deployed by the United States in Vietnam worked best? Explain your answer.

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 27.02.

Class Discussion 27.03

Class Discussion 27.03 - Level 2

What role did race play in the anti-war movement?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 27.03.

Class Discussion 27.04

Class Discussion 27.04 - Level 3

In what ways do you see the legacy of the Vietnam War affecting our foreign policies or attitudes toward our government even today?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 27.04.

Class Discussion 27.05

Class Discussion 27.05 - Level 4

Based on what you have learned, do you think there were any possible alternative outcomes for the Vietnam War?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 27.05.


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Suggested Additional Material

Appy, Christian G. 2015. American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York: Viking Press).

Herring, George. 2001. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 4th edition (New York: McGraw-Hill).

Logevall, Fredrik. 2014. Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam (New York: Random House).

McNamara, Robert. 1996. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Viking Press).

Windrow, Martin. 2005. The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press).


Answers to In-Chapter Discussion Questions

Answer to Question 27.01

In the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, Ho Chi Minh makes repeated references to both the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, both documents that he revered. His declaration is structured similarly to the U.S. declaration. In his list of grievances against the French occupiers, he says that they destroyed the Vietnamese middle class, a concern at odds with communist beliefs, which emphasize the flourishing of the working class over the bourgeois middle class.

Click here to return to Question 27.01. 


Answer to Question 27.06

Congress gives the President the authority to take whatever actions he deems necessary to quell North Vietnamese aggression, on the ground that such violence puts the freedom of South Vietnam in jeopardy.

Click here to return to Question 27.06.


Answer to Question 27.11

The photographs show soldiers burning homes, dead children, and crying families. In the third photograph, there is also an indication that a woman has been sexually assaulted because she is buttoning up her shirt. This evidence of bad behavior on the part of American soldiers made some citizens uncomfortable that their values were not being properly represented in Vietnam, and that, in fact, atrocities were possibly being committed in their name

Click here to return to Question 27.11.


Answer to Question 27.12

The song uses a number of patriotic phrases and ideas to emphasize the idea that fighting in Vietnam is not only your duty, but is also fun (“come on all of you big strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again” “put down your books, pick up your guns, we’re gonna have a whole lot of fun”) However, as the song goes on, the lyrics start to indicate the bloodthirsty nature of war, and this one in particular ( “the only good commie is the one that’s dead. You know that peace can only be won when we’ve blown them all to kingdom come”). By the end of the song, the lyrics take on a macabre nature as the consequences of unexamined zealous patriotism (“send your sons off to war before its too late. You can be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box.”) Throughout, the chorus, sung from the point of view of the soldiers, indicates that they don’t know why they’re fighting or what they’re fighting for, but they don’t care because they’re going to die anyway.

Click here to return to Question 27.12.


Answer to Question 27.17

The U.S. government was concerned that the North Vietnamese would kill, jail, or torture any person in South Vietnam that harbored U.S. sympathies or had assisted the United States in its war effort. 

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Answers to Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Answer to Class Discussion 27.01

The United States stayed involved in Vietnam for a number of reasons. One was a fundamental misunderstanding of the type of war being fought. While the Vietnamese wanted their independence, the U.S. believed this was a war of containment. As such, many leaders continued involvement there so as not to be perceived as weak on communism. 

Click here to return to Class Discussion 27.01.


Answer to Class Discussion 27.02

This question is entirely a matter of personal opinion, as one could say that all of them worked to some degree and also that none of them worked. Critics of the bombing campaign say that it did nothing but further mobilize northern forces against the U.S. and the South Vietnamese, while others say that it did immeasurable damage to the North’s infrastructure, thus diverting precious resources from the war effort. While the “hearts and minds” technique is difficult to assess, we know that some Vietnamese were sympathetic to the U.S. and South Vietnam, but that they were outnumbered by those who found U.S. involvement off-putting and were more supportive of a united Vietnam than a democratic South Vietnam. Search and destroy was sometimes effective, but it also provided the opportunities for notorious war crimes and occasionally the soldiers did not complete their missions.

Click here to return to Class Discussion 27.02.


Answer to Class Discussion 27.03

Given that the Vietnam War coincided with the civil rights movement, many African Americans felt conflicted about their involvement in the war. African American men comprised a disproportionate number of the infantry during the war, yet many felt that they were not being treated as equal citizens at home. Martin Luther King publicly came out against the war shortly before his death, and other civil rights leaders like STokely Carmichael encouraged black men to avoid the draft on the grounds that white people in the U.S. were more of an enemy to the African American community than any Vietnamese or communist person.

Click here to return to Class Discussion 27.03.


Answer to Class Discussion 27.04

Vietnam represented the last major U.S. attempt at the containment of communism. Richard Nixon’s administration focused on a de-escalation of tensions between the U.S. and communist countries, so U.S. military intervention was not a major issue in the last couple decades of the Cold War. Likewise, the Vietnam War proved so unpopular with the American people that it is difficult to imagine a scenario when the nation would either reinstitute a draft or commit to a war of that scale again without a major provocation.

Click here to return to Class Discussion 27.04.


Answer to Class Discussion 27.05

It is difficult to imagine a different outcome for the war. WHile the United States had superior manpower and technological capabilities and could have wreaked devastation on the nation of Vietnam, this would have done nothing to convert the Vietnamese to American ideals, nor would it have changed the Vietnamese commitment to national unification.

Click here to return to Class Discussion 27.05.



Image Credits

[1] Image courtesy of the Bureau of Public Affairs and U.S. Government Printing Office in the Public Domain. 

[2] Image courtesy of the National Archives ARC# 542189 in the Public Domain.

[3] Image courtesy of the Bureau of Public Affairs U.S. Government Printing Office in the Public Domain.

[4] Image courtesy of the National Archive ARC# 192484 in the Public Domain.

[5] Image courtesy of the National Museum of the U.S. Airforce in the Public Domain.

[6] Image courtesy of United States Military Academy in the Public Domain.

[7]  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[8] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[9] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[10] Image courtesy of the National Archives ARC# 530620 in the Public Domain.

[11] Image courtesy of The Nixon Library and Museum in the Public Domain.

[12] Image courtesy KPBS.org in the Public Domain.