The Vietnam War is difficult to read about if you are interested in the military history of the conflict because, unlike the Great War, World War II, and Korea, the authors of the survey histories spend more words laying blame among the Washington politicians and military brass than they do talking about the tactical and strategic aspects of the war. On the other hand, there are of plenty of first person bestsellers that present a microscopic look at the soldiers whose boots were on the ground. On the political side, American involvement in the Southeast Asian country stretched for twenty years, beginning in 1955 (some say 1950) and ending in 1975. It involved the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. Part One of this blog will present, in a nutshell, how American aid escalated before combat troops were put on the ground.
The years after World War II were difficult to say the least. The hot war between the Allies and the Axis powers devolved into the Cold War with the western countries on one side and the Soviet Union and Communist China and their allies on the other. The first indication that war could heat up was in 1950 when North Korea invaded the south, embroiling the United Nations in a three year war that settled nothing. In the late 1950s, American eyes were shifting south in Asia to Vietnam.
Before World War II, Vietnam had been a French colony since the late 1890s. During the war, the Japanese occupied the country but let the French serve as puppets for the occupiers. Ho Chi Minh, who was a nationalist, returned to Vietnam late in the war to proclaim the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in December 1945. (1) Ho’s Vietminh (later Vietcong) set up a insurgency network in villages and towns across the country to fight the French until May 1953, when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. In 1954, Geneva Accords split the country, with Communists moved north and their opponents to the south, with a demilitarized zone in between.
The departure of the French meant South Vietnam depended on the United States for direct aide in their fight against the Communist North. “The Asian view is that “direct aid” means that Communism’s strongest enemy, the United States, is now in close support of the Free Vietnamese against the Communists,” wrote Col. Edward Lansdale to Gen. J. Lawton Collins, who was President Eisenhower’s special representative to South Vietnam. (2) Six years later when Eisenhower had a conference with president-elect Kennedy, Ike only mentioned Laos as a problem, not Vietnam. (3)
South Vietnam was ruled by the administration of the Ngô Đình Diệm government. In 1961, after Lyndon Johnson made a trip to Vietnam for Kennedy, he was quoted as saying, ” “Diệm’s the only boy we got out there.” (4) One problem was Diem was Catholic while most of South Vietnam was Buddhist. In the summer of 1963, as a form protest, Buddhist priests started killing themselves by self-immolation. Diem’s administration continued to persecute Buddhists, leading the generals eventually to stage a coup and assassinate him three weeks before Kennedy himself was murdered. (5) In November 1963, Lyndon Baines Johnson became President of the United States after President Kennedy’s death. Soon after, Johnson said he would not let the Communists take over Vietnam. Throughout Johnson’s tenure as president, American aid to South Vietnam escalated along with more American troops in country. Before 1964, the American troops in South Vietnam were either military advisers or were guarding materiel sent to the South Vietnam army.
The first American soldiers to be sent to Vietnam were military advisers to the army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), who were fighting their counterparts from North Vietnam, backed by Communist China and the Soviet Union. The military advisers were part of an aid package the United States was sending to the Diem government in Saigon. North Vietnam had a regular army, but it was the Vietcong who infiltrated South Vietnam’s villages, from which they attacked their targets and disappeared back into the jungle. It was the Vietcong that American military advisers were helping the South Vietnam fight against. The Hồ Chí Minh trail (also known in Vietnam as the “Trường Sơn trail”) was the supply line from North Vietnam to the Vietcong in the south.
Part Two will detail Johnson’s escalation of all aspects of the war in Vietnam, starting in 1964.
(1) Trayor N. Dupuy, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography, pp. 337-38.
(2) Edward G. Lansdale to Gen. J. Lawton Collins, 01/03/1955, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Vietnam, Vol. 1, document 2. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1955-57v01/d2
(3) The Geneva Accords banned any outside interference in Laos; Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, Christian Herter, told Kennedy if Laos asked for help, they didn’t think American military advisers would violate the terms of the Accords. Langguth, p. 49.
(4) Karnow, p. 230.
(5) Herring, p. 106.
For further reading:
Asprey, Robert B. War in the Shadows: the Guerrilla in History, 1975. 2 volumes
David M. Barrett, Uncertain Warriors: Lyndon Johnson and His Vietnam Advisers, 1993.
Mark Bowden, Huế: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, 2017.
David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, 1972.
George C. Herring. America’s Longest War: the United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 1979.
Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: a History, 1983.
Lifton, Robert Jay, Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans Neither Victims nor Executioners, 1973.
Langguth, A. J., Our Vietnam: the War 1954-1975, 2000.
Robert S. Mcnamara with Brian Van De Mare, In Retrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, 1998.
Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, 1992.
John M. Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and Struggle for Power, 1992.
Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, 1988.
For Further Watching:
Vietnam in HD ), 6 episodes Warning: Some scenes of combat in these videos are graphic in nature. Viewer discretion is advised.