Before 1975 Vietnam had a long history of being occupied by other powers and when revolutionary Ho Chi Minh returned from his travels in 1941 both France and Japan occupied areas of the country. Ho’s goal was to rid Vietnam of occupying forces and unite the country and so he created the embryonic Vietminh – a guerrilla force operating from North Vietnam.
Japan’s power diminished after their defeat during World War Two but the French remained, doggedly clinging onto their possessions in French Indo-China until a final decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Here the French Far East Expeditionary Corps took up a position in the hills of northwestern Vietnam looking to draw what they perceived as a group of ill-trained guerrillas into a confrontation that would effectively cripple them. Unbenownst to the French the Vietminh had control and supply routes of the mountains above and crucially heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns which they were able to bring to bear on the valley encampment down below. Despite airdrops of supplies and repeated repulses of the Vietminh assaults, after two months of fighting the French were overrun and surrendered. This was effectively the end of French designs in Vietnam and a true indicator of the grit, ingenuity and determination of the Vietnamese nationalists.
The United States meanwhile were pursuing their policy of ‘containment’ of communism as a political ideology throughout the third world. After the French pulled out of Vietnam and Ho cemented control of the north, the US feared all of Vietnam would fall to the communists and so helped install a friendly regime operating in the south of the country run by Ngo Dinh Diem.Communist sympathizers in South Vietnam who became known as the National Liberation Front, or Vietcong took up the fight against the US-supported south Vietnam regime.
‘Military Advisers’ and the Gulf of Tonkin Incident
With pressure building in the south the US began to send what they termed ‘military advisers’ to instruct and enable the defence of South Vietnam. In 1964 the US claimed two of its ships were fired upon in international waters by north Vietnamese guns and after the now infamous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered escalation and the deployment of the first US troops arrived in 1965.
A war without battlefronts
And so began a protracted and bitter war with no real battle lines against a wholely unconventional enemy. The Vietcong would infiltrate army bases, place bombs in Saigon, pose as innocent villagers by night and fight through the jungles in the day. The Vietnam war became a moral and political mess as increasingly the US lost support at home for a war which seemed unwinnable, vastly expensive and all in the defence of an idea many people came to doubt – defending the freedom of a somewhat dubious South Vietnamese regime.
Vietnam gave birth to a new way of fighting – Air Cav – where the troops took to the skies in Huey helicopters that would ferry them around the jungle on enemy ‘search and destroy’ missions. For many drafted soldiers, often in their young 20s or even teens, the jungle was a terrifying and totally alien experience and the enemy merciless and cruel.
‘Peace with Honor’
In 1968 the North Vietnamese combined with the Vietcong to launch the Tet Offensive – a massive multi-front assault that although the US and South Vietnamese forces repelled proved once and for all the might, organization and power of the nationalist armies. President Nixon, now realizing this war was unwinnable called for ‘Peace with Honor’ and the so-called Vietnamization of South Vietnam as the US started to extricate troops amid growing domestic criticism.
South Vietnam falls
In 1972 and 1973, as the United States began to withdraw their final troops, the communist north launched more assaults and the US administration realised they were leaving behind in truth a weakened South Vietnam to face an aggressive and determined north. In 1975 another big push was launched, this time resulting in the downfall of the South Vietnam regime and in 1976 Vietnam was reunited as a communist country, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Never had the United States suffered such a catastrophic loss militarily or politically.