From U.S. Involvement to Tet Offensive and Death of Ho Chi Minh (1965-1969)

Justin Corfield. The History of Vietnam. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.

The new government in Saigon centered on three emerging political figures. The leader, Nguyen Van Thieu, was from a family of small landowners in a coastal village in central Vietnam. He had briefly served in the Viet Minh in 1945 before enlisting with the Vietnamese National Army established by the French. In 1956, Thieu was appointed head of the South Vietnamese National Academy and took part in the attack on the Gia Long Palace in November 1963, which resulted in the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem. Thieu had then emerged as a leader of the “Young Turk” faction that finally overthrew the civilian government of Phan Khac Suu in June 1965. In this coup, Thieu was assisted by Nguyen Cao Ky, a flamboyant air force officer who became prime minister in the new government. The civilian arm of the new regime was Tran Thien Khiem, who became prime minister when Ky assumed the vice presidency.

Initially this triumvirate, held together with massive restrictions placed on the press and numbers of political opponents, including militant Buddhists, were arrested or placed under house arrest. Although these decisions were criticized in the Western media and also, obviously, in North Vietnam, they provided stability for Saigon for the first time since the overthrow of Diem two years earlier.

Facing the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese government was still headed by Ho Chi Minh who was still revered by many Vietnamese—North and South—who cherished the role he had played in the struggle against the French. The governments of North Vietnam faced many problems; for example, few of the new leaders had any experience in civilian administration. In war they were able to give orders, but to run a country, there had to be some degree of negotiation and persuasion, and many of the Communist leaders had been uneasy with these concepts. They had gradually adapted, but their government had been badly tarnished by the disastrous land reform program in the mid-1950s. Although the divisions in the country were gradually healed, there were still some who favored rebuilding the North rather than fighting the war in the South. By contrast there were also numbers of Communists from southern Vietnam living in the north who were anxious to overthrow the southern government.

By 1965, the civilian institutions of both North and South Vietnam had now become established, with schools, hospitals, postal services, communications, and other arms of government starting to function well, albeit with occasional problems in isolated parts of the South where there were outbreaks of fighting.

By September 1965, the North Vietnamese decided to launch a major campaign to try to destroy South Vietnam. The plan was essentially to seize the central highlands in the South, and then use their troops there to take over the nearby coastal region around Nha Trang. This would cut South Vietnam in half, leaving the southern part around Saigon and the northern coastal region around Danang and Hue isolated and render the country unviable. With reports of massive North Vietnamese troop concentrations, the United States sent their Air Cavalry in search of the Communists. They located them in the la Drang Valley at the foot of the Chu Pong Mountains. Soon afterward the North Vietnamese braced for battle, and the United States deployed large numbers of troops into the la Drang Valley.

In the battle of the la Drang Valley (November 14-18, 1965) U.S. soldiers engaged for the first time in a full-scale battle against the North Vietnamese. With the U.S. marines unable to dislodge the North Vietnamese soldiers without suffering massive losses, B-52 bombers were deployed, bombing the North Vietnamese lines and destroying most of their soldiers. For the North Vietnamese it was a major defeat, and they realized that the massive U.S. firepower could give the United States and the South Vietnamese victory in any set-piece battle. As a result the North Vietnamese and the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) decided to embark on different tactics.

After the battle of the la Drang Valley, the North Vietnamese and the PLAF began a guerilla war in which they attacked isolated South Vietnamese villages, winning support in some of them and intimidating people in others. Gradually, they started to destroy the infrastructure of the South Vietnamese government. At the same time, the U.S. government, aware of the problems that had been caused by the instability that followed the overthrow of Diem, decided to support Ngyuyen Van Thieu. Elections for a Constituent Assembly in South Vietnam were held in September 1966, which led to the approval of a new constitution in April 1967. As a result, in September 1967, elections were held throughout much of South Vietnam. With five major slates of candidates, Nguyen Van Thieu was elected president with 38 percent of the vote; Ky became his vice president.

As a symbolic gesture, Thieu also introduced a new series of banknotes, showing three heroes from Vietnamese history: Le Van Duyet, Nguyen Hue, and Tran Hung Dao, a curious choice, as the first two had fought each other bitterly during the Tay Son Rebellion. On November 1, celebrations were held in Saigon to commemorate the third anniversary of the overthrow of the Diem government, although with the political instability that had resulted, few people outside the military command or the diehard opponents of the Diem family actually celebrated.

Escalation of the Vietnam War

To try to prevent the North Vietnamese from reinforcing the PLAF, the U.S. military established bases along the border between North and South Vietnam, one of which was Khe Sanh. Located in an isolated part of the countryside to make attack by the PLAF or the North Vietnamese difficult, it might also serve as a target for attack in the same way as the Viet Minh capture of Dien Bien Phu had managed to lead to the defeat of the French in Vietnam in 1954.

The Vietnamese Communists initially decided not to launch any major attacks on Khe Sanh and instead opened up what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a series of jungle paths through Laos and northeastern Cambodia. These paths had existed as routes for smuggling, and also were used during the Indochina War against the French for taking supplies. With the need to bring large numbers of men and also materiel to South Vietnam, the Vietnamese Communists widened the trail to allow for the passage of trucks.

The South Vietnamese and the U.S. forces soon became aware of the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and in Laos used hill tribes to try to attack the Communist military convoys. In Cambodia, which was neutral, the U.S. government tried to put pressure on the Cambodian leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk. By this time Sihanouk was playing a dangerous game of trying to keep Cambodia out of the war. He was sure that the Communists would eventually win the Vietnam War. For this reason, he had reached an agreement with the North Vietnamese that they would be able to use Cambodian territory, provided they did so discreetly. In return when they won the war, North Vietnam guaranteed that they would respect the Vietnamese-Cambodian border.

The PLAF also started building a massive network of tunnels, soon to become famous as the Cu Chi tunnels, in farmland northwest of Saigon. There they were able to hide large numbers of supplies, train people, and hide when the United States sent in ground forces. The area, along with the Mekong Delta region, had long been a hotbed of dissent against the French, and Diem had tried to pacify it by settling significant numbers of northern Catholics in the region.

With as many as 500,000 U.S. troops in the country, the United States rapidly found itself overcommitted to the war. With Lyndon Johnson rejecting calls from the Pentagon to mobilize the Reserves, the United States introduced the draft to raise enough soldiers to maintain their military presence in Vietnam. Young men continuing their education were exempt, as were members of pacifist religions and those with medical certificates. Moreover, those people serving in the National Guard and other units based in the United States were rarely being posted to Vietnam. As a result, the war gradually led to increasing numbers of poor men being conscripted, with an over-representation of African Americans. The conscription was to quickly lead to the increasing unpopularity of the war. Large numbers of young Americans fled to Canada and to other countries.

Before the Vietnam War, the Majestic Hotel was the most famous in Saigon, with its address as 1 Rue Catinat (subsequently renamed Tu Do). By the 1960s, however, the Rex Hotel and the Brinks Hotel were favored heavily by the Americans. The Caravelle Hotel, boasted 75 first-class rooms, and the Continental Palace Hotel, with 95 rooms on the far side of Lam Son Square, was made famous by British writer Graham Greene. Now with over half a million servicemen in the country, the cities of Saigon and Danang were transformed quickly. The nightclubs, which had been closed down during the last years of the Diem government, reopened and catered to the large number of soldiers on “rest and recreation” leave. Many of them also visited nearby countries, with a boom in the tourist trade in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The war also attracted large numbers of war correspondents to the country. Some of these, such as Neil Sheehan of United Press International, David Halberstam and Homer Bigart of the New York Times, and Peter Arnett of Associated Press, rapidly became household names. Four won Pulitzer Prizes for their work, with Seymour Hersh also winning for his story of the My Lai massacre. Of the hundreds of reporters who covered the war, 70 covering the U.S./South Vietnamese side were women. A total of 135 war photographers covering the war from both sides of the conflict, died in the war. As well as the press reports in newspapers and on the radio, the footage shot by the journalists ensured that the Vietnam War appeared regularly on the television news.

Involvement of Australia and Other U.S. Allies

Although the United States provided the majority of the foreign forces to support the South Vietnamese, they were by no means alone. Some U.S. allies such as Britain made clear their opposition to the war, but others, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Thailand, contributed soldiers. Altogether nearly 50,000 Australians, 3,890 New Zealanders, 1,450 Filipinos, 320,000 South Koreans, and 38,958 Thais served in the Vietnam War, along with a small contingent from Spain. Australia was unable to raise enough soldiers, so the government introduced conscription in 1964, leading to major political repercussions and widespread demonstrations against the war. South Africa offered to send soldiers to the conflict, but the United States was critical of the apartheid policy and felt that the presence of South African soldiers could cause dissension among African Americans in the U.S. forces.

As a member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Australia became committed to the defense of South Vietnam providing what became the “Australian Army Training Team Vietnam.” In December 1964, Tran Van Huong, the South Vietnamese prime minister, asked for further Australian support, and soon afterward Australian Prime Minister R. G. Menzies managed to get his South Vietnamese counterpart, Phan Huy Quat, to request Australian soldiers, to which he gave, as promised, a positive response.

On a diplomatic front, following the severing of relations between South Vietnam and Cambodia after the Buddhist crisis in 1963, and the severing of relations between Cambodia and the United States two years later, the Australian Embassy in Saigon was looking after Cambodian interests in South Vietnam, and the Australian Embassy in Cambodia was helping to deal with U.S. interests in Cambodia. As a result, it was requested that Australian troops in South Vietnam not be deployed near the Cambodian border.

Initially the Australian soldiers were full-time professionals, but in November 1964, conscription was introduced. In June 1966, Australian soldiers based near Xa Long Tan, east of Saigon, were attacked by a large number of PLAF soldiers; 18 Australians and 245 PLAF were killed. The battle of Long Tan soon became symbolic of the Australian commitment to the war. In November 1966, the federal elections in Australia were fought largely over the issue of sending soldiers to Vietnam, with the Labor Party, who opposed the war, losing heavily. In the 1969 elections, the Labor Party was able to make up much of the ground, and although it lost, its policy of ending the Australian troop commitment to South Vietnam was becoming steadily more popular. The troops were finally withdrawn in 1971, with the Labor Party coming to power in the 1972 federal elections, and offering an amnesty for those who had evaded the draft.

Overall, for the approximately 50,000 Australian service personnel in Vietnam, 512 died, of whom 415 were killed in action. These included Kevin Arthur Wheatley, Warrant Officer Class 11, who was killed after trying to save a colleague during an action in the Tra Bong Valley in November 1965, and Major Peter John Badcoe, also of the Australian Army Training Team, who was killed in action near Hue. Both were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British and Commonwealth award for valor, as were Warrant Officers Class 11 Rayene Stewart Simpson and Keith Payne for actions in 1969.

The Tet Offensive

Although the Communists were eager to destabilize the South Vietnamese government, their high command was still reeling from the disaster at the Ia Drang Valley. As a result, they planned their new action carefully. In late 1967, the Communists started infiltrating large numbers of their supporters into Saigon, Hue, and other South Vietnamese cities. Their plan was to launch a large number of urban attacks on the South Vietnamese. Part of this was in response to U.S. Commander General William Westmoreland who, on November 21 in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., proclaimed that the U.S. forces were heading to victory, saying that “the end begins to come into view.”

The other timetable that affected the plans of the Communists was, undoubtedly, the U.S. presidential election, which was beginning with the New Hampshire primary on March 12. Most of the U.S. public was sure that the South Vietnamese, supported by them, were wining the war, with news coverage showing fighting largely taking place only in the countryside. In the U.S. presidential elections, the Republicans, after doing so badly in the 1964 elections, started to re-form around Richard Nixon, the vice president who had lost the 1960 elections to John F. Kennedy. Against them, the Democrat Party started their primaries with Lyndon Johnson uncertain whether or not he was going to stand in the elections and antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy urging an end to U.S. troop involvement. McCarthy suggested that the United States should push the South Vietnamese government to be more inclusive and agree to the formation of a coalition government with the Communists.

Into this climate, on the night of January 30-31, Communists in Saigon, Hue, and every other major city and town in South Vietnam, as well as at Khe Sanh, attacked U.S. and South Vietnamese government targets. Approximately 100 places were assaulted. Initially the U.S. government thought that the attacks were to try to draw their soldiers away from Khe Sanh, which would allow for a significant victory there similar to that in Dien Bien Phu. It was not long before they came to realize that the attack on Khe Sanh was actually the diversion, and the real focus was the fighting in Saigon and Hue.

In Saigon, a PLAF unit seized control of the Saigon radio station and blew it up. Another group attacked the U.S. Embassy, blasting their way in, and holding out there for six hours. Television footage of U.S. marines and CIA agents fighting them in the grounds of the embassy was broadcast all around the world. It was later discovered that the two PLAF commanders had been killed as the group broke into the embassy, and, leaderless, the group provided little resistance and all were killed. Elsewhere in Saigon, fighting in Tan Son Nhut Airport and other places, especially in downtown Saigon, continued sporadically over January 31, and in a few places for a few days after that.

In the old imperial capital of Hue, a concerted PLAF attack resulted in the Communists seizing control of part of the imperial citadel and the university. Much of the former was blown up as the South Vietnamese and U.S. soldiers fought their way into it. In the latter, the Communists vented their rage on some of the university staff and students, massacring hundreds of them. When the PLAF were finally driven from Hue, mass graves were uncovered, revealing the bodies of 2,800 people killed by the Communists. Initially when the Communists had taken the city, they turned on supporters of the South Vietnamese government, but most of the killings took place when they withdrew and killed anybody who might have been able to identify them. Elsewhere in other towns, the PLAF attacks were either repulsed or their soldiers were quickly driven back.

In much of the Western press, however, attention focused not on the fighting throughout the country, nor even the shooting in the U.S. Embassy, but rather on a single incident that took place on February 1. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the chief of the South Vietnamese police, shot dead a captured Communist, later identified as Nguyen Van Lem, in front of the U.S. photographer Eddie Adams and Vo Suu, a Vietnamese cameraman for NBC. Adams and Vo Suu had spotted a group of South Vietnamese soldiers leading a captive and went over to photograph them. As the soldiers brought the captive to General Loan, he briefly waved his gun to indicate that the solders should back off slightly, and then clearly aware of the journalists, he shot the captive in the head. The photograph appeared in newspapers all around the world, later winning Adams the Pulitzer Prize. The news footage appeared on the television news throughout much of the world.

The photograph and the film footage showed the brutality of the war. General Loan was soon demonized all over the world. He was a close political ally of Vice President Ky and was alleged to have been involved in narcotics, although nothing was ever proven. He was also an effective military commander, popular with his soldiers. During the fighting in the Tet Offensive, some of his family had been killed, as had a number of his men. He was determined on revenge and meted out summary justice to the first captive who came into his hands. The photograph became one of the most famous of the war.

The South Vietnamese and the U.S. forces were able to defeat the Communists during the Tet Offensive with relatively little difficulty. The “mopping up” took several days, and by the end of it the Communists had been decisively defeated. The public perception, however, was that the Communists had won, and in a sense they had. They were able to show that they were capable of attacking into the heart of Saigon and, through the photograph of Eddie Adams, were able to portray the South Vietnamese as the villains.

The My Lai Massacre

It was not long after the end of the Tet Offensive that U.S. soldiers became involved in one of the most notorious atrocities of the war. C Company of the 1st Battalion of the 20th Infantry, 11th Infantry Brigade, was involved in an assault on the village of My Lai, south of Danang. They entered the village expecting to find Communist soldiers, but instead they found only women, children, and old men who were eating breakfast. The U.S. soldiers were out of control and started firing at the unarmed civilians. Lieutenant William L. Calley’s first platoon not only shot people whom they encountered, but rounded up others who were taken to a nearby ditch where they were murdered. As the marines set fire to some of the houses and blew up others with hand grenades, more civilians were killed.

As the remaining villagers tried to escape, marines followed, firing at them, but they had to stop when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson landed his helicopter between the soldiers and the fleeing civilians. Estimates of the number of people killed range from 200 to about 500, with the Vietnamese Communists maintaining that 504 were killed and publishing a list of names. The U.S. government estimate of the dead puts those murdered at 347.

It was not until a year later that the My Lai incident was discovered by army investigators. The resulting board of inquiry tried to blame the killings on the soldiers becoming frustrated after attacks on them by guerilla snipers, the inexperience of the leadership, and various other mitigating factors. Eventually 14 soldiers were charged with crimes; only one, Lieutenant Calley, was found guilty of personally killing 22 civilians, his platoon having been responsible for about 200 deaths. Sentenced to life imprisonment, his sentence was subsequently reduced to 20 years, then to 10 years. Calley was released after 4½ months in a military prison, pending his appeal. He then spent 3½ years under house arrest, with one judge ruling that pretrial publicity had prejudiced Galley’s ability to get a fair hearing. He was subsequently paroled and moved to Golumbus, Georgia, where he managed a jewelry store.

The 1968 U.S. Presidential Elections

At the New Hampshire Democratic Party primary, Eugene McCarthy, as an antiwar candidate, was able to make a strong showing, getting 42 percent of the vote against Lyndon Johnson who was a “write-in” candidate who managed only 49 percent. This strong showing by McCarthy encouraged Robert Kennedy, younger brother of John F. Kennedy, to decide to offer himself as a candidate, with Lyndon Johnson finally announcing that he would not stand in the election and endorsing Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Throughout most of the rest of the primaries, the competition was between Humphrey and Kennedy, with the war rapidly becoming the major issue in the election campaign.

While Humphrey tried to distance himself from Kennedy and McCarthy, the Republican candidate Richard Nixon denounced all the Democrats for the longest war that the United States had had to endure and promised that a vote for him would lead to “peace with honor.” On the political fringe, George Wallace of the American Independence Party campaigned in the South against the Civil Rights movement, with his vice presidential candidate, General Curtis E. LeMay, declaring that he could win the Vietnam War by bombing the Communists “back into the Stone Age.”

Many people had protested against the Vietnam War since its start. Initially these included large numbers of Quakers and peace campaigners who were against all war. Gradually with increasing numbers of young men being drafted into the U.S. military, many people, both draftees, would-be draftees, and their families, started taking part in protests. These were joined by other people who were against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. There were also former U.S. service personnel who, after returning from Vietnam, started taking part in demonstrations, and there were also a number of people who took part in marches and protest movements who were clearly campaigning for a Communist victory in Vietnam. Although these subtle differences were evident to most observers, gradually the image of the antiwar movement changed, as the press started concentrating on a violent minority, and also on known Communists who took part in demonstrations waving North Vietnamese or NFL flags.

As the electioneering intensified, Martin Luther King, the leader of the Civil Rights movement, was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. He had been one of Lyndon Johnson’s closest allies during the moves to introduce the Civil Rights Act of 1964; a believer in nonviolence, however, he heavily opposed the war.

As the fighting intensified in 1967 and the number of U.S. casualties rose, the number of casualties among African Americans was so large, especially since African Americans were over-represented in the U.S. military, that many of their leaders such as King wanted the United States to pull out its soldiers. Many other African Americans who had supported Johnson had also become critics of the war, with the actress Eartha Kitt, who was also of Cherokee ancestry, publicly criticizing Johnson at a White House luncheon and soon thereafter finding herself unable to find work in the United States.

Martin Luther King’s opposition to the war had led to increased FBI surveillance of him, with some prowar politicians accusing him of siding with the North Vietnamese. The murder of King on April 4, 1968, was followed by Robert Kennedy winning the California primary, and then Kennedy’s own murder on June 6, with the Democratic nomination within his grasp.

When the Democratic Party Convention took place on August 26-29, in Chicago, thousands of antiwar protestors went to make their voices heard. Hubert Humphrey was guaranteed the party’s nomination, but supporters of Eugene McCarthy wanted to be recognized on the convention floor. On the night of August 28, as the Democratic Convention was ready to vote on its presidential candidate, thousands of demonstrators marched on Convention Hall, the International Amphitheatre, determined to make a presence, with hundreds of police blocking their way. Hundreds were injured in the fighting that resulted, and Humphrey was easily chosen as the candidate of the Democratic Party. As Walter Mears of Associated Press wrote, “Humphrey, a man of peace, received the Democratic nomination tonight under armed guard.” Lyndon Johnson had been advised by the Secret Service not to attend.

A number of demonstrators were arrested in Chicago and subsequently charged. The most well-known group, including Abbie Hoffman, an anarchist and co-founder of the Youth International Party (“Yippies”); Jerry Rubin; and David Dellinger, became known as the Chicago Eight, and later the Chicago Seven. They were charged with incitement to riot and other offenses. The trial dragged on into 1970, and five were found guilty of having “crossed state lines with the intent to incite a riot.” They were all fined and sentenced to five years in prison, but in November 1972 the convictions were reversed.

In the week after the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Richard Nixon traveled to the city and vowed that in the United States, “no one is above the law, no one is below the law, and we’re going to enforce the law. And Americans should remember that if we are going to have law and order.” Antiwar protestors followed Humphrey around the country with the call “Dump the Hump.” With Lyndon Johnson announcing a bombing halt in Vietnam beginning on November 1, support for Hubert Humphrey increased. Many voters feared, however, that if neither Nixon nor Humphrey managed to win the election outright, then George Wallace would hold the balance of power in the electoral college. Nixon narrowly won the election, and on January 20, 1969, he was sworn into office to carry out his promise of “peace with honor.”

The Guam Doctrine and Vietnamization

Essentially Nixon’s plan to deliver “peace with honor” relied on a policy of Vietnamization. This policy would increase the number of soldiers in the South Vietnamese armed forces, who would be trained and armed by the United States. These forces could gradually take on more of the fighting, reducing the number of U.S. soldiers, and as a result, U.S. casualties. With U.S. hardware, the South Vietnamese government might be able to survive without any U.S. soldiers. This plan relied on what was known as the “decent interval” concept.

The “decent interval” concept—the name was coined by CIA agent Frank Snepp in his book Decent Interval—involved the United States bolstering South Vietnam before its withdrawal. This would then delay any possible collapse of South Vietnam to a “decent” interval of time. If the South Vietnamese government collapsed several days after the U.S. withdrawal, the two could be clearly linked. If the South Vietnamese managed to retain its independence for 10 years after a U.S. withdrawal, however, the connection between the two events could be denied. Somewhere between several days and the 10 years lay this “decent interval.”

The problem with this plan was that none of the new U.S. administration believed it was possible. As a result the concept of a “decent interval” was mooted, which was made famous by the book of the same name by Frank Snepp, a CIA agent in Saigon. The book, initially banned in the United States, was published in Britain.

To embark on this policy, the U.S. administration started secret talks with the North Vietnamese. In fact Lyndon Johnson’s administration had already begun talks, and Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, continued them with some urgency. The main U.S. demands in the negotiations were that the United States would be able to withdraw from the country, that all their prisoners of war—many held in Hanoi, the North Vietnamese capital—would be returned, and that there would be some security guarantees for the South Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese quickly realized that the U.S. administration was keen to withdraw and that what they essentially had to do was undermine the security guarantees, which would enable them to take over South Vietnam and proceed with the reunification of the country.

To try to reduce pressure on the U.S. and South Vietnamese troops, in March 1969, the U.S. Air Force started bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail, attacking targets in neighboring Cambodia in complete violation of Cambodian neutrality. With Cambodia’s leader, Prince Sihanouk, denying that the Vietnamese Communists were using the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the United States felt justified in their secret bombing known as Operation Menu. Although Sihanouk was critical of the U.S. actions, he stopped short of openly criticizing the bombing, eager not to offend the United States as the peace talks started.

During the secret bombing of Cambodia, the United States had also made considerable use of defoliants to try to destroy the tree cover. Agent Orange, the most well known of the “herbicides” had been used from 1961 until its use was phased out in 1971. Containing dioxins, these defoliants have been blamed for causing birth deformities in children of U.S. soldiers who used them or who served in affected areas, as well as even worse cases affecting the Vietnamese. These claims have been continuously denied, but many commentators have protested that if the chemicals sprayed from airplanes were able to destroy jungles by attacking broad leaves, it must have some effect on people living there, with large numbers of Vietnamese having subsequently suffered horribly.

The continual U.S. bombing of North Vietnam had led to significant numbers of U.S. planes being shot down, and U.S. airmen taken prisoner. Many were held in Hanoi in the Hoa Lo prison, which became known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” One of the most well known of these prisoners of war was John McCain, whose plane was shot down by an antiaircraft missile near Hanoi. As he regained consciousness after bailing out of his plane, he was attacked by a large number of villagers who had gathered. The son of the U.S. commander-in-chief, Pacific Command, McCain was offered his freedom by the North Vietnamese, but he refused and was held a prisoner of war for 5½ years, along with hundreds of other U.S. prisoners of war.

By this time the main “unknown” factor for the U.S. administration was the South Vietnamese government. By 1969, Thieu had been head of state for four years and had been democratically elected in 1967. The South Vietnamese legislature was a forum for much debate, with opposition to Thieu centering on Tran Ngoc Chau, a nationalist who had been elected to the South Vietnamese legislature. Thieu’s police, however, accused him of communist sympathies—Chau’s brother had sided with the Communists—and Chau was dragged out of the South Vietnamese National Assembly building in 1970 and spent the next five years in jail.

Thieu was initially unaware of the extent of the secret U.S.-North Vietnamese talks, which started in January 1969, when he met Richard Nixon on the island of Midway on June 8, 1969.—Thieu had traveled to the island via Seoul and Taipei, using diplomatic support from both countries to bolster his position. Nixon and Thieu reaffirmed their alliance and discussed the peace negotiations. Nixon made security promises to Thieu in exchange for reducing the U.S. troop commitments to Vietnam. In return the South Vietnamese government took on more of the military tasks in their country. According to the schedule drawn up by Nixon, U.S. troops would be gradually drawn down, with the final withdrawal in June 1972, just ahead of the next U.S. presidential election. This soon became known as the Guam Doctrine, or the Nixon Doctrine.

With the prospect of a negotiated settlement to the Vietnam War, the Communists reformed the NFL into the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Vietnam (PRG), which was proclaimed on June 8, 1972. Officially it was a merger of the NFL; the Alliance of National, Democratic, and Peace Forces; and the People’s Revolutionary Party and was nominally noncommunist, although its communist sympathies and its control from North Vietnam were obvious. It was no longer a resistance group, however, but a rival government to that of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), which meant that the South Vietnamese Communists could be represented at any future peace talks. Nguyen Huu Tho of the NFL and Huynh Tan Phat, also a prominent member of the NFL, became the leaders, and it gained international recognition from North Vietnam, neighboring Cambodia, and most communist countries, with “missions” in all of these, as well as Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Syria, and Tanzania. Internationally, members of the PRG traveled on North Vietnamese passports. To try to publicize the PRG, Huynh Tan Phat embarked on a number of foreign visits including to Cambodia where he received a good reception from the neutralist leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who was trying to win favor with the Vietnamese Communists.

The Death of Ho Chi Minh

On September 2, 1969, 79-year-old Ho Chi Minh died of heart failure. The announcement of his death was initially reported as being on September 3, so it would not clash with National Day, but it was subsequently corrected to September 2. As soon as news of the death was made public, the North Vietnamese government immediately proclaimed a period of mourning, with many North Vietnamese openly crying, their weeping being captured by the film 79 Primaveras (“Seventy-Nine Spring Times of Ho Chi Minh”), made by the Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez. The North Vietnamese government then invited world leaders to attend Ho Chi Minh’s funeral. The only non-Vietnamese head of state who attended the ceremony was Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the neutralist leader of Cambodia who was anxious to show his support for the Vietnamese Communists whom he believed would win the Vietnam War. Huynh Tan Phat, the leader of the PRG, was also present, as was Ton Duc Thang, Ho Chi Minh’s successor; thus three heads of state were in attendance. Rather than be cremated, which had been Ho Chi Minh’s wish, his body was embalmed and put into the newly built Ho Chi Minh Memorial to the west of The Citadel in Hanoi where Vietnamese and foreigners go to pay their respects to the man who led the Vietnamese Communist movement for 40 years.