Vietnam War (1959-1975)

Gale Encyclopedia of World History: War. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2008.

Major Figures

Ho Chi Minh

The founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) led the movement for Vietnamese independence and served as the president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from 1945 to 1969. He also sought unity for the whole of Vietnam under Communist control in the face of French and American interference.

Born Nguyen Sinh Cung (some sources say Nguyen That Thanh) on May 19, 1890, in Kim Lien, Vietnam, Ho was the son of Nguyen Sinh Huy, a civil servant and local government official for the French-controlled government of his country. Ho and his two elder siblings were primarily raised by their father after the death of their mother in childbirth when Ho was ten years old. Even before his mother’s death, Ho was involved in anticolonial activities because of his father.

Early Revolutionary Activities

Nguyen Sinh Huy came to oppose French interference in Vietnam and ultimately resigned his position in protest. He introduced Ho to revolutionaries and anticolonial groups. By the age of nine, Ho was serving as a messenger for one such group. He continued to be an activist while attending one of the best schools in Vietnam, the National Academy in Hué. Ho was expelled from school in 1908 for participating in protests against the French.

In 1909, Ho went to southern Vietnam. He continued his education there and worked as a teacher in Saigon for a time. By 1911 or 1912, Ho was working as a cook’s helper for a French-owned steamship company. He spent two years at sea, traveling the world and picking up a knowledge of languages such as Russian and English. After his tenure aboard the ship ended, Ho lived and worked first in London, then in Paris during World War I.

Emerging Communist

While residing in Paris, Ho committed himself to pursuing Vietnamese independence from France. Dubbing himself Nguyen Ai Quoc, which means Nguyen “the Patriot,” he tried to present a petition demanding Vietnamese independence at the Versailles Peace Conference at the end of World War I. He then spent three years as the leader of the Vietnamese community living in Paris in the early 1920s, writing pamphlets decrying French control of Indochina. Already committed to communism, Ho also had been a founding member of the French Communist Party in 1920.

Ho was invited to be educated as a revolutionary leader in the Soviet Union. In 1923, he began a two-year stint at the University of Oriental Workers, located in Moscow. Ho then spent time in China organizing a Communist movement there; he also formed a group of Vietnamese students living in Canton, China, into the Thanh Nien, or Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League, in 1925. In addition to demanding Vietnamese independence, the organization called for gender equality and land redistribution as well.

Compelled to leave China in 1927 due to a crackdown on Communists, Ho returned in 1930 to reunite the fractionalized Thanh Nien into a Communist party representing all of Indochina. Ho’s revolutionary activities with the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) continued in other cities such as Hong Kong, resulting in his arrest by the British in 1931. After two years in prison, Ho went to the Soviet Union for about seven years.

Leader of Vietnamese Independence Movement

After meeting with the ICP upon his return to China in 1940, Ho served as chairman of an ICP Central Committee meeting in Vietnam in May 1941. At the time, France was occupied by the Germans, which gave Japan the opportunity to occupy most of Vietnam and establish several military bases there. The Japanese military occupation of Vietnam lasted until the end of World War II.

In conjunction with ICP, Ho formed the Viet Minh, or League for Vietnamese Independence. Ostensibly non-Communist, the group sought independence for Vietnam from both the French as well as the Japanese occupiers. Ho and his followers hoped to take advantage of the situation in France as well as greater Japanese involvement with the war to gain Vietnam’s independence. In addition to building up an ICP military force, Ho worked to gain support for Viet Minh in countries such as China and the United States. The Viet Minh aided the Americans against the Japanese during the war in hopes of gaining the support of the U.S. government for their cause.

As World War II reached its conclusion, the Viet Minh successfully pushed to take control of most of Vietnam with their August Revolution. Ho was named the president of the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam and on September 2, 1945, formally declared that Vietnam was a free and independent country. Though the French wanted to retake control of Vietnam at war’s end, Ho and France agreed in March 1946 to create a free country of Vietnam within the French Union.

By the end of 1946, the French did an about face and decided to hold Vietnam as a colony, in part to enhance its reputation as a leading world power. Vietnamese forces fought French forces in the French Indochina War until the mid-1950s. The French, already drained by World War II, sought an end to the war in 1954. At a peace conference in July 1954, the agreed-upon truce saw Vietnam divided into a Communist North—the Democratic Republic of Vietnam led by Ho—and a non-Communist South—the Republic of South Vietnam. The two halves were to become one country in 1956, at which time free elections were to be held to determine who would run it.

Head of Free Vietnam

While Ho remained in control of North Vietnam, as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was commonly known, he turned over day-to-day operations to others over the years. Remaining his country’s president as well as the head of its Communist party, Ho focused primarily on putting forth Vietnamese interests on the international stage.

Domestically, Ho’s actions sometimes failed, as with a mid-1950s land reform campaign that cost thousands of Vietnamese citizens their lives. Other moves had wider implications. When South Vietnam refused to hold the 1956 elections—as the Americans advised for fear the Communists would win—Ho and his fellow leaders were determined to reunite both halves of Vietnam under a Communist government.

Vietnam War

An armed conflict soon broke out between North and South Vietnam. North Vietnam supported the Viet Cong, South Vietnamese Communist rebels who engaged in guerrilla warfare in their country. They soon gained much territory in South Vietnam, and North Vietnamese soldiers soon joined the fight. From the beginning of the conflict, the United States provided money, weapons, and military advisors for South Vietnam. The Cold War compelled the United States to become involved for the sake of preventing the spread of communism and promoting democracy; Ho viewed American involvement in Vietnam as an imperialistic power grab.

As the United States became more deeply involved in the conflict in the early 1960s, Ho turned to the Soviet Union and China for important military support in his cause. However, as the Vietnam War intensified, Ho’s health began to fail.

While retaining his titles, Ho gradually made fewer public appearances, had less control of his government, and was essentially a figurehead by the end of the decade. Ho died on September 3, 1969, in Hanoi, after suffering a heart attack. Several years after his death, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam defeated South Vietnam and its American supporters, taking control of the whole country. Because of his importance to Vietnamese history for his leadership in the cause of Vietnamese independence, Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975.

Robert McNamara

During the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara (1916-) was the controversial U.S. secretary of defense in the administrations of both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson. In fact, Vietnam was sometimes called “McNamara’s War,” because he took on primary responsibility for developing and managing America’s war effort. In addition, he was a successful business executive at Ford Motor Company and later chairperson of the World Bank for thirteen years.

Robert Strange McNamara was born on June 9, 1916, in San Francisco, California. He was the son of Robert James McNamara and his wife, Clara Nell Strange. His father worked as a wholesale shoe company manager and raised his family in Piedmont, California. An outstanding student throughout his childhood, McNamara studied philosophy and economics at the University of California, Berkeley. He graduated in 1937.

Early Business Career

After graduating college, McNamara entered Harvard’s business school and earned his MBA in 1939. Returning to California, he then spent a year at Price Waterhouse & Company’s San Francisco office. In 1940, McNamara went back to Harvard and worked as an assistant professor of business administration.

Service during World War II

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, McNamara tried to join the navy. Because of his poor eyesight, he was not accepted for active duty, but he did serve in the U.S. Army. While remaining an educator at Harvard for a time, McNamara taught a business class for officers in the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). He also served as a special consultant for the USAAF.

In 1943, McNamara went on leave from Harvard to focus on his consulting work for the USAAF. Stationed in England as a temporary captain, he used his background in accounting and statistics to aid the B-17 and B-29 bomber programs. McNamara also served in India, China, and the Pacific under the auspices of the USAAF.

Return to Business World

After his war service ended in 1946, McNamara put off plans to return to Harvard in order to join a group of statistical control authorities who had served during the war and were forming a business consulting company. The “Whiz Kids,” as they came to be known, wanted to use the skills they developed during the war in corporate America. The nine men who made up the Whiz Kids were hired by the financially strapped Ford Motor Company in 1946.

Because McNamara displayed the most talent of the nine, he quickly rose through Ford’s corporate ranks. Moving from the manager of Ford’s planning and financial offices to comptroller by 1949, he was named the Ford division’s assistant general manager in 1953. McNamara gained more power in 1957 when he was named vice president in charge of all car and truck divisions of Ford. At the same time, he was elected to Ford’s board of directors. In November 1960, McNamara was named president of Ford Motor Company, the first person to come from outside the Ford family to hold that position.

Named Secretary of Defense

McNamara’s time at the top of Ford was short-lived. He served as the company’s president for only five weeks when newly elected President John F. Kennedy asked him to become the secretary of defense. With the help of the “Whiz Kids” who came with him from Ford, McNamara used his skills in finance and management to improve the Defense Department by increasing its efficiency and strength.

As defense secretary, McNamara oversaw the reorganization of the Pentagon, closed military bases that were not economical, and consolidated the assistant secretary ships from seven to five. In 1963, he introduced the first five-year projected budget plan in the history of the Pentagon. McNamara also revitalized the conventional military forces and developed many types of deterrent forces while moving away from nuclear arms as the primary deterrent defense of the country.

Oversaw Increased Involvement in Vietnam

In addition to using his financial and managerial expertise to improve the operation of the Department of Defense, McNamara also became a top national security and foreign policy advisor to both Kennedy and, later, President Lyndon Johnson. During his time as defense secretary, the U.S. military became more deeply involved in Vietnam, and Vietnam became McNamara’s primary focus.

While McNamara publicly supported the controversial war, he was less sure privately. He endorsed President Johnson’s decisions to put American combat troops in Vietnam and begin a bombing campaign in early 1965. McNamara also consistently offered optimistic public projections about the war, which he initially believed could be won quickly.

After visiting Saigon in late 1965, however, McNamara began expressing doubts about the war in private, and these sentiments only intensified over time. Doubts tormented him, and he encouraged President Johnson to negotiate peace in 1966. McNamara commissioned a study about American involvement in the conflict in 1967, though he continued to support the war vocally in public. By this time, members of the Johnson administration could see support for McNamara declining, and Johnson planned to replace him.

Became World Bank President

Because McNamara became frustrated with American policy in Vietnam, and because the stress of the job was affecting his mental and physical health, he resigned as secretary of defense in February 1968 and was named president of the World Bank. Beginning in 1968, he spent thirteen years improving the international financial body, which lends funds to poor countries for economic, educational, and social programs.

One of McNamara’s primary accomplishments as president of the bank was making it the largest and most important source for international development assistance. In 1968, the World Bank was lending about $1 billion per day. In 1980, it was lending $12 billion per day, which was spent on 1,600 projects worth $100 billion in one hundred developing countries. McNamara retired from his position at the World Bank in 1981.

Writer and Lecturer in Retirement

In retirement, McNamara remained active on the international stage. Becoming a public speaker and author, he commented on world poverty, development strategies, nuclear policies, and other international issues. McNamara spoke out vehemently against the proliferation of nuclear arms.

Vietnam continued to weigh heavily on McNamara’s mind late in his life. He published a book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, in 1995. In the text, he admitted he lied to Congress and the public about why the United States became involved in the Vietnam War. McNamara also acknowledged that he did not fully understand Vietnamese and Asian politics and that these mistakes resulted in the loss of life for thousands of American soldiers. The book and McNamara’s sentiments therein were regarded as highly controversial.

McNamara continues to revisit the lessons of Vietnam in his writing. He co-authored another book on Vietnam in 1999, Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy. He was also the focus of a divisive documentary, The Fog of War, which was released in 2003. In the film, McNamara talks directly to the camera about the whole of his life, his place in history, and most importantly, what happened in Vietnam.

Le Duc Tho

A leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) as well as a founder of the Indochinese Communist Party, Le Duc Tho (1911-1990) played a significant role in conducting the war against South Vietnam. He also was North Vietnam’s primary negotiator with the United States in peace talks. For crafting a peace treaty with American negotiator Henry Kissinger that brought an end to the war in 1973, Tho and Kissinger were jointly awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.

Born Phan Dinh Khai on October 14, 1911, in the village of Dich Le in the Nam Ha Province, Tho was the son of a civil servant in the French colonial government then ruling Vietnam. The family was most likely upper middle-class, though some sources state that they were peasants. He received his education in French schools.

Anti-French Activist

As a young adult, Tho joined the burgeoning Vietnamese revolt against the French overlords and organized demonstrations against the French. In 1929, he was one of the founders of the Indochinese Communist Party, aiding its leader Ho Chi Minh. Tho was often jailed for starting antigovernment riots and other disturbances. In 1930, he was imprisoned by the French on their island prison at Poulo Condore and spent six years doing hard labor. Arrested again in 1939 on similar charges, Tho then spent time in the Son La prison camp.

Soon after his release from the camp, Tho lived primarily in the southern part of Vietnam, where he was a Communist party executive. During World War II, Vietnam was occupied by the Japanese, and Tho played a significant role in organizing resistance to the occupiers. After the war’s end, France reclaimed Vietnam as its colony, though the Vietnamese wanted their independence. This struggle led to the First Indochinese War. Tho emerged as a leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party, serving as its chief commissar during the conflict.

Chief Communist Negotiator

When the Americans became involved in the Second Indochinese War, commonly known as the Vietnam War, Tho was a primary player in directing the war against South Vietnam. His role for the DRV early in the conflict is unclear. Some believe that he might have played a supervisory role over the actions of the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese Communist guerilla forces) from a secret base in the jungle of South Vietnam, perhaps in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Better known are Tho’s activities in the late 1960s. Beginning in May 1968, Tho was the “special advisor” to North Vietnamese chief negotiator Xuan Thuy in the Paris-based peace talks with the Americans. It was soon clear that Tho held real power and eventually became the primary representative for the DRV. Opposite American chief negotiator Kissinger, Tho proved to be a serious opponent who would not compromise on certain points.

After a tough five years of negotiations—some held in secret because of a lack of progress and public pressure in the United States for an end to the conflict—an agreement was finally reached in January 1973 to end the American military presence in Vietnam. The treaty also called for a cease-fire and acknowledgement of General Nguyen Van Thieu as the president of South Vietnam until Vietnam-wide elections could be held to form a new government. However, some North Vietnamese troops were allowed to remain in South Vietnam while the Americans evacuated. The peace was short-lived, and fighting soon resumed between Communist and non-Communist forces in Vietnam.

Refused Nobel Prize

Though Tho and Kissinger, the chief American negotiator, were honored with the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end the fighting in Vietnam, Tho refused to accept it. His refusal stemmed from the fact that the war with South Vietnam was continuing, though the Americans no longer played any role of significance. Tho supported the ongoing attacks by the North Vietnamese on South Vietnam.

After leaving Paris in 1973, Tho became the second highest ranking leader in the Communist Party and served as Le Duan’s (leader of North Vietnam) senior advisor. Tho also was influential in the DRV’s ongoing effort to gain control over the whole of Vietnam. Under his leadership, the final push came when the Communist forces took Saigon in 1975, after which Vietnam became one country again. Tho also might have had a part in the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978.

After victory was achieved, Tho continued to be an active member of the Vietnamese Communist Party and its Central Committee. He also was the director of the Party Organization Department for Vietnam. Resigning from the party in 1986 after a power struggle caused by conflict over economic reforms, Tho retired to private life. He died of throat cancer on October 13, 1990, in Hanoi, Vietnam.

William Westmoreland

During the Vietnam War, General William Westmoreland (1914-2005) served as the commander of all American forces from 1964 until 1968. He was removed from his post because of mounting criticism over his handling of the American effort as well as decreasing support for American involvement in the conflict. Until his death, Westmoreland believed that a strong American military buildup would have resulted in a victory in Vietnam.

William Westmoreland was born on March 26, 1914, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. His father managed a textile plant before becoming a banker. From an early age, Westmoreland embraced leadership roles and enjoyed the Boy Scouts. He served as a patrol leader of his scout troop as well as president of his senior class. Westmoreland chose the military as a career before leaving high school.

Early Military Career

Westmoreland first attended the Citadel, an acclaimed military college, for a year, then gained an appointment to West Point, where he was first captain in his class. After graduating in 1936, he worked in field artillery in the United States Army. Westmoreland’s first posts were in Oklahoma and Hawaii, after which he was transferred to the infantry division of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There, he was promoted to major and put in charge of the Thirty-fourth Field Artillery Battalion.

During World War II, Westmoreland served in several positions of significance. He was an executive officer of the Ninth Division Artillery in France as well as a colonel in a Germany-based division. Promotions continued during the Korean War, where he served as the commander of the paratroopers who made up the 187th Airborne Combat Team. Serving in the Pentagon after the end of the Korean War, Westmoreland was promoted to brigadier general.


By the mid-1950s, the United States was providing financial support and military advisors for the non-Communist half of the country. Communist North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, supported guerilla attacks against the South Vietnamese government by the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese Communist guerilla forces). The conflict soon broke out into an all-out war. Though Westmoreland became the superintendent of West Point in 1960, he shared President John F. Kennedy’s belief that the United States should expand its military presence in South Vietnam to prevent a Communist takeover, which could lead to a further expansion of communism in Southeast Asia.

By December 1963, Westmoreland was serving as the commander of the Eighteenth Airborne Corps and stationed in Vietnam. Though the United States was still providing only military advice to the South Vietnamese, Westmoreland and other generals were able to convince President Lyndon B. Johnson to increase the role of the American armed services there. Beginning in 1964, the United States joined the Vietnam conflict with combat troops, limited bombings of key targets in North Vietnam, and naval operations. While there was some controversy surrounding this shift in policy, most Americans believed in the cause.

Head of U.S. Forces in South Vietnam

For the next four years, Westmoreland, by now a full general, served as the head of American forces in Vietnam as they fought the Viet Cong who engaged in both guerilla warfare as well as larger conventional attacks. By 1965, the North Vietnamese Army became more directly involved in the battle against South Vietnamese and American troops. Westmoreland did not control the bombings or the overall American strategy in the war, but directed American operations in South Vietnam. He saw his primary role as attacking the North Vietnamese Army and their bases, while secondarily helping to pacify and provide security for the South Vietnamese.

Westmoreland’s actions during his four years in charge of American troops in South Vietnam were regularly criticized by the press. He believed that the conflict in Vietnam was a war of attrition (a war won by wearing one’s enemy down over time) that would take years to win, and that U.S. forces never lost a battle of significance during the whole war. The American public saw the situation differently. For example, Westmoreland believed the February 1968 Tet Offensive by the Viet Cong resulted in a victory for the United States and South Vietnam. Many Americans, however, saw only that the North Vietnamese were much stronger than they had imagined and became convinced the war was unwinnable.

Removed from Post

Facing intense pressure from the American public, President Johnson decided to begin removing American troops from the conflict and begin negotiations with the North Vietnamese. In July 1968, Westmoreland was removed from his post. He returned to Washington to become the U.S. Army’s chief of staff, where it was his job to organize the removal of American forces from Vietnam and return the army to an all-volunteer force. Though he was roundly criticized, and often heckled, by people opposed to the war and the military, Westmoreland gave many public speeches in support of the army and the necessary transition ahead of it.

After retiring on June 30, 1972, Westmoreland returned to South Carolina, where he remained a controversial figure. He made a run for the Republican nomination for his state’s governorship in 1974, but was defeated in the primary. Westmoreland remained critical of the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam as well as the government’s Vietnam policy, outlining his opinions in his 1976 memoir, A Soldier Reports.

Libel Suit

Westmoreland’s actions in Vietnam haunted him for the rest of his life. On January 23, 1982, CBS aired a documentary entitled The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, which claimed that Westmoreland was involved in a cover-up that muffled or garbled American intelligence gathered about North Vietnam. Several months later, Westmoreland filed a $120 million lawsuit against the network, denying the charges and demanding an apology. Three years later, the suit was settled out of court, with CBS acknowledging some fault in the matter.

Living quietly for the rest of his life, Westmoreland died on July 18, 2005, at a retirement home in Charleston, South Carolina. He was ninety-one years old.

Major Battles

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

In the summer of 1964, the U.S. destroyer Maddox exchanged fire with three torpedo ships off the North Vietnamese coast. Two days later, the Maddox, accompanied by the destroyer C. Turner Joy, reported once again that they had been fired upon. Reports of the encounters were confused. It was unclear what had provoked the attacks; it was uncertain that the second attack had happened at all. Nevertheless, the administration of President Lyndon Johnson used the incident to justify a dramatic escalation of American involvement in Vietnam.


The year 1964 was an election year. Political debate focused on the U.S.S.R and on civil rights. The United States had sent thousands of “advisors” into South Vietnam, but the war had not yet come to the forefront of the public consciousness. Incumbent President Lyndon Johnson took heavy criticism for his South Asia policy from the Republican challenger, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Goldwater, a fervent anti-Communist, advocated using nuclear weapons to clear the Viet Cong’s jungle cover.

The Johnson administration had in fact been more aggressive than the Republicans thought. American “advice” to South Vietnam included training, military equipment, and covert operations. In 1961, the C.I.A. launched a highly classified program known as Operation 34A, which included naval electronic intelligence cruises (called “DeSoto” missions). The South Vietnamese also launched American-supported raids on the North Vietnamese coast.

On July 31, 1964, American-trained South Vietnamese commandos attacked a radio transmitter station on Hon Nieu Island. This may have provoked the North Vietnamese to attack American ships in the area.


On August 2, 1964, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats bore down fast on the U.S.S. Maddox, which had been on a DeSoto cruise in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Maddox opened fire, and the approaching boats answered with torpedoes and machine guns. Shortly afterwards, four U.S. naval airplanes from the carrier Ticonderoga were dispatched to strafe the enemy craft. All three North Vietnamese ships sustained damage, while the Maddox returned unscathed to southern waters.

Two days later, the Maddox returned, reinforced by the destroyer C. Turner Joy. The ships intercepted North Vietnamese radio messages, which they believed signaled an imminent attack. After nightfall, in the middle of a storm, radar and sonar indicated incoming torpedoes, all of which missed.

The two ships engaged in vigorous evasive maneuvering and called in air support. However, no one could make a visual sighting of the enemy. Other than an initial surprise torpedo attack, the commander noted, the whole affair might have been a product of bad weather and nervous radar operators.


On August 3, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Khanh told reporters that the United States should strike back at the North Vietnamese “to save face.” President Lyndon Johnson apparently agreed. In a taped conversation with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, he said that America “ought to always leave the impression that if you shoot at us, you’re going to get hit.”

Johnson publicly announced that the American ships had been on a routine patrol in international waters when they had been attacked with no provocation. He immediately sanctioned air strikes on four North Vietnamese naval bases and on an oil storage depot. In the meantime, he asked for Congressional approval of a resolution “expressing the unity and determination of the United States in supporting freedom and in protecting peace in Southeast Asia.”

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by both houses of Congress only three days after the attacks. It condemned the naval incidents as part of a “systematic campaign of aggression by North Vietnam against South Vietnam.” Only two representatives voted against the bill, which gave the president full authority “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States.”

The second part of the resolution gave the president discretion to give military aid to any member state of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). For practical purposes, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution functioned as an informal declaration of war. It was to expire only at the president’s discretion, unless Congress repealed it.

On August 8, Ho Chi Minh declared “the indignation and wrath of our entire people at the U.S. Government’s deliberate acts of aggression against the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam.” With North Vietnam’s backing, the Viet Cong increased its operations against American targets in South Vietnam.

Unlike President John Kennedy, who had sent “advisory” officials to Vietnam, Johnson deployed combat-ready American ground troops. Calling themselves “grunts,” these forces were sent on aggressive “search-and-destroy” missions to find and crush Viet Cong and North Vietnamese groups. Military command theorized that the United States could win a war of attrition (a war in which one wears the enemy down over time), as long as the U.S. soldiers killed as many of the enemy as possible.


In 1968, a congressional review made it public knowledge that the Maddox had actually been on a reconnaissance mission and that Americans had carried out secret attacks against North Vietnam prior to the August 2 incident. More disturbing were allegations that the reports of the August 4 incident had been mistaken or even fabricated. Antiwar activists began to charge that Johnson had already been planning to increase American involvement in Vietnam and that the affair had given him an excuse to do so.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was not repealed, however, until January 13, 1971, after President Richard Nixon used it to order air raids over neutral Cambodia.

The Tet Offensive

In January 1968, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong launched a coordinated attack against hundreds of villages, towns, and cities across South Vietnam. They aimed primarily to topple the American-backed “puppet” government in Saigon. They also hoped to discredit the American government’s claim that the Communists were on their last legs and that the war was almost over. While the former goal was never realized, the Tet Offensive did lend fuel to the U.S. antiwar movement and put considerable pressure on the administration of President Lyndon Johnson.

The Buildup

From 1965 to 1967, the number of American troops in Vietnam increased from fewer than sixty thousand to nearly a half million. However, as casualties mounted, the American people grew increasingly weary of the war effort. In an effort to rally public support, the Johnson administration routinely made highly optimistic reports on America’s progress. According to the U.S. military commanders, the National Liberation Front (NLF), also known as the Viet Cong, and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had suffered heavy losses, and they would not be able to hold out much longer. There was, the government promised, “light at the end of the tunnel.”

The Vietnamese Communists, however, were still in the fight, and they had no intention of giving up. Instead, faced with a bloody stalemate, General Vo Nguyen Giap devised a massive campaign in the hopes of changing the face of the war. Called the “General Offensive-General Uprising,” the action was to have two phases. First, a series of diversionary campaigns would draw American troops out of the urban centers into the countryside. Second, the Viet Cong and the NVA would attack the major cities, prompting an uprising of the South Vietnamese people against the Saigon government.

The campaign began in October and November, as North Vietnamese forces descended on small, inland targets. Among these was the U.S. Marine base at Con Thien, across the Laotian border, as well as the towns of Loc Ninh, Song Be, and Dak To. American forces were dispersed from the coastal units to deal with these threats.

United States General Westmoreland could tell that these attacks, coupled with the massing of forces to the north, were leading up to something big. However, the army believed that the buildup was centered around the battle of Khe Sanh. They were caught off guard by the scope and coordination of the Tet Offensive.

Attack and Counterattack

Hanoi’s main assault was launched on January 30-31, during the Vietnamese holiday of Tet. This holiday, coinciding with the lunar New Year, was traditionally celebrated by returning to one’s home village for feasting with family. In October of 1967, the North Vietnamese had agreed to a cease-fire during the festivities, a promise that they did not keep. As a result, a third of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was on leave when the fighting began.

On January 30, 1968, nine NLF guerillas raided the American Embassy in Saigon, which was held by five American Marines. They managed to take control of the grounds, but could not enter the U.S. Chancery building. The next morning U.S. troops retook the compound after a bloody firefight.

At the same time, NLF and NVA strikes were launched throughout the country. Military units attacked thirty-nine provincial capitals, seventy-one district towns, and five of the six major cities.

Militarily, the offensive proved a miserable failure for the Communists. The South Vietnamese people showed no interest in a general uprising, and the ARVN fought fiercely in defense of their hometowns. With American support, most of the raids were repelled within a day. Fighting in some towns continued to the end of the week, and the former imperial city of Hué was occupied for almost a month.

The American Front

From a political point of view, the Tet Offensive signaled the beginning of the end for the South Vietnamese cause, in that it ultimately cost them their most vital ally. Shocked by the ferocity and scale of the offensive, the American people began to doubt their government’s glib assurance that victory was in sight. “What the hell is going on?” Walter Cronkite burst out on hearing the news, “I thought we were winning.”

Cronkite, a respected news anchor, had initially supported the war. After two years of fighting, however, the Tet Offensive convinced him (and many others) that the military had made no progress. The conflict, he declared, was stalemated.

The brutality of the urban warfare also contributed to popular disillusionment, as when South Vietnam’s chief of national police, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, summarily executed a Viet Cong suspect on the streets of Saigon. Having just lost several men to the NLF, he shot the man in the head before photographers and television cameras, leading to one of the most memorable—and horrifying—images of the Vietnam War. Fairly or not, Americans began to question the worthiness of their Asian allies.

More significantly, they questioned the worthiness of their own troops. American platoons had ruthlessly driven the enemy back, often with tragic cost in civilian life and property. One soldier reported after securing the village of Ben Tre, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Neither side emerged from the battle as creditably as they would have liked. A month of American bombardment drove the NLF out of Hué, but left the ancient city in ruins and 116,000 townspeople homeless. On entering the city, however, they discovered an even greater atrocity. The Viet Cong had executed 2,800 Vietnamese civilians thought to be in sympathy with the South Vietnamese government and buried the bodies in shallow graves.

Johnson’s Office

Military commanders urged Johnson to take advantage of what they considered to be a resounding victory. Nearly forty thousand of the enemy had been killed, and the Viet Cong was in disarray. Westmoreland requested an additional two hundred thousand troops from Washington. He accurately predicted that the NLF would soon be reinforced by North Vietnam.

Johnson knew that public opinion would not permit a further escalation in Vietnam, and he worried that America would be forced away from its Southeast Asian containment policy altogether. Senator Robert Kennedy of New York and Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota announced that they would be running for the Democratic presidential nomination on anti-war platforms.

On March 31, 1968, Johnson reluctantly declared that military operations in Vietnam would be scaled back. He suspended the bombing campaign on North Vietnam. He also announced that he would not run for re-election.

The My Lai Massacre

On March 16, 1968, American soldiers committed one of the worst wartime atrocities in the Vietnam War. Descending on a tiny South Vietnamese hamlet, they murdered over four hundred civilians, mostly women, children, and old men. The massacre and the subsequent army cover-up became an international scandal and a permanent mark on the American conscience.

The Massacre

Lieutenant William Calley commanded Charlie Company, First Battalion, Twentieth Infantry Division. On March 16, he and his men were ordered to My Lai 4, a small hamlet of the Song My village in the Quang Ngai province. Officially, they were on a search-and-destroy mission. Military intelligence had determined that the Viet Cong sheltered in the area.

The Charlie Company was on edge. Two days before, the well-beloved Sergeant George Cox had been killed by a booby trap. Wild with grief, the squad members had murdered a Vietnamese woman who had been working in a field close by. When villagers complained to Captain Ernest Medina, he told them that the woman had been holding a land mine detonator.

Calley’s commanding officer, Captain Ernest “Mad Dog” Medina, had told him that all innocent Vietnamese citizens would be at the market. Everyone remaining in the village, according to intelligence, would be Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathizers. In fact, all of the able-bodied Vietnamese men had retreated from the village the day before.

Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker gave Calley permission to treat My Lai as an enemy stronghold. Their orders were to kill the livestock, to spoil the wells, to cut down the banana trees, and to take no prisoners. Neither Barker nor Calley explicitly included civilians in their instructions. Nevertheless, Calley believed that he had been ordered to kill everyone in the village.

At 7:40 in the morning, the soldiers marched into My Lai 4 (known to the soldiers as Pinkville.) On Calley’s orders, the Americans then embarked on a ruthless, indiscriminate killing spree. They raped women and young girls; they shot mothers holding their babies. Villagers were rounded up in ditches and summarily executed. Others were clubbed, bayoneted, and even mutilated. Bodies were found with the words “C Company” carved on their chests. The U.S. Army estimates that 347 civilians were murdered. The Vietnamese put the number at 504.

A few American soldiers refused to take part in the atrocity. Pilot Hugh Thompson watched with increasing disbelief as the carnage unfolded beneath him. Finally, seeing U.S. troops chasing ten civilians, he set his helicopter down between the Vietnamese and the Americans. Thompson had his gunners train their M60 guns on the soldiers.

Thompson jumped out and asked the officer in charge to help him get the Vietnamese out of the ditch. The officer answered that a hand grenade would do the job. “You see my guns?” Thompson replied, “If you open up, they open up.”

Thompson called down two more helicopters and somehow managed to convince the ten cowering Vietnamese to board them. A little later his crew pulled a three-year-old child out of a pit full of bloody corpses. Then they flew back to base and reported what was going on to his superiors, who put a stop to the rampage.

The Uncovering

Those same superiors also immediately buried the story. If the media mentioned the incident at all, they reported that American troops had won a military victory over Viet Cong troops.

The massacre came to light in 1969 due to the efforts of a veteran, Ronald Ridenhour. He had just returned from a tour of duty, during which he had heard appalling stories from eyewitnesses of the massacre. Ridenhour’s letters to the House Armed Services Committee reported that “something rather dark and bloody” had happened in My Lai; he demanded justice for the victims.

In response, General William Westmoreland initiated an army investigation, headed by Lieutenant General William Peers. The Peers Commission found that the soldiers in question had committed 224 violations of the code for military conduct. When the grisly truth of the matter became clear, the U.S. Army started trying and convicting the perpetrators in courts martial.

Twenty-five indictments were filed altogether, thirteen for war crimes and twelve for covering up the affair. Almost all of the defendants were acquitted or charges against them were dropped. The army released General Samuel Koster (Captain Medina’s commanding officer) with a demotion and a letter of censure.

The army quietly published the charges, and initially the American news media did not make much of a stir. However in November 1969, freelance journalist Seymour Hersh picked up the story. He published a detailed description of the slaughter. Shortly afterwards, the Charlie Company army photographer, Ron Haeberle, published lurid photographs of the massacre in Life magazine. The American people were horrified. In the debacle, antiwar advocates saw proof that the United States military had lost its way, if not its soul.

The Trial of Lt. Calley

Only Lieutenant Calley, who had directly commanded Charlie Company, was convicted of any crime. He openly admitted to having shot unarmed civilians and having ordered others to do so. “I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy,” he said. “That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women, and children. They were all classified the same, and that was the classification we dealt with, just as enemy soldiers.” Medina denied having explicitly ordered the death of noncombatants. He also denied allegations from some troops that he had participated in the massacre. Calley was found guilty of murder by military court martial and sentenced to life imprisonment.

However, many Americans felt that Calley’s conviction was deeply unfair, since his superior officers went unpunished. As the Vietnam Veterans Against the War explained, “We are all of us in this country guilty for having allowed the war to go on. We only want this country to realize that it cannot try a Calley for something which generals and presidents and our way of life encourage him to do.”

Richard Nixon reduced Calley’s sentence to twenty years and had him transferred from a military prison to house arrest. The U.S. Army gradually reduced his sentence to ten years. In 1974, a federal court overthrew his conviction entirely, by which time he had already been released on parole.

Secret Bombing of Cambodia

On March 18, 1969, President Richard Nixon initiated a secret B-52 bombing campaign in Cambodia, despite that country’s official neutrality. When word of the attacks leaked out to the American press, the affair inspired renewed criticism of the war’s legality.

Neutral Neighbors

As the Vietnam War progressed, the U.S. military became increasingly frustrated by the issue of Laos and Cambodia. Though officially neutral, these neighboring countries were essential to the North Vietnamese war effort. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) traveled on the famed “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” a system of trails and paths that snaked south from North Vietnam through neighboring Laos and Cambodia just east of the Vietnamese border. The Ho Chi Minh Trail allowed the North Vietnamese troops multiple entry points into South Vietnam.

In addition, the NVA kept arms and munitions in semipermanent bases in western Cambodia. From these locations, the Communists constantly launched lightning strikes across the border at American troops. After an attack, the Viet Cong and NVA would swiftly retreat to neutral Cambodia, where they could regroup and rearm in total safety.

The Communists had built their Cambodian bases with the permission of King Norodom Sihanouk, who had ruled Cambodia since before the country became independent from France in 1952. Unable to retain both ceremonial and political power, under the terms of the constitution, Sihanouk had abdicated in 1955. As president, the former king was still half-worshipped by the Cambodian people, despite his erratic nature and constantly shifting alliances.

In return for their adulation, Sihanouk exerted every effort to keep his people out of the ever-deepening Vietnamese conflict. A crafty politician, he successfully negotiated the choppy diplomatic waters between the United States, the U.S.S.R, China, and the two Vietnams. “The word brinkmanship,” he once remarked, “was perhaps invented for me.”

In 1965, angered by America’s part in the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and convinced that the Communists were going to win, Sihanouk broke diplomatic relations with the United States. In 1966, he gave permission to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to smuggle arms through Cambodia to Viet Cong forces. Sihanouk and his officials profited enormously from the black market in weapons that resulted.

The Menu Bombings

In 1966, however, Sihanouk’s government began to turn away from the left. The reinforced American army had driven an increasing number of Viet Cong across the border, where the guerrillas encouraged Cambodia’s own Communist insurgents. The northwest province of Battambang witnessed a serious peasant uprising, which Defense Minister General Lon Nol brutally repressed. The surviving Cambodian Communists escaped and regrouped in the wilderness. Sihanouk named them the Khmer Rouge. They were led by one Saloth Sar, who had taken the name Pol Pot.

Unable to fight the Khmer Rouge on his own and unwilling to count on China for help (the PRC was at the time in the midst of its “Cultural Revolution”), Sihanouk turned back to the United States. Nixon immediately responded to Cambodia’s friendly overtures, sending ambassador Chester Bowles to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

In their meeting, Bowles promised that the United States would “do everything possible to avoid acts of aggression against Cambodia.” However, Sihanouk gave the American military rather vague permission to cross his borders if “in hot pursuit” of the enemy.

This was more than enough license for Nixon. On March 18, 1969, Nixon and his advisors launched an air assault against Communist bases and supply points in Cambodia. Over the next fourteen months, B-52 planes flew 3,630 sorties, dropping over 100,000 tons of bombs. The individual attacks were code-named “Breakfast,” “Lunch,” “Snack,” “Dinner,” etc., and the overall campaign came to be known as “Operation Menu.”

The ever-paranoid Nixon insisted that the campaign remain a profound military secret. Sihanouk later denied having giving permission for the strikes, but he did nothing to stop or expose them. The North Vietnamese government also said nothing, as it could not openly admit to the presence of its troops in neutral Cambodia.

However, the news reached the press in May 1969. The New York Times ran the story, which cited an unknown source in the administration. Furious, Nixon instigated a cover-up and a crackdown on suspected leaks. He began a practice of illegal surveillance that would later explode in the Watergate scandal, which in turn resulted in his resignation.

The Invasion

In 1970, General Lon Nol ousted Sihanouk while the latter was visiting France. A staunch anti-Communist, Lon Nol ordered a crack-down on ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia. He also asked for American assistance in driving out the Viet Cong. On April 24, 1970, Nixon ordered American tactical air strikes on NVA targets in Cambodia, which were followed by a ground incursion.

The invasion had devastating consequences. The Americans and South Vietnamese troops were only permitted to penetrate nineteen miles into Cambodia, so the Viet Cong simply pushed deeper into the country. South Vietnamese soldiers slaughtered Cambodian civilians in retaliation for Lon Nol’s brutality against the ethnic Vietnamese. American college campuses, the hotbed of the antiwar movement, exploded in protest, and the ground campaign was halted in May, having achieved none of its objectives.

At Lon Nol’s request, however, U.S. air raids continued. American bombs continued to batter the region, destroying property and killing thousands of civilians. Rural Cambodians grew increasingly resentful of their government. They also remained devoted to Sihanouk who had, in another bizarre turnabout, aligned himself with the Khmer Rouge.

In 1971, Congress revoked the Gulf of Tonkin Resolutions. In 1973, Congress forced Nixon to stop the bombing campaign.

“Peace With Honor”

The United States people had lost patience with the war. By early 1969, 250 American soldiers were dying every week. Fearing that he might not win reelection, Nixon announced a plan for “Vietnamization,” the process of gradually pulling American troops out of Southeast Asia and “transferring” the war effort to the South Vietnamese.

In August 1969, Nixon sent his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, to conduct secret meetings with North Vietnam. These culminated in the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, which South Vietnam rejected. America signed them anyway and withdrew all U.S. troops from the region.

In April 1975, North Vietnam broke the cease-fire established by the Paris Peace Accords, invaded Saigon, and forcibly reunited the country. Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were forced into harsh “reeducation” camps. Over a million fled the country on boats, many of them dying at sea.

In the same month, the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh. Sihanouk was put under house arrest. The next four years of Communist rule in Cambodia were marked by mass relocations, forced labor, and genocide. The Khmer Rouge killed more than 1.5 million Cambodians before they were ousted in 1979.

Key Elements of Warcraft

Agent Orange

In broad military terms, superior knowledge of terrain confers a distinct advantage in a conflict, and this advantage typically goes to the fighting force indigenous to the region. This was certainly true in the Vietnam War; time and time again, U.S. troops found themselves fighting in the dense tropical jungles of southeast Asia, jungles that the Vietnamese Communists used quite effectively to conceal troop movements as well as to ambush American troops. In an attempt to negate this advantage of terrain, American forces reached the shortsighted (but logical) conclusion that if the jungles were eliminated, the Viet Cong would no longer have the upper hand in this area. Furthermore, if enemy crops were also destroyed, these troops would have no way of acquiring food. To accomplish these goals, large areas of the forests were set ablaze with napalm, which is usually some form of jellied petroleum that burns hotly and easily and is difficult to extinguish. From 1962 to 1971, many other areas of Vietnam were sprayed with a 50:50 mixture of two herbicides collectively known as Agent Orange. (The name derives from the orange band found on the containers holding the herbicide.)

The amount of Agent Orange used and the area covered were no small matter. Over ten million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed over Vietnam between 1962 and 1971, covering roughly 6,600 square miles. This area is equal to about one-tenth of the total area of Vietnam. The bulk of the spraying occurred between 1967 and 1969; enemy-concealing tropical forests were the main target, accounting for around 90 percent of all Agent Orange release. The remainder of the spraying focused on enemy crops and mangrove swamps. While most Agent Orange was released by the U.S. Air Force (during missions such as Operation Ranch Hand), Agent Orange was also distributed by boat, truck, and by handheld sprayers.

Effects of Agent Orange

While this widespread spraying of Agent Orange achieved its short-term military goal—vast areas of forest were destroyed—its long-term consequences were both profound and disturbing. Vast areas of the Vietnamese ecosystem were destroyed; as might be expected, native Vietnamese on both sides of the battle did not wish to have their country ruined by chemicals released by foreign troops. Understandably, then, the use of Agent Orange hurt the American cause.

Nor was the environmental damage easily repaired. Spraying of mangrove swamps along the coast had a ruinous effect on that particular ecosystem. Such swamps provide multiple benefits to a community, such as providing firewood, acting as a nursery for edible fish, and helping prevent coastal erosion. Even today, some coastal areas have not recovered, and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has estimated that full recovery may take roughly a century. Long-term damage to tropical forests, another vital habitat for countless organisms, has also had grievous effects that still linger decades after Agent Orange was used.

In addition to harming the flora on a monumental scale, Agent Orange damaged animals and people, too. The substance contains TCDD, a dioxin contaminant, and studies beginning in the late 1960s began to show how TCDD could cause birth defects in mice. Additional studies by the NAS and South Vietnamese Ministry of Health found no link between Agent Orange exposure and infant mortality or birth defects, but a 1971 North Vietnamese study reported a higher rate of stillbirths among women exposed to the chemical.

After the war ended, many American veterans experienced health problems, which they believed were caused by exposure to Agent Orange. An interagency work group was established in 1977, and the Agent Orange Act of 1991 called for a comprehensive study by the NAS of the possible long-term health effects of exposure to the substance. Since TCDD is a fairly common background contaminant, the NAS concluded that a comprehensive link between Agent Orange-derived TCDD exposure in Vietnam and health problems was dependent on too many other factors to be definitely made. Even so, that study and subsequent studies did find evidence that links Agent Orange exposure to such ailments as soft tissue sarcoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Various studies continue in the twenty-first century.

Like many decisions made during the Vietnam War, an immediate goal (destroy enemy places of concealment), spurred by hopes of achieving a definitive victory, led to a questionable decision with disastrous consequences. The overall effects of Agent Orange, some of which still reverberate today in veteran hospitals, ultimately pushed the chance of achieving a definitive victory in Vietnam further into the distance.

Impact of the Vietnam War

For Americans, the Vietnam War proved to be one of the most unpopular wars in the nation’s history. From the time that official combat began in 1964 until final U.S. withdrawal from Saigon in 1975, dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war intensified, reaching a fever pitch in 1968.

Most Americans generally supported American involvement in Vietnam, at least initially. The American attempt to stop communism in Asia followed common Cold War policy carried out by U.S. presidents—from Harry Truman through Richard Nixon. An American presence was already in place when the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred. Soon after, Congress handed President Lyndon Johnson virtually unchecked power to stop further aggression in Southeast Asia in the form of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Public support for this measure can be gauged by the vote in Congress. Only two senators voted against the resolution, and both lost reelection bids when their terms expired.

As the war dragged on, however, public support for the effort began to wane. Advances in television reporting likely contributed to the growing antiwar movement. By the late 1960s, images in both print and television media gave Americans a clear and detailed view of the fighting occurring in Vietnam. For example, headlines in American newspapers reported the Tet Offensive, but were no match for the moving images that were broadcast on television; Americans witnessed their embassy in shambles, dead American soldiers, and South Vietnamese falling dead in the street. These searing images, so in contrast to official reports about how the war was progressing, heightened the disenchantment felt by many Americans about the war and the government’s prosecution of the fighting.

After the war, the reputation of the press had increased while that of the American government’s had fallen. Many soldiers returning from the war were not greeted as heroes; instead, they met with silence or open disdain. Questioning about the war continued for some time, and as a whole, the American psyche suffered in the aftermath of the conflict.

The collapse of communism brought the Cold War to an end, and in time, the memory of Vietnam began to fade. However, the 2003 invasion of Iraq has led to a resurgence in the discussion of the Vietnam War. Those looking for parallels between the two conflicts can find multiple ones; both wars started with one goal, which then changed over time, and in both conflicts, support at home for the war started strong but then began to fade. In addition, two opposing political viewpoints emerged during both the Vietnam War and the Iraq invasion. One advocates that additional time, people, and equipment will bring about the desired results, while the other side argues that the situation can no longer be fixed using American troops and that further loss of life is pointless and counterproductive. Both sides of the debate can point to facts supporting their claim, and so echoes of the tumultuous history of the Vietnam War can be found again, in altered form, in twenty-first century America.