THE VIETNAM WAR
The Vietnam War was a long, costly and divisive undeclared war that pitted communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong against South Vietnam and the United States. The human and economic costs of the War, which took place from 1959 to 1975, were severe. As many as two million civilians died in the fighting, along with 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters. South Vietnam lost another 200,000 to 250,000 soldiers and the United States lost 58,220 with another 153,303 wounded. More than 6.1 million bombs were dropped, three times more than the 2.1 million tons dropped in WWII. Twenty million gallons of herbicides were dumped by U.S. planes with the aim of defoliating Viet Cong hiding spots, decimating five million acres of forest and half a million acres of farmland. The long and controversial war deeply divided the civilian electorate of the United States and created distrust between the American people and the federal government. Accepting the defeat demoralized the military. The war cost the United States taxpayers $168 billion, which included $111 billion in military operations and $28.5 billion in aid to South Vietnam.
Vietnam had been ruled by France from 1887 until 1940, when Japan beat the French during WWII. France took Vietnam back at the end of WWII but Ho Chi Minh of the Communist Party led a nationalist guerrilla war (the Viet Minh) to declare independence. The Viet Minh finally defeated France in 1954. The Geneva Accord of July, 1954 divided North and South Vietnam on the 17th parallel, with the U.S. backing a southern democracy and Ho Chi Minh keeping the north. Ho Chi Minh was not content with that arrangement for long and began guerrilla attacks against South Vietnam. Afraid of the domino effect that might propel all of Southeast Asia into Communist rule, President Kennedy sent 400 Green Berets to fight the Viet Cong in 1960. He also increased military advisors to more than 16,000. President Johnson increased the troop strength to 184,300 in 1965 and by 1967 485,600 U.S. troops were in Vietnam. The war ended for the U.S. in 1973 with President Nixon and the Paris Peace Accords and troops were withdrawn. By 1975, South Vietnam had surrendered to North Vietnam.
The first major battle of the Vietnam War was the Battle of AP Bac, which involved the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF/Viet Cong). It began on January 2, 1963 in a village in Dinh Tuong province, which was located 50 miles southwest of Saigon. Three hundred fifty guerillas won the Viet Cong’s first major victory, defeating a much more superior force of South Vietnam’s 2500-man 7th Infantry Division, even though South Vietnam had American assistance in weapons, equipment and planning.
The second major battle took place in November, 1965 at Landing Zone X-Ray and Landing Zone Albany in la Drang Valley. This was America’s first true involvement in the war. Their strategy was to use helicopters to move troops quickly into remote jungle areas and inflict heavy casualties by airpower and artillery. X-Ray was a remote Huey landing zone, and soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry had been unloaded there just an hour before they came under attack by North Vietnamese regulars. They were able to hold off and repel the attackers until reinforced by the 2nd Battalion. On
November 17th the 2nd Battalion moved overland to Landing Zone Albany and was ambushed by North Vietnamese forces. Fighting was intense, and 150 of the 500 men were killed and 120 wounded by the well-trained regulars of the People’s Army of Vietnam, who had superior numbers in the valley. Eventually reinforcements and airstrikes drove the Vietnamese into nearby Cambodia. Each side declared victory, although neither side actually controlled the Valley of IA Drang.
This battle began the United States’ campaign for control of the strategic central highlands, which divided South Vietnam north to south. The North Vietnamese strategy was to separate South Vietnam’s northern cities of Hue and Da Nang from Saigon in the south.
The next major battle was the Battle of Khe Sanh, which began on January 21, 1968. The United States had established a garrison at Khe Sanh in Quang Tri province in the northern area of South Vietnam. This bloody, 77-day siege was actually a diversionary tactic for the upcoming Tet Offensive. North Vietnamese forces bombarded the garrison with artillery until US troops were airlifted out of the base with Operation Pegasus, ceding the garrison to the North Vietnamese.
On January 30th of that same year, North Vietnam surprised US troops with a huge series of coordinated attacks against over 100 South Vietnamese strongholds. Tet was the festival of the Vietnamese New Year. Although the Offensive was initially very successful, US forces were eventually able to regain ground lost. Regaining Saigon took two weeks of fierce fighting and the Battle of Hue took over a month to expel the Communists. Fighting was ferocious and many civilians had been massacred by the North Vietnamese during their month of occupation.
The number of US troops in Vietnam peaked at 543,000 in April of 1969. As the numbers of US troops increased, so did the strength of the anti-war sentiment in the U.S. The Tet Offensive turned US public opinion decisively against the war. The South Vietnamese Army was showing improvement, however. They had won 37 of their last 45 major engagements, while American troops had won every major battle they fought. General Westmoreland, Time magazine Man of the Year for 1967, told Congress that the US and its allies had turned a corner in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite, made a trip to Vietnam and told the American people that the US was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations were the only way out.
Peace talks began in Paris on May 10, 1968 but soon stalled when the US insisted that North Vietnam withdraw its troops from the south. The peace talks would continue in an on-again, off-again fashion for five years.
In November of that year, Richard M. Nixon won the presidency, promising an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.
The battle of Hamburger Hill in May 1969 strengthened the public’s perception of the US military command as throwing away the lives of brave Americans on an empty, pointless war. The battle took place over 10 days for possession of Hill 937 in A Shau Valley in Hue province, South Vietnam. The hill, known as Dong AP Bia to the Vietnamese, was to be captured as part of Operation Apache Snow, whose objective was to clear the North Vietnamese from the Valley.
The US command ordered Airborne troops to capture the hill by frontal assault. PAVN forces were heavily fortified and bad weather aided their defense. Ten days, 72 US dead and 372 wounded, 272 Air Force missions and 500 tons of ordnance later, the hill was finally secured. It became widely known as “Hamburger Hill” because the American soldiers had been chewed up like hamburger. Public opinion became even more negative when they found out that shortly thereafter the hill was abandoned as operations in the A Shau Valley wrapped up.
As the war drew out, the sense that anything meaningful could be achieved died. Ho Chi Minh had died of a heart attack in September of 1969, and his will urged the North Vietnamese to fight on until the last Yankee has gone.
Nixon’s first troop withdrawal occurred in July of 1969, when 800 men of the 9th Infantry Division were sent home. The troop withdrawal occurred in 14 stages from July 1969 through November of 1972. On August 23, 1972 the last US combat troops left Vietnam.
On January 27, 1973 the Paris Peace Accords were signed by the US, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the Viet Cong. The US agreed to halt all military activities and withdraw all military personnel within 60 days. South Vietnam was to be led by two governments, one Viet Cong.
Over 2 million Americans had served in Vietnam, with 500,000 seeing combat. Over 2400 American POWs/MIAs were unaccounted for as of 1973. Congress passed the veto-proof Case-Church Amendment, which forbade any further US military involvement in Southeast Asia.
On April 30, 1975, the last Americans departed Saigon and North Vietnamese troops poured into the city. Duong Van Minh, president of only two days, unconditionally surrendered to the Viet Cong and the war was over.