The Vietnam War: Causes, Conflicts & Effects

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  • 0:23 Prelude to the American War
  • 2:30 Opening Salvo of the…
  • 3:37 Kennedy Assumes…
  • 5:01 Johnson and Escalation
  • 7:27 The Tet Offensive
  • 9:30 The Nixon Years
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The Vietnam War was the longest and most polarizing conflict in the history of the United States. Learn about the causes of the war as well as its effects on the United States.

America's Longest War

The Vietnam War was a proxy war, which occurs when one or more opposing powers instigates a war and then uses third parties to fight on their behalf (in this case, the Soviet Union and China supported North Vietnam). 58,000 American soldiers perished in the fields of Vietnam in addition to the over 1.5 million Vietnamese killed. The Vietnam War was a complete disaster for the United States.

Prelude to the American War

Vietnam, known as Indochina prior to 1954, was occupied for the first half of the century by France and Japan. But as these powers waned at the end of World War II, the national revolutionary force of Indochina, known as the Viet Minh, claimed control of the country in 1945. Their leader, Ho Chi Minh, declared independence on September 2.

Though President Franklin Roosevelt had called for a trusteeship, or group occupation, by several countries in Indochina, when President Harry Truman took over after Roosevelt's death, he enacted the policy of containment, which is preventing the expansion of communism. The French returned to monitor the democratic process, but actually spurred a revolt, sparking the First Indochina War (1946-1954). In this struggle, the nationalist forces of the Viet Minh clashed with the French colonials, who could not handle the war so soon after the ravages of the world war. The United States entered the conflict by sending a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), which was to advise, not fight alongside, the French with their operations against the Indochinese.

Now, 1954 was a pivotal year in the history of the conflict. President Dwight Eisenhower subscribed to the 'Domino Theory', which claimed that if one nation fell to communism, the rest would fall, like dominoes. He sent more help to the French, but the Viet Minh launched a major offensive against the French at Dien Bien Phu. The French were defeated by May 7, 1954.

Talks opened between the two sides, as well as the United States, at the Geneva Conference on April 26. By July 21, the meetings at Geneva established provisions that included the removal of France from Indochina and partitioned the country at the 17th parallel, but called for reunification elections in 1956. The country's name was also changed from Indochina to Vietnam. The United States didn't sign the accords but instead created the state of South Vietnam, under the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem, as a shield against communist expansion in Southeast Asia. The United States even went one step further and created the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) to protect its allies from communist expansion.

Opening Salvo of the Vietnam War

At the conclusion of the Geneva Conference, Eisenhower immediately began infusing South Vietnam with money and materials in order to strengthen Diem's political clout as well as create a viable army to combat the North Vietnamese forces. Diem gained a significant amount of trust from the Eisenhower Administration, and his support rose when he began systematically eliminating supporters of North Vietnam as well as snubbing the 1956 reunification elections. Vietnam remained divided at the 17th parallel. Ho Chi Minh, realizing his dream of unification was under threat, began operations against the United States and South Vietnam.

By 1960, the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong, which was the revolutionary political arm of North Vietnam, began to infiltrate into the south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was a series of elaborate trails running from North Vietnam to South Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia created in 1959. The goal of the Viet Cong was to recruit support for the war in South Vietnam. It is important to understand that the Viet Cong fought in the southern reaches of South Vietnam, while the North Vietnamese battled closer to the 17th parallel.

Kennedy Assumes Command of the War

President John F. Kennedy's brief stint in office was highlighted by his expansion of the war in Vietnam. In 1962, Kennedy overhauled the war strategy. He sent thousands of advisers and Green Berets to South Vietnam, employing the tactic of counterinsurgency, which uses force to destroy the enemy counterpart. Kennedy also promoted the Strategic Hamlet Program, which forced the South Vietnamese into protective reservations away from the influence of the Viet Cong. MAAG was revamped and turned into the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam under the leadership of General Paul Harkins, and, for the first time, American advisers were permitted to return fire in self-defense. Enlarging American involvement was under way.

Yet, by 1963, disaster struck the United States in three ways. First, at the Battle of Ap Bac. This was the first major confrontation between the South Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. Needless to say, the South Vietnamese suffered a defeat. Fortunately, American firepower prevented a total loss. The second event was the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem. After Diem decided to suppress the Buddhists in South Vietnam, a major movement against Diem began. Diem, the strongest leader America had in South Vietnam, was assassinated on November 3, 1963. The third and final event was the untimely assassination of Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The war in Vietnam bordered on total tragedy.

Johnson and Escalation

Lyndon Johnson assumed office and was faced with the monumental burden of solving the enigma that was the Vietnam War. He was determined to take a hard line against communism while attempting to bolster South Vietnam. Johnson was soon faced with his first major crisis.

On August 2, 1964, North Vietnamese attack boats fired on the United States destroyer, Maddox, which was stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin. Several days later, on August 4, the Maddox and destroyer Turner Joy allegedly reported being fired on again (there was never conclusive evidence). As a result of the incident, Johnson decried unnecessary aggression and was awarded a blank check from Congress known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to take whatever action was deemed necessary to combat the North Vietnamese.

Johnson initially refused to send ground troops into the war, but he needed a way to respond to the Gulf of Tonkin incidents and force the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table. Johnson's administration then derived the idea of a massive air campaign over North Vietnam that would destroy the North Vietnamese war-making ability, infiltrate the supply route of the Ho Chi Minh trail and force negotiations. The campaign was known as Operation Rolling Thunder.

Derived on February 12, 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder was the largest air campaign in United States history. Beginning on March 2, it lasted three years (1965-1968) and dropped hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs on North Vietnam. But the massive bombing campaign was ineffective, and Johnson moved to send troops into the region.

The first troops, a Marine division, landed at Danang on March 8, 1965. Johnson would eventually send several thousand troops over the next few months, but the major escalation came in July. Advised to send additional troops to expedite the end of the war, Johnson approved the transfer of 125,000 American soldiers to Vietnam. The goal for the remainder of 1965 and 1966 was to carry out Phase I and Phase II of MAC-V Commander General William Westmoreland's three-phase plan to defeat the North Vietnamese. This included pacification, or eliminating the Viet Cong presence in South Vietnam hamlets and villages, and search-and-destroy, which was a war of attrition that aimed to eliminate North Vietnamese armed forces in South Vietnam. Phase III, the ultimate objective, was to gain additional troop support and conduct a major offensive against the North Vietnamese in 1967. This was never realized.

The Tet Offensive

By the end of 1967, the United States had over 460,000 soldiers in combat. Operations against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were grueling, while the search-and-destroy strategy yielded only large numbers of enemy deaths that could be quantified as 'body count,' or a way to measure United States' progress in the war. At the onset of 1968, the United States, South Vietnam and North Vietnam agreed to a temporary ceasefire to observe Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.

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