Before the war in Afghanistan, the Vietnam War was the longest in American history. American leaders went to war in Vietnam because they were worried about the Cold War, but over time, the war became less and less about stopping communism. By the time the last Americans left Saigon, few people thought losing Vietnam would make a difference in the fight between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Compared to the United States, Vietnam is a small country in every way: land, business, natural resources, people, and technology and the United States still lost. Even though the United States dropped more bombs in Vietnam than in all of World War II, we didn’t win.
How was this possible? Why didn’t we win our war in Vietnam?
America started getting involved in Vietnam early in the Cold War because they wanted to stop communists from taking over. But Vietnam was different from Korea. It was more complicated. Korea had never been a colony, but Vietnam had been part of the French colony of Indochina. After World War II ended, the French wanted to come back and retake control over their old colony. The United States was in a bad position. Americans wanted to help Vietnam become independence but did could not support Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh army. President Harry S. Truman did not want to help the French continue to control Vietnam, but France was an important friend in Europe in the fight against the Soviet Union.
In 1950, President Truman sent a small group of soldiers to Vietnam to help the French and gave money to help France fight the Viet Minh. But even though the Americans were helping, the French army lost in 1954. Vietnam was split into North and South at the 17th Parallel. Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh led the North. In the South, the last Vietnamese emperor and friend of France, Bao Dai, gave power to the anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem as the new prime minister. The Geneva Accords was an agreement to end the fight and said that there would be elections in 1956, and the winner would lead both the North and South, but Diem knew he would lose an election and refused to allow elections.
After an election in the South in 1955 that had a lot of cheating, Diem took full control and made himself president of the South, called the Republic of Vietnam. He canceled the 1956 elections in the South and began to round up communists and friends of Ho Chi Minh. Once they found out that Diem would never agree to putting the North and South back together with Ho Chi Minh as the leader, the North Vietnamese started fighting to get rid of Diem. They helped guerilla fighters called Viet Cong attack people in South Vietnam’s government.
The United States were afraid that Ho Chi Minh would take control of all of Vietnam and spread communism. So, American leaders helped Diem’s government in South Vietnam. But Diem was a bad leader. He stole money for himself. He was Catholic in a country where most people were Buddhist and Diem attacked Buddhists. Diem also gave his family important jobs in the government and helped them get rich. Farmers, students, and Buddhists all didn’t like him and helped the Viet Cong.
The world learned about the fight between Diem and his people when Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk burned himself to death at a busy intersection on June 11, 1963. Other monks had told reporters that something important was going to happen and photographs of his self-immolation were printed in newspapers and played on TV around the world.
After Quang Duc died, leaders around the world told Diem to change. He promised to do things differently but never did, which made things worse. As protests continued, the special police working for Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, attacked Buddhists around the country.
When Kennedy became president in 1961, he continued supporting Diem, just like Eisenhower had done. America gave money and send army supporters to South Vietnam. By 1963, there were 16,000 American soldiers in Vietnam. But American leaders were tired of waiting for Diem and after the American spy agency, the CIA, showed that they were ready for a new leader, South Vietnamese army officers killed Diem and his brother Nhu. Diem might have been a bad leader, but after he was gone, no one was able to do a better job leading the country.
When Kennedy was killed in 1963, Lyndon Johnson became president and he had to decide what America would do in Vietnam. Johnson was good at getting Congress to vote for things he wanted, and in the summer of 1964, he used his talents to get Congress to vote for a new plan for Vietnam.
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The death of Thich Quang Duc. This photograph by Malcolm Browne won the Pulitzer Prize and brought international attention to Vietnam.
THE AMERICAN WAR
President Johnson had never been the cold warrior Kennedy was, but he thought that he had to keep up the idea of containment or else the rest of the world would think America didn’t care anymore about the spread of communism. In 1964, a small American ship was in the Gulf of Tonkin on the coast of Vietnam. The captain reported that they had been attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Two days later, the captain said that they had been attacked again, and a second ship also said the North Vietnamese had shot at them. The North Vietnamese said the attacks never happened, and Johnson also wasn’t sure if he could believe the captains’ stories. Today we know that the captains of the two ships were wrong, and that the North Vietnamese never shot at the American ships. But at that time American leaders had only the reports from the two ships, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Congress that the communists had attacked American ships. Angry, Congress voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and Johnson signed the new law.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave President Johnson the power to send American soldiers into Vietnam without asking Congress for a declaration of war. This was a big change and gave the president much more power to use the army, navy and air force. It also changed America from a supporter of South Vietnam into a major player in the war. Even though he was not the first president to send Americans to Vietnam, and was not the president during the whole war, Americans remember the Vietnam War as Johnson’s war because of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
In 1965, America began bombing North Vietnam. For three years America tried to get communist leaders in the North to give up their fight to unite all of Vietnam. More than 200,000 Americans went to South Vietnam. At first, most Americans supported the president. But this started to change as more soldiers died and the South’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) kept losing. American General William Westmoreland asked the United States to take over leading the fight. Even as more and more Americans died in Vietnam, Westmoreland promised we were about to win.
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Navy A-6A Intruders dropping bombs in 1968 as part of Operation Rolling Thunder.
But this was not true for many reasons. The Viet Cong did not fight the Americans in the traditional way by going to a battlefield like our enemies had in World War II and Korea. The enemy was hard to find or recognize. The Viet Cong fighters looked like regular people and liked to attack at night or lay traps for American soldiers. To separate the enemy Viet Cong fighters from regular people, the government of South Vietnam created free-fire zones. All civilians were told to leave these areas, and anyone left behind would be treated like an enemy. Attacks on civilians in free-fire zones were common. American troops killed about 6,000 Vietnamese civilians during the war. People who ran away from Americans were treated like Viet Cong and were killed, even though many were just regular people who were scared. We can see now that creating these free-fire zones forced people to leave their homes and move to camps, and the way American troops acted around civilians, made many South Vietnamese dislike the Americans. Eventually, people in the South helped the Viet Cong because they thought the Americans were worse than the communists.
Since the Viet Cong would not fight normal battles, American leaders didn’t know how to show that they were winning. Since they couldn’t say they were winning battles or taking over land, they began to count victory by counting the number of people they killed. This meant that soldiers and army officers won awards for killing large numbers of enemy fighters and led American soldiers to start to attack civilians.
But the most important reason America lost the Vietnam War was that the Vietnamese were fighting for independence and were willing to sacrifice and die for freedom. Vietnam was their homeland, and they were not going to leave. Vietnam had been a colony of France and then was occupied by Japan during World War II. The Vietnamese people knew that the Americans would also leave if they waited long enough. It was only a matter of time.
But American leaders tried their best to win. In 1965, the air force started bombing the North Vietnamese and kept it up for years. Known as Operation Rolling Thunder, in the beginning they attacked only military targets, but in the end attacked civilians as well, hoping to make people in North Vietnam want to give up.
The United States also attacked the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a road used by the North Vietnamese to take supplies to the Viet Cong in the South. The trail went through the countries of Laos and Cambodia, so the attacks were kept secret from Congress and the American people. In all, more bombs rained down on Vietnam than the Allies had used in all of World War II.
America also used chemicals such as Agent Orange and napalm to clear the jungle the Viet Cong used for hiding. But all these attacks did not stop the enemy and they kept using the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also dug 30,000 miles of tunnels to continue to support their friends in the South.
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An American helicopter sprays the defoliant Agent Orange.
AMERICANS TURN AGAINST THE WAR
In January of 1968, it was clear that Westmoreland was wrong, and America was not about to win. That was the month of Vietnamese new year, called Tet, and the North Vietnamese started a large attack on the South. During this Tet Offensive about one hundred cities in the South were attacked, including the capital of Saigon. The Americans and South Vietnamese Army fought back but many American and South Vietnamese soldiers died. Walter Cronkite, a famous TV news reporter who visited Saigon during the Tet Offensive, said he thought America would not win the war.
And it wasn’t only Cronkite. Even though more North Vietnamese soldiers died than Americans, back home in the United States people began to turn against the war. The fight in Vietnam was the first war Americans watched on television, and they did not like what they saw. Surprise attacks like the Tet Offensive made many people think that the war would not be over soon. A credibility gap began to develop. People in America just stopped believing what their president was telling them about the war.
When Operation Rolling Thunder began in 1965, only 15% of Americans did not want to fight in Vietnam. By April 1968, more than half of Americans thought the United States should get out of the war.
As fewer Americans supported the war, soldiers also felt bad about their job. Soldiers who had joined the army because they thought they would be fighting communists found themselves burning down villages. Some started using drugs like alcohol, marijuana, or heroin to escape the stress of the war. To make things worse, President Johnson had asked for the Selective Service Administration to triple the number of young men drafted in 1965. Many of the new soldiers did not want to be in Vietnam at all. For them, the most important thing was to live and get back home. Soldiers who finished their year in Vietnam did not come home to parades like their fathers had after World War II. Instead, angry people called them “baby killer.”
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Walter Cronkite reporting from Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.
In 1968, with over 400,000 American soldiers in Vietnam, Johnson began peace talks with the North. But it was too late for Johnson to save his job. Even people from his own Democratic Party wanted America to get out of Vietnam. Senator Eugene McCarthy surprised the country when he won nearly as many votes in the New Hampshire presidential primary as Johnson. This convinced Robert Kennedy to run for president also as an anti-war candidate. Johnson knew his actions in Vietnam had hurt his popularity and he decided not to run again for president in 1968. With the rest of his time as president, he tried to find a peaceful end to the war in Vietnam. After Johnson decided not to run, Vice President Hubert Humphry led the Democrats who supported the war.
Johnson failed to find a peaceful way to end the war. The North Vietnamese knew the American people did not support the president and that they did not have to make a deal. If they waited, they knew the Americans would eventually quit.
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Anti-war protesters used flowers as a symbol peace. This photograph of a protester putting flowers in the rifles of military police came to symbolize the conflict between the anti-war movement and the pro-war government.
MY LAI: THE END OF MORAL AUTHORITY
In the 1940s and 1950s the United States stood up to Stalin and Khrushchev in Berlin and Korea. Because of this, people around the world thought of the United States as a defender of freedom. But that changed in Vietnam. The killing of civilians horrified the Vietnamese people, Americans, and the world. In Vietnam, a bad mix of power, racism, and anger infected the young men who had been sent to fight a war they could not win.
On March 16, 1968, about one hundred American soldiers committed one of the worst crimes of the war. Led by Ernest Medina, the men were sent to attack the village of My Lai, where Americans thought Viet Cong fighters were hiding. No one is sure exactly what Medina told the men, but they thought he wanted them to kill everyone at My Lai, including women and children. The young American soldiers were stressed out. They had been in hard fights in the past few months and eight of their friends had died. They were nervous about the chance of a sneak attack by the Viet Cong as they arrived at My Lei. When they arrived at the village they started shooting, killing about seventy to eighty people, including children. They set the houses on fire and killed the Vietnamese villagers as they ran out of the burning homes. No one ever shot at the Americans.
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Villagers from My Lei massacred by American troops in 1968. Images of the slaughter turned many people in the United States and around the world against the war.
No one knows exactly how many people the Americans killed that day, but it is somewhere between 347 to 504. None of the villages had a gun. Although not all the soldiers in My Lai took part in the killings, no one tried to stop the massacre until Hugh Thompson arrived in his helicopter. Along with his crew, Thompson tried to rescue women and children. When he got back to his base, Thompson told leaders what was happening at My Lai.
The army tried to hide what had happened. It wasn’t until Congress found out about the massacre that the army took action. Finally, in 1969, the army charged one soldier with murder. Many Americans were horrified at the photos of the massacre. The photos showed them that they were right about the war: it was wrong and Vietnamese people were getting hurt by Americans, not helped.
Almost half of all Americans refused to believe that American soldiers could even do something so bad. They wanted to think that America was involved in Vietnam for good reasons. But it was true. Americans had murdered hundreds of women and children, and killings like this had happened in other villages also. The only soldier ever put on trial for the massacre spent a total of three-and-a-half years in house arrest and then leaders who wanted to support the army let him go.
The massacre had a big effect on America and the world. The rest of the world learned that Americans could not be trusted to always do what was right.
THE WAR COMES HOME
As the war went on and on, people heard more stories like the one that happened at My Lei, people started to turn against the war. The anti-war movement grew in strength. President Nixon wanted to find a way to leave Vietnam “with honor.” He called his idea Vietnamization. He would give the South Vietnamese army equipment and training, and then let them take over the fighting. At the same time, he wanted to hurt the Viet Cong as much as he could, so he gave the air force permission to bomb Viet Cong bases in Cambodia. The bombing was kept secret from both Congress and the American people since Cambodia was a separate country that had not joined the war. In 1970, Nixon also sent soldiers into Cambodia.
When President Nixon went on television to tell people about the attacks on Cambodia, many Americans were angry. Although people had been turning against the war for years, attacking Cambodia seemed like a bad idea. All young men had to register for the draft and might be called to join the army. But college students could ask for a deferment so they could finish school before having to be soldiers. Colleges were filled with smart, motivated young men who knew that after graduation there was a good chance they would have to fight in Vietnam. These students, both men and women, became the core of the anti-war movement. In 1965, professors led a teach-in at the University of Michigan. 2,500 faculty and students came. These meetings were a chance for students to learn about the war, and other schools copied Michigan teach-ins. That year, the Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the civil rights group, organized the first march in Washington, DC. About 25,000 protesters came.
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Student protesters march through a campus during the Vietnam War.
Musicians such as Joan Baez, John Lenin, Pete Seeger, Jimi Hendrix and the groups Country Joe and the Fish, and Peter, Paul and Mary recorded anti-war songs and played at protest marches. In 1967, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali said he was a conscientious objector and refused to go to war. For refusing to follow the draft law, he was sent to five years in jail. He appealed and was let out, but he lost his title and was banned from boxing for three years.
By 1967, the anti-war movement had mixed with other social movements of the time. Many hippies of the counterculture were also part of the anti-war movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was against the war. Since college students could get deferments, richer white teenagers who could afford to pay for college were able to get out of the draft, but poorer African Americans who did not have the money for college, could not. For many of America’s poor, white and black, Vietnam felt like a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.
In 1967, President Johnson went to Los Angeles and there was a huge anti-war protest outside his hotel. The Los Angeles police ended up fighting with the protesters and Johnson decided not to give any more public speeches.
In 1968, students at Columbia University in New York City took over the school buildings and shut down the school. They wanted the university to stop research it was doing to help the army. After seven days, the New York police arrested 700 students. In the fighting, 12 police officers were hurt.
The saddest protest happened in 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio. After violent student marches on campus, the mayor asked Ohio’s governor to send in the National Guard. Soldiers came to the university where students had set fire to the ROTC building and were fighting off firemen and policemen trying to put out the fire. The National Guard used tear gas to get the students to leave, and some students were arrested.
Then everything went wrong. About 1,500 to 2,000 students got together and threw rocks at a security guard who told them to leave. 77 soldiers of the National Guard came up to the students. After getting most of the students to back off, the troops started to leave. Then they stopped, turned, and began shooting at the students. Even today, no one really knows why. Nine students were hurt and four were killed. Two of the dead had just been walking to class and hadn’t been part of the protest at all. Finally, a teacher begged the rest of the students to leave. Sadly, most of the national guardsmen were the same age as the students and also didn’t like the idea of the Vietnam War.
News of the Kent State shootings shocked students around the country. At hundreds of colleges and high schools, millions of students refused to go to class. 100,000 protesters marched in Washington, DC.
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John Filo, a student and part-time news photographer, distilled the feelings many Americans had about Vietnam into a single image when he captured Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over a fatally wounded Jeffrey Miller at Kent State. Filo’s photograph was printed on the front page of the New York Times. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and has since become the visual symbol of a hopeful nation’s lost youth.
Only a few weeks later, something similar happened at Jackson State College, an African American university in Jackson, Mississippi. Once again, students marched on campus to protest the attack on Cambodia, starting fires and throwing rocks. The police arrived and started shooting. One college student and a high school student were killed.
Not everyone felt bad for the students, however. President Nixon had called the student protesters “bums,” and construction workers attacked the New York City protests. A survey showed that most Americans thought the violence was the students’ fault. The students, African Americans, and hippies had supporters, and by the early 1970s most Americans were against the war, not as many people agreed with what the students were doing. Their parents and grandparents thought the students were spoiled. They complained. They disrespected authority. They smoked and did drugs. They were throwing away traditions. And worst of all, the students were not supporting America’s soldiers.
PULLING OUT OF THE QUAGMIRE
Marches in the streets, fighting at colleges, and the attacks in Cambodia made Americans unhappy about being involved in the war in Vietnam. In 1971, a poll showed that only 28% of Americans supported the war. By then, many thought that the war had been a mistake.
Nixon knew that he needed to end the war but didn’t want it to look like the United States was losing. He wanted to sign a peace deal with the North Vietnamese. Nixon’s trip to China was part of his attempt to end the war in Vietnam. China had been supporting the communists in North Vietnam and Nixon thought that if he could build a better relationship with the communists in China, he might be able to get them to push the North Vietnamese to make peace.
Americans liked what President Nixon was doing and liked his idea of Vietnamization. In 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger signed an agreement with North Vietnam, ending America’s role in the war. The United States agreed to leave Vietnam in sixty days. North Vietnam didn’t have to give up anything, which meant it would be ready to attack the South with all its strength as soon as the Americans were gone. The United States left behind a small number of helpers as well as equipment, and the United States continued to send money to South Vietnam, but it was much less than before. After American soldiers left, the war kept going, but it was clear the South had no chance of winning.
On the morning of April 29, 1975, as North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers arrived at the edge of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. Americans and the South Vietnamese who had helped the United States got ready to leave. Since they could no longer get to the airport, helicopters carried Americans and Vietnamese refugees from the American embassy to ships off the coast. North Vietnamese forces entered Saigon the next day, and the South surrendered.
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Hubert van Es’s iconic photograph of refugees boarding a UH-1 on a rooftop of one of the American embassy’s building during Operation Frequent Wind. This photograph is emblematic of the final failure of America’s long efforts in Vietnam.
EFFECTS OF THE WAR
The war had both immediate and long-term effects. With the exit of the Americans from Southeast Asia, communists took control in neighboring Cambodia and Laos. Domino Theory turned out to be true in Southeast Asia. Supporters of the South Vietnamese government, and those afraid of what the new communist governments might do tried to escape. Many of these refugees left Vietnam on whatever small fishing boats they could find and were known as boat people. In all, more than 3 million refugees left Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Most Asian countries did not want to take in the refugees. Between 1975 and 1998, about 1.2 million refugees from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries moved to the United States. Others moved to Canada, Australia, France and China. Of all the countries of Southeast Asia, Laos had the most people leave in terms of its total population. About 10% of all the people of Laos left to escape the new communist government.
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One example of the Vietnamese boat people – refugees escaping the advancing North Vietnamese Army.
In the longer term, the war hurt a whole generation of Americans. The Baby Boomers, whose parents had fought and won World War II, were left wondering what they had done wrong. Their friends had gone to die in Vietnam but had not won. What had all the death and pain been for? And so it was that the generation that helped end racial segregation in the South and had done so much good for America, tried to forget the war. For many years, the old soldiers and protestors never talked about what had happened. But no matter how hard they tried, the wounds of Vietnam never healed. Even today, the generation of Americans who both fought the war, and protested the war, is not sure what to think about that terrible event in their young lives.
The Constitution ended up changing because of the Vietnam War. Before the 1970s a person had to be 21 to vote. Americans decided that if 18-year-olds were old enough to be drafted and die for their country, they should be able to vote also. In 1971, the 26th Amendment giving 18-year-olds the right to vote was ratified by the necessary two-thirds of the states. It was only three months and eight days after it was proposed in Congress, the fastest any amendment has ever been ratified.
The loss in Vietnam left its mark on the military also. After losing in Vietnam, Americans were scared to send soldiers back into war. This was Vietnam Syndrome, and it lasted into the 1980s when President Reagan finally sent the army into action again. When President George H. W. Bush sent the military into Iraq as part of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the people who did not like his choice were mostly people who were afraid Iraq would turn into “another Vietnam.” Today, a new generation of leaders are in charge of the military, and they are too young to remember the loss in Vietnam. Of course, America’s recent, long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq bring up the painful memories of Vietnam for the generation who lived through it.
In all, America’s war in Vietnam cost the lives of more than 1.5 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, and over 58,000 Americans. Those soldiers are honored in a touching memorial in Washington, DC. The Vietnam Wall cuts a long V through the ground. Along its face are the names of all those who died. Visitors, many of them family and friends, come to find their loved ones’ names and to leave mementos. A young architect, Maya Lin, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, won a competition to plan the memorial and design reflects the faces of those who visit. In this way, the names of the men who died are joined together with the faces of the living people who come to see the Vietnam Wall and remember a war America lost and still doesn’t really know why it had to fight in the first place.
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The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. Popularly known as the Vietnam Wall, the memorial bears the names of all Americans killed in the war.
Since the Second World War, the United States had been the strongest country on Earth. Why is it then, that the American army could not win in tiny Vietnam? Vietnam was not a proxy war. American soldiers were there, leading the fight on the ground and they were not fighting the Soviets or the Chinese Red Army. They were fighting the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese who were disorganized and did not have modern equipment. Americans had almost total power at sea and in the air.
Could it be that Americans didn’t really know the Vietnamese people? Or maybe the Vietnamese cared more about communism than Americans cared about freedom and democracy?
Was it a problem of two wars? Maybe America lost because the Vietnamese were fighting for independence, but Americans thought they were fighting communists in the Cold War?
Maybe it was because of the leaders. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon never really understood what the war was really about. General Westmoreland tried to fight a new war in an old way. The United States helped Diem, who the Vietnamese people didn’t like. On the other side, Ho Chi Minh was beloved, and the North Vietnamese commanders were smart about how to use the few things they had to get the biggest result for the smallest cost.
Or maybe Americans failed because they just gave up. If the Baby Boomer Generation had not been so spoiled or afraid of sacrifice, could they have won the way their parents had?
What do you think? Why did America lose its war in Vietnam?
BIG IDEA: The United States first became involved in the Vietnam War because of Cold War fears about the spread of communism. Over time it became harder and harder to exit the conflict and eventually it led to major civil unrest at home as a youth-driven anti-war movement grew. America had to exit the conflict without winning.
The United States initially became involved in Vietnam because of Cold War fears about the spread of communism. Most American leaders saw Vietnam as another Korea. That is, the United States would have to fight to prevent Vietnam from falling to communists or else neighboring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, or even the Philippines might fall to communists as well. This was the Domino Theory.
Although American advisors had been in South Vietnam for years, Americans did not become heavily involved in fighting until 1964 when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and gave President Johnson authority to carry out combat operations.
Vietnam turned out to be more complicated than Korea. The Vietnamese were fighting a war for independence and American soldiers were often viewed as foreigners to be expelled rather than as protectors. Furthermore, Ngo Dinh Diem, the leader of non-communist South Vietnam was an unpopular leader for a variety of reasons, whereas Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader of North Vietnam was beloved.
To make matters worse, the Americans faced an enemy that used guerilla warfare. Unable to adapt, the Americans ended up doing significant harm to the civilian population, further alienating potential allies.
As the war dragged on through the later 1960s and into the 1970s, Americans began to doubt the rationale for fighting the war and a vocal anti-war movement emerged, especially on college campuses. Violent clashes between protesters and police focused attention on the divide between the people and political and military leaders.
Eventually, President Nixon adopted a strategy of Vietnamization in which American forces left and responsibility was transferred to the South Vietnamese army. In reality, this was a dignified way to surrender. In 1975, Vietnam fell to the communists as the last Americans left.
Americans who lived through that time continue to struggle with difficult memories of conflicts on the battlefield and at home.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Ho Chi Minh: Communist leader of North Vietnam who fought the French, Japanese and then Americans in an effort to realize independence for Vietnam.
Viet Minh: The North Vietnamese army.
Ngo Dinh Diem: Dictator of South Vietnam. He was widely hated due to his corrupt government, policies that favored the Catholic minority and was eventually killed in a coup that was tacitly supported by the US.
Thich Quang Duc: Buddhist monk who self-immolated on a street corner in Saigon to protest Diem’s government. A photograph of the even captured the world’s attention.
Robert McNamara: Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. He is often blamed for the failure.
Viet Cong: Guerilla fighters in South Vietnam who supported the North.
William Westmoreland: American commander in Vietnam.
Walter Cronkite: Respected television news anchor who went to Vietnam during the Tet Offensive and reported that he believed that war would end in a stalemate. Is opinion influenced many Americans.
Students for a Democratic Society: Group of college students who organized protests, most notably large rallies in Washington, DC.
Muhammad Ali: Heavyweight boxing champion who went to jail instead of going to Vietnam when he was drafted. He lost his title but served as an example for other draft dodgers.
Vietnamese Boat People: South Vietnamese refugees who escaped the advancing North Vietnamese Army by boarding small boats and travelling to neighboring countries. They were one part of a larger refugee crisis the followed the fall of South Vietnam.
Maya Lin: Young Chinese-American architect who won a competition to design the Vietnam War Memorial.
Baby Killer: Derogatory name that anti-war protesters called returning soldiers. It referred to the killing of civilians.
Rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight: Phrase the exemplified the idea that wealthy politicians were making choices about the conduct of the war but that poor Americans, especially African Americans, had to do the fighting.
Vietnam Syndrome: A fear on the part of American leaders to send the military into action due to the loss in Vietnam.
Agent Orange: Chemical sprayed from aircraft that caused the leaves to fall off of trees, thus making it easier to find enemy fighters. It is widely believed to have caused serious health problems for the soldiers who were exposed.Chemical sprayed from aircraft that caused the leaves to fall off of trees, thus making it easier to find enemy fighters. It is widely believed to have caused serious health problems for the soldiers who were exposed.
Free-Fire Zones: Areas of the Vietnamese countryside. All civilians in these areas were supposed to move to camps and anyone left in the zones was considered an enemy. In reality, many civilians refused to leave and were killed. The policy made the government of South Vietnam and the Americans unpopular with the civilian population.
Ho Chi Minh Trail: Route taken by North Vietnamese to supply the Viet Cong in the South. The route went through Laos and Cambodia.
Vietnam War Memorial: Also known as the Vietnam Wall, the memorial in Washington, DC bears the names of all Americans who died in the war. It takes the shape of a long granite V sunken into the earth. Visitors see themselves reflected in the polished stone.
Assassination of Diem: South Vietnamese army officers arranged the assassinate Diem and his brother and take over the government. The plot was carried out in November 1963. The CIA knew about the plot and did nothing to stop it.
Operation Rolling Thunder: Major bombing campaign initiated in 1965 in an effort to force the North Vietnamese to surrender. It inflicted heavy damage but failed in its primary objective.
Tet Offensive: Major operation undertaken by the North Vietnamese to attack cities in the South during the new year’s celebration (Tet) of 1968. It ultimately failed but did demonstrate that the North was not about to surrender.
1968 Democratic Primary: In 1968 senator Eugene McCarthy challenged sitting president Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy ran as an anti-war candidate. When McCarthy did surprisingly well in the first primary election Johnson withdrew from the race. Robert Kennedy joined as another anti-war candidate and vice president Hubert Humphry joined as a pro-war candidate. Humphry eventually won the nomination but lost the general election to Richard Nixon.
My Lai Massacre: Attack by American troops on the village of My Lai in 1968. The American commander ordered his soldiers to kill everyone in the village, including women and children. The massacre caused many in the around the world to doubt the good intentions of the United States.
Invasion of Cambodia: In 1970 President Nixon decided to send American ground forces into Cambodia to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. His move intensified the anti-war movement.
Columbia University Protest: Protest in which students occupied the campus of Columbia University in 1968. They were violently ousted by the NYC police.
Kent State Shooting: Clash between students and the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University in 1970. The guardsmen opened fire on unarmed students resulting in nine deaths. The massacre shocked the nation as it seemed the war was coming home.
Jackson State Shooting: A less publicized shooting similar to the Kent State Massacre that occurred a few weeks later at the predominantly African American Jackson State College. Twelve students were wounded and two were killed by police.
Operation Frequent Wind: A military airlift to transport escaping American and Vietnamese supporters out of Saigon as the North Vietnamese closed in in 1975.
Surrender of South Vietnam: April 30, 1975. North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon and the South Vietnamese government fell. Vietnam was united under communist leadership.
TREATIES, LAWS & POLICIES
Geneva Accords: International agreement after World War II to unify Vietnam and hold nation-wide elections. Diem in the South ignored the accords knowing he would lose an election.
Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: Resolution passed by Congress in 1964 that granted President Johnson wide authority to use armed force in Vietnam. It was used by presidents Johnson and Nixon to go to war without an actual declaration of war.
Vietnamization: Nixon’s policy of withdrawing American troops and turning responsibility for fighting over to the South Vietnamese Army. It was a way of ending the war without surrendering.
26th Amendment: Constitutional amendment ratified in 1971 granting the right to vote to anyone age 18 and older. Previously citizens had to be 21 to vote.