In 1950, under the administration of President Harry Truman, US military advisors were embedded within the military hierarchy of Vietnam at all levels. While the French fought the Viet Minh and their communist supporters the United States provided financial and covert support to aid the French in the recovery of their former colony. When the French withdrew in 1954, the newly formed independent state of South Vietnam was given financial and military training support by the United States under the Eisenhower administration. American military advisors helped to train the South Vietnamese army throughout the 1950s, as well as arm it through foreign military aid programs.
In 1964 the Johnson administration reported to the American people that two naval engagements had taken place between US destroyers in international waters and North Vietnamese patrol boats. According to Johnson the North Vietnamese had launched an unprovoked attack on USS Maddox on August 2, and a second attack on USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy occurred on August 4. President Johnson used the incidents to push the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through Congress, which authorized the President to order retaliatory air strikes against the North Vietnamese and gave the president the authority to order military operations in Vietnam without a declaration of war.
Even before President Johnson addressed the American people to inform them of the attack on American warships the US Naval commander at the scene was questioning whether the attacks occurred as reported. Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, testified before Congress three years later that the event, as reported by Johnson to the American people, had never happened. A report by the National Security Agency (NSA) declassified in 2005, stated that Maddox engaged North Vietnamese patrol boats in August 2, but that Maddox fired the first shots. The report stated that no North Vietnamese naval vessels were present on August 4, and that the US Navy had in effect been firing at shadows. One of the officers on duty at the Pentagon at the time of the “attacks” was Daniel Ellsberg.
In late 1964, just before the landslide election of Lyndon B. Johnson to the Presidency, the United States launched a restrained tactical bombing campaign against North Vietnamese units and Viet Cong positions. This was in accordance with Johnson’s election campaign, in which he had presented himself as the candidate of “reason and restraint”, as opposed to his opponent, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who had advocated for a more vigorous response. Johnson tried to prevent the war from escalating by restricting the bombing raids by US airplanes to military targets as the first American bombing campaign of the war began.
Before the election was held in the United States, American aircraft struck targets in Laos, flown by both American and South Vietnamese pilots, in an attempt to interdict supplies reaching North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units in South Vietnam. Johnson was presented with options in December on how to bring the North Vietnamese to an agreement to withdraw their forces from South Vietnam. Johnson’s choices included heavy air launched reprisals against North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units, followed by “graduated air war”, and the deployment of ground troops to support the South Vietnamese. By December, 1964, the planning to deploy American combat forces was well advanced.
In early 1965, South Vietnamese losses on the battlefield were reported in Saigon and Washington, with the problems being ascribed to shaky morale on the part of the South Vietnamese leadership, which trickled down through the chain of command to the troops. Reports by US military and civilian officials, delivered to the American people, were that South Vietnam asked for American aid against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, both of which were said to be supported by the Chinese and the Soviets. Reports from Saigon indicated to the President that the South Vietnamese were weakening, in part, because they were unsure of the true level of United States commitment to the support of their Southeast Asian ally.
According to the Pentagon Papers, in January and February of 1965, while Lyndon Johnson was informing the American people that he did not intend to send American combat troops to Vietnam, preparations were under way to deploy American troops. An increase in bombing missions began, according to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, not to help South Vietnam but to contain China. In February a base at Pleiku which housed American military advisors was attacked by the Viet Cong, and in response Johnson ordered the implementation of Operation Rolling Thunder, the long-term sustained aerial bombardment of targets in North Vietnam and supply routes in Laos and Cambodia.
There exists a school of thought that the United States was drawn into the Vietnam War as a result of the aggressiveness of the Chinese and the Soviets, both of which supported communist North Vietnam. The United States was committed to the defense of South Vietnam, in this view, and as part of that defense was forced to commit ever increasing resources and numbers of troops in the conflict. According to this myth the United States deployment of combat troops to Vietnam was reflexive, a response to the continuing aggression of the communists, and adverse reaction among the United States’ population was aiding and abetting the communists in their mission.
During the 1964 election campaign, Republican Barry Goldwater openly called for widespread and open bombing of North Vietnam, while Johnson – on the stump, anyway – called for restraint. According to documents declassified and released later, the decision to escalate American commitment to Vietnam, and the bombing of targets in North Vietnam, was reached in the autumn of 1964, six weeks before Election Day. Despite the decision, Johnson informed the American people in August 1964 that the American presence in Vietnam was to, “furnish advice, give counsel, express good judgment, give them trained counselors, and help them with equipment to help themselves”.
In June of 1965, the senior American commander in South Vietnam, William C. Westmoreland, was given permission to commit the rapidly strengthening American combat forces in Vietnam to battle where and when he saw fit to support the forces of South Vietnam. Westmoreland asked for a ground combat force of 44 battalions, and after the requisite debate and discussion in Washington, which at first only wanted to send 34 battalions, “Westy” as he was called by the troops, got what he asked for. Forty-four battalions equaled just under 200,000 men, and as the troops deployed to Vietnam throughout the remainder of 1965, American strength, and the authority to use it rested in Westmoreland’s hands and judgment.
During the first two years of American combat involvement on the ground in Vietnam, the United States and its South Vietnamese allies enjoyed near total control of the skies over the warzone and by the end of 1965 huge advantages in firepower deployed on the ground. Westmoreland enjoyed near total support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as the President, and the press was so enamored with the general that TIME Magazine named him their Man of the Year for 1965. Westmoreland twice appeared before Congress while retaining his command in Vietnam, an unprecedented event, in which he stressed that the Americans were winning, telling Congress in 1967, “We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view”. Westmoreland never claimed to be prevented from fighting by politicians. Instead he claimed he was winning the war.
A long standing claim is that the US Army won the battles in which it fought, and Vietnam was lost to the communists by gutless politicians. The claim does not hold up to the light of day. The first major battle fought between US troops and the North Vietnamese was during the Pleiku Campaign in 1965, in the Ia Drang Valley. One of the American commanders who fought in the battle, which was the first in which high casualties figures of dead and wounded Americans occurred, was stunned by the tactics employed by the North Vietnamese. The United States claimed a clear victory, basing the claim on the higher number of casualties inflicted upon the enemy, later determined to have been inflated by more than 30%. The United States claimed that the kill ratio inflicted upon the enemy was more than 10:1.
Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore, known as Hal and later portrayed by actor Mel Gibson in the film We Were Soldiers, commanded 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Ia Drang in 1965. The film was based on a book written by Moore years later. Moore fought in the battle from onset until it was finished, and his appraisal did not award a victory to the US Army. “The peasant soldiers had withstood the terrible high-tech firestorm delivered against them by a superpower and had at least fought the Americans to a draw,” Moore wrote about the North Vietnamese. “By their yardstick,” he continued, “a draw against such a powerful opponent was the equivalent of a victory”.
Not all of the myths about the Vietnam War are about the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. During and since the war the North Vietnamese leadership presented themselves and their troops as simple peasants who had first resisted French colonialism and during the American phase of the war were resisting American imperialism. They depicted themselves as freedom fighters, determined to ensure that a unified Vietnam was established which represented Vietnamese traditions, religious beliefs, and freedoms. Hi Chi Minh was their spiritual leader and figurehead. Almost forgotten in America today is that Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 (September), years before the American withdrawal.
The North Vietnamese army was far from an army of lightly armed peasant freedom fighters. Communist advisors from China and the Soviet Union provided training and armaments, with heavy artillery, tanks, and anti-aircraft batteries supplied to their Southeast Asia ally. Ships of the Soviet Navy detected incoming American air raids and provided early warnings to the North Vietnamese defenses. Czechoslovakia, Cuba, and North Korea likewise provided aid to the North Vietnamese. Communist aid to the North Vietnamese was cited as supportive of the so-called domino theory early in the war, but by 1968 – the year of the Tet Offensive – the domino theory had been largely discounted by military planners and diplomats.
There are those who believe that the American aerial bombing campaign was designed to limit air strikes to strategic targets and to interdict the movement of supplies into Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. American bombers and fighter bombers targeted these and anti-aircraft weapons emplacements, rather than targeting cities and civilian targets, such as industrial facilities. The bombing was conducted with precision, using the techniques developed through the experiences of the Second World War and the Korean War, especially in the area of close air support of units deployed on the ground. The air war was intended to support the units of the US military and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), not stand on its own.
Over 7 million tons of aerial bombs were dropped in Southeast Asia by American aircraft during the Vietnam War, more than three times the total tonnage dropped in all of the Second World War in the European and Pacific Theaters combined. The tonnage dropped on Laos alone was equivalent to one ton for every resident in the nation. About 4 million tons were dropped on targets in South Vietnam, including suspected troop and Viet Cong concentrations, villages and towns, and targets called in by troops heavily engaged on the ground. Besides aerial bombing, Vietnam was also heavily targeted by big guns from US Naval warships, including cruisers and destroyers and in 1968 the battleship USS New Jersey.
In a famous interview with respected news anchor Walter Cronkite shortly before he was assassinated, President Kennedy discussed the war in Vietnam, indicating to the newsman that in the long run it was the South Vietnamese’ war to win or lose. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford all at some time or other took that view, at least publicly. The impression delivered to the American people was that the United States was in Vietnam at the behest of the South Vietnamese, who were determined to resist the encroachment of the communists from the North, who were themselves mere puppets of the Chinese or the Soviets, depending upon which theory one subscribed to.
Richard Nixon, as Vice-President for Lyndon Johnson, was an early hawk on Vietnam, believing as early as 1954 that American troops would be required there in order to contain communism, and pushing Ike for a more vigorous American response to the war between the Viet Minh and the French colonial troops. Nixon prodded the Chiefs-of-Staff to authorize Operation Vulture, an aerial assault on the Vietnamese troops attacking Dien Bien Phu with both conventional weapons and three atomic bombs, which according to Nixon would have ended the Vietnam War then and there. Nixon later proposed using the threat of nuclear attack in Vietnam to bring the North Vietnamese leadership to the peace table. In both instances, cooler heads prevailed, Ike canceled Operation Vulture in 1954, and Kissinger persuaded Nixon to abandon the idea in 1969.
A long-standing myth about the war in Vietnam is that it was fought predominantly by reluctant draftees who opposed both the war and the fact that their lives could be disrupted by forced military service. Supporters of American involvement often cite the fact that a greater percentage of the armed forces during World War II were draftees than during Vietnam. This is true, but ignores the fact that in 1942 voluntary enlistments were suspended, so that the military could draft men into the branches of the armed forces based on the prevailing needs of the services rather than individual preferences. During Vietnam, men were drafted into the Army, and could avoid army service by volunteering for the Navy or Air Force, thus staying out of combat zones.
According to statistics kept by the US Army, and corroborated by other sources, approximately 25% of the troops which served in combat roles in Vietnam were drafted into military service. This fact does not take into account the number of men who joined other branches of the military in order to exempt themselves from the draft. Others managed to evade the draft by performing national service in the National Guard, and others sought college deferments. Some received medical deferments for conditions such as bone spurs. The draft was clearly more likely to target those who had less access to options which exempted them, and thus members of lower socioeconomic standing were more likely to be caught in its mesh. Still, not all draftees were sent to serve in combat units. The percentage of troops sent to Vietnam that actually saw combat is debated, particularly among veterans, with some claiming up to 100%, and others less than ten%.
An argument for American involvement in Vietnam is that the domino theory, which first saw the light of day during the Eisenhower Administration, was proven by the war and the American sacrifice in Vietnam prevented all of Southeast Asia from being overrun. The argument was that once one country fell, others would follow in a manner resembling the collapse of a row of dominoes one-by-one. The argument continues to be made that the United States saved the rest of Southeast Asia from becoming victims of the theory, which is based on countries being overrun by outside interests such as China or the Soviet Union, rather than internal communist parties which are supported by outside interests.
Communist supported troops in Cambodia and Laos were actively involved in civil wars in both of those countries during the period of American involvement in Vietnam, and American troops deployed, secretly in both cases, to contain them. American involvement by then was not based on the defeat of the communist movements but rather the necessity of securing an American withdrawal from the combat areas under what Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger called Vietnamization of the war – the transfer of responsibility for the defense of their country to the South Vietnamese, rather than the American troops on the scene. America left Southeast Asia dominated by communist regimes when it withdrew after more than a decade in Vietnam.
Over the years of its involvement in Vietnam, American airpower, projected by the United States Air Force and the United States Navy and Marines for the most part, at least as far as fixed wing aircraft were concerned, dominated the skies. American warplanes outperformed those of the North Vietnamese, including those flown by both Chinese and Russian pilots. US losses were considerably lower than they had been in comparison to the number of missions flown during the Korean Conflict (where that had also faced Chinese and Soviet pilots) and during the Second World War.
Over the course of American involvement in Vietnam, the United States Air Force lost 2,251 aircraft, about 20% to accidents, and about 2,200 of them were fixed wing airplanes. The US Navy lost over 850, with 532 attributable to combat action. Most of the losses were to anti-aircraft missiles and gunfire. Over 5,600 American helicopters were lost, and with the losses to the US Marines included Americans lost over 10,000 aircraft during the Vietnam War, roughly 1,000 per year. This tally does not include American equipment provided to and lost by the Republic of Vietnam, nor those captured at the end of the war. By contrast, North Vietnam lost about 200 aircraft, though they did not deploy as much as a tenth of the missions launched by the Americans and allies.
Since the end of the Vietnam War and the emergence of explanations and revisions regarding some of its less than savory incidents, there has been a growing and increasingly vocal argument that drug use among the deployed troops was at a rate which reflected American society. Soldiers who served in Vietnam did not become regular active users of drugs until after they returned to the United States and dealt with, in addition to the stresses of the war which they had lately left behind, the hostile reception which was offered them upon returning to the United States by those in opposition to the war. During deployment, according to the argument, drug use was limited to a few who used cannabis, and the beer which was provided to the troops by the military for their recreation when not in the line.
In May 1971, reports in American newspapers and periodicals addressed a growing and tragic crisis among American troops deployed in and returning from Vietnam. Heroin use reached epidemic proportions among American troops. “Tens of thousands of soldiers are going back as walking time bombs” an officer responsible for curtailing the crisis told the New York Times, adding that the government had no system in place to deal with the epidemic other than to deny its existence. An official US Army estimate, classified at the time, was that up to 37,000 American troops were using heroin at the level qualified as addiction in May 1971. The official government response was to cover it up, an action which remains more or less in effect almost fifty years later.
After recovering from the surprise which accompanied the unleashing of the Tet Offensive, in which over 100 cities were attacked, and numerous bases and installations overrun or destroyed, the United States and ARVN responded quickly, recovering most of the territory lost in a matter of a few weeks, and dealing heavy casualties to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a crushing defeat for the North Vietnamese and the communists, but the presentation of the event to the American people by a hostile media led to the American attitude toward the war in Vietnam becoming one of defeatism. Although the American military defeated Tet quickly, they lost the support of the American people.
Just under one month after the Tet Offensive was brought under control (which took about eight weeks of heavy fighting) the Viet Cong launched a second offensive, which while less ambitious than Tet indicated their offensive capability was intact. In August, 1968, a third offensive was launched, and 1968 became the bloodiest year of the war. The intent of the three offensives was to destroy the American will to continue fighting and to hopefully (by the North Vietnamese) encourage defection by ARVN units. Though no defections of whole units occurred, desertions by individuals increased dramatically. The year of communist offensives also gave the lie to the rosy reports by General Westmoreland that the war was all but won by the spring of 1968, and revealed the communist troops were still very much a fighting force, despite his claims that they had been all but destroyed.
The Viet Cong has been presented to the public since the time of the war, and continues to be today in media and myth as a wholly independent, locally raised force aligned with the North to oppose the ARVN and their American allies, using primitive weapons or those captured from the enemy. The Cong and their predecessor, the Viet Minh which fought against the French, continue to be viewed as locally raised and organized units which fought against enemies which entered their territory, as well as a group which terrorized villagers in their areas who were found to be sympathetic to the government of South Vietnam and their American allies.
In truth, the Viet Cong were a well-armed and trained organization, with much of their support coming from North Vietnam, whose officials directed and planned their operations – Tet is a good example – and whose supplies came to them directly from both the Soviet Union and China. Armed primarily with AK-47s, the world’s most ubiquitous assault rifle then and now, they often outgunned their enemies in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, who often carried the M-1 and M-14 rifles which the US military had discarded as a front line assault rifle, at least until late in the war as the US was abandoning the ARVN to its inevitable fate. Up to $5 billion dollars in military aid was supplied directly to the Viet Cong by the Chinese and the Soviets between the mid-1950s and 1968, according to the CIA.
During the fall of South Vietnam and the collapse of Saigon, which occurred with stunning speed, refugees fled to the American ships and airbases outside of the country. Most of these refuges were the elite of South Vietnamese society, those who had supported the Americans and the fight against communism until the bitter end. Better educated and with valuable skills, they were given priority during the frantic evacuation of Saigon and during later evacuations spearheaded by the United States, to bring out refugees who had initially fled to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other locales to escape communist persecution and imprisonment. These were the refugees who became known as the boat people, with many eventually rescued by the Americans.
The overwhelming majority of the refugees which fled Vietnam to other Asian countries in the hope of eventually reaching the United States were not the elite of society. Most of the so-called boat people were from rural areas not yet under firm control of the new government, including former members of the Viet Cong. They were farmers, artisans, mechanics, less educated, and often families of lower level officials who had already been sent to camps for “re-education”. Between the fall of Saigon and the end of the 1970s more than 400,000 were admitted to the United States, where they established Vietnamese enclaves in many American cities. More refugees continued to be admitted to the United States at the end of the 1980s, the children of American servicemen and former political prisoners.
According to a long-standing myth, black Americans were more likely to be drafted, more likely to be sent to Vietnam, and more likely to be killed or injured in combat. This myth has been repeated in news articles and essays, depicted in film and television, and brought forth as an example of the racism prevalent in America at the time, in which the children of privileged whites could obtain exemptions not available for black Americans. Vietnam was the first war fought by the United States with a legally integrated military since the Revolutionary War (in Korea integration had been ordered, but was not yet fully practiced). The myth remains of the Americans drafting blacks to fight an unjust war, which was itself racial in scope.
The troops which deployed to Vietnam during the years of American involvement, including the crews of the US Navy ships which served offshore in the conflict, were just over half of a middle-class background, better educated than in any of America’s preceding wars (79% had a high school diploma) and were overwhelmingly white (88%). Of all the combat deaths which were suffered by American forces over the course of the war, 86% were white. The myth of the prejudicial use of black troops to conduct the most dangerous missions, exposing them to the greatest risk of injury or death, is directly traceable to the civil rights movement which occurred simultaneously with the worst years of the Vietnam War, in which more radical factions created the falsehoods to rally their followers.
During the confusion and fear prevalent in the early hours of the Tet Offensive, the United States Embassy in Saigon was under attack by Viet Cong forces. US Marines, supported by Army troops and ARVN forces, fought the Cong guerrillas within the compound and along its perimeter. The Associated Press, witnessing the ferocity of the fighting near the embassy grounds, reported that several floors of the embassy itself had been occupied by communist troops. The report was confirmed by the AP’s main competitor, United Press International. The inability of the Americans to protect their embassy within the limits of their ally’s capital city was a blow to the prestige of the American military.
American defenders of the embassy in Saigon included the guard force of US Marines, supported by Army troops from Saigon and some ARVN forces which joined them. Although a breach was achieved in the security wall by the Viet Cong, they were unable to exploit it by having troops enter the grounds, and the attack was eventually repelled by the combined Allied forces, with heavy losses to the communist troops, mostly Viet Cong. Although news releases denied the reports of the embassy being partially occupied, which had been promulgated by the Associated Press and United Press International (and repeated by other news agencies) the denials were largely ignored as the press turned its attention to events elsewhere in the country, including the fighting at Hue.
Another longstanding myth of the Vietnam War is the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, known as ARVN, could not and would not fight. The myth, perpetuated by films, television, literature, and the prejudices of many, states that the ARVN for the most part did not support the puppet government installed by the Americans and in any case lacked the modern equipment necessary to conduct combat operations successfully. The ARVN was ineptly led, poorly equipped, inadequately supplied in the field, and lacked the motivation to defend its own country against the communists, leaving the Americans the burden of defending South Vietnam against communist aggression.
The South Vietnamese Army was poorly equipped early in the conflict, since the Americans had to ensure that their own troops were adequately armed and supplied, leaving only obsolescent weaponry available to supply their ally. By the time of what Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger called Vietnamization – the transfer of responsibility for successfully prosecuting the war to the South Vietnamese – the weapons provided to ARVN were the same as carried by the Americans. Though corruption was present in the ranks of senior officers throughout the war, the front-line troops fought bravely and well, and many paid the price for their courage once Saigon fell and the futile war against the North Vietnamese ended after more than twenty years of continuous conflict.