The protracted and brutal war that laid waste one of Asia’s most ravishingly beautiful countries was a classic example of a Cold War conflict. In the early 1960s US foreign policy was in thrall to the ‘domino theory’, which held that if one country were to fall under the communist spell, neighboring states were bound to follow suit. After the 1954 division of Vietnam into North and South at the 17th parallel, the communist North, under charismatic leader Ho Chi Minh, continued to pursue its goal of national unity by infiltrating South Vietnam with troops and arms; thus began a bitter civil war that was to last 16 years.
Although fearful of the spread of communism, the USA restricted its initial involvement to supplying the South Vietnamese army with military advisers but when Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency following Kennedy’s assassination he quickly raised the stakes by ordering bombing raids against North Vietnam. In March 1965 the first American ground troops landed in South Vietnam; numbers steadily increased until by the end of 1968 they had reached over half a million. In January of that year Ho Chi Minh launched the Tet offensive, a massive combined assault by the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong (as the guerrillas fighting in the South were known) which took the Americans completely by surprise. Although they ultimately beat back the assault, the offensive marked the turning point of the war.
Peace talks started in Paris soon afterwards and eventually, in 1973, a ceasefire was agreed, involving the complete withdrawal of US troops. Just two years later the North invaded the South; now without US support, its government capitulated rapidly. Vietnam was once again united, but under a communist flag, and the myth of an invincible America had been shattered.
Death toll: 58,193 US troops were killed or listed as missing in action. It is thought as many as 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died. Combined North Vietnamese and Viet Cong losses are estimated at over 1,000,000. In addition to the horrendous military loss of life, around 4,000,000 Vietnamese civilians (10 per cent of the population) were killed or injured during the war. The country’s economy and infrastructure were destroyed and its ecology suffered devastating and irreversible damage.
You should know: Key factors in the North’s ultimate victory were its use of guerrilla tactics and the Viet Cong’s success in winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the rural peasantry in the South who disliked the regime in Saigon.