In 1954 Vietnam was divided into two parts; the communist north and the non communist south. Subsequently several developments took place that resulted in a full scale war between North and South Vietnam which also involved America, Australia and some other nations. America supported the democratic South Vietnam and although it initially wanted to play a limited role in the conflict, its strategies culminated in the deployment of millions of soldiers to Vietnam in order to halt the spread of communism in the region.
After several years of war and guerrilla manoeuvres in the rugged jungles and difficult terrain of Vietnam, victory was achieved by North Vietnam which led to the unification of both blocks. The struggle led to the death of millions of soldiers and civilians and to the present day, Vietnam continues to struggle in reinstating itself after suffering from the astounding losses suffered by its people and economy.
Although a dominating feature of international politics after the Second World War was the Cold War, another significant development that was taking place was the ending of European dominance over other parts of the world. There were about a hundred new independent states that emerged after the breaking of European colonialism and the competition resulting from the Cold War was spontaneously directed towards many of such states.
In essence, the Vietnam War was the result of the failure of France to curb the rising forces of nationalism that emerged in Indochina after the Second World War. The revolutionary movement in Vietnam was led by Ho Chi Minh whereby the efforts of the French to establish political and military supremacy were frustrated and they had to leave the country. Although Vietnam achieved its freedom from the French in 1954, it was divided into the Communist North and democratic South led by Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem respectively.
Meanwhile the victory of the Communists in the 1949 Civil War in China had made the relations between China and the USA highly strained in view of the politics of the Cold War. Such events also made the US to change its anti colonial stand and to support the French in defending its colonies in Indochina and subsequently the non communist leaders who came to power after the ouster of France. Political leaders in America felt that the Chinese were using there revolutionary warfare tactics in Vietnam to transform the region towards communism.
The overriding political objective of American participation in the Vietnam War was to prevent the spreading of Communism in the region. In order to achieve this goal the USA gave support to the anti communist regime of South Vietnam (Republic of Vietnam) so that it was not taken over by the communists. South Vietnam was faced with the risk of insurgency by communist revolutionaries as also with the military power of its neighbour and adversary North Vietnam.
In thwarting the communists from taking over South Vietnam, the USA became embroiled in a bitter war in South East Asia. The regime of North Vietnam had been receiving support and backing from the communist powers such as China and the Soviet Union and thus proved to be a daunting opponent for South Vietnam. To this day the subject matter of whether the US should have involved itself militarily in Vietnam to such a large extent continues to be a hotly debated subject.
This is so because many still believe that the problems and complications arising in South East Asia during the time were principally economic and political instead of military. It is felt that the US strategies pertained to the idea that the main complication in Vietnam related to military issues while the welfare of the people of South Vietnam was given a secondary place.
In attempts to prevent North Vietnam and to curb China, the USA had ultimately despatched about 500,000 soldiers that were occupied in large scale naval and air warfare opposite North Vietnam. Such a military effort attracted strong resistance from the American people as also from the international community. There were stressed civil and military relations within the country that questioned several of the military and foreign policies that had been implemented after the Second World War. As a result of its Vietnam effort, the strategic culture of USA was considerably changed thus bringing about a significant change in the policies to be followed by the country in the future.
A major drawback in the Vietnam effort was the lack of organization into a single command and there were tight operational controls imposed by the President, the Department of Defence and the National Security Council. Involvement of the USA began while Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) was the President and since then the number of American soldiers being sent to Vietnam kept increasing. The administration of President John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) sent 4000 soldiers to Vietnam in 1962.
But the maximum escalation of the Vietnam War was done by President Lyndon Johnson. President Kennedy is on record in saying that the US army could suffer heavily in Vietnam and had deputed his Defense Secretary McNamara in 1962 to formulate a withdrawal plan by the year 1965. In 1963, it appeared there were bleak chances of US success in thwarting the influence of communism in South Vietnam which made President Kennedy to instruct his policy advisor Mike Forrestall to make plans on how the US could get out of the Vietnam situation. Unfortunately he was assassinated soon after.
After the assassination of President Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson served as President for the remaining period of Kennedy’s term and was then himself elected as the President in January 1965. Most of his time and efforts were spent in the Vietnam War. In 1964 there were about 17000 US soldiers present in South Vietnam who were advising and training South Vietnamese soldiers.
There was significant increase in US interventions in Vietnam under President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1968), both politically and militarily. Johnson sought Congress support in pursuing peace efforts in South East Asia and the Tonkin Gulf resolution was passed granting the President full support in his efforts to ward off armed aggressions against American soldiers as also to prevent further attacks. General William C Westmoreland was assigned to take offensive measures in seeking out to destroy North Vietnamese formations. The military was authorized to destroy transportation and oil storage facilities. This strategy was intended to force the Communist regime to exhaust its supplies and make its logistical provisions vulnerable due to the bomb attacks by air.
By the year 1966 there were over 200,000 US soldiers in Vietnam and in April 1969 there were 543,000 soldiers, and by this time the war strategy of the US had been considerably transformed. The plans so far had not yielded the desired results due to the restrictions on ground operations and the enemy’s capability in successfully replacing lost ground as compared to the US ability to inflict damages on the North Vietnam efforts. The war in Vietnam was characterized by different strategies.
It varied from being a war of snipers, ambushing, booby trapping or pitched battles. The fighting occurred at different locations including densely populated rice baskets, remote jungles and mountains. The enemy appeared determined to defend in a terrain that was brutally defiant to the technologically advanced strategies of the Americans and posed a challenging task for their commanders. During the period of the war there were several changes in the way artillery was used.
Perimeter defenses replaced front lines and then the helicopter became the major transporter of artillery. Artillery units were made better equipped and most of the major war achievements could not have been possible without the support of artillery. Though the fire power of America was considerably strong, the enemy used its maneuverability in neutralizing such power by taking support of the dense jungles and hilly terrains (Natasha Bantwal, 2007).
The political challenges of the war pertained to the fact that the common Vietnamese felt that the government did not care for them, that the officials were corrupt and government officials were tools in the hands of the communist leaders. The American efforts in destroying military operations did not resolve the common man’s problems and were of very less relevance in the rural areas. The unsystematic artillery firing and air attacks had taken a heavy toll on villages that owed allegiance to the government in South Vietnam.
The process of targeting had become quite complicated since the targets were decided upon in Washington by a team of the Joint Staff with meager consideration of whether they were the most appropriate targets. There was no single air commander for the entire operations, there were no clear and well defined objectives and the military began to work in a way that tended to exert a cross purpose function in giving relief to the enemy (Steffen W. Schmidt et al, 2007).
President Johnson became highly unpopular and people began to question his administration’s policy. Many Americans became very angry and anti war demonstrations took place in several cities. Students also began protesting and demanded that the war be ended immediately. Such developments obviously made Ho Chi Minh think that most of the American people did not support the Vietnam War. The US had halted attacks on North Vietnam in seeking a truce with the communist leaders but Ho Chi Minh stuck to his demand that America must stop the bombings and withdraw from Vietnam, which would mean defeat for South Vietnam and would imply that entire Vietnam would become a communist country.
Such an eventuality was not acceptable to President Johnson and the fighting continued. The number troops were further increased in 1966 and the bombing attacks increased. In America, there was lot of opposition to the war and the number of demonstrations kept increasing in this regard (Military, 2009).
The Tet offensive launched by North Vietnam against South Vietnam was very devastating and left thousands of soldiers and civilians dead on both sides. It also had loud reverberations in America where it was seen differently. Americans were shocked and surprised that the communists could inflict such serious damages against the might of the American military, more so in the face of military claiming to have made several victories against the communists (David F. Schmitz, 2005). The administration of President Johnson lost credibility and support in both official and public circles and claims made by the government began to be viewed with scepticism. On March 31 1968, President Johnson announced on television that he would not be contesting the coming election for another term of President.
The next President was Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974) who evolved the policy of Vietnamization and played the role of disengaging US military from Vietnam. The idea was to make the Military in South Vietnam self reliant and strong so that the US military could return (Melvin Small, 2006). By 1969 the US had realized that the results in Vietnam were not satisfactory. Nixon and Kisinger engaged in détente with the Soviet Union in view of the altered strategic and economic position of the US.
By spring of 1972 the war in Vietnam became very negligible and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger began negotiating with authorities in North Vietnam to come to a settlement. In preparing itself to depart from Vietnam, the US armed South Vietnam heavily and fresh attacks were initiated against North Vietnam. But the strategic and geographical advantages enjoyed by North Vietnam enabled them to gain victory over South Vietnam and the Americans had to leave. The final defeat of South Vietnam was triggered on 29th April 1975.
The defeat suffered by South Vietnam was indicative of the fact that for over two decades the nation’s economic, social and political resources were not mobilized effectively in fostering a strong support base. It was the local insurgency within South Vietnam that triggered its final defeat. The failure of the US in making a strong mark was primarily due to lack of a clear and strategic vision. The US had incorrectly related military strategy to its national policies in not understanding the true nature of the conflict and hence suffered against an additional enemy that was present within South Vietnam by way of insurgents.
David F. Schmitz, The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinion, 2005, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Melvin Small, At the Water’s Edge: American Politics and the Vietnam War, 2006, Ivan R. Dee, Publisher.
Natasha Bantwal, Facts of the Vietnam War, 2007. Web.
Military, Vietnam War. 2009 Web.
Steffen W. Schmidt, Mack C. Shelley, Barbara A. Bardes, William Earl Maxwell, American Government and Politics Today, 2007, Wadsworth Publishing.