“We have been in a fierce fight with NVA (Northern Vietnam Army). We took in lots of casualties and deaths. It has been tiring days for me and my men. We dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever forget… Thank you for your sweet card. It made my miserable day a much better one, but I don’t think I will ever forget the bloody fight we are having… I felt bullets going past me. I have never been so scared in my life. Well, I better close for now before we go in again to take that hill”.
US Army Sergeant Steve Flaherty wrote a letter home to his mother, during the Vietnam War. 43 years later the letter arrived in the United States. Flaherty wrote a couple of letters, during the war, to his mom, his girlfriend, his neighbors and to the family Wyatt (the family of a classmate). The letters show the true horrific events which took place in Vietnam. Many soldiers, who did return home, never fully recovered from the tragedies that took place in Vietnam.
It is hard to specify a date to denote the beginning of the Vietnam War. There are lots of events that happened in the late 40’s until the mid-50’s which can have caused the Vietnam War. That is why most historians define the Vietnam War not in concrete events, but in periods of time where several important developments took place. The first period of time starts probably almost a century earlier than the actual Vietnam War. Note that back in those days Vietnam was a French colony. France had conquered Indochina (which includes Vietnam) and they kept the colony until the Second World War. When France had to capitulate in the war against Germany, it lost its colonies, including Indochina. The French then made the choice to collaborate with the Axis forces to remain control of Indochina, but they never recaptured complete control.
During the Second World War a feeling grew in the hearts of the people of Indochina that they weren’t inferior to the Western people. Ho Chi Minh was one of the higher educated inhabitants of Indochina with a patriotic view. He formed the Viet Minh, a patriotic, communist movement. This movement helped the Allied forces in the war against the Axis, in Indochina, and particularly Vietnam. This meant that the Viet Minh supported the United States with a guerilla war against the Japanese. When the Japanese forces had to capitulate on August 8th 1945, a power vacuum arose, where, due to the help of the Japanese, the Vietnamese inhabitants became independent. Thus, when France returned to Vietnam to retake control, they weren’t allowed back into the country by the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh would allow them back into the country if they were an independent part of the French Empire. As a reaction to this ultimatum, France bombed Haiphong in 1946 and forced their way back into Vietnam and its capital Hanoi.
This was the beginning of a war known as the first Indochina War. The first Indochina War endured from 1946 until the massacre at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The battle at Dien Bien Phu would show for the first time how accurate and silent the guerilla actions of the Viet Minh were. Almost in instant kills, the artillery of the French was destroyed. Subsequently a battalion of eight hundred men was cut off and walked into a trap. They were brutally massacred. After the massacre of the French battalion, peace negotiations in Geneva found place which resulted in the Geneva Accords. These Accords stated that Vietnam would be divided in North- and South-Vietnam. This would hold until 1956, until the national elections would take place.
Now the question arises where the United States take part in the conflict in Vietnam. A great part of the historians declare a second period in time, with a small overlap with the previous period, the colonial era. The United States were profiling themselves as freedom fighters (as they still do). In this period of time this means that they would liberate many colonies from there suppressors, mostly Western suppressors. But why would they ‘harm’ their own allies?
The United States were formed in 1865 after the Civil War. The United States are traditionally Western minded, due to the fact that the pioneers who discovered North America were western immigrants. But the true western point of view is that of capitalism. In America this point of view was actually formed in the late 20’s and early 30’s, with the Wall Street Crash and later the New Deal. Roosevelt launched the ‘New Deal’ initiative to stimulate the people of the United States to invest heavily in private property. Private business was encouraged, Wall Street business was popular and the economy of the United States would rise again.
In the early years of the 20th century, several communist revolutions took place. In Russia Lenin lead a communist revolution, the October revolutions in 1917, where he was helped by the Red Guards. A united nation of all Eastern-European countries was an ambition of the Red Guards, which was partially realized in 1922. In 1922 the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was founded by Lenin, whom would become the first leader of the USSR. Lenin would be the leader of the Soviet Union for two years, until he died in 1924. He was succeeded by Stalin, the most heinous leader Russia would ever know. With an iron fist he led the USSR to an enormous nation of fifteen states and caused millions of civilian and military casualties.
In 1939, Nazi-Germany invaded Poland, after which the Allied Forces, which then consisted of France and Great Britain, stated an ultimatum. Until 1941, the US were not involved in the Second World War, but on the 7th of December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and from that moment on, the United States were involved in the Second World War and joined the Allies. Due to the mighty United States Marines, Air Force and Army, the Axis forces were defeated in 1945. During the liberation of the occupied countries in Europe, the Soviet Union and the US were entangled in a Cold War. They both tried to establish a world which followed their world view. In 1945, they both liberated countries in Europe and with this liberation both of the superpowers tried to increase their sphere of influence. This was an important cause of the Vietnam War. The strife to persuade countries into their own sphere of influence, to enlarge the support of a worldwide capitalism (for the US) or communism (for the USSR), is what the Cold War is about. This Cold War also took place in Indochina.
Due to the Cold War, the US got into a dilemma. The question arose what the right interference in this situation would be. The United States were asking themselves whether or not it was justified to boycott the liberation of Vietnam, just to make sure France kept control and Vietnam would be under Western suppression, in order for Vietnam to remain a capitalist country. Also, France had received help from the US since 1945, as a result of the Truman Doctrine. The Truman Doctrine was a funding to European countries to help them rebuild their country as it was before the Second World War. On the other hand there was the ancient interference strategy of liberation. The United States had always liberated the suppressed countries, but if they would liberate Vietnam, Vietnam would come under a communist sphere of influence. It was therefore that the US started sending advisers to the French army. In 1954, President Eisenhower of the United States came up with the Domino Theory, this explicit theory was based on the ideas that if Vietnam would fall for the communists, all the other countries in Southeast Asia would fall for a communist regime. It was not until much later that the US gave those advisers the permission to train the Southern Vietnam army. By this time the Americanization of the conflict was already going on.
While the United States were considering whether or not to interfere in Vietnam, the Northern part of Vietnam was already evolved into a nationalistic and communistic area of Vietnam. Since the 20’s of the 20th century, Ho Chi Minh, a communist, but overall a nationalist, had been busy creating the nationalistic thought in Vietnam. Back then, Vietnam was still under French suppression and Minh held lectures, founded the Communist Party of Vietnam in 1930, founded the Viet Minh in 1941 and founded the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945 during the power vacuum. The Viet Minh originated from the Communist Party of Vietnam, later called Communist Party of Indochina. As Ho Chi Minh exclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, China occupied the Northern part of Vietnam and favored the Viet Minh. When the Chinese left in 1946, the Viet Minh resumed their war of independence. Because of the communistic nature of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, they received help and recognition from the communistic super powers, China and the Soviet Union.
To prevent Vietnam from falling entirely into the communists, the United States decided to create a puppet government with Ngo Dinh Diem as prime minister. Diem won the elections, by fraud, with an overwhelming 98% of the votes. With the election of Diem as president, the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) was born. He then stated that the ROV never recognized the Geneva Accords and therefore was not obligated to follow those Accords. Diem then continued to uphold a terror regime, imprisoning over fifty thousand inhabitants of Vietnam, claiming that they were communists or pro communists. After research by a British specialist, it turned out that they were neither. By the time Kennedy succeeded Eisenhower in 1961, Diem was using his power for his own goods. In 1963, the US had secretly arranged a coup for the Vietnam generals, to get rid of Diem. The 2nd of November 1963 was the day that Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown and assassinated, only eighteen days before Kennedy would be assassinated. Kennedy’ successor was president Johnson.
Under the reign of Johnson, the United States tried to end the war, but they wanted to do this in a limited war. Also, the United States wanted to leave Vietnam without loss of face. But to end a war, there has to be a war. In 1964, the Tonkin Incident took place. Apparently three North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked an American destroyer, while it was on an intelligence mission. The second, never proven attack led to a full on war against Vietnam. This war was possible because of the Tokin Resolution which gave Johnson absolute power to undertake military operations in foreign territory. In 1965, he had sent the first sixty thousand US troops to Vietnam. At the end of his terms, in 1968, this number had expanded to over five hundred thousand people. During the beginning of the war, there was not a real president or leader present in South Vietnam. There were just military leaders who led a series of coupes. In 1965, Nguyen Van Thieu broke this series of coups and became head of state. He would rule until the end of South Vietnam in 1975.
Johnson accepted Flaming Dart, a military operation that allowed the United States to bomb areas of North Vietnam. At the end of Flaming Dart, Operation Rolling Thunder was a follow-up operation. This operation meant that the United States continued the bombings on North Vietnam for 44 more months. These bombings were still going in 1968, when North Vietnam launched the Tet-Offensive (Tet is the Chinese New Year). Westmoreland was the commander in charge of the United States Army in Vietnam throughout the greater part of the Vietnam War. After Vietnam he became Chief of Staff from 1968 until 1972. Westmoreland asked for more soldiers, during the Tet-offensive, in order to defend Vietnam. The United States Secretary of Defense declined to supply Westmoreland with any more soldiers to prevent the war from further escalation. Later that year, the political leaders of the United States recommended president Johnson the same thing, to not further expand the war. Johnson felt that he had failed his quest to quickly end the war and did not run for a second period as president.
End of the Vietnam War
The next president in the conflict would be Nixon. Nixon wanted, as did the people of the United States, a Vietnamization of the War. Vietnamization is the withdrawing of US soldiers from Vietnam, this withdrawal had the goal to leave Vietnam to Vietnam, without any American involvement. But most of all, Vietnamization was a fancy word to withdraw American soldiers without explicitly telling the people of the United States that soldiers were going back home, while the war was not over. To end the war he had to cut off the supply of Vietcong soldiers. The North Vietnamese soldiers came to South Vietnam trough the Ho Chi Minh route, which ran from North Vietnam into Cambodia to South Vietnam. Therefore, Nixon bombed the Ho Chi Minh route in secret in March 1969. Not long after that, he started with the first withdrawal of 25,000 soldiers from Vietnam, in December this number had risen 60,000 soldiers.
While the home front was struggling with what to think of the war, the withdrawal from Vietnam, or in a cover-up term Vietnamization, continued. In 1970 there were only 280,000 US soldiers left in Vietnam. In 1971, another scandal took place in the United States. The Pentagon Papers were published by the New York Times. The Pentagon Papers contained very sensitive information about insincerities of president Johnson on the Vietnam War. The papers were a great example of how the rights of freedom of the press were suppressed. The government tried to stop the publication of the papers, because the security of the nation was at stake due to such publications. However, judge Murray Gurfein had another opinion. He thought that the freedom of the press was a part of the security of the state, because:
“The security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, an ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.”
During the scandal of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon continued with the Vietnamization and reduced the US forces to 140,000 in 1971. In 1972, there were several offensives reciprocally. North Vietnam attacked the demilitarized zone, the US bombed Hanoi and Haiphong and the US blocked the harbor of Haiphong. Mid 1972, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Henry Kissinger, started peace negotiations in Paris with Le Duc Tho, leader of North Vietnam, but Le Duc Tho was against the ceasefire-agreement. At the end of 1972, Kissinger fulfilled 69 amendments of Le Duc Tho, who then still not agreed. To put extra pressure on Le Duc Tho, Nixon allowed the Christmas Bombings on Hanoi. Short after that, Kissinger and Le Duc Tho met again in Paris on the 8th of January 1973. They covenanted to an agreement of policy. Ceasefire was signed by both on the 27th of January. The last soldiers left on the 29th of March. Three days later the last prisoners of war were released.
Two years later, right before Saigon fell, the last US citizens were evacuated from Vietnam. On the 30th of April 1975, Saigon fell and Thieu capitulated to North Vietnam. By that time the United States were already not involved anymore. As the political leaders of the United States would state, America had won the war.
Home Front and PTSD
The United States were involved in many wars before the Vietnam War, such as World War One and Two, the Korea War etcetera. But the big difference for the home front was the media attention. All the other wars had media attention in the form of radio news. The Vietnam War, however, got media attention by both radio and television. This last form caused heavy commotion. The period of Nixon’s presidency was the start of anti-war demonstrations. Before the 4th of May in 1970, there were two massive anti-war demonstrations in Washington (1969), but on the 4th of May four civilians, students, got killed in a riot against the Vietnam War at Kent State University of Ohio. These demonstrations happened as a result of media attention for this war. With this media attention, the citizens of the US could now see both sides of the story. During wars before the one in Vietnam, the people of America only knew the story of the US soldiers and not the stories of the war crimes these soldiers committed. An example of such a war crime is the massacre of My Lai where over 350 unarmed civilians were mass murdered, raped and mutilated by a US infantry battalion. Through the public media it became globally known. In 1970 lieutenant Calley would stand trial for his participation in this massacre and would be convicted in 1971 for participation in murder one slaughter of South Vietnamese civilians.
Two years later, there was the scandal of the Pentagon Papers. Along with the extra information that the US citizens received, the people were indignantly. The government, which had always been the protector of the people, now was not completely reliable anymore. But the main anger was focused on the ‘great’ US soldiers. The soldiers were, according to the government, always the heroes of a war. Now the people had less confidence in the honesty of the government and saw the events of the war by themselves. They were not so convinced anymore, that the soldiers were such heroes. The citizens, whom were not accustomed to war cruelties, only saw the hideous acts of the United States forces. The cruel acts of the Vietcong were not as well documented as the cruelties of the US forces. Thus the citizens questioned the heroism of the soldiers. This loss of confidence in the US Army transformed, in a few groups, into hate against the US Army.
The soldiers in Vietnam thought that they would return as heroes, as did their fathers and grandfathers. But when they returned, the era of the hippies and anti-war demonstrators had arrived. Thus, when they set foot on American soil, they were yelled at and pelted at with all kinds of goods. Apart from this welcome back in America, the soldiers had also experienced horrible events in Vietnam. Of course in every war such events happen, but Vietnam was the first war that included a decade long guerilla war, a war against an enemy which wasn’t there. The US soldiers could not separate South Vietnamese civilians from Vietcong. Furthermore, the day was often in favor of the US soldiers, but everything the forces built and constructed by day was destroyed or killed by night by the Vietcong. This resulted in massacres, because of anger and mental breakdowns among the American soldiers.
The events during the return on American soil and the horrible events that occurred in Vietnam resulted in a well-known occurrence, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, abbreviated PTSD. As the name suggests this disorder is caused by traumatic events. For Vietnam veterans (and any other war veterans) these traumatic events can be the loss of a friend, being a war prisoner, being tortured, losing one or more parts of their body or even the return home. Most of these events explain themselves, but the return home was a happening for the soldiers. They had fought a war with all its cruelties and were looking forward to go home. When they arrived at home, they were not heroes, but they were accused of being war criminals or animals, whilst the soldiers thought they had fought for freedom. The impact of such an event was enormous to some soldiers and could result in a mental breakdown.
The results of PTSD are for example the feeling that no one understands them except for other veterans and other social- and occupational functions. This causes that the suicide rate is up to eighty percent of all veterans with PTSD. Another result is that some veterans cluster in militias and leave their families to be with other veterans, because ‘they understand each other’.
It can be concluded after reviewing most of the happenings in Vietnam, that the US became involved in the Vietnam War because of the Cold War. Then the war escalated, because of the pressure of the communism from China and the Soviet Union. There was also the fear for loss of face, which is also why the United States got sucked into the war. After ten to fifteen years of war, the United States had finally left Vietnam ‘without loss of face’, only to see that in two years North Vietnam took over whole Vietnam and the war had been useless after all. For the veterans, who returned from Vietnam, the return on American soil was awful and unexpected, many of the veterans suffered from PTSD. There are several factors in the occurrences of PTSD, but the main causes are the unexpected welcome home and the horrible events that took place in Vietnam.
This article was written by Tim van Wilsum