Editor’s Introduction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Vietnam War loomed large for decades in the American consciousness. Only recently, in the wake of new military ventures abroad, has it taken on the character of a distant war from a different era. Yet there are still millions who remember the war or who have family members or relatives who fought in it or protested against it. As with all such events, it inevitably went from being a living thing to being a subject in history books. With the passage of time, the lessons the war provided about the dangers of entering a foreign conflict on tenuous grounds, without deep knowledge of one's opponent and without the full commitment of the American people—these lessons seem in many ways to have been forgotten. Now, however, that history has partially repeated itself with US military involvement in Iraq (and, to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan), the Vietnam War is once again being examined for the cautionary tales it contains.

The Vietnam War loomed large for decades in the American consciousness. Only recently, in the wake of new military ventures abroad, has it taken on the character of a distant war from a different era. Yet there are still millions who remember the war or who have family members or relatives who fought in it or protested against it. As with all such events, it inevitably went from being a living thing to being a subject in history books. With the passage of time, the lessons the war provided about the dangers of entering a foreign conflict on tenuous grounds, without deep knowledge of one's opponent and without the full commitment of the American people—these lessons seem in many ways to have been forgotten. Now, however, that history has partially repeated itself with US military involvement in Iraq (and, to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan), the Vietnam War is once again being examined for the cautionary tales it contains.

Early Years and Expansion of the War

Before there was any US involvement in Vietnam—before there was a Vietnam War—there was the First Indochina War (1946-1954). That conflict pitted French colonial forces who had long governed the territory against Vietnamese anti-imperialist forces who sought to expel the Europeans and establish Vietnam as a self-governing nation. The result, after nearly a decade of bloodshed and hundreds of thousands of deaths, was an agreement, signed in Geneva, whereby the French would withdraw and Vietnam would be divided into northern and southern districts. Communist interests aligned under Ho Chi Minh were concentrated in the north, and non-communist interests aligned under Emperor Bao Dai and his regime, as supported by the United States, were concentrated in the south. A section in the agreement specified that a general election was to be held in 1956, the idea being that through this process a unified national government would be created. Yet neither South Vietnam nor the United States signed onto the election, largely out of fear that they would not prevail, and so it never took place. Meanwhile, Bao Dai's chosen prime minister in South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, manipulated the power structure in order to eject the emperor and make himself head of state. In consequence, communist cadres (Viet Minh) already present in South Vietnam were activated, and southern-based anti-Diem guerilla forces and military units making up the National Liberation Front (NLF), or Viet Cong, also went into action. North Vietnam began supplying these groups with armaments and information.

This was the situation when a new American president, John F. Kennedy, took office in early 1961. Kennedy had stood up for Diem as a member of the US Senate and had earned a reputation as a committed anticommunist. His predecessor in the White House, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had spoken of the “domino”-like effect that could happen if a small country like Vietnam were to succumb to a communist advance in a region like Southeast Asia. Kennedy took that message to heart. He was not inclined to “lose” Vietnam to communism, as China had been “lost” in 1949 and Korea had been partly lost in 1955. American military advisors were sent to Vietnam under Eisenhower, and Kennedy acted to increase their number significantly, authorizing as many as 16,000 by 1963. Yet, even while Kennedy publicly supported the Diem regime, as corrupt and inept as it proved to be, privately he and his advisors harbored doubts—to the point of contemplating a manufactured coup de'état. In the end, a generals' coup took place under its own accord, albeit with CIA support, in early November 1963. Diem and his brother were killed in the affair and replaced in government by an unstable regime, and another one after that, and so on over a period of years. Kennedy, though, never came to know the extent of the problem, having falling victim to an assassin's bullet only three weeks after Diem's demise.

If the Kennedy years were the beginning of the quagmire in Vietnam, the Johnson years were when the quagmire widened and started to swallow up Vietnam—along with Johnson's own presidency. Most of Kennedy's advisers remained with the Johnson administration, and most continued to press for greater US involvement in the conflict and stronger measures in the fight against communism. In August 1964, Johnson used the excuse of a North Vietnamese patrol-boat attack on an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin to release the full force of the US military on Viet Cong strongholds in South Vietnam. He would eventually authorize a variety of devastating war measures, including the dropping of napalm bombs on villages suspected of harboring Viet Cong (resulting in high civilian casualties); the removal of village residents to so-called “strategic hamlets” (relocation centers) and the bulldozing of entire villages; the use of massive B-52 bombing raids against targets in the south, on a scale comparable to those used in World War II; the spraying of toxic herbicides and defoliants such as Agent Orange over extensive areas of South Vietnam (to destroy enemy crops and clear vegetation); and the use of often inhumane prison environments together with enhanced interrogation methods, or torture, in the handling of prisoners. Notice, too, that this was all taking place in the south, before any large-scale US incursion into North Vietnam. Critics would later point out that for every destructive act against ordinary Vietnamese citizens, dozens of angry, anti-American Viet Cong recruits were created. Johnson increased American troop levels from 180,000 to 550,000 between 1965 and 1968. Bombing raids into North Vietnam also were begun.

As Defense Secretary Robert McNamara put it, there seemed to be “no attractive course of action” for the Americans. As long as the US government refused to pull out of Vietnam over fear that doing so would allow communism to spread and ruin the reputation of the United States, policymakers could only hope that heightened military pressure would eventually win the day. And yet as long as military escalation failed to achieve the administration's aims, and as long as US troops continued to come home in body bags, the deeper became the hole that the United States seemed to be digging itself into. Johnson had cannily started down a path of “victory without conquest” in 1965—meaning that, short of either side's total conquest of the other, a peace settlement would suffice. Yet, even as he spoke, he and his generals were pressing for a military advantage and engaging in punishing attacks against the enemy. This proved to be a losing strategy, as evidenced by the Tet Offensive of early 1968. In that series of strikes by Viet Cong guerillas against cities and towns throughout South Vietnam, the ancient capital of Hue was seized and Saigon itself was subject to unsettling attacks. Although the Viet Cong, with 40,000 dead during Tet, were eventually driven off, their morale severely damaged, the United States suffered a moral defeat, as well. It became obvious to everyone that there was no light at the end of the tunnel, as the generals had proclaimed. The quagmire seemed only to be getting murkier.

Protest and Prevarication

The antiwar movement that became one of the most prominent features of 1960s America emerged slowly, only as the prevailing anticommunist sentiment in the country began wane. Some of the first to protest were religious and pacifist groups along with members of the Old Left—socialists, progressives, and radicals. By the mid-1960s opposition had spread to many college campuses, spurred by resistance to the draft and by the increasing visibility of the war on television: news reports graphically depicted what was happening on the ground. In early 1966 Senator J. William Fulbright, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held televised hearings regarding the war, revealing ambiguities in military policy and raising questions in the mind of the viewing public. Although a majority of Americans still supported the war effort, dissent both on campus and off spread rapidly. Protesters held marches, vigils, teach-ins, sit-ins, draft card burnings, and other forms of rebellion and agitation. The growing unpopularity of the war, and the no-win situation that it seemed to present, lay behind President Johnson's decision not to run for a second term in late March 1968. (At that point, the public had yet to learn of another debacle: the shooting, around this same time, of hundreds of unarmed civilians by a US Army patrol operating near My Lai.) One consequence of Johnson's withdrawal was the rise of prominent antiwar candidates on the Democratic side, including senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. Although Kennedy was killed before the party's August convention in Chicago, the event became a great showdown between antiwar and mainstream political and cultural forces. Protesters shouted “The whole world's watching!” as Chicago police, at Mayor Richard Daley behest, employed heavy-handed tactics to clear the scene. Johnson's vice president and, now, presidential contender, Hubert Humphrey, narrowly won the Democratic ticket over McCarthy but went on to lose the general election to the Republican nominee, Richard M. Nixon. It became clear that America was divided as it had not been divided since the time of the Civil War.

Nixon had run on a campaign message of “peace with honor,” indicating that he would end the war and uphold the United States' good reputation abroad. He pledged in his victory speech to bring the divided nation together. And yet few politicians have been more polarizing than Nixon. He and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, denigrated antiwar protesters and members of the hippie counterculture, and he played on black-white tensions to win political support in the south and elsewhere. He argued that he sought an end to the war even as he widened it to Cambodia (where North Vietnamese supply lines ran) and as he resumed, on an even grander scale, the bombing of North Vietnam. He reduced American troops in the region under a policy of “Vietnamization,” or the assignment of greater responsibility for the war to South Vietnam, and yet the war was still raging when he was elected to a second term in November 1972. In both prosecuting the war and undertaking peace negotiations, Nixon hoped to plant an image of himself as ruthless and unpredictable; he called it his “madman theory,” expecting that the enemy would cave out of fear of this volatile president with his finger on the nuclear button.

The Cambodia operations served to stir widespread student protests, including on the campus of Kent State University, where on May 4, 1970, the National Guard shot and killed four students (not all of them protestors). War opposition generally increased as a result, coming to encompass, even, returning military veterans. Then, in June 1971, a secret Department of Defense history of US involvement in Vietnam was leaked to the press, creating an uproar. Known as the Pentagon Papers, the report revealed military operations that were unknown not only to the public but also to Congress. Even though the period covered in the document concerned years in which other administrations had held power, the Nixon administration did not welcome the revelations. Indeed, Nixon himself targeted the person who leaked the papers, former defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg, for retribution. A covert White House burglary team was sent to Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office seeking information, but nothing damaging was found. A subsequent break-in at the Democratic National Committee's headquarters in the Watergate Hotel was botched and led to the constitutional crisis known as Watergate. President Nixon found himself threatened with impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors, but he decided to resign instead, on August 9, 1974. Fortunately for him, the Vietnam War—or, at least, America's participation in it—had already come to an end in the form of a peace accord signed in Paris in early 1973. Nixon's supporters could thus claim that the president had delivered on his promise and was responsible for disengaging from Vietnam in an honorable manner. His critics, on the other hand, continued to blame him for prolonging the war and engaging in the same kind of deception and dissimulation that had taken place during the Johnson years—compounded, in this case, by the disaster of Watergate. When, in April 1975, the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell to the communists, the collapse seemed to epitomize the bright shining mess that was the Vietnam War. The war had been profoundly controversial through most of its existence, and it remained so well after it ended. Indeed, even the attempt to memorialize the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who fought in it by erecting a monument on the National Mall, eight years after the American pullout, proved a difficult exercise. The abstract design chosen, created by Maya Lin, upset observers who expected a more traditional war memorial. Only after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was erected in 1983 and visited by millions did it become an enduring icon of American culture and history. The 58,300 names it contains reflect US dead and missing; in Vietnam, the comparable figure would exceed 3 million.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Appy, Christian G. American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. New York: Viking, 2015.
  • Burr, William, and Jeffrey P. Kimball. Nixon's Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2015.
  • Halberstam, David. The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.
  • Hunt, Michael H. Lyndon Johnson's War: America's Cold War Crusade in Vietnam, 1945-1968. New York: Hill & Wang, 1996.
  • Kaiser, David E. American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2000.
  • Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History, 2d ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
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