3.1 US Involvement in Vietnam

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  • Created on: 10-06-19 11:08

The end of French rule in Vietnam

Vietnam had previously been ruled by France and it was known as Indochina until it was crushed in 1930. On 13 March 1954, a battle began between the Vietnamese and French troops at Diem Bien Phu because:

  • Vietnam was a French colony. France lost control of Vietnam when Japan occupied it during WW2. When the war ended, France wanted to regain control of its colony.
  • The Vietnamese Vietminh, led by Ho Chi Minh, wanted Vietnamese independence.

When Japan surrendered in August 1945, Ho Chi Minh announced that Vietnam was now the Democratic Republic of Vietnam - an independent country free from French rule. Ho Chi Minh wanted the USA to secure Vietnam's independence but they were reluctant because they feared Ho would make Vietnam communist.

Support for Ho Chi Minh was weak in the south, where French troops set up the State of Vietnam, ruled by Bao Dai, an anti-communist. Then in 1949, China became a communist country. Fears of communism grew when China sent the Vietminh supplies, advisers and troops. In response, the USA started sending the French supplies and military advisers. By 1954, the USA was paying about 80% of the cost of France's war with the Vietminh. 

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Dien Bien Phu

The French built an airstrip at Dien Bien Phu to lure the Vietminh into battle, brought in 15,000 troops and awaited an attack. They had no idea that they were surrounded by 50,000 Vietminh with anti-aircraft guns and other artillery, which they had spent months preparing. The Vietminh also had 50,000 troops in reserve and about 200,000 civillian workers. The fighting at Dien Bien Phu lasted 55 days. On 7 May 1954, the French surrendered. The Vietminh won for several reasons:

  • The Vietminh understood the country
  • China supplied the Vietminh with: weapons and ammo, 20,000 bikes to move supplies, some troops and help in planning
  • The Vietminh had local support and so villagers helped with the attack
  • The Vietminh army worked day and night to build roads and move supplies and were fighting for independence from French rule
  • The French underestimated the support they'd receive, didn't expect the Vietminh to be so well armed, supply planes were easily shot down and the French troops lacked commitment
  • The French had asked the USA for support but they refused as they had just ended a war with Korea with 34000 Americans lives lost and nothing gained. Very few Americans wanted another war.
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The new government of Vietnam

Representatives from 9 countries met in Geneva to discuss what was to happen to Vietnam. On 21 July, a partial agreement was reached: the Geneva Accords:

  • Vietnam was to be temporarily divided along the 17th parallel separated by a demilitarised zone that no troops could enter.
  • Ho Chi Minh would run the northern part from Hanoi.
  • Bao Dai would run the southern part from Saigon. Later he made Diem Prime Minister in June 1954 and he ran the country.
  • Vietnamese troops and people could move north or south within 300 days of the agreement.
  • No foreign troops could set up bases in either part of the country.
  • In July 1956, elections would be held across both parts of Vietnam to decide on the government of a new, united Vietnam.

The countries at Geneva were: Cambodia, China, France, Laos, the UK, the USA, the USSR and North and South Vietnam. The USA and South Vietnam refused to obey the accords. North Vietnam wanted to divide Vietnam further south at the 13th parallel and to held elections in 6 months. China pushed it to give in, so both Vietnamese governments were unhappy with the accords.

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Greater Involvement under Eisenhower

The 'domino theory' --> if Vietnam became communist, other countries in Southeast Asia would follow.

Eisenhower set up the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) in September 1954. The members agreed to act together, by force if necessary, to stop communism spreading in south east Asia.

Why was Diem's government weak?

  • There were still many communists in South Vietnam that controlled some northern areas.
  • Other religious, political and criminal groups had many supporters and their own armies.
  • Diem was Catholic; most Vietnamese were Buddhist. Religious clashes were common and Diem favoured Catholics.
  • Diem mainly gave government jobs to his family members and Catholics, excluding others.
  • Diem's government was Saigon-based. He had little respect for the peasants in the villages and did not make reforms to win their support. Many villages were run by corrupt officials or greedly landlords who held most of the land.
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Keeping Diem in power

Eisenhower supported Diem by sending more advisers to train the South Vietnamese army (ARVN). He wanted the ARVN to win control of South Vietnam and for the USA to fight a limited war, without US troops. He did not want to trigger war with China or the USSR, which might lead to the use of nuclear weapons. In October 1955, Bao Dai spoke against Diem's policies. Diem's response was to hold a referendum with people voting for him or Bao Dai as their leader. US officials helped run the elections, which were widely seen as fixed. Diem won; he said Vietnam was now the Republic of Vietnam and he was its president. He changed the government and stopped villages electing their own officials. He put widely-resented government officials in charge. As Diem grew more unpopular, so did the USA.

On 16 July 1956, Diem refused to hold elections and was supported by the USA, fearing a communit government would be elected. Vietnam remained divided at the 17th parallel. Diem became less and less democratic. US said he would need to use force to stay in power after which he could make reforms and hold elections. However, Diem continued to oppress many South Vietnamese and he did not make reforms. He began a campaign against opponennts: arresting political and religious opponents, sending the ARVN to find arrest communists and urging people to report communists to the government.

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The Situation Worsens

The remaining communists fought back, both against the ARVN and the local officials Diem had forced on them. By March 1958, over 400 officials had been killed. From here, other revolutionary groups in South Vietnam fought against Diem's government. Diem called them all the Vietcong - Vietnamese Communists. The North Vietnamese supported the Vietcong in the hope of starting a revolution in South Vietnam. However, the executions and oppression increased and no revolution happened. In May 1959, the North Vietnamese decided to act. They sent Northern troops and weapons into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Diem's actions led to a civil war.

In November 1960, some army leaders tried to overthrow Diem but failed. Relations between Diem and the USA worsened and he blamed the USA for the plot. The USA urged Diem to be more democratic and to make himself more popular in villages by making reforms but he ignored the advice. Then, in December, the VIetcong joined with anti-Diem groups to form the National Liberation Front which organised political opposition to Diem. Members went into villages, encouraging them to diobey officials and to support local Vietcong groups. They worked to win the villagers over to communism. 

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Greater Involvement under Kennedy

Kennedy became president in 1961 and agreed with the domino theory and the idea of a limited war. He sent more advisers to South Vietnam. Kennedy said normal fighting tactics were failing. By 1961, there were 12000VC guerrillas in the south and over hald the country was under some level of communist control. He told advisers to use counter-insurgency tactics to isolate the VC and said he wanted a policy of pacification, to win over the support of the villagers. 

  • It was hard for the ARVN to win over the villagers as many looked down on them and they saw them as corrupt government officials.
  • US special forces went to train villagers to protect their villages from the VC. However, they were in villages during the day and returned to camps at night. The VC visited the villages at night. The Green Berets wanted to win over the villagers' trust but as foreign soldiers it was difficult.
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The Strategic Hamlet Program

US advisers supported Diem's setting up of strategic hamlets: large new villages surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by the ARVN with facilities such as schools and clinics.This was to stop the VC from recruiting villagers or getting supplies from them. People were to move to these villages from smaller ones nearby, maing them feel safe, cared for and supportive of the government.

In January 1962, work began on the SHP. About 800 Green Berets helped set up the hamlets, reporting 5000 built ot being built by September 1962. However, building a hamlet was not enough. Both the US advisers and Diem ignored the fact that people did not want to move from their homes; the graves of their ancestors and nearby family members. Diem's government also failed to provide the villagers with enough food, so many went hungry and some even starved. This was unlikely to produce support for the government.

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Diem's persecution of Buddhists

At the start of 1963, advisers were telling Kennedy that the VC were slowly being defeated. However, on 2 January 1963, the ARVN lost the battle of Ap Bac, despite outnumbering the VC 5 to 1, having better weapons and US air support. They also lost 5 US helicopters, three US advisers and 60 troops. Only 3 VC were found dead. On 6 May, government troops fired on a Buddhist procession, leaving 9 dead and 14 injured. In June, Buddhists were banned from flying flags for Buddha's birthday.  On 11 June, Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, set fire to himself at a bust Saigon junction. He burned to death. There was worldwide publicity. Just a month after, Kennedy had expressed the shock at the photographs and police violence in Birmingham.

Kennedy pressed Diem to make peace with the Buddhists, instead, Diem increased the persecution. In August 1963, Diem's troops raided Buddhist temples and there were more killings. Kennedy reluctantly accepted that Diem would never run a democratic government and that it was too unpopular to survive. The USA did not want to publicly overthrow Diem but made it clear that he no longer had US support. On 1 November, he was overthrown by ARVN officials and was assassinated.

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Kennedy's Assassination

Kennedy said that the US government had a great responsiblity to help the new South Vietnam government. He considered greater military involvement but stressed that his aims were:

  • to influence the new government to act democratically
  • to influence the new government to win over the support of the people of South Vietnam
  • to withdraw US advisers and other forces as soon as possible

On 22 November 1963, Kennedy was assassinated. Vice president Johnson replaced him. He had to work with the General Minh's new, unstable government in South Vietnam. He hoped that only a limited amount of help would be needed before the USA could leave Vietnam. But he wanted to be sure it was safe from communism first.

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