The USA and Vietnam: Failure Abroad and At Home

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The Vietnam War

-France controlled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia before WW2, the region called Indochina.

-Between 1940 and 1945, Indochina had been occupied by the Japanese

-1945, French tried to get it back, but found resistance in Vietnam. Resistance organised by Ho Chi Minh, who was communist and whose group the Viet Minh had also fought the Japanese.

-The Americans were concerned and funded the French war effort

-1954, French suffered a defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The French decided they had had enough, and a conference at Geneva made Vietnam independent, it being divided along the 17th parallel: Communist North and Non-Communist South. The division was not supposed to be permanent

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The Communists

-After these events, the Communists set up a group to try and undermine the government in the South

-This group was called the National Liberation Front, or the Vietcong. This caused the Americans to become even more alarmed

-The USA believed The Domino Theory - if one country went Communist then the rest of the region would then follow

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US Uncautiousness

-The US should have been more cautious in 1964 because:

  • the Vietnamise had experience as they had previously fought:
    • the French 
    • the Japanese
  • Diem's government was unpopular:
    • Diem turned out to be a harsh corrupt ruler who was hated by the Vietnamise (he liked Catholics over Buddhists)
    • He was overthrown by his own army leaders, but governments that followed equally corrupt
    • Dislike as he allowed the Strategic Hamlets Programme, moving peasants from VC controlled areas to areas controlled by S.Vietnam government 
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US Uncautiousness

  • The Americans were overconfident
    • Americans became involved in Vietnam without a clear aim or plan
    • American fire power and technology were superior but winning over the hearts and minds was just as important
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Stages of the Vietnam War - Kennedy

-President Kennedy (1961-63):

  • Sent 16000 advisers, equipment and helicopters to help the S.Vietnamise, but not a mass deployment of US troops
  • Brought in Safe Village policy (=Strategic Hamlets Programme), whereby local peasants were moved en masse into fortified villages, supposedly leaving the VC isolated outside
  • Problem was that VC were indistinguishable from ordinary peasants and moved into the villages with them and continued to operate
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Stages of the Vietnam War - Johnson

President Johnson (1963-69):

  • Despite some support for the National Liberation Front, Johnson decided that Ho Chi Minh was behind everything and so bombed N.Vietnam
  • Commited over 500000 US ground troops to Vietnam
  • Shocked in Feb 1968, when Communists staged the successful Tet Offensive, capturing 80% of towns and villages in the South
  • After this, many Americans concluded that the war was hopeless and put pressure on their government to withdraw. This did cause a suspension of bombing in N.Vietnam
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Stages of the Vietnam War - Nixon

President Nixon (1969-74):

  • Vietnamisation - re-arming and training S.Vietnamise troops so they could defend for themselves allowing US withdrawal
  • Resumed bombing of N.Vietnam, and Laos and Cambodia as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the supply line for the Communists, ran through these countries
  • By the end of 1972, Communists controlled the entire western half of S.Vietnam
  • Communist Russia and China backed Ho Chi Minh with supplies and weapons
  • Peace talks opened in Paris, America's Henry Kissinger and N.Vietnam's Le Duc Tho
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Stages of the Vietnam War - Nixon

  • Cease-fire arranged for January 1973. All American troops would withdraw. Both N. and S.Vietnam would respect the frontier along the 17th parallel
  • The fighting never really stopped, with president Thieu's government steadily being forced back. In April 1975, Saigon, S.Vietnam capital, fell to the VC and Vietnam was unified under Communism
  • In the same year Communist governments were also established in Laos and Cambodia, but this was as far as the Domino Theory went
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Vietcong Tactics 1964 - 68

-VC and NVA 1965 had 170000 troops and were backed and well-supplied by China and USSR

-VC couldn't match their opponents in open warfare. In the La Dreng valley, US forces killed 2000 for the loss of 300 troops

-Ho Chi Minh had a strong belief in Guerilla tactics as he had used them against the French and Japanese

-Four essential principles to Guerilla warfare:

  • Retreat when the enemy attacks
  • Raid while the enemy sleep
  • Attack when the enemy tires
  • Pursue when the enemy retreats
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Vietcong Tactics 1964 - 68

-Guerilla warfare was a nightmare for US as VC fighters had no uniform (so indistinguishable from peasants), no base camps, worked in small groups with limited weapons

-Aim of guerilla warfare was to wear down the enemy soldiers and wreck their morale

-Booby traps were easy to construct and cheap. They disrupted US patrols

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Qualities of the Vietcong

-VC tried to get peasants on their side by helping peasants in the fields during busy periods. VC fighters were expected to be courteous and respectful to peasants

-VC were ruthless if you cooperated with enemy. They conducted a campaign of terror against police, teachers etc. and any other employees of the S.Vietnamise government. VC killed 2700 civilians

-VC refused to give in e.g.

  • They depended on supplies from the Ho Chi Minh Trail and when this was bombed, they worked to keep it open
  • Many deaths for VC, more than US, but this was a price Ho Chi Minh was prepared to pay. There were replacement troops available
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Vietcong Tunnels

-Soldiers could come back and get a nice hot meal

-If wounded help was given 

-Soldiers could fight and then come back and get a good night sleep

-Booby traps placed in the tunnels to stop the US finding the rest of the tunnel complex

-VC soldiers didn't have to store their weapons in their huts so if searched, nothing was found

-Largest tunnel complex was in Saigon - the Cu Chi tunnels

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US Tactics - Bombing

-Operation Rolling Thunder involved extensive bombing raids on military and industrial targets in N.Vietnam. It was an air offensive that lasted untill 1972. Targets increased to include many cities along the Ho Chi Minh Trail

-More bombs dropped on N.Vietnam than were dropped on Germany and Japan in WW2

-It was effective because:

  • It damaged N.Vietnams war effort and disrupted supply routes
  • Enabled US to strike communist forces when it was reducing US ground forces in 1969
  • From 1970-72, Bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong forced N.Vietnm to negotiate 

-It was ineffective because:

  • US couldn't defeat communists
  • VC continued to operate supply lines
  • Cost was horrendous
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US Tactics - Chemical Weapons

-Agent Orange was a highly toxic weadkiller used to destroy the jungle where the VC hid. It also caused deformed, stillborn babies and rashes to those exposed to it

-Napalm destroyed jungles where guerillas might ide but also burned through the skin to the bone

-Many civilians and soldiers were killed by these chemical weapons 

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Search and Destroy

-General Westmoreland developed a policy of Search and Destroy

-Established heavily defended US bases in the South and near to the coasts. From here, US and S.Vietnamise forces launched SaD raids from helicopters They would descend on a village and destroy VC forces they found

-Missions killed VC, but there were problems:

  • Raids were based on inadequate information
  • Inexperienced US troops often walked into traps
  • Innocent villages were mistaken for VC strongholds
  • Civilian casualties were high
  • SaD tactics made US and S.Vietnamis troops unpopular with peasants, pushing them towards VC
  • Troops gave up land after end of day so VC could take it back
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American Troops

-Fundamental mistakes in US conscription:

  • Tour of duty in Vietnam was one year. Soldiers were most likely to die in first month. Deaths fell significantly after 6 months. Just as a soldier was becoming effective he was sent home

-Low quality of troops:

  • Young men with an average of 19 who had not been in the military before
  • Most from poor of immigrant backgrounds as those going to uni could delay or avoid draft
  • Many recruits scored low on intelligence tests and would have been excluded from the peace-time army

-Poor relations between officers and men:

  • Friction between officers (career soldiers who wanted promotion by engaging in action) and their men who wanted to stay alive
  • Fragging - troops killing their over eager officers
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Limitations for Political Reasons

-Political considerations meant that the US could not send their ground troops into N.Vietnam or neighbouring Cambodia and Laos

-This gave NVA and VC places to retreat to and replenish themselves

-Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia was a vital lifeline for the VC, which survived despite being illegally bombed by the Americans

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The My Lai Massacre 1968

-16 March 1968, withing 3hrs, more than 500 Vietnamise civilians were killed by US troops

-Charlie Company, American troops, were on a mission to root out the 48th VC Battalion, but they were no where to be seen

-There were no shots fires at the Americans

-Soldiers gunned down unarmed men, women, children and babiesand those who surrendered were murdered

-Some soldiers opted out but commander Lt. William Calley blazed his gun at 60 rounded-up civilians

-Women were ganged *****. Those who bowed to great US were tortures and some were mutilated with C Company carved into their chest

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Lt. William Calley

-Sentenced to life imprisonment, but was out of prison within three days on the personal instructions of President Nixon

-He spent the next three years under house arrest at Fort Benning. He was freed on bail in 1974, his sentence cut to ten years. Later that yar, he was parolled after completeing one third of his sentence

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The Tet Offensive (February 1968)

-The offensive happened in February 1968 when the Communists broke a truce for the new year holiday

-It may have explained some of the anger at My Lai

-During the Tet Offensive:

  • Communists attacked over 100 cities and other military targets
  • Communists captured 80% of towns and villages in S.Vietnam
  • US had to fight for 2 days to regain control of Saigon
  • American embassy was occupied by VC fighters

-The Communists did not keep their gains and lost at least 10000 experienced fighters

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The Media and The Vietnam War

-MACV (Military Assisstance Command, Vietnam) created by US army to liaise with journalists, giving them transport to war areas and they were given regular reports. In return, they were expected not to reveal any information that might help the enemy

-US editors rarely published bad stories about Vietnam as they didn't want to be accused of undermining the war, e.g. Seymou Hersh and My Lai. There were commercial considerations

-TV networks were reluctant to publish scenes of violence in fear that viewers would change channels

-By 1967-68, TV became the most important source of news for Americans

-During Tet Offensive, Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan was shown executing a VC suspect

-New tech meant TV crews could bring lightweight cameras close to conflist zones 

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Walter Cronkite

-Reported throughout Tet Offensive

-During Offensive, Cronkite declared that he thought the war was unwinnable

-As the war progressed, he became one of the most trusted men in America

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Negative Effects of The Media

-Americans could watch:

  • Villages being destroyed
  • Vietnamise children being burnt to death
  • American body bags being sent home

-TV news dramatically changed its frame after the Tet Offensive

-Images of My Lai dominated TV, but daily atrocities commited by N.Vietnam and the VC rarely made the news

-Apart from the fighting, the anti-war movement at home gained increasing media attention

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Contrasting View of The Media

-Normally accepted view was that media cripled the war effort as it brought the 'horror of war' to people

-Some people think differently, that the media didn't criple the war effort because:

  • American attitudes were turning against the Vietnam war by 1967; the media only reflected this rather than creating new views
  • Casualties and war weariness were the reasons why support for the war dropped, not the media
  • Shocking scenes were rare on TV - less than 25% of reports showed dead or wounded and usually not in detail
  • From 1965-70, 76/2300 reports showed heavy fighting
  • At the time, very few criticisms of government policies came from journalists, the majority came from officials or the public
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Outline of The Protest Movement

-1960s were a period of protest in America, with people wanting free speech and more

-Johnson came up with a programme called The Great Society by which he meant better living standards and health care and other benefits for all Americans. Although partly successful, it was ruined by the horrendous cost of the Vietnam war

-Many African Americans and blacks were not in college and so could not avoid the draft this way. Some muslims joined the radical group Nation of Islam, who refused to be drafted on the grounds of their Muslim faith, e.g. Muhammad Ali who was stripped of the world heavyweight title, had his passport taken and was denied a licence to box 1967-70

-American college students were generally against the war. They taunted Johnson with slogans, engaged in draft dodging and staged demonstrations. In 1970, at Kent State University, National guardsmen fired on students, killing 4. 400 colleges closed and 2 million students went on protest

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The Protest Movement - Draft Avoidence

-1965, David Miller publicly burned his draft card and was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison

-This caused others and anti-Vietnam war groups organised meetings where men burnt their draft cards

-Between 1963 and 1973, 9118 men were prosecuted for refusing to be drafted into the army

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The Protest Movement - Veteran's Opposition

-1967, Veteran's Against the War was formed

-They demonstrated all over America

-People watched on TV as Vietnam heroes threw away medals they had won fighting in the war

-1971, Veteran's threw away over 700 medals on the steps of the capital building, the next day 500000 protestors marched

-Keith Franklin left a letter before he was killed in 1970 in which he said he had died in vain and described the war as an atrocity

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The Fulbright Hearings 1971

-April 1971, Senate Foreign Relations Commitee began to hear testimony

-There were several proposals under consideration

-On 22 April 1971, testimony by John Kerry (representative of Vietnam Veteran's Against the War) on the necessity of immediate withdrawal based on Vietnam Veterans' personal experiences

-During this testimony, Kerry asked: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?" and "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

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Winter Soldier Investigations

-150 soldiers interviewed and told stories of:

  • Raping
  • Cutting off limbs
  • Blown up bodies
  • Shooting animals for fun
  • Poisoned food stock
  • Ravaged countryside more than normal war
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Extracting America From Vietnam

-Pressure on the USSR and China:

  • 1969, USSR and China fell out and it seemed like war was possible
  • They both tried to improve relations with USA and Nixon became the first president to visit China whilst in office in 1972

-Peace Negotiations with N.Vietnam:

  • From 1969, Kissinger had regular meetings with the chief Vietnamise negotiator - Le Duc Tho
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Extracting America From Vietnam

-Vietnamisation of the War Effort:

  • Nixon began process of vietnamisation - building SV forces and withdrawing US troops
  • Between 1969 and 1971, almost 400000 US troops removed


  • Nixon increased bombing raids against N.Vietnam to show be was not weak
  • He also invaded VC bases in Cambodia, causing outrage across the world, and even in the USA
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What did the Americans do right in Vietnam?

-American firepower could be awsome, the VC and NVA did not take it lightly

-VC/NVA deaths = 1m+, US deaths = 58000. In a normal war you would expect US to win, but the US were bad at taking these deaths

-US did not lose a battle of any importance

-Tet Offensive (1968), although a propaganda success, in military terms it was disastrous for the communists:

  • They lost 10000 experienced fighters, with maybe 60000 in all
  • The US and S.Vietnam quickly re-took the towns captured in the offensive
  • The Communists had hoped that the people of S.Vietnam would rise up and support them, but they didn't

-Significant proportion of Americans remained in support of the war

-S.Vietnam and the capital did not fall until 2 years after the Americans had left

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American Defeat: An Overall Perspective

-Hearts and Minds:

  • President Johnson referred to the importance of winning hearts and minds in Vietnam
  • Medical aid/Schools/Roads/Economic projects were all offered
  • But it is difficult to achieve this when your tactics are resulting in huge numbers of civilian casualties

-Ho Chi Minh:

  • Said: "You can kill 10 of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win."
  • Said to the French in 1954, but still applies to the Americans - they could not take the casualties
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