History of Vietnam, Part II, since 1954

History of Vietnam 1954 to Present

If you have not read through the earlier history that I prepared, take a look at the History before 1954 before starting this one.

With the conclusion of the Geneva Conference on 17 July 1954 that took France out of the picture four separate countries were created: Communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), separated from the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) by the 17th Parallel, Laos, and Cambodia.

North Vietnam had its capital in Hanoi with Ho Chi Minh as president, South Vietnam’s capital was Saigon and the Premier was Ngo Dinh Diem. Whereas the North was strongly supported by both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, the South was propped up by the United States. Diem, a Catholic, had little to do with either the Communists or the Buddhists and persecuted both groups.

With the partition at the 17th Parallel, a large number of Vietnamese, who were primarily Catholics and knew that they would be persecuted if they remained in the North, chose to leave their homeland and with the assistance of the United States Navy, were transported to the South. This amazing transfer had a deadline of 300 days and allowed all who wanted to go either north or south. (Very few traveled north!) It was called Operation PASSAGE TO FREEDOM and somewhere between 600,000 and one million took that option. Unfortunately, the travelers were not vetted and along with the Catholics, a number of Communists took advantage of the American largesse and went south, imbedded themselves in the countryside, and then began promoting the Communist ideology and were the first of the National Liberation Front, sometimes called Viet Cong.

The North Vietnamese government interdicted the flow of would-be refugees to the greatest extent possible. They stopped ferry service in the Red River Delta and installed mortars on the beaches to deter prospective immigrants from boarding long-distance naval vessels heading south. [http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/07/vietnams_300_da.html ]

Although American involvement was very apparent in this operation, the first American death occurred in September 1945, when an OSS (predecessor to CIA) officer was killed by Viet Minh guerrillas. He had just filed a report on the deepening crisis in Vietnam, stating that in his opinion, the United States should get out of Southeast Asia. But this area fit in to the larger American policy of the “containment of Communism.” This policy developed because of the expansionist Soviet involvement throughout Eastern Europe, the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek by the Communist forces of Mao Zedong in China, the radical movements in Central and South America, the bloody break-up of British India into India and Pakistan, Communist guerrillas in Indonesia and Philippines, and the fear of Communist influence in our own government.

The Viet Minh in North Vietnam in 1954 were armed by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, but much of their weaponry had been captured from the defeated Chinese Nationalists – which was American-made and financed.

In late June 1950, Korean Communist troops crossed the 38th Parallel separating North and South Korea and the United States was immediately involved, but not with a declaration of war. On 26 July, President Harry Truman authorized $15 million to assist the French in Vietnam. In September, the United States established the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Saigon to aid the French Army.

By the time of the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower in January 1953, our assistance to the French had increased and the president cited the “Domino Theory” — if the Communist North Vietnamese succeed in defeating the South, neighboring countries (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Philippines, Malaya) will fall like dominoes. Although the Americans aided the French at sieged Dien Bien Phu, Eisenhower stopped short of a tactical nuclear strike with B-29s, in large part because the British strongly advised against that option. He also chose not to send ground troops in because of the potentially high casualty rate so close after the Cease-fire agreement in Korea.

In October 1954, Emperor Bao Dai installed Ngo Dinh Diem Ngo Dinh Diem, 1954 as his prime minister. The western-dressing and English-speaking Diem, who smoked American cigarettes and drank good Scotch was a fervent Catholic who was born in northern Vietnam. In October 1955, he defeated Bao Dai in a government-controlled referendum and ousted the emperor, making himself president of South Vietnam. He refused calling for free elections in 1956. He greatly assisted the settlement of northern refugees, but preferred Catholics, making him unacceptable to the majority Buddhists.  He also alienated peasants because he reneged on the promised land reform, using the excuse that it was tied in with the Viet Cong or NLF propaganda. This further isolated his increasingly unpopular government. He also spent little on education, medical care, or other badly needed social reform. His heavy-handed treatment of all who opposed him, particularly Buddhists, led to large protest rallies including the self-immolation of three monks and a nun in 1963. The Kennedy administration finally withdraw its support and his generals assassinated him during a coup d’état on 2 November 1963, just days prior to Kennedy’s assassination.

In June 1958, Communists had formed a coordinated command structure in the South and a few months later, Ho Chi Minh declared a People’s War to unite Vietnam under his leadership, beginning the Second Indochina War. Shortly thereafter, North Vietnamese began building the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Ho Chi Minh Trail

This was a logistical system that ran from North Vietnam through “neutral” Laos and “neutral” Cambodia to South Vietnam. Supplies were carried on the backs of “volunteers” and on bicycles on primitive trails that were easily hidden by the forest canopies. They built bridges across streams that were slightly under water so they could not be seen from the air. When the American planes bombed parts of the trail, the trail was quickly rebuilt or new routes were cut out of the mountainous jungles. The trail also was used as a means of infiltration of troops. With the success of Operation Market Time in 1965, a U.S. Navy operation to stop supply infiltration by sea, the amount of supplies on the trail increased considerably.

Contrary to some reports, President John Kennedy accepted the Eisenhower statement that the United States would have to continue supporting the Diem regime. Kennedy put together a team of youthful advisors, named the “Whiz Kids,” who attempted to tackle many world problems, sometimes successfully. Heading the Department of Defense was the former Ford Motor Company executive, Robert McNamara. In May 1961, Vice President Lyndon B Johnson lbj-top visited President Diem in Saigon and called him the “Winston Churchill of Asia.” That same month, Kennedy send 400 Green Beret “advisors” to South Vietnam to train Vietnamese soldiers the techniques of counter-insurgency against the Viet Cong. They were assisted by Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) who were Montagnards, who created “strategic hamlets,” fortified camps to stop the North Vietnamese infiltration. [the term “Montagnard” which is a French word, placing them in the same category as hillbillies, was an indication that Americans never really understood them. Those people did not trust the Diem government and it was a constant effort to keep them opposed to the North Vietnamese.] Then there were the Regional Force/Popular Force irregular troops (RF/PF who were called “Ruff/Puff”) who manned the strategic hamlets.

In August 1962, Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1962 providing military assistance to countries on the rim of the Communist world and under direct attack. But it became increasingly evident that Diem was losing his hold on his country. His army, in one account, was there to protect him and not to defeat Communists. The number of assassinations of government officials increased yearly. The November coup that removed him from office left a power vacuum. This could only be filled by the introduction of American combat troops augmenting the 16,000 already emplaced.

Look at a map of the Pacific Ocean. As our prime port for sending military materiel was Oakland, California and the distance from Oakland to Danang is 7500 miles, the process of resupplying a large number of American troops is numbing. In the 1960s, the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for a 19-year old male soldier in the United States Army was determined to be 3600 calories and 70 grams of protein a day. [Jonathan P. Roth, The Logistics of the Roman Army at War (264BC – AD 235) This was found in https://books.google.com/books?id=LfRiXN5hhCUC&pg=PA7&lpg=PA7&dq=Soldier+daily+needs&source=bl&ots=vArC5-0r-j&sig=iqyXpZRZaWweP8yatOi7euguzk4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj0nq2KoerYAhUMG6wKHUsnDHAQ6AEIUjAH#v=onepage&q=Soldier%20daily%20needs&f=false]

Now add the need for adequate hydration: 50-75% of the soldier’s body weight in ounces of potable water. So a 150-pound soldier should drink 112 ounces of water daily. [Bethany Fong, RD, “Military Diets: Army Diet”, in Livestrong.com https://www.livestrong.com/article/192883-military-diets-army-diet/ Add to this the allowance for ammunition; several clothing changes; fuel to get the soldier from one spot to another (because he is not going to walk many miles), the amortized supply of cooking fuel, refrigeration of the meat he eats, the paper for written orders, typewriters, communication gear, personal and official mail, artillery pieces and the necessary ammunition, the weight of trucks, armored vehicles, and the entire command structure and you can see that this 7500 miles is an extremely long and weighty tail.

Thus, any increase in the number of troops becomes a logistical nightmare. In the Vietnam War, only one man in nine carried a rifle!

On 22 November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated and Vice President Johnson stepped into the Oval Office. He inherited a limited commitment to assist the South Vietnamese government to put down an insurgency. He converted that into an open-ended commitment to use American military might to maintain the anti-communist government in the South. His advisors told him of the political and military stench in South Vietnam and he mulled over action for many months.

With the removal of Diem, stability did not return as the regime had destroyed all opposition. Catholics and Buddhists hated each other and further, the Buddhists were split into many factions. The idea of never letting a crisis go to waste (first stated by Winston Churchill, then in a book by Saul Alinsky, later by Rahm Emanuel) was capitalized on by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong as the VC squeezed the peasants even harder, increasing the infiltration of supplies and soldiers from the North. The strategic hamlets were attacked with minimal opposition. (Here is a synopsis of a typical attack: Viet Cong militia would enter a hamlet {the term hamlet is equivalent to our idea of a village, while a village is more like a township}, find the chief and the local school teacher. They would lead them into the square and execute them in front of the others. Or they might kidnap an important individual and declare that the kidnapped persons would not be returned until the area provided X amount of food or certain information on the movements of the South Vietnamese forces. Then they would promise all kinds of benefits to the young males and “recruit” them.)

The Viet Cong even attacked a U.S. Special Forces camp and captured four Americans and took a large cache of weapons. The South Vietnamese government could do very little to counter this and it led to the first of several Army coups. Johnson’s response in early 1964 was a series of graduated responses, including very carefully limited air strikes over North Vietnam.

Tonkin Gulf and Expansion of Involvement

In the summer of 1964, the U.S. Navy began Operation DESOTO. This was an intelligence gathering operation in international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The purpose was to find out where North Vietnamese shore batteries and radar stations were; what the band width, frequencies, and pulse rate of the radars; what frequencies the radar stations and shore batteries shared; and how quickly they reacted. The result was a group of torpedo boats sought out the USS Maddox USS Maddox (DD-731) (DD-731), exchanged 3” and 5” shots, machine-gun fire, and torpedoes were launched. The Maddox was undamaged but three torpedo boats were sunk and a fourth was damaged. 250px-MaddoxTonkin1.svg

track of Maddox in Operation DESOTO

This occurred on 2 August. Two days later, the World War II-era Maddox was accompanied by USS C. Turner Joy (DD-951), a post-Korean War-vintage destroyer with more electronic equipment and better gunnery. Crews on both ships claimed that they were attacked again but evidence released recently states that it was really the fog of war or even “combat hysteria.” A retaliatory air strike attacked the North Vietnamese torpedo boat base. In any event, President Johnson asked Congress to take action and the result was the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, that granted President Johnson the authority to assist any Southeast Asian country threatened by communist aggression.

Graduated escalation followed. This is where I was involved. In December 1965, my ship was returning from a seven-month Mediterranean deployment. As Communications Officer, I saw a message (called an ALNAV) that stated that the Navy was looking for young officers to man reconditioned World War II-vintage LSTs to go to Vietnam to carry cargo. As that long supply tail required very large cargo ships to take supplies from U.S. Pacific ports to Vietnam and there were only two deep-water ports in that country (Danang and Saigon), those two ports would be overwhelmed and the necessary supplies would take too long to get to the burgeoning number of troops. So about 50 LSTs were minimally refitted to go to Vietnam and load break-bulk cargo from the large cargo ships and take it to ports where the only way to offload it would be over the beach. LSTs were designed to run up on 98% of the world’s beaches, open their bow doors, drop the bow ramp, and offload the cargo – whether it was already on wheels or tracks or required the use of rough terrain forklifts. The LSTs would pick up the cargo in Saigon, the Philippines, or Okinawa where the large cargo ships disgorged their loads. Chesty at Chu Lai

(This painting by Richard Wall is a portrayal of our first landing at Chu Lai on 11 May 1966)

The United States began, along with allies, increasing troop strength from 23,300 in 1964 to 184,300 in 1965 and 385,300 in 1966. The increase was so great that a lottery system was devised to select prospective troops, a process that became increasingly hated by a segment of American society. This escalation of troops always raised the possibility of a drawn-out and bloody conflict. It also could have provoked Chinese intervention as occurred during the Korean War.

Without going in to a detailed history of the war, the build-up within Vietnam by soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines was augmented by build-up of supply and repair facilities in Thailand, the Philippines, Okinawa, Taiwan, and Japan. The Air Force built air bases in Thailand and in early 1965 initiated Operation ROLLING THUNDER which was the carefully graduated increase of bombing of North Vietnam with tight control from the White House and the Pentagon. Fearing retaliation from the Viet Cong, General Westmoreland ordered an increase of troops protecting the various American bases. And that is how the escalation proceeded without a formal declaration of war. President Johnson’s tactic of preserving his recently launched Great Society and escalating the combat involvement without Congressional debate paralleled what Franklin Roosevelt did prior to our formal involvement in World War II. Not “guns or butter” but “guns and butter.”

The graduated response with increasing number of Americans in Vietnam continued in 1966 and 1967. Was there success? How do you measure success? It definitely was not territory controlled because in many areas, the Americans controlled during the daytime and the Viet Cong controlled at night! Is success measured by body count? Without adequate corroboration, these tallies could be easily inflated. On 30 January 1968, the Vietnamese New Year, called TET, a carefully-coordinated surprise attack by Viet Cong and 80,000 North Vietnamese regulars attacked every major South Vietnamese city and 36 of the 44 provisional capitals, as well as all the Army, Air Force, and Marine bases. The extended battles went on for a month in Hué, resulting in the destruction of much of the city. Although considered a defeat for the North Vietnamese because they could not hold any of the objectives and the Viet Cong were destroyed as a fighting force, since this was the first “television war,” Americans sitting at home watched almost live battles and the horror of war so shocked them that a concerted call for the war’s end began, strongly aided by anti-war propaganda. One of the most powerful statements was made by the popular CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, who on 27 February said: “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds…the stalemate that [can] only be ended by negotiation, not victory.” [Bret Stephens, “American Honor,” Wall Street Journal, 22 January 2008, p. 18] The TET Offensive had ambitious objectives:

  • cause a mass uprising against the South Vietnamese government,
  • create more discordance and discontent in the South Vietnamese Army,
  • catch U.S. forces unawares.
  •  growing distaste for the ever-lengthening war in the American public would destroy the will to fight.

Besides attacking the armed forces, the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong terrorized villagers with death and corporal punishment. One of the longest drawn-out battles was in the city of Hué, which we will visit on 5 and 6 November.

Map of Hue Imperial City

Map by permission from U.S. Naval Institute, Naval History, February 2018, p. 24.

And so began the drawdown of American forces in Vietnam. The newly-inaugurated American president, Richard Nixon, called the process “Vietnamization.” This was building and training a more effective South Vietnamese Army, Navy, and Air Force and also training and equipping these forces with more modern equipment.

That same year, 1969, Ho Chi Minh passed away and Nixon proposed peace talks. Speaking as a diplomatic historian, generally one does not offer peace talks unless the nation is either in a position of strength and wants to take advantage of the situation, or if a nation is desperate and just wants OUT. The growing anti-war feeling in the United States (Americans just don’t like long wars and it appeared as if the conflict in Vietnam was going to go on for quite a while yet) coupled with the horrendous cost and the fact that the manpower pool was draining and at times recruiters had hit the bottom, not aided with the cry that “this was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” (which was not wholly true, although it had elements of truth).

In 1971, the New York Times printed extracts from the Pentagon Papers exposing some deleterious facts about American initial involvement in the war, which further soured American support. The peace talks were dragging, in part because the North Vietnamese knew that the American public was becoming more disenchanted the longer the war kept going. So on 16 April 1972, to speed the negotiation process and to blunt the Communist full-scale attack against the South Vietnamese forces, the Americans, using 18 B-52s and about 100 U.S. Navy and Air Force fighter-bombers, bombed supply and fuel depots in Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor – that had been off-limits to attack because the deep-water piers often had British, French, and Canadian ships off-loading. [http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/united-states-resumes-bombing-of-hanoi-and-haiphong]

Note in this map the many little islands in the harbor and also locate HaLong, because we will be spending an overnight there on a luxury junk.Haiphong & HaLong

In 1973, the ceasefire agreement was finally signed after many delays and U.S. troops left Vietnam. Although the South Vietnamese forces went to a more relaxed state, the North planned for an all-out attack and in 1975, huge numbers of infantry, tanks, and other armored vehicles overtook all of the South. Those South Vietnamese who could, fled the country any way they could. Others, who had worked with the Americans, were put into “re-education” camps for differing periods. Vietnam was now unified and in 1976, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established.

In 1979, the People’s Republic of China invaded the northern part of Vietnam and their forces were humiliated and driven back by the very strong Vietnamese Army. In 1986, the government began the program of doi moi. (this incorporates some of the attributes of capitalism. It includes local control of agriculture, the creation of a market-based money system [more on that later], allowing the Vietnamese economy to deal with foreign markets, and giving more power to the private sector for growth; yet there is still the Communist overall control.

Because of the Khmer Rouge [Red Cambodians] control in Cambodia under the dictator Pol Pot, thousands of Cambodians were being systematically killed in what are called “the Killing Fields.” Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia to put a stop to this massacre in 1989 after destroying the influence of the Khmer Rouge and deposed Pol Pot. [look for my truncated history of Cambodia shortly.]

In 1994, the U.S. embargo that had been placed on Vietnam earlier was lifted and American tourists began to show up. The following year, Vietnam joined ASEAN [the Association of South East Asian Nations] and established diplomatic relations with the United States. In 2000, President Clinton visited Vietnam. On 27 November 2003, USS Vandegrif, (a guided missile frigate), the first U.S. Navy warship since the conclusion of the war, sailed up the Saigon River and made a four-day port call to Ho Chi Minh City as a sign of mutual cooperation.

Today, Vietnam and the United States maintain fairly good relations, in part because of the growing tension as China increases her control over the South China Sea. Inflation that began in 2008 still plagues the country. As of this writing (4 April 2018), $1 = 22819.0685 Vietnamese dong; that exchange rate has held fairly steady, within a hundred dong, for the past four months.