Vietnam

Vietnam


The Vietnam War had its origins in a decision by the Truman Administration after World War II to back French ambitions to reclaim their former colony in Indo-China.  Although the Vietnamese had nationalist ambitions, their fledgling political leadership in the late 1940’s was not initially drawn to communism.  Even though American foreign policy under Franklin Roosevelt had discouraged the concept of colonial empire, President Truman was faced with a dilemma as the Cold War took shape.  Eager to build a strong anti-Soviet alliance in Europe, the U.S. pressed to have all the nations of Western Europe join NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  The French made it clear: the price for their membership in NATO was American acquiescence in their reclamation of Indo-China.  The U.S. government, recognizing the military power of the Soviet Union as the most pressing threat, agreed to French demands.  Many believed NATO would not be a credible bulwark against communism without direct French involvement.

Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese nationalist leader who had fought the Japanese in Southeast Asia with the help of the American Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) during World War II, had signaled to his American benefactors after the war that he wanted to establish a government in Vietnam modeled after the U.S. Constitution.  Many Vietnamese expected American support in setting up an independent government after their joint effort to drive out the Japanese, and Ho was the apparent choice as the first president of a democratic Vietnam.  When Ho received word of the deal the U.S. had struck with the French, he saw it as a move consigning Vietnam to perpetual foreign domination.  Although Ho’s diplomatic overtures to the West did not cease immediately, the drive for Vietnamese self-determination slowly drove him to seek aid from a more sympathetic source: China.  Conditions had changed since the war, with China’s fall to communist rule in 1949. 

Meanwhile, the French returned to Vietnam, the Viet Minh built up their strength, and political tensions mounted until hostilities erupted in the early 1950’s.  To their detriment, the French employed openly repressive methods of maintaining control, as they would just a few years later in Algeria.  The French surrender to Viet Minh forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 occurred only after secret appeals to the U.S. for military intervention were rejected by the Eisenhower Administration.  The 1954 Geneva Accord on Vietnam called for free elections, which the U.S. subsequently blocked because Ho Chi Minh, who by then was far too friendly with Red China, was expected to win.

Within a year of the French departure from Vietnam, the U.S. had supplanted their presence to deny South Vietnam to the communists, installing Bao Dai as the nation’s leader and sending economic and military aid.  Bao Dai was replaced by Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955, whose policies seemed enlightened initially but gradually grew more repressive in the face of political opposition, much of it led by Buddhist religious leaders.  Diem was Catholic, yet the majority of the country was Buddhist; combined with persistent charges of political corruption and nepotism, these factors damaged his ability to govern. Moreover, the South Vietnamese military was unhappy with his leadership and came close to overthrowing him as early as 1960.  To counter the growing insurgency in South Vietnam, President Kennedy initiated small-scale intervention by sending military advisers in late 1961, beginning a slow trickle of troops, and casualties, that would mushroom in the Johnson years.  Despite diplomatic pressure by the Kennedy Administration to get Diem to moderate his policies, his regime remained unpopular.  His attacks on Buddhist temples in the spring and early summer of 1963 highlighted this unpopularity and helped lead to the November 1963 coup in which Diem was killed.

The post-Diem period was one of increased political instability and guerilla activity in South Vietnam.  By early 1965, the U.S. government saw the struggle as more military in nature than political, and President Johnson ordered the first formal troop deployment, a detachment of Marines, to Vietnam in March of that year.

The helicopter, particularly the Bell UH-1 “Huey,” came to full flower in Vietnam, continuing its observation, transport and medevac roles, but becoming ever more visible as a troop transport and gunship; the snake-like Bell HueyCobra became one of the world’s first dedicated combat helicopters.  Jet-on-jet combat had become more advanced with the complicating factors of air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles.  Air combat theory in the 1950’s had come to represent the view that guns on aircraft were obsolete, so many U.S. aircraft, the F-4 Phantom in particular, initially deployed to Southeast Asia with air-to-air missiles as their only armament.  But practical experience soon revealed that dogfighting was not a thing of the past, and a 20mm gun was still a basic necessity to a fighter pilot, if he was to survive.  The reasons were many: missiles would not track their targets at very close range or in tight turns; their performance could be hampered by weather conditons; and they had a high failure rate for often inexplicable reasons.

Vietnam became a Cold War battleground in which the most advanced fighter aircraft of East and West challenged one another for air supremacy, and many of the lessons learned are taught to new military pilots to this day.  It was experience in Vietnam that exposed the deterioration in American pilots’ dogfighting skills – and the need to redevelop them with entities such as Top Gun – the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School.  It is certainly true that the United States was never beaten militarily in Vietnam, in the air or on the ground.  To many, Vietnam represented an important stand by the West in an era that seemed to threaten a global advance of communism.  To others, it was imperialism under another guise.  Nonetheless, victory was denied to U.S. forces by a combination of political considerations that imposed restraints on the military to prevent open conflict with China and possibly the Soviet Union, and perhaps a failure to recognize the undeniable political element in the form of nationalist ambitions underlying the conflict – ambitions that the U.S. itself had been involved in frustrating from the earliest days of the Cold War.  Ultimately it was the deterioration of public support for the war, particularly after the 1968 Tet Offensive, followed weeks later by the stunning TV broadcast by newsman Walter Cronkite that the U.S. could not win and should pursue a negotiated settlement, that led to the final American withdrawal. 

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