New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Vietnam Veterans Memorial near Water St.

Above: Approaching from Water Street. The silver slab bears a map of Vietnam.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial approaching wall

Above: Past the map, approaching the wall. Names of New Yorkers who died in Vietnam are on slabs to left and right.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall of inscriptions

Above: Wall of inscriptions.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial detail of text

Above: Detail of one of 80 letters inscribed on the wall, written by soldiers serving in Vietnam.

The New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Details on the memorial are here.

Understanding the Vietnam War

I was quite young when the last combat troops pulled out of Vietnam in March 1973: all I remembered about the war was the shouting and the horrific images that appeared nightly on the TV news. It was only a couple years ago, after researching and writing a 2,000-word essay on the Vietnam War for a high-school textbook, that I felt I finally understood the context and the issues. (Short version: I have enormous respect for the American military, but it should not have been sent to Vietnam.)

Since issues such as the morality of the draft and the proper use of American armed forces are still with us, I'm sharing my essay on the Vietnam War here. It begins with French Indochina rather than the historic background of Vietnam because the textbook I was paid to write dealt only with the 20th century.

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The Vietnam War

Summary: A conflict in Southeast Asia (1950-1975) in which the United States attempted to prevent the takeover of South Vietnam by its communist neighbor, North Vietnam. In its length, in the number of American troops involved (over two million), in its cost, and in its consequences at home and abroad, the Vietnam War was one of the most important wars in American history.

The French in Indochina

Vietnam was part of the colony of Indochina, which the French had controlled since the nineteenth century. In 1941, after the Germans invaded France, Indochina was invaded by Germany’s ally Japan. When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, Indochina declared its independence under communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

The French refused to recognize the country’s independence, and in 1946 began a war against Ho. Ho was supported in the war by the Soviet Union and later by Communist China.

The period immediately following World War II (1939-1945) was the beginning of Communist expansion and the Cold War. Suddenly, even nations that had never appeared on the world stage seemed important. In 1950, the United States began supporting the French in their attempt to prevent Indochina (which France had by now divided into Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) from falling into communist hands. By 1953, Americans were paying about 80 percent of the cost of the French war in Indochina. It was already obvious that the Vietnamese would not be easy to defeat.

In 1954, at Dien Bien Phu, the French finally surrendered and withdrew their troops from their former colony. By the terms of the settlement that ended the war, Vietnam was to be divided temporarily at the 17th parallel. North Vietnam was temporarily under control of Ho Chi Minh and the Communists. In a year, nationwide elections would determine the country’s government.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) decided not to send American aid directly to South Vietnam. To do so might mean involving the United States in another conflict in Southeast Asia – and the Korean War had finally ended barely a year earlier. Instead, the United States joined a new defensive alliance on the model of NATO. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) provided military and economic aid to South Vietnam.

When the time came for elections, the leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, refused to hold them. His dictatorial ways made him increasingly unpopular. In 1957, the North Vietnamese took advantage of this by supporting a new guerrilla movement: the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong were South Vietnamese guerrilla fighters who were willing to use military or terrorist tactics to overthrow Diem’s government.

Kennedy sends American troops to Vietnam

By November 1961, late in his first year in office, President John F. Kennedy had lost two Cold War battles. He had failed to evict Fidel Castro from Cuba with the Bay of Pigs invasion, and he had not prevented the building of the Berlin Wall. In Vietnam, he was more forceful. Eisenhower had only sent military advisers. Kennedy sent more advisers, more money, and 16,000 troops to fight the Viet Cong. In late 1963, he authorized the overthrow of the unpopular Diem. South Vietnam became even more chaotic.

Johnson and the escalation of the Vietnam conflict

President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969), who took office after Kennedy’s assassination, brought Vietnam to Congress’s attention in August 1964. An American destroyer, the USS Maddox, had been attacked by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam. Johnson told the Senate of the attack without mentioning that the Maddox had been spying. Later that month, by overwhelming majorities, both houses of Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

According to the U.S. Constitution (Article I, section 8), it is the responsibility of Congress to declare war. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution allowed Johnson to take any action necessary to repel attacks against the United States military and to prevent future attacks. In effect, it gave Johnson the ability to go to war without Congressional approval. He increased America’s troops in Vietnam to 23,300.

In early 1965, with South Vietnam about to collapse, Johnson ordered a bombing campaign against North Vietnam and against the supply routes and bases of the Viet Cong. Bombing had worked in World War II against the Germans and Japanese: it allowed military commanders to inflict considerable damage before risking the lives of their foot soldiers. But Vietnam’s situation wasn’t like Europe’s. The enemy lurked in the forests and mountains. They were lightly armed but highly mobile, and they did not gather in sizeable groups that made easy targets. They concealed ammunition dumps and other vital resources. They stationed soldiers in fortified villages, so that bombing soldiers meant bombing civilians.

At no time did Johnson and his advisers clearly define what “victory” in Vietnam would mean. Nor was Johnson willing to take the brutal steps that would have achieved rapid military success. American troops were forbidden to start offensive action: they could only respond to attacks. The number of bombs and their targets were severely restricted. After the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong received sophisticated air-defense systems from the Soviets and Chinese, bombings became less effective - and for American pilots, much more dangerous.

Meanwhile, Johnson gradually increased the number of American troops, from about 6,000 in June 1965 to 543,400 in 1969. By late 1967, the death toll was almost 500 soldiers per week. (By comparison, the death toll for American soldiers in Iraq in 2003 averaged less than 25 per week. In Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, the average was 3 per week.)

Anti-war protests

Back in the United States, an increasingly large number of people disapproved of how Johnson was waging war. “Hawks” wanted the military to deliver a knock-out blow and finish the war. “Doves” wanted the United States to withdraw entirely from Vietnam.

One especially vocal anti-war group was the “baby boomers,” who had been born in the 1950s. In 1966 an eighth of the U.S. population (24 million people) were between the ages of 13 and 19. They were angry that an increasingly large number of young men were being drafted into the army. Draftees - men forced to go to war - made up as much as 88 percent of infantry riflemen (the “grunts”) in Vietnam. They also accounted for over half of deaths in battle. Public burning of draft cards (notices to report for military service) became common. Anti-war protesters filled college campuses and marched on Washington. A favorite slogan was, “Make Love, Not War.”

The Vietnam War was the first war to receive extensive coverage on television. Every night on the news, Americans saw humans maimed or killed by bombs, mines, napalm, torture. Even moderates began to wonder whether saving South Vietnam from communism was worth so much death and agony.

The Tet Offensive

In January 1968, on Tet (the Vietnamese New Year), North Vietnam launched a surprise attack on five of six major cities in South Vietnam, plus 36 provincial capitals and 64 district capitals. Within a week or two the Americans and South Vietnamese recaptured nearly all the territory that had been lost. They also inflicted enormous damage on the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. By military standards, it was an overwhelming victory for the Americans and South Vietnamese.

The media showed a different story. The image that came on television most often was of the fighting in Hue, the one city that was not recovered for several weeks.

After the Tet Offensive, for the first time, Johnson refused a request from the military to send more troops to Vietnam. He reduced and then halted the bombing of North Vietnam. He invited the North Vietnamese to discuss peace terms. He even dropped out of the 1968 presidential race.

Nixon and the withdrawal from Vietnam

President Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974) said that American aims in South Vietnam should be to train South Vietnamese to fight for themselves (“Vietnamization”), and to guarantee that the South Vietnamese would be able to determine their future without foreign interference. Nixon set a schedule for gradually withdrawing American troops. In four years, he reduced the number from over 550,000 to 24,000. He also cut spending on the war from $25 billion to $3 billion per year.

But the repercussions of the war in America were not yet over. In 1969 and 1970, while the withdrawal was in progress, Nixon ordered the bombing of North Vietnamese military bases in neighboring Cambodia. News of this caused a furor. On college campuses across the country, war protesters marched. Four students were shot by National Guards at Kent State (Ohio) in May 1970.

In January 1971, Congress repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, removing the president’s justification for having troops in Vietnam.

Peace, and the fall of South Vietnam

Peace terms with North Vietnam were settled in January 1973. American troops were to leave South Vietnam. American prisoners of war were to be returned. South Vietnam was to remain independent. If North Vietnam invaded again, they would be attacked by American warships in Vietnamese waters and American aircraft based in Thailand and Taiwan.

Seven months later, Congress passed the Eagleton Amendment, which prohibited any American combat operations in Southeast Asia. In November 1973, over Nixon’s veto, Congress passed the War Powers Act. This required the president to tell Congress when he was sending American troops abroad, and to withdraw the troops promptly if Congress did not approve the president’s decision. The president’s ability to defend the South Vietnamese was gone.

By the time Nixon resigned (during the Watergate scandal) and President Gerald R. Ford was in office (1974-1977), the North Vietnamese were attacking South Vietnam again. The last combat troops left Vietnam on March 28, 1973. In April 1975, the last Americans were evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the embassy in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. Hours later, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops marched into the city. Today all of Vietnam is under communist rule, and Saigon is known as Ho Chi Minh City.

About 58,000 American soldiers died in the Vietnam war. In South Vietnam the death toll was probably over 350,000 soldiers and civilians. In North Vietnam military deaths are estimated at between 500,000 and one million. Civilian deaths were in the millions. Bombs destroyed agriculture and infrastructure in huge areas.

Effects

The Vietnam War was like the Korean War in that the United States did not enter it with the firm intention of defeating the enemy. America’s goal was to keep South Vietnam a non-communist country, rather than to destroy North Vietnam, which was the only country threatening South Vietnam’s freedom. The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, never wavered. Their goal was to occupy South Vietnam and impose communism there. As soon as the Americans tired of fighting, they did so.

The Vietnam War was the first American war that roused widespread protests among the American people. Even decades later, few Americans who lived through the Vietnam War talk about it with indifference: they either supported it wholeheartedly or protested it. The behavior of the presidents and their advisers led some Americans to a profound distrust of anything related to the government or the military.

The American military was demoralized for decades by the outcome of Vietnam and the American public’s reaction to the men who served there—even when those men had been drafted, and had had no choice. Only in the 1990s, when America fought the Persian Gulf War with a mostly volunteer army, did the military begin to be regarded as heroes again.