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The American/Viet Nam War

The Viet Nam War is also called "The American War" by the Vietnamese. It's not my intention to debate the moral or political justifications or consequences of the war from either the American or Vietnamese side. Rather, I highlight it as the latest example of Viet Nam's long history of fighting to remain a united and independent nation, free from all foreign control. As the cliché goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

A Nation and People Divided

When Viet Nam was divided in half in 1954, the people of Viet Nam were given one year to move to the other half of the country, if they so chose. As a result, about one million Vietnamese who had previously lived in the northern half of Viet Nam chose to abandon almost everything they and dozens of generations before them had owned and built, in order to move to the south and live in a democratic society, without communist control. Among those were both sides of my family, about which you'll learn more later. Conversely, only about 10,000 southerners moved the other way into the north of Viet Nam.

The million-mile stare © Corbis

Unfortunately, life was rather chaotic for them wherever they lived. The repressive policies of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem ultimately led to his assassination in 1963. Subsequent regimes didn't have any more popular support but were firmly entrenched, thanks to both the South Vietnamese and U.S. militaries.

The increasing number and intensity of insurrection activities by communists in both the north and south led the U.S. to fear that if Viet Nam were to become communist, it would produce a "domino effect" in which other countries in the area would also fall to communism. The U.S. feared that this scenario would seriously threaten their political, military, and economic interests on an international scale. Therefore, they felt stronger and more direct actions were needed to fight this threat.

Their opportunity for full and direct confrontation came after the U.S. destroyer Maddox was supposedly attacked by the North Vietnamese on August 2, 1964, although several sources claimed the attach never actually took place. Nonetheless, President Johnson succeeded in passing the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that effectively authorized full-scale U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam. By the end of 1965, 180,000 U.S. troops were fighting in Viet Nam and reached its peak of 540,000 by 1969.

It Sounds So Simple

The U.S. felt that their superior weapons and military technology would easily overwhelm the communist forces. Conversely, the communists once again relied on guerrilla tactics perfected over centuries of fighting superior forces, and the growing support of the Vietnamese people. Of course, there are many reasons why the U.S. military's goals in Viet Nam were not achieved and why they ultimately lost the war.

Back in the U.S., many military leaders complained that the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations did not give them the authority, discretion, and resources they needed to conduct an effective military campaign against the communists -- that in effect, they were fighting with one hand tied behind their back. This situation frustrated much of the U.S. military, from officers to frontline soldiers along with the South Vietnamese army, and undoubtedly contributed to contradictory objectives, low morale, and desperate actions.

The casualties of war © Truc Dung

The U.S. military did not help its cause by committing a growing number of brutalities and atrocities against Vietnamese civilians (i.e., My Lai, Thanh Phong, the Tiger Force massacres, etc.) and indiscriminately bombing the countryside and mountains, planting untold numbers of land and sea mines, and using toxic chemicals such as Agent Orange to deforest the countryside, and which, even 30 years later, continues to contaminate Vietnamese food and people. All these actions ultimately devastated the lands and lives of countless Vietnamese and were contributing factors in the U.S. ultimately losing the support of many Vietnamese citizens.

Opposition to American involvement in Viet Nam in the U.S. was also increasing. This anti-war movement was bolstered by the Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) Offensive that began on Jan. 30, 1968. Communist forces launched simultaneous surprise attacks in 36 major South Vietnamese cities. While the communist forces were ultimately defeated, the offensive succeeded in swaying the public opinion of many people in the U.S. who now felt that the war was going to be long, protracted, expensive, perhaps even immoral, and may not even be winnable.

After President Nixon's orders to limit and then halt bombing in 1969, the first peace talks took place between the U.S. and North Viet Nam. This led to the first withdrawals of U.S. troops from Viet Nam and the new program whereby the South Vietnamese forces would gradually assume all military responsibilities for their defense. However, the fighting again escalated when the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces expanded their military actions into neighboring Cambodia.

After Nixon was reelected President in 1972, he fulfilled his promise to begin withdrawing U.S. ground troops but at the same time, he ordered that aerial "carpet" bombings and the mining of North Vietnamese harbors be intensified. Finally, on Jan. 27, 1973, a peace accord was signed that called for an immediate cease fire, for all U.S. fighting forces to be withdrawn, and for South Viet Nam to determine its own future. Nonetheless, fighting between the North and the South continued, although without U.S. involvement.

At What Price?

The Viet Nam Veterans Memorial © Philip James Corwin/Corbis

When the U.S. voted to drastically reduce military aid in August 1974, the South Vietnamese knew that their defeat was coming. In the spring of 1975, the North launched a full-scale offensive into South Viet Nam. This culminated in the surrender of the South Vietnamese government, the capture of South Viet Nam's capital of Saigon on April 30, 1975, the frantic departure of all remaining U.S. military personnel, and the beginning of the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from their lands and lives in South Viet Nam.

Ultimately, the Viet Nam/American War can be seen as a tragedy from all sides. Although the communists won and physically united the country, they are still struggling to rebuild the nation and to overcome the divisions that still exist in Viet Nam, undoubtedly exacerbated by their continuing political extremism and corruption. The South Vietnamese obviously lost their freedom, much of their livelihood, and for those who fled the country, their homeland -- wounds and bitter memories that will take lifetimes to heal.

Most importantly, an estimated three quarters of a million Vietnamese died as a result of the Viet Nam War. In addition, Viet Nam's economy and land (the basic livelihood for so many Vietnamese) were devastated and the nation is still recovering from the lingering effects of this devastation. In addition to entire families, the fundamental fabric of Vietnamese culture and identity was severely disrupted, if not completely broken.

Finally, the U.S. not only lost a costly military war but also its sense of confidence, efficacy, and national unity. Approximately 58,168 U.S. soldiers lost their lives, another 153,303 were wounded, and about 2,500 are still listed as missing in action. All these soldiers who fought in the war faithfully answered their country's call for service, many paid the ultimate price to defend our right to reflect on these events, but most likely, few completely understood what they were doing and why they were sent there.

Although the U.S. has healed many of its pyschological wounds in the decades after the Viet Nam War, its legacy still lingers in American society and can still divide us today. What we should all agree on however, is that Americans and Vietnamese suffered in many ways. I hope that our efforts to heal, to remember those who perished, and to learn from this event will ultimately unite us all.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "The American / Viet Nam War" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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