Vietnam has a long history of fighting off imperialistic countries and empires. The effect of French colonialism on Vietnam, particularly the Vietnam War, is a subject of great debate. One could contend that based on history, French colonialism would only help to encourage the future failure of the the United States in the Vietnam War.
To begin, it is important to begin with the history of Vietnam, also known as Indochina. The country of Vietnam had been fighting for independence for almost 3000 years. It began in 111 BCE, when the country was first taken over by the Chinese Empire. Vietnam gained their independence, however, soon after Napoleon sent a French naval expedition to Vietnam looking to expand the empire. In 1883, France makes Vietnam into a formal colony. The people of Vietnam once again begin to fight for their independence but the French defeat the Vietnam efforts by 1900. Vietnam remained a French colony until the start of World War II. With France weakened by the war, Japan sent forces to Vietnam in 1941 to remove the French and add Vietnam to the Japanese empire. Soon the French would once again try to reacquire Vietnam as a colony but were unsuccessful. France pleaded the United States to help and support them with their mission of regaining Vietnam. However, President Franklin Roosevelt, the current president at the time, held great hostility towards the French colonialism in Southeast Asia, even declaring to his secretary “The case of Indochina is perfectly clear, France has milked it for one hundred years, the people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that.” A trusteeship is what President Roosevelt had in mind, this scheme would see Indochina taken away from France and be placed under an international directorate, that would prepare it for eventual independence. After President Roosevelt death on the 12th of April 1945, the presidential role was succeeded by Harry Truman who did not shared Roosevelt’s concern over colonialism and adopted a policy even more favourable to France.
The Vietnam War was destined to fail from the very beginning. Motivated by politics alone, the United States interfered with a smaller states’ freedom from colonialism, just as the Patriots vied for during the Revolutionary War. The defeat of American involvement in Vietnam can be attributed to five main factors: the remaining aftereffects of World War II created fear of communism and a motivation based on the ever shifted soil of political favoritism, which led to hasty decision making and US negligence of caring to the needs of the very people they were attempting to save, The American Army remained underprepared for the climate and terrain, massive differences between the two nation’s motivations for the war, which was partly affected by the fifth point of domestic instability within the United States’ own borders
The war was never meant to be won from the beginning. The political climate of any state, let alone the entire globe is subject to change momentarily. The United States committed troops in Vietnam with the hopes to defend and ideal rather than a finite territory. The war in Vietnam was subject to an unfortunate metaphor for American distaste for communism stemming from an even pettier competition for party domination with attempts by the minority Republicans to blame Truman for China’s fall to communism. Events surrounding the Cold War created a dichotomous “us vs. them” mentality between capitalism and communism. Primarily clinging to the fallible Domino Theory , the American mind thought a country identifying as communist is another enemy power against the United States, regardless of its actual intentions in the international arena . During Kennedy’s campaign, the liberal party attempted to gain support from mainstream America through support of anti-communist policies. Involvement in Vietnam became a platform for the Liberal party to appeal to the cultural climate and restore trust in liberalism by continuing the fight against communism. When Ho Chi Minh aimed to revolt against colonialism, he suggested a communist economic system for the mostly agrarian nation. By doing so, Ho Chi Minh made himself and Vietnamese nationalists American enemies. If the American government were to stop communism in its formation, American morale would remain strong in the war of ideals against Russia in the Cold War. Politics then pushed the United States to make one of its biggest and ignorant mistakes from the very beginning: entrust Ngo Dinh Diem to implement a stable, capitalist state within the vacuum of French colonialism.
The appointment of Ngo Dinh Diem as Premier of South Vietnam and further backing his authority with $2 billion for the restoration of a stable capitalist state was the largest indicator of the United States’ blatant disregard for the people they hope to govern. Only selected for his refusal to join Ho Chi Minh’s fight against French colonialism not for his plan for Vietnam, Diem was a murderous and corrupt politician instituting horrible reforms like relocation programs, annihilation of the country’s majority Buddhist population, and executions against who he deemed as communist conspirators with the North Vietnamese . Diem quickly became an unpopular leader in the eyes of the Vietnamese and abroad after his refusal to cooperate for unification elections, which was backed by the United States with the assumption that Ho Chi Minh would receive all of the votes and place Diem at an unfair disadvantage. Aside from this support of anti-democratic methods going largely against American ideals laid out by the founding fathers, McNamara made an irreversibly tremendous mistake assuming the morale of the people motivated by hatred of these policies would be a minute force that could be quelled easily.
The differences in attitudes between the American and Vietnamese soldiers may very well help explain why despite tens of thousands more Vietnamese deaths over American deaths and an extreme American advantage over access to resources the Vietnamese still remained victorious. In simplistic terms, the Vietnamese were positively motivated. They fought for the preservation of their homeland and the institution of freedom. They fought for hope. Vietnamese soldiers endured harsher conditions and engaged in impressive large scale collective cooperation schemes that the American soldiers were not motivated by. American soldiers were drafted and pushed to fight by law and in defense of an ideal. They fought in the negative. Every loss meant a step closer to doom and every victory only served as preservation, not gain. Gain remained obsolete in American minds. Lyndon Johnson talked openly off the record of the hopelessness his soldiers feel. Desertion rates were high and draft diversion remained common place. Vietnamese soldiers viewed the war as a war for freedom, not for glory. The Vietnamese saw the US forces as an obstacle to a war they thought they had already won. The South Vietnamese government represented a hatred-generating force against freedom. While Americans had relatively livable living quarters, the Hanoi government encouraged its soldiers living in tunnels underground to ,”Call the Shelter Your Second Home” [l pg 101]. Thus the Vietnamese dove into harsh conditions to form guerilla tactics that led to their victory.
The American military, with inflated egos from victory in Korea, hoped to continue the same strategies that had proven successful in the Korean War. However, because of Vietnam’s marshy climate, trained guerilla soldiers, and a limit on all out bombing capabilities from fear of igniting a war with China or nuclear war with Russia, assuming the same formula proved fatal. The American military strongly favored a bombing strategy, especially on areas of the Ho Chi Minh trail to cut off supplies to the National Liberation Front intending to accomplish three main goals: To bolster South Vietnamese morale by proving American might, prevent infiltration of troops to the South, and to punish North Vietnam to the point that it would “beg for peace” . While the strategy may have aided the first of these goals, it overwhelmingly failed the second two. The trail continued to function despite over 100,000 bombing runs between 1966 and 1968. The National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese army positioned in stations infiltrating South Vietnamese territory got most of their supplies from Southern villagers and those that did not only required about 7 trucks worth of supplies each day from the North. When areas of the trail were damaged, the North Vietnamese government utilized women and young boys not yet old enough to join the military to repair damage to roads, railways, and bridges. Much of the trail was also temporary. Engineers designed pontoon bridges that could be dismantled when not in use and out of the eyes of the b-52 bombers. Bombing strategies became so predictable that even during Nixon’s Madman strategy in 1969 which dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than under Lyndon Johnson, the Vietnamese remained impermeable. Vietnamese culture was also largely influence by Confucian principles of loyalty to the family. Even if a soldier fought for the Southern government, he would house a Northern infiltrator in the name of familial loyalty, making it easier for northern soldiers to fight in the south.
Even if the bombing strategy were to be successful, there was never a stable Southern government to declare victory. After the fall of Diem, June 1967 ushered in a rule of Army General Nguyen Van Thieu who had no political support beyond his military sphere. US assistant Secretary of Defense William Bundy was even quoted as saying “[Thieu] seemed the bottom of the barrel, absolutely the bottom of the barrel.” Communist threats remained rampant in the south so much so that the US dropped twice the tonnage of bombs on the south than the north between 1965 and 1968. Support of the South Vietnam government peaked during the whole war at 15% in rural areas . This made Nixon’s plan for Vietnamization impossible. Even when the ARVN became trained and equipped with America’s finest they struggled for available soldiers who remained free from corruption.
The environment was an enemy in itself to the Unite but an ally to the Vietnamese. Vietnamese soldiers utilized a strategy of guerilla warfare which took advantage of Vietnam’s harsh climate and thick foliage. The soldiers were so resourceful that 96% of firefights involved attacks on US units numbering fewer than 200 Vietnamese soldiers. The Vietcong advantage lay in the knowledge of the terrain of Vietnam. The Vietcong soldier had the advantage of cover and knowledge of hygiene in the marshy environment. Tunnels, dams, and undercover routes in the Mekong Delta gave the Vietcong an upper hand in fighting a psychological war against US forces. American infantries marched under constant fear of tripping booby trapped land mines or bombs, most famously the Bouncing Betty. The thick undergrowth in South Vietnam made movement difficult for US soldiers so the military depended on helicopters and air force to move supplies to the soldiers. However, the North Vietnamese were supplied by Soviet anti-air force machinery leading to over 2200 copter loses.
American soldiers depended on heavy weaponry and more often than not remained clustered in large groups vulnerable for attack. Fortressed in huge, permanent bases, they remained a popular target. Most famous of these was Khe Sanh, which was attacked in 1968 between January 21st and July 9th to the point where the US ended up averaging a daily drop of 1300 bombing tonnage daily on its own base. These attacks served as a distraction to allow North Vietnamese forces to plan the Tet Offensive that changed the fate of the war.
While the war waged on in Vietnam, an internal war was being fought within the United States. Political upheaval stemming from civil rights movements, the counter culture movements, and experimental domestic policies pertaining to the construction of the welfare state divided America in multiple factions of thought. It is documented to be the period of the greatest civil unrest. The war took place at a time in American history when many revolutionaries claimed the American people had no room for warfare. Martin Luther King made strides in fighting for black equality, second wave feminism fought for women’s emancipation, and a new emphasis was placed on a value for collective consciousness characterized by anti-capitalist thought. Students began taking to the streets without waiting for permission from the divided government.
The domestic instability in the United States created an opportunity for the Vietnamese to utilize the media to create support for the North’s goal of liberation. The Tet Offensive on January 30th 1968 on the Vietnamese New Year was well documented by American Journalists. Despite US military forces technically winning and viewed as a political miscalculation on the North Vietnamese, video footage and photographs shocked the American public, especially in lieu of Westmoreland’s recent announcement that “We have turned the corner” . The American people, now distrustful more than ever of the United States government, demanded withdrawal with the increasing credibility gap. University professors organized teach ins with student demonstrations, Washington DC saw a myriad of protests with the largest taking place in 1967, and the infamous March on the Pentagon had 667 protestors arrested with thousands of reports of police violence. The government was accused of supporting a militarized state and coming close to igniting a civil war. On March 31st, Johnson announced he would seek peace negotiations.
Perhaps in a symbiotic relationship with domestic instability was the inescapable fact of finite economic resources. The US depended on a draft to fund the war with soldier and media claimed it would soon have to increase taxes to continue funding the war. On May 12, 1966 The San Francisco Chronicle reported “The expenditure on artillery and mortar shells, machinegun and rifle bullets alone in Vietnam is seven million dollars a day”. Life magazine calculate that with the added costs of training US soldiers and investment in artillery it cost the US $400,000 to kill one Communist soldier, and this is with body count inflation padded by civilian deaths and recreational killings. In terms of both bodies and dollars, the United States could only commit so much to be destroyed.
After Nixon’s failure at Vietnamization, Madman strategy, and attempts to outreach to the Soviet Union and China, the initiation to end the war began with the 1973 Paris Agreement which envisioned a reunification of the North and South stating “The United States and all other countries respect the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Vietnam as recognized by the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Vietnam”, which was the original aim of the Vietcong all along, indirectly admitting US defeat. It stipulated that US and allied forces would be withdrawn from South Vietnam in 60 days. However the Thieu regime refused to accept communist participation in government and this began his own war with the North Vietnamese.
American failure in Vietnam was a failure of egoistical values of a weakened nation acting with juvenile intentions. The loss of life could only be blamed on petty competition over international image on the United States’ part and by doing so the American government soiled their own. Had the United States respected the 1954 Geneva Accord and acted by their own democratic values, countless American and Vietnamese lives could have been spared and a more stable US government could have prevailed.