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U.S. History Curriculum
XV. THE VIETNAM WAR
Understand why the United States became involved in Vietnam.
United States involvement in Vietnam can be viewed as a continuation of United States' foreign policy toward Asia almost from its conception. When Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana in 1803 he sent Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. With the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, Secretary of State John Adams indicated that the United States was interested in becoming a Pacific power. The acquisition of the Oregon Territory in 1845 and the Mexican War of 1846 achieved that goal--the United States had its Pacific ports.
United States interest in Asia is further illustrated by the U.S. opening-up Japan for Western trade in 1854, the Spanish-American War of 1898, and the Open Door Notes of 1899 and 1900. It was FDR's response to the Japanese movement into Southeast Asia that led to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and involved the United States in World War II. The Korean War of 1950-53 and President Nixon's China policy, and the U.S. interest in the Filipino presidential election of 1986 are other examples of the United States' desire to have a dominate influence in the affairs of the Far East.
The United States' involvement in Vietnam was a continuation of this long-standing American interest in the Pacific. While containment was an important aspect of the U.S. involvement in Indochina, it was not only Communism that the U.S. opposed in Vietnam. American leaders would oppose any ideology or foreign power that threatened U.S. interests in Asia.
U.S. leaders did not want a power hostile to the ideology of the country to control Southeast Asia. Vietnam dominates the sea lanes into the South China Sea. The trade routes between Europe and Asia pass through this area. The U.S. had a major naval and air base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. The Communist victory in Vietnam allowed the Soviet navy to establish a strong presence in the South China Sea and to pose a military threat to the United States in that region during the Cold War. Economically, the raw materials and markets of Indochina were no longer under the control of a power ideologically friendly to the U.S.. Prior to the war, Vietnam was one of the world's largest exporters of rice and rubber. North Vietnam is rich in coal, and South Vietnam has large oil reserves. The United States lost easy access to these raw materials, and its political adversaries controlled them.
America has been a major Pacific power since the 1850s. The U.S. will protect its ideological concepts, its security, its access to markets and raw materials--not only in the Pacific but throughout the world. During the Cold War, if a President allowed a country friendly to the United States to "fall" to the Communists, or any ideology opposed to United States' interests, he ran the risk of taking a terrible beating from the opposition party. For example, Jimmy Carter's 1980 defeat is at least partially attributable to his mishandling of the Iranian situation. If a political party wanted to be successful in the next election it must have appeared firm against any Communist move--whether it was a war of independence like Vietnam, a war of unification like Korea, or a civil war like Greece and El Salvador.
Understand the Vietnam War.
Indochina (Cambodia, Vietnam, & Laos) had been a French colony since the 1890s. The ease with which Japan took over French Indochina in 1941 discredited the French in the eyes of the Vietnamese. Under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, a French educated Communist, who had organized the Indochinese Communist party (the Vietminh) in 1930, the Vietnamese, with U.S. aid, raised an army of some 5,000 men to fight the Japanese. When Japan surrendered in August 1945 the Vietminh quickly stepped into the vacuum, occupying government headquarters in Hanoi and proclaiming the independence of Vietnam.
The French refused to leave. Conscious of their nation's declining position in world affairs, many French politicians believed that France could "only be a great power so long as our flag continues to fly in all the overseas territory." After a year of trying to negotiate a settlement, the shelling of Haiphong by a French cruiser in November 1946, killing 6,000 civilians, set off the Vietnamese War for Independence.
At first the United States was unsympathetic with the French attempt to re-establish colonialism. For the first three years of fighting the United States remained neutral; although U.S. funds provided to France under the Marshall Plan enabled France to use its own resources to prosecute the war in Indochina. Once U.S. policy became one of containing Communism the U.S. moved in to support the French. The specific incidents that caused this change in policy were: 1) the need to have French support in Europe against the Soviets (The French repeatedly warned that they could not furnish troops for European defense without generous support in Indochina); 2) the possibility of a Communist victory in Indochina; 3) the Communist victory in China; and, 4) the Korea War.
Americans incorrectly assumed that the Southeast Asian revolutions were inspired by Moscow. Although a dedicated Communist, Ho was not prepared to subordinate Vietnamese independence to the Soviets or the Chinese. "It is better to sniff French dung for a while than eat China's all your life," Ho once said, graphically expressing a traditional principle of Vietnamese foreign policy. By 1950, Ho had captured the standard of Vietnamese nationalism and by opposing him the U.S. was attaching itself to a losing cause. By 1952, the U.S. was bearing about one-third of the cost of the war (by the end of the war the U.S. had given the French more than $2.6 billion in military aid).
In 1954 the Vietnamese defeated the French. The Geneva Accords set the terms of the French withdrawal. Vietnam was temporarily divided at the 17th parallel with the Vietnamese controlling the North and the French the South. The Accords stressed that the division should not be "interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary." The country was to be reunified by elections scheduled for the summer of 1956. The division was agreed to by both sides so that the French could have an opportunity to remove their men and material from Vietnam.
The U.S. took over the role of the French. Had it looked all over the world, the United States could not have chosen a less likely place for an experiment in nation building. The colonial economy of southern Vietnam depended entirely on exports of rice and rubber to finance essential imports. It had been devastated by thirteen years of war and was held together by enormous French military expenditures which would soon cease. In the summer of 1954 Ngo Dinh Diem took over the premiership of the South. He inherited antiquated institutions patterned on French colonial practices and ill-suited to the needs of an independent nation. His government lacked experienced civil servants. Tainted by its long association with France, it had no base of support in the countryside or among the non-Communist nationalists in Saigon. Its authority did not extend beyond its own offices.
With firm American backing, Diem blocked the elections called for by the Geneva Accords. Diem refused to permit any traffic with the north, including even a postal arrangement, and the seventeenth parallel became one of the most restricted boundaries in the world. From 1955 to 1961, the U.S. poured more than $1 billion in economic and military assistance into South Vietnam, and by 1961, it ranked fifth among all recipients of American foreign aid. By the late 1950s the American mission in Saigon was the largest anywhere in the world with over 1,500 men.
Yet the U.S. devoted very little attention to political matters and, despite its massive foreign aid program, exerted very little influence. Diem ruled as a petty dictator. By 1956 over 20,000 political opponents (Communist or otherwise) had been arrested. He refused to redistribute the land or make other necessary economic and social changes. His refusal to hold the reunification elections (which Ho would have certainly won) and his harassment of Communists caused the southern Communists (the Vietcong) in 1957 to resume the struggle against the capitalists. Largely as a result of Diem's misguided policies, they found a receptive audience--the peasants were like a "mound of straw ready to be ignited," a captured guerrilla later told an interrogator. In January 1959, North Vietnam formally approved the resumption of armed struggle in the south, and in midsummer it began to send arms and advisers to assist the Vietcong.
The level of violence increased dramatically: in 1958 about 700 government officials were assassinated, in 1960, 2,500. Responding to the stepped-up violence, U.S. military assistance more than doubled between 1961 and 1962 and U.S. advisers were placed at the regimental level in the South Vietnamese (ARVN) army. The number of advisors increased from 3,205 to more than 9,000. Events around the world continued to reinforce the U.S. commitment to Vietnam. By late 1961, President Kennedy and many of his advisers were convinced that they must prove their toughness to the Soviet leader Khrushchev. "That son of a bitch won't pay any attention to words," Kennedy remarked during the Berlin crisis. "He has to see you move."
The increased U.S. aid led to some initial ARVN successes, but the Vietcong soon regained the military initiative. By the summer of 1963 there was a real possibility that the Communists would win the struggle. In addition, Diem was facing serious non-Communist opposition. Diem, a Catholic, was anti-Buddhist. In May, 1963 the Buddhists began protesting against his policies. The uprising attained new proportions on June 11. After insuring that the media was in attendance, a monk immolated himself at a major intersection in downtown Saigon. On August 21 Vietnamese forces carried out massive raids on the Buddhists, ransacking pagodas and arresting more than 1,400 of them.
Within several days after the raid on the pagodas a group of South Vietnamese Army generals opened secret contacts with the U.S.. Reporting evidence that Diem and his brother Nhu (head of the secret police) were planning their execution and were discussing with Hanoi a deal that would sell out the independence of South Vietnam, the generals inquired how the U.S. would respond should they move against the government. The American Embassy subsequently contacted the generals, informing them that although the U.S. did not "wish to stimulate a coup," it would not "thwart a change of government or deny economic and military assistance to a new regime if it appeared capable of increasing [the] effectiveness of the military effort, ensuring popular support to win [the] war and improving working relations with the U.S." On November 1, 1963 Diem and his brother were removed from office and murdered. Just three weeks later President Kennedy was assassinated.
Between November 1963 and July 1965 President Johnson transformed a limited commitment to assist the South Vietnamese in putting down an insurgency into an open-ended commitment to use American military power to maintain an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam. The death of Diem brought chaos to Vietnam. During his nine years in power, Diem had systematically destroyed the opposition, and his death left a gaping political vacuum. The Vietcong took advantage of the ensuing anarchy to step up their military and political operations.
The Johnson administration was looking for an excuse to increase the U.S. involvement in South Vietnam--they realized that the South Vietnamese could not defeat the Vietcong alone. On August 1, 1964 an American destroyer was conducting electronic espionage off the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin in conjunction with South Vietnamese commando raids on North Vietnamese nearby military facilities. South Vietnamese gun boats had bombarded the nearby island of Hon Me the preceding evening as a cover for the commando raids, and North Vietnamese torpedo boats, apparently assuming that the American destroyer had been supporting the covert attacks, closed in on the destroyer. In a brief and confusing engagement the torpedo boats were driven away, and one was damaged. President Johnson ordered no military retaliation.
To avoid any appearance of weakness and to assert traditional claims to freedoms of the seas, the Navy ordered the destroyer to resume operations in the Gulf of Tonkin and sent another in to support it. The U.S. was not seeking to provoke another attack, but it did not go out of its way to avoid one either. On the night of August 4 the two American destroyers suddenly reported that they were under attack. No visual sightings of the enemy were made, and after the initial report the commanders of the ships sent a message that "freak weather effects" on the radar and sonar, as well as "over-eager" sonar men, may have accounted for the reports of enemy contact. Disregarding the later reports the administration ordered retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnamese torpedo boat bases and nearby oil storage dumps.
President Johnson used this incident as an opportunity to have Congress pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The resolution authorized him to take "all necessary measures to repel any armed attacks against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." The retaliatory bombing of North Vietnam and the appeal for national support permitted him to disarm his Republican challenger for the presidency, Senator Barry Goldwater, who had vigorously urged escalation of the war, and to demonstrate that he could be firm in defending American interests without recklessly expanding the war. Nothing was said about the covert raids, or the second reports discounting the attacks.
The vote in the Senate was 88 to 2 in favor of the resolution. Consideration in the House was even more perfunctory, passage taking a mere forty minutes and the vote unanimous. The two Senators who opposed the resolution (Morse of Oregon & Gruening of Alaska) were both defeated in the next election. From a domestic political standpoint, Johnson's handling of the Tonkin Gulf incident was masterly--his rating in the Louis Harris poll skyrocketed from 42 to 72 percent overnight. He effectively neutralized Goldwater on Vietnam, a fact which contributed to his overwhelming electoral victory in November. But, because of the Resolution, U.S. prestige was now publicly and more firmly committed not merely to defending South Vietnam but also to responding to North Vietnamese provocations.
By the end of January 1965 the Johnson administration had come to the conclusion that the persisting instability in the South required the U.S. to bomb the North. Using a raid on the U.S. base at Pleiku in which nine Americans died as an excuse, Johnson order the bombing of North Vietnam to begin. The air war against the North quickly grew from a sporadic, halting effort into a regular, determined program. Sorties against the north increased from 25,000 in 1965 to 108,000 in 1967 and would continue to increase thereafter. The expanded air war also provided the pretext for the introduction of the first U.S. combat troops into Vietnam. The commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, in late February requested Marines to protect the air base at Danang. Once the first troops were sent to Vietnam American prestige and honor were firmly committed and other ground forces soon followed. Leaders of the most powerful nation in the history of the world, U.S. officials simply could not conceive that a small backward country like North Vietnam could stand up against them. America's attitude was, as Senator William Fulbright wrote, the natural culmination of the "arrogance of power."
The United States never developed a strategy appropriate for the war it was fighting, in part because it was assumed that the mere application of its vast military power would be sufficient. The failure of one level of force led quickly to the next and then the next, until the war attained a degree of destructiveness no one would have thought possible in 1965. By 1967, the U.S. had nearly 500,000 combat troops in Vietnam. It had dropped more bombs than in all of World War II and was spending more than $2 billion per month on the war. As U.S. activity in South Vietnam increased so did the assistance to North Vietnam by the Soviets and Chinese. Between 1965 and 1968 they gave North Vietnam over $2 billion in aid.
The bombing of North Vietnam inflicted an estimated $600 million damage on a nation still struggling to develop a viable, modern economy--civilian casualties ran as high as 1,000 per week during periods of heavy bombing. Despite the extensive damage inflicted on North Vietnam, the bombing did not achieve its objectives--North Vietnam continued to send men south (200,000 North Vietnamese reached draft age each year), it was still determined to continue the war, and Soviet and Chinese aid more than made up for the losses inflicted. The U.S. also paid a heavy price. Overall, the U.S. between 1965 and 1968 lost 950 aircraft at an estimated cost of $6 billion. Captured American airmen gave Hanoi hostages which would assume increasing importance in the stalemated war. The continued pounding of a small, backward country by the world's wealthiest and most advanced nation gave the North Vietnamese a propaganda advantage they exploited quite effectively. Opposition to the war at home increasingly focused on the bombing, which, in the eyes of many critics was at best inefficient, at worst immoral.
The Tet Offensive insured that the American public would not continue to support the administration's policy in Vietnam. On January 30, 1968, during the Lunar New Year (Tet) the Communists launched a massive, coordinated assault against the major urban areas of South Vietnam. Although taken by surprise, the United States and South Vietnam recovered quickly. Vietcong and North Vietnamese battle deaths have been estimated as high as 40,000. The Vietcong bore the brunt of the fighting; its regular units were decimated and would never completely recover. American and South Vietnamese losses were also high: in the first two weeks of the Tet campaigns, the U.S. lost 1,000 killed and South Vietnam 2,300. An estimated 12,500 civilians were killed.
Televised accounts of the bloody fighting in Saigon and Hue made a mockery of Johnson and Westmoreland's optimistic year-end reports, widening the credibility gap between the government and the people. The Tet Offensive was probably unique in that the side that lost completely in the tactical sense came away with an overwhelming psychological and hence political victory. The fact that the U.S. and South Vietnam had hurled back the attacks and quickly stabilized their position was completely lost in the image of chaos and defeat. After Tet, the Americans stopped looking for victory and started looking for a way out of Vietnam.
On March 12, 1968 Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, an outspoken dove, won 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. Senator Robert Kennedy of New York announced on March 16 announced that he too would run against President Johnson. On March 31, Johnson went on television announcing that the bombing of North Vietnam would be limited to the area just north of the demilitarized zone, that the U.S. was ready to discuss peace, any time, any place, and that he would not run for re-election. This announcement marked the end to the U.S. policy of gradual escalation.
The administration did not alter its goals, however. The apparent American success in the battles of Tet reinforced the conviction of the administration that they could yet secure an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam. Formal talks between North Vietnam and the U.S. opened in Paris on May 13, 1968 and immediately came to a deadlock. Trying to break the deadlock the administration stepped up the pace of military operations. The number of B-52 bombing missions tripled in 1968, and the bombs dropped on South Vietnam exceeded one million tons.
In the election of 1968, Richard Nixon, claiming that he had a "secret plan" to end the war, barely defeated Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Nixon's "secret plan" turned out to be just more of the same policies. The result was four more years of bloody warfare in Indochina, a marked increase in domestic strife, and a peace settlement that permitted American extrication but was neither honorable nor lasting. Nixon, and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, were confident that they could compel Hanoi to accept the terms it had consistently rejected. A "fourth-rate power like North Vietnam" must have a "breaking point," Kissinger insisted, and he and Nixon were prepared to use maximum force, threatening the very survival of North Vietnam, to get what they wanted.
As a signal that he meant business, Nixon ordered intensive bombing attacks against North Vietnamese sanctuaries in neutral Cambodia. Over the next 15 months, more than 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia and the operation was kept secret from the American public and much of the government. To make plain his intention of terminating American involvement in the war, Nixon began to withdraw American combat troops and announced his plan of "Vietnamization"--the Vietnamese would take over the fighting. Aid to the South Vietnamese Army was increased dramatically. The U.S. turned over to South Vietnam more than a million M-16 rifles, 12,000 machine guns, 40,000 grenade launchers, and 2,000 heavy mortars and howitzers. The Vietnamese air force received so many helicopters that it became the world's fourth largest in number of aircraft. Yet after the American's pulled out ARVN was unable to fill the gap. The desertion rate remained high. The officer corps was shot through with corruption, and logistical support was inadequate.
In 1969 Hanoi shifted to a defensive, protracted war strategy, sharply curtailing the level of military activity in the South. Certain that American public opinion would eventually force Nixon to withdraw from Vietnam, the North Vietnamese were prepared to wait him out, no matter what additional suffering it might entail.
In March, 1970 Cambodia's neutralist Prince Sihanouk was overthrown by a pro-American clique headed by Prime Minister Lon Nol. The change in government in Phnom Penh removed the long-standing fear of violating Cambodian neutrality, and the attacks on the sanctuaries could now be justified in terms of sustaining a friendly Cambodian government as well as easing the pressure on South Vietnam. On April 30, 1970 the U.S. and South Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Because of the invasion, North Vietnam initiated large-scale support for the Cambodian Communists fighting Lon Nol. In the United States demonstrations erupted on campuses across the nation, and at Kent State and Jackson State College six students were killed in angry confrontations with National Guardsmen and police. More than 100,000 demonstrators gathered in Washington, DC the first week of May. Students at hundreds of colleges went "on strike," and some campuses were closed down to avert further violence. Nixon removed American troops from Cambodia by the end of June, and the protest gradually abated.
In February 1971, Nixon again expanded the war, approving an ARVN invasion of Laos. The Laotian operation was at best a costly draw, at worst an unmitigated disaster. The North Vietnamese hurled about 36,000 troops, supported by the newest Soviet-made tanks against the two ARVN divisions that crossed the border. After six weeks of the bloodiest fighting of the war, the South Vietnamese retreated back into Vietnam having suffered a casualty rate as high as 50 percent. The ARVN performance was inept and it would have been much worse without the support of American aircraft, which dumped 48,000 tons of bombs during the operation.
In March 1972, North Vietnam launched a massive, conventional invasion of the South. North Vietnam hoped to win the war on the battlefield and humiliate the U.S. At that time there were only 95,000 American forces stationed in Vietnam, of whom only 6,000 were combat troops. In response Nixon approved massive air strikes on North Vietnam, the mining of Haiphong Harbor, and a naval blockade of North Vietnam. The Soviet Union and China put pressure on North Vietnam to end the war. Both major Communist powers had apparently come to regard Vietnam as a sideshow which must not be allowed to jeopardize the major realignment of power then taking place in the world.
Nixon's decisive response appears also to have averted defeat in South Vietnam. The conventional military tactics employed by the North Vietnamese depended heavily on vast quantities of fuel and ammunition, and the intensive bombing attacks, along with the blockade, made resupply extremely difficult. In the final analysis the furious campaigns of the spring and summer of 1972 merely raised the stalemate to a new level of violence. Both sides suffered heavily, the NVA losing an estimated 100,000 men and the ARVN 25,000, but neither emerged appreciably stronger than before.
By October 1972 both sides were ready to get the U.S. out of Vietnam. An agreement was reached that within 60 days after a cease-fire, the U.S. would withdraw its remaining troops, and North Vietnam would return the American POWs (there were 766 POWs, 166 died in captivity). A political settlement would then be arranged by a neutral commission which would administer elections and assume responsibility for implementing the agreement. Just prior to Nixon's overwhelming victory over the Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern, Kissenger announced that "peace was at hand."
Nguyen Van Thieu, the President of South Vietnam, refused to go along with the agreement. Thieu feared that a withdrawal would mean a termination of American support and he insisted that he would never accept an agreement which permitted North Vietnamese troops to remain in the South and which accorded the Vietcong representation in the government. Thieu apparently gambled on driving a wedge between the U.S. and North Vietnam, blocking the treaty indefinitely and permitting a continuation of the war.
Nixon backed Thieu in the short run. To get his support for the agreement in December 1972 Nixon ordered the most massive bombing attacks yet on North Vietnam. The ostensible motive was to force Hanoi to agree to come to terms, but in reality the bombing reflected the accumulated anger and frustration of four years and was intend to weaken North Vietnam to the point where it would be incapable of threatening South Vietnam after a peace settlement had been concluded, and to insure Thieu that he would have continued U.S. support.
Hanoi and Haiphong were devastated, their factories, power plants, and residential districts becoming a "mass of rubble." Yet North Vietnamese air defenses exacted a heavy toll, bringing down 15 B-52s, raising fears among the U.S. air force that America's strategic air arm might be indefinitely crippled. The Christmas bombing evoked cries of outrage across the world. In the U.S. critics denounced Nixon as a "madman," and accused him of waging "war by tantrum." Nixon's popular approval rating plummeted to 39 percent overnight.
Negotiations resumed on January 8, 1973 and both sides accepted the agreement that they had signed in October. This time the U.S. imposed the agreement on Thieu. Nixon indicated to Thieu that he would provide South Vietnam continued support and would "respond with full force" if North Vietnam violated the agreement. At the same time he made clear that if Thieu continued to resist he would cut off further assistance and he was prepared to sign the treaty alone if necessary. Having no choice, Thieu accepted the agreement. The agreement barely met Nixon's minimal terms for "peace with honor." It permitted American extrication from the war and secured the return of the POWs, while leaving the Thieu government intact, at least for the moment. On the other hand, NVA troops remained in the south and the Vietcong was accorded a position of status. North and South Vietnam were to continue their civil war with their allies supplying them with money and material, but not men.
Thus the longest war in U.S. history came to an official conclusion--eight years after American ground forces became actively engaged on a large scale, and nearly 14 years after the first American had been killed by military action. The cost had been high. America lost 58,022 killed and about 300,000 wounded, and had spent $164 billion. Indochina's ecology and economy had been devastated (U.S. aircraft sprayed more than 100 million pounds of cancer causing chemicals over millions of acres of forests, destroying an estimated one-half of South Vietnam's timberlands). About 650,000 South Vietnamese were killed along with an estimated one million North Vietnamese and Vietcong. Some 10 million Indochinese were homeless refugees. The war polarized the American people and poisoned the political atmosphere as no issue since slavery a century before. It was not until early 1994 that the U.S. reestablished trade relations with Vietnam. Diplomatic relations were established in 1995.
Although he quickly withdrew the last American troops from Vietnam, Nixon continued to try and support Thieu and the South Vietnamese. Nixon's policies found little support in the United States as the Watergate scandals drastically weakened his position. From 1973 to 1975, Congress decisively restricted Nixon's, and Gerald Ford's, capacity to involve the U.S. in the war by severely cutting back on aid to South Vietnam. Without the continued large infusion of American funds and equipment the South Vietnamese could not fight the way the Americans had trained them. Air force operations were curtailed by as much as 50 percent. Ammunition and other supplies were severely rationed. The decline of American support eroded the will of the South Vietnamese to resist. When North Vietnam mounted a major offensive in the spring of 1975, South Vietnam collapsed with stunning rapidity, dramatically ending the thirty-year war and leaving the U.S. frustrated and bewildered. In 1976 Vietnam was officially unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City (Ho had died in 1969).
The Khmer Rouge Communists triumphed in Cambodia prior to the South Vietnamese surrender, renaming the country Kampuchea, they immediately initiating a reign of terror that killed at least one million Cambodians. The Laotian Communists triumphed shortly thereafter. The "fall" of Indochina to the Communists heightened tensions among the various Communist nations in Asia proving that nationalism is a stronger force than ideology. In 1977, civil war broke out between Communist factions in Cambodia, prompting the Vietnamese to intervene. By 1979, the Vietnamese had driven out the Cambodian Communist leader Pol Pot and established a puppet government. Pot's forces became guerrillas holding out in remote areas.
While Vietnam was engaged in Cambodia it was also fighting China. The Chinese had supported Pot's government (the Soviets supported the Vietnamese). In addition, after the Communist victory the Vietnamese had persecuted the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam by taking their property without compensation and by forcing them to leave the country. In 1978 the Chinese launched a limited border war to harass the Vietnamese, and in 1983 they shelled Vietnamese districts along its border. The war with China put the Vietnamese firmly in the Soviet camp and allowed the Soviets to establish an important naval and air base during the Cold War at the ex-American facility at Cam Rhan Bay.
Of the 27 million men eligible for the draft during the Vietnam War years, scarcely more than a third ever served at all, and less than 10 percent ever went to Vietnam. Although only 6 percent of all young men would actually be involved in "combat" positions in Vietnam, the draft forced an entire generation into a position of having to choose options. Few 19 to 26 year olds were eager to risk their lives in Vietnam. Those with background, intelligence, and money managed to escape if they so desired. Through an elaborate structure of deferments, exemptions, legal technicalities, and noncombat military alternatives, the draft rewarded those who manipulated the system to their advantage.
Among this generation, fighting for one's country was not a source of pride; it was misfortune. Going to Vietnam was the penalty for those who lacked the wherewithal to avoid it. A 1971 Harris survey found that most Americans believed that those who went to Vietnam were "suckers, having to risk their lives in the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time." Poorly educated, low-income whites and poorly educated, low-income blacks together bore a vastly disproportionate share of the burdens of Vietnam. College graduates made up only 23% of those who served during the Vietnam war. Only 9% of those who served in combat in Vietnam were college graduates--and many of them were officers. A Harvard survey of the class of 1970 found that of the 1,200 graduates, only 56 entered the military, just two of whom went to Vietnam. A study of youths from Chicago neighborhoods with different socioeconomic characteristics discovered that youths from low-income neighborhoods were three times as likely to die in Vietnam as youths from high income neighborhoods. At the end of World War II, blacks comprised 12% of all combat troops; by the start of the Vietnam war, their share had grown to 31%. In 1965, blacks accounted for 24% of all Army combat deaths. The Defense Department undertook a concerted campaign to reduce the minorities' share of the fighting. By 1970, the figure of black combat deaths, for all services, had been reduced to less than 9%.
The outspoken antiwar views of many young people helped sway public opinion and turn around the nation's policies. Their activism involved moral courage, but little concrete sacrifice. Except for the 3,250 men who were imprisoned for draft avoidance, opposing the war was in every draft-age man's self interest. The sooner the war ended, the less likely it was that he would bear personal hardship. Many young men went to college solely to escape the draft--surveys indicate that male college enrollment averaged 6-7 percent higher than normal because of the draft. Men moved into teaching. In 1968, the year New York City draft boards confirmed that all full-time teachers qualified for deferments, the city's board of education received 20,000 more applications for teachers' licenses than the year before.
Even at the height of American involvement in Vietnam, less than 1% of all draft-age men were needed to fight at any one time. Many men could escape combat simply by joining the Coast Guard (7 combat deaths during the entire war), or by volunteering for relatively safe jobs with the navy or air force. They would have to serve three years instead of the two for draftees, but they were almost certain to return home alive. The risk of dying in Vietnam was 19 times as great for Marine and Army troops as for Navy and Air Force men. Throughout the war, 83% of all American casualties resulted from combat operations. Over the course of his 12 months in Vietnam, a combat soldier faced about a 3% chance of death, a 10% chance of suffering a serious wound requiring hospitalization, and almost a 25% chance of getting enough of a wound to earn a Purple Heart.
The members of the Vietnam generation are now in their forties and fifties. Vietnam was and always will be their war, just as World War II belonged to their parents and World War I to their grandparents. To many of the Vietnam generation their battles were with the police, their narrow escapes involved draft boards and courts, and the enemy was the government. Some feel guilty, others lucky. Many have a faint sense of disquiet from having left the fighting and dying to others. The controversy over President Clintonâs lack of service during the war illustrates the ambivalent feelings that many Americans still have about the Vietnam War. Vietnam was a crisis that an entire generation faced -- whether in the jungle, on the campus, or in the streets. The labels of the era -- baby-killer, protester, coward, evader, deserter -- are part of the tragedy of Vietnam.
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