Your guide to the Vietnam War – plus 7 surprising facts you might not know
The Vietnam War (1954–75) was fought between the communist government of North Vietnam and its allies in South Vietnam (known as the Viet Cong) on one side, and the government of South Vietnam and its key ally, the United States, on the other, and it defined America in the second half of the 20th century. But how much do you know about the controversial Vietnam War?
The Vietnam War came to define America in the second half of the 20th century, after America became entangled in Vietnam following a disastrous French attempt to prevent Indochina [the area of south-east Asia that contains Vietnam] from gaining its independence. So contentious was the conflict that for years afterwards the country suffered marches, riots and even deaths as a result of the turmoil. US conscripts, who had no option but to serve, returned home to be branded ‘baby killers’, and the anti-war movement was portrayed by the political right as un-American. Here's a brief guide to one of the most complicated conflicts in history, plus seven facts you might not know…
What was the Vietnam war about?
American interests in Vietnam went back over a decade before US President Lyndon B Johnson deployed troops. The rise of communists in North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, in the 1950s had turned the divided country into a Cold War battleground. As the US believed that if one state fell to communism, others would follow – the 'Domino Theory' – they had to get involved (albeit incrementally).
Who won the Vietnam War?
Certainly not the US, who withdrew in 1973 humiliated, the national psyche and economy in tatters for years to come and more than 58,000 men dead. Vietnam came out even worse as millions perished and the country had been all but destroyed. Yet North Vietnam had stood toe-to-toe against a global superpower and forced them to retreat.
Was Britain involved?
In terms of rhetoric, Britain proved a tepid ally. Even with LBJ pushing Prime Minister Harold Wilson for a greater show of support, – as part of his 'More Flags' policy (the President hoped to sell the war as a crusade against communism) – they offered nothing more than minor non-military assistance. Like in America, Britain witnessed plenty of anti-war action.
Who was the USA's enemy?
The US had to fight both the armies of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the North) and zealous communists in the South, known as the Viet Cong. They all received substantial backing from China and the Soviet Union, too. Then as the war went on, another enemy to the American effort emerged: a vociferous anti-war movement back home.
How was the war fought?
A: Young, inexperienced US troops quickly became bogged down in short bursts of action against guerrilla forces deep in unbearably hot jungle and swamp terrains. They grew demoralised carrying out search-and-destroy missions or being used as bait for aerial firepower. Even though the Americans killed ten men for each of their own, they could not eradicate the communists' will to fight.
- Read more about the movements that opposed the Vietnam war
Vietnam in numbers19 The average age of the American soldier in Vietnam was 19 (compared to 26 in World War II). More than 35,000 of those who died were aged 21 or under.
2 When Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, there were only two dissenting votes. It passed the House of Representative 414-0 and got through the Senate 88-2.
47 The Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study of US involvement in Vietnam, was leaked to the press in 1971. The Papers consisted of 47 volumes and 7,000 pages.
258 The Medal of Honour, the highest US military decoration, was awarded 258 times to men serving in Vietnam: 172 to the Army, 57 to Marines, 15 to the Navy and 14 to the Air Force.
7 million More than 7 million tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia throughout the conflict.
1 trillion Although only an estimate, it is thought the US spent $140 billion in the Vietnam War, which works out at over 1 trillion dollars in today's money.
500,000 In the largest anti-war rally, 500,000 descended on Washington DC for the Moratorium March on 15 November 1969. Marches took place around the world, including London, Paris and West Berlin.
Here, writer Jem Duducu, author of a new historical novel set during the Vietnam War, shares seven lesser-known facts about the conflict.
The Vietnam War isn’t called that in Vietnam
The name itself shows a non-native understanding of the conflict. Instead, the two decades of fighting in Vietnam, from 1954 to 1975, are called “the American War”. The Vietnamese made the assumption that the foreign forces who fought in that war were all Americans, but they were not: large numbers of Thais, South Koreans and Australians, to name but a few, fought on the side of South Vietnam.
The Vietnam War had roots in 19th-century French imperialism
In 1858, Tourane (modern Da Nang) was attacked and captured by French Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly. However, due to supply issues and disease, the French were forced to leave after only a few months, when they headed south and captured the city of Saigon (today’s Ho Chi Minh City) in early 1859.
This started a century of French occupation, and most of the south-east Asian peninsula (including Vietnam) was renamed French Indochina. The indigenous population was never completely cowed, so rebellions and guerrilla attacks were regular occurrences. The Vietnamese rebels used the dense jungles and mountainous terrains to their advantage in order to attack French forces and escape detection.
During the Second World War the region came under the control of pro-Axis Vichy forces and Japan, so the Americans armed and trained local forces to fight against them. After the war France tried to reclaim the area, but the better-trained and better-equipped guerrillas defeated France once and for all at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Listen: Lynn Novick describes the making of an epic documentary series on the conflict in Vietnam, which she co-directed with Ken Burns, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
The Vietnam War wasn’t just in Vietnam
The poor choice of name for the war fails to reflect how much of south-east Asia it affected. The French had been using Vietnam as a launch point for hostilities against both Burma (now also known as Myanmar) and Thailand (previously Siam until 1939), so it was unsurprising that fighting leaked out of Vietnam’s borders. The main reason for this was the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail, a supply line that stretched along the spine of the entire country that enabled the communist powers in the north to supply the communist guerrillas (the Viet Cong) in the south.
However, most of this road network was actually located in neighbouring Cambodia and also ran through parts of Laos. The regular bombing of both countries took place under the orders of American presidents Lyndon Johnson (in office 1963–69) and Richard Nixon (1969–74).
Unlisted CIA plans (black ops) were also carried out. They were unofficial (and illegal), as America had never formally declared war or confirmed to the public that combat operations were taking place in either Cambodia or Laos.
The instability caused by this unofficial military activity allowed the communists of North Vietnam to help support a communist revolution and civil war in Cambodia. This would lead to the formation of the Khmer Rouge regime (in power from 1975–79), which was responsible for the infamous Cambodian genocide.
The Vietnam War was part of the Cold War
Technically, the Vietnam conflict was a civil war, with the communist North fighting against the anti-communist South (it was not a democracy and was run by a paranoid dictator Nguyễn Văn Thiệu). The country had never been split like this before; the two areas were artificial, with no natural boundary between them, so it was highly likely that one or both sides would attempt to reunite the country by force.
However, the North was backed by communist China and the Soviet Union, and the South was backed by the west. But in practical terms, with respect to both finances and equipment, it was America which supported the South.
Vietnam became a testing ground for weapons. How well did the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk do against the Soviet-made S-75 Dvina surface to air missiles? Similarly, while the AK-47 had been in use for nearly 20 years, this was the first time it was used wholesale against the American M16. The AK, with the larger clip of bullets (30 versus 20) and fewer moving parts, meant that it rarely jammed and was the perfect jungle ambush weapon.
America (and others) feared that after China and North Korea had fallen to communism, Vietnam might well fall, too. If it went ‘red’, where would the advance of communism end? Would Singapore or Australia fall? The concept was known as the ‘domino theory’ and hundreds of thousands of Americans were conscripted to fight in the jungles of Vietnam in order to fight against it.
The Vietnam War saw technical as well as political incompetence
Some of the grimmest stories about equipment malfunctions during the Vietnam War had to do with the M16. It was shipped from the US initially with incompatible ammunition, meaning that after firing only a few shots the gun would jam. Several dead Americans were found in the jungle next to their stripped-down rifles. They had attempted to dismantle, clean and rebuild their weapons under fire in order to try and shoot back. A later change of powder in the ammunition greatly improved the gun’s performance, but the large amount of plastic (rather than wood or metal) gave it a toy-like quality, which inspired the saying “you can tell it’s Mattel” – the slogan of a popular toy manufacturer in America.
Similarly, the new Chinook helicopters were prone to catastrophic failures. Why? It transpired that soldiers were overloading the cargo bays. Ground staff were filling the helicopters to capacity with heavy equipment, assuming the double-rotor aircraft could take it. They couldn’t. Multiple Chinooks crashed, killing their crews, because of this fundamental fault.
The Tet Offensive was not a military defeat for America
Tet is the biggest holiday of the year in Vietnam, and in 1968 there was an agreed ceasefire so that everyone could celebrate. However, the Viet Cong saw this as an opportunity to infiltrate a number of key cities in the south, from which they launched attacks on 31 January. Viet Cong commandos even assaulted the US embassy in Saigon, possibly the most heavily defended compound anywhere in the world. To many in America, this seemed like a humiliating defeat for their forces in Vietnam.
The Americans’ fundamental problem during this war was locating the enemy. Up until Tet, most of the fighting had been in the jungles, where Viet Cong guerrillas surfaced without warning and disappeared just as suddenly, using the cover of dense foliage and a widespread network of tunnels. Now the Viet Cong were in an urban environment with no heavy artillery, armour or anything like the numbers of combatants compared to the Americans. Within weeks, the American forces annihilated the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong were never an effective fighting force on their own again after this offensive, and all subsequent combat operations were dominated by the North Vietnamese Army.
Tet was a devastating defeat for the communists, but it’s not remembered that way. The American military had been saying for more than a year that the Viet Cong were being constantly ground down. ‘Kill counts’ were reported on the US nightly news almost like sports scores. So by January 1968, America assumed the Viet Cong were on their last legs. For the Viet Cong to be able to mount such an ambitious offensive proved the American military had been either lying or caught with their trousers down. This is one of the best examples in history that winning the narrative is sometimes more important than winning the battle.
The Vietnam War is still going on in Vietnam
While nearly 60,000 Americans lost their lives in the war, more than 3.3 million Vietnamese (both North and South including civilians) died. By the end of the war in 1975, America had dropped more than seven million tonnes of bombs on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – more than had been dropped during all of the Second World War. In 1971 alone, 800,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on these countries – and that was when the war was ‘winding down’. Thousands of tonnes of defoliant, known as Agent Orange, destroyed thousands of acres and poisoned the land, killing both humans and livestock and resulting in birth defects in unborn babies.
Both sides used landmines, and it is estimated that these, combined with unexploded ordinance, mean there are some 800,000 tonnes of explosives yet to be made safe in a country where 20 per cent of Vietnam’s total area is still thought to contain unexploded devices. It’s been estimated that since 1975 there have been 100,000 casualties, of which there were 40,000 deaths, by these dangerous relics of the war.
In conclusion, the story of the Vietnam War combines 19th-century imperialism with 20th-century communist history and late 20th-century American foreign policy. It is a rich and complex era characterised by catastrophic misjudgements, ruthless cover-ups and tragic consequences on all sides.
The consequences of the Vietnam War and its aftermath are highlighted in Jem Duducu’s historical novel Echoes (2019). You can follow Jem on Twitter @JemDuducu.