The Vietnam War took place between November 1, 1955 and April 30, 1975. This war cost 2 million Vietnamese civilian lives, 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers, 250,000-250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, 58,220 American fighters, and 173 billion dollars. The Vietnam War started out being a proxy war for America, but quickly escalated to a full-scale American involvement for fear of communism. This war was one of the only wars that America did not win. A memorial is necessary to commemorate the millions of lives lost for a cause that was not understood by most, for a seemingly endless war that was spurred by the personal pursuits of the American government in the Cold War. The American people need to learn about the history of this war to recognize that the American government can act selfishly in order to put themselves in an advantageous position.
Vietnam had been occupied since 1883 by the French. The French colonized Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and later renamed the region Indochina. However, there had long been opposition to French rule. Vietnamese people did not like being controlled by a foreign power. In 1930, a man called Ho Chi Minh created a communist party in order to rebel against their oppressors. This party was called the Viet Minh. Ho Chi Minh was not driven by communism, however, he was driven by the desire for independence. In World War II, Japan occupied Vietnam in 1945 and declared Vietnam an independent state from Indochina under Japanese rule. Ho Chi Minh then established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, modeled after the American government, and declared himself the president. However, when World War II ended, so did the independence of Vietnam. Indochina was surrendered to the French. In 1946, France declared Vietnam an independent nation, but it was still under French control. This spurred the first of the Indochina Wars, which started with an attack on French forces in Hanoi.
In early 1950, the communist countries China, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia official recognized the state of Vietnam. Later that same year, democratic countries America and Great Britain also officially recognized the state of Vietnam. In 1954, the Geneva Accords were made. The Geneva Accords divided Vietnam into two sections: North VIetnam, led by communists under Ho Chi Minh, and the South of Vietnam, led by U.S. supported government under Ngo Dinh Diem. By this time, more than a million Vietnamese civilians had fled North Vietnam for South Vietnam.
The involvement of America in the Vietnam War was caused greatly by the U.S.’s fear of communism. In a communist society, one party claims to represent everyone, there are no elections, and as a result, the same leaders are always in power. All citizens receive what they need from the government, including healthcare, education, and housing. The state owns all means of production. Communism aims for a state of total equality. Their leaders do not support individualism, and no one is richer than his or her neighbor. There is not free market or enterprise. Everything people earn is given to the state, and the state then redistributes money or supplies based on people’s needs. According to Karl Marx, communism is, “From each according to his ability to each according to his needs.” Communist countries believe that capitalism debases human needs, while capitalist countries believe that communist states make human beings slaves to the government.
A factor that contributed to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was the Cold War. The Cold War started after World War II and ended in 1989, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. After World War II, the Americans and the Soviet Union each had separate political ideology and separate spheres of influence. America’s sphere of influence was in the Western part of the world, and the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence was in the Eastern part of the world. Both of these two powers wanted to stop each other from extending their spheres of influence. The Soviet Union feared the Americans would extend capitalism, and the Americans were afraid that the Soviet Union would extend communism.
Another factor that played a huge part in the American involvement in the Vietnam War was the Domino Effect Theory. The Domino Effect Theory stated that if one country in Southeast Asia became communist, the other countries would soon follow suit, and the Soviet Union would be able to extend communism even to Europe.
In Vietnam, however, the American troops were finding it very difficult to win the war. The Vietnamese fought every army they encountered using guerilla warfare. The Viet Minh used guerilla warfare against the French in the South. At first, instead of direct involvement in Vietnam, the Americans supported the French financially in the South of Vietnam. The Soviet Union gave Ho Chi Minh and the communist nationalists in the north of Vietnam financial aid. The Soviet Union and the Americans used the French and Vietnamese in order to wage a proxy war- a war instigated by a major power that itself does not become involved. Eventually, French forces left Vietnam, but not before leaving Ngo Dinh Diem in charge, who promised to establish a democratic republic. However, Ngo Dinh Diem refused to have elections, which was against what was stated in the Geneva Accord, making himself dictator. The Americans found they were giving money to a dictator in South Vietnam.
The Americans misunderstood the North Vietnamese call for freedom and independence. The U.S. simply considered them communists, and ignored their actual intent. For the Vietnamese, this war was on the brink of civil war. For the Americans, Vietnam was a pawn in the Cold War, a war to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding communism.
A key battle in America’s proxy war using the French was the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. This battle was fought in 1953 by French soldiers on a mountain outpost near the border of Laos. The decisive Viet Cong victory brought an end to the Indochina Wars. The French Army found they were losing a lot of ground, so they retreated to their outpost, called Dien Bien Phu. The Viet Minh cut off all paths and supplied their forces using the Ho Chi Minh path, a network of trails through the jungle that connected all Viet Cong bases. The outpost of Dien Bien Phu could only be supplied by air for the French, but they were still confident of their position. General Vo Nguyen Giap surrounded the French base with 40,000 men and used heavy artillery, completely taking the French Army by surprise.
The Battle of Ấp Bắc took place on January 1st, 1963. In 1961, the U.S. found a large portion of the Viet Cong forces near the village of Ấp Bắc, which was in South Vietnamese territory. Therefore the ARVN (Army of the Republic of South Vietnam) was ordered to destroy their base. In 1963, American helicopters dropped off ARVN soldiers near the village, but a catastrophe took place. South Vietnam was defeated, and five American helicopters were destroyed. This battle showed that the Americans were losing the war, and that VIet Cong forces were gaining support.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, also known as the USS Maddox Incident, is an example of how the American government lied to its own people and to the people and state of Vietnam. Americans claimed that the USS Maddox, a destroyer, had been attacked by the North Vietnamese army. The U.S. used false radar images to prove their point, which were called the “Tonkin Ghosts”. The U.S. used these fake attacks as an excuse to bomb North Vietnam and use Agent Orange to uncover the hiding spots of the Viet Cong.
On both sides, America and Vietnam, the resistance to the war was growing fast. Unlike in World War II, the American people did not understand why they were sending their men to die for a cause they did not understand or believe them. Furthermore, the American people did not believe in the hypocrisy of the war; President Kennedy saying he would support every nation that wanted to be independent and set up their own government, but only if the Americans liked the government they had set up. Americans also opposed the draft, which threatened families in the lower and middle classes. The draft targeted men and boys in fighting age (ages 18-30). Many Americans thought that the U.S. was using Vietnam as an excuse to fight Russia and get an advantage in the Cold War. On the other side of the ocean, Buddhists were campaigning for representation in a government that oppressed them. Many Buddhist monks opposed the war, and they set themselves on fire as part of their protests. Following their example, two men in the United States set themselves on fire as well; one in front of the Pentagon, another in front of the White House. As images of the war were released, the American public opposed the war even more. Many pictures showed military misconduct and the massacre of innocent civilians, such as the May Lai Massacre. The Americans heard reports on the radio about how soldiers were ordered to “kill everything that walks, runs, grows, and crawls” in order to completely annihilate the enemy.
Many families lost their fathers, brothers, and husbands in the war. Those who survived the war have never forgotten the horrors they were put through, and they have never been able to fully recover from the emotional damage it caused. The Vietnam War reduced people’s patriotism and faith in their government. Vietnam is one of the only wars in history that America has not won, deserving a memorial to commemorate the cost and aftermath of this war.
Bender, David L. The Vietnam War. Greenhaven Press, 1984.
Prados, John. Vietnam: the History of an Unwinnable War, 1945 -1975. Univ Pr Of Kansas, 2013.
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school.eb.com/levels/middle/article/Vietnam-War/277599. Accessed 29 Oct. 2017.