The Vietnam War



The Vietnam War

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From 1954, South Vietnam, under the leadership of President Diem, was propped up politically and financially by the US. Under Diem, communists and Buddhists were persecuted, whereas the North was hostile to Catholics, many of whom fled to the South. The entire nation was reeling with unrest and strife, and the time was ripe for an intervention by the US. In the meantime, the North allied with China and the USSR, and in 1960, the National Liberation Front (NLF) or Vietcong was formed with the mission of unifying the country. In 1960, US military advisors arrived in the South, thus initiating the 15-year war known to the Vietnamese as the “American War” and to the Americans as the “Vietnam War.” It is also sometimes referred to as the Second Indochina War.

US Soldiers in Paddy Fields, Mekong Delta

By 1967, there were half a million American soldiers in Vietnam, many of them one-year conscripts. Most were inexperienced and unmotivated, and had to fight in unfamiliar and difficult terrain, wading through rice paddies and swamps in search of their elusive opponents. More professional, specialist American forces mounted LRRPS or Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, staying in deep jungle or marshland on dangerous five-day missions.

Gulf of Tonkin Incident (1964)

The US accused NLF torpedo boats of launching unprovoked attacks on the USS Maddox.  Lyndon Johnson used this incident as his reason for bombing  the North and for sending American troops to Vietnam.

Death from the Air

The US Air Force (USAF) and its South Vietnamese allies used a wide range of chemical warfare, including white phosphorus, on enemy positions. Here, a US aircraft is bombing Danang, 1966.

Guerrilla Warfare

Both the NLF and the allied North Vietnamese Army (NVA) were adept at preparing simple but deadly booby traps.

Ho Chi Minh Trail

With its hidden narrow paths and frail bridges, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was used by communist troops to travel from North Vietnam to Saigon.

The Tet Offensive (1968)

The longest and bloodiest battle was the January Tet Offensive, when communist forces seized the old imperial capital of Hue and held it against massive counterattacks for 25 days. Both sides suffered heavy losses.

Hamburger Hill (1969)

On May 10, the US 101st Airborne battalion attacked forces holding Ap Bia Mountain, near Laos. In ten days, 46 US soldiers were dead and 400 wounded, earning the peak the notorious epithet, “Hamburger Hill.”

Napalm Bombings

A vicious but effective compound of jellied petroleum, napalm killed many thousands of people. When this infamous picture of young victims was beamed across the world in June 1972, US public opinion turned against the war.

Anti-War Protests

In the late 1960s and 70s, the anti-war movement grew in strength  everywhere, including the US. These demonstrators are outside the American Embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square.

Paris Peace Accords (1973)

Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho signed the treaty on January 23. US forces withdrew from Vietnam and the North released almost 500 US POWs.

April 29, 1975

The last remaining American personnel in Saigon were evacuated by helicopters to US Naval vessels in the South China Sea, even as the city was falling to victorious communist forces.

Reunification and Isolation

Following the overwhelming victory of the North in 1975, Le Duan, the general secretary of the Communist Party after Ho Chi Minh’s death, came into power. It was his doctrinaire government’s policies that shaped the next decade. In July 1976, Vietnam was officially reunified and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam proclaimed. Six months later, at the Fourth Party Congress, a decision was taken to press ahead with forced collectivization of industry, commerce, and agriculture in the south. Officials of the former southern regime were severely persecuted, many being sent for long periods of re-education in undeveloped border areas, a policy which denied Vietnam the services of thousands of skilled and educated citizens. To compound matters, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City – a designation never fully accepted in the South. In Cholon and across the south, persecution of the merchant class rapidly stopped businesses, a move that angered China as most commerce was controlled by the ethnic Chinese or Hoa. By 1977, great numbers of refugees, known as “boat people,” had started to flee abroad, further depleting human resources. Also, a harsh trade embargo imposed by the US after 1975 added to Vietnam’s economic disintegration.

Matters deteriorated on the regional front as well. In 1976, Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge of Cambodia), supported by China, launched cross-border attacks on Vietnam. Vietnam responded by signing a security pact with the Soviet Union in 1978, and overthrowing Pol Pot later in the same year. Early in 1979, China retaliated by invading the north and destroying  several provincial capitals before with- drawing unilaterally. Hanoi, execrated by  China and most of the West, was forced into a closer alliance with the USSR. By the early 1980s, impoverished and isolated, Vietnam was well on the way to starvation and economic collapse.


The death of Le Duan in 1986 brought about change. Nguyen Van Linh, a southerner, became party leader, and a policy of doi moi, or economic reforms, was adopted at the Sixth Party Congress, opening the way to gradual economic and social reform under the Communist Party. The liberalization policy was accelerated by the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War in 1991. Vietnam lost its ally and financial patron, and was forced to mend fences with China, establish closer links with its Southeast Asian neighbors, and open increasingly to the West.

As a result, in 1994, the US lifted its trade embargo, and in 1995, restored full diplomatic relations with Hanoi. In the same year, Vietnam became a full member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In 1997, the policy of continuing economic reform was confirmed with the election of the forward-looking Tran Duc Luong as president and Phan Van Khai as prime minister.


Since the turn of the 20th century Vietnam has seen a remarkable turnaround. In 2000, US President Bill Clinton’s visit was indicative of fast improving relations between the two former enemies. In 2001, this was followed by the normalization of trade relations between Washington and Hanoi, and the election of Nong Duc Manh as Secretary General of the Communist Party – the most powerful position in Vietnam followed by the prime minister and president. Widely regarded as a modernizer, Nong Duc Manh promised on his election that he would focus on economic development and fight corruption and unnecessary red tape. In 2006, Nguyen Tan Dung, the country’s youngest prime minister, was confirmed by the National Assembly. The first leader of post-war Vietnam with no experience of the independence struggle, he vowed to strive for development and to “pull the nation out of backwardness.” For the next two years Vietnam continued to prosper economically. The country has since been one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. In 2010 there was an influx of foreign brands and construction of many modern skyscrapers in Ho Chi Minh City. The unwillingness to continue reforms, however, led to a contraction of the economy and social tensions. In 2011, a number of riots and protests occurred  in response to police brutality and large- scale government land grabs, leading to  embarrassment and censure of top leaders. Despite this, most Vietnamese enjoy more freedom than their forefathers did at any time in their country’s history.

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