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The Vietnam War was fought from 1957 to 1975 between Soviet and Chinese-supported Vietnamese nationalist and Communist forces and an array of Western and pro-Western forces, most notably the United States. The war was fought to decide whether Vietnam would be united under a Communist government, or would remain indefinitely partitioned into the separate countries of North and South Vietnam. The war ended in 1975 with a Communist victory and the unification of the country under a government controlled by the Communist Party of Vietnam. In Vietnam, the conflict is known as the American War (Vietnamese Chiến Tranh Chống Mỹ Cứu Nước, which literally means “War Against the Americans to Save the Nation.”)
3 The War Begins
3.1 NLF in the South
3.2 John F. Kennedy and Vietnam
3.3 Combatants in the war
4 American Intervention
4.1 Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin
4.2 Operation Rolling Thunder
4.3 U.S. Forces Committed
5 The Tet Offensive
5.1 Tet Aftermath
6 Opposition to the war
7 Pacification and the “Hearts and Minds”
9 The end of the war
9.1 Fall of Saigon
11 Domestic effects and aftermath in Indochina
12 Domestic effects and aftermath in the United States
12.1 War powers
12.2 Social impact
12.3 Social attitudes and treatment of veterans
12.4 Contemporary status of Vietnam veterans
13 Common military medals of the Vietnam War
Time period placement for the Vietnam War is unclear. Some consider the Vietnam War to have begun in 1946 with the French attempt to re-establish control over their colony. This definition comes from those who tend to include the war with France, the war between the two Vietnams after 1954, and the war with the American troops until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Many more people separate the 29-year conflict in Vietnam into two separate wars, First Indochina War which was with the French and the Second Indochina War which was with the Americans. The difficulty in this is establishing a beginning and an end. The fighting with the French was more clear-cut (beginning in 1946 when the Vietnemese wrote their constitution and lasting until 1954 and the Geneva Peace Accord.) The fighting with the Americans was less distinct. The American government began funding the French fight in the early 1950s. After the peace agreement, American troops were stationed in South Vietnam. From there on, the American involvement escalated. Many Americans consider the Vietnam War, the conflict between US and PAVN troops, not to have begun until 1965 after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, when the U.S. claimed North Vietnamese forces attacked U.S. Navy ships twice. That report would come under scrutiny and eventually prove to be false.
The war was fought on the ground in South Vietnam and bordering areas of Cambodia and Laos and in the strategic bombing of North Vietnam. For more details of the events during the war, see: Timeline of the Vietnam War. Many experts consider the Vietnam War to just be one frontline in the larger Cold War.
Fighting on one side was a coalition of forces including the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam or the “RVN”), the United States, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines. Participation by the South Korean military was financed by the United States, but Australia and New Zealand fully funded their own involvement. Other countries normally allied with the United States in the Cold War, including the United Kingdom and Canada, refused to participate in the coalition, although a few of their citizens volunteered to join the US forces. Canada, in fact, led peace talks between the two countries for years.
Fighting on the other side was a coalition of forces including the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the National Liberation Front, a South Vietnamese opposition movement with a guerrilla militia known in the Western world as the “Viet Cong”. The USSR provided military and financial aid, along with diplomatic support to the North Vietnamese and to the Viet Cong, partly as support against the U.S. and South Vietnamese government and partly as a counter to Chinese influence in the region.
The Vietnam War is classed as the second war of the Indochina Wars and was in many ways a direct successor to the French Indochina War in which the French, with the financial and logistical support of the United States, fought a losing effort to maintain control of her former colony of French Indochina.
France had gained control of Indochina in a series of colonial wars beginning in the 1840s and lasting until the 1880s. During World War II, Vichy France had collaborated with the occupying Imperial Japanese forces. Vietnam was under effective Imperial Japanese control, as well as de facto Japanese administrative control, although the Vichy French continued to serve as the official administrators. After the Japanese surrender, the Vietnamese had hoped to move to formal independence from France. Political events outside Asia, however, dictated that this would not come easily.
On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh organized a ceremony to herald the coming of an independent Vietnam. In his speech, he even cited the American Declaration of Independence, and a band played “The Star Spangled Banner.” Ho had hoped that the United States would be his ally in the movement for Vietnamese independence, basing his supposition on the notion that President Franklin Roosevelt had repeatedly spoken against the continuation of European imperialism after the armistice with Germany and Japan.
After the Viet Minh’s historic victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in the First Indochina War all of Indochina was granted independence, including Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. However, Vietnam was partitioned at the 17th parallel in which North the former Vietminh would establish a Communist state and South an anti-communist state by Emperor Bao Dai. As dictated in the Geneva Accords of 1954 the division was meant to be temporary pending free elections for national leadership. These did not occur, however, because the United States believed that Ho Chi Minh could easily win merely with his status as a national hero. Whatever the case, neither of the new Vietnamese countries signed the election clause in the agreement. Thus in South Vietnam Ngo Diem, who had ousted Bao Dai, consolidated his repressive regime while Ho Chi Minh continued a totalitarian rule in the North.
The War Begins
NLF in the South
In 1957 the communists began their Revolutionary War against the South Vietnamese government. Two years later came the founding of the NLF, or National Liberation Front, an organization of South Vietnamese communists committed to establishing a communist state in South Vietnam. The organization was under tight scrutiny of Hanoi, who began to supply the NLF in 1959 via the Ho Chi Minh Trail which began in North Vietnam and moved southward into Laos and Cambodia (thus violating their neutrality) finally exiting into South Vietnam. Over time the trail would be improved and it became a vital lifeline for communist forces in South Vietnam. The Americans would try numerous times to cut the trail solely by airpower, but guerrillas only required a small portion of what went down the trail to conduct operations. Further supplies were sent by sea to Sihanoukville in Cambodia until that outlet was closed by Lon Nol in 1970. Eventually the Trail would be used by the North Vietnamese to infiltrate their own army.
Phase I of the communist vision of revolutionary warfare was thus beginning. Phase I involved a pure insurgency by the NLF to weaken the South Vietnamese government. In Phase II the North Vietnamese army would assist these operations to slowly eradicate government forces. Phase III would witness an all out invasion by North Vietnam and final victory.
At first Diem was able to cope with the insurgents, and by 1962, with the aid of American advisors, seemed to be winning the war. Senior U.S. military leaders were receiving positive reports from the American commander, Gen. Paul D. Harkins of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. In truth, the situation on the ground was much worse. This disconnect between the rosy situation reports and reality began to make itself known with the disastrous Battle of Ap Bac in early 1963. All through the year the communists managed to inflict major defeats on the South Vietnamese army, profiting from the turmoil and corruption in the government.
John F. Kennedy and Vietnam
In June 1961, John F. Kennedy met with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, where Khrushchev sought to bully the young American president into conceding to the Soviets certain key contests, notably Berlin, where large numbers of skilled workers had been escaping to the West. Kennedy left the meeting agitated, and quickly determined that Khrushchev’s attitude towards him would make an armed conflict virtually unavoidable in the near future. Some claim that Kennedy and his advisers soon decided that any such conflicts had better follow the Korea model, being confined to conventional weaponry, through proxy parties, as a way to mitigate the threat of direct nuclear war between the two superpowers. Some speculate that it must have been decided that the most likely theatre for such a conflict would be in Southeast Asia. By the political calculations of his administration, the U.S. had to work quickly to create a “valve” to release any built-up political pressures.
The North may have felt that the South was prepared to vote for a communist government. The U.S. cared little for Diem, but forged its alliance with his government out of fear that an easy Communist victory would only bolster the perceived bravado that Khrushchev had shown to Kennedy at Vienna. The U.S. fatefully decided that an immediate stand against Soviet expansion was both prudent and necessary, regardless of, or perhaps underestimating, the human cost.
The Kennedy administration, in terms of foreign policy, never fully emerged from the shadow of Harry Truman, in the sense that the domestic crisis unleashed by the alleged failure of the last Democratic administration to prevent the fall of China to the Communists in 1949 prompted Kennedy to resist as strongly as possible any potential gains by Communist movements. In 1961, moreover, Kennedy found himself faced with a tripartite crisis that appeared to him very similar to that faced by Truman in 1949-1950. In that year, Truman sought to counterbalance the fall of China and the detonation of the first Soviet atomic bomb with a firm stand in Korea. From Kennedy’s perspective, 1961 had already seen the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and a negotiated settlement between the pro-Western government of Laos and the Pathet Lao Communist movement. Fearing that another failure on the part of the United States to stop Communist expansion would fatally damage his and Washington’s reputation, Kennedy placed a new emphasis on preventing a Communist victory in Vietnam.
Eventually, the Kennedy administration grew increasingly frustrated with Diem. In 1963, Diem’s forces launched a violent crackdown on Buddhist monks protesting the government’s policies. This caused a wave of self-immolations by monks, pictures of which splashed on the front pages of newspapers worldwide, leading to embarrassing American press coverage. Since Vietnam was a predominantly Buddhist nation while Diem and much of the ruling structure of South Vietnam was Roman Catholic, this action was viewed as further proof that Diem was completely out of touch with his people. U.S. messages were sent to South Vietnamese generals encouraging them to act against Diem’s excesses. Though there is some debate as to whether or not this was Kennedy’s intention, the South Vietnamese military interpreted these messages as a call to arms, and staged a violent coup d’etat, overthrowing and killing Diem on November 1, 1963.
Far from uniting the country under new leadership, the death of Diem made the South even more unstable. The new military rulers were very inexperienced in political matters, and were unable to provide the strong central authority of Diem’s rule. Coups and counter-coups plagued the country, and though the immediate aftermath of Diem’s death took much of the impetus away from the Viet Cong, since it no longer had the person of Diem around which to rally resentment, Hanoi quickly stepped up its efforts to escalate the war against the South in order to exploit the vacuum.
Three weeks after Diem’s death, Kennedy himself was assassinated, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was suddenly thrust into the war’s leadership role. Newly sworn-in President Johnson confirmed on November 24, 1963 that the United States intended to continue supporting South Vietnam militarily and economically.
Combatants in the war
In major combat there were, depending upon one’s point of view, two to four major combatant organizations; the four being the United States armed forces and allied forces; the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN—the South Vietnamese Army, pronounced Arvin); the NLF (better known as the Viet Cong,) a group of South Vietnamese guerrilla fighters supported and later directed by the PAVN; and the People’s Army of Viet Nam (PAVN—the North Vietnamese Army, pronounced Pahvin). The PAVN received military aid from the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (though aid from the latter waned following the Sino-Soviet split.)
Arguments over which of these four were the actual combatants was a major political focus of the war. The U.S. sought to depict the war as one between ARVN defenders with U.S. help against PAVN forces, thus depicting the NLF a puppet or shadow army and the war as a South Vietnamese defense against North Vietnamese aggression.
The North Vietnamese portrayed the conflict as one between the indigenous South Vietnamese NLF and the United States, with the noncombat support of North Vietnam and its allies. This view held ARVN to be a puppet of the U.S.
These conflicting propaganda stances were later played out in early peace talks in which arguments were made over “the shape of the [negotiating] table” in which each side sought to depict itself as two distinct entities opposing a single entity, ignoring its “puppet”.
U.S. involvement in the war followed a strategy of escalation, using the analogy of an escalator rising slowly but steadily to increase war pressure on the enemy, as opposed to the traditional declaration of war with the usual massive attack using all available means to secure victory.
Under escalation, U.S. involvement increased over a period of years, beginning with the deployment of non-combatant military advisors to the South Vietnamese army, to use of special forces for commando-style operations, to introduction of regular troops whose purpose was to be defensive only, to using regular troops in offensive combat. Once U.S. troops were engaged in active combat, escalation shifted to the addition of increasing numbers of U.S. troops .
The policy of escalation helped complicate the ambiguous legal status for the war. Since the U.S. had pre-existing treaty agreements with the Republic of Viet Nam, each escalation was presented as simply another step in helping an ally resist Communist aggression. The U.S. Congress continued to vote appropriations for war operations, and the Johnson Administration claimed these actions as a proxy, along with Tonkin, for the Constitutionally mandated requirement that Congress retain war power.
By keeping its involvement limited, it was hoped, the United States could buttress the government of South Vietnam without provoking a major response from China or the Soviet Union, as had happened the previous decade in Korea. Johnson attempted to tread a line between keeping Beijing and Moscow out of the war while retaining an independent, pro-Western South Vietnam-seen as crucial to US prestige threatened by Soviet actions, especially in Cuba, but also in Europe and elsewhere. In this sense, Johnson saw Vietnam just as Kennedy had: the American response to the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Escalation caused serious friction between the American armed services and the civilian authorities in Washington. Military officials such as General William Westmoreland resented the Johnson Administration’s restraints on their operations, yet at the same time were wary of speaking out, lest they suffer the same fate as General Douglas MacArthur, who had been dismissed by Truman for insubordination during the Korean War.
In U.S. political debate, the advantage of escalation to those who wanted to be engaged in the war was that no individual instance of escalation dramatically increased the level of U.S. involvement. The U.S. populace was led to believe that the most recent escalation would be sufficient to “win the war” and therefore would be the last. This theory, combined with ready availability of conscripted troops, reduced grassroots political opposition to the war until 1968, when the Johnson Administration considered increasing the troop levels from approximately 550,000 in-country to about 700,000. This was the “straw” that broke the back of U.S. support for the war. The troop increase was abandoned and by the end of 1969, under the new administration of Richard M. Nixon, U.S. troop levels had been reduced by 60,000 from their wartime peak.
Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin
Main article: Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Johnson raised the level of U.S. involvement on July 27, 1964 when 5,000 additional US military advisors were ordered to South Vietnam which brought the total number of US forces in Vietnam to 21,000.
On July 31, 1964, the American destroyer USS Maddox, continued a reconnaissance mission in the Gulf of Tonkin well offshore in international waters, a mission that had been suspended for six months. Some critics of President Lyndon Johnson say the purpose of the mission was to provoke a reaction from North Vietnamese coastal defense forces as a pretext for a wider war. Responding to an attack, and with the help of air support from the nearby carrier USS Ticonderoga, Maddox destroyed one North Vietnamese torpedo-boat and damaged two others. Maddox, suffering only superficial damage by a single 14.5-millimeter machine gun bullet, retired to South Vietnamese waters, where she was joined by USS C. Turner Joy.
On August 3, GVN again attacked North Vietnam; the Rhon River estuary and the Vinh Sonh radar installation were bombarded under cover of darkness.
On August 4, a new DESOTO patrol to the North Vietnam coast was launched, with Maddox and C. Turner Joy. The latter got radar signals later claimed to be another attack by the North Vietnamese. For some two hours the ships fired on radar targets and maneuvered vigorously amid electronic and visual reports of torpedoes. Later, Captain John J. Herrick admitted that it was nothing more than an “overeager sonarman” who “was hearing ship’s own propeller beat”. This was not, however, clear at the time. In fact, it was later speculated that Johnson concocted the entire Gulf of Tonkin story. There was no alleged torpedo attack, and Johnson may have required these attacks to win approval of the Senate to intensify American attacks in Vietnam. Others may rebut in Johnson’s defense saying that the crew of the two ships had also believed they were under attack at the time.
The U.S. Senate then approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964, which gave broad support to President Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement in the war “as the President shall determine”. In a televised address Johnson claimed that “the challenge that we face in South-East Asia today is the same challenge that we have faced with courage and that we have met with strength in Greece and Turkey, in Berlin and Korea, in Lebanon and in Cuba,” a dangerous misreading of the politics of the Vietnamese conflict in some people’s minds. National Security Council members, including Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and Maxwell Taylor agreed on November 28, 1964 to recommend that President Johnson adopt a plan for a two-stage escalation of bombing in North Vietnam.
Operation Rolling Thunder
Operation Rolling Thunder was the code name for the non-stop, but often interrupted bombing raids in North Vietnam conducted by the United States armed forces during the Vietnam War. Its purpose was to destroy the will of the North Vietnamese to fight, to destroy industrial bases and air defenses (SAMs), and to stop the flow of men and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Starting in March 1965 Operation Rolling Thunder gradually escalated in intensity in the hope that the Communists would negotiate. Although half the bridges were destroyed and many supply depots hit, North Vietnam’s Communist allies were always able to resupply them. The two principal areas where supplies came from, Haiphong and the Chinese border, were off limits to aerial attack. Restrictions on civilian areas also enabled the North Vietnamese to put military targets in them, such as anti-aircraft guns on schools.
In March 1968 Operation Rolling Thunder was suspended after the North agreed to negotiate in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.
U.S. Forces Committed
In February of 1965 the U.S. base at Pleiku was attacked twice killing over a dozen Americans. This provoked the reprisal airstrikes of Operation Flaming Dart in North Vietnam. It was the first time an American airstrike was launched because its forces had been attacked in South Vietnam. That same month the U.S. began independent airstrikes in the South. An American HAWK team was sent to Da Nang, a vulnerable airbase if Hanoi intended to bomb it. One result of Operation Flaming Dart was the shipment of anti-aircraft missiles to North Vietnam which began in a few weeks from the Soviet Union.
On March 8, 1965, 3,500 United States Marines became the first American combat troops to land in South Vietnam, adding to the 25,000 US military advisers already in place. The air war escalated as well; on July 24, 1965, four F-4C Phantoms escorting a bombing raid at Kang Chi became the targets of antiaircraft missiles in the first such attack against American planes in the war. One plane was shot down and the other three sustained damage. Four days later Johnson announced another order that increased the number of US troops in Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000. The day after that, July 29, the first 4,000 101st Airborne Division paratroopers arrived in Vietnam, landing at Cam Ranh Bay.
Then on August 18, 1965, Operation Starlite began as the first major American ground battle of the war when 5,500 US Marines destroyed a Viet Cong stronghold on the Van Tuong peninsula in Quang Ngai Province. The Marines were tipped-off by a Viet Cong deserter who said that there was an attack planned against the US base at Chu Lai. The Vietcong learned from their defeat and tried to avoid fighting a US-style war from then on.
By this time the North Vietnamese had also commited their forces to South Vietnam beginning in late 1964 to begin “Phase II” or the use of guerilla and regular forces to wear down and inflict defeats on the South Vietnamese. But other schools of thought believed that they should go straight to Phase III, conventional invasion. Thus a plan was drawn up to use PAVN forces to split South Vietnam in two at the Central Highlands, and then to defeat each in detail. This climaxed into the battle of Ia Drang Valley when the PAVN was defeated by an American force they vastly outnumbered. Thus the communists returned to guerilla tactics.
The Pentagon told President Johnson on November 27, 1965 that if planned major sweep operations needed to neutralize Viet Cong forces during the next year were to succeed, the number of American troops in Vietnam needed to be increased from 120,000 to 400,000. By the end of 1965, 184,000 US troops were in Vietnam. In February 1966 there was a meeting between the commander of the U.S. effort, head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam General William Westmoreland and Johnson in Honolulu. Westmoreland argued that the US presence had prevented a defeat but that more troops were needed to take the offensive, he claimed that an immediate increase could lead to the “cross-over point” in Vietcong and NVA casualties being reached in early 1967. Johnson authorized an increase in troop numbers to 429,000 by August 1966.
On 12 October 1967 US Secretary of State Dean Rusk stated during a news conference that proposals by the U.S. Congress for peace initiatives were futile because of North Vietnam’s opposition. Johnson then held a secret meeting with a group of the nation’s most prestigious leaders (“the Wise Men”) on November 2 and asked them to suggest ways to unite the American people behind the war effort. They concluded that the American people should be given more optimistic reports on the progress of the war. Then based on reports he was given on November 13, Johnson told his nation on November 17 that, while much remained to be done, “We are inflicting greater losses than we’re taking…We are making progress.” Following up on this, General William Westmoreland on November 21 told news reporters: “I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing.” Two months later the Tet Offensive made both men regret their words. Although the communists were taking a major beating, true victory could not come until the country was pacified.
The Tet Offensive
Continued escalation of American military involvement came as the Johnson administration and Westmoreland repeatedly assured the American public that the next round of troop increases would bring victory. The American public’s faith in the “light at the end of the tunnel” was shattered, however, on January 30, 1968, when the enemy, supposedly on the verge of collapse, mounted the Tet Offensive (named after Tet Nguyen Dan, the lunar new year festival which is the most important Vietnamese holiday) in South Vietnam, in which nearly every major city in South Vietnam was attacked. During their temporary occupation of Huế, Communists allegedly killed 3,000 civilians who were then buried in mass graves, the worst single massacre against civilians in the war (see Massacre at Hue). Although neither of these offensives accomplished any military objectives, the surprising capacity of an enemy that was supposedly on the verge of collapse to even launch such an offensive convinced many Americans that victory was impossible. There was an increasing sense among many people that the government was misleading the American people about a war without a clear beginning or end. When General Westmoreland called for still more troops to be sent to Vietnam, Clark Clifford, a member of Johnson’s own cabinet, came out against the war.
Soon after Tet, Westmoreland was replaced by his deputy, General Creighton W. Abrams. Abrams pursued a very different approach to Westmoreland, favoring more openness with the media, less indiscriminate use of airstrikes and heavy artillery, elimination of bodycount as the key indicator of battlefield success, and more meaningful co-operation with ARVN forces. His strategy, although yielding positive results, came too late to sway a domestic US public opinion that was already solidifying against the war.
Facing a troop shortage, on October 14, 1968 the United States Department of Defense announced that the United States Army and Marines would be sending about 24,000 troops back to Vietnam for involuntary second tours. Two weeks later on October 31, citing progress with the Paris peace talks, US President Lyndon B. Johnson announced what became known as the October surprise when he ordered a complete cessation of “all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam” effective November 1. Peace talks eventually broke down, however, and one year later, on November 3, 1969, then President Richard M. Nixon addressed the nation on television and radio asking the “silent majority” to join him in solidarity on the Vietnam War effort and to support his policies.
The credibility of the government suffered when The New York Times, and later The Washington Post, and other newspapers, published The Pentagon Papers. It was a top-secret historical study, contracted by the Pentagon, about the war, that showed how the government was misleading the US public, in all stages of the war, including the secret support of the French in the first Vietnam War.
Opposition to the war
Small scale opposition to the war began in 1964 on college campuses. This was happening during a time of unprecedented leftist student activism, and of the arrival at college age of the demographically significant Baby Boomers. Growing opposition to the war is attributable in part to the much greater access to information about the war available to college age Americans compared with previous generations because of extensive television news coverage.
The draft itself also initiated protests when on October 15, 1965 the student-run National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam staged the first public burning of a draft card in the United States. The first draft lottery since World War II in the United States was held on 1 December 1969 and was met with large protests and a great deal of controversy; statistical analysis indicated that the methodology of the lotteries unintentionally disadvantaged men with late year birthdays. This issue was treated at length in a 4 January 1970 New York Times article titled “Statisticians Charge Draft Lottery Was Not Random”.
The U.S. people became polarized over the war. Many supporters of the war argued for what was known as the Domino Theory, which held that if the South fell to communist guerillas, other nations, primarily in Southeast Asia, would succumb in short succession, much like falling dominoes. Military critics of the war pointed out that the conflict was political and that the military mission lacked clear objectives. Civilian critics of the war argued that the government of South Vietnam lacked political legitimacy, or that support for the war was immoral. President Johnson’s undersecretary of state, George Ball, was one of the lone voices in his administration advising against war in Vietnam.
The growing anti-war movement alarmed many in the US government. On August 16, 1966 the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigations of Americans who were suspected of aiding the NLF, with the intent to introduce legislation making these activities illegal. Anti-war demonstrators disrupted the meeting and 50 were arrested.
On 1 February 1968, a suspected NLF officer was summarily executed by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a South Vietnamese National Police Chief. Loan shot the suspect in the head on a public street in front of journalists. The execution was filmed and photographed and provided another iconic image that helped sway public opinion in the United States against the war. Photographs do not tell the whole story, Lem was captured near the site of a ditch holding as many as thirty-four bound and shot bodies of police and their relatives, some of whom were the families of General Loan’s deputy and close friend.
On 15 October 1969, hundreds of thousands of people took part in National Moratorium antiwar demonstrations across the United States; the demonstrations prompted many workers to call in sick from their jobs and adolescents nationwide engaged in truancy from school – although the proportion of individuals doing either who actually participated in the demonstrations is in doubt. A second round of “Moratorium” demonstrations was held on November 15, but was less well-attended.
However, anti-war feelings also began to rise. Many Americans opposed the war on moral grounds, seeing it as a destructive war against Vietnamese independence, or as intervention in a foreign civil war; others opposed it because they felt it lacked clear objectives and appeared to be unwinnable. Some anti-war activists were themselves Vietnam Veterans, as evidenced by the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Some of the Americans opposed to the Vietnam War, as for instance Jane Fonda, stressed their support for ordinary Vietnamese civilians struck by a war beyond their influence. The anti-war sentiments gave reason to a perception among returning soldiers of being spat on.
On April 22, 1971, John Kerry became the first Vietnam veteran to testify before Congress about the war, when he appeared before a Senate committee hearing on proposals relating to ending the war. He spoke for nearly two hours with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in what has been named the Fulbright Hearing, after the Chairman of the proceedings, Senator J. William Fulbright. Kerry presented the conclusions of the Winter Soldier Investigation, where veterans had described personally committing or witnessing war crimes.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson began his re-election campaign. A member of his own party, Eugene McCarthy, ran against him for the nomination on an antiwar platform. McCarthy did not win the first primary election in New Hampshire, but he did surprisingly well against an incumbent. The resulting blow to the Johnson campaign, taken together with other factors, led the President to make a surprise announcement in a March 31 televised speech that he was pulling out of the race. He also announced the initiation of the Paris Peace Talks with Vietnam in that speech. Then, on August 4, 1969, US representative Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese representative Xuan Thuy began secret peace negotiations at the apartment of French intermediary Jean Sainteny in Paris. This set of negotations failed, however, prior to the 1972 North Vietnamese offensive.
Pacification and the “Hearts and Minds”
The U.S. realized that the South Vietnamese government needed a solid base of popular support if it was to survive the insurgency. In order to pursue this goal of “winning the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people, units of the United States Army, referred to as “Civil Affairs” units, were extensively utilized for the first time for this purpose since World War II.
Civil Affairs units, while remaining armed and under direct military control, engaged in what came to be known as “nation building”: constructing (or reconstructing) schools, public buildings, roads and other physical infrastructure; conducting medical programs for civilians who had no access to medical facilities; facilitating cooperation among local civilian leaders; conducting hygiene and other training for civilians; and similar activities.
This policy of attempting to win the “Hearts and Minds” of the Vietnamese people, however, often was at odds with other aspects of the war which served to antagonize many Vietnamese civilians. These policies included the emphasis on “body count” as a way of measuring military success on the battlefield, the accidental bombing of villages (symbolized by journalist Peter Arnett’s famous quote, “it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it”), and the killing of civilians in such incidents as the My Lai massacre. In 1974 the documentary Hearts and Minds sought to portray the devastation the war was causing to the South Vietnamese people, and won an Academy Award for best documentary amid considerable controversy. The South Vietnamese government also antagonized many of its citizens with its suppression of political opposition, through such measures as holding large numbers of political prisoners, torturing political opponents, and holding a one-man election for President in 1971. Despite this, the government captured a large percentage of the votes of the large percentage of the Vietnamese that participated.
Nixon was elected President and began his policy of slow disengagement from the war. The goal was to gradually build up the South Vietnamese Army so that it could fight the war on its own. This policy became the cornerstone of the so-called “Nixon Doctrine”. As applied to Vietnam, the doctrine was called “Vietnamization”. The stated goal of Vietnamization was to enable the South Vietnamese army to increasingly hold its own against the NLF and the North Vietnamese Army. The unstated goal of Vietnamization was that the primary burden of combat would be returned to ARVN troops and thereby lessen domestic opposition to the war in the U.S.
During this period, the United States conducted a gradual troop withdrawal from Vietnam. Nixon continued to use air power to bomb the enemy, along with an American troop incursion in Cambodia. Ultimately more bombs were dropped under the Nixon Presidency than under Johnson’s, while American troop deaths started to drop significantly. The Nixon administration was determined to remove American troops from the theater while not destabilizing the defensive efforts of South Vietnam.
Many significant gains in the war were made under the Nixon administration, however. One particularly significant achievement was the weakening of support that the North Vietnamese army received from the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China. One of Nixon’s main foreign policy goals had been the achievement of a “breakthrough” in U.S. relations with the two nations, in terms of creating a new spirit of cooperation. To a large extent this was achieved. China and the USSR had been the principal backers of the North Vietnamese army through large amounts of military and financial support. The eagerness of both nations to improve their own US relations in the face of a widening breakdown of the inter-Communist alliance led to the reduction of their aid to North Vietnam.
The morality of US conduct of the war continued to be an issue under the Nixon Presidency. In 1969, American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh exposed the My Lai massacre and its cover-up, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. It came to light that Lt. William Calley, a platoon leader in Vietnam, had led a massacre of several hundred Vietnamese civilians, including women, babies, and the elderly, at My Lai a year before. The massacre was only stopped after two American soldiers in a helicopter spotted the carnage and intervened to prevent their fellow Americans from killing any more civilians. Although many were appalled by the wholesale slaughter at My Lai, Calley was given a life sentence after his court-martial in 1970, and was later pardoned by President Nixon. Cover-ups or soft treatments of American war crimes also happened in other cases, e.g. as revealed by the Pulitzer Prize winning article series about the Tiger Force by the Toledo Blade in 2003. But My Lai was the worst.
In 1970, Prince Sihanouk was deposed by Lon Nol in Cambodia, who became the chief of state. The Khemer Rouge guerillas with North Vietnamese backing began to attack the new regime. Nixon ordered a military incursion into Cambodia in order to destroy NLF sanctuaries bordering on South Vietnam and protect the fragile Cambodian government. This action prompted even more protests on American college campuses. Several students were shot and killed by National Guard troops during demonstrations at Kent State.
One effect of the incursion was to push communist forces deeper into Cambodia, which destabilized the country and in turn may have encouraged the rise of the Khmer Rouge, who seized power in 1975. The goal of the attacks, however, was to bring the North Vietnamese negotiators back to the table with some flexibility in their demands that the South Vietnamese government be overthrown as part of the agreement. It was also alleged that American and South Vietnamese casualty rates were reduced by the destruction of military supplies the communists had been storing in Cambodia. All U.S. forces left Cambodia on June 30.
In an effort to help assuage growing discontent over the war, Nixon announced on October 12, 1970 that the United States would withdraw 40,000 more troops before Christmas. Later that month on October 30, the worst monsoon to hit Vietnam in six years caused large floods, killed 293, left 200,000 homeless and virtually halted the war.
Backed by American air and artillery support, South Vietnamese troops invaded Laos on 13 February 1971. On August 18 of that year, Australia and New Zealand decided to withdraw their troops from Vietnam. The total number of American troops in Vietnam dropped to 196,700 on 29 October 1971, the lowest level since January 1966. On November 12, 1971 Nixon set a 1 February 1972 deadline to remove another 45,000 American troops from Vietnam.
In the 1972 election, the war was once again a major issue in the United States. An antiwar candidate, George McGovern, ran against President Nixon. Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, declared that “peace is at hand” shortly before election day, dealing a death blow to McGovern’s campaign, which was already far behind in opinion surveys. However, the peace agreement was not signed until the next year, leading many to conclude that Kissinger’s announcement was just a political ploy. Kissinger’s defenders assert that the North Vietnamese negotiators had made use of Kissinger’s pronouncement as an opportunity to embarrass the Nixon Administration to weaken it at the negotiation table. White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler on 30 November 1972 told the press that there would be no more public announcements concerning American troop withdrawals from Vietnam due to the fact that troop levels were then down to 27,000. The US halted heavy bombing of North Vietnam on December 30, 1972.
The end of the war
On 15 January 1973, citing progress in peace negotiations, President Nixon announced the suspension of offensive action in North Vietnam which was later followed by a unilateral withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords were later signed on 27 January 1973 which officially ended US involvement in the Vietnam conflict. This won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for Kissinger and North Vietnamese Politburo member and lead negotiator Le Duc Tho while fighting continued, leading songwriter Tom Lehrer to declare that irony had died. However, five days before the peace accords were signed, Lyndon Johnson, whose presidency was marred by the war, died. The mood during his state funeral was one of intense sadness and recrimination because the war’s wounds were still raw.
The first American prisoners of war were released on February 11 and all US soldiers were ordered to leave by March 29. In a break with history, soldiers returning from the Vietnam War were generally not treated as heroes, and soldiers were sometimes even condemned for their participation in the war.
The peace agreement did not last.
Nixon had promised South Vietnam that he would provide military support to them in the event of a crumbling military situation. Nixon was fighting for his political life in the growing Watergate Scandal at the time. Economic aid continued, but most of it was siphoned off by corrupt elements in the South Vietnamese government and little of it actually went to the war effort. At the same time aid to North Vietnam from the USSR and China began to increase, and with the Americans out, the two countries no longer saw the war as significant to their US relations. The balance of power had clearly shifted to the North.
In December 1974, Congress completed passage of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974 that voted to cut off all military funding to the Saigon government and made unenforceable the peace terms negotiated by Nixon.
By 1975, the South Vietnamese Army stood alone against the powerful North Vietnamese. Despite Vietnamization and the 1972 victories against the PAVN offensive, the ARVN was plagued with corruption, desertion, low wages, and lack of supplies. Then in early March the PAVN launched a powerful offensive into the poorly defended Central Highlands, splitting the Republic of Vietnam in two. President Thieu, fearful that ARVN troops in the northern provinces would be isolated due to a PAVN encirclement, he decided on a redeployment of ARVN troops from the northern provinces to the Central Highlands. But the withdrawal of South Vietnamese forces soon turned into a bloody retreat as the PAVN crossed the DMZ. While South Vietnamese forces retreated from the northern provinces, splintered South Vietnamese forces in the Central Highlands fought desperately against the PAVN.
On March 11, 1975 Bumnethout fell to the PAVN. The attack began in the early morning hours. After a violent artillery barrage, 4,000- man garrison defending the city retreated with their families. On March 15, President Thieu ordered the Central Highlands and the northern provinces to be abandoned, in what he declared to lighten the top and keep the bottom. General Phu abandoned the cities of Pleiku and Kontum and retreated to the coast in what became known as the column of tears. General Phu led his troops to Tum Ky on the coast, but as the ARVN retreated, the civilians also went with them. Due to already destroyed roads and bridges, the column slowed down as the PAVN closed in. As the column staggered down mountains to the coast, PAVN shelling attacked. By April 1, the column ceased to exist after 60,000 ARVN troops were killed.
On March 20, Thieu reversed himself and ordered Hue, Vietnam’s 3rd largest city be held out at all cost. But as the PAVN attacked, a panic ensued and South Vietnamese resistance collapsed. On March 22, the PAVN launched a siege on Hue, the civilians, remembering the 1968 massacre jammed into the airport, seaports, and the docks. Some even swam into the ocean to reach boats and barges. The ARVN routed with the civilians and some South Vietnamese shot civilians just to make room for themselves. On March 25, after a 3-day siege, Hue fell.
As Hue fell, PAVN rockets hit downtown Da Nang and the airport. By March 28, 35,000 PAVN troops were poised in the suburbs. On March 29, a World Airways jet led by Edward Daley landed in Da Nang to save women and children, instead 300 men jammed onto the flight, mostly ARVN troops. On March 30, 100,000 leaderless ARVN troops surrendered as the PAVN marched victoriously through Da Nang on that Easter Sunday. With the fall of Da Nang, the defense of the Central Highlands and northern provinces collapsed. With half of South Vietnam under their control, PAVN prepared for its final phase in its offensive, the Ho Chi Minh campaign, the plan: By May 1, capture Saigon before South Vietnamese forces could regroup to defend it.
The PAVN continued its attack as South Vietnamese forces and Thieu regime crumbled before their onslaught. On April 7, 3 PAVN divisions attacked Xuan-loc, 40 miles east of Saigon , where they met fierce resistance from the ARVN 18th Infantry division. For 2 bloody weeks. Severe fighting raged in the city as the ARVN defenders in a last-ditch effort tried desperately to save South Vietnam from military and economic collapse. Also, hoping Americans forces would return in time to save them. The ARVN 18th Infantry division used many advanced weapons against the PAVN, and it was in the final phase in which Saigon government troops fought well. But on April 21, the exhausted and besieged army garrison defending Xuan-loc surrendered. A bitter and tearful Thieu resigned on April 21, saying America had betrayed South Vietnam and he showed the 1972 document claiming America would retaliate against North Vietnam should they attack. Thieu left for Taiwan on April 25, leaving control of the doomed government to General Minh.
By now PAVN tanks had reached Bienhoa, they turned towards Saigon, clashing with few South Vietnamese units on the way. The end was near.
Fall of Saigon
By April, the weakened South Vietnamese Army had collapsed on all fronts. The powerful PAVN offensive forced South Vietnamese troops on a bloody retreat that ended up as a hopeless siege at Xuan-loc, a city 40 miles from Saigon, and the last South Vietnamese defense line before Saigon. On April 21, the defense of Xuan-loc collapsed and PAVN troops and tanks rapidly advanced to Saigon. On April 27, 100,000 PAVN troops encircled Saigon, which was to be defended by 30,000 ARVN troops. On April 29, the US launched Option IV, the largest helicopter evacuation in history. Chaos, unrest, and panic ensued as hectic Vietnamese scrambled to leave Saigon before it was too late. Helicopters began evacuating from the US embassy and the airport. Evacuations were held to the last minute because US Ambassador Martin thought Saigon could be held and defended. The operation began in an atmosphere of desperation as hysterical mobs of South Vietnamese raced to takeoff spots designated to evacuate, many yelling to be saved. Martin had pleaded to the US government to send $700 million dollars in emergency aid to South Vietnam in order to bolster the Saigon regime’s ability to fight and to mobilize fresh South Vietnamese units. But the plea was rejected. Many Americans felt the Saigon regime would meet certain collapse. President Ford gave a speech on April 23, declaring the end of the Vietnam War and the end of all American aid to the Saigon regime. The helicopter evacuation continued all day and night while PAVN tanks reached the outskirts of Saigon. In the early hours of April 30, the last US Marines left the embassy as hectic Vietnamese breached the embassy perimeter and raided the place. PAVN T-54 tanks moved into Saigon. The South Vietnamese resistance was light. Tank skirmishes began as ARVN M-41 tanks attacked the heavily armored Soviet T-34 tanks. PAVN troops soon dashed to capture the US embassy, the government army garrison, the police headquarters, radio station, presidential palace, and other vital targets. The PAVN encountered greater-than expected resistance as small pockets of ARVN resistance continued. By now, the helicopter evacuations that had saved 7,000 American and Vietnamese had ended. The presidential palace was captured and the Vietcong flag waved victoriously over it. President Duong Van Minh surrendered Saigon to PAVN colonel Bui Tin. The surrender came over the radio as Minh ordered South Vietnamese forces to lay down their weapons. Columns of South Vietnamese troops came out of defensive positions and surrendered. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. As for the Americans, many stayed in South Vietnam but by May 1, 1975 most Americans had fled, leaving the city of Saigon forever. The Vietnam War was America’s most humiliating defeat, with over 58,000 dead and many left severely injured. As for the people of South Vietnam, over a million ARVN soldiers died in the 30-year conflict.
North Vietnam united both North and South Vietnam on 2 July 1976 to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Saigon was re-named Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the former president of North Vietnam. Thousands of supporters of the South Vietnamese government were rounded up and executed, and many more were imprisoned. Communist rule continues to this day.
On 21 January 1977 American President Jimmy Carter pardoned nearly all Vietnam War draft evaders.
Estimating the number killed in the conflict is extremely difficult. Official records from North Vietnam are hard to find or nonexistent and many of those killed were literally blasted to pieces by bombing. For many years the North Vietnamese suppressed the true number of their casualties for propaganda purposes. It is also difficult to say exactly what counts as a “Vietnam war casualty”; people are still being killed today by unexploded ordnance, particularly cluster bomblets. More than 40,000 Vietnamese have been killed so far by landmines and unexploded ordnance.
Environmental effects from chemical agents and the colossal social problems caused by a devastated country with so many dead surely caused many more lives to be shortened.
The lowest casualty estimates, based on North Vietnamese statements which are now discounted by Vietnam, are around 1.5 million Vietnamese killed. Vietnam’s Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs released figures on April 3, 1995, reporting that 1.1 million fighters — Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers — and nearly 2 million civilians in the north and the south were killed between 1954 and 1975. The number of wounded fighters was put at 600,000. It is unclear how many Vietnamese civilians were wounded.
Of the Americans, 58,226 were killed in action or classified as missing in action. A further 153,303 Americans were wounded to give total casualties of 211,529. The United States Army took the majority of the casualties with 38,179 killed and 96,802 wounded; the Marine Corps lost 14,836 killed and 51,392 wounded; the Navy 2,556 and 4,178; with the Air Force suffering the lowest casualties both in numbers and percentage terms with 2,580 killed and 931 wounded.
American allies took casualties as well. South Korea provided the largest outside force and suffered something between 4400 and 5000 killed full details including WIA and MIA appear difficult to find. Australia lost 501 dead and 3,131 wounded out of the 47,000 troops they had deployed to Vietnam. New Zealand had 38 dead and 187 wounded. Thailand had 351 casualties. It is difficult to locate accurate figures for the losses of the Philippines. Although Canada was not involved in the war, thousands of Canadians joined the American armed forces and served in Vietnam. The American fatal casualties include at least 56 Canadian citizens. It is difficult to estimate the exact number because some Canadians crossed the border to volunteer for service under false pretenses whereas others were permanent residents living in the United States who either volunteered or were drafted.
In the aftermath of the war many Americans came to believe that some of the 2,300 American soldiers listed as Missing in Action had in fact been taken prisoner by the DRV and held indefinitely. The Vietnamese list over 200,000 of their own soldiers missing in action, and bodies of MIA soldiers from World War I and II continue to be unearthed in Europe.
Both during and after the war, significant human rights violations occurred. Both North and South Vietnamese had large numbers of political prisoners, many of whom were killed or tortured. In 1970, two American congressmen visiting South Vietnam discovered the existence of “tiger cages”, which were small prison cells used for torturing South Vietnamese political prisoners. After the war, actions taken by the victors in Vietnam, including firing squads, torture, concentration camps and “re-education,” led to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. Many of these refugees fled by boat and thus gave rise to the phrase “boat people.” They emigrated to Hong Kong, France, the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries, creating sizable expatriate communities, notably in the United States.
Among the many casualties of the war were the people of the neighboring state of Cambodia. Approximately 50,000-300,000 died as a result of US bombing campaigns. The bombing campaigns also drove some Cambodians into the arms of the nationalist and communist Khmer Rouge, who took power after America cut off funds for bombing them in 1973, and continued the slaughter of opponents or suspected opponents. About 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered or fell victim to starvation and disease before the regime was overthrown by Vietnamese forces in 1979.
Domestic effects and aftermath in Indochina
Virtually every Vietnamese, especially South Vietnamese, was affected by the war, having endured relentless bombardments and targeted killings. Many Vietnamese lost relatives as a result of the war. The end of the war marked the first time that Vietnam was not engaged in substantial civil war or active military conflict with an external opponent in many years. North and South Vietnam were reunified under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam following the war.
However, Fear of persecutions caused many highly skilled and educated South Vietnamese connected with the former regime to flee the country during the fall of Saigon and the years following, severely depleting human capital in Vietnam. The new government promptly sent people connected to the South Vietnam regime to concentration camps for “re-education”, often for years at a time. Others were sent to so-called “new economic zones” to develop the undeveloped land. Furthermore, the victorious Communist government implemented land reforms in the south similar to those implemented in North Vietnam earlier. However it is as well to remember that large areas of land in South Viet Nam had already been appropriated by the communists well before the end of the war—and their owners compensated for the loss by the South Vietnamese government. Persecution and poverty prompted an additional 2 million people to flee Vietnam as boat people over the 20 years following unification. The problem was so severe that during the 1980s and 1990s the UN established refugee camps in neighboring countries to process them. Many of these refugees resettled in the United States, forming large Vietnamese-American emigrant communities with a decidedly anti-communist viewpoint.
The newly established Republic of South Vietnam promptly implemented currency reforms. The dong previously used in Vietnam was converted to the “liberation dong” at a rate of 500 old dongs to 1 liberation dong, essentially rendering much of the South Vietnamese money worthless. After unification in 1976, the liberation dong was abandoned in favor of a new unified dong. While the north exchanged at the 1:1 rate, the south had to exchange 10 liberation dong for each 8 unified dong. Private enterprises in the South were socialized. During much of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Vietnam underwent an economic depression and came close to famine.
Ravaged by war, Vietnam is still in the process of recovery. It remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and remittance from overseas Vietnamese constitute a considerable part of the economy. Vietnamese people often make reference to events as happening “before 1975″ or “after 1975″, but life in South Vietnam before 1975 is rarely discussed because newspapers and movies published in the South prior to 1975 are forbidden from circulation. Many people were disabled during war, and continue to be killed and disabled by unexploded ordnance. Agent Orange, used as a defoliant during the war, is alleged by the Vietnamese government to continue to cause birth defects in many children and still preventing any substantial environmental recovery in some areas.
The large number of people born after 1975 may be indicative of a post-war baby boom, and despite the devastating effect of the civil war on their parents’ generation, a general disinterest in politics and recent history among this post-war generation of Vietnamese is notable.
In the late 1980s the government instituted economic reforms known as đổi mới (renovation), which introduced some market elements, achieving some modest results. The Soviet collapse in 1991 left Vietnam without its main economic and political partner, and thus it began to seek closer ties with the West. After taking office, U.S. President Bill Clinton announced his desire to heal relations with Vietnam. His administration lifted economic sanctions on the country in 1994, and in May 1995 the two nations renewed diplomatic relations, with the US opening up an embassy on Vietnamese soil for the first time since 1975.
In 1975, shortly before the end of the war, the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia after a bloody civil war. This led to a genocide that collectively killed some 1.7 million people, one-fifth of the country’s population. The Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979 when Vietnam invaded and installed a pro-Vietnam government.
Domestic effects and aftermath in the United States
The Vietnam war had many long term repercussions for American society and foreign policy.
Politically, the war’s poor planning and legislation that President Johnson regarded as “blank checks” to pursue the war led to Congress reviewing the way that the United States waged war. Due to the Vietnam War buildup, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which curtailed the President’s ability to commit troops to action without first obtaining Congressional approval.
From a social point of view, the war was a key time in the lives of many younger Americans, especially the so-called baby boom generation. For protester and soldier alike, the war created many strong opinions in regards to American foreign policy and the justness of war. As a result, the Vietnam War was also significant in showing the degree that the public can influence government policy through mobilization and protest.
The use of the defoliation agent known as Agent Orange, designed to destroy the hiding places of the Viet Cong, has caused many health maladies and birth defects to this day for people on both sides of the conflict.
The war and its aftermath led to a mass emigration from Vietnam, mostly to the United States. They included both Amerasians (the children of Vietnamese young women and US military personnel) and Vietnamese refugees, especially those who had served under South Vietnam, who fled soon after the Communist takeover. During the subsequent years over 1 million of these people arrived in the United States. (see Vietnamese American)
Social attitudes and treatment of veterans
In 1982, construction began on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (also known as ‘The Wall’) designed by Maya Lin. It is located on the National Mall adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial. The Three Soldiers statue was added later, in 1984.
Service in the war was unpopular, especially among the contemporaries of the soldiers who fought it. Veterans of the war received benefits no better than those in the prior peacetime service period, and in contrast to the generous benefits afforded veterans of World War II. Some of the war’s veterans experienced shunning in the society, and a few had profound difficulties—including homelessness—since returning from Vietnam. Many veterans who had been exposed to “Agent Orange” during service later contracted a number of cancers, skin diseases and other health problems. The U.S. department of Veterans Affairs awarded compensation to 1,800 of some 250,000 claimants.
Also in contrast to the post-World War II period, the great majority of major elected officials in the U.S. have not been war veterans, which was virtually compulsory in the recent past. Each of the eight Presidents from 1945 to 1992 was a veteran of one of the World Wars. George McGovern, the pacifist opponent of Nixon, was a highly-decorated B-24 bomber pilot. Many who did serve during Vietnam served in auxiliary forces such as the National Guard or reserve forces that were minimally called up during the conflict, including current President Bush. Former President Bill Clinton initially signed up for ROTC, but successfully withdrew his commitment, and did not serve at all.
Contemporary status of Vietnam veterans
Vietnam service has become more respected, especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and was important to the election of some American politicians; for example, it was a factor in the election of John McCain, a former Vietnam POW, to the US Senate. John F. Kerry became the first Vietnam combat veteran to run as a major party candidate for president and he made his service there a major issue in the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign. His Vietnam record was controversial with veterans coming out for and against the candidate. Whether or not Kerry’s tour of and subsequent protest of Vietnam had any effect on voters, his candidacy did not succeed.
Common military medals of the Vietnam War
During the war, a wide array of military decorations for bravery, meritorious actions, and general service were created by both nations of Vietnam. The United States began issuing combat decorations which were last bestowed in the Korean War as well as several new service medals.
Most South Vietnamese decorations were issued to both members of the South Vietnamese military and the United States armed forces. As such, several of the current U.S. senior military officers, who served during the Vietnam War, can today still be seen wearing South Vietnamese medals on active duty uniforms. Since South Vietnam as a country no longer exists, such medals are in fact considered obsolete and may only be privately purchased.
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