Conventional historians tell us the fifty years ago this week the first US combat troops arrived in Vietnam but that is only part of a much bigger story says PETER FROST.
The Vietnam War dominated more than forty years of Vietnam’s history. It was also, at thirty years plus, the longest war in US history. Incidentally, it was also a huge part of my political apprenticeship.
As a teenager in the Young Communist League (YCL) I spent much of my time protesting outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square or writing about the War and the campaign to end it, in the YCL magazine Challenge.
My girlfriend, now my wife, Ann toured the country in a coach the YCL had purchased collecting medical aid for Vietnam.
As well as a coach the YCL also had a lorry that toured the country collecting aid for Vietnam.
I was honoured and humbled to chair a London meeting where the main speaker was Phan Thị Kim Phúc best known as the child in one of the most famous of the photograph taken during the Vietnam War.
It shows her at nine years of age running naked after being severely burned by a South Vietnamese napalm attack. As a young woman she had come to London to thank us for our anti-war protest.
Some US historians mark the start of the war from fifty years ago this week, 8 March 1965 when they claim the first actual US fighting troops arrived on Vietnamese soil. The end came thirty years later with a humiliating defeat for the US in 1975 when the last American occupying forces fled.
In fact the war, and the US government’s part in it really started in September 1950, when US President Harry Truman sent Military Advisors to support the French.
Truman claimed they were not combat troops, but there to supervise the use of $10 million worth of US <a military equipment to support the French in their war against the Viet Minh. By 1953, this military expenditure had reached $350 million.
Despite all this aid the French were still resoundingly beaten by Ho Chi Minh’s forces at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. France was forced to surrender and left the northern half of Vietnam. By 1956 the French had also left South Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh, London pastry cook and the victor at Dien Bien Phu.
The US didn’t give up, they used some devious international diplomacy to, much against the wishes of most Vietnamese, split the country into two.
Free elections were promised but never happened, Instead the liberation forces, North and South, in the country started the long job of throwing the American’s out. That task would take many decades and eventually cost at least five million Vietnamese lives.
The US tried to justify its Indo China Cold War policy with a dubious so-called domino theory – the idea that if one Asian nation chose communism others would quickly fall like dominoes.
What the Americans could never understand was the vast levels of popular support that the forces fighting to free Vietnam from the American aggressors enjoyed.
One classic example was the network of tracks known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. Using bicycles, often with large carrying racks, huge quantities of arms and equipment could be transported to the thousands of southerners frustrated with the corrupt and repressive government of their self-appointed president, Ngo Dinh Diem.
I well remember YCLer’s in Nottingham collecting money to support the Vietnamese. They used the money to buy bicycles – in those days Nottingham still had a huge cycle manufacturing industry – and those bikes went to Vietnam to be used on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In Vietnam support for Ho Chi Minh and his liberation forces grew and grew. But by 1963, Diem’s government was so discredited that the US did nothing to stop a coup. A series of short-lived, ineffectual and unstable puppet governments followed.
By the end of 1964, there were 23,000 so-called US military advisers in Vietnam – up from 800 in the 1950s
In February 1965, the US launched Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained bombing campaign against targets in North Vietnam. It quickly became clear that US airpower alone would never halt guerrilla operations in the south.
So President Johnson decided the devious advisor nonsense had to stop. He sent in the infantry. The first troops landed in March 1965 and by July 100,000 fully armed US soldiers had invaded the country.
The next two years saw major battles near Danang and Ia Drang, and large-scale US operations against Vietnamese positions.
Liberation force guerrillas were often difficult to distinguish from civilians and moved effectively in the difficult terrain.
US aircraft sprayed millions of gallons of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange over the jungle to destroy the thick foliage that liberation fighters used for cover. Heavy bombing, including the use of napalm, continued. But the liberation forces fought back.
By the end of 1967, there were nearly half a million US soldiers in Vietnam. US troop losses were high with hundreds of dead bodies arriving back in the USA every day. That and civilian casualty figures were triggering domestic protests. More and more the American public were believing this was a war they could never win.
On 31 January 1968 the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietnamese Liberation Front (VLF) launched a large-scale offensive during the Vietnamese Tet holiday. In surprise simultaneous assaults they attacked 36 provincial capitals and five of the six major cities, including Saigon where they penetrated the US embassy compound.
The Tet offensive hit US public opinion hard. Hollow White House’s claims that victory had been in sight were laughed out of the court of public opinion.
Political support for President Johnson and his war ebbed away. In March he halted bombing, called for peace talks and said he would not run for a second term in elections in November 1968.
Richard Nixon won the 1968 election. He sought an face saving exit strategy. In June 1969 he announced a policy of “Vietnamisation” – training and equipping the South Vietnamese military to enable the US to reduce troop numbers.
Over the following three years, more than half a million US troops were withdrawn. Morale among those troops was at rock bottom, desertion and drug abuse at an all time high.
In 1969 the world mourned the death of Ho Chi Minh, but the fight went on.
Talks were held in Paris from 1969. Meanwhile the US intensified their bombing. It took till January 1973 to reach a peace deal. The last American troops left in March 1973, but some fighting continued.
In early March 1975, liberation forces launched an offensive throughout the whole country. The South Vietnamese army crumbled, and in seven weeks the liberation army had swept through the south reaching the gates of Saigon. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu resigned and fled to Taiwan.
On 29 April US helicopters evacuated 7,000 American administrators and puppet Vietnamese from the city. The liberators marched unopposed into central Saigon. The city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
The war over Vietnam started the long task of rebuilding the war torn country. Today it is Socialist Republic of Vietnam with the Communist Party of Vietnam playing the major role in government.
Back in the USA, never one to learn a lesson they went on to launch more and more international wars – trying to police the globe. Indeed there hasn’t been a year since 1965 when US troops haven’t been at war in countries all over the world.
Just like in Vietnam most of those wars have ended in humiliating defeat for Uncle Sam.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 5 March 2015.