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The Vietnam War was a military conflict in which communist forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV or North Vietnam) and the indigenous forces of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, (also known as the Viet Cong) fought against the anti-communist Republic of Vietnam (RVN or South Vietnam) and its allies—most notably the United States—in an effort to unify Vietnam into a single state that would be based on communist ideology.

The chief cause of the war cause was Ho Chi Minh's desire to establish a single Vietnamese state. Ho viewed the existence of South Vietnam as an ongoing reminder of the era of colonization after Vietnam's struggle for independence from France in the First Indochina War of 1946-1954. Allies of the Vietnamese communists included the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. South Vietnam's main anti-communist ally was the United States, but it also received assistance from South Korea, Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, and New Zealand. The U.S. deployed large numbers of military personnel to South Vietnam. U.S. military advisers first became involved in Vietnam as early as 1950, when they began to assist French colonial forces. In 1956, these advisers assumed full responsibility for training the Army of the Republic of Vietnam or ARVN. President John F. Kennedy made a subtantial increase in the presence of U.S. military advisers to Vietnam prior to his assassination and, under President Lyndon Johnson, large numbers of American combat troops began to arrive in 1965 and the last left the country in 1973. To some degree the Vietnam War was a "proxy war," one of several that erupted during the Cold War period that followed the conclusion of World War II and decolonization.

The Vietnam War was finally concluded on April 30, 1975, with the fall of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces. The war claimed approximately 2.5 million Southeast Asian lives (including Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians and Thais), a large number of whom were civilians. Although it enjoyed a degree of popular support in the early years it became increasingly controversial. The US was widely successful in its military actions in Vietnam but it failed to gain popular support in the States and the war aroused a great deal of opposition in the United States. President Lyndon B. Johnson was unsuccessful in his approach to the war and this led to his decision not to seek reelection in 1968.

Richard Nixon was elected to the presidency in 1968 based upon his claims to have a "secret plan" for a withdrawal from Vietnam with honor. Once in office Nixon implemented a strategy of "Vietnamization" by replacing American with Vietnamese troops. Nixons strategy didn't continue the Johnson strategy of engagement of the enemy; instead it focused on "pacification", an initiative aimed at making the widest possible area of South Vietnam safe from Viet Cong activity and it included promoting education and development within those areas. In his book No more Vietnams (1985) Nixon maintained that in 1969, the first year of the implementation of his strategy, an average of four thousand pro-communist military forces a month turned themselves over to the South. Nixon boldly pursued North Vietnamese forces into Cambodia in 1970 amidst great controversy. In 1972 when North Vietnam withdrew from ongoing peace negotiations in Paris at the time of the US Presidential elections, Nixon responded by an extensive bombing of the North in December 1972 that led the North and its allies to return to the negotiations table in Paris in January 1973.

Because of the Watergate controversy Nixon's popular support continued to dwindle. The Democrat-controlled US Congress cut off all logistical and military support to the South Vietnamese forces. Due to overwhelming popular opposition and damning evidence in the Watergate case Richard Nixon resigned from office in August 1974. Eight months later South Vietnam and Cambodia were communized. In the years immediately following the fall of Vietnam, Laos, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Capa Verde, Santome e Principe, Grenada, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan were all brought into the Soviet sphere of influence. The United States had surrendered its role as the "world's policeman". As has often been observed, the Vietnam War was not lost on the battlefield; it was lost in America's court of public opinion. It remains a lesson that is relevant for all future conflicts.

After the outbreak of the Korean War, the United States began to see what had been a colonial war in Indochina as another example of expansive world-wide communism, directed by the Kremlin. In 1950, the U.S. Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) arrived to screen French requests for aid, advise on strategy, and train Vietnamese soldiers. In 1956, MAAG assumed responsibility for training the Vietnamese army. By 1954, the U.S. had given 300,000 small arms and machine guns, and one billion dollars to support the French military effort and was shouldering at least 80 percent of its cost.

The Viet Minh inflicted a major military defeat against the French at Dien Biên Ph on May 7, 1954. After this, the war lost public support in France and at the Geneva Conference the French government negotiated a peace agreement with the Viet Minh. This allowed the French to leave Indochina and granted all three of its colonies, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam independence. However, Vietnam was temporarily partitioned at the 17th parallel, above which the Viet Minh established a socialist state, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and below which a non-communist state was established under the Emperor Bao Dai. Bao Dai's Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, quickly removed him from power, and established himself as President of the new Republic of Vietnam.

Escalation and Americanization, 1963-1968

On July 27, 1964, 5,000 additional military advisers were ordered to South Vietnam, bringing the total U.S. troop level to 21,000. Shortly thereafter an incident occurred off the coast of North Vietnam that was destined to escalate the conflict to new levels and lead to the full Americanization of the war.

On the evening of August 4, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox, conducting an electronic intelligence gathering mission four miles off the North Vietnamese coast, was attacked by three torpedo boats of the North Vietnamese navy. Maddox was joined by aircraft from the aircraft-carrier USS Ticonderoga. In the ensuing fire-fight, they damaged two of the Vietnamese boats and disabled another. Joined by the US destroyer, C. Turner Joy, both ships returned to "fly the flag" in what the U.S. claimed were international waters. Early on the 4th, the Maddox reported the presence of hostile boats and believed that an attack might be imminent. Both ships later claimed to have been attacked that evening by North Vietnamese vessels, although it now appears that no such attack actually took place.

There was rampant confusion in Washington, but the incident was seen by the administration as the perfect opportunity to present Congress with "a pre-dated declaration of war." Even before "confirmation" of the phantom attack had been received in Washington, President Johnson decided that an attack could not go unanswered. Just before midnight he appeared on television and announced that retaliatory strikes were underway against North Vietnamese port and oil facilities. Unfortunately, neither Congress nor the American people were going to learn the whole story about the events in the Gulf of Tonkin until the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1969. It was on the basis of the administration's assertions that the attacks were "unprovoked aggression" on the part of North Vietnam, that the U.S. Congress approved the Southeast Asia Resolution (also known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) on August 7. The law gave the president broad powers to conduct military operations without an actual declaration of war. The resolution passed unanimously in the House of Representatives and was opposed in the Senate by only two members.

The big build-up

President Johnson had already appointed General William C. Westmoreland to succeed Paul D. Harkins as Commander of MACV in June 1964. Under Westmoreland, the expansion of American troop strength in Vietnam took place. American forces rose from 16,000 during 1964 to more than 553,000 by 1969. With the U.S. decision to escalate its involvement, ANZUS Pact allies Australia and New Zealand agreed to contribute troops and material to the conflict. They were quickly joined by the Republic of Korea (second only to the Americans in troop strength), Thailand, and the Philippines. The U.S. paid for (through aid dollars) and logistically supplied all of the allied forces. Meanwhile, political affairs in Saigon were finally settling down (at least as far as the Americans were concerned}. On February 14, the most recent military junta, the National Leadership Committee, installed Air Vice-Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky as prime minister. In 1966, the junta selected General Nguyen Van Thieu to run for president with Ky on the ballot as the vice-presidential candidate in the 1967 election. Thieu and Ky were elected. In the presidential election of 1971, Thieu was unopposed. With the installation of the Thieu and Ky government (the Second Republic), the U.S. finally had a legitimate government in Saigon with which to deal.

With the initiation of Rolling Thunder, American airbases and facilities would have to be constructed and manned for the aerial effort. And the defense of those bases would not be entrusted to the South Vietnamese. So, on March 8, 1965, 3,500 United States Marines came ashore at Da Nang as the first U.S. combat troops in South Vietnam, adding to the 25,000 U.S. military advisers already in place. On May 5, the 173d Airborne Brigade became the first U.S. Army ground unit committed to the conflict in South Vietnam. On August 18, Operation Starlite began as the first major U.S. ground operation, destroying a NLF stronghold in Qu?ng Ngãi Province. The NLF Cong learned from their defeat and subsequently tried to avoid fighting an American-style ground war by reverting to small-unit guerrilla operations.

From late 1964, the North Vietnamese had sent troops to the South. Some officials in Hanoi had favored an immediate invasion of the south, and a plan was developed to use PAVN units to split southern Vietnam in half through the Central Highlands. The two imported adversaries first faced one another during Operation Silver Bayonet, better known as the Battle of the Ia Drang. During the savage fighting that took place, both sides learned lessons. The North Vietnamese, who had suffered heavy casualties, began to adapt to the overwhelming American superiority in air mobility, supporting arms, and close air support. The Americans learned that the Vietnam People's Army (VPA/PAVN) (which was basically a light infantry force) was not a rag-tag band of guerrillas but was a highly-disciplined, well motivated, proficient force.
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