Kennedy – The Beginning
In 1961 the Kennedy administration came into office and inherited the Eisenhower policy of sending military advisors to South Vietnam in support of the Saigon government. The American presence in Vietnam had reached 800 by the close of the Eisenhower era and by 1963 President Kennedy would increase the number of military advisors to 16,000. The first strikes came in 1961 as the Kennedy administration sent war planes with South Vietnamese markings against rural targets where 80% of the population lived and the Viet Cong insurgency had taken root in South Vietnam. The war planes were manufactured in the United States.
When John F. Kennedy first took his seat in the Oval Office, the Viet Cong numbered 300,000. The insurgency was composed of a broad coalition united in opposition to the Saigon government. Its demands included the ouster of American military advisers and the reunification of Vietnam. The Diem regime had banned public assembly, political parties, and even public dancing; its demolition of pagodas and preferential treatment of Catholics had drawn the ire of the mostly Buddhist population. The US began bombing to defeat the resistance to President Diem as it seemed that the regime was not succeeding in defeating the Viet Cong.
By 1962 the US had begun to establish “strategic hamlets” in the country where peasants were held behind barbed-wire enclosures under the watch of South Vietnamese troops. By 1970 5 million Vietnamese peasants were displaced in this way. The pretext was to protect the peasants from the insurgents. At the same time the first use of the so-called rainbow herbicides - most infamously, Agent Orange - was initiated. The aims of the programme were to rapidly defoliate the forestry and kill crops with the hope of denying the Viet Cong cover and food.
Eventually the repressive rule of the Saigon government provoked protests from Buddhist monks. A catalytic moment came in May 1963 when South Vietnamese armed forces fired upon Buddhist protestors in the city of Hue on Phat Dan. The Buddhists had been protesting against the ban on their flag on a holy day. The armed forces opened fire on the crowd with live ammunition and killed nine people. Yet more demonstrations followed with President Diem denying his forces had any responsibility for the deaths.
The civil unrest would last until November 1963 at which point the generals of South Vietnam plotted a coup against the sitting government. Popular opposition grew over those six months. In one act of defiance Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc self-immolated to protest the brutality of the regime. He left a letter reading: “Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organise in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”
The Kennedy administration understood that this situation was unsustainable and withdrew its aid to the Saigon government in a direct rebuff to President Diem. As the protests continued the US government began to encourage the coup plotters in the South Vietnamese military elite to take action. In November 1963 President Diem was arrested by the army, after an overnight siege of the presidential palace, before being shot and repeatedly stabbed by his bodyguards. His death signalled the end of the Diem government and gave way to direct military rule. The US role is confirmed by the Pentagon Papers: “We maintained clandestine contact with [the plotters] throughout the planning and execution of the coup and sought to review their operational plans and proposed new government”.
Johnson – Escalation
The end of the Diem regime did not signal the end of US commitments, in fact, according to the Pentagon Papers, “our complicity in his overthrow heightened our responsibilities”. Not long after this Kennedy was assassinated on November 22 1963. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the responsibilities of the presidency and would go on to strengthen the war effort even further. Before the shooting President Kennedy spoke at a breakfast held at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce:
We have increased the defence budget of the United States by over 20%; increased the programme of acquisition for Polaris submarines from 24 to 41; increased our Minutemen missile purchase programme by more than 75%; doubled the number of strategic bombers and missiles on alert; doubled the number of nuclear weapons available in the strategic alert forces; increased the tactical nuclear forces deployed in Western Europe by over 60%; added five combat ready divisions to the Army of the United States, and five tactical fighter wings to the Air Force of the United States; increased counter-insurgency forces which are engaged now in South Vietnam by 600%.
Less than a year later the Gulf of Tonkin incident took place. On August 2, 1964 the USS Maddox was on an intelligence mission along North Vietnam’s coastline. The vessel was allegedly fired upon and retaliated by firing on three North Vietnamese torpedo boats that had been talking it in the Gulf of Tonkin. There were no American casualties. The second incident came on August 4 in which the USS Maddox returned to the coastline and engaged in what were believed to be North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The crew had acted on the basis of sonar evidence that had picked up two vessels. But there was no wreckage or bodies found.
Even though it appeared that there had been no attack the Johnson administration quickly decided to retaliate. The bombing of North Vietnam began immediately and President Johnson began to raise the number of US ground troops. The Tonkin Resolution was fast-tracked and passed on August 7. It would signal a change in US policy as the Johnson administration initiated hostilities with North Vietnam to bypass the congressional restraints on the government. The US government now had free rein in its bombing of the North.
By 1965 South Vietnam had been so devastated that the war correspondent and military historian Bernard Fall claimed that the existence of Vietnam (in particular South Vietnam) was “threatened with extinction”. The US sent 200,000 US troops to South Vietnam that year and in 1966, 200,000 more were sent. By 1968 the US troop presence had exceeded 500,000 soldiers at a cost of $2 billion per month. Up until 1969 the military operations in Vietnam had been conducted by the Democratic administration. Originally President Kennedy had hoped that the US would be able to withdraw from Vietnam in 1965, provided that the war had been won; the change in government would lead to the war being extended further.
Nixon – Enter the Mad Man
By 1968 the Johnson administration was in negotiations with North Vietnam in Paris. Henry Kissinger was an adviser to the US negotiators. The negotiations came in election season. Lyndon B. Johnson had made clear he would not be seeking re-election, a shock to the public; instead his vice president Hubert Humphrey would seek the presidency. Richard Nixon had emerged as the Republican contender. He had pledged “peace with honour” in south east Asia, but secretly he feared that the Democratic government would reach a settlement in Paris and win the election.
Dr. Kissinger was in contact with negotiators as well as the Nixon campaign. He was expecting to work for whoever won the election and ingratiated himself with both campaigns. Henry Kissinger told the Nixon campaign that the US negotiators were close to securing a settlement. The prospect of peace would give Humphrey an advantage over Nixon. The Nixon campaign had opened a secret line with the South Vietnamese regime and persuaded them to withdraw from the negotiations thereby scuppering the possibility of a settlement. Richard Nixon had offered South Vietnam much more support than the Johnson administration and a better deal in the future.
The Nixon administration not only set out to extend the war in North Vietnam they intensified the bombing of Laos and launched an illegal bombing campaign against Cambodia. The Nixon administration claimed that the North Vietnamese were stationing their forces and supplies across the border in Cambodia and pursued the bombing on such grounds. By 1970 President Nixon was growing frustrated that the war showed no sign of coming to an end.
In 1972 Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger flew to China and met with Chairman Mao. The US government aimed to open up relations with China to secure its long-term strategic interests. The Sino-Soviet split had left Maoist China isolated on the world stage and if China aligned itself with the US (which it would eventually do) then the Vietnamese would have to choose the side of the Soviet Union over China. The original pretext of US involvement in Vietnam was to contain China and, as the Pentagon Papers confirm, the decision to bomb North Vietnam only made sense in the context of containing communist China.
As the election approached President Nixon began to look at the war effort as an electoral means once again. “I went them to hit everything,” Mr. Nixon told Henry Kissinger. Dr. Kissinger on the orders to General Alexander Haig: “[Nixon] wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies, on anything that moves.”
Immediately after re-election was secure the White House sanctioned the Christmas bombing campaign, spanning twelve days, targeting Hanoi and Haiphong. The campaign constituted the heaviest bombing campaign of the entire war and it provoked international outcry. Negotiations resumed soon after and by January 1973 Richard Nixon had announced the end of the war. The terms were settled along the lines that had been negotiated back in 1968. Even still, Henry Kissinger would win the Nobel peace Prize for his efforts and the fighting between North and South Vietnam wouldn’t reach a conclusion for two more years.
The Paris Peace Accords were signed not long after the announcement and the US military withdrew its ground forces in March. The North Vietnamese respected the ceasefire agreement as the US government pledged support to the South Vietnamese and further bombing if the North resumes its operations. The President and Dr. Kissinger were planning a resumption of bombing by April, but the orders for further bombing were rescinded as the Watergate scandal broke out. Richard Nixon could not fight the US Congress and Vietnam at the same time. He would become the first US President to be impeached and Gerald Ford succeeded him in August 1974.
The bombing of Cambodia had not ended with Operation Menu. The bombing continued throughout the early 1970s. This eventuated in the collapse of the delicate balance of social forces and classes in Cambodian society. First this led to the dictatorship of Lon Nol, who seized power in 1970, but this would later be swept aside by then the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. Not long after Phnom Penh fell to Pol Pot the North Vietnamese seized Saigon. The US withdrawal had left little force to resist the offensive and the South Vietnamese army were quickly overwhelmed.
By early 1976 Vietnam was officially reunified and declared a socialist republic. Its main ally was the Soviet Union as China had shifted its allegiance to the Khmer Rouge seeing Cambodia as a counterweight to Soviet influence in South-East Asia. This state of affairs would lead to two more wars in which Vietnam would overthrow Pol Pot and defend itself from Chinese retaliation.