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A Brief History of Vietnam

In July 1954, France was forced to leave Viet Nam after one hundred years of colonial rule. Viet Nam General Vo Nguyen Giap defeated the allied French troops at the remote mountain outpost of Dien Bien Phu. After their defeat here, the French knew they could no longer maintain their Indochinese colonies and quickly sued for peace. As the two sides met in Geneva, Switzerland, international events were already shaping the future of Viet Nam.

The Geneva Peace Accords of 1954, written just after the Korean War, represented the worst of all possible futures for Viet Nam. Because of outside pressures by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, Viet Nam's delegates to the Geneva Conference agreed to the temporary division of their nation at the seventeenth parallel to allow France a face-saving defeat.

According to the terms of the Geneva Accords, Viet Nam would hold national elections in 1956 to reunite the country. The division at the seventeenth parallel, a temporary separation without cultural precedent, would disappear with the elections. US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles did not support the Geneva Accords, claiming they granted too much power to the Communist Party. Instead, Dulles and President Dwight D. Eisenhower supported the creation of a counter-revolutionary alternative south of the seventeenth parallel. The United States supported this effort through a series of agreements that formed the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).

Using SEATO for political cover, the Eisenhower administration helped create a new nation in southern Viet Nam. In 1955, with the help of US military, political, and economic aid, the Government of the Republic of Viet Nam (GVN or South Viet Nam) was born. The following year, Ngo Dinh Diem, a staunchly anti-Communist figure from the South, won an election that made him president of the GVN. Almost immediately, Diem claimed that his government was under attack from the north. Diem argued that the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (DRV or North Viet Nam) wanted to take South Viet Nam by force. In late 1957, with American military aid, Diem began to counterattack. Diem passed a series of acts known as Law 10/59 that made it legal to hold someone in jail if he was a suspected Communist without bringing formal charges.

The outcry against Diem's actions was immediate. Buddhist monks and nuns were joined by students, business people, intellectuals, and peasants in opposition to the corrupt rule of Ngo Dinh Diem. In response to these attacks, Diem claimed the Communists were trying to take South Viet Nam by force. This was, in Diem's words, "a hostile act of aggression by North Viet Nam against peace- loving and democratic South Viet Nam."

The Kennedy administration seemed split on how peaceful or democratic the Diem regime was. Some believed Diem had not instituted enough reforms to remain a viable leader in the nation-building experiment. Others argued that Diem was a better choice than others.

From 1956-1960, the Communist Party of Viet Nam sought to reunite the country through political means alone. After Diem's attacks on suspected Communists in the South, southern Communists convinced the party to pursue more violent tactics to facilitate Diem's downfall. In January 1959, the Communist Party approved the use of revolutionary violence to overthrow Diem and liberate Viet Nam south of the seventeenth parallel. The result was the creation of a united front to help mobilize southerners in opposition to the GVN.

The united front had long roots in Viet Nam. Used earlier in the century to mobilize anti-French forces, the united front brought together Communists and non-Communists into an organization that had limited but important goals. On December 20, 1960, the National Liberation Front (NLF), was born. Anyone could join this front as long as they opposed Diem and wished to unite Viet Nam.

The NLF and its relationship to Hanoi has caused considerable debate. From the birth of the NLF, US government officials claimed that Hanoi directed the NLF's attacks against Saigon. In a separate series of government papers, Washington denounced the NLF, claiming that its non- Communist elements were Communist dupes. Washington continued to discredit the NLF, however, calling it the "Viet Cong," a derogatory and slang term meaning Vietnamese Communist.

In 1961, President Kennedy sent a team to Viet Nam to report on conditions in the South and to assess future American aid requirements. In response to their findings, the president sought a limited accord with Diem. The United States would increase the level of its military involvement in South Viet Nam through more machinery and advisers, but would not intervene whole-scale with troops.

By the summer of 1963, the GVN was on the verge of collapse. Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, had raided the Buddhist pagodas of South Viet Nam, claiming they harbored Communists. The result was massive protests on the streets of Saigon that led Buddhist monks to self-immolation. The pictures of the monks engulfed in flames made world headlines and caused considerable consternation in Washington. By late September, the Buddhist protest had created such dislocation in the south that the Kennedy administration supported a general's coup. In 1963, some of Diem's own generals in the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) approached the American Embassy in Saigon with plans to overthrow Diem. On November 1, 1963, Diem and his brother were captured and later assassinated. Three weeks later, President Kennedy was murdered on the streets of Dallas.

At the time of the assassinations, there were 16,000 military advisers in Viet Nam. The Kennedy administration had managed the war without the introduction of American combat troops. The political problems in Saigon convinced the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, that more aggressive action was needed. After a DRV raid on two US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Johnson administration argued for expansive war powers for the president.

In August 1964, in response to American and GVN espionage, the DRV launched an attack against the C. Turner Joy and the U.S.S. Maddox. In response, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed both the House and Senate with only two dissenting votes (Senators Morse of Oregon and Gruening of Alaska). The Resolution was followed by limited reprisal air attacks against the DRV.

In the fall and winter of 1964, the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to expand the air war over the DRV quickly to help stabilize the new Saigon regime. The civilians in the Pentagon wanted to apply gradual pressure to the Communist Party with selective bombings. In early 1965, the NLF attacked two U.S. army installations in South Viet Nam, and as a result, Johnson ordered the bombing missions over the DRV that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had long advocated.

The bombing missions, known as OPERATION ROLLING THUNDER, caused the Communist Party to reassess its own war strategy. From 1960 through 1964, the Party believed it could win a military victory in the south "in a relatively short period of time." With the new US military commitment, the Party changed to a protracted war strategy. The Communist Party believed that it would prevail in a protracted war because the US had no clearly defined objectives, and would eventually demand a negotiated settlement.

Eventually, there were not enough volunteers to continue to fight a protracted war and the government instituted a draft. As the deaths mounted and Americans continued to leave for Southeast Asia, the Johnson administration felt the full weight of American anti-war sentiments. Protests erupted on college campuses and in major cities. By 1968, every town seemed to have felt the war's impact.

In late January 1968, the DRV and the NLF launched coordinated attacks against the major southern cities. These attacks were designed to force the Johnson administration to seek a resolution to the war. In late March 1968, Lyndon Johnson hinted that he would consider options to end the war.

Negotiations began in the spring of 1968 in Paris. Despite the progress in Paris, the Democratic Party could not rescue the presidency from Republican challenger Richard Nixon who claimed he had a secret plan to end the war.

Nixon's plan was taken from a strategic move from Lyndon Johnson's last year in office. The new president continued a process called "Vietnamization", an awful term that implied that Vietnamese were not fighting and dying in the jungles of Southeast Asia. This strategy brought American troops home while increasing the air war over the DRV and relying more on the ARVN for ground attacks.

The expanded air war did not deter the Communist Party and it continued to make hard demands in Paris. By the early fall 1972, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and DRV representatives Xuan Thuy and Le Duc Tho had written a preliminary peace draft. Washington and Hanoi assumed that their southern allies would accept any agreement drawn up in Paris, but were mistaken. The new leaders in Saigon, President Nguyen van Thieu and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, rejected the peace draft, demanding that no concessions be made.

In January 1973, the Nixon administration convinced the Thieu-Ky regime in Saigon that they would not abandon the GVN if they signed onto the peace accord. On January 23, the final draft was initialed, ending open hostilities between the United States and the DRV. The Paris Peace Agreement did not end the conflict in Viet Nam as the Thieu- Ky regime continued to battle Communist forces. From March 1973 until the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, ARVN forces tried to save the South from political and military collapse. The end finally came as DRV tanks rolled south along National Highway One. On the morning of April 30, Communist forces captured the presidential palace in Saigon, ending the Second Indochina War and more than one hundred years of bloodshed.



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