A concise, accessible history of one of the most important and fascinating conflicts of the 20th century
On March 8, 1965, 3,500 U.S. Marines of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade made an amphibious landing at Da Nang on the south central coast of South Vietnam, marking the beginning of a conflict that would haunt American politics and society for many years, even after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1972. For the people of North Vietnam it was just another in a long line of foreign invaders. For 2,000 years they had struggled for self-determination, coming into conflict during that time with the Chinese, the Mongols, the European colonial powers, the Japanese, and the French. Now it was the turn of the United States, a far-away nation reluctant to go to war but determined to prevent Vietnam from falling into Communist hands. This history explains how the U.S. became involved in its longest war, a conflict that, from the outset, many claimed it could never win. It details the escalation of American involvement from the provision of military advisors and equipment to the threatened South Vietnamese, to an all-out shooting war involving American soldiers, airmen, and sailors, of whom around 58,000 would die and more than 300,000 would be wounded. Their struggle was against an indomitable enemy, able to absorb huge losses in terms of life and infrastructure. The politics of the war are examined and the decisions and ambitions of five presidents are addressed in the light of what many have described as a defeat for American might. The book also explores the relationship of the Vietnam War to the Cold War politics of the time.
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A Short History of the Vietnam War
By Gordon Kerr, Nick Rennison
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2015 Gordon Kerr
All rights reserved.
Two Thousand Years of Warfare
Invasion and Civil War
On 8 March 1965, 3,500 US Marines of Battalion Landing Team 3/9 waded ashore in full regalia on the sandy beaches of Da Nang in South Vietnam, their mission to provide security for the nearby air base that was thought vulnerable to attack. They were the first American combat troops to step onto Asian soil since the end of the Korean War in 1953. But they were by no means the first foreign army to set foot on Vietnamese soil.
Vietnam has one of the longest continuous histories in the world. Humans were first present there around 500,000 years ago and it boasts some of the world's earliest civilizations, such as the Hoa Binh and Bac Son cultures. At the same time as Mesopotamia was discovering agriculture it was also being practised in Southeast Asia and pottery was also being manufactured. In approximately 2879 BC, the first Vietnamese state emerged in the Red River valley in northern Vietnam when the need to work together for flood prevention, for trade and for fighting off invaders necessitated a single authority that would take responsibility for organising such things. From there in 207 BC comes the first documented historical reference to a kingdom known as Nam Viet or Nanyue. At the time, the kingdom was ruled by a Chinese general, indicating that the Chinese controlled the region and they would, in fact, remain in power there for another thousand years. But, despite having a Chinese-style bureaucracy and using Chinese methods of rice cultivation, Nam Viet remained a separate kingdom. In 111 BC, however, Chinese Han Dynasty troops invaded and established new regions – Giao Chi in the Red River (Song Hong) delta; Curu Chan which stretched from modern-day Thanh Hoa to Ha Tinh; and Nhat Nam, stretching from modern-day Quang Binh to Hue.
During the thousand years that the northern part of Vietnam remained a Chinese province, it was dominated by the culture of its conqueror but still retained a keen hunger for independence. Unlike many other peoples under Chinese suzerainty, for example, the Vietnamese clung on to their distinctively Vietnamese culture. They maintained their totemic beliefs which were in contrast to Chinese practice, for instance. On the other hand, Confucianism, the ethical and philosophical system that supported Chinese society, pervaded the ruling class in Vietnam. In this set of beliefs, the emperor's authority was inviolable and it was believed that he ruled with the so-called 'Mandate of Heaven'; he had been bestowed the right to rule by heaven itself. This created an entire social and political hierarchy, featuring many elite Vietnamese families which seized upon Confucianism as a means of legitimising and maintaining their status in society. The majority of Vietnamese people, meanwhile, were peasants living in small villages that held on to Vietnamese traditions and practices.
Chinese domination eventually ended in 938 when a Chinese Southern Han force, sent to conquer the autonomous region of Giao Chi, was defeated by the army of the Vietnamese prefect and general, Ngo Quyen (897-944), at the naval Battle of Bach Dang River, near Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam. During the next thousand years, Vietnam changed little. Authority was wielded by kings who worked hard to prevent any member of the elite from establishing a power base that could be used to challenge the ruler. Vietnamese society, governed by a class of Mandarin bureaucrats who endured similarly rigorous training to their Chinese counterparts, remained stable, immune to social, cultural or technological change and innovation.
There were a number of challenges to Vietnamese stability, however. The Chinese Song Dynasty, for instance, attempted to recapture the region in 1075, but its troops were repelled, as they were the following year. Subsequent decades saw more invasions. During the Vietnamese Tran Dynasty (1225-1400), there were three incursions by the all-conquering Mongols – in 1257, 1284 and 1287 – but their large armies were all defeated. Like their North Vietnamese and Viet Cong descendants some seven hundred years later, the thirteenth-century Vietnamese did this by refusing to face the Mongols in large-scale set-piece battles or in sieges, confronting them instead in locations that put the invaders at a distinct disadvantage, on terrain that would prove difficult to them. The Yuan (Mongol) fleet was decisively defeated by the Vietnamese at the 1288 Battle of Bach Dang.
The Chinese Ming Dynasty invaded and occupied Vietnam in the early 1400s, but its domination lasted for only around twenty years and once again stubborn Vietnamese resistance saw them off. The hero of the hour and one of the great figures of Vietnamese history emerged around this time. Wealthy farmer, Le Loi (r. 1428-33) waged war against the Chinese initially to restore the Tran Dynasty to the throne, but eventually, under the sobriquet 'the Pacifying King' (Binh Dinh Vuong), he took the throne. By 1427, Le Loi's revolt against Chinese rule had spread throughout Vietnam, leading the Chinese to make one last attempt to control the country, by dispatching a huge army of around 100,000 troops. The Vietnamese force they faced, however, was 350,000 strong and the Chinese were destroyed in a series of battles in 1428, reportedly losing 90,000 men – 60,000 killed and 30,000 taken prisoner. The Ming Emperor Xuande (1399-1435) had no option but to accept Vietnamese independence, freeing Le Loi to establish his own dynasty.
Le Loi next embarked on the initiative known as the 'March to the South' with the objective of conquering the large kingdom of Champa that occupied the area of today's central and southern Vietnam. This was achieved in 1471 and was followed, during the next two and a half centuries by the conquest of further southern coastal lands. The Le/Trinh and Mac dynasties fought for control of Vietnam between 1545 and 1592 when Hanoi fell to the Trinh and the Mac ruler was executed. Civil war between the rival Trinh and Nguyen families raged between 1627 and 1672 when a truce was agreed that effectively split Vietnam in two, the Nguyen family ruling the south and the Trinh family in control of the north.
By 1701, the southern half of the country reached as far south as the Ca Mau Peninsula, on the southern tip of the modern country of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta having been captured from the Khmer Kingdom between the middle of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century. Such expansion made it almost impossible to maintain central control, however, and, during this time, the country endured civil war and lengthy schisms.
The Arrival of the Europeans
Europeans had first visited Vietnam as far back as 166 BC when Roman merchants had made the long, perilous journey from Europe. The Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo visited in 1292 and Portuguese traders as well as other European merchants and missionaries arrived in the early sixteenth century. French influence in the region began with the arrival of the French Jesuit priest, Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660) who, having learned the Vietnamese language, created a Romanised version of its alphabet. De Rhodes worked initially in the north, but was expelled in 1630 after the ruler and his counsellors turned against Christianity. By this time Christian missionaries were being viewed as a threat to the Confucian social system and their activities were eventually curtailed towards the end of the seventeenth century.
In 1771, the Nguyen were overthrown by a revolt led by three brothers from the village of Tay Son, near Hue and in 1786 one of them, Nguyen Hue (no relation to the Nguyen lords), marched north and defeated the Trinh ruler and a supporting Chinese army. Nguyen Hue proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung (r. 1788-92) but died on the return march south in 1792. A prince of the Nguyen family, Nguyen Anh, took advantage of the confused situation to seize the southern part of Vietnam aided by the French priest Pigneau de Behaine (1741-99) who attempted to solicit French government help. When they refused to become involved, he turned to French merchants to provide the funds to pay for weapons and mercenaries, Nguyen Anh in return guaranteeing protection for French missionaries. In 1802, the surviving Tay Son rebels were defeated, allowing Nguyen Anh to proclaim himself Emperor Gia Long (r. 1802- 20), leader of a united Vietnam and the first ruler of the country's last dynasty. Under Gia Long, Catholicism was tolerated and the emperor even employed Europeans at his court as advisers, although subsequent emperors suppressed Catholicism. The West was again perceived as a threat to the Confucian social order and Catholics – both Vietnamese and European – were persecuted. The government of France, angered by the treatment of its missionaries, demanded protection for them. But the French not only sought protection for their missionaries; they, like the other major European powers, were seeking new markets for their manufactured goods as well as raw materials for industry. Eventually, in 1858, French Emperor Napoleon III (r. 1852-70) ordered Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly (1807-73) to mount a naval assault on the port of Tourane (modern-day Da Nang). The attack failed, but de Genouilly sailed south and captured the city of Gia Dinh (in the area of modern-day Ho Chi Minh City). In the next nine years the French gained control of the six provinces of the Mekong Delta, the colony they created becoming known as Cochinchina.
Having landed in northern Vietnam, the French took the city of Hanoi twice, in 1873 and 1882 and, after the Tonkin Campaign of 1883 to 1886, in which they fought against the Vietnamese, Chinese soldier of fortune Liu Yongfu's (1837-1917) Black Flag Army and the Chinese Guanxi and Yunnan armies, they were in control of the whole of Vietnam. In October 1887, French Indochina was created. It was made up of Annam (Trung Ky, central Vietnam), Tonkin (Bac Ky, northern Vietnam), Cochinchina (Nam Ky, southern Vietnam, and Cambodia, with Laos being added in 1893). Cochinchina enjoyed the status of a colony, Annam was a protectorate with the Nguyen dynasty still in power and Tonkin was controlled by a French governor.
French Colonial Rule
French colonial rule would prove to be harsh and exploitative, the colonial authorities attempting to destroy Vietnamese culture and identity in the name of civilising the people. While the Nguyen monarchy remained in Hue, real power lay in the hands of the French governor general who exercised his authority with ruthless brutality. The French were in Vietnam to exploit the country and Vietnam, therefore, became a supplier of raw materials – rubber, rice and coal – to French industry while indigenous industries were deprived of the opportunity to develop. Villagers, who had worked their small family plots for generations, became little more than low-paid plantation workers or miners, in the employ of French businesses or absentee landlords. Poverty and political repression became rife and the Vietnamese grew increasingly hostile towards the native, Francophile upper class. Unsurprisingly, resistance movements emerged, some led by former court officials, others by peasants. They occasionally revolted, trying to oust the French and re-establish their old, feudal society but by the start of the twentieth century, a new feeling was abroad as young Vietnamese who had never known a pre-colonial Vietnam, became active in the resistance. Like Chinese reformers of the time, they looked to Japan where a movement known as 'self-strengthening' had become popular in the previous decade. Rather than hold Western technology in disdain, they wanted to harness it to serve Asian needs. The Dong Du (Eastern Study) movement was formed by Phan Boi Chau (1867-1940) in 1905, with the objective of sending Vietnamese students to Japan to be educated and prepared to lead an uprising against the French. Arrested by the colonial authorities in 1925, Phan Boi Chau spent the remainder of his life confined to his house in Hue. Political parties were outlawed, but a number of radicals formed clandestine cells. In 1927, the Vietnam Quoc Dan Dong (Vietnamese National Party), modelled after the Chinese Kuomintang, was founded and, three years later, it launched an armed insurrection with attacks on French military posts. Following these attacks, those who did not manage to escape to China were arrested and guillotined.
Ho Chi Minh and the Beginnings of Vietnamese Communism
During this time, three separate Communist parties emerged in Vietnam – the Indochinese Communist Party, the Annamese Communist Party and the Indochinese Communist Union. The Communist International (Comintern) was an organisation, formed in Moscow in 1919, to fight 'for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet republic'. In 1930, it dispatched a Vietnamese native, Nguyen Ai Quoc ('Nguyen the Patriot') to Hong Kong to coordinate the unification of these parties into one grouping that would become known as the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). Nguyen Ai Quoc would later be better known to the world as Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969).
He was born as Nguyen Sinh Cung, in northern Annam in 1890. The son of a concubine, his father had studied hard and became a mandarin but would later abandon the imperial court and his family to roam the country as an itinerant teacher and healer. Ho was educated at a French lycée in Hue and was destined to become a teacher. Instead, in 1911, he found work in the galley of a French steamer, the Amirale de Latouche-Tréville, under the name Van Ba. It would be thirty years before he would return to his beloved Vietnam. In December 1911, he arrived in the French port of Marseille where he was disappointed by the rejection of his application for the French Colonial Administrative School. Until 1917, therefore, he continued his travelling, often working on ships. In the United States, he lived for a while in New York and Boston, doing menial jobs. During this period, he reportedly lived in London several times, working during one stay at the Carlton Hotel whose chef was the redoubtable Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), one of the great chefs of the twentieth century. Impressed by the young Vietnamese, Escoffier promoted him to assistant pastry chef. By 1919, Ho was in Paris where many Vietnamese had set up home during the war, working as soldiers or labourers. He worked as a journalist and even had a play he had written performed at the Club de Faubourg. When the Versailles Peace Conference opened, he applied to have US President Woodrow Wilson's (1856-1924) concept of self-determination applied to Vietnam. Although unsuccessful, it was a bold move that attracted the attention of French socialists and, in 1920, Ho was one of the founders of the French Communist Party. In 1924, he travelled to Moscow where he met Stalin (1878-1953), Trotsky (1879-1940) and other prominent communist politicians. Unfortunately, they were too preoccupied with choosing the successor to their late leader, Lenin, to be interested in the fate of Ho's Vietnam.
By 1925, Ho Chi Minh was in southern China, organising youth education classes and lecturing young Vietnamese revolutionaries who were attending the Whampoa Military Academy in Canton. He also worked as an interpreter for the Soviet agent, Mikhail Borodin (1884-1951), supplementing his income by selling cigarettes and newspapers. Ho was now calling himself Ly Thuy, but was also writing articles for the Soviet news agency and a Chinese newspaper under various pseudonyms. Returning to Moscow in 1927, following Chiang Kai-shek's (1887-1975) anti-communist coup, he toured Europe before heading once again for Asia, arriving in Bangkok in July 1928 and working as a Comintern agent. In 1929, he was in India but a year later returned to Shanghai and, in early 1930 in Hong Kong, he brought together the various organisations that would make the Communist Party of Vietnam. In June 1931, he was arrested by the British but they released him in January 1933. He could next be found working in a restaurant in Milan and then for a few years he was in the Soviet Union recovering from tuberculosis. In 1938, with his influence on the wane amongst members of the Comintern, he was allowed to return to China where he worked as an adviser to the Chinese Communist army.
Excerpted from A Short History of the Vietnam War by Gordon Kerr, Nick Rennison. Copyright © 2015 Gordon Kerr. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Two Thousand Years of Warfare 11
Chapter 2 The First Indochina War 20
Chapter 3 Keeping the Dominoes Standing: President Eisenhower 31
Chapter 4 Unwavering Commitment: President Kennedy 39
Chapter 5 Other Belligerents 44
Chapter 6 Americanising the War: President Johnson 48
Chapter 7 'Peace with Honour': President Nixon 93
Chapter 8 The Fall of South Vietnam 139
Chapter 9 The Legacy of the Vietnam War 148
Meanings of Common Acronyms Used in the War 150
Bibliography and Filmography 152