America's War in Vietnam: A Short Narrative History

America's War in Vietnam: A Short Narrative History

by Larry H. Addington

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America's War in Vietnam: A Short Narrative History by Larry H. Addington

This book has been long needed: a concise, complete and dispassionate survey of the Vietnam War.... Best of all, the no-nonsense approach answers questions as soon as they arise in the reader's mind." —Kliatt

If there is such a thing as an objective account [of the Vietnam War], this is it.... If you want to read one book about Vietnam, read this one." —New York Review of Books

A short, narrative history of the origins, course, and outcome of America's military involvement in Vietnam by an experienced guide to the causes and conduct of war, Larry H. Addington. He begins with a history of Vietnam before and after French occupation, the Cold War origins of American involvement, the domestic impact of American policies on public support, and the reasons for the ultimate failure of U.S. policy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253213600
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 04/28/2000
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Larry H. Addington is Professor Emeritus of History at The Citadel. He has been a guest lecturer at the Naval War College, the Marine Command and Staff College, and at various Army schools. He is author of The Blitzkrieg Era, The Patterns of War Through the Eighteenth Century, and The Patterns of War Since the Eighteenth Century.

Read an Excerpt

America's War in Vietnam

A Short Narrative History

By Larry H. Addington

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2000 Larry H. Addington
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00321-8


The Geography of Vietnam and its History to World War Two

The Physical Setting

Vietnam has been likened to two rice bowls at the opposite ends of a carrying pole. The rice bowls represent the Song Coi (Red River) delta in the north and the Mekong River delta in the south, and the carrying pole represents the long, narrow territory in between. The country uncoils from its frontier with China, at approximately the 26th parallel, in an elongated "S" that stretches southward for more than 1,200 miles to a point below the 9th parallel, where the Ca Mau peninsula separates the South China Sea from the Gulf of Thailand. In all, Vietnam's borders encompass 127,300 square miles, or a land area slightly more than that in the state of New Mexico. For much of the distance from north to south, the Truong Son (Long Mountains) provide a natural frontier between Vietnam on the one hand and China and Laos on the other; the mountains near the Chinese border attain elevations as great as 10,000 feet, while those along the Lao frontier have elevations from 4,000 to 6,000 feet. This mountainous frontier gradually runs out along Vietnam's border with Cambodia in the Mekong delta. Though Vietnam's coastline is not much shorter than that of the eastern seaboard of the United States, the country at its widest point is no more than about 250 miles across, and it is only about 20 miles wide at its narrow waist at the 17th parallel.

In 1960, Vietnam's two largest cities were Hanoi (population about 600,000) in the north and Saigon (population about 1.6 million) in the south. The two cities, opposing capitals during America's war in Vietnam, are situated almost exactly seven hundred miles apart, and are respectively located in the alluvial plains of the Red River and the Mekong River-the chief, but not the exclusive, rice-growing areas of Vietnam. At the narrow waist of the country are Danang and Hue, with populations of 240,000 and 140,000 respectively in 1960. In this region, offshoots from the Truong Son reach nearly to the sea, and this geographical circumstance has left semi-isolated but heavily populated rice-growing deltas along the coast of central Vietnam.

In contrast to the crowded coastal deltas of Vietnam, the Central Highlands of southern Vietnam are relatively thinly populated. Most of the population here is composed of tribal peoples whom the French called Montagnards, or "mountain peoples." Found throughout the Long Mountains of northern and southern Vietnam, the Montagnards divide into eighteen tribal groups. Some tribes, such as the Hmong, have communities that sprawl across the frontiers of Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and even China. All Montagnards tend to identify with clans and tribes rather than with the countries within whose borders they happen to live.

Thus, because of geographical, agricultural, and demographic circumstances, of the approximately 30.5 million people living in Vietnam in the early 1960s (16.5 million north of the 17th parallel and 14 million south of it), close to 29 million people lived on only about 20 percent of the national territory. The remaining 1.5 million people -most of them Montagnards-lived in the more than 100,000 square miles of mountains and plateau. If the same situation existed in the continental United States, over 95 percent of the American population would live between the eastern seaboard and the Appalachian Mountains, while fewer than 5 percent would have the rest of the country to themselves. These peculiarities of geography and demography greatly affected the strategy, and arguments over strategy, of America's war in Vietnam.

The History of Vietnam to 1802

The Indochinese peninsula as a whole — which besides Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, technically includes Thailand (Siam) — was originally populated by an Austro-Indonesian population, most of whom lived in what is today Thailand and Cambodia. About 2,000 B.C., Thai and Khmer invaders from the northwest pushed these aboriginals aside, and some of the Khmers settled in the Mekong delta. Sometime later, seafaring peoples from ancient India settled in what is today central and south-central Vietnam and founded there the kingdom of Champa. Finally, the Viets, a people akin to the Chinese and the ancestors of the modern Vietnamese, migrated from China to settle in the Red River delta.

According to tradition, the Viets were descended from a group of fifteen tribes called the Lac Viet, who created a kingdom in the Red River delta that they called Van-lang and that the Chinese called Au Lac. Apparently they were independent until 208 B.C., when, during the Han dynasty's rule in China, a Chinese warlord named Trieu Da used his forces to conquer the Viet kingdom. Trieu Da turned the Viet territory into his personal fiefdom and called his state Nam Viet (South Viet). Then in 111 B.C. the Han empire extended its direct rule over Nam Viet and renamed it Gia Chi, a term corrupted later by Westerners into "Cochin" as in "Cochinchina." Still later the Chinese empire renamed its Viet territory Annam, meaning "Pacified South." In modern times, these name changes, and more to come, would lead to confusion in the West as to the national identity of the Vietnamese.

Regardless of names imposed by China, the Viets never lost their sense of a national identity separate from the Chinese. Though they borrowed the Chinese system of ideograms for writing, the Chinese version of the Buddhist faith, and the mandarin traditions of Chinese government based on the Confucian code, they were never long quiescent under Chinese rule. For more than a thousand years after the first Chinese occupation, their history is replete with revolts for independence, so many in fact that they almost made a mockery of the term "Pacified South."

The first recorded Viet revolt against Chinese rule occurred in A.O. 40 and was led by Trung Trac, a titled Vietnamese lady. She had become enraged when a Chinese commander ordered her husband executed, and she was joined by her sister in arousing the disgruntled Viet nobility and population into action. Under the leadership of the Trung Sisters, the Viets drove the occupying Chinese army from Viet territory, and briefly the Sisters ruled the country as co-queens. When the returning Chinese over-threw their government in A.O. 38, the Sisters committed suicide rather than surrender. Down to the present day the Vietnamese conduct ceremonies honoring the Trung Sisters as Vietnam's first national patriots.

As Viet history unfolded, there were more revolts against Chinese rule, but none were successful until A.O. 938. Even then Viet independence was repeatedly imperiled by more Chinese invasions, three of them under the Mongol rulers who had earlier conquered China. Much of the time, the Viets were too weak to fight the Chinese or Mongols in pitched battles, and they turned to the techniques of guerrilla warfare, gradually wearing down their foes with "little war" until they had enough strength to expel them from the country. Thus, by the time of America's war in Vietnam the waging of "protracted war" by irregular means already had a long history among the Vietnamese.

The final Viet overthrow of Chinese rule occurred during the reign of the Ming dynasty early in the fifteenth century. In 1418 Prince Le Loi raised the banner of revolt, and by resorting to a guerrilla-style warfare that was becoming second nature to the Viet people after generations of fighting a stronger enemy, his forces managed to isolate the Chinese garrisons within the Viet cities. When Le Loi's forces were finally strong enough to risk a decisive battle at Tot Dong in the Red River valley in 1426, they so routed the Chinese army that two years later China effectively recognized the Viet kingdom's independence by granting it the status of a tributary client state. Apart from an abortive Chinese invasion of Viet territory in 1788, the Chinese have not attempted another permanent, full-scale occupation of Vietnam to the present day.

As the Viet emperor, Le Loi named his kingdom Dai-Viet (Great Viet State) and established his capital at Tong Kinh (a name later corrupted by Westerners into "Tonkin"), a city on the Red River about seventy-five miles from the coast; it was subsequently renamed Hanoi. ("Tonkin" survives to the present as a name for the northern part of the country and the Gulf of Tonkin.) Dai-Viet's territory extended from the 23rd parallel to the 17th parallel, and occupied roughly the same area as that of the (communist) Democratic Republic of Vietnam from 1954 to 1975.

The Viet "golden age" commenced under Emperor Le Thanh-tong, who ascended the throne in 1460 and ruled his country for the next thirty-eight years. During Le Thanh-tong's reign, he established a political and bureaucratic structure that was to survive largely unchanged for generations. Subject to the will of the emperor, six ministries shaped policy and passed on imperial decrees to thirteen province chiefs. They, in turn, transmitted the decrees through district offices to some eight thousand communes. Each commune was governed by a village chieftain or mayor selected by its inhabitants, and its internal affairs were largely left to the discretion of its members.

The mandarins, an elite class of Confucian scholars, provided the Viet kingdom its civil service at large. To become a mandarin, a Viet had to master the complex and demanding code of Confucius, the Chinese sage of c. 500 B.C. whose teachings had become the basis of Chinese government. Entry into its corps was by examination, and in theory class did not bar anyone from applying. Himself a scholar in the Confucian tradition, Le Thanh-tong devoted much of his energy to the advancement of his people's learning on all levels of society. Thanks in part to his efforts, the Viets enjoyed a high level of literacy in his time and for centuries afterwards.

Le Thanh-tong also maintained a standing army of almost 200,000 men and officered it with those who had passed rigorous examinations in order to enter its officer corps. He used a nationwide draft to keep the ranks filled. The excellence of the army gave him the means to launch successful wars of expansion against the kingdom of Champa, the Indian-based civilization south of the Viet border, and what is now central Vietnam came under Viet control after the capture of the Cham capital at Indraputra in 1471. After Le Thanh-tong's time, the Viet kingdom continued to expand southward, but it became ever harder to rule these expanding southern territories from the north.

Early in the seventeenth century, the single Viet kingdom split into the Trinh kingdom in the north and Nguyen kingdom in the south. The Nguyen emperors continued the program of Viet expansion to the south, and they finally penetrated into the Mekong delta. Here bitter struggles ensued with the Khmers (Cambodians) who had lived there for generations, but early in the eighteenth century the Nguyen Viets finally drove the Khmers from much of the eastern delta. During the "Long March," as the long-time Viet expansion southward to the Ca Mau peninsula is termed, the Viets demonstrated formidable powers as warriors. And between them, the two Viet kingdoms rounded out the frontiers of Vietnam largely as they are today.

Meanwhile, in 1612, Roman Catholic missionaries from France reached the Viet kingdoms. The Viet emperors largely tolerated their proselytizing, and Monsignor Alexandre de Rhodes undertook to transliterate the Viet language into a written form, using the Roman alphabet. This form, known as quoc ngu, is still used today. And though the vast majority of the Viets remained Buddhists, a significant Viet minority were converted to Christanity. In consequence, the influence of the missionaries on the indigenous Roman Catholic population became another factor in the Viet political and cultural equation.

A key turning point in Viet history was reached when both of the Viet kingdoms were swept up in the Great Tay Son Rebellion (1772–1802), one that derives its name from the mountains in south-central Vietnam where it commenced. Though its causes are not entirely clear, they surely involved the Mandate of Heaven, a Confucian concept. Under the Mandate, the subject owed absolute obedience to the ruler, but that obedience was conditional upon the ruler's observance of tradition and law and upon a perceived harmonious relationship with the universe. The mandarins, the emperor's civil servants, were supposed to ensure harmony, the legal niceties, and a just rule over the emperor's subjects, but a major misfortune — ranging from military defeat to mandarin misconduct to acts of nature-could result in the perception of the emperor's subjects that he no longer had the favor of heaven and its mandate. In those circumstances, revolt was justified. Even today "revolution" is still expressed by a Vietnamese term that roughly translates as "change the Mandate."

After three years of fighting, the Tay Son rebels overthrew the Nguyen kingdom in the south, and in 1775 they marched north to overthrow the Trinh kingdom. But Prince Nguyen Anh, a survivor of the deposed Nguyen dynasty, refused to give up the struggle in the south, and for years his ragtag army of loyalists managed to hang on in remote bases in the watery maze of the Mekong delta. In the process of seeking to restore his dynastic fortunes, Nguyen Anh discovered an ally in Monsignor Pierre Pigneau de Bahaine, the head of the French Catholic missions.

Pigneau spent years vainly seeking outside aid for Nguyen Anh's cause, even making a trip back to France to seek assistance from the government of Louis XVI. He finally secured help from French traders in India, who, in return for future trading rights in the Viet kingdoms, provided Nguyen Anh with munitions, a small corps of mercenary soldiers, and officers to train Nguyen Anh's soldiers. The French aid helped to change Nguyen Anh's force from a ragtag body of loyalists into a disciplined body of 50,000 European-trained and mostly Catholic troops. With this reformed army, Nguyen Anh first drove the Tay Son rebels from the Mekong delta and then defeated them at the battle of Qui Nhon in 1799 for control of the central part of the country. Though Pigneau died of natural causes on the eve of that victory, Nguyen Anh and his army went on to extinguish the last of the Tay Son resistance in the north in 1802. Thus, after centuries of division, the land of the Viets was reunited at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Nguyen Anh's military success gave strength to his claim that he enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven, and his remaining task was to ensure that his country would remain united under his dynastic successors. Accordingly, he took the title of Emperor Gia Long; he proceeded to rename his country "Vietnam" (literally Viet South), and by extension his Viet subjects became redesignated as the Vietnamese. He placed his capital at Hue in central Vietnam; in imitation of the Forbidden City in Beijing, he caused to be constructed there the Citadel, a great masonry fortress along the banks of the Perfumed River, and within its confines he located his Palace of Perfect Peace. The Nguyen dynasty that Gia Long founded would survive to almost the middle of the twentieth century.

The Catholic Problem and the Arrival of French Imperialism

Because Gia Long owed his final success against the Tay Son rebels in no small measure to the support of the French Roman Catholic missions and their Vietnamese converts, his relations with them were amicable to his death in 1819. But there was also potential trouble in the presence of the Catholic Vietnamese. They owed fealty to a faraway Pope in Rome and to his priests in Vietnam, yet they were subjects of an emperor who ruled by the authority of an abstract Mandate of Heaven unrelated to Christianity. The emperor also exercised his power through a system of powerful mandarin officials, who resented the presence of Catholic priests and who were distrustful of the mixed loyalty of their Vietnamese converts. Under these circumstances, relations between the imperial government and the Catholic minority deteriorated after Gia Long's death.

In 1825, Emperor Minh Mang issued edicts circumscribing the activities of the Catholic missionaries and forbidding more missionaries to enter Vietnam. Matters hardly improved under Emperor Thieu Tri, who ordered the arrest of Father Lefèbvre for meddling in Vietnamese political affairs, whereupon the Catholic missions appealed to France for protection. In March 1847, a French warship bombarded Danang, called Tourane by the French, in order to compel the emperor to release Lefèbvre. After still another dispute over the treatment of Catholics with Emperor Tu Due in 1856, the French again bombarded Tourane in order to have their way.


Excerpted from America's War in Vietnam by Larry H. Addington. Copyright © 2000 Larry H. Addington. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Maps
Some Abbreviations Used in the Text

1. The Geography and History of Vietnam to World War Two
2. The Career of Ho Chi Minh to 1939
3. World War Two and America’s Collaboration with Ho
4. America and the Indochina War, 1946-1954
5. Eisenhower and the Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-60
6. Kennedy’s War: Counter-Insurgency and the Fall of Diem, 1961-1963
7. Johnson’s War I: To the Brink, 1964
8. Johnson’s War II: The Year of the Plunge, 1965
9. Johnson’s War III: Moving Toward Defeat, 1966-1967
10. Johnson’s War IV: The Turning Year, 1968
11. Nixon’s War I: The Strategy of Withdrawal, 1969-1970
12. Nixon’s War II: The Final Round, 1971-1972
13. The Paris Peace Accords and the Fall of Indochina, 1973-1975
14. Aftermath and Summing Up

Selected Bibliography

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