The war tore America apart and devastated Vietnam. As the body bags returned home to the United States in their thousands, US generals – who once believed victory was assured – were now wondering how best to admit defeat and withdraw.

MHM Editor Neil Faulkner assesses the significance of the Vietnam War.

173rd Airborne Brigade paratrooper after an early morning firefight, 14 July 1966. Credit: PBS

At first, it was like numerous post-1945 ‘small wars ‘ waged by Western powers trying to cling onto empire in a changing world. They may have been viewed through a Cold War lens and sold to a sceptical public as wars against ‘the spread of Communism ‘. But ‘the domino theory’ did not alter the basic truth: these were colonial wars against people fighting for national independence, social reform, and human dignity.

There were dozens of them – in Latin America, in Africa, in the Middle East, across Asia as a whole. But a few swelled into major insurgencies that sent shockwaves back into the imperial heartlands. Algeria was one: the blowback caused France’s Fourth Republic to collapse in 1958. Angola was another: military defeat in the bush triggered revolution back in Lisbon in 1974.

North Vietnamese Army soldiers during Operation Lam Son 719, Laos 1971. Credit: NARA

But Vietnam was in a category of its own. This war, once one among many, became the war – the war that divided the world’s greatest superpower, set the rest of the world afire, and shaped an entire generation of radicals.

The Vietnamese are an ancient people with a long history and a rich culture. They had been colonised by the French in 1887 and then occupied by the Japanese in 1940. By the end of the war, they had built a national liberation movement – led by Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communist Party – and, as the Viet Minh, were waging guerrilla war against the Japanese.

When the French attempted to restore colonial rule after 1945, the VietMinh resumed the fight for national independence against a new enemy, finally winning a decisive victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

But Vietnam’s agony did not end. The country was partitioned. The Communist-led nationalists were granted the North. A pro-Western dictatorship was installed in the South.

The promise was that there would soon be an election to decide the future of the South. But this never took place. The outcome was too easy to predict. Instead, US funds, arms, and ‘advisors’ flowed in to sustain the dictatorship against a growing rural insurgency.

What followed was one of the 20th century’s great tragedies . The Saigon dictatorship had the backing of the landlords. Ho Chi Minh had the support of the peasants. So the dictatorship eventually came to depend on the presence of half a million US soldiers in the South and on the US carpet-bombing of the North.

US soldier reads to his siblings before leaving for Vietnam. Credit: PBS

Even that was not enough. The combined forces of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong – essentially the armed wing of the South Vietnamese peasantry – proved unbeatable.

Not only was the United States defeated and the Saigon dictatorship overthrown, but the brutal reality of a war that pitted helicopter gunships, heavy bombers, and napalm against villages of rice farmers evoked revulsion across America. Hundreds of thousands refused the draft, joined mass protests, and battled the police in the streets of US cities.

The war came home. When that happened, it had to end. It had cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and at least 2 million Vietnamese; and it had generated the greatest political crisis inside America since the Civil War. Fifty years on, the issues remain raw, the controversies live, the legacy contested.

 

This is an extract from a 12-page special feature on The Vietnam War. Get the full story – including the strategy, battles, and tactics of the war – in issue 88 of Military History Monthly.

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