The Vietnam War was one of the most brutal conflicts in the second half of the 20th century. For over two decades, fighting between North Vietnamese communists, South Vietnamese resistance forces, French colonizers, American troops, Soviet and Chinese reinforcements, and guerilla fighters ravaged the region. Although the number of casualties is still unknown to this day, historians estimate that over 1 million North Vietnamese fighters, 200,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, 58,000 US troops, and 2 million civilians died or went missing between 1954 and 1975.
Early U.S. narratives portrayed the Vietnam War as a heroic, patriotic mission to overthrow the communist government of North Vietnam. Public opinion turned against the war as American soldiers – including many young men who were involuntarily drafted – continued to suffer and die in deplorable conditions. Today, most historians agree that the American involvement in the war was an unnecessary operation that decimated an entire generation of American men. However, these narratives often neglect the group that suffered most in the war – the Vietnamese.
To understand the motives behind the Vietnam War, we must examine its colonial history. In 1887, France colonized Vietnam along with the rest of Southeast Asia after its victory in the Sino-French War. For over 50 years, French colonizers exploited Vietnam for crops and labor, forcing Vietnamese workers to farm on plantations under unsafe working conditions. French missionaries also enforced aspects of Western culture on Vietnamese society, such as Catholicism and the French language.
Ho Chi Minh is best known as a North Vietnamese communist pioneer, but he first rose to prominence as a resistance leader against colonialism. When Nazi Germany seized control of France in 1940, Nazi-allied Japanese troops occupied Vietnam. In response, Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues established the Viet Minh, a movement to end both French and Japanese occupation.
After Japan’s defeat in World War II, France attempted to reclaim authority over Vietnam, but Ho Chi Minh issued a declaration of independence for North Vietnam. The next year, the Viet Minh began a guerrilla war against French forces for self-determination.
When post-World War II disputes between the United States and the Soviet Union over control of Germany incited the Cold War, anticommunist sentiment swept through the United States. In 1947, U.S. President Harry Truman declared that the United States would use any necessary military force to stop the rise of communist governments abroad, a policy known as the Truman Doctrine.
In 1950, the Soviet Union and the newly communist China began supplying economic and military aid to the Viet Minh. Fearing the rise of a new pro-Soviet communist state, the United States invoked the Truman Doctrine and sent military assistance to the French colonizers.
In 1954, the Viet Minh drove out the French and signed the Geneva Accords, which temporarily divided Vietnam into northern and southern sections along the 17th parallel and scheduled democratic elections to reunify Vietnam under a single government within the next two years. However, these elections never happened.
Ho Chi Minh assumed power in the north, while the U.S. propped up Catholic nationalist Ngo Dinh Diem as the leader of South Vietnam. The Viet Minh viewed Diem as an extension of the Western colonialism they had fought so hard to cast off, so they started building a supply route to South Vietnam called the Ho Chi Minh Trail in order to help guerilla fighters reach Diem’s government. These forces became known as the Viet Cong. In July 1959, Viet Cong members raided a U.S. military compound near Saigon, drawing the first American blood of the war.
For the first half of the 1960s, North Vietnamese attacks were carried out by guerilla fighters rather than government soldiers. In May 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy sent helicopters and 400 Green Berets to launch secret operations against the Viet Cong. The following year, the U.S. military sprayed Agent Orange, a lethal herbicide, across Southern Vietnam to destroy coverage and food for the guerillas. Vietnamese reports stated that 400,000 Vietnamese from both sides suffered death or permanent injury and over 2 million experienced illness from the effects of Agent Orange.
Meanwhile, Ngo Dinh Diem grew increasingly unpopular for his corruption, his ineffective management of the war, and his persecution of South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority in favor of the Catholic minority. In 1963, the U.S. backed a military coup that killed Diem in hopes of installing a more reliable leader. However, South Vietnam underwent 12 coups in the next two years and never established a strong central government.
In 1964, U.S. officials claimed that North Vietnamese forces had torpedoed an American warship in the Gulf of Tonkin. While the attack was never proven, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson did not hesitate to authorize air strikes on North Vietnamese bases. As US air forces continued to strike Vietnam, the Soviet Union and China increased their support for North Vietnam.
The following year, Johnson authorized Operation Rolling Thunder, a three-year campaign to bomb North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This escalation marked a turning point in U.S. strategy. Initially, the Americans had anticipated that Vietnam would be a quick operation with little bloodshed. But now, Johnson and his administration were so invested in the outcome of the conflict that they were willing to enter a long, violent war. Johnson instated mandatory conscription, drafting about 35,000 new soldiers per month. By 1967, half a million American troops occupied Vietnam.
However, not all Americans shared Johnson’s enthusiasm for the war. Casualties rose on all sides, but no one was able to maintain an advantage for long. Mass anti-war protests broke out in Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco, and Johnson decided not to run for reelection.
Under the Nixon administration, the U.S. began slowly withdrawing troops, placing the burden of resistance on the South Vietnamese ground forces. Between 1969 and 1972, the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam dropped from 549,000 to 69,000. In 1973, the draft officially ended, and Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords to establish a ceasefire.
However, the end of U.S. involvement did not bring the end of the war. North Vietnamese forces resumed their initial goal and continued claiming southern territory. Furthermore, some U.S. troops still lingered in Vietnam until 1975, when the North Vietnamese military seized the southern capital city of Saigon. The final Americans evacuated from Vietnam in 1975, and Vietnam was reunified under Northern communist rule.
No one emerged from the conflict with clean hands. North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, Americans and pirates alike committed atrocious war crimes against both soldiers and civilians. Widespread torture, mutilation and sexual violence were everyday occurrences for two decades.
The U.S. government treated its own soldiers deplorably and inhumanely. Young men with no military training were sent halfway around the world into unfamiliar jungles full of clever guerilla fighters and deadly booby traps. The horrors of those experiences should not be downplayed. However, the U.S. military’s involvement in Vietnam was an unwarranted occupation that sought to uphold colonial rule and strip Vietnamese people of the right to self-determination, and their presence prolonged the violence that traumatized an entire generation.
For too long, Vietnamese people have been cast as the supporting characters to the American protagonists – sidelined and dismissed in their own stories. When discussing the Vietnam War, it’s important to uplift Vietnamese voices, center their perspectives, and honor the experiences that shaped their nation.