Ho Chi Minh: A Brief History Of American Involvement In The Vietnam War

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In 1946, Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh warned French colonialists, “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” This icy sentiment foreshadowed what would become one of the longest and most grueling wars in the history of the United States- The Vietnam War. Beginning on November 1, 1945 and lasting until April 30, 1975, the Vietnam War spanned almost 20 years. Over 3 million people died during the two decades, more than half of whom were Vietnamese civilians. The war was spawned in part due to France and the United States seeking to protect their own interests within the country. The conflict between France and Vietnam dates back to the 19th century.

French colonial rule of Vietnam and Indochina began in the 1880s and lasted six decades, during which France became increasingly rich due to the profits created by exploited Vietnamese laborers. France justified their imperialism with the principle of mission civilisatrice, or ‘civilizing mission’, claiming it was their responsibility to colonize regions in Africa and Asia in order to save them from backward thinking, poverty, and to bring them into the modern era. Mission civilisatrice, however was a thinly veiled way for France to profit from the resources and cheap labor in Indochina while simultaneously oppressing the people. However, oppression and strife can lead to greater solidarity, patriotism, and passion among a marginalized group.

Ho Chi Minh formed the Viet Minh- or the League for the Independence of Vietnam- to fight off both Japanese invaders and French colonizers after Japanese forces invaded during World War II. After the 1945 defeat of Japan, Japan withdrew its troops and Vietnam became divided. The Viet Minh forces took control of Hanoi and declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam with Ho Chi Minh as leader. In July 1949, France backed emperor Bao Dai and established the state of Vietnam with Saigon as its capital.

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As the Cold War intensified, the United States steeled its policies against the Soviet Union and its allies, and a deep fear of communism was cultivated among Americans. Through this the “domino theory” was born. President Eisenhower said, “You have a row of dominoes set up; you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is that it will go over very quickly.” This idea perpetuated the fear that if Vietnam became communist then all of Indochina would as well, and before long the United States would be one of the few democracys remaining in the world. In July of 1954, the Geneva Accord established both North and South Vietnam with the 17th parallel dividing the two. By 1955, the United States had agreed to strongly support France and leader Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam.

North Vietnam instigated guerilla warfare in the South through the use of the Ho Chi Minh trail, an elaborate underground network of tunnels that ran through Cambodia and Laos to South Vietnam. This route was expanded throughout the war. After the first death of United States soldiers in South Vietnam, President Kennedy began to escalate the US involvement in the war, authorizing secret operations against the Viet Cong. In 1962, United States aircrafts began spraying Agent Orange, a tactical herbicide meant to kill vegetation, over rural areas of South Vietnam. Today, both Vietnamese people and American veterans suffer from health issues due to Agent Orange.

In August of 1964 USS Maddox was allegedly attacked by North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats while the destroyer was in international waters, leading President Johnson to further increase United States military involvement and attacks involving North Vietnam. These attacks incentivized congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the President to take any means necessary, even violence, to promote peace in Indochina. By March of 1965, President Johnson authorized a three-year bombing campaign of both North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail. Gradually, more American soldiers were sent to Vietnam. In 1967, there were over 500,000 United States troops stationed in Vietnam.

As the war lingered on, growing dissatisfaction festered among Americans. This was, in part, due to the invention of fully colorized television. Citizens could see gruesome images of the war from their own living rooms. A booming anti-war movement was born, led mostly by the young people as well as “hippies”. In October of 1967, around 35,000 people gathered outside the Pentagon in protest against the war.

Tet Offensive, named for the lunar new year, marked a turning point in the war. On January 31, 1968 attacks were executed on more than 100 cities and stations in South Vietnam including Hue, Saigon, and the US Embassy. Though the battles ended in victory for the United States and South Vietnam, they were marked by the highest death toll yet of US soldiers. Tragedy continued within the next few months. In March of 1968 more than 500 Vietnamese civilians were slaughtered by United States soldiers in the Mai Lai Massacre. Amid backlash against the war, President Johnson halted bombing and decreed that he would not run for re-election.

Following the election of President Richard Nixon, the United States began to slowly withdraw troops from Vietnam. This gradual process in which the United States slowly placed and increasing burden on the ground forces of South Vietnam was called Vietnamization. In June of 1970 Congress repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to reclaim control over the President’s capability to use violence during a war.  

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