The background

– the Vietnam war is part of The Cold War between the US and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies
– Vietnam was French prior to World War II
– The Japanese invaded during World War II
– The French were severely weakened by World War II
– against everyone’s expectations the Vietnamese kicked out the French, they defeated them in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, because the French underestimated their enemy. The Vietnamese were led by a military genius, called Giap
– North-Vietnam became independent and communist, led by Ho Chi Minh, an intellectual who had lived in the US and Russia, was very cultured and spoke English fluently, he was a charismatic leader
– South-Vietnam became independent as, but was led by a corrupt puppet regime, backed by the French and the Americans, the regime was not very popular and the communists grew stronger
– Soon there was a guerilla movement in South-Vietnam to reunite the country and make it entirely communist. This movement had the backing of China, the Soviet-Union and North-Vietnam. Between North-Vietnam and South-Vietnam there was the demilitarized zone (DMZ)
– In 1964 the US claimed the North-Vietnamese navy had attacked some of their patrol both in the gulf of Tonkin. Recently it has become clear that this was a false claim, it never happened the way Americans at the time claimed. However, the American president Lyndon Johnson reacted strongly and started bombing facilities in North-Vietnam
– Gradually, the US send more and more military aid to South-Vietnam, first in the form of ‘advisors’, but eventually regular combat troops were sent. At the peak of US involvement more that 500,000 US troops were stationed there
– the motivation for the US to invest so many men and so much resources and energy into a conflict so far away from its national borders, is the so called domino theory. US politicians were afraid that if South-Vietnam would become communist as well that neighbouring countries would soon follow. They would fall like domino stones. The worst that could happen was that eventually even populous India would become communist as well

The Fighting

– Allthough more bombs were dropped on Vietnam than were dropped during the entire second World War, North-Vietnam and the Vietcong in South-Vietnam never quit fighting
– there was a great fear of escalating the conflict, the US was scared other countries would get involved, this sometimes limited their operational freedom. For example: the long road that fed the Vietcong in S-V with weapons from N-V, the Ho Chi Minh trail, passed through neighbouring countries. It could not bomb those countries. The US never managed to destroy this route, so the Vietcong kept receiving materiel and support
– Although the US and its allies had truly overwhelming fire power, the fighting on the ground was very frustrating for the US. The Vietcong pretended to be farmers during the day and only came out at night, snipers made life for US soldiers were stressful
– US soldiers that were drafted for the war, were expected to serve 365 days, after which they could go home again. This was not such a great idea, because it deprived the US of soldiers with combat experience. Basically, when a soldier had finally learned how to fight in Vietnam he was sent home and replaced by an inexperienced newbie who had to learn everything from scratch again
– because the Vietcong and the NVA could hide so well in the jungle, the US dropped ‘agent orange’ on large parts of Vietnam. Agent orange is a defoilant. It was supposed to make the trees lose their leaves so that nobody could hide anymore. It had the opposite effect… The leaves fed the ground and an even denser underbrush started to grow. The Vietcong could hide even better. Agent Orange is extremely toxic and to this day babies are born with horrible birth defects because of it
– The Vietnamese hid in tunnels and were very creative with booby traps. They were also original in their use of captured US materiel. They could make very effective fire bombs by using American peanut butter and insecticide…
– American fire power was overwhelming however and in the end the US never lost a battle
– it never lost a battle, but it did lose the war
– a turning point in the war was the Tet Offensive of 1968. Tet is Chinese New Year. Usually there was an armistice during the festivities. In 1968 the Vietnamese totally surprised the US and the South-Vietnamese troops by attacking every major city in South-Vietnam. A suicide squad also briefly occupied the symbol of the American presence in South-Vietnam, the American embassy in Saigon. Ironically, this Vietnamese offensive was a complete military catastrophe, the US repelled their attackers quite easily. The Vietcong and NVA suffered horrendous casualties. With some leaders reporting staggering losses of 80 percent. When the communists watched the American TV news, they couldn’t believe their eyes and ears: The US public thought it was losing in Vietnam…  Just at a moment that they were actually winning…
– massive protests broke out in the US, more and more people began demanding the return of the US soldiers
– the US started a process of ‘vietnamisation’, this basically means that it wanted the South-Vietnamese to fight the war against the Vietcong and North-Vietnam, without risking so many American lives
-the US pulled back its troops, but for a while kept supplying the South-Vietnamese with weapons. It also kept bombing North-Vietnam
– in the end it also kept supplying them with weapons and in 1975 North-Vietnam completely overran South-Vietnam and Saigon fell into communist hands. It was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
– the Domino theory proved to be somewhat correct, because Cambodia also became communist. However, things were far more complicated than this. It was not just a fight between communists and capitalists. For example: communist Vietnam later invaded Cambodia and communist China attacked a reunited and communist Vietnam… There were many different forms of communism and a lot of conflicts between these factions

The death toll 

– 58,000 American soldiers died. This seems to be a relatively small number, but hundreds of thousands were wounded and deeply traumatized by the war. 20 percent of American soldiers heavily used heroin during their stay in Vietnam. Many Vietnam veterans suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome because of the horror they went through. The 58,000 names of those that died are listed on the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, it’s a long black wall with all the names of these casualties. It’s said to be very impressive…
– Vietnamese losses are harder to determine. Perhaps as many as three million lives were lost, North and South combined

Conspiracy theory 

A popular conspiracy theory on the internet claims that the US lost the war on purpose and made the conflict drag on on purpose, just so it’s big companies could keep selling weapons to the army and make huge amounts of profits. Fans of this theory claim that the US did not bomb vital targets in North-Vietnam on purpose to keep the conflict going.

President Nixon’s role 

In recent years people were shocked to find out that Nixon was considering dropping nuclear weapons on Vietnam. Tapes were discovered and are available on the internet where you can hear him ask his advisor how to do as much damage as possible in Vietnam. Many people were shocked to find out that American president Nixon thought drowning hundreds of thousands of people was not ‘big’ enough’
This is from a 1972 conversation between Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger: 
Nixon: We’ve got to quit thinking in terms of a three-day strike [in the Hanoi-Haiphong area]. We’ve got to be thinking in terms of an all-out bombing attack – which will continue until they – Now by all-out bombing attack, I am thinking about things that go far beyond. I’m thinking of the dikes, I’m thinking of the railroad, I’m thinking, of course, the docks.
Kissinger: I agree with you.
President Nixon: We’ve got to use massive force.
Two hours later at noon, H. R. Haldeman and Ron Ziegler joined Kissinger and Nixon:
President: How many did we kill in Laos?
Ziegler: Maybe ten thousand – fifteen?
Kissinger: In the Laotian thing, we killed about ten, fifteen.
President: See, the attack in the North that we have in mind, power plants, whatever’s left – POL [petroleum], the docks. And, I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?
Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.
President: No, no, no, I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?
Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.
President: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you?…I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes.


At times US soldiers lost control and out of frustration started randomly killing Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, the most famous example is the My Lai massacre.

In popular culture

Movies worth watching are Apocalypse now, Platoon, Good morning Vietnam, Full metal jacket, Born on the fourth of July, We were soldiers, and the less well known Casualties of war
Apocalypse now shows an American officer gone entirely mad because of the horrors of war
Platoon shows how fighting on the ground took place and how soldiers entertained themselves, it also shows the many conflicting ideas US soldiers had about the war and how they thought the war should be conducted
Good Morning Vietnam is a comedy, but shows some of the American hypocrisy and confusion in the conflict
Casualties of war shows the frustration of American soldiers when they could not bring their enemies to fight. In the movie a small group of soldiers kidnap a Vietnamese girl and brutally rape her. One of the soldiers refuses to participate and has a hard time bringing his colleagues to justice
Full metal jacket is famous for depicting the harsh training US marines underwent before they were shipped to Vietnam. It also show how much damage a single Vietnamse sniper could do.
Born on the fourth of July follows the trials of a once motivated US soldier who becomes paralysed in Vietnam. He eventually becomes an anti-war protester, the movie is based on real life events.
We were soldiers has an uninteresting story, but shows how typical combat in Vietnam looked like, with American soldiers jumping out of helicopters and trying to put a massive rain of fire on their enemies in the middle of the jungle. The Vietnamese are pictured as silly cartoon figures unfortunately…