Vietnam Epic

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Crisis in Southeast Asia: Kennedy

The breakup of the French colonial empire of Indochina in 1954 intensified the already chaotic conditions in Southeast Asia. As elsewhere, the United States and the USSR competed to establish governments favorable to themselves. Both Laos and South Vietnam were threatened by Communist rebellions. In July 1962 Kennedy's roving ambassador, W. Averell Harriman, negotiated an international agreement that arranged for a neutral coalition government in Laos headed by Prince Souvanna Phouma. This reversed earlier U.S. policy, which had supported an anti-Communist military dictator. The coalition government, which consisted of both Communist and non-Communist elements, was shaky, but it survived for some time.

Kennedy was less successful in South Vietnam where U.S. military advisers had been training the South Vietnamese army since 1954. The South Vietnamese government of President  Ngo Dinh Diem was threatened by a Communist-dominated guerrilla movement, called the National Liberation Front, which was supported by many of the people living in the countryside.

The Diem government, which was dominated by Roman Catholics, proved unable to defeat the Communists or to cope with growing unrest among South Vietnamese Buddhists and other religious groups. Antigovernment agitation was especially strong among the Buddhists, some of whom burned themselves to death to protest the Diem regime. The government charged that the Buddhist groups had become infiltrated by Communists, and arrested many Buddhists. Although this contention was supported by outside observers, including a fact-finding team from the United States, religious friction between the Buddhists and the Catholic-led government was at least as powerful a force as political conflict.

In 1961 Kennedy demonstrated America's commitment to South Vietnam by increasing the number of military advisers from 700 to 15,000 and ordering them into combat. He also warned that “in the final analysis it is their (South Vietnam's) war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send out our men as advisers, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam.”

Kennedy soon realized that Diem was more interested in maintaining his own hold on power than in defeating the Communists and introducing democracy in South Vietnam. In 1963, when Kennedy was informed of a planned coup to overthrow Diem, he chose to leave the matter in the hands of the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., whom he knew to be in favor of the planned coup. The coup was successful, and Diem was killed in the back of a military personnel carrier. However, the new government was unable to keep the guerrilla war from spreading, in spite of increased U.S. aid.

Crisis in Southeast Asia: Johnson

It was in Southeast Asia that Johnson ran into his greatest difficulties. The  Vietnam War, a military struggle fought in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975, had begun when Communist-led nationalists rose in opposition to the government of South Vietnam. They sought the reunification of Vietnam, which had been temporarily divided in 1954 by the Geneva Accords. These nationalists formed the National Liberation Front (NLF), which was supported by the Communist government of North Vietnam. The struggle widened into a war between South Vietnam and North Vietnam and ultimately into a conflict involving other nations in Southeast Asia. Unlike conventional wars, the war in Vietnam had no defined front lines. Much of it consisted of hit-and-run attacks, with the NLF guerrilla fighters striking at government outposts and retreating into the jungle

Johnson had inherited a pledge from the Eisenhower administration that the United States would not permit South Vietnam to fall to the Communists. He had also inherited a commitment of several thousand U.S. "advisers" in South Vietnam from the Kennedy administration.

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

In 1964 Johnson reported that the North Vietnamese had attacked U.S. vessels in the  Gulf of Tonkin and asked Congress for a resolution to increase U.S. military involvement. The measure was passed by both houses. In February 1965 U.S. planes began regular bombing raids over North Vietnam. Johnson stopped the bombing in May to support peace talks, but when North Vietnam rejected all negotiations, the bombings were resumed. U.S. troop strength continued to increase in South Vietnam. On March 6, 1965, a brigade of American marines landed at Ðà Nang, and by year's end U.S. combat strength was nearly 200,000.

While continuing the military buildup in Vietnam, Johnson made another attempt to end the war. In December 1965 he again halted the bombing of North Vietnam in an effort to achieve a peaceful settlement. Again negotiations failed, and the raids were resumed. In June 1966 U.S. planes began bombing targets near Hanoi, the capitol of North Vietnam, and the neighboring port of Haiphong, both of which had previously been spared.

In October 1966 representatives from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea, and the Philippines—which all had troops in South Vietnam—met in Manila and promised to withdraw within six months if North Vietnam abandoned the war. The offer was rejected by North Vietnam. In June 1967, when Johnson met with Soviet Premier Kosygin in Glassboro, New Jersey, he unsuccessfully sought Kosygin's help in bringing North Vietnam to the peace table.

The war continued, and casualty figures rose. In November 1967 the Defense Department announced that total U.S. casualties in Vietnam since the beginning of 1961 had reached 15,058 killed and 109,527 wounded. With the mounting toll sentiment grew within the United States for an end to the war, the cost of which, apart from the loss of life, was estimated by the president at $25 billion per year. A peace movement developed and gathered momentum, and marches were organized against the war in major U.S. cities.

The Tet Offensive

In December 1967 Johnson visited foreign capitals in search of support for his war policies, announcing "The enemy cannot win, now, in Vietnam." A month later, however, the NLF launched the Tet Offensive (from the name of the Vietnamese lunar new year in mid-February), a coordinated series of attacks on more than 100 South Vietnamese targets that almost cut South Vietnam in half. Despite its psychological effect, the campaign failed, and the Communist forces were driven back from most of the positions they had gained, having lost 85,000 of their best troops.

In spite of this U.S. victory, however, by the early spring of 1968 much of the American public had concluded that the war was unwinnable. Repeated predictions of victory from U.S. generals and Secretary of Defense  Robert S. McNamara had proved wrong, and as the U.S. commitment grew, so did opposition to the war and to Johnson personally. By 1967 Johnson began avoiding public appearances because of demonstrations and threats to his life.

The Decision to Retire

As criticism of the Vietnam War reached its height, one of the most vocal of the Vietnam critics, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, announced that he could not support the president for reelection and entered the race for the Democratic nomination. After McCarthy made a strong showing in the March 1968 New Hampshire primary, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York also entered the race.

Virtually every political observer believed that Johnson would run for a second full term, and most believed that, despite the opposition to the war and his poor showing in the polls, he would have little difficulty in gaining the Democratic nomination. Therefore, it came as a shock to the nation when the president announced on March 31 that he was going to devote his full efforts to trying to end the war and that, consequently, he would neither seek nor accept his party's nomination for another term. In the same speech, he announced a partial halt to the bombing of North Vietnam as a gesture aimed at getting peace talks started with the North Vietnamese. North Vietnam responded to the gesture, and, after preliminary negotiations, peace talks began several weeks later in Paris.

It was widely assumed that Johnson's preference for his successor was Vice President Humphrey, although Johnson made no formal statement of support. The assassination of Senator Kennedy in June threw the contest for the nomination into a complete turmoil. Despite the closeness of the views of Senators McCarthy and Kennedy, McCarthy was not able to obtain the late senator's base of support. The Democratic National Convention was held in August in Chicago, which was the scene of widespread demonstrations by critics of the war, mostly young people, and of bloody clashes between them and the Chicago police. After narrowly approving a platform plank that defended Johnson's Vietnam policies, the convention went on to nominate Humphrey on the first ballot.

Although Johnson endorsed Humphrey, he did not actively participate in the 1968 election. Humphrey lost the election to Republican Richard M. Nixon by a narrow margin. After Nixon's inauguration, Johnson returned to his Texas ranch to write his presidential memoirs, published in 1971 as The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, on the University of Texas campus, was dedicated in May 1971. Johnson died in 1973 and was buried at the LBJ Ranch, in Johnson City, Texas

Crisis in Southeast Asia: Nixon

The most important issue Nixon faced when he became president was the Vietnam War. The war had begun in 1959 when Communist-led guerrillas in South Vietnam, backed by the Communist government of North Vietnam, launched an attempt to overthrow the government of South Vietnam. The struggle widened into a war between South Vietnam and North Vietnam and ultimately into a limited international conflict in which the burden of the war fell mainly on civilians. The United States first sent military advisers to South Vietnam in the 1950s. After a report in 1964 that the North Vietnamese had attacked U.S. vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin, Congress had authorized President  Lyndon Johnson  to increase U.S. military involvement. The Johnson administration authorized the bombing of North Vietnam, and the first U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam in 1965. By 1968 there were more than 500,000 U.S. troops there. Antiwar sentiment developed at home, and demonstrations against the war became a daily occurrence, particularly on university campuses.

Nixon had campaigned against the war, saying that he would bring U.S.
soldiers back home. The protests, however, did not decrease with Nixon's election, even though he began withdrawing U.S. combat troops from South Vietnam, in accordance with a policy announced in 1969 while he was in Guam on an Asian tour. Called the Guam, or Nixon, doctrine, the policy stated that the United States would continue to help Asian nations combat Communism but would no longer commit U.S. troops to land wars in Asia. Nixon announced that 25,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam by August 1969. Another cut of 65,000troops was ordered by the end of the year. Nixon's program, known asVietnamization of the war, emphasized the responsibilities of the South Vietnamese in the war.

However, Nixon expanded the Vietnam War. In April 1970 he authorized the invasion of Cambodia to pursue North Vietnamese troops there. The authorization was met with protest demonstrations around the country.

In 1971 the United States assisted a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. The air war was also intensified as U.S. bombing missions were increased over Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. Through the later months of 1971, American withdrawal from Vietnam continued, but with little apparent effect. Casualty figures in 1971 reflected the intensification of South Vietnam's own fighting efforts against the Communists. While U.S. deaths in Vietnam declined dramatically to 1380, compared to 4221 in 1970, the South Vietnamese forces, on the other hand, suffered about 21,500 dead, some in Cambodia and Laos but the majority in South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese claimed the enemy death toll to be 97,000

Quang Tri Offensive

The tide of the war took a turn for the worse on March 30, 1972. North Vietnam launched a massive offensive south into Quang Tri province. In April, the United States retaliated with the first deep-penetration bombing raids over the north since 1967. On May 8 Nixon ordered the mining of major ports of North Vietnam, notably Haiphong, to destroy enemy supply routes. Air strikes were directed against North Vietnamese railroad lines, causing serious economic problems. Quang Tri City, after being held by the Communists for four and one-half months, was recaptured by South Vietnamese forces on September 15.

As the war continued into the second half of 1972, secret peace meetings were held between Henry Kessenger,  assistant to the president for national security affairs, and the North Vietnamese delegate  Le Duc Tho, beginning on October 8. A breakthrough was achieved when, for the first time, the Communist side expressed acceptance of a peace plan separating the military from the political settlement of the war, relinquishing its demand for a coalition government in South Vietnam, and agreeing to a formula for simultaneous discussion of the situation in Laos and Cambodia. However, the talks abruptly collapsed on December 16, and the following day Nixon ordered further massive bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. Subsequent night raids were perhaps the most severe aerial assaults in history, and the sudden reescalation of the conflict was criticized by many people in the United States and elsewhere. The air attacks also resulted in the loss of 15 B-52s and in the loss or capture of 93 U.S. Air Force personnel.

Cease-fire in Vietnam

With the beginning of the second Nixon administration, the secret peace meetings between Vietnam and the United States resumed in Paris. Sensing progress in the first days, Nixon ordered a halt to all bombing, mining, and artillery fire in North Vietnam. After six days of discussions, Kissinger and Tho met once again on January 23, 1973, and, on that evening, President Nixon announced over nationwide television that agreement on all terms for a formal cease-fire had finally been reached. The cease-fire officially went into effect on January 28. Nixon's popularity seemed then to be at a peak, but soon his prestige began to crumble because of domestic problems and scandals.

Crisis in Southeast Asia: Ford

Ford also inherited the Vietnam War, in which Communist guerrillas attempted to overthrow the government of South Vietnam; the guerrillas were supported by the Communist government of North Vietnam. Eventually the struggle involved other Southeast Asian nations and the United States. By the time Ford became president, all U.S. fighting forces had been withdrawn from Vietnam. However, conservatives who were strongly opposed to Communism urged Ford to give more money to South Vietnam to help that country defend itself against a final North Vietnamese invasion that everyone assumed would soon occur. Ford agreed and offered several appropriations bills that would have given South Vietnam greater U.S. support.

After the 1974 congressional elections, however, few members of Congress favored more aid to South Vietnam. Congress rejected the bills in 1975, despite conservative criticism that to abandon South Vietnam would reduce U.S. influence because other nations would be unable to rely on U.S. support.

In an attempt to appeal to those who wanted to leave the problems of the war behind them, Ford offered amnesty to men who had evaded the military draft, or conscription, but the program was met with skepticism from Democrats and hostility from conservative Republicans. Only about 20,000 of the estimated 100,000 draft evaders applied for amnesty.

In the spring of 1975 the North Vietnamese began what was to be the last offensive in the war. Only a small contingent of American security personnel and U.S. embassy personnel remained in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, and in April 1975 Ford ordered their evacuation. On April 23, 1975, at Tulane University, Ford announced that the war in Vietnam was “finished as far as America is concerned.” One week later, North Vietnam captured Saigon and the South Vietnamese government surrendered, ending the war.

2002 Report

Full country name: Socialist Republic of Vietnam

Area: 329,566 sq km (128,527 sq mi)
Population: 79 million
Capital city: Hanoi (pop 3.5 million)
People: 84% ethnic Vietnamese, 2% ethnic Chinese, also Khmers, Chams (a remnant of the once-great Indianised Champa Kingdom) and members of over 50 ethnolinguistic groups (also known as Montagnards, 'highlanders' in French)
Language: Vietnamese, Russian, French, Chinese, English and a variety of Khmer and Laotian dialects
Religion: Buddhism is the principal religion but there are also sizeable Taoist, Confucian, Hoa Hao, Caodaists, Muslim and Christian minorities
Government: Communist People's Republic
President: Tran Duc Luong
Prime Minister: Phan Van Khai
GDP: US$24 billion
GDP per head: US$300
Annual growth: 8%
Inflation: 8%
Major products/industries: Rice, rubber, food processing, sugar, textiles, chemicals
Major trading partners: China, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan

 

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