Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Thu. Thu Wonders, “What is the Vietnam War” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Thu!
For others, though, the 1960s were a time of great turmoil. Instead of peace and love, they remember the harsh and violent images of a faraway armed conflict that would take the lives of millions of people: the Vietnam War.
The roots of the Vietnam War date back to the mid-1940s when Ho Chi Minh formed the Viet Minh, otherwise known as the League for the Independence of Vietnam, which was inspired by the communist governments of China and the Soviet Union. The Viet Minh sought to oust the French colonial administration that had ruled Vietnam since the late 1800s, as well as the Japanese who had invaded Vietnam during World War II.
By 1950, the Viet Minh had declared a Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) with Ho Chi Minh as its president and the northern city of Hanoi as its capital. South Vietnam, with Saigon as its capital, was ruled by Emperor Bao Dai, who was backed by France.
Viet Minh forces defeated the French in a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, leading to a treaty that split Vietnam along the 17th parallel. In 1955, anti-communist leader Ngo Dinh Diem ousted Bao to become president of the Government of the Republic of Vietnam (GVN).
The United States pledged its support for Diem and South Vietnam as part of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. With training and equipment from the American military, Diem's regime systematically cracked down on allies (called the Viet Cong) of the North Vietnam communist regime.
Diem's repressive regime imprisoned, tortured, and killed thousands of Viet Cong. It eventually met resistance from the National Liberation Front (NLF), which consisted of opponents of his regime — both communist and non-communist — within South Vietnam.
American leaders feared the NLF was nothing more than a puppet organization controlled by North Vietnam. Moreover, they worried that if one Southeast Asian nation fell to communism, others would follow. During the Cold War, this view was known as the "domino theory."
In the early 1960s, based upon the domino theory and fears about the role of the NLF, U.S. President Kennedy ordered a build-up of U.S. military, technical, and economic aid to help South Vietnam battle the threat posed by the Viet Cong. Unfortunately, in November 1963, an internal coup toppled Diem's regime, leading to political instability in South Vietnam.
This instability led to even greater involvement by the U.S. In 1964, DRV torpedo boats attacked two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, leading to the start of bombing raids by the U.S. on targets in North Vietnam. Then, in March 1965, U.S. President Johnson finally sent U.S. combat forces into battle in Vietnam.
The course of the Vietnam War was one of continual escalation. Historians have characterized it as largely a war of attrition, with a focus on killing as many enemy combatants as possible rather than gaining or controlling territory. It was also largely a proxy war between the two Cold War super powers: the United States supporting South Vietnam against the Soviet Union supporting North Vietnam.
Unlike previous wars, the Vietnam War played out in the mass media in a series of increasingly gruesome images. These images combined with the toll the war took on families and U.S. resources, not to mention the lack of a clear objective for U.S. involvement in the first place, made the Vietnam War increasingly unpopular at home. Large-scale anti-war protests were frequent across the U.S.
At the peak of its involvement, over 500,000 U.S. military personnel were involved in the Vietnam War. In the end, more than 3 million people (mostly Vietnamese) were killed in the war, including over 58,000 Americans.
Amidst growing opposition to the war, U.S. President Nixon ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam in 1973. Without U.S. support, communist forces seized control of Saigon, ending the Vietnam War in 1975. The country was then unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The effects of the Vietnam War were long-lasting both in Vietnam and the U.S. With 2 million killed, 3 million injured, and 12 million made refugees, the process of rebuilding Vietnam was a slow one with the country's economy and infrastructure decimated by the war.
In the U.S., the economy suffered severe inflation as a result of the costs of the war. The war also created a bitter divide throughout the country, with many people mistrusting the government and even supporters of war feeling depressed by the defeat. Returning troops often faced negative reactions from both opponents and supporters of the war, while also battling physical problems caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide used frequently during the war.