The conflict's roots took shape in July 1954, when France was
forced out of Vietnam after one hundred years of colonial rule.
In the peace process, the country was partitioned into northern
and southern sections, with a U.S.-supported government in the south
and a Communist supported republic in the north. On December 20,
1960, the northern Communist Party formed the National Liberation
Front (NLF), with the ultimate goal of reunifying the country. In
response, U.S. President John F. Kennedy began supplying military
equipment and advisors in 1961.
The Geneva Peace Accords, signed by France and Viet Nam in the
summer of 1954, reflected the strains of the international Cold
War. Because of outside pressures brought to bear by the Soviet
Union and the People's Republic of China, Vietnam's delegates to
the Geneva conference agreed to the temporary partition of their
nation at the seventeenth parallel. The Communist superpowers feared
that a provocative peace would anger France and its powerful ally,
the United States. Moscow and Peking did not want to risk another
confrontation with the West so soon after Korea. Furthermore, the
Communists believed they were better organized to take southern
Vietnam by political action alone, a prediction that did not come
According to the terms of the Geneva Accords, Vietnam would hold
national elections in 1956 to reunify the country. The division
at the seventeenth parallel would vanish with the elections. The
United States and many anti-Communists did not support the Accords.
Secretary of State John Dulles thought that the political protocols
of the Accords gave too much power to the Vietnamese Communists.
He was not going to allow the Communists to take southern Vietnam
without a fight. Instead, Dulles and President Dwight D. Eisenhower
supported the creation of a counter-revolutionary alternative south
of the seventeenth parallel. The United States supported this effort
of nation-building through a series of multi-lateral agreements
that created the South Asia Treaty Organization.
The SEATO Treaty provided for the mutual defense of all signatories,
including the newly-created and U.S.-supported, Government of the
Republic of Vietnam (GVN), or South Vietnam. In 1956, Ngo Dinh Diem,
a staunchly anti-Communist figure from the South, won a controversial
election that made him president of South Vietnam. From his first
days in power, Diem faced stiff opposition from his opponents. The
result was the creation of a broad-based united front to help mobilize
southerners in opposition to the Saigon government.
On December 20, 1960, the Party' s new united front, the National
Liberation Front (NLF), was born. Anyone could join this front as
long as they opposed Ngo Dinh Diem. In a series of government "white
papers," Washington insiders denounced the NLF, claiming that
it was merely a puppet of Hanoi. The NLF, in contrast, argued that
it was autonomous and independent of the Communists in Hanoi and
that it was made up mostly of non-Communists. Washington continued
to discredit the NLF, however, calling it the "Viet Cong,"
a derogatory and slang term meaning Vietnamese Communist.
At the time of the Kennedy and Diem assassinations, there were
16,000 American military advisers in Vietnam. The Kennedy administration
had managed to run the war from Washington without the large-scale
introduction of combat troops. The continuing political problems
in Saigon, however, convinced the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson,
that more aggressive action was needed. In any event, after suspected
Communist attacks on two U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Johnson
administration argued for expansive war powers for the president.
Ultimately, lacking a credible plan for winning the war, the American
government was forced to give in to the wishes of the American people
and withdraw its troops from Vietnam. In early January 1973, the
Nixon administration, the Paris Peace Agreement ended open hostilities
between the U.S. and North Vietnam. However, the South Vietnamese
continued to battle the Communists from March 1973 until the fall
of Saigon and the capture of the South Vietnamese presidential palace
on April 30, 1975. Communist forces captured the presidential palace
in Saigon, ending the Second Indochina War.
So divisive was the conflict in Vietnam and America's involvement
that relations among the government, the people and the military
would be strained until they were reunified by the Gulf War 25 years
later. As evidenced by numerous documentaries, books and films about
the war, the hard lessons the U.S. learned in Vietnam are still
very much in the public consciousness.
A brief look at the war itself reveals that it started out rather
benignly with the sending of American advisors to assist the South
Vietnamese train its growing army. The stated objective was to allow
the South Vietnamese Army to resist aggression from the North and
to preserve their sovereignty as a democratic nation.