The Korea / Vietnam Memorial
National Education Center
  The History of America at War - Focus: Vietnam  
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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 to pass.
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.