On 22 August 1945 the Japanese across French Indochina announced an informal surrender. They assisted the Viet Minh nationalist group in taking over the administration and handed over their weapons before the French could bring in reinforcements.
The Indochina War
The Viet Minh then declared independence from France on 2 September 1945, shortly after their leader, Ho Chi Minh, had established a new government in Hanoi. The Chinese occupied the north of the territory to take Japanese prisoners, ending the brief Viet Minh government, whilst the French landed in the south and took Saigon. The Viet Minh were then pushed into remote regions of the country whilst fighting the French in a guerrilla war. With China’s Communist revolution in 1949, the Viet Minh gained increased support and weapons, which began to turn the war in their favour, until the French occupation was effectively ended at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954.
Following the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the French began negotiations to leave Vietnam. Following the Geneva Peace Accords, Vietnam was divided – temporarily – into North and South at the 17th Parallel, until unifying elections could take place in 1956. With US support, Ngo Dinh Diem removed the Emperor and declared himself prime minister of South Vietnam. The National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) were activated to fight the government in South Vietnam.
Conflict in South Vietnam began around 1959 when Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem outlawed political violence against the southern Vietnamese regime. The US began providing military assistance to the southern Vietnamese as it was concerned about the spread of communism from the north. Diem was killed in a coup in 1963 and the new US president Lyndon B. Johnson began to push for increased US involvement in the country to tackle the Viet Cong communist insurgency, which was estimated to have around 100,000 combatants by the end of 1964. The US soon committed itself to a full on ground war, deploying many hundreds of thousands of troops, but its efforts proved largely ineffective against the guerrilla tactics of the Viet Cong, which were suited to the region’s dense jungle.
Communist Supply Routes
To sustain the war effort of the Viet Cong and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in South Vietnam, supply lines were set up through the mountainous dense jungle along the borders with Laos and Cambodia. The Ho Chi Minh trail followed existing paths hidden beneath the jungle canopies and was maintained by the 599th Transportation Group of the PAVN. The trail soon became a vital lifeline for the forces fighting against the Americans and South Vietnamese, and developed over the years with large portions being covered by asphalt, which could withstand the destructive rains of the monsoon season. In Cambodia, which had managed to stay neutral since the end of the First Indochina War, Prince Sihanouk began to fear that the expansion of communism to his country was inevitable. To gain favour, he allowed the construction of the Sihanouk Trail along the border with Vietnam, with supplies being brought in via ship from the north.
In March 1965 President Johnson made the decision to send US combat forces into Vietnam and by the summer 82,000 troops were stationed there to support the struggling South Vietnamese army. Orders were given for the dispatch of a further 100,000 troops by the end of July, with a further 100,000 the following year despite growing anti-war protests back in the US. The US fought a war of attrition, using heavy B-52 bomber aircraft to create uninhabitable zones in South Vietnam, driving thousands of regufees into camps and the safe zones near Saigon.
On 30 January 1968 the North Vietnamese forces and Viet Cong launched the Tet offensive across South Vietnam, marking a significant change from the guerrilla tactics used throughout the war so far. The offensive coincided with the Tet celebration, which marks the arrival of spring in the Vietnamese calendar. This holiday had typically seen truces in previous years, so the 1968 Tet offensive came as a surprise. An increase in Communist attacks near the borders towards the end of 1967 had raised suspicions of a diversion, so large numbers of American troops were recalled to the main cities as a precaution. Saigon was the main focus of the Communist attack, which struck cities all over South Vietnam, but after the initial surprise, the Communist forces were contained. The Tet offensive, which involved over 70,000 Communist troops, did not achieve its goal of starting a general uprising but did significantly reduce morale amongst American troops and civilians.
Peace talks between North Vietnam and the US opened in Paris 1968, but stalled. President Richard Nixon was elected after a bitterly-fought election. He announced a new policy, called Vietnamization, which comprised of withdrawing US troops, and providing training and logistical backing to support the Vietnamese government. Further carnage ensued, exemplified by the internationally notorious My Lai massacre, when more than 400 civilians were slaughtered.
Lam Son March 1971
Christmas Bombing 1972
Known as ‘Operation Linebacker II’, the US Seventh Airforce and US Navy Task Force 77, dropped 20,000 tonnes of explosives on North Vietnam at Christmas 1972, killing more than 1,600 Vietnamese. President Richard Nixon was under pressure to end the war in Vietnam as the high number of American casualties was alienating the American public. Images of tortured American prisoners of war and the northern Communist government’s refusal to negotiate on prisoner release were compounding Washington’s poor image. On 18 December 1972, 129 B-52s discharged their bombs over Hanoi in successive waves. This onslaught lasted until 29 December, with a suspension on 25 December. It is thought that Operation Linebacker II acted as a catalyst for the subsequent US withdrawal from Vietnam (29 March 1973) and the signing of the Paris Peace Accords (8 January 1973), in which North Vietnam agreed to release American prisoners of war. In 1976 Vietnam was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
After years of conflict, an estimated 2 million Vietnamese had been killed in action, with 3 million wounded. A total of 58,200 Americans were killed or missing in action. Sporadic violence persisted in Vietnam for the next 15 years and the economy only began to recover when a broad free market policy was introduced in 1986.